Saturday, September 10, 2011

Insanely Competitive or Just Enhanced Humanity?

Because of a discussion first initiated by Mike LaBossiere on Talking Philosophy, I now have a case of wine riding on human sanity. The discussion was about what it means to be an athlete. I mentioned the discussion to a friend who is a philosophy professor and happens to run marathons. We talked about Oscar Pistorius, the South African who's legs were amputated for medical reasons when he was only 11 months old. Having cleared some legal hurdles, Pistorius is now set to compete against the world's best non-amputee runners.

My friend is convinced that because of athletes like Pistorius someone somewhere will eventually voluntarily amputate their perfectly healthy lower legs. And according to her, this will happen as soon as Cheetah blades are perfected enough to clearly give you a competitive advantage. As much as I believe that the singularity will probably be achieved through a melding of the mecha and the org, this seems like an act of insanity. It's not that I don't believe people will eventually remove limbs to enhance themselves. Cosmetic surgery has been upgrading (or is it downgrading) wonderfully lush and perfectly healthy body parts for quite some time. But to amputate your legs just so you can win a sports competition still seems quite extreme to me. It would seem to me that such an act would require further daily advantages beyond being a great track and field or endurance runner.

I asked my friend when she thinks this will be. She predicted that it will happen within 10 years. I said I had little doubt that it will eventually happen but that it would be at least 20-30 years before we get that far. My main thought is that it must first be clear that having prosthetics has broader advantages than merely excelling in a sports competition. Or at least that it has no disadvantages for your daily life. My friend, as I understood it, thinks people can be so focused and driven in a narrow domain that the prospect of winning an athletic race is motivation enough to get rid of a healthy limb.

I fear that I'm on the loosing end of this bet. What do you think?


gwern said...

I'd agree with your friend about 40%:

Only need one athlete crazy enough to do it, and the Communist countries showed us that athletes are willing to do this sort of thing for world-class glory. In particular, Pistorius may slip by the rules by being a 'natural' amputee, but you'd better believe that prosthetics will be banned once it's clear they are an advantage! So there's a limited time one can win with prosthetics, and this is an incentive for all considering it to do prosthetics sooner than later.

That said, I agree with your prediction that it won't happen before 2041 about 20% ( because once the rules change, there's little incentive. What do the newly amputated athletes do? They've banned themselves from all the events they care about. So it'll have to be other sports, not completely concerned with running and hence with that much less incentive than actual running events.

Nameless Philosopher Friend said...

There's at least one important conditional here, namely that athletes with prostheses be permitted to compete widely (i.e., with athletes who do not have them). But I also want to dig a little deeper into what is suggested by insanity here. If a casual term for 'what a wild thought,' then maybe there's nothing further to probe, but if it is suggested that people who would consider such prospects would have to lose their powers of reason, then let's talk.

Part of the reason this is so hard to imagine is because the ordinary person thinks, "okay, maybe this makes me a better runner, but there's more to life than that, and besides, I use my legs for all kinds of other things--so, no way!" But consider that a truly great athlete might find the greatest purpose in his or her life in extraordinary athletic achievement. It isn't clear to me that this is trivial, short-sighted, or even unreasonable. It isn't at all attainable by most, and so they rightly conclude there's much more to life than sports.

The desire to "be the best and outdo others" (Homer's Iliad--twice) runs pretty deep in the Western tradition. It isn't just communists who have been willing to organize their lives around it--it was an important part of ancient democratic cultures (indeed, perhaps a reason why they preferred democracy in the first place--a great contest!).

Leg enhancement might be an expression of this ancient desire (which is not to say it is good--perhaps it is barbaric). And it is surely not insane from the standpoint of being unthinkable by the rational mind. We have plenty of examples from great literature to show us otherwise--consider Faust.

But again, none of this is to say that this is a good thing, healthy, or worthwhile. Only that we'd do well to think more about it. After all, Socrates' claim that women should share in the same way of life as men, including, in the case of those who were prepared, ruling, was considered as so ridiculously insane that his interlocutors envisioned waves of uncontrollable laughter or outrage at even the suggestion.

As we continue to conceptualize bodies as more and more machine-like (just look what digital models of mind have done to research) it is not at all inconceivable that reasonable people might well think of their bodies as collections of swappable parts, plug and play.

Ten years? Maybe not, but the increased rapidity of change is also a factor.

Whoever wins, I hope they share the spoils of victory.