Spotted: A New Patheos Blogger with a Dedicated ‘Transhumanist’ Tag

Remember you can vote once per day for the About.com Atheism Awards.  I’m one of five nominees for Best Atheist Blog.  More details here.

The trouble is, that the newest addition to Patheos’s Catholic Portal is dead set against it.  In his intro post for God and the Machine, Thomas L. McDonald writes:

Emerging technologies are shaping, reshaping, and sometimes warping, our perception of reality. This cannot happen in moral vacuum. It cannot exist without a moral dimension. Anything that is—anything that can be perceived with the senses or apprehended with the intellect—has a moral quality to it. Technology can be another tool for building up the Kingdom, or for tearing it down, but it cannot be morally neutral. Whether we realize it or not–whether we even use the technology or not–humanity is changed by the mere existence of 3D printing, video games, nanoscale structures, text messages, mobile devices, and myriad other elements of modern life…

The idea that we will one day be able to “download” our consciences is patently absurd, but genetic engineering and “body hacking” are already here in their nascent forms. They are not going away, and they appear to be in the hands of people who believe moral and ethical concerns are irrelevant.

I’m in total agreement with McDonald about the need to think hard and fast about the way technology changes or warps our moral considerations (cf the ethics of drone warfare).  These worries are far from ‘irrelevant’ to me, but I do have different moral and ethical concerns than McDonald, and I look forward to highlighting some of his pieces to talk about how and why we differ.

To start with, I was interested in his take on Shapeway’s contest to design a 3D-printed visualization of Siri, the iPhone assistant.  Pretty much all of the entries were humanoid.  McDonald wrote:

We anthropomorphise everything, even our technology. A species that creates proxy personalities and even body-images for cell phones isn’t going to be abandoning the flesh any time soon.

Here’s just one tiny example. Siri is the voice recognition software for iPhone 4S. It was created to have a more human tone and personality, so much so that some people have been trying to imagine what “she” would look like. It’s a kind of reverse transhumanism, in which we take a “pure” technology already freed from the “limitations” of the human body, and inject it into the the form of human physiology.

I agree with him that we see purposeful agents everywhere, and we tend to imagine them as human, but I don’t know if that heuristic reflects a truth about the world.  When I read novels, if the race of a character isn’t specified, I tend to assume the person is white, but that betrays more about me than it does any intrinsic properties of humans real or fictional.  After I moved to DC, I tended to assume people would know Yiddish words like ‘schlep’ or get jokes with the punchline “Why is this night different than all other nights?” but my assumption doesn’t prove that New York is the apotheosis of culture and everyone else is severely impoverished.  I’m just bad at modeling other minds.

Reality is not circumscribed by my imagination.  The limits of what I can dream up aren’t disproof of what can exist, and contra Lewis, the ideas that stick in my head aren’t proof that they can be realized.  If I want to stretch my ideas of what kind of bodies minds can use, I look to the augments developed for people with disabilities and the way they shake our assumptions about how to achieve a particular task.  And then it’s time for more R&D in the philosophy/ethics lab.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Clearly I’m going to have to spend some time here and get caught up with your posts on the topic. Obviously you’ve thought long and deeply on the subject. Thanks for the shout out.

    Shortest possible version of where I am: Some augments are good, when they correct a failing. Some may be morally neutral, when they enhance a particular human quality. When they begin to add new abilities (say, moving beyond merely improved vision to giving someone implanted thermal imaging, just to choose one random example), then we need to pause long and hard to determine what this does to us as a species. Although I find the whole idea of posthumanism appalling from a moral perspective, I think Kurzweil’s “singularity” is utter bunk simply from a technological perspective. That’s the quick take. More to come over time.

  • @b

    genetic engineering and “body hacking” are already here … and they appear to be in the hands of people who believe moral and ethical concerns are irrelevant

    Doesn’t this admission that human technology is “in the hands of people” already tell us that those are agents acting with moral and ethical concerns in mind?

    I’m worried you’ve dehumanised the agents-of-change.

    As the modern human morphs into the transhuman, why predict a backslide towards psychopathy (or something like it)? do you already seen signs of humanity loosing our ethical mind?

    • deiseach

      “do you already seen signs of humanity loosing our ethical mind?”

      Does this count? Latest storm-in-a-teacup from the nutty pro-lifers – this company, Senomyx, which is currently working with PepsiCo on flavour enhancers, is accused of using Human Embryonic Kidney 293 cells (HEK 293) in its testing.

      HEK 293 is an experimentally transformed line of cells created back in the 1970s. The HEK 293 line arises from a culture obtained from tissue of an aborted foetus, as detailed here.

      Does this matter? The current line of cells is probably many generations removed from the original tissue, which (as medical waste) was only going to be disposed of anyway. The fact that it is being used for improving the taste of fizzy drinks and not medical research shouldn’t make much of a difference, should it? After all, if it was legal (and it was legal) to abort the original foetus, and even if we don’t know whether consent of the mother was obtained to use her cells (because isn’t that the line – abortion is about a woman’s control over her own body) for creating a line of experimental cells, and granted that the transformed cells “are not a particularly good model for normal cells, cancer cells, or any other kind of cell that is a fundamental object of research”, and that using human-derived cells obtained in such a manner for a trivial purpose (permitting a soft drink company to use fewer artificial sweeteners by manipulating sucralose to be even more effective) may be repugnant to some neanderthals, then why should this be a sign of loosened ethics?

      • @b

        An increasing public interest in (the application of) technology might be an indication that humanity is becoming more ethically mindful. If so, I’d say we’re on the right track.

        Then if future generations (transhuman or no) are finding our ethical ideas about HEK293 to be wrongheaded, I’d still call this a win; they’ve inheritted our preoccupation with ethics. They’re humane. Even if they’re not homo sapien.

        • http://last-conformer.net Gilbert

          I’d suspect this is because you yourself are finding our ethical ideas about HEK293 to be wrongheaded.

          If future generations (transhuman or no) killed everyone unable to work, reasoning that archaic notions of individual rights detract from the real obligation to use resources for the preservation of the species, they still would have inherited our preoccupation with ethics but I surely wouldn’t count that as a win.

  • keddaw

    Thomas L. McDonald,

    “anything that can be perceived with the senses or apprehended with the intellect—has a moral quality to it”

    So the moon has a moral quality?

    “Technology can be another tool for building up the Kingdom, or for tearing it down, but it cannot be morally neutral.”

    Many of us say that technology is morally neutral, it is the application that gives it a moral dimension (moral error theory notwithstanding).

    “The idea that we will one day be able to “download” our consciences is patently absurd”

    I await your contribution to the fields of psychology, philosophy and neurology, as I assume you have some way of proving that this is patently absurd, otherwise you’re simply arguing from personal incredulity.

    I happen to be very much in favour of transhumanism, although the term irks me, and feel that since most of us are constantly trying to improve ourselves through reading, exercise, or even just thinking, any non-biological enhancement doesn’t diminish our humanity, it enhances it – unless you think (and, being religious you may well do) that it is our imperfection that makes us so unique (and lovable to a perfect deity).

  • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

    “When I read novels, if the race of a character isn’t specified, I tend to assume the person is white, but that betrays more about me than it does any intrinsic properties of humans real or fictional.”
    I beg, of course, to differ. It indicates that most English-language fictional humans are white. This is partly about you (and me), yes, but it is also about the realities of the publishing industry. And writing industry, I guess. (This doesn’t really create an objection to your objection, though. I just don’t like to see analogies that are internally false, particularly when it comes to lit.)

    I would be cautious when arguing against transhumanism from the line McDonald takes because it would quickly become hard to tell whether or not we should start living like the Amish. (I actually quite like the Amish, fyi. Sometimes I think I would prefer that kind of life, at least in its non-sexist respects. But I wouldn’t suggest that it is a moral imperative.) Then again, I wouldn’t argue against transhumanism anyway, since I not only want mechanical parts also want non-human parts. Bioluminescence would be so cool, for instance, as would being able to claim to be 10% jellyfish.

    • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

      Ah, proof-read fail! *, I also…


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