H-: Engaging Transhumanism: A Critical Historical Perspective
Technology is transforming human life at a faster pace than ever before. The convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, robotics, information and communication technology, and applied cognate science poses a new situation in which the human has become a design project. The new technologies allow for new kinds of cognitive tools that combine artificial intelligence with interface technology, molecular biology, and nanotechnology; genetic enhancing of human mental and physical capacities; combating diseases and slowing down the process of aging, and exercising control over desires, moods, and mental states. Due to genetic engineering humans are now able not only to redesign themselves, presumably in order to get rid of various limitations, but also to redesign future generations, thereby affecting the evolutionary process itself. As a result a new, post-human phase in the evolution of the human species will emerge 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 diseases. In the post-human age, humans will no longer be controlled by nature; instead they will be the controllers of nature. Those who welcome the vision of the post-human phase are known as “transhumanists.”
The term ‘transhumanism’ was coined in 1957 by Julian Huxley (1887-1975), the grandson of the Victorian Darwinian, Thomas Henry Huxley. In his New Bottles for New Wine (1957) Julian Huxley 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. For Huxley, ‘transhumanism’ was another word for his “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.”
Huxley considered “transhumanism” a “key concept” of an entire new intellectual framework, “a new ideology,” or a “new system of ideas appropriate to man’s new situation.” He considered transhumanism a “new attitude of mind” that would address the crisis of humanity by bridging between science and the arts and by using science to build a better world. Similar to the Human Potential Movement associated with the psychologist Abraham Maslow, 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 Peking man. It will be consciously fulfilling its real destiny.”
Julian Huxley was a close friend of John Burdon Sanderson Haldane (1892-1964) and John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971), and these three could be considered the “prophets of transhumanism.” During the 1920s they articulated views that will become prominent in the contemporary transhumanist movement. Thus Huxley, an evolutionary biologist and zoologist, highlighted the evolving nature of humans and encouraged the “continuing adventure of human development” with deliberate use of eugenics, which for him meant planning and controlling human evolution. J.B.S. Haldane, whose main area of research was population genetics, disapproved of the misapplication of eugenics and scolded writers on eugenics who were not sufficiently versed in the science of heredity or who selectively manipulated scientific evidence to advance their social agenda. Yet Haldane accorded eugenics a major role in shaping the ideal future society, and he saw the “biological inventor” (today’s genetic engineer) as “the most romantic figure on earth at the present time.” And J.D. Bernal, a specialist in crystallography and molecular biology, who like J.B.S. Haldane joined the Communist Party of Greater Britain, fantasized about the future where science would transform all aspects of social life and would replace religion as the dominant social force, primarily through the transformation of the human brain.
These ideas were further developed in the 1930s, especially among the so-called “Red Scientists” of Cambridge University who deeply believed in the capacity of science and technology to improve the human condition. Believing in the ability of the scientifically planned welfare state to bring an end to human misery, H.G. Wells (a close friend and colleague of Julian Huxley) imagined a small group of benevolent scientists-technicians who will use science and technology to manufacture a perfect future. However, the Nazis’ pernicious use of eugenics and the horrors of WW II invalidated the goal of creating a new and better world through a centrally imposed vision and they also discredited the eugenics movement of the 1920s. In the 1940s, especially in England, cybernetics was developed by mathematicians and pioneering computer scientists who illustrated how cognition is possible without a subject, while problematizing the notion that the brain is an organ of representation. In the 1960s, new optimistic futuristic scenarios about humanity were articulated by science fiction writers such as Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Stanislaw Lem, and later Bruce Sterling, Greg Egan, and Vernor Vinge who speculated about the new, transhuman future. From the late 1960s on the futurist Fereidoun M. Esfandiary, who later changed his name to FM 2030 (the year denoting the date of his 100th birthday) began to identify “transhumans” as persons who behave in a manner conducive to a posthuman future. At that time various organizations began to advocate life extension, cryonics, space colonization, and other scenarios while advances in biotechnology, neuroscience, and nanotechnology began to make their mark. Marvin Minsky, an eminent artificial intelligence researcher, articulated many of the themes of the transhumanist vision and he was joined by other famous scientific visionaries and techno-utopians such as Ray Kurzweil, Eric K. Drexler, Frank P. Tipler, and Hans Moravec. These techno-enthusiasts have offered an apocalyptic view in which a rupture, referred to as “The Singularity,” will bring an end to human existence ushering instead an autonomous, artificially intelligent species that will be in competition with humanity. The new species of Robo-sapiens will supersede Homo sapience as the next phase of evolution. In 1999 Hans Moravec predicted that “before the next century is over, human beings will no longer be the most intelligent or capable type of entity on the planet.” Due to the continued exponential growth of artificial intelligence, mind machines will become the next evolutionary step with organic humans left behind. According to Moravec, a former director of the Mobile Robot Laboratory at Carnegie-Melon University and developer of advanced robots for the military and NASA, humans would pass their minds into artificially intelligent robots, their mechanical progeny.
In the 1980s, philosopher Max More (whose given name was Max O’Connor) formalized a transhumanist doctrine, advocating the “Principles of Extropy” for continuously improving the human condition. According to More, humans are but “transitional stage standing between our animal heritage and our posthuman future” which will be reached through “genetic engineering, life-extending biosciences, intelligence intensifiers, smarter interfaces to swifter computers, neural-computer integration, world-wide data networks, virtual reality, intelligent agents, swift electronic communication, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, neural networks, artificial life, off-planet migration, and molecular nanotechnology.” For More and other techno-enthusiasts genetic engineering, cloning and eugenics will reconfigured select humans into a superior transhuman species and then, using robotics, bionics, and nanotechnology to invent a new posthuman species no longer dependent on nature. Humans will thus transform themselves into posthumans, namely “persons of unprecedented physical, intellectual and psychological capacity, self-programming, potentially immortal, unlimited individuals.”
In the late 1990s a group of transhumanist activists authored the “Transhumanist Declaration” stating various ethical positions related to the use of and planning for technological advances. In 1998 the World Transhumanist Association (WTA) was founded by philosophers Nick Bostrom and David Pearce and its membership today is about five thousands people world-wide with several geographically divided chapters and special-interest affiliates. Other contemporary organizations also play a role in the Transhumanist movement for example, the Extropy Institute, the Foresight Institute, the Immortality Institute, the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, and the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence. These organizations and others like them were greatly helped by the communication revolution of the 1980s and 1990s with instant communication world-wide. Indeed, cyberspace, as we shall see below, is not just a means to disseminate transhumanist ideas, but part and parcel of the transhumanist eschatological and utopian vision.
Transhumanism, however, is not merely a utopian vision by techno-optimists; rather it is a program that receives substantial amount of funding and scientific legitimacy from the National Science Foundation, by people such as Mihail C. Rocco and William Sims Bainbridge who promote the transhumanist vision under the banner of “converging technologies.” Futuristic ideas about human physical and cognitive enhancements through human-machine fusion have been of special interest to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that has been “working on changing what it means to be human,” as Joel Garreau succinctly put it. The techno-enthusiasts who promote transhumanism have considerably control deciding how to spend financial resources and that is one reason why transhumanists deride their critics as “bio-Luddites” or “bio-Conservatives.” After all, the conflict between transhumanists and their critics is much about funding no less than about a vision for and of humanity.
By the first decade of the twenty-first century, established religions too have begun to engage transhumanism more seriously, as scholars began to note that the transhumanist vision of heaven on earth followed by posthuman immortality has a strong religious dimension, even though transhumanist leaders despise traditional religions or religious institutions. Indeed for transhumanists such as Eric K. Drexler, technology itself is divine and scientists have godlike power to structure matter and recreate nature. Whereas some Christian theologians have been very critical of transhumanism, others have been more willing to accept certain aspects of the transhumanist project for which they proceed to give theological justification. Philip Hefner offers a very useful clarification about transhumanism when he distinguishes between “upper-case Transhumanism” and “lower-case transhumanism.” The former concerns what he considers the fantastic and rather dubious scenarios about the radical transformation of the human species, whereas the latter denotes the more ubiquitous and ambiguous use of biotechnology in everyday life. The latter is based on the belief that “it is natural and good to enhance human mental and physical abilities, and ameliorate undesirable aspect of the human condition” as well as the claim that “we need not accept as our destiny the human nature … with which we grew in our mother’s womb.” In 2008 the American Academy of Religion has accorded formal status to deliberations about transhumanism, even though transhumanism does not define itself as a religion. At least one established religion—The Church of Latter Day Saints—not only endorses transhumanism but has its own transhumanist variant. In 2006 the World Transhumanist Association voted to recognize the Mormon Transhumanist Association as its first religious special-interest affiliate.
While the vision of the posthuman ideal state of affairs is generally clear, the precise meaning of the ‘transhuman’ is somewhat vague. For some, the term is short for ‘transitional human,’ a phase in human evolution from the ordinary human today to the poshuman of the remote future. Thus the ‘transhuman’ is a more evolved being than an ordinary human due to the use of genetic engineering, psychopharmacology, anti-aging therapies, neural interfaces, advanced information management tools, memory enhancing drugs, wearable computers and cognitive techniques. Since the ‘transhuman’ is an enhanced human, the advocates of transhumanism like to refer to their vision of humanity as H+ (that is, enhanced humanity). For others the ‘transhuman’ does not denote a technologically enhanced person but an ordinary person who supports activities that promote the eventual evolvement of the posthuman. Echoing Julian Huxley, Nick Bostrom, the leading philosopher of transhumanism, defines transhumanism as follows: “a way of thinking about the future that is based on the premise that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase.” In this definition, to be a transhumanist one does not have to be physically enhanced by new biotechnologies but only share the outlook that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through the use of converging technologies.
Transhumanism is yet to generate systematic philosophy, although a few attempts in this direction do exist. Simon Young, for example, presents transhumanism as a unification of science and ethics and positions it as an alternative to academic postmodernism, religious theism, and radical environmentalism. Against postmodernists of the academic Left, Young present transhumanism as a critique of 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 action, including those that change objective reality. The facts about the human condition are indeed 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,” or “controlled evolution.” Young argues that human consciousness is an “inevitable product of the evolutionary process” and the predictable outcome of “evolutionary complexification.” 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.
A different philosophical presentation of transhumanism is articulated by Robert Pepperell who defines the “posthuman condition” as an “end of ‘man-centered’ universe,” an “energetic theory of mind in which human thought, meaning and memory is understood in terms of the activity of an energy regulating system.” For Pepperell, transhumanism means the end of humanism, namely, the “long-held belief in the infallibility of human power and the arrogant belief in our superiority and uniqueness.” Although he concedes that this belief will continue to exist well into the future, he predicts that humanism will eventually collapse because of its inherent moral weakness noted by feminism, the animal rights movement, and the anti-slavery movements all of which expose the moral failings of humanism. Transhumanism moves beyond the limitation of humanism but its evolutionary perspective is “not limited to genetics, but includes all the paraphernalia of cultural and technological existence.” In the post-human future humans will acquire machine-like enhancements and will be able to exist more effectively by recognizing “that none of us are actually distinct from each other, or the world” and that “to harm anything is to harm oneself.” Pepperell’s exposition of the posthuman condition sees the bio-mechanical technologies that blur the distinction between humans and machines as the core of the posthuman age and its philosophical implications. Whereas “humanists saw themselves as distinct beings in an antagonistic relationship with their surroundings, posthumans regard their own being as embodied in an extended technological world.”
Pepperell’s postmodern critique of humanism is shared by others so called “cultural posthumanists” such as Neil Badmington, Elaine L. Graham, and Cary Wolfe, who reflect on the interplay between scientific theorizing and cultural imagination against the background of several postmodern discourses. These cultural critics do not agree on the meaning of humanism or transhumanism. Whereas for some ‘humanism’ means the promulgation of secularism and scientific rationality, for others ‘humanism’ denotes a reactionary notion that “appeals (positively) to the notion of a core humanity or a common essential feature in terms of which human beings can be defined and understood.” It is this notion of humanity has been under severe assault at least since the mid-19th century with the critique of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche and the postmodernist philosophers Jean-Francoise Lyotard, Jacque Derrida, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and Jean Baudrillard among others. As a result in the second half of the twentieth century in literature, cinema, politics, anthropology, feminist discourse, and technology studies, the reign of universal Man has been called into question and dismantled philosophically. Searching for a new vision of humanity, the theorist Donna Haraway has issued the “Cyborg Manifesto,” as a post-gender, post-humanist, post-modern, post-familial, and post-natural reality, blurring the distinction between traditional distinctions between humans and animals and between humans and machines. Philosophical reflection about the “posthuman condition” thus takes place among literary critics, especially those who study the genre of science fiction in film, literature, television, and computer games, since the genre of science fiction serves as social criticism and popular philosophy.
The above overview of transhumanism indicates that it is not easy to engage transhumanism: transhumanists do not speak in one voice and the movement expresses a variety of impulses, which are often at odds with each other. Nonetheless, several themes are common to transhumanist discourse: the view of evolving human nature, the focus on biotechnological enhancement that will exceed ordinary human physical and cognitive traits, a preoccupation with human happiness that can be perpetuated indefinitely, a deep concern for longevity and radical life-extension, and a techno-utopia of human-machine fusion that constitutes practical immortality. Each of these themes has generated considerable debates, as indicated by the essays of this volume. Drawing on the deliberations at ASU and my own work as a Jewish intellectual historian, I will engage these themes. Without trying to be exhaustive, I will illustrate that while transhumanism as a socio-intellectual movement is marginal, the transhumanist discourse raises crucial issues about the meaning of being human in our contemporary techno-culture.
Transhumanism and the Meaning of ‘Human Nature’
At the heart of the debate on transhumanism stands the notion of evolving human nature. Julian Huxley already believed that when people come to fully appreciate the implications of the theory of evolution, they would realize “man’s destiny in the world process.” According to Huxley, mankind is “the dominant portion of this planet and the agent responsibility for its future revolution, and he urged his readers “to utilize all available knowledge in giving guidance and encouragement for the continuing adventure of human development.” These ideas are clearly echoed in Nick Bostrom’s understanding of human nature when he states as follows:
Tranhumanists view human nature as a work-in-progress, a half baked beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways. Current humanity need not be the endpoint of evolution. Transhumanists hope that by responsible use of science, technology, and other rational means, we shall eventually manage to become posthuman, beings with vastly grater capacities than present human beings have.
Bostrom’s view of human nature is shared by Gregory Stock, who heads the Center for the Study of Evolution and the Origin of Life in UCLA, who similarly states that “the human species is moving out of its childhood.” According to Stock,
it is time for us to acknowledge our growing powers and being to take responsibility for them. We have little choice in this, for we have begun to play god in so many of life’s intimate realms that we probably could not turn back if we tried.
The transhumanist notion that human nature is malleable has generated serious criticism from political thinkers, ethicists, and theologians, including Francis Fukuyama, Ronald Cole-Turner, Leon Kass, Eric Parens, Jean Betke Elshtain, and Langdon Winner among many others. Winner for example has criticized Gregory Stock for equating “taking responsibility” with “recognizing the inevitability” of the development of a new species and because he advocates the use of genetic engineering to move the human organism beyond what Stock considers “its present decrepit condition.” A central feature of transhumanism, then, is the claim that human nature is not fixed and that the future of the humanity is malleable because of the “dramatic progress in technological capabilities.” It is technology that will enable humans to transform themselves gradually into persons whose capacities will exceed what we today recognize by the term “human.” For the advocates of transhumanism such development is entirely welcome.
Whereas the above critics allusively referred to “human dignity” as that which distinguishes humans from all other animals, evolutionary psychologists have offered the most serious scientific defense of the notion of human nature. For evolutionary psychologists such as John Tooby, Leda Cosmides, and David Buss, human nature is not a social construct, but a reality that had emerged from the long evolutionary process and that therefore should not be tinkered with technologically. Tooby and Cosmides often speak of “psychological universals that constitute human nature,” and another proponent of evolutionary psychology, Steven Pinker, defines human nature as “the endowment of cognitive and emotional faculties that is universal to healthy members of the Homo sapiens.” According to Pinker, all human beings share a universal human nature despite differences among individuals, races, and sexes, since these differences too are also in our nature.
Cosmides and Tooby, Templeton Co-Fellows at ASU in 2006-2007, hold that the normal make-up of human minds is a result of evolution by natural selection. Their major finding is that the human mind “has evolved a specialized machinery that is designed to carry out specific tasks.” For this reason, Cosmides objects to germline genetic engineering which will alter “what defines a human personality… [because it] affects the control system of the body and alters complex, exquisitely well-designed mental mechanisms that have been engineered by the evolutionary process to solve problems of survival and reproduction.” Human intervention in the evolutionary process may produce humans with greater-than-human intelligence, but we do not know what will be the unintended consequences of such intervention.
Given this understanding of human nature, evolutionary psychologists tend to be critical of the transhumanist project. Tooby identifies two strands within transhumanism: the Enlightenment strand and the Romantic strand. The former is an extension of the eighteenth century Enlightenment Project and it involves the attempts by science and technology to improve the human condition. Viewed from this perspective, transhumanism is not as novel as it seems, since all of us are already augmented beings if we take into considerations the many technological advancements over the centuries that have transformed who we are. Thus agriculture, writings, postal services, navigation, calculus, antibiotics, radio, television and photography, computers, are all technological innovations that has shaped who we are, and it is reasonable to assume that we will continue to be augmented by future technologies. So long as transhumanism simply advocates the nineteenth century commitment to progress and alleviation of human suffering, it is hard to critique it.
However, transhumanism becomes much more problematic from an evolutionary perspective when it predicts a dramatic change in the human species, due to technological enhancement. It is this claim which evolutionary psychology disputes because of the way in which the human brain has evolved to perform certain tasks and because we are still largely ignorant about the operation of the brain. Tooby thus urges us to ask the simple but crucial question: “what is the goal of technological change?” and he correctly warns us to be careful not to confuse “evolution” with “progress.” Tooby notes that evolution is also capricious, cruel, and random, and that we are the effects of biochemical natural selection that has produced things we hate (for example, infanticide). The case of infanticide shows that human nature is real: the mind is not a blank slate but rather a computational structure that is full of mechanisms that have been selected over a long evolutionary process of adaptation. Therefore, Tooby encourages scientists to continue to map the mechanism of the adapted mind and its specific programs before we naively embrace the projects of transhumanism. At present, we do not even know what does it mean to have a thought, and therefore it is very unlikely that the transhuman vision of uploading the thought content of our personality should be taken too seriously.
Transhumanists can respond to evolutionary psychologists by saying that the field is built on a contradiction: if humanity has indeed evolved overtime, there is no reason to freeze the process and say that the way humans behave nowadays is immune to the on-going evolutionary pressures. One can also raise doubts about the concept of universal “human nature” as understood by evolutionary psychologists and charge that it is no more than a “superstition.” What evolutionary psychology seems to reject, however, is not the notion that humanity can in principle be transformed over a very long period of time in response to evolutionary pressures, but rather the accelerated, humanly designed and implemented tinkering with the results of the slow evolutionary process as practiced by contemporary biotechnology and advocated by transhumanists. It is this “designer evolution,” as Simon Young called it, that evolutionary psychologists consider problematic because it will tinker with the slow process of evolution.
Transhumanism and Contemporary Techno-Cultural Moment
To the extent that transhumanist ideology expresses the belief that the human condition can be improved by science and technology, transhumanism is an extension of the Enlightenment Project. Any engagement with transhumanism requires a serious reflection about technology and its role in shaping culture. The list of human technological innovations is very long indeed, including fire, the wheel, pottery, the domestication of plants and animals, metallurgy, glass, the printing press, the steam engine, the telegraph, and the personal computer among others. Yet the word “technology” was seldom used before 1880. Leo Marx notes that “The Oxford English Dictionary cites R.F. Burton’s use of “technology” in 1859 to refer to “practical arts collectively” as the earliest English instance of the inclusive modern usage.” It was only in the mid-nineteenth century, at the midst of the Industrial Revolution that “technology” came to be used synonymously with “machine technology” and be seen as a distinguishing feature of modernity brought about by the Industrial Revolution.
The notion that science and technology are powerful agents of social change stood at the heart of the Enlightenment’s idea of progress, but today in the beginning of the twenty-first century human beings find themselves in a totally new situation with which the intellectual assumptions of the Enlightenment are woefully inadequate, a point articulated most forcefully by Braden Allenby, a Templeton Fellow at ASU in 2007-08. Today the developments in genetics, nanotechnology and robotics seem to generate a new human condition in which the Enlightenment separation between observer and observed, subjective and objective, knower and known no longer applies: The new genetics enables us to enhance our biological state; nanotechnology enables us to manipulate materials on an atomic scale, and robotics not only replaces the human brain with non-biological computing power, which will exceed the human brain, but also facilitates the integration of biological and information technology.
These new technologies carry broad cultural implications because technological evolution can destabilize clusters and create conditions leading to the evolution of new ones; technology is the means by which humans have expressed their will to power; and the rate of technological change is accelerating dramatically and extends the gaps between elites and those who have no access to technological advances. The current technological revolution challenges the Enlightenment paradigm and relates to the postmodern fragmentation of time, space, and culture. Transhumanism can be viewed as expression of a broad technological wave that challenges mental models, cultural constructs, and institutional systems and the human relations to them. Allenby convincingly holds that to address these challenges we need a new intellectual paradigm that genuinely embraces the complexity and uncertainty of the contemporary human condition.
Transhumanism indeed provokes engagement with all the ambiguity and ambivalence of technological progress, but only time will tell if a comprehensive intellectual paradigm will emerge to address the new techno-culture. As we grapple with these issues we need to maintain the appropriate perspective from which to assess the current techno-cultural moment. Daniel Sarewitz, the Co-Templeton Fellow of Braden Allenby at ASU in 2007-2008, has noted that in a world saturated with technology, we make decisions about new technologies on the basis of what actually works and does not work and there is no way to determine in advance which technologies will actually evolve. However, the assessment of technological innovation is always relative to a certain current technological state rather than relative to some pre-technological or non-technological state. Technology should also be linked to human will rather than to human rationality, since it enables us to accomplish what we want to do. Any given technology is thus always part of some systematic complexity that embodies some irrationality and dysfunctionality and all technologies have a likelihood of unintended consequences. Since many technologies attempt to create a human ability to do something better than could be done without that technology, it is important to reflect on the claims of transhumanism in favor of human enhancement.
What exactly does it mean for people to be ‘enhanced”? In light of the works of Jacques Ellul, Langdon Winner, and Lewis Mumford, Sarewitz suggests that we need to bring technological systems that we create under our more direct, effective, and democratic control. He soberly argues that “in reality there is no easy path to addressing fundamentally challenges but that technologies can sometimes help find a shortcut to dealing with some of the particular consequences of these challenges.” It is thus wrong for transhumanists to pose a chasm between two technological futures, one utopian, the other dystopian. Rather, we need to realize that “there is a scale of experience where one does not have to give up one’s sophistication about the complexity of the world to accept the possibility of modest yet encouraging technological progress.” Humans as a species have an innate capacity to technologically innovate: we perceive difficulties and we employ physical artifacts to get around these difficulties. But as we solve a particular problem we also give rise to new types of problems. The challenge to human beings is to be continually attentive and to realize that human inventiveness through technology does not offer cure to political problems and vice versa; politics is never the cure for technology; they need each. The essays in this volume, presented originally at a workshop at ASU, offer deep reflections on transhumanism and techno-culture.
Transhumanism and the Pursuit of Happiness
To engage transhumanism from a religious perspective is challenging because transhumanism is an outgrowth of modern humanism. As such transhumanism is secular, rationalist, individualistic, and concerned with the attainment of individual happiness. The pursuit of happiness, of course, has been a major concern of humanity and a major feature of western thought, at least since ancient Greek philosophy. Happiness, or human well-being and flourishing, was understood by Greek and Hellenistic philosophers to be an objective standard that organizes all human activities into a meaningful pattern for the duration of one’s life. According to Aristotle, the first to offer systematic analysis of the concept of happiness (in Greek, eudaimonia) happiness is not an affect or a subjective feeling but an objective state that expresses human nature, and to be happy means to flourishing and experience well-being in accord with the nature of the human species. Aristotle regarded reason as the distinguishing marks of humanity, and concluded that to be happy, or to flourish as a human being, necessitates the actualization of the human potential to know abstract, necessary, and eternal truths. The highest kind of reasoning, according to Aristotle, is the kind of reasoning that belongs to God, a thought thinking itself eternally.
When Greek and Hellenistic reflections on happiness were integrated into monothotheistic religions, first Judaism, later Islam, and finally Christianity, the pursuit of happiness was given a decidedly religious interpretation even when analyzed philosophically, illustrating the integration of science and religion characteristic of the premodern era. In the modern period, however, the secularization of the Christian West and the scientific revolution, gave rise to materialism and naturalism and the dissociation of science and religion. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, happiness came to be identified with well-feeling. By the nineteenth century this idea would give rise to utilitarianism and its calculus of happiness as a balance between pleasure and pain for the greatest number of people. Moving away from the eudaimonistic conception of happiness, the Utilitarians defined happiness subjectively. For Jeremy Bentham, for example, pleasure is the only good and pain is the only evil; pleasure and pain determine what we do and it is only the scientific analysis of the balance between them that leads to happiness, requiring no recourse to religious belief. Occasionally Bentham used the phrase “the greatest happiness of the greatest number,” but he explicitly corrected this, saying that he meant the greatest total sum of happiness.
As science and religion were gradually pulled apart from each other during the nineteenth century, a strictly materialistic and hedonic notion of happiness prevailed: happiness is a subjective, mental state of individuals closely akin to joy and inherently associated with a range of pleasures. In a capitalistic setting the hedonic notion of happiness mans that happiness was reduced increasingly to possession of material good or the instant gratification of bodily cravings. The discoveries of chemical substances (legal or illegal) that control moods and mental states further trivialized the pursuit of happiness. As neuroscientists have unraveled the chemical processes of the brain, they have enabled the pharmaceutical industry to produce chemical substances that control, alleviate, or change moods and emotions. Under the impact of the brain sciences, both happiness and unhappiness are now viewed strictly in materialist term: a pill presumably makes one attain happiness or alleviate unhappiness. By the beginning of the twenty-first century a strict materialist approach to happiness prevails.
The Transhumanist Declaration does not discuss ‘happiness’ directly, but if one peruses the literature generated by Max More, the founder of the Extropy Institute, one can immediately detect how this conception of happiness undergirds the entire project. Max More defines Extropy as “the extent of a living or organizational system’s intelligence, functional order, vitality, and capacity and drive for improvement” and “extropic” are the “actions, qualities, or outcomes that embody or further extropy.” According to More is Extropy “is not a real entity or force, but only metaphor representing all that contributes to our flourishing,” in other words, happiness. The principles of Extropy enumerated by More include: “perpetual progress, self transformation, practical optimism, intelligent technology, open society in terms of information and democracy, self-direction, and rational thinking.” Like other promoters of transhumanism, Max More emphasizes how the pace of change – technological, cultural and economic – continues to accelerate and to reach deeper. For him advances in technologies (including “social technologies” of knowledge management, learning and decision making), will enable us to change human nature itself in its physical, emotional, and intellectual aspects. More predicts that with better knowledge and decision making, humans could live far longer in better than “perfect” health, improve their self knowledge and awareness of interpersonal dynamics; overcome cultural, psychological and memetic biases in thinking; enhance intelligence in all its various forms, and learn to thrive on change and growth. In short, humans will finally be happy.
The transhumanist approach to the pursuit of happiness is problematic for the following reasons. First, the transhumanist notion is an extension of the hedonic understanding of happiness characteristic of nineteenth century Utilitarianism. Focusing on self-fulfillment, transhumanists do not take seriously the connection between happiness and virtue, which was central to the premodern analysis of human happiness. Virtue is a character trait that humans must cultivate in order to flourish as human beings. The transhumanist discourse has no use for the concept of virtue and the ethos of self-control and character formation that accompany it because it takes happiness to be a product of engineering. Transhuamnists talk a lot about life satisfaction, self-fulfillment and self-realization but they have not provided an analysis of the relationship between the subjective and objective aspects of happiness. A more rigorous analysis of the meaning of happiness that lies at the foundation of the transhumanist project is needed. When that is undertaken the shallowness of the techno-Paradise of heaven on earth will become clear.
Beyond the lack of clarity, the hedonic understanding of happiness is problematic on scientific grounds, because it is materialistic and reductionist. Reducing mind to brain functions, transhumanists use the metaphor of the computer to explain how the mind works, but as Pinker has already argued persuasively, this metaphor has serious shortcomings. The human brain is much more than a computational machine; it is part of a highly complex and integrated organism that requires to take into account not only the nervous system but also the immune system as well as the socio-cultural context in which we are embedded. If happiness concerns the flourishing of the individual as a whole, happiness cannot be reduced just to the functioning of the body, as we encounter in transhumanist literature. Nor can we reduce the human self just to brain functions of neurons that communicate using chemical messengers, neurotransmitters and neuromodulators via synaptic transmission. We need a more holistic understanding of the human self than the one presupposed by transhumanism.
But the most troubling aspect of the transhumanist approach to happiness is the notion that technology will allow us to produce pleasant sensations all the time. The ability to manipulate the molecules and electrical impulses in the brain is reaching a new sophisticated level due to precise brain scanning and soon neural implants which are now treating people with Parkinson’s disease will someday jolt regions of the brain to induce or suppress specific emotions. It is this specter of transhumanism which makes me most uneasy because it ignores the value of insecurity, anxiety, uncertainty which are very much part of being human. Human culture (especially art and philosophy) could not have been possible without these allegedly negative aspects of being human. But if chemicals root out these human abilities, what will be the source of creativity? Hedonic engineering is not a prescription for cultural depth and creativity; it is a prescription for childish shallowness that regards having fun and feeling good above all other values. That transhumanism perpetuates the youth culture that has prevailed in America becomes more evident once we examine third main concern of transhumanism, namely, radical life extension.
Transhumanism and Radical Life Extension
Extending human life and postponing death is a prominent goal of the transhumanist movement. Anti-aging medicine is now the fastest growing medical specialty in the United States. This reflects the enormous scientific advances that have been made in understanding the causes of aging in which genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors contribute to the symptoms of aging such as loss of strength and mobility, decreased cognitive ability, decreases energy and vitality, decreases sexual response, joint pain, skin aging, weight gain and over diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, etc. The goal of anti-aging program is to grow older without becoming aged. There are many theories about the process of aging and since I am a non-specialist in the field of gerontology, I cannot judge the validity of the various scientific claims in this field. I focus on Aubrey de Grey’s Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs that Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Life Time (2007), because he is a leading transhumanist who promotes radical life-extension.
De Grey sees aging as a “humanitarian crisis” (36). He defines aging as a “deadly pandemic disease” (78) and call on all us to declare a “war on aging” (312) analogous to the “war on cancer” declared in 1970. For de Grey, aging is “an enemy” because “it saps our strength and ability to enjoy life, [it] cripples us, and eventually kills us,” as the de Grey’s website put it. Seeing himself as “crusader” against aging, De Grey frames the problem of aging in as an engineer and even calls himself “anti-aging engineer” (250). De Grey predicts that main breakthroughs will come from biomedical gerontological research which he conducts under the title of Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS).
For de Grey the problem of aging lies in mitochondrial mutations caused by free radicals. Articulating “a complete, detailed and consistent scenario to explain the link between mitochondrial free radicals and the increase in oxidative stress throughout the body with aging” (74) he explains how the cell is taken over by defective mitochondria and proposes the postponement of aging by the following strategies: first, he focuses on eliminating the telomere-related mechanisms that lead to cancer by selectively modifying our telomere elongation genes by tissue type, using targeted gene therapies. Second, the program is interested in the mitochondrial DNA outside the cellular nucleus which accumulates damage with age that impairs its critical function. De Grey suggests using gene therapy to copy mitochondrial DNA into the cellular nucleus and other strategies for manipulating and remapping mitochondrial DNA in situ. This is the most innovative part of de Grey’s program because it promises to put these mutations “beyond use” of harm. This could be accomplished by putting backup copies of the genes that are currently housed in the mitochondria in the safe haven of the cell’s nucleus, far from the constant bombardment of free radicals from the mitochondrion itself” (83). With a nuclear backup copy of these genes, any such mutation would be rendered functionally irrelevant because the cell would be able to keep producing the proteins that the knocked out genes in the mitochondrion had previous encoded. A third aspect of the aging process is the protein outside our cells such as those vital to artery walls and skin elasticity. Research is now undergoing for suitable enzymes or compounds to break down problems proteins that the body cannot handle A fourth area of research focuses on certain classes of senescent cell that accumulate where they are not wanted, for example, in the joints. De Grey proposes to use immune therapies to tailor our immune system to destroy cells as they become senescent and thus prevent any related problems. Further research into the biochemistry of “junk material” that accumulates outside the cells will facilitate immune therapies (vaccines). De Grey and other scientists also envision searching for suitable non-toxic microbial enzymes in soil bacteria that could be safely introduced into human cells.
I find De Grey’s vision of radical life extension problematic for the following reasons. First, it is important to note that although de Grey defines aging as a disease and considers it a humanitarian crisis, he approaches the problem not as a physician interested in healing but as an engineer who is interested in fixing a mechanical problem. Not coincidentally, the dominant metaphor of de Grey’s program is the vintage car: as much as a vintage car can continue to run many years beyond the initial design of the car, provided the car undergoes periodic, expensive maintenance, so can the human being postpone death indefinitely by undergoing periodic regenerations. Viewing the human body as a “resilient machine” that requires long-term care is problematic because human beings are not just machines, although some aspects of human somatic operation bear some resemblance to it. The car metaphor indicates that for de Grey and other transhumanists humans are no more than a sum of their physiological processes, which are entirely mechanistic, knowable, and controllable. At some point de Grey actually admits that there is much about the human body that we still do not know, but he is convinced that in principle with future research we will be able to know all we need to perpetuate life indefinitely. Through periodic gene therapy we will be able to grow old without aging, actualizing the dream of remaining young forever. This for de Grey is a compelling vision of humanity that justifies putting all our resources into the “war on aging.”
Second, I am not convinced that aging per-se should be viewed as a disease that kills us, even though it is true that as we age we become more susceptible to diseases. Since the human is an organism rather than a mechanical device, human beings undergo the cycle of birth, maturation, aging, and death that exemplifies the rhythm of creation and the gift of life. All organisms experience aging and death precisely because they are alive and the gift of life is not less precious because it is finite but more so. Moreover, the process aging is not merely negative but also positive aspects, since we gain wisdom with age as we encounter the challenges of growing frail and losing vigor. With aging comes the wisdom of compassion, acceptance, and forgiveness that are hard to attain when the good life is defined in terms of having fun or feeling perpetual pleasure. Life is lived more deeply and richly if we are aware of our mortality and finitude; we make decisions differently and we live less wantonly and superficially with the awareness of death than without it.
But more poignantly, it is not clear to me what exactly will be the purpose of indefinite postponement of death. What will people live for, if they live indefinitely? What is human life going to be about for the extended duration of 150 or 500 years? Will human life consist of more consumerist activities, more entertainment, more “fun,” more wars, more destruction of the natural environment, and more boredom? I wonder. Needless to say, to the extent that longevity research promotes ways to alleviate the suffering caused by debilitating diseases such as Altzheimer and Parkinson, they are all very beneficial. However, I also believe that all programs about extension of human life cannot be divorced from the deeper reflection about the purpose of human life. Such reflection seems to be missing from the transhumanist literature, although in recent years some of the promoters of transhumanism have paid attention to issues of human rights to give the transhumanist movement a strong democratic commitment. One could object and say that human life should not have a purpose, since mere living is itself a blessing that does not require further justification. This point is well taken, but I would suggest that it is precisely because so many people today (especially in Western, post-industrialized nations) live without a sense of purpose or commitment to a task that can ennoble life as a whole, that so many experience boredom, emptiness, and meaninglessness which generate destructive behavior to self and others. The specter of perpetuating the current anomie indefinitely through periodic genetic engineering seems to be very undesirable outcome for humanity.
From the vantage point of the Jewish tradition at least, the ideal of indefinite postponement of death is the highest form of human hubris, one more example of human rebellion against God who created humans as finite beings whose life narrative has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Instead of extending our physical life forever, it will be more beneficial if we make sure that our life stories have meaning and that they are instructive to others. These life stories include emotional, social, aesthetic and spiritual dimensions that prove we are more than “resilient machines.” It is this allusive and ineffable “more” that we must honor and dignify not because it belongs to a disembodied substance called “soul” but because this “more” is inseparable from our being created as finite, embodied beings, who are extended in space while having a unique capacity to transcend their embodied, spatial temporality and feel concerned about future generations. It is this embodiment which transhumanism seeks to transcend in its most radical program of cyber-immortality.
Transhumanism as an Eschatological Vision
The most radical aspect of transhumanism is the scenario that humans will be able to transport the content of their brains, their minds, to a non-biological entity and thereby achieve immortality. Kurzweil and other transhumanist visionaries imagine a “brain-porting scenario” that will involve “scanning a human brain capturing all of the salient details.” This will entail reinstantiating the brain’s state in a different – most likely much more powerful – computational substrate. According to Kurzweil this will be a feasible procedure and will happen mostly likely around the late 2030s. In this scenario “we will continue to have human bodies, but they will become morphable projections of our intelligence. Such “software-based humans,” he predicts will be vastly extended beyond the severe limitations of humans as we know them today. They will live out on the Web, projecting bodies whenever they need or want them, including virtual bodies in diverse realms of virtual reality, holographically projected bodies, foglet-projected bodies, and physical bodies comprising nanobot swarms and other forms of nanotechnology.” For Kurzweil this is a form of immortality, although he concedes that the data and information do not last forever; the longevity of information depends on its relevance, utility, and accessibility.
According to Kurzweil here lies the meaning of transcendence, which he takes literally to mean “to go beyond,” that is, “to go beyond the ordinary powers of the material world through the power of patterns” Yes, the body, the hard-ware of the human computer will die, but the software of our life, our personal “mind-file” will continue to live on the Web in the posthuman futures where holographic avatars will interact with other without bodies. For Kurzweil uploading ourselves to a human-made machine is spiritual, because it will exhibit complexity, elegance, knowledge, intelligence, beauty, creativity and levels of subtle attributes such as love. While Kurzweil is reluctant to talk about his own personal belief in God, he does assert that “evolution moves inexorably toward this conception of God, although never quite reaching this ideal.”
How do we make sense of the transhumanist vision of the eschatological future? Should we simply dismiss this vision as or should we engage this vision historically, philosophically, and ethically? I recommend that we do the latter. Historically speaking, the vision of the eschatological end as immortality of the intellect is not new; it was articulated already in the Middle Ages by Muslim and Jewish thinkers, most notably by Ibn Rushd (d. 1198) and by Maimonides (d. 1204) who followed Aristotle’s conception of God as a mind that thinks itself eternally. Following Aristotle, these thinkers indeed understood God as a thought that thinks itself eternally and envisioned that very developed human minds (the minds of outstanding philosopher-prophets) will reach such perfect knowledge and such minds will experience the bliss of immortality, an infinite intellectual activity unencumbered by the corporeal body.
Does that mean that Maimonides was the first transhumanists? Not really. Yes, Maimonides did believe that it is possible for some humans to be outstanding in knowledge and understanding of the structure of reality, and he clearly believed that the Prophet Moses was such an individual. However, Maimonides did not think that Moses was God nor did he identify Moses with the Separate Intellects, the philosophic version of the traditional beliefs in angels. Moses was in a class of his own among humans, but he was neither an angel nor God; Moses remains human and was able to translate his profound understanding into laws that guide human action. In other words, even in regards to Moses, Maimonides was clear not to erase the boundaries between the human and the divine, and to acknowledge the humanity of Moses. But it is precisely the boundary between the human and the divine which transhumanism in its hubris seeks to erase as it imagine the fusion between human and intelligent machines.
What is problematic about this vision of technologically-based immortality? First, it is quite problematic to talk about humans as “software based” entities. While Kurzweil and others think about humans in terms of patterns, human identity and idiosyncratically unique personality cannot be reduced to these patterns of information, because each one of us is distinctive and unique, an Other than cannot be reduced to sameness. This point was raised already in the thirteenth century during the debate about Maimonides’s legacy and it has been developed philosophically in a profound manner by Emmanuel Levinas. Andy Miah has used Levinas to buttress the notion that “the histories of poshumanism consist in an ongoing undecidability over the values of transgressing boundaries, in some cases as they relate to biological change.” But such appropriation of Levinas is misleading, since it is precisely the face of the Other, the source of moral obligation according to Levinas, which contemporary technological culture threatens to efface.
Several Christian theologians have critiqued the transhumanist vision of cybernetic immortality as a return to premodern substance dualism. The notion that information patterns can exist as disembodied intelligent entities is but another name to the premodern notion of the disembodied soul. But this notion is problematic both scientifically and theologically, as Ted Peters has already noted. Scientifically is it problematic because “the brains and hence minds are embodied, perhaps even communal,” and theologically it is problematic because transhumanism presupposes a dualistic view of the human which denigrates the human body, considering it as an evil that should be combated and fixed by use of technology. The vision of cybernetic immortality, advanced by Kurzweil or Frank Tipler, fails to appreciate the wisdom of our finite, created body and the implications of theology of createdness. Even if uploading our personality to a machine were possible, which is highly doubtful, is it the spiritual vision we want to promote? Isn’t this spiritual vision rather impoverished, precisely because the machine is but a human product? As Noreen Herzfeld has observed, the transcendence depicted by transhumanists is no more than prolongation of a materially-based human product. In the transhumanist vision of cybernetic immortality, eternity simply means a “very long time,” rather than a fundamentally different kind of existence.
More troubling is the notion that humans can actually achieve the eschatological ideal. Here I am speaking as a Jew who is committed to the pursuit of the ideal rather than to its realization. The pursuit of the ideal endows life with meaning and gives life direction, but when the prescription is taken a description of a state of affairs, disasters lurk. The description of the eschatological end as envisioned by transhumanism fills me not with beauty and elegance but with horror and disgust. Perhaps, this reaction indicates a failure of the imagination, but it can also be that my reluctance to endorse the transhumanist future is based on a historical awareness of the destructive powers of utopian thinking. No one understood this point better than Hans Jonas, the German-Jewish philosopher and early critique of modern technology and its utopian visions of enhanced humans.
It is befitting to remind ourselves of Jonas’s profound reservations about biotechnology as we assess transhumanism. In terms of life expansion, Jonas suggested that mortality is not just a curse or a burden, it is also a blessing. It is a burden insofar that we organic beings must wrest our being for the continuous threat of non-being. But it is a blessing insofar as our resting is the very condition for any affirmation of being at all, so that “mortality is the narrow gate through which alone value – the addressee of a yes – could enter the otherwise indifferent universe.” For Jonas the effort to forestall death or overcome mortality is a fundamental denial of what makes us human. The process of life requires mortality as the counterpart of the natality that alone can supply the novelty and creativity that enrich human life and express freedom. Freedom is imperiled when it ignores necessity. In terms of genetic engineering Jonas considered many ends of genetic engineering to be frivolous). Genetic enhancement for the sake of improving one’s look or one’s chances of social success falls in that category.
As for germ-line intervention, without which the transhumanist vision is not possible, Jonas appealed exclusively to consequences: the irreversibility of germ-line interventions, the range of their effects, the impossibility of drawing a line in practice between therapy and enhancement of traits or prohibiting the outright invention of new human forms that isolate the ontological states of human nature. In terms of human improvement, or eugenics, Jonas distinguished between negative eugenics (namely, developing diagnostic tools to identify genetic diseases and then manipulating the genetic code to eliminate bad genes) and positive eugenics Jonas (namely, manipulating genes so as to enhance human performance). In regards to both programs he reminds us that an ambitious eugenics violates the normative status of nature, but that we do not have criteria or standard to determine what is normal and what is pathogenic. Finally, as for the elimination of “bad genes” from the population Jonas held that any effort to eliminate undesirable genes from the gene pool altogether threatens the biological necessary of a varied gene pool and encounters our ignorance about the role apparently useless genes may play in human adaptability. Jonas argued against positive eugenics on the same ground: the lack of criteria and standards for intervention; positive eugenics aims at a qualitative improvement over nature and therefore it cannot claim the sanction of nature. Although technology has advanced well beyond what Jonas reflected about, his reservations about biotechnology in which the human becomes a design object deeply resonates with me.
Concluding Personal Reflections
Modern technology has indeed transformed and will continue to transform our life in numerous and yet unforeseeable ways. We should not categorically reject these advances because many of them do and will alleviate human suffering and misery. However, we should not naively endorse all technologies nor should we let scientists alone determine our technological future. Rather, we must involve theologians, philosophers, ethicists, historians, sociologists and political scientists in the conversation about technology and not be afraid of robust debate. Indeed, the Jewish tradition deeply respects debate and intellectual probing as an expression of our spirituality and commitment for the pursuit of truth.
The transhumanist project is misguided because of its mechanistic engineering-driven approach to being human, its obsession with perfection understood in terms of performance and accomplishments rather than moral integrity, and its disrespect for the unknown future. Transhumanism is a utopian vision that like all utopias has gone awry because it mistakenly believes that the ideal is realizable in the present instead of remaining just a beacon for the future. Instead of the transhumanist fixation about either postponing death or transcending death, I think it is more appropriate for humans to accept the reality of death as part of the very fabric of human life and to dignify how we live, how we age, and how we die.
To live with dignity we need to strengthen our failing social fabric and enable human beings to have dignified family lives, dignified work, and dignified public space. We need to do whatever necessary to put an end to exploitation, poverty, violence, and corruption, and revive human creativity that has been often numbed by technology. We need to ensure that our children and youth grow to behave with dignity toward others—be they parents, siblings, peers, relatives, co-workers, strangers, and even enemies—and we inculcate in youth the virtues that make such dignified interaction possible, chief among them, the virtue of humility. Our youth will be able to treat others with dignity, if we teach them to take the imperative of responsibility seriously and to act accordingly so that they care not just about themselves but about others, including humans of future generations and non-human others.
As for aging with dignity, I for one believe that we should not put our efforts into re-engineering cell-biology so as to postpone aging indefinitely, but that we should recognize the beauty of the life processes and the cycle of birth, maturation, aging, and death. Understanding the rhythm of human life living with this and not against it is a source of wisdom that many ancient thinkers, beginning with Ecclesiastes, already taught us. In order to age well and become sages, we need to pay attention to the wisdom of the ancients in all traditions and all societies and we need to reject the cult of foolish youth; being young has its own merits but they do not exhaust the meaning of being human. If we focus on aging with dignity we will pay attention not merely to weight control, physical exercise, and supplements, but also to the arts, wisdom traditions, and religions that provide us with insights about the purpose of human life and its inherent value. If we make aging with dignity our goal we will not allow our healthcare to be driven solely by financial considerations of insurance companies and we will create caring facilities in which the full person is taken into consideration, and not just the material body.
Finally, since death is part of the cycle of life characteristic of finite creatures, we will need to concern ourselves with dignified death, a process that the Bible describes as “being gathered into one’s kin.” Yes, dying is not pretty, but a process suffused with pain, anguish, and suffering that can be alleviated through palliative care. But the dying process need not be humiliating or dehumanizing; if done properly, as the hospice movement has shown to us, the dying process itself can be dignified by remembering that we are dealing with persons whose life narrative in community is imbued with meaning and that meaning does not disappear when bodily functions decline or finally cease. It is the concern with meaning that will shift the focus of end of life decisions which are always difficult and never straightforward. Yet the focus with meaning entails that framing human embodiments cannot and should be left only for engineers or scientists; it must encompass other perspectives that go beyond science, technology, and engineering. Contemporary science and technology have indeed changed our ethical situation forever, challenging human dignity. With further deliberations about transhumanism we will articulate new insights about the meaning of being human in the twenty-first century.
1. I am the PI of a multi-year grant from Metanexus Institute entitled, “Facing the Challenges of Transhumanism: Religion, Science, and Technology” granted to ASU as part of the Templeton Lectures for Constructive Engagement of Religion and Science 2006-2009. For information about the project see www.asu.edu/transhumanism. A German version of this was published under the title, “Eine Auseinandersetzung mit dem Transhumanismus aus jüdischer Perpektive,” in Die Debatte über “Human Enhnacement”: historische, philosophicshe und ethische Aspekte der technologischen Verbesserung des Menschen, ed. Christopher Coenen, Stefan Gammel, Reinhard Heil, and Andreas Woyke (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2010). Parts of the essay have been published in on-line journals: The Global Spiral 9, no. 3 (2008) and in Religion Dispatches. The essays by Ihde, Dupuy, Hayles, Pickering and Peters originally delivered at a workshop at on April 24-25 2007 and published thereafter in a special issue of The Global Spiral edited by me.
2. Julian Huxley, New Bottles for New Wine (London: Chatto & Windus, 1957), 17.
4. Ibid., 255.
5. Like his older contemporary, Julian Huxley, Abraham Maslow coined the word, “metahuman” in discussing how the self-actualizing man will be able “to go beyond the merely human” and become “divine or godlike.” A.H. Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature (New York: Penguin, 1971), 274.
6. Julian Huxley, New Bottles for New Wine, 17.
7. The only biography of J.B.S. Haldane is Ronald Clark, J.B.S.: The Life and Work of J.B.S. Haldane (New York: Coward McMann, Inc., 1968); for a comprehensive, superb biography of J.D. Bernal see Andrew Brown, J.D. Bernal: The Sage of Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). A very useful collection of essays by people who worked closely with Bernal is Brenda Swann and Francis Aprhamaian (eds.), J.D. Bernal: A Life in Science and Politics (London and New York: Verso, 1999).
8. For a fuller treatment of these three thinkers in light of transhumanism see Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, “The Prophets of Transhumanism: England in the 1920s,” to be published in Building Better Humans?: Refocusing the Debate on Transhumanism,” ed. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson and Kenneth L. Mossman.
9. J.B.S. Haldane, Daedalus: or Science and the Future (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co, 1924), 80.
10. See J.D. Bernal, The World, The Flesh, and the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of Three Enemies of the Rational Soul (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1969).
11. For a superb reconstruction of the life and ideas of the so-called “Red Scientists” in Cambridge during the 1930s consult Gary Wersky, The Visible College: The Collective Biography of British Scientific Socialists in the 1930s (New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1978). Wersky focuses on J.D. Bernal, J.B.Haldane, Lancelot Hogben (1895-1975), Hyman Levi (1889-1975), and Joseph Needham (1900-1995). Since Julian Huxley was a close friend of Haldane and Bernal, he too features prominently in the narrative, although he was not formally affiliated with either the Labor Movement or the Communist Party.
12. See H.G. Wells, A Modern Utopia (London: Chapman & Hall, 1905); idem, Men Like Gods, A Novel (New York: Cassell, 1923). For recent critical study of H.G. Wells consult Steven McLean (ed.) H.G. Wells: Interdisciplinary Essays (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Pub., 2008).
13. On the history of cybernetics see Andrew Pickering, The Mangle of Practice, Time, Agency and Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); Philip Husbands, Owen Holland, and Michael Wheeler (eds.), The Mechanical Mind in History (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008); and David A. Mindell, Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control and Computing Before Cybernetics (Baltimore, MD and London: John Hopkins University Press, 2002).
14. On transhumanist themes in contemporary in science fiction see N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1999) and Daniel Dinello, Technophobia!: Science Fiction Vision of Posthuman Technology (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002). Both authors present science fiction as a critique of techno-optimism.
15. On the history of the transhumanist movement see Nick Bostrom, “Tranhumanism FAQ: A General Introduction,” version 2.1 (2003) available on the website of Nick Bostrom, www.nickbostrom.com. The essays on this website are the best gateway into transhumanist literature and issues.
16. See Marvin Minsky, The Emotion Machine: Commonsense Thinking, Artificial Intelligence, and the Future of the Human Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006); idem, The Society of Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986).
17. See Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Intelligent Machines (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990); idem, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (New York: Viking 1999) idem, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (New York: Viking, 2005).
18. Eric K. Drexler, Engines of Creation (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1986); idem, Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing and Computation (New York: Wiley, 1992); Erik K. Drexler and Chris Peterson Unbounding the Future: The Nanotechnology Revolution (New York: Morrow, 1991).
19. See Frank J. Tipler, The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God and the Resurrection of the Dead (New York: Doubleday, 1994); idem., The Physics of Christianity (New York: Doubleday, 2007).
20. See Hans P. Moravec, Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988); idem, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
21. Morvacec, Robot, 13.
22. Max More’s ideas are available only on his website, www.extropy.org. Although he holds a Ph.D., he is yet to publish a book articulating his philosophy of transhumanism.
23. Max More, “Extropian Principles 3.0,” http://www.maxmore.com/extprn3.htm (December, 2004).
24. The “Transhumanist Declaration” is available on the website of the Transhumanist World Association (WTA) http://www.transhumanism.org and the website of Nick Bostrom. For more information about the World Transhumanist Organization (which has changed its name to Humanity +) consult the websites: http://www.transhumanism.org and http://humanityplus.org. In general the WTA supports a more liberal democratic agenda than other transhumanist groups. On the politics of the movement see James J. Hughes, “The Politics of Transhumanism,” http://www.changesurfer.com/Acad/TranshumPolitics.htm.
25. See Appendix for a list of future-oriented institutions and organizations.
26. See Mihail C. Roco and William Sims Bainbridge (eds.), Converging Technologies for Improvement of Human Performance: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science (Dordrecht and Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002).
27. Joel Garreau, Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing our Minds, Our Bodies, and What is Means to Be Humans (New York: Doubleday, 2004), esp. 18-44. The quote is on p. 42.
28. The most extensive analysis of the religious dimension of contemporary technology is offered by David F. Noble, The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention (New York Penguin Books, 1997).
29. See Brent Waters, From Human to Posthuman: Christian Theology and Technology in a Postmodern World (Aldershot, England and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006).
30. See Philip Hefner, Technology and Human Becoming (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003); Ted Peters, Playing God? Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1997); idem, Science, Theology and Ethics (Aldershot, England and Burlington VT: Ashgate, 2003); idem, For the Love of Children: Genetic Technology and the Future of the Family (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996).
31. Philip Hefner, “The Animal that Aspires to Be an Angel: The Challenge of Transhumanism,” Dialog: Journal of Technology 48, no. 2 (2009): 164-73, quote is on p. 166. Hefner is quite supportive of enhancement technologies since medical advancements have made it possible for him to live an active and productive life despite the fact that he was born with spina bifida, a genetic defect that doomed children in previous generations to premature death.
32. The American Academy of Religion now has special sessions, and scholars of Religious Studies have begun to engage transhumanism systematically. For example, consult Derek F. Maher and Calvin Mercer (eds.) Religion and the Implications of Radical Life Extension (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
33. Nick Bostrom, “Transhumanist FAQ: A General Introduction,” version 2.1 (2003) available on the website of Nick Bostrom www.nickbostrom.com. As mentioned in an earlier note, the essays of Nick Bostrom featured in this website are the best gateway into transhumanist literature and issues. A high level academic engagement with the issues involved in human enhancement is Nick Bostrom and Julian Savulescu (eds.), Human Enhancement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) and Julian Savulescu, R. ter Mueler, and G. Kahane (eds.), Enhancing Human Capacities, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009). Also useful is the information on the website of Bostrom’s colleagues at Oxford, Anders Sandberg http://www.aleph.se.
34. Simon Young, Designer Evolution: A Transhumanist Manifesto (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2005).
35. Ibid, 212.
36. Ibid., 209.
37. Robert Pepperell, The Posthuman Condition: Consciousness beyond the Brain (Bristol, UK: Intellect Books, 2003), 100.
38. Ibid., 171.
39. Ibid., 152.
40. Neil Badmington (ed.), Posthumanism (New York: Palgrave, 2000); idem, “Theorizing Posthumanism,” Cultural Critique 53 (2003): 11-27; Elaine L. Graham, Representations of the Post/Human (Manchester University Press, 2002); Cary Wolfe, What is Transhumanism? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2010). For a discussion of “cultural transhumanists” see Andy Miah, “A Critical History of Posthumanism, in Medical Enhancement and Posthumanity, ed. Bert Gordijn and Ruth Chadwick (Springer, 2008), 71-94, esp. pp. 77-79.
41. Kate Soper, Humanism and Anti-Humanism (Chicago: Open Court Publishing Co., 1986.), 11-12; cited in Neil Badmington (ed.), Posthumanism (New York: Palgrave, 2000), 2.
42. The word ‘cyborg,’ – cybernetic organism – was coined in 1960 by physiologist Manfred Clynes and psychiatrist Nathan Kline to describe a man-machine hybrid needed for a space travel. Later the term was “expanded to cover human/machine weapons systems.” Currently considerable funding is given to developing brain-machine interfaces, namely “technologies that use brain signals to control mechanical and electronic devised that can also send feedback signals to the brain.” See Dinello, Technophobia!, 115 and 118.
43. Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London: Free Association Books, 1991). The “Cyborg Manifesto” was originally published under a slightly different title in 1985.
44. Julian Huxley, “The Humanist Frame,” in his Evolutionary Humanism, 79.
45. Julian Huxley, “Eugenics in Evolutionary Perspective,” in Evolutionary Humanism, 287.
46. Gregory Stock, Metaman: The Making of Humans and Machines into a Global Superorganism (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), introduction; Cf., Redesigning Humans: Choosing Our Genes, Changing our Futures (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003).
47. The most famous critics of transhumanism are Francis Fukuyama and Leon Kass. See Francis Fukuyma, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2002); and Leon Kass, Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002). For a succinct summary of arguments against human enhancement consult Michael J. Sandel, The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007). For philosophical and religious reflections on the usefulness of the concept of “human nature” see Harold W. Baillie and Timothy K. Casey, Is Human Nature Obsolete? Genetic, Bioengineering and the Future of the Human Condition (Cambridge, Mass. And London, England: MIT Press, 2005). The contributors to this volume represent many of the leading critics of biotechnology.
48. Langdon Winner, “Resistance is Futile: The Posthuman Condition and Its Advocates,” in Is Human Nature Obsolete?, 187.
49. See David M. Buss, Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1999); Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby (eds.), The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).
50. John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, “On the University of Human Nature and the Uniqueness of the Individual: The Role of Genetics and Adaptation, Journal of Personality 58 (1990): 17-67; citation on p. 18.
51. Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 142.
52. See Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby (eds.), The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).
53. For full exposition of this claim see Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, “The Modular Nature of Human Intelligence,” in A.B. Scheibel and J.W. Schopf (eds.), The Origin and Evolution of Intelligence (Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett, 1997), 71-101.
54. Quoted from interview with Leda Cosmides, “Are we Already Transhuman?” in the Newsletter of the Arizona State University Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict (Spring, 2007).
55. A serious critique of evolutionary psychology is articulated by David J. Buller, Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature (Cambridge, Mass. and London, England: MIT Press, 2005), esp. 419-480. Buller charges that the concept of human nature is inherently confused and that if evolutionary psychologists take evolution seriously they must accept the notion that humans will continue to evolve. According to Buller “there is no basis in evolutionary theory for maintaining that psychological adaptations are constitutive of human ‘nature’” (ibid, 476).
56. Leo Marx, “The Idea of Technology and Postmodern Pessimism,” in Does Technology Drive History: The Dilemma of Technological Determinism, ed. Merritt Roe Smith and Leo Marx (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994), p. 247.
57. See Braden Allenby, “The Industrial Ecology of Emerging Technologies: Complexity and the Reconstruction of the World, Journal of Industrial Ecology 13, no. 2 (2009): 168-183. Allenby developed this point in his Templeton Lecture, “From Human to Transhuman: Technology and the Reconstruction of the World,” delivered at ASU on October 23, 2007 as part of the project “Facing the Challenges of Transhumanism.” He continues to elaborate these ideas in his forthcoming book co-authored with Daniel Sarewitz, The Techno-Human Condition (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2010).
58. Daniel Sarewitz, “Technology and the Culture of Progress,” Lecture delivered at ASU on April 24, 2008. His ideas are expressed in fuller version in the book he co-authored by Braden Allenby cited in the preceding note.
59. Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Vintage Books, 1964); Langdon Winner, Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977); and Mumford Lewis, Technics and Civilization, 2nd ed. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963).
60. For an overview of the discourse on happiness in western culture see Darrin MacMahon, Happiness: A History (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006). In the past decade a new academic discipline emerged known as Happiness Studies. The discipline combines Positive Psychology, Social Psychology, and Cognitive Science. Main contributors to the discipline include: Ruut Veenhoven. Conditions of Happiness (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1984); Michael Eysenck, Happiness: Facts and Myths (London: Lawrence Erlbauum, 1990); Ed. Diener and E.M. Suh (eds.), Culture and Subjective Well-Being (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1998); Michael Argyle, The Psychology of Happiness (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2001); and Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002).
61. The secondary literature on Aristotle’s analysis of happiness is too large to be cited here. Most useful are Richard Kraut, Aristotle on the Human Good (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989); John M. Cooper, Reason and Human Good in Aristotle (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1986); Sarah Broadie, Ethics with Aristotle (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).
62 For analysis of this process consult Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, Happiness in Premodern Judaism: Virtue, Knowledge and Well-Being (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2003).
63. Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), ed. J. H. Burns and H.L. A. Hart (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).
64. Cited on the website of the Extropy Institute.
65. A typical example of this literature is Philip Lee Miller and the Life Extension Foundation with Monica Reinagel, Life Extension Revolution: The New Science of Growing Older without Aging (New York: Bantam Books, 2005). For a critical overview of this industry see Stephen S. Hall, Merchants of Immortality: Chasing the Dream of Human Life Extension (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003).
66. Raymond Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near (New York: Viking, 2005), 324.
67. Ibid., 325.
68. Ibid., 388.
69. Ibid., 389.
70. For a full discussion of Maimonides’ view of happiness see Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, Happiness in Premodern Judaism, 192-245.
71. Levinas and an explanation of the word “Facing” in the title of the project.
72. Andy Miha, “A Critical History of Posthumanism,” in Medical Enhancement and Posthumanity ed. Bert Gordijn and Ruth Chadwick (Springer, 2009), 71-94; citation is on p. 88.
73. Ted Peters, Anticipating Omega: Science, Faith and Our Ultimate Future (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006), 119.
74. Cited in Peters, Anticipating Omega, 124.
75. See Christian Wiese, The Life and Thought of Hans Jonas: Jewish Dimensions (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2007).
76. Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 36.
77. For a comprehensive view of Jonas see Hava Tirosh-Samuelson and Christian Wiese, The Legacy of Hans Jonas: Judaism and the Phenomenon of Life (Boston and Leiden: Brill Academic Press, 2008).
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