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Challenge, Enhancement & Martial Arts

Daniel Faggella uses technology to reevaluate what it is to be challenged.

I began taking martial arts seriously, particularly Brazilian jiu-jitsu, right around the time I started to take philosophy seriously. The two were my first genuine tools of self-exploration, and though I don’t see them as necessarily connected, it’s been interesting to me to use the martial arts spirit as a kind of lens to explore or test philosophical ideas. So while exploring the philosophical ramifications of technological and biochemical enhancements of the human body, I have often wondered how my experiences in the martial arts might have affected my conception of what ‘enhancement’ implies.

First I want to stress that I don’t see practicing a martial art as an inherently higher activity than, say, golf or painting. However, unlike many activities, martial arts usually involve the learning of moral standards alongside the acquisition of physical skills. Although these moral codes may not be articulated in the same way from one martial art to the next, some underlying values of ‘the martial way’ appear more consistently than others. The value I’ve decided to explore here, in the context of human enhancement, is the concept of challenge in human life, and how it relates to productive and fulfilled living. The ability to overcome difficulties and opponents is a core aim of nearly every system of martial arts. Crucially, the obstacles to overcome include our own limitations. Self-surpassing in physical and mental training is a hallmark of all martial arts. Forrest Morgan’s 1992 book The Martial Way, probably the most popular modern text on the values and lifestyle of the martial arts, refers to the positive confrontation of challenges as ‘acknowledging your warriorship’.

Illustration © Jaime Raposo 2019. To see more of his art, please visit jaimeraposo.com

Challenge & Human Enhancement

Transhumanism is a philosophical movement that promotes the benefits of using science to enhance the human body and mind, often seeing this as the next stage in human evolution. This can include mechanical implants and cybernetics aimed at increasing the strength and agility of our bodies; medical and genetic enhancements aimed at producing longer, healthier lives (eventually, it is hoped, to include virtual immortality); and enhancements to our brains to improve our mental capabilities. One of the most common criticisms of transhumanist thinking – a response I believe many martial artists might have – is that it’s a shortcut, or a lazy person’s way to grow, or it represents a hope or wish to make life easier for those who are weak of will. From scientists to philosophers and beyond, I find that conversations on transhumanism contain the criticism that it’s looking for gain without work. And like many a scientist, artist, or philosopher, many a martial artist might identify with their hard work, and believe that anyone looking to get an implant or take a pill to gain so much so quickly lacks a strong work ethic. It seems that a mindless, autonomy-less eternal ecstasy through having your consciousness uploaded into cyberspace would not entice most martial artists (and indeed would frighten many people). The easy button wouldn’t seem to be their driving force. However, technological enhancement might have some appeal to those seeking to build their strength to face challenges.

Consider this analogy. When cars were invented, many scoffed that those who purchased them must either be too lazy to look after a horse, or too proud to actually put in real work to get from point A to point B. However, I don’t believe that cars have made people lazier. In fact, they might be seen as a step forward in human potential, permitting us to do more in more places, and divert our limited physical and mental resources to tasks other than fixing wagon wheels and horseshoes.

Various technologies associated with transhumanism could represent similar steps forward in our ability to face challenges: not a degradation of our will or capacity to make effort, but an enhancement of our possibilities. If a philosopher were to enhance her memory and recall with some form of brain implant, this would not necessarily result in laziness in making the effort to remember. Rather, she might apply the same force of will to meet her goals, only with more capability – just as someone in a car can pursue her goals with greater mobility.

Another situation that might put a work ethic into question is the Matrix-like scenario of downloading a new skill into your brain. Even if plug-in skills were made available, your choice of which skills to download would still be the function of your will. Furthermore, your new skill or knowledge would not imply total mastery of a subject, but rather a level of expertise that could then be built upon. Most martial artists would resist the idea of starting their training already at a black belt level, missing those years in development as a white belt. However, if all new practitioners had the same opportunity to download some basic skills, they would all be able to begin their training at a more advanced level and eventually many would reach heights that are rarely scaled today. The bar for skill would simply have been raised higher, just as expectations around communication have been raised by cell phones and email, or around mobility thanks to motor vehicles. Even if humanity were hooked up into a kind of internet of brains, where people contributed to a common skills base, and skills could easily be transferred, this would still allow tremendous challenges to push and expand the will – in contributing to this greater common knowledge base, for instance. As long as there is will and choice, the exercising of our autonomy and inner strength is possible, and so is the pursuit of self-development through self-discipline. I don’t believe that technological advances need diminish our work ethic or our strength to overcome any more than we ourselves permit. Faster gains and a higher starting point would simply be a new base to build upon, to grow from. As long as we have the will to overcome challenges, we can act that out – just as so many people maintain a strong work ethic today despite all the convenience of cell phones, internet, education, running water and more. No motorcar, cell phone, or brain implant can rob us of continuous self-overcoming and the exercise of inner strength. That was true a thousand years ago, and it remains true today.

In addition, it may become possible for neurotechnology to enhance the will itself. It may very well be the case that human volition is actually quite weak, and that even the most sagacious, wise, and awake among us are still only able to genuinely and resolutely decide and choose a tiny fraction of the time. It would seem likely that if the neurological origin of our volition could be discerned and thoroughly understood in the decades ahead, then it could also be enhanced – and so allow humans more freedom than we have ever been capable of wielding. Enhancing our volition – our ability to decide and not merely react – could be a tremendous boon to our self-expression, and to the meaning and growth we experience in life.

The Value in Struggle

So far I’ve spoken of challenge mainly with regard to our force of will, and only slightly with regard to it as an innate constituent of personal fulfillment. Let me address this now.

I interviewed many people in the fields of psychology and philosophy, and interestingly their first reaction to the idea of human enhancement was often a kind of very subtle disgust. The sense is “Why do we need some kind of cheat code to happiness or a good life? You can’t use some kind of shortcut to alleviate suffering or better the human condition: you have to make effort and not count on a lazy technological answer.” Rarely is the notion expressed fully in this way, but a very subtle lashing out is something I’ve felt from many interviewees. I believe it touches on a common and core part of the human condition. More specifically, it touches upon our idea of happiness and its attainment as human beings – namely, the value of challenge.

As human beings, we find happiness in challenge – in challenging ourselves, in overcoming obstacles, in achieving outcomes. We anchor our hopes on goals, and work hard to achieve them. This struggle is an aspect of the human condition to which all of us likely relate. Taking this aspect of struggle away would for most of us (your writer included) remove much of our sense of purpose and meaning, and would indeed seem to threaten our dignity. To live pleasant, enhanced lives with no struggle and no overcoming – that is as inhuman a kind of life as a life without relationships with others. Dr Tal Ben-Shahar is a positive psychology teacher who as a lecturer at Harvard devised a hugely popular course on happiness. In a brief communication he mentioned to me that the trait he’d most like to see us enhance transhumanistically would be not an increase in our ability to feel pleasure, but an increase in our resilience and ability to deal with hardship.

Two important points need be brought up with relation to the value of challenge in a transhumanist context. The first is that challenge itself might be heightened by enhancements. Secondly, the concept of challenge as we now know it may need to be evolved or even shed as we surpass our biological limitations.

Enhancing Challenge

In our transhuman transition we may decide that overcoming challenge is a supreme value we’d like to take to the next level. Instead of replacing our current human condition with one of passive bliss perhaps we could vastly extend our abilities to discern and meet new challenges. We might endow ourselves with a greater potential to determine worthy goals, to choose from creative courses of actions, and to persistently follow through to pursue those goals. Our mortal condition certainly allows for improvement in our motivation and focus, and technology may unlock it.

The reasonableness of this proposition is supported by the fact that we might already be on this path. In a great number of ways our kinds and amount of challenges are indeed already augmented. At one point, we were no longer challenged by foraging for food from shrubs, and instead became challenged by agriculture and tending to animals. At a different point, most people became free of the challenge of farming directly, and instead civilisations divided their labor amongst different groups to handle government, military concerns, education, and the like. Later still, many societies were relieved of the challenge of unsanitary conditions, and came to face the more modern challenge of plumbing.

Undoubtedly, each overcoming of one kind of challenge was met by the resistance of some who believed that this transition would make us softer, would make us less fulfilled or weaker by easing our living. But very few people now would argue that the life of the Middle Ages was better than the relatively advanced lives we live today. Fewer still would argue that we should return to hunting and gathering. From my experience, people mostly aim not to revive some ideal past state of balanced hardship and ease, but instead have an instinct to preserve what they’re used to, and resist whatever changes are taking place.

The notion of enhanced challenge seems to paint us a vision of a kind of utopia. But this utopia is actually just a non-biological extension of an ideal that civilization has been catapulting us towards for millennia – namely, a world where our faculties are fully engaged in fulfilling, purposive, and creative endeavors. It’s a utopia which has space for our vocations, causes, and important relationships – and where little cognitive or physical energy need be exerted on activities such as lawn mowing, grinding corn to bake bread, or sitting in traffic on our way to work (that is, unless we find these activities fulfilling – in which case we could immerse ourselves in them more fully!).

Overcoming An Attachment To Challenge

Before challenging the concept of challenge, let me state that I do so as an exploration of what a transhuman future might imply or allow for. Personally speaking, I very much relish challenge, and I seek difficulty in order to draw more from myself and yield more beyond myself (as you may do also). However, we should not imagine that a transhuman value system would necessarily imply the same notion of challenge. For example, if we become able to meticulously enhance our cognition and manipulate our psychology, then we could conceivably tinker with the constituents of our own fulfillment. Maybe some individuals would choose not to make overcoming challenges an element of their happiness. You and I might question their choice; but it would be difficult to show that such a person would thereby become worse off. In the extreme, all negative emotions might be eliminated. Their life might become a consistent mix of positive emotions, such as love, awe, enthusiasm, joy, and perhaps additional emotions yet unknown. Such people might become capable of even greater creativity dedicated to what they value most in life, without any drag of negative emotions from setbacks, lack of sleep, or unattained goals. This is not to mock the beauty of the present human condition, but to point out future possibilities.

Many technological steps forward involve the complete overcoming of a previous necessity. For centuries, improving in-home lighting involved finding better kinds of oil or wax, and better ways to conserve it and use it in lamps. Oil or wax are not necessarily improper to use now, but electricity has overcome the need to use them. For many decades, improving overseas travel involved developing better propellers, and better motors to spin the propellers. The purpose or end of the oil was lighting; for propellers, transportation. When better mechanisms came along to attain those ends, those means fell mostly by the wayside. If a happy and productive life continues to be the end we seek (though it will certainly not be our only end, especially when we are able to tinker with the human condition itself), then negative emotions and any sense of difficulty may fall by the wayside too – replaced by a more continuously enjoyable pursuit of our goals.

Occasional pain may seem necessary for a meaningful life today, but this is likely to be a result of our present mental hardware and software, not because meaning and fulfillment are somehow inherently linked to pain. Freedom from the bounding box of our present minds could in some senses imply having our cake and eating it, too. But isn’t this the goal of all technological development?


Although it is impossible to project what a transhuman future would be, it seems likely that it will in part be constructed from the visions and ideals we have in the present. I’ve discussed a number of potential ways in which challenge might be handled or enhanced, or even overcome, in a transhuman future. There are directions in which I personally feel it might be best for us to move; but in the future, it seems, we will have to explore a vast number of adjustments of the human condition in order to discern and determine what actually is best, and indeed, if we should choose these adjustments for ourselves.

© Daniel Faggella 2019

Daniel Faggella graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a masters degree in cognitive science. He is CEO and Founder of Emerj Artificial Intelligence Research, which helps organisations make best use of Artificial Intelligence capabilities.

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