Andrew Fiala

Technology and the future of the human race

The world’s religious and philosophical traditions teach that a good life requires lifelong spiritual practice. Daily effort is needed to develop virtue and character. Eat your veggies and get some exercise. Care for the weak. And come to terms with suffering and death.

Some view such old-fashioned wisdom as complacent and defeatist. Rather than embracing perennial wisdom, so-called “transhumanists” want technological shortcuts to longevity, morality and happiness.

Some advocate using drugs to improve cognitive capacity, to create happiness or to facilitate empathy. Others want to edit the human genome to eliminate diseases. Robotic surrogates could care for the sick. Medical technology can extend our lifespans. And consciousness could be downloaded, creating virtual immortality.

This may sound like science fiction, but technology is rapidly advancing. When physicist Michio Kaku spoke at the San Joaquin Valley Town Hall Lecture Series this fall, he sketched a transformed future enhanced by nanotechnology, robotics and computing power.

Audience members asked questions about the moral implications of this brave, new world. But Kaku brushed those concerns aside. Indeed, at one point he claimed that he couldn’t hear those questions due to a problem with the microphone.

And herein lies a problem. Our low-tech gadgets give us headaches. High-tech solutions could have terrifying side-effects. Plastic surgeries go awry. Today’s wonder drug is tomorrow’s health crisis. Genetic engineering could produce monsters. And so on.

Technophiles trust that the engineers will fix emerging problems. For example, if fossil fuels cause climate change, let’s respond with nuclear energy or geo-engineering. A much simpler solution is to consume less and reduce pollution. But restraint and self-control are antiquated values in a world of instant gratification.

Our culture encourages us to seek material solutions for spiritual problems. In a world of hammers, everything looks like a nail. And in a world of computers, we suspect that there must be an app for wisdom, virtue and happiness.

Hammers are useful. So are computers. But the most important human problems require spiritual responses. A pill cannot make you happy. A robot cannot provide love. Suffering and death can be deferred, but they cannot be permanently defeated.

Last week at Fresno State, a bioethicist from Florida, Dr. Melinda Hall, gave a presentation on her new book, “The Bioethics of Enhancement” as part of the Leon S. Peters Ethics Lecture Series. Hall is a critic of the transhuman vision. She warns that emerging biotechnologies devalue the lives of the disabled by treating disability as a problem that needs a technological fix.

Hall suggests that “disability” is often created by disabling social circumstances. For example, short people are disabled in a culture that puts everything on the top shelf. But rather than engineering bodies to make them taller, we could change our social world so that short people are not disadvantaged by their stature. And we could also learn to value short people as much as we value tall people.

Consider what Stephen Hinshaw and Richard Scheffler call “The ADHD Explosion.” According to their recent book with that title, one in nine American kids are diagnosed with ADHD. Seventy percent of those diagnosed are prescribed medication.

Medication can be a game changer for some kids. But we might consider alternative school structures, weaning kids from electronic gadgets, making sure kids get enough sleep and nutritious food, and other low-tech fixes.

The same is true with the obesity epidemic. We can fix obesity with bariatric surgery. But a different focus would change the social world so that we ate better and got more exercise. We might also develop a more welcoming attitude toward obese people.

We are not all the same. Some are fat. Some are thin. Some are short. Others are tall. But all human beings deserve love and a chance for happiness.

Transhumanists have a fairly narrow conception of what makes for a good and happy life. They forget that death, disability and dependence are part of the human condition. Suffering is a part of life. Good people find meaning in caring for others. And no one gets out of this life alive.

We really can do amazing things with technology. But technological fixes often float on the surface. A deeper approach embraces our differences, our dependence and our mortality.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: