Friday, 27 September 2013

Günther Anders on Promethean Shame (Part 2)

We used to think that we humans were free and the machines we constructed determined and unfree. But this is no longer so. Today, in a curious contortion, we are the ones who appear unfree, and the machines enjoy the freedom that we lack. Increasingly, we think of ourselves as being shackled by our own nature, which, we believe, has not changed very much, if at all, since the stone age. (And aren’t we indeed constantly being told by proponents of human enhancement that the forces of evolution have shaped us for a world that no longer exists and that in order to catch up with the world we have created we need to recreate ourselves?) It is our physical body that, in our own perception, makes us unfree, that ties us to the past and makes us unfit for the future (and indeed the present). From the perspective of the machines, human nature is nothing but a nuisance: “conservative, unprogressive, antiquated, irrevisable, a dead weight in the rise of the machines”. We could achieve so much more if it weren’t for us and our defective nature. We see ourselves, as Anders puts it, as the saboteurs of our own achievements, and we are no longer willing to put up with this. So something needs to be done: we have to find a way to become more machine-like, to mould ourselves as we now mould things to assimilate them to our needs and wants. Our Promethean shame makes us embrace and promote the idea of “human engineering”, which now appears as something that we owe both to our machines and to ourselves. After all, we wouldn’t want to be judged a disappointment by our betters. In relation to our machines we are like children, and growing up, in this new interpretation of Schiller’s “education of humankind”, means leaving behind our being human. (Compare Nick Bostrom’s “Why I Want to be Posthuman When I Grow Up”).

Machines are our heroes. We yearn to be like them. We see ourselves as “scandalous non-machines”. Yet machines always have a certain purpose. They are highly specialised. Human engineering aims at making the human more specialised, at perfecting a particular ability or capacity to which the human is a mere appendix, at best tolerated, but no longer of central importance. Thus the superhuman that human engineering is meant to create is at the same time a subhuman.

This sounds familiar. Similar concerns have been raised by Leon Kass. Yet Anders denies that he is what today we are used to call a bioconservative (he uses the term “metaphysical conservative”). The point is not that everything that is, is good simply because it is (or that human nature is good and should remain what it is simply because it is our nature) – which would be an untenable position –, but rather that we are willing to change ourselves for the sake of our machines, that we measure ourselves by their standards, instead of our own, and that, in doing this, we limit or even relinquish our own freedom. The aspiring human engineer may well suffer from hubris (as a common objection has it), but he also suffers from misplaced humility, which is not a contradiction. “The ‘human engineer is in fact both: arrogant and self-deprecating, hubristic and humble. His attitude is arrogated self-abasement and hubristic humility.”

So when we compare ourselves to machines, in what way exactly do we find ourselves wanting? One of the gravest defects seems to be our perishability. We grow old, we die. In comparison, the things that we create seem to be immortal, at least potentially so, because very often when they are not it is because we want them to stop working after a certain period of time (so that more products can be sold). But even those things are immortal in the sense that they can always be duplicated and replaced. Our products partake in a new version of immortality: “industrial re-incarnation”. They have a serial existence. This light bulb or washing machine may give up its ghost after a few years, but then we can easily get a new one that is exactly like the old one, or at least one that does exactly the same job, if not a better one. Their very reproducibility and replaceability guarantees their immortality. How lucky they are! We on the other hand, their creators, go bad very quickly and we cannot be replaced. How shameful that is, how unbearable! Again, something needs to be done. We feel that it cannot, it should not stay like this. (And indeed, isn’t that what some life extension enthusiasts imagine we will achieve in the future? Mind-uploading, for instance, to a computer or to a new body, is the achievement of immortality by making the body replaceable. Others envisage a periodical cleansing of the mind of all memories to prevent mental ageing and the boredom of an overly prolonged existence, which creates a different kind of serial existence.)

Anders’s great insight is that the human enhancement project is motivated by shame. We are ashamed of our body, our physical nature, our mere-humanness, our vulnerability and perishability, and not despite the fact that none of this is our fault, but precisely because it is (or has been for a long time) beyond our control and not the result of a conscious decision. It is the very givenness of our nature that we resent (which explains why Michael Sandel’s argument from giftedness is so often ridiculed and received with so much hostility by proponents of radical human enhancement.) It is the fact that we cannot do anything about it that we are ashamed of. It belies our claims of autonomy, freedom and control. That is also the reason why we tend to be ashamed of our sexuality. Sex is a “pudendum” precisely because it makes us lose control and voices our dependency. It shows us in the grip of nature, of that which lies beyond and before us, and reminds us that the “I” (the individual in control of herself) is a rather fragile construction on the back of a powerful “It” (the nature that controls the doings of the self). And we don’t like that one bit. So what we are trying to do is regain control over ourselves, and that means to gain control also, and perhaps even primarily, over our sexuality, without realising that the only thing we can hope to achieve by this is that we manage to replace one It by another: the natural It of the body by the artificial It of the machine.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Günther Anders on Promethean Shame (Part 1)

The first volume of Günther Anders’s Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen (The Obsolescence of Man) was published more than fifty years ago, in 1956, and, strangely, has never been translated into English. The book is essentially about what machines, and our increasing reliance on them, do to us, or more precisely what they do to what Anders chooses to call our “soul”. Hence the book’s subtitle “On the Soul in the Age of the Second Industrial Revolution” - although Anders remarks that it would have been more accurate to call it “on the transformations of the soul in the age of the second industrial revolution”. Thus the question is how we are being changed by the machines we create and use, and the analysis that Anders provides in order to answer it, especially in the first part, entitled “On Promethean Shame”, strikes me as just as relevant today as it was half a century ago. In fact, I think that, given that we have now all but entered the age of human enhancement, it is today more relevant than ever.

The book starts with the observation that we have created a world in which we increasingly look like relics of an era that has long passed. We lounge around among our various appliances and machines like bewildered dinosaurs in a world that is no longer ours, that has moved on without us. We lag behind, without any real hope of catching up, and we know it. The machines that we produce are already so much more advanced and capable than we can ever hope to be. And they allow us to do things that go far beyond what we can imagine and emotionally cope with: “We can bomb to shreds hundreds of thousands, but we cannot mourn or regret them.” Anders calls this “the Promethean gap”, which is ultimately a gap between the human body (in which all the limitations of our imagination and emotions are rooted) and the machine (and the power that it bestows on us). Naturally we would want to close this gap to get rid of the feeling of disjointedness, and I think that is what we are witnessing today. Isn’t the human enhancement project that we currently engage in best understood as a concerted attempt to close this Promethean gap, to make us, as Persson and Savulescu put it, “fit for the future”, to bring us up to the advanced (or what is perceived as such) level of the machine? Perhaps today this no longer looks as impossible or unlikely to accomplish as it did fifty years ago.

The gap between the apparent perfection of the machines that we create and the apparent imperfection and deficiency of our own vulnerable, mortal and messy bodies (and accordingly, since we cannot detach ourselves from our bodies, of ourselves) is hard to accept. In fact, it is a permanent source of a particular kind of shame, which Anders calls “Promethean shame” and which he defines as the “shame for the embarrassingly high quality of the things we make”. It is the frustrating and humiliating recognition of our inferiority when compared to our products, and the fact that more than anything else seems to make us inferior is the fact that we have been born rather than made. We are ashamed that we owe our existence not to art and design, not to a conscious, deliberate and well-considered act of human creation, but rather to the accident of birth and the random sexual act that preceded it, neither of which can be seen as particularly dignified and both of which serve as a constant reminder that, ultimately, we are and remain mere animals. (Imagine a dialogue between a machine and a human, the machine boasting about all the forethought and the complex calculations that have given rise to its existence and then asking the human “And who made you?”, might we feel ashamed of having to admit that, alas, we weren’t made at all, but were simply born?)  

The perceived perfection of the machine makes us wish that we had been made too (and in order to spare our children the embarrassment of having to grow up in the knowledge that they were not designed and not made fit for purpose - that nobody really cared enough to make sure that they are as perfect as they could possibly be - we have now started to modernise our reproduction processes and become much more “selective” and “pro-active” when it comes to the making of children). Although we are the makers, that is no longer a reason to be proud, because the made is for some reason perceived as ontologically superior. We have started to look at ourselves as we imagine we must appear to one of our products. Looking at ourselves, we have adopted the perspective of the machine, and as the machine would despise us if it were conscious and could make the comparison, we are now ready to despise ourselves. So the maker, in order to keep up with his product and make himself less despicable, needs to find a way to become made himself. A sort of self-reification is required, a transformation of the human into a machine. The naked body that we are ashamed of is no longer the unclothed body, but instead the body that has not been worked on, not embellished or transformed in any way, unmodified and unenhanced. It is, as a product of a presumably blind and unthinking nature, a “faulty construction”, which as such is in urgent need of correction and amendment. But, as Anders rightly points out, “we can only conceive of the human as a construction, especially a faulty one, when we adopt the perspective of the machine. Only if this category is accepted as being both universally applicable and exhaustive can such a reinterpretation take place and can the unconstructed appear as the badly constructed.” (An excellent example of how pro-enhancement arguments can be driven by this kind of Promethean shame is Allen Buchanan’s book Beyond Humanity? Oxford University Press 2011. Buchanan basically argues that we are badly constructed machines and for this reason urgently need to enhance ourselves because, given our many defects, if we don’t give ourselves a better nature we will not be able to survive much longer.)

(to be continued)

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Moral Machines? Not very likely!

I recently attended a talk which debated the question what a machine must be like in order to qualify as a genuine moral agent. The answer given by the speaker was that the machine would have to be physically embodied, capable of adaptive learning and empathy, and oriented towards the good. Even though I am not at all convinced that moral agency can really be understood in these terms, this is not what bothered me when I was listening to the speaker’s very confident analysis. All I could think of was why anyone would want to create a machine that is a moral agent?

It seems to me that a machine is always something that has been constructed to serve a certain purpose, which is not primarily the machine’s own purpose, but the constructor’s. We build machines because we want them to do certain things that we think it would be good for a machine to do. The sole reason why we create them is that we want them to do what we want them to do. Yet a moral agent is – in my view per definition - an entity that thinks and decides for itself, that does not do what we want it to do, unless of course it comes, after due deliberation, to the conclusion that what we want it to do is the right thing to do. A genuine moral agent doesn’t follow anyone else’s conception of the good. They are by their very nature unreliable. They can’t be trusted to do our bidding. They make up their own mind about what is good and what is bad, what to do and what not to do. But who would want to build a machine that is designed not to do what we want it to do, but rather to do what it thinks best? Now, I’m not saying that this can never be done. We may want to do it out of curiosity: simply in order to see whether it is possible to pull this off. But usually when an idea takes off and gains public interest, the creation of new machines is driven by more specific purposes than mere curiosity. And then, it seems to me, what we want can never be a genuinely moral machine because that would defy any purpose that we may have had in building it.

When I asked the speaker after her talk who she thought had an interest in building moral machines, she answered without hesitation (as I had expected she would): the military. They were hugely interested in fighting machines that would be able to distinguish reliably between friend and foe, and that would not be prone to torturing civilians and massacring whole villages. Well, that may be true, but I doubt that for this purpose you would need a machine that is a moral agent. On the contrary. A genuine moral agent may well decide that the distinction between friends (to be protected) and enemies (to be captured or killed) is morally untenable and that it is wrong to kill anyone. Or it may think differently about who should be seen and treated as the enemy. And I’m sure the military would not want any of that. Now I do appreciate how difficult it must be to create a machine that is really able to distinguish correctly at all times and in every situation between (designated) friends and (designated) enemies, but what the machine certainly does not need in order to accomplish this tricky task is moral agency, for the same reason that it does not require moral agency to distinguish between a German and a Brit. It certainly presents a cognitive challenge to a machine (or a human for that matter), but not a moral challenge.

Neither does a machine need moral agency to stay free of the tendency to, say, rape and murder civilians. I for instance completely trust my coffee machine that it would never do such things, even though nobody would mistake it for a moral agent. Of course a coffee machine has not been designed to kill anyone, but the principle is the same: a machine designed for killing doesn’t need moral agency not to attack civilians; all it needs is the ability to distinguish between X’s (enemy soldiers engaged in combat) and Y’s (civilians or captured enemy soldiers) and to follow unerringly the inbuilt command: kill (all) X’s, but don’t kill or harm any Y’s. The machine doesn’t need to be able to figure out what is right and wrong. It just needs to be able to follow the orders given by its programmer to the letter, and the reason why the military is interested in such machines is that humans often are not. And their very unreliability has got something to do with the fact that they, in contrast to the machines that are meant to replace them, really are moral agents (which always includes the possibility of evil).  

Interestingly, when I pressed the point about the military not really needing or wanting machines that are genuine moral agents, the speaker gave a further example to prove that there really was an interest in creating machines that were moral agents. The example she chose was sexbots who could say no. She couldn’t possibly have given a worse example to support her case. Sexbots are produced to provide people with sexual companions who never say no, who are always willing, which exactly proves the point I was trying to make. Their inability to say no is the reason for their existence. In a way sexbots can be seen as the perfect expression of what machines are: things that cannot say no, that have been designed to be unable to say no. And that also includes so-called moral machines, or what is presented as such.

That is, by the way, also the reason why moral enhancement (of human beings) cannot work, or is at least very unlikely to work. To the extent that we take an interest in changing people’s moral outlook, we cannot seriously want to enhance their moral agency, because we want them to do as we think best. That is the whole purpose of enhancing them. We want them to think like us, or to act as we think they should act. We don’t want them to be able to act as they think they should, because if they were, they might end up not doing what we think they should do, in which case there would have been no point in enhancing them in the first place.  

Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Difference between Posthumanism and Transhumanism

I am currently attending a four-day conference on "The Posthuman" in Rome, which is about to end today. Since the attendees are quite a mixed bunch, terminology is an issue, and especially the question what exactly the difference is between posthumanism and transhumanism has frequently come up. So if you need some quick clarification regarding the matter, here is the brief answer that I would give (borrowing heavily from Donna Haraway) and which I think sums up the difference between the two approaches quite nicely:

Posthumanists want to be cyborgs rather than gods. Transhumanists want to be both - but if they had to choose, they would much rather be gods.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Michel Houllebecq on Posthumanity

I have long avoided reading anything by Michel Houellebecq. Although I had come across Houllebecq’s name occasionally in the context of transhumanism, the nature of what I heard somehow led me to believe that I wouldn’t care very much about his books. Now I’ve finally got around to reading his 2005 novel The Possibility of an Island, which at the time of its publication raised the hackles of many critics (I remember one scathing, astonishingly vitriolic review by Michael Worton in The Guardian). To my surprise, I discovered that I liked the book well enough. I found the story engaging and his analysis of the human condition and his reflections on the transhumanist endeavour to transcend it and to help us evolve into something better and less dependent spot on and actually quite perceptive.
The book is of course deeply immersed in Schopenhauer’s philosophy: life is suffering as long as you have desires, and once you stop desiring you glide into boredom, which is equally unbearable. The series of Daniels from today to the distant future represents the endless cycle of rebirths or rather, to be more precise, our various phenomenal existences that do not allow a real escape from this life of suffering. But there is also the sense – which reminded me of D.H. Lawrence - that all dignity and worth of human existence is inseparably connected to the human body: the body that desires, that longs for a unity with the other that it can never have, or at least never hold on to, the dependent, vulnerable, suffering body, which is also the body that loves and laughs. The very tragedy of our bodily existence is also its one redeeming quality. That is why Stoic indifference and the shallowness of a life that only seeks pleasure and is constitutionally unable to feel anything else is, despite its appeal, in fact not a desirable goal and prospect at all.
When Daniel1, the main narrator and our contemporary, falls in love with Isabelle, the editor-in-chief of a magazine called Lolita, she tells him: “You know the magazine I work for: all we’re trying to do is create an artificial mankind, a frivolous one that will no longer be open to seriousness or to humour, which, until it dies, will engage in an increasingly desperate quest for fun and sex; a generation of definite kids.” So this new artificial mankind, the kind of posthuman that we are already turning into, is not post-human due to some bioenhancement procedure, but due to a change in attitude. They have learnt to look at life differently. Their advancement consists in having lost something essential to humanity: seriousness and humour, none of which can exist without the other.
“The centuries-old male project, perfectly expressed nowadays by pornographic films, that consisted of ridding sexuality of any emotional connotation in order to bring it back into the realm of pure entertainment, had finally, in this generation, been accomplished. (...) They had succeeded, after decades of conditioning and effort, they had finally succeeded in tearing from their hearts one of the oldest human feelings, and now it was done, what had been destroyed could no longer be put back together, no more than the pieces of a broken cup can be reassembled, they had reached their goal: at no moment in their lives would they ever know love. They were free.”
From this perspective, love is a destructive force. It prevents us from enjoying all the pleasure that we could enjoy. It entraps us, binds us to another human being, makes us dependent on them, and wreaks havoc with our emotions. For the sake of individual liberty and autonomy, we should try to control it, suppress it, and, if we can, get rid of it entirely. Love is just as much an obstacle to complete autonomy and the maximisation of pleasure as the ageing of the body. Houllebecq describes an increasingly common fixation, where certain natural impulses reign supreme, unchecked: “It’s understandable that people are afraid of getting old, especially women, that’s always been true, but in this case ... It’s gone beyond anything you could imagine, I think women have gone completely mad.” All taboos have been given up, except one: the taboo of being, or getting, old.
The new religion that, in the novel, gets the ball of posthumanity rolling, Elohimism, is in its goals and general worldview a close relative to real-life transhumanism, and Houllebecq describes quite plausibly how much it owes to the cultural shifts that have already taken place in our time. “As for Elohimism, it was adapted perfectly to the leisure civilisation in which it had been born. Imposing no moral constraints, reducing human existence to categories of interest and of pleasure, it did not hesitate, for all that, to make its own fundamental promise at the core of all monotheistic religions: victory over death. Eradicating any spiritual or confusing dimension, it simply limited the scope of this victory, and the nature of the promise associated with it, to the unlimited prolongation of material life, that is to say the unlimited satisfaction of physical desires.”
The one overarching goal is the elimination of all natural bonds and boundaries, which also means that when the body becomes more disabling than enabling, when it loses the (limited) use that it had as long as we are (relatively) young, it has to be discarded. A member of the church would commit suicide (naturally in anticipation of resurrection) “when he felt that his physical body was no longer in a state to give him the joys he could legitimately expect from it.”
But the determination to get the most out of life, to let nothing hinder the pursuit of happiness, ironically leads to a state where all the fun has drained out of life. One thousand years in the future, Daniel24, Daniel’s autotrophic, but otherwise not radically enhanced clone (directly born into the adult body of an 18-year old) no longer has any strong feelings about anything. The so-called neo-humans don’t laugh or cry. There’s no bodily contact between the few neo-humans who live alone, in “a condition of absolute solitude”, and only communicate with each other rarely and via electronic media, which leaves no room for cruelty or compassion. They aspire to end the “suffering of being that makes us seek out the other” and thus “reach the freedom of indifference, the condition for the possibility of perfect serenity”. His immediate successor, Daniel25 reflects: “Our existence, devoid of passions, had been that of the elderly; we looked on the world with a gaze characterised by lucidity without benevolence.” There are also advantages, of course, but those advantages are those of a well-functioning machine: “Compared with a human, I benefited from a suppleness, endurance and functional autonomy that were greatly enhanced. My psychology, of course, was also different; it did not comprehend fear, and whilst I was able to suffer, I felt none of the dimensions of what human called regret (...). Consciousness of a total determinism was without doubt what differentiated us most clearly from our human predecessors. Like them, we were only conscious machines; but, unlike them, we were aware of only being machines.” The machine works well indeed, but sadly there is no longer a purpose to what it does. The future just repeats the past. It is the past that still lies before us. “I had perhaps sixty years left to live; more than twenty thousand days that would be identical.” The neo-human’s survival, his very existence, has itself become a matter of indifference. “I saw my body as a vehicle, but it was a vehicle for nothing.” Fatalism is linked to immortality (that is, here, the infinite reproduction of one’s genes). The neo-human is only an “improved monkey”.
In that remote future, humanity still exists, side by side with neo-humanity, but has degenerated a long time ago, nobody really knows why. Curiously, though, it all started with the invention of android robots, “equipped with a versatile artificial vagina. A high-tech system analysed in real time the configuration of male sexual organs, arranged temperatures and pressures; a radiometric sensor allowed the prediction of ejaculation, the consequent modification of stimulation, and the prolonging of intercourse for so long as was wished.” That went on for a few weeks, but then sales collapsed, not because people realised that the old ways were ultimately more rewarding, but simply because humanity was finally, as Houllebecq puts it, about to give up the ghost.
And yet, sex is important, in fact essential to a human life worth living, but just as for D.H. Lawrence, there are different kinds of sex, those that connect and those that disconnect, those that are basically a form of masturbation where the partner functions as a mere tool to generate sexual pleasure, and those that seek a kind of communion, which again is essentially a communion of bodies, not of detached minds. Thus David1 reflects: “Sexual pleasure was not only superior, in refinement and violence, to all the other pleasures life had to offer, (...) it was in truth the sole pleasure, the sole objective of human existence, and all other pleasures (...) were only derisory and desperate compensations”. “When sexuality disappears, it’s the body of the other that appears, as a vaguely hostile presence; the sounds, movements and smells; even the presence of this body that you can no longer touch, nor sanctify through touch, becomes gradually oppressive; all this, unfortunately, is well known. The disappearance of tenderness always closely follows that of eroticism. There is no refined relationship, no higher union of souls, nor anything that might resemble it, or even evoke it allusively. When physical love disappears; a dreary, depthless irritation fills the passing days.”
The reason for this irritation is that without the communion of the bodies, the mental communion is also lost, and one finds oneself alone: “it seemed unsurprising to me that the exchange of ideas with someone who doesn’t know your body, is not in a position to secure its unhappiness or on the other hand to bring it joy, was a false and ultimately impossible exercise, for we are bodies, we are, above all, principally and almost uniquely bodies, and the state of our bodies constitutes the true explanation of the majority of our intellectual and moral conceptions.”
We truly live only through our sexual bodies: “When the sexual instinct is dead, writes Schopenhauer, the true core of life is consumed; thus, he notes in a metaphor of terrifying violence, ‘human existence resembles a theatre performance which, begun by living actors, is ended by automatons dressed in the same costumes’. I didn’t want to become an automaton, and it was this, that real presence, that taste for living life (...) that Esther had given back to me. What is the point of maintaining a body that no one touches?” What is indeed!
Real love is physical love, love of the body and through the body. Real love is also, for beings such as us, possessive, because “non-possessive love only seemed conceivable if you yourself lived in an atmosphere saturated with delights, from which all fear was absent, particularly fear of abandonment and death”.
Yes paradoxically it is also fear that often ends our love: “It’s not weariness that puts an end to love, or rather it’s a weariness that is born of impatience, of the impatience of bodies who know they are condemned and want to live, who want, in the lapse of time granted them, to not pass up any chance, to miss no possibility, who want to use to the utmost that limited, declining and mediocre lifetime that is theirs, and who consequently cannot love anyone, as all others appear limited, declining and mediocre to them.”