Informal Review of John Harris's Enhancing Evolution

This evening/morning I finished one of the latest books on human enhancement (HE) by renowned bioethicist John Harris. Enhancing Evolution aspires not simply to argue for the permissibility of HE, but also to defend a moral obligation to use such technology, particularly with respect to procreation, and to help foster research which could lead to it.

I'll be frank. Harris is not a particularly gifted author--if enhancements to writing ability emerge, he would be wise to use them. His sentences can be long and digressive, and his organization of arguments is a bit jumbled. He also has an annoying tendency to rely on citations of his past publications in lieu of developing more elaborate arguments.

Despite these shortcomings, there is much of value in the book. He does a nice job of showing that the arguments against enhancement are largely based on prejudices and intuitions that result from fear and limited imagination. His treatment of Leon Kass--if I had to choose an archenemy, Kass would certainly be the odds-on favorite, so great is my hatred for him--is pointed and downright hilarious.

His main argument--although not explicitly suggested as such--is perhaps decisive on the issue. It's essentially the same argument for a woman's right to choose abortion, or an individual's right to take psychotropic drugs in the privacy of his own home. It begins with what Harris calls "the democratic presumption":

One of the presumptions of liberal democracies is that the freedom of citizens should not be interfered with unless good and sufficient justification can be produced for so doing. The presumption is that citizens should be free to make their own choices in the light of their own values, whether or not these choices and values are acceptable to the majority. Only serious real and present danger either to other citizens or to society is sufficient to rebut this presumption. If anything less than this high standard is accepted, liberty is dead. [72]

As Harris notes, this is essentially the principle that Mill defends in On Liberty. It puts the burden on those who would restrict research into or employment of enhancement technologies. The issue is not, are enhancements morally right, but rather, is there a good enough reason to forbid those who judge them to be desirable from developing or using them?

This emphasis on individual choice (and parental choice in the case of germline genetic engineering and other reproductive technologies) is what distinguishes contemporary proponents of genetic enhancement from the much maligned eugenicists of the previous century. Equating the two is nothing but guilt by association.

What was problematic in eugenics is not the motive to better humanity--indeed, any society which enforces compulsory education has such a motive--but the totalitarian imposition on individuals that would compel them to undergo selective breeding or participation in dangerous experiments. Indeed, if anyone is close to the totalitarian spirit here, it is those who would restrict me from using the enhancements I desire to use on myself or my offspring.

I love this argument often employed by HE proponents (especially its nifty reversal of totalitarian roles--who's the Nazi now, Luddite?)! With the exception of certain conservatives, virtually everyone subscribes to this democratic presumption. The problem is that they are inconsistent in its application, especially when it comes to technology and HE.

On top of this central argument, Harris does an admirable job of showing how a right to individual self-determination as suggested here can be extended to include choices over offspring. The primary reasons given for denying such reproductive interventions, when teased out, amount to mere fears and prejudices.

For instance, the harm that might be caused to a child who grew up knowing they were designed is seen as compelling enough to restrict liberty. Potential psychological harm (of which there is no evidence; children of in vitro fertilization certainly seem to adept well enough despite the "artificial" process which generated them), especially when we're talking about children who are hopefully designed to be more resilient to such things, is by no means decisive.

Moreover, his consideration of the moral status of embryos is perhaps the best discussion I've seen of the subject (although admittedly I am not well versed on the extensive literature here). The most ingenious point is his discussion of embryonic splitting and recombination. An embryo of four cells can be split into four separate single cells, each of which can develop into a fetus (indeed, identical twins are the result of this kind of process). However, they can also be brought back together into a single embryo that will develop as normal.

So what has happened if we split an embryo into four and then recombine them (a process in which no matter is created or destroyed, but only rearranged in space)? Have we spawned four lives from one, and then killed off three of them (in which case we might also ask, which of the four would survive)? Applying the doctrine of ensoulment at fertilization only makes things more absurd; can souls split and recombine too? (Incidentally, even if it is the most popular view, ensoulment is a vulgar prejudice that I don't take too seriously; the kind of people who advocate it are not likely to be the kind that respond to reason.)

This example is also useful in addressing those who try to argue for value in potentiality. If each embryo can actually develop into many different individuals, do we have an obligation to split every embryo as much as possible in order to realize their full potential? Similarly, with the right technology, virtually any cell in the body could become a distinct individual (all that is necessary for this is the genome that every cell contains).

Embryos are just (collections of) cells. They have no intrinsic worth or value. Deal with it.

Lastly, I like his treatment of the issue of disability in relation to enhancement. He uses a simple distinction to show how the rights of the disabled have no moral force for preventing HE. Just because we value a certain trait in ourselves or our offspring by no means entails that we disvalue individuals who lack this trait.

For instance, if I were to lose my hearing, I would strongly desire to restore it through whatever technological means necessary. This reasonable desire is totally consistent with regarding the deaf as individuals who deserve the same legal and ethical status as anyone else. The same applies to distinctions between the enhanced and non-enhanced; a kind of egalitarianism can be maintained here, should one desire to do so.

In the end, I give Enhancing Evolution a half-hearted recommendation. Some of its arguments and discussions are excellent, but others are the usual fare of HE proponents, and all the while one has to deal with Harris's sometimes garbled prose. However, I would strongly recommend reading chapter 8 for his vicious and entertaining take-down of Kass (and Habermas, to boot!).


Something unexpected...

Last night, I inadvertendly induced in myself what might best be described as a mystical experience. I won't say how I did so, but I must say that it was very educational. I've had experiences somewhat similar, but nothing quite this intense.

This is a subject I actually wrote my undergraduate thesis on, looking at James' Varieties of Religious Experience and at later research in what is sometimes called "neurotheology". As can be expected, the firsthand account cannot be captured in words, but I can see that the terms often used make some limited sense of it.

There's a sort of feeling of oneness, a sense of unique insight into the world and a profound feeling of certainty, and a kind of sublime awareness so intense that it led me alternatively to cry, laugh, and then do both at the same time--at least, I was unable to tell at one point which it was.

I felt like I finally understood what the Greeks tried to capture in their tragedies; I experienced a confirmation of the Heraclitean hypothesis "panta rhei" (everything flows; all is in flux; there is no being only becoming); and I realized that the solitude I have recently been trying to celebrate comes at a heavy price, that is, I saw with clarity how necessary it is that I connect to others and end this partially self-imposed loneliness. This last insight has provided a much needed remedy to the cynicism which has been dominating my thoughts of late.

What is remarkable about these experiences is how open they are to interpretation. At no point did I ever get the sense of a divine presence--which is one thing that people often talk about but which still remains foreign to me. Indeed, the experience was intensely solipsistic in a certain respect. I even felt that reflecting upon my prior knowledge of the causes of such experiences actually enhanced it in a unique way.

I, of course, recognized that the scientific account is no more adequate than the self-reports of mystics. I even saw more clearly than before how both traditional religion and scientific dogmatism are on the same self-defeating page here, denying that which is directly in front of them for the sake of something not immediately experienced.

I think Sam Harris, who I wrote about relatively recently, is dead on about the importance of such kinds of experience and the practices that surround them. The atheist who denies this aspect of life is throwing the baby out with the bath water. In fact, I saw with such clarity how such experiences are nothing but a natural side effect of all the various modules that make up that "experience machine" that is constituted by various parts of our brain.

If you think about all of the aspects of experience that we take for granted--the feeling of our bodies in space (proprioception), the distinction between our self and the rest of the world, the differentiation of the world into individual objects that persist over time, the capacity for intense emotional responses, etc.--you can see how messing with this subtle chemistry by meditation (or other more direct means) can produce amazing results that, to the uninitiated, could suggest contact with some supernatural force.

As for me, I had a very "naturalistic" kind of mystical experience. I still believe the universe to be utterly indifferent (and almost entirely outside of our grasp), but I see how value, worth, meaning is real despite the fact that it can only be created by tiny parts of the world that, like cosmic mirrors, reflect the universe back on itself. We may just be ephemeral modes of being, but we do constitute something qualitatively different.

If there is such a thing as the "divine", it's a distinctly human divinity (or, to be open to the possibility of other kinds of beings capable of the same, a finite divinity). If there is anything like immortality, it is the immortality of the singular moment, the kind of eternity that I think Wittgenstein recognized which made him see it as irrational to fear death.

I am still grappling with the recognition that everyone who undergoes these experiences emerges from them with a feeling of profound certainty about whatever knowledge they gained from them (such so that I am skeptical about any such knowledge claims), on the one hand, and the possibility that the reason they are so sure is that they actually did see some truth, on the other. (As Spinoza suggests, truly adequate knowledge is incapable of being doubted.) I also don't know whether I wish to try to induce further such experiences in the future. But, at least I'm feeling pretty good today, in the wake of all of this.

There are other things, more personal things, that I won't say here. I'm still not exactly sure what to "do" with these memories now. I at least wanted to have some written record so that when the less intense aspects fade further, I might be able to recall them some other time. And, I must admit, I find some value in sharing this experience with others (pretending for a moment that people actually read my exhibitionistic logorrhea).


Now what?

So I gave my paper on "robocracy" last night. I think it went quite well. I got some great questions from my peers, who actually took it seriously, and in light of their criticisms, I think I'm going to abandon the idea.

(The basic premise: Plato's Republic w/ superintelligent machines serving as the guardians, i.e., rule by [hopefully benevolent] AI experts.)

I think I'm going to try to take a more "descriptive" approach to these issues. It's difficult enough to lay out what the future is going to look like. I want to wait and see what forms artificial life and intelligence takes in the future before I advocate making them part of the political structure.

Generally speaking, I think I'm going to put some of this AI stuff on the back burner, and focus more on the issue of human enhancement. I am more or less convinced now that ordinary, unmodified humans will go extinct this century. But human extinction is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if we are replaced by something better.

For a nice intro to the subject, I highly recommend this lecture by Michael Bess. He lays out some of the expectations and a lot of the relevant moral concerns. Even if you have no background at all on human enhancement, it should make sense (it was written for a popular [educated] audience).

If there is one thing I lament about losing confidence in the AI-ocracy schema, it's that now I come very close to being perceivable as a "prophet of doom". I frankly don't see anyway humanity can be saved. Our creations are already out of our control, so how could we possibly hope to prevent weakly godlike intelligences from destroying our species? Our best bet is probably to enhance ourselves, but that may result in a different kind of loss of humanity.

And I'm just not sure whether that's good or bad. So much of what humanity takes itself to be is simply the product of ignorance, chance, and wishful thinking. It's mere pretense, flight-of-fancy, romantic sentimentalism. I'm not even sure what I value about our species, except perhaps the ability to recognize this (that our reason has some power over our affects) and our creativity and innovation.

But, these things are the province of a slim minority. On this logic, it makes no sense for me to be anything other than an elitist. I'm content to put the rest of humanity on a par with the bulk of mammalian life. That's not to say they don't warrant moral concern--we should not be cruel to animals--but they certainly don't deserve any reverence or respect. I suppose I shan't miss them when they're gone.


The End of "Atheism"?

This is a fascinating piece from the recent conference of the Atheist Alliance in D.C. by Sam Harris who--along with Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett--is regarded as one of the "four horsemen" of the new atheism. However, in this speech he argues, I think cogently, that we should abandon atheism both as a term and as a structured viewpoint.

(He makes analogies with "non-racists" and "non-astrologers" and points out how claiming to be an atheist lumps one in with nasty people like Stalin, at least in the minds of the religious.)

The speech apparently caused quite a stir, with one woman even vowing to throw away Harris' books in the Q&A session, but it reflects well on his author that he chose to be frank with an audience that was hoping for something quite different. I particularly like what he says about meditation and other such practices, in defiance of atheistic conventional wisdom.

My days of being a militant, anti-religious atheist are in the past, but I have tended to still use the term, even writing about it in a recent post. I think that I may continue to use it when forced to select among options for "religion" on various websites (it's the shortest answer for me to that question), but I have no reason to go around advertising myself as one.

On Facebook, where they allow you to type in a response to the religion question, I've called myself an "unbeliever", a description which is both apt and less problematic. I am also fond of the terms "materialist" and "naturalist"--although I also like to call myself an "unnaturalist", but with a different sense of the term "nature".

(If, by "nature", we understand the universe [or if you prefer, multiverse] and everything in it, I am a naturalist [as opposed to a supernaturalist], but if we instead mean that which is opposed to civilization, artificiality, and technology, I am an unnaturalist. Incidentally, if by "god", we understand the totality of all being, I am not an a-theist, because that "god" exists by definition. In short, a lot of this stuff is just a question of the meanings of words, but since these are always manifold, labels can be misleading.)


Untimely Reflections

Every time I read Nietzsche, I get the sense that all of 20th Century philosophy (the interesting stuff, not all-too-clever "analytic" claptrap) is, to twist Whitehead's phrase, a footnote to Nietzsche. It has become impossible for me not to be inspired as I pore over his words, especially his last few books.

Many of the social maladies that he was the first to diagnose have only continued and worsened. We live in such a thoroughly mediocratized age that even the elite are afraid to be elitists. People of superior intelligence and creativity are made to feel guilty for their talents. (And while it can hardly be said that we "deserve" such things, since they are parceled out by chance as it were, we should certainly not feel bad for possessing them.)

I think Nietzsche is wrong to the extent that he ties some of his valuations to gender and race (of course, this may be a bad interpretation of his use of "types"). Indeed, it is an advancement that our age strives to look past superficialities like sex and skin color. However, we have thrown the baby out with the bath water. Evaluating individuals on account of group identity is a mistake; evaluating individuals per se is not.

The mediocratic spirit is virtually uncontested in America today. The one area in which we allow the flowering of productive conflicts and the ascendancy of the victors--the business world--is corrupted by its extreme short-sightedness (profitability in the upcoming fiscal quarter as guiding ideal). The race to the bottom that is called "politics" in America today disgusts me, to be sure, but when we go behind the scenes--looking at those who control money, media, power, the fabrication of reality--the stupidity of the corporate world just becomes more nauseating.

The temptation when reading Nietzsche is to want to cast oneself as a master, as a free spirit, a true philosopher. But most of us don't have the stomach for it; we are too much the product of our anti-elitist culture. So, let me be frank. It is impossible to have democratic or socialistic sympathies and to be Nietzschean. This may not be a problem, of course (who wants to be merely derivative of some previous thinker?), but let's at least not lie about it.

Perhaps it's the years of living alone, a lifelong paucity of friendships and other close relationships, the tendency to drift apart from my peers when I do discover them--in short, my solitude--that has allowed me to read Nietzsche differently than when I was a naive undergraduate. I complain of loneliness, sure, but I need solitude, time to reflect, to talk to myself, to take a break from the hell of other people (and exchange it for the purgatory of my own mind). I've had more than my fill of it lately, to be sure, but I should not be ungrateful for the effects it has had on my development. Still, it makes it even harder to resist that temptation...

As I begin to embrace my more meritocratic, even aristocratic, sentiments, I find that I have a lot of assumptions to rethink. The unidimensional range of acceptable political opinions--not simply in political theater, but in academia in particular--is especially constraining. The issues I care about don't fit anywhere on a left-right axis.

If I had to summarize my ideals, I would say that I want to see the improvement of humanity--but what does this mean now?

Contrary to prevailing tendencies, I think we should, as far as possible, make nature--and especially human nature--submit to our will. This, I think, can be the ultimate triumph of humanity: the recasting of the world in our image. But not "our" in the sense of just anyone. Those individuals who are truly exceptional--and I think these will eventually be, for the most part, those we call "posthuman"--should be the ones to do this. If we must have democracy to keep the masses in line, then let us also have a Solon, let us have lawgivers who can craft the appearance of popular sovereignty. And among those lawgivers let there be real equality.

And now we come to the real difficulty in espousing such opinions. My intense desire for honesty, and not simply directed toward myself, leads me to make public what might better be kept private. But I am not ashamed of my radical ideas (and for the time being they remain relatively unthreatening, drowned out in a sea of other voices) and sometimes I want to invite trouble, to make life a little more interesting. In any case, I change my mind often enough that I have no problem distancing myself from previous assertions if necessary. Old opinions get boring after a while anyway.

Nevertheless, I should tame my vanity and recall Descartes' parting maxim: Bene qui latuit, bene vixit (or, better yet, Spinoza's Caute!). Perhaps reinvigorating an old custom and writing in Latin would be worthwhile (because not writing is simply not an option). That would just leave me with the task of learning it... (Damn these American public schools!)