Toward a Typology of Transhumanism

Years ago, James Hughes sought to typify the emerging political debate over transhumanism with a three-axis political scale, adding a biopolitical dimension to the familiar axes of social and fiscal libertarianism. But transhumanism is a very academic issue, both in the sense that many transhumanists, including Hughes, are academics, and in the sense that it is very removed from everyday practical concerns. So it may make more sense to characterize the different types of transhumanists in terms of the kinds of intellectual positions to which they adhere rather than to how they relate to different positions on the political spectrum. As Zoltan Istvan’s wacky transhumanist presidential campaign shows us, transhumanism is hardly ready for prime time when it comes to American politics.

And so, I propose a continuum of transhumanist thought, to help observers understand the intellectual differences between some of its proponents — based on three different levels of support for human enhancement technologies.

First, the most mild form of transhumanists: those who embrace the human enhancement project, or reject most substantive limits to human enhancement, but who do not have a very concrete vision of what kinds of things human enhancement technology may be used for. In terms of their intellectual background, these mild transhumanists can be defined by their diversity rather than their unity. They adhere to some of the more respectable philosophical schools, such as pragmatism, various kinds of liberalism, or simply the thin, “formally rational” morality of mainstream bioethics. Many of these mild transhumanists are indeed professional bioethicists in good standing. Few, if any of them would accept the label of “transhumanist” for themselves, but they reject the substantive arguments against the enhancement project, often in the name of enhancing the freedom of choice that individuals have to control their own bodies — or, in the case of reproductive technologies, the “procreative liberty” of parents to control the bodies of their children.

Second, the moderate transhumanists. They are not very philosophically diverse, but rather are defined by a dogmatic adherence to utilitarianism. Characteristic examples would include John Harris and Julian Savulescu, along with many of the academics associated with Oxford’s rather inaptly named Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics. These thinkers, who nowadays also generally eschew the term “transhumanist” for themselves, deploy a simple calculus of costs and benefits for society to moral questions concerning biotechnology, and conclude that the extensive use of biotechnology will usually end up improving human well-being. Unlike those liberals who oppose restrictions on enhancement, liberty is a secondary value for these strident utilitarians, and so some of them are comfortable with the idea of legally requiring or otherwise pressuring individuals to use enhancement technologies.

Some of their hobbyhorses include the abandonment of the act-omission distinction — that is, that there are consequences of omitting to act; John Harris famously applied this to the problem of organ shortages when he argued that we should perhaps randomly kill innocent people to harvest their organs, since failing to procure organs for those who will die without them is little different than killing them. Grisly as it is, this argument is not quite a transhumanist one, since such organ donation would hardly constitute human enhancement, but it is clear how someone who accepts this kind of radical utilitarianism would go on to accept arguments for manipulating human biology in other outlandish schemes for maximizing “well-being.”
Third, the most extreme form of transhumanism is defined less by adherence to a philosophical position than to a kind of quixotic obsession with technology itself. Today, this obsession with technology manifests in the belief that artificial intelligence will completely transform the world through the Singularity and the uploading of human minds — although futurist speculations built on contemporary technologies have of course been around for a long time. Aldous Huxley’s classic novel Brave New World, for example, imagines a whole world designed in the image of the early twentieth century factory. Though this obsession with technology is not a philosophical position per se, today’s transhumanists have certainly built very elaborate intellectual edifices around the idea of artificial intelligence. Nick Bostrom’s recent book Superintelligence represents a good example of the kind of systematic work these extreme transhumanists have put into thinking through what a world completely shaped by information technology might be like.

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Obviously there is a great deal of overlap between these three degrees of transhumanism, and the most mild stage in particular is really quite vaguely defined. If there is a kind of continuum along which these stages run it would be one from relatively open-minded and ecumenical thinkers to those who are increasingly dogmatic and idiosyncratic in their views. The mild transhumanists are usually highly engaged with the real world of policymaking and medicine, and discuss a wide variety of ideas in their work. The moderate transhumanists are more committed to a particular philosophical approach, and the academics at the Oxford’s Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics who apply their dogmatic utilitiarianism to moral problems usually end up with wildly impractical proposals. Though all of these advocates of human enhancement are enthusiastic about technology, for the extreme transhumanists, technology almost completely shapes their moral and political thought; and though their actual influence on public policy is thankfully limited for the time being, it is these more extreme folks, like Ray Kurzweil and Nick Bostrom, and arguably Eric Drexler and the late Robert Ettinger, who tend to be most often profiled in the press and to have a popular following.

Humanism After All

Zoltan Istvan is a self-described visionary and philosopher, and the author of a 2013 novel called The Transhumanist Wager that he claims is a “bestseller” because it briefly went to the top of a couple of Amazon’s sales subcategories. Yesterday, Istvan wrote a piece for the Huffington Post arguing that atheism necessarily entails transhumanism, whether atheists know it or not. Our friend Micah Mattix, writing on his excellent blog over at The American Conservative, brought Istvan’s piece to our attention.

While Mattix justly mocks Istvan’s atrociously mixed metaphors — I shudder to imagine how bad Istvan’s “bestselling novel” is — it’s worth pointing out that Istvan actually does accurately summarize some of the basic tenets of transhumanist thought:

It begins with discontent about the humdrum status quo of human life and our frail, terminal human bodies. It is followed by an awe-inspiring vision of what can be done to improve both — of how dramatically the world and our species can be transformed via science and technology. Transhumanists want more guarantees than just death, consumerism, and offspring. Much more. They want to be better, smarter, stronger — perhaps even perfect and immortal if science can make them that way. Most transhumanists believe it can.

Why be almost human when you can be human? [source: Fox]

Istvan is certainly right that transhumanists are motivated by a sense of disappointment with human nature and the limitations it imposes on our aspirations. He’s also right that transhumanists are very optimistic about what science and technology can do to transform human nature. But what do these propositions have to do with atheism? Many atheists like to proclaim themselves to be “secular humanists” whose beliefs are guided by the rejection of the idea that human beings need anything beyond humanity (usually they mean revelation from the divine) to live decent, happy, and ethical lives. As for the idea that we cannot be happy without some belief in eternal life (either technological immortality on earth or in the afterlife), it seems that today’s atheists might well follow the teachings of Epicurus, often considered an early atheist, who argued that reason and natural science support the the idea that “death is nothing to us.”

Istvan also argues that transhumanism is the belief that science, technology, and reason can improve human existence — and that this is something all atheists implicitly affirm. This brings to mind two responses. First, religious people surely can and do believe that science, technology, and reason can improve human life. (In fact, we just published an entire symposium on this theme subject in The New Atlantis.) Second, secular humanists are first of all humanists who criticize (perhaps wrongly) the religious idea that human life on earth is fundamentally imperfect and that true human happiness can only be achieved through the transfiguration of human nature in a supernatural afterlife. So even if secular humanists (along with religious humanists and basically any reasonable people) accept the general principle that science, technology, and reason are among the tools we have to improve our lot, this does not mean that they accept what Istvan rightly identifies as one of the really fundamental principles of transhumanism, which is the sense of deep disappointment with human nature.

Human nature is not perfect, but the resentful attitude toward our nature that is so characteristic of transhumanists is no way to live a happy fulfilled life. Religious and secular humanists of all creeds, whatever they believe about God and the afterlife, reason and revelation, or the ability of science and technology to improve human life, should all start with an attitude of gratitude for and acceptance of, not resentfulness and bitterness toward, the wondrousness and beauty of human nature.

(H/T to Chad Parkhill, whose excellent 2009 essay, “Humanism After All? Daft Punk’s Existentialist Critique of Transhumanism” inspired the title of this post.)