Are some important questions simply un-answerable by humans due to the type of biological beings we are? Philosophers such as Kant thought so. But humanity’s thirst for knowledge makes us unhappy with not knowing. In an age where person-engineering technologies such as Crispr and Neuralink are becoming a reality, enhancing our biology might illuminate the answers to some of life’s deepest questions writes Mark Walker.
Today we are at the cusp of our most profound crisis—what I call the “über crisis”. The antecedents of this crisis can be traced back at least to Heraclitus, one of the early Greek philosophers, who wrote,
“The wisest man will appear an ape in relation to God, both in wisdom and beauty and everything else.”
Heraclitus offers an early formulation of what I call ‘noetic skepticism’. When applied to any species, noetic skepticism says that there are biological limits to its ability to grasp important truths. If Heraclitus is correct, Homo sapiens are permanently cut off from important truths. So, if we want to discover all those important truths, we will have to change our biology. A perilous thought for sure, but history is replete with stories of humans taking great risks for sake of greater knowledge: Pandora’s box, the tree of knowledge, and the travails of Dr. Faust.
Noetic skepticism was a prominent part of philosophical discussion until relatively recently. For example, in the dialectic between Kant and Hegel in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Since then, interest has waned. Perhaps this decline is due to the rise of secular culture. After all, Kant offered God as his primary example of a noetic being: a being who stands to us in intelligence and wisdom as we do to apes. Once we rid ourselves of God, so this line of thought goes, we can reject noetic skepticism. But Noetic skepticism is the worry that the biological limitations of our understanding put important truths out of reach, not the worry that some other being is in possession of such truths. Noetic skepticism applies to chimps; there are important truths a chimp cannot grasp. Whether or not humans exist does not change this fact about chimps’ grasp of the world. The same is true of humans and the existence of God.
Person-engineering technologies will make it possible to accomplish in a matter of years what evolution would take thousands of millennia to achieve.
The über crisis is the question of whether to create noetic beings: we have, or very soon will have, person-engineering technologies that could be used to this end. These technologies will make it possible to accomplish in a matter of years what evolution would take thousands of millennia to achieve. Here are four emerging person-engineering technologies with this potential:
1. Genetic Engineering: We currently have the technology to genetically engineer the homeobox genes of human zygotes to create descendants with much larger brains. This was demonstrated a couple of decades ago with frog zygotes.
2. Advanced Pharmacology: Injecting adults with proteins that restart the rapid neurogenesis of our youth could be used to greatly increase the brain mass of adult humans.
3. Advanced Computing Technology: Computer hardware inexorably becomes more efficient and cheaper. Computers can drive cars and beat us at chess. There is a clear trajectory to a future where computers can outthink us in every domain.
4. Cyborg Technology: Researchers are in the early stages of exploring the possibility of marrying computing hardware with human brains.
Let me add a few qualifications. First, no single application of any of these technologies will lead to the creation of noetic beings. Rather, we should expect a rapid feedback loop. For example, if we genetically engineer descendants who are 10% more intelligent, they will be even better at person-engineering, and so will create descendants who are even smarter, and so on. Modelling with a new generation every 25 years, this would mean a doubling of intelligence in under 200 years. My prediction is that, if genetic engineering is directed to increasing intelligence, the gains would be much larger and the length between ‘generations' much shorter.
Second, my claim is that one of these technologies - or a similar one I am not aware of - will make radical person-engineering possible. Some of the technologies I have mentioned might prove unworkable.
Richard Morgan, Nicky Ashwell and Anders Sandberg ask where technology will lead the human race.
Third, I do not claim that scientists and technologists are purposely working towards creating noetic beings today. If anything, the opposite seems true: we might stumble blindly into a future of radical person-engineering because we are developing dual-use technologies. Genetic engineering techniques are currently used to make crops disease resistant. This technology can be repurposed to experiment in enhancing human intelligence. The techniques used to stimulate neogenesis to create new beta cells for diabetic patients might be applied to neogenesis of neurons. Without a conscious push to create noetic beings, rapidly developing technologies could be easily adapted for person-engineering.
A common reaction to the possibility of creating noetic beings is to dismiss it as fantasy. This rhetorical move is not grounded in good evidence. Nothing in current science, particularly evolutionary biology, suggests that the creation of noetic beings is impossible. Indeed, evolutionary theory suggests that smart money should bet on the possibility of noetic beings. In part, this is an extrapolation from the relatively recent and rapid rise of intelligence on this planet, which suggests that large gains are still possible. Some very small differences in DNA have provided some of the largest leaps in intelligence: the genetic difference between a mouse and a rat is ten times the difference between humans and chimps. Everything points to a continuing trend: small differences in biology make huge differences in intelligence.
This would be a true ‘über transformation’, for there is no parallel in human history for this sort of change. And this is saying something, since the last 10,000 years have witnessed massive transformations of human society from small nomadic hunting and gathering tribes to our global technical civilization. Think of the revolutions in human life wrought by the inventions of agriculture, cities, gunpowder, antibiotics, and computers. The potential radical change of creating noetic beings overshadows all these combined.
The potential radical change of creating noetic beings overshadows all of the revolutions in human life combined.
I have not yet said whether we ought to create noetic beings. But the lure of knowledge is very strong, as evidenced in our constant quest for technology, and, historically, attempts to curb its development have failed miserably.
Bioconservatives, of course, council against any such project. Like all conservatives, they recoil in horror at the prospect of radical, transformative change. However, at the policy level, the Bioconservatives’ position itself requires profound change. Specifically, it necessitates a global ban on person-engineering technologies directed at creating noetic beings. Agreeing and enforcing such an international prohibition would be exceedingly difficult.
Further, the dual-use of technology makes it particularly hard to control. For example, banning CRISPR technology would also ban it as a cure for genetic disease. But if it is permitted for therapeutic uses, it will be exceedingly difficult to stop it being used for enhancement. As well as this, the cost of these technologies is rapidly falling; they will quickly be in reach of large number of people. Today here are many biohackers with small genetic labs in their homes, performing experiments that would have taken the resources of a large university only a few decades ago. Controlling these technologies is going to be very hard.
Transhumanists tend to applaud the possibility of creating noetic beings, at least in principle. But they must face several questions, the most obvious is the fate of humans in a world with noetic beings. Others are who should control person-engineering technology, and how should the potential benefits and harms be distributed.
Bioconservatism and Transhumanism is the split which underlies the über crisis of this century. Both envisioned futures are transformative. One requires a unified global response to control person-engineer technologies and would involve draconian changes in governance. The other is a future in which noetic beings take Homo sapiens’ crown as the smartest beings on the planet. Both are very different from what many people imagine. Indeed, there lies much of the problem of noetic skepticism: we are as incapable of imagining our future as our ape-ancestors were of imagining the world today.