21 July 2018

Transhumanism freed from the fantasies

Filed under: books, H+Pedia, Humanity Plus — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 10:08 pm

Transhumanism attracts a lot of fantasy.

What I mean to say is that articles about transhumanism time and again include fantasies from the minds of the authors of these articles. These authors project all kinds of unwarranted assumptions onto the picture they paint of transhumanism. They don’t describe transhumanism. Instead, they describe their fantasy of what transhumanism is.

For example, I have read authors earnestly asserting that transhumanism is dedicated to improved efficiency. Or to maximising intelligence. Or to rushing to adopt every bit of new technology as quickly as possible. Or to increasing the wealth of the 1%. Or to the pursuit of hedonism. Or to denigrating the human body in favour of pure mind. Or to escaping from politics. Or to imposing a particular political solution on everyone else. Or to worshipping the forthcoming technological singularity as a new religion. Or to championing atheism above all else. And so on.

I don’t want to raise the web-ranking of these rather sad articles by linking to them all. If you really want to track them down, it’s not hard. A couple of H+Pedia pages – Straw transhumanist and Misconceptions about transhumanism – will give you some ideas for search terms to use.

But I will mention one article in particular, which was drawn to my attention a couple of days ago. The article is entitled “The Transhumanism Revolution: Oppression Disguised as Liberation”. Here are some choice quotes from it:

The transhumanist perspective insists that humans have a distinctly separate mind and body…

The… transhumanist project… [aims at the] objective: liberating the human being from the limitations of the body…

In its various forms, transhumanism is an attempt to reify an illusory mind-body dualism…

If we perceive ourselves and others to be disembodied minds piloting meat machines—bodies of mere matter that do not matter—what horror will we be capable of inflicting on the bodies of others? …

Transhumanism is oppression disguised as liberation.

To be clear, transhumanists do talk about liberation from current limitations. But these aren’t specifically “limitations of the body”. They are the limitations of the human nature we have inherited from evolution and which has been moulded by society and by philosophy. They are limitations in our mind as well as our body – limitations in our social structures as well as in our individual selves.

And to be clear again, there are of course some people who identify as transhumanists who yearn to free their consciousness from their biological bodies. Likewise, for various of the straw transhumanist characterisations I listed above, there are indeed some transhumanists who conform to the description.

But to jump to the conclusion that transhumanism itself has these characteristics, would be like noticing some personality features in a person with a given nationality, and deducing that all people with that nationality necessarily possess these same features. Or like concluding that all Christians seek to accelerate a literal Armageddon in the Middle East, just because some Christians seem to have that aspiration. Etc.

Such conclusions are lazy. They are reductionist (confusing an occasional manifestation for the essence of a movement). They can also stir up confusion and enmity, unnecessarily.

We should expect, and demand, better!

A better starting point

For a picture that sets out the landscape of different ideas and positions within the overall transhumanist framework, this diagram from H+Pedia is a useful compendium:

(You can click on the diagram, to reach the version of it that is embedded in H+Pedia. And then you can click on individual terms in that diagram, to jump to the page in H+Pedia that gives more information about a particular term.)

As for what might be called the core of transhumanism, I’d like in the remainder of this blogpost to highlight some key passages from the history of transhumanist thought – passages that deserve to be better known.

Julian Huxley

One of the first writers to have asserted the need for a new philosophy, to be called transhumanism, was the British evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley FRS. Huxley gave a talk “Knowledge, Morality, and Destiny” over two evenings in Washington DC on 19-20 April 1951. A version of the talk was subsequently included in the journal Psychiatry later that year, and is also available in pages 245-278 of the book of Huxley’s essays “New Bottles for New Wine” published in 1957. Here’s the section where Huxley introduces the concept of transhumanism as being a new philosophy:

Never was there a greater need for a large perspective, in which we might discern the outlines of a general and continuing belief beyond the disturbance and chaos of the present…

Every society, in every age, needs some system of beliefs, including a basic attitude to life, an organized set of ideas around which emotion and purpose may gather, and a conception of human destiny. It needs a philosophy and a faith to achieve a guide to orderly living – in other words, a morality…

This brings me… to the emergent idea-system, the new organization of thought, at whose birth we are assisting. It takes account, first and foremost, of the fact that nature is one universal process of evolution, self-developing and self-transforming, and it includes us. Man does not stand over against nature; he is part of it. We men are that part of the process which has become self-conscious, and it is our duty and our destiny to facilitate the process by leading it on to new levels.

Our chief motive, therefore, will derive from the exploration and understanding of human nature and the possibilities of development and fulfilment inherent in it, a study which will of course include the limitations, distortions, and frustrations to be avoided.

Such a philosophy might perhaps best be called Transhumanism. It is based on the idea of humanity attempting to overcome its limitations and arrive at fuller fruition; it is the realization that both individual and social development are processes of self-transformation.

Huxley returned to the same theme in a 1957 essay entitled “Transhumanism” which can be found on pages 13-17 in the same volume of essays “New Bottles for New Wine” mentioned earlier. An extract:

As a result of a thousand million years of evolution, the universe is becoming conscious of itself, able to understand something of its past history and its possible future. This cosmic self-awareness is being realized in one tiny fragment of the universe —in a few of us human beings. Perhaps it has been realized elsewhere too, through the evolution of conscious living creatures on the planets of other stars. But on this our planet, it has never happened before…

Up till now human life has generally been, as Hobbes described it, “nasty, brutish and short”; the great majority of human beings (if they have not already died young) have been afflicted with misery in one form or another—poverty, disease, ill-health, over-work, cruelty, or oppression. They have attempted to lighten their misery by means of their hopes and their ideals. The trouble has been that the hopes have generally been unjustified, the ideals have generally failed to correspond with reality.

The zestful but scientific exploration of possibilities and of the techniques for realizing them will make our hopes rational, and will set our ideals within the framework of reality, by showing how much of them are indeed realizable. Already, we can justifiably hold the belief that these lands of possibility exist, and that the present limitations and miserable frustrations of our existence could be in large measure surmounted. We are already justified in the conviction that human life as we know it in history is a wretched makeshift, rooted in ignorance; and that it could be transcended by a state of existence based on the illumination of knowledge and comprehension, just as our modern control of physical nature based on science transcends the tentative fumblings of our ancestors, that were rooted in superstition and professional secrecy.

To do this, we must study the possibilities of creating a more favourable social environment, as we have already done in large measure with our physical environment…

The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself — not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way, but in its entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.

“I believe in transhumanism”: once there are enough people who can truly say that, the human species will be on the threshold of a new kind of existence, as different from ours as ours is from that of Peking man. It will at last be consciously fulfilling its real destiny.

Max More

Skipping ahead past a number of other influential thinkers, let me pick out some writing of the philosopher Max More – who (with good justification) is often described as the person who gave transhumanism its modern definition. This is from an essay More first published in 1990, “Transhumanism: Towards a Futurist Philosophy”:

Transhumanism is a class of philosophies that seek to guide us towards a posthuman condition. Transhumanism shares many elements of humanism, including a respect for reason and science, a commitment to progress, and a valuing of human (or transhuman) existence in this life rather than in some supernatural “afterlife”. Transhumanism differs from humanism in recognizing and anticipating the radical alterations in the nature and possibilities of our lives resulting from various sciences and technologies such as neuroscience and neuropharmacology, life extension, nanotechnology, artificial ultraintelligence, and space habitation, combined with a rational philosophy and value system.

For a more lyrical description of transhumanism, I like the essay More wrote in 1999, “Letter to Mother Nature”. The letter is well worth quoting in its entirey:

Dear Mother Nature:

Sorry to disturb you, but we humans—your offspring—come to you with some things to say. (Perhaps you could pass this on to Father, since we never seem to see him around.) We want to thank you for the many wonderful qualities you have bestowed on us with your slow but massive, distributed intelligence. You have raised us from simple self-replicating chemicals to trillion-celled mammals. You have given us free rein of the planet. You have given us a life span longer than that of almost any other animal. You have endowed us with a complex brain giving us the capacity for language, reason, foresight, curiosity, and creativity. You have given us the capacity for self-understanding as well as empathy for others.

Mother Nature, truly we are grateful for what you have made us. No doubt you did the best you could. However, with all due respect, we must say that you have in many ways done a poor job with the human constitution. You have made us vulnerable to disease and damage. You compel us to age and die—just as we’re beginning to attain wisdom. You were miserly in the extent to which you gave us awareness of our somatic, cognitive, and emotional processes. You held out on us by giving the sharpest senses to other animals. You made us functional only under narrow environmental conditions. You gave us limited memory, poor impulse control, and tribalistic, xenophobic urges. And, you forgot to give us the operating manual for ourselves!

What you have made us is glorious, yet deeply flawed. You seem to have lost interest in our further evolution some 100,000 years ago. Or perhaps you have been biding your time, waiting for us to take the next step ourselves. Either way, we have reached our childhood’s end.

We have decided that it is time to amend the human constitution.

We do not do this lightly, carelessly, or disrespectfully, but cautiously, intelligently, and in pursuit of excellence. We intend to make you proud of us. Over the coming decades we will pursue a series of changes to our own constitution, initiated with the tools of biotechnology guided by critical and creative thinking. In particular, we declare the following seven amendments to the human constitution.

Amendment No.1: We will no longer tolerate the tyranny of aging and death. Through genetic alterations, cellular manipulations, synthetic organs, and any necessary means, we will endow ourselves with enduring vitality and remove our expiration date. We will each decide for ourselves how long we shall live.

Amendment No.2: We will expand our perceptual range through biotechnological and computational means. We seek to exceed the perceptual abilities of any other creature and to devise novel senses to expand our appreciation and understanding of the world around us.

Amendment No.3: We will improve on our neural organization and capacity, expanding our working memory, and enhancing our intelligence.

Amendment No.4: We will supplement the neocortex with a “metabrain”. This distributed network of sensors, information processors, and intelligence will increase our degree of self-awareness and allow us to modulate our emotions.

Amendment No. 5: We will no longer be slaves to our genes. We will take charge over our genetic programming and achieve mastery over our biological, and neurological processes. We will fix all individual and species defects left over from evolution by natural selection. Not content with that, we will seek complete choice of our bodily form and function, refining and augmenting our physical and intellectual abilities beyond those of any human in history.

Amendment No.6: We will cautiously yet boldly reshape our motivational patterns and emotional responses in ways we, as individuals, deem healthy. We will seek to improve upon typical human emotional excesses, bringing about refined emotions. We will strengthen ourselves so we can let go of unhealthy needs for dogmatic certainty, removing emotional barriers to rational self-correction.

Amendment No.7: We recognize your genius in using carbon-based compounds to develop us. Yet we will not limit our physical, intellectual, or emotional capacities by remaining purely biological organisms. While we pursue mastery of our own biochemistry, we will increasingly integrate our advancing technologies into our selves.

These amendments to our constitution will move us from a human to an transhuman condition as individuals. We believe that individual transhumanizing will also allow us to form relationships, cultures, and polities of unprecedented innovation, richness, freedom, and responsibility.

We reserve the right to make further amendments collectively and individually. Rather than seeking a state of final perfection, we will continue to pursue new forms of excellence according to our own values, and as technology allows.

Your ambitious human offspring.

The Transhumanist Declaration

The nearest thing that the transhumanist community has to a canonical document is the Transhumanist Declaration. This evolved over a number of versions over the period from around 1996 to 2009. Here’s the latest version, taken from the Humanity+ website:

  1. Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by science and technology in the future. We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth.
  2. We believe that humanity’s potential is still mostly unrealized. There are possible scenarios that lead to wonderful and exceedingly worthwhile enhanced human conditions.
  3. We recognize that humanity faces serious risks, especially from the misuse of new technologies. There are possible realistic scenarios that lead to the loss of most, or even all, of what we hold valuable. Some of these scenarios are drastic, others are subtle. Although all progress is change, not all change is progress.
  4. Research effort needs to be invested into understanding these prospects. We need to carefully deliberate how best to reduce risks and expedite beneficial applications. We also need forums where people can constructively discuss what should be done, and a social order where responsible decisions can be implemented.
  5. Reduction of existential risks, and development of means for the preservation of life and health, the alleviation of grave suffering, and the improvement of human foresight and wisdom should be pursued as urgent priorities, and heavily funded.
  6. Policy making ought to be guided by responsible and inclusive moral vision, taking seriously both opportunities and risks, respecting autonomy and individual rights, and showing solidarity with and concern for the interests and dignity of all people around the globe. We must also consider our moral responsibilities towards generations that will exist in the future.
  7. We advocate the well-being of all sentience, including humans, non-human animals, and any future artificial intellects, modified life forms, or other intelligences to which technological and scientific advance may give rise.
  8. We favour allowing individuals wide personal choice over how they enable their lives. This includes use of techniques that may be developed to assist memory, concentration, and mental energy; life extension therapies; reproductive choice technologies; cryonics procedures; and many other possible human modification and enhancement technologies.

Moving forwards

I hope you’ll agree with me that there are no grounds, in any of these foundational documents, for the reductionist distortions of transhumanism that critics from time like to portray and then to rail against.

Indeed, the transhumanist community has authored a wide range of engaging literature on transhumanist themes. If you prefer to do your reading from a book, rather than from an online wiki such as H+Pedia, the best starting point is probably the collection “The Transhumanist Reader: Classical and Contemporary Essays on the Science, Technology, and Philosophy of the Human Future”, edited by Max More and Natasha Vita-More. Enjoy!

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