What is to be done?

Robin Hanson (hanson@hss.caltech.edu)
Mon, 24 Mar 1997 15:54:22 -0800 (PST)

An anonymous poster says:
>The overwhelming majority of intelligent and well-educated people to whom I
>attempt to explain transhumanism react negatively. ...
>The fact is that we are a tiny minority among a tiny minority. ...

I think it is very important to develop good models of why this happens.
("They laughed at Galileo too" is *not* an especially good model.)
I strongly disagree with those who have said we should ignore
critics because they'll just distract us or depress us or whatever.
The rest of this long post is devoted to this question.

Consider these 3 reasons why someone might take an extreme view:
1. They like to be extreme so they can shock people and feel special.
2. They have to reason through everything for themselves from basics,
and refuse to rely in any way on the opinions of others. A small
fraction of these people will inevitably take an extreme view.
3. They take the opinions of others seriously as an important source
of information, and only take an extreme position when they think
they have a particularly unique source of info on the subject, or
when they think an especially strong but apparently overlooked
case can be made from publicly available information.

It is very easy to and reasonable to discount and ignore the extreme
views of type 1 extremists. It is also easy to do the same for type 2
extremists if the fraction of them observed is small enough relative
to all type 2 folks. And segmenting type 2 folks by smarts, it is
also easy to ignore larger fractions of extremists among those people
who don't seem very smart (as evidenced for example by some gross
cognitive blunder). Type 3 extremists, however, aught to be taken

So if you want your extreme views to be taken seriously by other
people, you aught to try to look like a type 3 extremist. And if you
want to make good decisions over all, you aught to try and be a type
3 person. This means making a good effort to find reasons why smart
thoughtful people might disagree with you.

>"Extropian libertarianism is naive and simplistic in a juvenile way. Its
>association with Ayn Rand and 'objectivism' will consign it permanently to
>the fringe. A lot of teen agers go through an `Atlas Shrugged phase': How
>old did you say most of these people are?"

Here I have to agree with the critics, thought I would say "sophmoric"
rather than "juvenile". While the policies advocated are reasonable,
the moral axiomatic types of arguments offered *are* sophmoric, i.e.
the sort of thing mostly done by college sophmores (and a few moral
philosophers). Not that the conclusions don't follow from the axioms,
but that most people don't feel very compelled to accept the axioms.
Thinking that these axioms will persuade very many people also seems a
sophmoric cognitive blunder, and does not encourage people to take the
other extreme views of these folks seriously.

>"Transhumanism is an immature rejection of reality, a selfish and
>self-centered desire to escape from the simple and basic facts of
>life. Quit dreaming."

Here I also have to agree with the critics, at least when they refer
to people who expect remarkably rapid progress toward transhuman
technologies in the next few decades. This stuff will take a while to
appear, and those of us interested in thinking about it anyway are
indulging ourselves to some extent.

I have heard a related criticism that anyone who would especially want
to become transhuman is excessively selfish. And I think such people
*are* more selfish than average, but "excessive" is harder to judge.

>"Extropians are a bunch of mad scientists who simply haven't studied history.
> Rushing into the things they want to do is likely to cause an economic or
>ecological disaster. If there were even the slightest chance any of this
>stuff would come into being, I'd be the first to vote to regulate all of it.
> Maybe some of this stuff could do some good, but not if you rush into it,
>and not if you do it all at once. Just because you can do something doesn't
>mean you should."

I think most of us do *not* propose doing it all at once everywhere.
Those who do so propose are rightly criticized.

I think the core issue here is the "fragility" and "interdependence"
of our social order. Those of us who lean toward more decentralized
libertarian policies tend to think of social systems as robust and
relatively independent. Thus experimenting with a variation on one
social institution in one locale does not greatly threaten everything
else, and the information to be gained outweighs the possible local
harm. So we favor decentralization to allow variation and selection.

However, others tend to think of our social systems as fragile and
interdependent, and so think more global oversight and control is
needed to prevent contagion from local experiments from threatening
everything else. It bothers me that I don't have good arguments
against this view.

>"Transhumanists want to create a master race, just like the Nazis. And don't
>they think Nietzsche is some sort of intellectual godfather? What does that
>tell you?"

Bottom line is: transhumanists *are* close to Nazis in the sense of
wanting to create better people. They differ from Nazis in not trying
to achieve this goal by killing off "inferior" people. But Nazis are
such a reviled prototype that simple heuristic case-based inference
(anything too much reminiscint of Nazis must be bad) *does* make many
people reject the whole enterprize.

>"Extropians are elitists. What about the billions of people suffering on the
>edge of starvation? Sounds like they want a bunch of high-tech toys for a
>few rich white male Americans that will just make things worse for everybody

Extropians are elitist and selfish in many ways - but most of them
don't think that will hurt others.

This highlights another core issue: to what degree does social pressure
function to stabilize our social order? Economists like me, who tend
to ignore social pressure in our models, tend to think that the effect
is minor. But others see social pressure which keeps people acting
"nice" and punishes very "selfish" behavior as central. And so they
fear the consequences if this pressure is relaxed. It bothers me
that I don't have better arguments to say why they are mistaken.

Putting this all together here's my image of a reasonable person who
dislikes extropian views:

"Our social world is complex, fragile, interdependent on large scales,
and relies on social pressure to constrain selfish behavior. Big
changes threaten to break this system, and so prudence requires
non-local oversight. You extropians are outliers regarding your
preferences for self over community, change over continuity, and
resistance to social pressure. Left unconstrained, you would endanger
us all by radically changing our bodies, politics, economies, personal
relations, and everything else. So we must constrain you."

My personal response is:

Considering how much humanity has changed over the last 50,000 years,
it is hard to think we're terribly fragile. But yes, changes can be
dangerous. However, some big changes are coming that humanity seems
both unwilling and unable to stop. So we need some mature reasonable
people to be thinking about these upcoming changes in some detail.
It turns out that there are a bunch of such people talking about
these details, and many of them hang out under the banner
"extropians". Yes, since fear tends to freeze thought, people willing
to talk details are biased toward the optimists. And you should
expect an extreme banner like this to especially attract sloppy
thinkers, people who like to be extreme, and those who think
everything through for themselves. But relative to these
expectations, I think you'll find a surprisingly large fraction of
very reasonable people under that banner.

Robin D. Hanson hanson@hss.caltech.edu http://hss.caltech.edu/~hanson/