Engaging Transhumanism: The Meaning of Being Human

In 2006, ASU received a generous grant from Metanexus Institute to examine the challenges of transhumanism. The term ‘transhumanism’ was coined by Julian Huxley (d. 1975), the grandson of the Victorian Darwinian, Thomas Henry Huxley. In New Bottles for New Wine, Julian Huxley, a humanist and evolutionary biologist, advocated the “Fulfillment Society,” which will be committed to the full development of the human potential and will replace the Welfare Society, the Efficient Society, or the Power Society.1 For Huxley, ‘transhumanism’ was another word to discuss his belief in “evolutionary humanism,” namely, the deliberate effort by mankind to “transcend itself – not just sporadically … but in its entirety, as humanity…. Man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.”2 Similar to the Human Potential Movement, Huxley believed that “the human species will be on the threshold of a new kind of existence, as different from ours as ours is from that of Pekin man. It will at last be consciously fulfilling its real destiny.”3 In the last two decades this vision has become more plausible as a result of the confluence of new discoveries in the life sciences and the neurosciences and new technological developments in genomics, robotics, informatics and nanotechnology. Today the term ‘transhumanism’ denotes a cluster of futuristic scenarios in which science and technology will remediate the miseries of the human condition and usher in a new age in the evolution of humans, the posthuman age.

For transhumanists (i.e., those who advocate the transitional steps humans need to take to reach the posthuman age), the human species is no more than a “work in progress:” Currently the human species is in a comparatively early phase of human evolution because humans are still enslaved to their genetic programming that destines them to experience pain, disease, stupidity, aging, and death. Bioengineering and genetic enhancement will bring about the posthuman age in which humans will live longer, will possess new physical and cognitive abilities, and will be liberated from suffering and pain due to aging and disease; moreover, humans will even conquer the ultimate enemy—death—by attaining “cognitive immortality,” that is, the downloading of the human software (i.e., the mind) into artificially intelligent machines that will continue to exist long after the individual human has perished.

The human/computer interface will be characteristic of the posthuman age in the following ways: large computer networks may emerge as superhumanly intelligent entities; computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent; and biological science will improve natural human intellect. This future state of affairs will be so unique that advocates call it “the singularity,” namely, “a point where our old models must be discarded and a new reality rules, a point that will loom vaster and vaster over human affairs until the notion becomes a commonplace.” Whether transhumanists focus on human enhancement by design, or radical life extension, or on computer/human interface, the posthuman age is envisioned as the transcendence of current human biological limitations. In the posthuman future, humans will not be the product of evolution but the designers and controllers of the evolutionary process itself.

Transhumanist ideas are gradually gaining adherents worldwide in print and especially on the internet. The World Transhumanist Association was founded in 1998 and today boasts several thousand members, although they are not in agreement about the meaning of transhumanism or its political goals. Like all new social and ideological movements, this organization is not free from internal debates, personal politics, and a sense of being embattled by external foes. Francis Fukuyama, for example, called transhumanism “the world’s most dangerous idea,”5 and in response transhumanists have cultivated an acerbic, polemical style that ridicules their critics, dismissing them as “bio-Luddites” or “bio-Conservatives” and brushing them off with clever, but not very substantive, arguments.6 Although the pugnacious, irreverent style that characterizes the transhumanist discourse does not make engagement with these ideas easy, such engagement is necessary. It is my contention that even though transhumanism is not a significant social movement, the cultural forces that gave rise to the transhumanist vision are very significant and merit close examination.

Transhumanism proposes a vision of and for humanity. Although that future is futuristic, it is rooted in the Enlightenment project and its faith in the progress of humanity due to science and technology. The “transhumanist manifesto” of Simon Young presents transhumanism as a philosophy, positioning it as an alternative to academic postmodernism, religious theism, and radical environmentalism. Against postmodernists of the academic Left, transhumanism denies cognitive skepticism, social constructivism, and cultural relativism. Objective reality does exist and is independent of human perception, cognition, and apprehension; science generates knowledge about objective reality, namely, accurate and true description of reality outside the human mind that provides humans with specific courses of actions, including those that change objective reality. The facts about the human condition are real and painful but need not be definitive. Biology is not destiny because the evolutionary process has given rise to the complex human brain that now enables humans to intervene in the evolutionary process and replace it with “designer evolution.” Young argues that human consciousness is an “inevitable product of the evolutionary process” and the predictable outcome of “evolutionary complexification.”7 Therefore, human beings not only can intervene and alter the biological facts through designer genes, designer drugs, and a whole range of enhancement technologies, humans should do so in order to improve the human species.

The transhumanist scenario is decidedly optimistic as much as it is decidedly secular. In the transhumanist worldview there is no room for the God of traditional theism who created the world by will and intervenes in human affairs either through the revelation of the law or incarnation in the body of a human. A personal omniscient and omnipotent God is deemed intellectually unacceptable to transhumanists as much as it was for the Deists of the 18th century, and a creator God who intervenes in human affairs, reveals a law and instruction for behavior, or judges and rewards human deeds is deemed simply nonsensical since evolution has nothing to do with such a deity. For Young, evolution is the scientific truth, but it should be rendered as a selfish process ‡ la the “selfish gene” myth of Richard Dawkins, because evolution also has given rise to altruistic behavior and human ability to love. As an extension of humanism, transhumanism asserts the love of life, especially human life, and the desire to improve it through science and technology rather than religious instruction and moral edification.

Placing the unlimited human potential (rather than the human as a currently lived experience) at the center of its outlook, transhumanism is also critical of contemporary environmentalism and its concern for respect toward other species and its resistance to massive human intervention in nature, through bioengineering of plants, heavy logging, industrial pollution, unrestricted consumerism, and many other undesirable activities. Dismissing any attempt to draw ethical conclusions from natural facts, as “the Naturalistic Fallacy,” transhumanism does not take anything in nature to be sacred or especially worthy of preservation or conservation. To the extent that biology places restrictions on human freedom and the human built-in will to evolve, these obstacles should and must be removed. Only humans could transcend their biology because of the complexity of the human brain which has reached a level of complexity to a degree unknown in other animals. From a transhumanist perspective, radical environmentalism is misguided because it erases the moral differences between humans and other animals and because it invests nature with inherent moral values. The evolutionary process is not directionless but purposeful, life is not an accident but an evolutionary inevitability, and humanity is “not a twig on the bush of life, but the peak of evolutionary complexification on earth due to the incredible power of the human brain.”8 Actualizing this remarkable potential through science and technology will enhance human freedom and release humanity from the bondage of biology.

Given the transhumanist assault on the notion of human nature, the faculty seminar at ASU devoted the first year of the Templeton Research Lectures to examining transhumanism in light of the science of evolutionary psychology. Contrary to transhumanists, who consider human nature malleable, evolutionary psychologists hold that human nature is largely fixed because it is a product of a long evolutionary process. The Templeton Co-Fellows, Leda Cosmides (UC-Santa Barbara) and John Tooby (UC-Santa Barbara), seriously challenged transhumanism by arguing that human behavioral traits reflect the architecture of the human mind, which is designed to perform very specific functions. Evolutionary psychology makes a strong case that human nature is not malleable as transhumanists claim and warns us against facile optimism or the temptation to tinker with the human mind. Throughout the deliberations of the first year, the consensus emerged that we should direct our attention to transhumanism as a social movement, to the forces that gave rise to it and to the philosophical, cultural, and social implications of the transhumanist vision.

The second year of the Templeton Research Lectures focused on cultural implications of current accelerated technologies and viewed them historically, socially, and politically. The public lectures of the Temple Co-Fellows, Braden Allenby (ASU) and Daniel Sarewitz (ASU) highlighted the novelty of the Age of the Anthropocene (Age of the Human) in which the human has become a design space and explored the meaning of the transhumanist notion of designing “better” human beings. What does it mean to be an enhanced individual or an enhanced society? These are social, political, and cultural questions which scientists are not addressing, while the application of enhancement technoligies takes place in the military.

This special issue of the Global Spiral consists of five presentations delivered at a workshop at ASU on April 24-25, 2008. In this workshop, transhumanism was engaged by a philosopher of science and technology trained in the phenomenological tradition (Don Ihde); a sociologist, cognitive scientist, and cultural critic (Jean-Pierre Dupuy); a literary critic (Katherine Hayles); a philosopher and sociologist of science (Andrew Pickering); and a Christian theologian (Ted Peters). Engaging transhumanism from different perspectives, some more critically than others, the contributors agree that transhumanism merits a serious examination rather than cursory dismissal. To properly assess transhumanism, it must be situated historically and culturally and interrogated philosophically and theologically. Transhumanism will not go away but in all likelihood will continue to attract new adherents. Hence, it is incumbent on those who care about the place of science and technology in contemporary culture to examine transhumanism without adopting the polemical style of the transhumanist movement because what is at stake is the very meaning of human life in the foreseeable future.

The special issue of the Global Spiral opens with Don Ihde’s essay. Ihde argues that to understand transhumanism correctly we need to examine it as a kind of fantasy, and even a “kind of magic to fulfill the desire-fantasy,” and remember that the particular form of any fantasy is always shaped by “textual patters of historical lifeworlds.” Technofantasy is magical thinking that “disregards the ambiguous, non-neutral character of actual technologies.” Ihde examines four influential narratives, as examples of “idols” that humans have created: “Intelligent Design,” “The Cyborg,” “Prediction,” and “John Henry and Big Blue.” His analysis of these narratives concluded that we do not need to fear the fantasized replacement of humans by machines. Rather, we need to understand how “the changing technologies with which we interact, form collectives, experience the dances of agencies, do forecast vastly changed conditions of work and play and even love.” In this analysis, what matters is not the conflict between machines and humans but the myriads ways in which the actual presence of technology will transform human life and the meaning of being human.

The following essay by Jean Pierre Dupuy, “Cybernetics is an Antihumanism: Advanced Technologies and the Rebellion against the Human Condition,” offers a much more critical perspective of contemporary technology, especially cybernetics. Dupuy argues that “cybernetics, far from being the apotheosis of Cartesian humanism, as Heidegger supposed, actually represented a crucial moment in its demystification, and indeed its deconstruction.” In fact, “cybernetics constitutes a decisive step in the rise of antihumanism.” Contrary to the Anglo-Speaking world, Continental political philosophy has yet to acknowledge the notion of posthumanism, and instead has debated at length the notion of antihumanism. Dupuy explores possible connections between “posthumanism” and “antihumanism” in order to bridge the gap between Continental and Anglo-American philosophy. Dupuy joins other philosophers who are committed to “defend humanism (i.e., the values proper to the human person) from the excesses of science and technology.” Dupuy begins his analysis with a critique of Heidegger who indicted humanism and suggests that in countries such as France, where Heideggerian thought has been influential, “it became impossible to defend human values against the claims of science.” In fact, the human sciences for the past four decades have actually celebrated “the death of man” (namely metaphysical humanism, characteristic of pre-Heideggerian thought). In France, Structuralists not only followed Sartre in identifying “the inhuman” with “the mechanical,” but actually championed the inhuman in their search for subject-less cognition. Cognition without a subject was precisely what cybernetics was all about since its inception in the 1940s. The key question is: “Was cybernetics the height of metaphysical humanism, as Heidegger maintained, or was it the height of its deconstruction, as certain of Heidegger’s followers believe?” Dupuy answers that “cybernetics was both things at once and that is what made it not only the root of cognitive science, which finds itself faced with the same paradox, but also a turning point in the history of human conceptions of humanity.”

In the second part of his paper, Dupuy discusses the connection between the mechanization of the mind and the mechanization of life, and noted that the paradox of cybernetics continues today in the paradox that plagues cognitive science: “the mind has been raised up as a demigod in relation to itself.” The third part of the paper considers nanotehcnology and its dream of designing the human by tinkering with biological evolution. Reiterating Hannah Arendt’s prescient critique of modern science, as a revolt against the mortality of the human condition, Dupuy suggests that at the heart of the nanotechnological dream there is an extraordinary paradox that arises from “the convergence of opposites whereby the overwhelming ambition and pride of a certain scientific humanism leads directly to the obsolescence of mankind.” Dupuy offers a rather pessimistic analysis of converging technologies and their challenges to the core of being human, namely, the ability to love.

The third paper in this issue is by Katherine Hayles, a literary and media critic who has written extensively on transhumanism as expressed in cyberspace and in science fiction.9 Hayles notes the growth of transhumanism since she wrote the book, How We Became Posthuman, in 1999 and pointed out that all the forms of transhumanism “perform decontextualizing moves that over-simplify the situation and carry into the new millennium some of the most questionable aspects of capitalist ideology.” The basic assumption of transhumanism is that “technology is involved in a spiraling dynamic of co-evolution with human development,” an assumption known as “technogenesis.” According to Hayles, this assumption is “compelling and indeed virtually irrefutable, applying not only to contemporary humans but to Homo sapiens across the eons, shaping the species biologically, psychologically, socially and economically.” While Hayles finds herself in disagreement with transhumanist rhetoric, she also stated that the transhumanist community makes a positive contribution because it tries “to figure out where technogenesis is headed in the contemporary era and what it implies about our human future.” Thus transhumanism confronts valuable questions, even though one does not have to accept all the implications of transhumanism claims.

As a literary scholar, Hayles poses science fiction and speculative fiction as the locus classicus for reframing transhumanist questions. She observes that reproduction is a center of transhumanist concerns (e.g., “reproduction of individuals through children, reproduction of species through technology as well as biology, and reproduction of psychological, philosophical, social and economic institutions that facilitate and/or threaten the continued existence of humans as a species”). Whereas reproduction implies continuity, transhumanists (beginning with Vernon Vinge and even more so Ray Kurzweil) are obsessed with “singularity,” a radical form of discontinuity. After summarizing the utopian rhetoric of transhumanists such as Max More and Nick Bostrom, Hayles claimed that “reproduction typically figures in transhumanist rhetoric as the reproduction of the individual through cloning, cryogenic suspension, radical life extension, and uploading human consciousness into a computer,” all of which assume that “the individual will maintain his identity intact.” She examines various fantastic scenarios in the novels of Greg Bear, Nancy Kress, James Patrick Kelly, and Philip K. Dick, among others, and concluded that science fiction writers enact a critique of transhumanism, even though they do not go as far as Fukuyama to view transhumanism as “the world’s most dangerous idea.” Rather, science fiction writers appreciate the complexity of the future “when advanced technologies come together with reproduction to reconfigure metalogical dynamics at every level, from the individual to the family to the nation-state and globalized society” and unlike the rhetoric of transhumanism, they know that it is impossible to predict accurately all the consequences of these developments using reason, technology and science.

Although transhumanism is a transnational movement, it has particular roots in England. Andrew Pickering’s paper, “Brains, Selves and Spirituality in the History of Cybernetics” is based on his new research on the history of cybernetics in England that focuses on Ross Ashby, Gordon Pask, Grey Walters, Stafford Beer, and others. Cybernetics is most relevant to reflections about the meaning of being human because “it stages a non-dualist vision of brains, selves and the world.” Pickering considers that vision to be not only a definitive refutation of any discussion of human exceptionalism, but also a critique of the continued tendency to assume some immaterial factor that distinguishes humans from animals and from brute matter (language, reason, emotions, culture, the social, information, etc.). In regard to the human brain, cybernetics has challenged human exceptionalism and has shown that the brain is “just another organ of the body, an organ that happens to be especially engaged with bodily performance in the world.” Unlike Foucault’s “technologies of self” that produced a distinctly human self-controlled self, the work of British cybernetics in the mid 1940s actually problematized the notion that the brain is an organ of representation and offered instead “a technology for losing control and going to unintended places of experiment in a performative sense.” These experiments offered not only ideas about the brain and the self but “different ways to live.” Madness was another direction in which cyberneticians experimented with altered states the performative brain could get into when elicited by specific technologies of the self. Pickering finds “the links from the non-Cartesian performative and adaptive brain to these strange forms of life fascinating.”

Another very suggestive trajectory is offered by Eastern spirituality. The Buddhist analysis of the self offers an alternative to the centered and unchangeable soul. Some of the cyberneticians already in the 1930s recognized that the brain is the organ of a strange sense, capable of accessing some other, non-human and intrinsically spiritual realm, i.e., a universal mind. In contrast to these notions, the conception of the self and spirit in the modern Christian West seems to Pickering as “straitened and impoverished.” The final notion Pickering finds in cybernetics is summarized in the term ‘hylozoism’ namely “a kind of spiritually charged wonder at the performativity and agency of matter.” The cyberneticians Stafford Beer and Gordon Pask in the 1950s and 1960s “embarked on a long search through the space of adaptive systems running from pond ecosystems to electrochemically deposited metal threads as some sort of substitute for human factor managers.” Their work failed to produce the intended result but had enormous impact on music and art during the 1970s. Pickering concluded that in comparison to the cyberneticians of previous decades, transhumanism seems to exhibit a lack of creative imagination.

This issue of the Global Spiral concludes with the paper of Ted Peters, “Transhumanism and the Posthuman Future: Will Technological Progress Get us There?” that examines the transhumanist assumption that “progress, understood as betterment over time, is inherent in nature and inherent in culture.” Offering a Christian (especially Lutheran) perspective, Peters argued that transhumanism offers a futurist thinking that relies on growth or progress, as opposed to Christian futurist thinking that “anticipates the advent of the new.” Peters’ thesis is “that transhumanist assumptions regarding progress are naÔve, because they fail to operate with an anthropology that is realistic regarding the human proclivity to turn good into evil. He called on researchers in genetics and nanotechnology to proceed “toward developing new and enhancing technologies” while maintaining “constant watchfulness for ways in which these technologies can become perverted and bent toward destructive purposes.”

Contrary to the prevailing assumption that biblical theology offers resistance to change, Peters demonstrates that the Bible anticipates the new, looks forward to transformation, and celebrates innovation. His theological critique of transhumanism is centered on the claim that it is naÔve to think that “we could accomplish with technology a transformation that can be achieved only by the eschatological act of a gracious and loving God.” For Peters, transhumanism is more than a social movement or an ideology. Rather it is a philosophical system, a worldview that operates on three levels: metaphysical, psychological, and ethical. Echoing Simon Young, the author of the book mentioned above who is also a son of a known cybernetician in England, Peters states the goal of transhumanist philosophy as replacing “the Darwinian Evolution with Designer Evolution—from slavery to the selfish genes to conscious self-rule by the human mind.” In this Promethean project, the future will differ from the past and the Homo sapiens will be replaced by Homo cyberneticus: “as humanism freed us from the chains of superstition, let transhumanism free us from our biological chains,” chimes Simon Young. In this scenario, the immortalized species will set out for the stars. Conscious life will gradually spread throughout the galaxy “until finally, in the unimaginatively distant future, the whole universe has come alive, awakened to its own nature—a cosmic mind become conscious of itself as a living entity—omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent.”

Peters discusses Ray Kurzweil’s futurist understanding of “singularity”, showing it to conflate biological evolution and technological progress, seeing the latter as an extension of the former. Assuming a built-in entelechy, Kurzweil presents his vision as inevitable. Technological utopia envisioned by humanism is also supposed to free us from the ecological challenges ahead and to deliver social progress and ecological harmony, and Aubrey de Grey’s program of radical life extension is the extension of the transhumanist battle against biology to death itself.10 Peters examines the ethical dimension of the transhumanist vision and poses the question “should a transhumanist ethic place us totally at the beck and call of every proposal for technological progress?” The existence of computer viruses show how naÔve and overly optimistic the transhumanist vision truly is, and the same can be said for transhumanist trust in the free market as a protection from evil. Looking at transhumanism from a critical, religious perspective, Peters (similar to the observations of Dupuy) noted that its vision is based on a paradox: “On the one hand, transhumanists propose a technology that will enhance our humanism, at least the intelligent aspect of humanity. On the other hand, once technology takes over and replicates itself, it will leave our present stage of humanity in the evolutionary dust. An emerging posthumanity will replace us.” Peters concludes his paper with an extended critique of transhumanism inspired by the Lutheran theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and his disciple, Langdon Gilkey, highlighting the human propensity to sin and the inherent limitations of being human. It is not technology that can save humans from their limitations, but only divine grace.

The essays presented in this special issue should inspire rigorous engagement with transhumanism, precisely because it offers a negative view of human embodied biological existence and an optimistic fantasy that these limitations could be overcome through technology. If one accepts that transhumanism is more than an ideology, indeed a philosophy, one must look carefully at its understanding of the human, of biology, and of the relationship between technology and culture. Is transhumanism an extension of Enlightenment humanism or a negation of it? Is transhumanism an ideology, a philosophy, or even a religion (albeit loosely defined)? Is transhumanism’s vision for the transcendence of biology a celebration of humanity or denigration of it? Is transhumanism a response to postmodernism or a product thereof? To engage transhumanism is to reflect on the meaning of being human in light of accelerated technologies and scientific advances. With its generous grant to ASU, Metanexus Institute has facilitated such examination and with the publication of this special issue of the Global Spiral, the online publication of Metanexus, further discussion of who we are and how we want to live will become possible.

Endnotes

1 Juliann Huxley, New Bottles for New Wine (London: Chatto & Windus, 1957), 13-17.

2 Ibid, 17.

3 Ibid.

4 Vernon Vinge, “Technological Singularity,” available on http://www-rohan.sdsy.edu/faculty/vinge/misc/WER2.html. Cf., Ray Kurzweil, The Singluarity is Near (When Humans Tarnscend Biology (London: Viking, 2005).

5 Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotehcnological Revolution (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2002).

6 Best examples of transhumanist polemics are James Hughes, Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future (Boston: Westview Press, 2004) and Simon Young, Designer Evolution: A Transhumanist Manifesto (Boston, Prometheus Books, 2006).

7 Designer Evolution, 212.

8 Ibid, 209.

9 Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

10 The most vocal proponent of this interpretation of radical life extension is Aubrey de Grey, Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs that Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007).

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