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This is going to be the final part in my series on Nicholas Agar’s book Truly Human Enhancement. In the most recent entry, I went through the first part of the argument in chapter 4. To briefly recap, that argument contends that radical enhancement may lead to the disintegration of personal identity (in either a metaphysical or evaluative sense).
Agar supports this argument with three main claims. The first is that our autobiographical memories — the medium through which we situate and organise our life experiences — are crucial to our personal identities. The second is that the process of autobiographical remembering is a reconstructive one that relies on present cognitive resources. And the third is that by radically enhancing ourselves we risk altering those cognitive resources to such an extent that we become unable to remember ourselves. This is because our past lives will lack significance from the perspective of our future, radically enhanced selves.
In this post, I am going to work through the second half of chapter 4. This half continues the argument from the first half, and makes considerable use of an analogy about the relationship between childhood and adulthood and the relationship between normal adults and radically enhanced adults. I’m going to explain why that analogy comes into the discussion; how Agar supports his argument through that analogy; and then I’m going to offer some general criticisms of the argument from chapter 4.
1. Why wouldn’t we want to grow up to be posthumans?
I’d give all the wealth that years have piled,
The slow result of life’s decay,
To be once more a little child,
For one bright summer’s day.
(From Solitude by Lewis Carroll)
If Agar is right, we should avoid radical enhancement because of the risk it poses to identity. Transhumanists are likely to disagree. In order to provide a reasoned basis for their disagreement, they might like to fall back on the argument proffered by Nick Bostrom and Toby Ord. This argument — parts of which I’ve covered before — holds that opposition to enhancement often stems from an irrational bias toward the status quo.
Bostrom and Ord introduce several thought experiments and tests which are designed to diffuse this bias. One of them makes an analogy between childhood-adulthood and unenhanced self-enhanced self. The idea is this: As children, we have certain interests, desires, goals and aspirations. We want to play hide-and-seek with our friends, we want to climb trees and explore the woods; we want to watch cartoons and read comic books; and so on. In growing up, we physically and intellectually mature to such an extent that some of these desires and interests seem less and less important. We may even disparagingly refer to them as being “childish”.
The point, as Agar notes, is that there is something slightly “tragic” about growing up, about putting away childish things. We lose our childish identities. Nevertheless, as Bostrom and Ord argue, this is almost always a worthwhile process. When we become adults, new interests and desires can emerge; we begin to see the world in a different light. With some exceptions (e.g. Lewis Carroll in the quote given above), most of us are happy that we became adults and moved beyond our childhoods.
But if that’s right — if one phase of physical and intellectual maturation is, all-in-all, a “good thing” — why wouldn’t a second phase also be a good thing? Why should we call a halt to our physical and intellectual maturation and deny ourselves the opportunity for radical enhancement? That, at any rate, is the question posed by Bostrom and Ord. We can think of this in terms of different patterns of development: the traditional pattern and the enhanced pattern:
Traditional Pattern: Childhood → Adulthood
Enhanced Pattern: Childhood → Second Childhood (Human Adulthood) → Posthuman Adulthood
Agar is trying to argue that the traditional pattern is better (or, rather, the “safer” bet). So is there anything more to Agar’s loyalty to the traditional pattern than an irrational bias?
2. The Role of Adulthood in Human Life
Agar, unsurprisingly, thinks that there is. He offers two reasons for thinking that Bostrom and Ord’s analogy is misleading. The first is that the kind of discontinuity between unenhanced self and radically enhanced self is likely to be far more discontinuous than that between childhood and adulthood. The second is that just because it is good to undergo one transition from childhood to adulthood does not mean that it will be good to undergo another transition. In other words, there are important disanalogies between the two cases.
As regards the first reason, Agar only explores this briefly in this part of chapter 4 (though, in some ways, the entire book is about those discontinuities). He speaks specifically about the gradual nature of the transition from childhood to adulthood, how we acquire skills and abilities through persistent practice and effort, and how radical enhancement will allow us to acquire new skills much more rapidly and without much effort. He gives the example of a math neuroprosthesis which effectively replaces the parts of your brain responsible for developing mathematical ability.
The concerns Agar raises about effort and gradual change are interesting, but I am not going to discuss them at any length. I discussed them previously when looking at Tom Douglas’s paper on moral effort and moral enhancement. There are differences, of course, between moral enhancement and other forms of enhancement, but I still think that my previous discussion maps out many of the issues one could raise about Agar’s argument.
So I’m going to focus on Agar’s second reason instead. This centres on the claim that undergoing a second transition from human adulthood to posthuman adulthood would not be a good thing. To defend this, Agar proposes an analysis of adulthood and childhood in terms of their role in an individual’s life. He rejects alternative analyses — e.g. in terms of physical or mental properties — on the grounds of speciesism.
What, then, are the roles of childhood and adulthood in an individual’s life. Here I quote directly from Agar. On adulthood:
I define adulthood in terms of the role it occupies in the life of a certain kind of being…For a species to have a stage properly recognized as adulthood, it must be capable of forming complex, all-encompassing desires about the direction its life should take…[Adulthood] is, nevertheless, a stage characterised by the physical, cognitive, and emotional resources to arrive at final and decisive plans about one’s life. There should be no higher authority in respect of question about an indivdual’s own basic values and interests.
(Agar 2013, p. 72)
And on childhood:
This approach to adulthood suggests a matching view of childhood. This approach does not identify childhood with a list of characteristics typical of human children. Rather, childhood is defined in relation to adulthood…Childhood is a stage that anticipates and prepares for the later stage of adulthood…the mere fact that a desire about the direction a life should take is expressed by a child necessarily deprives it of authority.
(Agar 2013, p. 73)
These quotes suggest that the following is a fair characterisation of Agar’s analysis:
Adulthood: The stage at which a person has the physical, cognitive and emotional resources to arrive at final and decisive plans about their life, i.e. the stage at which final authority over a life plan arises.
Childhood: The stage at which a person does not have the physical, cognitive and emotional resources to arrive at final and decisive plans about their life, i.e. the stage at which there is no final authority over a life plan.
Somewhat annoyingly, Agar goes on to suggest that adults can, of course, make bad decisions about life plans and some children can be quite mature and settled, but this still doesn’t mean that the adults lack the requisite authority and that the children have it. I say this is “annoying” because it makes it unclear to me whether the analysis of childhood and adulthood rests primarily on the capacities of the individuals at the respective stages or on thr notion of “authority”. If it’s the latter, as I suspect it may be, then I think the analysis is problematic.
Anyway, what does all this definitional do for us? Agar thinks it allows us to see more clearly why the transition from human adulthood to posthuman adulthood is prudentially problematic. The argument has two parts to it. The first is the claim that when one is due to undergo a transition to a more mature state, one must realise that one’s current plans and desires are ultimately beholden to the future plans and desires of that more mature being (it is here that the concept of “authority” is significant). The second is the claim that one of the key functions of adult parents is to help children undergo the transition, to make sure they don’t prematurely commit to plans and decisions that will negatively impact on their more mature states.
And this is where we encounter the big problem with radical enhancement. We lack posthuman parents who can help us transition to posthuman adulthood. This, Agar argues, has a corrosive effect on our current projects and commitments. We need to bear in mind our future radically enhanced selves, but we don’t quite know what they will value. The projects and plans we currently value may not seem valuable to them. We are faced with a dilemma.
Agar adds to this dilemma by suggesting a potential regress problem for the proponent of radical enhancement. Once they reach their first radically enhanced state, they may demand more radical enhancement, and once they reach their second radically enhanced state they demand even more radical enhancement. The result is that they are forever in a state of childhood: awaiting transition to a more mature state of being. Agar specifically cites Kurzweil’s suggested goal of saturating the cosmos with our intelligence as an example here. Though that goal will eventually come to an end (assuming the cosmos is finite) it does potentially set-up a very long-term state of childhood.
3. Thoughts and Criticisms
I think there is some interesting food for thought in Agar’s discussion of personal identity and radical enhancement, and I’m intrigued by the analyses he proposes of personal identity and the concepts of childhood and adulthood. That said, I find myself unpersuaded by these particular arguments against radical enhancement. There are several reasons for this. What follows is a disjointed and off-the-cuff list.
First, and a somewhat minor point, I find Agar’s definitions of adulthood and childhood argumentatively problematic. It seems to me that he has essentially defined adulthood as being that stage of life from which no further augmentation or alteration of values or life plans is desirable (or “authoritative”). That comes pretty close to definitionally stacking the deck against the proponent of enhancement.
Second, as mentioned above, I find the notion of “authority” over desires and life plans problematic. This is because I’m not sure that any particular temporal slice from an individual’s life should have authority over another. This comes up all the time in discussions of autonomy in healthcare (e.g. advance directives). I think there certainly are some cases where such an authority relationship can exist. A good example would be where someone loses decision-making capacity due to illness. In such a case, we should probably refer back to an earlier stage with such capacity. Obviously, that doesn’t arise in the case of radical enhancement and, to be clear, Agar isn’t claiming that it does — the whole point of his argument is that the radically enhanced self would have the authority. Nevertheless, to rest an analysis of the concept of adulthood on such a contested normative concept seems odd to me.
Third, I don’t really see why we couldn’t transition gradually to a radically enhanced, posthuman state. Agar seems to assume that any such change would be radical and discontinuous (e.g. full upload of the mind to a computer). And that it is this radical discontinuity that leads to the disintegration of identity. But why couldn’t the change be much more gradual and partial than that, with each stage in the transition retaining a strong link to the previous one? Sure, you will end up as a very different being, but that’s really no different from previous transitions like the transition from zygote to infant and infant to adult. Agar doesn’t give any reason to think that gradual transitioning is not possible.
Fourth, and opposing this previous point, Agar also doesn’t give weight to radically discontinuous forms of enhancement that would bypass the concerns he raises. I speak here, in particular, of enhancement achieved through germ-line genetic manipulations. In those cases, children would be born into a posthuman form of existence. They would not have to worry about their future radically enhanced selves having different life plans and desires, or about the troubling second childhood that Agar outlines. (There might still, of course, be the problem of perpetual childhood, but that’s different).
Fifth, and perhaps most problematic, is the fact that Agar’s analysis seems to ignore relevant comparators. In other words, in his arguments he compares a somewhat idealistic state of human adulthood (in which the adult has commitments and life plans that they presently find valuable) with a future radically enhanced state of being. But that’s not really a fair comparison. As Angra Mainyu pointed out in the comments section of the previous post, we might need to compare the possibility of a radically enhanced future self with the possibility of one’s current adult self dying. That is to say: radical enhancement might be the only way of avoiding death. If that’s the case, then whatever the risks to identity, the decision to radically enhance will seem a lot more prudentially wise than Agar makes it out to be.
Agar may quibble here that, according to his argument, radical enhancement would be as good as death due to the disintegration it involves. But Agar himself acknowledges that the disintegration he defends is probabilistic only: it may or may not happen. Indeed, his argument rests of several controversial normative and factual premises (e.g. theories of autobiographical memory and personal identity). If there’s even a small chance of survival via radical enhancement, it could be the rational thing to do. Ironically, Agar discusses this type of objection earlier in the chapter when recounting a dispute between Walter Glannon and John Harris, but he seems to ignore it when it comes to his own argument.
Sixth, and finally, his point about the lack of radically enhanced guardians to help us transition to posthumanhood looks pretty weak to me. As long as someone chooses to undergo the transition — by whatever means or for whatever reason — we will acquire such a guardian. And as more choose to undergo the transition, we will acquire more.
Okay, so that brings me to the end of this series of posts. Unfortunately, I have only managed to cover a small fraction of Agar’s book in this series. Hopefully, this is enough to give you a flavour for its contents and Agar’s overall style of argumentation. Anyone with an interest in the enhancement debate should probably check out the full thing. Subsequent chapters deal with enhancement for the purposes of scientific discovery; the morality of life extension; the case for truly human enhancement; and the enhancement of moral status. All interesting topics.