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Is The World As We Know It An Illusion? August 2, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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Metaphysics is probably the branch of philosophy that annoys lay people the most.  It’s easy enough to understand the importance of ethics or aesthetics but when philosophers start asking questions like, “is this chair really here”, most people tend to mentally check out.  The reason is obvious; to most of us it is a ridiculous question.  Of course the chair is here.  I can touch it, see it, taste it (if so inclined) and generally perceive it as existing.  So why do philosophers continue to grapple with such things?

The question boils down to whether or not we can trust our perceptions to give us an accurate glimpse of the real world.  To illustrate this point, think of schizophrenics who believe they hear voices that aren’t really there.  Alternatively, just go watch The Matrix again.  The idea that the “real” world may not actually be there, or that we simply are unable to perceive it for one reason or another, has a long history in philosophy.  It can be found in such disparate works as the writings of Plato, the Gnostics, Idealism, all the way up to it’s modern incarnation in the simulation hypothesis.  I have neither the time nor the expertise to delve into all of these topics but I encourage those who are interested to delve deeper.

It’s not just the field of philosophy that tackles the issue however.  Neuroscience and psychology have begun to look at the question in a more quantitative manner and ask how much things like the structure of our brain influence our perception of reality.  That seems to be the subject of a series of lectures soon to occur in Great Britain:

Professor Bruce Hood will explore the limits of the human mind in a series of prestigious lectures for the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the oldest independent research body in the world, it was announced yesterday.

The psychologist plans to induce false memories in audience members and use pickpockets to demonstrate how easily people are distracted, in a bid to prove how we have less control over our own decisions and perceptions than we like to imagine.

“A lot of the world is make-believe. We’re only aware of a fraction of what’s going on,” Prof Hood told The (London) Times. “We have this impression of an expansive panorama in front of our eyes, but all we are ever seeing is an area the size of our thumbs at an arm’s distance. The rest is filled in, as the brain creates a stable environment.”

While I’m sure it will be thought provoking I doubt the Prof. will manage to bring about any sort of consensus on the issue.  That is a shame because the answer to that question has some interesting ramifications for transhumanism.

On of the most talked about potentialities of human enhancement technology is the ability to not simply enhance our current abilities but to give us new ones.  Inspiration for this can be found easily in the natural world.  Insects can see into the ultraviolet, an ability which allows them to perceive differences in color completely hidden to us.  Similarly, vipers can see further into the infrared.  There is some evidence that certain species possess the ability to sense electromagnetic fields.  Even the structure of the brain is different among different lineages; a feature which, as stated above, is likely to play a major role in what we actually perceive the real world to be.

Do these creatures experience reality in an utterly different way?  Do they experience a different reality all together?  As we not only heighten but expand our perceptive ability is it possible that we will approach a more accurate picture of reality?


Transhumanism: A Secular Religion? June 1, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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Over at FirstThings, which I am loath to dignify with a link but here it is, there is a post up counting down a short list.  Inspired by the recent failed doomsday prediction the author decided to do a comparison between the Christian Rapture and another possibly apocalyptic event: the Singularity.  I’m not going to spend too much time on the post itself for the simple reason that it’s really kind of silly and doesn’t say anything that hasn’t been noticed and commented on by transhumanists multiple times in the past twenty years.  What is does do is bring up another, far more interesting question; is transhumanism a religion?

This is not a new debate.  It started right around the time the transhumanist movement started making waves in intellectual circles and has only strengthened as it has moved more and more into the mainstream.  More often then not the ones branding transhumanism with the label are it’s religious critics, seemingly trying to bring the movement down to their level by accusing of being nothing more than dressed up techno-utopianism with a veneer of science and philosophy.  Whatever it’s origin though I do believe its a valid question and one that needs to be answered sooner or later.

Before we can get to the heart of the matter we first have to define exactly what we’re talking about.  In short we have to define religion.  This is not as easy as it sounds since despite what seems like ample time to come up with one there is still no single, universally accepted definition of religion.  One widely held definition seems to be that of a system of belief encompassing gods, goddess’, spirits and other supernatural forces.  This is probably the definition most people use and while I can certainly see the appeal it can get us into trouble.  An obvious question would be where does this definition leave religions that do not profess belief in a deity.  Where does it leave Buddhism? Daoism? Neo-Platonism?  Some might suggest that the aforementioned systems are best called philosophies rather than religion but that strikes me as splitting the hairs of semantics, not to mention raises the problem of finding a clear boundary between philosophy and religion, and doesn’t really answer the question.

A second less common but still widespread definition of religion is a system that provides instruction in morality, how persons should relate to each other and to the rest of the world and provides a sense of meaning and purpose to a person’s life.  This position, sometimes referred to as a life stance in the secular community, avoids some of the problems of the previous definition and easily encompasses non-theistic religions.  Unfortunately it also encompasses quite a bit more.  This is the definition used whenever a seemingly secular ideology is accused of being a religion: environmentalism, Marxism, secular humanism, Objectivism.  Things can get a little absurd if we take this to it’s extreme.  Ask yourself, can a sports team qualify as a religion?  While your first reaction might be no, consider this.  Do they not have holy days (game day and championships)?  Ritual clothing (sportswear)?  Churches (stadiums)?  Do they not foster a sense of community with fellow worshipers (fans)?  Do they not often serve as the central focus of a persons life (your roommate)?  Heck, they even have a sort of afterlife or Valhalla (Hall of Fame).  I realize that I’m exaggerating to make a point but given the above definition is it really that much of a stretch?

So far we have two definitions of religion and neither has proven very useful.  One appears too restrictive to provide an accurate definition while the other appears so broad as to be useless.  Transhumanism would clearly not fit under the first but would under the second (along with everything else).  So where does that leave us?  Perhaps our problem is that in getting bogged down in definitions we’ve been asking the wrong questions.  Perhaps we should ask not whether or not transhumanism is a religion but whether or not it serves the same purpose as one.

Our next question obviously becomes what purpose does a religion serve?  Thinking just off the top of our heads we can probably see the answer.  A religion provides meaning to a person and answers to the so called deeper questions of life (why are we here, etc.)  It often provides a community of like minded individuals.  It teaches morality and where humanity and the individual stand in the greater scheme of things.  It promises a relationship with the divine and the possibility of life in another form.  All of these features can be found in the great religions of the world.  You’ve probably noticed that this is more or less the second definition we listed above.  However by asking what the function of a religion is rather than what a religion is we avoid the thorny problem of having to define it.  Looking at it this way it is quite clear the transhumanism meets the criteria for serving the purpose of a religion, even concerning things like the afterlife which we’ll get to later.

So it seems we’ve come to it.  Transhumanism is, for all intents and purposes, a religion or at the very least a secular replacement for religion, and I don’t think there’s a damn thing wrong with that.  Why?  Because it’s a good replacement for religion.

What does religion offer that transhumanism can’t?  Ethics?  The movement, broadly utilitarian but with many competing viewpoints, offers sound ethical views on issues as diverse as what constitutes a person, what are the rights of the individual in relation to the collective and how we should treat the natural world.  A sense of community?  Transhumanists have been organized for several decades now and in recent years high profile organizations (IEET, SIAI) have served as a meeting ground and social gathering points for like-minded individuals.  Transcendental ideals?  Go read the literature on mind-uploading, archailects and the end of aging.  Hope for a better world?  Hedonistic Imperative, nuff said.  All this with a solid foundation of rationalism and skepticism, the basis of any good secular ideology.

It’s very fashionable in atheist circles to hold religion over the coals at every possible opportunity (I should know, I walk in those circles) and while there’s certainly a lot that can be laid at religion’s feet I feel that too many in the atheist community fail to recognize both the hugely important role it still plays in people’s lives and the importance of having a secular replacement, both for the sake of those already “converted” and for competing as a ideology.  Atheists, no less than anyone else, seek purpose and answers to life’s deeper questions.  Many seek those out in science, or more specifically scientism.  Other seek it in philosophy, or art, or work.  Others find it, and will find it in the coming decades, in transhumanism.

So the next time someone tells you that transhumanism is just another religion don’t feel bad about responding, “Yes, and it’s a damn good one.”

Peter Wicks: Future Of Humanity May 25, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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Apologies for being a little lax in posting.  I am in the midst of earning my certification to be a scientific SCUBA diver (basically I’m getting trained to set transects and write on a slate) which has left little time for anything other than eating and sleeping.  I have however been finding time to spend on Peter Wicks’ new website, Future of Humanity.

What makes his website fun is that rather than simply spouting off his own personal views into the cesspool that is the internet, like yours truly, Peter is more interested in what other people have to say.  His posts involve setting up a scenario or posing a thought experiment to stimulate debate among readers. 

Though there are only two posts currently up both have some very insightful conversation and are well worth checking out.  Here’s hoping for more in the months to come.

Robert White: The Brain Transplant Surgeon March 26, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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A common criticism of transhumanists is that we’re nothing but a bunch of technofetishists and utopian dreamers, convinced that the inevitable march of technological progress will bring about our wildest dreams.  As such it is also assumed that we as a movement welcome any and all scientific research, no matter what form it takes or the costs associated, as long as it increases our chances of living forever or uploading ourselves into a computer.

Robert White, the subject of a new documentary, would then at first glance seem to be a poster boy for transhumanism.  As a neurosurgeon working in the 1960’s White performed some of the early experiments on organ transplants.  While he seems to have been a good scientist in many ways he is no doubt best remembered for a different aspect of his research: attempting to transplant the head of one monkey onto the body of another. Yes, this is real.  Watch the video if you don’t believe me.

Watched it?  Good, now let me make myself abundantly clear.  I consider myself a transhumanist, for whatever that’s worth, and though I obviously cannot speak for the community as a whole I can state how I as a transhumanist view this type of research.  How do I view it you ask?  It sickens me.

Frequent readers of this blog (if I have any) will no doubt have surmised that I hold pretty staunchly to a negative utilitarian view of ethics and as such I believe that if the consequences of an action result in a lessening of suffering in the world we should perform said action.  In short, that which reduces suffering is good.  It would seem then that if Dr. White’s experiments, grotesque though they are, eliminated more suffering then they caused I would have no choice but to support them.

Here’s the problem with that sentiment.  Inflicting suffering to prevent suffering is always a slippery slope.  I will not deny that there are cases in which it is the right thing to do as such a stance is indefensible.  World War II, often cited as the perfect example of a just war, inflicted massive loss of life and suffering but also stopped what may be one of the few examples of a genuinely evil regime from carrying out a program of mass genocide.  For an example a little closer to home surgery inevitably involves inflicting a relatively minor wound in order to heal a greater one.

Clearly causing suffering can sometimes be justified if the suffering prevented is greater.  My problem with Dr. White’s research is that I’m not sure that can be said in this case.  Even if the knowledge gained by transplanting the head of one monkey onto the body of another resulted in knowledge that has saved lives, something I highly doubt, I cannot believe that this knowledge could not have been gained through a less barbaric path.