solar matter stomache-ache

So it seems I got a rise out of Matt Webb with my response to his “eating the sun” thing a week or so back. This was not exactly my intention—I had little expectation he’d actually read the thing, tbh—but I’m kinda pleased, for reasons which I’m going to try to explain here, as much for my own benefit as for Webb’s (and yours, dear reader). This is a debate that needs to be had more often; with Webb, I think I can engage in it civilly with a person who will take the critiques as they’re intended.

Webb’s response is titled “Resting Posthuman Face”, and the part of me that has spent the last decade or so wading happily around in academic social theory wants to say that the root of the problem is right there in the title: it’s the conflation of posthumanism with transhumanism! Regrettably, this is not sufficient to make the case to anyone who hasn’t also read a bunch of the pertinent social theory. (And even then it might not help, because only this morning was I reading a newly-published journal paper whose authors make exactly the same conflation… )

I have described the distinction before, so I will just quote myself—after noting that this description came in response to what has turned out to be an early salvo in Émile Torres’ ongoing campaign of very public (and very necessary) apostasy against the X-risk crowd.

Posthumanism would perhaps be a little more intuitive a label were it hyphenated (e.g. post-humanism): it is not about transcending one’s human-ness (that’s transhumanism’s bag), but rather about finding ways to think that move beyond the deep biases of Enlightenment humanism—whiteness, maleness, Europeanness, heterosexualness, all of those things, but also (and most fundamentally) the notion that the human being (however diversely conceptualised) is both the measure and the central pole of the universe.

[By contrast,] Longtermism and its associated ideological systems (transhumanism very much included) are profoundly anthropocentric, and as such are not at all post-humanist; rather, they are a sort of ultra-humanism, in which the potential value (always estimable in quantitative terms, yet always based on on spurious statistical handwaves and estimates whose mathematical scale serves the purpose of distracting via sensawunda the minds of the statistically untrained) of a human species that is supposedly capable of (and thus morally justified in its attempt to) colonise entire galaxies outweighs anything and everything that might be seen as collateral damage en route to that goal.

That may not be very clarifying, but I’m going to try to clarify further by responding to Webb’s response. But that description having been prompted by Torres is highly relevant: not just because I too am an apostate of transhumanism (albeit one who was less closely involved at an earlier stage, and rather less successful at getting anyone to care), but because of the recent public emergence of longtermism as a dominant philosophy among the SilVal thortlord set, and its increasingly inescapable connection to a “rehabilitated” eugenics and ultralibertarian politics.

This is not at all to suggest that Matt Webb is into any of that stuff, to be very clear. But it is to suggest, by using myself as an example, that certain ideas and ways of thinking can take you very close to those things without realising that’s where you’re heading.

So, to Webb’s response:

When it comes to eating the Sun (as discussed last week) my personal desire is that humanity should (a) yes, still be around in 7.5 billion years, but (b) should not digest the entire Sun into powering solid-state thinking matter, woven from the coarse materials of the planets, a cube-mind as wide as the orbit of long-gone Earth.

Statement (b) is reassuring. But statement (a) effectively contains the dichotomy discussed above. Webb’s timescale is almost certainly not meant to be taken at face-value so much as a way of saying “in a very deep future”, but even if we dial it down to a few thousand years, or even just the few hundred years that space opera writers like Al Reynolds tend to work with, a very important question arises: is the term “humanity” still useful? Presuming it’s still in linguistic play among entities descended from ourselves, what does that word mean to those who say it, and/or use it to describe themselves?

(As is so often the case, Bruce Sterling got in on the ground floor with this particular question, which is just one of the reasons Schismatrix is such an important novel. But I digress.)

Part of the post-humanist argument hinges exactly on this slippage of the term “humanity”. It’s fairly broadly accepted (at least among folk who consider themselves somewhat progressive or left of center) that a hundred or so years ago, we accounted some humans as more or less human than others. (It is perhaps less broadly accepted that this is still the case, but it turns out that extracting foundational philosophical assumptions from cultural and political and economic institutions is real hard.) Point being: someone saying “humanity” in 1923 had a very different conception of the franchise they were talking about than we do now.

Post-humanism, then, is a school of thought that says maybe the category “human” is no longer fit for purpose on that basis, as well as on the basis of its being the root of the social/natural dichotomy, and thus very much a part of our seemingly unstoppable impulse to chew up the planet on which we evolved for the sake of a bundle of equally ill-defined goals which were bundled under the conceptual label of Progress. Transhumanism, on the other hand, claims to (seek to) transcend the category of the human through the further deployment of technology, but actually just transcendentalises it: raises it to the status of an unquestioned and indeed unquestionable abstract ideal, chiming like a temple bell in its chilly hollowness.

Or, perhaps more simply: transhumanism says that we must commit to innovation and progress “for the sake of humanity”; post-humanism says that all our innovation and progress “for the sake of humanity” so far has produced results that are often inhuman, hostile to humans, and destructive of the only environment in which the term “human” can ever be meaningful.

(Again, read Schismatrix, if you haven’t already. If you have, read it again!)

On my more cranky days, I find myself thinking that transhumanism is basically a sort of end-game or maximalist liberal rationalism: Progress elevated beyond the level of a mere principle, to the status of an ideal or even a sort of deity. There are clear lines one could draw between them, of course, though they could not be drawn clearly quickly; reading Torres and others on the longtermists is a very good place to start. To believe in Progress is not to be signed up for the full transhumanist package!

BUT: in its vagueness and transcendent abstraction, the assumption that Progress is an unalloyed good is one of the foundational suppositions on which longtermism and transhumanism are built. The arguments used in that construction are often sophisticated, which is why it can take a long time to realise that they are also spurious, or monstrous, or sometimes both at once. But they are almost always rational… and that’s the problem in a nutshell, perhaps. There is nothing more irrational than rationality treated as a religion.

Sun-eating transhuman futurepersons are not blueprints for a possible future; they are a concretised metaphor for the planet-eating human presentpersons we already are.

So much for a succinct explanation, eh? Ah well; I am what I am. Back to Webb again:

I’m pro-thinking-about-progress for a couple reasons I suppose.

We can (and must!) bend progress towards the progressive, with work, and I feel like it’s riding a bike or like skiing: it’s easier to inflect direction if you’re moving forward.

I totally get this, and I also totally believe Webb’s heart is in the right place. But I really care about the self-recursive logics in these statements, because I was caught by them for a good long time, and as noted above, some of the most powerful and influential people on the planet are caught by them, and they are making decisions based on those logics which are proving monstrous when deployed at scale.

I appreciate and even sympathise with what I take to be the feeling and empathy behind the seemingly rational statement “[w]e can (and must!) bend progress towards the progressive”… but at the same time it’s an imperative devoid of reason. Why must we? Well, because progress is good! But is it good? Why and how is it good? Is it always good? Is it good for everyone? Who is the “everyone” it is good for? Is it good for the non-human as well as the human? Where is that line being drawn?

So I too am pro-thinking-about-progress! But I’m thinking more at the level of wondering what we mean when we say that word. Just as it’s profoundly irrational to make rationality an unquestioned and unqualified good, it’s profoundly unprogressive to make Progress an unquestioned and unqualified goal. If there is something valuable about the idea of progression—and as someone who counts themselves as a sort of socialist, I really believe there is!—then it is surely that what we mean when we say “progress” must also change progressively, on the basis of not only the visionary forward (and outward) view, but the reflective backward (and inward) view. Otherwise it become just another suitcase word, into which all sorts of horrors and hucksterisms might be stuffed while we’re not paying attention.

(Not at all incidentally, this is the same fate that “sustainability” has suffered, to the extent that it’s now not only effectively meaningless, but also a button that can be pushed by people seeking resources and funding to do things which are completely at odds with what the people who first posited the term actually intended. And OK, sure, I would be the first to concede that fighting linguistic drift is a King Canute sort of gig… but this is exactly why for all the fury and wilful misunderstanding they provoked, the postmodernist philosophers unearthed a problem that will just never go away. Truth is not found, it is made—and unless we actively make the truth of what we want “progress” to mean, then it will be made by others with fewer scruples.)

As for the skiing metaphor: well, sure, it’s easier to change direction if you’re moving, but it’s pretty hard to read a map, or look behind you, or indeed to think about much beyond the in-the-momentness of motion itself. And there’s this thing called inertia, too… which is what makes skiing exciting, and potentially injurious.

To be very clear, I count Webb as a good person: an interlocutor, not an enemy. The differences between us are of intellectual habit and orientation: we quite literally come at the world in the opposite way. Sez Webb:

[…] even awful ideas may lead to decent ones. I try to inhabit a place of gullible credulity and see where it takes me.

Sez I: even decent ideas may lead to awful ones. I try to inhabit a place of skeptical incredulity and see where it takes me.

If you put either of us in charge of the world, I suspect you’d end up with two very different sorts of mess. But as opposed edge-case philosophies, two different ways of answering the question “what do we mean when we say progress, anyway?”, I think we both have something of value to offer.

(I also think that the last forty years have over-favoured the Webb position over my own, and that over-favouring is constitutive of many of the current messes we’re in… but that’s what I would think, innit?)

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