Just three short weeks ago, Concordia University Irvine said goodbye to 35 terrific high schoolers who came out to California to wrestle with the philosophical and theological questions posed by the Transhumanist movement (H+). One of our guest speakers was a true believer. Zoltan Istvan, the Libertarian candidate for California governor, joined us for one of the days, laying out his case for a technologically-driven future. And I have to say, the dude is approachable, likeable, and unshakably optimistic.
At lunch, I asked him what he thought the future held for educational institutions. Important because…well, I’m being paid by one. A central thesis of H+ is the progression toward ‘super-intelligence,’ the point in which computer processing speeds allow for a ‘general intelligence.’ Specific intelligence is giving a computer one task to exceed at—say, playing chess. General intelligence is far more complex. This term refers to the sum of ways humans interact with the world, from changing a tire to noticing a facial tic to using sarcasm. Second nature to humans but ridiculously complex for a box of silicon.
But, there’s more. Super-intelligence, at some unknown point, promises to gift all humans with virtually unlimited cognitive power through the use of internal computer chips plugged directly into our brains. It’s the point when we’re not totally sure where the human ends and the computer begins. Imagine Wikipedia at the speed of thought. The Library of Congress. Even the ability to play piano concertos without practice. Or Eddie Van Halen solos.
I asked Zoltan what he thought the role of the university would be in this type of future. Since knowledge is pre-packed material available for download, would the professor morph into a mentor-only role, teaching the important skills of wisdom and character-building that such information required for responsible use? You may be able to predict what his answer was:
‘Oh, you’ll definitely be able to download wisdom, too.’
The theory is that, once we hit a technological Singularity (where we have almost infinite data and technology) we will be in a position to parlay that knowledge into a cosmos-friendly morality that will guide each person toward their most utilitarian end.
Let’s play this out and call this the Law of Unintended Consequences Post. We’ll proceed under the assumption that this is possible—that somehow, one could download a sense of moral fortitude. For my purposes, let’s consider morals as behavioral boundaries (some marked as ‘good’ while others, ‘bad’) and wisdom as the sense to contextually apply said boundaries in virtuous living. One could be moral, yet unwise, in this set-up .
Issue #1: There’s no monolithic morality on which to base wise action. I’m not trying to be post-modern here. I’m simply stating a fact: One culture’s manifestation of right and wrong allows for the flying of airliners into buildings, another finds such an act reprehensible. One culture believes that eating certain foods is verboten, others not so much. The contextual nature of wisdom leads us down some weird alleyways. Does the early bird get the worm, or does haste make waste? Which is it?
Issue #2: What happens when we encounter competing claims of right and wrong? If we choose ‘Judeo-Christian’ from the drop-down menu, how are moral disputes resolved in public? After all, it’s entirely possible that a person from certain remote portions of the Solomon Islands chooses, ‘Animist-Cannibal’ from theirs. Downloading wisdom won’t prevent suffering and/or conflict if the options for self-selected wisdom remain open; in fact, it’s more likely to guarantee future discord. My hunch is that the H+ movement won’t allow for any wisdom that doesn’t already see H+ as a morally superior position.
Issue #3: The fox is in the henhouse. Only Transhumanist-friendly wisdom will be made available, for nobody would want to create a program that has, at its core, the seeds of its own destruction. In other words, if my conservative Christian ethic is deeply critical of Transhumanist forms of wisdom, there is no way such an option would be made available through download! My only option is remaining unplugged. Because all downloadable wisdoms are inherently H+-friendly, no external critique of the movement is made available. External critique and evaluation is one of the most crucial components to practical wisdom—and yet, here, it’s notably absent. Essentially, the outsourcing of wisdom divests the person of the one thing they are actually seeking!
Issue #4: Guaranteed loss of social capital and communal bonds. The beauty of wisdom is not the end product. If the only thing that mattered was the ability to make good decisions, perhaps downloadable virtue would be an acceptable thing. The problem is that such a view isolates maturation from the community. Wisdom, in real life, is generated in the midst of a community—usually through a sustained relationship with a mentor. I know how to respectfully disagree with someone because my Dad modeled respectful disagreement. And I watched. Over and over again. As a result, I didn’t simply receive wisdom for my future tension-laden relationships; I also grew in trust and admiration of my father. I spent time in conversation and emulation with him. Wisdom downloaded is a disembodied wisdom disconnected from the wonder of social capital. Traditional wisdom leads us to trust. Wisdom that comes without effort leads us to be cold, clinical, and alone.
. . .
Downloadable wisdom sounds pretty good, right up to the point where you think about it. It seeks an end product as if that’s the only good involved. Our society has trained us to think this way, after all. I want my product now. I want my bank transfer done now. I want Season 4 of Longmire on Netflix now.
Consider my point in other way: You ask your neighbor over to help you build a trench for your garden; it’s simply too much work for one person to do in a day. She comes over, looks over the dig-site, makes suggestions, then you get to work. Four hours, two beers, and a really good joke about two Irish priests later, the two of you admire the trench and smile. For the Transhumanist, only one good is truly present in this scene: the finished trench. For the Normalhumanist, the social goods run deep. Conversation. Reciprocal trust. Physical labor. The intrinsic rewards of a well-planned, then well-executed job. Downloadable wisdom is folly precisely because it cuts out the goods of embodied community.
“Wisdom downloaded is a disembodied wisdom disconnected from the wonder of social capital.“
Ultimately, an amazon.com-style offering of virtue cuts out the deep joys of human existence. The bonds that we create with our children are borne, in part, by the profound amount of work we invest in their moral worlds. And knowing this challenge is laid out before us, we are more likely to undertake the efforts of child-rearing far more seriously. As soon as we see parenting as a responsibility-free, somewhat carefree task, we see children (and our spouses) as disposable commodities. And that’s terrifying. It shouldn’t surprise you, then, that Zoltan and his supporters have very low opinions of pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing, preferring future births be grown in external vats rather than the womb of the mother.
I suppose none of this should surprise Christians. The wisdom of the world was always unimpressive to the foolishness of God, and vice versa. Where the Greeks valued reason and intellect, God chose to become one of us: embodied, messy, and frail. Not only that, God sought to accomplish the ultimate ends of redemption through the long and slow road of a 33-year old life; it’s as if he knew that there were other divine goods to be had in the journey itself.
 Notice I have avoided placing Christianity into the mix here. I certainly believe that wisdom, at its finest form, is the application of God’s design to one’s life. Still, I think it’s important that there are non-religious grounds for challenging the H+ movement.
© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.