Twelve Questions on Transhumanism’s Place in the Western Philosophical Tradition

SERRC —  April 19, 2017 — 3 Comments

The following are a set of questions concerning the place of transhumanism in the Western philosophical tradition that Robert Frodeman’s Philosophy 5250 class at the University of North Texas posed to Steve Fuller, who met with the class via Skype on 11 April 2017.


Image credit: Joan Sorolla, via flickr

1. First a point of clarification: we should understand you not as a health span increaser, but rather as interested in infinity, or in some sense in man becoming a god? That is, H+ is a theological rather than practical question for you?

Yes, that’s right. I differ from most transhumanists in stressing that short term sacrifice—namely, in the form of risky experimentation and self-experimentation—is a price that will probably need to be paid if the long-term aims of transhumanism are to be realized. Moreover, once we finally make the breakthrough to extend human life indefinitely, there may be a moral obligation to make room for future generations, which may take the form of sending the old into space or simply encouraging suicide.

2. How do you understand the relationship between AI and transhumanism?

When Julian Huxley coined ‘transhumanism’ in the 1950s, it was mainly about eugenics, the sort of thing that his brother Aldous satirized in Brave New World. The idea was that the transhuman would be a ‘new and improved’ human, not so different from new model car. (Recall that Henry Ford is the founding figure of Brave New World.) However, with the advent of cybernetics, also happening around the same time, the idea that distinctly ‘human’ traits might be instantiated in both carbon and silicon began to be taken seriously, with AI being the major long-term beneficiary of this line of thought. Some transhumanists, notably Ray Kurzweil, find the AI version especially attractive, perhaps because it caters to their ‘gnostic’ impulse to have the human escape all material constraints. In the transhumanist jargon, this is called ‘morphological freedom’, a sort of secular equivalent of pure spirituality. However, this is to take AI in a somewhat different direction from its founders in the era of cybernetics, which was about creating intelligent machines from silicon, not about transferring carbon-based intelligence into silicon form.

3. How seriously do you take talk (by Bill Gates and others) that AI is an existential risk?

Not very seriously— at least on its own terms. By the time some superintelligent machine might pose a genuine threat to what we now regard as the human condition, the difference between human and non-human will have been blurred, mainly via cyborg identities of the sort that Stephen Hawking might end up being seen as having been a trailblazer. Whatever political questions would arise concerning AI at that point would likely divide humanity itself profoundly and not be a simple ‘them versus us’ scenario. It would be closer to the Cold War choice of Communism vs Capitalism. But honestly, I think all this ‘existential risk’ stuff gets its legs from genuine concerns about cyberwarfare. But taken on its face, cyberwarfare is nothing more than human-on-human warfare conducted by high tech means. The problem is still mainly with the people fighting the war rather than the algorithms that they program to create these latest weapons of mass destruction. I wonder sometimes whether this fixation on superintelligent machines is simply an indirect way to get humans to become responsible for their own actions—the sort of thing that psychoanalysts used to call ‘displacement behavior’ but the rest of us call ‘ventriloquism’.

4. If, as Socrates claims, to philosophize is to learn how to die, does H+ represent the end of philosophy?

Of course not!  The question of death is just posed differently because even from a transhumanist standpoint, it may be in the best interest of humanity as a whole for individuals to choose death, so as to give future generations a chance to make their mark. Alternatively, and especially if transhumanists are correct that our extended longevity will be accompanied by rude health, then the older and wiser among us —and there is no denying that ‘wisdom’ is an age-related virtue—might spend their later years taking greater risks, precisely because they would be better able to handle the various contingencies. I am thinking that such healthy elderly folk might be best suited to interstellar exploration because of the ultra-high risks involved. Indeed, I could see a future social justice agenda that would require people to demonstrate their entitlement to longevity by documenting the increasing amount of risk that they are willing to absorb.

5. What of Heidegger’s claim that to be an authentic human being we must project our lives onto the horizon of our death?

I couldn’t agree more! Transhumanism just puts more options on the table for what death looks like. For example, one might choose to die with or without the prospect of future resurrection. One might also just upload one’s mind into a computer, which would be its own special kind of resurrection. I think Heidegger and other philosophers have invested such great import on death simply because of its apparent irreversibility. However, if you want to recreate Heidegger’s sense of ‘ultimate concern’ in a post-death world, all you would need to do is to find some irreversible processes and unrecoverable opportunities that even transhumanists acknowledge. A hint is that when transhumanism was itself resurrected in its current form, it was known as ‘extropianism’, suggesting an active resistance to entropy. For transhumanists—very much in the spirit of the original cybernetician, Norbert Wiener—entropy is the ultimate irreversible process and hence ultimate challenge for the movement to overcome.

6. What is your response to Heidegger’s claim that it is in the confrontation with nothingness, in the uncanny, that we are brought back to ourselves?

Well, that certainly explains the phenomenon that roboticists call the ‘uncanny valley’, whereby people are happy to deal with androids until they resemble humans ‘a bit too much’, at which point people are put off. There are two sides to this response—not only that the machines seem too human but also that they are still recognized as machines. So the machines haven’t quite yet fooled us into thinking that they’re one of us. One hypothesis to explain the revulsion is that such androids appear to be like artificially animated dead humans, a bit like Frankenstein. Heideggerians can of course use all this to their advantage to demonstrate that death is the ultimate ‘Other’ to the human condition.

7. Generally, who do you think are the most important thinkers within the philosophic tradition for thinking about the implications of transhumanism?

Most generally, I would say the Platonic tradition, which has been most profound in considering how the same form might be communicated through different media. So when we take seriously the prospect that the ‘human’ may exist in carbon and/or silicon and yet remain human, we are following in Plato’s footsteps. Christianity holds a special place in this line of thought because of the person of Jesus Christ, who is somehow at once human and divine in equal and all respects. The branch of theology called ‘Christology’ is actually dedicated to puzzling over these matters, various solutions to which have become the stuff of science fiction characters and plots. St Augustine originally made the problem of Christ’s identity a problem for all of humanity when he leveraged the Genesis claim that we are created ‘image and the likeness of God’ to invent the concept of ‘will’ to name the faculty of free choice that is common to God and humans. We just exercise our wills much worse than God exercises his, as demonstrated by Adam’s misjudgment which started Original Sin (an Augustinian coinage). When subsequent Christian thinkers have said that ‘the flesh is weak’, they are talking about how humanity’s default biological conditions holds us back from fully realizing our divine potential. Kant acknowledged as much in secular terms when he explicitly defined the autonomy necessary for truly moral action in terms of resisting the various paths of least resistance put before us. These are what Christians originally called ‘temptations’, Kant himself called ‘heteronomy’ and Herbert Marcuse in a truly secular vein would later call ‘desublimation’.

8. One worry that arises from the Transhumanism project (especially about gene editing, growing human organs in animals, etc.) regards the treatment of human enhancement as “commercial products”. In other words, the worry is concerns the (further) commodification of life. Does this concern you? More generally, doesn’t H+ imply a perverse instrumentalization of our being?

My worries about commodification are less to do with the process itself than the fairness of the exchange relations in which the commodities are traded. Influenced by Locke and Nozick, I would draw a strong distinction between alienation and exploitation, which tends to be blurred in the Marxist literature. Transhumanism arguably calls for an alienation of the body from human identity, in the sense that your biological body might be something that you trade for a silicon upgrade, yet you humanity remains intact on both sides of the transaction, at least in terms of formal legal recognition. Historic liberal objections to slavery rested on a perceived inability to do this coherently. Marxism upped the ante by arguing that the same objections applied to wage labor under the sort of capitalism promoted by the classical political economists of his day, who saw themselves as scientific underwriters of the new liberal order emerging in post-feudal Europe. However, the force of Marxist objections rest on alienation being linked to exploitation. In other words, not only am I free to sell my body or labor, but you are also offer whatever price serves to close the sale. However, the sorts of power imbalances which lay behind exploitation can be—and have been—addressed in various ways. Admittedly more work needs to be done, but a time will come when alienation is simply regarded as a radical exercise of freedom—specifically, the freedom to, say, project myself as an avatar in cyberspace or, conversely, convert part of my being to property that can be traded from something that may in turn enhance my being.

9. Robert Nozick paints a possible scenario in Anarchy, State, and Utopia where he describes a “genetic supermarket” where we can choose our genes just as one selects a frozen pizza. Nozick’s scenario implies a world where human characteristics are treated in the way we treat other commercial products. In the Transhuman worldview, is the principle or ultimate value of life commercial?

There is something to that, in the sense that anything that permits discretionary choice will lend itself to commercialization unless the state intervenes—but I believe that the state should intervene and regulate the process. Unfortunately, from a PR standpoint, a hundred years ago that was called ‘eugenics’. Nevertheless, people in the future may need to acquire a license to procreate, and constraints may even be put on the sort of offspring are and are not permissible, and people may even be legally required to undergo periodic forms of medical surveillance—at least as a condition of employment or welfare benefits. (Think Gattaca as a first pass at this world.) It is difficult to see how an advanced democracy that acknowledges already existing persistent inequalities in life-chances could agree to ‘designer babies’ without also imposing the sort of regime that I am suggesting. Would this unduly restrict people’s liberty? Perhaps not, if people will have acquired the more relaxed attitude to alienation, as per my answer to the previous question. However, the elephant in the room—and which I argued in The Proactionary Imperative is more important—is liability. In other words, who is responsible when things go wrong in a regime which encourages people to experiment with risky treatments? This is something that should focus the minds of lawyers and insurers, especially in a world are presumed to be freer per se because they have freer access to information.

10. Is human enhancement consistent with other ways in which people modify their lifestyles, that is, are they analogous in principle to buying a new cell phone, learning a language or working out? Is it a process of acquiring ideas, goods, assets, and experiences that distinguish one person from another, either as an individual or as a member of a community? If not, how is human enhancement different?

‘Human enhancement’, at least as transhumanists understand the phrase, is about ‘morphological freedom’, which I interpret as a form of ultra-alienation. In other words, it’s not simply about people acquiring things, including prosthetic extensions, but also converting themselves to a different form, say, by uploading the contents of one’s brain into a computer. You might say that transhumanism’s sense of ‘human enhancement’ raises the question of whether one can be at once trader and traded in a way that enables the two roles to be maintained indefinitely. Classical political economy seemed to imply this, but Marx denied its ontological possibility.

11. The thrust of 20th Century Western philosophy could be articulated in terms of the strife for possible futures, whether that future be Marxist, Fascist, or other ideologically utopian schemes, and the philosophical fallout of coming to terms with their successes and failures. In our contemporary moment, it appears as if widespread enthusiasm for such futures has disappeared, as the future itself seems as fragmented as our society. H+ is a new, similar effort; but it seems to be a specific evolution of the futurism focused, not on a society, but on the human person (even, specific human persons). Comments?

In terms of how you’ve phrased your question, transhumanism is a recognizably utopian scheme in nearly all respects—including the assumption that everyone would find its proposed future intrinsically attractive, even if people disagree on how or whether it might be achieved. I don’t see transhumanism as so different from capitalism or socialism as pure ideologies in this sense. They all presume their own desirability. This helps to explain why people who don’t agree with the ideology are quickly diagnosed as somehow mentally or morally deficient.

12. A common critique of Heidegger’s thought comes from an ethical turn in Continental philosophy. While Heidegger understands death to the harbinger of meaning, he means specifically and explicitly one’s own death. Levinas, however, maintains that the primary experience of death that does this work is the death of the Other. One’s experience with death comes to one through the death of a loved one, a friend, a known person, or even through the distant reality of a war or famine across the world. In terms of this critique, the question of transhumanism then leads to a socio-ethical concern: if one, using H+ methods, technologies, and enhancements, can significantly inoculate oneself against the threat of death, how ethically (in the Levinasian sense) can one then legitimately live in relation to others in a society, if the threat of the death of the Other no longer provides one the primal experience of the threat of death?

Here I’m closer to Heidegger than Levinas in terms of grounding intuition, but my basic point would be that an understanding of the existence and significance of death is something that can be acquired without undergoing a special sort of experience. Phenomenologically inclined philosophers sometimes seem to assume that a significant experience must happen significantly. But this is not true at all. My main understanding of death as a child came not from people I know dying, but simply from watching the morning news on television and learning about the daily body count from the Vietnam War. That was enough for me to appreciate the gravity of death—even before I started reading the Existentialists.

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