For Thomas Z., to whom I owe a philosophical entry
First thing in Mainz was to join my philosopher friend, Michael, over a bottle of Spätburgunder, the delicious red wine you can only find in southwestern Germany, and hear about his recent forays into transhumanism. The concept echoed some recurring themes of my blog, so let’s have another go at it.
Here’s a quote from the mover and shaker of transhumanism, Max More.
“Mother Nature, truly we are grateful for what you have made us. No doubt you did the best you could. However, with all due respect, we must say that you have in many ways done a poor job with the human constitution. You have made us vulnerable to disease and damage. You compel us to age and die – just as we’re beginning to attain wisdom. And, you forgot to give us the operating manual for ourselves! … What you have made is glorious, yet deeply flawed … We have decided that it is time to amend the human constitution … We do not do this lightly, carelessly, or disrespectfully, but cautiously, intelligently, and in pursuit of excellence … Over the coming decades we will pursue a series of changes to our own constitution … We will no longer tolerate the tyranny of aging and death … We will expand our perceptual range … improve on our neural organization and capacity … reshape our motivational patterns and emotional responses … take charge over our genetic programming and achieve mastery over our biological and neurological processes.”
An enticing mission statement, no doubt, but which side carries more weight — the passionate, techno-idealism or the Faustian arrogance? What if we expand and magnify all the quantifiable aspects of human identity only to discover that the things of true value in the human experience are precisely the non-quantifiable ones? To paraphrase a fine blog entry by your present correspondent, what if we increase our knowledge a hundredfold, a milllionfold, about neurological indicators of “being in love,” place all our bets for a better future there, and then discover, like J. Alfred Prufrock, that “this is not it at all,” that an infinite and complete set of data about the neurological (objective) facts of being in love turns out to be a mere child’s game, an insignificant correlative to the real thing, the subjective experience of love, love in its non-quantifiable aspect. What if we place all our bets on the objectively measurable and manipulable, and then find that the objective abstraction of reality is just the husk, the crust, empty shell of lived experience? As Sri Sri Ravi Shankar says, we cling tightly to the banana skin and throw away the banana. The objective aspect of reality may be nothing more than a map whose coordinates correspond to the subjective conditions that make up the real meat and matter of life. Knowing every infinitely granular datum on a map of New York is not the same thing as being alive and in New York.
And the transhumanist’s desire for improvement may seem intuitively good and true, but is it really that intuitive? I would say that the obsession with continual improvement is a modern, or at least post-Renaissance, obsession. As late as the eighteenth century (at least in England, whose cultural history I’m most familiar with), there was widespread and vocal resistance to the apostles of “improvement.” If the ancient Greeks were right that meaning and value for us is to be located in “happiness” (Aristotle) or in living “the good life” (Plato), is the frenetic quest for continual improvement really conducive to those ends? Couldn’t the Greeks be right that a life of tranquility and acceptance and reflection is more apropos?
Or, to take the most persuasive case for the transhumanist, the ethical case, why not modify human beings to be more altruistic? Surely there’s no harm there. Maybe. But what if moral variation turns out to have the same crucial value in our spiritual journey, our collective quest for the good life, as genetic variation has in the biological furtherance of the species? Absent moral variation, is there then no way forward, no dynamic built into the system, no adaptability without a spread of traits across individuals?
Finally, there’s the sense that you can’t beat Mother Nature. In the 1950s, the “improvement” team was telling us that factory-made formula was better than mother’s milk. The most conventional of modern medical practice holds that a lifelong battery of pharmaceuticals and surgeries is better than the body’s natural healing processes. DDT to kill pests sounds great until you realize there’s reason Mother Nature did not carpet bomb her own fields and rivers with DDT. Science is enormously instructive within its scope, but when it goes beyond scope with easy claims of how it can outsmart nature’s millions of years of accumulated intelligence, I would like to keep at least one foot on the brakes.
And even if you could beat Mother Nature, at least temporarily, postponing death, is that really so great? If we don’t grow old and die, children’s voices will no longer fill playgrounds, as the cycle of death and replenishent of the species will have been broken. Is the trade-off really worth it? Extend your old age further and further in a world with fewer and fewer kids at play. This specific point is negotiable, but in general, the “obvious” good might sometimes have a collateral damage that our scientist, or a particular community of scientists, limited by their historical vantage and their own egocentrism, may not see.
Despite all this, I remain intrigued by transhumanism and hope to read up on it. (Full disclosure: I have not studied the actual literature on transhumanism at all; I am merely use my discussion in Mainz as the occasion to develop these thoughts.) I am not against all efforts to improve the human condition. I myself have a hippie idealism about where to go from here that my more faithful readers will know. But when we’re going to improve the moral and social condition of humans, and rewrite our collective idealism, based on the mechanical technologies of the day, I would at least like to know that the transhumanist has fully considered all the counterpoints.
Frankenstein is a tired comparison but apt. The good doctor was motivated by pure idealism, with a passion to use technology to better the human condition. In our narrative, the narrative of living humanity, can we be sure that the transhumanist will really be able to rewrite the ending this time?
P.S. Thanks, Dr. M., for pointing out that the confederacy of dunces has my back (New York Times, 07/26/16).