Falling for It

Image adapted from a woodcut by Bernard Saloman

Image adapted from a woodcut by Bernard Saloman

Who decides whether technological modifications to a person are an enhancement or not? Theologian Ronald Cole-Turner asks this question in his introduction to Transhumanism and Transcendence.

The modification might be medicine that makes you smarter, an implant that gives you a ‘new’ memory, or perhaps a physical prosthetic that allows you to control devices with your brain.

Secular approaches to bioethics, he explains, inevitably end with the subject of the change deciding for themselves whether the modification is an improvement or not.

This leads Cole-Turner towards an interesting question:

What are we to think if, after the technological enhancement, there is a change of mind – literally? Before the modification, the person completely understands and truly believes that the change is an enhancement. After the modification, the person completely understands and believes that it is not an enhancement, not because anything went wrong but because the enhancement worked and the moral core of the person has been changed. In such case, is the change an enhancement?

The thought experiment is a reminder of a much older story:

The serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild animals the Lord God had made. One day he asked the woman, “Did God really say you must not eat the fruit from any of the trees in the garden?”

“Of course we may eat fruit from the trees in the garden,” the woman replied. “It’s only the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden that we are not allowed to eat. God said, ‘You must not eat it or even touch it; if you do, you will die.’”

“You won’t die!” the serpent replied to the woman. “God knows that your eyes will be opened as soon as you eat it, and you will be like God, knowing both good and evil.”

The serpent convinces Eve to be disobedient by convincing her of the fruit’s enabling power. Eve quickly realises that though the serpent told the truth, the ‘enhancement’ was a trap:

“The serpent deceived me,” she replied. “That’s why I ate it.”

And according to the Christian story, the consequences are realised by Eve, humanity – and ultimately by God – at incalculable cost.

CS Lewis and the Transhumanists

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Image borrowed from Twisty Turny Lanes

That Hideous Strength was published in 1945, the third of CS Lewis’s ‘space trilogy’. It’s a curious book, weaving dystopian sci fi, magic from the Dark Ages of Britain and Christian allegory into an adventure story about progress.

George Orwell thought the end result too unruly, commenting in a review for the Manchester Evening News:

Unfortunately, the supernatural keeps breaking in, and it does so in rather confusing, undisciplined ways…

However if you can stand the lack of discipline (Orwell thought it ultimately a ‘book worth reading’ by the way), Lewis is thought-provoking on the natural world, technological progress in general, and the idea that we now call transhumanism in particular.

Sugar and spice, and all things nice

The villains of That Hideous Strength are the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments (or NICE – to the discomfort of present-day clinical readers), an ambiguous and elastic organisation who claim to take a scientific approach to solving the social problems of the modern world.

To the general public, NICE’s purposes are fuzzy but benign. Mark Studdock, a young social scientist with a fellowship at a nearby university is ambitious and curious about the organisation. When discussing NICE with his academic peers, Mark speaks enthusiastically:

The real thing is that this time we’re going to get science applied to social problems and backed by the whole force of the state, just as war has been backed by the whole force of the state in the past. One hopes, of course, that it’ll find out more than the old free-lance science did; but what’s certain is that it can do more

Through flattery and coercion on the part of some NICE staff with whom he makes contact, Mark abandons his fellowship and starts to work for the institute. Gradually he is initiated into NICE’s inner circle and trusted with NICE’s true purpose.

One night Filostrato, an Italian scientist, draws him to one side and tells him:

This Institute – Dio meo; it is for something better than housing and vaccinations and faster trains and curing the people of cancer. It is for the conquest of death: or for the conquest of organic life, if you prefer. They are the same thing.

Filostrato has successfully preserved, by regulating the atmosphere and blood supply, the decapitated but still-living head of a notorious scientist, which regularly gives instructions to members of NICE. In time, Mark discovers the head (unknown to Filostrato) is actually a conduit for instructions from ‘macrobes’ – rather like fallen angels.

Merlin

The NICE scientists’ objective of defeating death (or organic life) is contrasted with an alternative, and typically Lewis, perspective inspired by ancient British myth and Christianity. This view is embodied, and fought for, by a small resistance who are joined by Merlin, who wakes from hundreds of years of sleep.

Merlin has lain interred under a wood since the dark ages and proves to be a wild nature-lover with 5th century habits and behaviours. He is aided, and becomes indwelt, by the Oyéresu (good angels who preside over nearby planets, and the inverse of the macrobes) to destroy NICE, including its scientists and the preserved Head.

As a side note, a running joke and symbol of NICE’s ambiguity is the obfuscatory language used by Wither, the organisation’s Deputy Director, who pulls the strings of the institute. Wither talks rather like Sir Humphrey Appleby. When asked by Mark to tell him exactly what his role at NICE would constitute, Wither replies:

We do not really think, among ourselves, in terms of strictly demarcated functions, of course. I take it that men like you and me are – well, to put it frankly, hardly in the habit of using concepts of that type. Everyone in the Institute feels that his own work is not so much a departmental contribution to an end already defined as a moment or grade in the progressive self-definition of an organic whole.

In the final chapters of the book, Merlin defeats NICE and distributes some poetic justice by casting the curse of Babel over NICE’s employees, causing them to become completely unable to understand each other. Finally, they are eaten in a bloody scene by the animals used in NICE’s experiments.

Aluminium trees

Like other dystopias, That Hideous Strength is a warning about what happens when progress is delegated to ideology of the few and divorced from the needs of the many. NICE professed to be working on public health and sanitation and other worthy goods, but instead were pursuing a madcap agenda, guided by dubious forces.

That Hideous Strength is also a commentary on what is lost when we rely on technology to fulfill our dreams. NICE’s real agenda was a war on nature. At one point, Filostrato orders a row of beech trees to be cut down, explaining to his colleagues that his idea of perfection would be to synthesise trees:

At present, I allow, we must have forests, for the atmosphere. Presently we find a chemical substitute. And then, why any natural trees? I foresee nothing but the art tree all over the earth. In fact, we clean the planet … And why not? It is simple hygiene.

Oxford in the 1940s seems very far from 21st century California, but the ideas that Lewis attributed to NICE and Filostrato are fresh as ever – and increasingly popular. Ray Kurzweil, an inventor (currently employed by Google) and leading proponent of transhumanism, is impatient with nature’s pace:

Biological evolution is too slow for the human species. Over the next few decades, it’s going to be left in the dust.

Kurzweil imagines a time when people will transcend the “limitations of our biological bodies and brain” and predicts humanity will soon be able to scan human brains in such detail that it becomes feasible to reverse engineer them.

Once this is possible, the next logical step is for humans to be able to upload their brains to computers, effectively protecting themselves from bodily decay and becoming immortal – an idea now familiar through various films.

Matter of Britain

Merlin, the wild man, stands out in clear contrast to NICE’s techno-utopia. Where NICE want to eliminate biology, Merlin is deeply connected with nature. At one point, Dimble, another academic and one of Merlin’s allies in the resistance, muses about the difference between Merlin’s worldview and the NICE scientists:

Merlin is the reverse of Belbury [where NICE is based]. He’s at the opposite extreme. He is the last vestige of an old order in which matter and spirit were, from our modern point of view, confused. For him every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse.

After him came the modern man to whom Nature is something dead – a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases. Finally, come the Belbury people, who take over that view from the modern man unaltered and simply want to increase their power by tacking onto it the aid of spirits – extra-natural, anti-natural spirits [i.e. the macrobes] …

In a sense Merlin represents what we’ve got to get back to in some different way.

Through That Hideous Strength,  Lewis warns that the power that technology appears to give us threatens our relationship with the natural world. While we may appear to have the ability to synthesise nature, we have forgotten just how interlinked we are; made of the same stuff and by the same Creator.

It’s easy to read Lewis as anti-progress, in his novels and other writings. When approached by the (presumably tongue-in-cheek) Society for the Prevention of Progress with an invitation of membership he replied in similar style, signing the letter “Yours regressively”:

While feeling that I was born a member of your Society, I am nevertheless honoured to receive the outward seal of membership. I shall hope by continued orthodoxy and the unremitting practice of Reaction, Obstruction, and Stagnation to give you no reason for repenting your favour.

This blog hopes to take a more open or curious (perhaps technorealist) approach. There may be parts of transhumanism thinking that are compatible with Christian views, which will be explored in future posts.

But any worldview which views nature as an expendable and replaceable commodity should send alarm signals to readers who take That Hideous Strength to heart.

Raising the Bar: Therapy or Enhancement?

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Image borrowed from Rolling Stone

In the Olympic games at Mexico in 1968, Dick Fosbury changed the high jump forever, when he left all other competitors behind and set an Olympic record of 2.24m. His winning technique of twisting his body and clearing the bar backwards is now universally adopted.

The Fosbury Flop has enabled high jumpers to clear new heights ever since, now over 2.4m. Dick Fosbury has since become a symbol of innovation, signed by Mazda to help advertise their cars in 2013. Fosbury’s new technique raised the bar for everyone.

As a ‘natural’ technique, the Flop was unusual but legitimate. Innovations that use technology to push human boundaries (in athletics or elsewhere) are more controversial, often becoming a discussion over whether the change is therapeutic or an enhancement.

For example, a prosthesis that allows an athlete with missing legs to compete with biological runners (as Pistorius did in the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games) is a therapeutic use, while a prosthesis that enabled speeds faster than biological legs would be enhancement.

The therapy vs. enhancement distinction sounds promising, but is ultimately less meaningful than you might think. The reason is that the definition of what is a ‘normal’ state of health has always changed over time – like in a high jump, the bar is moved from time to time.

Definitions of disease have altered over time, as well as differing between class, gender and culture. As we age, most of us expect our bones to break more easily, but osteoporosis was reclassified from a natural part of getting older into a disease by the WHO in 1994.

An opposite example is homosexuality, first thought of as an ‘act’ (and a capital offence in the UK after 1533), then a ‘state’, then a mental disorder, before finally removed as a listed disease from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual II in 1974.

Ronald Cole-Turner, a professor of theology and ethics writes about the line between therapy and enhancement:

“Disease” itself is a socially constructed category, not something unambiguous in nature, and the list of diseases changes over time, often in light of cultural preferences or the marketing of a new drug. If “therapy” treats “disease”, it treats a moving target.

Cole-Turner goes on to quote Leon Kass, former chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics who describes as “certainly no friend of technological enhancement”. Kass says:

Those who introduced this distinction [between therapy and enhancement] hoped by this means to distinguish between the acceptable and the dubious or unacceptable uses of biomedical technology: therapy is always ethically fine, enhancement is, at least prima facie, ethically suspect … But this distinction is inadequate and finally unhelpful to the moral analysis.

Kass continues:

Needless arguments about whether or not something is an ‘enhancement’ get in the way of the proper question: What are the good and bad uses of biotechnical power? What makes a use “Good”, or even just “acceptable”?

The Transhumanism Trend

Transhumanism is the idea that human potential isn’t yet fully realised, and that people can be enhanced through technology. Transhumanists advocate technology not just for therapy but for extension. As Humanity+, an umbrella group, puts it:

… the ethical use of technology to expand human capacities. In other words, we want people to be better than well.

How big is the movement?

Humanity+ is the largest group with over 6,000 members. Singularity Network, a Facebook group has just over 12,000. So it’s small, but possibly fast-growing: “It’s grown by one thousand per cent in two years” hyperbolized one transhumanist in an interview.

Here’s a chart from Google of web searches as a proxy for interest, which does show a slight increase for transhumanism (plotted against against the slightly more popular ‘star fruit’ to give some sense of context) from 2004 onwards:

Data from Google Trends

Data from Google Trends

Googlers of the term transhumanism seem to live mainly in Austin, Philadelphia, Denver, Stockholm, Seattle, Los Angeles and New York.

Looking further back, Google’s nGram viewer lets us look at interest during the 20th century, using the term’s appearance in English language books as a proxy. This chart shows occurrences of the term (and case sensitive variations) between 1900 and 2008.

Data from Google nGram Viewer

Data from Google nGram Viewer

So again the concept isn’t that well known, but has been growing quickly since the 90s (although so is ‘star fruit’ if you were wondering). As the nGram also shows, transhumanism is an older idea than the last decade or so.

Coined by Julian Huxley, a biologist, in 1957, the idea’s seeds were sown earlier than that, probably by JBS Haldane in 1923. The bump during the counter-cultural 60s and 70s is perhaps due to futurists like FM-2030, who taught at The New School in the 60s.

Much more on transhumanism in future posts…