Transhumanism and the problem of value

The Village Voice has a nice summary of the Transvision 2003 USA Conference, sponsored by the World Transhumanist Association. Founded in 1998, the organization anticipates the day when technology will have the ability to halt aging and alter “limitations on human and artificial intelligence, unchosen psychology, suffering, and our confinement to the planet earth.” As the name implies, they look forward to the day when technology allows us to move beyond what we now consider “human,” becoming first transitional humans and finally “posthuman.” They also anticipate several bumps in the road, both in terms of real dangers from the technology itself and a backlash against what some might see as an unnatural or downright immoral use of technology to “play God.” Thus this conference, which brings together Transhumanists, professional bioethicists, anti-technology activists, and critical social theorists of science and technology.

I think these guys are pointing in the right direction, but they’re pointing way, way far out down the road. For example, here is their view on what a posthuman can become:

As a posthuman you would be as intellectually superior to any current human genius as we are to other primates. Your body would be resistant to disease and immune to aging, giving you unlimited youth and vigor. You would have control over your own desires, moods, and mental states, giving you the option of never feeling tired, bored, or irritated about petty things; you could instead choose to experience intense pleasure, love, artistic appreciation, focused serenity, or some other state of consciousness that currently human brains may not even be able to access.

Posthumans could be completely synthetic artificial intelligences, or they could be enhanced uploads [see “What is uploading?”], or they could be the result of making many partial but cumulatively profound augmentations to a biological human. The latter alternative would probably require either the redesign of the human organism using advanced nanotechnology or its radical enhancement using some combination of technologies such as genetic engineering, mood drugs, anti-aging therapies, neural interfaces, advanced information management tools, memory enhancing drugs, wearable computers, and cognitive techniques.

I tend to be a techno-optimist when it comes to my own fields of intelligence augmentation and wearable computing, as well as those I know less about such as genetic engineering and psychoactive drugs. Many years from now (sadly, probably a generation or two after I am already dead) I expect some of the things the Transhumanists predict will come to pass. However, there are a few fundamental issues that we will have to face along this road before we ever get to the point on the horizon that they look towards.

First, we will hit a crisis of values. Biology can make us stronger, healthier and longer-lived. Artificial intelligence can make us better able to solve problems and reach goals we set for ourselves. Psychology and psychiatry can help us better understand and change of our moods, emotions and motivations. But none of these sciences can tell us whether being long-lived is good or bad, whether the goals we choose to achieve are the “right” goals, or whether the (presumably happy and contented) moods we choose to feel are in any way more appropriate than how we feel today. These questions can only be answered by liberal arts such as religion, ethics and philosophy, not science, not logic, not pure reason. (Being rationalists, I suspect the Transhumanists would be upset by that assertion, but no matter. Others with a different set of philosophical tools will come to answer these issues.)

Second, long before technology brings us the first transhuman it will by necessity bring us a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. These findings will likely have wide-reaching repercussions in how society operates. For example, we may discover that our personality, intelligence, and our very choices are determined solely by the chemistry of our brain, leaving no room for an atomic, immutable soul or indeed any identity that continues throughout time. Such issues are already being taken on by philosophers such as Daniel Dennett. They are also seeping into practical questions over the use of Prozac, the acceptability of the insanity defense plea, the regulation of and treatment for addictive drugs, and the concept of justice and “reform” of criminals. If the Transhumanists are right, these battles will be nothing compared to the turmoil over issues of identity, free will and responsibility that are yet to come.

Finally, we will have to accept that transhumans may be very unlike humans now, not only in ability but in morals and values. The Transhumanists believe “progress is when more people become more able to deliberately shape themselves, their lives, and the ways they relate to others, in accordance with their own deepest values.” What happens when I change myself so much that my deepest values themselves change? And what if, in my new transhuman state, I decide that intelligence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and the true purpose of life is to sit around doped-up on happy drugs all day? Would you, inferior normal human that you are, decide that perhaps given my choices I’m not so superior after all? The question of value is paramount in deciding what even qualifies as transhuman or posthuman. It is, I suspect, something of a Göedel statement for the Transhumanist philosophy.

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
— George Bernard Shaw