Saturday, December 22, 2007

Transhumanism and Transsimianism

Aaron Diaz of Dresden Codak gives us a compelling defense of transhumanism in his spot-on satire of anti-transhumanism arguments, Enough is Enough: A Thinking Ape’s Critique of Trans-Simianism. Thog (Professor of Finding an Animal and then Killing It, The University of the Woods) expresses his incredulity that transcending the limitations of simian thought might be either feasible or desirable.
Notice that Klomp cherry-picks discoveries to better support his argument of an exponential growth. It took more than a million years to develop fire and the hand-ax, and yet Klomp [unjustifiably and ahistorically] believes simply because it took only 2,000 years to develop bows and arrows that new inventions will spring up in even shorter timeframes. ...

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that such a post-simian future is possible or even probable. Is it really a world we should want to strive for, where our very ape nature is stripped away in the name of efficiency? Technologies such as the bow and arrow already desimianize the act of hunting. While our ancestors were able to experience the pure ape feeling of clubbing an animal to death with a rock, we are left with the cold, sterilized bow that kills cleanly and quickly from a safe distance. This separation from basic daily activities is a slippery slope. What would happen if we no longer had to gather fruits and nuts, and they simply grew wherever we wanted them, or had drinking water flow right to our feet instead of wandering in search of streams for days? These seeming conveniences would rob us of what it means to be an ape.

On the one hand, unless we exterminate ourselves, transhumanism is not only possible, but inevitable, and a transhuman society will be evaluated by their desires, not ours. On the other hand, professor Thag is correct (as are his contemporary counterparts): we cannot even imagine the nature of a transhuman society.

That transhumanism is possible is easy to see: One need only identify those aspects of the modern world where quantitative improvements are possible and likely to have a qualitative effect. We know we can improve the minimum, average and median quality of life for the current population of the planet by at least an order of magnitude using existing technology. Many of our current economic problems are due to overproduction, and just reducing arms and defense production — currently employed mostly to promulgate and defend unfalsifiable bullshit ideologies — would have an immediate and substantial impact on the quality of life. Even our environmental problems are caused in no small part by large-scale structural inefficiencies; in the United States primarily by having people typically live far from their work.

We know that we capture and put to use only a fraction of the energy differential created by the sunlight that reaches Earth, and only a minuscule, almost infinitesimal fraction of the Sun's overall power. Where there is energy available, life will evolve to make use of it: that population and wealth will grow by many orders of magnitude is not only possible but inevitable.

Another fairly obvious modern trend is the growing focus on non-physical, intellectual wealth, wealth that derives its value not from the labor, materials and energy applied to its creation but rather the thought applied.

Medical technology continues to advance, and our understanding of the fundamentals of biochemistry is still in its infancy. The potential for just a single order-of-magnitude increase in human lifespan — at least for some people — seems fairly obvious.

These are foreseeable quantitative improvements, and that they are both possible and desirable in the short term make them inevitable. But quantitative improvements, especially when they are even moderately large — i.e. less than one order of magnitude — have, time and again, effected qualitative changes in human society. Who could have foreseen that quantitative improvements in manufacturing technology would have led to qualitative changes in, for instance, political theory? And anyone who has studied evolution knows that a fundamentally quantitative accumulation of small changes to genomes routinely leads to qualitative changes in the resulting organisms.

But it is, by definition, impossible to foresee the precise nature of evolutionary qualitative changes. Our whole way of thinking will change, and we cannot think at all, in the current way, about the nature of a qualitatively different way of thinking. Transhumanism will be an evolutionary change, caused by random changes we cannot predict, and subject to selective pressures we cannot imagine.

In Again, Dangerous Visions Bernard Wolfe notes that
All [science fiction authors] had prefigured was the physical displacement of human beings from earth to moon, which meant that they had prefigured nothing. Not the diversionary nature of the gala, to take our minds off the unsatisfactory results of the displacement of U. S. citizens to Vietnam. Not the vomitous showbizz inanity. Not the PR milking of the solemn moment by Tacky Dick, the everybody-wants-to-get-into-the-act circus atmosphere.
If people who make their living trying to prefigure the effects of qualitative change on society cannot get even such a relatively small issue anywhere near correct, we cannot have any hope of predicting or prefiguring transhumanism.

For these reasons, I simultaneously believe that transhumanism is inevitable, but modern transhumanist philosophers (as philosophers) are by necessity completely full of shit.

Transhumanism will — if we are not completely annihilated — happen on its own. We need not — indeed we cannot — prefigure, predict, guide, or directly and intentionally influence the nature of transhuman society. By the same token, we cannot — short of species suicide — stop or otherwise hinder our evolution: Any attempt to "hinder" transhumanism will be, by definition, one of the selective pressures that will shape transhumanism.

Likewise, it's simply irrelevant to judge a transhuman society, just as the judgment of our ancestors is irrelevant to our own judgment of our own society. It really doesn't matter what they would have thought about how we live today: They don't have to live in our society.

The only thing we can "know" about transhumanism is that it will happen no matter what we do, whether we like it or not, and that transhumanism will be utterly unlike anything we have imagined it might be.

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