Finding Smart Ways to Say Profoundly Stupid Things

I notice that Science Progress has thoughtfully posted an overview of a book that, like so many, passed beneath my distracted field of vision. It's a good overview, and in reading it I'm struck by just how greatly modern fields of intellectual study have devolved into the title of this post - efforts to find smart ways to say profoundly stupid things. This isn't the aim and goal at the outset, of course, but with postmodernism leading the way, there is a well defined sort of style that accompanies the ability of a community of intellectuals to cut themselves off from rationality and evidence in order to build castles in the sky. Up becomes down and left becomes right, and all sorts of nonsense rises to rule the roost. The end result is a core of stupidity well wrapped by a tremendous expenditure of earnest intellectual effort: a sort of Emperor's new clothes situation wherein few parties involved have any incentive to point out the obvious.

Outside of theology and the worst reaches of postmodernism, this disconnect from reality is perhaps most evident in modern macroeconomics - largely an effort to convince the world against all the evidence that up is down and black is white - and the various fields of ethics, such as bioethics. The bioethics community in particular long ago lost its way.

But back to some examples from that Science Progress piece:

When I say that here, too, Agar builds his argument on an appeal to nature, I have in mind his foundational premise regarding what he calls "species relativism." The "relativism" part of that label might at first sound like a rejection of anything resembling an appeal to nature. But Agar holds that there is something good, something worth preserving, about the way members of our species typically or naturally find happiness. As he puts it, "Experiences typical of the ways in which humans live and love are the particular focus of my species-relativism" (pg.15).

So for an enhancement to count as moderate on Agar's account, it has to be "relative" to our species. As distinct from a radical or "purported" enhancement, a moderate one has to enhance a way of being that is typical of homo sapiens.


He argues that, while it is indeed reasonable to want more of "a recognizably human life," it is not reasonable to want a form of life without the sorts of experiences that are typical for members of our species. As he says, there are some Galapagos tortoises that live up to 150 years, and they no doubt enjoy experiences that are pleasurable for members of their species, but no human being would trade our "distinctively human varieties of pleasure" for distinctively tortoise varieties of pleasure. Because, however, he grants the respect in which that example is unfair - becoming a tortoise would entail diminished cognition and radical life extension would not - he needs to say more.

He begins by suggesting that de Grey's "Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence" (SENS) might create an obsessive fear of death, which might come to completely dominate the lives of those who adopted such strategies. Agar worries that, because negligibly senescent people would have more years of life to lose if they failed in one of their projects, they would have a strong reason not to take any risks at all (pg. 116). Indeed, at this point he invokes the concern that later in the book he will call its central theme: the concern about alienation, about becoming separated from the kinds of, here, risky experiences that constitute human lives as we know them. According to Agar, de Grey's ambition to radically extend our lives "is likely to alienate us from the things and people who currently give our lives meaning" (pg. 122).

Agar allows that there may appear to be a way around the obsessive fear of death that SENS could bring about. To get around the risks associated with going out into the real world, he allows, negligibly senescent people could use technologies to have virtual experiences instead. But the problem with that strategy, he says, is that it fails to appreciate the extent to which human beings want "direct" contact with the "real" world. It fails to appreciate that "We think differently about these kinds of indirect contact [with the real world] than we do about 'being there.'" No one, he suggests, thinks that "seeing a Discovery Channel documentary filmed on Mount Everest substitutes for actually climbing it" (pg. 123).

Castles in the sky, and straw ones at that. I would hope that little needs to be said in response to this sort of thing - it is so self-evidently hollow, a gut feel trying to cover itself in words and failing, that it falls apart at a glance.


Curing aging alone isn't going to end humanity, any more than birth control, sanitation, or agriculture did. Change does not equal destruction.

Posted by: Luke Parrish at March 16th, 2011 12:48 PM

Speaking of smart ways to say stupid things, mathematical finance and the recent mortgage bond debacle come to mind...

I think one thing Agar might have been getting at is that our motivational structures have evolved over the years in a certain context. It's a little strange to think about changing these parameters, because it seems circular: human nature drives our actions, so on what basis are we motivated to change human nature? At the individual level it becomes a bit sharper: if you can choose your own personality - then on what basis would you make that choice? What is the "you" that's involved in making this choice? This is wrapped up with deep questions about the meaning of free will.

I think these things are interesting to think about and may pose various psychological dilemmas as enhancement really gets rolling, but so what...not like we don't have dilemmas now. I'll take a few dilemmas over a bedpan any day.

Posted by: William nelson at March 16th, 2011 2:30 PM

"Agar worries that, because negligibly senescent people would have more years of life to lose if they failed in one of their projects, they would have a strong reason not to take any risks at all"

...Yeah, right.
That is exactly why very young people, those who are yet to feel the existentially crushing meaning of their inevitable decay and death and to fully grasp the fact, that the clock is truly ticking and their youth isn't here forever are traditionally less likely to take various risks then older people... wait.

Seriously, this one is laughable. Did he never ever heard anyone say something in the line of "I'd want to try that, but I'm just too old for it"?

Posted by: Elena Ivanova at March 16th, 2011 4:02 PM

the logical decision is not to take any risks that can end life or damage health, but we can still take risks not related to life and health, such as financial risks or risks in starting a new relationship with another human.

And it doesn't mean eccessive fear of death -- only normal caution which is based on instinct of self-preservation.

Posted by: nikki at March 16th, 2011 6:12 PM

What silly arguments he makes. Besides, you know that if anti-aging technology is available within his lifetime Agar would be certain to use it himself. I'm amazed anyone has the audacity to think they can tell other people what they should be able to do with their own bodies and own lives.

Posted by: Kim at March 21st, 2011 6:16 PM

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