Washington Post features symposium on transhumanism

Michael Cook
May 22, 2016
Reproduced with Permission

As a sign of growing interest in transhumanism, the Washington Post recently featured a symposium with several distinguished writers. It may indicate a growing interest in its aspirations, in an election year when a transhumanist, Zoltan Istvan , is seriously running for President.

At the moment, transhumanism is a ill-defined and fractured movement with many different strands, ranging from more-or-less mainstream to whacky. On the mainstream side, there is the National Intelligence Council's 2012 long-term strategic analysis document which devotes a section to "human augmentation". It envisages technology which will help the elderly to cope with disability and soldiers to perform superhuman feats of strength, agility and alertness. On the whacky side, there are visions of a new species of humanity and uploading consciousness to the internet.

Here are a few predictions and evaluations from the WaPo's contributors. Most of them were solidly in favour and relatively conservative on the transhumanist spectrum.

Ronald Bailey , the science correspondent for Reason magazine and author of "Liberation Biology" and "The End of Doom."

"The highest expression of human nature and dignity is to strive to overcome the limitations imposed on us by our genes, our evolution and our environment. Future generations will look back at the beginning of the 21st century and be astonished that some well-meaning and intelligent people actually wanted to stop bio-nano-infotech research and deployment just to protect their cramped and limited vision of human nature. If transhumanism is allowed to progress, I predict that our descendants will look back and thank us for making their world of longer, healthier and abler lives possible."

James J. Hughes , executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

[E]merging neuroscience suggests that we will soon be able to both fix those with broken moral compasses and tune up our own internal morality … Clearly, the field of moral enhancement will need to reengage with the wisdom traditions to flesh out a more sophisticated understanding of what a mature moral character entails.

For optimal flourishing, we need to balance wisdom and compassion, self-control and transcendence. Given the freedom to experiment with our growing toolbox for self-improvement, we will each need to discover our ideal morality settings … With the aid of science, we will all be able to discover our own paths to technologically enabled happiness and virtue.

Charles T. Rubin , the author of " Eclipse of Man: Human Extinction and the Meaning of Progress , teaches political philosophy at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

As a result, the great powers that transhumanism promises are likely to be used not in ways that will solve human problems, but in ways that will perpetuate them yet more terribly.

That is because in a world where we have increasing power to modify our humanity, "enhancements" will still be developed by people who are not yet enhanced. Popular culture asks us to imagine how those individuals, whether in government or private industry, will make their choices in a world where darker human motives like selfishness, greed, and lust for power will play a role in decisions about what needs changing, for whom and at what price.

And those seeking enhancement will be subject to their own darker motives: to social pressures, competitive inclinations, market manipulations. Indeed, if human beings are even half as imperfect as transhumanists apparently believe, why should we trust our unenhanced opinions about what would constitute an improvement in our lives?