Saturday, February 24, 2007

Transhumanism, young whores and old bigots

In a letter to Max Born (source), Albert Einstein quoted ”the beautiful proverb: Junge Huren - alte Betschwestern (young whores - old bigots)”.

We have seen it happen so many times: once upon a time there was a wild teenager, sometimes naive but full of creativity and enthusiasm. Then (s)he has to learn some hard lessons, like that you are supposed to show at work at 8am in a formal suit. And then (s)he falls in the dullest mediocrity, forgets all wild and creative ideas of the past, and begins wearing formal suits even on Sunday mornings. (S)he may even, and this is really sad when it happens, become a boring, self-righteous, pompous and intolerant old bigot who hates teenagers for still having the aliveness that (s)he has lost.

Most wild teenagers avoid this trap, but some don’t. And I am sometimes afraid that transhumanism, once a wild and frighteningly brilliant teenager, may become a hopelessly dull old bigot.

A few years ago I used to say that the transhumanist movement had to grow up from its “nerdy sci-fi roots” and become an influential voice in the mainstream world. The metaphor I used was the same I am using now, a wild teenager who grows up and goes to business meetings in a formal suit. I also used to say that the transhumanist movement should not focus only on nerdy sci-fi stuff like immortality, conscious AI, brain implants and mind uploading, but also on the problems of today’s world and the attempts to find viable solutions. I still say and believe it: we should be part of progressive mainstream thinking, wear formal suits if it helps, and even get our hands greasy with the messy details of practical policy making and politics.

But, and this should go without saying, without giving up the core elements of our worldview. We, or at least most of us, *are* sci-fi nerds. I am certainly one. I believe that developing and deploying advanced technologies for human enhancement, without self-imposed a-priori artificial “ethical” limits, will make the world a better place and improve the quality of life and happiness of everyone on this planet and beyond. Which is, I believe, the only things that really matters. Of course I am not at all against practical ethical considerations related to the quality of life and happiness of actual, concrete persons, but I am very much against abstract “ethics” -what god does or does not want, absolute truths, objective morality, undefined notions of human dignity, if it is moral for flying donkeys to discuss number theory with crystal pigs, and all that.

A few years ago we founded the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies as “a mainstream transhumanist think-tank in a formal suit”.  Then we stopped using the T label, which was felt as too limiting, and invited non-transhumanist thinkers to join the IEET. Under the executive leadership of James Hughes, the IEET has carved itself a niche as a left-wing, transhumanist-friendly technoprogressive think tank. This is an important role that will, I hope, result in radically technoprogressive ideas of human enhancement becoming more and more accepted in mainstream policy.

Why am I writing this? Because I hear proposals to water down transhumanism to the point of becoming unrecognizable. And I am not referring to the predictable broken-disk anti-transhumanist rants of well known bioluddites, but to ideas put forward by people close to transhumanism and even by declared transhumanists. They seem ashamed of radical transhumanist ideas and mainly wishing to sound reasonable, “ethical” and politically correct to win the approval of the anti-progress bioluddites out there. Pleeease! Give me more of the old nerdy sci-fi stuff anytime.

To be clear: I am a left technoprogressive and very concerned with the problems of today’s world. But when I want to say or do something in support of food and clean water for everyone, affordable health care, education for all children, reduction of the digital divide, BIG, reduction of the North-South gap, world peace, civil rights, etc., I do so in other contexts, activist movements or political parties. Who is concerned about, for example, the environment, should join an environmental movement or a green party and *do* something, instead of trying to transform transhumanism into an environmental movement.

I see technoprogressivism and transhumanism as two complementary spheres of thought, with little overlap, and both are core elements of my worldview. Technoprogressivism is about how technical advances can and should improve the lives of as many persons as possible, here and now. Transhumanism is about leaving free rein to one’s imagination and looking forward to technical advances that may, and should, improve the lives of as many persons as possible in much more radical ways, tomorrow and perhaps elsewhere. I became a transhumanist many years ago mainly because transhumanism gave me a sense of wonder, a sense of meaning of life, a vision of our place in the universe, peace and happiness. I do not see any conflict or incompatibility between the two Ts, and want transhumanism to remain transhumanism. Perhaps even with some kind of “return to the origins” and some more sci-fi nerdiness to correct what I am beginning to perceive as the political correctness of old bigots.