This is the first in what will be a series of reviews of the essays written by various authors over a number of years, collected by Max and Natasha Vita More in “The Transhumanist Reader” (link to purchase at bottom). It is intended to expose the reader to some key, high-level ideals coming from individuals who associate themselves as transhuman, the belief that we can and should improve the human organism beyond natural limitations through the use of science and technology.
In his essay; The Philosophy of Transhumanism, Max More explores the concept of transhumanism and its growth as a philosophy and movement from a number of current and historical perspectives. I’ve picked out a few highlights while leaving much for the reader to explore.
To the author, transhumanism has a distinct identity harnessed from different definitions and sources from the topic of philosophy. It bares open different themes, interests and values that make transhumanism what it is, which according to the author is “Philosophies of life…that seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form.”
To him transhumanism ranks alongside Confucianism and secular humanism, both worldviews that practically impact our very lives without the use of superstition or (physically) transcendent beliefs. A philosophy that- contrary to religion and superstition, emphasizes a transformation inspired by reason and science.
Max More believes that the transhumanist reliance on technology to eliminate biological limits as opposed to education and cultural improvements means that risks and costs can be kept at a minimum while shaping our nature for deliberate results. We would no longer be human but rather, posthuman since we would no longer suffer aging or even death, although other challenges might surface at the time.
Posthumans would have free form and cognitive capabilities as well as better emotions (e.g less sorrow and more joy) refined and controlled by the posthuman and if transhumanists have their wishes, then there will also be a much larger environment to live in, not the least being space itself and newly created and rich virtual worlds.
Furthermore, the author maintains that understanding the potentials of transhumanism requires the integration of physical and social sciences such as was developed from the principles of “extropy,” first published in 1990 and that the value of independent thinking gives way to rationale whose advantages would be the ability to reason rather than be blinded to faith and in the end learning by experiment instead of believing. In the end however, he also suggests that emphasis on “transhuman-ism” over “trans-humanism” might cause transhumanists to reject the concept of open society even as it is thus far very compatible with their goals of continual improvement instead of a utopia.
He also states that some transhumanists have attempted to avoid cognitive biases as well as deficient cognitive shortcuts yet the philosophy requires extensive and critical thinking and analysis. Nevertheless, the epistemological (a branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge) views of transhumanists range widely, where some thinkers support the concept of foundationalism such as was Descarte’s insistence that God was at the center of the foundations of knowledge. Idealists and empiricists- More continues- concentrate more on seeking unquestionable or self-evident signs of intellectual intuition while eliminating the idea of God, a view which is itself challenged by critical thinkers who insist that reasoning must be used systematically even while giving up justification.
Critical rationalism then would appear to be a close fit for transhumanism, but then, there also exists another group of transhumanists, inspired by Ayn Rand and remain committed to a foundationalist epistemology where knowledge is hierarchical and based upon undeniable axioms. To More, some critics confuse functionalism with dualism not paying attention to the fact that the cognitive system or mental state is not dependent upon the physical instantiation and he blames this to the theory that these critics have read too much mind “uploading” literature.
Max More also introduces us to Eliminativism, which argues against the concept of common sense and that some mental states are non-existent in the brain. Furthermore, eliminativism contends that belief, intention or desire don’t have coherent basis of neurology.
Revisionary materialism on the other hand argues that states are reducible to the state of physical phenomena as soon as changes have been made to the concept of folk psychology. This position excites transhumanists most because it allows the full extent of reconceptualization of the cognitive architecture of humans.
While humans have lived in an entirely physical universe, More suggests a time when we would actually spend considerable time in simulated environments. In fact, there are those who have questioned if we aren’t already living in a simulated environment! He goes on to suggest that transhumanism may actually be able to co-exist with religion, being a form of life without a reference to a higher power and even says that some transhumanists already hold religious beliefs anyway, most of whom seem to be Mormons (perhaps owing to their teachings that humans can ascend to god-like status) while Christian transhumanists are rare.
All in all, in the article’s section on Philosophy, Mr More takes us on a compelling a thought-provoking journey via comparative analysis to give us a view of some of the philosophical variances that exist thought the communities that identify as transhumanist. It is an enjoyable ride.
Max More, in his essay takes the time to run us through the history of transhumanism, from early definitions such as Dante Alighieri’s divine comedy of 1312 to Julian Huxley’s “New bottles for New wine” a 1957 book in which he included an entire chapter called “Transhumanism.”
More however emphasizes that the history of the philosophy that transhumanism became is varied and depends largely on different sources. There are precursors and proto-transhumanists between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries who searched the Elixir of life and philosopher’s stone. One such person was Pico della Mirandola whose 1486 essay “Oration on the dignity of man” has lately made him a subject of much controversy owing to his insistence that God is the craftsman. Some transhumanists today take offence at his refusal to give humans some credit especially as regards their ability to recreate themselves even as his essay suggests that God gave man the freedom to choose his form.
Darwin’s “Origin of species” 1859 was the one that ultimately released the possibility that humans could just be getting started in their evolutionary path and led to scientists such as Friedrich Nietzsche to suggest that “humans can be overcome” and used such boldness that transhumanists were inspired to follow through on his challenge to “overcome” humans.
Later precursors such as Nikolai Fedorovich Fedorov (1829– 1903), a Christian philosopher advocated for scientific methods to achieve immortality and even raise those who died back to life in new, immortal forms since evolution came with increased intelligence. Jean Finot, who came shortly after Fedorov went as far as to suggest the use of science to engineer life.
Mr More goes on to more modern, broader-thinking influences and notable introductions such as cryonics and the prospect of immortality, the role of the arts and Natasha Vita-More’s 1982 Transhuman Manifesto, the Extropy Institute, the 1998 Transhuman Declaration, and the on-line Vital Summit in 2004 birthing the Proactionary Principle.
Max More discusses current trends, or rather demonstrates a range of perspectives on transhumanism while acknowledging the unifying theme that to overcome biological limitations is as possible as it is desirable. Likewise, they tend to favour the route of personal choice, such as cryonics, mood modifiers, and more freedoms of form. Some transhumanists would favour, or at least predect a “singularity,” a kind of single government likely headed by one supercomputer.
He discusses in some detail the reasons for varying views on the subject and acknowledges that there are those that are wary of even the attempts to move toward a transhuman existence.
And there are risks. More includes them in his essay while stating that since the early days of transhumanist discussions, risks were put into consideration thanks especially to the efforts of “bioconservatists” and other transhumanism opponents who continued to highlight them and insist on cultural consensus. Consequently, the likelihood of the extinction of the human race has been – and continues to be – explored. Some transhumanists have argued that extinction is inevitable (i.e. via catastrophes and pathogens) unless transhumanism is widely adopted and implemented.
Finally, Max More takes the time to explain transhumanism by actually responding to various misconceptions about it. These include critics who see the association as wide-eyed utopians, as people who claim to be predicting the future, and that transhumanists intensely dislike their bodies and are afraid of death. He counters each eloquently in turn indicating the principle of continuous improvement rather than any state of perfect stasis, transhumanist’s developing expectations along the lines of obvious technological advance (with no particular timelines, counter to ‘prediction’), the admiration of the human organism and the desire to improve upon it, and to counter the final criticism, that of thanatophobia, More cites the desire to maintain the continuity of existence rather than flee the unknown of death.
This is a great section of the essay that helps wrap things up by framing some of the philosophical underpinnings, in relatively concrete terms.
In conclusion of this review of Mr More’s essay, it is a terrific start to what I am now more than ever convinced will be a fantastic foray into the philosophies and perspectives generated by those with a common belief that we can and should improve the human organism. I recommend getting your own copy of The Transhumanist Reader.
All quotes and examples are taken from “The Philosophy of Transhumanism,” Max More, as printed in the Transhumanist Reader (link above).
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