IST: Daniel Sarewitz

2006-03-31

More from the First World Forum on Science and Civilization

More reflections on the First World Forum on Science and Civilization at Oxford University. The Forum’s theme is “Tomorrow’s People: The Challenges of Technologies for Life Extension and Enhancement.”

The persistent presence of self-identifying “transhumanists” was the most interesting and bewildering phenomenon on display at the Forum. From the Transhumanist Declaration (at http://transhumanism.org ): “Humanity will be radically changed by technology in the future. We foresee the feasibility of redesigning the human condition, including such parameters as the inevitability of aging, limitations on human and artificial intellects, unchosen psychology, suffering, and our confinement to the planet earth.” Philosophy has a particularly strong presence here, because a big part of the agenda is to show that a) humans have always been enhancing their capabilities; b) there is (therefore, I suppose) no such thing as “human nature;” and c) if enhancement is possible, then it is morally obligatory: “I enhance therefore I am,” as one clever person characterized it (I need to get my wit enhanced!).

On one level, the transhumanist presence at the Forum reminded me of Cargo Cults. Both movements share a utopian belief in human redemption through the delivery of technology, and if you follow the sort of argumentation that transhumanist philosophers like to wield, there really isn’t any essential difference between a washing machine and pharmacological or genetic enhancements of musculature, in that both extend our physical capabilities.

And of course there’s more than a bit of the unavoidably, if trivially, true in this—lots of Pacific Islanders probably do have washing machines now, and lots of transhumanists probably will be around long enough to further enhance their strength or their memories in some new ways.

The embedded assumption is that a world of stronger and smarter (whatever that means) people is a better world, but there was absolutely no discussion of what a better world should look like, nor of who is in charge of the “should” part. Nor was there any discussion of how this world will actually come about—I mean, through such boring things as politics, institutions, cultures, and values, none of which, I presume, can be enhanced away. In other words, both means and ends were absent from the transhumanist discourse at the Forum, leaving one with only a metaphysics of science and technology.

One of the odd undercurrents in all this was a sort of pugnacity underlying some of the transhumanist rhetoric, which seems to be motivated by the belief that those who are skeptical of transhumanism are therefore insensitive to human suffering. Trinity College’s (Connecticut, not Oxford) James Hughes http://www.changesurfer.com/Hughes.html) especially exemplified this position in his assault on the notion of “human nature,” which was meant as a rejoinder to the likes of Leon Kass and Francis Fukuyama. Here’s some chatter from a transhumanist listserve shortly after the Forum came to an end:

“Good Show, James Hughes. I just listened to your speech at this forum. You came out punching and scared the socks off the more conservative members of the audience.”

“They were definitely stunned, but I wasn’t sure if it had to do with the fact that I was the only panelist who actually used the term “human nature”—the putative topic of the panel—or that they thought I was a raving loony.

“But I’ll accept your assessment that my moral clarity and certitude shamed and scared the biocons in the audience, and left the H+ half of the audience in awe.

“The conference has been fantastic, and a real turning point in the creation of a clear biopolitical landscape with ‘bioconservatives’ at one end and ‘transhumanists’ at the other.”

And nuance—not to mention reality—occupying the neglected middle ground.

2006-03-15

Report from the First World Forum on Science and Civilization at Oxford University

Reporting from the First World Forum on Science and Civilization at Oxford University. The Forum’s theme is “Tomorrow’s People: The Challenges of Technologies for Life Extension and Enhancement.”


  1. As with any conference, much of the most interesting activity goes on in the interstices. I had a wonderful conversation with the anthropologist Mary Douglass and the philosopher Jerome Ravetz. We got to talking about the notions of elegance, parsimony, and beauty in basic science—attributes extolled as virtues of the most successful theories. Ravetz started out as a “pure” mathematician. Lot’s of engineering mathematics is anything but elegant or parsimonious, and it is generally looked down upon by the purists in the field—inelegant, unparsimonious. This is an old story about the intellectual hierarchy of science, but it raises questions about rationality itself. Is “pure” science—pure rationality, right?—guided by aesthetics that lie in ourselves, not in the universe? If this might be true, then don’t we need to talk about truth and aesthetics together? Is there actually room for some reconciliation between science and humanities? I don’t mean photomicrographs on the walls of the National Academy; or E. O. Wilson’s goofy notion of a unity of all knowledge. Rather, can we engage the possibility that our aesthetic sense guides our notions of what counts as the highest scientific truths? The philosopher Nancy Cartwright (not present at this conference) has observed that, when it comes to most of unbounded, experienced reality, the laws of physics “lie” (just try using Newton’s laws to predict the trajectory of a falling dollar bill). Perhaps we value these laws as much due to our own aesthetic sensibilities as their explanatory power? If so, should we give more credibility to our sensibilities—or less to our scientific laws?

  2. The transhumanist (google it) and NSF program manager William Bainbridge described NSF-funded research projects on “personality enhancement” and “personality capture.” The goal: “increasing cognitive, affective, and social functioning and scope of a person through artificial means.” (Here and elsewhere I might not have the quotations exactly right—but they’re close.) For example, unless he was joking (and I really don’t think he was) NSF is supporting research into a “prosthetic assessment device” to help people interpret other people’s emotional state—a clear benefit for the insensitive among us. Ultimately, according to Bainbridge, we’ll be able to “build any kind of society we wish” through intentional “enhancement” our own personalities, though I have a hard time understanding how the modification of individual personalities adds up to the intentional construction of a particular kind of society.

  3. Shiv Visvanathan, an Indian anthropologist and philosopher of science and technology, is tired of Western scientists and science advocates using the “Third World” as a reason for pursuit of advanced technological agendas: “The Third World is not a system of legitimation for new technologies.” Visvanathan says that “the truth needs two cosmologies,” and here in the West we have only one: growth—development—progress—perfection. The West needs more cultural myths to guide our vision: “Faust and Prometheus are doing overtime.” How can we talk about the meaning and value of emerging technological capabilities in cognitive enhancement and life extension with such an impoverished arsenal of imagination? Consider: what if we counterbalanced the Western obsession with “longevity” with an alternative notion of “hospitality”: on the one hand, we will die; on the other, we are guests in this world? How would this influence our discussion of life extension technologies?

2006-03-06

The other day I was talking to my friend N., a foreign service officer stationed in Mexico, about atheism. N. likes to read popular accounts of cosmology and particle theory. Given the incredible progress that science has made in probing and explaining the scope and origins of the universe, he simply can’t understand how anyone can take seriously religious accounts that haven’t changed in two millennia. To atheists like N., the fact that science (according to most accounts) does not attribute ultimate meaning to even its most fundamental explanations gives it a plausibility that religion can’t muster. But to atheists like me, as a strictly logical matter there isn’t any reason to believe that string theory is a better account of the structure of existence than religious cosmologies, since I can’t truly comprehend either. The educated lay reader doesn’t have a prayer of understanding the mathematics that makes sense of modern physics, and the metaphors that science popularizers use are no more inherently meaningful than religious myths…whether it’s Latin Mass or A Brief History Of Time, it’s all gibberish. The culture wars are not about whether people are rational or superstitious, but about where they place their faith. If you look around the world and see your personal cosmologies under assault by the exponential, no-holds-barred advance of culturally transforming science and technology, it’s perfectly rational that you might prefer the comfort of religious shamans to scientific ones. What it comes down to is this: who do you trust?

2006-02-21

Energy Technology Gets Photo Op, Little Else

President Bush’s visit to the National Renewal Energy Lab today ought to be his Michael-Dukakis-in-a-tank moment, but it won’t be because for the past 25 years energy technology has by-and-large been a non-issue on the US political agenda from both sides of the aisle. How can this be? For those on the right, of course, low fuel prices and a religious belief in the miracles of the marketplace have justified lack of aggressive government investment in energy R&D. On the left? Well, the only culprit I can come up with is the politics of global warming, which focused obsessively on the moral importance of behavioral change (and on policies that encourage such change, like carbon taxes, CAFÉ standards, and mandated emissions reductions through the Kyoto protocol), and largely relegated energy R&D to the back burner, as if addressing climate change through technological advance was somehow cheating, and as if other issues like energy independence were not worth taking seriously.

2006-02-01

How Science Works (for Dummies)

It comes as a relief to learn, from a recent NY Times article, that scientists have recently gone to Capitol Hill to give Members of Congress and their staff a briefing on “how science works.” It’s a little weird, I guess, that a single briefing could explain what centuries of inquiry and debate by scientists, philosophers, sociologists, historians, and others have failed to achieve, but I accept that one has to simplify these things for the lay audience. According to the article, Science editor Donald Kennedy told the Congressional audience that “the ultimate test of truth in science” is the replication of results: Hmmmm. Well, there’s certainly no way to replicate a billion or so years of Darwinian natural selection, so I guess the theory of evolution must not be science. And obviously you can’t replicate a general circulation model’s prediction of the future behavior of climate, since the future hasn’t happened yet, so apparently climate modeling isn’t science either. I suspect there’s some subtlety here that I’m missing, but I’m sure our elected officials were able to grasp it.