August 11, 2004

Faith in Transhumanism

The Faith, Transhumanism and Hope Symposium at Trinity College, Toronto brought up a sensitive issue: what is the relationship between religion and transhumanism?

According to a survey of the views of members, 75% described themselves as non-religious. Just bringing up religion on a transhumanist forum tends to start fierce denounciations of it as an evil, death-bringing meme. On the other hand, transhumanism certainly deals with issues traditional religion and spirituality are interested in: the perfectibility of humans, immortality and eschatology. Who can deny there is a certain millennialism in some of the writings about the Singularity?

Jende Huang of the American Humanist Association pointed out that while there are a lot of similarities between transhumanism and humanism, transhumanism does seem to be qualitatively different and complementary in outlook. Tihamer Toth-Fejel demonstrated that it is possible to combine Catholicism with transhumanism. In many ways both seek to achieve more of being, truth and love, although the means may differ (and sometimes get into conflict, like embryonic stem cell research).

Patrick Hopkins presented a very nice taxonomy (I like his taxonomies; he had one at TransVision 2003 of posthuman bodies) of worldviews based on how one reacts to the minimalist account of humans as mere animals. One can either be satisfied with this and not see any reason to transcend it (such materialists often see transcendence attempts as harmful). Or one can be dissatisfied and want to be more. In this case one may believe it is impossible to actually transcend it, leading to coping strategies and attempts to accept the sad situation - some forms of romanticism, postmodernism, existentialism and to some extend buddhism (where perfect coping leads to transcendence). Another approach is hoping: maybe there is more to life, there may be transcendence but it is not part of ordinary life. Then there is the working approaches, where transcendence either already exist (we have immortal souls) or can be achieved somehow. Both transhumanism (achievement) and Christianity (already transcendent, just need to brush up our spiritual side from sin) fall into this category.

I found these three initial talks very rewarding because they mapped out the field. Transhumanism sits in the uneasy middle ground between humanism and religion, sufficiently similar to both to annoy them but still different in many cruicial aspects. It is not a religion (especially since there are so many potential variants), nor is it a pure humanism. It may be both complementary and compatible in some respects, but also incompatible and opposed in other.

Peter Addy and Mike LaTorra discussed other approaches to spirituality, not really seeing any fundamental problem with combining materialism and a spiritual outlook - one can be spiritual without the spirits.

Mark Walker demonstrated a fun way of solving the theodice problem approaching the Irenaean view that God wants us to become more god-like. This meshed interestingly with James Hughes talk about self-perfection from a Buddhist standpoint, where one question was whether pills making us (say) more compassionate without doing a long quest of personal overcoming would be moral or not. The overall transhumanist position is likely that they would be moral and desirable (Mark held a talk about genetic enhancements of morality later at the conference), since these virtues are good in themselves (and of course good for others too) regardless of how they are aquired. But maybe there is an advantage in slow aquisition of morality since that will produce a more valuable form, an individually created qualitatively unique way of expressing each of the virtues (my generosity is different from your generosity). That still doesn't rule out the desirability of a morality pill to help us on our way, just as antidepressants can be combined with therapy to produce a synergetic effect.

Santiago Miguel Ochoa Parra presented an account of evolution suggesting that immortality was the goal of life. Life can be defined as a behavior that prevents the environment from ending the behavior (very similar to the autopoiesis ideas of Maturana and Varela). Reproduction is a way of achieving this, since individual cells are at best just metastable. As evolution continued, these reproducing cells in turn sought to remain by reproducing as organisms. The next step in this perspective is the formation of metaorganisms where we repeat the process at higher levels. This was perhaps the most overtly teleological and transhumanism as religion talk at the meeting. I found it a fun complement to John Smart's talk at WFS. In some sense it does not justify immortalism or even the deliberate metaorganisation of people since it just describes them as natural outcomes of a sweeping evolutionary trend (natural does, as always, not equal good).

Finally we discussed the theoretical and practical links between religion and transhumanism. There are many areas were we can work together; religion and transhumanism both find the unknown a valuable topic, both are interested in introducing a broader discussion of goals in the bioethics (and other) debates, and in many cases support a tolerant pluralistic society. Overall, the issue of what to tolerate and what not to tolerate took much time. At the same time the reason we have transhumanism in the west but not (say) in Japan might be that the tension between a promethean movement and a not quite sympathetic society makes it easier to form a distinct group; transhumanism might not be necessary in modern China or Japan. I guess the litmus test of this idea will be how transhumanism develops in India.

Posted by Anders at August 11, 2004 01:58 PM

> According to a survey of the views of members, 75% described themselves
> as non-religious. Just bringing up religion on a transhumanist forum
> tends to start fierce denunciations of it as an evil, death-bringing
> meme. On the other hand, transhumanism certainly deals with issues
> traditional religion and spirituality are interested in: the
> perfectibility of humans, immortality and eschatology. Who can deny
> there is a certain millennialism in some of the writings about the
> Singularity?

Who can deny there is a certain gibberish in some of the writings about quantum mechanics or Godel's Theorem? I am going to keep on hammering on this point: There are people who only wish to relax with some comfortable gibberish, and what such people say about a theory does not impugn the integrity of the theory. The bad writings are simply ignorable, eliminable from the domain of arguments, and only if there is no rigorous writing remaining does the theory have a problem.

Posted by: Eliezer Yudkowsky at August 17, 2004 06:25 AM

Ignoring bad writing presupposes that it is easily identified. Fields in trouble can have plenty of useful writings, but they cannot be discerned in the mess. See

Many of the academic codes have developed as a first filter; if you don't cite the literature or use the right terminology you are likely not familiar with the field and hence unlikely to have anything relevant to contribute. But if further scanning cannot easily tell you whether the results or arguments hold water, then the effort to weed out bad stuff becomes too expensive. Which makes outsiders, trying to judge the field, unwilling to wade in to see if there are a lot of gold nuggets there, or just dross.

If one wants to ensure that a result one believes in gets noted, one better make it's quality notable through some hard-to-fake signal.

Posted by: Anders at August 18, 2004 12:06 AM

It is really so difficult to identify bad writing? It seems to me we can still come to reasoned conclusions in a number of difficult cases; granted, the effort needed makes peer review clunkier, but well worth it (indeed, necessary).

Mathematicians, for example, seem to have understood this problem earlier than other specialists. The Clay Institute, with its million dollar prizes for the solution of major problems, includes as part of the assessment rules that not only must your solution to one of the problems be published in a respectable math journal, it must withstand at least two years worth of scrutiny from the mathematics community. Only after at least 2 years, and given that the math community is in broad agreement that you've solved the problem, will you be considered successful. (If 2+ years go by, but there is a plausible objection or non-negligible controversy, then you'll have to wait until the ambiguity is worked out.)
Similar widespread and lengthy scrutiny was applied to Wiles' proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. Even now that the details are all worked out, when mathematicians who understand the proof were asked about the chance of laypersons understanding it (esp. with respect to the chances of Fermat himself having used Wiles' sort of proof), they responded that it was impossible because the proof (over a hundred pages long) required *even other mathematics research professors* to devote months of study before they could understand it.

The evaluative dilemma only appears to be a problem with highly complex subjects. Hence the Clay Institute's policy, hence the confusion and debate over the Bogdanoff brothers' novel application of topological field theory to Planck scale Big Bang cosmology, hence the Peter Lynd controversy.

Singularity theory, I dare say, is not quite on par complexity-wise with the boundary-pushing math & physics examples above (not yet anyway), which is why it is much easier by comparison to filter out the good writing from the bad.

Coming upon cases where bad writing is hard to identify does not indicate bad writing is always (or even most of the time, or half the time, etc.) hard to identify, nor does it indicate bad writing is equally hard to identify in each field. Thus, I would say Eliezer's suggestion to ignore bad writing should presuppose bad writing to be identifiable within reasonable limits. To do otherwise would be to presuppose in the other direction, and with less justification, as we have many more examples of easily-identified bad writing than we do of hard-to-identify bad writing.

I agree with the motivating background concept here and in "scholarship & its antibodies," though; the problems of scholarly evaluation definitely warrant much greater study than they have received. As the complexity of subject matter continues to increase, so too will the necessity of finding better alternatives that enable growth of scholarship.

Posted by: Jeff Medina at August 19, 2004 01:35 PM