Transhumanism and suffering

Just been reading a post by George Dvorsky over at Cyborg Democracy, about a response to Francis Fukuyama‘s assertion that "transhumanism is among the greatest threats currently facing humanity" (Foreign Policy, Sept/Oct 2004). It’s mostly concerned with attacking the idea of a human "essence" as the basis of equal rights. Such an "essence" would, it is argued, be disrupted by the radical technological enhancement and modification of the human organism and mind, creating havoc in social ethics, politics and law.

While I concur with the spirit of this attack on essentialism, there’s a particular aspect of Dvorsky’s post that is a transhumanist refrain that always makes me stop in my tracks, suddenly conscious of questions that don’t seem to be raised:

Fukuyama describes transhumanism as "a strange liberation movement" that wants "nothing less than to liberate the human race from its biological constraints." He goes on to state his usual argument, which is that suffering and other negative aspects of humanity is necessary in order for us to retain our human "essence" and properly function as individuals in society. He believes that without aggression, for example, that people wouldn’t be able to fend for themselves, or that without jealousy there could be no love.

As I said, I’m no essentialist. And I’m not sure about Fukuyama’s specific examples of "positive negatives". But I baulk at the casual dismissal of suffering. I have to tread very carefully here—precisely because it’s other’s refusal to tread carefully that concerns me. I agree with neither Fukuyama nor Dvorsky, and their debate seems to me to be polarised into the inevitable abstractions of theoretical polemics. As I put one foot forward, I may be attacked by transhumanists; the next step may draw fire from "bioconservatives"; it requires focus to just use both feet and walk.

So, why caution at the dismissal of suffering? Isn’t this what we’re all after from cradle to grave? Am I a masochist? A sadist? Stupid?

I was talking last night in Cambridge to a friend whose depression has been greatly helped by Prozac. Hell, one of my ex-girlfriends was one of the UK’s earliest trial subjects for Prozac use—her condition was deemed severe enough to override the early concerns regarding side-effects. Needless to say, I wholeheartedly support both the right of these wonderful people to alleviate their suffering using chemical technology, and their act of doing so.

On the other hand, I’ve never chosen to take such drugs for depression, and I’m glad I haven’t. Frankly, while I’ve slipped into some pretty vile pits of torment, I don’t think these periods have been quite debilitating enough to warrant chemical intervention. But further, while pleasure, too, has moved my life on in astonishing ways, suffering has often been the furnace in which awareness and health have been forged in my life.

The crux here is that I think the term "suffering" should be complexified. There isn’t some universal pool of categorisable emotions and feelings that can be labelled "suffering", and emptied by smiling technophiles, or solemnly guarded by narrow-minded Luddites. There are forms of suffering that are inimical to life; forms that are to pleasure as dark is to light—defining counterbalances that give pleasure meaning and, indeed, make pleasure possible; and there are forms that shift between the two, now in danger of crushing vitality, now creating possibilities for its rebirth. Delineating these forms is, I believe, part of an ongoing debate in the evolution of sentience—a crucially important debate, but equally an open-ended, probably unresolvable one. I feel that termination of the debate, proclamation of absolutist victory by any party involved, can only lead to stagnation of life.

Dvorsky dismisses Fukuyama’s appeal to the "uses" of negative emotions and traits as "flowery mumbo-jumbo". Easy phrases such as this may well have bubbled up for you as you read the last paragraph. I’ve got no stats, I’m expressing my feelings, or my feeling-toned thoughts that have crystallised through experience. Luckily, I’m not hoping to convince any governments or institutions here; I can indulge in this ineffectual little corner of the blogosphere.

However, this Stats vs. Feelings opposition brings me to what I feel is a key underlying issue. The cartoonish polarisation (which unfortunately actually forms the backdrop for real debates on these issues) goes something like this: the Transhumanist Techno-Rationalists think our intellects are perfectly fine arbiters of what forms and directions our bodies, emotions, and other "lower" functions should take; the BioLuddite, Deep Ecology folk don’t trust humanity as far as they could through all six billion of them, and insist that we bow down before the superior wisdom of Nature.

I have to confess I have a bias towards the latter, given such a two-dimensional system of choices. But the system of choices that reality gives us has quite a few more dimensions. I do have some form of reverence for nature. How could you not, given the discoveries of science? As Alan Watts always patiently points out, the incredibly subtle operations of the body, from the complex, as yet ill-understood rhythms of the heart, to the digestion of food and wonderfully sophisticated structure of the brain, are all coordinated by some level of unconscious somatic intelligence that the conscious mind has no part in. The simple fact of our existence, and further, our ability to reflect upon it, is testament to the immense complexity, durability and adaptive intelligence of nature. After a couple of millennia of science, we’re only beginning to fully comprehend the complexity of natural systems, let alone comprehend the systems themselves.

It’s a mistake, though, to allow this concession, this necessary admission of nature’s long-term superiority, to bring our intellect to its knees in impotent awe. Our intelligence is nature’s latest development, and we would be treasonous in the extreme to castrate it. It seems silly to assume that this "rational mind" department, with its R & D timeline measured in hundreds of thousands of years at best, should really be given executive power over the whole company, which has amassed an immensely rich array of creations in its four billion year history. But which company ignores its R & D department? What is needed is communication, dialogue.

The crucial line of research, from this vantage point, seems to be the investigation of the continuities—and of the importance of these continuities—between non-organic and organic matter, and between non-sentient and sentient organisms. When we say "suffering", are we referring to something that is a tragic aberration, a "fall" concurrent with the flowering of such a delicate flower as sentience? Or is it the conscious successor to part of the processes of creation and destruction that have evolved in non-conscious life and lifeless matter to enable evolution itself? (I’ll leave the question of consciousness in inorganic nature for another time, though I should note that I think it’s worth asking.)

A while back I read an interesting article by an anonymous author, ‘Utopian Surgery: Early arguments against anaesthesia in surgery, dentistry and childbirth‘. The most significant of these arguments was the contention that the fact that we suffered pain obviously reflected God’s intentions, and to circumvent this distress was to go against God. The argument is easily demolished, and it’s hard to not chip in unless—whatever your "beliefs"—you’re prepared to forgo anaesthesia for the rest of your life. I’m not. But, replace "God" with "Nature/Evolution", and physical pain with emotional pain, and my contention that some emotional suffering may be necessary to emotional evolution seems to be in danger of a similar demolition. Or: it would if I was erecting an absolutist edifice, and not a provisional, pragmatic foundation.

Alongside dialogue, between the logic of the intellect and the maturity of nature, I would add choice as a necessary part of any sane future. Most transhumanists—certainly the democratic ones—would agree with the importance of choice. I would point out to them the significance of this. It’s an admission that you might not be right, and as such should feed back into your beliefs, and help you weed out any fundamentalisms. Many people gain deep insight from intensely painful practices such as ritual scarification—and they may well see no contradiction in getting a general anaesthetic when they have major surgery. Equally, the right to use anti-depressants to combat truly debilitating conditions must be weighed against the necessity of leaving the neural gates open to allow ourselves to fall through emotionally purgative holes. Such experiences, certainly repugnant to the upstart intellect, seem to have evolved to strip away dead and dying feelings in a way that unintegrated chemical intrusions can’t hope to emulate.

It seems quite short-sighted to view pain and suffering to be as monolithic as Christian beliefs are monotheistic, and to bind the two together in history, the inevitable collapse of the latter taken as a sign of the need for the abolition of the former. If your only experiences of suffering are inseparable from those slavish monotheistic experiences of passivity, subservience and conservatism, all I can say is that your experiences are impoverished.