[ExI] Engaging Transhumanism: The Meaning of Being Human :: Hava Tirosh-Samuelson :: Global Spiral

Jef Allbright jef at jefallbright.net
Thu Jun 12 14:02:56 UTC 2008

Here's an excellent opportunity for thoughtful, rational criticism and
comment. [6 of 6]

- Jef

Engaging Transhumanism: The Meaning of Being Human :: Hava Tirosh-Samuelson
:: Global Spiral<http://metanexus.net/Magazine/Default.aspx?TabId=68&id=10547&SkinSrc=%5bG%5dSkins%2f_default%2fNo+Skin&ContainerSrc=%5bG%5dContainers%2f_default%2fNo+Container>

Engaging Transhumanism: The Meaning of Being Human
By Hava Tirosh-Samuelson<http://metanexus.net/tabid/72/Default.aspx?aid=282>

[image: Legs]

In 2006, ASU received a generous grant from Metanexus Institute to examine
the challenges of transhumanism. The term 'transhumanism' was coined by
Julian Huxley (d. 1975), the grandson of the Victorian Darwinian, Thomas
Henry Huxley. In *New Bottles for New Wine*, Julian Huxley, a humanist and
evolutionary biologist, advocated the "Fulfillment Society," which will be
committed to the full development of the human potential and will replace
the Welfare Society, the Efficient Society, or the Power Society.1
Huxley, 'transhumanism' was another word to discuss his belief in
"evolutionary humanism," namely, the deliberate effort by mankind to
"transcend itself – not just sporadically … but in its entirety, as
humanity…. Man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new
possibilities of and for his human nature."2
to the Human Potential Movement, Huxley believed that "the human species
will be on the threshold of a new kind of existence, as different from ours
as ours is from that of Pekin man. It will at last be consciously fulfilling
its real destiny."3
the last two decades this vision has become more plausible as a result of
the confluence of new discoveries in the life sciences and the neurosciences
and new technological developments in genomics, robotics, informatics and
nanotechnology. Today the term 'transhumanism' denotes a cluster of
futuristic scenarios in which science and technology will remediate the
miseries of the human condition and usher in a new age in the evolution of
humans, the posthuman age.

For transhumanists (i.e., those who advocate the transitional steps humans
need to take to reach the posthuman age), the human species is no more than
a "work in progress:" Currently the human species is in a comparatively
early phase of human evolution because humans are still enslaved to their
genetic programming that destines them to experience pain, disease,
stupidity, aging, and death. Bioengineering and genetic enhancement will
bring about the posthuman age in which humans will live longer, will possess
new physical and cognitive abilities, and will be liberated from suffering
and pain due to aging and disease; moreover, humans will even conquer the
ultimate enemy—death—by attaining "cognitive immortality," that is, the
downloading of the human software (i.e., the mind) into artificially
intelligent machines that will continue to exist long after the individual
human has perished.

The human/computer interface will be characteristic of the posthuman age in
the following ways: large computer networks may emerge as superhumanly
intelligent entities; computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that
users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent; and biological
science will improve natural human intellect. This future state of affairs
will be so unique that advocates call it "the singularity," namely, "a point
where our old models must be discarded and a new reality rules, a point that
will loom vaster and vaster over human affairs until the notion becomes a
transhumanists focus on human enhancement by design, or radical life
extension, or on computer/human interface, the posthuman age is envisioned
as the transcendence of current human biological limitations. In the
posthuman future, humans will not be the product of evolution but the
designers and controllers of the evolutionary process itself.

Transhumanist ideas are gradually gaining adherents worldwide in print and
especially on the internet. The World Transhumanist Association was founded
in 1998 and today boasts several thousand members, although they are not in
agreement about the meaning of transhumanism or its political goals. Like
all new social and ideological movements, this organization is not free from
internal debates, personal politics, and a sense of being embattled by
external foes. Francis Fukuyama, for example, called transhumanism "the
world's most dangerous idea,"5
in response transhumanists have cultivated an acerbic, polemical style that
ridicules their critics, dismissing them as "bio-Luddites" or
"bio-Conservatives" and brushing them off with clever, but not very
substantive, arguments.6
the pugnacious, irreverent style that characterizes the transhumanist
discourse does not make engagement with these ideas easy, such engagement is
necessary. It is my contention that even though transhumanism is not a
significant social movement, the cultural forces that gave rise to the
transhumanist vision are very significant and merit close examination.

Transhumanism proposes a vision of and for humanity. Although that future is
futuristic, it is rooted in the Enlightenment project and its faith in the
progress of humanity due to science and technology. The "transhumanist
manifesto" of Simon Young presents transhumanism as a philosophy,
positioning it as an alternative to academic postmodernism, religious
theism, and radical environmentalism. Against postmodernists of the academic
Left, transhumanism denies cognitive skepticism, social constructivism, and
cultural relativism. Objective reality does exist and is independent of
human perception, cognition, and apprehension; science generates knowledge
about objective reality, namely, accurate and true description of reality
outside the human mind that provides humans with specific courses of
actions, including those that change objective reality. The facts about the
human condition are real and painful but need not be definitive. Biology is
*not* destiny because the evolutionary process has given rise to the complex
human brain that now enables humans to intervene in the evolutionary process
and replace it with "designer evolution." Young argues that human
consciousness is an "inevitable product of the evolutionary process" and the
predictable outcome of "evolutionary complexification."7
human beings not only *can *intervene and alter the biological facts through
designer genes, designer drugs, and a whole range of enhancement
technologies, humans *should* do so in order to improve the human species.

The transhumanist scenario is decidedly optimistic as much as it is
decidedly secular. In the transhumanist worldview there is no room for the
God of traditional theism who created the world by will and intervenes in
human affairs either through the revelation of the law or incarnation in the
body of a human. A personal omniscient and omnipotent God is deemed
intellectually unacceptable to transhumanists as much as it was for the
Deists of the 18th century, and a creator God who intervenes in human
affairs, reveals a law and instruction for behavior, or judges and rewards
human deeds is deemed simply nonsensical since evolution has nothing to do
with such a deity. For Young, evolution is the scientific truth, but it
should be rendered as a selfish process à la the "selfish gene" myth of
Richard Dawkins, because evolution also has given rise to altruistic
behavior and human ability to love. As an extension of humanism,
transhumanism asserts the love of life, especially human life, and the
desire to improve it through science and technology rather than religious
instruction and moral edification.

Placing the unlimited human potential (rather than the human as a currently
lived experience) at the center of its outlook, transhumanism is also
critical of contemporary environmentalism and its concern for respect toward
other species and its resistance to massive human intervention in nature,
through bioengineering of plants, heavy logging, industrial pollution,
unrestricted consumerism, and many other undesirable activities. Dismissing
any attempt to draw ethical conclusions from natural facts, as "the
Naturalistic Fallacy," transhumanism does not take anything in nature to be
sacred or especially worthy of preservation or conservation. To the extent
that biology places restrictions on human freedom and the human built-in
will to evolve, these obstacles should and must be removed. Only humans
could transcend their biology because of the complexity of the human brain
which has reached a level of complexity to a degree unknown in other
animals. From a transhumanist perspective, radical environmentalism is
misguided because it erases the moral differences between humans and other
animals and because it invests nature with inherent moral values. The
evolutionary process is not directionless but purposeful, life is not an
accident but an evolutionary inevitability, and humanity is "not a twig on
the bush of life, but the peak of evolutionary complexification on earth due
to the incredible power of the human brain."8
this remarkable potential through science and technology will enhance human
freedom and release humanity from the bondage of biology.

Given the transhumanist assault on the notion of human nature, the faculty
seminar at ASU devoted the first year of the Templeton Research Lectures to
examining transhumanism in light of the science of evolutionary psychology.
Contrary to transhumanists, who consider human nature malleable,
evolutionary psychologists hold that human nature is largely fixed because
it is a product of a long evolutionary process. The Templeton Co-Fellows,
Leda Cosmides (UC-Santa Barbara) and John Tooby (UC-Santa Barbara),
seriously challenged transhumanism by arguing that human behavioral traits
reflect the architecture of the human mind, which is designed to perform
very specific functions. Evolutionary psychology makes a strong case that
human nature is not malleable as transhumanists claim and warns us against
facile optimism or the temptation to tinker with the human mind. Throughout
the deliberations of the first year, the consensus emerged that we should
direct our attention to transhumanism as a social movement, to the forces
that gave rise to it and to the philosophical, cultural, and social
implications of the transhumanist vision.

The second year of the Templeton Research Lectures focused on cultural
implications of current accelerated technologies and viewed them
historically, socially, and politically. The public lectures of the Temple
Co-Fellows, Braden Allenby (ASU) and Daniel Sarewitz (ASU) highlighted the
novelty of the Age of the Anthropocene (Age of the Human) in which the human
has become a design space and explored the meaning of the transhumanist
notion of designing "better" human beings. What does it mean to be an
enhanced individual or an enhanced society? These are social, political, and
cultural questions which scientists are not addressing, while the
application of enhancement technoligies takes place in the military.

This special issue of the *Global Spiral* consists of five presentations
delivered at a workshop at ASU on April 24-25, 2008. In this workshop,
transhumanism was engaged by a philosopher of science and technology trained
in the phenomenological tradition (Don Ihde); a sociologist, cognitive
scientist, and cultural critic (Jean-Pierre Dupuy); a literary critic
(Katherine Hayles); a philosopher and sociologist of science (Andrew
Pickering); and a Christian theologian (Ted Peters). Engaging transhumanism
from different perspectives, some more critically than others, the
contributors agree that transhumanism merits a serious examination rather
than cursory dismissal. To properly assess transhumanism, it must be
situated historically and culturally and interrogated philosophically and
theologically. Transhumanism will not go away but in all likelihood will
continue to attract new adherents. Hence, it is incumbent on those who care
about the place of science and technology in contemporary culture to examine
transhumanism without adopting the polemical style of the transhumanist
movement because what is at stake is the very meaning of human life in the
foreseeable future.

The special issue of the *Global Spiral* opens with Don Ihde's essay. Ihde
argues that to understand transhumanism correctly we need to examine it as a
kind of fantasy, and even a "kind of magic to fulfill the desire-fantasy,"
and remember that the particular form of any fantasy is always shaped by
"textual patters of historical lifeworlds." Technofantasy is magical
thinking that "disregards the ambiguous, non-neutral character of actual
technologies." Ihde examines four influential narratives, as examples of
"idols" that humans have created: "Intelligent Design," "The Cyborg,"
"Prediction," and "John Henry and Big Blue." His analysis of these
narratives concluded that we do not need to fear the fantasized replacement
of humans by machines. Rather, we need to understand how "the changing
technologies with which we interact, form collectives, experience the dances
of agencies, do forecast vastly changed conditions of work and play and even
love." In this analysis, what matters is not the conflict between machines
and humans but the myriads ways in which the actual presence of technology
will transform human life and the meaning of being human.

The following essay by Jean Pierre Dupuy, "Cybernetics is an Antihumanism:
Advanced Technologies and the Rebellion against the Human Condition," offers
a much more critical perspective of contemporary technology, especially
cybernetics. Dupuy argues that "cybernetics, far from being the apotheosis
of Cartesian humanism, as Heidegger supposed, actually represented a crucial
moment in its demystification, and indeed its deconstruction." In fact,
"cybernetics constitutes a decisive step in the rise of antihumanism."
Contrary to the Anglo-Speaking world, Continental political philosophy has
yet to acknowledge the notion of posthumanism, and instead has debated at
length the notion of antihumanism. Dupuy explores possible connections
between "posthumanism" and "antihumanism" in order to bridge the gap between
Continental and Anglo-American philosophy. Dupuy joins other philosophers
who are committed to "defend humanism (i.e., the values proper to the human
person) from the excesses of science and technology." Dupuy begins his
analysis with a critique of Heidegger who indicted humanism and suggests
that in countries such as France, where Heideggerian thought has been
influential, "it became impossible to defend human values against the claims
of science." In fact, the human sciences for the past four decades have
actually celebrated "the death of man" (namely metaphysical humanism,
characteristic of pre-Heideggerian thought). In France, Structuralists not
only followed Sartre in identifying "the inhuman" with "the mechanical," but
actually championed the inhuman in their search for subject-less cognition.
Cognition without a subject was precisely what cybernetics was all about
since its inception in the 1940s. The key question is: "Was cybernetics the
height of metaphysical humanism, as Heidegger maintained, or was it the
height of its deconstruction, as certain of Heidegger's followers believe?"
Dupuy answers that "cybernetics was both things at once and that is what
made it not only the root of cognitive science, which finds itself faced
with the same paradox, but also a turning point in the history of human
conceptions of humanity."

In the second part of his paper, Dupuy discusses the connection between the
mechanization of the mind and the mechanization of life, and noted that the
paradox of cybernetics continues today in the paradox that plagues cognitive
science: "the mind has been raised up as a demigod in relation to itself."
The third part of the paper considers nanotehcnology and its dream of
designing the human by tinkering with biological evolution. Reiterating
Hannah Arendt's prescient critique of modern science, as a revolt against
the mortality of the human condition, Dupuy suggests that at the heart of
the nanotechnological dream there is an extraordinary paradox that arises
from "the convergence of opposites whereby the overwhelming ambition and
pride of a certain scientific humanism leads directly to the obsolescence of
mankind." Dupuy offers a rather pessimistic analysis of converging
technologies and their challenges to the core of being human, namely, the
ability to love. **

The third paper in this issue is by Katherine Hayles, a literary and media
critic who has written extensively on transhumanism as expressed in
cyberspace and in science fiction.9
notes the growth of transhumanism since she wrote the book, *How We Became
Posthuman*, in 1999 and pointed out that all the forms of transhumanism
"perform decontextualizing moves that over-simplify the situation and carry
into the new millennium some of the most questionable aspects of capitalist
ideology." The basic assumption of transhumanism is that "technology is
involved in a spiraling dynamic of co-evolution with human development," an
assumption known as "technogenesis." According to Hayles, this assumption is
"compelling and indeed virtually irrefutable, applying not only to
contemporary humans but to Homo sapiens across the eons, shaping the species
biologically, psychologically, socially and economically." While Hayles
finds herself in disagreement with transhumanist rhetoric, she also stated
that the transhumanist community makes a positive contribution because it
tries "to figure out where technogenesis is headed in the contemporary era
and what it implies about our human future." Thus transhumanism confronts
valuable questions, even though one does not have to accept all the
implications of transhumanism claims.

As a literary scholar, Hayles poses science fiction and speculative fiction
as the *locus classicus* for reframing transhumanist questions. She observes
that reproduction is a center of transhumanist concerns (e.g., "reproduction
of individuals through children, reproduction of species through technology
as well as biology, and reproduction of psychological, philosophical, social
and economic institutions that facilitate and/or threaten the continued
existence of humans as a species"). Whereas reproduction implies continuity,
transhumanists (beginning with Vernon Vinge and even more so Ray Kurzweil)
are obsessed with "singularity," a radical form of discontinuity. After
summarizing the utopian rhetoric of transhumanists such as Max More and Nick
Bostrom, Hayles claimed that "reproduction typically figures in
transhumanist rhetoric as the reproduction of the individual through
cloning, cryogenic suspension, radical life extension, and uploading human
consciousness into a computer," all of which assume that "the individual
will maintain his identity intact." She examines various fantastic scenarios
in the novels of Greg Bear, Nancy Kress, James Patrick Kelly, and Philip K.
Dick, among others, and concluded that science fiction writers enact a
critique of transhumanism, even though they do not go as far as Fukuyama to
view transhumanism as "the world's most dangerous idea." Rather, science
fiction writers appreciate the complexity of the future "when advanced
technologies come together with reproduction to reconfigure metalogical
dynamics at every level, from the individual to the family to the
nation-state and globalized society" and unlike the rhetoric of
transhumanism, they know that it is impossible to predict accurately all the
consequences of these developments using reason, technology and science.

Although transhumanism is a transnational movement, it has particular roots
in England. Andrew Pickering's paper, "Brains, Selves and Spirituality in
the History of Cybernetics" is based on his new research on the history of
cybernetics in England that focuses on Ross Ashby, Gordon Pask, Grey
Walters, Stafford Beer, and others. Cybernetics is most relevant to
reflections about the meaning of being human because "it stages a
non-dualist vision of brains, selves and the world." Pickering considers
that vision to be not only a definitive refutation of any discussion of
human exceptionalism, but also a critique of the continued tendency to
assume some immaterial factor that distinguishes humans from animals and
from brute matter (language, reason, emotions, culture, the social,
information, etc.). In regard to the human brain, cybernetics has challenged
human exceptionalism and has shown that the brain is "just another organ of
the body, an organ that happens to be especially engaged with bodily
performance in the world." Unlike Foucault's "technologies of self" that
produced a distinctly human self-controlled self, the work of British
cybernetics in the mid 1940s actually problematized the notion that the
brain is an organ of representation and offered instead "a technology for
losing control and going to unintended places of experiment in a
performative sense." These experiments offered not only ideas about the
brain and the self but "different ways to live." Madness was another
direction in which cyberneticians experimented with altered states the
performative brain could get into when elicited by specific technologies of
the self. Pickering finds "the links from the non-Cartesian performative and
adaptive brain to these strange forms of life fascinating."

Another very suggestive trajectory is offered by Eastern spirituality. The
Buddhist analysis of the self offers an alternative to the centered and
unchangeable soul. Some of the cyberneticians already in the 1930s
recognized that the brain is the organ of a strange sense, capable of
accessing some other, non-human and intrinsically spiritual realm, i.e., a
universal mind. In contrast to these notions, the conception of the self and
spirit in the modern Christian West seems to Pickering as "straitened and
impoverished." The final notion Pickering finds in cybernetics is summarized
in the term 'hylozoism' namely "a kind of spiritually charged wonder at the
performativity and agency of matter." The cyberneticians Stafford Beer and
Gordon Pask in the 1950s and 1960s "embarked on a long search through the
space of adaptive systems running from pond ecosystems to electrochemically
deposited metal threads as some sort of substitute for human factor
managers." Their work failed to produce the intended result but had enormous
impact on music and art during the 1970s. Pickering concluded that in
comparison to the cyberneticians of previous decades, transhumanism seems to
exhibit a lack of creative imagination.

This issue of the *Global Spiral* concludes with the paper of Ted Peters,
"Transhumanism and the Posthuman Future: Will Technological Progress Get us
There?" that examines the transhumanist assumption that "progress,
understood as betterment over time, is inherent in nature and inherent in
culture." Offering a Christian (especially Lutheran) perspective, Peters
argued that transhumanism offers a futurist thinking that relies on growth
or progress, as opposed to Christian futurist thinking that "anticipates the
advent of the new." Peters' thesis is "that transhumanist assumptions
regarding progress are naïve, because they fail to operate with an
anthropology that is realistic regarding the human proclivity to turn good
into evil. He called on researchers in genetics and nanotechnology to
proceed "toward developing new and enhancing technologies" while maintaining
"constant watchfulness for ways in which these technologies can become
perverted and bent toward destructive purposes."

Contrary to the prevailing assumption that biblical theology offers
resistance to change, Peters demonstrates that the Bible anticipates the
new, looks forward to transformation, and celebrates innovation. His
theological critique of transhumanism is centered on the claim that it is
naïve to think that "we could accomplish with technology a transformation
that can be achieved only by the eschatological act of a gracious and loving
God." For Peters, transhumanism is more than a social movement or an
ideology. Rather it is a philosophical system, a worldview that operates on
three levels: metaphysical, psychological, and ethical. Echoing Simon Young,
the author of the book mentioned above who is also a son of a known
cybernetician in England, Peters states the goal of transhumanist philosophy
as replacing "the Darwinian Evolution with Designer Evolution—from slavery
to the selfish genes to conscious self-rule by the human mind." In this
Promethean project, the future will differ from the past and the *Homo
sapiens* will be replaced by *Homo cyberneticus*: "as humanism freed us from
the chains of superstition, let transhumanism free us from our biological
chains," chimes Simon Young. In this scenario, the immortalized species will
set out for the stars. Conscious life will gradually spread throughout the
galaxy "until finally, in the unimaginatively distant future, the whole
universe has come alive, awakened to its own nature—a cosmic mind become
conscious of itself as a living entity—omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent."

Peters discusses Ray Kurzweil's futurist understanding of "singularity",
showing it to conflate biological evolution and technological progress,
seeing the latter as an extension of the former. Assuming a built-in
entelechy, Kurzweil presents his vision as inevitable. Technological utopia
envisioned by humanism is also supposed to free us from the ecological
challenges ahead and to deliver social progress and ecological harmony, and
Aubrey de Grey's program of radical life extension is the extension of the
transhumanist battle against biology to death itself.10
examines the ethical dimension of the transhumanist vision and poses the
question "should a transhumanist ethic place us totally at the beck and call
of every proposal for technological progress?" The existence of computer
viruses show how naïve and overly optimistic the transhumanist vision truly
is, and the same can be said for transhumanist trust in the free market as a
protection from evil. Looking at transhumanism from a critical, religious
perspective, Peters (similar to the observations of Dupuy) noted that its
vision is based on a paradox: "On the one hand, transhumanists propose a
technology that will enhance our humanism, at least the intelligent aspect
of humanity. On the other hand, once technology takes over and replicates
itself, it will leave our present stage of humanity in the evolutionary
dust. An emerging posthumanity will replace us." Peters concludes his paper
with an extended critique of transhumanism inspired by the Lutheran
theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and his disciple, Langdon Gilkey, highlighting
the human propensity to sin and the inherent limitations of being human. It
is not technology that can save humans from their limitations, but only
divine grace.

The essays presented in this special issue should inspire rigorous
engagement with transhumanism, precisely because it offers a negative view
of human embodied biological existence and an optimistic fantasy that these
limitations could be overcome through technology. If one accepts that
transhumanism is more than an ideology, indeed a philosophy, one must look
carefully at its understanding of the human, of biology, and of the
relationship between technology and culture. Is transhumanism an extension
of Enlightenment humanism or a negation of it? Is transhumanism an ideology,
a philosophy, or even a religion (albeit loosely defined)? Is
transhumanism's vision for the transcendence of biology a celebration of
humanity or denigration of it? Is transhumanism a response to postmodernism
or a product thereof? To engage transhumanism is to reflect on the meaning
of being human in light of accelerated technologies and scientific advances.
With its generous grant to ASU, Metanexus Institute has facilitated such
examination and with the publication of this special issue of the Global
Spiral, the online publication of Metanexus, further discussion of who we
are and how we want to live will become possible.


Huxley, *New Bottles for New Wine *(London: Chatto & Windus, 1957), 13-17.



Vinge, "Technological Singularity," available on
http://www-rohan.sdsy.edu/faculty/vinge/misc/WER2.html. Cf., Ray Kurzweil,
The Singluarity is Near (When Humans Tarnscend Biology (London: Viking,

Fukuyama, *Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotehcnological
Revolution* (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2002).

examples of transhumanist polemics are James Hughes, *Citizen Cyborg: Why
Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the
Future*(Boston: Westview Press, 2004) and Simon Young,
*Designer Evolution: A Transhumanist Manifesto* (Boston, Prometheus Books,

*Designer Evolution*, 212.


Hayles, *How We Became Posthuman:* *Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics,
Literature, and Informatics *(Chicago and London: University of Chicago
Press, 1999).

most vocal proponent of this interpretation of radical life extension is
Aubrey de Grey, *Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs that Could
Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime* (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2007).
**[image: Separater]*
*A paper prepared for the "Transhumanism and the Meanings of Progress"
workshop, ASU, Tempe, AZ, April 24-25, 2008.**

Published   2008.06.05 * *Comments:* Share your thoughts on this article:
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