Patrik Pallagi: Dear Professor Fuller, I am writing with the intention to congratulate you on your work and speeches that has both inspired and amazed young students like me. In addition, I’d like to ask if I could perhaps entertain you for eight questions that may be interesting for you to read and potentially answer. For context, my team and I are making a film about the history and the future of disability, the drive to overcome it and the humanity behind it. And as I understand, you and I would both agree that whatever it means to be a human is not historically closed. So, I am reaching out to you because you are amongst my favourite philosophers who actively think about the future, and I love it when I get to ask questions of you. I tried my best to write interesting and perhaps inspiring questions so I really hope these will be to your entertainment. At the same time, I understand that you may not have the time or the chance to answer them. Nevertheless, if you are interested in and open to being interviewed—whether it is through e-mail or through audio or video—I would love to include some bits of wisdom in the documentary my team and I are making. So, with that said, I’m introducing the eight questions I wish to ask you. … [please read below the rest of the article].
Pallagi, Patrik and Steve Fuller. 2022. “Patrik Pallagi and Steve Fuller on the History and Future of Disability—The Drive to Overcome It and the Conception of Humanity Behind It.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (9): 56-61. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-7c4.
🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.
Pallagi: MIT Professor Hugh Herr said “Humanity will end disability in the twenty-first century and establish the scientific and technological capability for human augmentation.” Are you optimistic about this and what is your take?
Fuller: I regard this as a nonsensical claim because as long as we identify ‘abilities’, there will be ‘disabilities’. Of course, what exactly counts as an ‘ability’ or ‘disability’ varies, depending on what it takes to lead a normal life in a given time and place. Take, for example, Prof Herr’s optimistic forecast about human augmentation. Suppose he’s right, but I don’t want to be augmented? I would probably then become ‘disabled’ by definition, even though nothing would have physically changed about me. Rather, the standard for living normally in the world would have changed. Think about it this way: Before there were corrective eyeglasses, variation in people’s sight was simply a ‘natural’ occurrence. Now there are standards whereby people are judged as able to see ‘well’ or ‘poorly’.
Pallagi: The possibility of uploading consciousness to an external domain and platform perhaps would be the ultimate step towards ending disability in a sense that in a “Matrix—like environment”, the repair of bodies and minds can become guaranteed to anyone choosing to use such a solution. At the same time, I understand that many, if not most people living with disabilities would perhaps want to find solutions in a way where their bodies will be “physical, but more capable”. So I am reminded by Marshall McLuhan’s idea where he said: “The Medium is the Message.” Do you think the perception of the body as a medium through which we can create a message with indicates … limits to human potential?
Fuller: First, I agree with the intuition that when it comes to perception of the body, the ‘medium’ is indeed the ‘message’. But I don’t take that to imply that people necessarily want to stay in their current bodies. Rather, people may simply want to retain the feeling of their bodies in whatever medium they inhabit, be it as a cyborg, an uploaded data stream, or a brain in a vat. In short, what matters is what psychologists call ‘proprioception’, which is a sense of oneself as an integral unit. But I also think that there are an increasing number of people—especially young ones—who are comfortable with the idea of, so to speak, ‘shapeshifting’. Even if they’re not ‘disabled’, they might prefer cyborg-style body parts to the ones of their birth simply to experience a change in functionality. Or, to go further, some people prefer to spend their time crafting an online identity than their offline identity. I see all this as spontaneous expressions of the ‘morphological freedom’ that transhumanists value so highly.
Pallagi: Claude Bernard led a fierce struggle to deny vitalism. Vitalism was a dominant theory at the time of nineteenth century. According to Vitalism, life cannot be explained solely by the laws of physics and chemistry. So, this was something Claude Bernard opposed. In fact, he believed so much in the principles of physics and chemistry that he supported the view that we as humans are “Living Machines”. I find that idea interesting because in a sense that means that our parts and bodies have been tested before and have been perfected to the extent nature’s engineering process could do its part. And because of this, I’d like to ask you again about limits. I believe, because of science and technology, the limits of a disabled person is an ever changing concept, where often surprising solutions can enhance the abilities of a person beyond what we would expect of them. Is there a limit that you foresee for our cognitive and creative capacity to hit in the future?
Fuller : It’s interesting that you mention Claude Bernard in this context. You’re absolutely right that he thought about the human body as a ‘living machine’. But he was also inspired by the possibility of a ‘perpetual motion machine’, whose efficient use of energy can somehow beat entropy. Indeed, Bernard is largely responsible for the default ‘modern’ view of medicine as engaged in the business of ‘prolonging life’ and ‘preventing death’. Transhumanism basically takes Bernard to the next level, as Max More signalled in the 1990s, when he described the movement as ‘extropian’. Keep in mind that before the late nineteenth century, the idea of death as the enemy of medicine was not the norm. Rather, medicine was about shepherding people through the various stages of the life cycle, in which death was to be expected and made as easy as possible. My own view about all this is that even if the more extravagant claims about, say, the reversal of ageing and the indefinite postponement of death don’t happen in our lifetime, they will happen eventually. In this respect, transhumanism is simply the ideology of all impatient and reckless medical researchers. But as I see it, when that day comes, ageing and death will not be eliminated; rather, it will become a lifestyle choice.
Pallagi: Generative design is an iterative design process that involves a program that will generate a certain number of outputs that meet certain constraints, and a designer that will fine tune the feasible region by selecting specific output or changing input values, ranges and distribution. So this process entails the creative engineering duo of both machine and human intelligence. This is the concept that raises questions about how we divide our resources, if we see creative agents and machine-capacity as a resource. Especially it will be interesting to see in the context of disability to see how much of our choices and our actions are going to be of machine-origin versus human made. How do you think we should be planning for collaboration and embrace these machines and humans?
Fuller: I think this is the wrong way to look at the challenge. It doesn’t really matter the source of the choices—human or machine. What matters is who is responsible for the choices, once they have been made. All defenders of free will grant that our lives are constrained in various ways, not least by inputs to our decisions that come from all sorts of humans and non-humans. When humans offer each other a limited range of options, we call it ‘advice’, but it is not so different from what you’re describing about the machine. Of course, if a human offers ‘bad’ advice, then its recipient may demand redress for having followed the advice, especially if some incompetence or deception is suspected. But in the case of the machine, at least currently, such recourse is rarely if ever possible. There are many ways to respond to this situation. One is simply to place a limit on human-machine collaboration, which would probably involve limiting the machine’s capabilities in various ways.
On the other hand, we might consider ‘machine rights’ in some robust sense, whereby machines that pass a certain intelligence threshold can be held responsible for their actions. But in practice, would that be anything more than suing the machine’s manufacturer? It could be more, if the machine has strong self-programming (‘deep learning’) capabilities, which enables it over time to act in ways that the manufacturer could never have anticipated. At that point, the machine is reasonably considered an autonomous agent that bears responsibility for its actions. But what does ‘punishment’ look like in this context? Some have suggested decommissioning the algorithm that enabled the machine to evolve in such a harmful way. In human terms, that’s a bit like sterilizing criminals to prevent crime in the future. Clearly, we need to think about this issue more creatively…
Pallagi: Now I wish to make an analogy using our Cell Structure. Mitochondria are essential components of nearly all cells in the body. These organelles are the powerhouses for cells, providing energy to carry out biochemical reactions and other cellular processes. And what’s interesting is that nuclear and mitochondrial DNA are thought to be of separate evolutionary origin, with the mitochondrial DNA being derived from the circular genomes of bacteria engulfed by the early ancestors of today’s eukaryotic cells. This theory is called the endosymbiotic theory. Interestingly, Kevin Kelly’s book What Technology Wants puts forward the idea that we ought to be seeing technology as group of immortal organisms and he calls technology “The Seventh Kingdom of Life”. Using these ideas, I would make the analogy that human creativity would serve as the powerhouse of all projects of the future and at the same time we should acknowledge that machine work will help us create a whole cell, a neuron like entity that can connect us to other groups. So, in terms of this, where do you see the future of human and machine intelligence taking us?
Fuller: It sounds like you’re talking about an idea that started to grip many intellectuals after the First World War, including H.G. Wells’ ‘World Brain’ and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s ‘Noösphere’. Here it’s worth recalling that in only a fifty-year period—roughly 1845 to 1895—the world saw in rapid succession the development of telegraph, telephone and radio technology, each adding a new dimension to global communications. (And that was before television, the portable computer and the World Wide Web unleashed a similar arc of revolutionary change from roughly 1945 to 1995.)
In 1917, the US anthropologist Alfred Kroeber (father of the science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin) introduced the realm of the ‘superorganic’ as an evolutionarily emergent level of humanity, based on information, communication and transport technologies—not so different in spirit from Kevin Kelly’s ‘Technium’. Kroeber saw the superorganic as performing two main roles: on the one hand, it enabled each successive generation to reach the intellectual and material level of the previous one sooner, meaning less time needed for reproduction and more time available for original work; on the other, it enabled more people to coordinate their efforts more efficiently. He concluded that the pace of progress would quicken, anticipating today’s ‘accelerationist’ ideologies. However, unlike today’s enthusiasts, he was open-minded about whether this tendency was good or manageable in the long run. A notable feature of Kroeber’s position in retrospect is the strong distinction he drew between biological and cultural evolution, where ‘culture’ is extended to include a society’s technical infrastructure.
Pallagi: Professor Hugh Herr said in an empowering way for disabled people that thanks to the advancement of technology “The individual can sculpt like a sculptor” and therefore I’d say re-imagine and recreate itself. This idea reminds of prototyping. Specifically, prototyping with the body and again seeing the body and the mind as a sort of intelligent machine in the process of being perfected. So, tinkering with our own body and mind to make it better is accepted in this school of thought for people with disabilities and at the same time I wonder: What are the checks and balances one perhaps ought to acknowledge and accept if there are any?
Fuller: Again, I think Prof Herr is not framing the issue quite right. What he’s really talking about is the advancements in the production and distribution of cyborg technologies. I put it this way because the history of ‘prosthetics’ in the broad sense—including, say, eyeglasses and cosmetic surgery—began as therapeutic devices designed to restore some ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ function and then, once fully commercialized, take on a life of their own, as their development is dictated by consumer demand. Indeed, the distinction commonly observed in traditional bioethics between ‘restorative’ and ‘enhancement’ technologies generally dissolves once such technologies are commercialized. In that case, what counts as ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ become floating signifiers in the marketplace. In this respect, with enough consumer uptake, a portable brain-computer interface originally designed for disabled people could become part of the ‘new normal’ in the way eyeglasses are. (No doubt Elon Musk is hoping so, vis-à-vis Neuralink!) In that case, non-adopters could over time come to be judged as ‘disabled. An additional complication, also related to commercialization, is that people will want to trade in their normally functioning body parts for cyborg parts that promise new and different capacities.
For those wishing to uphold the restorative/enhancement distinction, this is the ultimate nightmare scenario—and it may pose some serious challenges to how everyday life in society is organized. But in the end, you know, the most physically convenient and (probably) low-risk way to live up to Prof Herr’s idea that ‘The individual can sculpt like a sculptor’ is to generate avatars in an online environment, which in the future will be available, courtesy of Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘Metaverse’.
Pallagi: In the name of inclusion and acceptance, I believe that revealing one’s disability is ought to be cherished rather than punished. At the same time, Yuval Noah Harari believes that in the twenty-first century we as humans have become hackable animals. So, protection, both physically and technologically for someone living with a disability is key. In the twenty-first century what are the means of protection one is ought to be granted with in your opinion?
Fuller: You’ve left out an important part of the problem, which is that many ‘disabled’ people find the very word ‘disabled’ prejudicial. Influenced by identity politics, they (rightly) point out that people who live with, say, visual and auditory conditions that would normally be called ‘disabled’ are able to cultivate distinct perspectives on the world that are reasonably regarded as cultures, which themselves need to be protected. Such people would find the premise of your question condescending. I have considerable sympathy for their line of thinking. After all, it would be a cruel irony if, in one breath, transhumanism celebrates the diversity of human futures (biological immortality, cyborganization, uploaded minds, etc.) under the rubric of ‘morphological freedom’, and then, in the next breath, targets for elimination great swathes of diversity with which humanity has lived since time immemorial (aka ‘disabilities’). Even worse, it would represent a failure to have learned from the atrocities that were committed in the name of ‘eugenics’ in the twentieth century.
At the same time, of course, I recognize that perhaps the vast majority of people normally labelled as ‘disabled’ would like to have that status removed simply by being able to appear ‘normal’. The development of unobtrusive hearing aids and contact lenses fit into that category, as well as medical conditions that are self-regulated through the use of prescription drugs, dietary monitoring, etc. These strategies typically do not eliminate the disability as such but allow the disabled person to assimilate into normal society without notice. Perhaps you see the future of disability in these terms, only now with the prospect of treatments that effectively reverse the disability without side effects. Here I agree there are many reasons why society at large would favour this option as the ‘path of least resistance’ towards dealing with disability. However, things will get politically interesting once it becomes technically feasible to gene edit out of existence such disabilities at the antenatal level.
Pallagi: As a closing question I’d like to ask something, perhaps unrelated to the previous questions, but nevertheless, I think just as interesting. What is the question you wish more people would ask you and why?
Fuller: ‘Are there limits to what can be counted as human?’ This question evokes at least three different controversial issues at once:
(1) Do humans need to have certain capacities, which if they lack or lose, render them ‘inhuman’? If yes, then one can transition in and out of being human.
(2) Do humans need to begin life as Homo sapiens, or even as a kind of animal? If no, then in principle machines can be trained to become humans.
(3) Can only those who are already recognized as humans judge whether a candidate entity is human? If yes, then the criteria for humanity will change as the self-recognizing community of humans changes.
Patrik Pallagi, firstname.lastname@example.org, originally from Budapest, is a Pearson Scholar at the University of Toronto and a Young Member of the New York Academy of Sciences. At Toronto, he has trained for four months with the US journalist Sam Tanenhaus. Pallagi identifies with Judaism and Libertarianism, and he supported the Great Barrington Declaration on COVID-19. Pallagi is also a young athlete in his twenties concerned about his potential future as a father, especially that his child might inherit his own type-one diabetes, which is known to shorten life expectancy. Refusing to accept that fate, he is developing an app for the Apple Watch that pairs glycaemic status with the caloric performance of an athlete with type-one diabetes, thereby minimizing the risk of hypoglycaemia, which hinders the ability of a diabetic athlete to move and even see.
Steve Fuller, S.W.Fuller@warwick.ac.uk, Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology, Department of Sociology, University of Warwick.