Transhumanism

18 04 2009

This is probably going to be all over the place because even I’m not actually sure what I think about transhumanism, but bear with me.

First, a quick intro for those who don’t know what transhumanism is. Essentially, transhumanists want to develop technology to the point where humans can mechanically augment their bodies and electronically augment their minds. They advocate “evolving” further in this manner and moving past the homo Sapiens portion of history (thus the name).

I think that there are legitimate objections to it, morally and practically, but I also think that many of the ones raised are not legitimate arguments. The first of these is the “tampering with nature,” or “playing God,” argument, depending on who’s raising it. The argument suffers many of the same problems in this case that it does in other cases though. For instance, the “so what” response is fairly compelling. Glasses are artificially augmenting the human body, as are binoculars, telescopes, flashlights, hearing aids, and pretty much every other piece of technology used to aid our senses, and in addition even to those there are things like flippers and wetsuits. It’s not relevant that something is artificial.

Another one I’ve seen that’s really absurd is the accusation against transhumanists that they just want to escape dying. While I think it may be true of many, again, so what? That’s not even an argument against transhumanism, it’s just an ad hominem attack. It doesn’t matter why they want it, it just matters what it would actually bring and whether it’s actually feasible.

There’s also the “they’ll kill us all” argument (although it seems to be used more to apply to the singularity, that’s tied into transhumanism to some extent). Certainly if computers and robots surpass (or approach) human intelligence they’ll have the capability, but once again, so what? Why would they want to unless we tried to kill them first? And if they had reached near human (or greater than human) intelligence, they would have the right to defend themselves, no?

Finally, there’s the eugenics argument, the claim that everyone would be forced to have their bodies augmented with machines and that those who refuse will be killed. Really, though, why? All that’s required is for people to be allowed to make the decision for themselves and have their choice protected in some way (there are various ways, like allowing them to set up their own communities in a manner similar to the Amish), and I think that humanity is capable of that.

Like I said though, there are definitely legitimate aspects to the criticisms of transhumanism too. For instance, what does this imply for the rich-poor divide? The world’s poor, those who worry more about getting enough food than anything, are not going to be able to buy themselves cyborg augmentation. Looking at history, it seems unlikely that the rich will be pushing very hard to help them, except perhaps inside their own countries. This isn’t really an inditment of transhumanism though, since it already applies to many things today. This just exacerbates it.

The second reasonable argument is that if we as a species try to use these sorts of technologies before we really understand them, the consequences could be dire. That’s absolutely true. We’ve shown before and continue to show that we can cause tremendous harm if we use something before we’re really prepared for it or before we understand exactly what it does. Climate change is a good example. We started industrial production before we knew what the processes involved were really doing and what their secondary effects were.

One of the best, I think, is the feasibility argument. We’re really no where near the technological level to do this. Technological advancement has accelerated, but not at the enormous rate transhumanists and singularitarians often claim. It’s going to be a long, long time before any of the major proposed changes to the body are even possible, so the hyping of it is an exaggeration.

The best of all the arguments, I think, is that it poses a threat to scientific, social, and technological advancement. This seems paradoxical at first, but in fact is probably true. Science often advances when the proponents of the old theories and paradigms that have been refuted have died, and the field is free to move forward with the new ideas of the younger scientists. Prejudices are often overcome not by convincing people but by teaching the young, who then replace the old as the people running the world. If the old aren’t dying off, significant change becomes much harder. The only way I can think of to prevent this is by somehow keeping the childhood brain plasticity (or electronic equivalent) that allows for children to accept new ideas through adulthood.

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