As always, there’s been some nice activity over at anti-transhumanism central, The New Atlantis Futurisms blog. Most recently is a post “Why Transhumanism Won’t Work”, which is as provocatively named as my recent post “Transhumanism Has Already Won”. The post, a guest post by Mark Gubrud, is more of a screed against mind uploading than against transhumanism in general, however Gubrud claims that “transhumanism itself is uploading writ large.” Basically, Gubrud calls attention to a talk that will be given by a philosophy professor against mind uploading at the upcoming H+ conference at Harvard. The essence of the argument is that advocates of mind uploading are dualists because they speak of a “pattern” that is really a “soul” which is postulated to be transferable across substrates. (It’s ironic that Gubrud makes a guest post arguing against the soul on a site funded by “Washington, D.C.’s premier institute dedicated to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy.” It shows that some modern Christians are willing to be pragmatic about the messages they put out there.)
I made a very short comment in response to the post:
Why don’t we lose our identity/become different people when the constituent proteins making up our cells are continuously renewed? Is the soul transferred from the old proteins to the new proteins? How is that scientific?
This elicited a good-length response from Gubrud, beginning with this dramatic condemnation of my seemingly innocuous question:
You ask a very good question, one of the key questions which lead people into the nihilistic wilderness in which a noxious weed like transhumanism can flourish.
The #1 question on my mind when I read this is, “Is Gubrud a Christian, or does his hatred of transhumanism stem from something else?”
Gubrud continues to talk about how identity is just a concept, which I concur with, and then says:
Transhumanists look outside the human community for a source of meaning and moral order. They believe in a great story of Evolution, Intelligence, and Destiny. It’s kind of a throwback to a pre-Copernican worldview.
Humanists understand that this is a random universe, to which we bring our own meanings. Humanists treasure humanity and nature, while regarding technology as the tool we use to protect these primary values, rather than a primary value in itself.
This really is a debate about human values and the future of humanity. There still ain’t nobody else here.
This is definitely false with respect to the community around the Singularity Institute, at least. We understand that human values are a lone candle in an otherwise morality-indifferent galaxy. The only difference is that we see opportunity for moving beyond strict adherence to the fitness-maximizing goals that natural selection gave us, and into secondary characteristics such as mathematics, literature, art, etc. If the latter is truly more important than the former, then given the opportunity to modify our own minds and bodies, we will choose minds and bodies that nurture the latter while the former falls out of style.
To sum up, I have to say — folks, critiques of mind uploading and transhumanism are not the same thing. You can blend them together like some sort of philosophical porridge, but for clarity’s sake they ought to be handled individually. I think part of the problem is that transhumanism is so compelling that attacking it head-on is a huge challenge, so critics prefer to target its more radical ideas, such as mind uploading.
Mind uploading is indeed a radical idea, and I can sympathize with some of Gubrud’s arguments about continuity, but critics have to realize that the “mind uploading as dualism” argument is over a decade old and has already been refuted many times. It is refuted by positing mind transfers so incremental that it is quite impossible to say that the original person has been lost. The transfer can be made arbitrarily incremental, and there will still be people who say that the original person is lost, and keep saying that forever, but it seems quite likely that society will eventually adopt the technology anyway. We’ve already incrementally uploaded so much data about ourselves into an “exoself” of computer files and Internet sites.