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

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Pluralism, Bad Faith, and Being Reasonable

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot: "Go Democrats" gently chides, I'm not sure that I'd accuse every self-professed transhumanist of bad faith when it comes to technology and the poor.

That's quite right.

My point is not to assign blanket bad faith to transhumanists (as a straightforward empirical matter I can attest that this would be a false assertion), but to show that the superlativity of which Robot Cultism essentially consists makes no real, unique, definitive, indispensable contribution to the actual work of consensus science, progressive politics, or collaborative problem solving while the justificatory discourse of the Robot Cultists is constantly confusing the one with the others very much at their expense.

The hyperbolization of technique in general and actual techniques in particular characteristic of superlativity are arising out of other aspirations than science, pragmatism, or progressive politics, proper, and contribute nothing essential to these.

My own strong sense if I may say so is that superlativity arises for many out of passions very closely connected with the ones one also finds among many people who strongly ascribe to fundamentalist modes of religiosity. Among these are the fear of death, anxieties about the contingencies of human existence, strong adherence to parochial and exclusive mores, entrapment in authoritarian command-obedience formations, appreciation for certain atypical modes of consciousness, and so on.

I am happy to grant that some of these passions are perfectly edifying and beautiful and wholesome to particular faithful people, but none of them is properly mistaken for reasonable belief-ascription in an instrumental (let alone properly scientific!) rather than, say, moral or aesthetic, mode of reasonableness.

Note that this formulation insists on definitive differences in the criteria of warrant on the basis of which reasonable belief-ascription proceeds in an instrumental (also scientific) mode, but it is not a reductionist formulation that denies other modes of belief ascription their different criteria, their different reasonableness, their different indispensability in human life.

I distinguish instrumental from moral, aesthetic, ethical, and political beliefs, and regard them all as indispensable to human flourishing as it happens, and in measures particular to particular people. I see reasonableness, properly so-called, as a matter not only of properly applying the criteria of warrant relevant to a mode of belief, but also of making the proper determination of the mode of belief relevant to the experience at hand and what is wanted in it.

Thus, I am a pluralist, refusing both reductionist/absolutist and relativist positions on the question of reason in human flourishing.

No doubt, then, I can admit that superlative aspirations can contribute incidental inspiration here or there to this or that particular researcher or engineer without damage to my point, namely, that exactly the same can be said of taking drugs, falling in love, becoming work-obsessed through a refusal to deal with some personal problem, reading a poem, or any number of other things none of which would be essential rather than incidental to actual science, actual political organizing, or what have you, either.

In some cases "Go Democrats" is quite right to say that I am accusing the superlative technocentrics of bad faith -- indeed many of them are the worst flim-flam artists imaginable in my view -- but they are also right to insist that this is not by any means always true or the only story.

I daresay many Robot Cultists are more deceived than they are deceptive, more confused than they are fraudulent. But mistaken and damaging to progressive technodevelopmental deliberation they remain, and that is what matters here.


jimf said...

> My own strong sense if I may say so is that superlativity
> arises for many out of passions very closely connected with
> the ones one also finds among many people who strongly
> ascribe to fundamentalist modes of religiosity.
> Among these are the fear of death, [and] anxieties about the
> contingencies of human existence. . .

From an e-mail exchange I had with none other than M. Anissimov
back in the spring of 2007:

Subject: Immortalized by Psych Today

> If you have a chance, pick up this month’s issue
> of Psychology Today - I’m in it.

Indeed. On the way home last night I stopped at a
newsstand in the Port Authority bus terminal, and there
was the April issue of _Psychology Today_, and my
eye caught on that caption "Visionary or Nut? In Pursuit
of Lost Causes". I had a premonition who might be mentioned
inside. The table of contents listed the relevant article
as "The Boy Who Wants to Live Forever...", and the premonition
grew stronger. Finally, facing the indicated
page, was a full-page photo of an unidentified, but
familiar-looking, guy on a California beach wearing a pair of
oversized red boxing gloves. I didn't immediately see
the setting as a beach; my first thought was "parking lot
doused with soapy water", but another participant in the
salon de cerveau replied "It's a beach, you moron."

I didn't really need to see the smaller photo in the
interior giving the name.

. . .

> Out of all the "underdogs" profiled I think my "lost cause" looks the
> least "lost", so hopefully it will encourage at least a few dozen
> people to think more seriously about immortality... also, sometimes
> beliefs are formed from "snippets" - if you see 3 stories on
> immortality in a year, good or bad, it can cause the subject to "enter
> into your radar", y'know.

You know, very few people, once they reach a certain age,
do not think about human mortality and/or the possibility
of immortality in one form or another. Impending age and
death is an inescapable backdrop to human existence.

I've never believed in any of the religious dogmas about
immortal souls, Heaven, Hell, reincarnation, and so on. But
I can remember, when I was 11 going on 12 (in the spring
of 1964), after having read the paperback edition of
Arthur C. Clarke's _Profiles of the Future_ -- which contains
a "timeline of the future" placing the achievement of
physical immortality in the year 2100 -- wondering if interim
medical advances would enable **me** to reach that magic
year -- I remember distinctly thinking about this while
standing in front of the bathroom sink one Saturday morning
more than 40 years ago. I also remember the cloud of
emotion in which the thoughts were embedded: the hope
beyond hope that here was a **plausible**, "scientific"
voice suggesting that I might escape from death -- and this
was at the age of 11! I also got into a bit of trouble
that spring, when the school year was winding down,
by giving a book report on _Profiles_ to my sixth-grade
class. When I mentioned Clarke's views on the prospect
of immortality, the teacher, Mrs. Withrow, replied "that's
nonsense!" with some heat. I experienced that same thrill
of excitement (could it be true?) when I read Hans Moravec's
_Mind Children_ in 1988, when I came across Vinge's
views about the Singularity in _Across Realtime_ in the early
90's, when I came across Eliezer's _Staring into the Singularity_
in 1997, and when I read Kurzweil's book in 1999 (and even
more, when I saw his slideshow on the Singularity at PC Expo
in the Jacob Javits center in New York in 2000).

That frisson of -- lust, you might call it -- is something that
**must** be kept at arm's length in order to think rationally
about these things, IMO. I'm afraid too many Transhumanists,
Extropians, and Singularitarians simply surrender to that
excitement on the flimsiest of seemingly-scientific pretexts,
and become little more than true believers in an apocalyptic
and/or transcendentalist quasi-religion.

Ah, well. People need very little **convincing** if you
give them the slightest pretext to think that immortality,
in some form or other, might be within their grasp. And all
the research that's being directly or indirectly focussed
on cancer, Alzheimer's disease, cardiovascular disease,
arthritis, and so on and so on is, at least indirectly,
focussed on the problem of delaying or ameliorating human
senescence. Believe me -- I feel my age in my knees every
day of my life!

Will immortality, or extended longevity (which isn't **exactly**
the same thing, you know), happen if it's technologically
possible (and if we don't succumb to a mass extinction in
the meantime)? Of course it will! For those who can afford
it (or command it), even if not for everybody. People are scared
shitless of dying -- and even more than of death in the abstract, of
being diagnosed tomorrow with cancer, or macular degeneration,
or hearing loss, or osteoporosis, or arthritis, or of
noticing the first subtle signs of Mild Cognitive Impairment.
Further, when you reach middle age, the years seem to flash
by faster and faster, and the number you have left (even
barring dying early of something like cancer) starts
to diminish at an alarming rate. It's like driving a car
at 60 mph, with the top down and the radio blaring merrily
away, toward a brick wall!

Well. End of rant. ;->

"There is no such thing as a natural death. Nothing that happens to man
is ever natural... All men must die. And for every man his death is an
accident, and even if he knows it, he can sense to it an unjustifiable

You may agree with the words or not, but they are the keyspring of
_The Lord of the Rings_.
- J. R. R. Tolkien, quoting Simone de Beauvoir in a BBC interview

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...

This sadness lies at the heart of every
merely positivistic, agnostic, or naturalistic
scheme of philosophy. Let sanguine
healthy-mindedness do its best with its
strange power of living in the moment and
ignoring and forgetting, still the evil
background is really there to be thought
of, and the skull will grin in at the banquet.
In the practical life of the individual,
we know how his whole gloom or glee about
any present fact depends on the remoter
schemes and hopes with which it stands
related. Its significance and framing
give it the chief part of its value. Let
it be known to lead nowhere, and however
agreeable it may be in its immediacy,
its glow and gilding vanish...

The lustre of the present hour is always
borrowed from the background of possibilities
it goes with. Let our common experiences
be enveloped in an eternal moral order; let
our suffering have an immortal significance;
let Heaven smile upon the earth, and deities
pay their visits; let faith and hope be
the atmosphere which man breathes in; -- and
his days pass by with zest; they stir with
prospects, they thrill with remoter values.
Place round them on the contrary the
curdling cold and gloom and absence of all
permanent meaning which for pure naturalism
and the popular science evolutionism of our
time are all that is visible ultimately,
and the thrill stops short, or turns rather
to anxious trembling.

For naturalism, fed on recent cosmological
speculations, mankind is in a position
similar to that of a set of people living
on a frozen lake, surrounded by cliffs over
which there is no escape, yet knowing that
little by little the ice is melting, and
the inevitable day drawing near when the
last film of it will disappear, and to be
drowned ignominiously will be the human
creature's portion. The merrier the skating,
the warmer and more sparkling the sun by
day, and the ruddier the bonfires at night,
the more poignant the sadness with which
one must take in the meaning of the total
William James, _The Varieties of Religious Experience_,
Lectures VI and VII "The Sick Soul"

"'Thus far, then, I perceive that the great difference between
Elves and Men is in the speed of the end. In this only.
For if you deem that for the Eldar there is no death
ineluctable, you err.

'Now none of us know, though the Valar may know, the future
of Arda, or how long it is ordained to endure. But it
will not endure for ever. It was made by Eru, but He is
not in it. The One only has no limits. Arda, and
Ea itself, must therefore be bounded. You see us,
the Eldar, still in the first ages of our being, and the
end is far off. As maybe among you death may seem to a young
man in his strength; save that we have long years of life
and thought already behind us. But the end will come. That
we all know. And then we must die; we must perish utterly,
it seems, for we belong to Arda (in hroa [body] and fea [soul]).
And beyond that what? "The going out to no return," as you
say; "the uttermost end, the irremediable loss"?


'And yet at least ours is slow-footed, you would say?' said
Finrod. 'True. But it is not clear that a foreseen doom
long delayed is in all ways a lighter burden than one that
comes soon'"
- J. R. R. Tolkien, "Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth",
in _Morgoth's Ring_, Vol. 10 of _The History of Middle-earth_

"What had seemed to us at first the irresistible march of
god-like world-spirits, with all the resources of the universe
in their hands and all eternity before them, was now
gradually revealed in very different guise. The great advance
in mental calibre, and the attainment of communal mentality
throughout the cosmos, had brought a change in the experience
of time. The temporal reach of the mind had been very
greatly extended. The awakened worlds experienced an aeon
as a mere crowded day. They were aware of time's passage
as a man in a canoe might have cognizance of a river which in
its upper reaches is sluggish but subsequently breaks into
rapids and becomes swifter and swifter, till, at no great
distance ahead, it must plunge in a final cataract down
to the sea... Comparing the little respite that remained with
the great work which they passionately desired to accomplish,
namely the full awakening of the cosmical spirit, they saw
that at best there was no time to spare, and that, more
probably, it was already too late to accomplish the task...

The sense of the fated incompleteness of all creatures and
of all their achievements gave... a charm, a sanctity,
as of some short-lived and delicate flower."

-- Olaf Stapledon, _Star Maker_
Chapter X, "A Vision of the Galaxy"

"Tell me, stranger: life is -- why therefore should not life be
lengthened for a while? What are ten or twenty or fifty thousand years
in the history of life? ... There is naught that is wonderful about the
matter... Life is wonderful, ay, but that it should be a little
lengthened is not wonderful. Nature hath her animating spirit as well
as man, who is Nature's child, and he who can find that spirit, and let
it breathe upon him, shall live with her life. He shall not live
eternally, for Nature is not eternal; and she herself must die, even as
the nature of the moon has died... But when shall she die? Not yet, I
ween, and while she lives, so shall he who hath all her secret live with
- Ayesha, She-who-must-be-obeyed, to L. Horace Holly
in H. Rider Haggard's _She_

"The story of Ayesha [in H. Rider Haggard's _She_]
is not an escape, but it is about escape;
about an attempt at the great escape,
daringly made and terribly frustrated.
Its closest relative, perhaps its child, is Morris's
_Well at the World's End_, which came ten years
later. Both stories externalise the same
psychological forces; our irreconcilable reluctance
to die, our craving for an immortality in the flesh,
our empirical knowledge that this is impossible,
our intermittent awareness that it is not even
really desirable, and (octaves deeper than all
these) a very primitive feeling that the attempt,
if it could be made, would be unlawful and would
call down the vengeance of the gods. In both
books the wild, transporting, and (we feel)
forbidden hope is aroused. When fruition seems
almost in sight, horrifying disaster shatters our
dream. . ."
C. S. Lewis, _On Stories (And Other Essays On Literature)_,
"The Mythopoeic Gift of Rider Haggard", pp. 98-100

"Death . . . is a safety-device because, once Man
has fallen, natural immortality would be the one utterly
hopeless destiny for him. Aided to the surrender
that he must make by no external necessity of
Death, free (if you call it freedom) to rivet faster
and faster about himself through unending centuries
the chains of his own pride and lust and of the
nightmare civilizations which these build up in
ever-increasing power and complication, he
would progress from being merely a fallen man
to being a fiend, possibly beyond all modes of
C. S. Lewis, _Miracles_,
Chapter 14 "The Grand Miracle", p. 210

"The time was ripe. From the point
of view which is accepted in Hell, the whole
history of our Earth had led up to this moment.
There was now at last a real chance for fallen Man
to shake off that limitation of his powers which mercy
had imposed upon him as a protection from the full
results of his fall. If this succeeded, Hell would be
at last incarnate. Bad men, while still in the body,
still crawling on this little globe, would enter that state
which, heretofore, they had entered only after
death, would have the diuturnity and power of evil
spirits. Nature, all over the globe of Tellus, would
become their slave; and of that dominion no end,
before the end of time itself, could be certainly
C. S. Lewis, _That Hideous Strength_, p. 203

Is Lewis right? Who knows! Nevertheless, the experiment
**will** be tried, if it's possible.

Martin said...

It seems to me that 1) focusing on future technology, and 2) focusing on people who focus on future technology, is all the less important at a time when we are about to take (perhaps) the largest gamble in history, larger than Hitler invading France and Poland, and possibly more destructive.

Antonin said...

Fascinating read, Jim. While I can't relate to Lewis' theological concerns toward immortality (for much the same reasons I can't relate to H++'s investments into such and such futurologia), I think he does point to the more interesting questions of "who" exactly would be preserved, under whose criteria, etc. in the event of radical techniques for life-preservation.