The Quest to Transcend Biological Limitations: What is Transhumanism?

Transhumanism is, according to Nick Bostrom, the director of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, “a loosely defined movement that has developed gradually over the past two decades. It promotes an interdisciplinary approach to understanding and evaluating the opportunities for enhancing the human condition and the human organism opened up by the advancement of technology” (1).

Through technology, transhumanists hope that human beings will eventually become posthuman. The term ‘‘posthumanism’’ was first used in the Josiah Macy Foundation conferences on cybernetics (1946-1953) in New York and imagines a “postbiological” and “post-Darwinian” phase in human development in which humans have vastly enhanced capacities. At its most basic level,

“… transhumanism is an intellectual and cultural movement premised upon the idea that human beings can use science and technology to significantly enhance their capabilities and thereby overcome many of the limitations of human biology” (2).

The transhumanist’s interests are several. They are interested in liberating humanity from its biological limitations by enabling human beings to live happier, longer, and healthier lives (3). Transhumanists look favorably upon scientific and technological advances (in the areas of artificial intelligence, stem-cell therapy, gene manipulation, genetic engineering, mechanical enhancements, anti-aging therapies, etc.) and see in them the possibility of one day attaining perfection in a posthuman, mechanical, ideal Virtual Kingdom. Science involves a “deliberate effort” leading “to a series of human condition-changing technologies, e.g., life extension, cognitive enhancement, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, brain-computer symbiosis, whole brain emulation, space colonization” (4). 

Transhumanists are, however, aware that current technology is insufficient for attaining these goals, but they maintain deep faith in science believing their pursuits to be reasonable, scientific, and achievable (5). Transhumanists are pragmatists seeking constructive problem-solving methods to perceived challenges such as, in this case, biological limitations. 

Transhumanism’s origin rests in Enlightenment rationalism with its belief in progress through science. The movement came to favor secular rationalism over religious belief, although many scholars perceive transhumanism to be a secular religion or a movement with strong religious themes in it (6). The Enlightenment formed the “basis for rational humanism” of transhumanism emphasizing empirical science and critical reason, rather than revelation and religious authority, for learning about the natural world (7). The term “transhumanism” itself was first used by Julian Huxley (1887-1975) in 1957 building on his book Evolution, the Modern Synthesis (1942) that summarized various scientific developments in the areas of genetics, ecology, embryology, and anatomy (8). Huxley highlighted a religious dimension to transhumanism calling it a “religion without revelation”.

Transhumanism’s interest in transferring consciousness into machines to attain immortality traces back to mid-twentieth century science fiction. Robert Ettinger (1918-2011) was influential in the transhumanist movement. He presented the notion of cryogenics in The Prospect of Immortality (1962) and advocated transhumanism in Man into Superman (1972). The futurist writer and philosopher FM-2030 (initial name Fereidoun M. Esfandiary) published Optimism-One (1970) and Up-Wingers (1973) that both inspired transhumanism in the work of other pop-science books and authors. According to scholar Robert Geraci, “their books thus do evangelical work on behalf of transhumanism” (9). Following this was the emergence of transhumanist groups led by FM-2030, the controversial psychologist Timothy Leary (1920-1996), author and speaker Natasha Vita-More, and others, in the 1980s seeking to bring science fiction into public consciousness. 

Although the transhumanist community is small globally, its cultural and social influences are not (10), especially as it lives through advanced communication technologies like the internet. Further, several figures favorable to the transhumanist agenda are in influential positions in some governmental agencies that invest resources into projects involving human technological augmentation. There are various projects in this field. It is particularly apparent in military research and interests wanting to create more advanced human beings and machines for combat purposes.

At the heart of transhumanism is the human desire to solve existential and practical obstacles. These desires are, of course, not new. Humanity has always tried to overcome obstacles and improve and expand the boundaries of its existence. For example, the invention of fire and clothing to keep warm, the wheel for mobility, the train and sea vessel for transportation, and so on. Transhumanism is a continuation of these efforts with an emphasis on overcoming obstacles to biological life.

Bostrom identifies several areas transhumanism is seeking to overcome laminations of biological life (11). First, transhumanists recognize that the human lifespan, which is merely several decades-long, is short and that technology can extend it. Second, they wish to vastly enhance human intellectual capacity to, for example, increase intelligence, prevent forgetfulness, and much else. There is the goal of radically enhancing bodily functionality to protect the person from diseases, control the body’s metabolic rate, shape oneself according to his or her desires, and generally improve the person’s quality of life. Another goal is to increase the sensory modalities that in human beings are not as developed as they could be. For instance, there could be a sharper sense of smell, infrared vision, the ability to perceive radio signals, telepathic senses, and brain augmentations. For now, many of these goals remain hopeful. 

Transhumanists look forward to what we can call the Virtual Kingdom. They envision a mechanical, posthuman future in which machines will transcend human biology and replace it. There will be an interface between human brains and machines and the human body will continue evolving and enhancing its resistance to biological threats and limitations. The body will be durable, energetic, resistant to damage, and easy to repair. This posthuman age will have the boundaries between humans and machines blur (12). Posthumans could possess an enhanced form of philosophical, cognitive, or emotional threshold for experiencing or perceiving the meaning of life (13).

In the Virtual Kingdom, differences between a biological and mechanical mind will disappear. These minds will become one as consciousness is uploaded into machines. Ray Kurzweil, a leading futurist and visionary in the transhumanist movement, presents a “brain-porting scenario” involving “scanning a human brain, [and] capturing all of its salient details” (14). Human beings “will continue to have human bodies, but they will become morphable projections of our intelligence” (15). Kurzweil agrees with the anthropologist Ernest Becker who wrote that the “idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man’’ (16). Attaining cybernetic immortality will overcome the fear of death and death itself.

What does Kurzweil envision? He envisions human minds being uploaded into robots or a virtual reality where they will enjoy cybernetic immortality and live forever as avatars in software or cyberspace. Transhumanists have been “working on initiatives to achieve digital immortality through the technology of mind cloning, also known as ‘the transfer of consciousness’ or ‘mind uploading’” (17). Human beings will not only transcend previous limitations but can also project their virtual bodies holographically into various worlds or virtual realities. Each person will have a “mind file” existing on a network in the form of holographic avatars that can interact with other bodiless posthuman entities. These avatars will “gradually become indistinguishable from the actual persons we know and love” (18).

But is this notion of immortality somewhat fanciful? Even if humanity unlocked the ability to upload consciousness into machines “multiple dispersed backup-copies will” still “eventually have to face the heat-death of the universe or a case of bad luck” (19). Some question the very basis of cybernetic consciousness wondering if it is even possible to record sufficient sensory experiences and actions to produce brain emulation in machines consisting of billions of neurons and trillions of synapses (20).

But this has not deterred efforts of pursuing immortality. The Russian billionaire transhumanist Dmitry Itskov established the 2045 Strategic Social Initiative to have the top scientists in the fields of artificial systems, robotics, and neural interfaces combine their efforts to realize cybernetic immortality (21). Founded in 2004, the Terasem Foundation is pursuing “Transferred Consciousness” by creating mindfiles to be downloaded into biological or nanotechnological bodies (22). The movement promotes the use of nanotechnology for human life extension and supports work in the areas of cryogenics, biotechnology, and cyber consciousness.

There is the prospect in “Cosmist Transhumanism” of expanding into space as “Intelligence becomes technological, masters the natural world, and eventually begins to colonize space” (23). Such expansion would be unlimited and there will be seemingly infinite astronomical resources and materials available. Some, such as Kurzweil, think that the entire universe will “wake up” and become intelligent whereas others predict that intelligence will become interconnected and produce a single super-mind (24).

Many transhumanists believe that universal expansion will produce greater meaning. Matter possesses no intrinsic value or meaning, but life and mind do. Diffusing life and mind in the universe such as, for example, turning matter into mind will produce more meaning to life. Transhumanists view these prospects of a “new genesis” as exciting and a “beautiful destiny” for humanity (25).

Some speculate that before attaining this Virtual Kingdom, humanity will encounter a “golden age” bringing forth the fruits of “world peace, universal prosperity, and evolution to a higher level of compassion and accomplishments” (26). It will be an age of striving for moral perfection in which “racism, sexism, speciesism, belligerent, nationalism and religious intolerance are unacceptable” (27). There will be an emphasis on equality and personal choice. Ideally, everyone should have the opportunity to become posthuman if they wish to and this option should not be restricted to a tiny elite. The Terasem Foundation has concerns that “nanotechnology and cyber consciousness could be made available only to an elite” which could create “class divisions within society”. They therefore commit to respecting “diversity and unity” in their projects. Further, people will differ regarding how they might want to augment or develop themselves because they will have different conceptions of what perfection looks like. Individual choice and freedom are essential when it comes to enhancement technologies.

References

1. Bostrom, Nick. 2005[a]. “Transhumanist Values.” Journal of Philosophical Research 4(1):1-12. p. 1.  

2. Huberman, Jenny. 2017. “Immortality transformed: mind cloning, transhumanism and the quest for digital immortality.” Mortality 23(1):1-16. p. 1. 

3. Young, Simon. 2005. Designer Evolution: A Transhumanist Manifesto. New York: Prometheus Books.

4. Sandberg, Anders. 2014. “Transhumanism and the Meaning of Life.” In Transhumanism and Religion: Moving into an Unknown Future, edited by Tracy Trothen and Calvin Mercer. Praeger. p. 6. 

5. Winyard Sr., David C. “Transhumanism: Christian Destiny or Distraction?” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 2(72):1-23. p. 2.

6. Hopkins, Patrick D. 2005. “Transcending the Animal: How Transhumanism and Religion Are and Are Not Alike.” Journal of Evolution and Technology 14(2):13-28; Jordan, Gregory E. 2006. “Apologia for Transhumanist Religion.” Journal of Evolution and Technology 15(1):55-72; Amarasingam, Amarnath. 2008. “Transcending Technology: Looking at Futurology as a New Religious Movement.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 23(1):1-16; Geraci, Robert M. 2011. “There and Back Again: Transhumanist Evangelism in Science Fiction and Popular Science.” Implicit Religion 14(2):141-172; Tirosh-Samuelson, Hava. 2012. “Transhumanism as a Secular Faith.” Zygon 47(4):710-734.

7. Bostrom, Nick. 2005[b]. “A History of Transhumanist Thought.” Journal of Evolution and Technology 14(1):1-25. p. 2.

8. Tirosh-Samuelson, Hava. 2012. Ibid. p. 719.

9. Geraci, Robert M. 2011. Ibid. p. 156.

10. Tirosh-Samuelson, Hava. 2012. Ibid. p. 731.

11. Bostrom, Nick. 2005[a]. Ibid. p. 2-5. 

12. Tirosh-Samuelson, Hava. 2012. Ibid. p. 731.

13. Sandberg, Anders. 2014. Ibid. p. 9.

14. Tirosh-Samuelson, Hava. 2012. Ibid. p. 717.

15. Kurzweil, Ray. 2005. The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. New York: Penguin Books. p. 138.

16. Amarasingam, Amarnath. 2008. Ibid. p. 8.

17. Huberman, Jenny. 2017. Ibid. p. 2.

18. Bell, Chester G., Gray, Jim. 2001. “Digital Immortality.” Communications of the ACM 44(3):28-31.

19. Sandberg, Anders. 2014. Ibid. p. 6.

20. Gemmell, Jim., Bell, Chester G. and Lueder, Riger. 2006. “MyLifeBits: A personal database for everything.” Communications of the ACM 49(1):89-95.

21. 2045. 2012. FAQ. Available.

22. Terasem. n.d. About the Terasem Movement Foundation Inc. Available.

23. Sandberg, Anders. 2014. Ibid. p. 12.

24. Sandberg, Anders. 2014. Ibid. p. 12-13.

25. Murphy, B. J. 2018. A Transhumanist’s Journey: Becoming Gods, Angels, and Ghosts. Available.

26. Bainbridge, William S., and Mihail, Roco C. 2002. Managing Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno Innovations: Converging Technologies in Society. Dordrecht: Springer. p. 6.

27. Bostrom, Nick. 2005[a]. Ibid. p. 10.

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