H+: True Transhumanism
In his Global Spiral paper, “Of Which Humans Are We Post?” Don Ihde wonders whether “all this bother” about the concepts of human, transhuman, and posthuman arose with Foucault. The answer is no, they did not. Much earlier thinkers raised these questions in one form or another. Foucault’s discussion in the Order of Things appeared only in 1973. Even if we limit ourselves to modern discussions of these concepts, Foucault is almost irrelevant. This is certainly true of the kinds of thinkers with whom Ihde concerns himself. The only people he actually names are Hans Moravec, Marvin Minsky, and Ray Kurzweil, but Ihde is clearly commenting on the general thrust of modern transhumanist thought.
Our modern biologically and genetically-defined sub-species, Homo sapiens sapiens, has been around for 100,000 to 200,000 years. There’s some plausibility in Ihde’s suggestion that the modern concept of human formed only in the last 3 or 4 centuries: the Cartesian-Lockean human. The emphasis on the rational capacities of human beings, however, lies further back with Plato and Aristotle (in their two quite differing ways). Aristotle didn’t have the Lockean notion of individual rights, but they weren’t a big stretch from the Great Greek’s view of the individual good as personal flourishing through the development of potential—development that would need a protected space. The Cartesian-Lockean human was crucially followed by the Darwinian and Freudian human, which took human beings out from the center of creation and some distance away from the transparently rational human of the old philosophers. Even so, I heartily agree that reassessing our interpretation of the ‘human’ is timely and important.
The biologists’ conception of what it is to be a member of the human species so far remains useful: Our species is a group of “interbreeding natural populations that are reproductively isolated from other such groups.”1 Although useful, that species-based definition and the related genetically-delimited identification of “human” is becoming increasingly inadequate as our further evolution depends more on the scientific and technological products of our minds. The transhumans or posthumans we may become as individuals (if we live long enough) or as a species may quite possibly share our current DNA, but implants, regenerative medicine, medical nanotechnology, neural-computer interfaces, and other technologies and cultural practices are likely to gradually render our chromosomes almost vestigial components of our individual and species identity.
While I agree with Ihde on the need for (further) discussion of the concepts and significance of human, transhuman, and posthuman, I find many of his comments to be directed at transhumanists who barely exist (if at all). I resonate with the project of understanding potentially obfuscating “idols” such as Bacon described. But Ihde’s discussion of his own four idols seems to be more of a straw man than an accurate critique of contemporary transhumanist views. I find this to be true especially of his Idol of Paradise and Idol of Prediction. The other two idols—of Intelligent Design and the Cyborg contain relatively little critical commentary, and so I find less in them to object to.
A few years ago, I received a telephone call from researchers from the Oxford English Dictionary who were looking into the possibility of adding “transhumanism” to that authoritative bible of word usage. That addition has just now happened—a little behind the widespread adoption of the term around the world. Although Dante and Huxley used the term earlier, I first (and independently) coined the modern sense of the term around two decades ago in my essay “Transhumanism: Toward a Futurist Philosophy.” My currently preferred definition, shared by other transhumanists is as follows:
Transhumanism is both a reason-based philosophy and a cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition by means of science and technology. Transhumanists seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles and values.
Since I will argue that most of Ihde’s critical comments and Idols succeed in damaging only views that few or no transhumanists actually hold, it makes sense for me to establish my knowledge of those views. Apart from first defining and explaining the philosophical framework of transhumanism, I wrote the Principles of Extropy and co-founded Extropy Institute to explore it and to spur the development of a movement (for want of a better term) based on transhumanism. That movement has grown from numerous sources in addition to my own work and become a global philosophy attracting a remarkable amount of commentary, both pro and con. In some minds (certainly in that of Francis Fukuyama) it has become “the most dangerous idea in the world.”
Ihde’s own four idols of thought refer more to straw positions than to real views held by most contemporary transhumanists. That doesn’t mean that he went astray in choosing Francis Bacon and his four idols from his 1620 work Novum Organum2 as an inspiration. Around the same time that I defined “transhumanism” I also suggested that transhumanists consider dropping the Western traditional but terribly outdated Christian calendar for a new one in which year zero would be the year in which Novum Organum was published (so that we would now be entering 389 PNO, or Post Novum Organum, rather than 2009). Despite Aristotle’s remarkable work on the foundations of logic and his unprecedented study “On the Parts of Animals”, Bacon’s work first set out the essence of the scientific method. That conceptual framework is, of course, utterly central to the goals of transhumanism—as well as the key to seeing where Ihde’s Idols (especially that of Paradise) fail accurately to get to grips with real, existing transhumanist thought.
Bacon’s own four idols still have much to recommend them. His Idols of the Tribe and of the Cave could plausibly be seen as the core of important ideas from today’s cognitive and social psychology. These idols could comfortably encompass the work on biases and heuristics by Kahneman and Tversky and other psychologists and behavioral finance and economics researchers. The Idols of the Cave are deceptive thoughts that arise within the mind of the individual. These deceptive thoughts come in many differing forms. In the case of Don Ihde’s comments on transhumanist thinking, we might define a sub-species of Bacon’s Idol and call it the Idol of Non-Situated Criticism. (A close cousin of The Idol of the Straw Man.)
Many of Ihde’s comments sound quite sensible and reasonable, but to whom do they apply? The only transhumanists Ihde mentions (without actually referencing any specific works of theirs) are Hans Moravec, Marvin Minsky, and Ray Kurzweil. In “The Idol of Prediction,” Ihde says “In the same narratives concerning the human, the posthuman and the transhuman…” but never tells us just which narratives he’s talking about. The lack of referents will leave most readers with a distorted view of true transhumanism. There are silly transhumanists of course, just as silly thinkers can be found in any other school of thought. I take my job here to be distinguishing the various forms of transhumanism held by most transhumanists from the easy but caricatured target created by Ihde (and many other critics).
Critics’ misconceptions are legion, but here I will focus on those found in Ihde’s paper. I declare that:
- Transhumanism is about continual improvement, not perfection or paradise.
- Transhumanism is about improving nature’s mindless “design”, not guaranteeing perfect technological solutions.
- Transhumanism is about morphological freedom, not mechanizing the body.
- Transhumanism is about trying to shape fundamentally better futures, not predicting specific futures.
- Transhumanism is about critical rationalism, not omniscient reason.
From Utopia to Extropia
According to Ihde, “technofantasy hype is the current code for magic.” As an example, he picks on the poor, foolish fellow (Lewis L. Strauss) who fantasized that nuclear fission would provide a limitless supply of energy “too cheap to meter.” Technofantasy is magical thinking because magic produces outcomes that are completely free of trade-offs and unclear and unintended consequences. Magical technologies simply “make it so.” In these technofantasies, “only the paradisical [sic] results are desired.” It might have been better if Ihde had talked of “divine thinking” rather than “magical thinking” since, in a great many fables and other stories, the use of magic does bring unintended consequences (perhaps most famously in the various genie-in-a-bottle tales). Still, the point is clear. But does it apply to actual transhumanist thinkers? After all, Ihde’s well-worn example is not from a transhumanist, but from an excessively enthusiastic promoter of nuclear fission as an energy source.
It is easy to throw around a term like “technofantasy,” but exactly is it? What appears to be fantasy, what appears to be a magical technology, depends on the time frame you adopt. Clearly many of today’s technologies would appear magical to people from a few centuries ago. That point was stated memorably in Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”3 Take someone from, let’s say, the 15th century, and expose them to air travel, television, or Google and they would probably ask what powerful demon or mage created them.
Of course there is such a thing as technofantasy: it’s imaginary technology that ignores the laws of physics as we currently understand them. Any remarkable technology, so long as it is not physically impossible, cannot reasonably be described as magical thinking. Projecting technological developments within the limits of science is projection or “exploratory engineering,” not fantasy—a distinction crucial to separating the genres of “hard science fiction” from “soft” SF and outright fantasy. Seamless and “magical” operation remains a worthy goal for real technologies, however difficult it may be to achieve (as in “transparent computing”). Hence the ring of truth from Gehm’s Corollary to Clarke’s Third Law: “Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.”
Although seamless and reliable technologies deserve a place as a goal for transhumanists, the ideas of perfection and paradise do not. We find those concepts in religious thinking but not in transhumanism. There are one or two possible exceptions: Some Singularitarians may be more prone to a kind of magical thinking in the sense that they see the arrival of greater than human intelligence almost instantly transforming the world beyond recognition. But even they are acutely aware of the dangers of super-intelligent AI. In contrast to Ihde’s straw man characterization, most transhumanists—and certainly those who resonate with the transhumanist philosophy of extropy—do not see utopia or perfection as even a goal, let alone an expected future posthuman world. Rather, transhumanism, like Enlightenment humanism, is a meliorist view. Transhumanists reject all forms of apologism—the view that it is wrong for humans to attempt to alter the conditions of life for the better.
The Idol of Paradise and the idea of a Platonically perfect, static utopia, is so antithetical to true transhumanism that I coined the term “extropia” to label a conceptual alternative. Transhumanists seek neither utopia nor dystopia. They seek perpetual progress—a never-ending movement toward the ever-distant goal of extropia. One of the Principles of Extropy (the first systematic formulation of transhumanist philosophy that I wrote two decades ago) is Perpetual Progress. This states that transhumanists “seek continual improvement in ourselves, our cultures, and our environments. We seek to improve ourselves physically, intellectually, and psychologically. We value the perpetual pursuit of knowledge and understanding.” This principle captures the way transhumanists challenge traditional assertions that we should leave human nature fundamentally unchanged in order to conform to “God’s will” or to what is considered “natural.”
Transhumanists go beyond most of our traditional humanist predecessors in proposing fundamental alterations in human nature in pursuit of these improvements. We question traditional, biological, genetic, and intellectual constraints on our progress and possibility. The unique conceptual abilities of our species give us the opportunity to advance nature’s evolution to new peaks. Rather than accepting the undesirable aspects of the human condition, transhumanists of all stripes challenge natural and traditional limitations on our possibilities. We champion the use of science and technology to eradicate constraints on lifespan, intelligence, personal vitality, and freedom.
Or, as I put it in a “Letter to Mother Nature”: “We have decided that it is time to amend the human constitution. We do not do this lightly, carelessly, or disrespectfully, but cautiously, intelligently, and in pursuit of excellence. We intend to make you proud of us. Over the coming decades we will pursue a series of changes to our own constitution…”
Ihde’s positioning of transhumanist thinking as paradisiacal is particularly odd and frustrating given the rather heavy emphasis on risks in modern transhumanist writing. Personally, I think that emphasis has gone too far. Reading Ihde and many other transhumanist-unfriendly critics, you get the impression that transhumanists are careening into a fantastically imagined future, worshipping before the idols of Technology and Progress while giving the finger to caution, risk, trade-offs, and side-effects. These critics cannot have actually read much transhumanist writing—certainly not anything written in the last decade. If they had, they would have immediately run into innumerable papers on and discussions of advanced artificial intelligence, of runaway nanotechnology, of “existential risk.” They would have come across risk-focused worries by organizations such as the Foresight Institute and the Council on Responsible Nanotechnology. They would have come across my own Proactionary Principle, with its explicit and thorough consideration of risks, side-effects and remote, unforeseen outcomes, and the need to use the best available methods for making decisions and forecasts about technological outcomes.
Intelligent Design and Intelligent Technology
In what seems to me like something of a tangent to his discussion of magical thinking, Ihde says that “Desire-fantasy, with respect to technologies, harbor an internal contradiction.” He sees a contradiction in wanting to have a technological enhancement and in having that enhancement become (a part of) us. On one hand, if we define the terms just right, it has to be a contradiction to simultaneously have an enhancement and to be enhanced.
But there is no contradiction in the idea that a technology can develop so that it enhances us and eventually becomes part of us. I explored this idea in detail in my doctoral dissertation, The Diachronic Self: Identity, Continuity, Transformation.4 If we absorb a technology, integrating it into ourselves, we can both have and be the technology in the relevant senses. This is much like taking a vaccine now—it’s an externally devised technology that alters our immune system, but it alters and becomes part of us. Or consider how an externally developed technology like gene therapy or artificial neurons can become integrated into who we are.
Ihde refers to the Idol of Intelligent Design as “a kind of arrogance connected to an overestimation of our own design abilities, also embedded in these discussions.” Again, he provides no referents for “these discussions.” He contrasts this idol with a “human-material or human-technology set of interactions which through experience and over time yield to emergent trajectories with often unexpected results.” This idol is indeed a problem. But Ihde’s discussion implies that it’s a problem among transhumanist thinkers. Given the absence of actual examples, it’s hard to evaluate this implicit claim. His loaded term “arrogance” doesn’t help. When does confidence become arrogance? Were the Wright brothers arrogant in their belief that they could achieve flight?
What really distinguishes transhumanist views of technology is expressed by what I called “Intelligent Technology” in the Philosophy of Extropy. I declared that “Technology is a natural extension and expression of human intellect and will, of creativity, curiosity, and imagination.” I expressed the transhumanist project of encouraging the development of ever more flexible, smart, responsive technology. I spoke for practically all transhumanists in suggesting that “We will co-evolve with the products of our minds, integrating with them, finally integrating our intelligent technology into ourselves in a posthuman synthesis, amplifying our abilities and extending our freedom.” As bold and unapologetic a statement as this is (befitting a transhumanist declaration) it says nothing about expecting perfectly reliable technologies that have no unintended consequences or outcomes that may trouble us.
Along with an overall (practical or active) optimism regarding technology, there’s a strong strain among transhumanists (and especially in the Principles of Extropy) of critical rationalism and spontaneous order. It’s true that older technophiles—especially those who might reasonably be labeled “technocrats”—have sought to impose on society a technologically mediated vision of a better future. Transhumanists have far more often challenged this approach—what Hayek called “constructivist rationalism,” preferring a self-critical rationalism (or pancritical rationalism5). Critical rationalism distinguishes us from Bacon who, like Descartes, believed that the path to genuine knowledge lay in first making a comprehensive survey of what is reliably known rather than merely believed.
Adding to the limits to confidence imposed by critical rationalism as opposed to constructivist rationalism, many transhumanists show a great appreciation for spontaneous order and its attendant unintended consequences, as outlined in my “Order Without Orderers.”6 Outcomes of people using technologies will never be quite as we might expect. Technology-in-use can differ drastically from technology-as-designed. When particle physicists starting using Tim Berners Lee’s hypertextual Web at the start of the 1990s, they had no idea what would quickly develop out of it. But these unexpected outcomes and spontaneous developments don’t mean that we should stop trying to design better technologies and to improve our abilities at foreseeing ways in which they could go wrong.
The Body in Transhumanism
Ihde is right that the cyborg can be an idol. In his discussion of this idol, however, he never explicitly suggests that transhumanists idolize the cyborg. That’s just as well, since transhumanists generally look down on the Cyborg concept as primitive and unhelpful. It is the critics who try to force the square peg of transhumanist views of the body into the round hole of the “cyborg.” This most often takes the form of accusing us of seeking to mechanize the human body, or of fearing, hating, or despising our fleshiness, the fallacies of which I discussed in “Beyond the Machine: Technology and Posthuman Freedom.”7 A classic example of this straw man construction can be found in Erik Davis’ Techgnosis. Thankfully, Ihde does not repeat this error.
True transhumanism doesn’t find the biological human body disgusting or frightening. It does find it to be a marvelous yet flawed piece of engineering, as expressed in Primo Posthuman.8 It could hardly be otherwise, given that it was designed by a blind watchmaker, as Richard Dawkins put it. True transhumanism does seek to enable each of us to alter and improve (by our own standards) the human body. It champions what I called morphological freedom in my 1993 paper, “Technological Self-Transformation.”
The Role of Forecasting
“Idolatrous technofantasies” arise again, according to Ihde “In the same narratives concerning the human, the posthuman and the transhuman.” Which narratives are these? Again, we are left without a referent. The point of his discussion of prediction is to repeat his point about unintended consequences and difficulties in knowing how technologies will turn out. In this section, Ihde does finally mention two people who might be called transhumanists—Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil—although Kurzweil definitely resists the label. Ihde calls them “worshippers of the idol of prediction” and asks if they have any credibility. Instead of addressing that, he makes some comments on unintended consequences that might arise from downloading the human mind into a computer.
Both Moravec’s and Kurzweil’s forecasts of specific technological trends have turned out rather well so far. Of course it is easy to find lists of predictions from earlier forecasters that now, with hindsight, sound silly, and Ihde treats us to a few of them. Even there, and even with the assumption that accurate predicting is what matters in the whole transhuman/posthuman discussion, he fails to make a strong case for the futility or foolishness of predicting. He mentions an in-depth survey of predicted technologies from 1890 to 1940, noting that less than one-third of the 1500 predictions worked out well. He adds: “Chiding me for pointing this out in Nature and claiming these are pretty good odds, my response is that 50% odds are normal for a penny toss, and these are less than that!?”
The critics who chided Ihde for this are perfectly justified. He just digs himself deeper into the hole of error by bringing up the coin toss analogy. A coin has two sides, yielding two possibilities, so that the chance of a random prediction coming true is 50%. But technologies can develop in innumerable possible ways, not only because of future discoveries about that technology, but because of interactions with other technologies and because how technologies turn out usually depends heavily on how they are used. This error is especially odd considering how frequently Ihde flogs the dead horse of trade-offs and unintended consequences.
More importantly for these discussions of the transhuman and posthuman, it seems to me that Ihde doesn’t understand futurology or forecasting. The purpose of thinking about the future is not to make impossibly accurate pinpoint predictions. It’s to forecast possible futures so that we can prepare as well as possible for the upsides and downsides—so we can try to anticipate and improve on some of the trade-offs and side-effects and develop resilient responses, policies, and organizations. Rather than throwing up our hands in the face of an uncertain future, transhumanists and other futurists seek to better understand our options.
Ultimate skepticism concerning forecasting is not tenable, otherwise no one would ever venture to cross the road or save any money. Should we look at the uncertainty inherent in the future as an impenetrable black box? No. We need to distinguish different levels of uncertainty and then use the best available tools while developing better ones to make sense of possible outcomes. At the lowest level of uncertainty, there is only one possible outcome. In those situations, businesses use tools such as net present value.
Raise the level of uncertainty a bit and you’re in a situation where there are several distinct possible futures, one of which will occur. In these situations, you can make good use of tools such as scenario planning, game theory, and decision-tree real-options valuation. At a higher level of uncertainty, we face a range of futures and must use additional tools such as system dynamics models. When uncertainty is at its highest and the range of possible outcomes is unbounded, we can only look to analogies and reference cases and try to devise resilient strategies and designs.9
Transhumanists are far from being dummies when it comes to looking ahead. But it’s true that many transhumanists are far from perfect in their approach to forecasting and foresight. My biggest complaint with many of my colleagues is that their vision is overly technocentric. Rather than “The Idol of Prediction,” a better critical construct would have been “The Idol of Technocentrism.” Not surprisingly, many transhumanists have a heavily technical background, especially in the computer and information sciences and the physical sciences. With my own background in economics, politics, philosophy, and psychology, I see a paucity of the social sciences among even sophisticated seers such as Ray Kurzweil, which I debated with him in 2002.10
None of Ihde’s Idols apply to true transhumanism. But they do add up to a simple message: People’s actions have unintended consequences, people are clueless about possible futures, and it is arrogant and hubristic to pursue fundamental improvements to the human condition. This ultimately pessimistic and existentially conservative message does indeed conflict directly with true transhumanism. Transhumanists do in fact understand unintended consequences and limits to our understanding, but they continue to strive for fundamental advances. I am wary of all “isms,” but these kinds of critiques of transhumanism spur me to renew my identification with that label even as I engage more deeply in cleaning up such misconceptions.
1. Mayr, 1963, p.12.
2. Bacon, 1620.
3. Clarke, 1973.
4. More, 1995.
5. More, 1994b.
6. Ibid. More, 1991.
7. More, 1997.
8. Vita-More. 1997, 2004.
9. Courtney, 2001.
10. Kurzweil and More, 2002.
Bacon, Francis, 1620, Novum Organum.
Clarke, Arthur C., “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination” in Profiles of the Future (revised edition, 1973).
Courtney, Hugh, 2001, 20/20 Foresight: Crafting Strategy in an Uncertain World. Harvard Business School Press.
Davis, Erik, 2005, Techgnosis: Myth, Magic & Mysticism in the Age of Information. Five Star.
Ihde, Don, 2008, “Of Which Human Are We Post?” The Global Spiral.
Kurzweil, Ray, 2006, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Penguin.
Kurzweil, Ray and Max More, 2002, “Max More and Ray Kurzweil on the Singularity.” KurzweilAI.net. <http://www.kurzweilai.net/articles/art0408.html?m=1>
Mayr, Ernst: 1963, 1970, Population, Species, and Evolution. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
More, Max, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1998, “Principles of Extropy”
—— 1990, 1994, 1996, “Transhumanism: Toward a Futurist Philosophy.” Extropy #6.
—— 1991, “Order Without Orderers”, Extropy #7.
—— 1993, “Technological Self-Transformation: Expanding Personal Extropy.” Extropy #10, vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 15-24.
—— 1994a, “On Becoming Posthuman.” Free Inquiry.
—— 1994b, “Pancritical Rationalism: An Extropic Metacontext for Memetic Progress.”
—— 1995, The Diachronic Self: Identity, Continuity, Transformation. <http://www.maxmore.com/disscont.htm>
—— 1997, “Beyond the Machine: Technology and Posthuman Freedom.” Paper in proceedings of Ars Electronica. (FleshFactor: Informationmaschine Mensch), Ars Electronica Center, Springer, Wien, New York, 1997.
—— 1998, “Virtue and Virtuality” (Von erweiterten Sinnen zu Erfahrungsmaschinen) in Der Sinn der Sinne (Kunst und Austellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Gottingen.)
—— 1999, “Letter to Mother Nature” (part of “The Ultrahuman Revolution: Amendments to the Human Constitution.”) Biotech Futures Conference, U.C. Berkeley.
—— 2004a, The Proactionary Principle. <http://www.maxmore.com/proactionary.htm>
—— 2004b, “Superlongevity without Overpopulation”, chapter in The Scientific Conquest of Death. (Immortality Institute.)
—— 2005, “How to Choose a Forecasting Method”, ManyWorlds. <http://contribute.manyworlds.net/301/content/Models/CO1118051055599.pdf>
Vita-More, 2004. “The New [human] Genre — Primo Posthuman”. Delivered at Ciber@RT Conference, Bilbao, Spain April, 2004,