About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Transhumanism and the future of humanity

I've just taken a slightly radical step - or two steps in one.

I've proposed a paper for the forthcoming Australasian Association of Philosophers (AAP) annual conference in mid-July.

Here's my abstract:


Transhumanism and its critics: time to transform the debate

Transhumanism is an intellectual and cultural movement that advocates the use of technology for such purposes as enhancement of human physical and cognitive capacities, alteration of moods or psychological predispositions, and radical extension of the human life span. Typically, the aim is to negotiate a transition from human-level capacities to capacities so much greater as to merit the label "posthuman" for those who possess them. Some transhumanist thinkers make proposals that do not neatly meet this description: e.g., they propose research aimed at "uplifting" the cognitive capacities of non-human mammals to something like the human level.

An agenda such as this raises many questions for philosophical consideration. Some questions relate to the practicality and coherence of transhumanist proposals. For example, can a coherent definition be given of "enhanced", as opposed to merely "altered", capacities? If we were transformed into beings with vastly enhanced (or radically altered) capacities, would this be compatible with the preservation of our existing identities and/or with our survival of the transformation? Other questions relate more to how we should react, individually and collectively, to transhumanist proposals. Are the transformations advocated by transhumanists desirable for us as individual people? Are they socially manageable?

Transhumanists raise issues that are of great intrinsic interest to philosophers. Beyond this, however, transhumanism has become a controversial and increasingly prominent movement that has attracted passionate advocates and equally passionate critics.

I suggest that it's time to transform this debate, adopting a more discriminating approach. It is possible to accept some aspects of the transhumanist agenda (albeit cautiously), while rejecting others. Transhumanist proposals merit scrutiny from viewpoints that are careful and critical, without being merely hostile or dismissive.


Beyond this, I've proposed an entire stream of programming to be called Transhumanism and the future of humanity.

Bear in mind that I don't have any clout in the AAP and am not even a member (though I really should join up). I expect my paper to be accepted, since I'm a bona fide philosopher in good standing, etc. I'm not optimistic about my left-field suggestion for an entire new programming stream (which is the really radical proposal).

On the other hand, no one will ever accept such proposals unless they are made. I also encourage other people who have an interest in issues related to transhumanism, and who and might be reading this, to make similar proposals for transhumanism-related streams when they attend conferences where it might be appropriate. It really would be good to transform the debate by getting it into a wider range of forums and attracting a wider range of inputs.


Roko said...

"For example, can a coherent definition be given of "enhanced", as opposed to merely "altered", capacities?" - good question!

I'm thinking about exactly this issue. Of course, the philosophical community has been struggling with this question for a very long time: it's just moral realism vs. anti-realism. If Anti-Realism is correct, then there can't exist any objective criteria which can be used to determine whether an alteration is an improvement. Indeed, "improvement" doesn't make sense if you're an anti-realist. Well, you could interpret it in a projective sense, i.e. "improvement" simply means "something I want to happen".

Anyway, good luck with this. I'm thinking of writing on this topic, but I feel I need to learn a bit more philosophy before I get taken seriously...

Coathangrrr said...

Last year at the APA-Pacific meeting there was a track on bioethics that had two or three papers on Neuroenhancment drugs and the issues around them. It seems to be a given, in the philosophical community, that we can't distinguish between enhancement and therapeutic uses for these drugs.

“Better Brains, Better Selves? The Ethics of Neuroenhancements” Richard Dees, which was an overly optimistic view of neuroenhancement, pretty much saying there is no danger at all in the enhancers we have now.

There was also an invited symposium on neuroenhancement.

VI-G. Invited Symposium: The Ethics of Neuroenhancement and Personhood
4:00-6:00 p.m.
Chair: Mary V. Rorty (Stanford University)
Speakers: Thomas Buller (University of Alaska–Anchorage)
“Minds, Brains, and Agents”
Walter Glannon (University of Calgary)
“Psychopharmacological Enhancement”
Eric Racine (Institut de Recherches Cliniques de Montréal)
“Two Moral Tests for Cognitive Enhancement”

There was no explicitly transhumanist attendees so it would be good to see something from that front.

Russell Blackford said...

coathangrrr, interesting information - though Glannon isn't new to the debate. He's one of the people who have a lot to say, and he usually has a hostile approach. Still, interesting to hear about what happened at the APA-Pacific meeting.

On the therapy/enhancement distinction, I have a slightly unusual view. I disagree with people who think that sickness, disability and so on are mere social constructions and that no real distinction can be made betweeen therapy and enhancement. I think that a distinction can be made in many contexts. So far, so good, but note the word "many". I also think that there are many contexts where the distinction is, in fact, not very clear or useful - and I'd tend to agree that it's not clear (and may not be useful) in the context you described.

Roko, I don't think it's necessary to be a realist about values or morality or anything of that kind to be able to make useful distinctions. Clearly enough, there are many states that are almost universally disfavoured, and these correspond pretty closely to states that display certain kinds of deviation from organic functioning. For the practical purposes of medical care, that's usually all we need. Unfortunately, there are many grey areas, counterexamples, etc., so what works well in current medical-care contexts may not work that well when we're confronted with proposals for something (largely) unprecedented.

By the way, we need to be careful in all contexts about what anti-realism implies. For example, I don't think anti-realism about morality denies that we can have objective criteria about whether an activity is morally permissible, as long as we define "morally permissible" in terms of being whatever is permitted by some kind of (perhaps conventional) moral code ... or perhaps in terms of some kind of extension of such a code, using ideas of resemblance and analogy.

Of course, it might then be said that the code is just some kind of social construction and its norms are not the same as truths about the world. In that sense, they are not "objective". True, but moral codes are not simply arbitrary: they have something to do with human desires, interests, etc. Even if we are anti-realists, we may still have good reasons to support the moral codes we encounter, or to seek only marginal or piecemeal or limited reform of them. Those reasons for a degree of deference to existing moral codes might ultimately be contingent on our having desires of certain kinds, and they may not be as psychologically strong as they are for someone who really, really believes that the the norms can be translated into timeless and "objective" moral truths. Still, it's not so clear that a sophisticated anti-realist is going to end up in a practical position all that different from a realist. Maybe the realist will be more trustworthy in some situations, but I'm not sure it'll work like this in practice (even anti-realists will have been socialised into certain moral virtues and will have reasons not to regret this). The anti-realist may be more open to existing conventional moral codes being modified, but realist rule utilitarians (for example) can also be open to this.

These simple distinctions often end up being not so simple in practice, once sophisticated versions of the theories are put on the table.

Coathangrrr said...

On the therapy/enhancement distinction, I have a slightly unusual view. I disagree with people who think that sickness, disability and so on are mere social constructions and that no real distinction can be made betweeen therapy and enhancement. I think that a distinction can be made in many contexts. So far, so good, but note the word "many". I also think that there are many contexts where the distinction is, in fact, not very clear or useful - and I'd tend to agree that it's not clear (and may not be useful) in the context you described.

I guess I can think of situations where there might be a distinction, but I would expect those to be rare. I think that normality is socially constructed, for everything, and thus it follows that those things which deviate from normality, sickness or enhancement, must also be socially constructed. I really don't see a way around that.

I would like to read your paper, though.

I'd note that I have a problem also with the term "transhumanist" because it implies an essentialist aspect of humanity that is to be transcended, and I don't know that that is what the movement is really about. It seems that one needs a coherent view of what it means to be human prior to declaring it will be transcended. I understand practically what it means, but I don't think that it really means what it purports to.

Really this all just points out the need for a broader convesation around these things.

Oh, and coffee, whenever I brought up coffee around the neuroenhancer talks the presenter were kind of flummoxed. It is an obvious neuroenhancer that has been in use for a few hundred years at least, so we can't say that neuroenhancer are inherently unethical unless we want to say that coffee is.

Russell Blackford said...

Totally agree with your point about coffee. I often make similar points.

I think there are many cases where it makes perfectly good sense to say that something is therapy.

The adaptive function of the heart is to pump blood. I realise that the word "function" is partly a metaphor here, and that that fact will help us put philosophical pressure on the idea of therapy if we really want to. Still, if someone's heart is at risk of no longer being able to do pump blood , and we take steps to obviate that risk, then it's pretty uncontroversially therapy ... at least in a wide range of cases where there are no other terribly salient considerations. If someone's heart is already functioning effectively (whatever that means ... another opportunity to apply pressure!), but we give the person a drug that intracts with an intensive training regime to make her heart stronger to give her an advantage in atheletic competition, then it's enhancement. In fact, I'd be tempted to say that the training regime by itself is enhancement. (But we can put this under pressure - what if the effect is not only to make the person a better runner, say, but also less at risk of heart attacks?)

As long as Homo sapiens is an animal whose morphology, bodily functioning, etc., can be described similarly to the way that zoologists describe that of other animals, we'll be able to draw a therapy/enhancement distinction ... and often we'll have no trouble agreeing that something really is therapy. On the other hand, there will also always be the potential to challenge the distinction - including in all the cases where functioning in accordance with a zoologist's description isn't actually what we care about.

Thus, I can immediately see how even the "functioning of the heart" kind of example can be placed under pressure, but my point is that doctors and patients and policy makers very often don't need to place such everyday examples of medical treatment under pressure. An enormous amount of what doctors do every day can be described as "therapy" without controversy ... and it would be considered therapy in any society once it reaches a certain level of understanding of how animals function; it's not the sort of thing that's likely to be inter-culturally controversial.

Conversely, the effects produced by anabolic steroids when aimed at sporting success, or by, say, a super-effective coffee-like beverage of the future are pretty clearly enhancement ... we have no need to place this classification under any pressure, either, and once again it's not the kind of thing that different cultures are likely to disagree on.

But there are many other examples where the pressure arises quite quickly, even for someone who wants to resist a social contructivist line and look at the the things we do to human bodies from a zoological viewpoint. Is vaccination therapy or enhancement? It's arguable both ways. Would life extension (say in the sense of keeping organs such as the heart, etc., functioning at the level of, say, a fit thirty-year-old human being's) be therapy or enhancement? We can be clear on all the facts without the question having a determinate answer.

And what do we say about all the trivial interventions, like tattooing, haircuts, etc.? It seems odd to call them "therapy", but it also seems odd to call them "enhancement". They are forms of bodily adornment that involve some superficial modification of the body itself, but it seems like too much to say that the body has been "enhanced".

So, I conclude that there are cases where the distinction is reasonably clear and useful, and not likely to attract much inter-cultural disagreement; these include most of the everyday cases that doctors deal with. But in many other cases, the distinction breaks down - and not because we're putting it under the kind of philosophical pressure that can break down many useful commonsense distinctions. It's probably because our concepts are built around certain sorts of paradigm cases that can't be extended uncontroversially to new circumstances. Also, the horizons of human desire are not the same as any kind of boundary between normal healthy functioning and exceptionally good function that a zoologist would draw.

So in the end, I think we need to make a whole lot of other kinds of distinctions to be able say anything philosophically interesting about the interesting cases.

Coathangrrr said...

It's ironic that you use the heart as an example of something with a natural function given that is what Searle uses to show that there are no natural functions. I do think that we, humans in general, can agree that a heart isn't working right if it isn't beating, unless it is Hitler's heart perhaps, but we can't give reasons for that besides that we value life.

I don't have a reference right now but i have read of blind or deaf people who would not, if given the chance, correct the genetic reason for their blindness or deafness in their future child. The reasoning behind this is that despite the fact that humans in general think of the purpose of the eye as being to see, blind people certainly don't worry about that and instead want their child to be like them. They reject that eyes have a proper function.

Obviously we can't find anyone who thinks the same about hearts as without a working heart we can have no opinions on whether or not pumping blood is the function of the heart, but if we do move to a "posthuman" future, or post-physical body, then hearts would be unnecessary and so there could be some computer embedded folks who think that the purpose of hearts is to make pretty beating sounds.

So we could think of therapies as anything that is necessary to keep us alive and enhancements as anything else, or just drop the enhancement language and call every non-vital treatment an alteration. There would, of course, still be problems in this scheme, what is necessary to keep each individual alive differs, but it seems to be a decent general definition.

I think it would deal with the steroids case as well as tattoos. To say that anabolic steroids are an enhancement supposes that more muscles is necessarily better, which I think is clearly not the case. Too much muscle mass will cause problems; you can break your own bones for example. I think we could come up with similar examples for other "enhancers."

The other area I think would be interesting to have a discourse around in terms of transhumanism, is the, false I think, natural/artificial distinction. I think a lot of negative reactions to transhumanism are driven by this distinction.

Russell Blackford said...

Well, I'm not trying to distinguish at the moment between enhancement and detriment - that's also an important distinction, and it's one that I make ... but it's not usually made in the literature. The usual issue is whether therapy can be distinguished from "an everything else" category, which usually gets called "enhancement".

We can try to pressure on that idea, as you do in your opening, but we quickly get dragged back to earth. Yes, we can question the idea of biological functioning, but we don't seem to be able to get by without concepts of health, disease, and therapy. Right now human beings really do need hearts and to have them pumping blood. Also, our preference isn't arbitrary. It's not as if some societies have come to the conclusion that there's no value in hearts pumping, while other societies disagree.

It's not just having our hearts pumping. It's not arbitrary, and a matter of cultural choice or something, that we prefer not to be miserable with a cold. Or not to be dying from snake bite or a wound from a sharp instrument.

In all, I don't think it's at all useful to talk about social construction in such cases - though as an anti-realist about many things I do agree that there's going to be some ultimate level where ideas of function, interest, etc., etc., are likely to break down and prove not to be "objective". (I doubt that I agree with Searle when you put it so baldly as you did, but that probably doesn't matter ... theres's going to be a level at which he's right, as well as a level at which this isn't relevant to heart patients.)

There's a huge literature about deafness and the views of the Deaf community or individual members of it, but I think it just proves that deafness is an unusual case. Some people will argue that deafness is not a disability - without necessarily denying the whole concept of disability (or the whole concept of health or that of sickness). There are other special cases - high-functioning autism of various kinds for one. Dwarfism for another. Arguably these are not disabilities, even though they are commonly regarded as such. But I have never seen it argued that someone with, say, Huntington's disease, is not thereby suffering, well, a disease. I've never seen it argued that a child who is both blind and deaf is not disabled. Our conceptions of disability are ultimately, in a sense, subjective, but they are, again, not arbitrary.

But at a deep level I do agree with a lot of what you're saying, which was why I was saying that all these concepts can have philosophical pressure placed on them and that a simple binary opposition between therapy and enhancement is not the way to go ... we need a lot more distinctions, and better ones, if we're to do any moral or policy work on cases that fall outside the most routine and uncontroversial kinds of medical care.