This is the third article in this series in which I discuss interesting philosophical issues raised by Peter Watts in his SF novel Blindsight. In this article, we will be looking at steps some of the characters take to alter their behaviours or personalities, culminating in an extreme change that brings us to the disturbing frontiers of transhumanism.
Personal Identity and Artificial Enhancements
There are four examples in the book I will use to chart a course through this topic, ranging from fairly modest tweaks to behaviours or inclinations to more extreme enhancements/alterations. They are as follows:
- Siri’s father, Jim, uses a drug called vasopressin to help him remain faithful to his wife.
- Jim’s wife, Helen, gives her son pills called “Bondfast Formula IV,” which are designed to strengthen the mother-son bond.
- The main character’s ex-girlfriend, Chelsea, works in a job that involves her making tweaks to people’s personalities. At one point in the book she talks about doing things like changing a person’s musical or culinary tastes, and “optimizing mate compatibility”. Although these changes can be made through invasive techniques, dealing directly with neurons and synapses, a lot of the “rewiring” can be effected non-invasively, through playing certain sounds in the right order, or showing certain images. As she says, rhythm and music have similar effects. They just turned art into science.
- In one scene, Siri needs a blood test, so Szpindel takes a drop of his blood and drops it onto a countertop in his lab. As it was absorbed into the surface, Szpindel smacked his lips, tasting Siri’s blood, identifying elevated levels of a certain chemical. It turned out that the entire lab was an extension of Szpindel’s physical body, a massive prosthesis, giving him dozens of additional sensory modes through which he was able to experience his environment.
The big issue I see surrounding enhancements/alterations, particularly those which affect our mental states/personalities, is whether these turn us into a different person, or even, at the extreme, into something no longer human. Before we get too carried away though, we might want to think about tried and tested techniques which humans have been using for centuries to alter mood and behaviour. One obvious example is alcohol. Another is drugs, and not just the hardcore stuff (I’m thinking trippy hallucinogens, or class A drugs here), but even relatively innocuous substances like caffeine and tobacco. We are also taking more pharmaceutical drugs than ever before with the explicit goal of altering our mental states, making us happier and less depressed than we would otherwise, naturally, be. And yet, aside from related health issues and concerns about dependency, we don’t view these things as particularly threatening to our personal identities. The first two examples I cited from the book probably slot comfortably into this category. We might look unfavourably on them as unnatural means of achieving what we ought to be able to achieve without pharmaceutical assistance, but concerns probably wouldn’t rise too far above this for most people.
Number (3) is where the line starts to get a little blurry. Here we are talking about effecting serious personality changes that alter who we are in some fundamental way. Let’s say I am in a relationship with a woman who is outgoing and popular, while I am shy and introverted, but nevertheless content with my personality. I really like this person, and want to keep the relationship going, but the clash of personalities and lifestyles is taking its toll. What if I elect to let Chelsea get under my hood, so to speak, and make some of those tweaks to turn me into an extrovert? Does this seem ‘wrong’ on some level? In order to put aside any concerns over safety, or worries that I might later regret the decision (since these aren’t the intuitions we really want to test here), let’s add that the procedure is completely, 100% safe, and immune to abuse by would-be nefarious actors. Let’s also say that I allow Chelsea to rewire me, not just so that I will be extroverted, but also so that I will like being extroverted. If we were concerned before, this additional change probably only makes things worse because now the difference between who I was before, and who I will be after, the procedure is even greater. I won’t just be outgoing whereas I used to be shy. Now, I’ll be the kind of person who likes being outgoing; the polar opposite of who I used to be. Disturbing? A little off? Totally fine?
What if we imagine the same scenario, but this time, instead of going in for an invasive medical procedure, I just start deliberately hanging out with people more, going to more social events, reading books on how to win friends and influence people, and so on. Let’s also say that over time, this results in me actually becoming more sociable and outgoing, and more importantly, enjoying this newfound sociability, which of course, means that my brain has also changed, rewiring itself, in a manner of speaking. In contrast to the first invasive surgical procedure, I suspect no one would find this even slightly objectionable, nor should we, since we each go through many such personality changes over our lives, some deliberately sought, as in this case, but most happening as a result of random, undirected events. Both categories involve change at a neuronal level, and yet, neither arouse in us even the slightest discomfort or impression that we are losing something special; something that makes us who we are.
It is worth emphasising this point. Every aspect of what we can call for the sake of simplicity, our personalities – our preferences, dispositions, tastes, demeanour, attitudes, etc. – is completely malleable, but more importantly, changes to any of these aspects that make up who we are don’t violate our personal identity. In the second thought experiment, people around me notice the change and think nothing of it. Even if they happened not to like this new social me, the worst they would say is, “I preferred him when he was quiet and shy,” or maybe, “He’s a bit too outspoken for my liking now.” In the first case though, where I go from shy to outgoing overnight as the result of some ‘artificial’ procedure, people would be more likely to feel something ‘unnatural’ or ‘wrong’ has happened, with comments more along the lines of, “He isn’t himself anymore,” or, “It’s like he’s a different person,” with the underlying concern being that something special, or sacred, about who I am as a person, has changed despite the fact that exactly the same thing could be said in the second case. Of course, we can understand why a gradual personality change in a friend wouldn’t be disconcerting in the way that an abrupt change would be (it would be most unpleasant to wake up and find your friend, someone you knew well, had completely changed overnight), nevertheless, the latter shouldn’t make us feel that something inviolable has been tampered with the way it does.
There are two possible conclusions we can draw from this. First, it could be that whatever it is that makes us who we are, that defines our personal identity, goes deeper than mere personality or character traits. These aspects of me are like superficial qualities that can come and go without affecting my ‘core self.’ This approach lends itself to spiritual/religious notions of a ‘higher self’ or ‘soul.’ I would suggest, however, that this is not the correct path to take. The second, and more plausible conclusion in my opinion, is that our personal identity, that which makes us who we are, precisely is those personalities and character traits (or at least partly comprised of them); it’s just that this deeply personal sense of ourselves is as malleable as our personality has proven to be.
So, to bring this back to Chelsea and her personality “tweaks;” we ought not to balk at this type of technology (which is surely coming), at least not out of fear that, “He won’t be himself anymore.” As I’ve said, there might be ethical, safety, or societal reasons for objecting to it, but on the grounds that it changes, in some unacceptable or ‘unnatural’ way, those who have the procedure, there seem to be no logically consistent problems. This conclusion is also reinforced by what Chelsea says in the book about rhythm and music. Who we are is constantly in flux, being changed by the music we listen to, the people we surround ourselves with, the books we read, and a million other variables; changes, almost none of which, are deliberate or even necessarily desired, but that’s what it means to be a human being.
What about example number (4), where Szpindel has extended his natural senses with artificial prostheses to the point where we might legitimately question whether he is any longer human? Transhumanism opens up a whole raft of ethical, societal, and economic questions, just to name a few, but I want to keep this relatively focused, so let’s hone in on whether it’s good or bad, in itself, for the enhanced individual him or herself; i.e. bracketing wider societal, etc. concerns.
The first thing we might note is that all of the other alterations to personality/behaviour we have looked at so far have simply done artificially what can be done naturally. Yes, the individual is altering fundamental aspects of his/her personal identity, but such alterations take place all the time in the course of living a normal life. (4) is different in that the alterations we are talking about here go beyond what a ‘normal’ human could ever hope to achieve without artificial interference, resulting in changes so drastic that it is reasonable to say that this individual’s very manner of existing is no longer human. Is this a bad thing, in itself?
An initial objection to transhumanism might claim that these types of extreme enhancements are perverse on their face, violating the natural order. The problem with this type of knee-jerk, but very human, reaction is that it is hard to see why there is anything special about the “natural order.” We evolved over millions of years in a fairly haphazard fashion, according to a blind and dumb process; i.e. natural selection, that has given us our current forms and capacities. There is nothing special, or sacred, about the sensory apparatuses or cognitive capabilities/limitations with which evolution has outfitted us. We could just as well have evolved to see only half of the actually visible electromagnetic spectrum, say, the ROY in ROYGBIV. If that had been true, the anti-transhumanists would claim that artificially extending our visual capabilities to include GBIV would be a perversion of the natural order, an abomination. Clearly, human beings who can see the full range, ROY to GBIV, are not abominations.
I can’t see anything wrong with transhumanism from this perspective (again, remembering that we are excluding extra-individual concerns), but there is a more compelling argument to contend with. Many of the transhumanist articles one reads are motivated by “utopian techno-optimistic” (to quote one such article) ideals, imagining that transhumanism will usher in a wondrous age in which all of humanity’s problems will be solved, including the “problem” of biological death. This presents at least two problems for me. The first concerns the notion of immortality; the second, fulfilment in a life without limits.
Starting with immortality, it is far from obvious to me that ‘conquering’ death is a goal worth achieving. Don’t get me wrong. I have often fantasised about being immortal and living down through the ages, seeing religions, empires, and civilisations rise and fall first hand. The truth, I suspect though, is that immortality would get old pretty fast. Like it or not (and none of us really do), the value of life is inextricably wrapped up in its finitude. Think of the cherry blossom, a flower that blooms once a year for only a week or two. In Japan and South Korea, this time of year is extremely popular, with people flocking in the thousands to cherry blossom festivals all over the country. The blossoming of this flower is only so popular because of its extremely short duration. If it bloomed all spring, or, taking it to the extreme, all year round, its significance would rapidly fade to nothing. Human life, I contend, is probably not so different. This is, by the way, one of my main arguments against the idea of heaven. Sure, it sounds wonderful, an eternity of bliss. Who wouldn’t be all in for that? But has anyone actually stopped to think about just what this might entail? An eternity!? Even bliss is going to get boring, and faster, I bet, than you might think. What exactly are you going to do, not just for a long time, but forever? I truly don’t think there are enough experiences, even in the afterlife let alone this one, that could reasonably prevent boredom from settling in eventually.
My second problem with the transhumanist movement concerns the almost unbounded opportunities it offers the individual. As with immortality, at first glance this appears to be an unbridled boon. Who wouldn’t want to be smarter than Einstein, or more talented than Mozart, or more creative than DaVinci, and all at no more hassle than purchasing the appropriate implant? Not in the mood to apply yourself to all of that higher dimensional calculus, even with the Einstein upgrade? No problem. There’s an implant for that, too! Motivation in a pill… or neural upgrade. Perhaps this all still sounds like an unqualified benefit. We’ll finally be capable of almost anything. The problem, however, is not related to productivity; rather, it’s about fulfilment, an individual’s sense of achievement. If guaranteed success is no harder to attain than popping a pill or getting the latest implant, the sense of satisfaction one derives from “an honest day’s work” will completely evaporate. What’s more, I’m not even sure anyone would bother doing anything anymore. What is the point of creating a masterpiece if literally anyone with the right implant can do the same? What is the point of keeping healthy and fit if perfect abs and a clean bill of health can be purchased and swallowed with a glass of water?
Both of these issues reflect a broader concern; namely the modern, and largely science-driven obsession with eliminating obstacles, and in particular, with subduing nature and making it beholden to us. I want to live forever, so the fact that I can’t must mean there is a problem here I ought to solve. I can’t write a gripping play? Since creativity is nothing more than an algorithm, it must be synthesisable, and I ought to bottle and sell it. Note that my arguments above weren’t denials that we will be able to do these things one day; they were arguments that we shouldn’t do them. And not because they violate any supposed ‘natural law,’ but because they are distractions from living a good (as in satisfying, meaningful, fulfilling) life. The curious paradox about human existence is that, although we all genuinely desire both effortless success and eternal life, neither of these things would bring us happiness or satisfaction. Not everything that glitters is gold, and few things glitter more brightly than immortality and virtually limitless achievements for a fraction of the effort we currently expend. We would do well to remember this, and at least ask the question, just because we can do something, does that mean we should?