Saturday, 22 October 2011

Response to the human dignity and bioethics book (chapter 8)

This post will be covering some comments made in the book human diginity and bioethics: essays commissioned by the presidents council. Throughout bioethics chapters, it apparently takes many jabs at transhumanism, though one of those chapters stands out in particular. This is, of course, chapter 8. An article by genius (and my favorite transhumanist) nick bostrom, is featured there. Immediately after, a counter-argument appears, hounding on bostrom for his careless reference to the essay 'dignity' (by philosopher aurel kolnai) in support of his work. Why bostrom chose to do so, I will never know, since the moral lauers of bostrom and kolnai are diametrically opposed to one another. For this imagined slander, the author of the counter-argument (a man named charles rubin) shows bostrom no mercy during a relentlessly literary attack. The directive of my post is to pull bostroms ass out of the fire, and earn back the good name of transhumanism. The fun begins on page 207, and moves onward.

Key words
Transapient: A transapient is any being who has passed the first toposophic singularity, and whose mental powers vastly exceed those of ordinary sophonts, by a staggering, game breaking amount. Even the lowest level transapients are utterly beyond the comprehension of ordinary sophonts. They have access to technologies and media that ordinary sapient beings cannot imagine or understand, and will use even simple and familiar things in unexpected but highly effective ways.
Toposophic scale: The hypothetical ladder which seperates beings on two different plains of intelligence and mind architecture.

''And yet, for kolnai, this aspect of dignity exists within a larger framework of what is most important, which is not to get what one likes, but to be able to endure what one gets without necessarily assenting to it or growing to like it.''
-Hmm, and with that line of reasoning, one could justify forgoing the use of a cast to mend your broken arm (with more speed and less pain than could be done naturally), and instead suffering through the agonising, months long healing process in the vain pursuit of 'dignity.' Get real. Transhumanism is a philosophy that encourages problem solving through any ethical means necessary, rather than excusing and/or glorifying failure to solve problems. Charles seems to be under the impression that some quality-sensations can only be attained through extreme hardship. In that regard, his personal notions of dignity would seem to bare similaritys to the variety of honour based cultures and warrior hood that have populated the ages of antiquity, with whom, the accumulation of honour can only be precipitated by damaging the enemy and committing violence unto him. That belief system is fine, and perhaps even desirable during a war, but to suggest that we should perpetuate such a code of ethics in peacetime is absurd. Deprived of the lone activity which can gain them their honour, what are the conflict starved warriors to do? Start a whole new war for themselves, or get involved in a conflict in which they have no stake?
-In the same way that warrior hood is incompatible with peace, kolnais (or rather, the blasphemous author who shamelessly marionettes his quotes) twisted concept of dignity is incompatible with a post singularity world, where all human problems have been solved by superhuman intelligences *1. In the end, charles objection to a 'utopian' future is one operating in the same spirit as the pro death crowd, who think that age retardation therapys like SENS should be illegalised. Yes, you heard me right: There are people out there who actually resist the movement to save senior citizens suffering from -and at imminent risk of death from- geriatric diseases. Though I'm certainly not making an attempt to guilt the author of bioethics by associating him with such lunatics, I feel compelled to state that the defeatist attitudes demonstrated by him echo strongly with the pro deathers. If you ever thought that such attitudes don't hurt anyone but the beholder, think again: Their policys would prevent your parents, and then eventually yourself, from receiving life saving treatment against a condition which currently affects 7% of the human race. This isn't criminal negligence: Its mass murder. They are involving themselves in realms they ought to avoid. If people like the pro deathers want to restrict themselves to a mere 80 year lifespan (thus perpetuating a comfortable, but obsolescent world view for themselves), and surrender to the merciless force of entropy, then that is their personal decision and right. What is not their right is to enforce that decision involuntarily onto the whole of the human race, and this holds true as much for them as for charles rubin and his masochistic form of dignity.
''For example, kolnai finds condorcets rationally and scientifically redrawn world to be a place where there would be no opportunity for the exercise of heroic virtue nor any sense of revering it.''
-What, now your complaining about there not being any room for heros? Do you even have any idea what kind of circumstance create demand for heros? Oppressive empires, tyrants, and bloodthirsty criminals. How many people must be killed, how many women must be raped, and how many homes destroyed or pillaged, so that your hero can step onto the scene and create his own personal glory (a glory that benefits no one but himself, even after the hero intervenes: Damage has been done to innocent people, enough damage to require the intervention of a hero. All he can do is retaliate against the evildoer after he has succesfully caused this damage, and prevent him from revisiting it on some other unfortunate) in saving them? Heros are revered because they safely deliver people from disadvantaged or dangerous situations. If the peoples-in-distress had actually had their, ahem, 'business' together in the first place, they wouldn't have needed a hero to come along and rescue their sorry asses, would they? Charles rubin seems to be arguing that millions of people should be kept at a disadvantage so that a handful of privileged 'heros' can have a steady source of weaklings and losers to rescue, and amass glory for themselves.
''Bostrom suggests that his posthumans will be bayesian rationalists who have no convictions, but only a fluid network of revisable beliefs. While such qualitys may appear to allow a dignified-sounding self transcendence, it is hard to distinguish such rationalism from what kolnai calls a meretricious flitting mobility of a weightless self.''
-To improve is to change. To be perfect is to change often. Humanity most certainly did not start out from a good position in their moral beliefs: Take, for example, the judaeo-christian religion, which is certainly the most chauvinistic manifestation of our ape natures to date (with its huge emphasis on controlling the sexuality of its adherents). What is the sense in clinging to outdated, faulty belief structures such as these when much better ones, more suited to the dynamic 21st century environment, are available? Charles is now making a case in defense of dogmatic moral systems that refuse to relent on their positions, steadfastly retaining notions that have been proven, by consensus, to be incorrect. No matter how effective these moral codes may be at first, time passes, and belief systems become obsolescent. Casting them in stone is completely counterproductive. The institutions erected in the image of a particular religion invariably grow, over time, to be more focused on perpetuating their own existence than in achieving the original aim they were commissioned for, which was to elevate the life quality of the people. They instead become pondersome barriers to progress.
''In a highly mechanised society, orwell wondered, why should we expect to find human beings of the godlike physique and fitness wells describes? It seemed to orwell far more likely that, as the necessity of physical fitness declines, one would find little fat men, a point that early 21st century americans can hardly gainsay. Of course, we might respond to orwell that we will choose to constrain ourselves: Physical fitness is better for our health, a fun hobby besides! And yet somehow rigorous programs of diet and exercise are hardly the norm. Many more indulge the freedom of separating high caloric consumption from intense physical activity and are on the lookout for the magic pill that will free them from the consequences of such indulgence.''
-This is the first decent argument that mr. rubin has made so far, and its on a matter which I have thought much about. On the surface, the issue of people choosing to do nothing to correct their declining physical fitness appears a trivial one, but it raises deeper philosophical questions on pro activity towards problems. Most transhumanists would respond that the need for physical fitness is a silly one (which it of course is, as our bodies are not adapted for sedentary lifestyles), and that we should avoid doing anything about it, at least until gene therapy becomes available to wish it away. This is an approach I take issue with. Working on an ultimate solution that awaits at the end of the tunnel is great, but failing to implement an interim solution which gets you there is incompetence in its essence. did a good exploration of this topic and others, in an article called 'the philosophy of star trek', the most relevant part of which will be featured at the bottom of this post. But at the end of the day, the interim solution is just that: An interim. A band-aid. What we should always seek, as individuals and as a society, is the most pragmatic and beneficial condition possible. Interims are merely a strategy for coping with the problem and staying alive until the ultimate solution (I.E, a magic fitness pill/problem free society, which is the obvious analogy kolnai was attempting to draw) becomes available, and giving them undue reveration is illogical. Immediately after that point, demanding that the interim solution continue to be used is an obvious anarchism, despite whatever contrived reason the hackneyed proponent might invoke.
''Unlike kolnai, bostrom is confident that posthumans of plastic world will exhibit the dignity of the strong. Out of their autopotency, they will choose to restrain themselves in accordance with quiet values. In human terms, we know what that might mean: The mercy of the king or conqueror, the act of noblesse oblige... Will quiet values produce any like reasons to compel the strong in plastic world to show self-restraint? Bostrom never worrys that the strong might not want to restrain themselves in plastic world, or that there might be a real ugliness in the human will that shall only be exposed once we are freed of natural constraints.'' 
-The issue of the personal conduct and societal ethics of posthuman civilisations is one of the biggest problem present in transhumanism, but the particular mistake charles rubin makes is assuming that the agents in charge of posthuman affairs will be only moderately superintelligent, and that their general psychology will not fall (far) outside of the mind space inhabited by homo sapiens. What he does not take into consideration is the hard realitys: For the most part, transapients will not bear any similaritys to human beings. Ex-human superintelligences will possess some residual human mentalitys/cognitive foundations *2, but that is all, and not even that much can be said for artificial intelligences, as they bear no human lineage at all. This is neither a good nor bad thing. Ugly behavioral features have always festooned the mindpsace of baseline and below minds (certainly all lifeforms that we are familiar with, if for no other reason that they were crafted by the malign hand of evolution), and to suggest that none of these features would be present at the transapient level is wishful thinking. There is also the distinct possibility that there might exist ugly behaviors/instincts which crop up exclusively in transapient mind space: Lethal mental appendages entirely unique to that unexplored realm, waiting to attach themselves to any mind foolhardy enough to enter, and of such a profile that they cannot be readily predicted by the superintelligence during the planning stages prior to his next round of recursive self improvement.
-What qualifys me to speak on such colossal matters and dismiss the concerns of these prestigious bioconservatives? For one, I have read tantamount works like eliezer yudkowskys: 'Creating friendly AI,' as well as his 'general intelligence and seed AI.' For another, I have kept up to date with the transhumanist and singularitarian literature. This does not disclude educated works of fiction, like the excellent orions arm encylopedia: For fun, as well as for a scope of what changes the singularity will catylise. Can the authors of bioethics claim to be as well read on such subjects? Somehow, I doubt that they are. Even if that was otherwise, the knowledge accumulated would not be of any influence to such recalcitrant minds. In any case, this article is about ethics, not the specifics of mental architectures. In order to really learn about the latter, you need to be familiar with sophontology, and that is a dicipline which does not even exist... Yet  :)
-*1. Observe how I clearly said human problems. It is comparatively easy for humans to tend to the every need of their unsophisticated and undemanding pets. It ought to be comparatively easy for transapients to do the same for us. Though it goes without saying, superintelligences will still be busy dealing with their variant of what passes for problems (things like delaying or even ceasing the acidic affect of entropy on the universe). This raises an interesting philosophical question, that if human desires and problems are so trivial that their answer can be provided by a fraction of a transapients resources and effort -as easily as we solve the base, animalistic needs of our pets and livestock- how can we then avoid being relegated to a role reminiscent of pets and livestock? The simple answer is, we can't. If there are entitys capable of caring for us in the same capacity that we care for non-sophont animals, then they will also be capable of outcompeting and even subjugating us in the same capacity we do with rival animals or pests. These are the gory details most transhumanists would rather gloss over.
-*2. Though just which parts of the persons essence will remain after apotheosis is unknown. Some behavioral features found in homo sapiens may well turn out to be universal to most minds. The possibility that some of the sadistic and destructive aspects of the human psyche might be immutable without direct detection and surpression before they are encountered is a frightening one, and just how many of these aspects will be diluted (or not) by an individuals ascension up the toposophic chain is impossible to say.

The philosophy of star trek: Medicine.
One of the biggest problems in many modern industrialized societies (particularly where I live, in North America) is the preponderance of the pill-popping mindset. Do you want to lose excess weight, and get in shape? Old-fashioned types would suggest that you exercise regularly, eat a well-balanced diet, and avoid junk food. But nobody wants to hear that, so let's pray that the pharmaceutical companies can invent a magical pill! Pop the pill, and you can erase the effects of a self-destructive and unhealthy lifestyle, right? Sadly, the "forget the healthy lifestyle, the doctor can fix me!" mentality pervades Star Trek:
  1. ST4: Doctor McCoy stumbles into an elderly woman on kidney dialysis, and gives her a pill which completely cures her in minutes. Decades of progressive degeneration, erased in minutes with a pill! The scene is played for laughs, but it has the effect of reinforcing the annoying present-day mentality that we won't need healthy lifestyles if we simply make better pills.
  2. "The Neutral Zone": In this TNG episode, a frozen 21st century singer was "thawed out" on the USS Enterprise. Doctor Crusher found massive organ damage due to decades of alcohol and drug abuse. She eliminated all of this damage with ... drugs. Again, this promotes the annoying technological determinist idea that our unhealthy lifestyles are fine- we just need more advanced drugs.
  3. STFC, "Booby Trap": In these incidents and many more, we hear about a radiation vaccine. Yup- in the future, we won't need to avoid radiation exposure any more! We can bathe ourselves in gamma radiation, thanks to some really advanced drugs. Yet again, prudent behaviour is shunned by Star Trek's writers, in favour of insanely self-destructive behaviour in conjunction with really good medical drugs. Would it kill these people to develop a radiation suit?

Hey, technology is good. It's vastly improved our standard of living over the past century. It's helped us eliminate certain social injustices. But it also creates its own problems, and it hasn't improved the character of Man at all. This century has been witness to many improvements in society, but it has also been witness to some of the most monstrous events in human history. Events such as Stalin's purges and famines, Hitler's holocausts, or the European "ethnic cleansings" of recent history were driven by the same flaws in human nature that have been causing us grief since time immemorial. Star Trek's mentality of "technology improves society and has no side effects" can only be the result of historical ignorance and shallow thinking.

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