H+: Trite Truths About Technology: A Reply to Ted Peters
I have been asked to comment, in particular, on the contribution of Ted Peters entitled “Transhumanism and the Posthuman Future: Will Technological Progress Get Us There?” 1 Though Peters’ article is the main focus of what follows, I must also refer to some other pieces in the same edition of The Global Spiral in order to explain my position on the merits of transhumanist thinking. I will argue that Peters and others have reminded us of some trite truths about technology, and that the reminder may serve as a reality check for transhumanists (just in case some of them need it). At the same time, it would be foolishly condescending to assume that most transhumanists are unaware of the trite truths that I will isolate. More likely, these are so well known that they usually go without saying.
Transhumanism: the essential idea
In its essence, transhumanism involves a rather simple idea: within certain limits that require investigation, it is desirable to use emerging technologies to enhance human physical and cognitive capacities, and to make other beneficial alterations to human traits. Stated so broadly, transhumanism’s essential idea is, I believe, defensible. Note, however, that it allows enormous scope for discussion and debate among people who accept it as a general proposition. Questions abound. What, exactly, are the limits that I’ve described as requiring investigation? How quickly or slowly will the transition take place and where might it end? Should we be attempting to accelerate it, slow it down, or direct its course in some way? All of these issues and many others can be—and are being—discussed with sophistication, and often with passion, within the contemporary transhumanist movement. Many positions are taken, and the ferment of opinions and arguments is surely a sign of the movement’s intellectual health. 2
On the other hand, such ferment and internal debate can create confusion. Some participants in the transhumanist movement may want little more than the greenlighting and fast-tracking of certain controversial technologies—therapeutic cloning technology, for example. At the other extreme, some imagine grand schemes for re-engineering the cosmos, perhaps turning entire stars, planets, or galaxies into a complex, intricately-functioning substrate that experiences blissful consciousness. Here, speculative thought runs wild, though that is not always a bad thing. There are, of course, many intermediate (or simply different) transhumanist positions.
Some individuals may feel considerable ambivalence about the label, seeing the force of conflicting considerations. That is, indeed, my own situation. Still, the essential idea of transhumanism is no longer especially recherchÈ: it is increasingly familiar and plausible.
It is intellectually legitimate to challenge transhumanism’s essential idea, but I have never seen a promising argument along such lines, much less a convincing one. Perhaps such an argument is Out There waiting to be discovered, but that remains to be seen. A different approach—also intellectually legitimate, but more nuanced—would attempt to identify some of the specific transhumanist positions on offer and then consider their respective merits. Unfortunately, I see no indication that the contributors to the June 2008 edition of The Global Spiral have made a serious effort to adopt either approach.
By contrast, it is not intellectually useful to challenge a specific viewpoint within transhumanism, or to synthesize some composite viewpoint out of the (perhaps conflicting) writings of a few prominent or not-so-prominent transhumanist thinkers, then attack this—and then claim to have refuted or discredited transhumanism itself. This could leave the essential idea of transhumanism untouched. All too often, Peters and other critics seem to take this approach, perhaps because they understand transhumanism as a comprehensive system of dogma rather than as a diverse cultural and philosophical movement.
Peters devotes much of his discussion to the views of one of transhumanism’s high-profile fellow-travelers, Ray Kurzweil, and those of Simon Young, who has published a recent book on the subject. 3 However, Young’s book has no general acceptance within the transhumanist movement, and really represents no more than its author’s personal views. The same applies to the ideas of Kurzweil. Peters’ synthesis of propositions from the published works of Kurzweil and Young may reflect the views of some, perhaps even many, transhumanists, but it is, nonetheless Peters’ own synthesis. It certainly does not represent the position of the transhumanist movement as a whole. No elaborated position can, because transhumanism is not that sort of thing.
Two side skirmishes
A full commentary on Peters’ article would involve many side skirmishes, some of them important. I don’t wish to become lost in these, but two merit some (necessarily limited) discussion.
The roadblocks of religion. The first is an issue that seems dear to Peters’ heart. He argues against what he claims is a “mistake” made by transhumanists. 4 The so-called mistake is an expectation that religion, and particularly Christianity, will put roadblocks in the way of transhumanist aspirations. In the space available to me, I cannot address this at length. However, I believe that Peters underestimates the degree to which religion is likely to create such roadblocks. I will briefly sketch why.
Before I do so, however, I must point out that Peters and I both have biases. He writes as a Lutheran theologian, whereas I am an outspoken atheist. All the same, while I have certain anti-religious leanings, I am not so ignorant as to imagine that Abrahamic theology is a featureless monolith. Even within Christianity, there are many theological schools, disputes, and emphases, and it would be churlish to presume that nothing good can ever come out of any of them. It would certainly be mistaken to lump the ideas of, say, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin or Reinhold Niehbuhr or Martin Luther King with those of, say, Fred Phelps or Jerry Falwell or Joseph Ratzinger. Christian theology is (like transhumanism) a rich and complex field; it may sometimes be weakened by its internal divisions and debates, but (again like transhumanism) it is sometimes strengthened by its ferment of ideas.
With all that duly noted, Peters seems disingenuous when he argues that Judeo-Christian theology welcomes change and will not oppose transhumanist aspirations. He does not support this claim with any empirical study—or even with an impressionistic overview—of the views of actual theologians. Rather, he refers to passages from the Old and New Testaments that might be said to presume the value of novelty. In Isaiah 43:19, God is represented as saying, “I am about to do a new thing.” In Revelation 21:5, God says, “See, I am making all things new.” 5
These verses are obviously open to interpretation, like all passages in the Abrahamic holy books, but let’s concede that they exalt the idea of transformation, of making things new, at least when the transformation is for the better. But no one denies that the Abrahamic monotheisms allow a positive place for change. Of course they do. Even the most vulgar forms of Christian fundamentalism value individual transformation when the recipient of salvation is “born again”, and they look forward to comprehensive eschatological transformation at the end of days, when the current order of things will be overturned and ultimately annihilated by divine intervention. Christianity has traditionally displayed a linear rather than cyclical view of time and history, with time’s arrow pointing to the ultimate triumph of good over evil.
But none of this entails that all, or even most, Christian leaders and theologians would countenance the technological boosting of human capacities that transhumanists advocate. Changes of those kinds might well be regarded by many leaders and theologians as hubristic, or otherwise morally impermissible, and as fair (perhaps even urgent) targets for political suppression.
Later in his article, Peters points out that Christian hospitals are not opposed to advanced technology; on the contrary, they use it extensively for patient care. 6 No doubt they do, but what follows from this? It by no means follows that Christian leaders and theologians have tended, in the past, to favor new technologies that assist medicine or alter bodily functioning. The widespread historical opposition to anesthesia and the contraceptive pill are good examples to consider. The Catholic Church still views the use of contraceptive technologies, such as condoms or the Pill, as a sin against the God-given natural order: an impermissible suppression of the human genitals’ proper functions. 7 Against that background, it is not necessarily a “mistake” to fear that some or many Christian leaders and theologians will have grave reservations about technologies that could enhance human capacities beyond merely healthy functioning.
Whatever the range of Christian views, Peters might reply, the correct theological position is one that holds enhancement of human capacities to be at least permissible. Perhaps so, but Peters is trying to reassure transhumanists that Christian theology will not, in fact, create roadblocks for them. That, of course, does not depend upon which theological views, if any, may—all things considered—actually be correct, but on which views are well positioned to exert political influence. Viewed in this way, transhumanist fears of religious roadblocks are perfectly rational.
Evolution and ethics. Another side skirmish involves the relationship between transhumanism and evolutionary ethics. Here, Peters argues that transhumanism encounters an intellectual problem because (so he believes) it bases its moral claims on values implicit in Darwinian evolution, while simultaneously affirming the altruistic values of benevolent community. Peters sees a tension in this, and he adds that transhumanists find themselves in opposition to the values of earlier forms of evolutionary ethics, such as nineteenth-century Social Darwinism. 8
This issue is worth some brief discussion for two reasons. First, Peters may be correct that some transhumanists are committed to an implausible interpretation of Darwinian evolution as inherently directional or progressive. Accepting this, at least for the sake of argument, is there anything essential to transhumanism that is inconsistent with a more plausible account of evolution and its relationship to morality? Second, I have an additional reason for sketching such an account: it may be helpful for assessing Peters’ own theological conception of human nature.
Contrary to Peters’ line of argument, Darwinian evolution does not contain implicit values. 9 The process of evolution simply is. Current (well-corroborated) scientific theory postulates that some organisms are likely to survive and reproduce more efficiently than others in any given environment, and that those which do so tend to pass down their genetic material to the next generation. So long as there are also mechanisms that produce genetic variations, the repetition of this process over time is sufficient to generate the diversity of life on Earth. Sufficiently long stretches of time may allow highly complex organisms to emerge, but there is no reason to believe that the average complexity of organisms is—or somehow must be—increasing, or that the process has any inbuilt direction, or that organisms which appear later are necessarily superior (by whatever standards we might adopt) to organisms that appear earlier. At most, there is some tendency in a reasonably stable environment for later organisms to be more efficiently engineered than earlier organisms that are morphologically similar and exhibit similar behaviors. Nothing earth-shaking follows from this last point.
Against that background, it should be acknowledged on all sides that our own species has evolved over countless years, during which time Homo sapiens eventually emerged in Africa as a social primate. Doubtless we evolved certain broad psychological proclivities—just like other primates. These may well include a strong tendency to act in our self-interest as individuals (and in the interests of our children, other family members, and those whom we see as allies). But we also appear to have evolved a considerable degree of sympathetic responsiveness to others, even to the sufferings of non-human animals.
There is quite a complex relationship between our evolved psychology (whatever its exact content) and the demands of morality. Certain behavioral tendencies may well have been adaptive for our ancestors, in the sense that they tended to lead to reproductive success in the environments in which Homo sapiens gradually evolved. However, while we may have an inherited tendency to act in certain ways, it does not follow (certainly not directly) that we should act in those ways. Perhaps it is sometimes possible to derive an ought from an is, but as Hume famously commented we are at least owed an explanation as to how this could ever be done. 10 To the extent that past forms of evolutionary ethics have attempted to leap without adequate explanation from is to ought, there is no shame in disagreeing with them.
Even if certain behavioral propensities enhanced the reproductive fitness of our distant ancestors, this does not entail that they advance our current, reflectively-endorsed values. We do not act immorally when we reject our immediate (and perhaps, in a sense, “natural”) impulses, under the guidance of other values that we endorse. Nor are human societies mistaken when they develop moral norms that constrain their members from acting in ruthless pursuit of their individual self-interest. On the other hand, any workable system of moral norms must be one that is practical for the needs of beings like us, who are, by and large, neither angelically selfless nor utterly uncaring about others’ perceived sufferings. Thus, our evolved psychology may impose some limits on what real-world moral systems can realistically demand of human beings.
Accordingly, a realistic moral system will allow considerable scope for individuals to pursue their own interests and happiness, but within deontic constraints. 11 It will not condemn all pursuit of self-interest as “sinful”, but nor will it allow the pursuit of self-interest—perhaps in competition for scarce resources or for potential mates—with no restraints at all. Literally ruthless competition would lead to widespread insecurity, suffering, and disorder. Given all this, we typically have good reasons, as individuals, to uphold the respective moral systems that we are born into, though not necessarily in every detail. Upon reflection, we may find that we have reasons to resist or flout some of the moral norms that we encounter, or, indeed, to seek deletions, extensions, and changes. 12
If some transhumanists paint a picture of Darwinian evolution, and of its relationship to morality, that is significantly inconsistent with the above, then they are, I believe, open to legitimate criticism. 13 However, the important conclusion to draw at this point is that my sketchy picture of evolution and ethics is not inconsistent with the essential transhumanist idea. So long as we give reflective endorsement to the value of increasing human capacities, and so long as there is a realistic prospect of pursuing this by technological means, the essential idea is defensible.
Six trite truths about technology
While transhumanists take a defensible position when they support the development of emerging technologies to enhance human capacities, they should not assume that it will be easy sailing. In particular, transhumanists should acknowledge the following four points, which appear to be the gist of Don Ihde’s contribution to the June 2008 issue of The Global Spiral. 14 Whether or not Ihde would agree with my formulation of them, these points appear highly plausible:
1. In the real world, technological advances involve compromises and trade-offs.
2. Technological advances take place in unexpected ways and find unexpected uses.
3. Implanted technologies have disadvantages as well as advantages: e.g., prostheses and implants are often experienced as imperfect and obtrusive, and they wear out.
4. Predictions about future technologies and how they will be incorporated into social practice are unreliable.
We can go further and add a fifth truth about technology, taking into account a realistic understanding of human nature:
5. Future technologies will sometimes be used for spiteful or malevolent purposes and will typically be used for self-interested ones.
Finally, the following is not directly a truth about technology, but about the representation of technology in science fiction. A similar point is made by Katherine Hayles in her contribution to The Global Spiral,15 though again she may not agree with my formulation:
6. Science fiction is one—though certainly not the only—resource available to people, including transhumanists, who want to think about possibilities for our future.
I don’t propose to defend these six points individually. I cannot imagine that anyone would disagree with them, once they are stated plainly and concisely (but perhaps I’m in for a surprise!). However, all six require elaboration, qualification, and the disclaimer that they are not laws of nature, just useful pragmatic generalizations based on historical experience. The other thing that must be said is that these are trite truths. If they are not explicitly stated in transhumanist theories and manifestos it is most likely to be because they are considered so obvious that they go without saying, rather than that the authors are unaware of them or disagree with them.
The trite truths about technology suggest that it will be difficult to invent useful technologies to enhance human capacities, and even our attempts to imagine appropriate inventions will be sketchy and fallible. However, it by no means follows that we should abandon or forbid all attempts to develop such technologies, any more than our inability to emulate the grace and freedom of birds was a reason to abandon or forbid efforts at powered, heavier-than-air flight.
Must transhumanists be naive?
Although I see no reason to think that transhumanists are unaware of the trite truths about technology, any who actually are surely need a reality check. Peters appears to think that transhumanists are sufficiently naive to be unaware of the fifth of the trite truths. Indeed, throughout his article, he repeats the words naive and naivete like a mantra (to the point, I confess, where I found it irritating). The alleged naivetÈ of transhumanists consists in an unwarranted optimism that they are supposed to have about human nature and about the prospect that things will always get better.
Peters offers an interesting, but ultimately unconvincing, argument that transhumanists are committed to an over-optimistic account of progress that would compel them to reject the fifth trite truth about technology. He begins by distinguishing between the notion of a future that emerges from the present (futurum) and the notion of a future that can be brought into being only by the intervention of God (adventus). He insists that transhumanists are committed to futurum rather than adventus. But, so he claims, a commitment to futurum depends upon a prior commitment to a doctrine of progress. Therefore, transhumanism depends upon a doctrine of progress. But such a doctrine is naive. Therefore, transhumanists are naive when they rely on it.
Let’s assume that transhumanists are committed to the idea that the future will emerge from the present via natural causal mechanisms without divine intervention. Most transhumanist thinkers probably believe this, and to that extent it might be said, correctly, that transhumanism is committed to futurum rather than adventus. However, such a commitment does not depend on the acceptance of any naive or implausible doctrine of progress.
These days, it is commonplace to imagine that future societies will differ radically from our own in social and economic organization, but as Robert Scholes has explained this was probably unthinkable before the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Scholes adds that the transformation of societies by irreversible technological change became apparent only in the nineteenth century.16 Thus, the idea of a future greatly different from the present as a result of continuing advances in knowledge and technology is a rather new one, historically. Note, however, that it does not depend on any further idea that all change must be for the better, e.g. morally or culturally. It is based on the observed facts of social transformation over the last three or four centuries and the continuing impact of new knowledge and new technologies on the way we live.
By contrast, adventus, or something much like it, is a very old idea. Many mythological systems imagine that there will be tumultuous changes in the future brought about by the actions of supernatural beings. The mere antiquity of the idea does not discredit it, of course, but such actions and changes as it posits have never been observed.
Transhumanists do assume that the future derives causally from the present, but that should not be especially controversial. One could make such an assumption while simultaneously worrying that the actual future might turn out unpleasant or even dystopian. Perhaps transhumanists are committed to the idea that it’s possible to devise (as-yet-unspecified) technologies that will enable the enhancement of human capacities, but they need not hold that the emergence of such technologies is simply inevitable or that it will bring no dangers. Nor must transhumanists make any absurd claims that fly in the face of what we know about the development and use of technology. They need not deny that new technologies will sometimes be used spitefully or malevolently, or that they will typically be used for self-interested purposes.
At the same time, there is no need to adopt the overly pessimistic assumption that emerging technologies will typically be used for purposes that lie outside of reasonable deontic constraints. As I’ve explained above, realistic systems of morality do not condemn all self-interested actions as morally impermissible or “sinful”; they require only that self-interest be pursued subject to certain conditions, or within certain boundaries. Peters offers no good reason to believe that the technologies of the future will typically be used in ways that transgress defensible boundaries.
Doubtless we should be alert for possible dangers from new technologies or possible misuses of them. Doubtless the appropriate boundaries need to be discussed. In short, Peters is on strong ground when he asks us to be watchful for ways in which new technologies could be used for destructive purposes. No one ought to take issue with that. Not surprisingly, however, transhumanists are well aware of the point, and often devote much of their energy to identifying risks and considering ways to reduce them. 17 Things could go very badly. At the same time, let’s not approach the future with unrealistic pessimism.
Peters makes much of the need for realism, and we should indeed be realistic about future prospects rather than blithely imagining that, come what may, all will be well. New technologies cannot be predicted with any certainty, and Peters is correct that they are likely to be misused, at least by some. Nonetheless, one can be unrealistically pessimistic just as one can be unrealistically optimistic. As a Christian theologian, Peters is very impressed by what he sees as humanity’s essential sinfulness. As he puts it, “something at work in the human mind leads to the development of brute and unmitigated destruction.” His example, in the relevant passage, is the phenomenon of computer viruses, strings of code that are, as he expresses it, created “with one sole purpose, namely, to destroy.” 18
But all this fails to convince. No doubt there are young people (and perhaps some older ones) who take gleeful pleasure in the creation of computer viruses and the havoc they can cause. However, Peters neglects to observe that most computer users do not create viruses or look on their effects with glee. Most of us regard the creators of computer viruses as anti-social pests. Maybe we’ll always have people like them among us, but human beings are not universally inclined to malice and spite. Of course, some human beings are malevolent in far more horrible and destructive ways than computer hackers … but again this is a small minority. If destructiveness, malevolence, spiteful glee in others’ discomfort, and so on are asserted by Peters to be hallmarks of human nature—in the sense that humans are always, or typically, like that—he is just wrong. He is operating with a philosophical anthropology that is unrealistically blind to the strong human propensities for sympathy, cooperation, and compromise.
He is on stronger ground when he writes of the inevitability that new technologies will be used by individuals and corporations for self-interested purposes. 19 But that is an entirely different point. Acting in one’s own self-interest should not, in itself, be regarded as morally wrong or a “sin”. People who are largely motivated by self-interest can still flourish side by side in reasonable and mutually-productive cooperation. The important questions are whether fair deontic constraints on the pursuit of self-interest can be set by human societies and, if so, whether most people will abide by them most of the time. Here, I see no need at all for pessimistic answers. (If we were that “sinful”, human society would be impossible.)
Peters’ main point seems to be that we should follow in the tradition of Christian thought that stresses “the sinful condition in which human beings find themselves” and cautions “against overestimating what we can achieve within history apart from the gracious action of God.” 20 As is evident by now, I don’t find the religious concepts of sinfulness and divine grace helpful, but of course there is a weaker secular equivalent of this thought. For all the reasons contained in the six trite truths that I listed above, we should not be too optimistic about what is achievable or when. We can agree with Peters when he states, near the end of his article: “In sum, we should move forward, but we should not presume progress in every respect is inevitable or guaranteed.”21
But this claim can stand without any theological scaffolding to support it, and there is no reason for thoughtful transhumanists to disagree with it. Such a position could just as easily be advanced within the transhumanist movement as outside it.
I am puzzled as to why Peters has adopted such a disdainful attitude towards transhumanist thought, given that he shares considerable common ground with transhumanists. It would have been more realistic to identify specific transhumanist thinkers, or specific ideas promoted by certain transhumanists, with which he disagrees—rather than attempting a sweeping, but clearly fallacious, argument that is supposed to demonstrate transhumanism’s fundamental naivetÈ. It is not as if he has a good argument against transhumanism’s essential idea, and nor does he oppose the development of new technologies. He correctly stresses the need for alertness and caution, but there is no reason for transhumanists to reject this. Why, then, has he not taken a more tentative and conciliatory approach towards people with whom he shares much common ground?
The same question could be asked of other contributors to the June 2008 issue of The Global Spiral. Often, they give an impression of seeking to discredit transhumanism, rather than to establish any useful dialogue with transhumanist thinkers. This might be understandable if transhumanism were a dominant social paradigm, wielding great and detrimental political influence. In those circumstances, there might be a burning need to challenge transhumanist ideas. That, however, is very far from the situation we are in.
Transhumanist thinkers might be tempted to respond to the views of Peters and others with similar disdain. Perhaps I have yielded too much to that temptation. Allow me, then, to conclude by emphasizing yet again that there is common ground between transhumanists and at least some of the contributors to the June 2008 transhumanism issue of The Global Spiral. I hope that future dialogue may produce greater understanding, mutual respect, and possibly some shared insight.
1 Ted Peters, “Transhumanism and the Posthuman Future: Will Technological Progress Get Us There?” Global Spiral 9(3) (June 2008). URL https://www.metanexus.net/magazine/tabid/68/id/10546/Default.aspx (accessed 16 November 2008).
2 A good starting point for anyone interested in the ferment of ideas among transhumanists and other thinkers with similar interests would be to consult the pages of the Journal of Evolution and Technology, available online at URL http://jetpress.org/ (accessed 16 November 2008).
3 Simon Young, Designer Evolution: A Transhumanist Manifesto ( Amherst NY: Prometheus Books, 2006).
4 Peters, “Transhumanism and the Posthuman Future”: 1.
6 Ibid., 5.
7 Humanae Vitae. Encyclical letter of Pope Paul VI. 25 July 1968. See URL http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_25071968_humanae-vitae_en.html (accessed 16 November 2008).
8 Peters, “Transhumanism and the Posthuman Future”, 3-4.
9 The views in this paragraph and the four that immediately follow it are mine, but I claim no particular originality for them. They are based on my reading of numerous works in the fields of evolutionary psychology and evolutionary ethics. I owe thanks to many authors who have helped shaped my general picture of the relationship between evolution and ethics. One who deserves special mention—though as a preference utilitarian he would probably disapprove of the idea of living within deontic constraints—is Peter Singer. See especially Singer’s A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Cooperation (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999).
10 In fact, talk of “constraints” over-simplifies. Developed moral systems do more than forbid certain actions and require others. They may, for example, identify some actions as morally praiseworthy (but not obligatory) and others as morally distasteful (but not forbidden). They may identify certain dispositions of character as virtuous and others as vicious. And so on. None of this detracts from my main point that such systems leave considerable scope for self-interested action.
11 David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (first published 1739 and 1740; rpt. London: Penguin, 1985) 521. Hume did not argue that oughts cannot be explained; his point is that adequate explanations make reference to such psychological phenomena as human desires and sympathies.
12 Compare J.L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (London: Penguin, 1977) 120-24, 146-48.
13 However, it is not apparent to me that Simon Young, the example discussed by Peters, has made any such error.
14 Don Ihde, “Of Which Human Are We Post?” Global Spiral 9(3) June 2008. URL https://www.metanexus.net/magazine/tabid/68/id/10552/Default.aspx (accessed 16 November 2008).
15 Katherine Hayles, “Wrestling with Transhumanism,” Global Spiral 9(3) June 2008. URL https://www.metanexus.net/Magazine/tabid/68/id/10543/Default.aspx (accessed 16 November 2008).
16 Robert Scholes, Structural Fabulation: An Essay on Fiction of the Future (Notre Dame and London: Notre Dame University Press, 1975) 15-16.
17 The classic article on this topic by a leading transhumanist philosopher is Nick Bostrom, “Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards,” Journal of Evolution and Technology 9(1) February 2002. URL http://www.jetpress.org/volume9/risks.html (accessed 16 November 2008).
18 Peters, “Transhumanism and the Posthuman Future”, 4.
19 Ibid., 5-6.
20 Ibid., 7.
21 Ibid., 8.