Monday, 28 January 2013

H.G. Wells’s Time Machine and the Future of Humanity

I must have been seven or eight years old when I first met the time traveller. My parents and I were spending the day at my grandparents’, as we did on most Sundays, and as usual I was bored stiff because nobody would talk to me, my grandparents didn’t have any games or toys, and there were no books that invited me to read them. All they had was a mean old dog who barked madly and threatened to bite me whenever I tried to get up from the sofa or made a movement that alerted him to the fact that I was still alive. He seemed determined to change that. But on this particular day I was lucky. Not only was the dog exhausted from a long walk in the park and for the time being showed no interest in harassing me any further, I was also granted permission to switch on the television. They were showing a film, and it had just started. It was “The Time Machine”, the 1960 version with Rod Taylor, and for the next ninety minutes or so I was lost to the world.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that impressed me as much as this one. I was not only fascinated by the idea of time travelling, but also utterly enthralled by the story woven around it and the images that brought the story to life. For many weeks after, I had recurring, nightmarish dreams of the beautiful and gentle, but rather dumb Eloi and the creepy, demonic Morlocks with their greenish skin and red eyes, who scared the hell out of me.

It was many years later that I finally read the book by H.G. Wells on which the film was based. I was already in my twenties, and by then the idea of time travel had lost some of its early fascination for me. The Morlocks, too, were rather disappointing. So I can’t really say that at that time the book made a lasting impression on me. However, last night, more than twenty years later, I read it again, and I was surprised to see what a marvellous writer Wells actually was. And the future of humanity that he shows us is a far cry from the superglossed one that transhumanists and other enhancement enthusiasts keep dangling in front of our noses. What awaits us in his vision is not an “engineered Paradise” (David Pearce), nor “lives wonderful beyond imagination” (Nick Bostrom), even though at first glance it looks like a paradise and it was actually meant to be one. It’s a dystopia that started out as a eutopia, and that still disguises itself as one. But Wells shows us that every paradise has a dark side, that there’s always a price to pay, and that what seems to be progress may well prove to be humanity’s downfall. It is quite likely that as a species we will develop further, and it’s even possible that we are able to steer that development in the direction that appears most desirable to us. But that doesn’t mean that we will like what we will get. We tend to think of the posthuman as something that is better than a mere human, more advanced, an improved human. But the posthuman may just as well turn out to be in some important respect less than human.
But of course, for Wells it’s even worse than that. Wells’s time traveller travels further and further into the future until eventually even those shrunken versions of our present selves have vanished. Wells allows us a glimpse at a time when we’ll all be gone for good, and there will be nothing left. It will be as if we had never existed, the world an empty, desolate place. No humans, no posthumans, nothing, just tohu wa-bohu. It’s a truly chilling prospect, masterly set on scene by Wells:
“The darkness grew apace; a cold wind began to blow in freshening gusts from the east, and the showering white flakes in the air increased in number. From the edge of the sea came a ripple and whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives – all that was over. As the darkness thickened, the eddying flakes grew more abundant, dancing before my eyes; and the cold of the air more intense. At last, one by one, swiftly, one after the other, the white peaks of the distant hills vanished into blackness. The breeze rose to a moaning wind. I saw the black central shadow of the eclipse sweeping towards me. In another moment the pale stars alone were visible. All else was rayless obscurity. The sky was absolutely black.”
Surprisingly, however, the novel ends on an optimistic note. The time traveller has brought home from his journey two flowers from the pre-desolation future and passes them on to the story’s narrator before he leaves once more, never to return again. Those two flowers provide some comfort to the narrator, despite everything that is going to happen, because they remind him of what truly matters in life:
“And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers – shrivelled now, and brown and flat and brittle – to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.”
In the longest run our prospects may be very bleak indeed, but as long as we can hold on to that “mutual tenderness”, all is not lost.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Time, Death, and Identity in Dumas' Count of Monte Christo

The story is well known, at least in its outlines: on the day when he is supposed to marry his beloved Mercedes, the young sailor Edmond Dantes is arrested on bogus charges and imprisoned in the Chateau d'If on a small island near Marseille. He spends 14 years there before he can escape. He gets hold of an enormous treasure and reincarnates as the Count of Monte Christo to meticulously plan and execute his revenge on those who were responsible for his unjust imprisonment.

It's a great novel that I found hard to put down once I had started with it. As far as adventure stories go, it is far better, that is, far better written, far more compelling, and far more believable, than any of the stuff that floods the book market today. Not that it is particularly realistic. Monte Christo is clearly a character designed to be larger than life, and parts of the plot and the whole atmosphere are strongly and deliberately reminiscent of A Thousand and One Nights. And unlike Victor Hugo, he is not a poet. His use of language is more economical. Neither does he engage in philosophical discussions. He doesn't seem to be interested in the nature of things. He doesn't attempt to understand the world or even human society (as for instance Balzac did). But there's a tragic note in the whole story, an all-pervading sadness that hints at something deeper, some essential feature of this world. Edmond gets his revenge, but seeing his enemies destroyed doesn't give him the satisfaction that he had hoped for. It doesn't restore the order of things, as it should. In a more conventional novel the hero would punish those who wronged him and get back the woman he loves. But although Mercedes is still alive and they could now reunite if they still wished to, they both agree that it's too late for them. Mercedes still loves Edmond, and Edmond still loves Mercedes, but Edmond is dead. He has changed so much that he is now someone else. Monte Christo has grown from Edmond, but he isn't him. He has replaced him. And Mercedes loves Edmond, but not Monte Christo.

Over the years we lose each other, unless we change together, and we may even lose ourselves. We look back to who we were when we were young and hardly recognise ourselves. Time sweeps us away and separates us from ourselves. You cannot step into the same river twice. What's done cannot be undone. The Count of Monte Christo is not so much about revenge as about the irreversibility of events, the impossibility to go back in time and retrieve what has been lost, and the death that we die at every single moment in our lives when the present drifts into the past.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Automatic Sweethearts for Transhumanists: Sexbots on the Rise

More than a hundred years ago, the American philosopher and ur-psychologist William James once briefly discussed, in one of the footnotes to his book Pragmatism, the possibility and desirability of a sexual companion that acted exactly like a real human lover would, but that did not feel anything at all. James called this fantasy an "automatic sweetheart". Philosophers of mind would later, dropping the erotic connotations, speak of a "philosophical zombie".

Today, it seems, automatic sweethearts have already become a reality. They are called sex robots or simply "sexbots". You can buy them on the internet (, which I first misread as Sexbots R Us), the basic, "unmotorized" version for  6,000 USD (plus shipping and handling) and the advanced version ("self-contained, rechargeable and touch activated") for 11,299 USD. Tough choice, but at least you can try them before you buy, that is, rent them first to make sure it's the right thing for you. What you are being promised is a "life-like sexual companion" with "life-like movements" and a removable (for easier cleaning) skin with "natural flesh-like feel" who is designed "with the movements needed to perform sexual acts" so it can "actually do the job". However, what you really get, judging from the pictures and short videos in which you can see the bots in action, is an (either male or female) giant Barbie Doll, fresh from the Uncanny Valley. There's even a short video where you can watch Ken and Barbie having sex, which is about as arousing as watching two coupling ladybirds. Honestly, I would much rather use my hand than do it with one of those bots.

But then, I'm not a transhumanist. If I were one I would be obliged to celebrate the rise of the sexbots as another victory in our brave struggle against nature and against nasty bioluddites. Last month the Centre for Transhumanity republished on their website an article by a certain Hank Pellisier entitled "Sexbots Will Give Us Longevity Orgasms". The same article had already been published three years earlier in the magazine of the World Transhumanist Association humanity plus (when the author still called himself "Hank Hyena", which is probably the worst pseudonym in the history of pseudonyms). The images show two sparsely clad and certainly very enticing young women who supposedly are meant to be taken for paradigmatic sexbots (and who look nothing like the real ones of the Ken & Barbie type). The article begins by informing us that sex is good for us, the more and the more explosive, the better. But that means that we hardly ever get enough of it. Real human companions tend to have the occasional headache or their period or have to work or what have you, so twice a day is out of the question, and after a while the sex you get is not even particularly good, which is really bad for your mental and physical health. Enter the sexbots, which are exactly the kind of sexual partner that we always wanted, only much, much better, like just about everything in the technologically enchanted posthuman world that transhumanists are so fond of salivating over. You like sex? You ain't seen nothing yet. By the year 2050

"sexbots will electrocute our flesh with climaxes thrice as gigantic because they’ll be more desirable, patient, eager, and altruistic than their meat-bag competition, plus they’ll be uploaded with supreme sex-skills from millennia of erotic manuals, archives and academic experiments, and their anatomy will feature sexplosive devices. Sexbots will heighten our ecstasy until we have shrieking, frothy, bug-eyed, amnesia-inducing orgasms. They’ll offer us quadruple-tongued cunnilingus, open-throat silky fellatio, deliriously gentle kissing, transcendent nipple tweaking, g-spot massage & prostate milking dexterity, plus 2,000 varieties of coital rhythm with scented lubes — this will all be ours when the Sexbots arrive."

Wow, I can't wait. The guy is not joking, by the way. He seems to really mean it. Finally we're going to get the kind of sex that we deserve. Life will be as it should have been all along. And it's so healthy and can easily add several years to your life. And it's so much easier. No more foreplay, no more boring conversations, no commitment or obligations, no embarrassing questions, no talking back. Perfect!

"Sexbots will never have headaches, fatigue, impotence, premature ejaculation, pubic lice, disinterest, menstrual blood, jock strap itch, yeast infections, genital warts, AIDS/HIV, herpes, silly expectations, or inhibiting phobias. Sexbots will never stalk us, rape us, diss us on their blog, weep when we dump them, or tell their friends we were boring in bed."

Hyena/ Pellisier further predicts that sexbots will come with an option: eye contact or no eye contact. And they will shower after we have used them "and put themselves back in the closet." So convenient.

So sexbots are really good for us on so many levels. Life extension, the holy grail of transhumanism. Well-being and happiness for everyone, at any time, the hedonistic imperative. And of course control, independence, autonomy. Nature finally defeated. We don't need anyone, and we are not needed by anyone. (Human lovers are much too needy. We don't need that.) Sexbots make us free. We can finally take without having to give anything back. We don't have to worry about what they feel. They never disobey. We can just use them. Humans like to see themselves as ends and tend to resent being treated as a mere means. Sexbots won't object. They are means.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Sinnott-Armstrong and Miller on the Wrongness of Killing

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Franklin G. Miller just published an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics (39/1, 2013) on "what makes killing wrong". The article was already pre-published online about a year ago, so my comments are somewhat belated. My excuse is that I only read it this morning. The authors' main theoretical claim is that what makes killing wrong is that the resulting state is that of a "total disability". "Total" is taken to mean universal and irreversible. In other words, when you're dead, you're incapable of doing anything at all and you will never be capable of doing anything again, and that's what's bad about being dead and consequently what is bad about, as the authors put it, "making" someone dead. The suggestion is interesting and, giving the difficulty to understand what exactly makes killing wrong, certainly worth considering. What I find worrying, though, is that the reason for proposing that we think differently about the evil of death, and killing, is not a theoretical interest in furthering our understanding of those issues, but rather a practical interest in changing certain practices.

Sinnott-Armstrong and Miller are unhappy with the so-called "dead donor rule", which prescribes that a patient needs to be dead before you can "harvest" their organs. If your goal is to get as many organs as possible, then this rule is rather inconvenient. And it is this inconvenience that prompts the authors' attempt to redefine death as a state of total disability, or rather to claim that what death is in addition to being a state of total disability is morally irrelevant. There are states in which you are totally disabled, but still alive, but if you are in that state, you're as good as dead, or could as well be dead for all it matters. You may even be conscious and still be totally disabled, as long as you can no longer control your thoughts in any way. You are in a state of complete and utter helplessness, and you will remain so. For this reason, you can now no longer be harmed by being killed, which means that there is no moral reason not to kill you. And perhaps there isn't. Perhaps it would even be better for you, provided that your condition is really irreversible (which I don't think we can ever be absolutely certain about).

Still, I'm not convinced, primarily because this is such a suspiciously convenient conclusion. What is the situation? There are people who want your organs. Unfortunately, you're not dead yet, and we're not supposed to kill you. But we cannot remove your organs without killing you. So what are we going to do? Let's go and find an ethicist to make a clever argument which will then allow us to get what we want. Congrats on a job well done. And if we ever doubted that philosophical ethics can do much good, we must now admit that ethicists can be very useful indeed.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Are Smart Drugs Unfair?

Next week I'm going to take part in a panel discussion in Bristol on whether "students should take smart drugs". A fairly common view on the subject seems to be that using cognitive enhancers such as Adderall, Dexedrine, or Ritalin in order to boost one's ability to concentrate and stay awake is somehow morally dubious, mainly because it is deemed "unfair". But why exactly should it be unfair? Well, smart drugs cost money, and perhaps not everyone is rich enough to afford them. However, a couple of pills currently don't cost more than a pint of beer, so should be affordable to pretty much every student. And even if they really were so expensive that some students simply can't afford them, then it wouldn't really be the act of taking those drugs that is unfair, but rather their costliness. Reduce the price and the unfairness disappears. And given that arguably the effect of a private school education, which is far more expensive, on a student's abilities and achievements is a lot greater than anything that a smart drug can get you, it is strange that we should make so much fuss about this when it comes to cognitive enhancement drugs.

But perhaps the alleged unfairness of using such drugs consists in the fact that they help us appear better, i.e. smarter, than we really are. Except that they don't. Smart drugs don't make us smarter. The best that they can do is allow people to perform at their best, unhampered by anxiety, tiredness or a lack of motivation. Is this unfair towards those who have to work really hard to achieve good results? No, because those drugs don't provide you with a convenient short-cut. You still have to work hard. It will just be easier for you to work hard. Is this unfair towards those who don't need any enhancers to perform well? No, why should it? It is not important, or at least shouldn't be, that some students perform better than others. If some students need a little extra help to perform well, and there is such help available, why should we prevent them from making use of it? Far from being unfair, it rather seems to (slightly) level the playing field. And in contrast to sport where it might be pretty boring if everyone performed equally well, I don't see why we should not wish for all students to perform equally well.

If coffee and cigarettes aren't unfair, then so-called smart drugs aren't either. If private schools are unfair, then smart drugs are a lot less unfair. And if it is unfair that some people find it easier to learn than others, then smart drugs can even increase fairness.