TRANSHUMANISM AND POSTHUMANISM:
THE FUTURE OF US (HUMANITY PLUS)
THE FUTURE OF THE HUMAN SPECIES
Transhumanism is defined as "the intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by using technology to eliminate aging and greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities" - Nick Bostrum, 1999. A posthuman would no longer be a human being, having been so significantly altered as to no longer represent the human species. Underlying this worldview is a core belief that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development, but rather its beginning - Nick Bostrum, 1999. Transhumans, short for "transitional humans," are "the earliest manifestation of new evolutionary beings, on their way to becoming posthumans" - FM-2030. Transhumanism is sometimes seen as a form of transformational activism influenced by posthumanist ideals.
Transhumanism (symbolized by >H, H+ or h+ (humanity plus)) is an international intellectual and cultural movement supporting the use of science & technology to improve human mental and physical characteristics and capacities. The term was first used in 1957, however its contemporary meaning is a product of futurists in the 1980s. It is often used as a synonym for "human enhancement." The movement regards certain limitations of the human condition, such as disability, suffering, unchosen psychology, disease, aging, confinement to planet earth and involuntary death as undesirable and unnecessary. Transhumanists look to biotechnologies and other emerging technologies for solutions to these perceived problems. Dangers, as well as benefits, are of concern to the transhumanist movement.
The transhumanist vision of an altered future humanity has attracted many supporters and detractors with a wide range of perspectives. Transhumanism has been described by one critic, Francis Fukuyama, as "the world's most dangerous idea," while one proponent, Ronald Bailey, counters that it is the "movement that epitomizes the most daring, courageous, imaginative, and idealistic aspirations of humanity."
The first use of the actual word "transhumanism" appears to have been by Biologist Julian Huxley, author Aldous Huxley's brother when he wrote, "man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature." Achieving the full gamut of transhumanist objectives would require advanced genetics, cybernetics and pharmacological enhancement, as well as molecular nanotechnology.
Posthumanism seeks to rewrite the very definition of being human. There are four characteristic transhuman, or posthuman assumptions (as defined in How We Became Posthuman, by Katherine Hayles (1999).) Namely, that patterns of information are more essential to the state of being than any "material instantiation, so that embodiment in a biological substrate is seen as an accident of history rather than an inevitability of life"; there is no immaterial soul, and consciousness is an epiphenomenon; the body is nothing more than a prosthesis, and exchanging this prosthesis for another is simply an extension of that relationship; and, that a human being is capable of being "seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines. In the posthuman, there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot technology and human goals".
The largest ethical issue immediately raised when considering the merits of such augmentation is: should human beings enhance themselves and future generations? This is a deceptively simple-sounding question. Humans have augmented and enhanced themselves throughout recorded history. In fact, this is the express goal of all tool use and education. Glasses, contact lenses and laser eye surgery are examples of commonly employed augmentations, yet these technological interventions only correct a deficiency, making them less an enhancement and more a healing intervention. Certain enhancing technologies are accepted, such as the telescope and microscope; however these remain tools as opposed to attributes since they are used for a time/specific purpose, but cannot become a permanent modification to a person.
Trans/posthuman modifications, on the other hand, challenge some boundaries that other modifications do not. Many people are less comfortable with augmentation when it begins to allow functionality that potentially exceeds that which could possibly be achieved by the healthiest/best trained members of the species. A personal digital assistant (PDA) is an example of an enhancing technology, however it is a discrete, separate entity from the user. Cybernetic, mind-machine interfaces, on the other hand represent a 'permanent' enhancement seen by some to cross a particular line that simply should not be crossed. Criticisms of permanent enhancements include the notion that they are both "playing God," and that they are unnatural. Virtually any use of technology can be seen as unnatural, though the goal here is to achieve benefits rather than harm. The majority of transhumanists are either agnostic or atheistic, and as such are not particularly concerned about going against the wishes of, or acting as if they were God. Besides, "can the creature really act outside the permissive will of the creator?" The most important criticism that can, and should be made is to consider the personal and social consequences of such modifications and the wisdom of taking such actions. The greatest concern is that such proposed interventions will have an undeniably profound impact on not only the individual involved, but also others and the environment on a whole. The rapid pace of these radical changes, without the proper degree of foresight, knowledge, wisdom and hubris could have devastating consequences.
The pursuit of transhumanist ideals will very likely lead to a large disparity in the types and extents of biotechnological modifications between individuals and entire communities. As a consequence, people may feel threatened by those who are seen as different from themselves, leading to the potential of discrimination against both the enhanced and the unenhanced. Freeman Dyson makes the case that, "the artificial improvement of human beings will come, one way or another, whether we like it or not, as soon as the progress of biological understanding makes it possible. When people are offered technical means to improve themselves and their children, no matter what they conceive improvement to mean, the offer will be accepted. [...] The technology of improvement may be hindered or delayed by regulation, but it cannot be permanently suppressed. [...] It will be seen by millions of citizens as liberation from past constraints and injustices. Their freedom to choose cannot be permanently denied." In the United States, the freedom to pursue enhancement technologies is effectively guaranteed under the Constitution (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.)
A fundamental flaw with all utopian (transhumanist in this case) thinking, is one of failing to understand the darkness, fears and unpredictability of the human psyche. Our experiences in the 20th century should have taught us to "beware the power of utopian dreams to enslave, destroy, and demean, rather than provide the promised justice, freedom, and human flourishing." Some fear the 'salvation' offered by transhumanists may ultimately be a Faustian bargain with technology.