Tuesday, January 17, 2006


Donalji said:

I wondered, as an 'armchair philosopher' what you thought about the emerging philosophy of 'transhumanism'.

I don't have any special knowledge of the subject but it would be rude not to at least have a go. Let's start with a definition:

Transhumanism (sometimes abbreviated >H or H+) is an intellectual and cultural movement, or an emergent philosophy, analyzing and supporting morphological freedom and the use of new sciences and technologies to overcome human limitations and improve the human condition.

Transhumanism doesn't seem to be fundamentally new in that it is an offshoot of the tendency to view technological progress as the key to a 'better' society. This prevalent view was particularly widespread in Europe, the USSR and Europe from WWII through to the 60's, but the disillusionment with the utopian promises has been implicated in the rise of such diverse cultural phenomena as the hippy movement, New Age spirituality and the Cyberpunk fiction genre.

What is new is the actual and predicted development of cybernetic technologies and the rapid progress of biological sciences particularly genetic engineering. These developments raise a host of possibilities and challenging philosphical questions with regards to the application of technological progress to humanity itself. Transhumanism is a response to as well as part of the one of the driving forces behind these trends.

Without going into technical matters which I have limited understanding of, the two main areas of development are cybernetic - non-organic modification of biology such as computer modules which plug into the brain - and bio-engineering such as genetic engineering. Nanotechnology probably also has a bearing on this. The overall trend is that the line between biology and technology, human and machine, animate and inanimate, self and other appears to becoming fainter. Of course this raises a number of social and philosophical issues.

What is life?

Most contemporary thinkers and scientists would accept abiogenesis and that the distinctions between life and non-life are organisational and conventional.

What is it to be human?

There are many who object to such research on the basis that it threatens the integrity and dignity of humankind. If the sense of value and meaning comes from a belief that the condition of humanity is special and sacred then such developments can only be a threat. In reality however, humanity already is undergoing (or *is*) a process of evolutionary change.

Should we play God?

This theological question obviously depends on which interpretation we have of God (if any) and it is closely related to the following.

What is nature?

Traditionally the world has been neatly divided into natural and artificial, as if the actions of humans were somehow outside of nature. Transhumanism blurs that conventional boundary until it begins to disappear. The human genome has been influenced by the human mind and culture for millions of years, but direct interference could be seen as an exponential acceleration of evolution - evolution which transcends the biological medium. As such, transhumanism - along with technological progress generally - could be seen as the next phase of the evolutionary unfolding of the universe. Indeed one commentator (source?) has suggested that such developments are the only way that humanity could hope to avoid being out-moded by purely artificial intelligence within a few centuries.

Personal Identity

The sorts of questions that transhumanism raises such as - how much of my brain can be replaced by computers before it stops being 'me'; if I uploaded my brain to a computer would it 'still be me' are answered well by Derek Parfit in his chapter Personal Identity in Reasons and Persons. I think it's telling that Parfit's philosophy does give real (if counter-intuitive) answers to these sorts of problems unlike those who base issues of personal identity solely on 'how we think' presently and conventionally who as far as I can see have no basis for responding. Dualists meanwhile just have problems.

Technological Utopianism

Transhumanism seems to be based on the premise that technological progress is an intrisic good.

I would question to what extent technology makes our lives 'better'. Recent research on happiness that I read about suggests that material wealth and the technological advantages that affords are, in themselves not a key to happiness. The wealthiest nations were outranked by many countries in the third world.

'In a 1985 survey, respondents from the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans and the Maasai of East Africa were almost equally satisfied and ranked relatively high in well-being. The Maasai are a traditional herding people who have no electricity or running water and live in huts made of dung.'

(Incidentally such things as good relationships, family, personal fulfillment etc. all have significant influence on happiness too.)

Even within a single society there seems little increase in happiness on the basis of material wealth. On the other hand, there are more substantial increases in happiness associated with status. This suggests to me that in terms of what makes people happy is relative or competitive advantage. People are happy if they perceive that they are more valued or have some other advantage over their peers.

This being so, transhuman 'improvements' to humanity - even if successful - seem unlikely to make our societies better and associated problems (social and existential) may make them worse. On the other hand there may be advantages to those who can afford such engineering and the temptation to pursue this may ultimately impossible to resist. Technology has a certain evolutionary life of its own - it may be impossible to control these developments just as it is impossible to uninvent nuclear weapons.


A real danger which suggests itself is that because transhuman modification is dependent on technological resources and we live in unequal and largely capitalist societies there would be an unequal distribution of such advantages, which with the potential advantages they seem to offer would seem likely to increase the gap between the privileged and the underprivileged. If these changes are genetic, they are likely to be inheritable, thus accelerating this gap even further perhaps leading to the unsavoury situation where 'natural' humans are a sort of inferior sub-species to the transhumans. Aldous Huxley exlored this theme in 'Brave New World'.

My Prediction

It seems natural to assume a deterministic view that what reason tells us are advantages will dominate through evolutionary forces. However, sometimes we are surprised. Communism, might be described as the largest social engineering project in history, a project based soundly on rational principles. But, by and large, Communism failed - the (apparent) best collective good is not necessarily in the best collective good. Fascist utopian projects also failed, perhaps due to their excessive aggressiveness.

I suspect that part of the reason that social engineering projects fail is that the engineers are trying to engineer agents which may be as intelligent as they are or more so and who may be in competition with them.

The closest thing we have to a transhuman project historically outside of a totalitarian regime is probably Eugenics, but this too was abandoned on the political grounds that it was inherently racist and elitist.

Perhaps through evolutionary forces it is inevitable that there will be movement in the direction of transhumanism. As mankind becomes more technologically powerful it may be increasingly difficult temptation to resist. It may also be the only means by which humanity can escape from the finite resources of a single planet and a single star.

However, evolutionary forces do not necessarily operate in the best interests of the organisms that they operate on. I expect that humanity will (for good reasons) throw up many legal barriers in its path for the sake of social stability, so 'progress' will be slow.

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