Transhumanism

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Transhumanism (sometimes abbreviated >H or H+) is an emergent philosophy analysing or favouring the use of science and technology, especially neurotechnology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology, to overcome human limitations and improve the human condition.

Overview

The term 'transhumanism' was coined by biologist Julian Huxley in 1957 who defined it as "man remaining man, but trans­cending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature". Huxley's definition did not gain currency and differs substantially from the one commonly in use since the 1980s.

In 1966, FM-2030 (formerly F.M. Esfandiary), an Iranian-American futurist who was teaching new concepts of the Human at New School University, began to identify as "transhuman" (a short hand for "transitory human") people who were adopting technologies, lifestyles and world views that were transitional to "posthumanity."

Transhumanism, however, was given its modern definition and characterization by philosopher Dr. Max More: "Transhumanism is a class of philosophies that seek to guide us towards a posthuman condition. Transhumanism shares many elements of humanism, including a respect for reason and science, a commitment to progress, and a valuing of human (or transhuman) existence in this life. […] Transhumanism differs from humanism in recognizing and anticipating the radical alterations in the nature and possibilities of our lives resulting from various sciences and technologies […]." [1]

Dr. Anders Sandberg describes modern transhumanism as "the philosophy that we can and should develop to higher levels, physically, mentally and socially using rational methods," while Dr. Robin Hanson describes it as "the idea that new technologies are likely to change the world so much in the next century or two that our descendants will in many ways no longer be 'human'."

Transhumanism includes:

Transhumanism and technology

Transhumanists generally support emerging technologies, including many that are controversial, such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science; as well as hypothetical future technologies such as artificial intelligence, mind uploading and cryonics.

Since some observers believe the pace of technological development is increasing, many transhumanist thinkers speculate that the next fifty years will yield radical technological advances. Transhumanism maintains that this is desirable and that humans can and should become more than human through the application of technological innovations such as genetic engineering, molecular nanotechnology, neuropharmaceuticals, prosthetic enhancements, and mind-machine interfaces (see Human Cognome Project).

Enlightenment and humanistic roots

Following in the tradition of Enlightenment-influenced 19th century political, moral and philosophical thought, transhumanism seeks to build upon the global knowledge base for the betterment of all humankind.

Derived in part from the philosophical traditions of secular humanism, transhumanism asserts that there are no 'supernatural' forces that guide humanity. While largely a grassroots and broadly based movement, transhumanism does tend toward rational arguments and empirical observations of natural phenomena; in many respects, transhumanists partake in a culture of science and reason, and are guided by life-promoting principles and values.

Specifically, transhumanism seeks to apply reason, science and technology for the purposes of reducing poverty, disease, disability, malnutrition and oppressive governments around the globe. Many transhumanists actively assess the potential for future technologies and innovative social systems to improve quality of all life, while seeking to make the material reality of the human condition fulfill the promise of legal and political equality by eliminating congenital mental and physical barriers.

Beyond humanism

Transhumanism argues there exists an ethical imperative for humans to strive for progress and improvement of the human condition. If humanity enters into a post-Darwinian phase of existence in which humans are in control of evolution, transhumanists argue that random mutations will possibly be replaced with rational, moral, and ethical, but most specifically, guided change.

To this end, transhumanists engage in interdisciplinary approaches to understanding and evaluating possibilities for overcoming biological limitations. This includes the use of the various fields and subfields of science, philosophy, economics and natural and sociological history.

History of transhumanism

The early transhumanists were formally meeting in the early 1980s at the University of California, Los Angeles, which became the central watering hole for transhumanists. It was here that FM-2030 lectured on the futurist ideology of "Upwingers". John Spencer at Space Tourism Society organized many transhumanist space-related events. Natasha Vita-More (formerly Nancie Clark) exhibited "Breaking Away" at EZTV Media, a venue for transhumanists and other futurists to meet. FM, John and Natasha met and soon they began holding gatherings for transhumanists in Los Angeles, which included students from FM-2030 transhuman courses and audiences from Natasha artistic transhumanist productions and the space and astrophysics community.

Across the planet in Australia, Damien Broderick, science fiction author, wrote The Judas Mandala. In 1982, Natasha authored the Transhumanist Arts Manifesto, and later produced the cable TV show "TransCentury UPdate" on transhumanity. This boutique talking head show reached over 100,000 viewers.

In 1986, Dr. Eric Drexler's famed book on nanotechnology, Engines of Creation, was published in hardcover by Anchor Books. Alcor Foundation's Southern California location became a nexus for futurist thinkers and Northern California's technologists were carrying copies of Engines of Creation. Yet, not all activists who were interested in improving the human condition were involved in "transhumanism". Some did not know of the word, although they were certainly pioneering in what is now transhumanism.

Today, the Extropy Institute, founded by Max More in 1988, and the World Transhumanist Association, founded by David Pearce and Nick Bostrom in 1998, are among the largest transhumanist organizations.

For a list of prominent transhumanists, see list of transhumanists.

Currents within transhumanism

Practical transhumanism

As proponents of personal evolution and self-creation, transhumanists tend to use technologies and techniques that improve cognitive and physical performance, while engaging in routines and lifestyles designed to improve health and longevity (see cyborg).

Many transhumanists seek to become transhuman or posthuman, which they see as the next significant evolutionary step for the human species. They believe biotechnological and nanotechnological innovations will facilitate such a leap by the midpoint of the 21st century. Depending on their age, some transhumanists worry that they will not live to reap the benefits of these future technologies. However with this knowledge, many have a great interest in life-extension practices and as a last resort cryonic suspension.

Regional and global transhumanist networks and communities exist to provide support and forums for discussion and working on collaborative projects.

The transhumanist reference that actually describes in detail a large number of the specific alterations that transhumanists desire to make, and which provides guidelines for species names, preemptive control of abuse of genetic modification, and methods of active research and implementation of transhumanist genetic modification of human zygotes, therefore serving as a thorough reference for the implementation of transhumanism, is called 'The Catalog Of Correctable Omnipresent Human Flaws.'

Criticisms

Criticisms of transhumanism can be divided into two main categories: those objecting to likelihood of transhumanist goals being achieved, and those objecting to the ethical and moral principles of transhumanism.

Practical criticisms

Geneticist and science writer Steve Jones argues that humanity does not, and will never have the technology that proponents of transhumanism seek. He once joked that the letters of the genetic code, A, C, G and T should be replaced with the letters H, Y, P and E. Jones claims that technologies like genetic engineering will never be as powerful as is popularly believed.

In his book Futurehype: The Tyranny of Prophecy, University of Toronto sociologist Max Dublin points out many failed predictions of the past technological progress and argues that modern futurist predictions will prove similarly inaccurate. He also objects to what he sees as fanaticism and nihilism in advancing transhumanist causes, and writes that historical parallels exist to religious and Marxist ideologies. Many transhumanists, however, disagree strongly with the very concept of fanaticism and nihilism, seeing it as inconsistent with the core rationalism of the movement. They also point out that almost every technological advancement of the last century was predicted by science fiction or non-fiction futurists.

Moral criticisms

Critics or opponents of transhumanist views often favour improvement of ethical behaviour, rather than technology, as the most effective way to improve society. Technological solutions may be compatible with other improvements, but some worry that strong advocacy of the former might divert attention and resources from the latter. As most transhumanists support non-technological changes to society, such as the spread of political liberty, and most critics of transhumanism support technological advances in areas such as communications and healthcare, the difference is often a matter of emphasis. Sometimes, however, there are strong disagreements about the very principles involved, with divergent views on humanity, human nature, and the morality of transhumanist aspirations.

A notable critic of transhumanism is Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, who argued in his essay Why the future doesn't need us that human beings would likely guarantee their own extinction by transhumanist means. This led some to conclude that humanity has an inherent lack of competence to direct its own evolution.

British Astronomer Royal Martin Rees claims in his book Our Final Hour that advanced science and technology brings as much risk of disaster as opportunity for progress. Rees does not advocate a halt to scientific progress, but tighter security and perhaps an end to traditional scientific openness.

Advocates of the primacy of the precautionary principle, such as the Green movement, also favor slow, careful progress or a halt in potentially dangerous areas. Some precautionists believe humanity's collective intelligence should organize first and thus be ready to overcome any dangers from artificial intelligences that do not share human morality, thus avoiding any risk of bodily harm.

In his book Our Posthuman Future, conservative political economist Francis Fukuyama asserts that transhumanism may actually critically undermine the progressive ideals of liberal democracy it favours, through a fundamental alteration of human nature and human equality. "Bioconservatives", like Fukuyama, hold that any attempt to alter the natural state of man (such as cloning, genetic modification) is inherently immoral.

Bill McKibben advocates against germline genetic therapy, arguing that it is inherently wrong to tamper with Nature, and that genetic therapy would be disproportionately available to those of greater financial resources, thereby exacerbating gaps between wealthy and poor.

Further opposition to transhumanism comes from critics who point to subjectivity in the use of concepts such as "enhance" and "limitations", seeing eugenicist or master race ideologies of the past as warnings of what transhumanism might unintentionally encourage, as evidenced by the emergence of fringe offshoots such as "prometheism" and "transtopianism". Some transhumanists do advocate forms of liberal eugenics but many others distance themselves from this term (prefering reprogenetics instead) to avoid being mistakenly associated with the pseudoscientific and dehumanizing views and practices of early-20th-century eugenics movements. However, given that transhumanism essentially developed out of the California self-improvement culture, the idea of equating that culture with Nazi-style eugenics is seen as laughable if not libellous by the vast majority of transhumanists.

Transhumanism in fiction

Science fiction has depicted transhumanism in various forms for many years.

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The Ousters of the Hyperion saga by Dan Simmons are an example of transhumanity, even verging into the posthuman. Instead of "clinging to rocks" like the rest of humanity (which hated and feared them as barbarians), they headed for deep space, adapted themselves to that environment with nanotechnology, and entered into a symbiotic relationship with their technology. Simmons' later books Ilium, and its sequel, Olympos, depict a different situation in the far future where posthumans seem to have been consumed by their own technology; a small population of less-modified humans, utterly dependent on technology that they don't understand, continues to live on Earth. Ironically the most advanced and "humane" beings in the solar system are intelligent robots living on the moons of Jupiter.

Another author who depicts a few different transhumanist themes is Alastair Reynolds. His Revelation Space series, set around the 25th and 26th centuries CE, depicts a few different factions of transhumanists, including the Conjoiners, the Ultras, and the Demarchists, in roughly descending order of transhumanist alteration. Most of the characters and the societies in interstellar space are included in one or another transhumanist group, suggesting that purely unaltered humans would be rare in spacefaring civilization. The Conjoiners, the most aggressively transhumanist faction, are a collective of posthumans which experienced a quickening when they started to use nanotechnology to improve their bodies and brain capacities. The Ultras take pride in ostentatious cybernetic implants, and genetic alterations to a lesser degree, as a way of setting themselves apart. The Demarchists, even though the least aggressive transhumanist group, who value remaining traditionally human for the most part, nevertheless make heavy use of cybernetic implants and genetic engineering, though achieving their effect inconspicuously. In Century Rain, Reynolds has a group called Slashers, which are based upon the Slashdot community. In this book nanotechnology is also the important factor. In Reynolds' novelette Diamond Dogs, the plot is centered on the increasingly aggressive transhumanist alterations the protagonists undertake to better enable them to pursue a difficult quest.

The Borg in Star Trek are one of the more prominent depictions of transhumanists in popular culture, in a version of transhumanism limited in scope to the addition of cybernetic implants and a species hive mind. The Borg seek "perfection" in the form of complete artificiality, but make little progress of their own, preferring to assimilate technology and minds from other species.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, a novel by Cory Doctorow, explores a number of transhumanist themes, including "cures" for death and scarcity. Another free novel, Manna by Marshall Brain, also depicts a transhuman future.

A role-playing game called Transhuman Space written by David L. Pulver, illustrated by Christopher Shy, published by Steve Jackson Games is part of the "Powered by GURPS" line. [2]

The Culture Series by Iain M. Banks depicts a future in which our galaxy is dominated by a civilisation called the Culture. The Culture represents in many ways the success of transhumanism; it is a perfect democratic utopian society in which every member has the ability to alter their own body and genetics through technology. An especially prominent link with transhumanism is the development of 'drug glands' in human bodies, which allow people to produce and take advantage of thousands of combinations of psychoactive substances within their own brains.

Elements of transhumanism are found in the writings of science fiction author Greg Bear. Examples include Eon (1985) and its sequel Eternity (1988) in which a future human society inadvertantly returns to their past (our present). Extensive use is made of computer theory with regards to the downloading/uploading of human personality and memories, as well as genetic engineering and cloning to improve life and ensure immortality. Another example, the short story Hardfought (1993), depicts a fascinating if pessimistic view of humanity in the far future, where human society and biology are strictly manipulated and controlled to ensure maximum effectiveness in the struggle against the galaxy's oldest inhabitants. Finally, architecture, AI and articial implants and bodies are depicted in Strength of Stones (1982), where a brilliant architect attempts and fails to create religious utopias on a distant world.

The novel Heart of the Comet by David Brin and Gregory Benford also explores the uploading of personality to computer, when the character Virginia transfers her memories and personality into the processor of the computer JonVon, effectively evolving into the first individual of the new phylum: Biocybernetic man.

In the video game Half-Life 2, the player's primary enemies are transhumans created by an alien race known as the Combine. The human antagonist and puppet ruler of Earth, Dr. Breen, argues that the transhuman state is necessary and can only be achieved with outside (alien) help.

The video games of the Deus Ex series feature transhumanism heavily as a theme, though the first game seems bent against it. In the original game, the player must fight against a technocratic conspiracy to replace human beings with machines; although to avoid approaching the issue from a strictly black-and-white point of view, the hero as well as many of his friends are themselves transhuman cyborgs, and the so-called "good guys" (the enemies of the conspiracy) are in fact conspirators themselves, and represent the oppression of mankind over mankind, as opposed to the "bad guys" who represent the desire to misuse transhuman technologies to control people. The second game, Deus Ex: Invisible War, also features transhumanism among its themes; a relatively large number of people have transhuman characteristics within the game, also including the main character. Since the first serial, the world has collapsed into chaos and savagery, and the only way many were able to survive is by enhancing their minds and bodies to thrive in the new environment. Many organizations, such as the World Trade Organization within the game, embrace transhumans as being necessary at least part of the time: there are some situations in the new world which simply cannot be handled by naturals. Most notable, however, is the struggle between two broad "sides", those against the new transhumans, who find voice in a fanatical organization calling itself the Knights Templar, and the strong proponents of transhumanism, notably the Denton brothers (the heroes of the first game) and their organization ApostleCorp, who seek what they call the "Great Advance", and a much more radical cyborg movement, the Omar, who believe natural humanity is beyond saving, and who advocate that transhumans join their New Breed and leave humanity to die.

The collaborative Orion's Arm Worldbuilding Project has created a vast populated future universe with many different visions of the future of humanity, including many different types of transhuman being.

Cavedog Entertainment's award-winning Total Annihilation featured a 4-millenia war between two opposing political groups : the Core, who advocated the mandatory "uploading" of human consciousness into a massive, planet-wide AI, and the Arm, a group of humans who did not wish to give up their physical bodies.

The videogames Halo and Halo 2 feature the Master Chief, the result of a project to enhance an existing human specimen with cybernetic and genetic alteration.

Aldous Huxley's Brave New World shows the effect of how humans are engineered from birth to be of a certain mental standard, and how elements from technology and mass production have been incorperated into society - notably 'Fordism' which views Henry Ford as a messiah.

Transhumanist spirituality

Although some transhumanists report a strong sense of spirituality, they are for the most part secular. In fact, many transhumanists are either agnostics or atheists. There are, however, a number of transhumanists that follow liberal forms of Eastern philosophical traditions, and a minority of transhumanists that have merged their beliefs with established religions (see Christian transhumanism). Some transhumanists also look to The Simulation Argument as a basis for a modern form of deism.

Despite the prevailing secular attitude, transhumanism seeks to actualize the goals and hopes traditionally espoused by religions, such as immortality. Some transhumanists hope that future understanding of neurotheology will enable humans to achieve control of altered states of consciousness and thus 'spiritual' experiences.

Materialist transhumanists do not believe in a transcendent human soul. They often believe in the compatibility of the human minds with computer hardware, with the theoretical implication that human consciousness may someday be uploaded to alternative media. Consequently, most material transhumanists subscribe to the ethics of personhood theory.

References

See also

External links

Manifestos
Organizations
Portals
Blogs

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