Would I like to be smarter? Yes, and I’d be willing to do it via a chip in my brain, or a direct computer interface. (Actually, that’s already prefigured a bit in ordinary life, too, as things like Google and wi-fi give us access to a degree of knowledge that would have seemed almost spooky not long ago, but that everyone takes for granted now). And I’d certainly like to be immune to cancer, or AIDS, or aging.
Fair enough if that’s what turns him on. What’s a little less impressive is his dismissal of skeptics as cheerleaders for AIDS, irritable bowel movement, and everyday stupidity. Contra Reynolds, 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.
As usual, Max Weber has interesting things to say on the subject. Which is why I propose to treat you to a big, quasi-digestible chunk of Science as a Vocation.
Now, this process of disenchantment, which has continued to exist in Occidental culture for millennia, and, in general, this ‘progress,’ to which science belongs as a link and motive force, do they have any meanings that go beyond the purely practical and technical? You will find this question raised in the most principled form in the works of Leo Tolstoi. He came to raise the question in a peculiar way. All his broodings increasingly revolved around the problem of whether or not death is a meaningful phenomenon. And his answer was: for civilized man death has no meaning. It has none because the individual life of civilized man, placed into an infinite ‘progress,’ according to its own imminent meaning should never come to an end; for there is always a further step ahead of one who stands in the march of progress. And no man who comes to die stands upon the peak which lies in infinity. Abraham, or some peasant of the past, died ‘old and satiated with life’ because he stood in the organic cycle of life; because his life, in terms of its meaning and on the eve of his days, had given to him what life had to offer; because for him there remained no puzzles he might wish to solve; and therefore he could have had ‘enough’ of life. Whereas civilized man, placed in the midst of the continuous enrichment of culture by ideas, knowledge, and problems, may become ‘tired of life’ but not ‘satiated with life.’ He catches only the most minute part of what the life of the spirit brings forth ever anew, and what he seizes is always something provisional and not definitive, and therefore death for him is a meaningless occurrence. And because death is meaningless, civilized life as such is meaningless; by its very ‘progressiveness’ it gives death the imprint of meaninglessness. Throughout his late novels one meets with this thought as the keynote of the Tolstoyan art.
Now this is very ponderous and Germanic, but I think that Weber is onto something. What he’s 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. Myself, I’d rather be dead.