What is Transhumanism?
10 March 2011 (updated 11 May 2016)
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Some people don’t like ideological labels. They don’t like their perspectives being categorized, for whatever reason, good or bad. I’m not one of them. I’m comfortable with labels, and I don’t mind being categorized. Of course, it’s a mistake to think any label perfectly describes my perspectives or those of any other person, but labels are still valuable as shortcuts, so long as we don’t mistake them for anything more than approximations.
There are several ideological labels that I apply to myself. For example, I identify as a mormon and a pragmatist. I’ve long identified as a libertarian, although that part of me has been in a bit of a crisis in recent years. I also identify as a transhumanist. Invariably, this last label is the one that raises the most questions. What’s a transhumanist? You can google it, of course, but I’ll also offer a brief explanation here.
Transhumanism is the ethical use of technology to expand our abilities. For some, this conjures up images of comic book cyborgs with gun arms and laser eyes. Sure. Transhumanism is about human enhancement, but you’ll probably agree with me that a gun arm doesn’t qualify as an enhancement either practically or esthetically. For better examples, look at the technology that enhances you right now. You are probably reading these words from a computing device, which extends your ability to communicate. Perhaps you’re reading through contacts, glasses or surgically-corrected eyes. You are also probably wearing clothing, which is essentially artificial skin that you can adapt to environmental change. Under those clothes, you might have a pacemaker, implants, a stent or artificial joints. Through your blood, drugs and other artificial substances may be relieving pain, heightening attention, or facilitating muscle growth. That’s just now. Think through the rest of the day leading up to this moment. Think through your life. Consider human history. We have always been cyborgs. In past and present contexts, it’s not a controversial claim.
The controversy arises when we look forward. How will technology change us in a few years or decades? What about a thousand years from now? How many drugs, surgeries, prosthetics and upgrades are there between humans and posthumans, as different from us as we now are from our prehuman ancestors? Is it possible to change that much? If so, should we? Transhumanists answer that we can and should change. We should live longer and better, and not just in trivial ways. Emerging technology presents us with opportunities to enhance our bodies, perhaps extending lifespans indefinitely, but the greatest opportunities are those that would enhance our minds and relations to sublime heights of benevolence and creativity that we can only barely imagine, and beyond.
Are there risks? Yes. There are potentially catastrophic risks associated with emerging technology. The same technologies that would enable enhancement would also enable destruction. Today, we’re grappling with the risk of proliferating nuclear weapons and arguing about the risk of industrialization-induced global climate change. Tomorrow, we may be fretting over the proliferation of self-replicating nanobots or a scourge of unfriendly artificial intelligence. Whatever they turn out to be, risks will haunt us as they always have. Transhumanists acknowledge this, but we don’t stop there. Acknowledging risks while pursuing opportunities is not enough. We have a practical and moral obligation to research and mitigate the risks that accompany the opportunities of emerging technology.
So there you have, in brief, an explanation of Transhumanism. I identify as a Transhumanist because I affirm the possibility, morality and desirability of continuing to use technology to extend our abilities from the human to the posthuman.