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Transhumanism

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Transhumanism is an emergent philosophy analysing or favouring the use of science and technology, especially neurotechnology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology, to overcome human limitations and improve the human condition.

Contents

Overview of transhumanism

The term 'transhumanism' was coined by biologist Julian Huxley in 1957 who defined it as "man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature". Huxley's definition did not gain currency and differs substantially from the one commonly in use since the 1980s.

In 1966, FM-2030 (formerly F.M. Esfandiary), an Iranian-American futurist who was teaching new concepts of the Human at New School University, began to identify as "transhuman" (a short hand for "transitory human") people who were adopting technologies, lifestyles and world views that were transitional to "posthumanity."

Transhumanism, however, was given its modern definition and characterization by philosopher Dr. Max More: "Transhumanism is a class of philosophies that seek to guide us towards a posthuman condition. Transhumanism shares many elements of humanism, including a respect for reason and science, a commitment to progress, and a valuing of human (or transhuman) existence in this life. […] Transhumanism differs from humanism in recognizing and anticipating the radical alterations in the nature and possibilities of our lives resulting from various sciences and technologies […]." [1] (http://www.maxmore.com/transhum.htm)

Dr. Anders Sandberg has described modern transhumanism as "the philosophy that we can and should develop to higher levels, physically, mentally and socially using rational methods," while Dr. Robin Hanson has described it as "the idea that new technologies are likely to change the world so much in the next century or two that our descendants will in many ways no longer be 'human'."

Transhumanism includes:

Transhumanism and technology

Transhumanists generally support emerging technologies, including many that are controversial, such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science; as well as hypothetical future technologies such as artificial intelligence, mind uploading and cryonics.

Since some observers believe the pace of technological development is steadily increasing, many transhumanist thinkers speculate that the next 50 years will yield remarkable and radical technological advancements. Transhumanism maintains that this is desirable and that humans can and should become more than human through the application of technological innovations such as genetic engineering, molecular nanotechnology, neuropharmaceuticals, prosthetic enhancements, and mind-machine interfaces (see Human Cognome Project).

Enlightenment and humanistic roots

Following in the tradition of Enlightenment-influenced 19th century political, moral and philosophical thought, transhumanism seeks to build upon the global knowledge base for the betterment of all humankind.

Derived in part from the philosophical traditions of secular humanism, transhumanism asserts that there are no 'supernatural' forces that guide humanity. While largely a grassroots and broadly based movement, transhumanism does tend toward rational arguments and empirical observations of natural phenomena; in many respects, transhumanists partake in a culture of science and reason, and are guided by life-promoting principles and values.

Specifically, transhumanism seeks to apply reason, science and technology for the purposes of reducing poverty, disease, disability, malnutrition and oppressive governments around the globe. Many transhumanists actively assess the potential for future technologies and innovative social systems to improve quality of all life, while seeking to make the material reality of the human condition fulfill the promise of legal and political equality by eliminating congenital mental and physical barriers.

Beyond humanism

Transhumanism argues there exists an ethical imperative for humans to strive for progress and improvement of the human condition (see perfectionism). If humanity enters into a post-Darwinian phase of existence in which humans are in control of evolution, transhumanists argue that random mutations will possibly be replaced with rational, moral, and ethical, but most specifically, guided change.

To this end, transhumanists engage in interdisciplinary approaches to understanding and evaluating possibilities for overcoming biological limitations. This includes the use of the various fields and subfields of science, philosophy, economics and natural and sociological history.

History of transhumanism

The early transhumanists were formally meeting in the early 1980s at the University of California, Los Angeles, which became the central watering hole for transhumanists. It was here that FM-2030 lectured on the futurist ideology of "Upwingers". John Spencer at Space Tourism Society organized many transhumanist space-related events. Natasha Vita-More (formerly Nancie Clark) exhibited "Breaking Away" at EZTV Media, a venue for transhumanists and other futurists to meet. FM, John and Natasha met and soon they began holding gatherings for transhumanists in Los Angeles, which included students from FM-2030 transhuman courses and audiences from Natasha artistic transhumanist productions and the space and astrophysics community.

Across the planet in Australia, Damien Broderick, science fiction author, wrote The Judas Mandala. In 1982, Natasha authored the Transhumanist Arts Manifesto, and later produced the cable TV show "TransCentury UPdate" on transhumanity. This boutique talking head show reached over 100,000 viewers.

In 1986, Dr. Eric Drexler's famed book on nanotechnology, Engines of Creation, was published in hardcover by Anchor Books. Alcor Foundation's Southern California location became a nexus for futurist thinkers and Northern California's tech-heads were carrying copies of Engines of Creation. Yet, not all activists who were interested in improving the human condition were involved in "transhumanism". Some did not know of the word, although they were certainly pioneering in what is now transhumanism.

Today, the Extropy Institute and the World Transhumanist Association are among the largest transhumanist organizations.

For a list of prominent transhumanists, see list of transhumanists.

Currents within transhumanism

Practical transhumanism

As proponents of personal evolution and self-creation, transhumanists tend to utilize technologies and techniques that improve cognitive and physical performance, while engaging in specific routines and lifestyles designed to extend health and prolong life (see fyborg).

Many transhumanists are actively seeking to become transhuman or posthuman, which they claim is the next significant evolutionary step for the human species. It is supposed that specific biotechnological and nanotechnological innovations will facilitate such a leap by the midpoint of the 21st century. Depending on their age, some transhumanists worry that they will not live to reap the benefits of these future technologies. However with this knowledge, many have a great interest in life-extension practices and as a last resort cryonic suspension.

Transhumanists are also forming regional and global networks and communities to provide support and forums for discussion and working on collaborative projects.

Criticisms of transhumanism

Criticisms of transhumanism can be divided into two main categories: those objecting to likelihood of transhumanist goals being achieved, and those objecting to the ethical and moral principles of transhumanism.

Practical criticisms

Geneticist and science writer Steve Jones argues that humanity does not, and will never have the technology that proponents of transhumanism seek. He once joked that the letters of the genetic code, A, C, G and T should be replaced with the letters H, Y, P and E. Jones claims that technologies like genetic engineering will never be as powerful as is popularly believed.

In his book Futurehype: The Tyranny of Prophecy, University of Toronto sociologist Max Dublin points out many failed predictions of the past technological progress and argues that modern futurist predictions will prove similarly inaccurate. He also objects to what he sees as fanaticism and nihilism in advancing transhumanist causes, and writes that historical parallels exist to religious and Marxist ideologies. Many transhumanists, however, disagree strongly with the very concept of fanaticism and nihilism, seeing it as inconsistent with the core rationalism of the movement. They also point out that almost every technological advancement of the last century was predicted by science fiction or non-fiction futurists.

Moral criticisms

Critics or opponents of transhumanist views often favour improvement of ethical behaviour, rather than technology, as the most effective way to improve society. Technological solutions may be compatible with other improvements, but some worry that strong advocacy of the former might divert attention and resources from the latter. As most transhumanists support non-technological changes to society, such as the spread of political liberty, and most critics of transhumanism support technological advances in areas such as communications and healthcare, the difference is often a matter of emphasis. Sometimes, however, there are strong disagreements about the very principles involved, with divergent views on humanity, human nature, and the morality of transhumanist aspirations.

A more notable critic of transhumanism is Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, who argued in his essay Why the future doesn't need us (http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy_pr.html) that human beings would likely guarantee their own extinction by transhumanist means. This led some to conclude that humanity has an inherent lack of competence to direct its own evolution.

British Astronomer Royal Martin Rees claims in his book Our Final Hour that advanced science and technology brings as much risk of disaster as opportunity for progress. Rees does not advocate a halt to scientific progress, but tighter security and perhaps an end to traditional scientific openness.

Advocates of the primacy of the precautionary principle, such as the Green movement, also favor slow, careful progress or a halt in potentially dangerous areas. Some precautionists believe humanity's collective intelligence should organize first and thus be ready to overcome any dangers from artificial intelligences that do not share human morality, thus avoiding any risk of bodily harm.

In his book Our Posthuman Future, conservative political economist Francis Fukuyama asserts that transhumanism may actually critically undermine the progressive ideals of liberal democracy it favours, through a fundamental alteration of human nature and human equality. "Bioconservatives", like Fukuyama, hold that any attempt to alter the natural state of man (such as cloning, genetic modification) is inherently immoral.

Further opposition to transhumanism comes from critics who point to subjectivity in the use of concepts such as "enhance" and "limitations", seeing eugenicist or master race ideologies of the past as warnings of what transhumanism might unintentionally encourage, as evidenced by the emergence of fringe offshoots such as prometheism and transtopianism. Some transhumanists do advocate forms of liberal eugenics but many others distance themselves from this term (prefering reprogenetics instead) to avoid being mistakenly associated with the pseudoscientific and dehumanizing views and practices of early-20th-century eugenics movements. However, given that transhumanism essentially developed out of the California self-improvement culture, the idea of equating that culture with Nazi-style eugenics is seen as laughable if not libellous by many transhumanists.

Fictional depictions of transhumanism

Science fiction has depicted transhumanism in various forms for many years.

The Ousters of the Hyperion saga by Dan Simmons are an example of transhumanity, even verging into the posthuman. Instead of "clinging to rocks" like the rest of humanity (which hated and feared them as barbarians), they headed for deep space, adapted themselves to that environment with nanotechnology, and entered into a symbiotic relationship with their technology. Simmons' later book Ilium depicts a different situation in the far future where posthumans seem to have been consumed by their own technology, a small population of less-modified humans, utterly dependent on technology that they don't understand, continues to live on Earth, and the most advanced and "humane" beings in the solar system are intelligent robots living on the moons of Jupiter.

Another author who depicts a few different transhumanist themes is Alastair Reynolds, where the Conjoiners in Revelation Space are one example. They are a collective of posthumans which experienced a quickening when they started to use nanotechnology to improve their bodies and brain capacities. In Century Rain, Reynolds have a group called Slashers, which are based upon the Slashdot community. In this book nanotechnology is also the important factor.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, a free novel by Cory Doctorow, explores a number of transhumanist themes, including "cures" for death and scarcity. Another free novel, Manna[2] (http://marshallbrain.com/manna1.htm) by Marshall Brain, also depicts a transhuman future.

A role-playing game called Transhuman Space written by David L. Pulver, illustrated by Christopher Shy, published by Steve Jackson Games is part of the "Powered by GURPS" line. [3] (http://www.sjgames.com/transhuman/)

The Culture Series by Iain M. Banks depicts a future in which our galaxy is dominated by a civilisation called the Culture. The Culture represents in many ways the success of transhumanism; it is a perfect democratic utopian society in which every member has the ability to alter their own body and genetics through technology. An especially prominent link with transhumanism is the development of 'drug glands' in human bodies, which allow people to produce and take advantage of thousands of combinations of psychoactive substances within their own brains.

Elements of transhumanism are found in the writings of science fiction author Greg Bear. Examples include Eon (1985) and its sequel Eternity (1988) in which a future human society inadvertantly returns to their past (our present). Extensive use is made of computer theory with regards to the downloading/uploading of human personality and memories, as well as genetic engineering and cloning to improve life and ensure immortality. Another example, the short story Hardfought (1993), depicts a fascinating if pessimistic view of humanity in the far future, where human society and biology are strictly manipulated and controlled to ensure maximum effectiveness in the struggle against the galaxy's oldest inhabitants. Finally, architecture, AI and articial implants and bodies are depicted in Strength of Stones (1982), where a brilliant architect attempts and fails to create religious utopias on a distant world.

In the video game Half-Life 2, the player's primary enemies are transhumans created by an alien race known as the Combine. The human antagonist and puppet ruler of Earth, Dr. Breen, argues that the transhuman state is necessary and can only be achieved with outside (alien) help.

The collaborative Orion's Arm Worldbuilding Project has created a vast populated future universe with many different visions of the future of humanity, including many different types of transhuman being.

Transhumanist spirituality

Although some transhumanists report a strong sense of spirituality, they are for the most part secular. In fact, many transhumanists are either agnostics or atheists. There are, however, a number of transhumanists that follow liberal forms of Eastern philosophical traditions, and a minority of transhumanists that have merged their beliefs with established religions (see Christian transhumanism). Some transhumanists also look to The Simulation Argument as a basis for a modern form of deism.

Despite the prevailing secular attitude, transhumanism seeks to actualize the goals and hopes traditionally espoused by religions, such as immortality. Some transhumanists hope that future understanding of neurotheology will enable humans to achieve control of altered states of consciousness and thus 'spiritual' experiences.

Materialist transhumanists do not believe in a transcendent human soul. They often believe in the compatibility of the human minds with computer hardware, with the theoretical implication that human consciousness may someday be uploaded to alternative media. Consequently, most material transhumanists subscribe to the ethics of personhood theory.

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