Max More, Extropy Institute founder, here examines the reasons behind the excessive caution and rejection of healthy life extension research by Leon Kass, Francis Fukuyama and others. What is the best way forward for a world in which the precautionary principle is used to stifle medical progress?
Copyright © Max More.
A deep metaphysical and existential anxiety lurks behind the diverse opposition to change brought about by technological progress. This anxiety is common to Leon Kass' fear of going "Beyond Therapy," Francis Fukuyama's fear of "our posthuman future," and the fears expressed by the more extreme wielders of the precautionary principle.
For Kass, the use of technology to overcome the historical, biological limits of humans - such as efforts to greatly extend healthy, active life span through the use of advanced medicine - is "the deepest source of public anxiety about biotechnology." In his eyes, working towards longer, healthier lives raises the weightiest questions of "the nature and meaning of human flourishing, and the intrinsic threat of dehumanization (or the promise of super-humanization)."
The Four Great Changes
Our hearts should go out to those who, like Leon Kass, are not born lovers of progress, exploration, and discovery. We need to understand why they are disturbed by the prospect of human superlongevity and other scientific advances that will change and improve our lives - only with understanding can we effectively acknowledge their concerns and provide reassurance. This sort of anxiety over change and technology is deeper than Toffler's "future shock" - instead, reaction against the medicine of radical life extension and other transformative technologies should be viewed as part of the fourth in a series of cultural shocks.
The first of these shocks came with the Copernican revolution, in which our culture lost the reassuring and situating idea that the Earth was the center - or even a significant fraction - of all Creation. Humanity experienced a second profound metaphysical shock in the Darwinian Revolution, which removed from our species any claim to be the special design and the center of a divine plan. The third shock arrived about a century ago with the unveiling of the mechanics of the unconscious mind. No longer masters of the universe, or even of the world, we could no longer be sure that we were had domain over ourselves. Our species, and our culture, has been growing up - becoming adult by losing the illusions and self-centeredness of childhood.
Now a fourth great change is beginning, as the central characters of this drama - human beings, you and I - are becoming something new and different. The widespread use of near-future medicine to address disease, aging, death, emotional deficiencies, and cognitive shortcomings will dissolve age-old constraints. With old limits removed, social conventions will take new forms. It will be a great adventure, spurred on by the loss of millstones that have held us back since the dawn of time - but not everyone wants to take part. The Leon Kasses of this world hold on tight to what they see as the eternal truths of human nature, preferring the devil they know - short lives, degenerative conditions of aging, and terrible suffering - to the great and wondrous journey that is our future.
In this context, Leon Kass has been known to quote Nietzsche. In the character of Zarathustra, Nietzsche vividly conveyed the change and metaphysical shocks of his time:
How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as if through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space?
That shock is resurgent today. Apologists for the "natural order" don't want to recognize that, for we humans, accomplishing change is natural. The deeply religious oppose human enhancement - especially greatly extended healthy life spans - because such improvements make obvious the flaws in the existing order. This strikes at the root of belief in a perfect being. Extreme environmentalists, on the other hand, resist the technologies of improvement and transformation in the name of a modern mythology that exemplifies Nature as inherently benevolent and humanity as inherently evil or debased.
A lesser, but far more pervasive, form of opposition derives from our own necessary rationalizations. Throughout history, each and every person has lived with the knowledge that we all age, grow crippled, suffer, and die. This painful reality is something we all, as individuals, have struggled to come to terms with - and many of us are loathe to discard that hard work, even for the best of news and the brightest of promised futures. For the sake of sanity, our culture treats any horrific, apparently unassailable fact as though it were good, or necessary to give life meaning, or an essential part of the "best of all possible worlds." This is simply human nature.
Today, however, we stand on the brink of being able to change many horrific facts. The universal nature of aging and death by disease is one such fact open to change through human ingenuity and human technological prowess.
As an aside, evolutionary psychology no doubt plays a role in reinforcing excessive caution. The vast majority of our ancestors lived on the very edge of survival, with little knowledge of science and the true workings of the world. There was no safety net, no backup plan, and little margin for error - experimentation, or indeed just the normal course of events, could and usually did lead to disaster. Great caution has long had survival value, and so it became a common trait. Ours is a different age, however, one in which we have amassed great knowledge, deepened our reserves, and interconnected our diverse cultures and institutions. We can now use our caution sensibly rather than be ruled by it, applying cautious thought in far more focused and intelligent ways.
As individuals, and culturally, we have yet to catch up with this reality.
The Straw Man of Perfection
One point on which I can agree with Leon Kass - if not a way he would like - is his warning about the pursuit of perfection. He talks of medical research and healthy life extension advocates as seeking perfection of mind and body, of searching for immortality. This would indeed be a mistake, but Kass has it backwards. The religious opponents of enhancement are the ones who believe in an immortal heaven of passive perfection - a realm where nothing changes, no one develops, and everyone rests forever. As Zarathustra put it:
"Weariness that wants to reach the ultimate with one leap, with one fatal leap, a poor ignorant weariness that does not want to want anymore: this created all gods and other worlds."
Those of us who favor advancing technologies - both to heal humanity of its historical afflictions and to enable our continued growth as a species - have little patience for perfection. Perfection is not the real issue. The real issue is the pursuit of fundamental knowledge and breaking chains, such as aging, that constrain us to our present human condition of suffering and pain.
Let's Stop Stopping
The Precautionary Principle, as used by anti-biotech groups and opponents of medical research, raises an impossible standard. It would have us stop progress until we have proof of safety, but we cannot provide proof of safety for anything without trying it out. Nor can we know all the potential benefits of any given advance - extreme precautions that amount to relinquishment of the Bill Joy variety carry great risks of their own. What are the human costs of not developing a cure for cancer? What are the costs of failing to understand and intervene in the aging process?
As Bill McKibben insists, "Enough is Enough!" Fine. But enough for whom, and for how long? Who gets to decide? McKibben, Kass and Fukuyama view advocates of healthy life extension and other transformative technologies as asking for too much. They worry about a "loss of human dignity" resulting from radical life extension and human enhancement - but this is nonsense, dangerous nonsense. In what way is a slow, painful death due to degenerative conditions of aging dignified? Is dignity generated by a small group of anti-progress ideologues forcing this death upon millions of people every year through suppression of medical research?
No. The technologies and medical advances of the near future will bring us more time for self-development, along with the ability to overcome biological and neurological limitations to living our lives in the way we desire. Dignity - real dignity, as opposed to the fake dignity espoused by Leon Kass - requires freedom from constraints. Transformative technologies bring increased choice, and thus increased opportunities for real human dignity.
Freedom and Choice
Increased choice goes both ways: none of us plans to force healthy life extension or other enhancement therapies upon Kass, Fukuyama, or McKibben. It is up to them as to how - and how long - they live their lives. We ask in return for the same freedom to pursue our goals. The choices of either side do not harm or hinder the other.
We can appreciate and respect what Kass calls the "giftedness" of the world - though it is a fact, not a gift. We can, and should, take precautions while allowing for a plurality of values and choices: we can use our caution sensibly, rather than being ruled by it. The diverse people who build the advanced technology, better medicine, and new societies of tomorrow are quite capable of balancing precaution with pioneering, relinquishment with reaching. We humans, as the "mind of nature," will carry out the noble responsibility of appreciating what is while creating what can be.
Even as we explore, venture, develop, experiment, stretch, grow, and dare, we would do well to reach out to those who pull back in fear. Our responsibilities as advocates of profound advances in medicine and science include explaining the nature of positive futures, developing pathways to those futures, educating people and communicating our vision. We can sooth the fears of those ridden by metaphysical anxiety, and show them that our bright future is no threat to their chosen path in life.