1 March 2018

Pragmatically envisioning better humans

Filed under: Transcending Politics — Tags: , — David Wood @ 12:00 pm

Is it possible to significantly improve politics, over the course of, say, the next dozen years, without first significantly improving human nature?

(The following consists of short extracts from Chapter 12,  “Humans and Superhumans”, of my recent new book Transcending Politics.)

In this chapter, I’ll look at four different answers to this question:

  1. We shouldn’t try to improve human nature; that’s the route to hell
  2. We can have a better politics without any change in human nature
  3. Improving human nature will turn out to be relatively straightforward; let’s get cracking
  4. Improving human nature will be difficult but is highly desirable; we need to carefully consider the potential scenarios, with an open mind, and then make our choices…

The technoprogressive transformation of society and human nature that I envision will build upon the product management insight that it’s more important to analyse the intended outcome of a transformation than to become over-enthused by potential means to carry out that transformation. That is, the specification must come first, and then the implementation. Otherwise the implementation might develop inertia of its own. In that case, we’ll get technology for technology’s sake – answers looking for questions, rather than the other way round.

Accordingly, let’s now take a moment to explore features of the human character that there’s a strong case to seek to improve. Then we can move on to consider potential ways to carry out such improvements.

The character features I’m aiming to list are those which, if they are not tamed, threaten to combine in devastating ways with the greater powers that technology as a whole is putting in our hands. These features include:

  • Dysfunctional emotions: we are prone to being dominated by emotional spasms – of anger, self-righteousness, possessiveness, anxiety, despair, etc – to the extent that we are often unable to act on our better judgements
  • Overconfidence: we tend to assess ourselves as having above-average abilities; we also often assume that our core beliefs are more likely to be true than an objective evaluation would suggest
  • Confirmation bias: we divert our attention from information that would challenge or negate our own pet theories or the commonly accepted paradigms of our culture; we clutch at any convenient justification for ignoring or distorting such information
  • Abuse of power: we are too ready to exploit the power we temporarily hold, for example in personal relationships with subordinates or colleagues, and in the process damage other people – and often our own longer-term interests too
  • In-group preference: we are liable to prejudice in favour of people who seem “like us” (by whatever criteria), and against people who appear to fall outside our group; this drives unnecessary conflict, and can also mean we miss the best opportunities
  • Over-attachment: we cling onto things that might conceivably be useful to us at some time in the future, even if these attachments reduce our room for manoeuvre or damage our openness to new experiences
  • Herd mentality: we too readily fall into line with what we perceive our peers are thinking or doing, even though our conscience is telling us that a different path would be better
  • Loss of perspective: we fail to pay attention to matters that should be of long-term importance to us, and instead become dominated by grudges, personal vindictiveness, fads, and other distractions.

Many of these characteristics are likely to have bestowed some evolutionary advantage to our ancestors, in the very different circumstances in which they lived. They are far less useful in today’s world, with its vastly increased complexity and connectivity, where individual mistakes can be magnified onto a global scale.

Other characteristics on the list probably never had much direct utility, but they existed as side-effects of yet other character traits that were themselves useful. Evolution was constrained in terms of the character sets it could create; it lacked complete flexibility. However, we humans possess a much greater range of engineering tools. That opens the way for the conscious, thoughtful re-design of our character set.

Some critics of transhumanism respond that they prefer to keep human nature as it is, thank you very much, with all our quirks and foibles. These features are said to enable creativity, fun, imagination diversity, and so on. My response is to point again to the character flaws listed earlier. These are not “quirks” or “foibles”. Nor can they be described as “allowable weaknesses”. They are dangerous weaknesses. And as such, they deserve serious attention from us. Can we find ways to dial down these character flaws, without (at the same time) inducing adverse side-effects?

Transhumanists are by no means the first set of thinkers to desire these changes in human nature. Philosophers, religious teachers, and other leaders of society have long called for humans to overcome the pull of “attachment” (desire), self-centredness, indiscipline, “the seven deadly sins” (pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth), and so on. Where transhumanism goes beyond these previous thinkers is in highlighting new methods that can now be used, or will shortly become available, to assist in the improvement of character.

Collectively these methods can be called “cognotech”. They will boost our all-round intelligence: emotional, rational, creative, social, spiritual, and more. Here are some examples:

  • New pharmacological compounds – sometimes called “smart drugs”
  • Gentle stimulation of the brain by a variety of electromagnetic methods – something that has been trialled by the US military
  • Alteration of human biology more fundamentally, by interventions at the genetic, epigenetic, or microbiome level
  • Vivid experiences within multi-sensory virtual reality worlds that bring home to people the likely consequences of their current personal trajectories (from both first-person and third-person points of view), and allow them to rehearse changes in attitude
  • The use of “intelligent assistance” software that monitors our actions and offers us advice in a timely manner, similar to the way that a good personal friend will occasionally volunteer wise counsel; intelligent assistants can also strengthen our positive characteristics by wise selection of background music, visual imagery, and “thought for the day” aphorisms to hold in mind.

Technological progress can also improve the effectiveness of various traditional methods for character improvement:

  • The reasons why meditation, yoga, and hypnosis can have beneficial results are now more fully understood than before, enabling major improvements in the efficacy of these practices
  • Education of all sorts can be enhanced by technology such as interactive online video courses that adapt their content to the emerging needs of each different user
  • Prompted by alerts generated by online intelligent assistants, real-world friends can connect at critical moments in someone’s life, in order to provide much-needed personal support
  • Information analytics can resolve some of the long-running debates about which diets – and which exercise regimes – are the ones that will best promote all-round health for given individuals…

It’s worth stressing some key differences between this kind of transhumanist initiative, on the one hand, and the idealist political campaigns of Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and others (covered earlier in the chapter). The transhumanist initiative is committed to:

  • Open review, so that problems arising can be noticed and addressed promptly
  • An experimental approach, to discover what actually works in reality, rather than just sounding good in theory
  • An agile framework, in which feedback is sought on a regular basis, so that knowledge can accumulate quickly via a “fail fast” process
  • Easy access by all members of society to the set of ideas that are under discussion, in order to promote a wider appreciation of any emerging risks or opportunities
  • Giving priority to data, rather than to anecdote, supposition, or ideology
  • Embracing diversity as far as possible, with hard constraints being imposed only when matters are seen to be particularly central
  • Integrating viewpoints from many different perspectives, rather than insisting on there being only “one true way” forwards.

The technoprogressive feedback cycle

One criticism of the initiative I’ve just outlined is that it puts matters the wrong way round.

I’ve been describing how individuals can, with the aid of technology as well as traditional methods, raise themselves above their latent character flaws, and can therefore make better contributions to the political process (either as voters or as actual politicians). In other words, we’ll get better politics as a result of getting better people.

However, an opposing narrative runs as follows. So long as our society is full of emotional landmines, it’s a lot to expect people to become more emotionally competent. So long as we live in a state of apparent siege, immersed in psychological conflict, it’s a big ask for people to give each other the benefit of the doubt, in order to develop new bonds of trust. Where people are experiencing growing inequality, a deepening sense of alienation, a constant barrage of adverts promoting consumerism, and an increasing foreboding about an array of risks to their wellbeing, it’s not reasonable to urge them to make the personal effort to become more compassionate, thoughtful, tolerant, and open-minded. They’re more likely to become angry, reactive, intolerant, and closed-minded. Who can blame them? Therefore – so runs this line of reasoning – it’s more important to improve the social environment than to urge the victims of that social environment to learn to turn the other cheek. Let’s stop obsessing about personal ethics and individual discipline, and instead put every priority on reducing the inequality, alienation, consumerist propaganda, and risk perception that people are experiencing. Instead of fixating upon possibilities for technology to rewire people’s biology and psychology, let’s hurry up and provide a better social safety net, a fairer set of work opportunities, and a deeper sense that “we’re all in this together”.

I answer this criticism by denying that it’s a one-way causation. We shouldn’t pick just a single route of influence – either that better individuals will result in a better society, or that a better society will enable the emergence of better individuals. On the contrary, there’s a two way flow of influence.

Yes, there’s such a thing as psychological brutalisation. In a bad environment, the veneer of civilisation can quickly peel away. Youngsters who would, in more peaceful circumstances, instinctively help elderly strangers to cross the road, can quickly degrade in times of strife into obnoxious, self-obsessed bigots. But that path doesn’t apply to everyone. Others in the same situation take the initiative to maintain a cheery, contemplative, constructive outlook. Environment influences the development of character, but doesn’t determine it.

Accordingly, I foresee a positive feedback cycle:

  • With the aid of technological assistance, more people – whatever their circumstances – will be able to strengthen the latent “angelic” parts of their human nature, and to hold in check the latent “diabolic” aspects
  • As a result, at least some citizens will be able to take wiser policy decisions, enabling an improvement in the social and psychological environment
  • The improved environment will, in turn, make it easier for other positive personal transformations to occur – involving a larger number of people, and having a greater impact.

One additional point deserves to be stressed. The environment that influences our behaviour involves not just economic relationships and the landscape of interpersonal connections, but also the set of ideas that fill our minds. To the extent that these ideas give us hope, we can find extra strength to resist the siren pull of our diabolic nature. These ideas can help us focus our attention on positive, life-enhancing activities, rather than letting our minds shrink and our characters deteriorate.

This indicates another contribution of transhumanism to building a comprehensively better future. By painting a clear, compelling image of sustainable abundance, credibly achievable in just a few decades, transhumanism can spark revolutions inside the human heart…

(To read more, follow the links from the Transpolitica website.)

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