Re: meaning of life (RE: (repost) RE: GUNS: Re: Self Defense)

From: Barbara Lamar (
Date: Wed Jan 24 2001 - 12:06:48 MST

At 04:10 AM 01/24/2001, Charlie Stross wrote:

>I deny that human nature is a given.
>Firstly, this is the extropians list. We're supposed to be talking about
>transhumanism, right? If you postulate that human nature is fixed, we might
>as well pack up and go home right now ...

One need not postulate a fixed human nature in order to observe
characteristics shared by almost all humans at this point in time. If the
subject of negotiation can't be defined at least for the time period
effected by the negotiation, then negotiation does indeed seem pointless.

>Secondly, one of the most unusual characteristics of the human animal is
>its remarkable developmental plasticity.

I've spent quite a bit of effort studying the various ways of raising
children. In every case I've seen or read about, humans function better if
they're given a certain level of care when they're developing: good
nutrition for the mother while the fetus is attached to her blood system;
human milk, preferably directly from the mother's breasts, until the child
self-weans (which usually takes place between years 3 and 5); the personal
freedom to study the world and learn how things work; respect as
intelligent humans from the time they begin speaking. When I say they
function better I mean that they're happier, more intelligent, better able
to make rational decisions, better able to cope with changing conditions,
more self-confident, better able to interact with other people, kinder,
better able to stand up for themselves in non-aggressive ways. I've seen
this happen too many times to think it's merely luck. (Sarah Lawrence has a
web site called Taking Children Seriously that I'd recommend for anyone
who's interested in learning more about the way children respond to being
treated with respect--a large part of this being respect of their nature as
intelligent humans). The sort of freedom of choice and mutual respect that
works for raising children also seems to work well for groups of adults.

Behavioral flexibility is one of the most valuable human traits. But
flexibility is not the same as plasticity. Plasticity implies being molded
by someone else, against one's will, like the kids who've been diagnosed as
"ADDHA" or whatever the current excuse is to force highly intelligent and
energetic kids into sitting still in a classroom for seven hours a day
pretending to listen to an excruciatingly boring teacher. Sure, you can use
torture of this sort to shape kids. And you end up with people who are
depressed, antisocial, maybe suicidal or homicidal. In any event, they're
not optimally functioning humans.

>You can take a human neonate and
>teach it to communicate in a language that no other human has ever spoken
>if you get it young enough.

Why would you want to do this? The purpose of human speech is to
communicate with other humans.

>You can make 'em behave in weird and wonderful
>ways, some of them extremely self-destructive.

I'd be interested to see an example of a wonderful behavior that's been
instilled by force (I assume you mean force since you write of making
people behave in certain ways).

> You can also *modify* the
>behaviour of adults, within some rather vague limits -- limits which are
>much broader than most of us would like to admit.
> (The Milgram and Zimbardo
>studies are a chilling example of just how far this can go.)

Keep in mind that these studies were done on people who had been trained to
act in certain ways from the time they were born. These were as much a
studies of a culture as they were studies of human nature. When a person
is very small and her life depends on one or two adults, you don't have to
use electric shocks and broomsticks up the rectum to keep her in line. Just
leave her alone in a crib for hours at a time. Let her cry until she
exhausts herself and falls asleep. Ignore her or treat her like she's
stupid when she asks questions. Human nature is fixed to the extent that
you get similarly unwholesome results in almost every case when you raise a
kid using these techniques.

>Nope, I don't agree with that. Why should there be no point in a human
>being negotiating with an AI living in a computer simulation of a universe
>where pi = 3.0?

If your AI lived in a simulation where pi always equaled 3.0 negotiation
might prove fruitful. If, OTOH, the AI called all the shots and pi
sometimes equaled 3.0 and sometimes equaled 4.5 and sometimes didn't exist
at all--I can't see any point in negotiating. If you're going to say that
human nature is plastic; therefore we can't base social systems on human
nature as it exists now--I'm going to immediately be on my guard when
dealing with you. Especially when you start talking about MAKING me, or
anyone else, do things.

>You misunderstand the idea of human mutability. Society can turn around
>tomorrow and decide that left-handed males of jewish descent (like me)
>are criminal subhumans bent on its destruction; that IN NO WAY changes
>me. What it changes is *the way I interact with society*.

I think you're contradicting your own argument here. You said earlier that
human nature is malleable. "You can also *modify* the
behaviour of adults, within some rather vague limits -- limits which are
much broader than most of us would like to admit." Perhaps you'd say that
if you treat someone as subhuman, maybe throw them into prison, maybe don't
feed them very well, maybe make them sleep on a wet, dirty floor--perhaps
you'd say you're only changing their behavior and not changing their actual
nature. Where does one end and the other begin? If one's behavior is
altered to the extent that he dares not make his own decisions, dares not
move without permission--have you changed the person's nature, or only his

>At the same time, if you upload my mind into a bush robot, my nature
>will have changed radically

Are you sure about this? You've changed the nature of your body. But at
what point would you say bodily changes equal changes in nature? What if
you lose your right arm and have it replaced by a prosthetic? How about if
you replace both legs? New lenses in your eyes? Skin grafts using
artificial skin? Cosmetic surgery on your face? Injection of psychoactive
chemicals into your bloodstream? At what point are you no longer you?

> -- but if society recognizes non-human
>intelligences as citizens, this change in my nature *doesn't* affect
>my interactions with society.

I'm not sure I've properly understood the argument you were making above
about human nature; but I think you're contradicting it here by assuming
some characteristics that remain constant by virtue of your being an
intelligent individual. The bush robot with a human mind would presumably
still dislike being coerced, would act in certain ways if it were
consistently treated as though it were stupid, would not be able to
function optimally if it were not allowed to make its own choices based on
its own decisions.

>What you appear to be doing is assuming that society is a reified entity
>that exists in its own right, and that it can dictate the terms of human

Is this Samantha you're talking about? I'd be interested to see exactly
which part of her posts gave you this idea. I got quite the opposite

> It isn't; it's simply a convenient way of representing
>a gigantic bunch of one-to-one relationships that, in aggregate,
>form a one-to-many relationship between the individual and everyone
>around them. It can exert social pressure on me,

These sentences are contradictory. You speak of society as being merely a
shorthand for 1-1 relationships. Then you make "it"--and I assume "it"
stands for society in your last sentence--the subject of the verb exert.
Either society is an acting entity or it's not. It's this sort of reasoning
that makes it difficult to negotiate--when one of the parties to the
negotiation changes definitions in mid-conversation.

> but it can't force
>me to change.

But individual people can force you to change, right? ("Secondly, one of
the most unusual characteristics of the human animal is
>its remarkable developmental plasticity.")

>However, if I *want* to change I can, and the act of so
>doing doesn't fundamentally change my relationship with society.

Does it change your relationships with individual people? I would think
some kinds of individual changes would alter your relationships with other
individuals. For example, if you've previously been rude and belligerent
and you become polite and tactful--I'd expect your social interactions to
have a completely different character post-change than they had pre-change.
And since society is nothing more than a mass of 1-1 relationships, you
have changed your relationship with society.

>In other words, I'm a mutable individual, not a robot subject to the will
>of a collective.

Are you not assuming some fixed human nature in this sentence?


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