[extropy-chat] Arnhart: Transhumanism and the Future of Human Nature

Hughes, James J. james.hughes at trincoll.edu
Wed Mar 8 18:23:54 UTC 2006


Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Transhumanism and the Future of Human Nature

Larry Arnhart

"Transhumanism" has become a popular term for the idea that
technological enhancements of humans, animals, and machines will create
a superhuman species of beings. Transhumanists believe that advances in
genetic engineering, robotics, computer science, pscyhopharmacology, and
nanotechnology will improve the physical and mental capacities of human
beings to produce a new stage of evolutionary history. A new species of
beings far superior to Homo sapiens might evolve from such technologies.
Some of the best statements of transhumanism come from Nick Bostrum,
James Hughes, and others in the World Transhumanist Association.

As I indicated in my chapter on biotechnology in Darwinian Conservatism,
I am skeptical about transhumanism for two reasons. (I am now working on
a new book that will elaborate my case against transhumanism.) My first
reason is that transhumanism suffers from a Nietzschean utopianism that
lacks common sense, because it ignores the ways in which the
technologies for altering human traits are limited in both their
technical means and their moral ends. My second reason is that I favor a
stance of libertarian conservatism in response to technological changes
that would allow improvement in human life but without the transcendence
of human nature expected by the transhumanists.

The technology for enhancing human powers will be limited in its
technical means, because complex behavioral traits arise from the
intricate interplay of many genes interacting with developmental
contingencies and unique life histories to form brains that constantly
change as they respond flexibly to changing circumstances. Consequently,
precise technological manipulation of human nature to enhance desirable
traits while avoiding undesirable side effects will be very difficult if
not impossible.

Consider, for example, the matter of human intelligence. One of the
central assertions of the transhumanists is that we will soon create
"superintelligent" beings that will be as intellectually superior to
humans as humans are today to chimpanzees. Notice the extraordinary
claims implicit in such an assertion--that we know what "intelligence"
is in all of its complexity, that we can reduce intelligence to material
causes that can be technically manipulated in precise ways, and that we
can use this technical power to increase intelligence beyond anything
ever achieved by living beings.

If we ask transhumanists to justify these claims, we get vague
assertions about what might happen in the future. For instance, James
Hughes, in his book Citizen Cyborg, says this about the future of
computer intelligence: "Since computers powerful enough to model human
brains should be common in thirty years, those computer models may then
be able to run software simulations of our brains and bodies. Presumably
these backups of our minds, if switched on, would be self-aware and have
an independent existence. This is the scenario known as 'uploading.'"

No one knows how to fully model human brains or how to replicate such
models in computers. No one knows how brains and bodies could be
simulated in computer software. No one knows how computer software could
become self-aware. And yet Hughes can imagine a "scenario" in which all
of this ignorance is dispelled based on what he thinks "should" or "may"
or "presumably" will happen in thirty years!

Now, of course, there are ways that we can use biomedical technology to
protect against mental disabilities. For example, we could completely
eliminate the mental retardation from Down syndrome through genetic
screening of embryos or other means so that parents could be sure that
they would not have children born with an extra 21st chromosome. But
although this would be an improvement in human life, it would not
transcend human nature by moving us towards "posthuman" beings with
superhuman intelligence.

When transhumanists like Hughes predict the coming of "posthuman" humans
as the fulfillment of what they think "should" happen, they are
expressing not scientific or philosophic reasoning from observable
experience but a religious longing for transcendence. Hughes is a
Buddhist, and he foresees that the transhuman future will fulfill his
Buddhist vision of a "society of enlightened beings as an infinite net,
laced with pearls and gems, each enlightened mind a multicolored twinkle
that is reflected in every other jewel." Like Friedrich Nietzsche, the
transhumanists profess an atheistic materialism, and yet they still
yearn for religious transcendence, which drives them to project
fantasies of "overmen" and "posthumans" who have escaped the limitations
of human nature to enter a heavenly realm of pure thought and immortal

The transhumanists also ignore how the technology of human enhancement
will likely be limited in its moral ends. Human beings act to satisfy
their natural desires. The use of technology to enhance human life will
be driven by these natural desires. Transhumanists implicitly assume the
enduring power of these desires. But if that is the case, then it is
hard to see how human nature is going to be abolished if the natural
desires endure.

For example, Hughes speaks about "the human needs and desires these
technologies will be asked to serve," which include the desires for
long, healthy lives, for intelligence and happiness, and the desires for
parents to care for the physical and mental flourishing of their
children. (All of these desires are included in my list of "twenty
natural desires" in Darwinian Conservatism.) But if human beings are
always going to be moved by the same natural desires, how does this take
us into "posthuman" existence?

If we were really going to enter the "posthuman" realm, we would have to
create beings who lacked the natural desires of human beings and who
felt no concern for human life as moved by such desires. Such creatures
might be superintelligent. But they would also be superpsychopathic
predators who would feel no guilt or shame in enslaving or exterminating
human beings.

The transhumanists respond to this prospect by explaining that we will
have to be careful to instill in these posthuman beings what Nick
Bostrum calls "human-friendly values." Hughes explains that we will have
to instill by technological devices "sociability and empathy for all
sentient beings." For example, we might require the installation of
"morality chips." Hughes is not troubled by the naive expectation that
we can develop "morality chips" to control the posthumans without any
harmful side-effects.

Even if we could solve the technical problems in reducing morality to a
mere matter of mechanical engineering, we might still wonder why Hughes
and the other transhumanists want to preserve human morality if their
goal is an absolutely posthuman life. If human morality as rooted in the
natural human desires is at the core of human nature, then posthumanity
would require the abolition of that morality. If the posthumans are
going to be moved by the same natural desires and moral emotions that
have always moved human beings, then it would seem that human nature has

As an alternative to the transhumanist stance, I would defend a
libertarian conservatism rooted in human nature. I would argue for
leaving people free to exercise individual choice in developing and
using new technologies to meet human needs and desires. This would allow
people to learn by trial and error what is desirable and what is not in
the use of such technologies.

Some legal regulation of choice might be required to promote the minimal
safety and efficacy of the new technologies and to protect people
against force and fraud. But within such a modest regulatory regime,
people would have freedom of choice.

The moral standard here would be that a technology is good if it
promotes the flourishing of our human nature by satisfying our natural
desires. We can best conform to that standard by allowing people free
choice in satisfying their desires. Although there will be great
diversity in the choices people make, there will be some enduring
patterns in their choices that reflect the universality of natural human
desires. For example, we can assume that the natural desire for parental
care will generally motivate parents to use technology in ways that
promote the happiness of their children.

My stance is close to the position taken by Ron Baily in his book
Liberation Biology. But I depart from Bailey when he moves towards a
transhumanist libertarianism that assumes that somehow human nature will
be superseded by a new, superior form of life.

I welcome the prospect of technological changes in the human condition
that will improve the physical and mental functions of life. But rather
than expecting the emergence of a transhuman form of life, I foresee
that human nature will not only endure but prevail.

posted by Larry Arnhart @ Wednesday, March 08, 2006   0 comments

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