“Transhumanism, social and philosophical movement devoted to promoting the research and development of robust human-enhancement technologies. Such technologies would augment or increase human sensory reception, emotive ability, or cognitive capacity as well as radically improve human health and extend human life spans. Such modifications resulting from the addition of biological or physical technologies would be more or less permanent and integrated into the human body.”Definition of transhumanism from Encyclopedia Britannica
This is not a universal definition of transhumanism but it captures the main idea of the project. Namely – to transcend our natural limitations with the help of various enhancements. Often we call such enhancements technologies. In the latest version of the project, such technologies are expected to become part of our bodies. However, even if they don’t, that is not what the transhumanist project hinges on. As long as humans enhance themselves and transcend at least some natural constraints, thus, no longer being subject to their restrictions, the transhumanist project is alive. This makes me think that it is not a new project for humanity. In fact, seen in this light, transhumanism appears very human.
As soon as humans started creating and using various tools and technologies on a regular basis, they transcended some of their biological limitations. But surely, there is a difference between learning to control fire and developing bionic limbs? Of course. However, I see it as a difference in degree rather than in kind. Our ability to continually design and use new and improved tools (in the broadest sense of the word) can be regarded as one of our methods of adaptation. So, whether I enhance (improve beyond what is naturally given) my sight with the help of eyeglasses or contact lenses or some new type of ‘tool’ that is inserted either into my eyes or the respective region of my brain – all this, in my view, constitutes a variation in degree, not in kind. It appears that the overall inclination to enhance our condition and reach beyond the status quo is part of what it means to be human.
Even if so, it is not a harmless trait that we can safely accept ‘as-is’ without further reflection. Perhaps exactly because it is so human and, therefore, widespread. We all have our views on what it takes to live a meaningful and flourishing life. Sometimes, some of these views clash and choices have to be made. But based on what? Which life-enhancing path is better? If we are lucky, we may start thinking about the questions before proceeding to answers.
For instance, what kind of presuppositions inform our priorities when developing new enhancements? What do we value most when we design a new tool for, say, vision improvement? What makes this set of values a higher priority than another set? If we say we want to improve our lives by limiting suffering – what do we understand as suffering? Is it only physical pain? Of any kind and degree? Psychological, emotional pain? What about being constantly excited and euphoric over long periods of time (especially if we also prolong our lifespan) – might this turn into a new ‘posthuman’ form of suffering? What do we take as the ‘baseline/norm’ and what might cause it to shift over time and become a moving target?
Extending our lifespan and improving the quality of that longer life is something humanity has actively pursued for some time already. It is part of the transhumanist project, and so, a very human endeavour. But it is one thing to live a longer life, even if in good health, and another thing to live a meaningful life. Transhumanism strives to ensure the former, but is it prepared to offer the latter as part of the package? I don’t know. What I do know is that people of the future who might easily live in good health for, say, several centuries will need a sense of meaning in their lives just as we need it today, just as our ancestors needed it thousands of years before us. Perhaps transhumanists hope to enhance future humanity beyond such psychological limitations. If so, that will be a difference in kind.
If not, however, then it makes me think of the Netflix show ”Altered Carbon”. There, a class of extremely wealthy people can enhance themselves to live for an indefinite amount of years. There is a nasty side effect, though. They are incredibly bored with life and, therefore, are ready to go to any length to feel alive again. They still have not transcended the very human need for meaning and purpose.
For humans, there is a significant difference between being alive (also if in comfort and good health) and feeling alive. As long as transhumanism focuses on enhancing the state of being alive, it remains as human as ever.
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