Science Fiction Repair Shop: With A Finger In My I Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2013-06-07 14:00:00 No comments

Thoughts on Transhumanism | Steven Savage

A transhumanist should ask ‘What is this “me” that I’m trying to preserve and enhance? What is the point of what I’m doing? Who am I doing this for?’ The ultimate question of Transhumanism is one of identity.

The title I slapped on this is of course a callback to the magnificent David Gerrold, and the whole question of "Which 'I' am I?" is one that wove itself through most any book I found myself picking up, from Zamyatin's WE (the source of those very words, in fact) to most anything Phil Dick sneezed in the direction of.

The real issue for me here is how transhumanism too often boils down to leaving the rest of the human race behind — that it is not about a rising tide that lifts all boats, but rather getting there firstest with the mostest, and about having yet another excuse to coddle and sanctify one's own ego above all else.

The idea of transhumanism, as I have come to understand it, is that humanity is little more than a seed which will give birth in turn to other and greater things, that the acorn is nothing more than the precursor to the oak. It takes little digging to see how this conceit can be used as a thinly veiled justification for doing terrible things in the name of whatever's next. If man is nothing more than a disposable coccoon out of which the future will hatch, better to have the hatching come sooner rather than later, and to hell with those who won't evolve, right? Small wonder so many of the folks drawn to transhumanist thinking also seem to be enamored of Ayn Rand.

The theory is problematic enough, but it's the practice that really cheeses me off. Those who step up to the plate with transhumanist projects of one kind or another are inevitably rich kids (well, who else would have the money to enjoy such hobbies?) who want to live forever — preferably without being hassled by such pesky things as laws or drab old human morality. And of course, the solutions to such things are always technological. There is never any talk of having a more evolved spirit to go with the more evolved body, let alone intellect.

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One of Stanisław Lem's Ijon Tichy stories deals with a man who has invented a way to extract raw human intellect from the body and preserve it for all time in a crystalline matrix. He sees this as being a grand liberation, a way to allow the mind to roam freely without being bound by a body. Tichy finds this horrific beyond words, and eventually treats one of the man's crystals to a "liberation" of his own: he smashes it with a hammer. Better that, he believes, than the no less deathly state of being pure thought capable of nothing more.

Such a project seems like the ultimate endpoint of many transhumanist ambitions: a way to not so much transcend the limitations of flesh or intellect but sidestep them. As Tichy puts it, it's not that people don't want to not die; they simply want to live — which means living as completely as they can in the moment, even if that moment is bounded and finite. A single finite lifetime in which we give something of value back to our universe, as part of a whole matrix of others who do the same, seems far more like real immortality than simply being forbidden to commit the sin of dying.

Some of the transhumanist types seem to have done the requisite dabbling in Eastern thought, although I suspect it has mostly been for the sake of lifting out of that pool whatever ideas looked compatible with their own and dumping the rest. My own studies in Zen Buddhism have hardly been authoritative, but one thing that's clear to me by now is how the idea of a self is a convenient social fiction in the first place, so why fight to preserve something that doesn't really exist except as a label?

This is not to say I won't cringe or attempt to protect myself if you point a gun at me — only that the more effort we put into defending the idea of some sacrosanct, untouchable "I", the more paranoid we can become about defending it from all possible corruption. A mind liberated from its corporeal container will no longer be limited by physical damage, but that only shifts the goalpoasts for what constitutes an obstacle to its continued existence. Soon unwanted ideas become the new danger — after all, a being of pure thought would see ideas as being just as dangerous as physical threats — and so everything not part of the original matrix of concepts gets screened out. (Consider: do any of us really like much of the music that came out after we came of age?) Before long said mind sees itself as being all the more embattled and separate from the rest of creation — which was never true to begin with, vanity of vanities, but one of the advantages of this transhumanist program is how it lets you entertain such delusions so thoroughly. The definition of "life" for such a mind comes more and more to resemble the isolated mental homunculi of Lem's story — a mind that prides itself on its hermeticism, its unchanging singularity, its continuity. In short, an artifact, not a mind; a dead thing and not a live one.

Now, I'd like to believe liberating the mind from its physical container provides us with a greater plasticity of sentience than I anticipate it will. But I also suspect any container we would put our minds into would be designed to accommodate minds, our minds, that have evolved in a specific way and thus are constrained by their original evolutionary path. I am not sure if our minds have the ability to develop in a way that is completely unconstrained by such limits, although I'd imagine creating such a mind, or allowing one to bloom, is one of the staple transhumanist projects.

But again, it's not the feasibility of the project I question. It's whether or not it would give us anything worth having in the first place. Living forever would be wasted on those who see life — and death — as things to insulate ourselves from.

We also tend to think the mere fact of having longer lives or disincarnate minds would be the solutions to problems, and not that they would not only create as many problems as they solve but not really solve the problems we all thought they would to begin with. What exact problem is solved by virtual immortality? The problem of dying, right? But that's only a problem to those who see it as a problem in the first place. This is not to say that the people who don't see death as being the biggest problem are right, only that it shows that the problem(s) are not as simplistic as they are often made out to be — that perspective and point of view, things that cannot be acquired through technical means, are just as important if not more so. A mind that forever insulates itself from the reality of death is unprepared for anything resembling real life.

If it came down to a choice, I would rather be mortal and decent, and thus have the chance to leave behind things of real lasting importance, than be immortal but also be an asshole.

Tags: Flight of the Vajra Science Fiction Repair Shop Steven Savage Dialogues dharma science fiction transhumanism