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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).

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Pickering on "transhumanism"

I'm nearing the end of my current blog project of commenting on each of the six articles in June's edition of The Global Spiral , which is devoted to a critique of transhumanism. This time, I will discuss Andrew Pickering's, "Brains, Selves and Spirituality in the History of Cybernetics", in some ways the strangest of the five articles that I have read so far. We'll come to why, but let me step back for a moment to survey the overall terrain.

The five articles that I've read all express hostility to transhumanism, or to what the authors imagine transhumanism to be. Some are more hostile than others. None offers a clear and plausible account of what transhumanism actually is.

Perhaps that last point is not entirely the fault of the authors: perhaps transhumanism, as an international cultural and philosophical movement, is too protean, too contested from within, to be defined adequately. This could make it very difficult to attack or support, because it can be difficult to be sure what, exactly, is being attacked or supported.

Nonetheless, difficult though it may sound, surely it's not all that difficult for critics of transhumanism, particularly people who have been asked to carry out academic research on the subject, to appreciate that they are dealing with a multi-faceted phenomenon - one that may well look different in Italy (say) from how it looks in (say) California or Nairobi, and one that may not always look the same in Italy (or California, or Nairobi) from day to day or from local theorist to local theorist.

It's not unfamiliar that cultural, social, or political movements can be like this. The environmentalist movement would also be difficult nail down as one thing in the naive sense of one set of doctrines to which all environmentalist must subscribe if they are to count as such. Or take the example of feminism: no one would imagine that feminism is just one set of doctrines and that the feminist movement is lacking in internal debates and conflicts - with the views of Andrea Dworkin resembling those of Gayle Rubin, who in turn resembles Wendy McElroy ... and so on.

What might reasonably be said about feminism is that there's a core of concern for the interests of women, and for consideration of women's perspectives and experience, and that there's an agreement that women are not in any way the moral or intellectual inferiors of men. If we define feminism that broadly, then there are few serious thinkers these days who are not feminists - though I suppose there are still some thinkers who should be considered serious who occupy positions out on the more bizarre branches of the political Right where even the broadest idea of feminism is greeted with suspicion.

So, how do you attack feminism if you're inclined to do so? Well, perhaps if you disagree with certain views put forward by some feminists it's better to explain that it's not actually feminism itself that you mean to attack, but certain specific feminist positions that are popular or influential or otherwise worth your efforts. Or alternatively, you need to attack some very broad propositions - e.g. you need to argue that women really are, in some sense, the moral inferiors of men (and should be subservient to them). But you can't attack the views that Andrea Dworkin espoused and claim thereby to have refuted "feminism". Even if your argument is a good one, and you can show that certain of Dworkin's were intellectually untenable, you have not thereby made a dent in the real-world feminist movement, within which Dworkin's views are controversial to say the least. You may have refuted something that you've chosen to call feminism, but in doing so, you have refuted "feminism", rather than feminism. The actual feminist movement marches on.

None of this is meant to deny the legitimacy of arguing that, say, Dworkin's views have become popular within the feminist movement to an extent that is disproportional to the their actual merit, and have crowded out more plausible views. There may or may not be a good argument for that, but the argument has to be made out. You can't just declare, "By feminism, I mean the views of Andrea Dworkin." Well, you can, but your victory over "feminism" will be an empty one: you may become legendary for defeating feminism - but you'll be a legend only in the confines of your own lunchbox.

Incidentally, as I've noted on a previous occasion, no one should imagine that it is a sign of weakness in the feminist movement that it contains so much internal debate and disagreement. Instead, it is a sign of ferment and energy. Admittedly, the very idea of feminism would be pretty useless if feminist positions didn't have some things in common - or at least enough widespread tendencies to enable us to see a family resemblance among the various positions.

All of this is familiar to most educated people whenever they deal with any large idea or any kind of social, etc., movement. So why is it difficult to grasp that this applies equally to transhumanism? It's certainly been difficult for the Global Spiral contributors.

As I remarked to be the case with feminism, there's a great deal of ferment and energy within the transhumanist movement (and among people who stand outside it, but with philosophical positions that are generally congenial to it). In any transhumanist forum or gathering there will be people who are atheists, people who are (in one way or another) religious, people with a wide range of political positions, people who emphasise the importance of different technologies, people who are sceptical about the grandiose claims of others for the recognition of certain novel moral imperatives, and so on. All of this is up for grabs.

So what do transhumanists all have in common? Or if the answer is "Nothing", what clusters of overlapping interests and ideas are there among groups of transhumanist thinkers and activists such that transhumanist views really do bear some kind of family resemblance to each other?

These are not easy questions to answer, though one might have expected the six Global Spiral contributors to have made some kind of attempt to tease out the complexities. So far, with only one article remaining to be read, I can't see any attempt at this at all.

If I had to attempt the task, where would I begin? Probably with ideas of technology being used to enhance human physical and cognitive (etc.) capacities or to redesign the human body (by genetics, prosthetics, and other technologies). I'd mention ideas that involve what are alleged to be self-preserving transfers of personality from our current bodies to other substrates (usually some kind of advanced computational hardware). I'd make clear that there is a wide range of positions that could reasonably be called transhumanist: positions that are sympathetic to various radical uses for the emerging technologies of enhancement. I'd also mention that even the concept of "enhancement" is up for grabs. Nonetheless, I'd probably conclude, there are some general tendencies within transhumanism - a certain willingness to use technology to alter ourselves in direct and powerful ways. Even if we can't find a core group of proposition that every transhumanist believes, we could show something of how various transhumanist positions constitute a "family" of related worldviews, with various patterns of overlapping resemblances among them.

By contrast, every time one of the Global Spiral articles comes close to making such points, with some acknowledgment that the transhumanist movement is complex ... the points quickly get waved away.

This brings me back to the article by Andrew Pickering.

Pickering candidly admits that he knew "almost nothing" about transhumanism when he was invited to give the paper (so why on Earth was he chosen to give a paper on the topic in the first place?). He suggests that tranhumanism raises the question of what does it mean to be human, then adds that he thinks "that transhumanism may not have a single agreed position." However, rather than exploring what varied positions transhumanists might have on this (rather problematically worded) question, he declares that "for the purpose of exposition I’ll narrow my definition of transhumanism down to the goal of 'cybernetic immortality' as a sort of defining outer limit of transhumanist thought."

I have no idea what he means by "a defining outer limit" in this context, so I'm a bit stumped by this - maybe a kind reader can explain what Pickering means. Meanwhile, all I can say is that some transhumanists are keen to pursue something like cybernetic immortality - though not in the precise sense that Pickering goes on to describe in the article - while others are less keen. Some self-described transhumanist are probably even hostile to the notion, or sceptical about it. So we have this situation: Pickering concentrates on a particular position that he imagines (I suppose) to be a popular one within transhumanist circles. He criticises this position as if he were thereby criticising the transhumanist movement itself. It's much as if someone said, "By 'feminism' I mean the view of heterosexuality advocated by Andrea Dworkin" and then went on to attack Dworkin's view, castigate "feminism" for its narrowness, make remarks such as "Yes, I’m starting not to like feminism."

In other words, Pickering is criticising "transhumanism" rather than criticising transhumanism. The real transhumanist movement marches on unscathed.

Note that even transhumanists who subscribe to the idea that we should attempt to achieve a form of immortality by uploading ourselves onto a durable substrate of computer hardware might feel that their position is caricatured by Pickering. It's worth looking closely at his language when he defines the idea of cybernetic immortality like this: "A certain timeless essence of humanity—consciousness, the mind—is to achieve immortality, with all the useless paraphernalia of humanity—the body, even the unconscious and subconscious reaches of the mind—to be sloughed off." I'll dwell on this, since what Pickering is describing is not just a less-than-universal transhumanist aspiration; it is an idea that I have never seen advanced by any transhumanist thinker anywhere!

Now, there may be a transhumanist thinker whom I don't know about who has argued for such an idea. I can't prove a negative, at least not this sort of negative. But uploading, as conceived of by actual transhumanists, is never understood so simplisticly. The idea is to emulate on some other substrate than the original human brain and body, not just the rational mind but the entire personality. This includes unconscious drives, underlying values, and whatever else constitutes or feeds into the personality. If the idea of substrate invariance is correct, then it is possible to recreate an individual's entire personality (including all the relevant inner experience) in an inorganic computerised form. The claim is that the entire personality - not just the reasoning powers and so on - can be transferred to adequately functioning inorganic hardware (or, as one imaginary alternative, inorganic hardware can gradually be used to substitute for however much is required of the person's original organic body).

Far-fetched? No doubt it is, and I am (in various ways and for various reasons) sceptical about it. Such a process may not violate any physical or (if there are such things) psychophysical law, but the theoretical and practical hurdles appear to be so high that the entire idea is off the table as a serious near-future policy option. Or so I'd argue. Those who think that it's just a matter of developing sufficiently powerful hardware are (I argue) naive about the other problems. Nonetheless, their position is not the one that Pickering ascribes to them. Once that's cleared, it can be seen that his entire article misses its target.

Why? Because Pickering's concern is that transhumanism (as he defines it) contains a "narrow" conception of what it is to be human, one that equates our humanity with reason and the conscious mind. This is what Pickering calls an Enlightenment view, though it's not clear that the thinkers associated with the Enlightenment all shared such a view. (Perhaps Kant believed something like this, but Enlightenment thought was varied, complex, and nuanced.) In any event, Pickering is arguing against a position held by no contemporary transhumanist of any note, based on the work of no particular Enlightenment thinker. He then claims that his dislike of this chimerical position is a criticism of transhumanism. It is not; it is not even a criticism of the idea of uploading, which is a somewhat different thing. It is only a critique of "transhumanism", while the real transhumanist movement marches on untouched.

This fundamental error enables Pickering to make the following key statement of his position. It's a fascinating one:

in the history of cybernetics ... curiosity about the performative self has been entangled with all sorts of technologies of the self (including flickering strobe lights and hallucinogens, as well as meditation), and with associated altered states, explorations of consciousness, strange performances, magic, the siddhis, the decentered dissolution of the self, tantric yoga and union with the divine. The self, as revealed here, turns out to be inexhaustibly emergent, just like the world—the antithesis of the given human essence of the Enlightenment and cybernetic immortality. And again, for me, this shows the extent of the freezing and narrowing of the human that transhumanism entails—the severity of its editing of what the human might be. Of course, all of the practices and states that I talk about in my paper are already marginalized in contemporary society—it feels vaguely embarrassing to talk about them in public. But at least the margins exist, and one can go there if one likes. The transhumanists would like to engineer them out of existence entirely and forever. Yes, I’m starting not to like transhumanism.

In other words, Pickering dislikes transhumanism - or, rather, "transhumanism" - because he thinks it leaves no room for such things as the experiences of meditative states, hallucinogenic drugs, and tantric yoga. But there is no reason for the real transhumanist movement to be hostile to whatever merits these things actually have.

Later in the article, Pickering discusses Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men, which he describes as a vision of the future that offers "open-ended experimentation, emergence and transformation with no fixed end". Then he adds:

I would like to know how it came to be that in the 20s and 30s people were able to imagine radical transformations of the human form, when no evident technological possibilities were at hand. And ... I am struck by the impoverishment of our imagination that has since come to pass. Now we have biotechnology, now we really could dream of equipping ourselves with wings or new senses, but we don’t. Instead of experimentation with the endless possibilities of humanity, we dream transhumanist dreams of purification and the excision of what already exists, of downloading consciousness. Something profoundly sad has happened to our imagination. That, in the end, is what transhumanism brings home to me.

The ignorance of this is breathtaking!

I can only wonder at how an article like this, by someone who clearly does not know what he's talking about, could ever have been published. It is possible to discuss transhumanism in opposition to visions of biologically-transformed bodies "with wings or new senses" only if you define transhumanism in Pickering's bizarre and arbitrary way and only if you are totally ignorant of the fact that real transhumanists - rather than "transhumanists" - do, indeed, imagine transformed bodily morphology, new senses and so on, and are open to experimentation and endless possibilities in just the way that Pickering describes.

Given Pickering's openness to the radical use of biotechnology to alter human powers, he should actually be an ally of transhumanists in the real struggle that has emerged in the early years of the twenty-first century: i.e. the struggle against modern-day Luddites who are adamantly opposed to such possibilities as the transformed bodies with wings, new senses, etc., and who are often opposed even to medical research on human embryos. By all means let us imagine these wild biotech possibilities (while also being realistic about what actually will be possible). But when we wonder at the strange people who may come after us - people with wings or gills, or the radar sense of a bat, or more likely just with longer and healthier lives than our own - let's not imagine that in doing so we are somehow being opposed by, of all things, the transhumanist movement.


Blake Stacey said...

Bats use sonar, not radar.

That said, I'd like to have either a sonar or a radar sense; maybe my wings could double as radio antennas.

Roko said...

RB: "The idea is to emulate on some other substrate than the original human brain and body, not just the rational mind but the entire personality"

- as a self-identifying transhumanist, I'd agree with this.

Russell Blackford said...

Yeah, Blake, I usually do write "sonar" which is accurate. Got me! Though maybe someone will have an implant that really does give her a "batlike" (as in analogous to bats' sonar) radar sense. That might be cool to have, along with the antenna wings that you mention.

Blake Stacey said...

"Quick, to the Bat-Radar!" (-: