Here is the first part of an interview with the Honorary President of the Italian Association of Transhumanists, the Philosopher and Sociologist Riccardo Campa. Prof. Campa is mostly known for his studies in the Ethics in Science and Transhumanism field and previously for his defence on the idea of self-directed evolution. He carries out research both as a Professor Associated to the Sociology of Science and Technique at the University of Jagellonica in Cracovia, and as the President of the Transhumanist Association, of which he is the founder. Manfredi Beninati conducted this interview in open questionnaire form.
MB – Are Transumanism and Posthumanism synonyms?
RC – In Italian Transhumanism is translated into either ‘Transumanesimo’ e ‘transumanismo’ (used indifferently) in order to translate the English Transhumanism. I prefer using the term ‘transumanesimo’, because it interprets this philosophy as a development of Renaissance humanism. Those who prefer ‘transumanismo’, generally put it in relation to the Letter on “Humanism” by Martin Heidegger. On the contrary, ‘posthumanism’ and ‘transhumanism’ are not synonyms, even if there are relations between the two terms. Here, however, the question is complex, because the term ‘posthumanism’ has different meanings. On one hand, it is used by postmodern philosophers to indicate a form of thought that puts it in a critical relation compared to Renaissance Humanism. In particular the idea of the microcosmic Man is criticized; the measurement of all things, able of knowing and dominating nature with its own intelligence. On the other hand, the term ‘posthumanism’ is also used by transhumanist engineers and scientists to indicate ‘ posthumanist Philosophy’ moreover the ideal of exceeding humans, through the creation of the posthuman being (for example an intelligent car), exercising that domain on Nature and on subjects that allow for techno-scientific knowledge. As we can see, apparently there are two very different points of view, if not diametrically opposite. At any rate it’s true that in many different conferences and congresses, a few misunderstandings have occurred. Digging deeper however, points of contact between the two were revealed. For example, both posthumanisms tend to pass over Speciesism. Even those who start from the Renaissance idea of the microcosmic man and recognise the intrinsic value of scientific knowledge, in the end, think like Nietzsche that << man is something that shall be overcome>>. If anyone would like to know more, the question was debated, in detail, in a book by Stefan Lorenz Sorgner and Robert Ranisch titled Post-and-Transhumanism (Peter Lang 2014).
MB – How would you explain in a few words, the concept of Transhumanism to a man of the street? What is the real meaning and what are the real implications?
RC – It’s important to not allow transhumanism to be a dogmatic doctrine. One can be transhumanist in many different ways, in the same way that one can be enlightened or a socialist in many different ways. A defining synthesis is however possible. If Posthumanism is the ‘philosophy of the posthuman’ or shall we say ‘the being that has already overcome man‘ that has nothing from being human, transhumanism is the philosophy of man in transition’, or the man that is changing himself, or the man that is projecting himself towards Posthuman but is still part human. Transhumanism is primarily the will to overcome one’s own biological limits, indifferently from the fact that they are due to genetic makeup or later intervened due to accidents or illness. To say it in a few understandable words to the man of the street transhuman is the able-body that consciously modifies his own body and mind in order to strengthen oneself, to slow down aging, to live longer. Transhuman is also the disabled that, instead of pitying himself or have someone pity him, he fights against his disability, he values it, and- by poisoning himself with the available technical means- conquers old and new abilities. To this purpose, even the able-body and disabled can use invasive or non invasive tools: vaccines to strengthen the immune system, medicine, food supplements, eyeglasses to strengthen sight, surgical operations of various types, orthodontic appliances, bypass, artificial organs, electrical prosthesis, etc. As we can understand from the examples I have made, in so-called “technologically advanced” countries, there are more transhumans around than humans. A transhumanist is someone who is aware of this fact, he accepts it and has understood the positive implications even when considering the future. Biomedicine continues to progress and human beings intervene more and more systematically on their own bodies and minds, Now the question is: how many artificial parts does a human being need in order to call himself ‘transhuman’? how many as ‘posthuman’? Where is the threshold, the limit, between human and non human? Once, the essentialist prejudices are overcome, based on the concept of immutability of ‘human nature’, it is clear that the answer can only be of conventional character. The exact concept of ‘’human,” is sooner or later destined to be altered. It is exactly with this awareness that the transhumanism of scientific matrixmeets the posthumanism of postmodern matrix.
MB – Which aspect of Transhumanism primarily attracts you?
RC – Transhumanism is fresh air thrown into a philosophical debate that in the last ten years has become a little old-fashioned. It talks about categories that have now worn out, and therefore, makes people think about, yet again, what fundamentally are our philosophical questions deep down: What is life? What is death? Who am I? What is consciousness? Or, who am I as a being that lives and breathes? Is Infinity a part of me or has it been denied? Etc. In the past, Man asked himself these questions and gave himself philosophical or religious types of answers. It is said that the secularized modern man, who is completely concentrated on the world, on his own success in the world, has dismissed these questions. The contemporary European now believes little if anything about the traditional religious answers (by the way they look at the Euro barometer data and Gallup polls), but hasn’t found the new answers. Rather, he removes the questions and looks for technical solutions to everyday problems. Nevertheless, Transhumanism raises the bar and asks if there is a technical solution to problems of aging, death, stupidity and of human weakness, in the end, making what went out the door, come back in through the window. This is what I like about Transhumanism. Whether or not the answers come, the simple fact of looking for them makes you think about the major Philosophical questions. Also, the removal of the existential questions is not only the right of Contemporary Hedonism or of the crude Scientism of the nineteenth century. Even the formal adhesion, exterior, not meditated to a religion-which is the typical behaviour of many ‘followers’- is deep down, a way to hide these unsettling questions. After all not few westerners have been able to, and still are able to, appease positivity and religion. Just don’t be radical, or don’t ever go to the root of the questions. Greek Philosophers entered in conflict with religions of their times, exactly because they wanted to argue metaphysical matters. They put certain knowledge on a pedestal, supported by empirical and rational matters, in order to free them from the uncertainty, the doxa, as the unproven dogmas inherited from tradition.
MB – As a sustainer of self-evolution, which I think to have understood you are, don’t you foresee a possible future irreconcilability between this and the transhumanist ambition? Soon, Man won’t decide his own fate, the Machine will instead.
RC – At the moment the idea that machines can acquire a conscience is only a work theory. Since the majority of technicians give credit to the work in Silicon Valley, it is right and appropriate to think about this theory, actually about 2 theories. The first is that this happens through a project that has been studied and thought over, or rather thanks to the fact that we have finally understood what is consciousness and how is it produced or reproduced? If we have this knowledge we can beat death, by ‘uploading’ our own conscience into machines before our bodies, the original organic support, dies. In this case, there would be by no means a confrontation between man – machine, because we ‘d be one single being. The second theory is that one day a super intelligent computer will acquire conscience without us knowing exactly how it happened. We will continue to increase the memory and computing power of our computers in silicon, and suddenly, like a hat trick, the conscious thought comes to light, the initiative, and the will. This is the worst case scenario, because it gets worse- because it projects us into a situation where we don’t exactly know what we need to expect from the computer or from the robot, nor how to use a technique that we don’t possess. This super intelligence may be hostile to us, or an ally. Or it could be completely disinterested in Man. In this case, Man would continue to evolve through biomedicine, while machines would evolve on their own. There is nothing written in the stars that makes us think that there has to be only one intelligent being. Conscience and intelligence already belong to other living beings that are all in evolution. We have distinguished the inorganic from the organic realm, the vegetable from the animal realm, man from other beings, but until what point do these conceptual distinctions correspond to ontological differences? Certainly, the idea of self evolution has until now only come up, as far as we know, by human beings and not even by all of them. But ultimately, neither Man nor the Machine evolves. It is conscience. We need to start thinking about conscience not as something that exists or not, but as something that exists in different degrees. Even between a man and his equal there can even be a notable difference in the level of consciousness.
MB – According to Ray Kurzweil-the head of Google Engineering-within the next 13/15 years we will reach a point of no return called Singularity; that moment when the convergence Man-Machine will be complete to the point that we can allow a computer to ‘take care of us’. According to Kurzweil, Artificial Intelligence (A.I), for that time will be more developed than that of a human. This, I think, creates not few reasons to worry. Fundamentally, Man will be at the mercy of machines. What is your point of view on the matter?
RC – First of all, I’d like to repeat that we are reasoning about futuristic theories and in some ways science fiction. I have the utter most respect for Ray Kurzwell and it is not by any means by chance that a giant like Google chose him in 2012 as Research Director. Personally however, I think that his recent time estimates are too optimistic. Entering the heart of the matter, I will get back to what was developed above. Everything depends on how one arrives at Singularity. Whether it is voluntarily and through total consciousness of the process, Singularity opens the way to overcoming of the distinction between Man and Machine. The concerns, which you are talking about, come from the fact that people continue to reason in a type of Matrix or Terminator scenario, where man and the machine are separate entities and in conflict, which is not exactly that of Singularity. The latter is best outlined in Transcendence, a science fiction film that, with its limits, gives a rather, clear idea of the Kurzweilian scenario. Some critics and audiences immediately identified the scientist Raymond Kurzweil. In this scenario, men (not one, but many) and super intelligent machines become one being. This Being, which combines all of our conscience with those of the connected machines, through the Internet takes control of Nature. There isn’t an in and out, or I and another of me. In the film, the project isn’t realized, due to the opposition of the Luddites in cahoots with the police. If it had been realized, all of planet Earth, with all its beings that populate it, would have become one conscious super-being and would have resolved all their own problems, from illnesses to pollution. In a few words, after Singularity, all of our machines, blended together, and us become “God”, but in a sense that is rather far from the traditional catholic one of god – person, creator and ethical judge. Here there is a reference to a notion of the Divine that may be a little closer to that of Pagan Pantheism or of Eastern Mysticism. At the most, the comprehensive post human being can remind divinity of certain Christian mystics of heresy. This is however, the idea of Singularity that emerges in Transcendence. You will ask: and humans who don’t want to be part of this entity? I don’t think anyone will oblige them. If one of us wants to continue being fragile and two-legged, condemned to aging and to death, as well as to having limited comprehension of reality, do you think that an almost Divine would care? Forgive my provocative concept, but this posthuman being is to a man, as man is to a fly. Man drives away or crushes flies if they come and annoy them, but it’s not like he wakes up in the morning thinking that he needs to go fly hunting. Man wakes up in the morning thinking that he needs to build a bridge, drive a tram, compose a symphony, write a book, close a deal, meet a person he loves, etc. I said ‘provocative’, because I know what the typical reaction of a bioconservative is to this example. He’d say: “But I want to continue being a Man and free to do what I want, or rather not be forced to fearing a superior being”. Well, he we arrive at the main question. Freedom is directly proportional to the power that one has. “I want to be free” is an expression almost equivalent to “ I want to be powerful”. But if you want to be powerful, why go against those-exactly like you- who want to be powerful, or rather free? In the end, change isn’t wanted by those who already are, or are believed to be, in a position of power against the other self, but whoever is in the opposite situation has the right to change the balance of power, if they can.
MB – Perhaps, however after everything, we don’t need to worry about something that, if it were to happen, automatically it would put us in a condition of relative conscience. If a drug addict could spend his entire life under the influence of drugs, I don’t think that he would have any regrets about his ‘real’ life. Moreover, if we think about the fact that the computer was created “in the image and resemblance” of Man, as were robots, there is something reassuring about it, at least for a moment. Given that it is about our products, as everything that we call artificial and how the most part of our food that we nurture ourselves with for thousands of years, the Arts, Sciences, our dwellings where we live-all things that have never made a difference to us- so, we could accept also a future so unexplorable with the means available today, by simply labelling it as Progress. That is the natural evolution of things. One could, as many already do, accept the idea of an unknown future where we could do without moving a muscle, or thinking, to satisfy our needs and what we fancy, maybe, by doing it with enthusiasm. Or, on the contrary it could happen that the dominating image inside us is Dante’s Inferno, where the human being, with yet a residue of conscience, is forced to live in an artificial world and in dependent conditions in respect to machines. I imagine, in this second case, a similar state of Locked-in Syndrome. This is also a possible scenario, and after all, it is what frightens common people most. What is your point of view about this?
RC – I really don’t believe that by merging with super-intelligent machines we would enter ‘relative conscience’, as if we were “druggies”. It’s exactly the opposite. We would enter a situation of increased conscience and maybe basically infinite. Increased to a point that would no longer be human, but superhuman, or even the Divine. Today’s Man is everything but a being that is conscious of his own being, not to mention of Being or not being. The contemporary Man has a vague conscience of his being on Facebook. Vague, very vague, because he doesn’t even know how a smartphone works or a simple integrated circuit. He uses technology and he lets it use him. Therefore, a situation where we generate Singularity does not reassure me at all, we create a super intelligent machine, but it continues to think like “a man”. What is the point of making an exact copy of Man? Man in addition to being an animal with a limited conscience is a ruthless predator with many physical and psychological problems. Whoever thinks of man as a sort of angel, well incarnated, at the peak of creation etc., forgets that we are talking about a being that kills millions of animals and own kind every day. Man commits an average of about half a million homicides per year, often for pointless reasons. The idea of Singularity, of the transition to posthuman is that of exceeding man in the direction of the Divine. God- here intended as an abstracted concept, philosophical- is superior to man because he is almighty, all knowing and eternal. Let’s imagine, now, that such a being exists. Do you think that an almighty being, all knowing and eternal can reason as a human being, who on the contrary is weak, ignorant and mortal? Such a being would see reality in a different way. Between man and the Divine there is an abyss. This abyss is not seen by those who interpret the Divine according to the categories of popular Catholicism, because the Gods and the Saints of this religion-Yahweh and Jesus Christ first of all- are “people” and they behave as such. To understand the posthuman condition, one rather thinks of Divinity as it was conceived by the Greek Philosophers, or at most how is was conceived by the mystic Christians that moved around the sulcus of Plotinus. Singularity by Kurzweil is the door that leads to the participation in the Divine. What can be said about this participation? The abyss that divides man from the Divine is overcome only through fusion. As Dionigi L’Aeropagita said, of the Divine only the unknowable can be preached. As Nicola Cusano confirmed, the divine cannot be contained in any definition exactly because it transcends everything. It can’t either be said that God is Good, because it would set limits to that which has no limits. The all-embracing posthuman mentioned by Ray Kurzweil, Hans Moravec, Frank Tipler and other extreme visionaries of artificial intelligence, is similar to this Divinity and therefore can only be defined through paradoxes. By always following the negative theology, we can say that it is a coincidence of opposites, human and non human, everything and nothing, good and bad, light and darkness, point and circumference, minimum and maximum, word and silence, or yet two opposites blended together: “bright darkness”. Definitely, in this prospective, no God originally created man in his own image and resemblance. On the contrary, man, resulting from evolution-when the appropriate level of technology is reached- creates God. Until Singularity, God does not exist, or rather he exists only in power, as an idea. Man is therefore the tool of Incarnation. He is a modern Theurgist called to give shape to the idea of the Divine, registered in his mind forever and disappears after having completed his duty, exactly as a caterpillar disappears after giving life to a butterfly. The butterfly is not the refusal of the caterpillar, neither the enemy, nor the accomplishment. The caterpillar continues to exist in the butterfly, in a more elevated form. In the same way the blastocyst continues to exist in an adult man, despite being “refused” by it. Here, you have to think about the genesis of the posthuman in terms of transformation, not of creatio ex nihilo (created from nothing). I’ll repeat one more time, to avoid misunderstandings or at risk of appearing boring, that here we are only reasoning about a theory. The future cannot be predicted with certainty. We are dealing with a scenario analysis of futurology, because it is better to think of scenarios, rather than advance in absolute unawareness. The one outlined in Transcendence is only one of the possible scenarios.
MB – Kurzweil-who is considered by many as a sort of oracle, having said in the past many things at the time unimaginable, which have punctually happened-insists on another crucial point: immortality. Actually, according to him to earn immortality it is enough to stay alive, even in terrible health, until the moment in which certain technologies (nanotechnology) become available to everyone. From that moment, death, decomposition and even aging will be a distant memory. From this statement three big – for me – questions come up:
a. Do you think this will happen?
b. From the point of view of Moral Philosophy how do we place such a radical change of perception of the world by man becoming immortal?
c. How do we appease the concept of immortality with the inevitable problem of overpopulation?
RC – I’ll take this opportunity to restate a concept. I really don’t believe that Singularity or Immortality are around the corner. Actually, personally, I don’t believe. In the sense that I am Agnostic and I believe in what I see and sometimes not even that. When we are inside Singularity, if we ever are, I’ll know. Otherwise, if we begin to believe, we risk turning transhumanism into a religion. Regarding the second question, in the field of bioethics, there are at the moment two dominating paradigms: pro-life (catholic) and pro-choice (laic). There is much talk of ethical or moral problems around transhumanism, but I see no insurmountable problems in principle. If one embraces the pro-life decision how can they coherently put themselves against lengthening life? If one embraces the pro-choice position, how can they coherently put themselves against the choice of making life last longer? Of course, contingent problems can arise that require attention and care, but I see no problems of principle.
As for the third question, population is a relative concept. It depends on what is the ideal level of population postulated. It is certainly true that growth in population is a phenomenon due in part to the technique and the resulting abundance. First of all I see a problem of inconsistency in many subjects that raise the question of anthropic impact, but at the same time they defend their welfare state, salaries, and pensions. The others are always the ones to die. If we take a look at the statistics, we can see that there isn’t a direct proportion between population growth and technical development. In the beginning there is a strong correlation, most of all relating to Mechanised agriculture, then however the curves diverge. In other words, the demographic bomb regards the less technologically developed countries. The advanced countries have a population in sharp decline. If this isn’t so visible it’s because the missing population is inexorably replaced by immigration coming from the poorest areas of the planet. Italy, in this sense, is an emblematic case. This means that in technologically advanced countries, the last thing on the mind of the citizens is that of “having many children”. They think about other things. They think about enjoying themselves and being professionally fulfilled. Perhaps, if all countries were technologically advanced, the world population would decrease significantly. Even when citizens of these countries were to live to be three or four hundred years old, instead of the current 80 years, and can easily reproduce in advanced age thanks to in vitro fertilization or cloning, I believe that we will hardly be able to maintain the actual demographic level. In conclusion the idea that a situation of radical longevity or almost immortality means an unsustainable growth in population starts from the assumption-entirely unfounded-that the reason prior to transhumans or posthumans is to reproduce like rabbits. If couple makes the same amount of children they do now, regardless of their life expectations, the demographic balance will remain unchanged. I don’t believe that there is a need to make obligations in this sense. As I mentioned before, it’s difficult to think that transhumanists and posthumanists of the future will share the same values and the same priorities as the citizens in developing countries, often poor and illiterate. They have other things to do.
MB – What will the integration between Man and Machine take us? What will be the main benefits or damages for the human race and Nature in general?
RC – I think I’ve answered this question well above. We can, however, propose integration, based on a different scenario. Suppose that Singularity were only science fiction. Let’s suppose, that a phenomenal rise in biomedicine and robotic occurs in the next few years, and in nanotechnology and in artificial intelligence, without the machines acquiring conscience and the human beings blending with each other generating a unique super being. We’ll keep our feet firm on the ground. I believe that in this scenario, we should ask ourselves not so much what will happen the “human race” in its entirety, but what will happen to “human groups” that will accept or refuse these technologies. Not every population and nation will have the same future, exactly because some of them will create the future, others will follow breathless, yet others will be marginalized, and others will suffer against their will. It’s what has been happening for thousands of years. And it will continue to happen. If the citizens of country A decide to “stay human” and the citizens from the boarding country B, decide to become “superhuman”, by strengthening themselves with their own technologies, I’ll let you predict who will have the main benefits or damage. I am a prophet. I know however, whoever has more technology, therefore power, can ingest in the internal affairs of another country, while the reverse is not possible; unless whoever has more power has entered a masochistic phase. Even this can happen, sometimes.
MB – What relationship do you have with Nature?
RC – It would be easy for me to answer this question if I knew what you meant by “Nature”. You agree with me that we are talking about a polysemic term that can mean everything or nothing. If man is part of Nature, he is also part of all of its Technology. Just as birds build their nests and beavers build dams, man builds nuclear power plants. If instead, by Nature you intend what exists regardless of Man, then my relationship with it depends on the contingencies. When a mosquito flies around my ear, it sucks my blood, it leaves a bruise on my skin, which causes an annoying itch for days, I have a negative relationship with it. When, instead, on a scorching day, I leave a noisy and polluted city to go for a walk in the cool woods, touched by a gentle breeze, surrounded by unusual scents, I have a positive relationship with Nature. On the other hand, I am also aware of the fact that I can enjoy the woods thanks to a precious technological object, my shoes. If I had to walk barefoot on the rugged terrain, fraught with thorns and insects, I would probably miss the city. Nature and Technology are wonderful and terrible, good and bad, depending on the situation. Theodor Kaczynski, the ‘Unabomber’, wanted to put Nature and Technology in sharp contrast, it’s not by chance he was a terrorist. It is typical of violent or dangerous personalities to reduce their understanding of reality in dichotomy, associating Good with a term and Evil with its (presumed) opposite. The world appears in a different light when these concepts begin to get destroyed, when we stop reasoning in black and white and begin to see reality in colour, or better yet by grades of colour and without forgetting that some colours such as infrared and ultra violet aren’t visible.
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