Note, February 6 2020: I must make it clear that I now believe in essentially the opposite of transhumanism and have felt this way for years. In fact I felt this way several years prior to writing this article, too: an interest in machine intelligence caught my favor for a rather brief time in my life. That being said, at least for the sake of historical purposes I would rather not remove this article (for now). If I must have such concerns, I can only hope it has not worked against me...
Transhumanism is, basically put, the bridging of human and
machine. It can take the form of implanting human consciousness into a robot
body. It can take the form of replacing human body parts with machine parts. It
can take the form of artificially created intelligence (known simply as
artificial intelligence, or AI), which, I would think, is programmed by man,
and it in time learns how to rewrite its own code (but I'm not certain). This ability, I believe, is
the mark of consciousness- and, thus, of true intelligence.
The premises of transhumanism and of AI are interesting, to say the least. They’re something I- and many others- have a whole lot of resistance to right now, but I know it’s one of those things that I will in time be open to, and will perhaps even embrace.
I will note, up front, that I am not going to focus on specific developments in transhumanism (i.e. what it is) but rather what it may mean for us existentially and philosophically. Thus, I may go beyond the scope of transhumanism to consider futuristic possibilities altogether.
I will quickly mention that developments have been worked toward such as bionic eyes, bulletproof spidersilk armor, technology that enables the ability to communicate by thought (i.e. telepathy; these thoughts are translated, if needed), and an exoskeleton suit which increases strength.
The Ever-Increasing Complexity of Reality
One worry about transhumanism is that it will purge from this planet many of the things that make us human; or, more specifically, some of the things we enjoy because of our humanness. I can say that, for the most part (yes, there’s a bit of resistance everywhere- isn’t there?), I would not be too sad to see things such as junk food, muscle cars, and stupid television go. I basically don’t participate in them as it is.
Where my resistance comes us to the removal of these things, however, is that, in the context of subjective reality/a dream world, these things represent different aspects of consciousness: that is, myself. In the larger scope of reality they certainly are not totally useless or meaningless: within this dream perspective there must be some purpose for their being, no?
Of course, I have to remember that the elimination of these things from reality will co-occur with the elimination of these things from consciousness. So it would seem, then, that if I am able to let go of my attachment to them, then they will go.
However, there is something of a conundrum in this dream world, which is that transcending parts of myself seems viable only in the short-term. Allowing myself to take time into account (since time is irrelevant in a dream world), it appears that the amount of contrast in reality has basically increased over the course of history. That is, the ways people behave have become more differentiated with the passage of time.
At the supposed beginning of man’s life, most people had to live similarly (at least, all the people within one geographical area). Your primarily task was to directly attend to survival- hunt, prepare food, make clothes and shelter, raise yo kids, and so on. Different roles in tribe life aside, there wasn’t much beyond that (well, unless our ancestors were friends with aliens. Then they probably did a whole lot of coolness).
This is also in regard to belief: I would not imagine that thoughts differed all too much from one person to the next. There simply were not enough sources to get different information from: everyone influenced each other by way of face to face contact, and consequently (from an objective perspective, of course), everyone thought the same.
This is in stark contrast to today, where there are thousands of sources of informational input. People choose some of the input they receive, such as what they read; but, much of it is not chosen, such as advertising.
Even where it is chosen, we don’t know what we’re going to get. There could be a whole new world just waiting for me in a podcast or a blog. It could change the way I think entirely (hint: at least two already have).
Likewise, the assortment of activities we can partake in each day is widely varied. Today I can write this blog post. Tomorrow I can go running in the woods, perhaps with deer. The next day I can go spend several thousand dollars at a shopping mall, whipping clothes off of racks and having other people paint my nails. Then the next day I can jump off a plane with a parachute. And the next day I can make love to a woman- or two. And then I can go to a slum and weep beside poor people. And it goes on.
Consequently, the way each person thinks (or, if you prefer, the thoughts that can arise within me) is much, much more varied. People disagree with each other all the time. Even two people who basically agree on a point will take some nuances into consideration. It is difficult, at least for me, to take a solid stance on objective matters. There is so much information and there are so many contraptions involved in contemplating events that happen “out there": it's no wonder objective truth is so difficult to find, if that's even possible.
The overarching point I want to make here is that it seems few things seem have disappeared as mankind has advanced; simultaneously, many, many more things have come into existence. Man has undoubtedly become more complex throughout history.
Of course, I must consider arguments to the contrary. Surely we (referring to all of humanity) have gotten rid of some things, haven’t we? Or if we haven’t, we at least refine things. I can probably still find one of the first telephone booths somewhere, though we’ve come a long way and have downsized quite a bit from that. Maybe society becomes more complex, but it simultaneously becomes more organized- does it not?
In Antifragile, Nassim Taleb discussed how people’s predictions of the future (such as those out of Silicon Valley, the Mecca of technology) tend to annoy him. They foresee all sorts of new things added to our lives, as I too have mentioned. But the greater likelihood, he asserts, is that many things will be removed, hopefully like McDonald’s and bad sitcoms (yes, I added that last bit).
One of the overarching points Taleb makes in the book is that stable improvements best come out of eliminating issues (the “bad”) than building on what already works (the “good). He would like to see many of the silly things that have been added to human life go, or at least take on a smaller presence. Reduce your downside, he says, and the best will take care of itself (and I’ll note that this is just my interpretation of his words; he states these things far more elegantly than I do).
I agree with his main point, but it really does appear that, across time, we just keep adding and adding things. Yeah, most people don’t listen to music from the 1950’s anymore, but it hasn’t been replaced per se: we still have access to it. I wonder why I love you like I do… (don’t know why I love you, don’t know why I care!)
All in all, I would assert that consciousness and physical reality have simultaneously become more complex over time, and they shall continue to do so. A planet of 7 billion people is a far more daunting challenge to contend with than a world of a few hundred million (i.e. pre-20th century).
You know what this challenge does? It pushes us to grow. We have no choice but to come together, work hard, and learn from this challenge, or else we shall perish. Before we know it we will look back in awe at all that we have accomplished and have become, and we will be grateful for the task- no matter how heart-wrenching and sleep-depriving the work might have been. I think Ben Franklin encased the complexity/challenge issue in three words: Join, or die.
Maybe Taleb is right though: perhaps in the future what will be missing is food, stupid people, and our squishy bodies!
What it Shall Mean for Us: Responsibility
Transhumanism, if it is implemented as planned, will likely help to clarify what truly is important in this life and highlight the responsibility we hold for ourselves. Of course, simply contemplating transhumanism can do this for us as well- just as I’m doing now-, but experience is almost always more potent than contemplation.
Imagine if you must choose when you die. This requires a massive amount of intelligence… Well, or a snap decision.
But what intelligence this decision can take. Responsibility and our capacity to choose what happens to us shall both increase. Perhaps you cannot hold back and just allow the tide to take you in anymore: now, you must choose. Choosing not to choose will be a more difficult premise to live with.
As the possible extremes become more extreme, the implications of every choice you make shall be far more intense than they are now. Simultaneously, you will be more ready and able to accept those implications. That is, unless your technology fails. I hope you’ve got back-up on your squishware system, robot-boy.
Possible choices, I would imagine, will also be far greater in number. Perhaps you will be able to choose based on semi-robot life and/or on animal body-life. Perhaps you will constantly have to choose between the two, and this will put moral strain on even the smallest of decisions.
It is my hope that a substantial number of people will be consciously well-developed by the time the technology is widespread, so that it is not such a destructive shock to individuals and perhaps to all of society.
But I can’t help but feel that I’m being way too picky and analytically-scared saying that. Maybe this is the thing we “need” to force people out of their silly and socially-conditioned shells. We may just have to accept the fact that the first several years of the change will be difficult, and a whole lot will go wrong and be dismantled and degraded in the process.
But maybe this will bring about destruction of all that baggage reality has been building up for thousands of years, and maybe we could do with that destruction. This is really quite a broad issue to try tackling: who the heck knows! We will best find out once we cross that bridge. Ultimately, though, everything will be fine. It always is. Dur. J
Of course, I don’t want to undermine the responsibility you have in your squishy (or boney) human body. It may seem easier to stave off responsibility since your current body is this crazy mass of cells that can turn on you any second.
Perhaps you feel mediocre in those cells most of the time, though there are moments where life in this body is wondrous. Thus, you are dragged along by the carrot on a stick that is variable-interval conditioning: like gambling, you get rewarded at random. This is highly addicting. Perhaps it is for reasons such as these that I choose to continue slugging out a run almost everyday, and why others do… Well, whatever weird stuff they do. Maybe pick their noses.
I do have to note briefly that the unit which makes up our bodies has the same name as the room we go to when in prison- a cell. There certainly are quite a few people who feel like prisoners to their bodies, at least some of the time. There is even, questionably, a discontent with being bound to this body inherent to humanness. I don’t want to pick on the human body- especially not in the name of glorifying transhumanism- but the extent to which people neglect, alter, abuse, and attempt to transcend their bodies does appear rather potent.
It amazes me to think that future generations, perhaps including the likes of my 3 and 1 year old nephews, will likely accept transhumanism warmly or even for granted. It’s strange to think that children would not accept those things that are constantly present from birth, even if they reject them and rebel later on (say, at least at 13 years old).
Then there certainly will be those of us- mostly older ones- who will rant and rave against the premise until they croak. It is as such with all change: this contrast of acceptance and rejection takes place even within ourselves (as within so without, man).
I was quite hesitant, to put it lightly, about any trace idea of transhumanism at first. But after hearing more and more about it I decided there is a decent chance I will see at least its beginnings in my lifetime, and if it is to be here it is but another facet of reality that shall push me and others to become our best selves and shine, even if it hurts along the way.
I can fret over my fears about change, or I can accept the objects of the fear as fun philosophical and experiential challenges to contend with. Since we can’t do the experiential part much now, let’s have a looky at the philosophical side of those fears. Hopefully this will help us to be less frightened when the time for these challenges is upon us.
What I fear most, at this time, is an undermining of sex. Will it any longer be as desirable as, say, pushing a button and being nearly-drowned in the aroma of pure pleasure? Will virtual reality sufficiently take care of our emotional/social needs and conscious development for us? Will we even be able to do it (if technology doesn’t stop us STDs might, like in Demolition Man).
Will there be any need to live outside virtual reality if we can find some way to drop out of our bodies, or is that a separate issue from transhumanism entirely? If the two developments are separate, then within a strictly-transhumanist context I think that, at the least, emotional connections with other human beings will still be highly important to us.
I suspect that telepathy- the ability to communicate by thought (that is, in place of spoken words)- will make these connections more complex and possibly conflict-ridden, yet also potentially deeper. In other words, forging trustworthy bonds may become more difficult (at least at first, as we get used to this means of communicating), but we will ultimately be able to become closer to each other.
If we can communicate by thought during it, sex will be wayyyyyy more intense. Based on that development alone, either far more people are going to get rejected, or far more sex is going to be had. Well, or both. Now this is interesting. J
Related to this is the replacement of the heart. It is enough, in itself, to assert this about the rest of the body (excluding the brain): but can we really capture in technology all of the workings of the heart? The complex moods it can produce and thoughts it can influence, its variability in beat and strength and in message, its ability to be so intense yet simultaneously blocked out…
Might they produce a heart (or heart-accessory) whose longings and disinclinations cannot be ignored? What might that mean for we fragile, complacent humans—to always have to listen to our hearts? And simultaneously, I presume, be so logical and of high brain-power? What kind of ridiculous and intelligent semi-life forms shall we be? This premise, I will say, is more exciting than frightening. J
As this technology increases our capacity for choice, will it also deepen our abilities to be complacent, unconscious, and lazy? Teleportation, for instance, goes beyond the scope of transhumanism; but, if we can do that, how fat and misshapen might we get (that is, if we can get fat anymore)? I suppose at present exercise is a choice made to contrast a lifestyle which emphasizes being sedentary: sitting in a box to transport yourself between different places where you sit. In the future the role of exercise may remain much the same, though as a choice it will be even more important.
Staying within the confines of transhumanist developments, however, I don’t think weight will be too much of an issue. The broader point I’d like to look at here is effort.
Most things will likely happen far more effortlessly than they do now, as we will be both physically and intellectually more capable. So for those people who choose to live as effortlessly and complacently as possible, might all these physical and intellectual increases actually cause themselves to diminish, due to a lack of shock and stress necessary to maintaining those abilities? Will it be comparable to Charlie Gordon in Flowers for Algernon, whose artificially-boosted intelligence, though used, degraded almost as quickly as it grew?
But I suppose, again, this is just another highlight of the importance of choice. Sure, you can choose a lifestyle that fails to exercise your abilities-- perhaps one that is centered around allowing you to pleasurably stimulate your robot-body sensors all day, right in the privacy of your finely-oiled home. But you can do the same thing right now- it just looks a bit different than that is all (you probably put the oil on yourself instead of your house).
In both present and future, I suspect, you must choose to shine. No amount of supercomputing and sophisticated technology can do that for you. Perhaps it can leverage your shininess (metal tends to reflect light more noticeably than skin), but the first and fundamental move is on you.
Well, unless that heart really does take over and drag you to do its bidding. And I thought logical robots were supposed to lead world domination!
Barring that, though, it seems that in principle things may not really change too much here. Hm…
How about the premise of always being hyperconnected? You know- having the Internet flow through your veins, combining the network of cells and the network of people into one? I will say that I hope this is something we can disconnect from sometimes-- here, again, is a choice.
But there will almost surely be stigma attached to detaching. There is already: it bothered me more in the past, but there is a mild sense of alienation attached to avoiding my cellphone. This would not matter so much if alternate forms of communications were more often considered. And I must wonder whether there will be more intense sanctions in the future than missing out on Snapchat.
A devaluing of life is also a frightening possibility, particularly among the consciously-underdeveloped. However, “consciously-underdeveloped” means this is something we are, once again, likely to have more choice over.
Crowded cities are arguably an already-present manifestation of life-devaluation, along depressed and apathetic people. However, no matter the circumstances of your life- whether they be in the woods or in a lab- it is up to you to value that life. I imagine it may be more difficult to value life when life is regimented, controlled, and rigid than when it is lived freely.
To live as you would like to, of course, is likewise a choice. If the world becomes pristine and all the flowers made of chrome, most of us may be screwed on this one—I can’t say for certain now. I would imagine it is more difficult to value life when life is regimented, controlled, and rigid than when it is lived freely and at least a little wildly (as opposed to living mechanically).
But if you aren’t listening to that wild and crazy heart of yours, well, it’s plausible that you indeed do not value life—even if you’re surrounded by flowers made of not-robot-bodies.
One more: how about the technology failing, and us being stuck with our atrophied slabs of flab? Let’s see. Choose to keep your squish strong, and you shall be fine. Boom!
Unless, of course, we somehow rob ourselves of the ability to do that. In that case, good luck to you, Mr. Roboto. J
From this fear-analysis it seems that there are few issues which cannot be resolved in consciousness. This does not mean that coming to grips with these issues of existence will be simple; in fact, that may be an even more complex process than it is now. But I suspect that we, too, will be more complex.
Whatever the case, I foresee that life does and will continue to heavily center around confronting and moving past fear, and this adventure is one that is based in consciousness (though it generally must take form in physical reality, as well).
Life may look very different in the future, but the basics of developing consciousness shall remain much the same. However, it is endlessly-interesting to think that growth, too, may be different: perhaps I do not possess foresight enough to imagine that right now.
But hey, who knows. However we may figure it out, whether by contemplation, technological innovation, or both, I can’t wait to find out what really matters—and that might entail going beyond that question to ask deeper ones, too.
You Must Choose to Change
However technology may advance in the future, we must remember a point I have made throughout this article: we have choice. We do not need to accept developments of any kind unquestioningly, changing our bodies without involving our hearts or minds in the process. If we don’t believe a technology to be in our best interest I trust there will be nothing preventing us from avoiding it. I trust we will be able to test these things first, and that we will do so, somehow.
I will say, roughly speaking, that I see this as a basically “good” thing, although I do bear some resistance against it (as I’m sure we all do). From a subjective perspective, however, I do not resist it enough to prevent it. It’s’a comin’, ladies and gents. Predictions of the future tend to have excessively high expectations but, hey, this might be one of those black swan things where they don’t.
Also, I have to wonder if there has been any confusion with “transhuman” and “transgender.” Perhaps laypeople will think, at first, that a transhuman is a super transgendered person, maybe one who has absolutely zero gender identity.
But more seriously, I must also ask whether “trans” in both of these terms refers to transcend or transition. Certainly both are applicable. We are transcending our current idea of what it is to be human, and we are transitioning into something else.
Likewise, transgenders transcend conventional ideas about gender, and they transition from one gender to the next. So perhaps we can view the term to mean that we are moving beyond, yet we are always moving. We are always becoming- always in a state of flux.
All in all, do not give up on your squishy body just yet. Consider what you would like futuristic technology to do for your body, and attempt to achieve this with the means available to you now.
Don’t wait around for the golden chariot to arrive: for all you know you’ll be irreversibly dead by that time. It is possible that Godot will never come, for he will be destroyed by other advanced technology such as nuclear missiles first.
When you can live so that the premise of the future empowers you to act and be your best in the present, it is wonderful. If your expectations about what you’d like that future to be like are strong, you probably have little doubt about slip-ups—and it may serve to avoid entertaining that doubt.
I did say, however, to focus on what empowers you in the present. Like, right now. You can live based on a future ideal, but if you try to live in the future before it arrives you may end up in the space on the timeline marked as “nowhere.”
We may have a while until then, but be prepared to jump ship when the time comes. Make peace with your cells: this life is something you may dearly miss one day.
Joe Rogan Experience (podcast) #584, with transhumanist Zoltan Istvan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9grWo5ZofmA
The Transhumanist Wager by Zoltan Istvan
The Transhumanist Party (yes, it's real): http://www.transhumanistparty.org/
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