The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The man who knows what it is like to be a bat

The Genomics Forum's third Book Festival event was last night, and it was excellent.

Skillfully chaired by SF writer Justina Robson, who has herself given a lot of thought to transhuman themes, this discussion on transhumanism and what human enhancement could do for - or against - human beings ranged widely. Forum Director Professor Steve Yearley opened by pointing out that, even in popular media discussion, transhumanism was a conspicuous exception to the kind of risk-centred approach to almost all other bio-technological developments (a recent example being the ludicrous panic over milk from a cloned cow). Against this he pointed to the worries expressed by Fukuyama in Our Posthuman Future, principally that the acceptance of human universality, of human equality at a very basic level, could be undermined by the emergence of individuals and even 'races' who were demonstrably, inarguably superior to the baseline human.

Professor Kevin Warwick of Reading University took the view that a far more dangerous situation would be brought about by AIs surpassing humans, and that human enhancement was the best way for humans to keep ahead of the game. He extolled the possibilities - adumbrated, he claimed, by his own well-known self-experiments in neural-computer interfacing - of having more senses, broader bands of communication, networked memory and so on.

SF writer Iain M. Banks was in lively form, surprisingly less sanguine than Kevin Warwick about human enhancement, but rather more hopeful about the possibility that AIs would show moral as well as intellectual superiority to ourselves. It was on a re-iteration by Iain of this cheerful prospect, after some discussion from the floor and between the panel members, that Justina brought the conversation to a close.

I have to say that in person Professor Warwick quite belies the carping about his penchant for self-publicity: he came across as a warm and sincere guy and passionate researcher who has done a lot of serious work. Over dinner he amazed some of us with his account of what it was like to experience ultrasound as an immediate and precise awareness of the distance between himself and nearby objects. It wasn't like sight or hearing or any sense with which he was familiar. It was something new in his head. Perhaps he's the only person who has some idea of what it is like to answer Thomas Nagel's famous question: 'What is it like to be a bat?'

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Ken, I'm glad you referred to Nagel's famous paper. It was one of several (by Nagel and others) that determined the direction in which philosophy of mind developed (or most of it). I didn't know that ultrasound was experienced (or whatever).

This might be important for the following reason. One conclusion implicit in Nagel's paper (he does not state it explicitely there, although he does in later work, I am told) is that whatever happens to a bat is so radically different from our sort of experience, that we lack a decent vocabulary to describe it. More simply, we have no idea how to describe a bat's experience (assuming they do have experiences). Now, if a bat's sort of experience can be even imperfectly had by a suitably equipped human, then it is possible that an appropriate language can be devised that describes it. We'd then be one step away from developing a language for the commonalities of bat and human experience. This would undermine Nagel's implicit conclusion and would get us a bit closer to a well-formulated materialism. I'd like that.

PS Well, for philosophical safety and to satisfy my perfectionism, make it "tend to undermine" in my final sentence above.

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