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

Monday, September 03, 2012

Robot Cultists Exploit Dying Woman To Peddle Pseudo-Science and Threaten Critics

Also published at the World Future Society.

There is quite an uproar among the Robot Cultists at the moment about Kim Suozzi, a young woman who is about to die from a fatal brain tumor and is seeking donations to fund a cryosuspension she irrationally wants but cannot afford on her own. Here is one of the more thoughtful and sympathetic pieces I found in the online precincts where Robot Cultists of the techno-immortalist sect gather on the topic. In a nutshell, it proposes that even the awkward borderline sociopathic True Believers and guru-wannabes who are drawn to cryonics and uploading and nano-santa fantasies can surely see the PR benefit of occasional charitable giving, especially when it offers up an occasion to provide a photogenic face and sentimental martyr for The Cause.

Of course, cryonics is the flabbergasting fantasy that a severed head frozen or vitrified in a misty metal dewar will one day rise from the dead with the help of programmable swarms of nanoscale magic machines that can make anything for nothing, including eternally young robot bodies with comic book sooper-powers, or that "info-souls" interred within decapitated hamburgerized remains will eventually be "uploaded" into cyberspatial heaven, either to wallow in nanobotic sexy-slavebotic treasure caves in the asteroid belt or online until the universe dies and all the Robot Cultists exit into adjacent universes to party on for all eternity as more or less infinitely techno-amplified variations of their most infantile ids, all under the ministrations of a history-ending post-biological perfectly-parental sooper-intelligent Robot God they think their friends are coding even as I write these words in a basement somewhere with the help of techno-hucksters Ray Kurzweil or Peter Thiel or Peter Diamandis or, on the low rent side, terminally embarrassing guru/ drop-out Eliezer Yudkowsky. As I said, "The Cause."

I have been a cheerful atheist for a quarter of a century and tend to be very critical of the transcendentalizing claims made by the techno-utopian faithful on those terms, but I am also a teacher of critical thinking at the university level and tend to be very skeptical of pseudo-scientific hucksters peddling homeopathy and mystic crystal revelations and cryonics scams on those terms as well. Nevertheless, I am a champion of science not scientism, I don't believe all reasonable values are reducible to scientific claims nor that all reasonable belief is warranted on the terms that warrant instrumental claims in the service of prediction and control. I am a pragmatist and a pluralist, defending science in its proper precinct and on the terms that actually do define and sustain it, while also valuing moral, ethical, legal, cultural, political values, beliefs, and practices on their own, different terms. Because I am a pluralist, I do not get particularly exercised about the religious beliefs of others any more than I do the differences in their aesthetic tastes, even while I am quite happy to testify to my own irreligiousness and taste on my own terms for the good reasons I think I have for them. And this is because I happen to think diversity is as important as equity in secular multicultural world. However, I strongly disapprove efforts of religious or moral or aesthetic minorities to mis-apply the beliefs proper to those domains in places where they are injurious, pretending religious faith can do the work of consensus science or that proselytizing moralism can do the work of political reconciliation, for example. If the Robot Cultists held fast to the empirical reality that they really amount to a marginal sub(cult)ural fandom devoted to certain works of science fiction and certain pieces of futurological scenario-sketching that amount to gawky inept science fiction, too, then I would have no problem whatsoever with them -- let a bazillion flowers bloom, I always say. But when Robot Cultists try to pretend they are engaged in a proper scientific project, or serious developmental policy-making enterprise, or constitute some kind of political "movement" I absolutely must protest what is at best a deranging confusion on their part and at worst a systematic fraud. As I have written at length elsewhere, to the extent that the superlative futurological discourse of the Robot Cultists is engaging in something more pernicious and fraudulent it is not only dangerous on its own terms (as comparably ridiculous but well-organized marginal reactionary formations like the neocons also once were) but it can be analyzed as a clarifying extreme form of more prevailing tendencies to scientistic-reductionism, techno-triumphalism, consumer-fetishism, imperial-developmentalism, and unsustainable-technofixation in the governing public discourse of elite-incumbent neoliberal corporate-militarism, not to mention provides a pathological exhibition of the deceptive and hyperbolic marketing and promotional norms and forms that now suffuse our contemporary imagination.

The story of Kim Suozzi was brought to my attention earlier this weekend. This was my immediate off-the-cuff reaction to it:
Well, lots of people seem to turn to religion under the stress of such circumstances and, crusty atheist though I am, I am the last one to deny people the real consolations they find wherever they find them, be it in poetry, be it in drunkenness, be it in lovers' embraces, be it in Woody Allen flicks. If a person finds their consolation in a scam -- in thinking they've bought the Brooklyn Bridge or from an evangelical promise of life everlasting for the one who weighs down the collection plate enough -- it remains a scam, however, and however consoling to some, if it offers itself up to public scrutiny, it invites exposure as the scam it is.
As I said, I am an absolutely convinced and comfortable atheist, but it's not like I would go to the sickbed of some dying kid who took a real measure of consolation from a priestly promise that she would soon be plucking a lyre on a cloud with baby Jesus and try to tear that consolation from her by airing my many refutations of theological faith in my most acerbic eye-rolling manner. That would be an awful thing to do, if you ask me. However, if religionists declared their published articles of faith were beyond critical scrutiny altogether because of the consolation they bring the faithful, I am quite content to argue to the contrary that a critical culture of reasonable public deliberation provides consolations no less forceful and abiding than those of the various not-always-compatible faiths that say the same. And since, for at least some of us, religious faith does more harm than good to our sense of agency, sanity, and equanimity, a free secular diverse society will secure and celebrate the testimony of those whose experience this is as much as it does those who would testify to the power of their various faiths. And those who offer up their beliefs to public scrutiny as if on the terms that prevail over our adjudication of competing scientific or political claims should not be surprised to encounter criticisms they dislike or are unaccustomed to because they spend so much of their time hob-nobbing among fellow True Believers. In a fairly characteristic bit of self-serving rationalization, one high-profile techno-immortalist Robot Cultist, Giulio Prisco writes:
Are we totally sure, with absolute certainty, that cryonics will work? No, of course we cannot be totally sure until the first cryonics patient is revived. There could be unexpected road blocks, not only technical but also political… Are we positively optimist, with reasonable confidence, that cryonics will work? You bet. Repairing biological machines (yes, we are biological machines) damaged by extreme freezing is not feasible at this moment, but there is no reason to deny its feasibility in-principle, and there is ample scientific evidence that it may be possible someday soon and today’s cryonics patients may wake up in a world with very advanced life extension options. We are not offering certainty of immortality, but a very good chance at a very long life in a better world, and I hope to meet Kim [Suozzi] there and buy her a drink.
Prisco seems to expect congratulations for conceding he is less than absolutely certain the cryonics scam will work. Wow, somebody get that man a blue ribbon from the science fair! Einstein famously declared that "As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality." For those of us who respect science and reason, Einstein's chestnut reminds us that even well-warranted empirical descriptions provide us with confidence, but that certainty is something that only logic affords -- and in a way that need not offer us the confidence of scientific results at all. That Prisco and other Robot Cultists admit of less than total certainty for their enterprise (such as it is) is no striking concession at all but the blank minimum demanded of those who would even pretend to reasonableness. And when they go on to declare themselves "positively optimistic" and "reasonably confident" about the prospects of their techno-immortalization schemes -- even as they admit that these procedures are not now feasible, even as they admit that our ignorance in the relevant fields may yield "unexpected" results -- one has to ask just where all this confidence is supposedly coming from!

Given how little we even remotely know that we would absolutely need to know to accomplish what the techno-immortalists hope for, given how little reason we have to assume that our ignorance will always be filled with knowledge congenial to the techno-immortalists, given how many intermediary and auxiliary techniques would have to be developed in how many areas with what perfect efficacy always in ways congenial to the techno-immortalists, given how many objections and problems are raised by so many actual experts and scientists in the fields related to the desired techniques, given the conspicuous wish-fulfillment fantasizing in evidence here, given the citation of faith-based conceits (we will "meet… in a better world"), given the argumentative weight borne by metaphors and loose analogies ("biological machines"), all of which utterly suffuse techno-immortalist discourse, given all this and more, not only is it NOT reasonable to declare oneself confident that techno-immortalism will succeed (even while oh so generously conceding the patently obvious fact that it isn't a "done deal"), but obviously it is only reasonable to greet the rosy woozy hyperbolic claims of the techno-immortalists with the most extreme skepticism possible and even with outright ridicule. I cannot say I agree that there is anything particularly "optimistic" about death-denialism or pseudo-scientific credulity either. Return if you will to the second paragraph of this essay if you need reminding of the sorts of visions in which Robot Cultists feel so "reasonably confident" and some reason why an actually reasonable person might find ridicule an appropriate response to this nonsense.

When I quoted Giulio Prisco a moment ago I omitted a passage that I want to re-introduce now in its context and talk about a little bit by way of a conclusion of this piece: "There could be unexpected road blocks, not only technical but also political: I am afraid the deathist killers (see below) may try something, and therefore I think cryonics should be geographically diversified, with new options beyond reach of deathist politicians and admins." Deathist killers? Deathist politicians? Who are these "Deathists" supposed to be, of what does their apparently vast conspiracy consist, what is this "something" they might nefariously "try"? I confess that Prisco's own definition provided in the piece itself is not exactly helpful, when he writes, "Deathists are those politically correct morons and stupid assholes who think death is good." As it happens, just as Prisco is well pleased to make cynical use of the face of the suffering misguided Kim Suozzi to illustrate his techno-immortalist sect of the Robot God, he is also eager to give a face to the "Deathist Menace." Who could it be? Well, let's just say it's the name I sign on the dotted line. Hi! Pleased to meet you: It's Dale Carrico, "deathist killer"! While I daresay I fail to qualify as "politically correct" according to many of the current definitions of that rather troubled designation, I'm sure one could indeed find many who would attest to the correctness of the designation "stupid asshole." And while I cannot even pretend to believe that "death is good" (it's not exactly something I'm looking forward to), neither will I pretend to believe that there aren't many evils worse than mortality in the world nor to believe the fact of my inevitable eventual death spoils everything that is good about life for me. I do think that coming to terms with our mortality (like coming to terms with the ineradicable contingency of human experience and finitude of human capacities) is an indispensable step toward our arrival at reasonable maturity and sanity in the world, and that in the absence of this step human beings waste an enormous amount of energy in denial and do an awful lot of harm in compensation. While I am a big believer in, you know, medicine and science to make people's lives better I certainly don't think that means we should waste time with techno-immortalist pseudo-science. I have questioned the coherence of this "deathist" term in writing, so perhaps this is enough to make me one of them in the eyes of the Robot Cultists. Since techno-immortalists seem to think that all they have to do is make some peppy "can-do" noises and wait for "technology" to deliver them everlasting life in paradise, perhaps they mistake my conceding the obvious truth of the major premise of the most venerable syllogism in logic (which I have been known to teach to undergraduates), namely, that "All humans are mortal," as a kind of death-compelling magic spell like Rowling's "Avada Kedavra," and this is enough to make me some kind of "killer" in their eyes. As Prisco's designated "deathist"-in-residence I must say I react with a certain discomfort to the clarion call in the title of his piece to "Fuck Death and Deathists" whether that is supposed to be a sexual solicitation OR a call to do me in. And he calls ME a "deathist"! Be that as it may, to the extent that any of that is designed to discourage my criticism of the pseudo-science and techno-transcendental distractions and delusions of the Robot Cultists, I remain, for now, thoroughly unimpressed.


jimf said...

> [I]t's not like I would go to the sickbed of some dying kid who
> took a real measure of consolation from a priestly promise that she
> would soon be plucking a lyre on a cloud with baby Jesus and try
> to tear that consolation from her by airing my many refutations of
> theological faith in my most acerbic eye-rolling manner. That would
> be an awful thing to do, if you ask me.

Well, it's a good thing you think so, because:
I wish I could reach through the internet and punch the next person
who communicates with Kim online and calls cryonics a scam.

jimf said...

> . . . and Threaten Critics

Speaking of ideological differences that degenerate into violence. . . ;->

This is rather off-topic, except for the point that I stumbled
across it either on Mark Plus's blog or on Mike Darwin's
Chronosphere (quite possibly on the latter in a comment by Mark Plus).

You know of course that many of the >Hists are fascinated by the idea of
"nootropics" (pills that make you smarter) and have, for decades,
been experimenting with stuff like Deprenyl and Piracetam and
Centrophenoxine and what-have-you.

So yeah -- what's not to like about the idea that a pill could make
you smarter? (Except for the downside that if **everybody's** taking
it, you might not have much of a choice in the matter -- sort of like
cocaine in the 80's ;-> ).

Anyway -- as a digression from my digression, there's a 2011 film Mr. Plus
announced his intention of watching in
called _Limitless_ (with Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro)
about intelligence enhancement via pharmacology, which Plus said he
expected to like because it doesn't end like "Flowers for Algernon"
with the protagonist losing everything he gains or having his head
explode. So last Friday I suggested watching it to the folks I spent the
evening with, but it turned out to be too violent for my hostess.
So we had to turn it off a little more than halfway through.

OK, end of secondary digression. ;-> But in another of either Plus's
posts or comments on Chronosphere (I think), he mentions a science
fiction story which I hadn't heard of before --
"Understand", by Ted Chiang (which first appeared in _Asimov's Science
Fiction_, in 1991). It's available on-line to read:

So again, there's an ordinary zhlub who has an accident and suffers
brain damage, and is revived by means of "Hormone K" (nothing like Vitamin K ;-> ),
which turns out to have other effects than just rescuing his brain
from hypoxia.

But it's the **end** of the story that got my goat. The furniture of
the story is familiar enough, though it goes far beyond "Flowers for Algernon",
and manages to echo everything from _Star Trek_'s second pilot
"Where No Man Has Gone Before" and _The Outer Limits_' "The Sixth Finger"
to _Colossus: The Forbin Project_. The guy really turns into a
trans-trans-human. But then at the end he finds out that there was
somebody else (not Sally Kellerman ;-> ) who got enhanced just a couple
of weeks before he did ("Hormone K" doesn't work on healthy people,
and its effects are proportional to the degree of brain damage
experienced before its administration -- it has greater effects the
closer you were to death).

And it turns out that the protagonist of the story is a **Republican**
transhuman (or maybe a libertarian one) -- all he wants is to use the
earth as a springboard to limitless intelligence (he'll have to manipulate
corporations into making the stuff he needs -- it'll involve constructing
an artificial substrate to migrate his already-overloaded cranium
into). Like Gwyllm Griffiths in "The Sixth Finger" -- "I will return to
that chamber. And you will push this dial to the word 'Foward' -- all
the way into the future, into infinity. Do you understand?"

And his counterpart is a "Democrat" -- he wants to use his gift to turn
the earth into a Utopia for the normals.

And these two superintelligents -- the "Republican" and the "Democrat" --
**can't reach a modus vivendi** -- they circle around each other like
scorpions looking for an opening for the sting.

Now that's depressing! ;->