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Transhumanism: The Next Step?

by Patrick Inniss

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 as 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 basic humanist principles.

According to one Web site, transhumanism is "a philosophy that humanity can, and should, strive to higher levels 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 that's clearly what transhumanists are attempting to shape and 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, 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 Markhoff Chanry, "It's 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 humanity's lot. Unfettered by traditional views of nature and humanity's 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, 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, transhumanists tend to be almost apathetic by comparison. Although transhumanism's 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 to be. 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?

Patrick Inniss is a columnist from Seattle, Washington. The following is reprinted from the Fall 1998 issue of The Secular Humanist Press, the newsletter of the Humanists of Washington, with special permission of the author.


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