Yesterday morning I went on a great 5 mile run around my neighborhood. It was exhilarating!
As I ran, I thought about all of the technologies I was using to facilitate the run, make it more comfortable, and more productive, both as a learning opportunity and increasing my health. I wear Sauconey running shoes, which are especially designed to cushion the impact of your feet on the pavement as you run, and make sure your stride is landing appropriately to distribute the weight evenly on your feet, ankles, legs and knees. They are also meshed to allow your feet to breathe, and not get bogged with sweat. I also wore an anti-microbial moisture-wicking technical shirt, which has properties built-in to the fabric which discourage the growth of bacteria, and hence reduce odors, as well as wicking away the moisture from my skin to the outside of the shirt, where it can more easily evaporate. The result is that I can more quickly cool off while I sweat, and keeps me more comfortable. I wore my eyeglasses, which help me to see the road clearer, the oncoming cars, and the rocks on the pavement to avoid. I wore a hat to keep the sun from glaring in my eyes, and as a convenience to not have to comb my hair before going to work out. Perhaps most of all I wore my iPhone 4 (I know, not as good as the iPhone 5) in an armband on the upper half of my right arm. I used an app called RunKeeper to track my run via GPS for tracking and analysis later, and also provided me with key statistics while I ran, such as time, distance, pace, average pace, and even a map to see where I was currently located (my wife could also log in at home on the computer and see exactly where I was). It also tells me the amount of calories I’m burning, so I know how effective my workout is. It gives me audio cues to know when my intervals are during my run, as well as splits. I have earphones plugged in to the iPhone, which transmit audio over metallic wire, and convert the signals back into audible sounds by vibrating a diaphragm at high speed in my ear canals to produce the sound I hear. I used Yurbuds to keep the earbuds securely lodged in my ears so they wouldn’t fall out. If you’d like to see all the details of my run this morning, you can easily view them online here. I can’t wait until I get my Pebble watch, so I can see it all on my wrist. Note, these are all transhumanist technologies; they enhance us, what it means to be human, in very direct and fundamental ways.
Furthermore, as I ran I streamed a podcast from the Internet to listen to, using another app called TuneIn Radio, thus allowing me to turn my run into a doubly productive experience, doing good things for my body and health while also learning something. Through this “miracle” of listening to a broadcast wirelessly via the Internet (it is a miracle to me because I do not completely understand all of the details of how it works), I was able to use this fantastic technology to learn a little bit more about transhumanism. Actually, I listened to three different podcasts about transhumanism. The first was from a Bible station, which was introducing the subject of all the technological advancements we’ve made and the ethical questions that will inevitably arise as we move forward. The second podcast was similar, an introduction to bio-technologies. The third podcast I will discuss in a moment.
First, perhaps we should define transhumanism, as noted at Wikipedia:
Transhumanism, abbreviated as H+ or h+, is an international intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities. Transhumanist thinkers study the potential benefits and dangers of emerging technologies that could overcome fundamental human limitations, as well as study the ethical matters involved in developing and using such technologies. They predict that human beings may eventually be able to transform themselves into beings with such greatly expanded abilities as to merit the label “posthuman”.
Ok, so what is posthuman or posthumanism?
According to transhumanist thinkers, a posthuman is a hypothetical future being “whose basic capacities so radically exceed those of present humans as to be no longer unambiguously human by our current standards.” The difference between the posthuman and other hypothetical sophisticated non-humans is that a posthuman was once a human, either in its lifetime or in the lifetimes of some or all of its direct ancestors. Therefore, a prerequisite for becoming a posthuman is having been a transhuman, the point at which the human being begins surpassing his or her own limitations but is still recognizable as a human person or similar. In this sense, the transition between human and posthuman may be viewed as a continuum rather than an all-or-nothing event.
I see a lot of compatibility between this line of thinking, and the restored gospel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is perhaps a little unusual because there has been somewhat of a clash of attitudes between transhumanists and Christians for some time. You can read about some of that here. The overlap between transhumanism and the LDS Church’s doctrine is thorough, as are some of the differences. You can read some of my thoughts on that matter at Bruce’s post here. One of the questions that was brought up in that discussion was whether transhumanism will become coercive, whether these technologies that are being developed will be forced upon an unwilling population of people who don’t want them. This post scratches the surface of that question.
The third podcast I listened to on my run was perhaps the most intriguing. It was entitled “Is Transhumanism Coercive?” from October 18, 2011 (you can read it here, or listen to it here). It was a 7 minute, 27 second summary of a debate between Ronald Bailey and Peter Lawler at Wheaton College on the ethics of radical life extension, written by Bailey. Ronald Bailey is a science correspondent at Reason magazine (a libertarian monthly periodical) and author of Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, a very transhumanist-sounding book, and one I might just pick up. It’s interesting that they are drawing connections between libertarianism and these transhumanist ideas. Peter Lawler is a political scientist from Berry College. Bailey argues that “forcing humanity to remain relatively stupid and sick doesn’t make us freer,” that those for transhumanism believe that politics is using coercion to stop research leading to life extension and enhancement technologies to make human life better. On the other side, those against transhumanism believe it will end in coercion, that eventually people won’t have a choice about using these technologies.
One of Lawler’s arguments was that parents would be coerced into enhancing their children, interestingly noting what old-fashioned unenhanced “Mormons” might be forced to do:
Again, if safe enhancements for improving minds and health are available, lots of parents would likely want to give these benefits to their children. Lawler argued that if, say, Mormons and Roman Catholics wanted to have babies the old-fashioned, unenhanced way, “we won’t let them do it.” Why not? Because enhanced people would regard “the stupid and disease-ridden Catholic [or Mormon] babies as a risk to their own well-being.”
Bailey remarks that such arguments are
trying to confuse “coercion” with the social pressure that comes from competition. Coercion is the act of using force or intimidation to obtain compliance against one’s will. Competition involves the rivalry between two or more persons or groups for a desired object or goal. In liberal societies, economic and political competition rather than coercion is used to allocate money, status, and power. It must be admitted that competition can be annoying, especially to those who already have money, status, and power.
I think this is spot on. It is not that some people are “forced” to do certain things against their will, but that if they choose to be competitive in such a society, then they must take part in those things that society has deemed good and productive for the sake of progressing humanity.
In primitive societies, one way self-selecting nobles, warlords, and priests stay on top is to deny potential competitors access to “enhancements” like reading, writing, and arithmetic. But once top-down coercion is lifted and competition is unleashed the race is never done; to stay in the game, everyone must constantly upgrade their skills. The happy side-effect of this competition is that social productivity increases dramatically and people become wealthier, healthier, more educated, and, yes, generally freer.
There was once a suppression of distribution of the Bible. Only priests could own and read from a Bible. Everyone else had to hear the word of God only from such priests. The result? Many people remained in ignorance regarding the word. They could not study it, they could not research it, they could not cross reference it, to try to better understand the word of God. It is well to note that such revolutions such as the printing press that broke down such barriers, that liberated the Bible, and caused movements such as the Reformation, have been heralded by latter-day prophets as direct precursors and preparations for the restoration of the gospel in the latter days. What was one of the first things Joseph did when he was called as a prophet? Translate the Book of Mormon as quickly as possible, get it printed at great personal and social costs, and put out there into people’s hands, so they could learn the word of God directly from the source (the printing press could easily be viewed as a transhumanist technology that has enhanced our knowledge and intellectual abilities to fantastic new heights).
The side effect of competition is that “social productivity increases dramatically and people become wealthier, healthier, more educated, and, yes, generally freer.” I like that. What would happen if we didn’t live in a competitive society? What if people just weren’t allowed to compete, to innovate? It would have a negative effect on us all – we would become poorer, sicker, less educated, and essentially found in bondage to one way of thinking. That is why monopolies are discouraged, and even litigated. They are anti-competitive, and harmful to our society. Apple’s recent successful suit against Samsung is protecting Apple’s right to innovate and be competitive, while anti-monopoly suits against Microsoft were protecting the software industry’s right to be competitive (or even get their software into the market in the first place). Of course, there are boundaries to all of these things. If it is decided that Apple’s patents are anti-competitive in the industry and marketplace, then anti-monopoly suits (aka antitrust suits) will naturally be brought against them to allow others, like Samsung, to successfully compete against them. So far, it’s been deemed that Samsung has as much opportunity to be competitive in the market as Apple does, therefore using Apple’s technologies is not fair, and is a form of theft.
Going back to my example about driving a car on Bruce’s post; if you want to drive a car, society has put into place regulations that stipulate that your eyesight must exceed a certain threshold of acuity (I learned the hard way a few weeks ago that your engine must too!). You don’t have to drive a car, if you are against correcting your eyesight. But, if you want to be competitive today, in our society, and live as most of society does, then that usually requires you to drive a car from place to place, so you must get corrective lenses in order to have that privilege. No one is forcing you to drive a car, and thus to get corrective lenses. That is a choice that every individual must make if they want to be competitive in our society. If you don’t want to make that choice, then that is fine. (By the way, I chose to get the repairs done to my car, so I can continue to live in our society, and be competitive.)
What about those old-fashioned folks who want to make sure that their children are just like them, naturally stupid and disease-ridden? Lawler suggests that the unenhanced would pose a risk to the enhanced and therefore would be inevitably coerced by government into participating in the transhumanist project. Actually, it seems likely that the unenhanced would present very little risk. After all, they would not be real competitors. With regard to the disease risks that they might pose, the enhanced would already be protected by their augmented health. And the more intelligent enhanced would also be better able to anticipate and counter aggressive acts by the emotionally unstable unenhanced.
This is half true, I think. It’s not that unenhanced people pose a risk to the enhanced, and would therefore be coerced. It is that those who choose to be unenhanced may not be able to comfortably live how they want to live within the greater society. My wife and I recently experienced this phenomenon, returning to Bailey’s very hypothesis of Mormons who choose to have babies the old-fashioned, unenhanced way. We have had three children thus far, each of a different type of birth: hospital with epidural, hospital natural, and birthing center natural. Having been through all of these different birthing situations, we decided very quickly that far and away the type of birth that we enjoyed the most was a natural water birth at a birthing center. It was simply much less stressful, much more comfortable, and actually worked much better to birth the baby. However, I now have employment with a company, and am on the company-wide health insurance plan. With this insurance, we have little choice about how or where we want to birth our fourth baby. The insurance simply won’t cover anything outside a hospital birth, and only at particular hospitals. Thus, if we want to make use of the insurance that we have through my employer, we essentially have no choice but to have a hospital birth at a hospital we don’t prefer. Our choice in this regard is greatly diminished by our participation in society. We could still have a natural water birth at a birthing center if we wanted to, but at great personal cost, and if anything went wrong during the birth, our insurance wouldn’t cover a penny of it.
Does our desire to have a natural water birth at a birthing center make us naturally “stupid and disease-ridden”? Not at all. There are many studies which show that those who birth at hospitals actually have the much more difficult route to birthing, and are therefore perhaps the stupider bunch, although it is certainly “safe” with all the doctors in the immediate vicinity. One of the arguments that natural birthers note is that our society has essentially taken the view that birthing is an extremely life-threatening process, and therefore should take place right inside a hospital just in case, while the opposite is actually true. Birthing is a wonderfully natural and normal process. But I digress; that is another discussion. But you can see how easily there are arguments on both sides of these issues, and extremes usually don’t help things along.
I’m reminded of the 1997 film Gattaca (a favorite movie of mine), which deals with many of these very issues. The main character in the movie, Vincent Freeman, has parents that choose to not genetically enhance their child (Vincent) in utero. The result is that Vincent has many physiological limitations or shortcomings when compared with the larger society around him. Essentially he is not able to compete with his surroundings. He spends most of the movie surreptitiously trying to deceive everyone into thinking that he is enhanced and advanced, just like everyone else, so that he can be competitive and eventually become an astronaut, a position kept only for the very best candidates in society. But Vincent desperately wants to become an astronaut. How can he do it? The only way to become an astronaut, he figures, is to make it appear that he is not naturally limited, like his parents wanted. Whether or not he actually wishes he was or was not naturally limited is up for debate.
The film obviously brings up many issues regarding genetic discrimination (genism or genoism), liberal eugenics, segregation, social classes, ethics, morality, and prejudice, which are and will continue to all be vital issues to discuss and debate when these technologies emerge, and it is one of the key pursuits of transhumanism to hold such discussions. Where is the line between requiring a person to fit a certain physiological profile so they can perform a certain job adequately and/or safely, and discriminating against a social class inappropriately? I don’t know if there is an easy answer. In fact, I know there’s not. This is being debated today in many different settings, from universities to the legislature floor, and will be for the foreseeable future.
Here’s the issue; we are already living in Gattaca today, even if only in a small way. I am Vincent Freeman. I cannot naturally become an astronaut if I wanted to. I cannot become a military fighter pilot, or even a commercial airline pilot. Why not? My eyesight is not good enough; it is very poor. Here’s the Navy’s general medical standard for aviators:
Distant Visual Acuity: 20/400 or better each eye uncorrected, corrected to 20/20 or better each eye.
I think my eyesight is worse than 20/400 uncorrected. I can’t read the letters on this computer screen without my glasses; it’s all a big blur. However, I’m glad the rule is in place. I want the pilot who is flying the airplane I’m riding in to have excellent eyesight, otherwise my life is in danger. It is a rule that has been designed for the safety and enhancement of our society, and what it means to be human today (i.e. travel to anywhere in the world in a number of hours, something that was not humanly imaginable 100 years ago, let alone possible).
LASIK procedure has been approved for other members of the military, including Air Force pilots and others who face conditions where keen eyesight and precision is critical… NASA’s approval is further evidence that today’s LASIK exceeds all established standards of safety and effectiveness.
The article continues:
NASA’s approval of the procedure is also good news for those who dream of becoming a pilot, or even an astronaut, and fear that poor eyesight may stand in the way.
Even though I’m Vincent Freeman, and my natural eyes don’t measure up to society’s standards for aviators, transhumanist technologies have enabled me to change myself, even my physical body, fundamentally so that I can become an astronaut if I so desire. So the debate continues into the realms of democratization of technologies in which everyone can participate, if they so choose. No one is excluded. This is an area that was not portrayed in the movie Gattaca. You were either born with these abilites, or you were not, and there was nothing legal you could do about it.
I believe these technologies are a blessing to us today, even from God who we’ve been told has had a hand in their development, and will continue to be in the future. As we’ve been taught many times, technologies of any kind can be used for good, wise, righteous, even exalting purposes, or they can be used for base, demoralizing, damning, evil purposes. These are the reasons why there are so many ethical and moral discussions surrounding these issues. They have allowed our society to flourish in ways we could not have imagined just a few short years ago, but the nuclear bomb demonstrated that we need to be wise in how we use them. With great power comes great responsibility.
Transhumanism, and even Mormon transhumanism, is exactly what I’ve been discussing in this post, and is a real issue that we are living with today, and will continue to live throughout our lifetimes. We are transhumans, surpassing our limitations every day through new discoveries in science and technological innovations. Transhumanists don’t simply or blindly urge the adoption of new technologies willy nilly without foresight and understanding. They are intimately involved in the shaping and research of these technologies, and how we can best use them for the elevation of humanity to new great heights unknown before, even new states of perfection, which I would say can draw us closer to God if implemented in righteous ways, and with a greater likeness to Him. Instead of summarily dismissing transhumanism as in contravention of the Church, as some are wont to do, we should be more open to discussing how we can use technologies for good, to elevate humanity, share the gospel, help the kingdom roll forward, and ultimately help draw us closer to our Heavenly Father, which helps us become more like Him. There are many technologies which do so today, and many more to come in our immediate future. As Elder James E. Talmage noted:
In proportion as any one of these [scientists] may learn of the ways of God he becomes wise. To be able to think as God thinks, to comprehend in any degree His purposes and methods, is to become in that measure like unto Him, and to that extent to be prepared for eventual companionship in His presence. (“The Earth and Man“)
Just yesterday I received an email that the Mormon Transhumanist Association is holding their annual conference on April 5, 2013 in Salt Lake City. The keynote speakers will be Ben Goertzel and Richard Bushman.