More from the First World Forum on Science and Civilization
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.