More on the Transhumanist Debate

Friday November 23, 2007


Several weeks ago, I posted here about a New Scientist article written by Danielle Egan on the subject of Transhumanism. Transhumanism is a broad-based movement that sets its sights upon the enhancement of human capacities by technological means. This, of course, is something that technology has always done ever since the first of our distant ancestors started poking at things with sticks; but arguably the possibilities for extending human existence (either in terms of human capacities or in terms of longevity) by technological means are greater than they have ever been. In my original article, I echoed some of the concerns raised in the New Scientist concerning the aspirations and ideals of at least some of the Transhumanists, in particular those voiced by Marvin Minsky. The original article can be found here.

No sooner had I published this article than I received a comment on the site from Marvin Minsky, claiming that the New Scientist article had substantially misrepresented his position. It was a tricky call, but claims to misrepresentation are something that it is worth taking seriously, and so I temporarily unpublished the first article, whilst waiting to see if there was any more substantial response to the article in the letter pages of the New Scientist – surely the most obvious place for such a response. Given that I rarely unpublish anything once written, I also published a second article (see here) explaining my decision. This second article reiterated some of my concerns regarding both the nature of some of the aspirations within Transhumanism and questions ethical responsibility that the original article posed.

The story, however, did not end there. Not long afterwards, Danielle Egan, the writer of the original article, got in touch to tell me that she stood by what she had written. She also sent me an extract from the unedited transcript that seemed to support her original claims.

As no further comment has been forthcoming in the letters pages of the New Scientist, a week or two ago I contacted both Marvin Minsky and Danielle Egan to let them know that I would be republishing the earlier article, and that I would be adding a further post to the site to explain the background to some of this. I am adding a rider to the two earlier posts to suggest that they, and this present post, should be read together. This, I believe, should give a fair overview of the issues at stake as the content of these posts must, I think, be necessarily understood in the context of this on-going discussion.

I welcome considered responses to any of these three posts, although I would ask anyone who wishes to comment to read all three articles before doing so.

Original article can be found here.
My subsequent post is here.

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#1 · Peter

26 November 2007

In the original article Minsky is saying that other scientists may not be wise but should be free to discover new possibilities. However, when you read his words in context of what he said at the People Database Blog, he must consider himself to be above the rest because he can write The Emotion Machine which he proposes as a solution to world problems. For anyone to write such things implies either they think they are wise enough to make practical solutions, or that they are not really serious at all and the book should be taken with a pinch of salt. With Minsky’s long list of achievements, it is likely that many people will take him seriously. In fact, for more right-wing and amoral politicians, uploading people onto a computer chip (and then killing them or what’s the point) is an excellent solution for them because you can bet your life that the politicians themselves will be above being uploaded themselves.

So why does Minsky say what he says? Is it to court politicians so he can be remembered as the man who thought of the final solution? Is it to sell a book? Is it because he wants controversy? Is it because he is going senile? Is it because he is very irresponsible? Is it because he thinks he is very wise?

Mr Minsky, with great power comes great responsibility whether you like it or not. If you believe that you and other scientists do not have the wisdom that the public expects of you, then you should withdraw your books and statements and say no more until you have wisdom enough to equal your scientific cleverness. The lack of balance between human wisdom and scientific cleverness is the largest cause of the world’s problems, imho. Overpopulation, which you say is the cause, is in large part due to scientific research allowed to proceed without sufficient wisdom.

#2 · Mathias

26 November 2007

This article and the other two in the series shows alot of integrity, courage and honesty. Three reasons I enjoy following your blog!

You have my support!

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