Zoltan Istvan: The Political Philosophy and Radical Science of the Transhumanist Who Would Be President

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Zoltan Istvan is running as the Transhumanist Party Candidate for the 2016 Presidential election. A sandy-haired, genial, passionate father, he’s landed at the forefront of the political transhumanist movement here in the United States over the last year or so.  Articulate on the fly, he advocates the leveraging of radical scientific thinking and technological progress to boldly transform both the world in which we live and the bodies we inhabit. He’s seemingly indefatigable, doing interviews, writing essays, and talking to anyone who appears receptive to listening about how we can live forever in a better world, shepherded by artificial intelligence, if only we are bold enough to try for it. He’s a man who enjoys a glass of Laphroaig at the end of the day, is plugged in enough to know how Google’s SEO works, and is practical enough to focus his energies where they will do the most good for transhumanism. He was also kind enough to take some time out of his day to talk with me via Skype. We talked for almost a full hour, though he had only agreed on thirty minutes.

*The following was edited for length and clarity

Thanks for joining me here, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me for a bit.

Glad to be here.

So I’ve read most of your interviews and political writing, and I don’t necessarily want to rehash at length what you’ve said elsewhere. I’ll toss some links up of your recent stuff at Motherboard and Gizmodo and Medium and Esquire so people can check them out. That’ll free me up here to try to fill in the empty spaces, if that’s ok, and will give you the chance to cover some new ground instead of reiterating the same old thing?

Sounds great, yeah, whatever you want.

But let’s start briefly at the beginning. I think one of the challenges that you have faced and will continue to face is that transhumanism evokes so many different notions, and can be hard to encapsulate especially for the person who’s never heard the word before. So when I think about transhumanism—either as a political ideology or philosophical framework—I almost automatically follow Max More and Steve Fuller, and re-characterize adherents and opponents of transhumansim as Proactionaries and Precautionaries, respectively. If you’ll allow me to define them as I understand them quickly: Proactionaries pursue an agenda of calculated risk in using science and technology (via sometimes seemingly drastic methods) to change the basic living standard of humanity for the better, but also pursue extropian goals like virtual reality, or biohacking, or even a post-human future where we radically modify our bodies to live between the stars rather than huddled up next to them. The are, in other words, pro-action. Mistakes are inevitable in such a program, proactionaries argue, and must be accepted as the price of doing business (though we should certainly try to minimize them). Precautionaries, on the other hand—the opponents of transhumanism—seek the minimization of risk and damage (to humans and their social systems, animals, and the Earth) above all else, and stasis as more important than progress, and so see the Proactionary agenda as inherently reckless and probably resulting in the destruction of the world by grey goo. Thus, they advocate precaution. Is that a more or less fair way of thinking about practical Transhumanism and opponents of its agenda, or would you add to or refine or correct it for me?

You know I would say that’s an incredibly accurate way to reflect upon it all, you definitely have those sides and yeah, the way you said it is probably the way I would write it in an article, so yeah, that is perfect.

So why is Transhumanism a viable political ideology for the first time in 2016 and for instance why aren’t we having this conversation in 2004 or 1996?

Well, I think a lot of it has to do with, and if you’ll just permit me to be honest, the personalities that arise in the movement. There have been some enigmatic figures in the last twenty years in the transhumanist movement but they may not have been that savvy in using technology to get out their message, or they may not have been that savvy with social media. Or the social media environment didn’t exist. I think there was always a political element of transhumanism. I don’t think any transhumanist didn’t want to see, for example, a transhumanist president, or a transhumanist congress. But what happened just in the last few years, with Facebook, and Twitter, and all the other social media platforms, is you have actually have a real opportunity to voice an opinion that can get out to the masses without necessarily being, for example, world famous, or having  billion dollars. So I think in many ways what has happened is transhumanism has kind of evolved to where a younger generation of transhumanists has emerged and are using social media to advocate. And that has changed the politics, because all of a sudden instead of just having a couple academics from the Ivory Tower talking you now have a social movement that is online, and it’s powerful. And it can go viral very quickly. So that’s why I think transhumanism has become political in the last year or so, or even two years. But it was always, in my opinion, political to begin with. It’s just nobody was able to get out their voice, and so nobody really tried.

Sure. I actually buy that a hundred percent, and that feeds perfectly into the next question I had for you. One of the things that intrigues me about Transhumanism as a political movement is the potential it has to violently (and in my and probably many other people’s views, necessarily) disrupt the current, entrenched two-party system. It’s been written about as a kind of ninety-degree revolution, from a left-right characterization to up-down one (following, of course, FM-2030’s notion of Upwingers and Downwingers). They say it appeals to people (young people, especially, as you say) because transhumanism talks about issues they find more relevant and pressing in the second decade of the twenty-first century (like open-source issues in economics, or biology, or information) rather than (what they see as) the constant rehash of “stale” issues (like perhaps the legitimacy of the welfare state or marriage laws or immigration or whatever). Would you say this characterization, this ninety-degree revolution—is a facile—if catchy—one, or have they hit upon something profound?

Well, I there’s a number factors here. To begin with they’ve definitely hit upon something more profound. I think (and kind of going more into social media) the younger generation, which is now the majority, I would say, of the transhumanists movement—which potentially could be millions around the world at this point—are sort of fed up with typical issues. They’re not really thinking of marriage laws, or social security—ok maybe they’re thinking about gay marriage laws—but they’re not necessarily thinking about the typical “Let’s have kids, let’s have a two-car garage, let’s have a mortgage.” They’re ready for something much more revolutionary, which is very typical of young people to begin with. They want something that is considerably different. Something that appeals to their youth, and that is something that really can’t be underestimated, because it’s absolutely so pivotal in everything that I’m seeing on a day-to-day basis. And so what’s happening is they just don’t care about social security—it just doesn’t affect them—what they care about it are radical things, like what are going to be the ethics of or morals in virtual reality sex? How is that going to change personal dynamics? What about space exploration? Wwhat about bionics? Can I run a hundred miles per hour when I have a certain type of exoskeleton suit? You know, these are the things that matter to this younger, upcoming generation. And that’s why all of a sudden people are very interested in it from a political point of view and wanting to say “Well, where can we go as a species?” That’s what’s exciting, that’s what’s important. A lot of the older transhumanists don’t see it that way, and are still debating stem cells and still looking at some of the older issues, whereas the younger generation, they just want to go headlong into some crazy things and that could involve all sorts of virtual realities and stuff like that. Which we don’t really have much ethical basis for or experience with; we’re just going down the road. The other day I did an interview with someone and she was telling me about how she had known a person who had some kind of virtual experience and was raped during that virtual experience and I thought “Well, we don’t have any kind of laws for virtual rape yet.” This is the kind of thing that the younger generation is very interested in discovering, and that’s where I think a lot of this kind of new political thought is going. When you compare something like that topic to social security, which most of these people haven’t even paid into, they’re just not interested. So that’s really again what I think is happening with the whole movement; it’s shifting to more exciting things that are happening in the evolution of politics as we [transhumanists] would know it.

So last thing before we move on to your particular stance on the issues. Besides a tendency to take the long view—and I’ve seen this kind of take shape slowly over the last six months or so as you’ve written more essays and articles in various spaces—Transhumanism holds tight to a certain optimism–in people, in technology, and in the future–what do you specifically say to people sets transhumanism apart from other political philosophies?

Well, I think the one thing that really sets transhumanism apart, and again this is entirely my opinion, my campaign opinion—it’s not necessarily the Transhumanist Party’s opinion, but I do believe and I think most people are on board with the idea that we can solve every single problem in the world with science and technology. Now that’s a very bold statement to make, but I do believe it.

Yes, it is.

The example I use is that MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) one of the largest nonprofits in American have been trying to stop drunk driving accident deaths which are tens of thousands every year by telling kids not to drink. But the real way to stop it is to not have people driving at all. And this is a classic technological fix to a very serious problem—I’m a father with two kids—that we’re all grateful for. I believe it’s a sort of metaphor for the entire transhumanist movement that ultimately science and technology can fix everything. Ok, not necessarily “fix,” but at least “make better.” It can at least help every single problem we have and that’s a very different [political] ideology than we’ve ever had before. The idea that we would put all our eggs with science and technology and not some other political ideology. That we would almost hold science and technology as the answer to all our problems. I think that separates political transhumanism from other types of politics that I’m aware of.

I love that example that you give because the first thing I think in terms of a technological fix to drunk driving is “let’s put a breathalyzer into every car,” but in fact one of the things that you can do is eliminate the driver as an entity from the get-go and that precludes all these other issues that have been plaguing us for decades and decades. So I wanted to move onto some shorter questions if that’s ok with you and hit some particular political stances and issues. I think another of the challenges you’ve faced and will continue to face over the next 18 months is that you’re advancing a political philosophy you want to become a viable party perhaps in 2020 or 2024, but you’re also an individual with particular beliefs. I imagine when you get questions about specific policy issues you’ve got to think for the Transhumanist Party but also yourself as a candidate. As you just said. Additionally, I know you’ve written that you don’t really expect to win a year from November. So feel free to punt on any of the following if you simply haven’t had a chance to formulate a political position yet. The first thing I wanted to turn to was this question of a jobless future. Easily one of the most often-repeated fear of a technologically driven future is that as machines get smarter and more capable, human jobs will inevitable be destroyed by the tens of thousands. You see this argument made about the auto industry—both in manufacturing and truck driving (most recently at Medium and Gizmodo)—but regarding other industries as well. Indeed, there’s a robot named Baxter developed by Rethink Robotics who recently worked 2,160 straight hours on an assembly line in Pennsylvania. It only cost $25,000 to implement, meaning it works for $11.57/hour. What do you say to folks who attack the optimism of the Transhumanist agenda by pointing to this potentially jobless future?

Well, you know my entire program with this is I’m trying to change the culture of how people view themselves and view the world. There’s no question that we’re going to have to change this idea that we all go to work at 9-5. It doesn’t really matter who you are—whether you’re a journalist or doctor or truck driver or a waitress—all jobs will be replaced. Probably the President’s job at some point will be replaced. The idea is we need to find a way to enjoy living a different kind of perspective, we need to accept that human beings are no longer going to work, that there’s a standard of living that’s going to be acceptable—you know this is why I ultimately endorse a universal basic income, I also endorse universal preschool and a universal college education. People need to become educated in a culture that wants these things so they can see a bigger future than just this 9-5 grind, which at least in America and many other countries we’ve sort of been programmed to accept. That’s not going to be the program in 20 years; the program is going to be “What can I do with my lifespan that makes me satisfied that is creative, that is artistic, that is culturally relevant?” To be honest with you I don’t have all the answers regarding what that future is going to hold and how people are going to be different, but one thing I know for sure is that people must absolutely change. And when I say “change” I mean they’re going to have to accept a new standard of living, a new standard of how they view themselves that has to be outside of their paid profession. So it’s totally critical that people start to take that step down that path. It’s very possible we just end up being ten billion people who meditate half the time, or ten billion artists. I don’t know what the future’s going to hold but it’s inevitable and it’s going to take a complete revolution in our cultural outlook to make sense of that and to be happy with that. But I think once we accepted it life is going to be far happier and far more fulfilling.

That sounds like a radical shift. You’re talking about a whole new ethos for living, a new set of morals and values that are no longer defined by what we do for a living. I think it’s an exciting prospect for the future. Let’s build on that formulation of a new cultural framework for a moment. Much of your writing and speaking inevitably turns to radically extended or indefinite life spans. When death becomes an unusual state of being, will it be easier to abolish the death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment, and for that matter what happens to lifetime prison sentences for those who are prone to recidivism when we’re living a thousand or ten thousand years? What do we do with those people?

So there are two things here. In general, and in theory, I have been a supporter of the death penalty under certain circumstances. However, I’m no longer a supporter of it under the transhumanist agenda, and so when it comes down to my policy I’m not supporting that anymore. It’s very difficult to support the death penalty in a world where everyone’s going to eventually be living indefinitely. Realistically, in ten or fifteen years we’re probably going to have cranial implant technologies that will be able to change the basis of personality, so these criminal things that people want to do might easily be either taken out via some kind of behavior-modification technology or re-engineered through some type of genetics. Additionally, we’ll probably going to be able to have this kind of setup where you’re constantly being monitored. We’re already moving to a surveillance society. You’re just not going to be able to commit the same crimes you once wanted to do because you’re going to be observed at every single moment of your life when you want it or not. So this whole idea of crime is going to change radically over the next ten to fifteen years. And I advocate for using technology to do that, because I believe every human being—even those that are the most evil or criminal—can be changed into something that is much more useful to society. Now of course, if they don’t want that change maybe there needs to be some type of place where we could leave them. In fact in my novel [The Transhumanist Wager], there was one section that I took out of the book—it just was kind of a little too controversial—was creating nations where criminals would just be left.

Sure. Parts of Australia started their life like that.

Yeah. It’s not a punishment in a sense. The only thing is you just can’t come back. You can forge your own life, within the system. So at this point in time I don’t support the death penalty anymore. What I support is using technology to rehabilitate people and modify the things in them that don’t work well in society. Obviously if you have murderers that can’t be something that’s allowed. So people will have to accept that either you will have to be changed through some type of chip or some type of genetic engineering or you need to be withdrawn from society and put on an island. The one thing we can’t do is spend as much money as we’re spending on prisons. That’s absolutely insane. We should be spending that money on education or life-extension research. If we took just a fraction of some of the money spent on the prison system in America and put it towards life extension science we would literally triple the amount of money that’s going towards the industry right now. And that’s just from the prisons. In the age of unlimited life spans I think we need to rid ourselves of criminal intent and acts through technology.

Well that actually sets me up perfectly for the next question. So science and technology research in the United States saw federal funding somewhere in the realm of 135 billion dollars and change in 2015, with much earmarked for defense-related activities. What should that number really be?

Well, look, the defense industry is a multi-trillion-dollar industry. And I think the amount of money that is going directly into the life-extension industry is in the realm of about eight billion, and half goes to Alzheimer’s anyways. And not that I would consider Alzheimer’s research “life extension” research—it’s good that we’re spending money on it, but if I were to look at a billion dollars going into Google’s “Calico” program then I could say it’s going directly into life-extension research. The United States has got a GDP, and the numbers fluctuate, but at any given moment the number is seventeen or eighteen trillion dollars, and we [in my campaign] feel that we should spend one trillion dollars over a ten-year period directly into the life-extension industry. Nothing like that has ever been done. This would be a hundred, two hundred, three hundred times more than anything that’s every taken place. And it would completely revolutionize medicine in the United States. Sort of like Obama’s brain initiative, which is awesome, but it’s only three billion dollars, and honestly that’s pretty small when you consider that the Iraq war cost approximately six trillion [counting interest over the next four decades]. So what we’d like to do is take about a three or four percent of the annual GDP and spread it over ten years—so it’s really a fraction of a percent, and we could revolutionize health care. If America values itself at around 40 trillion dollars, to spend two to three percent of our net worth over a decade to give our citizenry a solid chance to discover the very best life extension we can come up with with that money, we should. Most experts say that even with the few billion going into life-extension research now we’re probably going to reach some type of ongoing sentience in the next twenty or twenty-five years. A trillion would funnel a hundred times that commitment into it. We could at least speed up the progress, and find ways for humans to overcome their biological boundaries like dying. And I’ll tell you about this though I haven’t written about it again: the one thing that I’m going to advocate for at great expense to my libertarian base—not that I’m libertarian, but I have a lot of libertarian friends—is something that I’ve written an article about that I call the “Jethro Knights Life-Extension Tax”. And what I had suggested and what we’re going to campaign on was that everybody in the world donate one percent of their net worth one time. One percent, so if you’re worth ten thousand dollars you’d donate a hundred dollars one time, and so one, and that would contribute many, many trillions to this research. We as a world would come up with very quickly the resources to overcome biological death. I’ll send you a link to that article. When I released that article about a year ago people sort of freaked out. It’s so difficult to campaign on taxes at all, and it’s not something I necessarily think would ever get passed, but it’s very illustrative of how such a small portion of who we are as people—just one percent of one’s net worth and we could change the fate of seven billion people. And the great thing is it’s really favorable for those who don’t have much money—even at minimum wage you could contribute your one percent in one day’s work, and guarantee your immortality. This is a tax that’s going to upset the rich more.

I appreciate the link, I’ll include it. I know we’re running up a bit on time here, but I wanted to ask you quickly: You’ve mentioned in the past that at the state level there are some transhumanists running for office. Are there any, in your eyes, “closet” (or semi-open) transhumanists in Congress right now (and perhaps they don’t even know it yet) that you see as potential allies should you win the White House? Al Gore seems the closest and most obvious mainstream politician of the last ten years I can think of.

Yes, Al Gore is absolutely a transhumanist, he’s used the word transhumanist numerous times in his books, he helped launch Jason Silva’s career. But we have not recognized anyone else. It’s funny, my advisors and I just had this discussion about a month ago—there are a number of Congresspeople who are very pro-science, but I think if you asked people most would admit to being pro-science. One of the things is that a lot of the democrats that are pro-science mean it from an environmental perspective, and of course that’s great because we want to save the world too and want the earth to be pristine. But I don’t know if they’re pro-science in the way that I am trying to advocate for, as in trying to advocate that we replace human hearts with robotic hearts so we can eliminate heart disease in America. That’s the pro-science attitude I’m looking for in politicians, and I have not yet seen anyone. What I have seen is people putting more money into science and more money into technology, which is wonderful, but they haven’t thought through what that means when it comes to upgrading human beings into something very, very different. And part of the reason is as soon as you talk about these concepts that comprise transhumanism, you bring up these major other issues like overpopulation and social security, which are just such land mines for any politician. As soon as you advocate for an indefinite life span without trying to also counter the other people who are going to say “Well, great, how are we going to pay for an entire generation of people who are never work again.”

Absolutely.

This is one of the reasons that transhumanism faces a real challenge and uphill battle in politics, because while the idea of it is probably appealing to most people who would say “Yeah, I want to be perfectly healthy and I want to live longer,” when you point out that everyone on the planet wants to do that giving you twenty billion people with a large chuck potentially on social security, most politicians are reluctant to talk about it. I do have a campaign coming up here beginning at the Huffington Post where I will start saying things like “Hey, Hilary Clinton—are you a transhumanist?” Or something like that, and hopefully it’ll get people to say “Well, what does that mean? How far are you willing to go on these kinds of issues?” And eventually, if we end up conceding, the small group of transhumanists will probably end up supporting some democratic candidate where we can pursue science and technology issues in a secular-minded way. So unfortunately I can’t answer your question and say there’s anyone out there right now. The problem is all the great people who should be running for politics are scientists and they just don’t want to be bothered with this stuff. And that’s another sad thing. I recently wrote an article saying that we should make it a law that you can’t have so many attorneys in office. You must have a complete, broad, representative population.

That’s an interesting idea.

Yeah. If you have 15% scientists in the world, then you should have 15% representation by them. If you have 15% engineers in the world, we need 15% of Congress to be engineers. Right now it’s skewed towards attorneys and the kinds of professions that, you know, generally aren’t pro-science or pro-technology but pro-legal things. And that has also been very disruptive to society.

I haven’t seen it anywhere specific, but for some reason this strikes me as a very FM-2030 notion. A neat, proportional representation I would not see as out of place in either Optimism One or Up-Wingers

Yeah, and you know I wrote about a related idea in my novel and it just amazes me that this isn’t already the case. There also needs to be a law that the female-male distribution in Congress should be pretty even, with incentives for females to run if it becomes unbalanced. I find it crazy that we have a Congress that’s still dominated by mostly white older males. Times are changing too quickly and it’s not able to keep up. The biggest problem about politics is that science and technology are making those same old white males live longer and longer and hold onto their power longer and longer, even if they don’t support the science and technology. It’s absolutely critical that we bring in diversity, and it’s absolutely critical that if we want democracy to work we do our best so that everyone is represented according to their numbers. Not just the same people who have kind of been in power since the [nineteen] fifties and are basically advocating for almost identical policies. The only difference is they’re doing through their iPhones and pretty soon they’ll be doing it through they’re cranial implants. And something is different because technology should force ethics to change; that’s what we were talking about in terms of making the death penalty illegal. At one point I did support it—if someone had murdered my entire family, sure, that person deserves the death penalty. However now I understand that, because if we have but withhold the technology to change that person then that would be me murdering that person. So, again, this kind of goes back to when you were asking what’s the difference between transhumanism and other political parties. It’s that we honestly believe that science and technology can literally solve all these problems. But we can’t get stuck in these old ethics, with cultural baggage, as I often refer to it. We need to let the technology and science lead the way. We need to listen to it.

And let science and technology drive a new ethical framework rather than recapitulating the old one and perpetuating it to infinity. Hmm. Well, thanks for answering those questions. I was wondering if I could take just a couple minutes here at the end to just indulge a little with some questions you might not regularly get asked, and so feel free to take a pass on any of them. You said recently you think there are at least 150k and perhaps a few million transhumanists in the United States right now. Your campaign has been slowly gaining attention over the last few months as well. How many hits is zoltanforamerica.com getting these days?

You know, the main website is zoltanistvan.com/. To be honest, we’re not getting that many hits—I haven’t looked at the numbers for zoltanistvan.com recently. But I can tell you that—and people ask me this all the time—they say hey, your website’s kind of old and not as savvy-looking, and part of the reason for that is my campaign doesn’t get as much funding as even other third-party campaigns. Transhumanists, because they’re so young, they don’t have that much money, so we’re just dealing with it as well as we can. But I can tell you last week, that between the interviews and articles I did I thought we were somewhere between three and four hundred thousand views of my stuff between a Popular Science article and an Esquire one, and something I had at Vice, even if the website might have only been a few thousand. Now obviously that doesn’t necessarily translate into supporters. But it translates hopefully into recognition. At the end of the day I’m not expecting in any way to win. What we’re really trying to do with my campaign, at least in 2016, is to spread transhumanism. We generally do one to two million views of our campaign every month.

I think that’s pretty good.

Yes, no, it’s great! It’s fascinating. I worked it out last year, and this was before my presidential campaign, and it was pretty disappointing to my wife. She said, “Ok, in 2014 you had approximately twenty to thirty million views.” There were a couple of articles that just went completely viral, they were picked up I think by seven of the top ten Chinese sites. There was the one on ectogenesis. But we were asking ourselves, in terms of finances, “How many ads did I sell for other people?” and we came up with something like probably seven hundred thousand dollars. Of course I made a small fraction of that from my writing—so I was making some other people very wealthy. But the idea is that the message is getting out more broadly. You can see through my columns that the transhumanism movement is changing. People are hearing the word again and again and again, and once they hear it they start using it. It’s not of course necessarily only associated with me in any way. But that’s how we’ve been measuring our success, as opposed to donations which have generally remained small. We’ve been much more concerned with determining how the media is handling it all, because at the end of the day what’s most important for myself and transhumanists is that we build a culture that welcomes transhumanism as opposed to a culture that welcomes dying and going and meeting Jesus or something. We’re trying to make it so that transhumanism can work within the culture already established here in America. And if the culture’s there then people will begin to say “Well, why don’t we have more robotic body parts to end heart disease and why don’t we have exoskeleton suits to end disability?” And if we encourage this culture and get people onboard to embrace it, then pretty soon you’ll see us go back to your question about congresspeople who say “Yeah, I’m also a transhumanist”—or, actually, they’ll probably say something like “I support transhumanist technology for the better health of Americans.” And that’s a very important thing, so we spend almost all our time trying to make an impact in the media in the hopes of effecting change on that framework for Americans. And we think in two or three years if the movement continues transhumanism will be a household word. One of the things I’ve been totally impressed with is that in Europe they’re totally throwing the word around like it’s normal now. And I can tell you two or three years ago it was not a normal.

Well, I think it’ll be exciting to see how it grows as the election cycle begins to ramp up. Ok. Last question for you. I’m reading Kim Stanley Robsinson’s Green Mars right now. It’s pretty great, though Red Mars was better. What’s the last book you read purely for enjoyment, and what did you think of it?  

You know, I’ve got to be honest. If Ray Kurzweil asked me to read his book I wouldn’t right now. I check my email at two, four, six in the morning, and we also have an infant so it’s just been all coming together at once. Plus, I’m reading and writing all day every day, so it just takes too much of a toll. But one thing I still manage to do is watch a documentary every single night, or most of one. I used to be a documentary filmmaker. I worked for National Geographic, doing mini-documentaries.

Oh yeah, I read that actually.

Yeah, so usually around eleven or so I’ll get to sit down with a glass of scotch and that’s how I unwind. And the one I just watched that was great was called The Singing Revolution. It’s about how Estonia was born. Essentially, they made use of a nonviolent way to cause a revolution, and they gave birth to a nation by singing. I didn’t know this story at all. And when you get a million people singing in front of an army, you can’t do anything. It’s a very powerful documentary. I usually get up around seven in the morning and work through to ten or so at night, so I really look forward to that time where I can enjoy someone else’s ideas and explore what they’re thinking.

Zoltan Istvan on Twitter

Zoltan Istvan’s personal website

Transhumanist Party’s website

 

The Case for Elv and Unqua: Why We Should be Counting in Dozens

dozenal header

Welcome to PART 3 of our ongoing series here at the slowlorisblog, 42 STEPS TO A BETTER WORLD. That time, it sure is flying. To think we’re already 1/14th done! At this rate, we’re looking at a finish date of 2019, and that’s way ahead of schedule. Today, we offer a radical proposal (accompanied by perhaps as many links as we’ve ever had in a single post): that we’ve been counting in a count(ha)er-productive way for millennia, and to offer an alternative way to do it and make the whole world a better place.

Here’s how most of us count:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

Here’s how dozenalists (also called duodecimalists) propose we should be counting. It is also the official sponsored counting system of the slowlorisblog from here onward:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, X, E, 10

(many dozenalists represent the X as an upside down 2, and the E as a backwards 3)

Both the Dozenal Societies of America and Great Britain propose that we should be counting not in base-10, but in base-12. Phonetically, they’d sound like this:

one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, elv, unqua

(It is, in my opinion, a massive failing of the movement that most of them insist on forcing us to replace, conceptually, the Roman number 10 in their number line with a set of numbers that is in fact “12-large,” while phonetically retaining “ten” for the numeral X. Others have suggested calling the numeral X do. Whatever the case, it’s obvious that one of the largest obstacles to adoption is going to be pronunciation. Especially when it comes to large numbers.[1] But if we can put this problem aside for just a moment, we’ll see many potential benefits).

Historically, the way we count is more or less based on the number of fingers and toes we have. Other societies have counted differently: the Babylonians counted in base-60, the Mayans in base-20, the people of Papua New Guinea are said to count in base-6, the Umbu-Ungu in base-24, and various positional and other computational systems favor base-36. So counting in tens isn’t some kind of incarnation of Natural Law. It just happened, and we stuck with it.

Proposing any kind of change like this is sure to ruffle some feathers. It would cost a good deal to do, in addition to annoying parents who thought they knew how to count, Especially when little Umlaut comes home asking why mommy didn’t teach her about the number elv.

There are really two, not necessarily mutually exclusive, cases to be made here: that switching to the dozenal system would be a beneficent move in terms of everyday convenience, and that it provides mathematical benefits with larger impacts in that field of praxis. The former of these is the easier one to make, but it’s also much less convincing to the average reader. Convincing one generation to re-learn how to count so as to (mostly) benefit the succeeding ones rarely works. This phenomena affects not only knowledge systems, but technology. Look at the arguments to be made for switching to the Dvorak (or other alternative) typing systems. The latter of these, the mathematical benefits, are murkier, but still titillating. Let’s dive in!

Mathematical benefits

  1. Fractional representation: Fractions, in total number, digit-length, and common-use ones are, I think, inarguably simplified when it comes to dozenal math. Compare them for yourself below. The big takeaway for me is that 1/3 stops being a mess, and most of the other common fractions go from two or three digits to one. The only real backward step is that 1/5 goes from .2 to 0.24972497 (recurring).
FRACTION DOZENAL DECIMAL
1/2 0.6 .5
1/3 0.4 .333 (repeating)
1/4 0.3 .25
1/5 0.24 (repeating) .2
1/6 0.2 .1666 (repeating)
1/7 0.1714285 (repeating) .142857 (repeating)
1/8 0.15 .125
1/9 0.1333 (repeating) .111 (repeating)
  1. Recurring digits: In the real world, problems with factors of 5 come up far less than problems with factors of 3, and the the dozenal system brings with it a host of inherent properties making it superior to the decimal system.[2] That means recurring digits (and the rounding inexactitude they often require) come up less often. Nevertheless, the real benefit that in the dozenal system when recurring digits do come up, they tend to be much shorter than in the decimal system. This is because 12 sits in the middle of two prime numbers (11, 13) rather than, as 10 does, next to a composite number (9).[3] It also is the result of their respective factorizations (the process of breaking numbers down into all the small numbers which, when multiplied together, get you to the large number), where dozenal offers further benefits. The prime number 2 shows up twice in the factorization of 12 (as opposed to once in 10), and the prime number 3 shows up once instead of not at all. Basically, more primes = good, less = bad.[4]
  2. Superior highly composite numbers are those which have a greater number of divisors relative to the number itself. 12 is one of these. 10 isn’t even a highly composite number (those positive numbers with more divisors than every smaller positive number). This means the math, including but not limited to the two cases above, gets cleaner all the way around.

Everyday benefits

Basically, it makes counting better all the way around, in terms of weights (pharmacists and jewelers use a 12-ounce pound), measures (a circle has 12 divisions of 30 degrees, there are 2 sets of 12 hours in a day, 12 months in a year, 12 inches in a foot for carpenters) or money (the British pound system, but also American financial markets as they are based around a 12-month year). There are a host of others, that if you are curious about you can check out at the American Dozenal Society Education Resources Page[5]

Thus, for children, it makes math easier to conceptualize and understand. For those of us raised on the decimal system, we can just use a calculator.

What a Dozenal World Would Look Like

dozenalclock

counting

ruler

Dozenal_multiplication_table

Fans can join the movement and its (only semi-facetious) legislative proposal, the Dozenal Establishment Act.

Further Reading

Interview with Dozenal Society of American Don Goodman

The Dozenal Society of America

The Dozenal Society of Great Britain

A nice video introduction to base-12

Some other stuff

[1] http://www.dozenal.org/drupal/sites/default/files/db4b20a_0.pdf

[2] http://www.dozenal.org/drupal/sites/default/files/db27309_0.pdf

[3] http://www.dozenal.org/drupal/sites/default/files/db4b109_0.pdf

[4] http://www.dozenal.org/drupal/sites/default/files/db4b211_0.pdf

[5] http://www.dozenal.org/drupal/sites/default/files/leech_thomas_dozens_tens.pdf

Dark Ecology as the Higher Misanthropy

dark ecology2

It is a signal pleasure to announce that this week slowlorisblog is hosting an essay by Dr. Steve Fuller, Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick, UK. Dr. Fuller joins us today to discuss a fascinating intellectual movement–Dark Ecology–in terms both of its historical development and the future it promises for humanity:

One of the advantages of being a certain age – and remaining alert – is that you observe intellectual history as it unfolds in public. The relevant trace here is what ‘anti-humanism’ has come to mean. Nowadays it means misanthropy, especially if you don’t call it that. However, the revolt against humanism began as a revolt against the hypocrisy of humanists, especially their pretensions to have liberated us from God yet at the same time enslave us to science. This development began in 1960s France, where it was prosecuted as a dual attack on Existentialism and Structuralism. Thus, both Sartre and Levi-Strauss — who famously confronted each other in the pages of The Savage Mind — were the enemy. After all, the reality that made life so urgent yet absurd for existentialists was one which science had discovered to operate by principles indifferent to the human condition. The anti-humanists aimed for no less than a subversion of both sides of this modernist dialectic. (Thomas Nagel’s uncompromising dualism is perhaps the last prominent philosophical project that takes the Sartre-Levi-Strauss dialectic seriously.)

At first, anti-humanism attacked the primacy of authorial intent in cultural production, understood as the last bastion of theism in the secular world (aka creation by the Word); hence, Roland Barthes’ ‘death of the author’ thesis. But Barthes didn’t go far enough because his ‘semiology’ had scientific pretensions, not so different from Levi-Strauss’. This is the context for understanding what made Foucault and Derrida fellow travellers, despite their substantive differences. Both took their cue from a Nietzsche-fortified version of Heidegger, albeit to different effect. Foucault showed that ‘the human’ didn’t become a stable object of inquiry or concern until the late 18th century, and its prosecution over the next two centuries proved an uphill struggle, generating much risk, uncertainty, repression and violence. However, Foucault’s early adopters in the anti-psychiatry movement drew a more upbeat, libertarian conclusion from this prima facie gloomy narrative.  Simply put, we need to ‘let a thousand “humans” bloom’. In a similar vein, Derrida looked on the bright side of Heidegger’s nihilism to argue that once freed from the myth of legitimising origins, we can employ deconstruction to release us from the binaries that regularly prevent our thought from fully exploring what lies ‘interstitially’ and ‘intertextually’ between the putative opposites.

All of this could have unleashed a new super-humanism (i.e. a Nietzschean humanism) that might overcome past hypocrisies in the name of humanity’s creative inexhaustibility.  But it did not come to pass. At least in the English-speaking world, the sort of Zombie Marxism that passes for ‘critical theory’ colonised the original anti-humanist impulse.  I say ‘zombie’ because this brand of Marxism, which marked the shift in attention to the Frankfurt School from Marcuse to Adorno, implicitly acknowledged the failure of Marxism as a positive political project (i.e. the proletariat failed to deliver the goods) yet clung to the negative side of the project (i.e. the demystification of all forms of power), even though one might have thought that both were part of the same package and should be judged together. But no, instead the negative side of the project acquired a life of its own – an endless quest to demystify, deconstruct and otherwise falsify anything positive put forward by those in power, regardless of their ostensible ends.  Thus began the current fashion of identifying humanism simpliciter with a hegemonic ‘dead white male’ view of the world.  Whatever else one might wish to say about Zombie Marxism, it is not a good look for a movement that still fancies itself as ‘progressive’.

One way to understand the rise of dark ecology – and the various intellectual streams that feed into it – is as a rather perverse attempt to salvage something positive from Zombie Marxism’s exceptionally negative verdict on humanism. The silver dagger that dark ecologists drive through the zombie heart is to abandon our need to identify with the human altogether, thereby absolving ourselves of any sense of guilt or responsibility for what so-called humans have done in the past or might do in the future. Gone in one fell swoop are all the endless complaining and resentment of Zombie Marxists that are often derided as ‘political correctness’. In its place, that cluster of philosophical tics that travels under the banner of ‘object oriented ontology’ (or ‘OOO’, basically the metaphysical wing of actor-network theory) provides all the key distancing moves from the human. The modern marks of the human — subjectivity and autonomy – Sartre and Levi-Strauss – are erased in OOO-speak. Instead all objects are created equal in their inherent relationality. To be human is no more than to ‘do’ (i.e. at once to perform and to represent) networks in ways that privilege Homo sapiens as nodes. Although OOO-ists appear rather indifferent to the politics of the ecology movement, they share with Green metaphysics a rather ‘open-minded’ (i.e. not necessarily positive) attitude towards humanity’s contribution to a sustainable world (read: durable network), as determined by, say, our ‘carbon footprint’. The Anglo-American Romanticist Timothy Morton may be the most ‘out there’ of this bunch.

I call dark ecology ‘misanthropic’ because it implies that there is something fundamentally unreliable about being ‘human’. However, this judgement is made not out of spite or indignation, but in hope of a new dawn and a new level playing field. In the darkest corners of dark ecology –  Nick Land’s ‘Dark Enlightenment’– it is imagined that natural selection will deliver a sense of cosmic justice, reversing what the ‘racial hygiene’ movement in the early 20th century German medical community dubbed ‘counter-selection’, namely, all the apparently clever innovations – not least mass vaccinations — that have enabled unprecedented numbers of Homo sapiens to survive over the past 250 years, only to suck up more of the planet’s resources, creating new pretexts for political conflicts and international warfare. (The movement’s leader,  Alfred Ploetz, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.) The difference between today’s forces of the Dark Enlightenment and the older racial hygiene movement (which, yes, provided a scientific basis for Nazi ideology) is that the racial hygienists generally believed that counter-selectionist strategies delayed, without overturning, the final judgement that nature delivers on who is fit to live. On the contrary, Nick Land holds that such strategies accelerate the onset of the eco-apocalypse, and for that very reason, should be promoted to hasten that catastrophic moment when the Earth arrives at a genuinely ‘posthuman’ condition.

Lest Land’s prophecy be dismissed as the misbegotten product of a febrile imagination, there is an old-style ‘small is beautiful’ environmentalist version of it, delivered in folksier tones. Thus,  Paul Kingsnorth bemoans the ‘progress trap’ (or ‘technological lock-in’) whereby nature (including humanity itself, understood properly as an animal species) becomes the long term victim of the short term successes generated by each bright new human idea that gets turned into a normal routine for bending nature to its will. Kingsnorth imagines that ‘neo-environmentalist’ technology-friendly movements such as the US-based Breakthrough Institute (whose principles I have endorsed) are among the apocalypse accelerators in our midst. Once again, the plausibility of this pessimistic verdict depends on a prior belief that our tendency to treat necessity as the mother of invention will soon backfire decisively. In both its scary and cuddly forms – Land and Kingsnorth – dark ecology is betting against the post-apocalyptic ‘us’ conferring on the ‘human’ much normative value, even if ‘we’ still look more or less like Homo sapiens.

There is much more to say and think about vis-à-vis dark ecology’s challenge to the very idea of humanity. But let me close by suggesting in historical terms the radical value re-orientation proposed by this movement. In 1962 the RAND Corporation analyst Herman Kahn – often seen as an inspiration for the character of Dr Strangelove – proposed in Thinking about the Unthinkable various scenarios about how humanity might survive the Cold War nightmare of a nuclear confrontation between the US and the USSR. The interesting feature of Kahn’s prognosis is its relatively upbeat character. He very much believed that necessity is the mother of invention, and that whatever didn’t kill us would make us stronger. He appeared confident that, even in radically diminished numbers, humanity could pick up the pieces after a thermonuclear war, though it may be difficult at first and may require several years to return to pre-war conditions. Yet, in today’s world, both the threat of nuclear holocaust and the presumption that we are bound to Earth and the bodies of our birth are up for grabs, as reflected in ‘Black Sky Thinking’. From this perspective, dark ecology’s longing for the apocalypse looks like a hangover from the Cold War – but without the optimistic edge offered by the likes of Kahn.

Steve Fuller is the Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick, UK. He is the author of twenty books, the latest of which (co-authored with Veronika Lipinska) is The Practionary Imperative: A Foundation for Transhumanism, due out with Palgrave Macmillan in July 2014. His website is here, and his twitter handle is @profstevefuller

Personhood Beyond the Human: Reflections on the Nonhuman Personhood Conference at Yale

pbh2

A couple of months ago at Yale University, a group of smart, passionate, well-informed people gathered together to discuss what will likely become one of the discursive focal points of the next century in bioethics and scientific thought: granting legal personhood to non-human animals. The conference was sponsored by the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, a non-profit think tank, and officially endorsed by the Nonhuman Rights Project, who just so happened that very week to be (and is still now) prosecuting a number of cases in New York courts on behalf of Kiko, Tommy, Leo, and Hercules, chimps living in Niagara Falls, Gloversville, and in a research lab at Stony Brook University, respectively.

I was lucky enough to get to go—a great perk coincident to my living on the East Coast this year as I finish my dissertation—and it was eye-opening in a number of ways.

 Non-human animals

It would take far longer than a thousand words (the generally accepted length for science blogs, according to people who assure me you guys won’t read anything more than three pages on the internet) to fully outline the incisive, complex, and sometimes diametrically opposed philosophical wellsprings presented at the conference, and do justice to the often radical arguments made during the course of those three days. So instead, I’d like to focus on the general tone of the meeting, and a few of the representative presentations.

 So who presented, and what did they say?

Lori Gruen, from Wesleyan, took an anthropological approach in pointing out the seemingly “natural” barriers between human animals and other-than-human animals. Spoiler alert: they’re not natural at all. She spoke about the sociological tendencies of humans through history to differentiate “Self” from “Other” via expanding circles of interaction like so: me –> my family –> my tribe –> my nation –> my race –> my species. The important concepts arising from this tendency, which she suggested were either socialized from an early age or built into the way our minds work (or a combination of the two), were dual. First, the development of an entangling empathy that is most strongly felt by those who are around us, look like us, talk like us, and think like us. And second, the rhetorical trap created when we make no distinction between “personhood” (a legal instantiation of rights) and “human” (a physiological marker). Expanding that entangled empathy and recognizing the limitations it placed around our thinking by our own language, she argued, offers the potential to re-ontologize other-than-human animals in our thinking, language, and conversation.

Robert Jones, from California State-Chico, tried to work his way toward a non-speciesist definition of personhood, and suggested we had perhaps been going about this project backwards. Rather than try to find “human” qualities in various other-than-human animals species, he suggested we try to pin down what properties we find to be important in our own personhood, and then look for other places those properties are instantiated. Good stuff.

Karen Davis, PhD, and president and founder of United Poultry Concerns, talked about the morphological bias present in the current animal rights movement (a justifiable critique that remains legitimate despite the equally valid justification by the NHRP that they prosecute cases on behalf of chimps both because of the plethora of science on their side and the anthropomorphic bias of human beings). Just because non-human animals don’t look like us doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to empathize with their experience in an honest way.

Wendell Wallach, Chair of the Yale Bioethics Center, gave a talk in defense of human exceptionalism that was simultaneously skeptical of technoprogressivism as a movement. He seemed, throughout, mostly concerned that as we proceed down the path of (rightfully, he acceded) giving personhood status to other-than-human animals, we not “demean what it means to be a person.” I thought the talked smacked of a strange romantic conservatism, and had that decided “old man smell” that betrayed a fear of unseating human animals as the center of the universe.

Plenty of other interesting and insightful people spoke. Peter Singer, Lori Marino, Stephen Wise, Steve Fuller, Andrew Fenton, Yaniv Heled, and others. That they don’t appear here has everything to do with the depth and breadth of their respective talks—that is, they perhaps raised even more complex and provocative issues than there is space to discuss. Look for another treatment in a future post in terms of how these individuals fit together in exploring other-than-human personhood.

 On Technological Intelligences

bina48

But this conference wasn’t only about other-than-human animals. That is to say, it was about more than biological, organic thinking beings. Though definitely underemphasized, it was equally about technological intelligences. BINA48—perhaps the best-known representative of those forcing us to reconsider paradigm from within which we make value judgments about autonomy, decision-making, and sentience—made an appearance. And she was fantastic. Short for Breakthrough Intelligence via Neural Architecture and built by the Terasem Movement, she answered audience questions for a full half an hour, fielding queries about everything from what she likes to do during the day, to where she goes when she’s shut down, to if she thinks she has a soul.

Here’s a URL to a video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=diR0UvI44-U (there’s a really great part beginning at 19:20 worth watching)

Make no mistake. BINA’s builders don’t claim to have created an artificial intelligence. BINA’s remarkably human answers, reinforced carefully by a life-like bust and animatronics, are nevertheless the result of one of the most concerted and well-focused missions aimed at getting to the heart of cognition. And for whole, uninterrupted moments, the mood of the room—populated by lawyers, scientists, philosophers, and students— was one of sincere entrancement, punctuated by verbal and cognitive dissonances that provoked laughter. BINA, her human facilitator explained, was prone to ramble at times, her language and thinking centers building off one another in unpredictable ways. The result was that sometimes she spoke continuously for minutes about having friends, and at other times she gave one-word answers to deeper questions.

It made me wonder, not for the first time and not for the last, if whether the real question is not going to be between those who say eventually technological intelligences will be able to pass a Turing Test and fool us into thinking they are sentient, and those who say it will never happen. Perhaps, we might wonder if it’s even possible to develop a Turing Test that can tell us with one hundred percent certainty if the interaction we’re experiencing is genuine or merely excellent mimicry. I’ve seen very little discussion which makes me believe we understand the human brain—a computing machine equivalent to a supercomputer (though that remains an incomplete analogy) the size of three city blocks effectively running off of twenty watts—well enough to think our way out of Plato’s cave.

 This is all philosophically nice, but what’s the science behind personhood?

What are some criteria that everyone agrees on for personhood status? Lori Marino of the NHRP was on hand on Day Two to provide some, all of which I heartily agree with. As the science advisor for the group, in charge of preparing materials for the prosecution of their legal cases, she’s uniquely well-situated to speak authoritatively. Part of her challenge lies in educating the public about the flood of scientific evidence showing that other-than-human animals exhibit a host of abilities and phenomena that we had never been able to prove, and which are popularly used to deny them personhood status. These included, but were not limited to, scientifically established recognition of culture, mental time travel, working memory, casual inference, using tools to make tools, self-actualization, self-denial of short-term benefits in pursuit of long-term goals, and others.  She was articulate, well-informed, and well-received by the conference attendees.

 A Kerfuffle at Yale

Author and futurist David Brin rounded out the conference via Skype from his study in California. He argued, much to the consternation—and yea, even anger—of the conference attendees, that as the only species on this planet to successfully navigate the Great Filter into undeniable high-order sentience humanity may have an obligation to “uplift” non-human animals to our level. Think of it as a reversal of the Prime Directive. Once our technology enables us to, he suggested, the (moral and philosophical) line of discussion brought up by the Yale conference (he had been following along to the panels remotely) suggested clear responsibilities to life on planet Earth—to aid in the uplifting of as many species as we can determine want high-order sentience. Brin was immediately (and with no little animosity) criticized for suggesting interference by the conference attendees. There was shouting even. This reaction, I thought, demonstrated a large blind spot in their awareness of just how radical most of the ideas they themselves proposed were to the bulk of society. Brin handled it well enough, telling the most vocal that he understood what he was proposing sounded elitist, presumptuous, and even immoral. He reiterated, however, that his suggestion was little more than the logical conclusion of the rest of the conference’s attempt at grappling toward (from a laudable and well-intentioned place that he agreed with, he said) full personhood status for other-than-human animals. And he was absolutely right.

 Concluding Thoughts

This is a debate that’s not going to go away. India just banned dolphin use in entertainment-related activities, and it’s likely others will soon follow suit. PETA, despite the poor public image most have of them, continues its work nationwide, aided by the Humane Society of the United States and others. More people go vegetarian or vegan every year, and as they do, restaurants and grocery stores are becoming increasingly hip to what is clearly no longer a transient fad.

So what should you say to someone who snidely says,

“People are animals.

Animals are not people.

Discussion over.”

You say to them this: No one’s talking about people. They’re talking about “personhood.” It’s a very specific legal instantiation aimed at giving other-than-human animals “freedom from” rather than, as many who pre-emptively attack the activist movement (on the grounds of an understandable but completely outmoded faith to the notion of human exceptionalism) seem to be worried about, “freedom to” (be called people).

Freedom from what? Freedom from predation, from being experimented on, from being eaten, and from being otherwise exploited. Recognizing the abilities which other-than-human animals have had all along doesn’t diminish you in any way. It’s not a zero-sum game. That was the most exciting part about the Yale conference. Because when you get that many smart, capable, and informed people in a room together who want the same thing, no amount of xenophobic hand-wringing is going to keep it from happening.

 

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Downwingers and dilettante-ism: Bryan Appleyard on Futurism

posthuman2

Appleyard is a British journalist and contributor at The New Statesman, a generally well-respected if left-leaning political and cultural magazine that’s been around since 1913 and has hosted the musings of such luminaries as John Maynard Keynes, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchins. But this is the nature of modern journalism, so it’s not surprising that The New Statesman recently gave us yet another lesson that no matter what, or who, or where you imbibe your news and information, it’s a process which should be done with a critical eye. That’s why history, despite the best efforts of arts and humanities deans, school boards, and football coaches, is not going anywhere soon. It is the discipline, the most successful discipline, I think, that teaches evidence-based inquiry, critical thinking, and the big picture. Because without it, you might read this new article by Bryan Appleyard and think he knows what he’s talking about. Caveat: because this is the internet, I’d like to head off the professional offense-takers by saying I don’t think Appleyard himself is stupid. Many of his pieces are good. But smart, generally thoughtful people can say stupid things. Except me. I never say stupid things.

Check out the article here. Essentially, in a nutshell, he says futurists are all naïve utopians and we should never listen them, because doing so robs us of our humanity:

 http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/04/why-futurologists-are-always-wrong-and-why-we-should-be-sceptical-techno-utopians

To begin: there are plenty of legitimate criticisms to be leveled at technoprogressives (a far more accurate, descriptive and less generally disingenuous term than Appleyard’s deliberate “techno-utopian”), so there’s little point in muddying the waters by making up illegitimate ones by expressing poor thinking using bad writing. Lack of consideration of all the sociocultural implications of the posthuman future, occasional prophetic tendencies, tendency to rely on trite, meaningless phraseology (“the future is now”), willingness to pin down a date past which “everything” will change—these are quality criticisms to be made, and yet don’t all movements have such elements within? So shouldn’t we be careful about generalizations?

Appleyard’s polemic is really a mess of logical fallacies, bad analogies, and clumsy attempts at ad hominem. To take but a few:

1)      He equates Ray Kurzweil and Michio Kaku, two well-educated and thoughtful individuals, with Malcolm Gladwell (who no one with legitimate experience in any of the areas Gladwell ventures takes too seriously, though he is fun to read and no doubt a smart guy) with caricatured versions of Larry Page and Peter Thiel (the former of whom is in probably the most compromised position on any discourse regarding technoprogressivism and the latter who is, plainly and simply, a bombastic, self-important dilettante), and then some anthropomorphized version of the Ted Talks (which Appleyard and I will agree are mostly white noise obfuscating the real signal). Such easy comparisons betray a lack of nuanced consideration of the vast differences between these individuals, and does the unfamiliar reader no favors during a time such as now when science is already under attack by ignorance and misdirection on so many fronts already.

2)      Appleyard attempts also to equate futurism with a religion, and the singularity with the Rapture (using the 2045 date as a straw man). Completely laughable, if you go even one step beyond the most superficial “structural” similarities Appleyard trots out as hard proof. Plus, anything that smacks of religion has to be bad, right?

3)      After criticizing Michio Kaku for uncritical use of language regarding DARPA’s mission, Appleyard spends the rest of the essay calling Kaku and Kurzweil manic, foaming-at-the-mouth, poppie (because anything the public likes can’t be intelligent, apparently) and a host of other less-than-subtle attempts at pejoratives designed to get you on his team.

And then there are statements like this:

“Neuroscientists now routinely make claims that are far beyond their competence, often prefaced by the words “We have found that . . .” The two most common of these claims are that the conscious self is a illusion and there is no such thing as free will . . . The first of these claims is easily dismissed – if the self is an illusion, who is being deluded? The second has not been established scientifically – all the evidence on which the claim is made is either dubious or misinterpreted – nor could it be established, because none of the scientists seems to be fully aware of the complexities of definition involved. In any case, the self and free will are foundational elements of all our discourse and that includes science. Eliminate them from your life if you like but, by doing so, you place yourself outside human society. You will, if you are serious about this displacement, not be understood. You will, in short, be a zombie.”

And all of a sudden neuroscientists are a monolithic entity who are, en masse, incapable of recognizing astonishing logical non sequitors that render everything they do idiotic.

So what’s really going on here? What’s with the tone and substance of this piece? I think Appleyard is afraid. He’s afraid of the future (though he may not want to admit it), and as such is looking to the past to calm himself down. Ehrlich (whose Population Bomb came out in 1968, before the full implications of Borlaug’s dwarf wheat (taking shape during the early and mid-1960s) would be realized) and Somer and all the others were wrong, and so the current generation of futurists has to be wrong too, right? Check this statement from the piece out: “We are, it is said, on the verge of mapping, modelling and even replicating the human brain and, once we have done that, the mechanistic foundations of the mind will be exposed. Then we will be able to enhance, empower or (more likely) control the human world in its entirety. This way, I need hardly point out, madness lies.”

The fact is this entire piece is really just a regurgitation of Max Dublin’s twenty five year-old Futurehype, which was a far better critique of the worst elements of the futurist tendency. In fact, it sounds like Appleyard’s piece reads like that of a downwinger. But I agree with Appleyard’s frustration and the general unhelpfulness of “technological chatter,” that which is heavy on the fluff and language and light on hard evidence. It’s why I wonder books like his own Aliens: Why They Are Here and How to Live Forever or Die Trying, the latter of which is promoted on the dust jacket with claims that it is Funny, thought-provoking and often profound, it manages to grapple with the big issues of existence without blinding the reader with science” get published. Because thanks Appleyard. I wouldn’t want to be blinded with science.

Morality and Chimeras in a Posthuman World

young family

Two scenarios from which to begin this discussion:

1)      Someone straps a computer onto the brainstem of Merriweather the Chimp in an experiment to translate her brainwaves to speech and develops sophisticated software for interpretation. And it turns Merriweather into a chimp-borg, where she develops the ability to enter a discursive space not just with trainers who’ve learned ASL in a way that has been largely ignored by the public as legitimate interaction on equal footing, but with humanity and in her own voice. And she tells humanity of her thoughts, and fears, and dreams. She hopes, she laughs, she wonders, and she cries. She is, by all the measures we administer, a moral person. Right? Or no?

2)      Or how about one that, while less immediately clear, will probably happen first: it looks like chimps are going to be, in the next 10 years or so, granted “personhood” status. This will mean that, legally (and ethically, as far as the law goes), they have to be treated as humans (sidebar: this doesn’t mean that they will have to be treated as equal in all capacities as human. Rather, it will be an instantiation of law, informed by science, which “fills” chimps as “legal vessels” with rights). At the same time, this will be the first definitive act by humanity which acknowledges that humanity doesn’t have a monopoly on moral instantiation. So, chimps are granted personhood status, are the moral equals of humans. Then someone takes stem cells from the brain of a chimp and implants them into a dog fetus. The dog doesn’t develop any morally relevant capabilities (cognition, etc.), but the cells came from a moral being. And we’ve said a chimp is a legal, ethical, and moral person, just like a human. And in the past, moral philosophy (which directs juridical philosophy) has said, it comes in part from a moral being, it’s morally equal. So what is this dog, then? A moral being? Or not?

Unless you’re someone uncapable of thinking rationally, soberly, and with self-reflection, it’s clear that morality and moral frameworks are going to be increasingly contested spaces during the twenty first century, especially as genetics continues its foray into splicing and transfection and we enter fully the era of the posthuman. The creation of chimeras is a rich, exciting field of inquiry and therapeutics. It is, without qualification, one of the next frontiers of genetics as well as philosophy of science.

Until now, the standard operating procedure regarding whether an other-than-human animal is morally relevant has relied on anthropocentric cell-origin arguments, i.e. if it came from a human, the chimera attains morally relevant status (morally relevant status just means we have to treat it like it’s human when it comes to questions of morality. So the operative word is “relevant”). So, at this juncture in time, if human cells were used, the new animal is a chimera, and is the moral equivalent of a human being. If no human cells were used, it does not.

But it’s becoming an increasingly nebulous position thanks to advances in genetics and experimental technique, and thus difficult to defend. See the two examples above. And moral philosophers are, because of this, running into an increasingly difficult problem to parse: How do we treat chimeras which have cell origins from one or more types of species?

It has become clear, in other words, that we need a more nuanced framework for defining moral relevancy, or we run the very real risk of not only violating some philosophical boundary, but, as any good lawyer will tell you, legal ones as well. After all, jurisprudence has been in the past, and remains today, informed and even directed by political and moral philosophy. The exciting thing to historians of science is that, in a post-enlightenment world, moral and political philosophy has itself seen the replacement of previous vocabularies and epistemologies of religion with vocabularies and epistemologies of science.

One of the solutions offered gets around the cell origin problem is to consider capacity in a more complex way instead. Monika Piotrowska of Florida International University suggests a two-fold solution. If you take brain stem cells from a human in one case and inject it into a mouse, and in a second case take brain stem cells from a chimp and inject it into a mouse, you’ve (arguably) got chimeras with indistinguishable morally relevant capacities (because they are both capable of, for instance, rationality or sentience, and thus we need to treat them as moral equals).

But what if the cell transfer doesn’t result in the acquisition of distinguishable morally relevant capacity (if you didn’t transfer brain stem cells, or the experiment was not concerned with sentience or rationality), she asks? You still need to consider moral capacity. So how do you do it?

This is where Piotrowska suggests cell origin can still play a role. If the cells came from a phyologenetically morally relevant origin (like humans), then you can still give moral relevance to the chimera.

Some philosophers have a problem with this approach because it retains an anthropocentrism and relies on vague definitions of “easy-to-determine” and “difficult-to-determine.”

I agree with this criticism, not least because it completely falls apart when you consider non-organic intelligences, like AI. The larger reality when it comes to other-than-human animals is that there will be very little reason, outside the subdisciplines that make up moral philosophy, to construct any kind of hierarchy or dichotomy at all when we are no longer measuring other-than-human animals for our dinner plates and work harnesses. In a world of synthetic protein and cheap, universal, open-source robotics, all other-than-human animals will enjoy “protected from” status, and we’ll be looked upon by history—as the general public understands it—in this particular instance as discussing the symptoms rather than the source of a larger problem.

Monika Piotrowska , “Transferring Morality to Human–Nonhuman Chimeras” The American Journal of Bioethics, 14(2): 4–12, 2014.

DOI: 10.1080/15265161.2013.868951

*image credit “Young Family” by Patricia Piccinini