Pagans are more known for their ‘live in a field’ aspect than that of ‘live in a library’, but camping out amongst the shelves may just find you a gem or two which has influenced pagan critical thinking about how we see the world around us, and how we view the past.
[Well, I did well there, didn't I?
Ladies and gentlemen, I must apologise once again. It was my responsibility to prepare the Transhumanism article and I failed in that responsibility, so all you got when it posted up was a link:
Hopefully the link will have been of some interest, but it didn't really cover the idea as I was hoping to summarise it. So let's fix that now.]
Transhumanism, also referred to as ‘H+’, is a broad term for various concepts relating to science and technology that involve the progression of humanity beyond the biological constraints of our current squashy shapes and into an increasingly cybernetic form. The ultimate idea would be to isolate the human consciousness as data, and enable the transfer of that data – and thus the consciousness – into a machine, a computer, or other such technological system. The advantages of doing so – quite aside from technical immortality – would be the ability to survive in environments hostile to biological life; to vastly reduce our impact on the biological world (we’d no longer need to eat either plants or animals, for example); and to undertake projects that a single human individual could never hope to see completed.
The ideas began to arise in the 1960s, as people began to become more familiar with the ideas of computer technology (the first true computers having been born in the 1940s as a result of efforts to decode enemy radio transmissions). But transhumanism traces its true roots far further back than this. It could be reasonably argued that the motif of human beings being lifted into divine states, as found in mythologies around the world, is an indication of the basic awareness that humanity can transcend the purely biological. Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ touches on these topics to some degree, although as a cautionary tale highlighting the potential dangers of ‘playing God’.
As a defined concept, transhumanism began to establish itself in (relatively) mainstream thought in the 1980s in (unsurprisingly) California, where conferences and lectures were held at UCLA. As time goes on, the basic ideas of transhumanism begin to look less exotic and more within the reach of technology – if not now, then perhaps within the next few generations.
But even if we support the concept of transferring our consciousness into a machine, there are still philosophical issues which would be insurmountable. The obscure online game EVE Online – and this definitely isn’t an advert for a game I play; it’s just a game largely based on transhumanist ideas – features what are called ‘infomorphs’: people who have had their minds uploaded into data, and are then re-downloaded into cloned bodies. When an informorph is killed in battle (in my case this happens quite a lot; and I’m not even a military character), their data-mind is simply transferred to a different body again, resulting in effective immortality. Or does it? The problem is that there is no way to know whether the data-mind is the true original consciousness, because there’s no way to tell the difference between the original mind, and a separate, duplicated data-mind that simply thinks it’s the original, and has all the original’s memories and feelings. This is a question of the ‘continuation of consciousness’ or ‘the problem of self’: what is it that actually makes us ourselves? What is the essential ‘soul’ of a person, and is it something that can be re-created in a computer, no matter how sophisticated?
Still, technology advances inexorably, and sooner or later, these moral, philosophical, social and even religious issues are going to have to be addressed before we, as a culture, can decide whether we’re going to pursue transhumanism as a goal. But we may need to decide sooner than we think: our ultimate decision then will depend on our making suitable preparations now, not least in terms of how we treat our environment.