What is Transhumanism?
The following is the opinion of the author only and does not represent an official position of H+ Magazine or Humanity+.
Transhumanism is a positive philosophy about the future based in optimism, rational thinking and the application of science and technology to improve the human condition. We seek to live longer, stay healthier, and become smarter and even more physically fit. We want to develop tools and technologies to help ourselves and others do the same.
We want to live longer, be healthier and happier, become smarter, keep learning and have more fun. And we propose using science and technology to do it. Does this sound good? Then you are very possibly a transhumanist.
Transhumanism isn’t a cult or religion. There are no canonical texts or predetermined methods. “What it is, is up to us.”
Transhumanism is compatible with various religious beliefs and traditions. But, inevitably, because it is based in science, the conclusions of transhumanism may contradict some elements of traditional religious beliefs. For example, transhumanists seek to extend life and do not accept death as a given fact due to a “creator” or supernatural deity. We do not consider immortality to be the sole domain of faith or deity and we reject the entire idea of “supernatural”.
Anything that actually happens is by definition “natural” if not always understood by us. Transhumanism rejects as fallacies ideas that place nature above man or his works; this is known as the Naturalistic Fallacy. We have the ability to become active agents in our own design and the design of our environment. Transhumanists believe that we can not ignore our responsibilities to consider the designs we create, but we also believe strongly in our right and even our duty to create them. We reject the deep ecology movement and ecological terrorism in all forms.
On a related note, transhumanism importantly suggests that we consider the risks arising from failing to develop technologies as well as those risks which originate from developing them. The Proactionary Principle is presented as an alternative to the conservative Precautionary Principle which is applied almost everywhere in scientific and technological policy making. We are not ignorant about possible negative consequences or dangerous technologies and ideas. However this isn’t about gambling.
Fundamentally transhumanism is an optimistic idea. We suggest that humans can and should improve themselves,and that we can be better off if we do. Transhumanists believe that the future can be bright and better than today. We reject romanticized notions about the past or the natural world. We consider that what appear to be insurmountable obstacles are sometimes found to be illusory limitations in our own understanding. We think world wide abundance is possible if we put our minds to the task of creating it.
The DIY or “maker” ethic is deeply embedded in transhumanist thinking and extends to the aesthetics of the movement and its members, as well the focus on the enhancement of the human body and mind. As it is based in science, transhumanism is not just an affiliation, idea or belief but also includes a set of tools you can use. There are practical and demonstrable methods for achieving various, but not all, transhuman objectives available today. Many of us are already enhanced for example.
We reject the notion that an elite should control access to ideas or technologies. The goal of universal abundance and access to knowledge are founding transhumanist principles and elite control of knowledge makes this impossible. Technologies and science progress more in open and free societies free from surveillance. And since progress in these areas is fundamental to our goals, we also support access to knowledge and lowering the costs of medicines, medical treatments, etc. Global access to free knowledge and technology is a critical element of a future abundant transhumanist society.
Transhumanism rejects the idea of a fixed and unchanging human nature. We observe that what we call our “self” is in part a social construct that exists outside of the body although the brain is the seat of intelligence and everything that makes us “us”. Since we can now alter the architecture of our bodies and brains, we can become more. Already millions of people are electronic cyborgs using technology to keep them alive or to see and hear. We also consider that elements of what make humans special, intelligence, consciousness, and qualia of experience arise in other living beings and might also arise in man made artifacts: artificial intelligences and robots.
The Principle of Morphological Freedom is a fundamental concept of transhumanism. We do not accept limitations of law or religion on who we are or what we might become. Racism is clearly unacceptable from this perspective as are gender and sexual biases and discrimination. However, the principle clearly requires us to develop new philosophical ideas, moral codes, and legal systems. Consider, are we also free to make ourselves damaged and dysfunctional or toxic and dangerous? We don’t know all the answers.
Transhumanists accept uncertainty and are not looking for answers to all questions from a universal infallible source. Therefore, transhumanism is not a dead tradition but a living and growing philosophy and movement. We are creating it together right now.
While transhumanism has a history in the 1960s drug culture and countercultural thinkers such as Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna, this is largely now historical. Transhumanism is not a new age religion or replacement for religion. It is also not about getting high, although we do seek to raise our hedonic setting, enhance our perception and cognition, and extend our physical performance. We might use chemicals or other methods to do it. Related to the notion of Morphological Freedom, is the no less important idea of Cognitive Freedom.
Transhumanists vary in opinion on various details and topics. For example, not everyone considers the emergence of a greater than human intelligence in a machine to be a near term probability. Others support Kurzweil’s estimates of 2045 or even think he is too conservative. Some transhumanists are cryonicists, but others consider cryonics to be at best a gamble that might not pay off. Many transhumanists are vegans or follow a paleo diet. Some are avowed carnivores. Your mileage may vary.
One area where transhumanists differ is politics. There are transhumanists all over the political spectrum but what we agree on is essential ideas such as liberty and freedom. Dictatorships and authoritarianism are not compatible with transhumanist ideas such as Morphological Freedom and Cognitive Liberty for example. But beyond that, our existing ideas about how to organize society and act politically are being rapidly altered through the use of technology and media. Consider that the best possible political decision making system of a future transhuman society possibly has no precedent in human history.
However, some individuals have tried to connect transhumanism with far right or far left political ideologies including both communism and various nationalist ideologies. Transhumanists do consider the use of gene therapies and genetic alterations of humans to cure disease and also to enhance ourselves, but we reject the notions of the Eugenics movement and all previous related and hateful philosophies tied to those ideas. This is very dangerous to our project and transhumanists should be aware that multiple attempts have been made to co-opt and use our ideas to promote other movements. We universally reject the politics of hate and fear.
Some have confused transhumanism with its darker cousin cyberpunk. Transhumanism is not a literary genre, although there are some excellent transhumanist science fiction books. We don’t believe that the future must be a dystopia or that armageddon is inevitable. While transhumanism is often covered in such settings, this leads to a lot of mistaken ideas and directions. Dwelling on such negative scenarios and possibilities can short circuit your ability to think rationally especially about possibly positive far future concepts. We therefore propose a rational optimism, a positive futurism, and we suggest avoiding dystopic thinking altogether. Instead, how about engaging in real practical work to bring our ideas into reality?
Modern transhumanism is not about mystical beliefs but rather is based in ideas that arose in the late 20th Century starting with FM 2030 in 1960s and the Extropian movement in the 1980s and 1990s. Modern transhumanism has no true historical links to alchemy or the Western hermetic traditions. However, some individuals have tried to make these connections. The alchemists and others did explore many similar ideas to transhumanism from a non-scientific perspective.
We don’t reject the wisdom of the ages, but we do respect the progress that application of science and reason have given us. What were once imaginary or magical ideas are commonly made real today through technology. And many more amazing things will soon be possible.
Anyone that is promoting a return to a pastoral “natural” past, promoting fear of dystopia, or the future more generally, is not a transhumanist no matter how they describe their ideas. All transhumanists are trying to create a better, happier, and safer world using technology if they deserve the name “transhumanist”.
War does not advance the transhuman project, and is one of the greatest dangers we face. But at the same time military developments have pushed the envelope of what is possible and imaginable. Advocates of rapidly advancing change often forget that their ideas can produce conflict or that conflicts can produce advancement.
Finally, transhumanists consider the use of reason and rational thinking to make decisions. We want to make good decisions and we are interested in tools and technologies that help us do that. But we also know that we must apply compassion and connect with a community of others as integral to our project. I therefore encourage you to DIY, erase fear, and engineer joy. Invent your own future, become your own avatar. And have fun!