G. Stolyarov II
August 11, 2013
As a libertarian transhumanist, I was rather baffled to see the “Transhuman Megalomania” video on the Rocking Philosophy YouTube channel of one, RockingMrE. Rocking Philosophy appears to have much in common with my rational individualist outlook in terms of general principles, though in not in terms of some specific positions – such as RockingMrE’s opposition to LGBT rights. The channel’s description states that “Above all Rocking Philosophy promotes individualism and a culture free of coercion. Views are based on the non-aggression principle, realism, and a respect for rationality.” I agree with all of these basic principles – hence my bewilderment that RockingMrE would attempt to assail transhumanism in extremely harsh terms – going so far as to call transhumanism “a mad delusion” and a “threat looming over humanity” – rather than embrace or promote it. Such characterizations could not be more mistaken.
In essays and videos such as “Liberty Through Long Life” and “Libertarian Life-Extension Reforms”, I explain that libertarianism and transhumanism are natural corollaries and would reinforce one another through a virtuous cycle of positive feedback. If people are indeed free as individuals to innovate and to enter the economic and societal arrangements that they consider most beneficial, what do you think would happen to the rate of technological progress? If you think that the result would not be a skyrocketing acceleration of new inventions and their applications to all areas of life, would that position not presuppose a view that freedom would somehow breed stagnation or lead to sub-optimal utilization of human creative faculties? In other words, would not the view of libertarianism as being opposed to transhumanism essentially be a view that liberty would hold people back from transcending the limitations involuntarily imposed on them by the circumstances in which they and their ancestors found themselves? How could such a view be reconcilable with the whole point of liberty, which is to expand and – as the term suggests – liberate human potential, instead of constricting it?
RockingMrE criticizes transhumanists for attempting to reshape the “natural” condition of humanity and to render such a condition obsolete. Yet this overlooks the essence of human behavior over the past twelve millennia at least. Through the use of technology – from rudimentary hunting and farming implements to airplanes, computers, scientific medicine, and spacecraft – we have already greatly departed from the nasty, brutish, and short “natural” lives of our Paleolithic ancestors. Furthermore, RockingMrE falls prey to the naturalistic fallacy – that the “natural”, defined arbitrarily as that which has not been shaped by deliberate human influence, is somehow optimal or good, when in fact we know that “nature”, apart from human influence, is callously indifferent at best, and viciously cruel in most circumstances, having brought about the immense suffering and demise of most humans who have ever lived and the extinction of 99.9% of species that have ever existed, the vast majority of those occurring without any human intervention.
RockingMrE characterizes transhumanism as a so-called “evil” that presents itself as a “morally relativist and benign force, where any action can be justified for the greater good.” I see neither moral relativism nor any greater-good justifications in transhumanism. Transhumanism can be justified from an entirely individualistic standpoint. Furthermore, it can be justified from the morally objective value of each individual’s life and the continuation of such life. I, as an individual, do not wish to die and wish to accomplish more than my current bodily and mental faculties, as well as the current limitations of human societies and the present state of technology, would allow me to accomplish today. I exist objectively and I recognize that my existence requires objective physical prerequisites, such as the continuation of the functions of my biological body and biological mind. Therefore, I support advances in medicine, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, computing, education, transportation, and human settlement which would enable these limitations to be progressively lifted and would improve my chances of seeing a much remoter future than my current rate of biological senescence would allow. As an ethically principled individual, I recognize that all beings with the same essential faculties that I have, ought also to have the right to pursue these aspirations in an entirely voluntary, non-coercive manner. In other words, individualist transhumanism would indeed lead to the good of all because its principles and achievements would be universalizable – but the always vaguely defined notion of the “greater good” does not serve as the justification for transhumanism; the good of every individual does. The good of every individual is equivalent to the good for all individuals, which is the only defensible notion of a “greater good”.
RockingMrE states that some of the technologies advocated by transhumanists are “less dangerous than others, and some are even useful.” Interestingly enough, he includes cryopreservation in the category of less dangerous technologies, because a cryopreserved human who is revived will still have the same attributes he or she had prior to preservation. Life extension is the most fundamental transhumanist aim, the one that makes all the other aims feasible. As such, I am quite surprised that RockingMrE did not devote far more time in his video to technologies of radical life extension. Cryonics is one such approach, which attempts to place a physically damaged organism in stasis after that organism reaches clinical death by today’s definition. In the future, what is today considered death may become reversible, giving that individual another chance at life. There are other life-extension approaches, however, which would not even require stasis. Aubrey de Grey’s SENS approach involves the periodic repair of seven kinds of damage that contribute to senescence and eventual death. A person who is relatively healthy when he begins to undergo the therapies envisioned by SENS might not ever need to get to the stage where cryopreservation would be the only possible way of saving that person. What does RockingMrE think of that kind of technology? What about the integration of nanotechnology into human bodily repair systems, to allow for ongoing maintenance of cells and tissues? If a person still looks, talks, and thinks like many humans do today, but lives indefinitely and remains indefinitely young, would this be acceptable to RockingMrE, or would it be a “megalomaniacal” and “evil” violation of human nature? Considering that indefinite life extension is the core of transhumanism, the short shrift given to it in RockingMrE’s video underscores the severe deficiencies of his critique.
RockingMrE further supports megascale engineering – including the creation of giant spacecraft and space elevators – as a type of technology that “would enhance, rather than alter, what it means to be human.” He also clearly states his view that the Internet enhances our lives and allows the communication of ideas in a manner that would never have been possible previously. We agree here. I wonder, though, if a strict boundary between enhancing and altering can be drawn. Our human experience today differs radically from that of our Paleolithic and Neolithic ancestors – in terms of how much of the world we are able to see, what information is available to us, the patterns in which we lead our lives, and most especially the lengths of those lives. Many of our distant ancestors would probably consider us magicians or demigods, rather than the humans with whom they were familiar. If we are able to create giant structures on Earth and in space, this would surely broaden our range of possible experiences, as well as the resources of the universe that are accessible to us. A multiplanetary species, with the possibility of easy and fast travel among places of habitation, would be fundamentally different from today’s humanity in terms of possible lifestyles and protections from extinction, even while retaining some of the same biological and intellectual characteristics. As for the Internet, there are already studies suggesting that the abundance of information available online is altering the structure of many humans’ thinking and interactions with that information, as well as with one another. Is this any less human, or just human with a different flavor? If it is just human with a different flavor, might not the other transhumanist technologies criticized by RockingMrE also be characterized this way?
RockingMrE does not even see any significant issues with virtual reality and mind uploading, aside from asking the legitimate question of whether a copy of a person’s mind is still that person. This is a question which has been considerably explored and debated in transhumanist circles, and there is some disagreement as to the answer. My own position, expressed in my essay “Transhumanism and Mind Uploading Are Not the Same”, is that a copy would indeed not be the same as the individual, but a process of gradual replacement of biological neurons with artificial neurons might preserve a person’s “I-ness” as long as certain rather challenging prerequisites could be met. RockingMrE’s skepticism in this area is understandable, but it does not constitute an argument against transhumanism at all, since transhumanism does not require advocacy of mind uploading generally, or of any particular approach to mind uploading. Moreover, RockingMrE does not see virtual copies of minds as posing a moral problem. In his view, this is because “a program is not an organic life.” We can agree that there is no moral problem posed by non-destructively creating virtual copies of biological minds.
Still, in light of all of the technologies that RockingMrE does not consider to be highly concerning, why in the world does he characterize transhumanism so harshly, after spending the first 40% of his video essentially clarifying that he does not take issue with the actualization of many of the common goals of transhumanists? Perhaps it is because he misunderstands what transhumanism is all about. For the technologies that RockingMrE finds more alarming, he appears to think that they would allow “a level of social engineering that totalitarians could only dream of during the 20th century.” No transhumanist I know of would advocate such centrally planned social engineering. RockingMrE aims his critique at technologies that have “the potential to create human life” – such as gene therapy, which can, in RockingMrE’s words, “dictate the characteristics of life to such an extent that those making the decisions have complete control over how this forms”. This argument appears to presuppose a form of genetic determinism and a denial of human free will, even though RockingMrE would affirm his view that free will exists. Suppose it were possible to make a person five centimeters taller through genetic engineering. Does that have any bearing over how that person will actually choose to lead his life? Perhaps he could become a better basketball player than otherwise, but it is just as possible that basketball would not interest him at all, and he would rather be a taller-than-average chemist, accountant, or painter. This choice would still be up to him, and not the doctors who altered his genome or the parents who paid for the alteration. Alteration of any genes that might influence the brain would have even less of a predetermined or even determinable impact. If parents who are influenced by the faulty view of genetic determinism try everything in their power to alter their child’s genome in order to create a super-genius (in their view), who is to say that this child would necessarily act out the parents’ ideal? A true super-genius with a will of his own is probably the most autonomous possible human; he or she would develop a set of tastes, talents, and aspirations that nobody could anticipate or manage, and would run circles around any design to control or limit his or her life. What genetic engineering could achieve, though, is to remove the obstacles to an individual’s self-determination by eliminating genetic sub-optimalities: diseases, weaknesses of organs, and inhibitions to clear self-directed brain function. This is no qualitatively different from helping a child develop intellectually by taking the child out of a violent slum and putting him or her into a peaceful, nurturing, and prosperous setting.
RockingMrE fears that gene therapy would allow “ideologues to suppress certain human characteristics”. While this cannot be ruled out, any such development would be a political problem, not a technological one, and could be addressed only through reforms protecting individual freedom, not through abolition of any techniques of genetic engineering. The vicious eugenics movement of the early 20th century, to which RockingMrE wrongly compares transhumanism, attempted to suppress the characteristics of whole populations of humans using very primitive technologies by today’s standards. The solution to such misguided ideological movements is to maximize the scope for individual liberty, so as to allow the characteristics that individuals consider good or neutral to be preserved and for individual wishes to be protected by law, despite what some eugenicist somewhere might think.
Transhumanism is about giving each person the power to control his or her own destiny, including his or her genotype; transhumanism is certainly not about ceding that control to others. Even a child who was genetically engineered prior to birth would, with sufficient technological advances, be able to choose to alter his or her genotype upon becoming an adult. Just as parental upbringing can influence a child but does not determine a person’s entire future, so can genetic-engineering decisions by parents be routed around, overcome, ignored, or utilized by the child in a way far different from the parents’ intentions. Furthermore, because parents differ considerably in their views of what the best traits would be, engineering at the wishes of parents would in no way diminish the diversity of human characteristics and would, on the contrary, enhance such diversity by introducing new mixes of traits in addition to those already extant. This is why it is unfounded to fear, as RockingMrE does, that a transhumanist society which embraces genetic engineering would turn into the society of the 1997 film Gattaca, where the non-engineered humans were excluded from non-menial work. Just as today there is no one hierarchy of genotypes and phenotypes, neither would there be such a hierarchy in a society where genetic engineering is practiced. An even greater diversity of people would mean that an even greater diversity of opportunities would be open to all. Indeed, even Gattaca could be seen as a refutation of RockingMrE’s feared scenario that genetic modification would render un-modified humans unable to compete. The protagonist in Gattaca was able to overcome the prejudices of his society through willpower and ingenuity, which would remain open to all. While the society of Gattaca relied on coercion to restrict un-modified individuals from competing, a libertarian transhumanist society would have no such restrictions and would allow individuals to rise on the basis of merit alone, rather than on the basis of genetics.
RockingMrE further expresses concern that the unintended consequences of genetic manipulation would result in viruses that reproduce out of control and “infect” humans who were not the intended targets of genetic engineering. This is not a philosophical argument against transhumanism. If such a possibility even exists (and I do not know that it does, as I am not a biologist), it could be mitigated or eliminated through careful controls in the laboratories and clinics where genetic engineering is performed. Certainly, the existence of such a possibility would not justify banning genetic manipulation, since a ban does not mean that the practice being banned goes away. Under a ban, genetic engineering would continue on the black market, where there would be far fewer safeguards in place against unintended negative consequences. It is much safer for technological innovation to proceed in the open, under a legal system that respects liberty and progress while ensuring that the rights of all are protected. Certainly, it would be justified for the legal system to protect the rights of people who do not wish to undergo certain medical treatments; such people should neither be forced into those treatments, nor have the side effects of those treatments, when they are performed on others, affect their own biology. But libertarian transhumanists would certainly agree with that point of view and would hold it consistently with regard to any technology that could conceivably impose negative external effects on non-consenting parties.
RockingMrE thinks that “it is essential that the creation and destruction of life be protected by a code of morality that respects and recognizes natural law – natural law being values derived from nature.” He describes one tier of this natural system as comprised of relationships of trade, “where all individuals have unalienable rights derived from natural action, but free of coercion and the initiation of force, voluntarily associating with one another for mutual gain.” He then says that “only this sort of philosophy can truly prevent nihilists from justifying their evil intentions to play God and […] destroy or alienate any individual that doesn’t adhere to a rigid set of socially engineered parameters.” The latter statement is a severe misrepresentation of the aims of transhumanists, who do not support centrally planned social engineering and who are certainly not nihilists. Indeed, transhumanist technological progress is the very outcome of voluntary individual association that is free from coercion and the initiation of force. I wonder whether the “fierce defense” envisioned by RockingMrE would involve the initiation of force against innovators who attempt to improve the human genome in order to cure certain diseases, enhance certain human faculties, and lengthen the human lifespan. It is not clear whether RockingMrE advocates such coercion, but if he does, then his opposition to the emergence of these technologies would be inimical to his own stated libertarian philosophy. In other words, his conclusions are completely incompatible with his premises.
Toward the end of his video, RockingMrE uses the example of three-person in vitro fertilization (IVF) as an illustration “of how far down the road of transhumanism we are”. What, dare I ask, is wrong with three-person IVF? RockingMrE believes that it is a contributor to “gradually destroying the natural definition of parenting” – yet parenting is a set of actions to raise a child, not a method of originating that child. If RockingMrE has any problems with children who are brought into this world using three-person IVF, then what about children who are adopted and raised by parents who had no part in their conception? Is that not even more removed from parents who contributed at least some of their genetic material? Furthermore, IVF has been available in some form since the birth of Louise Brown in 1978 – 35 years ago. Since then, approximately 5 million people have been created using IVF. Are they any less human than the rest of us? Have we, as a species, lost some fraction of our humanity as a result? Surely not! And if similar consequences to what has already happened are what RockingMrE fears, then I submit that there is no basis for fear at all. New techniques for creating life and enhancing human potential may not be in line with what RockingMrE considers “natural”, but perhaps his view equates the “unnatural” to the “unfamiliar to RockingMrE”. But he does not have to personally embrace any method of genetic engineering or medically assisted creation of life; he is free to abstain from such techniques himself. What he ought to do, though, as a self-professed libertarian and individualist, is to allow the rest of us, as individuals, the same prerogative to choose to use or to abstain from using these technologies as they become available. The shape that the resulting future takes, as long as it is based on these freedom-respecting principles, is not for RockingMrE to decide or limit.