August 01, 2008

Eugene the polymath and the antihumanism of transhumanism

ChangeTwo Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software » Chapter 2: Protestant Reformers, Polymaths, Transhumanists, an online book by Christopher M. Kelty, has an interesting description of transhumanism. In particular it spotlights my friend Eugene as a fine specimen of the species.

Kelty concludes that:

Transhumanism is a radically antihumanist position in which human agency or will—if it even exists—is not ontologically distinct from the agency of machines and animals and life itself. Even if it is necessary to organize, do things, make choices, participate, build, hack, innovate, this does not amount to a belief in the ability of humans to control their destiny, individually or collectively. In the end, the transhumanist cannot quite pinpoint exactly what part of this story is inevitable—except perhaps the story itself.

I do not think all transhumanists agree, but it is a good point that needs to be expressed. It is quite close to the Nietzschean vision of the Will to Power, expressing itself through a lot of activity among a lot of organisms producing the grand and frightening flowering of the world.

Technology does not develop without millions of distributed humans contributing to it; humans cannot evolve without the explicit human adoption of life-altering and identity-altering technologies; evolution cannot become inevitable without the manipulation of environments and struggles for fitness. As in the dilemma of Calvinism (wherein one cannot know if one is saved by one’s good works), the transhumanist must still create technology according to the particular and parochial demands of the day, but this by no means determines the eventual outcome of technological progress. It is a sentiment well articulated by Adam Ferguson and highlighted repeatedly by Friederich Hayek with respect to human society: “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.”

I'm reminded of the strangeness of Hayek's spotaneous orders: they are actually all designed by human ingenuity to meet demands humans see, but when they interact with the market, each other and the environment they gain a dynamics of their own. Success or being subjected to creative destruction rarely occurs because somebody planned it that way. Rather, it happens because of tremendously complex interactions that produce emergent effects.

The technocratic vision of planning the best future is anathema to modern transhumanism: even if it was possible, it would cut away all choice and possibility, by necessity becoming coercive. This is why modern transhumanists are so dynamistic (and critical of the collectivist utopias painted by Stapledon). But being dynamist about the future also requires faith that it is bright and worthwhile: we want to actually get there.

Of course, being antihumanist in the sense that humans are not fundamentally different from the rest of the local biosphere and technosphere does not mean one has to be antihumanist in the sense of disregarding the importance of universal qualities such as rationality, the ability to find meaning and attempting to shape one's life. Rather, we should be on the lookout for such qualities in the systems around us, and find ways of nurturing them. It is just that we cannot be certain at all that these are unchanging, fundamental things that must win in the end (but we will do what we can to get there!) or that we will not discover new qualities we might also want to pursue. After all, given how great it is having language, consciousness and art, we should suspect that there might be equally fantastic things out there in the space of possible minds.

Posted by Anders3 at August 1, 2008 07:15 PM