Transhumanists generally advocate for radical enhancements of human capabilties through technological means. Many claim that humans are progressing to a moment in time called the Singularity where digital immortality will be achieved and AI will begin to surpass human intelligence. Proponents of the Singularity anticipate that this event will not only grant us immortality through technological means, but that we will live alongside, and possibly as, superintelligent artificial beings. Is transhumanism a utopian dream? How is this different from the belief in life after death? (Today roughly 85% of the world’s population believes in some form of life after death).
In a world where science and technology are changing our lives at an exponential rate, and where many believe that humanity will overcome human mortality in the next 30 years— will humanity’s views of death have to adapt, or even be thrown out altogether? Well, it might have to be a bit of both.
Transhumanism: Can Technology Defeat Death?
What is Transhumanism?
Transhumanism is a movement that aims to transform the human condition by developing and making available sophisticated technologies to enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities in order to enhance and extend human life. Transhumanist thinkers and activists study the potential benefits and dangers of emerging technologies that could overcome human limitations (such as aging, disability, and sickness), as well as the ethics of using these technologies.
The most accepted tenet of transhumanism is that human beings will one day transform themselves into different post-human beings with extended physical and psychological abilities that prolong life indefinitely. This is part of what some transhumanists call the Singularity. The term was coined by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, and the concept has been popularized by futurists like Ray Kurzweil. The Singularity is expected by proponents to occur sometime in the 21st century (2045 to be exact), although estimates do vary.
As a philosophical and cultural movement, transhumanism acts as a wide umbrella for a number of communities. These include people who identify as transhumanists, futurists, cyborgs, biohackers, cyberpunks, grinders, immortalists, and others.
A Bit of Transhumanist History
Transhumanism first began to develop as a school of thought in the early 20th century, when the British geneticist, J. B. S. Haldane, wrote his famous essay, Daedalus: Science and the Future. Published in 1923, this essay argued for the benefits that would come from applying science and technology to human biology. In particular, Haldane was interested in the development of the science of eugenics (breeding species to build up “desirable” traits, and weed out “undesirable” ones), ectogenesis (creating and sustaining life in an artificial environment) and the application of genetics to improve human health and intelligence.
Though Haldane’s work was and continues to be controversial, his writings were the first to spur the transhumanist movement. Later influenced by science fiction in the latter half of the 20th century, the transhumanist vision of a transformed future humanity has attracted many supporters (and opponents) from a wide range of fields both within and outside of the world of academia.
Transhumanism as a philosophical and cultural movement took hold in North America thanks to the work of individuals such as Max More, Natasha Vita-More, FM-2030, Nick Bostrom and Ray Kurzweil. Transhumanist history can also be traced back to Soviet philosophers and futurists, as described in Anya Bernstein’s latest book.
Cryonics is the name given to the system of preserving the human body and brain, after death, in anticipation of possible future revival. Cryonics is considered one of the most important transhumanist technologies currently being developed— not only because it is already available today, but because the technology is relatively mature compared to newer technologies with transhumanist aims. Using a process called vitrification, the brain is not frozen in the conventional manner, but with an antifreeze mixture that prevents the formation of crystals, causing the water to freeze smoothly and glass-like.
Maintenance of a cryo-patient (as those who are frozen with this system are called) is not difficult— it only requires the replenishment of liquid nitrogen every three weeks. Patients can be securely “cryo-preserved” for as long as the cryonics company stays afloat and the facilities remain undamaged. Eventual revival does not require the technology to become available tomorrow— as long as the liquid nitrogen continues to be replenished, cryo-patients can remain frozen for as long as it takes.
Pretty soon the main obstacle to true immersive VR will not be the visuals (which are already remarkably close to reality) but the haptics— the sense of touch. It is much more difficult to fool the sense of touch than sight or even smell. But many millions of dollars are currently going into efforts to develop advanced VR, which leads many transhumanists to believe that VR technologies that add to (or completely replace) human lived experience are well on their way to becoming a reality.
There are also groups who are in the process of designing a virtual reality heaven. Terasem (the religious organization started by SiriusXM founder Martine Rothblatt) believes that in the future, when we die we will be uploaded into a virtual heaven along with everyone else. Terasem believes that they are building eternal joy for all kind of sentience, where we will live in perfect harmony with everything, and everyone around us.
Most of the cyborgs in fiction fit certain stereotypes— think Robocop or the Terminator. But cyborgs already walk among us, and they look just like anyone else. One famous example of a real-life cyborg is Michael Chorost, who was born almost deaf but now can hear thanks to a cochlear implant. The use of implants to help those with physical disabilities or injuries is already becoming a popular and available practice. This trend will no doubt continue to expand and develop in the future.
Cyborg upgrades which many believe will become available in the 2020’s and 2030’s include hearing and vision enhancement, metabolic enhancement, artificial bones, muscles, and organs, and even brain-computer interfaces. Many of these technologies will be implanted beneath the skin. For transhumanists, such technologies are not only opportunities for enhancing physical and psychological capabilities, but also for fighting illness and extending life.
Is Transhumanism Ethical?
If all of this sounds fantastical, you are not alone in thinking so. While few people would argue against advancements in medicine that could lead to a healthier life, or the elimination of disease, the transhumanist ethos presents us with some unique challenges.
Who Has Access?
Who will have access to the transhumanist technologies of immortality and enhancement? There is strong evidence that immortality will be a privileged position, and one that will create life distinctions; those who live and those who die, by choice or otherwise. There are many transhumanists who believe that through immortality – biological or technological – we will live a peaceful and fulfilled future. Yet as philosopher Kevin O’Neill argues, this technology could also be used by police forces, dictatorships and for war. What government wouldn’t want an army of super-intelligent machines at their disposal?
Will these technologies privilege the Western world? Some transhumanists like Dmitry Itskov believe that to ensure that AI and immortality will not result in class distinctions is to build to economies of scale. The cost now will offset the cost later and the process would eventually be open-sourced. But the question goes beyond who can afford and who cannot afford to live forever or live as a cyborg. If machines are built to economies of scale, this suggests that immortality and AI will look disproportionally different in the West compared to the developing world. Itskov and Rothblatt live in a world where society, culture and economics are monolithic, or at least easily parsable. Social unrest? The rich can leave the planet. Unhappy? Give yourself super intelligence. These answers efface the reality that lives are dynamic, and often unequally distributed.
What About Nature?
Is nature a blindspot of transhumanism? Instead of getting to the root causes of climate change, many proponents of the singularity look to future technology as the cure. This cure may happen through space colonization as Dmitry Itskov argues, or as life inside computer simulations for Rothblatt’s Terasem. Futurists like Ray Kurzweil believe that immortality will be the linch pin that will get us to care about the environment. If we are going to live forever, we need a habitable space to do so, after all.
In Philip K Dick’s futuristic novel Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep, animals have gone extinct, replaced by android replicas. Yet everyone pretends that their animal is real. Where do nonhuman persons fit into the transhumanist cosmic order? The centrality of humans in transhumanist futures is pretty apparent. Humanity+, founded by Nick Bostrom and David Pearce, advocate for a transhumanism that is not anthropocentric and seeks the elimination of suffering across species. But this view is not the norm in transhumanist literature. Would nonhumans have a place in Rothblatt’s cyber-heaven for example? It seems that the future ends at human-centred consciousness.
What is so Wrong About Death?
This is what makes Terasem’s ideas so intriguing. They anticipate a similar future where we will all live together, but within a cyber-heaven. We won’t live forever as biological bodies, but transcend into a digital afterlife. Rothblatt and Terasem’s heaven would be a utopian dream where violence is outlawed, and everyone experiences collective love (think of the Borg in Star Trek, but positive). But who would maintain the servers through which our new collective consciousness is lived out? If one goes against the collective, can they be punished and if so, how?
While Terasem argues that their cyber-heaven will result in a new age of reason, there is nothing in a Terasem afterlife that should leads us to believe that we will not, short of authoritarian rule, mimic our current “lower reasoned” social and cultural structures. It is a progress narrative that states that with better reasoning and better intelligence, we will move past our current human problems.
We have mentioned in the past that while transhumanists believe that theirs is an optimistic future, their arguments bring up a host of issues worthy of serious consideration. Our new will to master death goes hand-in-hand with the ways in which we avoid death and the way we have sanitized death through funeral and body disposition practices. But as those in the Death Positive movement argue, death acceptance can bring us a long way towards fulfillment in life, and even hope in death.
A world where we can live forever might devalue our current existence and drive to self-fulfillment. Death is intimately tied into what it means to be human, and the promise of immortality may only exacerbate social, economic and class differences. These are all open questions, questions which may only be answered the hard way.
The Future of Transhumanism
But what does this all mean in today’s world? Is humanity on the road to cheating death, once and for all, and is this something that we really want to do? These endeavours add to a growing climate of people willing to accept the transhumanist idea that death is not fate. Indeed, in the future, death could be seen as a choice someone makes, and not an inevitability.
While transhumanism may appeal to skeptics by focusing on technology’s capacity to cure illness and aid the disabled, there are a number of troubling questions that are raised when confronted with the idea that we could very well one day escape mortality. Are we supposed to live forever? What would happen to Earth’s resources? The population of the planet? Our ethics and morals? Our understandings of what it means to be human?
Transhumanism has been characterized by one critic, Francis Fukuyama, as among the world’s most dangerous ideas, and it isn’t hard to see why. While the development of many of these technologies are, indeed, well underway, it is hard to imagine how “good” or “bad” our world would become if we could live forever.