“Humanity looks to me like a magnificent beginning but not the final word.” — Freeman Dyson
Introduction to Transhumanism
A significant fraction of humans live in horrible conditions. Hunger, death, crime, violence, disease, social injustice, and poverty are part of many people’s lives while others spend millions in weapons to kill everyone on the planet. Even the richest of the rich face the risk of thousands of lethal, painful, horrible diseases. If you’re lucky, you are going to die of aging or one of its associated diseases. Perhaps we are not as perfect as we think we are. Perhaps “it’s not really that cool to be human” after all.
In our fast-changing world, I defend we should use technology to improve ourselves. I am a transhumanist. We, transhumanists, advocate the moral right to use technologies, like stem cells, genetics and nanotechnology, to extend our individual capacities, to surpass natural limits and improve ourselves in both physical and psychological areas. In other words, we want to use technology to live longer, healthier lives.
The use of technology for the improvement of the individual is the basic definition of transhumanism. Many technologies are already used to improve our lives, but I guess what distinguishes transhumanists is their progressive, liberal view of advocating the use of emerging technologies to improve themselves; examples include cybernetics and artificial intelligence, space colonization, cryonics and curing aging. Transhumanism is also a rational philosophy. It values scientific facts, reason and logic above spiritual and esoteric principles. It also values humanity as a whole, seeing humankind controlling its own evolution.
Transhumanists think that learning about technologies is better than to forbid them. Once a certain technology is discovered, for good or for evil, it will be part of our future; fire is an example of age-old technology that can be used for good and for evil. But we always stand a better chance of success if we try to increase our knowledge. For example, nuclear weapons will be a part of our future. There is no known way for humankind to eradicate them. So our philosophy is that we should learn how to protect ourselves instead of advocating impossible dreams. If we attempt to ban technologies, they will not disappear; it’s a fallacy to think that if we ban or try to forget about a certain technology it will disappear. “If new technologies are outlawed, then only outlaws will have new technologies.” We can’t erase nuclear weapons from the books; all we can do is adapt. And the best strategy is to be informed to know as much as possible. That’s why the Luddite option — the attempt to eradicate or prohibit the application of existing technologies — is destined to fail. Our best strategy for survival is to learn more, not less.
Transhumanists wish to increase their cognitive capacities and end death and disease. They wish to explore and conquer the universe, discover the secrets of this vast cosmos. Of course that human history has many examples of technological and scientific failures. After Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon, one would expect great achievements to follow; instead, the space program has stagnated. Fusion power is another technology that, so far, has failed to yield the revolution many scientists expected. The failure by Isaac Cline of the US Weather Bureau to see the danger of tropical storms to the city of Galveston, Texas, had more serious consequences when 1900’s storm killed more than 6,000 people. Even Albert Einstein declared in 1932, “There is not the slightest indication that [nuclear energy] will ever be obtainable.” Hence the future is unpredictable; some of the technologies I mention will soon become a reality while others will not; some technologies I don’t mention will change our lives in more profound ways than I ever expected. The future is unpredictable. Still, we advanced more in the past 50 years than in all previous times put together and we can expect a faster progress in the next 50 years.
“We are like people on a raft running through a great rapids or waterfall of history, toward which we have been carried inexorably for a long time. There is inevitability and surprise as new rocks and new chutes appear, but we must look to see which aspects of our future are really inevitable and which aspects, with an adequate lookout ahead, are still subject to human design and control. (…) We cannot turn back, but we can use our new knowledge and powers to steer away from the clear dangers and to guide ourselves in the most promising directions. The convergence of today’s technological forces has produced a roaring waterfall of change. It leads onward to a great sea of new evolutionary possibilities, on the earth or reaching into space. But right now we are in the torrent and our only hope is to work together with energy and intelligence if we are to come through successfully into that boundless ocean.” — John Platt in “The Acceleration of Evolution” (1981)
The increasing rate of scientific discoveries lead us to expect even more breakthroughs in the future. We’ll eventually reach a point where technological advances will make foreseeing the future an impossible task. A time when scientific advances are so staggering and revolutionary that we won’t be able to predict the future. It’s called the Singularity. At the basis of the Singularity is the assumption that computers smarter than men will build even smarter computers leading to an exponential increase in knowledge that our human minds can’t foresee. Here’s how Vernon Vinge described it in his book “True Names and Other Dangers”:
“Here I had tried a straightforward extrapolation of technology, and found myself precipitated over an abyss. It’s a problem we face every time we consider the creation of intelligences greater than our own. When this happens, human history will have reached a kind of singularity – a place where extrapolation breaks down and new models must be applied – and the world will pass beyond our understanding.”
The Post-Human Future
Humans are not a finished product; we are evolving organisms, waiting for the right conditions to blossom. We can and we must evolve beyond natural and biological limits. It is our destiny. Contra naturam, the defiance of nature, has lead us to increase our quality of life and longevity. In fact, nature has committed countless crimes against humanity: plagues and diseases, earthquakes and floods, pests, poisonous plants, and aging; nature created us to suffer and die. In fact, if it wasn’t for Dr. Fleming’s penicillin, I would be naturally dead because I had pneumonia when I was a child. Treating me went against nature and I’m delighted for it.
We have been and will continue to fight nature and adapt it using our technology and intelligence. (By this I don’t mean, say, destroying the rainforest. I generally support conservation efforts and I think we can learn much from other species. Likewise, I think global warming is a major future problem that must be tackled. Global warming is like driving on the wrong side of the road; note sure it will kill you, but it would be wise to stop even if it means arriving late at the destination. So to some degree I am an environmentalist. What I mean by fighting nature is that the human condition should supplant, like it does to some degree already, what nature intended for us humans.) When we win the battle against nature we will not be humans anymore, we will be better than humans. At present, our top priority must be to fight aging and all human diseases, but if we can achieve such lofty goal, we will have a world of opportunities to upgrade ourselves using genetics, cybernetics, and nanotechnology.
“To be what you want to be: isn’t this the essence of being human?” — Anders Sandberg
We will become post-human beings, getting rid of the anthropomorphic values and ideals that limit our imagination. As Henry Thoreau said: “The world is but a canvas to our imaginations.” Transhumanity will be a much more pleasant world to live in. There will be dangers along the way, such as despotism, and I hope we are wise enough not to nuke ourselves before that day comes. In the end, it will be our choice, as I discuss in my Alice’s Dilemma paper. While I’m not always optimistic about humankind, I believe that we have a unique opportunity to evolve beyond our natural limits and become post-human.
It is important to point out that what we transhumanists seek is self-evolution. Unlike theologians and politicians, transhumanists don’t want to impose their will on others. Certainly, many of the technologies we advocate may lead to an enhancement of the human race, but that is not our goal. What we want is to change ourselves without forcing others to do the same.
One should always seek out new frontiers and objectives. In a world where perfection does not exist, she is the only objective. You can never be perfect, but you can always be better. In addition to seeking perfection, we must transcend ourselves. Human evolution is no longer a natural process; we must take our evolution as our task. That is why the “sky is the limit.” Our species can conquer the sky, why content ourselves with the earth?
Sources and Links
A Few Relevant Books
Dumas, Lloyd J.; “Lethal Arrogance: Human Fallibility and Dangerous Technologies” (1999). A contrasting view to transhumanism, defending the Luddites.
Kaku, Michio; “Visions; How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century” (1998). Although a bit superficial, the author offers a very interesting perspective on several subjects. Also check his website.
Kurzweil, Ray; “The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology” (2005).
Vinge, Vernor; “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era” (1993). The classic paper on the singularity. Available online.
AGAINST NATURE; interesting website that reviews nature’s crimes against humankind.
Anders Transhuman Page; great website by transhumanist Anders Sandberg.
Gyre.org; military stuff.
KurzweilAI.net; Ray Kuzweil’s website.
Nick Bostrom’s home page; one of the leading transhumanists.
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