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IEET > Life > Vision > Futurism > Contributors > Samuel Kenyon

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Is Humanism False?


Samuel Kenyon
By Samuel Kenyon
synapticnulship.com

Posted: Jan 15, 2013

Perhaps what transhumanism should be is less of a cult of cults pretending that various science fictions are true and more of a science patch to humanism. Humanism already included science and learning in general.  So the patch is not to add science, but to fix its use and expectations in culture. To advance by tuning the dangerous oscillations out of the civilization-science feedback system.


Ryan Norbauer is pretty sure that:

"Not only are all religions manifestly false, but so too are all the secular narratives (humanism, positivism, liberalism, libertarianism) that, like religions, attempt to craft a system of positive values out of the epistemologically questionable notion that something can be transcendently and meaningfully true merely because it would be nice if that were the case. Reasoning by appeal to platitude or an implausible alternate-universe utopia is not reasoning at all. These facts may not delight us overmuch; they are still true."

Of course I agree with the religious part of that statement. Yet he also kills off humanism. I’m certainly not the kind of gung-ho replacement-religion humanist like Greg Epstein, but perhaps whatever humanism appeals to is better than the alternatives for society as a whole, even if an individual need not believe in any narratives.

And I’m not sure if humanism is a narrative. Of course, I’m not really a scholar in humanism—my Renaissance Man development is at the early stage of Renaissance Boy. I.e., I don’t go around claiming to be a polymath, but I claim to strive to be a polymath.

Certainly transhumanism is a narrative of the future—really several stories. A lot of transhumanists convert science fiction into prophecy and follow it religiously, thus reducing it to Norbauer’s description. Should we instead look to narratives of the past?

 

“Welcome to the twentieth century, out of which your century grew as surely as a column of black smoke grows from an oil fire.”
—Clive James

In the book Cultural Amnesia, Clive James wrote about how few philosophical thinkers in the nineteenth century would doubt that the extension of human knowledge, primarily through science, would produce a race of the enlightened to lead a life of “mathematically calculated justice.”

By now, after the twentieth century has done its cruel work, that is exactly what we doubt. The future of science, Renan’s cherished avenir de la science, can be assessed from our past, in which it flattened cities and gassed innocent children: whatever we don’t yet know about it, the thing we already know is that it is not necessarily benevolent. But somewhere within the total field of human knowledge, humanism still beckons to us as our best reason for having minds at all.

Poetic, but is humanism a reason? I suppose if we want to maintain civilization and culture then it is.

Learned books are published by the thousand, yet learning was never less trusted as something to be pursued for its own sake. Too often used for ill, it is now asked about its use for good, and usually on the assumption that any goodwill be measurable on a market, like a commodity.

If humanism that makes civilization civilized is to be preserved into this new century, it will need advocates. Those advocates will need a memory, and part of that memory will need to be of an age in which they were not yet alive.

Perhaps what transhumanism should be is less of a cult of cults pretending that various science fictions are true and more of a science patch to humanism. Humanism already included science and learning in general.  So the patch is not to add science, but to fix its use and expectations in culture. To advance by tuning the dangerous oscillations out of the civilization-science feedback system.

Images:
http://nuclearmichael.blogspot.com/2011/04/transhuman-wallpapers.html


Samuel H. Kenyon is a lead software engineer at iRobot Corp. in Massachusetts, where he develops mobile robots and human-robot interfaces. In addition, he researches interfaces and cognitive architectures, especially involving emotions, learning, common sense, and collaboration. He has a B.S. from Northeastern University.
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COMMENTS


I have been following this blog for some years now, and I will say that this is one of my favourite posts. As my students well know, I often critique the transhumanists for their fervour, even if I am sympathetic to some (but few) of their arguments. Sam Kenyon is to be lauded for hitting the nail on the head - most notably with regards to the observation that transhumanists regularly pretend ‘that various science fictions are true’, which weakens their arguments with regularity, but also for reminding us all that we should be looking for ways to align advances in technology with our values. By suggesting humanism as the key driver of that discussion, Sam does a service to the ongoing debate.





I don’t see how one can lump in religions, which make falsifiable (and falsified) descriptive claims as well as prescriptive claims (based on the falsified descriptive claims), with secular narratives which by and large only make prescriptive claims, against a descriptive backdrop that was settled centuries ago. Transhumanism merely goes farther than these other secular narratives by extending the Copernican principle to its logical conclusion in dissolving any last vestiges of magical thinking separating humanity from the rest of the universe, and seeing the bountiful opportunity that such fluidity promises.





Samuel, good to see you here at IEET!

Max More attempted to differentiate Trans-humanism from Transhuman-ism, (and at MTA last year?) I favour the former which is more all encompassing, (Humanitarian), and arguably less elitist and meta-morphic?

Let the new, (or old, or continuing?) renaissance unfold, in many ways I do believe we are all soberly technically-progressing humanism ideals without too much wishful speculation, (mind uploading aside that is?)





@Peter B. Reiner:

most notably with regards to the observation that transhumanists regularly pretend ‘that various science fictions are true’

I love science fiction. And I’m a transhumanist. But I am amazed how the excitement of a science fictional narrative becoming true hooks some transhumanists not only into believing it like some kind of prophecy (and that there are such things as prophecies), but also that they start limiting their minds to only that one possible future amongst myriad others.

reminding us all that we should be looking for ways to align advances in technology with our values.

Yes…and also remain critical to those values and how relative they are.

By suggesting humanism as the key driver of that discussion, Sam does a service to the ongoing debate.

I did? The different interpretations of this here and on another website where I posted this are all over the place. You could be right that it should be a driver of discussion. Or perhaps we can strip away the “ism” point of view and just discuss expectations vs. results regardless of who was what “ist”, e.g. science and knowledge and technology seemed great and then we exterminated millions of people with it. So let’s make a future with the science/knowledge/tech but without all the extermination. Or focus on the false hopes, and so on.





@SHaGGGz:

I don’t see how one can lump in religions, which make falsifiable (and falsified) descriptive claims as well as prescriptive claims (based on the falsified descriptive claims), with secular narratives which by and large only make prescriptive claims

Well that’s sort of what caught my attention with Norbauer’s statement. It almost seems silly to make a boolean question like this. One defense is that humanism and transhumanism could be false because they use fictional narratives in the place of plans.

A humanist minister informed me (after reading this blog post) that it doesn’t make sense to say humanism is false because it is “A choice to apply ourselves toward certain goals in order to move closer toward the kind of world in which we (who sign on) wish to live.”

One of my friends on Science 2.0 assumed the boolean was on the premise of the codification of human behavior. Yet another thought it meant whether humanism “as a call to action that promises a good outcome for humans is inconsistent (false in that it is the false move for what it wants to achieve).”

 





@CygnusX1:

Samuel, good to see you here at IEET!

Thanks. I drop by every couple years.

Max More attempted to differentiate Trans-humanism from Transhuman-ism,

That doesn’t surprise me. But thanks for that concept. And certainly many others in the past have compared or tried to link humanism and transhumanism. Meanwhile a lot of transhumanists and/or AI aficionados (as far as I can tell) remain cheerfully disconnected from humanism.

Let the new, (or old, or continuing?) renaissance unfold, in many ways I do believe we are all soberly technically-progressing humanism ideals without too much wishful speculation, (mind uploading aside that is?)

Cheers! But really, wishful speculation is great for motivation. Syncing that with reality is a different story. I would never try to squash somebody’s dreams that might result in a major innovation—but your dreams may end up very different in reality, although maybe just as radical.





Thanks for posting. After reading this, I’m curious why the author is self identified as a transhumanist, the answer seems to be in @CygnusX1’s comment.

I was trained in fine arts with liberal studies in philosophy. While I’ve always (as long as I can remember) been negotiating with media and technology I was never formally trained (indoctrinated?) by a hard objectivist discipline (like physics). It has always been clear to me (from critical studies and feminism) that the world we know is a world constructed by both reality, and our own desires and expectations.

I don’t certainly don’t identify myself as a transhumanist (of either type), because I think that the major feature of humanity is our ability to abstract away from details to execute complex actions where much detail (what we are actually doing) becomes unconscious and implicit. I think animals can do the same, just not to the same extent. This internalization and our ability to use the abstraction in place of the details makes us susceptible to perceiving our expectations over sensorial reality. What we expect, and the abstractions (concepts) themselves are a function of our culture.

Our culture is then central to how we construct and perceive the world (and ourselves). All technology does is reflect our cultural values, and often a small culture of innovators. In order to develop our technology, we need to look first at our culture. The primary site of developing/criticizing/integrating technology should be culturally aware. If technology is a reflection of culture, then there is no strict divide.

Of course there is no single monolithic culture, we have many different values, languages and ways of looking at the world. Our technology should reflect this diversity, rather than being a reflection of (only) western-world, privileged, educated and even Utopian culture where everything can be solved with novel technology. My main criticism of this culture is the constant obsession with “progress”, which to some degree implies the ever increasing consumption of resources.

We can only be virtuosic in stable contexts, because it takes many years to gain the experience to be virtuosic. Perhaps we can think of virtuosity as the ability to operate a technology in relation to culture at multiple levels of abstraction simultaneously. If our technology keeps changing so drastically and so quickly, we’re missing out on really exploiting those technologies, because by the time we’re really good at using them (making culture with them), they are already obsolete. So if culture is the root of technology, then we should be aiming for stability and not progress. We should not be aiming to improve the quality of life (QOL) of everyone, we should determine a stable and sustainable QOL than we can all have. That means bringing up the QOL, but also likely pushing down the QOL of others, in particular us privileged, educated first world that are pushing progress.

Should our future be based on modernist ideals that say we can all have everything we want, or should we grow up and consider that for us to have a future, we may need to be content with less, and not more.





This is a great post. You seem to be seconding some thoughts I have regarding transhumanism, Samuel, but I want to know if we are on the same page or if I am merely reading you through my own distorted lens.

One of the things that has bothered me about transhumanism has been religious elements like the ones you describe. Any talk of “immortality” or “mind up loading” or the idea that we are predetermined to reach some sort of technological nirvana raise my religious alarm bells. It seems to me that this rather individualistic focus on PERSONAL immortality and an absolute break between the “post- human” species of our near future and the human species of today held by some transhumanists leads to a break in the continuity of us and the past, a break in the continuity between human beings in the rich world who will be the first to experience the Singularity or what-have-you and those such as the billion in places like India and Africa that lack technology such as the indoor toilets, and it leads to a break between human beings and the natural world.

Transhumanism might find its ethical bearings if it took its goals not from religious aspirations but from the understanding of science that we are a limited species who can only survive, whose
history can only be preserved, whose conditions can only be improved and broadly shared, if we pool together and make it our goal to do so.

This is my view, but is it one you largely share?





@Rick Searle
Well you’ve just listed a lot of the key issues that the technoprogressive IEET has been discussing for many years, such as problems with transhumanism, where in the political spectrum one can fall, the importance of making enhancements universally accessible, etc. This is exactly the place where people are who share your concerns if not also your “view”.

Any talk of “immortality” or “mind up loading” or the idea that we are predetermined to reach some sort of technological nirvana raise my religious alarm bells.

Let’s take immortality and mind uploading out of your simple categorization there and I will comment just on the nirvana alarm bell: The religious-like beliefs/behavior of some transhumanists in regards to the technological nirvana, especially the “Rapture of the nerds” of Singularitarians, has been pointed out by many for at least ten years.

I actually thought that kind of thing might go away a couple years ago, but it hasn’t. And I’ve started seeing new kinds of religiosity, such as the Hawkins and Kurzweil AI cultists who occasionally make comments on my Science 2.0 blog and inform me of THE ONE TRUE WAY to AI and the exact years in which it will be “revealed”. Part of that is what I mentioned in my blog post—why be limited to a single future narrative?





Right on, Samuel! Your idea of multiple futures being open to us really resonates with me.

And thanks for following my blog. If you ever catch me or others not knowing what they’re talking about in terms of AI, robotics and the like I’d love your input, and on any other subject as well.

I’d follow yours in return- it looks great- but it seems you’ve had the good sense to not include a follow button.





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