Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Saturday, June 09, 2007

"Overcoming the Limits"

Transhumanism advocates using technology to overcome the limitations of the human body and mind.

Okay, transhumanists, please explain this to me. I am genuinely curious about this very regularly reiterated definition/slogan of transhumanism.

When you refer to "the limitations" in this sense:

Are there any traits on the basis of which one would recognize a thing as a body or a mind in the first place that are not among "the limitations" transhumanists want to overcome? That is to say, is there any actual incarnation that does not count as a perniciously "limited" one in the sense that inspires transhumanist movements?

If the answer to the above is "no," then how is this attitude distinguishable in a way that matters from a conventional ascetic or puritanical hostility to embodied life as such? Many critics of technophiliac "futurist" discourses like transhumanism accuse it of digital utopianism and a disdain of what Cyberpunks call the "meat" body, an attitude that conduces to a certain hostility toward embodied life as it is actually lived and sometimes to actually variously embodied people. I will assume, for the sake of argument, for now, that these critics are wrong to say such things about you transhumanists. Nevertheless, can you see what might lead honest people of good will to worry about such an entailment in the transhumanist disdain of bodily limits as such? What are such critics getting wrong about your attitudes? How would you reassure them on this score?

If the answer to the above is "yes," on the other hand, then do you assume that there is either a working consensus as to what these key limits we should overcome consist of, or perhaps absent such consensus some objective criterion on the basis of which you are making your determination about the actual limits to be overcome?

It seems to me personally that transhumanists taking to this track often end up
EITHER [1] defending a fairly mainstream (or what looks to me very mainstreamable) sense of the "limits" to be overcome -- in which case they are just defending a slightly more imaginative version of "healthcare as public good," making it hard to see, in turn, what special contribution transhumanism in particular is presumably making to the discussion. (I can defend cognitive liberty and the longevity dividend, for example, without taking up any of the more sweeping, superlative, transcendentalizing, sub(cult)ural transhumanist claims and probably advocate a high percentage of the realizable, proximate policy recommendations supported by more reasonably informed democratic transhumanists);

OR [2] defending a thick conception of "optimality" that will strongly prefer particular morphologies, capacities, and lifeways over others, whatever the outcomes of informed, nonduressed consent in matters of actually desired morphologies, capacities, and lifeways -- in which case it is hard to see how these views do not risk becoming a de facto "enhancement" perfectionism which, at its worst, will look too close to eugenicism for comfort (by which I do not mean to accuse anybody of eugenicism, since I am assuming, for the sake of argument, for now, that such a resemblance would also trouble most transhumanist-identified people, whatever their specific stand on enforceable health standards and whatever their specific stand on best practices of enforcement).

1 comment:

jfehlinger said...

> Are there any traits on the basis of which one would recognize
> a thing as a body or a mind in the first place that are not
> among "the limitations" transhumanists want to overcome? That
> is to say, is there any actual incarnation that does not count
> as a perniciously "limited" one in the sense that inspires
> transhumanist movements?

One wonders. In a post on the Extropians' mailing list from
September, 2002 (beyond the reach of the current archive, alas),
somebody commented:

> Oh, for Pete's sake. The crypto-religious manner in
> which you've defined `immortality' (`can't die, won't die')
> makes that `hypothesis' a contradiction in terms for
> anything made of parts. In the real world--any
> real world we can conceive, I'd venture to say--any
> conscious being has to be built out of parts, ... [and] ...
> that complex organization must be prey to
> disruption...

"The fact that we can die, that we can be
ill at all, is what perplexes us; the fact
that we now for a moment live and are well
is irrelevant to that perplexity. We need
a life not correlated with death, a health
not liable to illness, a kind of good that
will not perish, a good in fact that flies
beyond the Goods of nature..."

-- William James, _The Varieties of Religious Experience_,
Lectures VI and VII, "The Sick Soul"