Transhumanism Explained and Examined (A Dangerous Philosophy?)
What is Transhumanism and What Do Transhumanists Believe?
Transhumanism is a philosophical movement that advocates for transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available sophisticated technologies to greatly enhance human intellect and physiology.
Many philosophers argue that transhumanism will lead to the abolition of pain and suffering in people due to these sophisticated technologies.
In fact, David Pearce, a philosopher and founder of Humanity+ Inc., arguable the most influential transhumanist organization, has outlined how pharmacology, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and neurosurgery could converge to eliminate all forms of unpleasant experiences from human and non-human life, replacing suffering with “gradients of bliss.”
In other words, we could live in some type of utopia where we never experience suffering again.
The biologist Julian Huxley is generally regarded as the founder of transhumanism after using the term for the title of an influential 1957 article. Huxley describes transhumanism in these terms:
“Up till now human life has generally been, as Hobbes described it, ‘nasty, brutish and short’; the great majority of human beings (if they have not already died young) have been afflicted with misery… we can justifiably hold the belief that these lands of possibility exist, and that the present limitations and miserable frustrations of our existence could be in large measure surmounted… The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself — not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way, but in its entirety, as humanity.”
Today, transhumanism is a loosely defined movement that is continually developing.
Humanity+ formally defines it based on writings of philosopher and futurist Max More as:
1.The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely-available technologies to eliminate aging and greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.
2. The study of ramifications, promises, and potential dangers of technologies that will enable us to overcome fundamental human limitations, and the related study of the ethical matters involved in developing and using such technologies.
Inside the movement of transhumanism are many different areas of study and scientists and philosophers with differing opinions and different goals. However, the movement focuses on the central idea of improving humanity and increasing the quality of life.
After all, the term transhuman is a being that resembles a human in most respects but has abilities beyond those of standard humans.
Transhumanist thinkers believe we have the power to transcend our misery and suffering not sporadically but for entirety. Many philosophers believe working toward reducing suffering the best we can is not only in our best interest but is a moral thing we ought to do. This includes David Pearce who approaches ethical issues from a lexical negative utilitarianism perspective as outlined in his self-published internet manifesto, The Hedonistic Imperative (1995).
The Philosophy that‘s Fueling Transhumanism
Now, to explain the thinking that’s fueling transhumanism, I believe we first need to discuss what negative utilitarianism is.
So, negative utilitarianism is a consequential ethical theory. Consequentialism is the philosophy that states that the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness or wrongness of that conduct as opposed to one’s actions.
This concept, formed by Sir Karl Popper, states that the most moral action is one that minimizes the total amount of aggregate suffering.
It was a response to traditional utilitarianism formed by Jeremy Bentham, which states that the most moral action is one that maximizes happiness and well-being for the affected individuals.
This moral philosophy has, in some ways, helped inspire ideas like universal healthcare or universal basic income.
A negative utilitarian may argue that if there’s excess money sitting in a wealthy person’s bank account, wouldn’t the action that produces the least suffering in aggregate be to donate it to those less fortunate who can’t afford basic medical care and are deeply suffering?
This also includes seriously studying and using emerging technologies to help overcome fundamental human limitations that produce suffering, which is what the transhuman movement advocates for.
For example, why don’t we work harder to eliminate many disorders that cause mass suffering, such as Parkinson’s, ALS, or cancer, using emerging fields of study like genetics or nanotechnology?
While we’re at it, why not eliminate things like obesity and heart disease, too?
After major diseases and disorders are eliminated, some transhumanists suggest we can go even further to eliminate suffering. One example could be installing chips in our minds that allow us to automatically learn any language instantly so we can communicate easier with others.
If we do that, we could install chips that let us learn any subject in general in order to make the world safer and save time. That would also cut the disparage between those who are considered gifted with a high I.Q. and those who aren’t and, thus, suffer more.
In fact, with emerging technology, in the not-so-distant future we can design ourselves to look and act any way we want so that we never again can say someone looks uglier than someone else. We can each look as beautiful and be as smart as we personally want and it would be unethical to not allow everyone access to this technology.
If we play this out, we’ll see that the ultimate goal of transhumanism and negative utilitarianism is the abolition of suffering itself.
If we always take the action that will eliminate suffering the most, eventually we’ll come to the point where suffering for all conscious creators will be eliminated, and we’ll live in the shades of bliss as described above.
Transhumanism is Already Playing Out
It may sound like science fiction, but it’s already happening. There are countless hours and millions of dollars dedicated to fighting diseases and disorders, some of which I mentioned above. Plus, as I write this, technology is being implanted into our brains to improve our well-being.
Just recently, Patrick Ganzer at Battelle Memorial Institute in the U.S. and his colleagues have developed a brain-computer interface (BCI) that has allowed 28-year-old Ian Burkhart to grasp and feel objects again.
In July, Elon Musk presented details of an implantable wireless system that his company, Neuralink, is building. It is already being studied on monkeys, Musk revealed, and it is hoped that human trials will start before the end of 2020. To date, Neuralink has received $158m in funding.
Breakthroughs like Patrick Ganzer’s are greatly celebrated since they greatly help decrease suffering, and there’s no reason to think they won’t continue.
Using A.I. technology, advances in neurobiology, and more, we can rewire ourselves to never suffer again. It might even happen this century if we embrace transhumanism philosophy together.
The Issues with Negative Utilitarianism
So, what do we make of negative utilitarianism and transhumanism? Should we all join Humanity+ Inc and embrace transhumanism?
First, we need to mention the most famous argument against negative utilitarianism called “The Benevolent World Exploder,” which was formulated by that same guy, R. N. Smart, who coined the term in the first place.
He said that negative utilitarianism seems to be OK with accepting a ruler that would instantaneously and painlessly wipe out humanity, thus ending all the suffering in the world without causing any.
There have been several counter-arguments against this, however.
First, some philosophers argue that ending all life, even if it was instantaneous, is still inflicting suffering because it’s robbing conscious beings of happiness that could have been if they were not killed. This is a form of weak negative utilitarianism where we’re focused on increasing happiness as well as decreasing suffering.
David Pearce argues that plotting to wipe out humanity involves violating negative utilitarianism in the first place, so it couldn’t be done.
We’ll get back to the Benevolent World Exploder in a minute, but here’s another argument against negative utilitarianism that’s a bit more disruptive.
Imagine you’re a doctor and you have 4 patients that need healthy organs. If they don’t get them, they will suffer and die, causing their families a lot of grief, too. A drunken, homeless man stumbles into your hospital with no family but has the perfectly-healthy organs the dying clients need since he’s in OK health.
The negative utilitarian thing to do would be to murder the man, harvest his organs, and reduce the aggregate suffering. Does this sound like a sound, moral theory to live by to you?
If it doesn’t, don’t worry. Like regular utilitarianism, philosophers have come out with many negative utilitarianism variations such as these below.
This includes one of the most popular called “lexical-threshold negative utilitarianism” that David Pearce seems to follow.
This states that there’s at least one threshold of suffering (and maybe more) such that if someone suffers more intensely than that threshold, that suffering is lexically worse than any amount of suffering less intense than the threshold.
So, since the murdering of the man would cause a lot of suffering, it would violate one of the thresholds of extreme suffering and not be allowed under this negative utilitarianism approach.
Of course, the doctor could lull him to sleep with gas and kill him without pain, and if the doctor would feel more suffering by letting his patients die than killing an innocent person, this form of utilitarianism again seems to be OK Again, since we’re taking innocent lives for the greater good.
Just like regular utilitarianism, negative utilitarianism seems to suffer from many of the same logical predicaments of being too rigid a theory and demanding too much.
Plus, in any of its forms, it’s hard to know what exactly constitutes a negative utilitarian action, since consequentialism as a whole requires predicting the future.
What could be considered a negative utilitarian act in the short term could end up being a bad one in the future, which could then evolve to a correct one again in the even distant future.
It seems living a life by trying to always do the action that produces the least suffering isn’t a plausible way to go about things.
However, philosophers, such as Thomas Metzinger, have proposed broader forms of negative utilitarianism called “the principle of negative utilitarianism,” where we do our best as individuals to minimize suffering on a daily basis, but the most important thing is population choices as a whole should be guided by an aim to minimize suffering and deprivation.
Here, we’re not all going to be perfect negative utilitarians, but we should all share the end goal of trying to eliminate suffering and do it the best we can together.
What Will the End Result of Transhumanism Be?
This may all sound like an ideal destination for the human race at first, but it’s very difficult to predict what exactly that utopia of no suffering will look like.
Nonetheless, I think we can all agree that getting to this point will involve a high degree of changing who we are as humans fundamentally.
We would evolve from humans to something Transhumanists called “posthumans,” or a term that means after-humanism.
According to philosopher Nick Bostrom, one of the most common transhumanist theses is that human beings may eventually be able to transform themselves into different beings with abilities so greatly expanded from the current condition as to merit the label of posthuman beings.
But, if we radically change our minds that much by integrating the emerging technology and rewiring ourselves to never feel suffering, we may forget what it meant to be human in the first place.
If that’s the case, it seems again we’re back to the Benevolent World Exploder. Only, instead of an all-powerful being, we did it to ourselves in a peaceful process.
Ethicists, activists, and philosophers argue that we’re giving our lives as humans and what it means to be human away or something that lies beyond that, effectively ending our lives in a way.
Environmental ethicist Bill McKibben claims that human lives would no longer seem meaningful in a world where such limitations could be overcome technologically in his 2003 book Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age.
Biopolitical activist Jeremy Rifkin and biologist Stuart Newman argue against the genetic engineering of human beings because they fear the blurring of the boundary between human and artifact.
Could the end result of transhumanism just be a world of mindless, painless, “posthumans” with no real human meaning or purpose anymore? Is that something we really want to work toward?
In Conclusion — What Do You Think?
No one knows exactly what the future will hold and I certainly don’t claim to have the answers.
But, perhaps this article made you skeptically question the supposed benefits of blindly embracing technology and if the main goal of transhumanism is one we as humans would even want.
Plus, let me know what you think of negative utilitarianism, transhumanism, and the other ideas covered here.
Obviously, this is a pretty complex topic that probably deserves multiple articles, so if you want more articles exploring the far future or transhumanism, let me know in the comments.
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