January 23, 2009

Guest blogger: Russell Blackford: The position statement by the Order of Cosmic Engineers.

Until today I was unfamiliar with a group called "The Order of Cosmic Engineers". I'd heard mention of the name in passing, but could have told you nothing about what it was or who its members might be.

Apparently it's a recently-formed group of transhumanists who are mainly focused on activities in virtual reality worlds (such as World of Warcraft and Second Life). The governing body of the group includes a veritable who's who of notable transhumanist thinkers, though of course other well-known names are missing for whatever reason(s). Several of the individuals on the list are folks whom I consider allies or even friends, so what I'm going to say in this post should (please) be read in that context.

At the end of December/start of January, they issued a "Position Statement" - in fact, a kind of manifesto - entitled "YES! to Transhumanism". Before I comment, it's worth quoting the manifesto in full:

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.

I should quickly say that I hadn't read this document when I posted this morning (my time) on a topic to do with the "baggage" of transhumanism, and my own concept of transhumanism's core idea. Indeed, I adapted some material about the essential, or core, idea of transhumanism that I originally wrote last year for a different purpose that I've described elsewhere on this blog. Hopefully, no one has read my recent post in the context of the Cosmic Engineers' manifesto, but if my own post turns out to be more controversial than imagined ... well so be it, I suppose.

All that now said, what should we make of the manifesto itself? I actually think it's timely that it's issued now, presumably in response to the many strands of recent debate about the nature of transhumanism as a movement, the future direction of the movement, and particularly the branding and mission of the WTA/Humanity+. Although the Order of Cosmic Engineers is obviously devoted to some extent to having fun in virtual realities - and even its name sounds rather lighthearted - the Position Statement is a serious contribution to ongoing debates about what transhumanism is, or should be.

For myself, I should note that I am not one of the people who argue that "Transhumanist organizations should ...become nothing more than nice, soft spoken, moderate, ethical, responsible and politically correct quasi-mainstream social clubs." I agree that transhumanist organisations should not try to become anything quite like that.

To be honest, I'm not sure who argues that they should, but I won't dispute that there are such people. Maybe I can guess who this sentence is aimed at, but maybe not. Frankly, I find it slightly mysterious.

My own attitude is that no one should feel constrained to be "politically correct", if this means subscribing to whichever ideas are currently fashionable with the academic Left. Many of my own views would not go down well in that ambience. For a start, I am a fiscal conservative; for another thing, I am a forthright atheist and a ferocious critic of major religious organisations, whereas most humanities academics "believe in belief" (per Daniel Dennett) and are unwilling to rock the boat about religion; for yet another, I'm a strong defender of freedom of speech, even to the point of being a lonely voice arguing against politically-correct religious vilification laws (and I've even suggested scaling back laws against racial vilification to something much narrower than exists in my own country); and for yet another, I believe that the state should get out of the marriage business (though I do favour allowing for gay marriage in the meanwhile), that there's nothing much wrong with so-called "raunch culture", and that the institution of strict monogamy is outdated and the cause of great harms; I also think we place far too much emphasis on "respect" for the (sometimes absurd) ideas of others and are too willing to defer to some people's feelings of "offence" when their ideas are criticised or satirised. I'm a fan of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Steven Pinker. I'm not a fan of Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Walter Benjamin, Fredric Jameson, or Stanley Fish. I'm more a Gayle Rubin kind of guy than an Andrea Dworkin kind of guy. So to speak.

Importantly, I don't subscribe to the various kinds of epistemic relativism that are fashionable on the Left, nor its crude cultural relativism (though there are some sophisticated meta-ethical positions that could be labelled as "cultural relativist" which I consider intellectually respectable).

I could go and on. None of my views on these important issues are currently fashionable in academic Left circles. Quite the opposite.

I don't want anyone to be politically correct or moderate, or soft spoken (if this means being reticent about putting forward your ideas; I'm not a fan of people who are loud-mouths in their social interaction). I intend to put unpopular views - unpopular with the academic Left as well as the general public - as fearlessly as I can. I hope that everyone else will do the same, whether or not they identify as transhumanists. I do hope we can all be ethical, but there's no need to be too "responsible" (which is often a euphemism for timid and self-censoring).

Most of all, I don't want to be beholden to what is fashionable, from time to time, among the ranks of the academic Left, and I don't want any other individual to be. I also don't see the need for transhumanist organisations to be beholden to the academic Left or notions of political correctness. Let them speak the truth as they see it, with their own emphases - emphases that may not suit anyone else's current agenda.

But at the same time, I'd prefer that the largest transhumanist organisations not adopt such a narrow view of transhumanism that nobody is welcome unless they subscribe to a body of doctrine - perhaps some kind of libertarianism or libertopianism. I'd hate to see transhumanism turn into something much closer to a theological system than it has been so far. The transhumanist movement will only thrive if it is broad and inclusive, with plenty of intellectual ferment and a concern for the welfare of all human beings (whether it goes even wider is open to debate). If it takes some other path, a less inclusive one, then (a) it will have no influence on the real world, but just be a kind of cultural epiphenomenon and (b) many of us will simply have to do our work independently of it.

However this debate turns out, I will always be looking for avenues to argue as strongly and effectively as I can for what I believe - which includes the idea that technology can improve the human situation and enhance human capacities. In doing so, I'll be making alliances with like-minded people wherever I can find them, whether they are inside and outside the transhumanist movement. As stated in my earlier post, I am more interested in arguing alongside somebody like John Harris for a more rational approach to bioethics, than I am in projecting scenarios of cosmic engineering.

But that's just me. I have no wish that someone who disagrees with me be ostracised for it or that anyone's ideas be censored. I hope I'm not alone in this.

Let a thousand flowers bloom!

Russell Blackford is an Australian philosopher. He has published extensively (novels, short stories, academic monographs and articles, and book reviews) and is editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology. His home blog is Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.


ArcAnge1M said...

Saying "Yes" or "No" sets up opposition, debate, and argument.

I'll say "No" to that and instead lean toward the doctrine of the next enlightenment which favors interdependency over independence...And dialogue over debate.


WWW said...

you would think second enlightenment would favor flow charts over a static graph. WWW

PlanetNiles said...

Without opposition there can be no reconciliation; without debate there can be no understanding; without argument there can be no consensus.

Without reconciliation, understanding and consensus there can be no enlightenment.

Giulio Prisco said...

Hi Russel, great article. I posted this comment to your previous article on the IEET blog: "Hi Russell - As one of the authors of this manifesto, I certainly agree that "it's healthy that there are these different viewpoints being expressed". I just read your new piece, which is very interesting. I think there is a time and a place for moderate and responsible transhumanism, and there is a time and a place for radical and visionary transhumanism. Each can be more appropriate for given issue and audience. Having viewpoints distributed across a wide range is healthy."

I'd also hate to see transhumanism turn into something much closer to a theological system than it has been so far, and agree that the transhumanist movement will only thrive if it is broad and inclusive, with plenty of intellectual ferment.

I agree with the first part of Niles' comment, not so much with the second: "Without reconciliation, understanding and consensus there can be no enlightenment."

More specifically: I certainly agree that without understanding there can be no enlightenment, but I don't think consensus is also required -- it is perfectly normal that different people have different opinions, and the universe would be a very boring place if it were not so. Reconciliation does not require consensus either: friends can agree on some things and agree to disagree on others.

Tony Smith said...

Wow, Russell, for the first time you have thrown up several things to disagree about.

Dawkins is way too reductionist to be taken seriously.

Foucault's application of "genealogy" to understanding the difference between the conception and the realisation of organisations informs my recent thinking and is particularly relevant here, while his analyses of institutions and of sexuality are seminal.

I oppose any weakening of the well understood concept of responsibility.

Fiscal conservatism has been shown clearly recently to be primarily a cloaking device for charlatans.

And while I agree that in order for any of us to have the confidence to proceed in our endeavours that we need sufficient institutionalised protection of all humans' capacity to act, implicitly equating the welfare of individuals to the welfare of the future is not the way to get there as I've set out in more detail previously.

Can I invite you to try to develop a deeper appreciation of emergence?

Russell Blackford said...

Well, it looks like a couple of people have misunderstood what I mean by "fiscal conservativism". Maybe it's become a sort of code word ...and I supposed I wasn't entirely unaware of that, so I was being slightly provocative.

Still, for me it has a clear meaning.

I thought I'd made it clear in numerous places that I don't mean cutting the social safety net. I mean managing the budget of a country responsibly. That may sometimes mean raising taxes. It may mean not spending money on costly but useless (or even counterproductive) projects such as "the war on drugs". It may mean not throwing people into jail for trivial reasons, and thus spending huge amounts of money keeping them there (while they become hardened and learn new criminal skills). It may also mean cutting out programs that just churn money from one lot of middle class people to another - though it's always controversial exactly what programs can be described that way. On way or another, I am not the sort of person who is going to waste government money by giving it to folks who are already rich, if I can avoid it ... so I tend to favour means tests for benefits, even though that is unpopular.

When you're in charge of hard-won revenue that people have paid for out of taxes on their labour, you should treat it as a near-sacred trust.

So, yes, if I were in charge I'd manage responsibly just as I do with my own (these days meagre) income. That's not fashionable on the Left, but the Right doesn't do it either. In fact, the Right has often been much worse.

Bob Hawke and Paul Keating did do it. They ran a tight ship, fiscally, and Australia is still reaping the benefits all these years later. They are the sort of people I have in mind as true fiscal conservatives.

By contrast, George W. Bush has been the opposite of a fiscal conservative, spending up huge amounts on dubious programs such as wars and futile attempts to suppress recreational drugs.

Richard Leis, Jr. said...

Why Humanity+? Because "transhumanism", so technically and academically perfect for the idea it labels, has played poorly to a broader audience. Humanity+ seeks to provide a solution to this very important issue, and issue that other organizations are not addressing.