Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Nicholas Agar's "Truly Human Enhancement"

Nicholas Agar is a New Zealand philosopher at Victoria University of Wellington working on ethical issues arising out of the application of new technologies - genetic, cybernetic etc - to human beings.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Truly Human Enhancement: A Philosophical Defense of Limits, and reported the following:
Truly Human Enhancement challenges the aspirations of those who seek to use technology to radically enhance human capacities. Page 99 launches readers into the debate about the implications of human intellectual limits for our understanding of the universe. Do the complexities of the universe give us reason to enhance our intellects? It would be a catastrophe for human science if we were smart enough to understand that there could be such a thing as a scientific Theory of Everything, but not quite smart enough to ever work it out.

The eminent biologist J. B. S. Haldane seems to endorse this view. In 1927 he said “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” The mind-bending complexities of quantum physics offer some support for this. We are befuddled by bosons and fermions. Maybe more fundamental levels of explanation pose truly insuperable obstacles to our human intellects. Richard Dawkins gives this thinking an evolutionary twist. At no point in our evolutionary history has an ability to understand bosons made a difference to our survival and reproduction. Using our evolved intellects to understand them is a bit like trying to use our lungs on the moon.

The theoretical physicist David Deutsch disagrees. He presents humans as universal explainers. Deutsch proposes that there’s nothing in the universe out of the reach of humans equipped with universal scientific explanations and hence no need to enhance our cognitive powers.

Chapter five of Truly Human Enhancement suggests that there is something self-defeating about intellectual enhancement as a means to better understand the universe. The very act of enhancing our intellects increases the requirements for a good scientific explanation. Very briefly, our scientific theories idealize – they simplify reality to make it tractable by human minds. More powerful intellects have different requirements for idealization. What they would view as an adequate Theory of Everything is therefore likely to be more complex than a version of the theory accepted by unenhanced human scientists.

Page 100 is great too.
Learn more about Truly Human Enhancement at Nicholas Agar's website and the MIT Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue