Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Transhumanism and I: some reckonings...

The Transhumanist movment has been a significant part of my life for the past year or so. I have considered myself a Transhumanist, read a lot of the popular Transhumanist literature, participated in Transhumanist discussions, and accepted a lot of the prominent Transhumanist themes and concepts--in fact was very enthusiastic about them. It was one of the things that filled in the gap created when I left a religion that had been a huge part of my life.

However, there were some things, even before I could exactly put my finger on them, that have bugged me about a lot of prevalent Transhumanist views and ideas, or views and ideas, whether or not they are explicitly Transhumanist, that are so common to the Transhumanist community that they seem inseparably intertwined with the movement itself. That has been the source of quite a bit of anxiety and confusion for quite a while, especially at times when I felt my own worldview was partially shaped by things that were bothering me. I've been unsure of what to make of anything several times; at certain points, frustrated, I've said to myself "over this past year, I've learned more confusion that anything." Worldviews that are uneasy with each other can coincide for a certain period of time, difficultly and painstakingly, like those scenes from the movie Ghost in which a ghost tries to inhabit the body of a person that doesn't want it. But that can lead to cognitive dissonance and an eventual reckoning of sorts.

I've reached some important reckonings with Transhumanism or with the Transhumanist community, some stands I must take against those words, views, assertions and assumptions that have, I now realize, been a corrosive influence on my very soul.

(If you are familiar with the Transhumanist community, you may have a good idea of the kinds of things to which I'm referring; if not, remember that there's more to Transhumanism as a philosophy itself than just these things).

  • I am against techological determinism, the belief or underlying and often-unspoken (even denied-while-held) viewpoint that the future is something that happens to us rather than something we shape and bring about--along with the idea that technological progress (or the technological "curve") has a mind of its own and and that we're along for the ride.

  • I don't believe in the Singularity. Actually, I'm not only not a Singulariarian, I would consider myself an anti-Singularitarian. While I wouldn't seek to hinder Singularity proponents from engaging in AI projects (and in fact I support and encourage them, because I think they will always yield something of value), I will actively seek to hinder their propagation of Singularity/Artificial General Intelligence/mind-uploading fantasies to others, by actively countering it. Why? Because at the base of these ideas is a fundamentally incorrect notion of what humans are*; to put it more clearly, they seek to lift machines in principle up by bringing humans in principle down, to what they never were.

  • I am against positivism, and I am very much against the kinds of pretension that seem to go with positivistic scientism, such as that found in neo-Darwinism, genetic determinism, cybernetic totalism (to use Jaron Lanier's phrase), rabid reductionism, eliminativism, and other shoddy philosophies that have been confused for science.

  • I am against quasi-religious militant atheism about as much as I'm against religious fundamentalism. A phony "rationaler than thou" attitude rubs me the wrong way about as much as a pious "holier than thou" attitude does. And while I think Isaac Newton was a great figure in the history of science (although one whose reign has long passed), I will never be so antagonistic against religious and cultural traditions that I celebrate "Newtonmass" instead of Christmas.

  • I am strongly against market fundamentalism, excuses for exploitation, and the narrowly and poorly conceived worldviews that go with them, such as the ones expressed by right-Libertarians (which most self-professed "Libertarian Transhumanists" seem to be), neoliberals, neoclassical economists, Austrians (the school, not the nationality), or Chicago Boys.

  • I am against elitism in all forms--not just political, economic, and social elitism, but also academic elitism, intellectual elitism, and cyber-elitism (post on this upcoming) as well.

So where do I stand? I identify with Transhumanism as far as it is concerned with a belief in improvement and augmentation, cyborgs, assisting human liberation with technological advancement in association with social activism, and the realization that not all problems are technological problems, and technology can't save us by itself, particularly when it is used to exacerbate problems that are caused by society. But there are many things I don't associate with that seem to be inextricably connected to the whole Transhumanist bag, not only with parts of its history but more importantly with contemporary factions and constituencies from which it can't seem to disassociate itself, and maybe might not even want to.

Perhaps I should identify myself first and foremost with technoprogressivism, as Dale Carrico has done. I believe the future is open, it is not decided yet--not by me, not by any group of people, not by runaway forces or entities or classes of human activity, and certainly not by technocrats and digerati. Humans, as creative forces that enter the universe, actually do have the power to create their own future, the power to shape their reality by the way they look at it and how that inspires them to act. And I believe in a non-authoritarian cyberpunk/biopunk future that belongs to everyone, and in which people still dream and act to make those dreams reality, instead of a future in which every minute is a shiny, thinly-veiled waking nightmare that you witness but can't do anything about.


*This is based on the realization that key features of human brains, intelligence and functioning (just like those of my dog and cat, or any organism with the simplest proto-consciousness) are non-algorithmic and not able to be modeled algorithmically--i.e., not Turing computable. It was inspired by and is strongly supported by my own experience as a conscious human being and by modern quantum theory's empirically-based understanding of the universe, as well as the emerging fields of quantum neuroscience and psychophysics--a total scientific and ontological revolution that Dennett, Churchland et all and the AGI community have not yet been able to see.

(This is thanks in a very large part due to my discovery and deep reflection on the writings of Dr. Henry Stapp, a quite insightful physicist who specializes in the area of quantum mechanics, which has helped to free myself from the dominant grasp of a counterintuitive, counterempirical, counterlogical, and currently dominant idea--that consciousness is an "illusion").

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Blogger Michael Anissimov said...

I can agree with some of what you say here, but not all. About militant atheism: if atheism is not more rational, then why choose it over religion at all? You must acknowledge that certain philosophies and worldviews are closer to the truth than others. Your blanket dismissal of elitism makes it difficult to say that any one idea is better than another. Why is transhumanism better than simple humanism? Why is belief in science better than belief in astrology and alchemy? Why is caution about reductionism better than aggressive reductionism? Because you believe one variant is BETTER than the other.

Some people are born way smarter than others. This is a natural consequence of the Gaussian distribution of human intelligence values. If smarter people can help humanity by correcting its worst errors, then why shouldn't they be proud of it? Being smarter or more insightful doesn't necessarily mean you're fundamentally a better person. But it does mean you are right about things more often than the average person. Not embracing some form of elitism, or at the very least, *differentiation and acknowledgement* of the difference between ideas is far too relativistic to be honest.

4:39 PM  
Blogger Joey said...

I think you misunderstand the point, Michael. The fundamental bain of elitisms for me is that they are all about establishing or maintaining a small group of people who are entitled to make the decisions or dictate the worldview for the rest of society and/or humanity. If we haven't become disillusioned enough yet with the idea of "smarter people correcting humanity's errors"--after technocracy has failed so profoundly to make people happier-- I don't know if we'll ever get it! What is most important is *people* and their happiness and self-determination. Which is what makes me a people-ist (populist) instead of an elitist. Certain philosophies and worldviews are more truthful than others. But certain people are foolish and deluded to think they are the rightful priests and kings of the earth. Everyone is not as smart as everyone else, and I've never argued or even thought that. But nothing entitles you to make decisions for others.

By the way, is transhumanism superior to regular old humanism? I for one am starting to think that 1)transhumanism actually isn't very humanist and 2)humanism isn't even very humanist any more. And if atheism is more rational than religion (which seems to be a homogenous blanket entity for you), then please enlighten me on how it is--keeping in mind I'm already very familiar with and have rejected the rhetoric of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, etc. so you'd have to come up with something better than that.

5:17 PM  
Anonymous Lincoln Cannon said...

Joey, much that you wrote resonates with me. However, both Humanism, and particularly Transhumanism, remain quite compatible with religious, pragmatic and libertarian world views that are not so dogmatic as the ideologies referenced in your criticisms.

It's too bad you're not closer to Utah. We've organized a seminar for tomorrow evening, when we'll be presenting and discussing a Mormon perspective on Transhumanism. I'd enjoy having you involved.

11:34 AM  
Anonymous Lincoln Cannon said...

Oh, by the way, I'll be presenting on Mormon Transhumanism in Second Life on Sunday. Our site has the details for you, if you are interested.

11:44 AM  
Blogger Joey said...

I'd love to be there, Lincoln, if I could. I will try to make the presentation in Second Life on Sunday; I was already looking forward to that.

11:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Annisomov's comment reeks of irrational claptrap and the very psuedoscience that he seems to be arguing against. Any reasonable person would have to question such sweeping generalizations as "Some people are born way smarter than others" (If this is so--and that is debatable--then I would question whether Annisomov is among them, his broad pronouncements being more like the proclamations of a pope than those of a reasoning philosopher or scientist). If it is so, then I fail to see the use of taking pride in it (how can you reasonably take pride in being born smart--you didn't have anything to do with it; it's an accident of birth, and to be proud of it seems akin to being proud of being born white). The most ludicrous statement has to do with smart people being right about things more than the "average" person. Anyone who has ever cracked open a history book knows the evidence is overwhelmingly against such a proposition.

1:20 PM  
Blogger Joey said...

I think I've found a really good response to the idea that elites can be in charge of things for the good of everyone: a documentary series called "Pandora's Box" by British filmmaker Adam Curtis (always insightful), which "examines the consequences of political and technocratic rationalism." From Soviet industrial planning to mind-control science at the RAND Corporation, this is what happens when "smarter people correct humanity's errors."

10:05 AM  

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