Because Human Life Is Hard

So I was thinking. There is a theme in science fiction, one that long predates transhumanism but which is highly typical of it, and that can be observed in everything from Ringworld's Teela gene to the Kurzweil Singularity evoked in Mass Effect—which is the "from Mother Teresa to Hitler" of SF.

I refer, of course, to the portrayal of humanity as changing, of this species having some "ultimate destiny" that is different from that of our fathers, who ate their pound of dirt, loved, begat, died, and were mourned. It is done well or poorly; its blessed absence from Halo is just one more reason to like that setting; but it is a wholly invalid idea.

Let us first discuss its origin. There are two, one major and one minor—but the minor is the one that justifies its usage, while the major would, on its own, get a writer who employed it laughed out of the room.

The minor origin of the concept, and its sole justification for inclusion in science fiction, is the popular-science conception of science as the improver of human life. It heavily depends, of course, on the illiterate public's inability to distinguish science from technology, and has more than a shade of defending one's grant-money. It is the polar opposite of the "science is bad/hubristic/tampering in God's domain" idea, and no more intellectually valid; if mere knowledge changed people's moral character I'd be much less of an asshole (I am a walking refutation of Platonist ethics, it's a lot less awesome than it sounds).

The major origin, inextricably linked to pretty much all thought in much of the post-Renaissance West, is Gnosticism. Why Gnosticism is so popular in this culture is complicated; it would involve discussing the history of about twelve different esotericist movements throughout Europe. Suffice it to say that Gnosticism has a perennial appeal, especially to two classes of people: intellectuals and adolescents. It appeals to intellectuals in positing salvation solely as knowledge; no good works or efficacious dharma required, as long as you're smart enoughnote. It appeals to adolescents because he who has gnosis is special. And better than other people, in a way that the saint or bodhisattva isn't.

Hence its appeal to science fiction writers and fans. While, if Mass Effect is any indication, being even slightly interested in science is now optional for science fiction fandom, most such fans are still "nerds"; and, of course, even if the average fan is now too old to count as an adolescent, our culture has corrected for the demographic shift by making perpetual adolescence the hallmark of sincerity and "authenticity". A worldview where the people who know the most are the Spiritual Elect has an obvious appeal to "nerds", and unlike Confucianism or Rabbinical Judaism, where you have to learn things that other people can dispute, Gnosticism is actually built on the special, subjective "insights" that are the stock in trade of the adolescent (literal or figurative) with intellectual pretensions.

Incidentally, some science fiction writers are more open about it than others. One of them took Gnosticism further than any other, and, just as various Hermetic movements in the Renaissance enjoyed the patronage of aristocrats, his Gnostic "gospel" is very popular with celebrities. Oh yes, I said it: the only difference between Transhumanism and Scientology is that Scientologists know they're a religion (although they were just a psych-therapy, until L. Ron discovered that religions don't have an APA, and are also tax-exempt; don't be surprised if the Extropy Institute becomes a "church" after a run-in with the IRS).

Now, aside from Gnosticism being the Scientology of its day (or actually, Scientology is the Gnosticism of ours), there's a bigger problem. Namely, it's stupid. Just as much as the interspecies sex in Mass Effect, or for that matter the utterly irrational behavior in any fiction that only occurs in order to advance the plot, it is an abuse of artistic license. No such transformation is coming.

See, Transhumanists like to talk about "the end of evolution", and they claim it'll involve the elimination of the distinction between biology and technology. What's interesting is how incredibly close they are...and yet how completely far off. Because, for all intents and purposes, human evolution has already ended, and it happened some time before the Neolithic Revolution (invention of agriculture). Human evolution ended pretty much in the Upper Paleolithic.

Why? Because, after that point, our main means of adaptation was not our bodies. Instead of the very slow method of the best-adapted individuals passing on their genes, those first anatomically modern humans hit on the method we've been using ever since: screw adapting our bodies, just adapt our technology. That's right, kiddies, we've been living in the Kurzweil Singularity since 44 millennia before our oldest civilizations. We are those alien species who interact with their environment almost exclusively by means of high-tech environment suits—the suits are just kinda minimalistic (they're mostly just insulation), but that's because we still mainly live in our native environment.

There's another problem with this whole "ultimate human destiny" idea, in science fiction. Actually, there are several (I wanna say three, let's see how it goes).

First is, all such utopian schemes, no matter how well handled (like the Teela gene in Niven), are fundamentally wish-fulfillment, in a way that the burliest, laid-gettingest action hero isn't. Every post-scarcity, abolished-involuntary-death, mind-uploading, or (sneer with me) evolving-into-pure-energy future posited by science fiction writers is simply whining. Now, there's nothing wrong with complaining about how hard human life is—that complaint, and explaining its causes, is at the back of our two greatest religions. But to then come up with these implausible little utopias, where everyone suddenly can get everything they want, is puerile. It's essentially like how very young children assume that you deny them the things they want because you're mean, not because giving it to them is some value of "impossible"—it is predicated on a radical ignorance of how the real world actually functions.

Second is, you can either posture as a rationalist, as most science fiction writers do, or you can wax dewy-eyed about the New Jerusalem. Not both. Hell, actual religions don't pretend we'll have the happiness of heaven until we actually go to heaven. Apparently Arthur Clarke is significantly less emotionally mature than the average megachurch congregant—he wants his heaven here in the world of the living, thank you, and all the laws of physics and biology be damned. But no, man, keep talking about "faith that cannot survive collision with the truth"; I think it's cute.

Third is, not only is it puerile wish fulfillment, it's puerile in another way. Namely, the way that very young children say things like "I wish every day was Christmas", without considering the side-effects. I assure you, Iain M. Banks would hate living in The Culture. He'd kill himself the fourth week. And the Teela gene is simply impossible; even if psionic luck existed, what happens when two people who have it try to kill each other?

Seriously, what is you people's problem with reality? Science fiction is "about the possible", remember? You'd never stand for that kind of utopian BS in a fantasy story. Hell, ghosts and psychic powers are possible, but more of you bitch about their inclusion in SF than about post-scarcity economies—never mind that we don't know what happens when you die, or how the mind works, but we damn well do know there's a little thing called thermodynamics, and it doesn't give a shit about the blood of the workers.

I actually have no problem with religious or paranormal content in science fiction, but I really, genuinely do have a problem with people too stupid or self-deluded not to know when they're talking about a fucking miracle.


S.M. Stirling said...

To take one example, I don't expect an end to aging anytime soon; the biological mechanisms involved are extremely complex.

However, I would expect that -sometime- in the next century, given the rate of progress in biology we'll be able to induce increases in the potential lifespan -- something we haven't done yet, of course.

That's not wishful thinking, just modest extrapolation.

Genuine AI is much further off. That's one area where blind optimism runs rampant; we can't duplicate our minds until we understand them, and we don't.

However, assuming that the brain gives rise to the mind and that the latter is a physical phenomenon, there's no reason why we can't -eventually- produce artificial minds, or transfer ours to some non-biological medium.

I just don't expect it to happen spontaneously because our toaster-ovens are linked via the Web, or to happen anytime soon.

Sophia's Favorite said...

Even increasing potential lifespan past the c. 150 mark wouldn't be the kind of change I, or the writers I'm criticizing, am talking about. Whether your maximum lifespan is 70, 150, or 300, fundamentally your life won't be that different; economic scarcity and all the other factors that have made human life what it's been since the Neolithic would still be in play. The Transhuman and allied writers are talking about a fundamental change, i.e. post-scarcity economics and "the abolition of involuntary death". And that—the laws of thermodynamics say—is just not going to happen. It is physically impossible.

As for AI, yes, optimism there does run rampant, but it's fueled by the very assumption you mention, that the mind is a physical phenomenon arising from the brain—which is highly doubtful. Both the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics and Gödel Incompleteness in formal logic (which is the basis of the Lucas-Penrose Argument in cybernetics) seem to heavily militate against the idea of the mind functioning according to the mechanistic/determinist principles that govern matter. Or at least normal matter—either Lucas or Penrose, I forget which, is a materialist who appears to believe that the mind is composed of a radically different type of material.

That theory, however, seems to fly in the face of the universality principles that have been so important to science for about the last 200 years. Some sort of intellectual realism (the position that the mind is an independently existent thing, rather than a mere physical epiphenomenon) seems to be required.