Franklin Veaux (tacit) wrote,
Franklin Veaux
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Some thoughts on extropianism

Some time ago, I wrote in this very journal:

I am an extropian. Put most simply, what that means is that I believe a system's capacity for intelligence and information can and generally does improve over time.

Put more completely, it means that I believe the human potential, as with the potential of any complex, dynamic, evolving system, is open-ended. I believe that human systems tend over time to amass increasing amounts of knowledge and understanding about, and ability to control and manipulate, the physical world; that there are no arbitrary upper limits on that increase save for those imposed by the laws of physics themselves; and that as a consequence of this increasing capacity for information and ability, complex systems such as human societies tend toward an increasing capacity for freedom of action, including an increasing capacity for overcoming obstacles and limitations.

I also believe that the universe operates according to principles which are knowable, observable, and comprehensible; and that rational and analytical thought, combined with experimentation and empirical observation, are tools with which those fundamental principles can be understood. I believe that constantly challenging ideas, including these ideas, is a necessary and vital part of understanding the natural world, and that those who do not challenge their own ideas are fundamentally and fatally handicapped in their ability to progress.


I've been told these things represent a religious system, and that extropianism is a religious belief, much like any other. In fact, some people take it even farther than that; I've seen Web sites that describe the extropian philosophy as a "cult," in a rather stunning display of Missing The Point. No, Dorothy, we're not in Kansas here; extropianism, much as it is a philosophical belief system, is not actually a religious system at all.


What are you talking about? Of course extropianism is a religion! It's based on articles of faith!

Any system of belief whatsoever is founded on axioms of some sort. Mathematics is not a religion, yet it's based on axioms, such as the axiom that two quantities which are both equal to a third quantity are equal to each other.
Some of the axioms of extropianism include:

  • The physical universe operates according to physical laws which are consistent; omnipotent (meaning that everything in the universe is subject to physical laws); and operate the same way everywhere;
  • These laws can be measured, tested, observed, quantified, and verified empirically;
  • These laws are comprehensible--that is, they can be understood;
  • Within the context of these laws, organized systems are possible, and such systems can over time increase in organizational complexity and in their ability to quantify and manipulate information;
  • A system of sufficient organizational complexity can become self-aware, and can develop the ability to anticipate the consequences of its actions.

Are these axioms matters of religious faith? No, they are not. Faith, almost by definition, is the belief in things which cannot be verified or empirically tested; a system based on faith, such as a religious system, does not make predictions which can be validated by empirical means.

But extropians take things on faith, like "In the future, medical technology will be able to halt aging" or "In the future, human beings and human societies will change to the point that they are no longer recognizable." Those are articles of faith which can't be tested!

Not so. Rather, they are predictions based on the observable history of man's progress toward greater understanding of physical law, and greater ability to manipulate the physical world in accordance with that physical law.

It used to be believed that living things were somehow magical, possessed of some indescribable and fundamentally non-quantifiable essence which forever made living things categorically different from non-living things. Living things, it was believed, did not operate according to the same universal laws as non-living things; in fact, in 1895, Lord Kelvin, the physicist who helped quantify the laws of thermodynamics, declared flatly "Heavier-than-air powered flight is impossible." When challenged on that statement--"But, Lord Kelvin, birds are heavier than air, and they fly!" his answer, essentially, was "That's different. Birds are alive."

Nowadays, we understand that living systems are not magical; they operate according to the same basic laws of chemistry and physics that all systems abide by. The science of molecular biology is becoming quite well understood; we now know the basic principles behind which living systems operate, we know how they generate and use energy, we know how they store information--and there's no special magic. The molecular machinery of life is quite complicated, but it is comprehensible, and it's not different in kind from any other system.

You haven't explained yet how these predictions are not statements of faith...

I'm getting to that.

Predictions can reasonably be made on the basis of past trends. When one looks at the history of the human species, it becomes obvious that over time, our understanding of the physical world, and our ability to manipulate the world, has increased. Furthermore, that increase has not been linear; in the past several hundred years, it has become exponential. It took nearly seventy thousand years just for the human race to develop written language; yet in the past thirty thousand we have moved from tools made of stone to tools fabricated with atomic-level precision; from transportation using nothing but human and animal muscle power to space travel; from believing that the sun is a divine being and that all things are made of air, earth, fire, and water to an understanding of the universe that extends to the bizarre and often nonintuitive world of quantum mechanics.

In the years leading up to the first powered flight, while Lord Kelvin was still deriding his fellow scientists for thinking that such a thing was even possible, many people predicted that, Kelvin's shortsightedness aside, heavier-than-air flight was a logical and inevitable development of human experiments and experience with gliders and with lighter-than-air flight. Those people were right. Heavier-than-air flight was a safe bet for two reasons: first, because people were already learning the basic principles of aerodynamics and applying those principles to unpowered gliders that performed as predicted; and second, because people could see examples of heavier-than-air flying things in nature. Much as Lord Kelvin (and his contemporaries today) like to think that living things are mysterious and unique and obey different laws of physics, the fact is that processes in living organisms are subject to universal physical law just as all other processes are. In hindsight, betting on heavier-than-air flight was a pretty obvious win.

Looking ahead and making extrapolations based on current trends and current advances in technology is not an act of religious faith; for example, in the past twenty years, we have gone from being able to engrave about sixty thousand transistors onto a semiconductor chip to being able to engrave over 55 million transistors in the same space; it doesn't require religious conviction to make the prediction that, in the future, the number of transistors we can engrave in the same space will continue to increase.

Many of the predictions made by extropians, though they sound farfetched, are simple extrapolations from current technology. Part of the reason they seem farfetched is that human beings tend to project their current situation into the past and the future, assuming that the past was pretty much like the way things are today in most important respects and that the future will continue to be more of the same. It's difficult for us to appreciate the enormous impact that disruptive technologies have had in the past, or to appreciate how quickly the most basic and fundamental assumptions we make can be changed by new disruptive technologies.

But you extropians aren't talking about projections based on current technologies. You keep talking about the "singularity" that will change us all into some utopian non-human life-forms and how we can't even imagine how things will be after we reach this weird utopia!

Not so--though it's easy to see why someone might reach that conclusion.
Extropianist thought recognizes that certain changes in technology result in changes in the human condition so great and so complex that we can not possibly hope to predict what human society will look like after the change. Such an event--a change of this magnitude in technology--is called a "singularity."

But it needs to be emphasized that the "singularity" extropians talk about is not some far-off mystical thing that suddenly changes us all into something else. In fact, there have been thousands of such "singularities" caused by the advent of new and disruptive technologies throughout history.

The greatest singularity in all of human history so far was the development of agriculture in the Neolithic era. This new technology suddenly made it possible, for the first time, for human beings to band together in groups larger than fifty or a hundred people, to stay in one area full-time, and so on. The development of a secure source of food and the advent of non-nomadic life resulted in an enormous spike in the human population, and paved the way toward advances in art, metalworking, and other technologies.

With the advent of agriculture, everything changed. Culture changed. Society changed. The number of individuals in a social group changed. Customs changed. Traditions changed. the human lifespan changed. There's no way that a person, looking form the vantage point of the earliest hunter/gatherers, could ever have predicted what human civilization would look like after the development of agriculture; agriculture created a singularity.

Of course, the basic nature of human beings did not suddenly and mysteriously change overnight; and human society did not suddenly become some Utopia. What happened was that the development of a new innovation--agriculture--had such profound and far-reaching implications for human society, touching every aspect of human life, to such an extent that it changed the course of human civilization.
The Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the development of the steam engine and the Industrial Revolution that followed--all of these things are singularities. A stone-age hunter-gatherer could never, ever have foreseen the Roman Empire; a Roman civilization could not possibly have hoped to anticipate modern-day New York City. Technology changes human society; it's that simple. Today, our lives look nothing like the lives of our earliest ancestors. In the future, peoples' lives will look nothing like ours. All the realities of the human condition that we take for granted--every one, from social customs and mores to our life expectancy to what we look like--is mutable and subject to change.

Just because technology changes doesn't mean WE change!

Oh, but it does. We are physically different from our ancestors. Better access to higher-quality nutrition has made us taller. Spreading throughout cold climates formerly inhospitable to us has made our skin lighter. Advances in our understanding of the causes and prevention of disease have made our lives longer--more than three times longer, on average, than they used to be.
And these advances have changed our cultures, our social mores, our religious values. It used to be that people worshipped the sun; now that we understand what the sun is, we no longer treat it as a divinity. These changes in understanding cause changes in our conceptualization of the universe, which in turn cause changes in our values, our political and social structures, and our religious beliefs.

So? Not all those changes are good. Technology just creates new ways for us to kill each other.

That idea is very popular in certain circles, but it's not true. Technology, of and by itself, is nothing more than understanding of the physical world; technology is morally useful.

But if we look at the course of human history, we see that as our technology increases, so does our standard of living. A homeless beggar living in New York City today has a higher standard of living, a longer life expectancy, and greater overall health than a tribal chieftan in the Bronze Age. An average middle-class American citizen of today is, in a historical context, wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of avarice; he has a better standard of living than a Medieval king. He may not live in a castle with a bevy of personal servants, but neither does he need those servants; the tasks that those servants were there to perform are now largely done by far more powerful servants, such as electricity and indoor plumbing. That average, middle-class citizen lives in greater comfort, with greater health, with a greater range of ability than the Medieval king--and will probably live far longer, and be healthy and active much farther into his life.

But look at the cost! We no longer live in harmony with nature. Technology is inevitably destructive.

It's always been trendy to think of human beings as somehow separate from nature. In the past, we've always smugly believed that we were set apart from mere nature by an omnipotent God, who expressly created us in his image and who expressly put us above the rest of the world. More recently, it's become fashionable to think of humanity as a threat to nature--as some sort of virulent, evil, destructive force, hell-bent on destroying all that is good and wise in nature.

Both views are nonsense, of course--the result of a kind of collective hubris. The truth is, we are a part of nature; we function the same way as the rest of nature, and are subject to the same natural laws. Our technology, the product of our minds, is as natural as the dam built by a beaver. Our brains, those amazing complex organs which give us our capacity for reason and analytical thought, are organs of survival, no different than claws and fangs. We do what every organism does; we survive, using the tools at our disposal to do so. We are the result of an endless natural system, and our capacity for reason and for technology is an example of a natural system that has become increasingly capable of self-awareness and order in increasingly complex ways. In short, not only are we a part of nature, neither above nor below it, but we are living examples of the axiom that natural systems can and do increase in complexity and in their capacity for intelligence.

Intelligence is not the only survival strategy, but it's a damn good one; it's allowed us to dominate almost every ecological niche we occupy.

And that intelligence allows us to do something no other organism can do--it allows us to predict and to control the course of our own development.

Control the course of our own development? HA! Look what a mess we've made of things so far!

What kind of mess would that be? We've been hugely successful; we've not only survived but thrived in challenging environments that would render most other species extinct; we've demonstrated a capacity for adaptability and inventiveness that far surpasses anything else nature's come up with so far; and, most important of all, we've gained the capacity to understand the physical universe. We are a part of nature, but we are (so far) the only part of nature with the capacity to understand itself. Indeed, we are the way the universe seeks to know itself; we are the only parts of nature with the capacity to understand on an increasingly complex level.

Now, many people like to point to the various flaws and failings of the human animal and say "See, this is proof that we are nothing but evil and destructive." But the very flaws and failings being pointed to are flaws only in the context of a human value system. Nature is morally neutral; nature is perfectly happy with mass extinctions and ecological disasters; the fact that we see these things as "bad" and "wrong" shows that we human beings do value the very things that people criticize us for. The notion "extinction is wrong" is a human value, not a natural value; things like environmental destruction have moral weight only in the context of human value systems.

And clearly, human beings do value things like environmental diversity. Sometimes this value is pragmatic (we are a part of nature, we are subject to changes in our environment just as any organism is, we cannot survive without the world around us) and sometimes abstract (failing to protect that which we are capable of protecting is morally wrong). But either way, it's important to understand that if you take the capacity for reason and understanding out of the picture, there is no longer any moral value at all; nature, of and by itself, is perfectly content to slam an asteroid or two into an inhabited planet and wipe out most of the life on that planet.
You know that story you've heard about how primitive man lived in harmony with nature, killing only when necessary and using every part of the animal? Forget it--it's bullshit. Everywhere these tool-using, language-possessing hairless apes went, extinction followed; ancient hunters were not above stampeding an entire herd of bison over a cliff, and letting most of the meat rot in place simply because they couldn't use it all. The idea that living creatures have value beyond their use as food or labor is a new one, and it's a value we have only because our technology affords us the luxury of that value.

But c'mon, this extropianism stuff gets pretty whacky. I mean, really. Extropians talk about living forever, that sort of thing.

That's not quite correct; actually, it's safer to say that extropians talk about removing many of the natural limits on longevity, which is not quite the same thing as living forever. Anything that lives can die; we are made of matter, and if someone comes along and smashes us, we're dead. The magic of life is in the way that matter is arranged--disrupt that special arrangement and the system quits working.
The matter we are made of is ordinary stuff; it obeys the same laws of physics as any other matter. Our cells, the simplest functional building blocks of our bodies, are tiny machines--very very complex machines, to be sure, but machines nonetheless. It's amazing how much of molecular biology is actually mechanical; many of the parts our cells are made of operate mechanically (this protein is specifically shaped so that it locks onto that part of that protien, and when it does, it bends in this particular way and lets it do this particular thing...that kind of stuff).

We age and die as a result of accumulated breakdown of those tiny mechanical systems. Cells suffer damage during the normal course of their operation, or because of environmental damage, or injury, and when they become damaged, they operate less effectively; damage them enough and they die.

Cells do have built-in repair mechanisms--systems that do things like scan strands of DNA for damage and repair it, rebuild missing or damaged systems, and so on. Some cells are better at this than others. For example, the bacterium Deinococcus radiodurans has built-in repair mechanisms of such amazing efficiency and reliability that the bacterium can be dried out, blasted with radiation, and subjected to other environmental torments that literally smash its molecular machinery, including its DNA, to bits--and can still re-assemble itself and carry right on living.

Even more bizarre is a species of viruses mentioned in the Scientific American article "Are Viruses Alive?" This species of virus infects a type of primitive bacteria called cyanobacteria, but--here's where it gets interesting--the virus has the ability to infect a recently dead cyanobacterium and bring the cell back to life, repairing or replacing damaged systems and reactivating the bacterium's cellular machinery (which it then, of course, puts to work making more viruses).

Still other bacteria are so resilient and so adept at self-repair that they can remain frozen in ice for tens of thousands of years, or stay embedded in salt crystals for millions of years, and, when freed, return to life.

So what? What does this have to do with making people live longer?

Everything.
Cells are tiny machines, filled with molecule-sized parts...and these machines can be repaired. It is possible for a damaged cell--even a cell which has been damaged so badly that its machinery is in ruins--to be repaired and made functional again. We are made of cells; if it is possible to repair the cells of other organisms, it is possible to repair ours.

Our knowledge of how to do this is still quite primitive. We're at about the state the Wright Brothers were in when they first began experimenting with crude gliders, trying to master the basic laws of aerodynamics; they knew flight was possible, because they saw birds doing it, and we know that cellular repair is possible, because we see organisms do it. Now it's just a matter of learning to do this to ourselves.

Indeed, we are already taking the first steps in learning how to do this. A new science, called synthetic biology, is being created at MIT; the researchers in this field are learning to use DNA to build tiny, molecule-sized computers able to do the same sorts of calculations that regular computers can do, and an experimental treatment for cancer that involves taking a strand of DNA "programmed" to identify cancer cells and linking it with a toxin which is released if the DNA recognizes the patterns of protiens associated with tumor cells is already in early trials.

We are learning, right now, how to build tiny, programmable machines, which can enter the body and repair damage, identify and destroy hostile invaders, and kill cancerous cells. And that's not all; on the mechanical side, we're learning to etch three-dimensional mechanical parts in materials like silicon, the same way we etch transistors and circuits in computer chips; these tiny machines, far smaller than a single cell, will one day be able to perform just about any mechanical task we can imagine, on the level of individual molecules. One early and promising avenue of research this is opening up is the creation of machines, dubbed "respirocytes," that are far smaller than human blood cells but dothe same thing--transport oxygen to cells and carry carbon dioxide away.

The benefit of respirocytes is that they are thousands of times more efficient than red blood cells; a person with a therapeutic dose of these machines in his body would likely be able to hold his breath for an hour or more, run at full speed for fifteen minutes or more without taking a breath, or even survive with his heart stopped for half an hour or more. The benefits of such devices are obvious, and they're actively being developed right now.

The ability to create molecule-sized programmable computers and machinery offers the ability to repair cellular damage, including damage caused by aging; repair or supplement damaged systems; and identify and destroy foreign invaders far more efficiently than our current immune systems (which work well but slowly). The potential for humanity--treatment of diseases currently deemed "incurable," prevention or reversal of aging, and so on--is staggering.

Human beings are more complicated than bacterium! We're just too complicated for this sort of stuff!

That's a question of engineering detail, not a fundamental limitation imposed by the laws of physics. We already have the ability to make computer processors which contain more transistors than the total number of molecules in some cells; human beings are extremely complex, but that complexity comes from the fact that we're built of many, many, many simple structures--and dealing with very large numbers of structures is a matter of working out the details.

Molecule-sized machines inside our body? Replacing red blood cells? Stopping aging? That's freaky! That's all playing God!

Now that is a religious statement.

Throughout history, new developments in knowledge and understanding have tended to produce backlashes from the religious community. The first organ transplants were greeted with shock and horror by the general public; many people were terrified and repulsed by the idea, and some people derided transplant medicine as "scientists cutting apart corpses and sewing the parts of dead bodies into living people." Today, though, transplant medicine is a normal and routine part of medicine, and there are countless people alive right now who would long have been dead without transplants. Are the surgeons who perform lifesaving transplant operations "playing God?" No, they are simply using their knowledge and skill in the pursuit of saving lives.

Eyeglasses, LASIC surgery, heart pacemakers--these are all examples of technology being used to promote human life and well-being. A person with a transplant, a person with a pacemaker, a person who wears contacts--these people are still just people, they're not Frankeinstein monsters.

Looking back, we see a trend in the relationship between technology and religion. Religious faiths have always drawn lines in the sand: "Okay, we understand everything on this side of the line, but everything on that side of the line"--the origin of life, the nature of the stars and other heavenly bodies, the shape of the earth, and so on--"is the realm of God, and there are some things Man Was Just Not Meant to Know."

Extropian philosophy is neutral with regard to the existance of God; however, what it is not neutral about is the value of human understanding. If there is a God, and that being endowed us with reason and awareness, it would seem foolish and insulting for us not to use those gifts! The God recognized by an extropian is not a petty, meanspirited God, who deliberately creates an arbitrary and inconsistent universe just to trick or confound us.

Is there a God? That's not a question extropian philosophy seeks to answer. Extropianism seeks to answer questions about human capacity and human knowledge within the realm of a physical universe governed by physical laws.

There should be limits on technology! We can't just let technology run amuk!

Technology is not some weird, maurading force; technology is not an entity in its own right; technology is nothing more than human knowledge applied to solving problems. Fears of technology running amuk are simply re-statements that there are simply things human beings should not know, or problems human beings should not try to solve.

When a person says "Hmm, that's interesting, I wonder if there's an easier way to do that," that's technology. When a person says "Hey, I wonder if this problem can be solved," that's technology. The problem lies in our habit of projecting our current situation into the future--of thinking that just because we can't solve a problem, such as aging, right now, that means it can't or shouldn't ever be solved.

But why the relentless optimism? Technology is a destructive force; aren't you afraid this technology will be used for evil?

Technology is not inherently destructive; people are sometimes destructive, and people who are destructive will use whatever tools are at their disposal to destroy. That does not mean that we should never develop new tools; however; in fact, what we often discover is that building new tools and new technologies results in a net positive gain in the human condition even despite the best efforts of those who seek to abuse those tools.

There's no question that things cannot remain as they are now forever. The human population is expanding, and already many third-world countries are running into the limits of the number of people they can feed. Our current crude, clumsy macroscopic technology is powered by fossil fuel--a resource that is not limitless. Current manufacturing techniques are wasteful and inefficient. Eventually, we will reach a point where the way we do things now is no longer sustainable; either we will need fewer people, and I mean a lot fewer people, or we will need new ways of doing things.

Wars are often fought over control of resources. We need fossil fuels, and wars are fought over access to those fossil fuels. Everyone needs to eat, and wars are fought over control of food resources. As supplies of fossil fuels decrease and the population increases, these problems will get better, not worse. New technologies which reduce dependence on wasteful sources of energy, reduce wasteful and polluting manufacturing processes, and so on, will reduce, not increase, the likelihood of destructive wars and the like.

Now, we'll still be human, mind you; only a fundamental change in the nature of the species will completely eliminate our tendency to do evil. Yet there's something to be said for the fact that no two countries which have McDonald's franchises have ever gone to war with each other; wealthy, industrialized, first-world nations simply have too much to lose by waging war on one another, as it's more profitable in the long run for them to get along.

New technologies, such as manufacturing using molecular-scale assembly rather than manufacturing using brute force, offer hope for a revolution in industry that makes the Industrial Revolution look like a minor footnote. The ability to build virtually anything which can be imagined, without waste, cheaply and in unlimited quantity, using only modest amounts of energy, is just one promise the idea of molecular assembly holds out.

Some people, of course, claim that building macroscopic objects with molecular assemblers is an impossibility, which is a little odd considering that you and I are both macroscopic objects that were built by molecular assemblers. "But that's different," such people explain; "we're alive."

And Lord Kelvin was utterly convinced of the absurdity of flight, as well.
Tags: science, transhumanism
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