The debates around futurist tech, biotechnology, and human enhancements are usually very polarized, with one side embracing it uncritically and the other rejecting it irrationally. Geeky technophiles who see science as the be-all and end-all of thinking want to push the progress farther and faster, sometimes leaving ethics behind, whereas the more romantically minded embrace mortality in all its tragedy and see transhumanism as an unforgivable act of hubris.
While the two camps are busy rejecting each other’s views and widening a gap that should otherwise be bridged through dialogue and ethical consideration, technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace, and billionaires like Elon Musk or Peter Thiel invest heavily in anti-aging medicine and human-enhancing robots.
In this messy context, debates such as the one organized by the Institute of Art and Ideas in London provide us with much-needed time to think. Bringing together a transhumanist researcher and ethicist, a sci-fi author, and the first UK user of a bionic arm, the debate manages to find the middle ground between two unfruitful extremes of technophiles and technophobes, creating a space for genuine discussion that’s at once substantial and fun to watch. Some of the issues raised include the equality of access to bio-enhancement technologies (are only the world’s billionaires going to live forever while the rest of us remain mortals in the literal sense?), the unique identity of every individual (does wearing a bionic arm you picked out from an assembly line make you less unique as an individual?), social pressure (if everyone is designing their babies to be the smartest, why should yours be any less?) and the difficulties of predicting the future.
Anders Sandberg, a research fellow at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, refers to some of the criticism brought to transhumanism. To give a little background, political scientist Francis Fukuyama (2004) has called transhumanism "the world’s most dangerous idea," as it undermines the very foundation of equality that modern society was built on and that has guaranteed peace and a dignified treatment of all human beings since the end of the Second World War. In his words:
Underlying this idea of the equality of rights is the belief that we all possess a human essence that dwarfs manifest differences in skin color, beauty, and even intelligence. This essence, and the view that individuals therefore have inherent value, is at the heart of political liberalism. But modifying that essence is the core of the transhumanist project.
Nick Bostrom, founder of the Future of Humanity Institute, has contradicted Fukuyama, arguing that there simply is no human essence. Evolutionary biology shows us there is no fixed gene pool, but rather an "extended phenotype," which is influenced not only by our bodies but also our culture and institutions.
In this debate at the IAI, Sandberg makes a more nuanced point. Against those who oppose transhumanism on the grounds that it’s "against human nature" he turns to Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola. In his Oration on the Dignity of Man (which at the time was an attempt to argue that Christians too should dabble in the technological wonders of alchemy) Mirandola proposed that the uniqueness and dignity of mankind lies in man’s ability to change. The ability to transform oneself, either into something noble, more divine or into something base, is really the only property that sets humans apart from other species.
Seen this way, the project of transhumanism might be a natural extension of what has concerned mankind since the mythical times of Prometheus. The Titan who is said to have stolen fire from Mount Olympus and given it to mortals did indeed commit an act of hubris, but his transgression is typical of mankind, his quest for a technology that brings humans closer to the gods—ordinary in its extraordinariness. If there’s anything that is "in our nature" it is the attempt to transcend nature. Besides, in our contemporary, post-Nietzschean world, where existentialists have denied any pre-given essence to humankind and postmodernism has blown up the notion of "human nature," can we still say that anything is unnatural? Why not pursue immortality? Why not engineer ourselves to become better humans? Aren’t these just different forms of self-creation?
We’d love to know your philosophical thoughts on this. The debate is a great starting point, and if you’d like to know more about transhumanism, we’ve got a whole episode on it, as well as another one on artificial intelligence with transhumanist Nick Bostrom as a guest.
Ana Sandoiu is a writer, researcher & philosophy lover living in Brighton, UK. She also writes on her personal blog, On a Saturday Morning.