Transhumanism: The Next Step?

In the last decade there has emerged a new group of humanists who are approaching traditional core humanist values from a totally different perspective, and coming up with a startlingly different view of humanity and its future. While they consider themselves humanists these radical thinkers are not satisfied with the limitations they see in traditional humanist thinking, and have forged beyond that to form a new perspective on the human condition which they have termed transhumanism. At present these transhumanists are outside the mainstream of humanism, all but ignored by humanist organizations and publications. In doing so we may be missing a rare opportunity to recruit into organized humanism a growing cadre of independent thinkers who share the basic humanist principles.

According to one web site, transhumanism is "a philosophy that humanity can, and should, strive to higher levels, both physically, mentally and socially. It encourages research into such areas as life extension, cryonics, nanotechnology, mental enhancements . . . and megascale engineering." Some of the ideas tossed about by transhumanists are pretty far out, but no doubt the future will be far out, and thatís clearly what transhumanists are attempting to shape, and even precipitate. For instance, transhumanists spend a lot of time discussing what they refer to as the Singularity, which is a specific point in time when technology produces an intelligence (presumably some form of supercomputer) that is superior to humanity, and which assumes the primary role in all policy level decision-making. At that point the course of human history is theorized to take a sudden shift, making any predictions of subsequent events virtually impossible. The idea of the Singularity was cooked up by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge. Another possibility envisioned by transhumanists is often referred to merely as "uploading," which would be the transference of personal consciousness to a computer designed to replicate the function of the human brain. This would be done primarily to allow people to survive their natural bodies, although there might be other applications. Such speculations provide ample material for spirited discussion by transhumanists, who seem to be equal parts scientists, philosophers and futurists.

The transhumanist perspective obviously differs from the humanist mainstream by having a specific focus on technological approaches to resolving human concerns. Transhumanists view orthodox humanism as only going half way: we reject the supernatural, but then do nothing to address the human longings which give rise to spirituality. Transhumanists unabashedly assert that, without gods, it is up to humanity to "play God," striving to achieve for humanity a total control over its physical and mental state that is in some ways similar to that promised in supernatural beliefs. The actualization of this vision for humanity results in a metamorphosis into what transhumanists refer to as "post-human." In the words of science fiction character Markoff Chaney, "Itís time to stop worshipping gods, and aim at becoming gods." Where theists accept physical mortality in the hope of achieving immortality in an afterlife, and the traditional humanist fatalistically accepts mortality as inevitable, the transhumanist typically establishes physical immortality as an ultimate goal and radical life extension as a near-term step toward that goal. While the goal of practical immortality is prominent in discussions of transhumanism, the stated purpose of transhumanism is to enable a wider variety of choice and freedom for humanity, whether that choice be a vigorous, disease-free natural life span or the vastly extended lifetime enabled by some future technology. Transhumanists are critical of traditional humanists for retaining what they regard as a vestige of religion in an almost pantheistic reverence for a "natural order" that precludes much of what the transhumanist views as the means of improving humanityís lot. Unfettered by traditional views of nature and humanityís place in it, the transhumanist envisions the total reconstruction of Homo Sapiens into an enhanced, post-human state.

Some transhumanists are inclined toward libertarianism. The most visible proponents of this flavor of transhumanism call themselves "extropians," who seek to increase extropy, a measure of intelligence, information, energy, vitality, experience, diversity, opportunity, and growth. The libertarian bent of extropians is reflected in their concept of "spontaneous order." The idea here is that systems of people, cells, computers, etc. can organize themselves much more efficiently than they could be managed by any supposed authority. Centralized attempts to control the activity of individual units within a system usually will result in a loss of efficiency, or so say the extropians. Other extropian principles are boundless expansion, self-transformation, dynamic optimism and intelligent technology.

In general transhumanists have a slightly softer attitude toward religion. While humanists are frequently hostile toward religion, viewing it as a primary impediment faced by humanity, transhumanist tend to be almost apathetic by comparison. Although transhumanismís statements regarding religion track perfectly with standard freethought fare, in practice transhumanists often find campaigning against religion to be a distraction from their main message of technological solutions for the most essential human problems. The relative disinterest in religion reflects transhumanists de-emphasis of the more traditional philosophical aspects of humanism.

Although transhumanists may not concern themselves with religion, their brand of humanism could easily be viewed as a more apt replacement for religion than conventional humanism has proven. While some humanist groups have sought to position themselves as fulfilling many of the same social and ethical functions as religion, humanism has never proposed to address the basic issue of mortality, arguably the most seductive feature of religion. Transhumanism, like religion, recognizes mortality as a central concern. Perhaps this accounts for the enthusiasm expressed for transhumanism. This energy is far more akin to expressions of religious fervor than anything that could be evoked by humanism, which even its most ardent supporter would never describe as exciting.

An interesting aspect of transhumanism is the large overlap between transhumanists and various technophiles such as science fiction buffs, science writers, engineers and scientists. The transhumanist community is potentially large and vital, as is evidenced by the attendance at science fiction conventions, which generally put any gathering of humanists to shame in terms of attendance. So what should be the relationship of the humanist/freethought movement to these new offspring transhumanists? How should humanists react to this group that has much in common, yet seems to have a world view that, to some freethinkers, may seem even stranger than that of religionists?

Mainstream humanists should recognize transhumanism as presenting a tremendous opportunity for the freethought movement, and perhaps even a successor to the current form of freethought which has been in place for the past century and a half. While humanism itself has remained a valuable and attractive perspective, a fact that is recognized by transhumanists, humanism as a movement has failed to thrive or achieve a clear advantage in the struggle with religion. Humanists spend much time attacking religion and other non-rational belief systems, but, as the religionists have so often observed, offer little to replace them. While most freethinkers will tell you that they donít need anything to replace religion, the failure of humanism to achieve wider acceptance indicates that many other people obviously do. Trying to replace religion with humanism works about as well as replacing the bible with a science textbook. They just donít fulfill the same needs. However, you might be able to replace the bible with science fiction. Regardless of the feasibility the world envisioned by the transhumanist, it should be recognized that they bring with them an agenda and the enthusiasm to pursue it. The interests of the transhumanist may differ radically from that of the traditional humanist, but they can still contribute significantly to the furtherance of the humanist philosophy, and in turn benefit from the influence of established humanist organizations. It would therefore be wise for existing humanist organizations to actively recruit transhumanists and welcome them into the fold.

Copyright 2000 by Patrick Inniss.  All rights reserved.

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