Friday, June 01, 2012

Transhumanism and Me

Transhumanism doesn't get that much air-play in sceptical circles these days. I suppose it's because the underlying premises haven't shifted much in recent years, and the groups on both sides are waiting to have their hypotheses falsified or supported by evidence.

I thought it might spark a bit of debate to air my own views on it, so here goes.

What Is Transhumanism?

It's complicated, but in a nutshell it's the belief that, as humans, we are, or should be, advancing towards a state where we can no longer be considered human.

It's hardly a new idea - Nietzsche coined the term "superman" to describe someone who was better than human. Eugenics was all the rage in the first half of the 20th century - the notion that we could improve our species through selective breeding. (it wasn't just the Nazis)

Transhumanism isn't so much about improving our species as a whole, as it is about improving ourselves as individuals. It's about overcoming the limits of our human bodies and giving ourselves abilities we would otherwise have lacked.

As you might expect, technology is pivotal to this. And I'm not just talking about cyborgs (although that's certainly part of it) - ordinary medical technology is very much involved.


The premise goes like this: through technology we have already enhanced ourselves to an enormous extent. A normal person today lives twice as long as those just a couple of generations back. That same person can see and hear things their ancestor didn't know existed, can have conversations with other people over vast distances, can access the sum of all human knowledge in seconds, are immune to diseases that once ravaged whole communities, can travel at speeds previously thought impossible, can fly as far as the moon and back. Compared to our great, great grandparents, we are already supermen (and superwomen).

Pictured: us

Given that we've already conquered so many of our limitations, says transhumanism, why should we assume that the rest of our limitations are insurmountable? Why accept any frailty, obstacle or defiency?

Why Indeed

I agree with transhumanism in this respect. I think it's reasonable, and even desirable, to overcome things like the need for sleep, the inability to subsist in a vacuum, reliance on chemical fuel and even death. Yup, death.

Transhumanists put forward a number of ways of overcoming the termination of the physical body. These range from the indefinite extension of the body's life-span through advanced medical technology (essentially making death itself a thing of the past) to downloading our memories and thoughts into new brains (thus making us redundant and duplicable).

Go on. You were thinking it.
I don't think any transhumanists are advocating living forever. I think we all agree that that would probably be pretty boring. Rather the intent is to introduce an element of choice into something that we previously couldn't choose: Instead of nature deciding when we live or die, we get to choose that for ourselves. A hundred years long enough? Cool. Prefer to live for five hundred? A thousand? A million? It's up to you.

I rather fancy the number 5000. That's my goal. That should give me enough time to get through my daily ToDo list and my list of goals on Schemer. More or less.

That's the point behind transhumanism, though. Not so much making everyone better, although that would be nice. It's more about giving people choices about their lives and the ways they choose to live them. Contraceptive pills have given women the option of having babies or not (some even allow women to choose whether they want to menstruate at all). Cosmetic surgery allows people to choose their own appearance. Stimulants and sedatives allow people to choose their own sleep/wake cycles (with varying degrees of success so far, but they're getting better). These and other choices are the ones advocated by transhumanists.

The Heroes of Transhumanism

There are a few notable figures of champion the transhumanist movement. Although I think they have worthwhile things to say, I'd guard against assuming that they speak for all of us. Everybody has some crazy ideas, and these guys are no exception. Names you're likely to come across include Ray Kurtzweil and Aubrey de Grey. Have a listen, but try not to take them too seriously.

Don't take Aubrey too seriously.

Of course there are all kinds of moral, ethical and practical considerations around the notion of transhumanism, all of which are worth discussing at length. I invite you to use the comments section below to get started on it.