Transhumanism and objectivity: An introduction

I have been involved in the transhumanism community for a fair while now, and I have heard many arguments arising from both proponents and skeptics of the ‘movement’. However, many of these arguments seem to stem from instinctive reactions rather than critical thinking. Transhumanism proponents will sometimes dogmatically defend their assumptions without considering whether or not what they believe may actually be physically possible. The reasoning behind this is fairly easy to understand: Transhumanism promises escape from some of humanity’s deepest built in fears. However, the belief that something of value will arise if one’s assumptions are correct can often leave us afraid to question those assumptions.

I would currently class myself as neither a proponent or a skeptic of the transhumanism movement. However I do love to explore and investigate the subject, as it seems to dance close to the very limits of our understanding of what is possible in the Universe. Can we learn something from analyzing the assumptions upon which this philosophical movement is based? I would answer not only yes, but that to do so yields one of the most exciting applications of the scientific method that we have encountered as a society.

I find myself increasingly drawn toward talking about how we can explore transhumanism from a more rational and objective point of view. I think all transhumanists should be obliged to take this standpoint, to avoid falling into a trap of dogmatic delusion. By playing devil’s advocate and challenging some of the basic tenets and assumptions, I doubt any harm can be done. At the least those tenets and assumptions will have to be rethought. But moreover, we may find that the lessons learned from encountering philosophical green lights and stop signs may inform the way we steer our engineering of the future.

I’ve thus decided to shift the focus of this blog a little towards some of these ideas. In a way I have already implemented some of this shift: I have written a couple of essays and posts before. But from now on, expect to see a lot more of this in the future. A blog format is an excellent way of disseminating information on this subject: It is dynamic, and can in principle reach a large audience. I also think that it fits in well with the Physics and Cake ethos – applying the principles of Physics to this area will form a large part of the investigations. And, of course, everything should always be discussed over coffee and a slice of cake! Another advantage is that this is something that everyone can think about and contribute to. You don’t need an expensive lab or a PhD in theoretical Physics to muse over these issues. In a lot of cases, curiosity, rationality, and the patience to follow an argument is all that is necessary.


18 thoughts on “Transhumanism and objectivity: An introduction

  1. randalkoene says:

    This sounds like an excellend and much-needed perspective. Interestingly, it is also close to the new focus the SIAI is taking recently. At least, it is, according to the words of Michael Vassar a few days ago. I’m very much looking forward to your next posts in this direction!

  2. randalkoene says:

    In a perfect world, all transhumanists would welcome as much critique as possible. It is part of the scientific method to want critical peer review.
    We are not supposed to be interested merely in convincing people and drowning out criticism.
    Instead we are supposed to be interested in correcting our ideas.

    Now you can hold me to it. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. Great, I look forward to reading your thoughts. But I think objectivity is over-rated.

    I assume that my best friends love me. This assumption is not necessarily true, but I am not going to agonize over its validity and make myself unhappy. I know that the assumption could be wrong, yet I choose to consider it true. In physics, the utility of a model is more important than its “truth”, whatever “truth” is. If I can use a model to build a better machine, then the model is useful, and valid.

    Coming to transhumanism, Ben and I have written this ten points summary:
    These are all assumptions: the human species could be wiped out next year by a runaway virus or an asteroid impact. Or (more likely, at least in the Western world), our society could become a geriatric nanny-state with no tolerance for experimentation and risk, and never develop AGI and uploading.

    But a universe in which these assumption are false is not a universe I am interested in living in. Therefore, I choose to hold them true.

    Physically possible… I would not make an emotional investment in possibilities that are clearly and evidently against our current understanding of reality. But you know that many times scientists have pompously declared the impossibility of something, and “ignorant” engineers have achieved it anyway. Remember Clarke’s laws.

  4. randalkoene says:

    Giulio, I’m afraid that I don’t share your view in its entirety. I certainly see room for having an open mind (which is basically what your final paragraph alludes to).

    But… I am really not interested in wasting my time planning and working on things that simply cannot be, because we can already determine their physical impossibility. I think it is mainly those that Suzanne hopes to expose. Afterall, she cannot pretend to know things about the universe that the rest of us don’t. But it is quite true that I have heard a few transhumanist “dreams” that simply don’t take into account practical requirements. To me, those are not science fiction. They are fantasy. Fun to think about, but that’s it. Not fun to waste effort and resources on.

    As far as substrate-independent minds are concerned, certainly, I aim to use our best current knowledge about how the universe works to figure out how our interests might best be made to match the likely end-result. From that perspective, you can still come up with truly wonderful things, but things that can work and can have an effect that is interesting.

  5. @Randal – “…because we can already determine their physical impossibility…” – this is what I mean by “[im]possibilities that are clearly and evidently against our current understanding of reality.”

    My point is that many things have been achieved by engineers after having been declared impossible by theoreticians, so history of science should teach us to have some caution before declaring something impossible.

    Coming to AGI and uploading: we are living proofs that intelligent, thinking and feeling machines are compatible with the laws of physics, and that information can be transferred from one such system to another. Thus I see no reasons to think that we cannot reproduce these processes (and improve upon them), and I consider the feasibility _in principle_ of AGI and uploading as trivially true. Of course, this does not say much about their feasibility _in practice_, which might well be much harder than we wish.

  6. randalkoene says:

    @Giulio – Allright, obviously we do both want to draw lines somewhere in the middle between being unrealistically optimistic and being unrealistically skeptical. So, I’ll let that matter rest.

    Now I find myself in the odd position of being simultaneously the proponent of substrate-independent minds and the one to question your certainty with regards to AGI and uploading.

    I agree that we are living proofs of something, namely that a thinking entity is possible. I do not believe that we have proven beyond a doubt that we can create such and entity in other hardware – though I see no reason to disbelieve it either, especially if we are talking about an AHI (artificial human-level intelligence). We have certainly not proven that we can create pure artificial superintelligences, and in fact Suzanne has raised significant question marks there.

    And while it is clear that “information can be transferred from one such system to another”, that is still a far cry from turning one into the other… which is a fair approximation of uploading and ASIM. Again, I am not disbelieving it, since no one has given me substantial let alone irrefutable arguments to indicate that such a thing would be impossible. Still, I think it is a claim of sufficiently extraordinary nature that it deserves some serious attention and substantiation.

    If some skeptical focus and proper critiquing by Suzanne can help bring about the necessary scrutiny and substantiation, then I am 100% behind that.

  7. @Randal – Agree, but the extraordinary claim is that we cannot create consciousness in other hardware. This requires attributing magic properties to bio hardware (ร‰lan vital), for which I don’t see any supporting evidence in current science.

    I am, again, talking of feasibility _in principle_. I am quite open to the possibility that there may be some critical missing element in currently proposed approaches.

    For example, suppose (as some people do) that consciousness depends critically on some quantum properties that evolution has found a way to engineer in our bio cells. Well, even in this case, we could run consciousness on another substrate which exhibits similar quantum properties.

    • physicsandcake says:

      Giulio: The claim that we cannot create consciousness in hardware does not require invocation of ร‰lan vital – there are plenty of things we can’t do in hardware that seem to work very well in other substrates (fluid dynamics comes to mind).

      The problem is one of practice-versus-principle, which I will be talking about a lot more in subsequent posts.

      As a taster, imagine if we *could* build a concious entity in hardware but to do so would require all the silicon on earth (including that already used in every computing device on the planet). Would you then say it is possible to create consciousness in hardware? I would say no.

      This is a rather contrived example, I know, but I hope it makes the point that there are many things to be considered when you try to build something other than just the question of whether or not you can do it in principle.

      (Actually it’s not that contrived when I think about the BlueBrain project, hmm…)

      • Would you then say it is possible to create consciousness in hardware?

        Yes! We just go to a planet bigger than Earth and rich in silicon, and we use all the silicon we find there.

        I am mainly talking of feasibility _in principle_, limited only by the laws of physics. Of course, things may be too difficult in practice like in your example.

        • physicsandcake says:

          OK, what if it needed more Silicon than there was in the entire Universe (as predicted by some clever calculation involving supernovae remnants)? Would you still say it was possible?

          I understand the purpose of in-principle arguments, but I think people forget that they are limits. We should use them to inform what we do, not base what we do on them.

          Several of my arguments regarding the applicability of the Universal Turing Machine model relate to this, so it is interesting that it has arisen so soon ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Also: fluid dynamics can be computed in hardware. You can object that nobody gets wet with a computed fluid, but I can reply that we can just add a sentient being to the computation, and she will feel wet ๐Ÿ˜‰

        I do of course agree that there are many things to be considered when you try to build something other than just the question of whether or not you can do it in principle. But I think it is important to keep the distinction clear. If something is impossible in principle, it just cannot be done. But if something is too hard in practice but possible in principle, there is always the possibility of finding a more efficient way to do it.

        • physicsandcake says:

          Also – another point.

          “If something is impossible in principle, it just cannot be done”

          I disagree. With this statement you assume that our understanding of principles, proof, and the laws governing the way the Universe works is flawless.

  8. With this statement you assume that our understanding of principles, proof, and the laws governing the way the Universe works is flawless.

    No: by “impossible in principle” I mean something which is assumed to remain impossible even with new scientific advances.

    Since this is an assumption which depends on how solid we think our current knowledge is, there are degrees of impossibility in principle, like: triangle with 4 sides = 100%, perpetual motion (a real violation of the laws of thermodynamics) = 99.99%, FTL travel or time travel = 99%…

  9. randalkoene says:

    If only I didn’t have to urgently get my presentation done, then I would enjoy chiming in and debating *both* of you! ๐Ÿ™‚

    I’m certainly looking forward to the first actual case study once Suzanne decides to tackle it.


  10. Tom Michael says:

    I think there is a hierarchy of future prediction to be sceptical or open-minded about. I nearly decided to talk about these at the H+ conference, but thought the audience might lynch me and burn me if I was too sceptical (so I’m going to talk about cognitive enhancement instead).

    The hierarchy of possibility boundaries as I conceive of them goes like this:

    Physical possibility – if the idea is possible according to the laws of our universe.

    Theoretical possibility – if the idea is possible according to our current scientific understanding (esp. physics).

    Technological possibility – if the idea is possible with existing technology.

    Economic possibility – if the idea is possible within our economic model given resources & money etc…

    These boundaries on what is possible would

    Any example we can think of can be fitted within this structure, e.g. concorde or travelling to the moon, possible in all ways except economically. 15TB hard-drive in a laptop – theoretically and physically possible but the tech isn’t there yet.

    Quite a few transhuman ideas are beyond current economic and technological possibility, but are theoretically possible, then there are those about which we argue whether they are theoretically possible, then there are those which may be physically impossible – but we can only judge those based upon the limits of our theoretical (and empirical) models of the world.

    An example would be FTL travel. If I recall Prof Cruise’s light cone diagram correctly, travelling faster than c would cause time dilation effects such that you’d effectively be travelling back in time, and causation paradoxes are cited as one reason why this is not possible. The theory may be wrong but if it is correct then FTL travel is physically impossible as well.

    Note that the top boundary (physical possibility) doesn’t actually move, but all the other boundaries rise as we advance. So if our scientific knowledge was perfect, our theoretical knowledge would include all physical laws, if our technology became perfect, we could achieve anything that was physically possible, but even then, you might have to get a large loan to pay for it. Damn economics.

  11. Sal says:

    My question to you is:
    “where do you place God in all this?”

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