Henry Farrell expresses skepticism about “transhumanism”–which he defines as “the idea of the self as a sort of infinitely extensible meccano-set, where you can plug in new bits and pieces all the time, just because it’s cool”:
Crooked Timber: Better, Fitter, Happier : …there are serious, principled reasons why you might want to disagree with transhumanism. And this argument has been going on for a long, long time…. What [Max Weber is] saying, I think, is that Tolstoy, and people like him, ask some interesting and important questions, which “progress”-obsessed types don’t. They may not have the right answers to those questions, but that’s beside the point. They’re interested in whether life is meaningful, not whether it can be infinitely extended. And meaning, for Tolstoy, requires some reference point other than the internal desires of the individual. Which maybe allows me to articulate a little better what I find creepy about transhumanism than I could last week. It isn’t the prospect of brain-machine interfaces, Singularities, telomere hacks and the like, few of which are likely to be with us anytime soon, if at all. It’s the underlying philosophy behind this geek aesthetic – the idea of the self as a sort of infinitely extensible meccano-set, where you can plug in new bits and pieces all the time, just because it’s cool. And, in the best of all possible worlds, keep on doing this forever.
But, Henry, it’s too late. Our selves have already been infinitely extended. What has happened to the Third Chimpanzee over the past million years has already created gulfs between us and our chimpanzee and bonobo evolutionary siblings that dwarf any future Singularity. Think of trying to explain your own life to one of your African Plains Ape ancestors of the past–even those that already had upright posture, opposable thumbs, serious stone toolmaking, and language.
And if serious toolmaking and language didn’t do it, agriculture did. And if agriculture didn’t do it, writing did. And if writing didn’t do it, large-scale social organization did. And if large-scale social organization didn’t do it, metallurgy did. And if metallurgy didn’t do it, large-scale environmental manipulation (i.e., building cities) did. And if LSEM didn’t do it, printing did. And if printing didn’t do it, steam-power did. And if steam-power didn’t do it, the second industrial revolution did. And if the SIR didn’t do it, modern information technologies did.
One thing is clear along this journey: after each stage, very few people want to go back. Henry Farrell’s life would be impoverished were he to find himself switched with some eighth-century monk in a scriptorium, spending his days preparing vellum and ink and copying out Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Augustine–and little else.
So isn’t the way to bet that our descendants will marvel at how limited our capabilities were?
And “meaning”… IMHO, you can lead a very meaningful life at the stone-tool stage as you find a mate, take pride in discovering how to make a better flint hand axe, and protect your young from wandering off and getting eaten by leopards in the night. You can lead a very meaningful life at the peasant-agriculture stage as you find a mate, take pride in building a better plow so that you can keep standing water from killing your grain, and try to get enough food growing to keep your young from starving to death in periodic famines. You can lead a very meaningful life at the post-industrial stage as you find a mate, take pride in discovering, learning, and communicating how the economy works so that we can collectively make better social decisions, and try hard to equip your young with the math, literacy, and social skills they will need so that their options will be bright ones. You can lead a very meaningful life at the post-singularity stage as you find a mate, take pride in demonstrating using ordered sequences of linearised tree-level ideoplast arrays to express higher-order metaphor functors that show the existence of nontrivial toposophic hierarchies in pre-S1 societies, and strive to ensure that your 37% augmented descendants have sufficient semantic instantiation at their transcoding.
Whatever part of a fear that modern life is without “meaning” does not come from neurotransmitter uptake malfunction (and Weber’s fear did come from neurotransmitter uptake malfunction) is orthogonal to all the big issues of physical and information technology. Post-industrial life is no less “authentic” than the agricultural life of Tolstoy’s serfs or, indeed, the hunting-and-gathering life of the first Cro-Magnon generations to spill out of Africa. If you want to say that there is a style of human life–a level of physical and information technologies and patterns of activity–that we were meant to have–you have to go all the way back to the hand axe and the burning brand.