August 26, 2004

Species Enemy Number One

Reason: Transhumanism: The Most Dangerous Idea?

It feels good to belong to a view that is being denounced as the most "the greatest threat to the welfare of humanity". First, it dispells any notion that I'm a mild-mannered milquetoast: I'm actually dangerous. Quite a few youngsters do very stupid things to prove it, and I just have to read Foreign Policy. Second, given that someone that actually has evidenced noticeable brain use is so upset about the view shows that it has at least some chance of being right or at least interestingly wrong.

As always, Ron picks apart Fukuyama's arguments clearly and efficiently. But I have noted that the equality concern crops up more and more often. Ten years ago transhumanism was viewed as mere dreaming; a few glowing mice, cloned sheeps and neural implants have changed all that. The view that it would be inherently unpleasant (and hard work) to go posthuman has also weakened as we get nicely packaged pills: Prozac, Xenical, Modafinil, ... - people are starting to view many aspects of going transhuman as tempting. But the old equality argument still remains, and perhaps grows stronger as many people see transformative technologies more closely linked to everyday life.

To a large degree the equality concern builds on the assumption that others - those not part of our group - cannot be trusted to be nice. As Ron points out, we have solved the problem to an extent using the enlightenment gifts of rule of law, liberal democracy and free markets: they help support institutions and behavior that are independent of who or what you are, and allow soft control over individual freedom without undue coercion. Hardly perfect, but that does not matter: they work.

The key to preventing posthumans (or AI)
from misbehaving against their fellow entities is to embed them within this kind of framework. If there are sanctions against treating others with contempt (be it legal sanctions, the cost of not hiring someone or not being invited to the garden party) there will be less of it. And if it is otherwise far more profitable to be a part of the system than to stand outside it, it will not just entice outsiders to join, but it will also gain the wealth and diversity needed to withstand the occasional attack from the outside.

Still, just polishing belowed institutions is not enough. If we want to make transhumanism a respectable intellectual edifice we need to consider where the current institutions do indeed break down in the presence of human modification, and how to update them beyond that.

Neuroscience might challenge our views of agency, and that has plenty of implications for law and democracy. It might also help us understand the neuroscience of altruism and social behavior, bringing up the interesting question of whether social contracts of the future might stipulate some pro-social motivational structures (despite being a limitation of cognitive liberty, it could also be necessary to guarantee it, a bit like how we give governments monopolies of force to reduce perceived intra-society conflicts).

Does differences in cognitive ability lead to new ethical levels? To some extent all rational adult humans are assumed to reach the same ethical conclusions given the same values and facts, we are "ethically Turing-equivalent". But could there exist a class of minds with greater "ethical computational power", not just a quantitatively but a qualitatively larger space of ethical consideration? If so, this might imply that such minds would be subjected to rights and duties beyond those enjoyed by normal humans. Analysing whether this is true, and how a society could accomodate beings of different ethical orders, might be a fascinating research project. It is the other side of the animal rights debate, where supporters of animal rights seek to include animals as limited ethics members of society. It is not just enough to delineate the conditions of personhood and make them species-independent, we need to figure out how to make the inter-species tolerance great enough to work.

Being humble about human nature and ability has never produced any enlightened institutions. Democracy, public education, rule of law and even free markets all build on the idea that humans are fairly smart, can get smarter and more informed, know what they want and can get better at it. They do not assume we are wretched and have to stay that way. In the same way I think the institutions of the future will be based on false humility for the human nature anno 2004, but in the ambitious hope that it can be extended.

Posted by Anders at August 26, 2004 07:23 AM

So we transhumanists are like the Magneto of modern society? Cool. I have to read some of Fukuyamas work. Knowing the enemy is always a good idea.

Posted by: Tommy at August 27, 2004 12:11 AM

Fukuyama is good transhumanist reading, because unlike most criticism he actually has some reasoning about why transhumanism is bad, and his Aristotelean approach is not far from what many transhumanists would take. It is just that he makes a right turn (seeing human nature as something pure and unchanging) when we make a left turn (seeing human nature as changing over time, the current stage of a process), and from there we reach different conclusions.

Posted by: Anders at August 27, 2004 07:54 AM

otzruslyb ilcwoia.

Posted by: Dudley at August 30, 2004 01:14 AM

A Transhumanist with some serious money behind him to instantiate his vision could pinch-hit for Magneto, as the character John Marrek does in Marlow's novel Nano. Unfortunately in the real world, more and more wealth is concentrating in the hands of individuals with socially conventional outlooks, some of whom are willing to spend good parts of their fortunes to promote retrograde social agendas.

Posted by: Mark Plus at August 31, 2004 10:57 PM

Is wealth really just accumulating among the conventional? The Gini index appears to be rising since 1968 in the US (among the highest in democratic countries),
but that just means that the truly rich is a smaller part of the population. Given the sizeable growth of general wealth since then the wealth among the not-so-rich still has grown tremendously, making more resources available to people with non-conventional outlooks. It seems to me that people with non-conventional outlooks would be more willing to spend money on defending their lifestyles than people with mainstream outlooks (less perceived threat). The struggle might be between different non-mainstream groups (more and less religious, for example), with an advantage to those close to the mainstream that feel threatened (easier to get support, larger group). So the Magnetos might be fighting the bourgeois rather than Bill Gates.

Posted by: Anders at September 1, 2004 12:50 AM