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New Scientist Presents: The Transhumanists’ Club

Who do we think we are? We’ve long dreamed of being able to remake ourselves – from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to today’s superhuman machines and mutants. In our final discussion in our Into the Unknown inspired series with New Scientist, author Joanna Kavenna demands answers from The Transhumanists’ Club.

‘Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me…’

Why am I quoting the English metaphysician John Donne? Well, why not? Poetry and science should not be strangers to one another.

Yet here we are discussing transhumanism, a recent scientific phenomenon, and what possible relevance could Reverend Donne have to that debate? Transhumanism, as the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom explains, is ‘a loosely defined movement that has developed gradually over the past two decades… Attention is given to both present technologies, like genetic engineering and information technology, and anticipated future ones, such as molecular nanotechnology and artificial intelligence.’ Hardly the poetry of English clerics.

Transhumanists view human nature as a work-in-progress, a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways…

Bostrom continues: ‘The enhancement options being discussed include radical extension of human health-span, eradication of disease, elimination of unnecessary suffering, and augmentation of human intellectual, physical, and emotional capacities.’ In short, ‘Transhumanists view human nature as a work-in-progress, a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways… Transhumanists hope that by responsible use of science, technology, and other rationale means we shall eventually manage to become posthuman, beings with vastly greater capacities than present human beings have.’

The half-baked human must be improved by ‘the responsible use of science’

Bostrom perhaps does not express himself in quite the same fashion as Donne, but the overarching sentiment is not dissimilar: Death thou shalt die, or at least thou shalt be postponed as far as possible. And in the meantime, before death postponed or otherwise, life might be considerably nicer: less fraught with disease and suffering, and altogether less half-baked. This is a metaphor from cooking, and language is awash with such at times treacherous metaphors. The half-baked human must be improved by ‘the responsible use of science’. This is a lovely idea and one which has driven humanity for millennia, ever since we began using technologies of flint and fire and so on, and through innumerable and utterly vital developments in medicine and science. So one key question which we must pose and seek to discuss is how, specifically, the transhumanist ‘movement’ will depart from or further enhance this consistent strain in human history.

Transhumanism’s signature ambition, that we may become ‘post-human’, leads us to a baroque and venerable question: what does it mean to be human, anyway? If we want to go beyond something, to transcend it, it is clear that we must understand our starting point, the point beyond which we desire to go. The quest to fathom the self, to understand what it means to be human, is fundamental to almost every civilisation known to us. It defines one of the earliest works of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh from ancient Mesopotamia, in which our protagonist embarks on a quest to understand who on earth he is and what he’s meant to do with his mortal span of years. In ancient religious texts such as the Upanishads all creation begins with the moment of becoming: ‘I am!’ That is, the world comes from mind itself.

In many global religions we have the human self-divided into body and soul, a material and an immaterial part. During the Enlightenment, Descartes famously tried to reconcile this ancient distinction and placate the church meanwhile by proposing that the material and immaterial somehow communicated or mingled via the pineal gland. Skipping boldly through a few centuries of thought, we might arrive (blinking in surprise) at the philosophical novels of Philip K Dick and his brilliant novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? This poses the ancient question again: What does it mean, to be human? When is someone/something ‘convincingly’ human and when are they not? Is your version of ‘being human’ the same as mine? Or the same as the next human’s?

What does it mean, to be human?

As the Australian philosopher David Chalmers has said, consciousness – this mysterious thing which every human possesses or feels they possess – remains ‘the hard problem’ of philosophy. We do not have a unified theory of consciousness. We do not understand how consciousness is ‘generated’ by the brain, or even whether this is the right metaphor to use. We speak of such mysteries in a funny system of squeaks and murmurs which we call ‘language’ and which drops swiftly into the blackness of pre-history when we seek to trace it. We do not know who the first humans were: that fascinating quest likewise drives us straight into a great void of unknowing.

There is nothing wrong, at all, with unknowing: it is the ordinary condition of all humanity, so far. Yet, undeterred, we devise beautiful and bold theories and advance them in many disciplines of thought. We develop beautiful and exciting almost-human machines and speculate about uploading consciousness. And in so doing, we are consistently re-baking, heating up, or re-frying the ancient philosophical dilemma: what does it mean to be human?

Pace Bostrom, transhumanism has not developed over the past two decades. Its predilections and concerns have developed over several millennia, and possibly further back, within civilisations we no longer recall. To go back to Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun. We are still here, and human, with our paradoxical longing to transcend the human condition.


New Scientist Presents: The Transhumanists’ Club on Thursday 27 July as Joanna Kavenna, author of A Field Guide to Reality joins geneticist and author Adam Rutherford, presenter of the BBC’s Inside Science and Beth Singler, who studies the social implications of almost-human machines.

Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction takes place from 3 June –1 September.

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