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A Philosophical History of Transhumanism
John Kennedy Philip goes deep into the search for (post-) human heights.
Throughout our history, we human beings have been trying to transform ourselves with a view of overcoming our limitations, even death. There is a tendency in humanity to search for a way around every obstacle and limitation, and to make one’s life happier and better in this world. This discloses our yearning to become better than we are – better than human: to move from being mere Homo sapiens to become Homo superior. Transhumanism is a movement which advocates this transformation of the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing technologies, and then making them widely available. Transhumanism itself has gradually evolved over the past couple of decades. Now it promotes research into areas such as life-extension projects, cryonics, molecular nanotechnology, human enhancement projects such as bionics, artificial intelligence, uploading human consciousness into computers, and designer babies, among other things. We can say that the ultimate objective of transhumanism is to enable us to live forever.
Commentators tend to say that transhumanism is either dehumanizing or superhumanizing. The view that transhumanism is dehumanizing is held by ‘bioconservatives’ such as Francis Fukuyama and Richard Jones. Fukuyama expresses his critique in his book Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (2003). He thinks that transhumanistic projects will violate basic human rights and will blur the line between natural and artificial, which indeed would induce moral dilemmas. Ultimately, the fear is that transhumans will eliminate original humanity. Transhumanism as a superhumanising concept is a view shared by all the techno-optimists, such as Julian Huxley, Max More, and Nick Bostrom. They believe that transhumanistic projects will bring the maximum benefit to humanity, and that human limitations such as death, disability and ageing, can all be beneficially overcome technologically.
These different views about this movement provoke us to question what exactly transhumanism is. So before investigating the ethics of transhumanism, let’s look in more depth at what it is.
Transhumanism by Cameron Gray 2024
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What is Transhumanism?
Different thinkers, even different transhumanism advocates, have different ways of understanding the movement.
The term ‘transhumanism’ was coined in 1957 by Julian Huxley. Sir Julian Sorell Huxley (1887-1975) was an English biologist, philosopher, educator, and the author of the transhumanist masterpiece, New Bottles for New Wine. He is considered the father of transhumanism. He was also the first Director-General of UNESCO, as well as a grandson of biologist T.H. Huxley. He was greatly influenced by new developments in embryology, systematics, and studies of behaviour and evolution.
For Huxley, transhumanism is shorthand for ‘evolutionary humanism’. Evolutionary humanism is, unsurprisingly, a philosophy centered on human evolution. Evolutionary humanists do not view human beings as the ‘pinnacle of creation’, but instead as the unintended product of natural selection. Evolutionary humanists hold the opinion that human life evolved from a single organism and is still evolving. So human nature is not static; rather, we are evolving from one state to another. Under evolutionary humanism, humanity makes a deliberate effort to “Transcend itself – not just sporadically… but in its entirety, as humanity” (New Bottles for New Wine, 1957). This concept was made into an academic discipline by Huxley.
Max T. O’Connor, known as Max More, is a British philosopher and futurist. In 1995, at the University of Southern California, More finished his doctoral dissertation, The Diachronic Self: Identity, Continuity, and Transformation, which examines several issues that concern transhumanists. He has since written many articles espousing transhumanism, and especially the transhumanist philosophy of Extropianism (which I’ll summarise later).
More introduced the term ‘transhumanism’ in its modern technologically-based sense. He defines transhumanism as “a class of philosophy of life that seeks the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-prompting principles and values” (The Coming Robot Revolution, Yoseph Bar-Cohen, David Hanson, 2009).
Alternatively, Oxford University futurist Nick Bostrom recently said that transhumanism is “an outgrowth of secular humanism and the Enlightenment. It holds that current human nature is improvable through the use of applied science and other rational methods, which make it possible to increase human health-span, extend our intellectual and physical capacities, and give us increased control over our mental states and moods” (from Bostrom’s essay in H+/-: Transhumanism and Its Critics, eds. Gregory R. Hansell and William Grassie, 2010, p.55).
Whatever the precise definition, the regulative notion of transhumanism is the scientific enhancement of human beings. However, although the literature on transhumanism encompasses science and technology, it does so in terms of various distinct purposes. Hence, we cannot consider transhumanism as a single movement, but as several with distinct purposes. Some of the most discussed and debated are: (i) Democratic transhumanism; (ii) Libertarian transhumanism; (iii) Extropianism; and (iv) Singularitarianism. Let’s briefly consider each of these movements.
Democratic transhumanism is chiefly propagated by James Hughes (1961-), an American Buddhist monk, sociologist and bioethicist, and the executive director and CEO of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, which publishes articles on transhumanism and other areas of bioethics. His magnum opus is Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future (2004).
Democratic transhumanism encourages governments to embrace transhumanistic projects, and proposes that technological and other scientific self-enhancements should be accessible to everyone, rather than only a rich elite. Proponents of this approach are critical of the way in which power is distributed unequally – based on gender, race, class, religion, and other categories. They insist that people should have equal access to transhumanistic projects, disregarding such factors. Hughes also emphasizes the importance of having guarantors of these things: “Technoprogressives, like social democrats in general, believe democracy requires strong guarantees of civil liberties and minority rights, a relatively egalitarian distribution of wealth and power, a strong state accountable and transparent to its citizens, and a process for deliberation and decision-making open to all competent persons.” (James Hughes in ‘On Democratic Transhumanism’, interview with Marc Roux, Re-Public, 2009).
Zoltan Istvan, a US presidential candidate in 2016, and one of the world’s most influential transhumanists, promotes libertarian transhumanism. This is another political ideology, which as the name suggests synthesises libertarianism and transhumanism. Libertarian transhumanists believe that all transhumanistic projects should aim at the good of a person’s life, that is, his or her ‘well being’; but, also that the principles of self-ownership and the free market are the guarantors of the right to enhancement. In addition, they strongly assert that any attempt to limit the right to pursue transhumanistic projects is a violation of civil rights and civil liberties. They also reject some public policies and laws advocated by democratic transhumanists, because they fear that the state will steer or limit the choices of individuals. Libertarian transhumanists argue that libertarian transhumanism will produce greater prosperity, development, and in general the best outcome for society.
Extropianism & Extropism
Extropianism is concerned with the framework of values and standards for improving the human condition. ‘Extropy’ or ‘Extropianism’ is not a meticulously defined, technical term; rather, ‘extropy’ is used metaphorically, as an antonym to ‘entropy’, to mean things generally getting more ordered and sophisticated rather than disordered and chaotic. Diane Duane was the first to use this term to state that it’s possible to remain optimistic about the future through technological enhancement interventions. Max More, the most prominent proponent of this approach, himself describes perpetual progress, self-transformation, practical optimism, intelligent technology, open society, self-direction, and rational thinking as principles of Extropianism. The main belief of extropians is that advances in science and technology will someday allow people to live indefinitely. Extropians often promote this belief by doing research and development, or by voluntarily testing new technology on their own bodies.
‘Extropism’ is a more recent derivation of Extropianism. The Extropist Manifesto sums up Extropism in the following five phrases: “Endless eXtension, Transcending Restriction, Overcoming Property, Intelligence, Smart Machines” (Quoted in Transhumanism: The History of a Dangerous Idea, David Livingstone, 2015).
Singularitarianism is a movement based on the belief that the technological singularity and so the creation of superintelligence will likely happen in the near future. The technological singularity (commonly known just as ‘the singularity’) is the point where available computing power equals, and begins to exceed, human brain-power. So singularitarianism assumes the development of AI above human intelligence, yielding artificial superintelligence. Superintelligence is a term referring to a hypothetical AI which surpasses human beings in all intellectual fields. In his book The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (2005), Ray Kurzweil (1948-), inventor and futurist, predicts that the singularity, and so the beginning of the creation of superintelligence, will occur circa 2045. Singularitarianism asserts that deliberate action ought to be taken to ensure that the singularity and beyond benefits human beings.
Outlining the differences of these movements makes it evident that to arrive at a consensus regarding transhumanism is not easy. Nevertheless, the common thread that runs through all these movements is of enhancing humanity with the help of technology and science. Thus we can formulate a working definition of transhumanism as ‘An intellectual, social, cultural, and philosophical movement that affirms the possibility of improving the human condition through advancements in relevant sciences, such as neurosciences, genomics, robotics, nanotechnology, computer science, and artificial intelligence’.
Transhumanism & Posthumanism
Two terms inevitably associated together in this research are transhumanism and posthumanism. Before arguing the distinction, we should note that the term ‘transhuman’ is itself distinct from transhumanism. Transhumanism is a movement, while ‘transhuman’ refers to an organism: it is an intermediary form, somewhere between the human and the posthuman. That is to say, transhumans are humans in transition who are striving to become posthuman. Against this background, posthumanity can be understood as a group of (future) people who have radically and categorically transformed themselves from humans with the help of advanced technologies. Hence, posthumans are beings who have reached beyond the conventional definitions and attributes of contemporary humans.
A Brief History of Transhumanism, Then
In one sense, one can broadly say that the history of transhumanism is the history of humanity. Some commentators even argue that transhumanism has its roots in Dante and St Paul’s epistles. However, as a movement, transhumanism most properly has its roots in the rational humanism birthed in the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment is sometimes said to have started with the publication of Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum (The New Tool) in 1620. In this magnum opus, Bacon stresses the importance of scientific methodology: of finding out about the world through empirical investigation rather than a priori reasoning. Bacon also advocated ‘effecting all things possible’, by which he meant, using science to achieve mastery over nature in order to improve the human condition. In the year 1784, in his famous essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’, Immanuel Kant sums it up as follows:
“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed youth. Youth is the inability to use one's own understanding without another's guidance. This youth is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) ‘Have the courage to use your own understanding’ is therefore the motto of the Enlightenment!”
This heritage of critical thought from the Enlightenment, in combination with the influence of Isaac Newton, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Kant, the Marquis de Condorcet, and many others, forms the basis of rational humanism. Rational humanism emphasizes empirical science and critical reasoning rather than religious authority or social tradition. Thus rational humanism serves as the intellectual basis for transhumanism.
The second major inspiration for transhumanist thought is Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). In his masterpiece Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883), Nietzsche explains his famous doctrine of the Übermensch (the overman or superman):
“I teach you the Overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughing stock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughing stock or a painful embarrassment”
(Thus Spoke Zarathustra trans. R.J. Hollingdale, pp.41-42).
Although Nietzsche does not refer directly to technological transformation, there are similarities with the Nietzschean and the transhuman visions.
The 1940s saw the development of the first practical computers, driven in part by wartime needs for code-breaking. Cybernetics and computer science began to be widely discussed; and in the 1960s, optimistic new scenarios about humanity and AI were articulated by science fiction writers such as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clark. Also in the 1960s, various organizations, inspired no doubt by sci fi, began to advocate life extension, cryonics, space colonization, and advances in biotechnology, neuroscience, and neurotechnology – all important projects in transhumanism.
In the 1990s, as already mentioned, More brought transhumanism to the academy, formalizing it through the principle of extropy. More considers our human state as “the transitional stage standing between our animal stage and our posthuman future.” These posthuman stages will be reached, according to More, “through genetic engineering, life-extending bio-sciences, intelligence intensifiers, smarter interfaces to smart computers, neural-computer integration, worldwide data networks, virtual reality, intelligent agencies, swift electronics communication, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, neural networks, artificial life, off-planet migration and molecular nanotechnology” (‘Extropian Principles 3.0’).
In 1998, Nick Bostrom and David Pearce founded the World Transhumanist Association (WTA). In the same year, a group of transhumanist activists including Bostrom, Pearce, More, and others, authored the Transhumanist Declaration, expressing the various ethical stands that can be taken by transhumanists, especially when ethical dilemmas arise from technological advances. In a YouTube talk, Bostrom sums up his reasons for founding WTA in three points: (i) “To support discussion on transhumanist thought and to create a public awareness of technology advancements”; (ii) “To propose solutions for the potential consequences [threats] of emerging technologies”; and (iii) “To create a novel platform for transhumanist thought in the field of academic science.” The Extropy Institute, the Foresight Institute, the Immortality Institute, the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology, and the Singularity Institute for AI, are some other contemporary organizations which play vital roles in the promotion of transhumanism.
In 2004 Bostrom and Hughes established the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology. In the same year, Francis Fukuyama, after seeing the potential risks of transhumanistic projects, labelled transhumanism as ‘the world’s most dangerous idea’. In 2005, Bostrom, in association with Anders Sandberg and Eric Dressler, established the Future of Humanity Institute to support and to promote transhumanism. In 2008, the WTA changed its name to Humanity+. The Singularity University was also founded in 2008 in America by Peter Diamand and Ray Kurzweil, with sponsorship from Google, Nokia, eplanet Capital, NASA, the X Prize Foundation, and other leading companies. In 2014, on reading Bostrom’s Superintelligence, Elon Musk tweeted that AI could pose a threat to humanity, and joined the WTA to support responsible technological development. In 2015, Musk donated ten million dollars to the Future of Life Institute for the creation of friendly AI. And in 2016, Istvan campaigned for the US presidential election with the agenda of promoting transhumanism.
From this reading of its history, it’s clear that transhumanism is not merely a utopian vision of techno optimists, but receives substantial funding from various rich organizations.
Although transhumanism predicts an unparalleled optimistic, even utopian vision of the future, as seen by techno-optimists, it cannot ignore the following kinds of questions: What do we mean by ‘human’? Is a human being just physical matter? Is human nature static or malleable? Is the idea of transhumanism dangerous? Or is the ideology of bioconservatives who oppose transhumanism itself dangerous? How? Are the new sciences and technologies celebrated by transhumanists realistic, or just another form of wishful thinking? What are transhuman beings? From these questions, and many more, it’s clear that transhumanism engenders complex ethically and anthropologically pertinent questions, necessitating a serious investigation into what it proposes and promotes.
© John Kennedy Philip 2024
John Kennedy Philip, a postgraduate in philosophy, specializes in Western philosophy, ethics, cosmology, and the philosophy of technology. His intellectual pursuits delve into the intricate relationships between human values, the cosmos, and technological philosophy.