June 24, 2008

Don't Scare the Kids and Grant Bodies!

Dark Tower

So, stop talking about brain implants like they'll be used to control planet-seized sentient robots that can time travel and fight angels with dark matter. It makes getting funding harder when everyone with a normal 9-5 job thinks you're wacko.
Direct Neural Interface: Hallelujah transhumanism!

I can see his point, I think it has some validity, yet it is also mistaken.

Transhumanism has been described as "cheerleading progress", but the love may be a bit one-sided. There is a sizeable community of "serious" researcher out there who worry that transhumanist antics would be bad for their fields - everybody from Richard Smalley accusing Eric Drexler of "You and people around you have scared our children" (about grey goo) to Chris Toumey who in Nature Nanotechnology thinks transhumanism is dragging serious nanotechnology into horrible polarized theological debates, focusing on "long-term visions like cyberimmortality while overlooking short-term developments such as nano-enabled drug-delivery systems."

But how many people would debate drug-delivery systems?

The key difference between the "serious" outlook and transhumanism is that transhumanism is about ends, not means. Transhumanism is deep down about the yearning to explore the realm of posthuman possibilities (a very human yearning), and the belief that doing so would either be good in itself or that there are posthuman states that are as good or better than any possible human state. It doesn't care about the kind of technology used to achieve this: if there were good evidence that voodoo could enhance human performance transhumanists would be all for it. The key difference between modern transhumanists and previous yearners for the posthuman is the recognition that rational, replicable methods such as science and technology are necessary if we are to have any realistic chance of getting anywhere. Of course, that doesn't stop many transhumanists from being perhaps too optimistic.

Most research (especially applied research) claims to be firmly in the realm of means. Why make a better drug delivery system? Because it is useful for something worthy, not because it has any inherent value. Other parts of society defines the values, and science provides the means to achieve that.

What science is forThe problem is of course that this is not true. Leaving aside the instrumental value of being paid for doing it, I think most people doing research have a personal vision that it is good to do. Why slave away at making a faster microprocessor, proving the twin prime conjecture or discovering how a receptor works unless you think it is going to make the world (or your life) better somehow, or that the knowledge itself is good? At academic festivities and university inaugurations the ends of science are sometimes honoured, if only as part of oratory. Senior scientists and technologists are often asked about their visions and views about the future.

The economics of research favours talking about means rather than ends, and the allowable ends will be short-term generally agreed on goods. Grants applications dutifully mentions cures for Alzheimers and increased economic competitiveness (themselves also means to different ends), not the actual motivations of the researcher. This is similar to John Evans' critique of how the biotechnology debate has become impoverished: professional competition has shifted the debate away from a "thick" substantively rational debate about the ends of genetic engineering to a "thin" formally rational debate about the means to achieve a few predetermined ends like safety, efficiency and health. That has left a lot of people (both for and against) disaffected and unable to participate in the mainstream thin debate since they really want to discuss thick issues.

This is why I think the "shut up, you are scaring the grant bodies" approach the wrong one. They should be scared. Otherwise we will have a science and technology where acceptable research is determined by unaccountable minorities setting "proper" goals, rather than by a society where numerous wildly different views need to coexist. The big, dramatic and far-fetched transhumanist visions have a place here as values and ends to aim at, just as other big ends try to create the brotherhood of all humans, a sustainable society or salvation.

That said, I of course deplore stupid transhumanist arguments. There is nothing I hate more than an idiotic argument supporting my side. Transhumanism certainly needs to gain credibility by producing good arguments - even if they are scary.

Posted by Anders3 at June 24, 2008 06:57 PM