Sunday, January 18, 2009

More poop

My favorite opponent has commented on my In space nobody will have to poop post, both here and on his own blog. In his post Cyborg Angels Live Forever and Never Ever Have to Poop he has awarded me the title of High Pristine Yes!Tronic Pontifex of the Order of Cosmic Engineers, which I graciously accept (more on Yes!Tronism later). Another post with a long, boring and meaningless title includes a letter of insults personally addressed to me in the comments, with all the straw-man "arguments" and false accusations that I expected (the author has grudgingly corrected some of his most evidently false statements).

A more recent post on WingnutTrons Demand Their Place in the Futurological Sun is, as much as I hate having to admit it, a masterpiece of comic writing. I have been laughing ten minutes non stop, and sometimes I still laugh. Dale, why must you waste your talent on hate pieces? According to this piece, Transhumanism Robot Cultism is divided in three main camps: The HumanityPlusTron sect, represented by the late lamented WTA now renamed Humanity+; the Yes!Tron sect, represented by the Order of Cosmic Engineers "and comparable kooks who say "oh my YES!" to full-throated Rapture of the Nerds superlativity and who are having no truck at all with the moderation and political correctness of the HumanityPlusTronic sect"; and the WingnutTron sect, represented by "unapologetic retro-futurists and libertopians in full on movement-conservative Obama-epoch panic". I think I will try to persuade Dale to join our Robot Cult: his talent should really be used for something worthy.

In the comment thread of one of these articles a reader has suggested that, perhaps, he should make a little effort every now and then to formulate his "superlativity critique" in a less jerky and more constructive way. But he disagrees: "To adapt the critique to ameliorate the distress of these readers makes less sense than it might seem to do, since I think the necessary adaptations (pitching the critique at a different level of generality, approving their preferred frames, including within the sphere of the non-problematic a host of actually quite marginal and "speculative" claims which fail to pass muster in consensus discourses but which they declare to be straightforwardly "factual" and "technical" and so on) would blunt the force of the critique on its own terms into near irrelevance."

Translating this in early 21st century English: he will not start offering serious arguments instead of personal insults, and he thinks the necessary adaptations (discussing engineering issues in engineering terms, acknowledging scientific facts and the opinions of many respected scientists defined by The Times as "some of the world’s finest minds", and so on) would blunt the force of the critique on its own terms into near irrelevance. Well, I can certainly agree on this last point.

In another post he expresses astonishment and indignation at the outrageous fact that others may dare to disagree with him. Well, I can only reply by quoting his own last statement: "I guess, "okay," will have to suffice for now.".

Teilhard and Transhumanism

The Journal of Evolution and Technology of the IEET has a very interesting and thoughtful article by Eric Steinhart on Teilhard de Chardin and Transhumanism.

Teilhard is almost surely the first to discuss the acceleration of technological progress to a Singularity in which human intelligence will become super-intelligence. He discusses the spread of human intelligence into the universe and its amplification into a cosmic intelligence. More recently, his work has been taken up by transhumanist authors including Moravec and Kurzweil. Wikipedia: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a French philosopher and Jesuit priest... In his posthumously published book, The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard writes of the unfolding of the material cosmos, from primordial particles to the development of life, human beings and the noosphere, and finally to his vision of the Omega Point in the future, which is "pulling" all creation towards it. He was a leading proponent of orthogenesis, the idea that evolution occurs in a directional, goal driven way. To Teilhard, evolution unfolded from cell to organism to planet to solar system and whole-universe (see Gaia theory). Such theories are generally termed teleological views of evolution. Teilhard attempts to make sense of the universe by its evolutionary process. He interprets mankind as the axis of evolution into higher consciousness, and postulates that a supreme consciousness, God, must be drawing the universe towards him. Human beings, Teilhard argued, represent the layer of consciousness which has "folded back in upon itself", and has become self-conscious. Julian Huxley, Teilhard's scientific colleague, described it like this: "evolution is nothing but matter become conscious of itself. So in addition to the geosphere and the biosphere, Teilhard posited another sphere, which is the realm of human beings, the realm of reflective thought: the noosphere.

While the author is hardly the first to explore the relations between Teilhard's thinking and contemporary transhumanism, the article is a good and accessible summary of Teilhard's ideas written for transhumanist readers with some knowledge of the work of more modern thinkers like Moravec, Tipler and Kurzweil, whose ideas are used as entry points. Following Moravec, many transhumanists imagine our post-human mind children and Exes leaving the Earth and biology behind and spreading into the universe as pure information processors running on post-biological computational supports. In Teilhard's language, this is entering the pleroma: the critical point [where] future human intelligence will no longer be realized by any network of material particles and forces. We will cease to be realized by matter. This does not contradict the naturalistic thesis that we are entirely physical. It simply implies that not every physical thing is a material thing -- physics has deeper levels. The pleroma is physical, but its physicality is deeper than material... For Teilhard, spirit looks very much like energetic information. Spirit is software in action. As humanity becomes super-intelligent, it will cease to be material and will become purely informational. Future intelligence will cease to be materially realized. Evolution will pass into the pleroma. Steinhart explains Teilhard's pleroma with examples from the computational physics of Fredkin, Zuse and other scientists who consider information and computation as the basic fabric of physical reality at a fundamental level.

The resurrection of the dead is the religious concept that most transhumanist find harder to swallow. Perhaps because they had to make significant efforts to break free from religious upbringings, and are afraid of falling back into blind faith. As a religious person, Teilhard did not have any problems with the concepts of resurrection and afterlife: "For Teilhard, faith in Christ is the conviction that the cosmic process is tending to a final state in which all persons are saved. Salvation is the recovery and perfection of what is most personal in every human. Teilhard often writes about this salvation in psychological terms (e.g., in terms of consciousness)." The possibility of resurrection as re-instantiation of consciousness has also been discussed by more modern authors like Tipler and Moravec, who consider the resurrection of the dead of past ages as something that science and engineering may permit achieving in the far future.

Both Tipler and Moravec think that we may find ourselves resurrected in the far future as computational emulations of our current selves, and "copied to the future". I have illustrated this concept with the short video clip CA Resurrection, made with a Game of Life program. The protagonist pattern is doomed to certain death by interaction with an environment that, except in very carefully controlled conditions, is very unfriendly to the stability of patterns (sounds familiar?), but is copied before death and restored to life in a friendlier environment.

Universal Immortalists do not propose any specific engineering approach to resurrection, but consider it as an objective that future technology may be able to achieve, someday, based on future scientific advances. In his book ”Forever for All”, R. Michael Perry writes: “To that end, we dedicate ourselves to finding a way one day to bring back all persons who have ever lived, so they can join in our eternal adventure”. Perry considers resurrection as something that may one day be achieved by engineering, rather than by "supernatural" means, but I think Teilhard would not disagree. As I mentioned, most transhumanist don't like the concept of resurrection at all, and most religious people don't like the idea of resurrection as something that will be achieved by engineering, but I think this meme has a very strong potential to bridge the gap between transhumanism and religion.

Steinhart argues that transhumanists should study Teilhard's writings, not only as part of the history of transhumanist philosophy, but also because of their relevance to the memetic war between religion and transhumanism, which is beginning to develop and can only become much more intense. The conclusions of the article: Transhumanism and Christianity share common themes and are likely to meet soon in a fateful way. Conservative Christians stand ready to condemn transhumanism as a heretical sect and to politically suppress the use of technology for human enhancement. A study of Teilhard can help in this defense... As the cultural profile of transhumanism rises, conservative Christian groups are beginning to notice it. There are two ways this encounter can go. On the one hand, the encounter can involve mutual hostility. The transhumanists and conservative Christians will denounce one another as enemies. Each side will attack a cartoon version of the other. Such hostility could be fatal for transhumanism in the West. On the other hand, the encounter can be more diplomatic. If transhumanists learn more about the similarities between Christianity and transhumanism, they can respond carefully and successfully to attacks. Since Teilhard is clearly in favor of the use of technology for human enhancement, and since his arguments for human enhancement are developed within a Christian framework, a study of Teilhard can help transhumanists defend against religious conservatives.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

In space nobody will have to poop

Of course, a well known anti-transhumanist has reacted to the recent YES! to Transhumanism statement with a blog post titled Yes!Trons Defending "The Transhumanist Core" from the HumanityPlusTrons.

The author claims not to take seriously the "batshit crazy" transhumanists, which I find difficult to believe it considered the time he spends writing about them. One wonders whether he has any life or real work to do. I must admit to reading his blog frequently, because he is a very good writer who usually has intelligent (other) things to say when he forgets for a moment his obsession with transhumanists, but of course I do not bother reading his posts against transhumanists (50% or more of the content of his blog). Also, I don't need reading them because I already know his arguments empty words by heart, like "how can we account for the conspicuous prevalence in actually existing transhumanist-identified discourses of questions of personally overcoming ageing, death, embodiment, material history (as stakeholder contestation), conventional cognitive and morphological traits and capacities, or on imagined but presumably proximate technoconstituted entities who are assumed to exhibit such overcomings". Typical Carrico's bull writing style, taken from his complains against of the Oxford English Dictionary which, in a new entry, defines transhumanism as “a belief that the human race can evolve beyond its current limitations, esp. by the use of science and technology”.

His summary of "the whole let's freeze our brains while awaiting the Robot God to immortalize us in a cyberspatial paradise "program"" of the Cosmic Engineers is "In a nutshell, in space nobody will have to poop".

The author is not obsessed only with transhumanists, but also with poop, which he considers as a symbol of The Sacred Body: “it is true that life is lived in bodies, and that bodies are various and vulnerable and mortal and hungry for connection, and that embracing embodied life demands an embrace of all this about bodies. To deny their variation, their vulnerability, their mortality, their sociability is to deny the body”, that will save us from the body-loathing of “Transhumanists who want to talk about living forever in computers and not having bodies that have to poop” because they are “dispirited at the prospect of continuing to have to poop or whatever it is that freaks you out so much about bodily life”.

In other words poop, also known as shit or, in its bovine form, bullshit, the sublime act of sitting on a toilet to crap, is what makes bodily life worth living. Even better if it is a long and painful crap, to remind us that we live in A Mortal, Frail And Vulnerable Body. The author makes this point often with, very appropriately, long and painful verbal diarrhea Diarrhea. To which, I can only reply that I have nothing against poop, but somehow I do not consider it as a central defining feature of my human identity, and can even think of a couple of other things that make life more worth living.

Monday, January 5, 2009

YES! to Transhumanism

YES! to Transhumanism

Transhumanism is both a reason-based worldview and a cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability, for those who choose it, of fundamentally improving the human condition by means of science and technology. Transhumanists seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles and values.

Visionary, bold and fun. That is what transhumanism has always been.

Transhumanists have always sought personal improvement; to free themselves from all the limitations of biology; to radically upgrade their mental and physical faculties; and to beat a path to the stars.

This is what transhumanism is. What it has always been. This is what transhumanism ought to continue to be.

With due concern, we fully and deeply realize that there are, have always been and will continue to be complex scientific, technical, cultural, moral, societal and political challenges to deal with. They require careful assessment, planning, and leadership. These challenges need to be met head on with due courage, forbearance, focused attention, rationality, compassion, empathy and wisdom.

We must and will continue to do our best to overcome them. We will persevere to mitigate their potential and actual dangers, while safeguarding the maximizing of their potential and actual benefits.

Some however are advancing that transhumanists should abandon their efforts at realizing -or even promoting- their radical futurist worldview... in favor of exclusively -or at least primarily- focusing on today's world issues. Transhumanist organizations should, in their view, become nothing more than nice, soft spoken, moderate, ethical, responsible and politically correct quasi-mainstream social clubs.

To such suggestions and proposals, we unequivocally say: NO!

As citizens, we have to and will do our best to play an active and positive role in today's world.

But that is not what transhumanism at its origin and core is about. There are numerous suitable organizations within which transhumanist citizens can and should play an active and positive role in today's world, including organizations in the environmental movement, political parties and movements, philanthropic organizations, research institutes, commercial enterprises.

We however categorically refuse to abandon our core original transhumanist vision of a radically better future for our species and ourselves.

We say YES to transhumanism. To the undiluted, unadulterated, uncompromising original core of transhumanism, that is.

This Position Statement YES! to Transhumanism was collaboratively authored by members of the Order of Cosmic Engineers -