Who's afraid of transhumanism? (We all should be)
It is difficult to define, but it’s a growing movement. Transhumanism has its own central organization (Humanity+), its own demographic base (Silicon Valley), even its own political formation (the Longevity Party).
On one level the movement’s goals appear benign. One of its key documents, “Principles of Extropy,” sums up the basic values of transhumanism: “perpetual progress, self-transformation, practical optimism, intelligent technology, open society, self-direction, and rational thinking.” The local Rotary Club would not object.
But the fundamental ambition of transhumanism is more problematic. Its architects champion a use of technology to accelerate the evolution of humanity so radically that at the end of the process humanity as such would disappear. A superior posthuman being would emerge. According to Wikipedia, “Transhumanism is the intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available knowledge to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.” From its inception, the abolition of human death and aging has been one of the goals of transhumanism as it engineers a new being freed from the biological constraints of the current human condition.
From its inception, the abolition of human death and aging has been one of the goals of transhumanism.
Two of the movement’s philosophers, Max More and David Pearce, have developed eloquent apologies for the transhumanist creed. But they also indicate the movement’s more ominous philosophical themes.
The very concept of human nature disappears in much transhumanist literature. The human body is dismissed as something of secondary, accidental importance. Mr. More argues that “the self has to be instantiated in some physical medium but not necessarily one that is biologically human—or biological at all.” Once again in the history of philosophy, the body has become a mere container for the human mind. The body is perceived as an impediment to the mind’s development rather than humanity’s natural site for thought. Tellingly, in this new version of anthropological dualism, the soul has disappeared; it is the sovereign self, a liberated will yearning for omniscience and omnipotence, that remains. Unsurprisingly, Ayn Rand is one of the movement’s favorite novelists.
Little of Renaissance humanism remains in a movement that glorifies the posthuman being to come.
Not only is humanity freed from its biological finitude in the transhumanist dream; it no longer enjoys any unique status as a subject of rights. Max More claims that “creatures with similar levels of sapience, sentience, and personhood are accorded similar status no matter whether they are humans, animals, cyborgs, machine intelligences, or aliens.” The religious claim that human beings are made in God’s image and the political claim that humans deserve respect because of their transcendental status crumble. Little of Renaissance humanism remains in a movement that glorifies the posthuman being to come and considers current humanity a fleeting phenomenon with no particular, intrinsic dignity.
The moral philosophy of the transhumanist movement is broadly utilitarian. One cannot judge the morality of a particular act in isolation; its goodness depends on whether it contributes to the global pleasure of a future humanity and ultimately a posthumanity.
David Pearce has developed an influential version of this transhumanist utilitarianism in his book The Hedonistic Imperative. For Mr. Pearce, the greatest ethical task of humanity is to eliminate all suffering in the world. Just as medical science has eliminated physical suffering through anesthetics, we should now use technology to conquer all psychic suffering. Mr. Pearce endorses a vigorous use of genetic engineering and pharmacology to achieve this goal of an anguish-free humanity and posthumanity. He even supports the use of such technology to abolish pain in wild animals.
Mr. Pearce’s ethics represent the perfectionist side of the transhumanist project. He describes the mission to eliminate suffering as “paradise engineering” and “the naturalization of Heaven.” The state of a properly engineered posthumanity in the future is nothing less than paradisal: “Our descendants may live in a civilization of serenely motivated high achievers, animated by gradients of bliss.”
It is a strange utopia. Our current opioid epidemic is a cautionary tale against the dream of a sedated humanity. We are still reeling from the totalitarian dream where millions perished in the name of a radiant future that required some lethal cutting of ethical corners in the meantime. The enthusiastic transhumanist revival of eugenics is a cause for alarm. Is there any place for people with disabilities in this utopia? Why would we want to abolish aging and dying, essential constituents of the human drama, the fountainhead of our art and literature? Can there be love and creativity without anguish? Who will flourish and who will be eliminated in this construction of the posthuman? Does nature itself have no intrinsic worth? Finally, isn’t the transhumanist dream of liberating humanity from its biological and psychic creaturehood simply a high-tech surrender to an ancient temptation, “Ye shall be as gods?”
Who’s afraid of transhumanism? I am. We all should be.