God’s a Hedge fund Manager, and I’m a Lab Rat

God_judging_adam_blake_1795

Of all the books and essays of Steve Fuller I have read his latest The Proactionary Imperative: A Foundation for Transhumanism is by far the most articulate and morally anchored. From me that’s saying a lot given how critical I have been on more than one occasion regarding what I’ve understood as some troubling undercurrents justifying political violence and advocating a kind of amoral reading of history found in his work.

Therefore, I was surprised when I found The Proactionary Imperative which Fuller co-authored with Veronica Lipińska not only filled with intellectual gems, but informed by a more nuanced ethics than I had seen in Fuller’s prior writing or speeches.

In The Proactionary Imperative Fuller and Lipińska aim to re-calibrate the ideological division between left/right that has existed since the French Revolution’s unfortunate seating arrangement. The authors set out to redefine this division that they see as antiquated with a new split between the adherents of the precautionary principle and those who embrace a version of what Max More was the first to call the proactionary principle. The former urges caution towards technological and especially biological interventions in nature whereas the latter adopts the position that the road to progress is paved with calculated risks.

Fuller and Lipińska locate those who espouse some version of the precautionary  principle as tracing their modern origins back to Darwin himself and his humbling of the human status and overall pessimism that we could ever transcend our lowly nature as animals. They lump philosophers such as Peter Singer (whom I think David Roden more accurately characterizes as a Critical Posthumanist) within this precautionary sect whom they argue are united by their desire for the rebalancing of the moral scale away from humans and towards our fellow animals. Opposed to this, Fuller and Lipińska argue that we should cling to the pre-Darwinian notion that humans on a metaphysical and ontological level are superior and distinct from other animals on account of the fact that we are the only animal that seeks to transcend its’ own nature and become “gods”.

Fuller himself is a Christian (this was news to me) of a very peculiar sort- a variant of the faith whose origins the authors fascinatingly trace to changes in our understanding of God first articulated in the philosophy of the 12th century theologian Duns Scotus.

Before Scotus the consensus among Christian theologians was to stress the supernatural characteristic of God, that is, God was unlike anything we had experienced in the material world and therefore any of our mental categories were incapable of describing him. To use examples from my own memory an extreme Scotian position would be the materialism of Thomas Hobbes who held God to possess an actual body, whereas the unbridgeable gap between ourselves and our ideas and God, or indeed the world itself, is a theme explored with unparalleled brilliance in Milton’s Paradise Lost and brought to its’ philosophical climax in the work of Kant.

Fuller and Lipińska think that Scotus’ narrowing of the gap between human and godly characteristics was a seminal turning point in modernity. Indeed, a whole new type of theology known as Radical Orthodoxy and associated with the philosopher Slavoj Žižek has hinged its’ critique of modernity around this Scotian turn, and Fuller takes the other side of this Christian split adopting the perspective that because God is of this world we can become him.

Problems with using religious language as a justification for transhumanism or science I’ve discussed ad nauseum such as here, here and here, so I won’t bore you with them again. Instead, to Fuller and Lipińska’s political prescriptions.

The authors want us to embrace our “God-like” nature and throw ourselves into the project of transcending our animal biology. What they seem to think is holding us back from seizing the full technological opportunities in front of us is not merely our fossilized political divisions whose re-calibration they wish to spur, but the fact that the proactionary principle has been understood up until this point on primarily libertarian terms.

Transhumanism if understood as merely the morphological freedom of individuals over their own bodies for Fuller and Lipińska fails to promote either rapid modernization or the kinds of popular mobilization that can be found during most other eras of transformative change. We need other models. Unfortunately, they are also from the 19th century for the authors argue for a reassessment of the progressive and liberal aspects of late 19th and early 20th century eugenics as a template for a new politics, and it’s right about there that I knew I was in for a let down.

Fuller and Lipińska conceptualize a new variant of eugenic politics they call “hegentics”. From what I can gather it’s meant to be a left- of- center alternative to both the libertarian view of transhumanism as mere morphological freedom and the kinds of abuses and corporate capture of genetic information seen in novels like Michael Crichton’s Next or Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. This alternative sees genetic inheritance being reconceptualized as the collective property of groups who can then benefit from their genes being studied or shared.

The authors also want to encourage individual genetic and medical experimentation and encourage/celebrate individual “sacrifice” in the cause of transhumanist innovation in something akin to the way we celebrate the sacrifice of individual soldiers in war.

As in the past, I think Fuller fails to grapple with the immoral aspects and legacy of medical experimentation and eugenics even outside of the hellish world concocted by the Nazis. He seems to assume that the lack of constraints on human medical experiments will lead to more rapid medical innovation in the same way fans of Dick Cheney think torture will lead to actionable intelligence, that is, without assuming that this is a case that needs to be proved. If it were indeed true that weak rules on human experimentation lead to more rapid medical innovation then the Soviet Union or China should have been among the most medically advanced nations on earth. There’s a very real danger that should we succeed in building the type of society Fuller and Lipińska envision we’ll have exchanged our role as citizens only to have become a very sophisticated form of lab rat.

Another issue is that the authors seem informed by a version of genetic determinism that bears little resemblance to scientific reality. As Ramez Naam, no opponent of human enhancement indeed, has pointed out even in cases where genes are responsible for a large percentage of a trait such as IQ or personality, literally thousands of genes seem to be responsible for those traits none of which has been found to be so predominant that intervention is easy or without the risk of causing other unwanted conditions, so that, for example, enhancing the genes for intelligence seems to increase the risk for schizophrenia.

Naam points out that it’s unlikely parents will take such genetic risks with children except to protect against debilitating diseases- a case where genetic changes appear much easier in any case. Fuller and Lipińska never really discuss parental rights or more importantly protections for children, which is odd because eugenics has historically been aimed at reproduction. Perhaps they were thinking of the kinds of gene therapies for adults promised by new techniques like Crispr, but even there the kinds of limitations imposed by complexity identified by Naam continue to apply.

Nor do Fuller and Lipińska really address how bio-electronic prosthetics and enhancements fit into their idea of hegenetics. Here the idea of biology as individual or ethnic property would seem to break down as does the idea of state subsidized experimentation and enhancement unless we were to create a system of periodic and free “upgrades” for all. It’s a nice dream, but then again I can’t even get the state to pay to fix a broken tooth. Welcome to godhood.

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Would AI and Aliens be moral in a godless universe?

Black hole

Last time I attempted to grapple with R. Scott Bakker’s intriguing essay on what kinds of philosophy aliens might practice and remaining dizzied by questions. Luckily, I had a book in my possession which seemed to offer me the answers, a book that had nothing to do with the a modern preoccupation like question of alien philosophers at all, but rather a metaphysical problem that had been barred from philosophy except among seminary students since Darwin; namely, whether or not there was such a thing as moral truth if God didn’t exist.

The name of the book was Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism (contemporary philosophy isn’t all that sharp when it comes to titles), by Erik J. Wielenberg. Now, I won’t even attempt to write a proper philosophical review of Robust Ethics for the book has been excellently dissected by a proper philosopher, John Danaher in pieces such as this, this, and this, and one more. Indeed, it was Danaher’s thoughtful reviews that had resulted in Wielenberg’s short work being in the ever changing pile of books that shadows my living room floor like a patch of unextractable mold. It was just the book I needed when thinking about what types of intelligence might be possessed by extraterrestrials.

It’s a problem I ran into when reviewing David Roden’s Post-human Life that goes like this: while it is not so much easy, as it is that I don’t simply draw a blank for me to conceive of an alternative form of intelligence to our human type, it’s damned near impossible for me to imagine what our an alternative form to our moral cognition and action would consist of and how it would be embedded in these other forms of intelligence.

The way Wielenberg answers this question would seem to throw a wrench into Bakker’s idea of Blind Brain Theory (BBT) because what Bakker is urging is that we be suspicious of our cognitive intuitions because they were provided by evolution not as a means of knowing the truth but in terms of their effectiveness in supporting survival and reproduction, whereas Wielenberg is making the case that we can generally rely on these intuitions ( luckily) because of the way they have emerged out of a very peculiar human evolutionary story one which we largely do not share with other animals. That is, Wielenberg argument is anthropocentric to its core and therein lies a new set of problems.

His contention, in essence, is that the ability of human being to perceive moral truth arises as a consequence of the prolonged period of childhood we experience in comparison to other animals. In responding to the argument by Sharon Street that moral “truth” would seem quite different from the perspective of lions, or bonobos, or social insects, than from a human standpoint Wielenberg  responds:

Lions and bonobos lack the nuclear family structure. Primatologist Frans de Waal suggests the “[b] onobos have stretched the single parent system to the limit”. He also claims that an essential component of human reproductive success is the male-female pair bond which he suggests “sets us apart from the apes more than anything else” . These considerations provide some support for the idea that a moralizing species like ours requires an evolutionary path significantly different from that of lions or bonobos. (171)

The prolonged childhood of humans necessitates both pair-bonding and “alloparents” that for Wielenberg shape and indeed create our moral disposition and perception in a way seen in no other animals.

As for the social insects scenario suggested by Street, the social insects (termites, ants, and many species of bees and wasps) are so different from us that it’s hard to evaluate whether such a scenario is nomologically possible.  (171).

In a sense the ability to perceive moral truth, what Wielenberg  characterizes as “brute facts” such as “rape is wrong”, emerges out of the slow speed in cultural/technological knowledge requires to be passed from adults to the young. Were children born fully formed with sufficient information for their own survival (or a quick way of gaining needed capacity/knowledge) neither the pair bond nor the care of the “village” would be necessary and the moral knowledge that comes as a result of this period of dependence/interdependence might go undiscovered.

Though I was very much rooting that Wielenberg would have succeeded in providing an account of moral realism absent any need for God, I believe that in these reflections found in the very last pages of Robust Ethics he may have inadvertently undermined that very noble project.

I have complained before about someone like E.O. Wilson’s lack of imagination when it comes to alternative forms of intelligence on worlds other than our own, but what Wielenberg has done is perhaps even more suffocating. For if the perception of moral truth depends upon the evolution of creatures dependent on pair bonding and alloparenting then what this suggests is that due to our peculiarities human beings might be the only species in the universe capable of perceiving moral truth. This is not the argument Wielenberg likely hoped he was making at all, and indeed is more anthropocentric than the argument of some card carrying theists.

I suppose Wielenberg might object that any intelligent aliens would likely require the same extended period of learning as ourselves because they too would have arrived at their station via cultural/technological evolution which seems to demand long periods of dependent learning. Perhaps, or perhaps not. For even if I can’t imagine some biological species where knowledge from parent to offspring is directly passed, we know that it’s possible- the efficiency of DNA as a cultural storage device is well known.

Besides, I think it’s a mistake to see biological intelligence as the type of intelligence that commands the stage over the long duree- even if artificial intelligence, like children, need to learn many task through actual experience rather than programming “from above” the  advantages of AI over the biological sort is that it can then share this learning directly with fully grown copies of itself a like Neo in the Matrix its’ “progeny” can say “I know kung fu” without ever having themselves learned it. According to Wielenberg’s logic it doesn’t seem that such intelligent entities would necessarily perceive brute moral facts or ethical truths, so if he is right an enormous contraction of the potential scale of the moral universe would have occurred . The actual existence of moral truth limited to perhaps one species in a lonely corner of an otherwise ordinary galaxy would then seem to be a blatant violation of the Copernican principle and place us back onto the center stage of the moral narrative of the universe- if it has such a narrative to begin with.

The only way it seems one can hold that both the assertion of moral truth found in Godless Normative Realism and the Copernican principle can be true would be if the brute facts of moral truth were more broadly perceivable across species and conceivably within forms of intelligence that have emerged or have been built on the basis of an evolutionary trajectory and environment very different from our own.

I think the best chance here is if moral truth were somehow related to the truths of mathematics (indeed Wielenberg thinks the principle of contradiction [which is the core of mathematics/logic] is essential to the articulation and development of our own moral sense which begins with the emotions but doesn’t end there.) Like us, other animals seem not only to possess forms of moral cognition that rival our own, but even radical different types of creatures such as social insects are capable of discovering mathematical truths about the world, the kind of logic that underlies moral reasoning, something I explored extensively here.

Let’s hope that the perception of moral truth isn’t as dependent on our very peculiar evolutionary development as Wielenberg’s argument suggest, for if that is the case that particular form of truth might be so short lived and isolated in the cosmos that someone might be led to the mistaken conclusion that it never existed at all.

Is Pope Francis the World’s Most Powerful Transhumanist?

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I remember once while on a trip to Arizona asking a long-time resident of Phoenix why anyone would want to live in such a godforsaken place. I wasn’t at all fooled by the green lawns and the swimming pools and knew that we were standing in the middle of a desert over the bones of the Hohokam Indians whose civilization had shriveled up under the brutality of the Sonora sun. The person I was speaking to had a quick retort to my east coast skepticism. Where I lived, he observed, was no more natural than where he did, for the constant need for air conditioning during much of the year in a place like Phoenix was but the flip side of the need for heat in the cold months in the backwoods of my native Pennsylvania. Everywhere humankind lives is in some sense “unnatural”, every place we have successfully settled it was because we had been able to wrestle nature’s arm behind her back and make her cry “uncle”.

Sometime around then, back in 2006, James Lovelock published what was probably the most frightening book I have ever read- The Revenge of Gaia. There he predicted the death of billions of human beings and the retreat of global civilization to the poles as the climate as we had known it throughout the 100,000 or so years of of species history collapsed under the weight of anthropogenic climate change. It was not a work of dystopian fiction.

Lovelock has since backed off from this particular version of apocalyptic nightmare, but not because we have changed our course or discovered some fundamental error in the models that lead to his dark predictions. Instead, it is because he thinks the pace of warming is somewhat slower than predicted due to sulfuric pollution and its reflection of sunlight that act like the sunshields people put on their car windows. Lovelock is also less frightened out of the realization that air conditioning allows large scale societies- he is particularly fond of Singapore, but he also could have cited the Arabian Gulf or American Southwest- to seemingly thrive in conditions much hotter than those which any large human population could have survived in the past. We are not the poor Hohokam.

The problem with this more sanguine view of things is in thinking Singapore like levels of adaptation are either already here or even remotely on the horizon. This is the reality brought home over the last several weeks as the death toll from an historic heat wave sweeping over India and Pakistan has risen into the thousands. Most societies, or at least those with the most people, lack the ability to effectively respond to the current and predicted impacts of climate change, and are unlikely to develop it soon. The societal effects and death toll of a biblical scale deluge are much different if one is in Texas or Bangladesh. Major droughts can cause collapse and civil war in the fragile states of the Middle East that do not happen under similar environmental pressures between Arizona or Nevada- though Paolo Bacigalupi’s recent novel The Water Knife helps us imagine this were so. Nor has something like the drought in California sparked or fed the refugee flows or ethnic religious tensions it has elsewhere and which are but a prelude of what will likely happen should we continue down this path.

It is this fact that the negative impacts of the Anthropocene now fall on the world’s poor, and given the scale of the future impacts of climate change will be devastating for the poor and their societies because they lack the resources to adjust and respond to these changes, that is the moral insight behind Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home . It could not have been more timely.

I have to say that much of the document has a beauty that is striking. Parts such as this:

The Psalms frequently exhort us to praise God the Creator, “who spread out the earth on the waters, for his steadfast love endures for ever” (Ps 136:6). They also invite other creatures to join us in this praise: “Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens! Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created” (Ps 148:3-5). We do not only exist by God’s mighty power; we also live with him and beside him. This is why we adore him.

Lines like these reminded me of the poetry of Walt Whitman, or perhaps better even that most eloquent atheist Lucretius. And there are points in the letter where the relationship of God to non-human animals is portrayed in almost post-humanist terms, which makes a lot of sense given the pope’s namesake. But the purpose of Laudato Si isn’t to serve as poetry or even as a reminder to Christians that care for the natural world is not only not incompatible with their faith but a logical extension of it. Rather, the purpose of the pope’s letter is to serve as a moral indictment and a call to action. Pope Francis has, rightly and justly, connected our obligations to the global environment with our obligations to the world’s poor.

The problem with religious documents, even beautiful and uplifting documents such as the Laudato Si is that as a type they do not grapple with historical or moral ambiguity. Such documents by their nature try to establish continuity with the past, as in claiming the church contained whatever teaching is being communicated all along. They also by their very nature try to establish firm moral lines not only for the present and future but also in the past rather than grapple with the fact that we are more often confronted with much more ambiguous moral trade-offs -and always have been.

What  Laudato Si lacks is ironically the same acknowledgement that New Atheists so critical of Christianity often lack, namely the recognition that the history of our understanding of nature or the universe through science is part and parcel of the history of Christianity itself. It was Christians, after all, who having won over the Roman elites in the 3rd century AD managed to do what all the natural philosophers since Thales had never managed to, namely, to rid nature of “gods” as an explanation for everyday occurrences thus opening up a space for our understanding of nature as something free of intention. Only such a dis-enchanted nature could be considered predictable and machine-like by thinkers such as Newton, or made a subject for “interrogation” as it was by the philosopher Francis Bacon in the 17th century. And it’s with Bacon that we see how morally complicated the whole conquest of nature narrative Pope Francis grapples with in Laudato Si actually is.

It was Christianity that inspired Bacon’s quest for scientific knowledge – his search for what he believes to be the lost true knowledge of Adam that will give us mastery over nature. The very purpose of this mastery for him was a Christian and charitable one “the relief of man’s estate”. And yet such mastery and relief cannot be won without treating nature as an object to be tamed or forced into the constraints of a machine. The universe as clock.

Tragically, it wouldn’t only be the natural world that the West would subjugate in its quest to escape the pain and privation often inflicted by nature, it would be other human beings as well. The conquest and exploitation of non-Western societies that began, not coincidentally, at the same time as the Scientific Revolution would be justified on the grounds that civilization itself and human progress found such conquest necessary as a means of escaping the trap of nature.

For a long time indeed the argument that the “civilized” had a right to exploit and take from “savages” was a biblical one. When responding to his own rhetorical question of how it could be that English settlers in the New World had the right to seize the lands of the Indians who also were “sons of Adam” the Puritan John Winthrop answered:

That which is common to all is proper to none… Why may not Christians have liberty to dwell among them in their wastelands and woods (leaving such places as they have manured for their corne) as lawfully as Abraham did among the Sodomites? (117)  

The point Winthrop was making was drawn from God’s command of Adam to a life of labor, which was considered the birth of society by John Locke and made the basis of property- that anything not developed and claimed was without value or ownership and there for the taking.

This was not just a matter of Protestant reinterpretations of the Bible. Before Winthrop the Catholic Columbus and Spanish understood their mission and the distinction between them and Native American along millenarian lines. In 1493 Pope Alexander IV gave the New World to Spain and Portugal (as if he owned them). During the opening phase of the modern world Christianity and any globalizing scientific and capitalist project were essentially indistinguishable.

Centuries later when the relationship between Christianity and science was severed by Charles Darwin and the deep time being uncovered by geology in the 19th century neither abandoned the idea of remaking what for the first time in history was truly “one world” in their own image. Yet whereas Christianity pursued its mission among the poor (in which it was soon joined by a global socialist movement) science (for a brief time) became associated with a capitalist globalization through imperialism that was based upon the biological chimera of race- the so-called “white man’s burden”. This new “scientific” racism freed itself from the need to grapple, as even a brutally racist regime like the Confederate States needed to do, with the biblical claim that all of humankind shared in the legacy of Adam and possessed souls worthy of dignity and salvation.  It was a purely imaginary speciation that ended in death camps.

The moral fate of science and society would have been dark indeed had the Nazis racial state managed to win the Second World War, and been allowed to construct a society in which individuals reduced to the status of mere animals without personhood. Society proved only a little less dark when totalitarian systems in the USSR and China seized the reigns of the narrative of socialist liberation and reduced the individual to an equally expendable cog in the machine not of nature but of history. Luckily, communism was like a fever that swept over the world through the 20th century and then, just as quickly as it came, it broke and was gone.

Instead of the nightmare of a global racist regime or its communist twin or something else we find ourselves in a very mixed situation with one state predominant -the United States- yet increasingly unable to impose its will on the wider world. During the period of US hegemony some form of capitalism and the quest for modernity has become the norm. This has not all been bad, for during this period conditions have indeed undeniably improved for vast numbers of humanity. Still the foundation of such a world in the millenarian narrative of the United States, that it was a country with a “divine mission” to bring freedom to the world was just another variant of the Christian, Eurocentric, Nazi, Communist narrative that has defined the West since Joachim de Fiore if not before. And like all those others it has resulted in a great amount of unnecessary pain and will not be sustained indefinitely.

We are entering an unprecedented period where the states with the largest economies (along with comes the prospect of the most powerful militaries) China and at some point India- continue to be the home of 10s of millions of the extremely poor. Because of this they are unlikely to accept and cannot be compelled to accept restraints on their growth whose scale dwarfs that of the already unsustainable environmental course we are already on. These great and ancient civilization/states are joined by states much weaker some of which were merely conjured up by Western imperialist at the height of their power. They are states that are extremely vulnerable to crisis and collapse. Many of these vulnerable states are in Africa (many of those in the Middle East have collapsed) where by the end of this century a much greater portion of humanity will be found and which by then will have long replaced Europe as the seat of the Christianity and the church. We are having a great deal of difficulty figuring out how we are going to extend the benefits of progress to them without wrecking the earth.

Pope Francis wants us to see this dilemma sharply. He is attempting to focus our attention on the moral impact of the environmental, consumer and political choices we have made and will make especially as we approach the end of the year and the climate summit in Paris. Let us pray that we begin to change course, for if he doesn’t, those of us still alive to see it and our children and descendants are doomed.

Though I am no great fan of the idea that this century is somehow the most important one in terms of human survival, we really do appear to be entering a clear danger zone between now and into the early years of the 22nd century. It is by sometime between now and then that human population growth will have hopefully peaked, and alternatives to the carbon economy perfected and fully deployed. Though the effects of climate change will likely last millennia with the halting of new carbon emissions the climate should at least stabilize into a new state. We will either have established effective methods of response and adaptation or be faced with the after effect of natural disasters- immense human suffering, societal collapse, refugee flows and conflicts.  We will also either have figured out a more equitable economic system and created sustainable prosperity for all or tragically have failed to do so.

What the failure to adapt to climate change and limit its impact and/ or the failure to further extend the advances of modernity into the developing world would mean was the failure of the scientific project as the “relief of man’s estate” begun by figures like Francis Bacon. Science after a long period of hope will have resulted in something quite the opposite of paradise.

However, even before these issues are decided there is the danger that we will revive something resembling the artificial religious and racial division of humanity into groups where a minority lays claim to the long legacy of human technological and cultural advancement as purely its own. This, at least, is how I read the argument of the sociologist Steve Fuller who wants us to reframe our current political disputes from left vs right to what he “up- wingers” vs “down wingers” where up wingers are those pursuing human enhancement and evolution through technology (like himself) and down wingers those arguing in some sense against technology and for the preservation of human nature – as he characterizes Pope Francis.

The problem with such a reframing is that it forces us to once again divide the world into the savage and the civilized, the retrograde and the advancing.  At its most ethical this means forgetting about the suffering or fate of those who stand on the “savage” side of this ledger and taking care of oneself and one’s own. At its least ethical it means treating other human beings as sub-human, or perhaps “sub-post human”, and is merely a revival of the Christian justification for crimes against “infidels” or white’s rationale for crimes against everyone else. It is the claim in effect that you are not as full a creature as us, and therefore do not possess equivalent rights.  Ultimately the idea that we can or should split humanity up in such a way is based on a chronological fantasy.

The belief that there is an escape hatch from our shared global fate for any significant segment of humanity during the short time frame of a century is a dangerous illusion. Everywhere else in the solar system including empty space itself is a worse place to live than the earth even when she is in deep crisis. We might re-engineer some human beings to live beyond earth, but for the foreseeable future, it won’t be many. As Ken Stanley Robison never tires of reminding us,the stars are too far away- there won’t be a real life version of Interstellar. The potential escape hatch of uploading or human merger with artificial intelligence is a long, long ways off. Regardless of how much we learn about delaying the aging clock for likely well past this century we will remain biological beings whose fate will depend on the survival of our earthly home which we evolved to live in.

In light of this Fuller is a mental time traveler who has confused a future he has visited in his head with the real world. What this “up-winger” has forgotten and the “down-winger” Pope Francis has not is that without our efforts to preserve our world and make it more just there will either be no place to build our imagined futures upon or there will be no right to claim it represents the latest chapter in the long story of our progress.

In this sense, and even in spite of his suspicion of technology, this popular and influential pope might just prove to be one of the most important figures for the fate of any form of post-humanity. For it is likely that it will only be through our care for humanity as a whole, right now, that whatever comes after us will have the space and security to actually appear in our tomorrow.

On the Space Between the Human and the Post- Human

Utopia sign

What especially distinguishes human beings from other animals has been the degree to which they seek out and invent ways to leverage the basics of their biology to reach ever more complex levels of thought and action. Early human beings leveraged their fragile and limited bodies with tools including fire, leveraged their own natural psychology using naturally occurring drugs and religious rituals and used music to obtain a more emotional connection with one another and the world. They most especially leveraged the range of their own knowledge through language, which gave them both a more broad and comprehensive picture of the present, and allowed them to convey lessons learned across generations so that repeat mistakes could be avoided.

The movement into cities and the creation of written language and number systems was another such leveraging. The development of broad ethical systems in the form of world religions was so as well, and many of these religions ramped up human capabilities that were present in the prehistorical phase- the capacity for artistic and musical expression exploded, new forms of internal-emotional or mystical exploration were developed.  These religions were also the first to imagine “perfect worlds” as in world’s free from the ills that seemed to eternally plague individuals and societies- disease, famine, poverty, violence, war, pain, suffering, and death.

Until the modern era there was a tendency on the part of religion to bear down on the only elements of this miserable equation where their efforts could be shown to have a real effect- the moral and internal aspects. And then came science.

In the 16th century modern science emerged as a way to address these perennial human problems.  Science along with political and social reorganization proved extremely effective at coming up with practical solutions to many of these problems. Not complete elimination of them to be sure, but substantial amelioration. Science was a new and extremely powerful form of leverage allowing human beings to form intricate understandings of how nature worked and then ride or tweak these understandings to achieve goals they wanted to obtain.

Transhumanism as the philosophy of the post-human focuses itself on the speculation and imagining of future extensions and leveraging. Yet, the line of demarcation between a continuation of what we have always done in the past and the reaching of some state where we are recognizably no longer human beings has never been absolutely clear. When will we experience changes which are qualitatively greater than the development of written language, empirical science, adoption of universal education, industrialization and its multifold machines, or any of the other huge phase changes humanity has undergone since it emerged in Africa anywhere from 200,000 to 50,000 years ago?

The farther out one goes, of course, the more likely such qualitative shifts appear, but I think that the shift to something that is so far from humanity that it is no longer recognizable as human in terms of morphology, lifespan, intelligence and the like seems unlikely until at the very earliest sometime in the 22nd century, much less the holy grail of 2045 which so many transhumanists and singularitarians hold as an end point.

How much morphologically distinct, long-lived, intelligent etc a human descendant would have to be to be considered post-human is anybody’s guess, but before that the problem of how to better distribute the positive aspects found in the range of differences human beings already have would likely been solved first. The reason for this is quite simple: evolution has already figured out how to achieve outliers in characteristics we wish were more widely distributed. Even if we stick with just human beings, some, today, are active into their 90’s and live to be as old as 120. Some human beings, today, show prodigious talents in sport, mathematics, creativity etc.

The problem of even combining these already present outlier characteristics in one person is likely to be a formidable one. Einstein was a genius when it came to physics, but was not also a great composer, novelist, painter, athlete etc. We should also remember Orgel’s Second Rule “Evolution is cleverer than you are” in gauging the complexity of technical challenges in front of us. It must not be easy to get human beings to live out beyond 120 years of age because otherwise it would be found somewhere among human beings. It must not be easy to create human beings who are simultaneously prodigious across all forms of human endeavor. Unacknowledged too is the fact that mastering the environment is just as important to the question of how to raise human potential as any firmer grasp of underlying neurological and biological mechanisms.

We are likely to spend a prolonged period merely learning what evolution- both natural and cultural- already knows and trying to more widely distribute these still human capabilities. This potential flowering of full human capabilities is the space between the human and the post-human. While it is definite that should our species survive for a long enough period of time it will give rise to descendants who are in some very large ways qualitatively different from us we will probably find ourselves in this interim stage first. Such a stage may last a very long time, indeed, we may choose as a species to have it last a very long time.

All this by a circuitous route brings me to a new way of looking at human rights known as the “Capability  Approach” or “Capabilities Approach”. Pioneered by thinkers such Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum the Capabilities Approach is not much older than contemporary transhumanism itself dating from the late 1970’s. CA manages to combine two very different utopian projects- the human rights and development projects.

Rather than focus on abstract rights CA looks closely at the individual person within their specific political, social and economic context by asking the question: “What are people able to do and to be?” CA is particularly interested in the situation of disabled persons and aims to draw attention to the question of whether or not society is so structured as to allow persons with disabilities to have access to the full-range of human potential. In terms of social justice CA seeks not so much social leveling as it calls for living standards that have become the norm in advanced countries to be extended to all human beings, something that given current circumstances requires redistribution to achieve.

Nussbaum herself has come down solidly in favor of many techno-progressive concerns from stem cells, to the liberalization of neurological drugs, to animal rights and the push to expand the range of human longevity. And in the case of longevity, unlike what I take to be the position of transhumanists more generally, but similar to techno-progressives more specifically, Nussbaum is concerned with the question of equity when comes to such gains.

 Here is Nussbaum on longevity:

And what about the question of death? Is it somehow contrary to human dignity to seek to prolong life? Once again, the use of the term “natural” seems to me to do great harm, as when people talk about extending life “beyond the natural lifespan,” or, as I heard on NPR yesterday, “beyond our allotted threescore years and ten”-as if that figure were given by the stars or fate, rather than by conventional human experience.

People used to have a life expectancy at birth of around 35 years. (That seems to have been the situation in ancient Greece, where the effects of a healthy climate were greatly undercut by persistent warfare.) In the developing world today, average life expectancy at birth is still under 40 in many nations. Many people in those nations, especially those with no literacy, probably believe, then, that it is “natural” to die early, just as they may believe that it is “natural” that a majority of one’s children will die before age five. We know, however, that the low life expectancy in many nations is an artifact of poverty and the unequal distribution of medical care and sanitation. On a recent visit to West Bengal, for example, I attended a workshop on the high rate of maternal mortality in one populous rural district. The primary causes of death mentioned were anemia, unsafe drinking water, and the sheer distance a woman would have to travel to find medical facilities. None of these is “natural” in the sense of “given, inevitable, unable to be changed.”

We should say that what is wrong with this situation is not the fact that life expectancy in the richer nations is now around 80 years. What is wrong is the fact that food, medical care, and lifesaving technologies are so unequally distributed around the globe. Seeking to prolong life for a privileged few while ignoring the low life-capabilities of the many is morally wrong, a violation of the dignity of those who are treated as if they were of unequal human dignity. That is why my capability approach urges ample redistribution from richer to poorer nations, as well as from rich to poor within each nation.

It is morally bad to focus on how one’s own life can be extended while totally ignoring these global inequalities. (That doesn’t mean waiting to do research about extending life until all global inequalities are corrected, since we learn a great deal from basic research, and it often has unexpected dividends in other areas.) The sheer fact of prolonging life is a very good thing, and should be encouraged, up to the point where life becomes nothing like a human life at all, such as when someone enters a persistent vegetative state-or, up until the point when the person, mentally fit and free from undue pressure, chooses not to live.

The reason I find CA instructive for techno-progressives is in its openness to technological change. The concept of rights is too often static and de-contextualized. The “right to life” means different things in a world where people die on average at 45 and where people live into their 80’s. What CA suggests is that once technological and social advancement makes a human good obtainable our efforts should be focused on making sure that good is widely distributed.

Unlike bio-conservatism which looks backward to “nature” and attaches itself to the “natural” and unlike transhumanism that looks forward to post-human possibilities almost exclusively to be realized through technology, CA looks around us asking what is possible in the present, where are these possibilities not found right now, what do we need to do to make sure they are widely available as quickly as possible?    

CA also offers an alternative to the technological fetishism that all types of transhumanism, including techno-progressives, often suffer. Very often the solution to an unreached human capability is technological, but environmental factors are just as important as well and absolutely necessary in the intermediate stages when a technological solution has yet to be fully formulated. It is CA’s interest in disabilities which has allowed it to better articulate such a position than other utopian projects including the traditional human rights and transhumanist discourses.

We should work hard in working out medical and technological interventions that will allow blind people to see, and the deaf to hear and everything in between, but until then the widespread adoption of low-tech wrap-arounds, schools that teach braille and sign language, accessibility requirements for public places and the like need to be as widespread as possible. Once effective medical and technological interventions, including genetic interventions, come online and are proven to be safe they need to be extended to the human population as a whole, again, as quickly impossible.

In a similar vein, we may at some point figure out the neurological mechanisms behind differences in human intelligence or even morality, but that shouldn’t preclude our investment in low-tech methods of achieving those same ends such as good and universal education, good nutrition, the promotion of loving family environments. Indeed, even as we discover the neurological mechanisms behind such things as musical ability we will want to double down on low-tech means of making these capabilities realizable- such as the support for music education in schools.

This space between the human and the post-human is what lies in front of us as far as we are able to confidently predict for we are likely to be able to reach the full limits of humanity for some time before we are able to move beyond them. In this light, the project for techno-progressives would be to bring attention to and support low-tech methods of enabling human capabilities where they continue to be needed even while pushing those capabilities ever outward through medicine and technology. At the same time techno-progressives need to ensure both that these low-tech and high-tech enabled capabilities are widely shared and that attention continues to be paid to the creation and sustaining of environments in which they can be considered meaningful.