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The Supposed Dangers of Techno-Optimism
John G. Messerly   Aug 21, 2015   Reason and Meaning  

In his recent article, “Why Techno-Optimism Is Dangerous,” the philosopher Nicholas Agar argues that we not should pursue radical human enhancement. (Professor Agar has made the same basic argument in three recent books: 1) The Sceptical Optimist: Why Technology Isn’t the Answer to Everything;  2) Truly Human Enhancement: A Philosophical Defense of Limits;  and 3) Humanity’s End: Why We Should Reject Radical Enhancement.)

Agar says that when we imagine a better future, assuming that there is one, most of us believe that better technology will play a key role in bringing that future about. Agar dubs such believers techno-optimists, and their ranks include: Matt Ridley, David Deutsch, K. Eric Drexler and Peter Diamandis. Techno-optimists acknowledge the dangers of technology, but they believe that their potential to improve human life makes them worth the risk.

Hedonistic Normalization

Agar is skeptical of the power of new technologies to improve individual well-being because “hedonic normalization aligns our subjective experiences to our objective circumstances.” Humans living a thousand years ago were hedonically normalized to live in their environment, as will beings living a thousand years hence be normalized to theirs. From our perspective living in the middle ages seems terrible, and living in the far future seems incredible, because we are normalized to life today. But that does not mean that individuals living in the past were more unhappy than we are, says Agar, or that individuals living in the future will be happier than we are. So even if technology in the future is great from our vantage point, our descendents will take things for granted.

Agar also argues that “overlooking hedonic normalization leads us to exaggerate the joyfulness of the future and to overstate the >i>joylessness of the past.”  We would hate to go back in time before dentistry and inedible food, he says, but for our ancestors bad dentistry and food were normal. Our descendants may look back with horror at our death and suffering, but we don’t feel that level of disgust. Now Professor Agar is correct that we become accustomed to the technology that surrounds us. I don’t think daily about how modern medicine eliminated many childhood  diseases, that antibiotics rid me of infections, and that the dentist can fix my teeth, whereas people of a centuries ago would be unimaginably happy at those prospects.

But Agar is mistaken that we become completely normalized to the advances that technology provides. I am happy that dentists have Novocaine, that I can communicate instantly over long distances, that I can be warm when it is cold outside, and that antibiotics treat infections and enabled me to forgo amputation! I may not be as awed by such things as people from the past would be, but I am happy to have these technologies nonetheless.  So Agar’s “your descendants won’t be as happy as you think they will” argument doesn’t provide sufficient reason to abandon the pursuit of new technologies.
 
Objective Goods

It also does not follow from Agar’s argument that preventing infant mortality or death from infections aren’t good things. They are. It is better from an objective perspective not to live and die in pain. The fact that we become somewhat accustomed to such things may cause us to overestimate how happy our descendants will be when technology improves their lives, but they will still be thankful that technology helps them live better and longer lives.
 
Technology Is Risky 

Agar’s other main argument against techno-optimism is “that technological progress comes with risks.” There are many unintended consequences of advancing technology, and we can’t just assume that future generations will be able to solve the problems we leave them.

Agar is correct, new technology poses risks, but there is no risk-free way to proceed into the future. If we do nothing, asteroids, nuclear war, environmental degradation, climate change or deadly viruses and bacteria will eventually destroy us. Or perhaps the machine intelligences we create will replace us. I can’t know for sure. But I do know that only science and technology have the power to save us. I do know that either we evolve or we will surely die.

John G. Messerly is an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET. He received his PhD in philosophy from St. Louis University in 1992. His most recent book is The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives. He blogs daily on issues of philosophy, evolution, futurism and the meaning of life at his website: reasonandmeaning.com.



COMMENTS

Hi John - I thought I’d quickly respond to some of your criticisms. First, though I am a bit of a repeat offender on the enhancement debate, my latest book isn’t about human enhancement. It’s about the value of technological solutions to some of our biggest problems. I appeal to research on subjective well-being to suggest that some of the benefits of technological progress are significantly overstated. Hedonic normalization is a factor here. I’m no luddite (or bio-luddite). You can be an opponent of spending vast sums of money on expensive new stealth fighters while still thinking that the defence budget should be much higher than zero. I think there’s a regrettable tendency to oversimplify some of these debates. So many of the important choices that we face involve finding the right way to prioritise goals that are, when considered in isolation, all worthwhile. It’s not either/or, but how much of that and how much of this.

You’re right that there is no risk-free way to proceed - I don’t think the options are quite as stark as you present them.

Nick

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