In 2004 the editors of the journal Foreign Policy asked several prominent intellectuals to identify the world’s most dangerous idea. Surprisingly political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s choice was transhumanism. He described it as a movement “to liberate the human race from its biological constraints”. Its supporters, he said, want to “wrest their biological destiny from evolution’s blind process of random variation and adaptation and move to the next stage as a species”.
Most people would ask, “Are you kidding?” In fact, the transhumanist projects which surface in the media do sound improbable, not to say loopy. Here are three which have been widely reported.
- Elon Musk, the American billionaire boss of Tesla and Space X, recently told a conference of programmers in San Francisco that humans need to augment their brain power with “neural lace”, a fine mesh integrated into the brain which would link the brain directly to the internet. If we fail to keep pace with artificial intelligence, we will become house pets for “ultra-intelligent AI”, he said. “I don’t love the idea of being a house cat,” he said.
- Before 23-year-old Kim Suozzi died of a brain tumour in 2012, she organized for her head to be frozen and stored with Alcor, a small company in Scottsdale, Arizona. She crowd-financed the US$80,000 procedure (euphemistically called “cephalic isolation”) on Reddit. She did this in the hope that someday scientists will be able to make a digital copy of her brain, upload it to a computer and hook it up to sensory devices to achieve a kind of immortality.
- Three bioethicists, from New York University and from Oxford have suggested that children could be genetically engineered to save the world from climate change. If people were smaller, they would leave a smaller carbon footprint. “For instance if you reduce the average U.S. height by just 15cm, you could reduce body mass by 21% for men and 25% for women, with a corresponding reduction in metabolic rates by some 15% to 18%, because less tissue means lower energy and nutrient needs,” they wrote.
Transhumanism is even a topic in the US presidential campaign. A 42-year-old father of two, Zoltan Istvan, is running as the candidate of the Transhumanist Party for the American presidency in the 2016 election. The three main planks in his platform are overcoming human death and ageing within 20 years, promoting radical science, and defending humanity against extinction from asteroids, pandemics or a take-over by ultra-intelligent AI. He has been touring the United States in a bus shaped like a coffin with the slogan “Live forever with transhumanism”.
Furthermore, leading lights in the engine room of America’s economy, Silicon Valley, are also enthusiastic backers of transhumanist ideas. Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal, has donated millions to transhumanist causes. Ray Kurzweil, who made his fortune by inventing optical recognition, and now Google’s chief futurist, is one of the leading theorists of transhumanism. Transhumanism is often described as the real religion of Silicon Valley.
Enough already with the name-dropping. What is transhumanism?
“isms” are not just hard to define but, strictly speaking, undefinable. They are not natural phenomena, but merely loose agreements on a handful of central ideas and disagreements over emphasis and policies. Transhumanism, like Communism, conservatism, liberalism, pacifism, and romanticism, is not a united movement. But all transhumanists do believe that the human condition is burdened with ignorance, violence, sickness and death and that these limitations can be overcome with technology. The proper goal of reason and science is to transcend those biological limitations. “Biology is for beasts,” says presidential hopeful Zoltan Istvan, who has a gift for memorable aphorisms. He defines transhumanism as “the radical field of science that aims to turn humans into, for lack of a better word, gods.”
The typical concerns of transhumanists are:
Overcoming death. We live, not in John Paul II’s “culture of death”, but in a “deathist” culture which accepts that someday soon we will all die. Why, ask transhumanists. If we understood and mastered the biology of ageing, why couldn’t we live for 200 years? 500 years? 1,000 years? For ever?
Overcoming illness. If science can cure cancer and heart disease, why can’t it design perfectly functioning bodies? With the rapid advance of genetic engineering, it should be possible to eliminate imperfections from the human genome in new generations of children.
Overcoming evolution. Mankind has reached a tipping point in human history at which we can (and must) use technology to direct our own evolution. It could take hundreds of thousands of years to become more intelligent or less violent or longer-lived. With the help of technology, we can leap ahead.
Fear of “ultra-intelligent AI”. By the year 2045, predicts Ray Kurzweil, the intelligence of computers will surpass human intelligence and will begin to increase exponentially. Human intelligence will no longer be needed.
Fear of extinction. Homo sapiens is just another species and could be wiped out, just as the dinosaurs and so many other species have been, by disease, asteroid impacts, climate change, volcanic eruptions, pollution, or by “ultra-intelligent AI”. While men have always been terrified by an impending apocalypse, transhumanists are preparing to defend themselves against it.
Atheism. Religion meekly accepts the inevitability of death and other biological limitations and preaches an afterlife and the resurrection. But men do not need God to attain perfection and immortality. Human reason is completely sufficient.
A dualistic anthropology. Transhumanists believe that the soul – or rather, our consciousness and rationality – is separable from our body. The body is the source of limitation and needs to be transcended.
Trust in technology. All human problems can be solved with the proper technology, including moral ones. Scarcity will disappear because nanotechnology will enable us to reconstruct materials, objects and even biological tissue from basic elements. Hatred and violence can be curbed with drugs or by modifying the brain. Space colonisation is a familiar dream of many transhumanists.
Varieties of transhumanist experience
Although there is a consensus on some core notions, transhumanists have splintered into various sects and parties. Some focus on the dangers and opportunities of artificial intelligence and the Singularity, the emergence of a super-intelligent computer which makes homo sapiens obsolete. Cyborg enthusiasts experiment with body modification. Immortalists are striving to extend life span through medicine and cryogenics (freezing heads or bodies for later revivification). Some focus on eugenics, hoping to prepare for improved humans or even a superior species. “Paradise engineering” promises to deliver “genetically pre-programmed well-being”.
Although nearly all transhumanism is resolutely atheistic, some transhumanists have mystical aspirations. There are even affinities with Christian eschatology in its vision of the future, just as Marxists dreamed of a communist paradise of peace and material abundance after the class struggle had ended. Christians believe that there will be a new heaven and a new earth at the end of time; that there will be no more suffering; and that the afterlife will confer immortality and preternatural powers upon those who have been saved. Transhumanism translates these into visions of perfect bodies and omniscient minds.
To simplify these divisions and differences, transhumanism can be divided into three main streams: eschatological transhumanism, pragmatic transhumanism, and unconscious transhumanism. Eschatological transhumanism says that we should use technology to become a new species, Humanity 2.0, or Humanity+, or simply h+. This includes altering the human genome to incorporate new and better features and melding consciousness with computers. Pragmatic transhumanism is more concerned with practically achievable goals like life extension, better health, and mechanical interface with the human body.
More influential than any of these is what we could describe as unconscious transhumanism, the acceptance of technology as the solution to spiritual yearnings. It is the logical outcome of a number of trends in contemporary culture. More about this later.
Where did this come from?
In his short essay, “A History of Transhumanist Thought,” Nick Bostrom traces the transhumanist impulse back to the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh, to classical myths of Prometheus and Icarus, to mediaeval alchemy and to the Renaissance. As he points out, the Italian humanist Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, in his “Oration on the Dignity of Man”, declared that man’s destiny was to be his own creator:
We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.
As philosophers drifted further and further from Christian theology and philosophy, the radical ideas of Pico della Mirandola began to make sense. If there was no Creator God, or if God did not maintain the world in existence, then man was free (or condemned) to fashion his own destiny. The father of science which ignored God’s Providence was the English statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626). He argued that man is perfected by transforming the world, not by wisdom, ushering into Western thought a new age of materialist utopianism.
This theme was developed by Enlightenment philosophers and their successors, notably Karl Marx. But what gave it substance and plausibility was human evolution, as popularised by Charles Darwin in The Evolution of the Species. One conclusion to be drawn from this enormously influential book was that if human beings had already evolved from “apes”, they could evolve still further towards an unknown destiny.
But as long as there were no tools to accelerate the evolution of homo sapiens into h+, man would only change by degrees over millions of years. (For a dismal 19th Century vision of unassisted natural selection, see The Time Machine, a novel by H.G. Wells, in which our species has evolved into civilised and weak Eloi and ruthless and bestial Morlochs.)
With the rapid advance of science in the 20th Century, the time to fashion Bacon’s utopia had arrived. It became possible to accelerate evolution; man is on the cusp of reaching escape velocity from the dungeon of his own deficiencies.
The rapture of the nerds
Transhumanism has a religious dimension as well, even though it is thoroughly atheistic. Transhumanists have ambitious technological goals, but achieving them fails to give a meaning to life. Even if we live for a thousand years we will still die and will still ask ourselves what it all meant. So, is transhumanist man still a “useless passion”, as Jean-Paul Sartre gloomily asserted?
No. The promise of transhumanism is salvation – a kind of materialist version of Christian salvation in which we are “saved” from ignorance, pain and death. Its ultimate goal is to become like God (or rather, a god) omniscient, invulnerable and immortal. How will transhumanists achieve this? The most extreme prediction is that they will upload their consciousness onto a computer. They will spend eternity as a kind of file on the hard drive of a yet-to-be-invented internet server. From there they will be able to interact with the material world by projecting their body through a hologram or by downloading their consciousness into a series of bodies. As Ray Kurzweil writes:
Ultimately, however, the earth’s technology-creating species will merge with its own computational technology. After all, what is the difference between a human brain enhanced a trillion-fold by nanobot-based implants, and a computer whose design is based on high-resolution scans of the human brain, and then extended a trillion-fold?
In fact, a transhumanist religion, Terasem, does exist. Founded by Martine Rothblatt, a transwoman, and her (his) wife Bina, it has four fundamental principles: life is purposeful; death is optional; God is technological; and love is essential. Its website explains:
We are a transreligion that believes we can live joyfully forever if we build mindfiles for ourselves. We insist on respecting diversity without sacrificing unity, as well as pouring maximum resources into cyberconsciousness software, geoethical nanotechnology and space colonization.
To conventionally religious people, this may border on lunacy, but Martine Rothblatt was the highest-paid female CEO in the United States in 2013. She may be crazy, but she has money to spend on evangelising.
The ethics of transhumanism
The ethics of transhumanism is utilitarianism. The aspirations of transhumanists are contentious: eugenics, body modification (or mutilation), mind-uploading, genetic engineering, hostility towards disability, chemical control of emotions and a host of other proposals. Here is a prediction of one utilitarian writer:
Within the next few centuries, a triple alliance of biotech, infotech and nanotech can – potentially – make invincible bliss a presupposition of everyday mental health. From a purely technical perspective at least, global happiness can be increased by many orders of magnitude; the substrates of suffering and depression can be abolished outright; genetically pre-programmed superhealth can become the norm; and well-being in the richest sense of the term can become ubiquitous.
How can such radical measures be justified? By using the “felicific calculus” of the greatest good for the greatest number.
Conversely, the religion of utilitarianism is transhumanism. Even if a philosophy denies God, man still yearns for a reality which transcends himself. Many of the most famous utilitarian philosophers sympathise with goals like life extension, genetic engineering, and eugenics. Peter Singer, for example, believes that funding anti-ageing research is a better bet than most conventional areas of medical research. An Australian philosopher, Julian Savulescu, who is a professor at the University of Oxford, is a strong supporter of “moral transhumanism”. He argues that humanity will destroy itself unless people are genetically modified to be less violent:
if humans do not become more moral, civilization is threatened. It is unimportant that humans remain biologically human, since they do not have moral value in virtue of belonging to H. sapiens.
The appeal of philosophers like Singer is crisply logical solutions to knotty ethical problems. But the cool, rational façade falls away when they are required to explain the meaning of life and their vision for the future of humanity. They create a materialist’s mysticism.
We’re all transhumanists now
The picture I have painted makes transhumanism sound like the deranged dream of a geeky cult. Which is what it is. But we are all part of it, for unconscious transhumanism is hard-wired into contemporary society. This happens in two ways: in our dependence upon technology for mediating our experience of the real world, and in constantly redefining humanity.
To demonstrate the former, let’s quote the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, John Roberts. In a 2014 case about privacy rights and modern technology, he wrote: “modern cell phones … are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.” He hit the nail on the head: technology has become indispensable, not just to enable us to do more physical work, but as a substitute for personal interaction. In any crowd, or office, or classroom or family meal, more people will be looking at their phones than at each other.
Technology pervades every aspect of our life today, from fitness trackers to Wikipedia. We upload our heartbeats to the cloud and from the cloud we download our knowledge. Players of video games often prefer the fantasy of virtual reality to real life. We take drugs to dispel depression, to give us an edge in exams or to calm fractious children. All this is creating an intellectual atmosphere in which the beliefs of transhumanism are ever more plausible.
To demonstrate the latter, let’s quote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the 1992 case Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Back then the Supreme Court was defending abortion rights. But redefining human life is also the central theme of transhumanism. This explains why transgenderism (as well as homosexuality and redefining marriage) is so compatible with transhumanism. As Martine Rothblatt wrote in her (his) co-authored book From Transgender to Transhuman:
transhumanism arises from the groins of transgenderism. As reasoning beings, we must welcome this further transcendence of arbitrary biology, and embrace in solidarity all conscious life”.
It could be argued that the world’s most common transhumanist technology is the contraceptive pill. Most people are using the pill as a substitute for continence, thus using technology as a substitute for personal will-power. And the ultimate consequence of this has been a wholesale redefinition of sex, intimacy and marriage.
Geeky atheists feel the appeal of transhumanism most strongly. But in our growing reliance upon technology we are all touched by it. Is it really the world’s most dangerous idea? Perhaps not, but it deserves to be placed on a watch list for civilizational threats.