Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Varieties of Transhumanist Experience

My last post, “Seven Scenarios for the Decline of Transhumanism,” prompted a number of comments. One in particular seems to get at the spirit of the general criticism of the others, and so to merit a response. Commenter gwern notes:

It doesn’t need to win on every possible front against every possible enemy. The overall trend is what matters.

The question is, what “it” are we talking about? If nothing else, the comments on this post, and on this blog generally, suggest something that people both inside and outside the transhumanist movement have long been aware of: it would be more accurate to speak of “transhumanisms” rather than “transhumanism,” at least to the extent that the latter implies a degree of unity that does not in fact exist.

Plainly one can consider oneself a transhumanist and readily disavow what somebody else considers transhumanism. I am not, for the moment, attempting any criticism of this sectarianism; but it does mean that it is hard to discern an “overall trend” because the most significant trendline for one transhumanist may be pointless to another. Hence my effort at disaggregation: my aim was to highlight the technologies that self-identified transhumanists typically use to suggest how the seeds for their desired future are already being sown in the present. Will it make no difference if these technologies don’t take off?

But perhaps I am making things too difficult. Perhaps one can just say that transhumanism is all about using our seemingly ever-increasing powers over nature to take control of human evolution — using our intelligence to build a better human being or to transcend humanity altogether. For the sake of unity, we will try to avoid defining “better,” and let each decide for himself (although, as James Hughes has acknowledged, not all transhumanists are this libertarian). At any rate, if we operate at this level of admittedly problematic generality, then what is the “overall trend”? Looked at in this way, the tide does seem to be coming in for transhumanism: we do indeed seem to have ever increasing power over nature. So much for those cranky “bioconservatives”?

Not exactly. For, at the moment, anyway, when it comes to building a better human being or transcending humanity altogether, there is no trend strictly speaking, because nobody actually knows how to do it. It is a narrowly held dream, an aspiration, a hope, a wish — not a trend. And even if transhumanist dreams or aspirations are held by increasing numbers of people, the mere aggregation of dreams is not sufficient for turning them into realities. Of course, various people have various thoughts about how the dream might be turned into a reality, but these remain but big ideas. A day may come when one of those big ideas bears fruit, and the time of men will begin to pass away. But this is not that day.

I acknowledged at the start of my previous post that transhumanism may in some sense never disappear. But that does not mean it has to grow. So that is why, despite gwern’s rolling eyes, I do not regret having highlighted some small things that could be indicative of the normative aspects of society and culture that might serve to undermine the salience of transhumanism. Sometimes all it takes to wake the dreamer is a gnat in the ear.


  1. "For, at the moment, anyway, when it comes to building a better human being or transcending humanity altogether, there is no trend strictly speaking, because nobody actually knows how to do it."

    There's a traditional and somewhat pithy transhumanist response to this- eyeglasses become cyborg augmentations, that sort of thing. And there is in fact a danger of tranhumanism becoming impossible because it is too successful! If controversy is minimal and dies quickly, if people soon begin to take technologies for granted and feel entitled to them, then transhumanism may spend the next fifty years limited to an advocacy for science fiction even as humans radically expand their capacities. How long, I wonder, until someone uses a bionic arm to type an essay about the evils of transhumanism?

    Perhaps the most honest way to write an umbrella creed would be to avoid the technological description at all. Transhumanism: the philosophy that people should participate as fully as possible in the act of their own creation.

  2. The responders to the previous post seem largely to have missed the point. Given the extraordinary reliance on the inevitability argument as a response to ethical and practical objections, Mr. Rubin is simply pointing out grounds, well-considered or not, that call the inevitability of the development and use of certain technologies that dramatically alter the human condition.

    Outside of the transhumanists, almost no one working on human implications of technological innovation still holds to a simple linear and deterministic view of technological change. Transhumanists generally seem utterly uninterested in these arguments, even unfamiliar with this literature.

    All this said, I still think the inevitability argument has something to be said for it when it comes to enhancement and life extension, but this is because the wish is deep seated and widely shared, and, as some of Mr. Rubin's examples might be taken to evidence, making a persuasive argument against wishing and working for more is hard to do, particularly against the background of liberal individualism and the "age of the world picture".

  3. You should really investigate near death experiences and write more about them because honestly I think that if these experiences are verified it would be a dagger in the heart of strict materialism and trans-humanism. If the brain can't be reduce to the brain and it is somehow strongly suggested that concioussness continues then trans-humanism loses meaning.


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