Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Left behind?

While our Christian neighbors prepare to leave the rest of us to pestilence, famine, war and damnation as they are raptured up to the Heavenly City, some of our more scientifically-oriented compatriots expect to pass on to techno-heaven in the coming singularity. The Transhuman movement, which is well represented here, envisions the coming of the Posthuman, an entity based somehow on human consciousness but transcending the well-lamented limitations of the flesh -- you know, those annoying little problems such as mortality, suffering, limited knowledge and intellect, inability to be instantaneously in Ouagadougou after breakfast on Mars, or to be in both places at once.

They expect this to be achieved step by step. First, current technologies will continue to advance so as to extend life span, retard aging, tighten the interface between human and computer, etc. Then we will understand aging and degenerative disease at the molecular level and achieve perfect health and practical immortality. On about the same schedule we'll start wiring computers directly to our brains and we won't even have to use Google any more, we'll just know everything. Maybe we'll also want to do some body modification and grow wings or the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound, whatever you like. Oh yeah, long lasting erections on demand, speed reading for everyone, absolute pitch, whatever. Then we'll develop a complete map of every neural connection and the processing rules that generate individual human consciousness and self-identity, and learn how to upload it to computers so that we can abandon the despised fleshly mode entirely.

Some people think these visions, on the whole, are simply improbable and belong in the realm of science fiction. Others object to even some of the plausible proposals for human enhancement technologies on ethical grounds. These objections come from conservative religious viewpoints, including the folks who are counting on the Big Guy in the Sky to rapture them on up to the higher state; from environmentalist viewpoints (such as Bill McKibben); and from various other directions.

Some condemn specific technologies which offer prospects for human enhancement, such as embryonic stem cell research, on specific grounds. But a broad theme of objection has to do with a concept of sanctified "human nature." Enhanced humans won't actually behuman any more, say the critics, so instead of benefitting humanity, transhumanism proposes to destroy it.

This can be seen as a humanist objection, but then it would seem to be in conflict with the prevailing attitude of liberal humanists that the achievement of human potential is the highest value, in other words human nature is what we make of it, and we should aspire to the best. The fulcrum of debate would then be finding the point at which human potential has been fully achieved, beyond which the thing is no longer one of us.

I'm not sure there can be an answer to that. On a very mundane level, we're having trouble deciding what constitutes amelioration of disability or disease, and what constitutes enhancement. For example, there is the question of giving growth hormone to children who are merely short. Is that enhancement, or treatment?

But there is one issue that I am personally fairly clear about. Transhumanist ideology is profoundly individualistic. The technologies they champion require a huge capital investment to pursue, and will inevitably be extremely expensive should they become available. Yet they do nothing to respond to the pressing problems of the majority of humans, right now, today, who do not enjoy even a basic standard of housing, nutrition, education, medical care or safety. Transhumanist discourse is about directing vast resources to pursuing a fantasy of an exclusive utopia for a tiny elite. The fate of the obsolete, merely human masses is of no consequence to them. That is neither liberal, nor humanist.

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