What is transhumanism?

by on June 26, 2009 at 7:41 am in Philosophy | Permalink

Kyle Munkittrick writes to me and sets out what it would mean for transhumanism to arrive or succeed:

…Transhumanism is definitely more of a philosophy than
an objective, though it is a political philosophy like feminism or
libertarianism. There are specific goals, like extending life span,
creating true A.I., and animal uplift, and then broad ethical goals,
like ending suffering.

If I had to come up with specific criteria, however, I'd suggest the following three:

1.
Medical modifications that permanently alter or replace a function of
the human body become prolific. LAZIK eye surgery, internal
defibrillators, and prosthetic limbs are all examples. The key
difference is that these modifications would either result in a return
to initial quality (as in LAZIK) or enhance/augment the original
condition. Landmark moment: When a runner with prosthetic cheetah
blades competes in the traditional Olympics and wins a medal.

2. Our social understanding of aging loses the "virtue of
necessity" aspect and society begins to treat aging as a disease.
Concepts like "aging well" and "golden years" would be as
counter-intuitive as describing someone with cancer or MS as "diseasing
well." I have no idea what the consequences would be socially, but you
can bet things like "mid-life crises" and "adult learning" would take
on entirely new meanings or become meaningless. When we have a
generation of people expected to live to 150, that'll be a good sign
this is on the way to happening.

3. The recognition of an individual with citizenship and/or
personhood and the criteria for that recognition would change
dramatically from the status quo. Rights discourse would shift from who
we include (i.e. should homosexual have marriage rights?) to a system
flexible enough to easily bring in sentient non-humans. A good litmus
test for flexibility is: how would we incorporate an intelligent alien
race into our rights/ethics system?

Those are the three landmarks I'd look for when trying to answer
that question…I'm a big fan of MR, so it prides me
to see transhumanism as a topic you've enough interest in to mention.

Advocates, is that a good account?

I'm not a Luddite (at all) but I've never been taken by transhumanism as a systematic philosophy.  I'm more worried that we will fail at "humanism," namely the simple requirement that we treat other people decently.  It's worth asking whether the promotion of transhumanism makes us more or less likely to meet basic canons of decency and consideration.  I would be more likely to favor a transhumanism that made us painfully aware of our personal vulnerability in a way that would expand our circle of benevolence.  I worry that transhumanism can be used to cloak that vulnerability, assert its contingency, and instill a false sense of personal control or denial.

Was Michael Jackson a transhumanist (cut to 3:54)?

David Hecht June 26, 2009 at 7:57 am

As longevity increases, so does the disrespect for the most vulnerable, silent minority–the unborn. Indeed, so does disrespect for all unborn generations to come, and the younger age cohorts alive today.

Who do we suppose will have to foot the bill for all these improvements? Is it the long-lived themselves, or their offspring? When changing hearts becomes as easy as changing contact lenses, where will the replacements come from? Or are we simply assuming away the challenges involved?

We have already seen the sociological implications of longevity in our society: a pervasive aversion to risk, a desire to freeze the status quo in place…as trivial as the ever-present tones in all public and semi-public places of One Hundred Boomer Hits You’ve Heard A Thousand Times Before (imagine a child of the sixties growing up to omnipresent swing and big-band music!). I shudder to think of where we will be on this in twenty, thirty, fifty years.

Living well is not easy. Neither is dying well. Yet, these are the tests of our humanity, not the poltroonish flight from death that seems inherent in the so-called trans-humanist philosophy.

anonymous June 26, 2009 at 9:33 am


I have no idea what the consequences [of longer lifespans] would be socially

Oh but we can have a pretty good idea, I think.

Generation gaps would harden into bitter class warfare. Throughout history, older people who spend a lifetime accumulating wealth and control over resources have had the common courtesy to eventually die and get out of the way. Wealth and power passes on down because you can’t take it with you. Breaking that implicit contract would spell real trouble: terrorist groups consisting of 150 year olds would wage jihad against the hegemonic 170 year olds who had the coincidental good fortune to be in the right place at the right time when aging was “cured”.

Worse, the progress of new ideas (in science and elsewhere) has always depended, to a surprising extent, on proponents of old ideas dying off and being replaced by a newer generation. To a discouraging extent, people rarely change their minds and their habits. Think of all the cranky older folks who refused to use ATMs when they were first invented, insisting on only using human tellers. Now imagine a whole society of cranky people set in their ways.

I would predict that a “Logan’s Run” society that enforces maximum lifespans would be more dynamic and progress faster, comparable to say, 18th-century England and 18th-century China.

steve from virginia June 26, 2009 at 9:42 am

Enough with the (trans)humanism already! Good grief!

There are the 6.7 billion like a swarm of ants and ants are very small. Humans are large and ever-hungry and all want SUV’s and flat screens and will do whatever it takes to man or beast to get them …

… and are stripping the earth. Howzabout that!?

The humans are consuming the human race into short term oblivion and medium term estinction. We are all at the precipice. Interesting times, these. Prosthetics be damned! A hundred million dead here and another two hundred million there. Reading a newspaper here anon will become difficult on account of content. This is the real future.

Time past for the transhumanists to get their heads surgically removed from their asses.

Millian June 26, 2009 at 10:12 am

It is not a philosophy. It doesn’t help us understand who we are today, it makes proposals and recommendations for what should be done by physical and biological scientists in the future, so it’s more like a programme of research. As an example, criteria 1. and 2. are hypotheses about what science will do in the future. It doesn’t contain any explanation as to how the individual should react to the consequent steep inequality, or to the increase in human potential, beyond vague moral recommendations that don’t explain individual duties. The fatal flaw is that it doesn’t explain either how the adoption of transhumanism is necessary for such scientific advances to happen and to be adopted.

It is simply another human response to the inevitability of death.

albatross June 26, 2009 at 10:28 am

always find it strange to see people arguing that it would be evil to cure aging. (Among other things, I wonder what fraction of the people making the arguments are taking a daily statin and baby asprin, but that’s just me being cynical.) Aging kills and cripples a staggering number of people per year, and introduces untold misery into the world. We don’t know how to cure it now, and a great many of the ways we know how to put it off are costly in time and willpower (stop smoking and doing other addictive drugs, lose weight, exercise daily, keep out of the sun, eat healthy foods, etc.). But there’s nothing at all noble about having your body fall apart around you, or having your mind go and ending up shining your vacant, drooling stare at the nearest window in some Godforsaken nursing home.

We’ve gone through this kind of revolution before, over the last 150 or so years–nearly all minimally healthy kids survive to adulthood in rich and middle-income countries now, thanks to decent sanitation, vaccines, and antibiotics. That did, indeed, put a lot of strain on our society, but we seem to have survived it just fine, and the strain was surely worth not having to bury half our kids to retain the old stability. I suspect a similar tradeoff will apply to curing aging, if that somehow happens–there will be social change, sometimes painful, but it will be much more than worth it to avoid having to bury your parents, spouse, and friends.

Sunset Shazz June 26, 2009 at 10:49 am

I think there are a number of neurological issues regarding aging that we understand poorly. I’m thinking of how radically we change as people as we age; this is especially pronounced in those who are excessively talented when they are young. Think of Einstein, Michael Jackson, Eddie Murphy, Paul McCartney. Extraordinary talents at 20, who were greatly diminished by the time they were 50, if not 30.

TimRMortiss June 26, 2009 at 10:52 am

anonymous wrote:

“For instance, the invention of extremely powerful computers a few decades from now will probably enable us to simulate a laboratory rat in software and make animal experimentation unnecessary”

The problem is that, if the simulation is good enough, it would feel as much pain as the original rat. (Well, at least according to the functionalist current in philosophy of the mind. Perhaps PETA should start defending the rights of algorithms!)

By the way, there are people like philosopher John Searle who think that computers could never be conscious, even if they behaved exactly like humans (see “The Chinese Room” on wikipedia). To me, this idea is like a new version of the cartesian belief that animals are mere automatons that can’t feel pain. The only difference is that Chinese Rooms (or their computer analogues) don’t exist… yet.

TimRMortiss June 26, 2009 at 10:58 am

Erick A. wrote:

“The end-state of radical transhumanism seems very fragile to me. I would never “upload” simply because I do not want to “die” if there is a power failure.”

Of course, you should perform periodic backups of your brain, just like you do with your other important data.

Dave June 26, 2009 at 11:14 am

I would echo anonymous above in noting that “humanism” as you are using the term has flourished hand-in-hand with technological progress. I would go farther in noting that much recent progress toward trans-human goals has been specifically around increasing our capabilities for cooperation and benevolence, as opposed to increasing our capabilities for individual action.

Look at it this way. A person with a $1K laptop today effectively is already halfway to being trans-human by the standards of, say, 1950. That’s not because his personal capabilities have increased, but because his interpersonal capabilities have increased, due to Google, Wikipedia, and the thousand-and-one other communication options a laptop provides. We’re not turning into powerful sociopaths. We’re getting more powerful specifically by becoming more social.

(There, got through that without feeding the death-fucker trolls above.)

Robert Scarth June 26, 2009 at 11:29 am

Ed – “there are signs that technological developement has slown down considerably in the last twenty years”

Have you just taken a 20 year holiday in North Korean or something? I’ve not done a proper study or anything, but to me it looks like technological development is accelerating, and has been accelerating over the past 20 years.

Robert Scarth June 26, 2009 at 12:35 pm

KenF – “Technology life in 1999 was an awful lot like it is today.”

WHAT!!!??

Do you *really* think the difference between 2009 and 1999 is noticeably smaller than the difference between 1999 and 1989, or 1989 and 1979, or any other 10 year period?

* Moore’s law continues apace (it might even be accelerating)
* The advances in biotech make Moore’s law look as slow as a three legged donkey
* Virgin Galactic will start flights in a couple of years (I didn’t think anything like this would happen 10 years ago)
* Just look at the technology you own today compared with what you owned 10 years ago: digital cameras, memory sticks, TVs, iPods, mp3 – how much more music do you own today compared with 10 years ago? The same thing – intellectual property permitting – will happen with books over the next 10 years. It’s all just so much better.

Seriously: Which planet do you live on? Cuz it ain’t the one I live on.

Brian 2 June 26, 2009 at 2:02 pm

But there’s nothing at all noble about having your body fall apart around you, or having your mind go and ending up shining your vacant, drooling stare at the nearest window in some Godforsaken nursing home.

Yes, aging is terrible. I suspect many people want to not think about it at all and are hostile to transhumanism because it forces them to confront it. It’s really a no-brainer; we can either continue expensively treating (and ultimately failing to treat) the symptoms of aging, or we can cure it. Productivity would increase and health care costs would decrease tremendously. And in the unlikely event that we have to implement a Logan’s Run system to deal with overpopulation, that would still be a huge improvement over today.

Kyle Munkittrick June 26, 2009 at 3:42 pm

@ Zwingli 2.0

Citizen Cyborg by James Hughes
Liberation Biology by Ronald Bailey
Cyborg Citizen by Chris Hables Gray

KenF June 27, 2009 at 2:04 am

“Do you *really* think the difference between 2009 and 1999 is noticeably smaller than the difference between 1999 and 1989″

I think the widespread use of the Internet and the development of the world-wide web were big things, and that was done by 1999. That change, from 1989 to 1999, is much bigger deal than the incremental steps from 1999 to today.

The internet of today has more video, but otherwise it’s not so much different from the internet of 1999. I had a nice cell phone in 1999, not much different from the one I use now. There are fancier ones now, but it’s no big deal, really. I don’t need a fancy one for email or web surfing, since I work at a computer that is connected to the internet…

MP3 players are a lot better, but that’s mainly because they can store more music, not because there’s anything interesting about them. I do the same thing with my iPod I did with my old Rio (listen to audiobooks). Audible.com has been around since 1997…

I just took my old computer from 1999 and installed Ubuntu on it for my 5 year old. It works fine, as far as I can tell. The difference between it and my current PC is one of degrees.

Edward Burke June 27, 2009 at 10:34 am

An amateur lexicographer, I hereby offer this helpful definition for this discussion of “transhumanism”, viz.:

“Human being: a fruit or vegetable with animal aspirations and a mineral destiny.”

The discussion otherwise calls to mind Vico’s verdict “homo neque nihil neque omnia est” and Swift’s treatment of the Struldbrugs in Voyage III of Gulliver’s Travels. (Those 18th century fellows were such accomplished anthropologists!)

Nathan Cook June 27, 2009 at 3:21 pm

“I don’t need a fancy one for email or web surfing, since I work at a computer that is connected to the internet…”

Yes, of course. Most people don’t need fancy phones at the moment. In 2019, however, I imagine the market penetration will be over 90%, and that we will depend on them to a much greater extent. We will then look back on 2009 and see that acceptable smartphones were available now, but the ones on offer in 1999 would be totally inadequate. We will thus deduce that progress from 2009 to 2019 has slowed severely in comparison to 1999 to 2009.

The analogy to the Internet and the Web is clear, I hope? Some distance is usually necessary to properly evaluate the rate of technological change.

John David Galt June 28, 2009 at 7:42 pm

I disagree with your list of points only because I see transhumanism as a philosophy, not a set of goals per se.

To be a transhuman is to believe that individuals have the right, if they choose and can pay for it themselves, for purposes such as these:

(1) To try to defeat death (thus, most transhumanists sign up for cryonics);

(2) To modify or even replace their own hardware (this is intentionally broad enough to include such things as sex changes (real) and computers wired into the brain (which is believed possible but hasn’t happened yet));

(3) To create and use whatever tech devices they find useful, possibly including artificial intelligences;

and

(4) To innovate new ways of interacting with the world (both new attitudes and new communication protocols).

The transhumanist point of view is all about freeing individuals to express their full potential as intelligent beings. Therefore, transhumanists explicitly reject the notion that “we MUST accept the inherent limitations that constitute being human”, whether the word MUST is meant as a moral imperative or as a physical or political necessity.

Both the major religions, and “humanist” groups such as the American Humanist Association, assert exactly that moral imperative. So we and they are opponents.

Anders Sandberg June 30, 2009 at 2:40 pm

I think I count as a transhumanist advocate (I started the Swedish transhumanist association in 1996). I often complain that the term transhumanism is too loose to be useful, it is better to discuss particular issues like life extension.

As I see it, the core transhumanist ideas relate to questioning the necessity and optimality of the current human condition, as well as suggesting that methods to improve it might be both feasible and desirable. If we were living in a fantasy world transhumanists would no doubt argue in favor of using cutting edge magic to improve life.

I think the best attempt so far at defining transhumanism is Nick Bostrom’s essay “Transhumanist Values”
http://www.transhumanism.org/index.php/WTA/more/transhumanist-values/
He argues that the real core transhumanist value is the desire to explore the posthuman realm, the states of being that are currently unavailable to us. This includes radical life extension, new bodily capacities, enhanced cognition and mood etc. From this a bunch of other values are derived, such as the need for global security, wide access etc (this is the point where the real quibbles and politics begins).

In practice there is plenty of transhumanists who are not terribly interested in becoming radically posthuman – a few extra centuries in comfort with enhanced minds and bodies is all right with them. They want to personally explore the nicer reaches of the human modes of being and maybe some near posthuman modes. But the common theme is that they do not see the current limitations as desirable, and think (with varying levels of confidence and evidence) that there are or will be ways of overcoming them.

As for the problem of humanism, it is pretty well recognized in the transhumanist community. That doesn’t mean it has been much better so far than the non-transhumanists in figuring out how to solve it [*]. Allen Buchanan and others has certainly argued that there are no fundamental reasons why posthumans cannot form cooperative communities with humans, but the real issue is of course what institutions and culture we build around enhancement.

[*] As a footnote, at the bioethics conference I attended today professor Julian Savulescu argued that we might need neurological enhancements to actually achieve the level of cooperation we need to maintain a global civilization with access to dangerous technology. See http://www.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/Pubs/Savulescu/moral_enhancement.pdf – I’m not sure I buy his argument, but it is a fun conversation-starter.

Till July 8, 2009 at 3:00 am

It’s all tomahto tomaito, really. Transhumanism, as I have said (and written) many times, is woolly utopianism in drag. The only thing that really matters, as far as I’m concerned is that I don’t want to die. Never have wanted to and remain insistent on not wanting to.

Maybe in some future, that we may or may not reach (and by ‘we’ I don’t mean ‘some humans’, but I have a strong preference for including myself and those people I care about) we will end up someplace that, seen from today, looks like it was ‘transhuman’. But until then, let’s not waste our time and valuable intellect on inane utopian speculation (which is always safe, because we know diddly-squat about what’s going to happen; and that goes for everybody!) but focus on what matters. In the end that’s just not dying; because if we die we’re screwed. Period.

We can and will continue to define ‘humanity’ by what we are and by what we will be when we have become what we will be. The ‘trans’ is a daft prefix to begin with. If we defined humanity by taking an appropriate sample of the low-lifes and barbarians we share our world with, then just about anybody who isn’t like them might be considered worthy of the prefix ‘trans’. If we consider the best we have to offer, then there’s going to be very little that those, who currently speculate about transhumanity, are going to come up with that merits the appellation.

It’s just wordplay and people wasting time thinking they’re onto social utopian schemes that will make the world ‘better’. Haven’t we seen enough of the dismal results of world-bettering??

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