Re: Herding Extropycats [was Shame on Australia]

From: Greg Burch (
Date: Sun Sep 02 2001 - 11:04:50 MDT


Your post prompts me to put forward thoughts I've had for a LONG time.
Thus, a very LONG post:

----- Original Message -----
From: "Russell Blackford" <>
Sent: Friday, August 31, 2001 6:38 PM

> Natasha said
> >It's a major misconception that extropians and other transhumanists lack
> empathy or even sympathy toward others. Some on this list may feel that
> way, but it's clearly a personal stance and not an extropian view.
> Fair enough. I've never seen such a lack of empathy in you, personally,
> Natasha.
> What worries me, however, is that I've seen on this list an
> high level of impatience with, and lack of imaginative identification
> other people's current and historical sufferings. It's higher than I've
> encountered in any other forum.
> [snip]
> The tentative conclusion I coming to is that the problem is the other way
> around: that (economic) libertarianism - which has *some* links with
> extropianism, even if only of an historical nature - is attractive to,
> others, those who already have the emotional responses I've described.
> Perhaps there is a sense in which none of this matters for the cause of
> transhumanism. However, I'd like to think that transhumanism can be linked
> to other values that intellectually engaged and emotionally decent people
> take seriously. I dread to think what impression is being created in the
> minds of any postgraduate students - the public intellectuals of
tomorrow -
> who might be poring over the list's archives trying to understand
> transhumanism from a sociological or similar perspective. If they do come
> a misconception that transhumanism is linked to inhumane attitudes, I'd
> they'd have some justification for it.

First, I offer some material (slightly edited) from a recent off-list
exchange with a long-time subscriber and ExI supporter, who shall remain


> Greg Burch wrote:
> >
> > fundamentally important distinction that is being missed in almost all
> > discussions about public policy and ethics here lately, from posts about
> > tests, to discussion of financing and control of education, to the
> > reparations discussion, to the talk about what people mean when they use
> > word "Mexican". Interestingly, I think we're seeing a real example of
> > different styles of thought and discourse among "the two cultures": In
> > sciences, there's really no merit to talking about the cultural
> > of a proposition; it's either true or false, testable or not, fruitful
> > not. In the humanities and politics, truth, testability and
> > are important, but they aren't the whole story.
> Your challenge to everyone to "raise" the level discussion by considering
> both viewpoints sounds good on paper, but I'm not sure if it has any
> of working. You may very well end up with only
> the set of people who are actually interested in discussing things both
> ways. Unfortunately they may end up being very unspecialized and unable
> to really discuss the issues well either way. Sure you'll have a few
> like yourself who are so advanced that they can hold their own in either
> place, but the vast majority of people can't. You'll end up with
> discussions while the real experts on both sides bail out. We've seen that
> I think as the list has tilted recently more and more into cultural
> Perhaps your goal is to move into 100% cultural discussion? There are many
> other lists that have sprung up for the science side of things, I guess
> they could pick up the slack...
> I'm concerned you're using your own experiences and abilities to hope for
> a list that in reality just isn't very likely to happen. Perhaps if the
> list continues to drive itself further into the ground a year or two from
> now you might finally consider reworking it to separate the two points of
> view into their own lists, or come up with some other solution.

I appreciate the compliment ( I think :-) . I'm glad you made this point,
because it touches on something I've been thinking about since I sent
the earlier post upon which you comment. I wasn't necessarily admonishing
the "science types" to "consider both viewpoints" (i.e. the
humanities/political way of looking at things and the scientific way).
Instead, I was simply suggesting that if people DO engage in discussions of
culture and politics, that they not confuse the two modes of thought and

Furthermore, the "science types" are by no means the only offenders! This
reminds me of a comment that Robin Hanson made some time ago, when he asked
why it was that few on the list would jump into a highly technical
scientific or engineering discussion to offer strong opinions when they
hadn't done their homework or engaged in the kind of basic background study
that would allow them to have an informed opinion, but in his area of deep
expertise -- economics and institutional design -- every "Tom, Dick and
Harry" feels like they have a perfect right to pop off with opinions about
the most fundamental concepts without studying the basic literature or
familiarizing themselves with the background material in the area. (I'm
paraphrasing Robin, of course.)

I often feel the same way about discussions I see here (and elsewhere, to be
sure) about history, law, politics and culture. I've devoted a lifetime of
study to these areas and feel I'm barely able at this stage of my life to
begin to draw some (often quite tentative) conclusions. Just as folks on
the technical side can quickly spot someone with whom they may have a
disagreement, but who clearly has the background knowledge to be a
worthwhile contributor, the same is true in the humanities. For instance,
even before I looked into the bibliography of his work, I knew that Damien
Broderick was a "heavyweight" from his first few posts here. Conversely,
while it's sometimes a rewarding experience to see people who don't have a
humanities background figuring out some of the basics for themselves, I
often have to squelch the urge to counsel that someone should read the basic
canon of philosophical and historical work before they undertake the job of
prescribing a "new world order".

Oh well, I guess I'm feeling a little curmudgeonly this afternoon . . .


With those thoughts in mind, I'll give vent to some more. Russell, as
attorneys, you and I are professional communicators, rhetoricians and
diplomats. I'm sure you've experienced the same cringing reaction I often
have when I see a brash, undiplomatic post here that is the rhetorical
equivalent of flinging lit matches in a leaky refinery. I've been a
subscriber to this list for many years now and I'm still not used to this
kind of verbal behavior and know that I never will become comfortable or
happy with it. As the de facto "list policeman" I've thought long and hard
about what could be done to raise the levels of both civility and quality on
this list, which I value very highly as one of the best sources of ideas and
inspiration I've ever had in my life. None of the many ideas that have been
considered have offered the promise of achieving those goals without
sacrificing the openness that we also value very highly.

With all that said, what about the "extraordinarily high level of impatience
with, and lack of imaginative identification with, other people's current
and historical sufferings"? First, I do believe there's truth in this
observation, although not by any means for all posters, much less the vast
majority of subscribers who never or rarely post. Second, I think much of
it traces to the two factors I've identified above, i.e. 1) a lack of
familiarity with the basic canon of knowledge in the humanities; and 2) the
lack of rhetorical "polish" in many of the posts here. The first factor is
substantive, the second formal, although nonetheless important.

Taking the second factor first, I confess to having considered the
possibility of starting a "charm school for techno-geeks" before the
dot-bust. Alas, with the reduction in disposable wealth in that community,
that little idea will have to await the next tech-boom. Seriously, though,
I agree that the indelicate manner in which many transhumanists and
extropians express themselves in writing does no service to the cause of
spreading our shared ideas and values. I do NOT advocate submission to any
kind of Orwellian "PC Newspeak," but rather simple care in expressing our
already radical ideas and values in a way that doesn't immediately shut
minds to their merit. Some may recall that my talk at Extro4 focused on

As for the first point, I certainly do see some fairly ham-fisted and
frankly ill-informed statements about social policy, law and economics here
that are sometimes of the "fringe libertarian" variety. Strangely, this is
a more noticeable phenomenon (to me) now than it was, say five years ago
when the list composition did not include so many people who wouldn't
identify themselves as "libertarian" of some kind. Wider notice of
extropianism specifically and transhumanism in general has brought folks
onto the list from outside its fairly narrow US West Coast techno-geek
original population. (I remember in my early days on the list receiving an
offlist lunch invitation from one of the list "originals", my correspondent
assuming that I must live in the Bay Area, a statistically safe assumption
at the time.) What I've seen is that more recent subscribers whose politics
fit more comfortably within mainstream "left" or "right" categories make
posts assuming a common vocabulary and value set that in fact isn't shared
by many on the list. This ignites a discussion of basic political and
social values which all too often is dominated by people who are not,
perhaps, the best spokespeople for the ideas and values they hold. This
ends up producing a clash of fairly shallow, iconic verbal behavior that
decays into name-calling and hostility. Meanwhile, those who might be
inclined to a more peaceful and in-depth discussion are put off by the sound
and fury of ideological posturing. Or, as E.Shaun pointed out, some of the
most articulate and reflective within our community are often simply too
busy with other work to take the time to write an in-depth response every
time someone raises a social or political question. This unfortunately
leaves the field open to others who may not do as good a job of explaining
an extropian position on a particular issue.

For the record, I've seen as much failure to engage in productive discussion
among the non-libertarians as in the vocal libertarians. The value we place
on critical questioning of all forms of dogma seems just as lacking among
some of the more recent subscribers, who bring a more mainstream ideological
mind-set to this forum. Of course, as a couple of people have pointed out
recently, it's much easier to see the other fellow's dogma for what it is
than to be aware of one's own basic and unquestioned assumptions.

Now, finally, let me say that I personally hope that it isn't perceived I
lack empathy or sympathy for those less fortunate than myself. One of the
primary reasons I call myself a transhumanist is that I have concluded that
the technologies we advocate offer real hope to the great mass of humans to
improve their lot. One of the primary reasons I call myself an extropian is
that I have concluded that the values and ideals that make up extropianism
offer the best path for the great mass of humans to break out of the
deplorable cultural traps in which they live. If I need to say this more
often and in more detail, I'll try to do so . . . At any rate, I know these
sentiments are shared by the vast majority of people who call themselves
transhumanists and extropians, including those who have any claim to
"leadership" in this group.

Greg Burch
Vice-President, Extropy Institute

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