[ExI] The meaning of life (in transhumanism)

Anders Sandberg anders at aleph.se
Sat Feb 22 21:12:19 UTC 2014

BillK <pharos at gmail.com> , 22/2/2014 10:50 AM:
It might be interesting to change your question to - 
'What is the direction of life?' or 'How do we think human life will develop?' 
That might bring out more transhuman purposes. 
Yup. Still, I felt it was useful to check what people have as basic approach to this kind of issue - with the naturalist subjectivism out of the way we can get on with the more transhumanist takes on things. I liked Henry Rivera's list - many of these makes some sense as answers to the above questions. Generally I think answers to the first question leads to cosmist transhumanism, while answers to the second towards a more terrestrial transhumanism. 
When looking in the literature I found a few quotable ideas. Here are a few ones to get started:
"At last one of the central questions can be dealt with: What is the purpose of life? Answer: To discover the purpose of life. This is not a play on words, but a recognition of the obvious truth that since ultimate answers are not within view we must make do, for the foreseeable future, with uncovering and pursuing a succession of intermediate goals, and that this requires a program of growth and development....We must, in fine, become immortal supermen--not to gloat over our accomplishments and strut among the stars, but to do our work, the only work there is." (R.C.W. Ettinger, Man into Superman p. 213-214)
This fits in nicely with one of Nick Bostrom's earliest essays where he points out that the deep philosophical problems are very hard, so we are unlikely to get any answer soon - so we better improve our minds or make AI so we can figure things out, get life extension if we want to know the answers, and reduce xrisk so that there will be a future to come up with the answers. 

Sebastian Seung had an external perspective that I quite like: 

“The “meaning of life” includes both universal and personal dimensions. We can ask both “Are we here for a reason?” and “Am I here for a reason?” Transhumanism answers these questions as follows. First, it’s the destiny of humankind to transcend the human condition. This is not merely what will happen, but what should happen. Second, it can be a personal goal to sign up for Alcor, dream about uploading, or use technology to otherwise improve oneself. In both of these ways, transhumanism lends meaning to lives that were robbed of it by science. 

The bible said that God made man in his own image. The German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach said that man made God in his own image. The transhumanists say that humanity will make itself into God.” (Connectome, p. 273) 

According to him transhumanists have accepted the post-Enlightenment critique of reason, yet not given up on using reason to achieve grand ends that give meaning to life. This actually fits in well with the good ol' Extropian Principles: “Religions traditionally have provided a sense of meaning and purpose in life, but have also suppressed intelligence and stifled progress. The Extropian philosophy provides an inspiring and uplifting meaning and direction to our lives, while remaining flexible and firmly founded in science, reason, and the boundless search for improvement.”
There is of course much more in the principles I would like to comment on, but I would also like to hear what Max has to say. 
Then there is the Nietzsche link. For example, in http://www.nietzschecircle.com/AGONIST/2011_08/Loeb_Nietzsche_Transhumanism.pdf


“Indeed, this is the whole point of Sorgner’s first essay on Nietzsche and the transhumanist movement: although transhumanists are influenced by Nietzsche’s concept of the superhuman in wanting to take the next step in the evolutionary process, they do not follow Nietzsche in justifying this desire by reference to the question of the meaning of life. Sorgner’s unstated implication is that transhumanists might want to learn from Nietzsche about the need to justify human enhancement as part of a general project to affirm this life and this world to the fullest—a project whose success will be determined by our longing for their eternal recurrence.”

Of course, we can let Friedrich speak for himself:

“Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman--a rope over an abyss. 

A dangerous crossing, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous trembling and halting. 

What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal: what is lovable in man is that he is an OVER-GOING and a DOWN-GOING. 

I love the great despisers, because they are the great adorers, and arrows of longing for the other shore. 

I love those who do not first seek a reason beyond the stars for going down and being sacrifices, but sacrifice themselves to the earth, that the earth of the Superman may hereafter arrive. 

I love him who lives in order to know, and seeks to know in order that the Superman may hereafter live. Thus seeks he his own down-going.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra)


Naively this implies that the meaning of the human is to become posthuman (and this meaning is not due to any supernatural "beyond the stars" reason). But Nietzsche of course saw this as a continuing process with no end (because eternal return): the posthuman would also be a bridge. So the meaning of life for the posthuman is the same continual striving. Finally, my always cheerful colleague Guy Kahane has written a paper on "Our cosmic insignificance" (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/nous.12030/full ) which tackles the question of just how insignificant we are. He concludes that we might very well be insignificant, but not for the reasons usually invoked, and we do not know this. 
"A concern with cosmic significance can be entirely outward looking. What is important deserves our attention. What is cosmically importance deserves our attention, when we adopt a viewpoint that encompasses everything. This needn’t, of course, be us. If God exists, for example, He would be of immense cosmic significance. It goes without saying,that this is something that’s important to know. ... (We think it is important to know where life came from, how the universe begun, and how it will end. Surely, if this purely theoretical knowledge about the cosmos is important, then knowledge about what’s cosmically important is at least as important.)
In any event, even if there was something distasteful in the desire for cosmic significance, it hardly follows that it doesn’t matter whether we are cosmically significant. (That it’s childish to fantasize about being a hero doesn’t mean there are no heroes.) ...
There is something embarrassingly megalomaniac in the desire for grand cosmic significance. Even so, this desire might be fulfilled. It is highly unlikely that any of us possesses cosmic significance. But as is turns out, if we are alone in the universe then, taken together, we humans may nevertheless be of immense cosmic significance—and the irony is that we might have this significance precisely because the surrounding universe is so cold and indifferent. ... If we possess great significance, we possess it precisely because there is no one else but us— and thus only when there is no one (but us) who can appreciate our significance. We may be centre stage, but the theatre is empty.
If anything, this result should be sobering. It is not a cause for elation, but a burden, a great responsibility. If we are alone in the universe, the only thing of value, then this gives our continuing existence, and our efforts to avert disaster, a cosmic urgency, on top of whatever self-interested, anthropocentric reasons we have to stay around. That is to say, we might be far more important than we take ourselves to be. We humans are after all careless in numerous familiar ways, we fail to safeguard the future, or kick off pernicious habits. From a cosmic point of view, the problem wouldn’t be that we suffer from an inflated sense of importance. It is that that we don’t take our existence seriously enough."
There is much more that can be quoted and discussed, but I'll stop here for now. 

Anders Sandberg, Future of Humanity Institute Philosophy Faculty of Oxford University
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