The Incredulous Stare on Transhumanism

UFO Breakfast gives Nick Bostrom and Transhumanism the old incredulous stare:

It appears that Yale’s philosophy department is hiring “transhumanists,” a philosophical school which until now I’d thought was limited to Dungeons & Dragons afterparties and the editorial war room of Wired Magazine circa 1996.

To be fair, though, transhumanists do participate in a lineage of vapid American optimism…

I grant that Bostrom’s visions are extreme, but there already exist quite a few professors who believe in the singularity and the ascension of humanity into a transhumanistic mind. Roger Penrose is even scared of it. Most of them are not in philosophy departments, however, and most of them have noted scientific accomplishments to rest on. Likewise, Barrow and Tipler’s anthropic principle originated with certified physicists. (The Bostrom article UFO Breakfast points to is fun, but look to Bostrom’s dissertation on the anthropic principle for the real oh-my-god moments.)

(There also is some superficial similarity with eugenicism in terms of an exhortatory jargon for human self-improvement, but I wouldn’t press this point.)

But this isn’t some new low for philosophy. Bostrom et al. may be Panglossian in their study of what’s got to be fairly close to the best of all possible worlds, but how about those possible worlds? The well-regarded David Lewis studied them, and a couple of his formulations are here:

1. Possible worlds exist — they are just as real as our world;
2. Possible worlds are the same sort of things as our world — they differ in content, not in kind;
3. Possible worlds cannot be reduced to something more basic — they are irreducible entities in their own right.

The usual response, unless you’re an Everett many-worlds fan, is the incredulous stare:

The Incredulous Stare is simply the view that modal realism is intuitively grotesque.

Maybe it’s a cheap shot, but is transhumanism any more grotesque? The main difference seem to be its cyber-cool trappings, and who am I to begrudge Bostrom that?

(I should add that I find Lewis’s use of supervenience to salvage his brand of materialism almost equally hard to swallow. This paper is the best I could find on short notice and only coarsely trashes his theories, but I still think there are deeper, internal problems beyond the ones the paper goes after. I won’t discuss them because I don’t believe anyone really cares.)

My point? Only that Bostrom is not a new step down in quality, but a step up in accessibility, and like neoconservativism and cultural studies, that can only mean good news (money and prestige) for philosophy.

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