Transhumanism, Progress and the Future
Journal of Evolution and Technology - Vol. 20 Issue 2 –December 2009 - pgs 49-69
This paper argues that one can advocate a moral imperative to pursue enhancement technologies while at the same time rejecting the historical reality of progress and holding a pessimistic view of the future. The first half of the paper puts forth several arguments for why progress is illusory and why one has good reason to be pessimistic about the future of humanity (and posthumanity). The second half then argues that this is entirely consistent with also championing the futurological vision of transhumanism. The claim is that, relative to the alternatives proposed, this vision actually offers the safest route into the future, even if it also entails an increase in the probability of self-annihilation.
1. Transhumanism and progress
Transhumanism is a recent philosophical and cultural movement that has both descriptive and normative components: (1) the descriptive claim is that current and anticipated future technologies will make it possible to radically alter both our world and persons, not just by “enhancing” the capacities that we already have but also by adding entirely new capacities not previously had.1 (2) The normative claim is that we ought to do what we can to foment and accelerate the creation of such “enhancement” technologies, thereby converting the possibility of a “posthuman” future into an actuality.
A primary focus of the present paper is the notion of progress that one often finds wrapped around the theoretical and programmatic core of transhumanist philosophy.2 For example, the World Transhumanist Association (WTA), founded by Nick Bostrom and David Pearce in 1998, lists “technological progress” as one of four fundamental conditions necessary for realizing the transhumanist project (Bostrom 2005a); and the extropian Max More specifies “perpetual progress” as one of seven basic “Principles of Extropy” (More 1998). Similarly, the singularitarian Ray Kurzweil3 situates the idea of progress center-stage in his theory of cosmic history, which identifies exactly six historical epochs through which the universe develops in both a linear and exponential fashion (i.e., through a fixed sequence of stages according to the “law of accelerating returns”). As these examples suggest, the transhumanist literature is saturated with talk of a kind of technology-driven progress, one ultimately leading to a posthuman future populated by superintelligent AI systems and biotechnological hybrids.4
Focusing on the progressionism championed by most transhumanists,5 this paper puts forth a mosaic of arguments in support of a peculiarly anti-progressionist and pessimistic version of transhumanism. This variant is based on two distinct theses: first, it argues that the progressionist conception of history as “a record of improvement in the conditions of human life” (Mazlish and Marx 1998) is highly problematic, both empirically and methodologically. On the one hand, not only does the evidence here reviewed – both futurological and anthropological – not provide epistemic support for progressionism (according to these data, history actually appears to be regressive in many respects) but, on the other, the historiographic method often employed by transhumanists in characterizing history is flawed and tendentious. The literature on transhumanism, in contrast, often manifests a strong proclivity for discussing and thinking about technological progress in a highly uncritical manner. For one, there has been no attempt (that I know about) to provide a constitutive analysis of the concept (What exactly does progress mean?), and in addition no transhumanist has yet offered a robust empirical argument for the historical reality of progress.6 As Robert Nisbet observes in his History of the Idea of Progress, the existence of absolute progress was assumed as an “axiom or dogma” by most progressionist theorists during and after the Enlightenment – that is, “the idea was as self-evident as anything in Euclid” (Nisbet 1994, 7). Given transhumanism’s intellectual continuity with this Enlightenment tradition (Bostrom 2005b), it is thus no surprise to find that most transhumanists today similarly accept progress as a “central dogma” of their technocentric worldviews. For empirical and methodological reasons, I argue that this is a serious problem.
But one need not champion the triumphant “march of progress” conception of history to endorse the core descriptive and normative claims of transhumanism. This leads to the second thesis of the present paper: despite the failure of technology to bring about absolute progress throughout human history, the “futurological program” of transhumanism still provides, comparatively speaking, the best road map for how we humans ought to navigate the future. The idea here is that, relative to the alternative maps, programs and prescriptions that have been proposed by futurist policy makers, including broad relinquishment, the steady-as-she-goes option (Walker 2009) and the comprehensive relinquishment route of anarcho-primitivism, the transhumanist imperative to both world-engineer and person-engineer actually offers the safest route. Thus, my position makes explicit that one can be an antirealist about progress, adopt a pessimistic view of technology and its (negative) influence on the common existential plight of Earth-originating life, and still endorse transhumanism (that is, as defined above).
This position is, in fact, suggested by the work of several notable transhumanists, such as Mark Walker (2009) and Nick Bostrom, who recently suggested that transhumanists eschew “progress” for a more axiologically neutral term like “technological development.” Why? Because “it is far from a conceptual truth that expansion of technological capabilities makes things go better. [And] even if empirically we find that such an association has held in the past (no doubt with many big exceptions), we should not uncritically assume that the association will always continue to hold” (Bostrom 2009; cf. Bostrom 2005a).7
I attempt to formalize the resultant version of transhumanism in this paper – a pessimistic and anti-progressionist position that I call (for lack of a better term) rational capitulationism.8
2. Three anti-progressionist arguments
The aim of this section is to convince the reader that progressionism is highly problematic: not only do the futurological and anthropological data strongly suggest that progress is not an historically real phenomenon, but the progressionist conception of technology as triumphantly solving the many problems impeding human well-being is typically based on a flawed and tendentious historiographic method. I conclude that transhumanism ought to eviscerate the notion of absolute progress from its philosophical body. The result is a more robust philosophy of technology and orientation towards the future, one that both maintains its moral imperative to person-engineer using the advanced technologies of the genetics, nanotechnology and robotics (GNR) revolution, as well as recognizing that our worsening existential plight is primarily the result of our technological activities. I first enunciate a futurological argument, then an historical one, and finally close this section with a review of the pertinent data from anthropology.
Futurological argument: Bostrom defines “existential risk” (a
term of his coinage) as “one where an adverse outcome would either annihilate
Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its
potential” (Bostrom 2002)
With respect to the numerical, Bostrom enumerates a total of 23 categories of mostly technogenic existential risks that have emerged or are expected to emerge within the next few decades, as the GNR revolution unfolds. Such categories include the misuse of nanotechnology (either through error or terror), “unfriendly” AI systems, genetically engineered pathogens capable of wiping out Homo sapiens, and four “catch-all” categories labeled “something unforeseen.” Now, (i) if Bostrom is correct in counting the categories of risks today as 23 and those prior to 1945 as 1 or 2, and (ii) if we take the relevant increment of time to be 100 years (between 1945 and 2045, when Kurzweil predicts the GNR revolution will culminate),11 then the following proposition follows: in only 100 years, human technological activity will have resulted in a 12- to 23-fold increase in the number of existential risk categories.12 This is quite an extraordinary fact, even if technology has succeeded in simultaneously mitigating smaller-scale risks (Bostrom and Cirkovic 2008, 27). The reality is that there are more ways for Earth-originating intelligent life to terminate today – that is, for our species to self-immolate – than there were for any living species to go extinct in the past 3.5 billion years.
That said, consider the second dimension of existential risk assessment, namely that of probability. This particular dimension poses special problems, since probability estimates of existential risk scenarios are necessarily subjective in nature. (It is of course true “by definition” that no existential risk has yet occurred, or else we wouldn’t be here to worry about them.) Nonetheless, one can reasonably assume that as the number of existential risks increases, so will the likelihood of a risk actualization event, although the relation here is one of contingency rather than necessity.13 If this assumption is sound, it follows that the probability of an existential risk happening has, along with the numerical growth of existential risk types and tokens, also significantly increased within the centennial increment specified above. Again, this is quite an extraordinary fact – one worth taking seriously when thinking about technology and progress.
A more robust argument for the very same conclusion
can be formulated by taking into account the probability estimates of several
authorities on the matter. As I attempt to show, these data suggest a
nontrivial rising trend in the
probability that an existential risk will be actualized in the near future –
especially as increasingly powerful GNR technologies, exhibiting the
characteristic-of-technical-artifacts property of dual usability, are developed. To begin, as Bostrom notes above,
the probability of an asteroid or comet impact (the only noteworthy pre-1945,
non-anthropogenic existential risk) is negligible: an impactor
The trend that emerges from the above analysis is
enough to make the futurologist – primed by Kurzweil’s singularitarian extrapolations
of observed historical trends – wonder about the possibility of what might be
called an existential risk singularity
Premise 1. the gravest existential risks facing present and future (post)humanity derive most significantly from technologies of the GNR revolution.
Premise 2. the development of GNR technologies is accelerating at an exponential rate (according to transhumanists).16
Conclusion, the gravest existential risks facing present and future (post-)humanity are also growing at an exponential rate.
This is, of course, not to ignore the fact that the development of defense technologies will most likely accelerate, too, but it is to point out the fact, often overlooked in the transhumanist literature, that new existential risk types and tokens will likely be created at an extraordinary rate. After all, the GNR revolution is, so to speak, the parent of such risk progeny. Consider Kurzweil’s own observation that the benefits of the GNR revolution are undergoing “an exponential expansion” (Kurzweil 2005, 396) – so why not the dangers as well? Both benefits and dangers are indeed “deeply intertwined” (as Kurzweil puts it), since both have their origin in the dual usability of these neoteric artifacts. If the potential of one use increases, then so does the other: benefit and danger are twin siblings, growing up together in a family of “promise and peril.”
In sum, the
Historical argument: I should begin by pointing out that my intended focus is less on history per se and more on (what I claim are) a few bad habits that transhumanists get into when characterizing history in progressionistic terms. In other words, I make a more historiographic than historical point. Integral to this point is the articulation of an “error theory” that has as its explanandum the “progressionist illusion” that history is in fact a record of improvement. The explanation that I give points to the manner in which progressionists in general, and transhumanists in particular, present the history of technological development, which I show is tendentiously asymmetrical in its focus on technology’s problem-solving capabilities (although this is generally an unconscious bias).
My first claim is that, using a kind of medical metaphor, progressionists very often focus exclusively on the treatment of problems impeding the acquisition of human well-being rather than on their etiology.17 By fixating on only one half of the story – that of treating or solving the well-being-impeding problems of history – a pattern of technology-driven progress does indeed emerge from the historical mist. In other words, from this treatment-oriented historiography the past takes the form of a series of problem-solving episodes in which unsolved but technologically solvable problems are given increasingly sophisticated technological solutions. And the faster the wheels of innovation turn, the more progressive history appears, since progress is intuitively measured in terms of the number of problems solved in a given increment of time.
But there is a second and equally important
constellation of questions to be asked, namely: What about the causal origin of these problems? and What enables or requires the wheels of
innovation to turn at all? As I discuss below, it is well-known today that
the technological minimalism of hunter-gatherer peoples was more than
sufficient to secure a remarkably healthy and far more leisurely existence than
most moderns live (Gowdy 1997; Cohen 1989). And, in addition, we know that the
advanced artifacts of modernity are, outside the larger technological systems
to which they belong, of virtually no practical value – this is arguably why
the wheel was not employed for transportation in
Thus, when one’s historiographic approach focuses on, or at minimum includes, this aspect of history, the diachronic phenomenon of technological development appears quite different than it otherwise does on the progressionist reading. Rather than a triumphant series of overcoming the problems that impede human well-being, the history of technology presents itself as a protracted succession of problem-generating episodes in which previously non-existent or less serious problems are either newly introduced or reintroduced/exacerbated by technology (respectively). The first might be described as the creation of problems ex nihilo (completely novel problem creation) and the latter as the creation of problems de novo (a novel form of an old problem emerges).
Furthermore, the creation of such problems and their corresponding spaces of innovation is crucially important for the growth of technology, since it makes possible the formulation of new technological solutions.18 Consider the existential risks mentioned above: virtually all of these are, as already noted, technogenic in nature. And as these risks are countered and neutralized with increasingly sophisticated “defensive” technologies, there is no doubt that the production of such risk-mitigating apparatuses will be hailed by progressionistic transhumanists as constituting significant strides forward in the inexorable “march of progress.” Kurzweil, for example, discusses the possibility of creating an army of “blue-goo” police nanobots to obviate the eschatological scenario of “grey-goo” (Kurzweil 2005, 416; Drexler 1987). But what does this possibility really amount to? In the end, all we have achieved is approximately the same level of security that we had prior to existence of this brand new nanotechnological risk. The difference between now and then pertains only to how such security is achieved: today, of course, we don’t need an expensive, complex, energy consuming, and so on, apparatus of highly sophisticated nanotechnology to protect us from ecophagy because the grey-goo problem doesn’t yet exist. It is, therefore, only when one focuses exclusively on the solution to this problem that it can possibly appear to instantiate genuine progress. Indeed, neutralizing the grey-goo threat is rather like taking a giant leap forward only after taking a huge leap backwards. We come to occupy roughly the same position that we did before – except with more anxieties. This is a deceptively subtle point, I believe, and one that transhumanists often neglect in their writings on technology and progress.19
In addition to the dual usability of technical artifacts as an origin of new spaces of innovation, another important source of problems pertains to the unintended consequences of our increasingly powerful technological creations. The burning of fossil fuels and its many negative externalities is a good example: one of the initial arguments for the adoption of the gas-powered automobile rather than the electric or steam car was that the former would actually reduce pollution (e.g., by getting rid of horse manure in city streets). One is similarly reminded of the use of lead in gasoline as an anti-knock agent, or of DDT as a pesticide in the mid-twentieth century. Thus, if history is any indication, the most worrisome of all the existential risk categories that Bostrom (2002) identifies is probably the non-specific class of “something unforeseen.” In this sense, while strategies like differential development might offer some protection against anticipatable risks like the grey-goo scenario, there will no doubt emerge a vast panoply of negative externalities that, as Winner puts it, will be “not not intended” – that is, risks that will have absolutely nothing “in the original plan that aimed at preventing them” (Winner 1977, 97). The paramount but unanswerable question thus becomes: What will be the “global warming” of nanotechnology? What will be the “eutrophication” of Strong AI? What possible thalidomide-like effects will “strategies for engineered negligible senescence” (SENS) (de Grey et al. 2002) inflict on human users? Such questions point not merely to “known unknowns” but “known unknowables,” and with potentially eschatological consequences.
The third important problem source mentioned above is the post-invention manufacture of novel problems. This occurs when a technologist invents a device without any particular problem in mind.20 Thus, to make the entity marketable, the technologist sets out to manufacture a “need” that did not previously exist or was not previously recognized as such. This is a case of, as the saying goes, “a solution looking for a problem,” and it is commonplace in consumerist societies: companies sell products by persuading consumers that the item being sold is in some way necessary, when in fact it is entirely superfluous. Again, this may give the impression of progress, as more and more “problems” are given technological solutions, but in reality it amounts to nothing more than leaping back and forth, back and forth, creating and then solving. Finally, the fourth source considered here occurs when new technologies “[require] further inventions to make them completely effective” (Kranzberg 1986, 548). As Winner notes, “one must provide not only the means but also the entire set of means to the means” (Winner 1977, 101). Thomas Edison’s invention of the incandescent light bulb is exemplary, since it required the construction of an entirely new and highly elaborate electrical infrastructure to enable its functionality.
In these ways, then, technology not only magnificently solves but also powerfully generates problems, and by introducing new spaces of innovation for technologists to explore it creates the illusion that progress is being made. In fact, a significant proportion of all the technological solutions that Homo faber (“man the maker”) has devised – clever and sophisticated as they may be – actually target problems that are in some nontrivial way technogenic.21 Thus, in assessing whether or not history is a record of improvement, we must take care to consider not just the treatment of problems impeding the well-being of Earth-originating life but their etiology as well. This more symmetrical historiography yields a rather less optimistic and less progressive picture of history than that painted by many transhumanists. To be sure, then, change has occurred. But change is not sufficient for progress – there must also be directional movement towards a valued goal (Verdoux 2009a; Ruse 1996, 19-20).
Anthropological argument: The thesis of this subsection is that the anthropological data does not epistemically support the progressionist conception of history. I proceed with two arguments: first, that transhumanists often commit the fallacy of hasty generalization when arguing for the progressionist position; and second, that transhumanists often commit the straw man fallacy when arguing against alternative philosophies that advocate some form of relinquishment, such as neo-Luddism (broad relinquishment), the steady-as-she-goes option (which permits world-engineering but relinquishes person-engineering) and anarcho-primitivism (comprehensive relinquishment).22 The first part of the thesis is general and applies to transhumanism insofar as is assumes a progressionist posture, while the second part specifically targets Kurzweil’s arguments against neo-Luddism and anarcho-primitivism. I focus on Kurzweil because his objections seem to typify those of many other progressionistic transhumanists.
Now, to be sure that I am not knocking down a straw man, let us begin with a look at the following passages from Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near (2005), which evince both fallacies mentioned above:
This romancing of software from years or decades ago is comparable to people’s idyllic view of life hundreds of years ago, when people were “unencumbered” by the frustrations of working with machines. Life was unfettered, perhaps, but it was short, labor-intensive, poverty-filled, and disease and disaster prone. (Kurzweil 2005, 436.)
Technology has [brought] benefits such as longer and healthier lifespans, freedom from physical and mental drudgery, and many novel creative possibilities […]. Substantial portions of our species have already experienced alleviation of the poverty, disease, hard labor, and misfortune that have characterized much of human history. Many of us now have the opportunity to gain satisfaction and meaning from our work, rather than merely toiling to survive. (Kurzweil 2005, 396.)
Imagine describing the dangers (atomic and hydrogen bombs for one thing) that exist today to people who lived a couple of hundred years ago. They would think it mad to take such risks. But how many people in 2005 would really want to go back to the short, brutish, disease-filled, poverty-stricken, disaster-prone lives that 99 percent of the human race struggled through a couple of centuries ago? (Kurzweil 2005, 408.)
Technological advances, such as antibiotics and improved sanitation, have freed us from the prevalence of […] plagues [etc.]. (Kurzweil 2005, 409.)
Let us begin with the second logical error mentioned above: the straw man fallacy. In such passages, many more of which could be adduced, Kurzweil decries the romanticization of life “a couple of centuries ago” or “hundreds of years ago” as idyllic and unencumbered. But who exactly romanticizes these periods? Who expresses nostalgia for the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Period? The answer is, of course, that no one does!
On the one hand, the neo-Luddites champion a reform policy that entails dismantling or imposing moratoria on certain classes of technologies deemed too socially, psychologically, environmentally destructive or existentially risky. The psychologist Chellis Glendinning, for instance, argues that we ought to jettison television from the societal ship, since it “functions as a centralized mind-controlling force, disrupts community life, and poisons the environment” (Glendinning 1990). Similarly, Bill Joy advocates the imposition of moratoria on the development of nanotechnology, given the unprecedented risks it is expected to introduce (Joy 2000). However, no neo-Luddite advocates returning to an “idyllic” past lost by technology. Instead, exponents of this position are explicit in envisaging a thoroughly technological future, one in which humans have broadly relinquished the “bad” technologies (such as television and nanotechnology) while actively developing the “good” kinds of technology (one thinks of such entities as vertical farming, Lily pad Cities and the Fab Tree Hab – “an edible prefab home for humanity”).23 It is in fact a common misperception of neo-Luddism that it universally rejects technology. One needs to look no further than Joy’s oft-cited article in Wired magazine24 or Glendinning’s 1990 manifesto, which postulates as the first principle of neo-Luddite philosophy that “neo-Luddites are not anti-technology” (emphasis in original).
Nor, for that matter, is the more ideologically radical philosophy of anarcho-primitivism strictly anti-technology. As Ted Kaczynski writes in his 1995 manifesto, the primitivist perspective only sees large-scale “organization-dependent” technologies as deleterious. “Small-scale” technologies, or those artifacts “[useable] by small-scale communities without outside assistance,” are actually seen as beneficial and socially desirable (Kaczynski 1995, 208). Thus, it is only when technological systems transmogrify into the massive megatechnics of the industrialized West that they begin to truncate the freedom of human autonomy (or so Kaczynski claims). One finds important echoes of this idea in the theory of “normative determinism” (Bimber 1994; Ellul 1964) and Winner’s notion of “reverse adaptation.” According to these positions, the norms and standards of technology are, in advanced technological societies, problematically universalized in all or most other domains of human thought, experience and activity – domains in which the application of such standards would normally be seen as inappropriate (Winner 1977, 238-251).25
Even more important for the present paper is the
futurological vision of anarcho-primitivism, which does not prescribe recreating the “short, labor-intensive,
poverty-filled, and disease and disaster prone” (to quote Kurzweil) conditions
of seventeenth century
Even more striking is the consistent failure of transhumanists to accurately depict what life was like for our distant Homo ancestors. This leads to the first logical error mentioned above: the fallacy of a hasty generalization. To be sure, a full explication of this fallacy would require an encyclopedia-length paper reviewing an oceanic mass of anthropological data. My goal below is modest: to merely sketch out the relevant paradigms currently established within contemporary anthropology (as enunciated in standard textbooks on the subject; see Ember et al. 2005). Thus, let us begin with the following statement from Mark Cohen’s seminal Health and the Rise of Civilization (1989): “Some of our sense of progress comes from comparing ourselves not to primitives but to urban European populations of the fourteenth to eighteenth centuries. We measure the progress that has occurred since then and extrapolate the trend back into history” (Cohen 1989, 141). This is, of course, precisely what Kurzweil does in the above quoted passages – that is, he induces to a general proposition about human history based on a highly impoverished selection of data extracted from a single period of history.
Cohen continues: “A good case can be made that urban European populations of that period may have been among the nutritionally most impoverished, the most disease-ridden, and the shortest-lived populations in human history” (Cohen 1989, 141). Using (i) paleopathological studies, (ii) epidemiological extrapolations based on the same uniformitarian principles that underlie other scientific disciplines, and (iii) ethnographic studies of contemporary hunter-gatherer groups, Cohen argues that the Neolithic revolution, marked by the domestication of plants and animals and the adoption of sedentarism, was followed by an appreciable decline in human health and well-being. Quite incredibly, this decline persisted more-or-less until the mid-twentieth century, at which point human health finally improved. But Cohen is quick to note that the observed amelioration in health was largely limited to the relatively affluent citizens of the industrialized West.27 Indeed, contrary to what most progressionists uncritically assume, “until the nineteenth or even twentieth centuries, the improvement in overall life expectancy appears to have been fairly small” (Cohen 1989, 140). Thus, there exists no consistent correlation between the development of technology and the improvement of human well-being throughout history.
The sociologist Ruut Veenhoven (2005) notes a similar decline in life-quality throughout most of human history, arguing that the start of “the agrarian phase marked a historic dip in human quality-of-life” (Veenhoven 2005).28 Along these same lines, the Harvard psychologist Gregg Jacobs argues that modern society – with its phenomena of social atomism, consumerism and information overload – is largely responsible for the growing statistical prevalence of such psychopathologies as depression and anxiety. In Jacobs’ words, “The root cause of modern stress is the discrepancy between [the] modern world and ancestral world” in which we evolved (Jacobs 2003, 60; emphasis in original). This observation – which one also finds explicitly discussed in Bostrom and Sandberg 2008 – leads Jacobs to declare “that progress has come at a great cost, for by creating maladaptive negative emotions and inhibiting positive ones, we have disrupted nature’s balance” (Jacobs 2003, 60; Verdoux 2009b). (Note that Bostrom and Sandberg’s paper discusses ways to fix this organism-environment mismatch using technological interventions.) Cohen similarly concludes with the assertion that:
These data clearly imply that we need to rethink both scholarly and popular images of human progress and cultural evolution. We have built our images of human history too exclusively from the experiences of privileged classes and populations, and we have assumed too close a fit between technological advances and progress for individual lives. […] In popular terms, I think that we must substantially revise our traditional sense that civilization represents progress in human well-being – or at least that it did so for most people for most of history prior to the twentieth century. The comparative data simply do not support that image. (Cohen 1989, 140, 141.)
For these reasons, then, I argue that transhumanists
ought to relax their progressionist posture. Based on the empirical data
considered by the theorists above, it turns out that the most “solitary, poor,
nasty, brutish, and short” periods of human existence have actually resulted
from civilization itself, rather than from lack of technology. The
anti-progressionist position here advocated thus concurs with the historian
George Basalla in asserting that “a workable theory of technological evolution
requires there be no technological progress in the traditional sense of the
term but accepts the possibility of limited progress toward a carefully
selected goal within a restricted framework” (Basalla 1988, 218). Indeed, in
order to bring about a posthuman state, transhumanism does require comparative progress, or progress
towards a limited goal of value (e.g., the development of nootropic drugs to
enhance human cognition, or the creation of superintelligent machines). But
instances of comparative progress do not necessarily add or cumulate to create
a transhistorical trend of absolute
progress, and in fact the anthropological and futurological evidence strongly
suggests that technology is a primary cause of human non-well-being. And, as I suggested above, the advanced
technologies of the GNR revolution may very well precipitate an
But while technology has created a rather dismal
future – one full of new and rapidly ramifying eschatological scenarios – does
this mean we should abandon it? Should we restrict technological development
according to kind or whether the
artifacts produced target the human organism for modification? Or should we get
rid of it in a comprehensive manner, as the primitivists contend?
3. Rational capitulationism
An argument for the anti-progressionist version of transhumanism here advocated goes as follows:
Premise 1. The futurological program of transhumanism would by all accounts increase the likelihood of self-annihilation.
By now, the truth of this proposition should be
obvious: the philosophy of transhumanism asserts both that (i) the advanced
technologies of the GNR revolution will enable us to world-engineer and
person-engineer in radically new ways – possibly even enabling us to construct
a novel species of technologized posthumans to take our place on the
phylogenetic tree30 – and (ii) the “enhancement” technologies that
promise to make the creation of posthumans possible ought to be pursued, albeit in a circumspect if “proactionary”
manner (More 2005). As expounded in the futurological argument of Section 2, of
all the technology kinds that humans have devised since the Oldowan industry
(circa 2.6 mya), those of the GNR revolution are by far the riskiest: not only has the number of existential risks
and probability of their actualization increased significantly in the past 50
years, but this trend may actually be exponential.
In the worst case scenario, this exponential growth of existential risks would
persist into the next couple centuries, thus precipitating an
Premise 2. The alternative futurological programs proposed would almost certainly increase the likelihood of self-annihilation more than transhumanism would.
There are myriad reasons for accepting this claim. One
line of argumentation suggests that humanity has (so to speak) crossed the
Rubicon of technological development: there is no turning back now, at least
not without further exacerbating our existential plight or significantly increasing
human suffering.31 Consider the option of broadly relinquishing
(say) genetic engineering, due to the profound risks associated with its dual
use properties. How might this be accomplished? As
Relinquishment requires us to not only stop future developments but also to turn back the hands of time, technologically speaking. If we want to keep ourselves completely immune from the potential negative effects of genetic engineering we would have to destroy all the tools and knowledge of genetic engineering. It is hard to imagine how this might be done. […] Think of the alcohol prohibition experiment in the early part of the century in the U.S. Part of the reason that prohibition was unsuccessful was because the knowledge and rudimentary equipment necessary for brewing was ubiquitous. It is these two features, availability of knowledge and equipment, that has made biohacking possible. And where would a relinquishment policy be implemented? If it is truly a viable and long-term strategy then relinquishment will have to be adopted globally. Naturally very few countries with advanced genetic technologies are going to be enthusiastic about genetically disarming unless they have some pretty good assurances that all other countries will also genetically disarm. This leads us to the usual disarmament impasse. (Walker 2009.)
Indeed, just as a community of computer hackers emerged in the second half of the twentieth
century, so too has a group of biohackers
– or “hobbyists who experiment with
In contrast, the steady-as-she-goes option
relinquishes not any particular field of technological research but rather the
use of GNR technologies to modify the human organism. This position is
exemplified by the bioconservative Francis Fukuyama (2002), who argues that
political liberalism is predicated on the existence of a common metaphysical
essence shared by all humans, since it is in virtue of this essence that we
humans are moral beings with an “inherent value” (and therefore deserving of
equal rights). Thus, by modifying this essence with person-engineering
technologies, the transhumanist project would extract a necessary ingredient
from political liberalism’s moral recipe. It follows that only world-engineering technologies ought to be pursued. But again,
we are left with the crucial question: How might one enforce such a
restriction? Wouldn’t any attempt to prevent person-engineering just drive
experimentation underground? And might these underground person-engineers
actually emerge as superior to us “normals” in some important respect?
Kurzweil, in fact, gestures at the plausibility of the latter scenario in a
mock dialogue with Ned Ludd, who expresses (like
Before concluding this subsection, though, it is worth taking a brief look at why the anarcho-primitivist option of comprehensive relinquishment also fails.33 To begin, recall the problems with Kurzweil’s arguments against primitivism: all those given involve fallacious mischaracterizations of the position or inaccurate portrayals of our “primitive” ancestors according the specious “Hobbesian ideology” (see Zerzan 1998, 258). Nonetheless, there are a number of cogent and compelling reasons for rejecting the proposition that an anarcho-primitivist revolution ought to be pursued: for one, recreating the mode of life had by our Pleistocene forebears would entail a massive, albeit transitory, increase in human suffering. As Ellul (a major intellectual source for Kaczynski) notes, “arrest and retreat only occur when an entire society collapses” (Ellul 1964, 89). Indeed, given the world population today, which far exceeds what could be supported by hunting, gathering, and fishing (especially after the many deleterious alterations of the environment brought about by human activity – see the “Holocene extinction event”), a primitivist revolution would entail realizing at once all the Malthusian catastrophes that technology has obviated over the centuries, such as that avoided by the Green Revolution (which of course introduced a myriad of new and more serious anthropogenic problems). While one could, and Kaczynski in fact does, argue along utilitarian lines that the suffering caused by transitioning to a long lost modus vivendi – the “primitivist singularity” – would ultimately be less than that resulting from the GNR revolution, the thought of effectuating such suffering via an overthrow of industrial capitalism and its heteronomous megatechnics is for most thinkers (present company included) too morally repugnant. We may thus eliminate the anarcho-primitivist position as a viable alternative plan for the future.
And with these negative appraisals we come to our…
Conclusion. The futurological program of transhumanism ought to be implemented rather than the alternative options available, that is, if one wishes to maximally minimize the inevitable increase in the probability of self-annihilation.
There are, I have attempted to show, dire eschatological consequences to all the possible routes into the future thus far proposed: no matter which is ultimately implemented, our chances of survival have fallen nontrivially. And, as I have also attempted to establish, technology constitutes a crucial enabling factor in the network of causes responsible for our existential plight. But what are the practical implications of this thesis with respect to transhumanism? If absolute progress driven by technology is illusory and our future dismal, then why not jettison – so to speak – technology from the ship of humanity’s future?
My line of reasoning to the conclusion above follows a simple process of elimination: transhumanism offers (what one might call) the safest unsafe passage into the future, that is, compared to the alternatives specified. But not only does the transhumanist program appear to constitute the best option for the future by avoiding the problems associated with certain forms of relinquishment, but it might actually contribute positively – in ways the alternatives could not – to the amelioration of our predicament. I refer here specifically to the creation and use of cognitive enhancement technologies, including neural implants, tissue grafts and nootropic drugs (Walker 2008b; Bostrom and Sandberg 2006; Bostrom and Sandberg 2009). After all, who better to grasp, manipulate and control the problems unique to the GNR revolution than an advanced “species” of cognitively enhanced posthumans?34 Indeed, as many authors have noted, the rapid expansion of human knowledge in the past several centuries has entailed a corresponding increase in individual ignorance (Winner 1977, 283; see also Kelly 2008). No doubt, a major obstacle to effectively guarding against the worse possible scenarios considered by Bostrom (2002) is epistemic or cognitive in nature. It thus follows that enhancing our ability to think carefully, comprehensively and deeply about the (impending) problems confronting intelligent life on Earth will greatly augment our collective ability to survive. Person-engineering must not be wholly restricted.
The general view defended here is, I believe, already implicit in certain corners of the transhumanist literature: one finds in several authors a recognition of the technogenicity of our worsening situation as well as a sense that the best way to fix this situation – now that we have crossed the Rubicon of technology – is more technology, designed and implemented in a strategically prudent manner.35 Walker, for example, argues that “even though creating posthumans may be a very dangerous social experiment, it is even more dangerous not to attempt it: technological advances mean that there is a high probability that a human-only future will end in extinction” (Walker 2009). And as I have already discussed, Bostrom has not only recently suggested that transhumanists eschew the term “progress”, but he continues to be a major intellectual figure in the exploding field of techno-eschatology.
In closing, a primary impetus behind this paper was to
make the position that I have termed rational
capitulationism explicit. This involved refining and elaborating
1. One might term these different strategies “world-engineering” or “niche construction” (following Odling-Smee et al. 2003) and “person-engineering” or “organism construction” (following Verdoux 2009b). The latter is accomplishable either by (a) enhancing a native capacity of the human organism, such as improving visual acuity or increasing the speed of cerebration using a “nootropic” drug, or (b) adding an entirely new capacity to the individual. There are, for example, vast universes of knowledge to which the mental apparatus of Homo sapiens has no epistemic access due to limitations inherent in our biological wet-ware and the “mind” program it runs. In other words, just as chimpanzees are cognitively closed to learning a human natural language (no matter how hard they might try), so too are we humans unable to entertain an infinite range of ideas that a cognitively enhanced posthuman might possibly come to understand. One way of putting this is that future cognitive enhancement technologies will allow us to radically redefine the boundaries between what some philosophers have called “mysteries” (in principle insoluble for unenhanced humans) and “problems” (in principle soluble, even if presently unsolved). And similarly, the advanced person-engineering technologies favored by transhumanists will allow us to augment our sensorium to include entirely new modalities, such as echolocation and magnetoception.
2. Here there is an important ambiguity with respect
to the term “progress” – an ambiguity that obfuscates talk about the reality of
progress. On the one hand, progress can be understood in a local or comparative
sense, while on the other hand the term can refer to a global or absolute
3. Note that Kurzweil resists the term “transhumanism.” In fact, he doesn’t mention it even once in his 2005 book on the Singularity. Nonetheless, he stands as a central intellectual figure in the transhumanist movement, and indeed Michael Anissimov (2006) lists singularitarianism as one of nine distinct but overlapping “sects” of the transhumanist movement.
4. It should be noted that transhumanism is an internally heterogeneous movement. As mentioned in note 3., Anissimov identifies a total of nine different variants of transhumanist philosophy. Most relevant to this paper is the fact that transhumanism contains both utopian and apocalyptic tendencies. The burgeoning literature on existential risks, in fact, is motivated primarily by the work of transhumanists. Nonetheless, the utopian position – with its millenialist eschatology involving a future “techno-rapture” (the Singularity) – seems to predominate strongly within the tradition.
5. I should make explicit that I take “progressionism”
and “progressivism” to be semantically equivalent terminological variants (at
least for the present purposes). Both signify a worldview built around the idea
that progress – in the absolute sense of
6. For example, consider the following passage from the Humanity+ website: “The history of economic and technological development, and the concomitant growth of civilization, is appropriately regarded with awe, as humanity’s most glorious achievement. Thanks to the gradual accumulation of improvements over the past several thousand years, large portions of humanity have been freed from illiteracy, life-expectancies of twenty years, alarming infant-mortality rates, horrible diseases endured without palliatives, and periodic starvation and water shortages” (Bostrom 2005a). It is precisely this view that I find extremely problematic and in need of serious revision.
7. Unfortunately, Bostrom then proceeds to talk approvingly about technological progress in the very same paper! See also Niiniluoto 2007 for more on the use of “development” and “change” as neutral alternatives to “progress.”
8. Simon Young argues that “A pessimistic Transhumanist is a contradiction in terms” (personal communication). In the present paper, I attempt to show this claim to be completely false.
9. Note that Bostrom’s definition is highly theory-dependent, since it makes implicit reference to a future posthuman state assumed to be desirable.
10. Where the former term is superordinate of the latter: to say that something is technogenic is necessarily to say that it is anthropogenic, but the reverse is not necessarily true.
11. Note, however, that Bostrom does not accept all of Kurzweil’s prognostications.
12. As Bostrom asseverates: “Considering that many of the existential risks that now seem to be among the most significant were conceptualized only in recent decades, it seems likely that further ones still remain to be discovered” (Bostrom 2009).
13. Not only are types of existential and sub-existential risks increasing in number, but the tokens of these types are increasing as well. Consider the following fact, articulated nicely by Joy in his 2000 manifesto: “The 21st-century technologies – genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR) – are so powerful that they can spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses. Most dangerously, for the first time, these accidents and abuses are widely within the reach of individuals or small groups. They will not require large facilities or rare raw materials. Knowledge alone will enable the use of them.” A prime example of this is the growing phenomenon of biohacking. No doubt there will also emerge nanohackers, as well as computer whizzes able to create new AI systems in the privacy of their own homes. See Section 3 for more.
14. It is worth pointing out the possibility of a publication bias here. As Bostrom writes: “It is possible that a publication bias is responsible for the alarming picture presented by these opinions. Scholars who believe that the threats to human survival are severe might be more likely to write books on the topic, making the threat of extinction seem greater than it really is. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that there seems to be a consensus among those researchers who have seriously looked into the matter that there is a serious risk that humanity’s journey will come to a premature end” (Bostrom 2009). Indeed, Russell and Einstein’s statement (quoted in the body text) still appears to accurately describe the situation.
15. This will be the case even with “risk reduction” strategies such as differential development (e.g., nano-immune systems to guard against ecophagy) or the use of preemptive war to prevent rogue states from acquiring extremely dangerous weaponry, which both Bostrom (2002) and Kurzweil (2005) endorse.
17. For example, Kurzweil writes that “degenerative (progressive) diseases – heart disease, stroke, cancer, type 2 diabetes, liver disease, and kidney disease – account for about 90 percent of the deaths in our society. Our understanding of the principal components of degenerative disease and human aging is growing rapidly, and strategies have been identified to halt and even reverse each of these processes” (Kurzweil 2005, 217). Surely, curing these conditions would create a robust impression of medical progress. But consider their cause: it turns out that most of these are actually so-called “diseases of civilization.” Thus, such “progress” would actually involve solving a problem that civilization itself has created – merely returning us to a pre-technological state of good health.
18. Winner similarly writes that “technology is most productive when its ultimate range of results is neither foreseen nor controlled” (1977, 98).
19. Basalla (1998, 14) makes a similar claim in his argument that humans have “chosen an excessively complex, technological means of satisfying basic necessities.” Indeed, this leads Basalla to endorse Jose Ortega y Gasset’s characterization of technology as “the production of the superfluous,” since “primitive” humans survived just as well – in some cases much better – than modern humans, despite our sophisticated megatechnics (Verdoux 2009b).
20. Note also that, as Basalla (1988) convincingly argues, a sizable portion of technology has resulted from “play.” We may be Homo faber, but we are also Homo ludens (“man the player”).
21. As Bostrom (2202) writes: “Without technology, our chances of avoiding existential risks would therefore be nil. With technology, we have some chance, although the greatest risks now turn out to be those generated by technology itself.”.
22. Note that there is a continuum of relinquishment. In fact, Kurzweil himself advocates a limited kind of “fine-grained” relinquishment (2005, 411).
23. Most neo-Luddites reject the neutralist hypothesis that technologies are mere tools, neither “good” nor “bad” (e.g., “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”). Nonetheless, one need not believe that technologies have moral or political properties to worry about the GNR revolution and its eschatological ramifications.
From all this, I trust it is clear that I am not a Luddite. I have always, rather, had a strong belief in the value of the scientific search for truth and in the ability of great engineering to bring material progress. The Industrial Revolution has immeasurably improved everyone’s life over the last couple hundred years, and I always expected my career to involve the building of worthwhile solutions to real problems, one problem at a time. (Joy 2000.)
25. For instance, reverse adaptation might lead one – in an insidious manner – to evaluate interpersonal relationships in terms of technological norms like reliability, efficiency, productivity, and so on. But this would normally be considered an inappropriate way of thinking about such relationships – or so the argument goes. Thus, in this way, human activity becomes “adapted” to technology, rather than technology to human activity. See Kurzweil 2005, 25-29 for some interesting examples of this putative phenomenon.
26. To put this in perspective, consider again Kurzweil’s notion of the Singularity. One can, I believe, talk about the radical transition from the modern mode of life to a pre-Neolithic-like mode as involving a kind of “primitivist singularity.” Consider the fact that, on Kurzweil’s view, the Singularity will be catalyzed by the creation of superintelligence – “the last invention that humans will ever need to make, since superintelligences could themselves take care of further scientific and technological development” (WTA FAQ, 2.3). Note an important corollary of this view, namely that our epistemic access to what life will be like after the Singularity has occurred is completely restricted; one might say, employing a cosmological metaphor, that the Singularity constitutes a kind of “event horizon” that renders meaningless any prognostication of post-Singularity existence and what it might be like. This is in fact very similar to the primitivist’s understanding of an anti-civilization revolution: leading exponents of primitivism to explicitly eschew speculating about what exactly life might be like post-civilization. All one can say is that it will be novel, unlike any state-of-being that has been. Thus, primitivism entails its own “Singularity” of sorts – that is, a singular future event in human history that would inaugurate an era about which humans cannot at present know.
27. Personal communication.
28. Veenhoven (2005) optimistically adds that “the transition to modern industrial society brought a change for the better.”
29. As Bostrom (2002) argues, “We should not blame civilization or technology for imposing big existential risks.”
30. Indeed, this will not only be a new token species, but a new type of species too: one that is biotechnological in constitution, or even entirely artificial (as in the case of mind-uploading or Strong AI systems).
31. The sentiment expressed here is not, of course, new. For example, “returning to a Mayan folk community he had studied in the early 1930s,” the anthropologist Robert Redfield “wrote of the ‘Village that Chose Progress’ as having now ‘no choice but to go forward with technology, with a declining religious faith and moral conviction, into a dangerous world’” (quoted in Stocking 1996).
32. Furthermore, Kurzweil worries that enforcing such moratoria would require a totalitarian state (2005, 406).
33. That is, comparatively speaking.
The application to our problem is obvious: our fears about the misuse of 21st century technology reduce down to fears about stupidity or viciousness. [The] worry is that we may be the authors of an accident, but this time one of apocalyptic proportions: the end of civilization. Likewise, our moral natures may also cause our demise. Or, to put a more positive spin on it, the best candidates amongst us to lead civilization through such perilous times are the brightest and most virtuous: posthumans. (Walker 2009)
35. With respect to restoring the environment, this view finds expression in the bright green environmentalist movement called “Technogaianism” (see Hughes 2004, 212).
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