H+: Transhumanism: Threat or Menace? A Response to Andrew Pickering

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank: Natasha Vita-More for her dedication and tireless efforts in arranging for this paper and others to appear in this publication; the Metanexus Institute for producing this online periodical, The Global Spiral; Dr. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, of Arizona State University, for hosting the events on transhumanism (one of which I was privileged to attend in 2007); and the John Templeton Foundation, whose generous support underwrote the workshops.

Introduction

Transhumanism is often misrepresented. By accident or design, this movement—a movement that aims at improving the lot of humanity through longer lifespans, greater material abundance, enhanced abilities, new powers, and a wealth of opportunities extending beyond current biological limits—has often been depicted as a villain without redeeming qualities. Rather than considering transhumanism on its own terms, we are often given a false choice: Is transhumanism a threat or a menace?

Upon first reading Prof. Pickering's papers,1, 2 I was delighted to find that he is opposed to the "freezing and narrowing" of the definition of what it means to be human. Soon, however, I became discouraged when I encountered his claim that the expansive, liberating goals that I know to be the essence of transhumanism were, according to his ill-informed view, actually just the sort of freezing and narrowing he decried. I was at first puzzled as to how he could have so badly misunderstood actual existing transhumanism.

The Puzzling Truth

The answer to my puzzlement proved easy to find. Pickering admits that, before being invited to speak at the “Transhumanism and the Meanings of Progress” workshop held on the campus of Arizona State University in April 2008, he "knew almost nothing about this movement.3   And although he "had intended to write a paper just for the meeting" he never got around to doing so, instead submitting a paper about his work on the history of cybernetics which he fixed up a bit since it "touches on some relevant issues." Yet, despite his unfamiliarity with the reality of transhumanism or the persons involved in it, he declared "Yes, I’m starting not to like transhumanism".4

Since Pickering fails to mention any primary sources written by transhumanists, one must assume that his research was limited to reading the single secondary source he cites.5 One wonders at such a small data set, given the large amount of primary transhumanist literature available, most of it easily found on the Internet [for example: More, 1995; Bostrom, 2002; Sandberg, 2002; Pearce, 2004; Hughes, 2004; de Grey, 2007; Vita-More, 2008; WTA, 2008; Humanity Plus, 2008; IEET, 2008].

The narrowness of his research is particularly troubling when one notes that on the self-same The Global Spiral website where Pickering's paper appears, one also finds "The Compatibility of Religious and Transhumanist Views of Metaphysics, Suffering, Virtue and Transcendence in an Enhanced Future" by Prof. James Hughes, who just a year prior to Pickering's presentation had delivered his paper in the same venue.

Mind Uploading: Cybernetic Immortality or Mind Emulation?

Contrary to the claim made in Pickering's paper, uploading is not the transfer of consciousness to a computer. By this statement, I am not asserting that it is impossible for consciousness to exist in a computer or other non-human substrate. Rather, I am saying that consciousness is not an object or energy that could be moved from one location in space to another. If consciousness is defined as a process of the brain, then uploading is the emulation of that process by a computer. Uploading an intellect from a brain to a computer is similar to the copying of data structures from one CD (Compact Disk) to another, or a data file from one computer to another, like synchronizing an iPod with an iTunes library. At the end of the copying process, there are two copies rather than one.  Similarly, uploading is brain emulation, not mind or consciousness transfer.

And uploading is not the aim of all transhumanists. Many transhumanists envision enhanced, non-aging, long-lived bodies that include implanted technologies.6, 7, 8   Pickering's claim that the "shuffling off the material form of the human body…exemplifies the transhuman aspiration" is simply, plainly, flatly untrue as a blanket statement.

To his credit, Pickering gives the caveat early in his paper that "transhumanists might not have a single agreed upon position" with regard to uploading and cybernetic immortality. Then, without bothering to confirm his supposition—which is in fact a correct one—Pickering proceeds to "narrow [his] definition of transhumanism down to the goal of 'cybernetic immortality.'" That is narrow indeed! It flies in the face of the facts about transhumanist beliefs.9

Such narrowness may be convenient for Pickering, but it comes at the cost of violating the truth about transhumanism. Like the man who loses his keys in a dark alley and then walks some distance onto a well-illuminated sidewalk to look for them, Pickering prefers to work where the light is better for him, rather than where the real object of his search is to be found.

Pickering claims that transhumanists seek immortality. While the term "immortality" is sometimes used casually by transhumanists, most of us are scientifically literate, philosophically informed, and technologically savvy enough to know that indefinitely expanded lifetimes—not guaranteed immortality—is the maximum possibility. We might aim for immortality, but we can never be sure we have achieved it. Even if one were to live ten billion years, one could still die in the next hour. No one can know with certainty how long he (or she) will live.

Ironic Agreement

Despite the thinness of Pickering's research into transhumanism, there is much value in the positions he actually holds with regard to human potential. The irony here is that Pickering endorses the real aims of transhumanism, while wrongly believing that he is opposing transhumanist goals. If only he had 'done his homework' by researching the topic more carefully before writing about it, Pickering might be praising transhumanism rather than disparaging it.

Quite perceptively, Pickering writes that "different technologies, different material set-ups, indeed elicit different inner states." What is not clear from his brief discussion of "technologies of the self" (a concept he takes from Foucault) is how Pickering views the relationships or definitions of self, being, consciousness and essence. Which are senior, or prior, and which are derivative? Pickering claims that belief in "essence" is a transhumanist notion. This came as a surprise to me, as I cannot recall the term appearing very often in my many years of corresponding with other transhumanists, attending conferences, reading transhumanist writings, and writing my own.10, 11

I would agree with Pickering that a "self" emerges from material conditions. However, as Pickering realizes, material conditions are not static. In writing about the concept of emergence, Picking says "we have to expect new selves to be continually bubbling up in our dealing with the material world, even dealings that aim to hold the self constant."

This is true, in my view, and perhaps to a greater extent than Pickering implies or recognizes. The self is a pattern, not an entity or an irreducible object that merely changes. The pattern that we call a self at any instant is merely the successor state of previous instances of that pattern. It maintains continuity by displaying a high degree of similarity to previous pattern states.

Like many Transhumanists, I maintain that a self pattern could even manifest in a sufficiently complex body (or machine) that is not human at all. Mind uploading, then, is copying the pattern that is self into a different platform (i.e., substrate or body).

Spirituality and Transhumanism

In his discussion of explorations of consciousness, yogic siddhis (powers), dissolution of the self (or as I would put it, seeing the transient nature of the self), Tantric yoga, and union with the divine, Pickering moves far from topics that most transhumanists choose to discuss, but with which I happen to be completely at home.

In addition to being a Transhumanist academic, I am an ordained Soto Zen Buddhist priest [ZCLC, 2008]. I know what Pickering is talking about when he discusses Buddhism and other forms of Eastern spirituality. I am even familiar with the enneagram, which I learned in the same esoteric school as John Lilly, whom Pickering mentions.12

My experience of personal training and spiritual practice under the direction of qualified teachers—my very existence—puts the lie to Pickering's claim that transhumanists seek to "engineer…out of existence" all of the aforementioned extraordinary practices, performances, experiences, states and conditions.13, 14

Being Human or Just Being?

What does it mean to be human?

Along with other transhumanists, I would prefer to put the question this way: What does it mean to be a conscious, thinking, sentient being? Stated this way, the question is much broader, and it does not discriminate on the basis of the body type: human, machine or other.

If members of an intelligent extraterrestrial species were to travel through the vast distances of interstellar space and land on Earth, coming in peace and bearing gifts of knowledge and high technology, how should we greet them? Would we discriminate against them because they are not human, even though their level of technology and science far exceed our own? Or would we accept them (albeit cautiously at first) as fellow beings? If we would accept intelligent aliens as being on par with ourselves, why not accept transhuman cyborgs or posthuman beings of whatever sort, if they were peaceful and benevolent?

Conclusion

Transhumanism is neither a threat nor a menace. It is the promise of a better future for us and for generations yet unborn. Accept the gifts it has to offer. Or at least allow others to do so. The freedom to grow is the freedom to transform. Transhumanism is the opportunity to transform life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness beyond current human limits.


Endnotes

1Pickering, A. (2008a) "Brains, Selves and Spirituality in the History of Cybernetics." The Global Spiral. http://www.metanexus.net/Magazine/tabid/68/id/10545/Default.aspx

2 ——— (2006). "The Science of the Unknowable: Stafford Beer’s Cybernetic Informatics." Working Papers from Centre for STS Studies, Department of Information & Media Studies, University of Aarhus. http://preview.tinyurl.com/6ywyot

3 ——— (2008a).

4 ——— (2008b) Comment: "Yes, I’m starting not to like transhumanism." http://www.metanexus.net/Magazine/tabid/166/Default.aspx?id=10545

5 Tirosh-Samuelson, H. (2007). "Facing the Challenges of Transhumanism: Philosophical, Religious, and Ethical Considerations." http://www.metanexus.net/Magazine/tabid/68/id/10169/Default.aspx

6 De Grey, A. (2007). Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime. St. Martin's Press.

7 Vita-More, N. (2008). "Designing Human 2.0 - Regenerative Existence." Artifact: Volume 3. New York: Routledge.

8   Roco, M. C., and Bainbridge, W. S. (2003). Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science. Dordrecht; Boston, Mass.: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

9 WTA - World Transhumanist Association. (2008). http://www.transhumanism.org/index.php/WTA/index/

10 LaTorra, M. (2005). "Trans-Spirit: Religion, Spirituality and Transhumanism." Journal of Evolution and Technology. Vol. 14 Issue 1. http://jetpress.org/volume14/latorra.html

11 Hanson, R., Hughes, J., LaTorra, M., Brin, D. & Prisco, G. (2007). The Hanson-Hughes Debate on "The Crack of a Future Dawn." Journal of Evolution and Technology. Vol. 16 Issue 1. http://www.jetpress.org/v16/hanson.html

12 Pickering, A. (2006). "The Science of the Unknowable: Stafford Beer’s Cybernetic Informatics." Working Papers from Centre for STS Studies, Department of Information & Media Studies, University of Aarhus

13 LaTorra, M. (1993). A Warrior Blends with Life: A Modern Tao. North Atlantic Books.

14 ——— (2005). "Trans-Spirit: Religion, Spirituality and Transhumanism." Journal of Evolution and Technology. Vol. 14 Issue 1. http://jetpress.org/volume14/latorra.html

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