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).

Friday, June 27, 2008

On "Engaging Transhumanism"

As promised, I am examining the articles on transhumanism in the current issue of The Global Spiral , an online magazine published by the Metanexus Institute.

The first article is, in fact, an editorial/introduction by Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, a professor of history at Arizona State University ("ASU"), who (according to her linked bio) specialises in such subjects as premodern Jewish intellectual history, Judaism and science, Judaism and ecology, and feminist philosophy. Tirosh-Samuelson had the responsibility of putting together the special issue, based on five presentations given at a workshop held at ASU in April 2008.

Thus, the issue contains a total of six pieces: her editorial plus five pieces by the respective presenters (Don Ihde, Jean Pierre Dupuy, Katherine Hayles, Andrew Pickering, and Ted Peters - I'll describe these people briefly in later posts). As Tirosh-Samuelson puts it:

In this workshop, transhumanism was engaged by a philosopher of science and technology trained in the phenomenological tradition (Don Ihde); a sociologist, cognitive scientist, and cultural critic (Jean-Pierre Dupuy); a literary critic (Katherine Hayles); a philosopher and sociologist of science (Andrew Pickering); and a Christian theologian (Ted Peters). Engaging transhumanism from different perspectives, some more critically than others, the contributors agree that transhumanism merits a serious examination rather than cursory dismissal.

Much of the editorial is given over to a (quite detailed) discussion of the articles that follow. It may be necessary for me to come back to this discussion in later posts, as and when I deal with the merits of the specific articles, but I will not respond to it for now. For the moment, I'll work on the basis that Tirosh-Samuelson conveys the content of the other five articles reasonably accurately. I'm more interested in her own discussion of the phenomenon of transhumanism, some of which strikes me as quite accurate, while other parts appear ignorant or obtuse. I'll pass quickly over the piece's prose style, which is horribly clunky. Please blame her, not me, for the stylistic attributes of any quotes from her piece, such as this one, which will also give a good idea of her (not unexpected) supernaturalist bias:

To properly assess transhumanism, it must be situated historically and culturally and interrogated philosophically and theologically.

Just why it is necessary to interrogate transhumanism "philosophically and theologically" [my emphasis] is not made apparent. Insight can come from strange places, of course, and while theology may be one of the strangest - dealing as it does in speculations about the character and motivations of a non-existent supernatural being - I'm happy to give the theologians their say (as long as they don't try to impose their moral and political views on the rest of us, as is so often the case). So by all means let transhumanism be studied and "interrogated" from a theological perspective - but also from the perspectives of the hard sciences, law, medicine, economics, sociology, mythography, literary criticism, art history, urban planning, ceramic design, tourism studies, sports administration, and so on. Theology is not privileged over any of these. Indeed, theologians are about the last people we should offer any deference to when they criticise the worldviews of others.

However, I'll pass over all that to consider the more specific points made by Tirosh-Samuelson. I must say that she actually starts off quite well, ascribing the word "transhumanism" to Julian Huxley (I believe this is correct), and then adding:

Today the term "transhumanism" denotes a cluster of futuristic scenarios in which science and technology will remediate the miseries of the human condition and usher in a new age in the evolution of humans, the posthuman age.

On one interpretation, this seems about right. Charitably interpreted, she is saying that transhumanism is not one thing but a cluster of logically separate things - even if they are sometimes found together. In fact, it is probably reasonable to think of transhumanism as a broad movement whose members envisage a wide range of scenarios for the future but have in common a strong element of technological meliorism in their thinking - and, more specifically, a positive attitude to the use of technology to alter the human body for the purposes of physical and cognitive enhancement. Whether or not all transhumanist thinkers have specific "scenarios" in mind, Tirosh-Samuelson seems, in the early part of her editorial, to acknowledge the protean nature of the movement. Unfortunately, she tends to forget this later on when she makes many dubious generalisations about what "transhumanists" think - but let's give her credit where it's due. (But perhaps the problem is that it's not really due; perhaps she means something less reasonable and plausible than I have taken her as saying.)

She goes on to observe that transhumanists see the human species as "no more than a 'work in progress'". This, she thinks, is because they see Homo sapiens as in a relatively early phase of evolution in which we are enslaved by genetic programming that destines us "to experience pain, disease, stupidity, aging, and death."

This doesn't seem too far wrong. Anybody who seriously identifies as a transhumanist is likely to envisage that technology can (to some greater or lesser extent) and should (at least to some extent and in some circumstances) go inward, transforming us in accordance with our own designs, and thus enabling something like a technologically-mediated evolution of the species. That idea is, indeed, implicit in the name of the journal that I edit, The Journal of Evolution and Technology. It is, I submit, an idea whose time has come - it is increasingly plausible, defensible, and familiar. However, it is also an idea that merits scrutiny from all possible viewpoints (yes, even theological ones).

So far, so good - but Tirosh-Samuelson starts to go off the rails about here:

Bioengineering and genetic enhancement will [according to transhumanists] bring about the posthuman age in which humans will live longer, will possess new physical and cognitive abilities, and will be liberated from suffering and pain due to aging and disease; moreover, humans will even conquer the ultimate enemy—death—by attaining "cognitive immortality," that is, the downloading of the human software (i.e., the mind) into artificially intelligent machines that will continue to exist long after the individual human has perished.

I must say, first of all, that this is not wildly wrong. Indeed, it may well match the visions of some, or even many, transhumanists. More than that, it may a reasonable description of what could be called "popular transhumanism", the kind that is encountered on many websites and doubtless has a large number of enthusiastic adherents.

However, no elaborate scholarship or massive research program of team research was needed to uncover the existence of such a position. The more interesting point that Tirosh-Samuelson failed to discover was that many people within, or associated with, the transhumanist movement would question the vision of the future that she has sketched. Moderately deep research should, in fact, have led Tirosh-Samuelson to find the wide variety of opinion among transhumanists and their allies. In particular, it should have identified passionate disagreements about the realism of the scenario that Tirosh-Samuelson conveys, particularly in regard to such questions as whether any form of personality uploading (or downloading) onto a computational substrate is ever likely to be technologically possible ... and, even if so, whether it is likely to take a form that preserves personal identity and/or constitutes personal survival (in, say, the sense discussed and elaborated by Derek Parfit).

So Tirosh-Samuelson has now gone wrong in taking what she initially described as a "cluster of scenarios" and transforming it into a particular scenario that is controversial within the transhumanist movement. One possible, or perhaps impossible, scenario is presented as somehow the transhumanist scenario for the future.

After this, it gets worse, so much so that it becomes difficult to take any of the author's pronouncements seriously.

For example, Tirosh-Samuelson gives a garbled account of the much-vaunted technological singularity that some self-described transhumanists hope for. She seems to imagine that this hypothetical development has been labeled the singularity because it "will be so unique" (I warned you about her prose: something is either unique or it isn't - there are no comparative degrees of uniqueness or uniquity or uniquedtude). Of course, the term "singularity" denotes a mathematical concept that is explained in almost any serious discussion. More importantly, many transhumanists and others who discuss the concept do not conceive of the singularity in the way that she describes, as the emergence of a particular group of technologies. For example, some describe it merely as a boundary to our ability to imagine the future with any confidence. Others in the transhumanist camp are sceptical about the whole concept. But Tirosh-Samuelson appears to be unaware of any of this.

Indeed, the main thing that is wrong with the piece is not a lack of familiarity with a certain popular form of transhumanism that could (I suppose) be abstracted from Simon Young's Designer Evolution. The latter is an unpopular book among most actual transhumanists I know, but Tirosh-Samuelson takes it as a kind of bible of the movement. By giving it this status, she produces a distorted view of what the transhumanist movement is all about. But more important is her article's lack of something that the opening paragraph promised: an ability to engage with nuance.

She is led, though who knows why, to such bizarre conclusions as the following:

Placing the unlimited human potential (rather than the human as a currently lived experience) at the center of its outlook, transhumanism is also critical of contemporary environmentalism and its concern for respect toward other species and its resistance to massive human intervention in nature, through bioengineering of plants, heavy logging, industrial pollution, unrestricted consumerism, and many other undesirable activities.

This is so thoroughly wrongheaded that it's difficult to know where to begin. It is, of course, true, that transhumanists don't valorise anything that might appropriately be called "the human as a currently lived experience". That is because they agree that human experience, as it has been known historically, can be improved upon. However, it by no means follows that transhumanists tend to be critical of respect for other species (where on Earth did that come from?). Nor does it follow that they are uncritical of such actions as heavy logging and industrial pollution. It doesn't even follow that they are uncritical of the bioengineering of plants or unrestricted consumerism - though it is difficult to see what these are doing in the same list. They are all separate issues: someone could be in favour of bioengineering plants in some circumstances (it's not obvious why it should be labeled, without any argument, as an undesirable activity), while also opposing the logging of old-growth forests. The issues are largely independent of each other. Someone could accept some aspects of what is known as "unrestricted consumerism" (whatever that tendentious expression really means) while at the same time favouring at least those restrictions that are necessary to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Again, there are independent issues here, even if there are also some links, and transhumanists are as capable of thinking clearly about these different issues as anyone else.

Again, Tirosh-Samuelson claims that the following describes transhumanism:

From a transhumanist perspective, radical environmentalism is misguided because it erases the moral differences between humans and other animals and because it invests nature with inherent moral values. The evolutionary process is not directionless but purposeful, life is not an accident but an evolutionary inevitability, and humanity is "not a twig on the bush of life, but the peak of evolutionary complexification on earth due to the incredible power of the human brain."

The final quote is attributed to Young, and the view she is describing may well be Young's. However, once again, it's difficult to know where to start in sorting out this intellectual mess. Even the expression "radical environmentalism" is ambiguous, so it is not clear just what position Tirosh-Samuelson imagines transhumanists must oppose. The fact is that there are many more-or-less radical environmentalists positions, such the one advocated by Peter Singer, that can be as attractive to transhumanists as to anyone else. Perhaps there is some tension between transhumanism and certain deep green positions that claim the wilderness is objectively and non-instrumentally valuable, but I see nothing in transhumanism that rules out such a position - one could believe such a thing while also believing such core transhumanist propositions as that it is morally desirable to use technology to enhance human capacities and ameliorate the human condition.

If I were to go through all the errors in Tirosh-Samuelson's article, it would take me a long time to list them (and defend my claim that they are errors). For example, transhumanists are not necessarily opposed to religion, even theistic religion involving an interventionist deity. My own view is that organised religion is largely pernicious in its contemporary influence - particularly its political influence - and I do see a definite tension between transhumanist ideas and many traditional religious ones (particularly those that see God as having created an immutable and sacred natural order). Nonetheless, there are many religious positions that are not inconsistent with ideas of (e.g.) enhancing human capacities. It is quite open to transhumanists to adopt such positions.

Nor is transhumanism necessarily opposed to the claim that human beings have a specific evolved nature, as Tirosh-Samuelson appears to think. Perhaps there is some tendency for transhumanists to underestimate how difficult it will be to alter aspects of human nature that they consider undesirable, but nothing about transhumanism demands that its ambitions be capable of easy achievement. Nor is transhumanism committed to such dubious claims as that the development of humanlike intelligence was an inevitable outcome of biological evolution or that the picture of life on Earth as a "bush" with no objectively highest point is wrong. No such claims are required to adopt the radical technological meliorism that is at the heart of transhumanism.

In short, Tirosh-Samuelson has begun her Global Spiral editorial with some (arguably) useful observations about the nature of the transhumanist movement, but quickly fallen into the trap of associating certain quite specific ideas that are controversial among transhumanists with transhumanism itself - something quite protean and contested. As a result, she does a disservice to both the movement and her readers - to the movement because she suggests that transhumanism is incompatible with many popular (e.g. religious) or intellectually supported (e.g. scientific and moral) ideas, and to her readers because she will leave them with a distorted idea of a movement that they may actually want to learn something about.

This editorial doesn't bode well for the rest of the journal issue or the associated research program. Tomorrow, we'll begin to see how much the other contributors know what they're talking about.


Blake Stacey said...

Quite a nice critique. I'll be looking forward to the rest, although if this one is any indication, it might resemble a detailed and skilled post-mortem on a six-car wreck. . . .

John Howard said...

In particular, it should have identified passionate disagreements about the realism of the scenario that Tirosh-Samuelson conveys, particularly in regard to such questions as whether any form of personality uploading (or downloading) onto a computational substrate is ever likely to be technologically possible

I was looking for the "in particular" objection to her definition, and it's just what I suspected and charged here back in that Greg Egan thread. The mind-uploading and idea of the singularity are not essential beliefs, but the "bioengineering and genetic enhancement" part IS universal, correct?

Is there one transhumanist who would support a ban on GE'd people? I suspect not. Also, i would say that one cannot think that genetic enhancement is a good thing without being a transhumanist, even if one doesn't use that word.

And when she said "so unique", I think that was mocking people who venerate the Singularity.

Joshua said...

Well done Russell.

I describe myself as a transhumanist, but I strongly support all environmentalist ideas (with the sole exception of their distrust of genetic engineering), and I also strongly believe evolutionary psychology explains a lot about human nature. And I don't think that the human being is the top of the evolutionary ladder (isn't usually that a religious view?) nor do I think that any form of intelligent life is an inevitable result of evolution.

I actually find it hard to work out where these ideas came from.

Alex said...

"The evolutionary process is not directionless but purposeful, life is not an accident but an evolutionary inevitability, and humanity is "not a twig on the bush of life, but the peak of evolutionary complexification on earth due to the incredible power of the human brain.""
I'm with Joshua on this.
This idea seems to be more consistent with theological evolution, and it seems to be at odds with transhumanism. If humanity is the peak of evolution, wouldn't that imply that it should not, or cannot, be improved?

Roko said...

Perhaps this series of misconstruals of transhumanism indicates that transhumanists need to unite a little more.

On the other hand, The transhumanist declaration and the transhumanist FAQ do give a fairly accurate characterization of the movement. Why did Hava Tirosh-Samuelson not reference these?

Perhaps you should consider starting a petition to the Global Spiral asking them to print an erratum in their next issue which referenced the WTA transhumanist FAQ and the Transhumanist Declaration as the "official" version of transhumanism, rather than Simon Young's book, which cannot be considered central to the movement. For example, I've never heard of it...

Anonymous said...

I'm looking forward to your comments about Ihde... it seems to me that his characterization of transhumanism is accurate, and his comments deeply insightful. And, in addition, he's a great writer, unlike, e.g., Bostrom, who writes like a second year undergraduate ;-). Hurry, hurry!