Saturday, July 21, 2007

Transhumanism: Prometheus Vs. The Puritans?

What if you could live effectively forever? What would it mean to both you and society and its institutions? Would religion have any value or meaning anymore? What groups would hold us back from achieving such things?

I've recently read two books that had a lot of similarities: Designer Evolution and True Mutations. I've long been meaning to read some stuff from/on the Transhumanist/Extropian crowd, and these books I had holds on at the library, became available around the same time.

The first book, Designer Evolution, is a transhumanist manifesto, and tries to lay some groundwork for a new philosophy for the future of science, most especially the science dealing with biology. Simon Young, the author, makes the assumption that there will be breakthroughs in medicine and/or technology that will make human lives extended to hundreds, then thousands of years. What will this mean to theists, liberals, etc., and how will they resist it? What will it mean to their philosophies to have science basically negate the reason for their philosophies? The author also makes the interesting argument that we should not make the same mistake of the past, that is, that science negated a lot of past philosophies but didn't leave the lay man much in the way of a replacement, and so, for many, the dominant philosophy became nihilism.

The second book is from RU Sirius (who runs two podcasts, contributes to Ten Zen Monkeys, and was the founder of the magazine Mondo 2000). This book is comprised of interviews with very interesting people, and just about every page your brain will probably come into contact with new and interesting ideas, or new ways of looking at things. It doesn't deal with just transhumanism, or even mostly, it's just different peoples' takes on a possible future, but since biotech is all the rage right now, it seems to come up here and there.

What really jumped out at me from both of these books is that much is possible, if we as a society (or the world) could just get past the "monkeys with car keys" stage - we could achieve some truly great things. Maybe not absolute immortality, but maybe a much better and longer quality of life, for starters.

Part of the stuff that needs to be discarded, IMHO, is dogma. That includes dogmatic religion, but also includes dogmatic ideologies that hold us back - this idea that man is meant to suffer is retarded and outright cruel, but it drives some of our laws. For instance, and this is the most glaring one (although I didn't corroborate this) is that a new drug cannot be brought into the U.S. market unless it's to treat a condition or disease.

Read that again. So, if something is developed to extend life or extend your current capabilities, like vision or hearing, it will not be approved. It's the 21st century. How can this type of thinking still be with us? I know it's in our myths - it's right there in Genesis (the aversion to knowledge, the aversion to being god-like, the shortness of life -something about 120 years). It's in the Prometheus myth, too, and there are other "lessons" about man reaching for godhood in probably thousands of other myths.

But as Designer Evolution makes clear, we've been "playing god" every time we reach for an aspirin, or when we developed open-heart surgery - why the aversion to extending life and making it extremely better? In other words, why should we let myths hold back bio-tech? I think I have a solution and it involves choice: let the theists, the humanists, the hard-core liberals and gaians, etc., choose NOT to extend their life, etc., but let's not let them hold back developments to do so...they can live the normal life, unenhanced, and those of us who are interested in living longer, fuller, lives free of pain and unfettered by mythological fears can do so...

Odd that you should strike on this subject of virtual immortality at the same time I did. Though I don't think I've invested as much time and energy in it.

I was sniffing around Project Gutenberg and found 2 B R 0 2 B by Kurt Vonnegut. Don't know if you've read the piece, but it's short story set in a future where life spans are in the hundreds of years and a zero population growth is strictly enforced to prevent overcrowding.

For every child that is born, an adult must die. And it is the responsibility of the parents to be to arrange for "volunteers" to give up their place for the pending bundle of joy. The people who "shuffle off this mortal coil" and the medical staff that help them on their way are much praised in the society.

The story takes place in the waiting room of a maternity ward. The central character is the sterotypical father pacing the floor, who is expecting triplets. And he doesn't know where he's going to get three volunteers. The story end with the father-to-be murdering two people in the euthanasia business and then kills himself, making 3 slots available for his kids.

I don't know what Vonnegut was trying to communicate with this story. It could be to point out the dangers of extending the human life span. Or the impact of contradicting the parental instincts with societal policies.

I understand why China has their one child per family restrictions, but something has alway rubbed me the wrong way about it. I could never put my finger on it before I read this.
Hm, I might have read that. Sounds vaguely familiar, and I've read lots of Vonnegut over the years.

Most of the book is written in a way to address the possible or past objections of different groups such as theists, liberals, humanists, etc.

IIRC, Vonnegut was a humanist. Definitely an atheist. In any case, yeah, the real concerns are worthy of being addressed - the superstitions of theists (and I notice that they get on planes, too, even though there are cautionary tales like Icarus - but that's probably because it's from a "false religion", heh) aren't really something to be taken all that seriously, IMHO.

Anyway, I think scenarios like Vonnegut's are rather bogus - only adjusting for one factor, like lifespan. Most likely, in parallel, other factors would be going on, too - like people would get smarter via neutroceuticals, maybe more emphathetic, seeing the bigger picture, etc.

For sure, it's quite evident that as people get richer and more educated, they have less babies. And China might not even need that policy if they start becoming a rich nation.

So talking about ONLY life extending and no other behavior changing, IMHO, isn't realistic. If people can effectively live decades, would they have the desire to have babies? I dunno. Somehow, I think, in the aggregate, there would be a lot less babies. Many people's answer about why they want kids or had kids comes down to leaving some sort of legacy. If you live forever, you are the legacy. Maybe. Hard to tell...that's why peering at the future is so fun.

I think the U.S., Europe and Japan would have shrinking populations if it wasn't for immigration?

Anyway, another point to be made is that it's going to happen - it's just that the research and breakthroughs may not be in the U.S.. Rather than be relegated to some theistic backwater like the Taliban, America should be on the bandwagon, not behind Korea, etc. (who are already ahead of us in a lot of biological research). Meanwhile, our country is equating blastocysts with human beings.
Yeah, you're probably right about the "more intelligent" elite having fewer children. However, I suspect that a good bit of this in current culture is more about parents being selfish with their time than altruism. More kids means less time, I can speak from experience on this one.

I also believe that as our culture becomes more secular, for better or worse, that opinions on birth control change. Obviously the knowledge of and availability of effective birth control in second and third control would have a big impact.

A longer lifespan would indeed give one more time to make your actions speak as your legacy rather than squeezing out a few tricycle motors in hopes of making your name stick. But someone needs to repopulate the planet.

At least in the world Vonnegut describes it is still left up to natural conception and birth. I think this preferable to the literal "test tube babies" that are decanted in A Brave New World. I don't recall if Aldous Huxley addressed population control or if it was all about social castes.

I'm going to punt on that last statement. ;)
I see you mention the word "elite". Some of the objections he thinks liberals would raise involved just that - that this sort of extension would be available to the elite only, etc.

Which is probably true - but it's been like that for virtually everything, including issues of health, and there's no expectation that health involving life-extension, extra-human capabilities would be any different. Take AIDS treatments as an example - they are prohibitively expensive and my understanding is that many are locked up in IP so no one can make knockoffs - so they don't get to the places they are probably needed the most which is the poorest. Does that mean people should stop working on treatments/cures?

BTW, for this discussion, both you and I qualify as "elite", IMHO, as anyone at least at middle class in the U.S. is doing quite well in the big picture, when one considers that half of planet lives on less than $2 a day, IIRC.

Anyway, I reject that liberal argument, just like the author does. I forget his reasoning, to be honest, but IMHO, if that sort of argument held any weight, we wouldn't have sent men to the moon or done all the other things we've done, because only the "elite" have been able to directly experience them.

Speaking of space flight, that's another variable that's rarely brought up when it comes to longevity - what makes anyone think this is the only planet we'll be on? Advances in biology like life extension or studying animals that go into suspension (like those frogs that can be frozen, for one) only make space exploration all the more feasible. And then we won't only have to have people that populate THIS planet, we'll have to have people populate OTHER planets. Gotta take the long view. :)
Yeah, and about Aldous Huxley - I think that was more a morality tale about a perfectly structured, stable system vs. free will? I dunno, that's what I got out of it.
My reference to Brave New World was just in passing, comparing conception and child rearing techniques. Vonnegut's are more traditional and intimate, Huxley's more mechanical and procedural. I agree, BNW was about the suppression of free will in the process of establishing a well ordered society. Not so much about population control; but population control is probably an additional benefit from controlling the conception and development process.

Regarding the role of technology in this discussion, if you look out far enough, we to take drugs to extend life. In The Age of Spiritual Machines Ray Kurzweil speculates that in the next 100 years or so humans will be able to load their minds into computers. At that point immortality becomes an issue of mechanical maintenance and a good back up strategy. I don't think he ever discusses procreation.
One more thing....

"On a long enough timeline everyone's life expectancy goes to zero."

-- Fight Club
Yeah, I plan on reading some Kurzweil - lots of his titles are on my "to-read" was the Age of Spiritual Machines?
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