Transhumanism

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).

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Aquarian Anarchy

Now for the new political position hinted at in my Russell Brand entries, profusely hyperlinked for your encyclopedic pleasure:

Aquarian Anarchy, or Aquarianarchy

Aquarianarchy (A-kwé-ri-ₔ-nár-kee): Rule by a bunch of idealist, neo-hippie waifs in communal forms of organization, suited to the forthcoming Age of Aquarius, with a little extra “anarchy” thrown in at the end.

Aquarianarchy recapitulates 1960s liberalism into a new political position that is outside the present left-right axis, a third pole if you will, with an eye on the progressive ideal of a society that is post-materialist, open, uninhibited, comfortable with diversity and rich in human contact.

Aquarianarchy stands apart from today’s conservative economic and social vision via its critique of capitalism (Taxes, Private Property, and the Age of Aquarius; Luddites and Technophobes) and of the Republican Party platform (Who’s for the Middle Class).

Aquarianarchy stands apart from conservative conventions in lifestyle and social and professional behavior (Fashion Anarchy, Professionalism and Alienation).

Aquarianarchy incorporates some long-term tenets of libertarianism while acknowledging their short-term impracticality (From Fashion Anarchy to German Socialism).

Aquarianarchy stands apart from those post-1980s liberal strategies that divide rather than unify. This means rethinking the recent liberal framing of race and gender (White Privilege and a Third Way on Race, How the Left Ceded the Moral High Ground, Female Chauvinist Pigs), the liberal acceptance of double standards for underdog groups (Ban Bossy), and a policing instinct that stifles expression by encouraging self-censorship and shaming for every perceived offence (Is “Where Are You From” Offensive, How the Left Ceded the Moral High Ground).

Aquarianarchy also begins to articulate ethical parameters for a post-capitalist age (Regifting and Post-Technological Ethics).

Overall, Aquarianarchy draws most on the pre-1980s liberals of the hippie and post-hippie era. Remove all conventional chains on speech, self-expression, and modes of social organization. Basically, if it breaks down binaries and demographic walls and foregrounds our shared humanness, if it encourages unfiltered free expression without fear of faux pas or shaming, if it welcomes those who disagree as well as those who agree with us to the table, if it promotes a vision that steers our tottering planet away from “jittery materialism” (Brand, p. 106) toward a sustainable ecology and human values, it’s part of the general plan.

And that “little extra anarchy” I promised comes at the expense (superficially at least) of some of my liberal brothers and sisters. I.e., against current liberal trends that subtly reinforce a “separate but equal” ideology, Aquarianarchy re-seizes the full integrationist torch of the 60s with an anarchist vigor, advocating every form of cultural appropriation in every direction. Think of it as the cultural correlative of private property. Bust open the cultural lockboxes and play with each other’s stuff, continually wear the other’s shoes – black, white, female, male, every ethnicity and sexual orientation – incorporate, collaborate, and share a laugh when cultural cross-pollination becomes clumsy, as it often will. Distrust any form of liberalism (or conservatism) that says we need to respect walls of separation. Bust the whole thing wide open.  I think that little bit of anarchy is prerequisite to the revolutionary change we need when the current age collapses.

A final note on process: It bears repeating that this revolution must begin in the subjective arena of human sensibility, with restructuring in the political arena as a consequence. People must (1) take time for meditation and practices of self-reflection, if possible read things by Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, visualize your inner values shifting toward something commensurate with a post-materialist age; (2) begin to express these inner changes locally, in everyday choices, from supporting others in fashion anarchy to regifting; (3) then comes the political restructuring based on planetary sustainability and post-materialist values of human fulfillment. If during this process Arc #1 gets ahead of Arc #2, or Arc #2 gets ahead of Arc #3, not a problem. But if the political restructuring of Arc #3 gets out ahead, we’ll need to stop and revisit those cautionary checks from Gandhi (Chauri Chaura incident) and from The Beatles and The Who, as per my letter to Russell Brand. Let’s do this right and not get fooled again. After all, what with those “ecological imperatives” of which Russell speaks, we might not have another chance.

Russell Brand, Punk Rock Ram Dass

(I posted a version on of this entry as an amazon review of Russell Brand’s Revolution.)

A Poli Sci dissertation by a Punk Rock Ram Dass, a mash-up of anarchy and idealism, Revolution is the perfect book for the next generation of hippie waifs. Russell Brand, self-identified “professional weirdo” (169), touches on all the key points. Late capitalism and the culture of consumption are dying. The top dogs are as “lost” as the rest of us (232). “Ecological imperatives” (207) spell radical change coming, but whether that change is utopic or dystopic is up to us. Either we have a revolution that reinforces human values for all, or we have “something more draconian than we have ever dared to consider” (224). To seize the utopic track, we must initiate the revolution not in the objective arena of politics but in the subjective arena of human sensibility. Internalize the non-violent way, change our inner values, and then we can more surely change the political superstructure with less risk of someone hijacking the revolution.

And best to be ready, ‘cause when it comes it will come quickly. For one thing, those ecological imperatives come with a time limit. As it approaches, we can use new communication technologies to harness rapid change without the need for a centralized power structure.  Or we can use them to escalate the death spiral of “jittery materialism” (106). Russell, bless his heart, is ready to give up his Dior boots and lead the charge.

The book has its imperfections – Russell is occasionally too earnest too long and scores best when he scores with hilarity, I wish there were more arc and less repetition as the chapters go by, and there’s a persistent low-level tone of belligerence that gives me pause before nominating Russell as cult leader of the commune. Actually, Russell grants me that last one when he opens a modern equivalent of Haight-Ashbury’s “free store” and his tyrannical interference leads him to conclude, with typical comic aplomb, that “the only thing the experiment proved is that I should never be allowed to run a shop” (203). But that very flaw leads him to think seriously about the principles that must take precedence over personalities if this is going to work (and if it doesn’t work, we will fairly quickly burn through the world’s remaining resources, so it won’t matter anyway). Yes, I said “to think seriously.” This book quite seriously thinks over our options for the planet. I can’t agree with every local strategy and assessment, but anyone who dismisses Russell Brand as a lightweight on issues of the social order is either making a mistake or buying into the idea that the only proper way to speak of such things is the Establishment way. Skinny yes, lightweight no.  Everyone needs a vision, or multiple visions, of where to go from here (and we have to go somewhere – those “ecological imperatives,” you know), and this is a good big-vision, page-turner book delivered with the quirky, English, Monty Python wit of Russell Brand.

See also Russell Brand and Me.

ISIS/Suspension of Ethics

The recent beheadings and crucifixions in Syria and Iraq in the name of religion is atrocious in its own right, but raises a larger philosophical comparison between secular ethics and religion-based ethics, to the advantage of the secular. Of course, most religious people are horrified by ISIS’s actions and consider them to have no basis in religion whatsoever. I will grant the justice of that position, but it leaves open the question of whether a religion-based ethics is more risky in principle than a secular ethics.

To judge the risk requires pinpointing the essential difference between a religion-based and a secular ethics. The Christian theologian and proto-existentialist, Kierkegaard, is most helpful here. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard sees ethics as fundamentally a secular issue, a derivative of universal rational principles. Religious persons can follow those principles but that is not essentially a function of their religious nature. It simply means that they are following a set of rational principles in addition to being a religious person. The key difference is centered on Kierkegaard’s pointed question: “Can there be a teleological suspension of the ethical?” I.e., can the inscrutable commandments of God overrule “normal” ethical principles?

The paradigmatic case for Kierkegaard is when God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. “The ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he meant to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he meant to sacrifice Isaac.” So Abraham is forced to choose between the universal principles of ethics (against murdering your son) or accepting the “teleological suspension of ethics,” in which he suspends the rules of ethics to satisfy a higher end.

This to me is the fundamental difference between a secular ethics and an ethics based on religion (at least on the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). Religion allows for the possibility that we might suspend normal ethics in light of a higher commandment from an inscrutable God. Otherwise, it is no different from a secular ethics based on rational principles alone (holding God himself subordinate to the laws of ethics).

Although the acts of ISIS are condemned by people of all faiths, the dangers of a “teleological suspension of ethics” can be generalized to some extent, as a risk inherent in religion-based models. In pre-modern Europe, under the hegemonic rule of the Church, we saw the widespread development of those implements that today fill the torture museums of Europe, implements ingeniously designed to create more and more exquisite pain for the ill-fated heretic.  Then we had the brutality of the Spanish Inquisition, brazenly carried on in the name of Church and the states under its authority.

With the 18th century Enlightenment, that largely changed. From the explicitly anti-Church philosophes to Kant, the hegemonic control of the Church gave way to a more humanist ethics grounded in rational principles. The ethics of Western culture today is primarily secular, a product of the Enlightenment. And although far from perfect, it has shaken off the worst abuses of the pre-Enlightenment theocratic ethic. At least now, one cannot break out the torture devices and flaunt them publicly as a general strategy of subjection. At least now, one cannot publicly suspend the normal rules of ethics because an inscrutable God has commanded it.

Now back to Kierkegaard, and to Abraham and Isaac. Although Kierkegaard is a Christian and I am unambiguous in my preference for a secular ethics, Kierkegaard may agree with me up to a point. He himself is almost Kantian in his emphasis that ethics is based on rational principles (unrelated to faith) and is therefore universal. The “ethical” and the “religious” are simply incommensurate categories for Kierkegaard. The ethical has to do with social relations and universal principles. The religious concerns only the individual in relation to the absolute. For Kierkegaard, the “religious moment” occurs when an individual, perhaps like Abraham, lives out his or her life among others, bound by the universal principles of ethics, and then one day something ruptures the plane of that living, and the individual’s identity shoots out in a perpendicular line to the absolute. His relation to the absolute (religious) and his relation to others (ethical) “cannot be mediated,” says Kierkegaard, in a jibe at Hegel and his understudies. Abraham cannot be justified on the ethical plane. He is up against an either/or crisis of the sort that most interested Kierkegaard. There is no gray area. Either you do something completely unethical in honor of God, or you reject God.

Kierkegaard may also agree with me that any social order would do best with a secular ethics based on rational principles. He certainly had no patience for state religion, and often disparaged the Christian state of Denmark and “Christendom” in general for their deployments of Christianity into the political or social arena. But he leaves room for Abraham, the “knight of faith” – not as a model of good citizenship or social order, but as a model of the individual wrenched away from his social identity by a connection to the absolute.

I finally disagree with Kierkegaard and reject the “teleological suspension of ethics” in all of its forms; however, I find Kierkegaard well worth reading and I myself have only scratched the surface of his thought. Moreover, no sound reading of Kierkegaard can ever use the “teleological suspension of ethics” to justify the behavior of ISIS or the Spanish Inquisition. In Kierkegaard, that suspension can never be applied as a public practice, but can only occur as a relation between the individual and the absolute. The problem is that so many groups at so many times and places have used a variant of the idea (God’s commandment allows me to overrule ethics) to vicious ends. In the case of the Middle East, this is further complicated by a historical trajectory quite different from Europe. Whereas the Enlightenment – the rise of secular ethics and secular democracies – in Europe can be seen as a liberation from the hegemonic oppression of the Church, in the Middle East of the past half-century, religion (in the form of a resurgent Islam) is often seen as the liberating force that can throw off the shackles of oppressive Western democracies. This inversion of the role of religion is historically explicable, but the ethical dangers are apparent when we see how easily ethical norms can be discarded when religious zeal is in full cry. Better to have a secular ethics based on rational principles. If you want to layer a religious faith on top of that ethics, fine, but don’t start believing that your faith trumps ethics or you become a danger to yourself and others.

M Gandhi and Ayn Rand

“How does one live a good life?” was the core question for Plato and other classical Greek philosophers. Here are two mutually exclusive answers from the 20th century:

Gandhi: Through service to others and simplicity of lifestyle.

Ayn Rand: Through rational self-interest and the advancement of capitalism.

Pick your path to happiness and to our best possible future. I know which one I lean toward.