The Solipsist Sepulchre – Ethics of Progress in a Modern World

Khanea Suntzu Ethics & Interdisciplinary Future Studies, Publications 0 Comments

There is a major question in the world today, and has been since Aristotle and Socrates – what is the good society ? What is the “best” way to live for large groups of human beings ? How can we know what is good and how can we debate or agree about what is good? Might there be absolutely no other objective good other than let people make up their own minds on how they live? Can anyone just decide to do whatever they like, and could you be completely free to dismiss other lifestyles and ideologies on the basis of your own convictions? When should you be allowed to protest – or when should you use force or harsh language to resist other ideologies, conflicting lifestyles or modes of behavior?

When should you intervene and meddle in other people’s business? These questions are as old as humanity, so probably several ten thousand to a half million years.

Humans are social animals with an uncanny capacity for joy and suffering, and the ability to place positive and negative experiences in time and draw intricate and often contradictory causal conclusions from these experiences and insights. Humans may experience more pain, and are hence driven more than animals to respond to stimuli – as a result humans have developed intricate coping mechanisms to deal with the imperfections of life and the world. I argue that this capacity for suffering translating in to meaningful actions is what makes humans better than animals. The evolutionary success of humans is based on our compulsion and urgency to respond to negatives and try and make sure bad things do not happen again. We might argue that as animals humans had less philosophical utility, or “skin in the game” so to speak. As soon a humans stopped being “merely monkeys in trees” things heated up in earnest. That’s why we clawed ourselves as early primates from the tree and started wandering, looking for new environments to live, eat and procreate.

Evolution

Evolution has no strategy and is not teleological: It’s is not guided or directed. Evolution can generate stupid results. A great example of bad results in evolution is the competition between trees and giraffes in Africa. In evolutionary terms both lose by competing overspecialization. Giraffes are fascinating creatures to watch but they are certain to go extinct sooner rather than later. They are overspecialized.

Likewise has there never been any blueprint in evolutionary progress of the human species. Humans evolved ever more intricate brains, and made those brains yield more results with even smaller sizes. Bigger brain size was no guarantee, as it turns out – it is how the brains were wired. Neanderthals had bigger brains than homo sapiens, but were arguable less capable of impose ‘intricacy’ on the natural world to expand and survive. Whereas Neanderthals are argued to have had complex inner lives – comparable to modern hominids (Neanderthals did have larger brain volume) but they dedicated more of their neurological hardware to sight and physical dexterity.

Likewise, there was an early species of hominids, the Boskop man, who had brain volumes 30% bigger than average current humans – but they still went extinct.

And there are whales and dolphins who, despite their self evident bigger brain size and complex emotional lives, aren’t super successful in terms of conquering the planet – assuming “conquering biomes” can be argued to be a measure of “success”.

Likewise crows and ravens, who have by any measure modest sized skulls, do significantly better than human children in terms of cognitive achievement, but I can not conclude that birds are especially close to technological or scientific supremacy.

The Human species didn’t follow a precise and purposeful trajectory towards its current planetary domination. THE descent from the trees had very specific downsides – the plains were a lot less safe. But the upside was that the ambulatory stance of more modern humans (as opposed the stooped stance of early hominids) liberated prehensile paws for use of tools. This was plain luck. Nature didn’t “know” in advance that hands might come in handy for later manipulative organs to use “tools”. But as we did start in using tools we had to grow the brains to deal with this new affordance, and pretty soon humans who were best at this newfound ability for manipulative dexterity survived.

Thereafter the narrative of evolutionary progress became sort of a puzzle. Natural evolution occured over hundreds of thousands of years – sometimes slow and sometimes in fast spurts. There are solid arguments to conclude humans lived some time in an aquatic environment. The biggest results were twofold – like part time aquatic animals humans lost most their fur, but they were also able to take most sustenance from fish and shellfish – which coincidentally were excellent metabolic precursors to the growth and development of brain protein.

At the same time the erect stance of humans forces our progenitors eyes forwards, it forced the neck to strain upwards and it created space for a more versatile and expressive set of vocal cords. This places a heavy burden on the human spinal column, and in particular the neck area. The evolutionary process is demanding and quite often has to make sacrifices to win in small measure. In the haphazard forward migration of the human voice box and as the cranium expanded we as a species needed more blood flow to the brain. This in turn more or less demanded humans find a more economical regime in collecting, preparing and digesting foods. The solution nature came up with was to outsource digestion by preparing foods. Fire had a major role in this, but also preservation using salt or (later on) fermentation of grains. The ability to metabolize alcohol and other toxins might have a in turn had a major effect on the relative openness of humans to seek pleasure by means of deliberate intoxication, essentially providing humans with an evolved aptitude for seeking altered brain states. Homo sapiens has an evolved liking for drugs.

Intoxication and altered mental states could very well have played a major role in developing our capacity for reflection, imagination, abstract thinking, recollection, impulse control and a host of other essential faculties. Millions of years passed and we end up with a human we might label modern – by all counts a rather frail animal compared to most animals in nature, but a being that compensated by using crafted tools to replicate a wide variety of bodily functions of other animals.

Is latterday humanity a good or desirable end result? I don’t know, and I can’t provide anyone with a clear answer. I think the result is preferable over most natural alternatives, but I also think humans are woefully miserable beings in numerous other ways. We have major health problems because nature was left to jump a succession of ever more implausible hoops in an evolutionary arms race towards to biggest and most programmable brains. I have the imagination to clearly see room for improvement, even though I understand why it is for so many humans so compelling to conclude humans are some kind of wondrous, almost divine creature.

Has all this been a success? How can we know? I have heard argue that the biggest mistake of humanity was to abandon a hunter-gatherer existence. I have friends who spit on modernity, and who’d rather see (I AM not kidding you) 99% of humanity go extinct tomorrow, and have us all return to a state of primordial “innocence”.

Antimodernism

There are a lot of humans who are pissed off, angry at modernity. We have a very vocal and recalcitrant minority of sharia-prone muslims who positively hate the modern world, despite all its technological conveniences, an would rather see the species enter a retrograde trajectory towards a feudalist and extremely patriarchal state – a world where guilt or any measure of deviance is punished with beheadings. I can only vouch for my hatred for such misguided views of modern society. I kinda like washing machines, toilets, indoor plumbing and central heating. I kinda like internet and schedules public transportation. I am a transgender and i sure a hell like socialized medical care and my country having offered me the means to hormonally and surgically modify any perceived developmental errors where my body felt in stark conflict with the urgent feelings of gender incongruity. I really like these freedoms and I absolutely do not think we are done with progress – I would love to see more progress.

Nature may not be in full agreement. We (complex organic life, vertebrate life, mammals, primates, humans) have experienced hundreds of millions of years of frequent and grueling extinction level events. Nature has been a capricious and quite cruel mistress and I see no particular reason to be especially grateful for the inheritance we got, especially in the light of goddess know how many humans suffered so horribly for thousands of years. Some people might argue cockroaches to be far more successful in terms of raw evolutionary capability for survival. Nevertheless I kinda like the positive affordances of what it means to be a human, and I feel very little envy for likewise abilities of most animals, let alone cockroaches.

If humans had been consigned to remain hunter gatherers indefinitely sooner rather than later nature would finish us off. It took a single mass volcanic event to reduce humanity to a few dozen single specimen, 70 thousand years ago. All modern humans are descendants of a few families.

Modernity has seen less biblical eradication, but still, the fall of the Roman empire classifies as pretty awful in my book. We may assume that Roman hegemony of much of the known world ended because of some kind of decadence – or maybe god’s wrath – but there is evidence otherwise. Rome may have simply entered terminal decline as the climate shifted. Rome was a complex and hence quite fragile societal paradigm. Just before the middle ages temperatures plummeted, humans were less able to feed themselves in mass amounts, people became vulnerable to epidemics and ‘barbarian’ hordes expanded in territory. IF nature hadn’t kneecapped the Roman empire there are solid arguments Rome would have conquered the entire planet in a matter of a few centuries.

There are clues this happened on many places world wide, around the first century AD, and that hints at a more global catastrophe. Mesoamericans, egyptians, most of the middle east, most of south-east asia, china – all these regions fell to the same pervasive malaise. Femines, epidemics and bad weather.

It is almost as if terrestrial reality has heated up, become more volatile, since the end of the last ice ages. Ten thousand years ago the ice receded and seas rose. This had a devastating effects on nomadic hunter-gatherer societies. Humanity was compression in to a land region a fraction the fertility and surface area of the pleistocene world. This triggered a race towards ever better organization and competition. Humans differentiated along cultural and memetic lines for ever scarce resources. The climate changes bottlenecked humanity in to a mass-agricultural age over mere few thousand years. This spurred city states, societal diversification in roles, stratification, the male (warrior-) dominated society, military conquest and standing armies, feudalism, the bronze and iron ages, taxation, organized religions, roads, purposeful breeding cycles of domesticated animals and a host of other things, so horrible, some good and some just plain unprecedented.

In more modern times Europeans go on a colonial binge and start using their technological supremacy to conquer continents and explore the world. As we now know European culture was comparably more competitive and territoriality aggressive in comparison with most other cultures world wide. Europeans started using slaves again, on an industrial scale the Romans wouldn’t have believed possible. But these migrations had unexpected side effects. An example I find amazing and fascination is that the push of European settlers may very well have triggered mass extinctions in more passive agricultural native American populations. As it turns out many native people in the northern American continent survived by means of quite evolved (tribal) agriculture. So when tens of millions of native Americans were pushed in to extinction by settlers, guns, booze and epidemics, whole stretches of wilderness reforested triggering a significant decease in global CO2 levels, triggering, “arguably” a small mini-age in northern Europe in the 17th century.

This is the overwhelming theme for most of human history, an it’s getting more complicated by the year. The problem is that we in the 21st century have evolved or developed ourselves in a corner. The world is saturated with firearms – there will never be a Pleistocene hunter-gatherer world, even if 90% of humanity dies from a plague tomorrow. You can not uninvent lots of these technologies. Even if 99% of humanity would die next year, in little more than a century we’d have bred ourselves back to over a billion people.

So I might easily conclude that modern humanity is increasing bootstrapping (and accelerating) its own evolutionary and cultural complexity largely as a survival tool to deal with unintended consequences. This is a grave concern.

There are interesting examples of “brainstorm sessions” in science fiction that extrapolate on these themes. My favorite author Bruce Sterling came up with a terrifying conclusion in the novel Swarm. I really like that sort of Science Fiction where the author explores scandalous, unthinkable and politically unpalatable ideas. In this story Bruce Sterling postulates the idea that tool use and abstract intelligence is most definitely not an asset for long term species survival – the idea goes a little like this – a species develops technology and evolves in lockstep. Technology creates problems. The species needs to generate ever more intricate technological solutions to deal with the consequences of technology – and at some point the system collapses and the species goes partially or permanently extinct.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle go a lot furher in the novel “The Mote In Gods Eye“. The story itself is a most ingenuous literary puzzle based on a number of assumptions but when I first read it the very idea knocked the air from my lungs. The idea goes a little like this – due to a complex set of astrophysical conditions some alien species of intelligent near hominids is locked in a star system for tens of thousands to possibly over a million years. They develop intelligence, language communication and technology. They grow a planetary and then a system technological civilization. Due to over-exploitation of natural (and eventually even interplanetary) resources their civilization completely collapses in to barbarism. After millenia they return to civilization having literally evolved to better deal with industrial civilization. Repeat this cycle of Expansion, collapse and evolutionary adaptation a few hundred thousand years, and the moties (the intelligent alien creatures in question) “prefer their chocolate milk with a fair drop of motor oil”.

Later on Larry Niven draws on the same dreadful idea in his Known Space series – Is intelligence and technological expansion simply a bad idea from an evolutionary standpoint? He has a point. Even if humanity evolves (…)the wherewithal to survive in to interplanetary dominion, we are quite likely to evolve massive undesirable consequences.

I personally will not willingly consign myself to a simpler life – as long as I have a vote I’d vote for more internet. Just as an example, an I am sure most people would vote along the same lines. People kinda like being able to not have to wade in to a river to spend hours on washing their clothes. Modern conveniences are amazing and I wouldn’t dream of relinquishing these affordances.

Still, much to my dismay, I find that in western Europe there is a growing loathing of modernity, technology, progress and science. A lot of people don’t like where this might be headed, and yes, there is much to be said for planning and deliberation. The problem is – if we in Europe do not embrace any new technologies there is a world of people that will.

I do realize I might be labeled a progress fetishist, and I consciously say this in a term that opens me up to accusation. I know a lot of people are increasingly unhappy about where all this technology and “progress” is leading us.

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Transhumanism
I am a “transhumanist”, in that I eagerly embrace the conceptual validity of radical new ideas. I’d love to see a solution for the energy crisis – hence I find Space Based Solar Power a deeply fascinating prospect, just as an especially big example of what might be possible. LIkewise I am fascinated by similarly invasive and disruptive technologies, such as nanotechnology, 3D printing, organ printing, developments on stem cells, neural interfaces, prosthetics, nootropics, robotics, artificial intelligence and so forth. Yes I agree, there will be massive unintended consequences, but taking that in to account, I have some bad news for anyone reading this.

The world is unsustainable. The planet, given today’s technology IS already dying. There are now seven billion human beings on the planet, most of which under acutely un-enviable conditions. Nearly each of these people want modern transportation, central heating, computational tools, modern polyester clothing, pornographic entertainment, refrigerators, washing machines, modern medicine, big screen televisions, smart phones, and whatnot. It offends me to no end that we as Europeans would have the gall to deny it to a few billion people in developing countries that they simply can’t have any of these quality of life goods?

WE are in for a rough ride. Yes, there will be unavoidable, inescapable, highly disruptive new technologies. No amount of facebook protesting or concerned citizens committees can stop this. NO amount of jyhady nutters can stop this rush towards more, and we are already deep in to permanently disrupting all the planetary resources to extinction.

Which in my book reads – either a sizeable portion of the species goes extinct and the remainder will be consigned to a horrific, nightmarish dystopian future, or we accept progress and hope for the best.

So what is the reason I am writing all these things?

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Yes, much of the speculated technologies I mentioned above are indeed possible and will indeed be realizes this century. This is no longer subject to debate, even if there weren’t any self-described transhumanists on the planet. IT is no longer a matter of if, but of when. Yes, a “Singularity” is no longer a speculative exercise, it has become topic of academic debate. Yes, life extension and rejuvenative therapies will be possible sometime this century, now remains a question of how many people we let die from old age before we have it.

What constitutes the Transhumanist ethos is in large part the realization that this ship has sailed decades ago and there simply is no longer an option for mass relinquishment. In other words – if you want to live a low tech, low consumerist lifestyle, you’ll be in the minority.

These things are now being discussed in terms of “should we actually want them”, and of course the subsidiary questions of “if we as a society decide we do not want them should we make them illegal? I can see no way to resolve such a debate. I see no way to force the majority of humans on the planet not to desire to have a smartphone, et.al. Likewise if we were to implement a planetary tyranny of mass relinquishment and “sustainability”, we would have not the wherewithall to stem the growth of mass black markets in terms of aggregate planetary demand for the benefits of all this progress. And even if we in Europe decide to opt out of radical technological advances there’s always a billion Chinese that couldn’t care less about what we decide. Enter all sorts of scenario’s so beautifully depicted like in the movie Gattaca.

So I was already milling about with these questions months ago, enter a presentation this week by some guy here in the Netherlands. Let me translate his presentation text (which is slated next May 9 here in Delft) for your edification. If you want me to change this translation, I will. (because translations are rarely neutral).

The Cyborg Future Of Humanity
Marcel Messing
The Road to the Cyborg

Transhumanism and Ethics,

In a world full of war, violence, crisis and chaos only very few people are aware of the fact that in the field of science and technology there are [imminent] developments that will completely alter our human state – with the actual risk of the end of the human species. Countless scores of elite scientists are working on the socalled “improvement” of humanity, on a new kind of human, on some kind of supreme human, on some kind of hybrid of human and machine, on te cyborg. Inspired by this ideology known as transhumanism, these people aspire to exceed “limitations” of the human state.

Transhumanist scientists are of the opinion that in mere decades we will reach a point of Singularity – an astounding leap in human evolution from human to something totally different.

The question we then need to ask is – who are what is the human? Who or what are we? What is trans and what is human? By using, among others, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, robotics, information technology, genetics, biotechnology and neuro-sciences these scientists are striving together to realize this transhuman technology quite soon. Who learns the actual facts in this area will soon be amazed, confused or shocked. Is there a road back from all this? Why is there no publicly accessible debate on all these quite critical topics?

Incidentally, what is improved? Computational ability? Intellect? Brain? Muscles? Neural trissue?

By using available knowledge in order to manipulate the human genome, by exploiting available technologies of stem cells, by designing designer babies and by design and 3D print on-demand-organs, by means of extremely sophisticated know-how of miniature electronics, and by the soon access, read, understand, copy, upload and download the meaningful contents of the human brain, science will soon be capable to create super-intelligent human-like machines, we may then label cyborgs, and then have these connected of the artificial world brain called internet. Uncountable things will then be connected with these cyborgs with as dreadful possibility that all of humanity is placed under total control – where ‘this new type of human’ – the cyborg – is likely to become the perfect slave.

These transhumanists have no sympathy for concepts such as the soul, the spirit, free will, divinity and divine inspiration. In their world view there is nothing to be read about love, compassion, kindness or empathy. These transhumanists attempt to leverage new technologies into being applies inside the human body and thereby change the human state from the inside out. This is a materialist ideology that is in conflict with the world view that the (human) body is a temple of the (human) mind, that consciousness is not merely a by-product of the brain, that the body is meant as an instrument to developed the mind and that all this serves to reach the highest potential – which has been shown by example by countless wise people and mystics for centuries.

This transhumanism promises us some kind of technological utopia, where the “human” will have then attained corporeal immortality and where purely artificial intelligence is central. Note that humanity has been cast out of paradise once before when he began to contemplate – which signfifies a deeprooted trauma in the collective subconscious. In all this is reason for caution and suspicion and a summons to start reflect critically and ethically. Does all this transhuman aspiration open Pandora’s box, or is all this for the currently suffering humanity a big present from the Supertech corporation? Are there objective means to determine what is wholesome and what is not wholesome in all these developments?

The author of numerous books and well-known from countless lectures and events, cultural anthropologist Marcel Messing, will here critically reflect on various anthropological, philosphical, and first and foremost ethical characteristics of transhumanism, by means of a power point presentation. In his recent bestseller “Do We Wake Up?”, about the esoteric forces working behind the scenes in the world he has repeatedly sounded a warning for many of these developments in current progress and technologies. Marcel Messing has recently taken up residence in the Franch Pyrenees.

It is no leap of (my) the imagination that Marcel Messing exhibits a high degree of suspicion, and he goes as far as accuse those who “practice” transhumanist ideals. I have already learned that of those few (hundreds) of active, ideologically driven transhumanists that they might interpret some of these ideas as “slanderous”.

The world is nothing novel about alarmism or demonism on the one hand, or well-intentioned people prophesizing doom on the other hands. Clearly rapidly advancing technologies will have major impact in terms of mass employment, military applications, terrorism, international crime, commerce, economy, the already skewed imbalance between rich and poor, developed and “underdeveloped”. This is by no means a perfect world. The question then remains if we at any rate can talk about an actual “transhuman” conspiracy, or whether transhumanists are merely analysts making predictive statements about trends in technology and society.

The above presentation is however part of a persistent tendency in particularly western liberal culture to militantly reject certain perceived pathologies of exponential progress and technologies. Certain pathologies in such critical rejection has shown themselves in such phenomenon as parents refusing to have their children inoculated against childhood diseases – but we can also point at quite reasonable people who increasing and most vocally object against excesses of, say, agricultural industries. It does require mention there that a significant number of self-defined transhumanists are vegan.

I understand the world is confusing, complex and increasingly overwhelming. I also understand that in a certain spirituality-centered world view it is quite seductive to think in manichean dualities of good versus evil. Transhumanists generally do not allow themselves dualistic or overly palliative (?) world views, largely because these transhumanists, technoprogressives, extropians, singularitarians (et.al.) gravitate towards a irreverent form of scepsis and scientific materialism.

But what’s so dangerous is the tendency in the above polemic to find scape-goats. This is nothing new – all throughout world history have alarmed majorities expressed concern and mistrust over perceived eccentric minorities. In some cases rightly so – take for instance the predatory excesses of some religious cults, say the Scientology church – in other cases quite unjustified – say in the massive and widespread pogroms so common in the western world against unions, socialists, left-leaning intellectuals, freethinkers, atheists, humanists, people of alternative lifestyles and gender archetypes.

Persecution can be an awful aspect of the primitive human instinct – however nobody in the world should not be scrutinized, be beyond criticism or reasonable suspicion, not Marcel Messing and certainly not any people who happen to label themselves transhumanists.

If you can make it to the event in Delft, the Netherlands, on May 9, please do so and please contribute to the dialogue. I certainly hope to expose any paranoia and superstitious fear (if such as present here) and I equally hope to help in exposing any illuminati-driven world changing conspiracies (if any such as being plotted behind the scenes here).

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