Transhumanists Don't Need Special Dispositions

by Eliezer Yudkowsky4 min read7th Dec 201818 comments



This essay was originally posted in 2007.

I have claimed that transhumanism arises strictly from love of life.  A bioconservative humanist says that it is good to save someone's life or cure them of debilitating syndromes if they are young, but once they are "too old" (the exact threshold is rarely specified) we should stop trying to keep them alive and healthy.  A transhumanist says unconditionally:  "Life is good, death is bad; health is good, death is bad."  Whether you're 5, 50, or 500, life is good, why die?  Nothing more is required.

Then why is there a widespread misunderstanding that transhumanism involves a special fetish for technology, or an unusually strong fear of death, or some other abnormal personal disposition?

I offer an analogy:  Rationality is often thought to be about cynicism.  The one comes to us and says, "Fairies make the rainbow; I believe this because it makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside."  And you say, "No."  And the one reasons, "I believe in fairies because I enjoy feeling warm and fuzzy.  If I imagine that there are no fairies, I feel a sensation of deadly existential emptiness.  Rationalists say there are no fairies.  So they must enjoy sensations of deadly existential emptiness."  Actually, rationality follows a completely different rule - examine the rainbow very closely and see how it actually works.  If we find fairies, we accept that, and if we don't find fairies, we accept that too.  The look-and-see rule makes no mention of our personal feelings about fairies, and it fully determines the rational answer.  So you cannot infer that a competent rationalist hates fairies, or likes feelings of deadly existential emptiness, by looking at what they believe about rainbows.

But this rule - the notion of actually looking at things - is not widely understood.  The more common belief is that rationalists make up stories about boring old math equations, instead of pretty little fairies, because rationalists have a math fetish instead of a fairy fetish.  A personal taste, and an odd one at that, but how else would you explain rationalists' strange and unusual beliefs?

Similarly, love of life is not commonly understood as a motive for saying that, if someone is sick, and we can cure them using medical nanotech, we really ought to do that.  Instead people suppose that transhumanists have a taste for technology, a futurism fetish, that we just love those pictures of little roving nanobots.  A personal taste, and an odd one at that, but how else would you explain transhumanists' strange and unusual moral judgments?

Of course I'm not claiming that transhumanists take no joy in technology.  That would be like saying a rationalist should take no joy in math.  Homo sapiens is the tool-making species; a complete human being should take joy in a contrivance of special cleverness, just as we take joy in music or storytelling.  It is likewise incorrect to say that the aesthetic beauty of a technology is a distinct good from its beneficial use - their sum is not merely additive, there is a harmonious combination.  The equations underlying a rainbow are all the more beautiful for being true, rather than just made up.  But the esthetic of transhumanism is very strict about positive outcomes taking precedence over how cool the technology looks.  If the choice is between using an elegant technology to save a million lives and using an ugly technology to save a million and one lives, you choose the latter.  Otherwise the harmonious combination vanishes like a soap bubble popping.  It would be like preferring a more elegant theory of rainbows that was not actually true.

In social psychology, the "correspondence bias" is that we see far too direct a correspondence between others' actions and their personalities.  As Gilbert and Malone put it, we "draw inferences about a person's unique and enduring dispositions from behaviors that can be entirely explained by the situations in which they occur."  For example, subjects listen to speakers giving speeches for and against abortion.  The subjects are explicitly told that the speakers are reading prepared speeches assigned by coin toss - and yet the subjects still believe the pro-abortion speakers are personally in favor of abortion.

When we see someone else kick a vending machine for no visible reason, we assume he is "an angry person".  But if you yourself kick the vending machine, you will tend to see your actions as caused by your situation, not your disposition.  The bus was late, the train was early, your report is overdue, and now the damned vending machine has eaten your money twice in a row.  But others will not see this; they cannot see your situation trailing behind you in the air, and so they will attribute your behavior to your disposition.

But, really, most of the people in the world are not mutants - are probably not exceptional in any given facet of their emotional makeup.  A key to understanding human nature is to realize that the vast majority of people see themselves as behaving normally, given their situations.  If you wish to understand people's behaviors, then don't ask after mutant dispositions; rather, ask what situation they might believe themselves to be in.

Suppose I gave you a control with two buttons, a red button and a green button.  The red button destroys the world, and the green button stops the red button from being pressed.  Which button would you press?  The green one.  This response is perfectly normal. No special world-saving disposition is required, let alone a special preference for the color green.  Most people would choose to press the green button and save the world, if they saw their situation in those terms.

And yet people sometimes ask me why I want to save the worldWhy? They want to know why someone would want to save the world?  Like you have to be traumatized in childhood or something?  Give me a break.

We all seem normal to ourselves.  One must understand this to understand all those strange other people.

Correspondence bias can also be seen as essentialist reasoning, like explaining rain by water spirits, or explaining fire by phlogiston.  If you kick a vending machine, why, it must be because you have a vending-machine-kicking disposition.

So the transhumanist says, "Let us use this technology to cure aging."  And the reporter thinks, How strange!  He must have been born with an unusual technology-loving disposition.  Or, How strange!  He must have an unusual horror of aging!

Technology means many things to many people.  So too, death, aging, sickness have different implications to different personal philosophies.  Thus, different people incorrectly attribute transhumanism to different mutant dispositions.

If someone prides themselves on being cynical of all Madison Avenue marketing, and the meaning of technology unto them is Madison Avenue marketing, they will see transhumanists as shills for The Man, trying to get us to spend money on expensive but ultimately meaningless toys.

If someone has been fed Deep Wisdom about how death is part of the Natural Cycle of Life ordained by heaven as a transition to beyond the flesh, etc., then they will see transhumanists as Minions of Industry, Agents of the Anti-Life Death Force that is Science.

If someone has a postmodern ironic attitude toward technology, then they'll see transhumanists as being on a mission to make the world even stranger, more impersonal, than it already is - with the word "Singularity" obviously referring to complete disconnection and incomprehensibility.

If someone sees computers and virtual reality as an escape from the real world, opposed to sweat under the warm sun and the scent of real flowers, they will think that transhumanists must surely hate the body; that they want to escape the scent of flowers into a grayscale virtual world.

If someone associates technology with Gosh-Wow-Gee-Whiz-So-Cool flying cars and jetpacks, they'll think transhumanists have gone overboard on youthful enthusiasm for toys.

If someone associates the future with scary hyperbole from Wired magazine - humans will merge with their machines and become indistinguishable from them - they'll think that transhumanists yearn for the cold embrace of metal tentacles, that we want to lose our identity and be eaten by the Machine or some other dystopian nightmare of the month.

In all cases they make the same mistake - drawing a one-to-one correspondence between the way in which the behavior strikes them as strange, and a mutant mental essence that exactly fits the behavior.  This is an unnecessarily burdensome explanation for why someone would advocate healing the sick by any means available, including advanced technology.