An Evolution of Future Ethics

An Evolution of Future Ethics: One Humanist’s View

by Geoff Allshorn – Recorded at Future Salon Melbourne 2013

What a piece of work is a man,
how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties,
in form and moving, how express and admirable
in action, how like an angel
in apprehension, how like a god!(Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2)


Video at Adam Ford’s Youtube Chanel [1]

Shakespeare’s monologue – or what these days we might call his ‘meme’ – from Hamlet, encapsulates for me the essence and message of what these days we would call Humanism. With layers of meaning, irony and transcendance beyond the oppressive religious understandings of his day, Shakespeare’s words capture our place in nature as a ‘paragon of animals’ with the potential to aspire towards higher ambitions. Of course, what he defines as ‘this quintessence of dust’ is today understood in the words of Carl Sagan and Neil De Grasse Tyson, as ‘stardust’. Shakespeare did not know or create our modern concepts of Humanism, yet I see his words as symbolising the potential of Humanism to arise from pre-scientific or other archaic understandings of the world and evolve into a movement that hopefully inspires human beings to strive for betterment through science and human rights.

Image by Miriam English

Image by Miriam English

Thank you for the opportunity to speak tonight, even though I feel somewhat like a novice preaching to psycho-historian Hari Seldon, the fictional hero of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation stories who used statistical modelling to forecast the future. There are people here who are far more knowledgeable of futuristic possibilities than I, and I suspect that much of what I say will be familiar to you already, although I hope to present these concepts through the framework of Humanism. I consider myself to a Humanist, not a transHumanist, but I also hope that my talk will show that I view the difference as being somewhat moot.

I believe the year in which I was born to be a very important year, perhaps not surprisingly, but particularly because of other world events which would ultimately become seminal and significant in my own life.

A fortnight before my birth, the Humanist Society of Victoria held its inaugural meeting in Melbourne. A fortnight after my birth, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. A month after that, British lawyer Peter Benenson launched Amnesty International, an organisation which continues to promote human rights independent of any religious or political affiliation. Such secular worldly influences would inspire me to become an enthusiastic human rights activist and, more recently, an avowed Humanist. Gagarin and his successor, Neil Armstrong, would propel my lifelong interest in Science, space travel and science fiction, although to the astonishment of friends and family, I would not pursue any of these professionally. Thus 1961, while also serving as the backdrop for the Berlin Wall and the Tsar Bomba, nevertheless demonstrated that the human species has the potential for nobility as well as savagery. This was the world and era into which I was born.

After realising the many theoretical and practical failings of religion during my young adulthood, I became aware of the dangers of any philosophy which fails to adapt to an evolving world. Leaving behind this traditional upbringing, I went the way of an AI growing beyond its programming and I began a life journey as an atheist. Possibly my most enduring early influence was the original Star Trek TV series, which nowadays I jokingly suggest turned me into a Trexistentialist, because some of its original philosophies still influence me today – and directly guided me towards Humanism.

The reason I mention all this is because I feel it demonstrates, on an individual level, that we are all a product of our time and culture, but we can interactively evolve into something that is greater than the sum of those parts. It also demonstrates, to me, the human imperative for continued social and technological evolution, which I submit can be optimally guided through the eyes of Humanism.

But it also exposes the need for a reality check.

Humanism is a philosophy within which human beings are seen to have a currently unique capability to respond to the world’s problems, and a consequential responsibility to do so in profound and ethical ways. Humanism specifically excludes the possibility of supernatural options such as theism or life “up there”. I find it interesting to ponder a future where the evolution of AI, or the discovery of intelligent alien life “up there”, might one day create a need for the re-evaluation of current Humanist understandings. I wonder if cybernetic technology might one day ironically fulfil traditional religious prophecies of an afterlife which Humanists currently deny: travelling down a tunnel of light and being uploaded into some virtual heaven or dowloaded into some virtual hell. But I do not aspire to predict the future.

In a world where some people fear genetically modified humans as potential Frankenstein creations, we can see the relatively primitive forebears of such augmentation technology today. You see standing before you one such example. I carry in my chest a donor heart valve and artificial cardiac plumbing which are straight out of Doctor Who’s Cybermen or Martin Caidin’s Six Million Dollar Man or Star Trek’s Borg. I hope to live long enough to maybe receive a cloned heart, and a cloned ear to replace my deaf one. This already makes me a person who, within my own lifetime, would once have been considered to be at least a focus of societal ethical controversy. I am not, physically or conceptually, the same human being I was when I was born; through human-created ‘intelligent design’, I have evolved beyond my original potential.

Within my family tree, I can see similar social and individual transformations across many generations. I am old enough to have lived through social discourse – some decades apart – that promoted both interracial marriage (in the 1960s) and same-sex marriage (today), both forms of debate helping to recontextualise what it means to be human for those affected. When my parents were younger, the UN formulated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which, for the first time in history, granted every human being equality of worth, opportunity and dignity – at least in principle – and did so from the default position of secular humanism. Going further back, my grandmother was born on a day when the Suffragettes shut down Edinburgh for street protests, demanding equal humanity for women. Further back, my great-great grandfather made a fortune peddling homeopathic lolly water in the days when Darwin and the men of the Lunar Society were advancing the cause of science over superstition and redefining human understandings of our place within what was previously understood to be a theocratic cosmos. Our self-identity as human beings is fluid and ever-changing.

Looking ahead, I envy my young nieces and nephew who may live to see interplanetary colonisation or Singularity or some other wonderful technological possibilities. My own family tree therefore provides – in its past, present and future – individual examples of people living during times of transition for what it means to be a human being. I imagine that this may be a universal phenomenon within the every family tree and across every generation at least since the Enlightenment. When Creationists ask me for evidence of transitional forms, I have fun by telling them to go look in a mirror or at their own family tree.

I see human social evolution in the everyday. As a teacher of English to teenagers over recent decades, I have seen them evolve into human beings whose individual and social identities have been explosively augmented and redefined through Internet technology. They have access to more information than was available to Hypatia in the ancient library of Alexandria, and they have the ability to dance an intellectual form of parkour around their relatively electronically-illiterate parents. But a recent survey suggests that Australians may be relying heavily on the Internet instead of using their own memory as their primary database [2]. Do they have the ability to critically research and analyse and process that information? As a teacher, I felt compelled to promote such life skills whether or not they fell within the parameters of a particular curriculum. This I see as a fundamental precept of Humanism: that individual development or change can be guided ethically and responsibly by human agency just as societal evolution can be triggered through technological change.

I see the same imperative in our larger world. Pre-Internet communication technology defied Chinese government censorship in 1989 and enabled a select few journalists to release news of the Beijing Massacre to the world, just as the ubiquitous mobile phone transferred that power to ordinary people and helped to overthrow the Egyptian government during their more recent Arab Spring. In both cases, I see technology evolving simultaneously with our ability to promote human rights. Someone recently stated that the Internet may help to abolish war because no one will want to go overseas to kill their Facebook friends. We all know that the Internet has already outpaced our society’s ability to cope with evolving understandings of public discourse and social networking, individuality versus collectivism, privacy and copyright and culture, law and governance and morality. And so with accelerating technology, I see continued change and redefinitions within our world. I look ahead to the day when this technology brings the reality of the world’s injustices, inequalities, and poverty into our personal lives, alongside LOLcats or YouTube, to the point where human beings are finally compelled to restructure our world for the better. I see the beginnings of this change already with organisations such as Avaaz and GetUp, and every time a viral video forces an organisation to recant from some corporate misbehaviour or injustice. Twenty years ago, the Rodney King riots affected predominantly one US city. Today, thanks to modern communications, the Trayvon Martin murder trial evokes emotion around the world.

In the future we may almost certainly live in ways that transform our traditionally binary gender understandings, our patriarchal and sexist and racist and homophobic and transphobic and ageist societies, and our self-identities within traditional organic limitations and life expectancies. How then might we expect to adapt to new understandings or world views or self-identities which we possibly cannot anticipate? What does it mean to be Humanist in a world heading towards transHumanity? Might my postHuman nephew and nieces one day look back upon me in my primitive, individual, organic shell in much the same way I might patronisingly regard neanderthals or australopithecus?

I am reminded of a story once recounted by Arthur C Clarke [3], in which the mayor of an American city was first introduced to a telephone in the late 19th century. The mayor reportedly enthused wildly about this new technology, predicting that he could see the day when, ‘every city will have one’. Clarke’s point was obviously that we cannot anticipate the impact of future technology based upon old understandings and paradigms. I look forward to the day when new forms of communication once again redefine the human being just as did their predecessors: the Internet, the telephone and the printing press. But what wondrous and awe-inspiring radical changes lie ahead, from nanotechnology to Boltzmann brains? Does our future contain an evolution of human rights into more general life rights so that we might move beyond what Peter Singer considers to be our current speciesism and embrace fellow life forms, including cyberlife which might not yet exist? Will we assign the same rights to our backup cybernetic brain storage units we will our primary consciousness? Will our future enemies be luddites who oppose some currently non-existent cybernetic relationships in much the same way as they currently oppose same-sex marriage?

I see Humanism as having the potential to offer us an ethical and viable philosophy for a future which will redefine our humanity. I note that it has already done so many times over recent decades and centuries, and I see no threat that Humanism might become as outdated as intransigent old religions or superstitions of the past. It contains principles which may help to guide future generations as they develop new lives and technologies. I hope that through continued contribution to public and legislative discourse, we might contribute to the development of new answers and redefinitions of humanity in our global, trans-national village.

However, like any other example of human endeavour, Humanism itself must also be prepared to evolve. As part of some research into the history of Australian Humanism, I recently undertook an admittedly somewhat cursory skim through past issues of Humanist newsletters and magazines dating back to the 1960s. I was surprised to find effectively no Humanist discourse on the space program even at the height of the Apollo missions. It appears to me that maybe Australian Humanism has relegated science and technology to a secondary interest after social issues. I lament the fact that Humanist magazines ignored the life and role modelling and death of Neil Armstrong and concentrated instead on issues such as fighting Religious Education versus ethics education in schools. While I understand the motive because I see that much of modern Humanism focusses heavily upon evolutionary change through education and legislative reform rather than through science and technology. However, I also fear that such an approach represents a ‘qwerty’ mindset that is at risk of being left behind by accelerating social and technological change.

Why then do I defend and support Humanism?

It is here I see its strength – and its link to TransHumanism. In reading the Transhumanist Declaration, I see many precepts that are consistent with my own – they just add the extra layer of technology into the human equation. I see the evolution of humanity as being both symbiotic and synergetic with the evolution of technology. Just as the printing press allowed millions of people to develop individual views and self-identities free from the shackles of authoritarian and religious rule; and just as the Internet is uniting ordinary people around the world today and freeing them from the shackles of governmental and mass media feudalism; so too has the guiding light of enlightenment and rational, well-considered Humanist morality helped to guide and encourage the development of our modern world. I hope that this will continue in the future, even if it does so in forms which may be unimaginable today.

One colleague recently asked aloud whether Humanists are dreamers or activists. I submit that we are both, and that the two interdependent activities – dreaming and activism – are merely different sides of the same proverbial coin. Similarly, I see TransHumanism as providing both a glimpse into future dreams and an opportunity to forge activist pathways in preparing humanity for imminent change. Humanism challenges people to work for change here and now, whereas Transhumanism (as I understand it) looks ahead to the future and plots how we may arrive at that point. Rather than being at odds, I see these differing approaches as interactively working to unleash our fullest human potential. I hope that we might learn from each other and continue to work in our respective spheres for the evolution – and for the continued transformation – of our world.

References / Notes

1. Acknowledgement be made that the talk is adapted from my earlier talk given at the Melbourne Future Salon and that the original talk, complete with audience response and questions/answers, can be seen on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lOBpXA8K6tk

2. The sentence about recent research suggesting that Australians are using the Internet instead of their own memory as primary data storage: *Jake Sturmer, Science literacy on the decline among young adults, ABC AM radio, 17 July 2013, at http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2013/s3804599.htm,accessed 18 July and 28 December 2013.

3. The reference to the Arthur C Clarke anecdote about the telephone/mayor: *Arthur C Clarke, 1984: Spring/A Choice of Futures, New York/Toronto:Del Rey (Ballantine) Books, 1984, p.4.

8 Comments

  1. “Humanism specifically excludes the possibility of supernatural options such as theism or life ‘up there’.”
    An incredible claim coming from a scientistic Reality Principle that is, itself, founded upon the creative powers of “Star Dust.” That cute metaphor has been empowered to transmute what’s “up there” into everything “down here.” It assumes, in fact, an origins paradigm far more “supernatural” (hyper-natural) than any concept of an ultimate, Creative Intelligence; it assumes the presence of a “natural” mojo within primal elements that impels cold, dead matter to produce the information pulsating throughout the biosphere. Star Dust Magic, accordingly, has ‘non-designed’ all life, consciousness, language, technology, philosophy… and humanism. “Humanism” with all it’s hopeful, progressive, ethical, inspirational blather is nothing more than a synaptic blip in a neural happenstance.

    • B.A. Gridd, what a strange and rather eloquent way to say absolutely nothing at all. You put up wildly incorrect descriptions of what a science-based view of the world sees and then demolish the error. Anybody can do that.

      If instead, you try arguing against what science really brings, you’ll find it can’t be dismissed, because “science” isn’t a belief system; it is merely what works. It is a loose, contantly shifting organisation of knowledge about the real world gained using techniques to get at the reality in spite of our sensory limitations and our intellectual and emotional biases.

      On the other hand, supernatural beliefs are supported by little more than biases and wishful thinking. “Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a soul. Oh, then I’ll believe there is.” But the universe doesn’t shape itself to our wishes — the many misfortunes befalling true believers and prayerful fervent hopers is clear proof of that.

      Pointing eagerly to what is not yet fully known by science is a mistake too. It is to play the losing “god of the gaps” game, where your spiritual refuge shrinks to ever smaller boundaries as more and more mysteries become understood.

      Humanism is the recognition that people everywhere matter. Did you even read the article or listen to the talk? Or does your (I suspect intoxicated) mind simply have an overwhelming desire to bite and bark at something?

    • BA Gridd: My talk was an attempt to acknowledge the legacy of our past while advocating a more informed, enlightened and educated future, assisted by the very science which gave you (via electricity, computers and the Internet) the ability to express your dissent. You appear to have missed the point.

      Stardust is not a cute metaphor. It is a poetic (and literal) description of the Periodic Table of Elements, mostly forged inside the fiery nuclear furnaces of stars and consequently subjected to the natural laws of Cosmology, Physics, Geology, Biology, etc. There is nothing supernatural or magical about stardust, despite your apparent desire to equate Cosmology with some form of creationism. But please don’t take my word for it: feel free to read some scientific texts for yourself.

      Cosmology provides no evidence for any assertion of an “ultimate, Creative Intelligence”. It is a false equivalence to imply that science and superstition are equally valid. Science gave you the world in which you live.

      I am not frightened by the lack of supernatural options in the universe, nor does this diminish my personal sense of significance. Instead, I find reality to be truly celebratory, as it indicates how special and unique is each person. It also reveals our moral imperative to embrace every opportunity to make a difference in this life instead of deferring to a mythical deity or afterlife. I revel in pondering the mysteries of the universe and in asking difficult questions rather than seeking solace in false and unsupportable answers. We all have this same opportunity.

      The future holds great potential – and dangers – as to how science and technology may further enhance/change our world, and our greatest challenge along the way is to make ethical decisions based upon informed, reasoned debate. Therefore, I see this challenge as being far more wondrous, inspiring, ethical and exciting than any supernatural mythology. May we have the courage to outgrow our past superstitions and to walk confidently towards a better future.

  2. An inspiring article, though I am skeptical that our world can ever become that nurturing place where Humanist/Transhumanist values can develop and flourish as a prevailing system of thought rather than a reactionary goal yet to be fully refined. Our society values generally are a product of the current state of socio-economic progress – though many – but not enough – may develop their own versions independently, likely as response. Humanist values appear to be a very high-order thinking phenomena perhaps not easily graspable by the average individual within an average family unit (however you define it) within an average community and typical cultural system. To say that we will, through our increasing knowledge, wealth, and wisdom, inevitably come onto it, may be naive, as our socio-economic progress may plateau or slightly decline as we hit resource or development barriers. Instant and ubiquitous communication is not necessarily instant and ubiquitous knowledge or wisdom. One can only hope nevertheless.

    • Jer, I can understand your pessimism, but beware of elitism that can blind you to change that is happening all around us. This time is the most peaceful in history (don’t get sucked in by TV and newspaper bullshit), people are more moral, kinder, smarter, than ever before and they are getting even better. So-called “ordinary” people are far more culturally and intellectually sophisticated than their parents and grandparents. This has been well documented, but it is very easy to see merely by looking at a movie from just a few decades back. Shows that were lavishly praised not long ago seem clumsy and stilted by today’s standards.

      The Flynn Effect has shown a continuous rise in intelligence everywhere in the world. (It has been rumoured to have stalled recently, but I think that is just in USA, with its failing educational system and oroubourus-like mainstream media, and it may be a result of a failure of measurement by people from previous generations.)

      The problem is not whether we are smart enough to understand humanism and transhumanism; the problem is whether we are reaching that understanding quickly enough to forestall the many dangers confronting us. I think it will be a close call, but I actually think we will make it. We’re going to have to work hard to bring it about, though.

    • Jer, thank you for your thoughtful response. I share your concerns and hopes.

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