Are transhumanists cranks?
July 24, 2006
A “crank” is a person who not only holds some belief which the vast majority of his contemporaries would consider counterfactual, but clings to this belief in the face of all counterarguments or evidence presented to him.
For those interested, Wikipedia does an impressive job of thoroughly defining what a crank is: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crank_%28person%29
Every movement, whether it be social, political, philosophical or religious, has a few cranks amongst its leaders and many amongst its rank-and-file. The problem is when the majority of the leaders of a movement are cranks or are *perceived* as cranks by the rest of society.
So the question becomes: Are most transhumanists cranks, that is to say, do they cling to their beliefs in the face of all counterarguments or evidence presented to them?
When I am asked this question, I always answer No because most transhumanists I have talked to or whose works I’ve read are smart people.
However, as Skeptics Society founder Micheal Shermer explains, “smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for nonsmart reasons. Rarely do any of us sit down before a table of facts, weigh them pro and con, and choose the most logical and rational explanation, regardless of what we previously believed. Most of us, most of the time, come to our beliefs for a variety of reasons having little to do with empirical evidence and logical reasoning. Rather, such variables as genetic predisposition, parental predilection, sibling influence, peer pressure, educational experience and life impressions all shape the personality preferences that, in conjunction with numerous social and cultural influences, lead us to our beliefs. We then sort through the body of data and select those that most confirm what we already believe, and ignore or rationalize away those that do not. This phenomenon [is] called the confirmation bias...”
Cryonics is probably the best example of whether or not transhumanists have a confirmation bias.
Although no one should not place value on the view of uninformed journalists, do transhumanists place value on the consensus of views of scientists and engineers working in cryobiology, a field that many of them have invested with transcendental aspirations?
In his book Posthuman Utopias: Counter-culture, Cyberculture and Chaos Culture, Remi Sussan writes the following critique of cryonics:
“When taking all [the extreme technical obstacles] into account, it is clear that we are in the realm of utter science-fiction (which doesn’t mean it’s impossible only very difficult). But is it ethical to ask people large sums of money for such a random result? At Alcor, the body costs 180,000$ and the head only 80,000$. In the libertarian perspective in which cryonicists find themselves, the question is not even asked. In a free market, everyone is responsible for their choices: the person who decides to have himself frozen knows perfectly the random nature of the operation (we cannot in fact accuse cryonicists of lying about the difficulty of their project). But can we so easily neglect the suffering of old or sick people willing to jump at any solution? [In fact, there aren’t that many: about 130 bodies are actually frozen and just a little more than 1000 members subscribing to the two cryonics associations.] Furthermore, some moderately appreciate the way cryonicists have of behaving themselves as evangelists concerned with always convincing the world instead of thinking as researchers interested in solutions by experimentation. This attitude has certainly hastened their exclusion from the circles of traditional research, especially cryobiology. Thus, without access to the best labs and the resources of universities, it is hard to see how cryonics could one day progress.”
So would it be fair or unfair to argue that transhumanists who believe in cryonics are cranks?
I guess only reading the reaction of transhumanists to all these arguments can answer that question…
In the meantime, I strongly encourage everyone to try to transcend bias.
To reduce one’s bias, one can take various measures during the process of critical thinking.
Instead of asking “How does this contradict my beliefs?” ask: “What does this mean?”
In the earlier stages of gathering and evaluating information, one should first of all suspend judgement (as one does when reading a novel or watching a movie). Ways of doing this include adopting a perceptive rather than judgmental orientation; that is, avoiding moving from perception to judgment as one applies critical thinking to an issue.
One should become aware of one’s own fallibility by:
1. accepting that everyone has subconscious biases, and accordingly questioning any reflexive judgments;
2. adopting an egoless and, indeed, humble stance;
3. recalling previous beliefs that one once held strongly but now rejects;
4. realizing one still has numerous blind spots, despite the foregoing.
How does one ever eliminate biases without knowing what the ideal is? A possible answer: by referencing critical thinking against a “concept of man”. Thus we can see that critical thinking and the formation of secure ethical codes form an integral whole, but a whole which remains limited without the backing of a concept of humanity.
Finally, one might use the Socratic method to evaluate an argument, asking open questions, such as the following:
* What do you mean by _______________?
* How did you come to that conclusion?
* Why do you believe that you are right?
* What is the source of your information?
* What assumption has led you to that conclusion?
* What happens if you are wrong?
* Can you give me two sources who disagree with you and explain why?
* Why is this significant?
* What is an alternate explanation for this phenomenon?
* How do I know you are telling me the truth?