Transhumanism – what is it and what should we think about it?

Trans-humanism is the name for the notion that the human as it exists needs to be overcome and replaced not by further biological evolution but through willful, technological evolution. In other words, by taking on technological components which would not be external contingent attachments, like cell phones, but central functional replacements, like improved nervous systems, improved thinking capacity, improved strength through machine implants etc… The purpose of these operations is not to simply enhance the functionality of the existing human being, but to allow a re-conceiving of what the human being is for. As Fukayama puts it:

“As “transhumanists” see it, humans must wrest their biological destiny from evolution’s blind process of random variation and adaptation and move to the next stage as a species.”

The key distinction between trans-humanism and what is implicit in current medical neuroscience, and even internet hand held devices, is that the purpose (not neccesarily the effect) of trans-humanist technological adaptation is not to use technology to better cope with  the world (i.e. Google maps), but to use technology to recognize a different world to cope with than the one we could encounter before (i.e. perhaps the kind of social activities made possibly through google maps).  The difference then, is between using aids to solve problems better and more easily, to changing the problem – changing the question even.
Fukayama is quite worried about trans-humanism. He believes that it compromises the notion that all people are created equal, and that whereas biological human evolution has promoted a long and difficult struggle towards the ultimate human good of freedom, changing the nature of the human being will change the good and produce disastrous consequences:
“Nobody knows what technological possibilities will emerge for human self-modification. But we can already see the stirrings of Promethean desires in how we prescribe drugs to alter the behavior and personalities of our children. The environmental movement has taught us humility and respect for the integrity of nonhuman nature. We need a similar humility concerning our human nature. If we do not develop it soon, we may unwittingly invite the transhumanists to deface humanity with their genetic bulldozers and psychotropic shopping malls. ”

We should notice that Fukayama here immediately associates the kind of change that Transhumanists yearn for with psychotropic drugs. I entirely share his fear for these drugs, because I believe the way they function in society is to turn a large portion of the society into disfunctional yet perfectly orderable addicts. The key difference to be understood is between a becoming, an event of evolution, which moves from one state to another, and in the next state has no more possibilities for further becoming other than by moving back to the first, and a becoming which through the becoming opens up possibilities for further becomings. Drugs are of the 1st kind – they offer a new possibiilty for the way the human relates with the world. However, there is no way out rather than back, or over-dose. No drug trip lasts forever, and even if it did, it does not allow for more and more trips to be added on to it. The only way to engage in a new becoming after taking drugs is by first sobering up. Contrast that kind of becoming with getting fit, for example. Once you have become fit, your body has undergone a transformation which means you encounter the world in a new way – however, this state does not have the characteristic of needing to go back to an unfit state before the body can transform again in a new way. Rather, becoming fit offers many further possibilities for changing the way the body works in other ways, i.e. becoming fit makes Yoga a better possibility, and Yoga makes Karate more possible, and Karate makes eastern meditation more possible, etc… I do not mean this to be an “A therefore B” structure, rather each “A” could lead to any number of “B’s”.

If we distinguish between these two kinds of becomings, we can distinguish between the positive and negative trend in trans-humanism. The negative trend includes drugs, and surgeries which do not offer possibilities for further surgeries. The positive trend involves self-training, achiving the effects of drugs through meditation, and perhaps surgeries that open up possibilities for futher indeterminate enhancements. So long as possibilities remain open and varied, trans-humanism cannot shut down and become a movement of a singular purpose, or one which demands the destruction of any existing structures.

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2 thoughts on “Transhumanism – what is it and what should we think about it?

  1. It sounds like you are ready to delve into Deleuzian inspired cyborg theory. I followed the link and read the original article by Fukuyama, but I am still wading through the Metafiller comments.

    I don’t agree with the way you have phrased the transhumanist goal. The relevant distinction is internal and external. It is a question about whether our bodies or merely the external world are suitable for technological change. You’ve captured the notion correctly when you talk about integrating tools into our bodies, but then you decided to report the distinction as dealing with the world qua changing the world. Technology can, and has changed the world for centuries.

    Fukuyama raises a series of conventional problems, which are rather disappointing on reflection. Equality is certainly a concern, but Fukuyama is mistaking formal equality for substantive equality. There are clear biological differences between individuals. I think it was a strong move to appeal to historical role our notion of essence has played in securing social and political rights for excluded groups, specifically how the presumed similarities began to trump irrelevant differences, however, Fukuyama neglects the functional attachment of rights to faculties. We may have extended rights to humanity as a class, because the claims of superiority or uniqueness of subcategories proved impossible to sustain, but it is the nature of the faculty that induces us to extend rights to animals even though they remain distinctly different from humans in many other regards. Thus, there is no logical reason to rescind rights in the face of genetic enhancements unless natural human beings lose the relevant faculties. When you consider the essential relation between the capacity to feel pain and the right to body integrity one must realize that the addition of new human faculties in no way achieves a subtraction of the existing ones.

    Fukuyama also makes the traditional appeal to our essence, or our nature. The gestalt argument in place of the traditional theological appeal is a nice touch, but falls prey to the same monster – this question has already been answered and tacitly accepted through our relation to technology. I’ll just try to hit all the potential faulty premises in quick succession. Our nature is malleable. Our understanding of our collective essence, role in the world, and individual identities have all changed throughout history. (Just ask W.R. Newell what it means to be a man.) While changing one little part may effect the greater whole, the same is true of our identity and we do not proceed through our daily lives in a state of constant terror caused by concern about how any one of our actions might inexplicably and unexpectedly ruin us at anytime. Through embracing technology we have accepted that our reason can be applied to make the world better. Once again, while we have been naïve about interference in complex systems, and have recently realized how some of our modifications of the natural world caused larger and unpredicted consequences, we generally don’t accept than any interaction with the world will bring about disastrous consequences, even though any such interaction does necessitate a change in a gestalt’s picture. We fight illness, so we have accepted the application of reason to address problems concerning our bodies. Finally, and this is the crucial transhumanist movement, through vaccines we have accepted our bodies as something that maybe altered, engineered, improved, etc, in order to address problems. This no longer marks the application of technology to address real or perceived deficiencies with our bodies, but the technological change of our bodies. In principle, our bodies are an artwork that is suitable for reordering to fulfill our goals in the same way the exterior world can be.

    We just don’t accept the gestalt picture in our daily lives. I emphatically reject the religious claim that we are made in God’s image. The warning against hubris and the urge for careful consideration of what type of alterations are desirable is always welcome, but is not an argument against all genetic intervention. Which brings the final point about the relation of genetics and equality; Fukuyama assumes a trend towards inequality with many being left behind. He fails to consider the possibility of genetics in the service of justice. Similarly, he raises, what I consider to be an extremely valid concern that most transhumanists and eugenicists have their own set of values they prioritize and seek to promote. Here the danger goes far beyond a warning against hubris, that incorrect values might be advanced, for it is always pragmatically wise to be fearful of those with very specific visions for remaking the world. However, he fails to consider the alternative models of genetic intervention. The negative connotations of eugenics tend to diminish if it is placed within a liberal framework. In order to mount a serious objection, Fukuyama would have to show that it is not possible or unlikely to have a liberal and equalitarian system of human enhancement, where individuals or families pursue their own values, and the question of genetic enhancement is considered in the light of optimal, justice and equal societal arrangement.

    Lastly, the example he offers is somewhat misplaced. The modification of children with drugs seems scary because it forces an inauthentic mode of existence upon the children. Unfortunately this does not equate to changing their identity. The problem comes from the tension between what one is, and what society tells one it should be, rather than an actual creation of someone with a particular form. It is cruel to force individuals with hydrophobia to swim, and it might be cruel to drug little children to subdue them. It is not clear that it is wrong to create the type of person who likes to sit still. Clearly, we might mold the clay into any number of monstrosities, but the praise or condemnation has to be directly related to what we choose to produce, and not inherent in the process.

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