Russell Blackford on Human Enhancement

I’m not sure when the idea of “human enhancement” first bubbled up in my brain. It seems to be one of those possibilities which I just grew up with, thanks to a childhood lost in books. In Cosmos, Carl Sagan wrote,

There must be ways of putting nucleic acids together that will function far better — by any criterion we choose — than any human being who has ever lived. Fortunately, we do not yet know how to assemble alternative sequences of nucleotides to make alternative kinds of human beings. In the future we may well be able to assemble nucleotides in any desired sequence, to produce whatever characteristics we think desirable — a sobering and disquieting prospect.

The video version ends with “awesome and disquieting prospect,” by the way. Sagan’s friend Isaac Asimov was a little more cheerful; while dying of AIDS, he concluded the revision of his book The Human Brain with these words:

Man would then, by his own exertions, become more than man, and what might not be accomplished thereafter? It is quite certain, I am sure, that none of us will live to see the far-distant time when this might come to pass. And yet, the mere thought that such a day might some day come, even though it will not dawn on my own vision, is a profoundly satisfying one.

Not long ago, the SF writer Greg Egan wrote unguardedly, “I’m still trying to live down all the dumb quantum mechanics in Qu*r*ntine, 15 years after writing it.” In fact, what I remember most about that book wasn’t the QM (frankly, it didn’t take much to realize it was a fictional take on science best used for entertainment purposes only) but the idea of rewiring neurons to do a chosen job, even the task of instilling an unshakable faith. “Belief made flesh, or rather, flesh made into belief” — having lost my paperback, I have to quote from memory, but that’s the idea.

Over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, Russell Blackford (Monash University) has posted the prologue meant to clear the philosophical and ideological ground before beginning a defense of human enhancement technologies. I like that people are thinking about this stuff, and in a clear-headed way, some time in advance.

This part sets out the general tone:

When I commenced my study of human enhancement technologies, I expected to develop a forthright defence of the present and imagined technologies that I have in mind, and have attempted to evoke in these opening paragraphs. That is, I expected to be able to reject criticisms of these technologies quite unequivocally. However, it now appears to me that some of the fears that have been expressed cannot simply be dismissed out of hand as irrational or unreasonable. Public policy will need to grapple with these legitimate fears, whether by the enactment of legal prohibitions or by other means. At the same time, I remain convinced that we should view the technological prospects with at least a guarded optimism. Even if we resist the changes that are underway, and those to come — resist some of them, or all — it might be with a degree of regret and a hope that the need for resistance will be only temporary.

And this part has me eagerly anticipating the next installment:

Not only does the institution of morality exist to serve us — not the other way around — it is something that we can improve. Perhaps it should be more demanding in some ways, and less so in others. My approach will be to subject the claims of moralists — professional or amateur — to searching sceptical scrutiny, because I believe that I am working in an area where the moral ideas in use are typically too demanding. Thus, my project involves a counterattack on much existing moral discourse: it will be a case, here, of the enhancer strikes back. Rather than work within some established system of moral or political philosophy — whether it be preference utilitarianism, some kind of neo-Kantian or neo-Aristotelian ethics, Nozick-style libertarianism, or some sort of liberal or communitarian theory — I will cast doubt on all those theories.

There’s nothing like a good scholarly smackdown to brighten the day!