Wednesday, December 21, 2011

We Will Lose Autonomy Over Our Beings...

Transhumanism post - I haven't done one of these in a while.

I've had this article locked away in my favorites for sometime and I've been intending to get around to writing about. Transhumanism is one of the thing that sets my blog apart (I should like to think) for other blogs. I'm not sure how many other transhuman blogs there are, but I haven't been doing a very good job of making this one transhumanist despite it being my personal philosophy.

There's a lot more to transhumanism than just mind-uploading and body surfing, although those are two currents that do make up a lot of transhuman thought. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about mind-uploading personally; I'd like for it to be true, but it seems to reek of mind-body duality, which current advances in neuroscience are suggesting isn't the case. In fact, current advances suggest that consciousness is just an illusion brought about by the chemical reactions inside of your brain; your ego, your identity, all of it, is just an illusion that's created by firing neurons. Now, we're not sure if this is the case or not. There may be some kind duality present that allows for the "conscious" as we recognize it to be transferred over to a new source much like a program can be, and so far, there's nothing either for or against it. There's a reason Eclipse Phase is set some 100-200 years in the future.

Wait, I take that back. There's a lot against it, and transhumanism in general, as this article suggests. In Is Transhumanism Coercive: Forcing humanity to remain relatively stupid and sick doesn't make us freer by Ronald Baily, he recounts a debate that he had with a bioconservative named Peter Lawler. Now, Lawler was he president of George W. Bush's "Council of Ethics," and like most individuals, Lawler presents an irrational fear of biotechnology and the future development of technology. Or, rather, I'm sure he'd like everyone else to have an irrational fear of biotechnology, even if he himself does not. For the most part, Ronald does a good job, but I want to take a closer look at it, and bioconservatism in general.

Lawler, a member of President George W. Bush's controversial Council on Bioethics, tried to make the case that using technology to radically extend human lifespans, and boost human intellectual, emotional, and physical capacities, will end in coercion. Those who don’t want to take advantage of the kinds of enhancements that biotechnology, nanotechnology, and cognitive technology will offer, argues Lawler, will ultimately not have a choice about using them.
As much as I hate disagreeing with him, Lawler may ultimately have a point. After all, when it comes right down to it, you have the choice of making yourself immune to most all diseases, from cancer to the common cold, being faster, smarter, quicker, and have better physical capacities, or staying the same and dying. Eventually, humanity will die out. As we know humanity today, it will not exist in the future. It will change, or it will remain the same and it will die off. It will either be killed off by preventable diseases, or destroyed by old age, or otherwise removed from the gene pool. More humans may opt out and move into becoming transhumans, and eventually, Lawler and his ilk will have nobody left. Humanity will become a thing of the past and transhumanity will become the new norm. But this is way, way in the future.

Now, I'm sure that's not the coercion that Lawler is talking about here. Natural selection doesn't care whether you're human or transhuman; and when you can skew the scales as a transhuman and turn natural selection and evolution into a participation sport while humans are left on the sidelines, with all the genetic defects and the vulnerability to death and such then yeah, that could be considered coercion so long as we're accepting the fact that it's genetics, evolution, and natural selection doing the coercing. But it's not what he's thinking about. He's thinking something akin to black-shirted, jackbooted transhumanist thugs who will force you, under threat of death, to get these advancements (Okay, maybe that's hyperbole, but that's the only real reason I can see him using the word "coercion" here). Does this sound familiar to you? This sort of logical reason - if we allow X, then Y will happen - is specious thinking is very common among individuals. This is two fallacies for the price of one - you have the appeal to fear pulling double shift here, but you also have a slippery slope at work, too.

I can answer Lawler's claim that biomedical, nanotechnological, and cognitive enhancements will be forced on people who don't want them in one word: Anti-vaxxers.

You remember the anti-vaxxers: they're a group of self-destructive thanatophilics damn determine to kill their children, and other people's children, with exposure to diseases that they should have enough sense to get their child inoculated against while they're still babies. If we're not going to hold them down and tell them that they have to get their children vaccinated - when it would do society good, as opposed these advances, which, while benefiting society through the individual, do not pose a harm through absence like herd immunity - then we're not going to hold you down and force you to get cognitive enhancements, or take nootropic drugs that speed up your perception of time and your ability to handle large amounts of information.
But is that so? If anyone should be concerned about coercion, it is the transhumanists who rightly fear that bioconservatives like Lawler will try to use the power of the state to halt the research that would lead to the development of enhancements would enable them to improve their life chances and those of their children.

I advocate a liberal tolerant approach: People who reject enhancements for themselves and their progeny are free to do so, whereas those who want to upgrade their mental and physical capacities are also free to do so. Lawler believes, however, that the tolerance I favor must inevitably give way to coercion. What does he mean by “coercion?”
This is "bioconservative privilege," for lack of a better phrase. Most people are wary of science and scientific advances - we've passed the point when you can explain science in terms that J Slob off the street can understand. We're looking into deeper mysteries now - mysteries that a lot of people don't think we should be looking into,  because it undermines a lot of closely held beliefs. Bioconservatism is the belief that transhuman technologies and, to a lesser extent, anything beyond modern technology, is dangerous and poses a threat to us.

Remember Dune?

is a bioconservative society (to an extent; there's some hints a bioengineering throughout the novel, but the genetics at play appear to be Lamarckian.)

AIs and AGIs were banned, and to a larger extent, computers as a whole. This limits, drastically, what kind of technology you can have. In fact, there's a reason the Empire in Dune was in stasis. Now, this isn't to knock Dune - the first few books by Herbert had a point different from the exploring transhmanism or AI programs. Herbert was an ecologist and was concerned about the environment, and exploitation of resources - a very admirable concern, and it shows throughout the novel. He wasn't concerned about making a bioconservative statement.

The society of the Imperium of WH40k? That's both. You have some bioconserative ideologies at play, but there's a fair amount of transhumanism at work, too - the Mechanius of Mars and the Omnimessiah come to mind. Of course, that's not any transhumanism I'd want to partake of, mind you. The Techpriests are all sorts of weird. If someone wanted to take that approach, then I'd say more power to them. But that's not what I want to do.

The reason I bring up both of these is because you have a very prominent state that's used to enforce bioconservative positions. The Techpriests do not allow advancement beyond what they already have, and they're the sole proprietors of technology in the 40k universe. In Dune, you have a society controlled by an Emperor who has banned this stuff flat out, by religious decree. I could look at other examples from fiction, but in almost all of them, you see a situation where a state has been used to enforce the status quo, to keep things from "getting out of hand." And I don't even really need to look fiction, either - look at the argument that rages around stem cell research, when the potential for it is so large. The CNS cells do not regenerate - that's why when you're paralyzed you're paralyzed for life. This is a quirk of our evolution; somewhere along the way, the neuron cells in our CNS - our spine, nerves, and other parts of that system - lost the ability to regenerate. Stem cells turn into those cells, and those cells do regenerate in the womb. If we could figure out how this happens by experimenting on stem cells, then we can possibly figure out how to make the CNS cells regenerate, fighting degenerative diseases of the CNS and giving the paralyzed the ability to walk and move and feel again. This is just one of the uses that stem cell research promises. It also promises a cure for cancer, and hundreds of other biotechnological secrets. And yet, where are we with stem cell research?

It's fallen victim to the abortion debate. And as we all know, there's no way that you get out of that black hole. So it's not transhumans who are forcing anything on anyway: by taking their deranged and anti-woman, forced-birth position, this particular breed of bioconservative is literally holding back scientific advancement - and they're doing it with the aid of the state. These bioconservatives are forcing people who are paralyzed to remain paralyzed for the rest of their life, withholding the potential for a cure to cancer, and stalling scientific progress. There's talk about "adult stem cell research," but I'm not sure it's as effective as standard stem cell research is. So not only are they destroying the lives of the women that they force birth upon, these regressives are hurting thousands of other people, daily. Because the anti-choice, coat-hanger brigade forced-birth crew needed something else to make them look like a stain on society.

This isn't to say that all bioconservatives take that position, mind you - there's plenty of liberal biocons who support the woman's right to chose and would support stem cell research. Of course, being left-wing doens't guarantee that you'll accept everything that science discovers - for instance, the anti-vaxxers again, who are largely liberal or left-wing identifying. Do you think they'll give to these new advances, when instead they can have some appropriated version of traditional Chinese medicine practiced by a White guy or gal? Nope.

I also take the liberal approach, and I think there's a great many transhumanists who do. I would like to see people accept these advancements and make themselves better, but I don't see any reason to enforce it on people. I mean, you might be at a huge societal disadvantage because you're not as smart, fast, healthy, or pretty as your transhuman neighbor, but nobody is holding you down at gunpoint and forcing you to get these advances.
In his presentation at Wheaton College, Lawler offered a couple of examples of enhancement coercion. For his first example, he suggested that certain enhancements might make physicians more intelligent and surgeons more dexterous. Lawler admits that no one is forcing any doctor to use these enhancements. But he wondered, “Who will want to go to a 'bad' doctor?” Lawler thinks it obvious that any reasonable person would prefer to go to a doctor who is better able to diagnose and cure their patients because they have taken advantage of enhancements. The result is that doctors who don’t want to take enhancements will nevertheless be “forced” to do so if they want to continue to practice medicine.
Who indeed? If anything, Lawler is only making a case for transhumanism, in his claim that it will be "coerced" on people. Apparently Lawler thinks that once a doctor becomes transhuman and is smarter, faster, more dextrous and can work for 72 hours while only needing 2 hours of sleep to feel completely refreshed is a bad thing, and all those other doctors will loose their services unless they become transhuman as well.

Well, let's take a look at this. If you knew your doctor was better, more dextrous, smarter, and didn't require as much sleep or tire as easily as that other doctor over there did, who would you want to see in the ER room on a busy night? This isn't coercion. This is simple survival mechanics - if this guy has a better chance of keeping me alive, then yes, I want him. And eventually, the other doctors will adopt or die off. But nobody is dragging those doctors down and forcing them to get those advances. So he fails to understand what coercion means.
Lawler offered a second example of transhumanist “coercion” in which a moody professor believes that his morose character gives him “clues to who he really is.” The professor cherishes his downbeat personality because he believes that it tells him something important about the truth of the human condition. On the other hand, Lawler grants that the brooding professor is in fact not very productive and students avoid his classes. Meanwhile his colleagues are using safe modern pharmaceuticals to boost their brainpower and their sociability. Again, the pressure to be a productive teacher and a pleasant colleague will “force” the moody professor to take enhancements and his “authentic” insights into the dismal human condition will ebb from his consciousness.
Cognitive enhancements may or may not change the personality. Individuals do become different when under the influence of narcotics and drugs, because certain parts of he brain are affected. Ideally, a good nootropic wouldn't affect the individual's personality. In fact, most modern nootropics don't do that. Ginseng is a good example of a low-key, modern nootropic that lets you become more alert, more focused, and faster - but your personality doesn't change. Future cognitive enhancements and nootropics will be that and then some; again, your personality won't directly suffer for it. Instead, it will boost certain aspects of your perception, intelligence, and awareness, while avoiding changing you fundamentally.

His "second point" is no different from his first point - there's nobody forcing anyone to do anything. Instead, you have societal pressures at play, and those are different. You're not as fast or as intelligent as your neighbor is, so naturally, your neighbor will be far more productive than you could ever hope to be. Thus, your neighbor will be in a higher demand than you. These pressures from the greater society to "keep up" are little different from pressures to keep up with the latest technologies - to have the latest smart phone, or the most recent GPS in your car - because they help you work better an they enrich your life and enliven it in new ways. This technology is similar to that.

Biocons in a transhumanist society would be like the Amish in today's society (note: I came up with this one independently of the article. I just want that to be made know). The Amish segregate themselves because they can't keep up and they can't manage in today's world without accepting the technology that makes the world go around. They've realized this - that's why they're the driving force behind their own segregation, not the greater society. But nobody is storm Amish villages and shoving iPods and iPhones in their hands and telling them to use them, under threat of force.
Lawler also warned that parents would be “coerced” into enhancing their children. Again, if safe enhancements for improving minds and health are available, lots of parents would likely want to give these benefits to their children. Lawler argued that if, say, Mormons and Roman Catholics wanted to have babies the old-fashioned, unenhanced way, “we won’t let them do it.” Why not? Because enhanced people would regard “the stupid and disease-ridden Catholic babies as a risk to their own well-being.”
Again, one (hyphenated) word: Anti-vaxxers.

If we're not going to force something on people that actively benefits the larger society through it's presence - in this case, insuring herd immunity - then we're not going to enforce something on people that benefits the society only through individuals.

I do regard the anti-vaxxers as a risk to the greater society. But this is slightly different in the same sense in that if I'm immune to everything from cancer to the common cold, I don't have to worry about what happens to you. What happens to you affects you and you alone. If you chose to have "stupid and diseases-ridden ... babies", then have at it. The only people in danger of diseases are the babies and their parents. I right now am not immune to these diseases that the anti-vaxxers are damn determined to expose everyone to.

Lawler's definition of "freedom", then, is staying sick and relatively stupid. It's a form of freedom, I suppose - one from the freedom of advancements and the ability to choose what you do with your body, and how you enhance it. His definition of coercion echoes appeals to fear and the slipper slope - I've "debated" so many anti-Marriage Equality people to recognize this dog and pony show when it gets drawn out.

What it boils down to is fear, and appealing to fear and people's fear of advancements. And that's something that protectors of the status quo are very good at doing.

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