“Futurisms”: Anti-Transhumanist Intellectuals

Futurisms, the anti-transhumanist blog over at The New Atlantis, has been posting regularly with decent content. In the blogosphere, that can be hard to come by.

They posted Roger Holzberg’s “Saying no to aging will require a bold gesture from each of us” image under a post of the title “transhumanist resentment watch”, seemingly expressing confusion over who Roger was flipping off, when it is clearly the aging process that he is directing his anger towards. Here’s a quote:

Beyond the strangeness of that self-loathing, the transhumanists bizarrely seem to be personifying human nature itself in order to antagonize it.

Yes, we do this from time to time.

But, we also glorify parts of humanity that we want to preserve and magnify with transhumanist technologies, like compassion, pleasure, and intelligence. Here is a list of human problems, which we are trying to antagonize and eliminate.

There is another post on the combative rhetoric of transhumanists, which singles out Eliezer Yudkowsky:

The worst example of this was in the stage appearances by Eliezer Yudkowsky, as I noted here and here.

Eliezer responds in the comments:

*Laughs*

Of *course* we’re fighting the human condition! Bill McKibben? You think our fury is directed at Bill McKibben? What on Earth did you think we were fighting? Death and frailty, darkness and despair, all the ills to which the flesh is heir! Duly acknowledged! Thank you for asking!

Charles, the author of that post, asks “Who is it that they think they’re sticking it to?” Good question. To me, personally, I either think of Mother Nature, about whom Nick Bostrom said, “Had Mother Nature been a real parent, she would have been in jail for child abuse and murder.” To personify less, I more often think of evolution in general, which should be relatively easy to overthrow once we get going, as it’s an unconscious process that operates slowly.

The other potential target would be God. God represents the worship of the status quo, and mass murder and punishment for trying to transcend our own limitations. God represents the endless lists of arbitrary rules found in Judaism and Islam in particular, but also Christianity. God represents the notion that the human body is inherently divine rather than an incomplete work. God represents the unfair bias towards the Holy Family (Adam’s family line, which allegedly includes David and Jesus) rather than equal love towards all human beings. God represents the ethic of “do as I say, not as I do”.

To quote from an h+ magazine article:

Their argument isn’t actually that death is good. Their argument is that heaven is good. All prominent anti-transhumanists — Fukuyama, Kass, McKibben — are religious. Their sense of meaning springs from a faith that through suffering they will enter paradise after they are dead. If a bunch of nonbelievers creates a real deathless paradise here in reality, it will ruin that fantasy. It will be like when all the bad kids on your block get better presents from Santa. To work so gleefully for immortality and cessation of pain is to thumb your nose at ancient sources of meaning. Success will demonstrate that such deep sources of meaning are not eternal, but technical solvable problems. That’s a real faith-shaker.

These guys want the same damn thing we do, just that they think they can get it through magic, and we think we actually have to achieve it ourselves.

Comments

  1. Ben

    The image in question is photoshopped. So the answer to the question is actually, ‘He is flipping off nobody.’

    More important, the criticism of Fukuyama, Kass, McKibben, et al in h+, which you echo, is unfair, avoidant and just plain wrong. For one thing, I am of the understanding that neither Kass nor Fukuyama are religious. But even if they were, to criticise them on the basis of arguments they have not made is ridiculous. If you wish to publicly disagree with people, great, but please do so by addressing the substance of what they have to say, rather than making up nonsense. Kass and Fukyama are intellectuals, and their concerns deserve to be treated with proper consideration.

    Sadly, religion has become a major blind spot for many a transhumanist, providing a convenient enemy and intellectual shortcut, as is certainly the case on this blog. The irony is that while you and others accuse the faithful of using religion as a way of avoiding life’s realities, you routinely rely on religion in order to avoid a reasonable discussion of ideas with those who disagree with you.

  2. http://www.pbs.org/now/transcript/transcript_kass.html

    BILL MOYERS: Why would a scientist, a physician, a scholar always wrestling with contemporary ethical issues, spend 20 years on a book about the Bible?

    LEON KASS: It’s quite a wonder to me, too, Bill. I began life as a child of the Enlightenment, raised in a secular home, Yiddish speaking, socialist. Believed in the indefinite progress of humankind in all respects. And wasn’t bar mitzvahed. Never was in the synagogue.

    Thought religion was really, partly a matter of superstition and a thing of the past. And two things, I guess, happened. One was when our own children were born it dawned on me that the moral teachings of my home were, in fact, parasitic on traditional Jewish thought and morals. The prophets without the law. And it seemed to me incumbent on my wife and me to try to give our children something of a knowledge of the heritage which we ourselves didn’t receive.

    But more importantly, in my own teaching, I discovered that the BIBLE was a book that could more than hold its own with the great works of philosophy and literature that I had been teaching to undergraduates. And, quite by accident, really, I sort of stumbled upon this book in my teaching. And it got a hold of me.

    See also:

    http://www.acceleratingfuture.com/michael/blog/2006/12/quotes-from-leon-kass/

    Kass does not deserve to be taken seriously. Sorry.

  3. Ben

    Michael, that quote does not indicate that Kass is religious. He is saying that in spite of the fact that he is NOT religious, he believes the Bible has philosophical, ethical and cultural value.

    That’s far from a religious statement, and it doesn’t even come close to professing a belief in the afterlife.

  4. “A nation dedicated to safeguarding individual rights to liberty and the privately defined pursuit of happiness is, willy-nilly, preparing the way for the “liberation” of women; in the absence of powerful non-liberal cultural forces, such as traditional biblical religion, that defend sex-linked social roles, androgyny in education and employment is the most likely outcome.”

    – Leon Kass

  5. “The human soul yearns for, longs for, aspires to some condition, some state, some goal toward which our earthly activities are directed but which cannot be attained during earthly life.”

    – Leon Kass

  6. “Worst of all from this point of view are those more uncivilized forms of eating, like licking an ice cream cone — a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who know eating in public is offensive…This doglike feeding, if one must engage in it, ought to be kept from public view, where, even if WE feel no shame, others are compelled to witness our shameful behavior.”

    – Leon Kass

  7. “I don’t regard myself as a good enough Jew by a long shot, either in terms of learning or practice.”

    – Leon Kass

  8. Ben

    I’m sorry, MIchael, but that you would post those quotes as further evidence of your position illustrates my point. In your desire to dismiss Kass as religious you are ignoring the subtleties of his remarks. Each of those comments (sans icecream) shows an interest in religion, but none of them profess any religious belief. And as I said in my first post, even if he were religious that would not mean he has ever argued against transhumanist interventions on the basis of a desire to go to heaven. Do you acknowledge that this is true? If so, do the credible thing and say so.

    Now, what of Fukuyama.

  9. Ben

    “I have focused on the substance:
    http://www.acceleratingfuture.com/michael/works/answeringkass.htm

    That’s more like it!

  10. I don’t take Kass seriously. I think he is a washed-up asshole. Obama dissed him by dissolving the President’s Council on Bioethics. I hope he falls off the radar, and so far, so good. I responded to him in 2003 to kickstart my transhumanist writing saga, and I doubt I’ll do so again.

    Fukuyama I’m less familiar with. I assume he believes in Heaven just because the prior probability that a right-wing intellectual does is pretty high. Notice I just linked the h+ piece, and didn’t explicitly condone the whole thing.

    Religion says that you go to Heaven if you follow all of YHWH’s ridiculous rules, like putting to death people who work on the sabbath. If so, the need to improve life here on Earth is sort of a secondary issue. Only some newfangled liberal religious groups have even begun thinking about it seriously in the last 100 or so years. Since I’m planning to stick around, and they’re not, we don’t have enough common ground to really talk about shared issues in the real world.

    I take McKibben seriously, and Fukuyama somewhat seriously. I’m all for most critics, but if they believe they’re going to live forever in God’s kingdom, nothing I say can touch them.

  11. Hebrew hammer

    First Jews do not believe in heaven. The only Jews who even believe in an afterlife are the very religious who believe in reincarnation.

    Secondly, you have consistently putting Christianity above other religions. In 20 years you will be a born again Christian most likely.

    Thirdly, you can be a good Jew and not believe anything. It is a tribe a birthright if you will.

    Fourthly, many of Judaism’s customs made a lot of sense in the past. Customs like not eating shell fish which especially in the past where healthy ideas.

    Fifthly, you really do not understand the Jewish mind you are programmed as a Christian.

  12. It Must Be My Brain That

    Boo-hooo! Mommyy! Eliezer is condescending!

    Ridiculous.

  13. Ben

    “I don’t take Kass seriously. I think he is a washed-up asshole. Obama dissed him by dissolving the President’s Council on Bioethics. I hope he falls off the radar, and so far, so good. I responded to him in 2003 to kickstart my transhumanist writing saga, and I doubt I’ll do so again.”

    And as much as I may think that’s far too simplistic, you are of course entitled to think and write exactly that. However, the issue here is not that you don’t like Kass. It’s that instead of engaging with criticisms of transhumanism, you seem more comfortable brushing them aside as being religious in origin, even in spite of all evidence to the contrary. That’s a problem, Michael, and I feel it will come back to bite you in the future, to the detriment of both your intellectual credibility and your ongoing, valuable efforts within the transhumanist community.

    Neither Kass nor Fukoyama are religious, and your assumption (which, in the case of Fukoyama, you admit was based on nothing of any substance) undermines you more than you realise. Even if we accept that Kass is, in some general sense (he’s certainly fascinated by religion, after all), he is most certainly not a believer, so notions of a literal heaven don’t enter into his reasons for being critical of transhumanist principles, and it is wrong of you to say otherwise in an attempt to discredit him, no matter how much you don’t like him.

    And sure, you may say you just linked to the article, but both literally and by implication you did more than that. You quoted the article to make your point, then said that Kass, Fukoyama and McKibben believe in magic. It is my opinion that you should post a retraction, or at the very least a clarification of your remarks, indicating that you do not agree with the article in H+.

  14. Michael Handy

    “For one thing, I am of the understanding that neither Kass nor Fukuyama are religious.”

    This is quite interesting. I’d always assumed that Kass was christian (it’s hard not to at first glance), but an hours search on google failed to turn up definitive evidence one way or the other. He has been suprisingly evasive on this point.

    He mentions god on occasion, and christian groups that have interviewed him assume that he his, but he never comes out and speaks of his own belief. All of his comments, even those that directly mention god as a physical entity, could at a small (well, medium) stretch be considered as philisophical arguments only, and not statements of belief.

    That said, it’s clear that the bible is the centre of his ethical and moral views, and that given the choice between his ‘bibically informed’ humanism and that of the enlightenment, he’ll go with the bible every time.

    So his theistic position doesnt really matter, for all practical intents and purposes, his views are based on religion.

  15. Hebrew, I am most certainly not putting Christianity above other religions, I just know it better. For criticism of Judaism from an ethnic and formerly religious Jewish perspective, see the writings of Eliezer Yudkowsky.

    Ben, I know that Kass’ views are based on religion. He is Jewish. Look at his quote. I’ve read others. I could respond to religious criticisms in detail if I wanted, but religion doesn’t play by the same rules as secular argument — it can cheat. Why play chess, for instance, against someone who cheats?

    (The cheating consists of a self-reinforcing memetic complex that allows people to assign 100% confidence to various statements, including the presence of an invisible man in the sky.)

    I really do believe that Kass believes in God’s plan and will and guidance. I did respond to his points already, so you’re criticizing me just for not responding to his points more… but when does it end? Kass almost certainly IS a believer — didn’t the quotes I posted give you some idea of that? Doesn’t saying he’s “not a good enough Jew” show you that he wants to be a better Jew, like, maybe involving believing in God? (Duh.) Do you actually believe that George Bush would appoint him to the President’s Council on Bioethics if he weren’t religious? Perhaps he is crypto-religious if you don’t consider his dozens of references to the Bible in his writings as constituting a religious perspective.

    I have focused on the substance of McKibben’s claims, and have at least thought about the substance of Fukuyama’s claims. Other transhumanists have responded to these seriously. I will respond to them if they actually make the news with something relevant, otherwise it would obviously be more strategically useful to spend my time elsewhere. I only have so much time for unpaid writing. If you want to pay me for criticizing Fukuyama and Kass, then that would be a different story, y’know? Otherwise, I like to write about stuff like BCI, nanotech, sky cities, and the like.

    According to simple Google searches, both Kass and McKibben are religious. Fukuyama, I don’t know, but he was a neoconservative (you think they’d let in a nonbeliever? polls have shown that atheists would have even more difficulty getting elected than any other major group, and I doubt the neocon politicians would take an atheist intellectual seriously) and goes on and on about Christianity in at least one of his books, so I’m going to assume he’s religious.

    I’m also starting to think that you’re an idiot for denying what is right in front of our faces. See McKibben’s biography:

    “McKibben is active in the Methodist Church, and his writing sometimes has a spiritual bent.”

    Your claim that McKibben is not religious is ludicrous (it’s right there), your claim that Kass is not religious is silly, and your claim that Fukuyama is not religious is doubtful.

  16. kurt9

    I am going to say it plain and simple here. Leon Kass and people like him have nothing of value to say, period. Leon Kass is a sick, pathological excuse for a human being. Anyone who believes that pain and suffering has positive value is mentally ill. I could never learn anything of value from these kind of people. I would prefer that these people just bow out of public life and let us get on with our own dreams and goals in life.

    I do not believe we should accept any kind of accommodation with the “deathists”. I think the “deathists” should be denounced as the sick, monstrous, evil people that they are and we should work to discredit them by any means possible.

    I am sick of deathist scum telling me that it is wrong to want to create indefinitely youthful life span.

    This is existential for me. Failure is not an option.

  17. Ben

    Oh Michael,

    How silly. I never claimed McKibben wasn’t religious. Not once. Will you make any claim to win an argument? Do you just make things up about everyone who disagrees with you?

    If you have evidence that Kass or Fukoyama believe in the supernatural (as opposed to a cultural interest in religion), as you say they do, please present it to us. If not, retract your statement. It is the only honorable thing to do.

    Your are showing your character, and it’s not looking good.

  18. Bol Locks

    Ben, your veiled ad hominemisms at Michael aren’t working and fool no one who has read him extensively. If Michael’s character isn’t up to your standards… you gotta be one strange individual, because Michael certainly isn’t. He’s one of the most down-to-earth, frank, honest, truth-seeking guys out there. He’s one of the good guys. If you fail to see that, you’ve got some basic things to work out.

    Michael, as any transhumanist and Singularitarian, is interested in contributing to the progress of humanity and you can’t be involved in such things with a questionable character or motives.

    For the good of humanity, get a grip, Ben.

  19. Eat Your Veggies

    Check out these statistics deathists love:

    H1N1 deaths during the past 300 days among other deaths

    http://preview.tinyurl.com/300days

    It’s clear we need the Singularity sooner than later.
    The only place where guys like Kass can contribute positively is by personally becoming a +1 to that list.

  20. Panda

    Hello, I’ve been quietly following this blog and enjoying Michael’s writings. This discussion has finally compelled me to write.

    I feel that Ben is correct to say that one should “address[] the substance of what [opposing theorists] have to say” instead of their religious beliefs. Michael has done so in the past. In “Answering Leon Kass” Michael tackled the project of addressing substantive arguments.

    Tackling substantive arguments doesn’t mean, however, that it is “good taste” to go further and address opposing theorists’ religious beliefs. I would feel upset if someone, after answering Mr. Kurzweil’s points in an intellectually capable manner, went on to bash his socially-perceived “quirks” as a way of discrediting him. In the media, this would be acceptable. But it is a measure of the respect some of us have for Michael’s blog that we would like to see a different timbre of discussion.

    Although religious belief might be a good statistical predictor of other, correlative beliefs or behaviors, exceptions, especially in the nuanced world of academia, abound. The quality of Michael’s blog is that he can see such nuances.

    Ultimately, when Ben says “If you have evidence that Kass or Fukoyama believe in the supernatural (as opposed to a cultural interest in religion) . . . , please present it to us[,]” I am compelled to agree that Michael has not persuaded me. I do NOT think, however, that Michael has been making up points out of thin air. To say that he is dishonorable because he fails to carry the burden of persuasion is going too far. On the other hand, I would agree that his sometimes conclusory language about these individuals’ beliefs does not heighten the persuasive power of his (legitimate) attempts to prove such beliefs.

    I think both Ben and Michael are insightful people, and I hope to read more of both of their comments.

    Thank you for your time.

  21. Hello all. Hate to get in-between what looks like an interesting discussion, but I just want to make one point about this comment in Michael’s post:

    “God represents the notion that the human body is inherently divine rather than an incomplete work.”

    There is truth to this, but it’s still not quite right. The human body (in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity) was almost exclusively seen as a vessel of sin, rot, and corruption; in some forms of Christianity, the devil was said to work through the flesh. These views are most prevalent in these religion’s traditional attitudes toward sexuality.

    ( And all three religions have something negative to say about “earthly pleasures.”)

    You are correct on your main point, Michael. These religions don’t put any value in the improvement of the body or the preservation of health (at times rejecting medical and technological advances in the name of faith.) Though this is more tied to their views that ‘life is just a staging ground for the afterlife’; as well as their sentiments towards self-improvement, which is sometimes seen as “selfish” and “arrogant.”

    What’s scary: is that the flaws of our bodies are often praised as a test of faith, and even worth preserving.

    I understand the psychological justifications for such beliefs; but these ideas have no place in the modern world, and should be thoroughly rejected.

  22. Hebrew hammer

    “in some forms of Christianity, the devil was said to work through the flesh. These views are most prevalent in these religion’s traditional attitudes toward sexuality.”

    Exactly only the Christens believe in original sin. The other two believe in sexual repression obviously, no gays or adulterer allowed.

    The Jews believe in not questioning god after all he is just whatever happens when you die is in his domain.

    The Muslins are looking forward to 70 virgins.

    The Christens are all looking forward to being the bride of Christ, which sounds gay but whatever.

  23. Sulfur

    Ryan-”These religions don’t put any value in the improvement of the body or the preservation of health (at times rejecting medical and technological advances in the name of faith.)”
    To my knowledge Christianity, especially centralized, Vatican-based, does not see health preservation as evil, sinnfull, nor it shows lack of interest in that matter. In fact the opposite is true. But they are, lets say, picky and choose some technologies over others, condemning those who are in clash with their ethics. And this makes difference. They do not say that all development in that field is wrong. just soem of it. And it just happens that this blocs the easiest way of progress. But hell, do you really care? Or do you really care enough to see the difference? Does it matters? Doubtfull if you are not “one of the faithfull”. But if you are, and on top of that you are scientist, it must be really pain in the ass. Oh, those stupid religous values…humanist ethics… bleeeh, makin’ life so much difficult. Let’s get rid of them.

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