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IEET > Rights > FreeThought > Life > Contributors > Michael Anissimov

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Dr. Pinker Lays the Smackdown on Leon Kass

Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov
Accelerating Future

Posted: May 14, 2008

Leon Kass, the scientific community frowns on your deathist shenanigans and paternalistic tomfoolery.  We will continue to denounce your anti-freedom, control-freak bioethical views until the day your theocon allies are booted out of the White House, which will occur on January 20, 2009.  Enjoy your eight months.

I’ve been sniping at Leon Kass since I joined the online life extension community in 2001.  “Objections to Immortality: Answering Leon Kass” was one of my first life extension advocacy works.  In 2004, my paper was discussed by Tihamer Toth-Fejel at the 1st Conference on Advanced Nanotechnology in Washington, DC, in his presentation, A Critical Look at Leon Kass and Transhumanists on Ageless Bodies.

That’s why it’s exciting to have prestigious cognitive scientist Dr. Steven Pinker, author of what is possibly the best book on evolutionary psychology ever written, How the Mind Works, come join the fray.  In The Stupidity of Dignity, published a couple weeks ago at The New Republic, Dr. Pinker sees right through Kass’ hyper-theological, far-right, intolerant, paternalistic bioethics.

Pinker presents several good reasons for why the concept of “dignity”, an all-purpose freedom-restricting platitude used by theocons in America’s capital at and at the Vatican alike, is not very useful in bioethics.  He pokes fun at the recent, laugh-out-loud 555-page volume, Human Dignity and Bioethics, writing, “Although the Dignity report presents itself as a scholarly deliberation of universal moral concerns, it springs from a movement to impose a radical political agenda, fed by fervent religious impulses, onto American biomedicine.”  Fortunately for America and the world, mainstream bioethicists will have none of it. According to Pinker, many of the Dignity contributors are hot under the collar about the bioethicist Ruth Macklin, writer of a recent editorial in British Medical Journal, Dignity is a Useless Concept, making her “the villain of almost every piece”.  But it doesn’t take a professor of bioethics to see why the “dignity” of Kass and the Vatican is a concept that can be molded into pretty much whatever the writer wants it to be.  A bright High School student could do it as a weekend project.

In his piece, Pinker exposes us to the ludicrousness of the report, sparing us from slogging through its 555 mind-numbing pages.  Pinker writes, “the volume finds room for seven essays that align their arguments with Judeo-Christian doctrine. We read passages that assume the divine authorship of the Bible, that accept the literal truth of the miracles narrated in Genesis (such as the notion that the biblical patriarchs lived up to 900 years), that claim that divine revelation is a source of truth, that argue for the existence of an immaterial soul separate from the physiology of the brain, and that assert that the Old Testament is the only grounds for morality.”  Pinker also included my favorite Kass quote — the one about how eating ice cream in public makes us no different than animals.  You can’t make this stuff up. Having naysayers like Kass makes being an advocate of life extension both fun and easy.  However, just because Kass and company are off the deep end does not mean that there aren’t valid concerns about the ethics of life extension.  That’s why Aubrey de Grey is organizing the evening session “Aging: the Disease, the Cure, the Implications” next month in Los Angeles.  Why transhumanists and other forward-looking thinkers have discussions in journals and on blogs, such as this one, about the ethics of this whole project.  Although radical life extension will not radically increase the population over what it would otherwise be (population expands exponentially either way), our lifestyles with the current manufacturing base are indeed unsustainable, which is why we must invest in clean manufacturing processes, like nanomanufacturing, and low-waste or no-waste power sources, like solar thermal, thorium reactors, and nuclear fusion.

When George W. Bush is ejected from the White House and replaced with Barack Obama, Kass’ time in the sun will be over.  He will continue to age, all the while denying medical treatments that could extend his life, until he presumably dies.  However, I would welcome a discussion with Leon Kass in the year 2050 or beyond.  Dr. Kass, if you ever come around and take advantage of rejuvenation therapies, in which billions of dollars are already being invested, don’t be afraid to drop us life extensionists a line.  We’ll be waiting, having fun and enjoying life.

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Molecular biology is now expanding at an explosive pace. What would happen if we were to push the rate of progress just that little bit more?

Meet the real life alliance of engineers, scientists, philanthropists and volunteer fund raisers all of whom have but one thing in common. None of whom want to have an appointment with the grave or the furnace several decades from as of today.

De Grey is a man with a mission. Consider this improbable scenario: a hitherto unknown Cambridge scientist realises he holds the key to saving the lives of countless millions. What is he to do? In that situation what would YOU do? This is not some improbable science-fiction scenario. This is here and right now.
I for one do not want to die

The Race is ON!

“What’s likely to happen within the next 20 to 25, 30 years, we will develop technology that will buy a bit of time. We will develop rejuvenation technology that can be applied to people that are already middle-age and keep them middle-age, or less so to speak, for another 20 or 30 years. During that 20 or 30 years, the technology will be further advanced to give them another, let’s say, 15 years, and so on.”
-Aubrey de Grey:  chief science officer. Methuselah Foundation

Let’s Roll!

I have a fear and it’s genetic colonialism. What do you think of it. Would you sale the world, as people sold it with fuel policies? Would we need to look for the best policy to exploit this wonderful resource? Human being and genetics?

Two brilliant essays by Pinker and Anissimov. However, the notion that Obama will win the Presidency is premature. Obama has not (as of May 17, 2008) yet received the Democratic nomination. Although he probably will get nominated, winning the general election is another matter. McCain has many years of political and military experience. Obama will have only four years in the Senate by January 2009 (and he has spent two years campaigning for the Presidency). Once the primaries are over, Obama’s shine will fade.

Although McCain frustrates many conservatives, it is unlikely that those conservatives will support Obama or stay home on election day, for no other reason than Obama being more unpalatable to them than McCain.

McCain falls outside of conventional Republican norms, so I don’t know what his bioethics policy will be. I don’t know what Obama’s bioethics policy will be, either, but it is likely that it will not include the likes of Kass, Fukuyama, Callahan, etc., and I could vote for Obama on that reason alone. However, with the exception of bioethics, I lean conservative. If it were not for the President’s Council on Bioethics (as well as totally botching the Iraq war) I could conceivably be a Bush supporter, albeit a very reluctant one.

Mr. Anissimov—you refer to Dr. Kass’s work as “hyper-theological” in the above summary.  Say what you will about his work in bioethics or anywhere else, but his work is hardly theological.  Even his work on Genesis stays adroitly philosophical, intently shying away from a partisan perspective on any matters of doctrinal or sectarian difference.

That you label him such indicates to me that you haven’t read his work carefully.  Dr. Kass is no knee-jerk religious nutcase.  He comes to his reflections by means of careful analysis of a variety of philosophical texts.

Do yourself a favor and read this interview:  Show me where all the religious influence is—where the partisan, doctrinal influence takes over.  It’s simply not there.  His work is philosophical, not beholden to any one specific religious worldview. 

You cheapen your own analysis and summary by failing to show that you understand the influences on this man’s reflections.

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