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

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Giulio Prisco's Defense of Superlative Nonsense

The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, which sometimes graciously republishes material I have written here on Amor Mundi for its own readership has recently published a piece by Giulio Prisco entitled In Defense of Superlativity.

Over the last few years I have written a number of pieces critical of what I have called Superlative Technodevelopmental Formulations that seem to me:
One: To be hyperbolically unrealistic and sensationalist in ways that derange urgently necessary public deliberation about technoscience issues,

Two: To exacerbate irrational fears and fantasies about agency typically activated in any case by discussions of technology,

Three: To lend themselves to faith-based social forms and identity-based political models that are psychologically harmful and dangerously anti-democratizing,

Four: To facilitate elitist, alarmist, escapist, reductionist attitudes and rhetoric that are especially well suited to incumbent interests and anti-democratic politics, whatever the professed politics of those who advocate them, and

Five: To represent in their extremity a clarifying and symptomatic expression of the basic irrationality and authoritarianism of prevailing discourses of "Global Development" and "Technoscientific Progress" in an era of neoliberal and neoconservative politics.

This is, of course, a highly abbreviated summary of my Critique of Superlativity. I have collected a number of pieces elaborating this Critique at greater length in The Superlative Summary, and I encourage those who are interested in criticizing and contributing to this critique in greater depth to explore the texts available there.

Although Prisco does not mention me or my work by name, I think it is fair to say that it is against the arguments collected in The Superlative Summary that he feels himself to be defending himself in his piece, especially since the only link provided in his entire Defense is to a work of mine. This is a perplexing realization since one would expect a "Defense of Superlativity" against the critique I have made to make some effort to address at least one of the five charges mentioned above, and it does not seem to me that Prisco has made much of an effort to do so in fact.

In the closing sentences of his piece Prisco says:
"I think the future could be a beautiful and interesting place. Of course it could also be a very ugly place but, one thing is sure, it will be what we make of it. The possibility that I could live to see it gives me hope, energy and drive."

At this level of generality it is difficult to imagine anybody on earth who would disagree with this sort of observation, at least when offered up in such broad strokes, and so it is difficult to imagine what is presumably being defended here and against what. We don't need a new word, surely, to name and defend the attitude of people who think "love is nice," "kittens are cute," "health is desirable," "life can be beautiful and interesting or not, depending on what happens," and so on. If Prisco wants to make an actual contribution to the discussion of Superlativity I would recommend he direct his attention to a discussion and defense of the explicit charges of which the published Critique of Superlative Technodevelopmental Discourses actually consists.

It bears repeating that Superlative Technodevelopmental attitudes, rhetorics, sub(cult)ures, movements, and campaigns interest me most as a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the elitism, alarmism, escapism, reductionism, fundamentalism, anti-democracy and unsustainablility of prevailing discourses of "Global Development" and "Technoscientific Progress," so-called, as they are conducted in the neoliberal and neoconservative culminating era of corporate-militarist global politics.

But it is true that many of the figures and formulations I direct my attention to actually involve curiously marginal and often straightforwardly silly beliefs:
Such as, for one, those of the Singularitarians who anticipate the imminent arrival of a superintelligent post-biological Robot God that will either be friendly or unfriendly but either way will end human history;

Such as, for another, those of the Nanosantalogists who anticipate the imminent arrival of programmable self-replicating nanoscale robots that will deliver either unprecedented abundance or reduce the world to goo but either way will end human stakeholder politics;

Such as, for yet another, those of the Technological Immortalists who anticipate the imminent arrival of genetic and prosthetic techniques that will eliminate all diseases, including aging itself conceived as a disease, or of "uploading" techniques through which a "self" reductively misconstrued as disembodied "information" can be "transferred" into an imperishable digital medium, but either way will end human mortality.

The notions of "superintelligence," "superabundance," and "superlongevity" at the heart of these formulations represent in my view the regulative ideals driving prevailing technoscientific and technodevelopmental discourses (advocates of which would certainly disavow them in these baldly stated forms for their palpable insanity), as well as functioning as literal articles of Superlative True Belief in certain marginal technocentric and "futurological" discourses, sub(cult)ures, and identity movements.

Whether implicit (and prevailing) or explicit (and marginalized), these super-predicated idealizations amount to facile secularizations of faithful formulations familiar from theological discourses of an omni-predicated deity "defined" by omniscience, omnibenevolence, and omnipotence: But whereas omni-predication would promise to facilitate the contemplation of a transcendent being ultimately unavailable to the comprehension of finite human beings, super-predication would promise to facilitate the transcension through technoscience of finitude itself by human beings themselves.

Although Superlative discourse is often enormously proud of its repudiation of religiosity, it clearly inspires projects of personal transcension that are essentially continuous with those of organized religiosity, offering up the usual fearful denials of the condition of human finitude with all its contingency and vulnerability, and opening up the usual anti-democratizing seductions to authoritarian politics of command and obedience to which such fearful people are always especially prone. Indeed, I would propose that the intensity of the "militant atheist" politics that seem regularly to coincide with advocacy of Superlative Technodevelopmental Discourses is less a matter of the repudiation of religiosity finally as the familiar virulence of sectarian squabbles of competing religious worldviews for followers.

It should go without saying that even a cheerful and confirmed longstanding atheist like me will recognize that much of what passes for declarations of religious faith can (and in much of the world already surely does) amount to harmless declarations of personal membership in moral communities or affirmations of essentially aesthetic projects of private perfection all of which can easily peacefully and productively coexist in the context of relatively secular relatively democratic multiculture. Thus, one can testify to the attractions of personal atheism while at once decrying the essentially political and even more essentially patriarchal impact of fundamentalist organizations of religiosity, and all without indulging in the facile overgeneralizations and pointless divisiveness of so-called atheist militancy.

So, too, it should go without saying that one can testify to the attractions of providing universal consensual access to medical techniques to enable ever more people to live longer, healthier lives and incarnate non-normalizing morphologies, capacities, and lifeways, as well as access to knowledge and networks to enable ever more people to collaborate to solve shared problems peer-to-peer without indulging in deranging, hyperbolic Superlative rhetoric or joining marginal Robot Cults defined by shared belief in idealized futures disconnected from the warranted beliefs of current scientific consensus or the terms of the actually existing diversity of stakeholders to actually ongoing and emerging technodevelopmental social struggle.

In his "Defense of Superlativity" Giulio Prisco demonstrates how closely conjoined these two points often are. Let me quote him at some length:
One of the assumptions I make is that there is no such a thing as “supernatural” -- everything in the universe can be, in principle, analyzed by science. According to this assumption, I think our bodies and minds are machines: very complex machines that are not presently understood in great detail, but nonetheless machines whose detailed blueprint can be in principle known, reproduced and improved. There is no mysterious “vital force” or supernatural “essence” forever beyond the domains of scientific analysis and engineering tinkering.

I also assume that I am the information encoded in my brain. Why? Simple -- because I don’t see what else I might be. It seems to me that any other assumption would fall into mystic, magic, and supernatural realms that are completely foreign to my basic assumptions about reality.

On the basis of this assumption and conclusion, I think someday we will be able to upload human personalities to suitable computational supports, much longer lived than biological brains. This is, I believe, fully compatible with our current scientific understanding of the universe.

Of course, opinions about development timescales may differ. Ray Kurzweil sees it happening in only a few decades, while other thinkers believe it cannot take less than thousands of years. My own forecast, based only on my engineering intuition and understanding of current developments, is somewhat intermediate: I imagine operational mind uploading technology deployed by the end of this century or in the next century.

This makes me happy for my grandchildren, who will live in a very interesting world, but I don’t see mind uploading developed during my lifetime. So, on the basis that any finite probability is better than zero, I am signed up for cryonic suspension. The “natural vs. supernatural” argument above tells me that cryonics works in principle -- there is no mystic “soul” that irretrievably leaves a frozen brain after death by decree of god.

Prisco claims that it follows logically from the repudiation of the supernatural that our bodies are machines, but this would only be true if we were to accept the unstated premise that anything that is not supernatural is a machine. Of course, most definitions of "machines" will describe them as "devices," that is to say, as "devised things" -- and it is surely not true that all things that can be usefully described in scientific terms (that is to say, in published and testable terms the warranted belief in which facilitates prediction and control) are also only "devised things."

Dynamic forces, systems, matrices, organisms are all usefully susceptible of scientific analysis even when they are not machines. (Since many facile reductionists read my blog, I should quickly point out as an aside that even things and events that are usefully susceptible of scientific analysis will usually inspire analysis, description and warranted beliefs on moral, esthetic, ethical, and political terms that are not reducible nor necessarily subordinate to these scientific terms.) The chief benefit to a Superlative Technocentric in describing a human body as a "machine" rather than a complex system or organism is the stealthy rhetorical work afforded by it at the figurative level, through which the identification of a body as a devised thing presumes in advance much of the conclusion that needs an argument in the first place; namely, that a better, imperishable, super-predicated body could be devised to replace the actually-existing "devised" bodies we live in.

Later, Prisco admits that he reductively assumes: "I am the information encoded in my brain." Of course, this cannot be literally true unless he is completely insane. He surely means to say that everything he imagines to matter most essentially about himself is information encoded in his brain. I happen to think even this more qualified claim is terribly unhealthy, but it is at any rate a claim with a long philosophical pedigree, however silly, pernicious, and reductive it may be.

Of course, such a statement leaves to the side whether the "information" he is talking about consists of his memories, his dispositions, the complex relations among them (among these the relations between conscious, subconscious, and evolved dispositions), information as he would grasp and retrieve it himself, information on the basis of which a being could be modeled who would be indistinguishable from himself to an "outside" observer, and so on. Also, such a statement leaves to the side the crucial point that all information is instantiated on a material carrier, that even a "self" reducible to information on whatever construal would still always be embodied information, and hence it is questionable whether glib declarations about "migrations" of informational selves from bodies into digital networks or what have you are the least bit coherent once one attends to them with any care at all. These are questions that have been addressed at length by any number of scholars; in some aspects by Katherine Hayles in her critiques of Hans Moravec, for example, and in other aspects by Jaron Lanier in his critiques of "Cybernetic Totalism."

Prisco extraordinarily claims that "[i]t seems to me that any other assumption would fall into mystic, magic, and supernatural realms that are completely foreign to my basic assumptions about reality." That is to say, according to Prisco anybody who does not believe as he does that the self is reducible to some unspecified construal of information that is somehow indifferent to the material mode of its instantiation is engaged in mystical, magical, supernatural thinking. Not to put too fine a point on it, this is one of the most facile and careless things I have ever heard in my life.

It is just an icing on the idiocy that "[o]n the basis of this assumption and conclusion," Prisco goes on oh so non-mystically, non-magically, non-supernaturally to predict "we will be able to upload human personalities to suitable computational supports, much longer lived than biological brains." He then assures us, "This is, I believe, fully compatible with our current scientific understanding of the universe." Never mind that actually existing computers exhibit conspicuous limitations and unreliabilities compared to actually existing biological brains of a kind that non-supernaturalist champions of science might properly be expected not to handwave away, never mind that actual scientists have never even approached a consensus of belief in superlative outcomes of the kind that preoccupy Prisco's attention.

And so, "The 'natural vs. supernatural' argument above tells me that cryonics works in principle -- there is no mystic 'soul' that irretrievably leaves a frozen brain after death by decree of god." Needless to say, even in a universe without a bloody-minded sky-daddy to govern us, it is not necessarily the case that bodies or brains "preserved" through processes of freezing or even vitrification will be revivable or retrievable by future medical techniques, and the scientific consensus is not encouraging on this question, handwaving by superlative technocentrics (self-appointed "champions" of science, all) notwithstanding.

But, never mind any of that: "This [belief] makes me happy," writes Prisco.

Honesty, at last! Far be it from me to deny anybody the enriching edifications of nonscientific practices of private perfection. My own commitment to rationality is not a reductionist but a pluralist one. I believe that human flourishing is multidimensional in its practices and aspirations, and that rational beliefs are warranted in different modes, according to different criteria, facilitating different ends: at a minimum, scientific, moral, esthetic, ethical, and political. Under such a pluralist conception, rationality demands not only that one's beliefs always satisfy the criteria of warrant associated with their relevant mode, but also that one always ascertain which mode is most appropriation to the aspiration one would incarnate from case to case. If Superlative Technocentrics just want to indulge in abstract idealizations about a heaven they call "the future" that is probably harmless as far as it goes (and no doubt can be enormous fun) unless they mistake this essentially private esthetic indulgence or moralizing mode of sub(cult)ural identification as a serious kind of public deliberation compatible with secular democratic stakeholder politics, or mistake this essentially faithful project as a scientific one in any sense.


De Thezier said...

I don't know whether to laugh or cry...

jfehlinger said...

Dale wrote:

> I would propose that the intensity of the "militant atheist" politics
> that seem regularly to coincide with advocacy of Superlative
> Technodevelopmental Discourses is less a matter of the repudiation
> of religiosity finally as the familiar virulence of sectarian squabbles
> of competing religious worldviews for followers.

Sandy: We've gone very Spanish this term,
what with Mary McGregor's brother and all.

Teddy Lloyd: What's Mary McGregor's
miserable brother got to do with Franco?

Sandy: Haven't you heard?
He's run off to Spain to fight.
Miss Brodie's beside herself with joy.

Mr. Lloyd: Jean knows nothing of politics
or politicians. She simply invests all leaders
with her own romantic vision.

. . .

Sandy: You know, it occurred to me
that the Brodie set has been Miss Brodie's faithful
fascisti, marching along... and I suddenly thought
of her disapproval of the Girl Guides.
Why, it's simple jealousy. The Guides are a rival fascisti,
and she cannot **bear** it.

How I wish I'd joined the Brownies!

Mr Lloyd: What a spiteful child it is.

-- _The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie_