Transhumanity and "inhumanity"
Sat, 31 Oct 1998 12:47:11 EST

In a recent post to a private mail list group, one of my oldest friends and intellectual mentors equated the concept of transhumanism (that I have discussed with this group around many a campfire now) with the term "inhuman". An exchange of letters has followed. This is my most recent volley in that discourse:

Picking up the cudgels this morning, I see that in a message dated 98-10-30 11:05:21 EST, Frank writes:

> My dear human friend Greg,
> I want to be very specific in my challenge.

Well, to be precise, I believe it was me who challenged you, Frank, to explicate and justify your equation of "transhuman" with "inhuman". This is more than just a debating point of order, but rather goes to who has the burden of persuasion in this matter. In response to this question, let me for a moment put words into your mouth, Frank: You would respond (I would guess) by saying that of course I do, since I propose a change to the status quo in my concept of a transformation of man into, ultimately, post-man. I would disagree (not surprisingly). I do not believe that this change marks some "unnatural" departure from the normal order of the universe but, as I have written before, instead is simply the natural next progression of the evolutionary process that has given rise to what we are now.

I might see the question differently if I were sure that there will be an INSTANTANEOUS transformation, a true "singularity" in the Vingean sense, but I am not so sure that will happen. It is, I believe, a matter of perspective as to time. For those who will tread the path of techno-transformation, there will likely NOT be an instantaneous or near-instantaneous transformation. For those who choose to not make radical changes to their nature, there may SEEM to be a near-instantaneous change.

But I digress. I daresay that most of humanity WILL place the burden of persuasion on the advocates of transformation, so let us move on.

> Even if we stipulate,
> temporarily for the sake of this discussion, that the singularity is

I see that you do see the importance of the time scale, Frank. Let us imagine a dialogue:

Greg: So, Frank, what if the process of transformation of a human into a posthuman takes place over, say one thousand generations -- a period of perhaps ten to twenty thousand years? Would your reservations regarding and opposition to such changes be less in such a case?

Frank: Yes. With more time to adjust, we would . . .

Greg: Let me interrupt momentarily for the sake of argument . . .

Frank: Typical. So impatient.

Greg: How about one hundred generations; a period of two or three thousand years? Would your objections then be less than they are now, but more than if we took longer?

Frank: Yes, I'd say that's fair.

Greg: So, Madam, we have established that you are a whore, and we are simply haggling over the price, no?

Frank: Anything for a laugh.

But the point is important, I continue. I believe that you are reasonable enough, Frank, that you will not take the extreme position that augmentation -- even radical augmentation -- is not in and of itself a bad thing, but rather that you will maintain that "we" are simply not morally ready for such enhanced power. And of course (as you make clear below), the question comes down to who "we" are, who will make such choices.

Let me clarify: Neither I nor any other transhumanist proposes to force any change on any person. Whether it be the growing number of "Euro-(and interestingly, "Australio-") transhumanists" with their decidedly more communitarian tendencies, or the (ironically) more "traditional", libertarian, extropian American band of original transhumanists, no serious thinker proposes mandatory transformation of any particular person's "human nature". (Setting aside -- for the time being only -- the question of genetically heritable augmentation.) So, the issue is, are the people who will choose to transform themselves more fundamentally than is already possible morally capable of making the change in such a way that the world is a better, rather than a worse place for everyone to live in?

> why is there the least reason to think that the moral philosophizing that
> you engage in will in any way prevent a transhuman future from resembling
> human past, in which differences in wealth and power have, with dreary
> regularity, led to oppression?

Well, here we get to your fear, Frank's: A class of oppressive posthuman overlords. As you close your message:

> The gods are beautiful, powerful, magnificent--but they are not good.
> Theomachus.

Before I go on, let me say that while I am a great believer in tapping the inherited wisdom of human culture, I am by no means sure that the epigram of a man who lived in a culture that could not invent the offset crank should be a guide to our behavior as we consider the wisdom of altering our genomes or augmenting our minds with implanted computational prostheses.

But let me first cast a slightly different light on the point you make. We are talking about power conveyed by technology. And I see that power conveyed by technology has been a little different from power conveyed by other means (such as power conveyed by coercively imposed social orders). Again, you say that I must distinguish the future for which I work from

> our
> human past, in which differences in wealth and power have, with dreary
> regularity, led to oppression

Let me point to some examples of technologies that have, at least, been neutral in terms of "oppression". As we sit here today -- in 1998 -- can we say that the following technological developments have lead ONLY to oppression?

In fact, some of these -- the Internet, eyeglasses, antibiotics -- seem to me to have NEVER been used for oppressive purposes. Some, like fire, radio and the airplane and automobile (when equipped with weapons), have been used for both oppressive and liberative purposes.

Now, let us blend the light from these two different perspectives: "power" and "technology". If, as you wish to do, Frank, we can only be guided by history, let us ask what has distinguished the different KINDS of power that have grown from the different types and uses of technology. The answer seems clear: The less expensive a technology has been and the more widely distributed have been its effects -- both good and bad, the less "oppressive" has been the power it conveys.

An automobile vastly augments the individual human's power in a basic, animal sense. With my car, I can move an order of magnitude faster than the speed to which "nature" has limited me. But this power is readily available to essentially every member of the society in which I live. Of course, one can say that I am oppressed by the automobile, because it has transformed my society into one where I am "coerced" into buying an automobile in order to participate fully in the fruits offered by my country's social life. Or we can say that we automobile owners "oppress" people who live in societies where automobile ownership is less evenly distributed. It is, we can see, a matter of perspective. Automobiles may seem oppressive to the Amish, or to a Peruvian peasant. But they are a liberating technology -- in a very real sense of personal power -- to both me and my yard man, even though I am, in a measure of money only, an order of magnitude more wealthy than my yard man.

> What would prevent transhumans from regarding humanity as subrational
> creatures deserving of any major protections or inhibitions of their own
> transhuman desires? Moral philosophy of the variety you espouse? The track
> record of rarefied, intellectual moral philosophy is pretty effete,
> unfortunately. Unless, of course, the philosophy is linked to the
> to religion, resentment, or communitarian values. I'm thinking of the
> abolition of the slave trade, of mass revolution, and of Zionism,
> and other such things.

What a series of great leaps! With all due respect, Frank, this sounds like the sort of grandiose and incautious rhetorical hyperbole for which you have been seeking an indicting of me for the better part of these last three decades. Let us take a deep breath and try to make some sense of what amounts to a rush from a catalogue of historical discontinuities, upheavals and excesses, through a stab at "effete moral philosophy" to the oppression of humanity by, presumably, a handful of transhuman demi-gods.

And we can start with moral philosophy. Here, let us distinguish prescription from description. I agree that admonition is a tool of extremely limited power. Christian preachers have railed against various flavors of immorality for two thousand years, yet an avowedly christian president gets a hummer from his emotionally unstable aide, something his religious ayatollahs explicitly condemn.

I return to the point I make above: See how people actually make use of technological power. It depends on how widespread and evenly distributed it is. Prohibit it, and only the wealthy and/or daring will have it. Encourage it -- or at least allow it to grow at its own pace -- and many MAY have it. All, of course, depending on the price. If only a few can afford to or are allowed to have some greatly augmented power, one may find oppression. Allow people to adopt it at their own pace, as widely as they feel comfortable so changing, and we have less potential for oppression. The more tightly you restrict this power, the more certain you are to put it into the hands of only a few -- and those few ones who disdain your restrictions.

> So, you don't have to prove the singularity is possible.


> You will eventually have to show that it is desirable, but that is not the
> primary concern now.

It seems like THE point.

> What you have to demonstrate, at least according to my lights, is that the
> moral structure of the future is congruent with your hopes and dreams, at
> least to the extent that these arguments, and the implementation of
> instutional sanctions for them, will provide an effective counterweight to
> the transhuman manifestations of brutality, greed, and oppression that have
> been the patrimony of us who are not yet gods.

You point to "brutality, greed, and oppression"; I point to progress. The world IS a better place now, in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, with its inseparable admixture of science, technology and social openness (whether political -- as in democratic institutions -- or economic -- as in the liberation of the market of human enterprise).

You are suspicious of "effete moral philosophy". So am I. I am suspicious of those who would proscribe and prescribe. I see the last 300 years as a period when a loosening of control by those who think they know best has resulted in a real improvement in the human condition. I see humanity redeemed by itself, not by priests or nobles or vanguards of this or that segment of humanity. I see people defeating oppression by consensual collective action without the assistance of their "betters".

Let me assume that you, too, are an Enlightenment man, Frank. As such, answer this question: Which is better: People empowered, or people held to some ideal template?

But leaving aside such broad, rhetorical questions to which only one sane answer is possible, let us return to the crux of your question:

> What would prevent transhumans from regarding humanity as subrational
> creatures deserving of any major protections or inhibitions of their own
> transhuman desires?

I ask, what would motivate them to do such a thing? Are we inherently cruel to our parents? Let's do a vocabulary lesson. As much as I normally hate turning to dictionaries as sources of authority, let's see how Merriam-Webster defines some of the terms upon which your original statement was based:

	human [2] (noun)
	First appeared circa 1533
	 : a bipedal primate mammal (Homo sapiens) : 
        MAN; broadly : any living or extinct member of 
        the family (Hominidae) to which the primate belongs

Well, hopefully you will not be a chauvinist about this, Frank, and place some moral value in the mere physical form of a homo sapiens. After all, is an amputee any the less "human" because she lacks one of the two legs upon which this definition is based? No. The "human" to which you refer is really, I think:

	hu*mane (adjective)
	[Middle English humain]
	First appeared circa 1500
	 1 : marked by compassion, sympathy, 
           or consideration for humans or animals
	 2 : characterized by or tending to broad 
           humanistic culture : HUMANISTIC <~ studies>

It is probably the former of these that you really mean when you speak of "humanity", I will guess. And then, there is the Frankenstein word:

	in*hu*man (adjective)
	[Middle English inhumayne, from Middle French & Latin; 
      Middle French inhumain, from Latin inhumanus, 
      from in- + humanus human]
	First appeared 15th Century
	 1 a : lacking pity, kindness, or mercy : SAVAGE <an ~ tyrant>
 	  b : COLD, IMPERSONAL <his usual quiet, 
           almost ~ courtesy --F. Tennyson Jesse>
 	  c : not worthy of or conforming to the needs 
          of human beings <~ living conditions>
 	2 : of or suggesting a nonhuman class of beings

The language here suggests that the concern you have is for compassion on the one hand and a lack of it on the other.

What will characterize the post-humans I envisage? Two things: Greater mental abilities and greater physical power. (I assume that the technicalities are understood here, at least in their basic outlines.)

And here lies the real question: Is there any reason to assume that smarter people are LESS compassionate than, for want of a better word, "dumber" people? No. In fact, I believe that the evidence of our everyday experience indicates just the opposite, as knowledge enhances empathy: The more people learn of gorillas, the more likely they are to empathize with them. On average, people who see pictures of Auschwitz are less likely to engage in atrocities. I challenge you, Frank to an accounting of this phenomenon. I think you will run out of examples of knowledge and comprehension leading to cruelty before I run out of contrary examples.

Is greater raw power congruent, to use your term, with less compassion? I admit that, in the abstract, this is a more problematic question. We are creatures of a mixed nature. We are primates, with a strong sense of social hierarchy imposed by force. But we are also capable of something more, as all of the world around you indicates: In societies characterized by openness and respect for liberty, we see overwhelming evidence that we can overcome our primitive nature. Do we become perfect egalitarians in such circumstances? No. That is the impractical dream of effete moral philosophers. But do we consensually submit to regimes of limitations on our personal power, so that we can express the compassion that comes with greater knowledge? The history of the last 300 years indicates that we do. The very open societies that make it possible to create the science that leads to the technology of transhumanity are themselves the incubators of compassion.

Does this conclusion sound Panglossian to you, Frank? No doubt it does. What if Hitler had had these powers? What if Stalin? But for accidents of history, you may argue, we would all be the permanent thralls of transhuman Nazis, you may argue. I do not think it is an accident of history that it is the most open society ever known that is developing this technology. Closed societies simply could not have created the OPEN INFORMATION STRUCTURE upon which it is premised. It would have taken many thousands of years -- if ever -- for the kind of "science" practiced by totalitarians to create what we have created in three short generations since we contained (and now have largely vanquished) those monsters. Long before Nazi scientists would have solved the riddle of the human genome, that society would have crumbled into savagery. Long before Stalinist mathematicians would have developed supercomputers, communist totalitarianism DID crumble into savagery.

Here I return to the quip I made some time ago: "We are all Marxists now" (after Nixon, who is reputed to have once said, "we are all Keynesians now"). In this I mean that we have all learned that social structure is inextricably intertwined with technology in a symbiotic, feedback relationship. Particular technologies give rise to particular social structures and visa versa. (It is the "visa versa" in which I and other modern observers depart from Marx.) Real science (as opposed to received recipes for crafts) is a FUNCTION of an open society and open societies are a FUNCTION of science. By definition, the science and technology (and the two cannot really be distinguished in this time) of transhumanism will be the hardest problems of natural understanding and control humanity will ever undertake -- for having mastered them, they will transcend "humanity" in the sense of a physical description of homo sapiens and her limitations.

So here is the paradoxical nut of the problem, Frank: Only openness makes techno-transcendence possible and the only tonic for oppression is openness. If you allow us to come to the brink, and then throttle the process with coercively imposed restrictions, you have prescribed perhaps the ONE formula for creating the very monsters you fear. And we are on the brink, have no doubt whatsoever.

 	Greg Burch     <>----<>
	   Attorney  :::  Director, Extropy Institute  :::  Wilderness Guide   -or-
	           "Good ideas are not adopted automatically.  They must
	              be driven into practice with courageous impatience." 
                                    -- Admiral Hyman Rickover