The Literary Influence 10: Transhumanism

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:

http://humanityplus.org/philosophy/transhumanist-faq/#answer_19

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.

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2 thoughts on “The Literary Influence 10: Transhumanism

  1. Transhumanism. Where to start? The more I read on the subject the more anti the idea I became. I would like to live a healthy life with a good end when there is nothing left for me to accomplish in this incarnation, but would I like to extend my life indefinitely by artificial means? Would I upload my human-ness into a robot body? Would I approve of genetically engineered bodies? To these questions and to many more proffered by the tenets of trans humanism and super humanism I state emphatically NO. The idea of this being the way of all life in the not too distant future fills me with sadness. If we are to evolve, as indeed we must as this is an ongoing condition of the whole of creation, I would prefer that it is done by natural means and not engineered by a group of our fellow humans, no matter how well meaning their efforts. Sadly there have already been seeds sown in the technological world of computers and nanotechnology, so perhaps things will go in a rapidly dehumanising way as the century passes. Happily I won’t be around to experience it in my current body.

  2. Interesting. Whereas I’d take almost the polar opposite position. Would I upload my consciousness into a machine? Yes, absolutely. Like a shot. Approve of genetically engineered bodies? Here I’d be a little more cautious – but if such engineering could eliminate hereditary diseases then I’d be entirely in favour. On the other hand, if we’re talking about engineering the unborn in order to create customised children – or favouring, as some cultures sadly still do, one sex over the other – then I’d be strongly opposed. But that’s the problem: ideas like genetic entgineering are a little like magic, in the sense that there’s no such thing as ‘white’ or ‘black’ magic; so genetic engineering is a technique that could be as easily used for good or evil depending on the engineer. Certainly it would (and already does) require strong oversight and regulation.

    As for evolution, I would ask whether an ‘evolution’ into mechanisms of some sort is unnatural. What we create is a natural result of our evolved intelligence and ingenuity. Where beavers build dams and spiders spin webs, we build cities and vehicles and weapons (I’m not saying we always use our intelligence intelligently). If our intelligence allows us to create a means of perpetuating ourselves through technology, how do we know that isn’t our natural evolutionary course? We’ve long outstripped the ability of our environment to shape us: we now shape it. And that means we won’t evolve in the same way that other species do. As you say, evolution is an ongoing condition of creation: maybe this is the way we now have to do it.

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