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On the Templeton Foundation’s “Engaging Transhumanism”

I am examining the articles on transhumanism in the current issue of The Global Spiral , an online magazine published by the Metanexus Institute. The articles in the issue were presented at a research conference on transhumanism in April 2008, at Arizona State University (ASU), funded by the Templeton Foundation. The Templeton Foundation also supports Metanexus Institute.

The first article is, in fact, an editorial/introduction by Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, a professor of history at ASU and director of the ASU/Templeton project on transhumanism, who (according to her linked bio) specialises in such subjects as premodern Jewish intellectual history, Judaism and science, Judaism and ecology, and feminist philosophy. Tirosh-Samuelson had the responsibility of putting together the special issue.

Thus, the issue contains a total of six pieces: her editorial plus five pieces by the respective presenters (Don Ihde, Jean Pierre Dupuy, Katherine Hayles, Andrew Pickering, and Ted Peters - I’ll describe these people briefly in later posts). As Tirosh-Samuelson puts it:

In this workshop, transhumanism was engaged by a philosopher of science and technology trained in the phenomenological tradition (Don Ihde); a sociologist, cognitive scientist, and cultural critic (Jean-Pierre Dupuy); a literary critic (Katherine Hayles); a philosopher and sociologist of science (Andrew Pickering); and a Christian theologian (Ted Peters). Engaging transhumanism from different perspectives, some more critically than others, the contributors agree that transhumanism merits a serious examination rather than cursory dismissal.

Much of the editorial is given over to a (quite detailed) discussion of the articles that follow. It may be necessary for me to come back to this discussion in later posts, as and when I deal with the merits of the specific articles, but I will not respond to it for now. For the moment, I’ll work on the basis that Tirosh-Samuelson conveys the content of the other five articles reasonably accurately. I’m more interested in her own discussion of the phenomenon of transhumanism, some of which strikes me as quite accurate, while other parts appear ignorant or obtuse. I’ll pass quickly over the piece’s prose style, which is horribly clunky. Please blame her, not me, for the stylistic attributes of any quotes from her piece, such as this one, which will also give a good idea of her (not unexpected) supernaturalist bias:

To properly assess transhumanism, it must be situated historically and culturally and interrogated philosophically and theologically.

Just why it is necessary to interrogate transhumanism “philosophically and theologically” [my emphasis] is not made apparent. Insight can come from strange places, of course, and while theology may be one of the strangest - dealing as it does in speculations about the character and motivations of a non-existent supernatural being - I’m happy to give the theologians their say (as long as they don’t try to impose their moral and political views on the rest of us, as is so often the case). So by all means let transhumanism be studied and “interrogated” from a theological perspective - but also from the perspectives of the hard sciences, law, medicine, economics, sociology, mythography, literary criticism, art history, urban planning, ceramic design, tourism studies, sports administration, and so on. Theology is not privileged over any of these. Indeed, theologians are about the last people we should offer any deference to when they criticise the worldviews of others.

However, I’ll pass over all that to consider the more specific points made by Tirosh-Samuelson. I must say that she actually starts off quite well, ascribing the word “transhumanism” to Julian Huxley (I believe this is correct), and then adding:

Today the term “transhumanism” denotes a cluster of futuristic scenarios in which science and technology will remediate the miseries of the human condition and usher in a new age in the evolution of humans, the posthuman age.

On one interpretation, this seems about right. Charitably interpreted, she is saying that transhumanism is not one thing but a cluster of logically separate things - even if they are sometimes found together. In fact, it is probably reasonable to think of transhumanism as a broad movement whose members envisage a wide range of scenarios for the future but have in common a strong element of technological meliorism in their thinking - and, more specifically, a positive attitude to the use of technology to alter the human body for the purposes of physical and cognitive enhancement. Whether or not all transhumanist thinkers have specific “scenarios” in mind, Tirosh-Samuelson seems, in the early part of her editorial, to acknowledge the protean nature of the movement. Unfortunately, she tends to forget this later on when she makes many dubious generalisations about what “transhumanists” think - but let’s give her credit where it’s due. (But perhaps the problem is that it’s not really due; perhaps she means something less reasonable and plausible than I have taken her as saying.)

She goes on to observe that transhumanists see the human species as “no more than a ‘work in progress’”. This, she thinks, is because they see Homo sapiens as in a relatively early phase of evolution in which we are enslaved by genetic programming that destines us “to experience pain, disease, stupidity, aging, and death.”

This doesn’t seem too far wrong. Anybody who seriously identifies as a transhumanist is likely to envisage that technology can (to some greater or lesser extent) and should (at least to some extent and in some circumstances) go inward, transforming us in accordance with our own designs, and thus enabling something like a technologically-mediated evolution of the species. That idea is, indeed, implicit in the name of the journal that I edit, The Journal of Evolution and Technology. It is, I submit, an idea whose time has come - it is increasingly plausible, defensible, and familiar. However, it is also an idea that merits scrutiny from all possible viewpoints (yes, even theological ones).

So far, so good - but Tirosh-Samuelson starts to go off the rails about here:

Bioengineering and genetic enhancement will [according to transhumanists] bring about the posthuman age in which humans will live longer, will possess new physical and cognitive abilities, and will be liberated from suffering and pain due to aging and disease; moreover, humans will even conquer the ultimate enemy—death—by attaining “cognitive immortality,” that is, the downloading of the human software (i.e., the mind) into artificially intelligent machines that will continue to exist long after the individual human has perished.

I must say, first of all, that this is not wildly wrong. Indeed, it may well match the visions of some, or even many, transhumanists. More than that, it may a reasonable description of what could be called “popular transhumanism”, the kind that is encountered on many websites and doubtless has a large number of enthusiastic adherents.

However, no elaborate scholarship or massive research program of team research was needed to uncover the existence of such a position. The more interesting point that Tirosh-Samuelson failed to discover was that many people within, or associated with, the transhumanist movement would question the vision of the future that she has sketched. Moderately deep research should, in fact, have led Tirosh-Samuelson to find the wide variety of opinion among transhumanists and their allies. In particular, it should have identified passionate disagreements about the realism of the scenario that Tirosh-Samuelson conveys, particularly in regard to such questions as whether any form of personality uploading (or downloading) onto a computational substrate is ever likely to be technologically possible ... and, even if so, whether it is likely to take a form that preserves personal identity and/or constitutes personal survival (in, say, the sense discussed and elaborated by Derek Parfit).

So Tirosh-Samuelson has now gone wrong in taking what she initially described as a “cluster of scenarios” and transforming it into a particular scenario that is controversial within the transhumanist movement. One possible, or perhaps impossible, scenario is presented as somehow the transhumanist scenario for the future.

After this, it gets worse, so much so that it becomes difficult to take any of the author’s pronouncements seriously.

For example, Tirosh-Samuelson gives a garbled account of the much-vaunted technological singularity that some self-described transhumanists hope for. She seems to imagine that this hypothetical development has been labeled the singularity because it “will be so unique” (I warned you about her prose: something is either unique or it isn’t - there are no comparative degrees of uniqueness or uniquity or uniquedtude). Of course, the term “singularity” denotes a mathematical concept that is explained in almost any serious discussion. More importantly, many transhumanists and others who discuss the concept do not conceive of the singularity in the way that she describes, as the emergence of a particular group of technologies. For example, some describe it merely as a boundary to our ability to imagine the future with any confidence. Others in the transhumanist camp are sceptical about the whole concept. But Tirosh-Samuelson appears to be unaware of any of this.

Indeed, the main thing that is wrong with the piece is not a lack of familiarity with a certain popular form of transhumanism that could (I suppose) be abstracted from Simon Young’s Designer Evolution. The latter is an unpopular book among most actual transhumanists I know, but Tirosh-Samuelson takes it as a kind of bible of the movement. By giving it this status, she produces a distorted view of what the transhumanist movement is all about. But more important is her article’s lack of something that the opening paragraph promised: an ability to engage with nuance.

She is led, though who knows why, to such bizarre conclusions as the following:

Placing the unlimited human potential (rather than the human as a currently lived experience) at the center of its outlook, transhumanism is also critical of contemporary environmentalism and its concern for respect toward other species and its resistance to massive human intervention in nature, through bioengineering of plants, heavy logging, industrial pollution, unrestricted consumerism, and many other undesirable activities.

This is so thoroughly wrongheaded that it’s difficult to know where to begin. It is, of course, true, that transhumanists don’t valorise anything that might appropriately be called “the human as a currently lived experience”. That is because they agree that human experience, as it has been known historically, can be improved upon. However, it by no means follows that transhumanists tend to be critical of respect for other species (where on Earth did that come from?). Nor does it follow that they are uncritical of such actions as heavy logging and industrial pollution. It doesn’t even follow that they are uncritical of the bioengineering of plants or unrestricted consumerism - though it is difficult to see what these are doing in the same list. They are all separate issues: someone could be in favour of bioengineering plants in some circumstances (it’s not obvious why it should be labeled, without any argument, as an undesirable activity), while also opposing the logging of old-growth forests. The issues are largely independent of each other. Someone could accept some aspects of what is known as “unrestricted consumerism” (whatever that tendentious expression really means) while at the same time favouring at least those restrictions that are necessary to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Again, there are independent issues here, even if there are also some links, and transhumanists are as capable of thinking clearly about these different issues as anyone else.

Again, Tirosh-Samuelson claims that the following describes transhumanism:

From a transhumanist perspective, radical environmentalism is misguided because it erases the moral differences between humans and other animals and because it invests nature with inherent moral values. The evolutionary process is not directionless but purposeful, life is not an accident but an evolutionary inevitability, and humanity is “not a twig on the bush of life, but the peak of evolutionary complexification on earth due to the incredible power of the human brain.”

The final quote is attributed to Young, and the view she is describing may well be Young’s. However, once again, it’s difficult to know where to start in sorting out this intellectual mess. Even the expression “radical environmentalism” is ambiguous, so it is not clear just what position Tirosh-Samuelson imagines transhumanists must oppose. The fact is that there are many more-or-less radical environmentalists positions, such the one advocated by Peter Singer, that can be as attractive to transhumanists as to anyone else. Perhaps there is some tension between transhumanism and certain deep green positions that claim the wilderness is objectively and non-instrumentally valuable, but I see nothing in transhumanism that rules out such a position - one could believe such a thing while also believing such core transhumanist propositions as that it is morally desirable to use technology to enhance human capacities and ameliorate the human condition.

If I were to go through all the errors in Tirosh-Samuelson’s article, it would take me a long time to list them (and defend my claim that they are errors). For example, transhumanists are not necessarily opposed to religion, even theistic religion involving an interventionist deity. My own view is that organised religion is largely pernicious in its contemporary influence - particularly its political influence - and I do see a definite tension between transhumanist ideas and many traditional religious ones (particularly those that see God as having created an immutable and sacred natural order). Nonetheless, there are many religious positions that are not inconsistent with ideas of (e.g.) enhancing human capacities. It is quite open to transhumanists to adopt such positions.

Nor is transhumanism necessarily opposed to the claim that human beings have a specific evolved nature, as Tirosh-Samuelson appears to think. Perhaps there is some tendency for transhumanists to underestimate how difficult it will be to alter aspects of human nature that they consider undesirable, but nothing about transhumanism demands that its ambitions be capable of easy achievement. Nor is transhumanism committed to such dubious claims as that the development of humanlike intelligence was an inevitable outcome of biological evolution or that the picture of life on Earth as a “bush” with no objectively highest point is wrong. No such claims are required to adopt the radical technological meliorism that is at the heart of transhumanism.

In short, Tirosh-Samuelson has begun her Global Spiral editorial with some (arguably) useful observations about the nature of the transhumanist movement, but quickly fallen into the trap of associating certain quite specific ideas that are controversial among transhumanist with transhumanism itself - something quite protean and contested. As a result, she does a disservice to both the movement and her readers - to the movement because she suggests that transhumanism is incompatible with many popular (e.g. religious) or intellectually supported (e.g. scientific and moral) ideas, and to her readers because she will leave them with a distorted idea of a movement that they may actually want to learn something about.

This editorial doesn’t bode well for the rest of the magazine or the associated research program. Tomorrow, we’ll begin to see how much the other contributors know what they’re talking about.

Russell Blackford Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, an attorney, science fiction author and critic, philosopher, and public intellectual. Dr. Blackford serves as editor-in-chief of the IEET's Journal of Evolution and Technology. He lives in Newcastle, Australia, where he is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle.



COMMENTS

Hi, Dr. Russell Blackford. In your above article you state that God is nonexistent. Actually, God has been proven to exist based upon the most reserved view of the known laws of physics. For much more on that, see Prof. Frank J. Tipler’s below paper, which among other things demonstrates that the known laws of physics (i.e., the Second Law of Thermodynamics, general relativity, quantum mechanics, and the Standard Model of particle physics) require that the universe end in the Omega Point (the final cosmological singularity and state of infinite informational capacity identified as being God):

F. J. Tipler, “The structure of the world from pure numbers,” Reports on Progress in Physics, Vol. 68, No. 4 (April 2005), pp. 897-964. http://math.tulane.edu/~tipler/theoryofeverything.pdf Also released as “Feynman-Weinberg Quantum Gravity and the Extended Standard Model as a Theory of Everything,” arXiv:0704.3276, April 24, 2007. http://arxiv.org/abs/0704.3276

Out of 50 articles, Prof. Tipler’s above paper was selected as one of 12 for the “Highlights of 2005” accolade as “the very best articles published in Reports on Progress in Physics in 2005 [Vol. 68]. Articles were selected by the Editorial Board for their outstanding reviews of the field. They all received the highest praise from our international referees and a high number of downloads from the journal Website.” (See Richard Palmer, Publisher, “Highlights of 2005,” Reports on Progress in Physics. http://www.iop.org/EJ/journal/-page=extra.highlights/0034-4885 ) Reports on Progress in Physics is the leading journal of the Institute of Physics, Britain’s main professional body for physicists.

Further, Reports on Progress in Physics has a higher impact factor (according to Journal Citation Reports) than Physical Review Letters, which is the most prestigious American physics journal (one, incidently, which Prof. Tipler has been published in more than once). A journal’s impact factor reflects the importance the science community places in that journal in the sense of actually citing its papers in their own papers. (And just to point out, Tipler’s 2005 Reports on Progress in Physics paper could not have been published in Physical Review Letters since said paper is nearly book-length, and hence not a “letter” as defined by the latter journal.)

See also the below resources for further information on the Omega Point Theory:

Theophysics http://geocities.com/theophysics/

“Omega Point (Tipler),” Wikipedia, April 16, 2008 http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Omega_Point_(Tipler)&oldid=206077125

“Frank J. Tipler,” Wikipedia, April 16, 2008 http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Frank_J._Tipler&oldid=205920802

Tipler is Professor of Mathematics and Physics (joint appointment) at Tulane University. His Ph.D. is in the field of global general relativity (the same rarefied field that Profs. Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking developed), and he is also an expert in particle physics and computer science. His Omega Point Theory has been published in a number of prestigious peer-reviewed physics and science journals in addition to Reports on Progress in Physics, such as Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (one of the world’s leading astrophysics journals), Physics Letters B, the International Journal of Theoretical Physics, etc.

Prof. John A. Wheeler (the father of most relativity research in the U.S.) wrote that “Frank Tipler is widely known for important concepts and theorems in general relativity and gravitation physics” on pg. viii in the “Foreword” to The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (1986) by cosmologist Prof. John D. Barrow and Tipler, which was the first book wherein Tipler’s Omega Point Theory was described. On pg. ix of said book, Prof. Wheeler wrote that Chapter 10 of the book, which concerns the Omega Point Theory, “rivals in thought-provoking power any of the [other chapters].”

The leading quantum physicist in the world, Prof. David Deutsch (inventor of the quantum computer, being the first person to mathematically describe the workings of such a device, and winner of the Institute of Physics’ 1998 Paul Dirac Medal and Prize for his work), endorses the physics of the Omega Point Theory in his book The Fabric of Reality (1997). For that, see:

David Deutsch, extracts from Chapter 14: “The Ends of the Universe” of The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes—and Its Implications (London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1997), ISBN: 0713990619; with additional comments by Frank J. Tipler. http://geocities.com/theophysics/deutsch-ends-of-the-universe.html

The only way to avoid the Omega Point cosmology is to invent tenuous physical theories which have no experimental support and which violate the known laws of physics, such as with Prof. Stephen Hawking’s paper on the black hole information issue which is dependant on the conjectured string theory-based anti-de Sitter space/conformal field theory correspondence (AdS/CFT correspondence). See S. W. Hawking, “Information loss in black holes,” Physical Review D, Vol. 72, No. 8, 084013 (October 2005); also at arXiv:hep-th/0507171, July 18, 2005. http://arxiv.org/abs/hep-th/0507171

That is, Prof. Hawking’s paper is based upon proposed, unconfirmed physics. It’s an impressive testament to the Omega Point Theory’s correctness, as Hawking implicitly confirms that the known laws of physics require the universe to collapse in finite time. Hawking realizes that the black hole information issue must be resolved without violating unitarity, yet he’s forced to abandon the known laws of physics in order to avoid unitarity violation without the universe collapsing.

Some have suggested that the universe’s current acceleration of its expansion obviates the universe collapsing (and therefore obviates the Omega Point). But as Profs. Lawrence M. Krauss and Michael S. Turner point out in “Geometry and Destiny” (General Relativity and Gravitation, Vol. 31, No. 10 [October 1999], pp. 1453-1459; also at arXiv:astro-ph/9904020, April 1, 1999 http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/9904020 ), there is no set of cosmological observations which can tell us whether the universe will expand forever or eventually collapse.

There’s a very good reason for that, because that is dependant on the actions of intelligent life. The known laws of physics provide the mechanism for the universe’s collapse. As required by the Standard Model, the net baryon number was created in the early universe by baryogenesis via electroweak quantum tunneling. This necessarily forces the Higgs field to be in a vacuum state that is not its absolute vacuum, which is the cause of the positive cosmological constant. But if the baryons in the universe were to be annihilated by the inverse of baryogenesis, again via electroweak quantum tunneling (which is allowed in the Standard Model, as B - L is conserved), then this would force the Higgs field toward its absolute vacuum, cancelling the positive cosmological constant and thereby forcing the universe to collapse. Moreover, this process would provide the ideal form of energy resource and rocket propulsion during the colonization phase of the universe.

Prof. Tipler’s above 2005 Reports on Progress in Physics paper also demonstrates that the correct quantum gravity theory has existed since 1962, first discovered by Richard Feynman in that year, and independently discovered by Steven Weinberg and Bryce DeWitt, among others. But because these physicists were looking for equations with a finite number of terms (i.e., derivatives no higher than second order), they abandoned this qualitatively unique quantum gravity theory since in order for it to be consistent it requires an arbitrarily higher number of terms. Further, they didn’t realize that this proper theory of quantum gravity is consistent only with a certain set of boundary conditions imposed (which includes the initial Big Bang, and the final Omega Point, cosmological singularities). The equations for this theory of quantum gravity are term-by-term finite, but the same mechanism that forces each term in the series to be finite also forces the entire series to be infinite (i.e., infinities that would otherwise occur in spacetime, consequently destabilizing it, are transferred to the cosmological singularities, thereby preventing the universe from immediately collapsing into nonexistence). As Tipler notes in his 2007 book The Physics of Christianity (pp. 49 and 279), “It is a fundamental mathematical fact that this [infinite series] is the best that we can do. ... This is somewhat analogous to Liouville’s theorem in complex analysis, which says that all analytic functions other than constants have singularities either a finite distance from the origin of coordinates or at infinity.”

When combined with the Standard Model, the result is the Theory of Everything (TOE) correctly describing and unifying all the forces in physics.

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