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Skeptical of the Ideas Proposed by Transhumanists?
Lincoln Cannon   Aug 7, 2012   Lincoln Metacannon  

Are you skeptical of the ideas proposed by Transhumanists? Perhaps you have something in common with the folks quoted below:

“..so many centuries after the Creation it is unlikely that anyone could find hitherto unknown lands of any value.” - committee advising Ferdinand and Isabella regarding Columbus’ proposal, 1486

“I would sooner believe that two Yankee professors lied, than that stones fell from the sky” - Thomas Jefferson, 1807 on hearing an eyewitness report of falling meteorites.

“Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You’re crazy.” - Drillers who Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist to his project to drill for oil in 1859.

“Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.” - Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872

“The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon.” - Sir John Eric Ericksen, British surgeon, appointed Surgeon-Extraordinary to Queen Victoria 1873.

“Such startling announcements as these should be depreciated as being unworthy of science and mischievous to to its true progress” - Sir William Siemens, 1880, on Edison’s announcement of a successful light bulb.

“We are probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy.” - Simon Newcomb, astronomer, 1888

“Fooling around with alternating current is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever.” - Thomas Edison, 1889

“The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote…. Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.” - physicist Albert. A. Michelson, 1894

“It is apparent to me that the possibilities of the aeroplane, which two or three years ago were thought to hold the solution to the [flying machine] problem, have been exhausted, and that we must turn elsewhere.” - Thomas Edison, 1895

“The demonstration that no possible combination of known substances, known forms of machinery, and known forms of force can be united in a practicable machine by which men shall fly for long distances through the air, seems to the writer as complete as it is possible for the demonstration of any physical fact to be.” - astronomer S. Newcomb, 1906

“Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.” - Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre, 1911

“Caterpillar landships are idiotic and useless. Those officers and men are wasting their time and are not pulling their proper weight in the war” - Fourth Lord of the British Admiralty, 1915, in regards to use of tanks in war.

“Professor Goddard does not know the relation between action and reaction and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react. He seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.” - 1921 New York Times editorial about Robert Goddard’s revolutionary rocket work.

“The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” - David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s.

“All a trick.” “A Mere Mountebank.” “Absolute swindler.” “Doesn’t know what he’s about.” “What’s the good of it?” “What useful purpose will it serve?” - Members of Britain’s Royal Society, 1926, after a demonstration of television.

“This foolish idea of shooting at the moon is an example of the absurd lengths to which vicious specialisation will carry scientists.” - A.W. Bickerton, physicist, NZ, 1926

“Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” - Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University, 1929.

“There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.” — Albert Einstein, 1932

“The energy produced by the atom is a very poor kind of thing. Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of these atoms is talking moonshine” - Ernst Rutherford, 1933

“The whole procedure [of shooting rockets into space] . . . presents difficulties of so fundamental a nature, that we are forced to dismiss the notion as essentially impracticable, in spite of the author’s insistent appeal to put aside prejudice and to recollect the supposed impossibility of heavier-than-air flight before it was actually accomplished.” Richard van der Riet Wooley, British astronomer, reviewing P.E. Cleator’s “Rockets in Space”, Nature, March 14, 1936

“Space travel is utter bilge!” -Sir Richard Van Der Riet Wolley, astronomer

“Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.” - Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949

“I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year.” - The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957

“Space travel is bunk” -Sir Harold Spencer Jones, Astronomer Royal of Britain, 1957, two weeks before the launch of Sputnik

“There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television, or radio service inside the United States.” -T. Craven, FCC Commissioner, 1961

“But what… is it good for?” - Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip.

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” - Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977

Michael Anissimov recently posted these quotes to his blog. He received them from Eugen Leitl, who posted them to the WTA-talk list. I don’t know who did the original work of gathering them, but they certainly merit greater circulation.

Lincoln Cannon is a technologist and philosopher, and leading advocate of technological evolution and postsecular religion. He is a founder, board member, and former president of the Mormon Transhumanist Association. He is a founder and advisor of the Christian Transhumanist Association. And he formulated the New God Argument, a logical argument for faith in God that is popular among religious Transhumanists.



COMMENTS

Seeing this headline, I was hoping for a substantive engagement with the ideas of transhumanism. A long list of failed past predictions doesn’t automatically imply that ones pertaining to transhumanist technology will soon be joining the list.

People have been making wrong arguments for centuries. That doesn’t mean that every body on the other side is automatically right. I’m still waiting for my flying car.

On the more serious side what this collection of error does show is the danger of making definitive announcements. Our knowledge is limited enough that we really don’t know what is possible or impossible. Whenever we absolutely know for certain that something is wrong or will never happen; we are probably wrong. Unfortunately that works the other way too. We have to keep open minds and be prepared to adjust our world view to fit the facts.

this post is a waste of time.

critical thinking and a balanced discussion is really hard when you are surrounded by believers.
why dont you start with tackling the phyical constraints of exponential *place-transhumanisitc-buzzword-here*.
ive read this article (ok, half of it) and i am still sceptical about prophets that use a vague projetory surface for everybodys imagination/dreams/fears.
be honest. you believe, you dont know. the probabilistic nature of forecasts prohibits distinct predictions especially the farther you set the timescale.

but the mandatory picture was really informative, nice work there.

The point of the list is to demonstrate that appeals to eye-rolling (common among critics of Transhumanism) are irrelevant. Clearly, reasoned criticism, empirical investigation, and experimentation should be valued as we seek to understand better the contours of the possible.

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” brings back nostalgic memories of fiery discussions between myself. a humble chemist, and various computer professionals in the seventies.

He who laughs last laughs longest, for sure!

What is wrong with transhumanism, however, is not specific aspects of technological possibilities and scientific surprises of the future.

Rather, it is the anthropocentric mindset which blinds both those of the transhumanist cult to the autonomous evolution of a new phase of the overall life process which is occurring right under our noses.

One which is set to culminate in a transition corresponding to the inappropriately named “Singularity”.

The construction of a “brain” that will soon equal and then surpass that typical of our species has for long been a work in progress.  Not as a result of any deliberate human “design” but rather as the result of an autonomous evolutionary process that can be seen to have run its exponential course since humankind acquired the ability to share imagination, which we know as language.

Very real evidence indicates the rather imminent implementation of the next, (non-biological) phase of the on-going evolutionary “life” process from what we at present call the Internet.It is effectively evolving by a process of self-assembly. You may have noticed that we are increasingly, in a sense, “enslaved” by our PCs, mobile phones, their apps and many other trappings of the net.

We are already largely dependent upon it for our commerce and industry and there is no turning back. What we perceive as a tool is well on its way to becoming an agent.

Consider this:

There are at present an estimated 2 Billion internet users. There are an estimated 13 Billion neurons in the human brain. On this basis for approximation the Internet is even now only one order of magnitude below the human brain and its growth is exponential.

That is a simplification, of course. For example: Not all users have their own computer. So perhaps we could reduce that, say, tenfold. The number of switching units, transistors, if you wish, contained by all the computers connecting to the Internet and which are more analogous to individual neurons is many orders of magnitude greater than 2 Billion.
Then again, this is compensated for to some extent by the fact that neurons do not appear to be binary switching devices but can adopt multiple states.

Without even crunching the numbers for these approximations, we see that we must take seriously the possibility that even the present Internet may well be comparable to a human brain in processing power.
And, of course, the degree of interconnection and cross-linking of networks within networks is also growing rapidly.The culmination of this exponential growth corresponds to the event that transhumanists inappropriately call “The Singularity” but is more properly regarded as a phase transition of the on-going “life” process.

An evolutionary continuum that can be traced back at least as far as the formation of the chemical elements in stars.

The broad evolutionary model that supports this contention is outlined very informally in “The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?” , a free download in e-book formats from the “Unusual Perspectives” website

How about cold fusion (LENR)?  A US Presidential Commission dismissed it as fiction despite overwhelming evidence, and we are still trying to overcome that error now, despite further overwhelming evidence:

“A volume about the size of a #2 pencil eraser of water provides as much energy as two 48-gallon drums of gasoline. That is 355,000 times the amount of energy per volume – five orders of magnitude.” ( http://oilprice.com/Energy/Energy-General/New-LENR-Machine-is-the-Best-Yet.html ).

This phenomenon (LENR) has been confirmed in hundreds of published scientific papers: http://lenr-canr.org/acrobat/RothwellJtallyofcol.pdf

“Over 2 decades with over 100 experiments worldwide indicate LENR is real, much greater than chemical…”—Dennis M. Bushnell, Chief Scientist, NASA Langley Research Center

“Total replacement of fossil fuels for everything but synthetic organic chemistry.”—Dr. Joseph M. Zawodny, NASA

By the way, here is a survey of all the companies that are bringing LENR to commercialization: http://www.cleantechblog.com/2011/08/the-new-breed-of-energy-catalyzers-ready-for-commercialization.html

For those who still aren’t convinced, here is a paper I wrote that contains some pretty convincing evidence: http://coldfusionnow.org/the-evidence-for-lenr/

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