In rhetoric, there are two forms of debate: dialectic or elenchus, in which one tries to understand and defeat the opponent’s argument for the sake of understanding a question and bettering both debaters, and gross argument, in which one merely argues for the sake of defeating the opponent. Dale Carrico’s fulmination against me operates in the latter camp. His complete disassociation with the contemporary dialogue regarding human enhancement (see The Atlantic, Nature, Cell, Science, and Bioethics) demonstrates his disinterest in learning or understanding more about the state of the debate in general. Furthermore, Carrico’s utter wrongness in his assertions about my beliefs is indicative of his laziness in researching or attempting to understand a specific opponent.
Thus while Dale Carrico has been largely disregarded as a petulant non-entity by those within bioethics and science studies communities, I offer the following refutation of his claims for three reasons.
- His claims about me personally and about the nature of my argument are false.
- The few minor arguments he makes are self-defeating and irrational.
- His rhetoric students deserve an example of what good debate actually looks like.
First, let me address the ad hominems Carrico uses to bolster his argument. As a
professor lecturer of rhetoric at Berkeley (one of my old debate stomping grounds, love me some Top Dog) Carrico is well aware of what he is doing; his insults are both a means to intimidate his opponent and to lower his opponent’s value in the eyes of a neutral observing party. Neither contributes to the quality of the debate or actual arguments. To wit:
- Carrico refers to me as “very young and palpably foolish.” I’m 24 and an NYU graduate student. My professors and colleagues have never found me to be “palpably foolish.” Let my arguments stand on their own ground, regardless of age.
- Carrico refers to me as having a “quotidian kind of intelligence.” How does one even reply to that kind of tripe?
- Carrico uses a general tone of disdain. In the first sentence, Carrico has positioned himself as the adult lecturing the jejune child. After that, Carrico labels me in turns as paranoid, insane, foolish, an “impressionable underexperienced youngster,” silly, a cultist, and batshit crazy.
Second, lets get my politics and allegiances with the IEET and other transhumanists out in the clear. I am a bioethics, gender politics and critical theory student. My primary interests were initially in Grosz, Merleau-Ponty, Darwin, Butler, Rawls, Noszik, Habermas, and Foucault. Since completing my first year of study, I have found the work of Nick Bostrom, Julian Savulescu, Anders Samberg, James Hughes, George Dvorsky, John Harris, Ronald Bailey, Alan Buchanan and Nicholas Agar relevant to my studies.
I am on friendly terms with the IEET and they enjoy publishing my blog posts as they see fit. I find Singulitarians (Robot Cultists, in Carrico’s terms) to have valid points of interest, but I simply do not think they have provided evidence to warrant, at a minimum, theoretical support many of their ideas, including cryogenics, friendly A.I., robotic bodies, uploading, and the associated technologies and events. Furthermore, I find the philosophies and arguments that Singulitarians construct to be underdeveloped, both in terms of rhetorical form and of philosophical foundation. As for the aspects of human enhancement I study: cognitive enhancers exist, assisted reproductive tech and birth control exist, genetic engineering and cloning exist, prosthetics exist, organ transplants exist, transgender, transsex, and intersex individuals exist and it is upon those ideas I focus. Nothing about my studies is fanciful or speculative.
My blog, a fun corollary to my academic work, is written in the entertainment and thought-experiment range of things. I recognize it as such. Lady Gaga comprises a fair bulk of the posts, do you really think I take it that seriously? Carrico’s spittle-flecked rage against Robot Cultists (Prisco, Goertzel, Anissimov I presume?) who drove him from the IEET is misdirected and ultimately wasted on me. If you want an accurate picture of my politics outside of our tiny nerd world, I tend to float among Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan, and Will Wilkinson.
In short: Anywhere Carrico refers to me as a Robot Cultist is false. Any argument built on that premise is false. My writing uses science fiction and futurism to consider ethical possibilities, but in no way presumes or demands a transhumanist future. Carrico likely knows these things to be true, but hides his facile thoughts behind a barrage of churlish bile.
On to Carrico’s argument proper. I quote him at length to give his arguments full context. The remainder of this post is tedious, long, and will likely accomplish nothing. I suggest continued reading only if you have any interest in just how feeble and odious Carrico is as a debater and an intellectual. Here we go:
A very young and palpably foolish transhumanist fellow named Kyle Munkittrick—who very likely will in the fullness of time, poor mite, grow out of his present foolishness in the way that folks his age who are presently earnestly quoting Ayn Rand novels will also mostly grow out of all that embarrassing nonsense as well—has written an essay in which he asks a question superlative futurologists of the transhumanist and techno-immortalist sects often like to ask, namely: Why Do We Accept Aging?
There is a very easy answer to the question “Why do we accept aging?” which relates closely to the answers to such questions as “Why do we accept having lungs?” or “Why do we accept the occasional need to pee?” and that is that sane people tend to accept things that are facts, especially when these facts are not seriously under contest anywhere at any time by anybody at all.
The assertion “Why do we accept aging = Why do we accept having lungs/ the occasional need to pee” fails on multiple levels.
- 1. The conditions of “having lungs” and “the occasional need to pee” are not analogous to aging. Aging is a process of decay and the ultimate result is death. A better version of my question, and I pose it to Carrico, is why do we reject disease, but not aging?
- 1a. Breathing and digestive processes are a result of the system functioning properly, both functions bring in nutrients and excise waste. Aging is the name for the collection of damages to the system that occur over time, in part by the inefficiencies of the aforementioned processes. That’s why people who age have trouble using their lungs and why old men struggle to pee.
- 1b. People ask “why do we age” all the time. Kids ask it when they see a century old turtle or a thousand year-old redwood. Artists ask about aging as an industry standard. See Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and the slightly older Epic of Gilgamesh. I think you’ll find less meditation on breathing and pee, though.
- 2. To assert we should accept something because it is a basic process is irrational on multiple fronts.
- 2a. Despite Carrico’s assertion that supporting anti-aging is insane, I’m sure he has no problem with curing the symptoms of it. Why would we reject the natural results – disease, pain and suffering – put not the natural cause – aging?
- 2b. Natural “basic fact” does not equal moral. There is no inherent value or justice in a natural system.
- 2c. We attempt to liberate ourselves from species-typical conditions like violence, patriarchy, and racism through artifice (i.e. law and philosophy) why wouldn’t we do so with a physical ailment that seems basic to the human condition?
- 3. Carrico gives no reason as to why we should accept any of these conditions, including breathing air and having to pee. His argument is the equivalent of saying, “We don’t question that homosexuals are immoral and that blacks are not human, why would we question that men are superior to women?” As point (1) shows, aging is in fact different from breathing and the need to pee, but Carrico’s argument is frivolous and lazy.
- 3a. To claim “basic fact” is some how unquestionable or to do so is an aberrant behavior is to make a normative value claim on “basic fact” as well as to make the normative claim that aging is, indeed, one of those “basic facts.”
- 3b. Aging is one of the most complex and misunderstood processes within a living body. Respiration and digestion are well understood, whereas we are only now just beginning to understand what aging is and how it occurs. Telomeres, free-radicals, and general cell function have only recently been connected to aging in a meaningful, scientific way.
Carrico then uses his fallacious analogy to attempt to show the absurdity of my original question:
It does not occur to many people to ask the question “Why do we accept the breathing of air?” when the air is all there is to breathe. Nor is there any reason at all that such questions would sensibly occur to many people. This is especially so when we recall that there are far more urgent questions on hand that do need asking, such as, “Why do we accept the pollution of the air so that more or more folks are now suffering from life-threatening and quality-of-life-diminishing respiratory conditions?” when the air is all there is to breathe.
- That a question does not normally occur to people means that asking that question is good and important, not bad and ridiculous. Since when has asking safe, normal, average questions the desired behavior?
- ”There are better things we could be talking about” is a pretty hilarious thing for Carrico to write before going into a ten-paragraph rant, but I digress.
- ”There are better things we could be talking about” is not an argument, it’s a rhetorical device meant to insult the opponent to make the speaker seem better informed and more moral.
- ”There are better things we could be talking about” is a canard. If one were to pick and choose arguments based on their value to be argued, things would never get resolved. “Heath care is more critical, we should debate that!” “No. Foreign policy is more important, we should debate that!” There are enough people for these arguments to go around.
- Environmental policy, world poverty, and capitalism are all issues that are heavily debated by people much better informed and more passionate than I on all sides. The question of aging does not take away from those debates.
Carrico, still trying to convince us that nobody is making these arguments, that anti-aging advocates like myself are yelling into the abyss, continues:
Munkittrick writes that “we tell ourselves curing aging will cause too many problems and that aging has a lot of natural beauty to it and creates a lot of meaning and that all of that is good.” But of course almost nobody in the world is really telling themselves seriously that curing aging will cause too many problems because almost nobody in the world thinks some kind of blanket treatment of all the conditions we associate with the aging process is remotely on offer and so there isn’t really much reason to start rattling off the problems that might eventuate from this non-existing non-proximate aging cure, especially when there are so many actually-existing actually-proximate problems for us to be thinking about instead.
- 1. Notice the sweeping generalizations. Carrico has zero evidence to back up his claims and, by staying general, he can disassociate from any specific counter-examples I give. If I say, “people X, Y, and Z have discussed anti-aging ethics in prominent forums A, B, and C,” Carrico can discredit those as fringe, therefore still “nobody.”
- 1a. This argument form is equivalent to Sarah Palin saying “Nobody in real America wants socialist health care.” To Carrico, I’m not a “real” person, and anyone who disagrees with him will be outside his circumscription of the “real.” Additionally, Carrico misrepresents his opponent’s stance just as Palin does (Obama doesn’t advocate socialist health care, I don’t advocate magic robot bodies), creating a doubly disingenuous framing of my position.
- 1b. I’m not nobody, I think anti-aging might cause problems we need to investigate (as illustrated by the post in question), therefore Carrico’s claim is false.
- 2. For examples of other nobodies talking about the problems caused by anti-aging I suggest you pick up a copy of Our Posthuman Future, The Future of Human Nature, Enough, Liberal Eugenics, Human Enhancement, Beyond Therapy, and From Chance to Choice, or any of the above mentioned academic journals. They’re veritable compendiums of frivolity and nonsense.
- 2a. It is important to note that critics of anti-aging, for example Massimo Pigliucci, most of the Bush Presidential Council on Bioethics, including Leon Kass, Michael J. Sandel, Fukuyama, and others all oppose long-life technology for lots of complex ethical reasons, disprove Carrico’s argument more effectively than proponents. Critics demonstrate that they believe anti-aging is possible despite disapproving of it.
- 2b. Alternatively, journals like Science, Nature, Bioethics and Cell have all published articles and/or editorials explicitly endorsing the real potential for super-longevity, both dealing with the practical hard science issues and the ethical ramifications. I base my rational belief in the possibility of anti-aging science progressing in those arguments.
Carrico then goes on to make the standard “merely talking about anti-aging is bad” argument:
This point [“nobody is talking about anti-aging”] has even greater relevance to the question at hand than you might think, inasmuch as many of those actually-existing actually-proximate problems are real-world healthcare problems, problems of getting more people access to available treatments in a timely cost-effective way, or to discover more effective treatments for neglected diseases in the overexploited regions of the world, or providing more public funding for medical research and development, or transforming the intellectual property regime through which multinational pharmaceutical companies increase their profits by restricting access to treatments, and so on.
Carrico’s claim that my discussion with others about anti-aging and other human enhancement technologies somehow hinders solving “actually-existing, actually proximate…real-world healthcare problems” is false. Discourse is not a zero-sum game. Not to mention the banality of Carrico’s lip-service to those who are “overexploited” (is he ok with those who are just “exploited?”) as if he is some sort of freedom fighter. His very use of the phrase “and so on” after a litany of problems indicates the rehearsed and repeated nature of his point. What pap.
Carrico’s statement that “nobody in the world” is critiquing because no one believes it will happen or cares is not an argument for not discussing it. Dismissing a given intellectual exercise as rare, probably irrelevant, and detached from reality is to dismiss intellectual exercise in general.
Average people might not think about anti-aging all the time, but when it comes up in conversation, people love to talk about it. And most react with skepticism about it being moral or good for society, not its possibility. And as my professor’s thought experiment demonstrates: when confronted with the idea, people start thinking of problems and explaining why it is dangerous, not dismissing it as “batshit crazy.” The human mind is exceedingly good at justifying the status quo, but not closed to the potential power of science.
We move on to Carrico’s one concession:
I actually think it would be a very good idea to take such dislocations seriously, to ensure that medical treatments of some conditions hitherto associated with aging were not rendered moot by subsequent death by starvation or the like—just as I think it is a very good idea to take dislocations introduced by therapeutic interventions like the pill or the overprescription of antibiotics seriously here and now—but I am quite as sure that the clamor for access to such a treatment (I would very likely be among the clamorers) would far exceed any chorus of prohibitionism.
- People do clamor for good solutions, but Carrico mentioned The Pill, and it is worth noting that good ideas that people want can still be painted as immoral and destructive. Ever heard this argument: Want to take the pill to keep from getting pregnant? You must be a slut and cheat on your partner and have diseases. To make sure, you better be married and show you really love one another to take it.
- Also, it’s noteworthy that Carrico has allowed himself to indulge in considering what might happen if anti-aging tech came to be. Just saying.
After this point Carrico’s wild-speculation truly detaches from my arguments. He muses:
I really have to wonder why techno-immortalists so regularly seem to think they would be denied access to the aging cures they pointlessly pine for. This is especially weird inasmuch as so many techno-immortalists are educated privileged white guys in relatively democratic societies who are the least likely people on earth ever to be denied any actually available medical treatments at all.
Perhaps this paranoid delusion of some persecutorial denial to them of techno-immortalization treatments involves the belief that the actual factual non-existence and non-proximity of techno-immortalization therapies itself somehow represents a denial of treatment uniquely made possible by the refusal of the majority of people with whom they share the world to share in their delusive hope that techno-immortalization is actually in the developmental pipeline.
- I never argue that I will be denied access. Nowhere do I claim some illusory evil cabal is preventing my imminent immortality. The only delusion I suffer from is that more than Carrico or myself is going to read this blog post – and maybe not even Carrico.
- Moral progress and intellectual debate are not undermined by my sex, ethnicity, or socio-economic status, be it “privileged” or not. If they are, Carrico – a white, well-educated, male – is as boned as I am.
- My post is an ethical exercise that doesn’t hinge on anti-aging: any problematic but commonly-accepted norm will do. I was examining my professor’s initial point that people reject offers that seem too good to be true, because that’s generally a good rule of thumb. Anti-aging was his example, I was using it to investigate why people might not think about aging though they do spend a lot of time thinking about cancer and heart disease and to think about how built-up value systems can prevent benefits when those benefits are the result of a radical shift.
But Carrico seems intent to drive his argument completely off the rails:
Transhumanists often seem to resent and decry those who refuse to share in their hilarious techno-utopian faith-based wish-fulfillment fantasies, as if one need only find more techno-utopians to clap louder to bring tech-heaven into fruition.
I’m not utopic and I’m not faith-based. My blog and writing are about representations of transhumanism in culture and entertainment. My more academic writing focuses on phenomenological body schemas and rights of those with prosthetics and those who consider themselves transgender, transsexual, or intersex, as well as personal autonomy and reproductive rights. That said, there is considerable overlap between transhumanism and these specific issues, so it is a great test-bed for ethics considerations. I have never stated transhumanism or its associated technologies are inevitable, unquestionably good, that if we can just get X the world would be perfect and happy, or that group A, B, or C is preventing us from a non-existent tech.
At this point in the argument, Carrico starts building a strawman out of me by caricaturing and decontextualizing various phrases and points I made in the post:
Munkittrick also implies that anybody who would claim that “aging has a lot of natural beauty to it and creates a lot of meaning and that all of that is good” is somehow responsible for the non-existence of the aging cure the techno-immortalists seem to believe in utterly in defiance of sense. The first thing to say is that there are plenty of foolish embarrassing Boomers so hysterically hostile to the aging process that they throw billions of dollars into cosmetic surgeries that, as often as not, make people look like livid horror masks, not to mention falling for the siren-song of crap creams and pills and exercise-torture apparatuses and so on in the pursuit of the latest anti-aging “science.” So, it doesn’t seem to me the techno-immortalists are being particularly honest when they paint themselves as a vanishingly small avant-garde minority of folks in brave denial about the inevitability of the aging process. Quite to the contrary, it seems to me that there are all sorts of pampered privileged sad superficial idiots who are very much on board with the whole transhumanist aging-and-death denialist program. Just because futurologists don’t want to think of themselves as boner pill hucksters and personal-motivation seminar carnival barkers doesn’t mean the rest of us don’t know who’s who and what’s what.
- No, my claim was not that those who value aging are responsible or that views opposing anti-aging were in our current context were irrational or wrong.
- My claim was that humanity, as a whole, is incredibly good at making virtue of necessity. Grotesqueries of our existence such as war, stratified society, gender roles, and minority abuses, not to mention aging, are almost always codified in cultural systems with concepts like “honor” “propriety” and “duty.”
- As humanity slowly inches forward, and I do believe we actually make progress, small and painful as it may be, we revise these notions of honor and duty. My claim was that the very way in which our civilization portrays aging would seem to indicate humanity is trying to find value and goodness of some aspect that deeply saddens and concerns us. That we have to justify the suffering attached to aging to ourselves, so we talk about “honoring ones elders” and take pride in those who have aged well.
Straw-man constructed, Carrico simply beats on a thing only tangentially derived from my arguments. Carrico plays the role of the rational martyr, at peace with his humanity, wise beyond his years:
But I do suppose I do have to concede that I am indeed one of those awful people who has been inspired and comforted by what I take to be the beauty of human bodies that no longer pass for teen-aged, that I do indeed think that many people in coming to terms with the vulnerability of their aging bodies have seemed to acquire wisdom they lacked when they were young, dumb, and full of come, as it were, and fancied themselves invulnerable and irresistible…
However, I disagree that it makes any kind of sense for techno-immortalists to pretend that it is somehow because some have been able to find resources for growth and beauty and meaning in the nearly universal journey of living human beings from youth to adulthood to age, that these Robot Cultists don’t have access to the toypile of god-goods they think they want so much.
Further, I really do think it is profoundly disrespectful and frankly deeply disturbingly misanthropic to deny the measure of growth and beauty and meaning that human beings—every single one of whom always has indeed aged and died and is likely always ever after to continue to so age and certainly will die—have indeed found their way to some measure of wisdom and meaning in living their lives on the terms actually on offer on the earth that actually exists.
Humanity, human life and the routes people take through it are sublime. I make no denial that growth and beauty and meaning comes with human beings as they spend more time on this earth and meet and experience new things, or come to more deeply appreciate and understand old aspects of their lives. My denial is that aging is essential to that process of human growth. People grow, learn, and become wise, deep, meaningful, and beautiful in defiance of aging, not because of it.
I accepted I was going to die long ago. I am not a robot cultist. One can consider an idea without believing it: in fact, that is how thinking works.
Carrico almost makes a concession here, but his myopic take on the debate prevents him from doing so:
It is certainly unfair to saddle Munkittrick with the weird ravings of a commenter on his piece—but it seems to me there is a profound continuity in the spirit of the arguments I am seeing from them both.
Thank you for not saddling me with Prisco. I promise, our ideas are only confluent in the broadest interpretation.
Carrico then proceeds to attempt to saddle me with Prisco:
Needless to say, that [Prisco’s] argument [“our justification of aging prevents us from trying to treat it”] is, er, implausible in the extreme. As with Prisco, Munkittrick seems to be lost in a rather fantastic paranoid delusion in which he is being persecuted by those who refuse to indulge the flabbergasting fantasy that “we [will] suddenly discover we can cure aging… [i]ts [cure will be] simple, cheap, universal[ly available], and we [will] manage to quickly adapt society to deal with an undying population… and [a]ll of the impacts described by [current critics of such daydreams simply] don’t exist [by fiat], anti-aging is a glorious and beautiful time [anti-aging is a time? okay, whatever that means] and everyone lives for centuries,” and that we who refuse to pretend that all of these hyperbolically implausible eventualities are possible in any relevant sense of the word are somehow through that refusal making the death-denialist techno-immortalist daydream not come true, we are the ones who are snatching the immortality god-capsule from Kyle Munkittrick’s mouth just by refusing to join in with the Robot Cultists and clap louder and louder about its perfect plausibility, nay, inevitability.
That was not my argument and to read it as such is a display of ignorance at best and disingenuous and malicious intent at worst. Nowhere in my piece, or elsewhere, do I suggest anti-aging is inevitable. The whole point of a thought experiment is to skip certain unavoidable real-life problems – in this case actually creating anti-aging tech, distributing it on a massive scale, allowing society to adjust in terms of space, reproduction, resources, and a million other variables that are worthy of debate – so that one can discuss some other relevant philosophical point. My point was that, even if every criticism of anti-aging were solved for, there would still be tremendous problems and social ramifications with which humanity would have to deal, and that these would largely be of social consciousness.
Just as one can be honorable in war does not make war honorable, so too does the fact that one can age beautifully and happily does not make aging happy and beautiful. My point is that these mentalities of duty and honor tend to reverse themselves, no longer honoring the person being tried but the trial itself, which is precisely what I was investigating.
Here is a line that highlights Carrico’s inability to grasp context:
On a side note, I strongly disapprove Munkittrick’s insinuation that the only people who criticize transhumanists are bioconservatives.
That was not my insinuation. Bioconservatives frame their argument against a given transhumanist technology as “it will probably happen, but here are reasons why it is wrong (usually human nature/ human dignity) and we should prevent it.” Bioconservatives make a certain type of argument, so I used that moniker to denote that specific type of argument. Alternatively, arguments like Carrico’s, that anti-aging medicine will not exist, ever, period, and that people who believe it are insane, naive, and offensive, are not the arguments I was responding to. I am well aware that reasonable people like Jaron Lanier and Nicholas Carr and Bill Joy and a pile of other people are not bioconservatives, but their arguments are not the arguments I was summarizing in that point. Unlike Carrico, I am all-too-aware of how diverse and nuanced the bioethics and technoethics fields are.
After an enormous, unrelated anti-Prisco tirade, Carrico gets back to me:
But to Kyle Munkittrick and to all the other impressionable underexperienced youngsters publishing their earnest embarrassing Robot Cult e-pistles at the IEET website I want to offer a friendly word of advice. Even though you aren’t making a whole lot of sense in these arguments you’re making in this Robot Cult phase of yours, the truth is that almost everybody believes a foolish thing or two when they are young and you do seem to possess at least a quotidian kind of intelligence, and, well, it isn’t too late for you guys. Have a good long look at Giulio Prisco and Natasha Vita More and understand where this futurological foolishness is taking you. You really can still enjoy science fiction and be a healthcare policy geek without being in a Robot Cult.
Advice noted, considered, rejected.
Dale, your argumentative style is shameful for an academic in general and of appalling quality for a lecturer of rhetoric. The actual arguments you make require you to misinterpret me, falsely categorize me, and take me out of context. Over half the post is an excuse for you to excoriate Giulio Prisco, with whom I have almost zero interaction or interest. The remainder is an execrable substitute for debate. I pray you teach the art of rhetoric better than you practice it, for the sake of your students.
Bioethics is controversial.
No one endorses the ideas or concepts explored here, not even me.
You will develop a strong opinion about something you find here. I want to hear it. Philosophy is a conversation.
popbioethics [at] gmail [dot] com
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