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IEET > Rights > Neuroethics > FreeThought > Personhood > Life > Vision > Futurism > Technoprogressivism > Staff > J. Hughes

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Problems of Transhumanism: Introduction

J. Hughes
By J. Hughes
Ethical Technology

Posted: Jan 6, 2010

What are the current unresolved issues in transhumanist thought? Which of these issues are peculiar to transhumanist philosophy and the transhumanist movement, and which are more actually general problems of Enlightenment thought? Which of these are simply inevitable differences of opinion among the more or less like-minded, and which need decisive resolution to avoid tragic errors of the past?

This article is part of a continuing series. See also:

Problems of Transhumanism: The Unsustainable Autonomy of Reason
Problems of Transhumanism: Atheism vs. Naturalist Theologies
Problems of Transhumanism: Liberal Democracy vs. Technocratic Absolutism
Problems of Transhumanism: Moral Universalism vs. Relativism
Problems of Transhumanism: Belief in Progress vs. Rational Uncertainty
Problems of Transhumanism: Liberal Individualism versus the Erosion of Personal Identity

Now that Mike Treder and I have both decided to step back after eight years of serving on the Board of Directors of the World Transhumanist Association (presently known as Humanity+), we want to take some time this Spring to reflect on the current state of transhumanist thought and determine what questions the transhumanist movement needs to answer to move forward.

I will be structuring my reflections around two general questions. The first is an attempt to parse out which unresolved problems transhumanism has inherited from the Enlightenment. By Enlightenment, I refer to a wide variety of thinkers and movements beginning in the seventeenth century and continuing through the early nineteenth century. The Enlightenment was centered in Britain, France, and Germany, but as recent scholarship has increasingly documented, it had a global dimension with significant contributions from thinkers and movements across Europe, North America, and the Caribbean. These thinkers and movements broadly emphasized the capacity of individuals to achieve social and technological progress through the use of critical reason to investigate nature, establish new forms of governance, and transcend superstition and authoritarianism.

However, this framework of ideas was only understood as the core of the Enlightenment in hindsight. Specific thinkers and movements shared only part of what are now thought of as Enlightenment values and clashed over radically different interpretations of these core ideas on questions of faith, the state, epistemology, and ethics. 

My position here is that transhumanism—the belief that technology can transcend the limitations of the human body and brain—and techno-utopianism—the idea that humans can create a progressively better future through the rational mastery of nature—are part of the family of Enlightenment philosophies. Transhumanism and techno-utopianism can be traced back to the original Enlightenment thinkers 300 years ago, and transhumanists need to understand how the ideological conflicts within transhumanism today are the product of these 300 year-old conflicts within the Enlightenment. 

This exercise is also an attempt to make clear which criticisms of transhumanism are internal contradictions, and which start from external, non-Enlightenment predicates. In other words, saying that transhumanism is bad because it threatens the human soul is a criticism from a non-Enlightenment position. Arguing that transhumanists are being anthropocentric or “human-racist” when they preference particular kinds of intelligence and feeling as the basis for moral standing is an intra-Enlightenment argument.

A few of those problems and conflicts are addressed by technoprogressivism, that is by adding egalitarianism and democracy to the transhumanist meme-set and articulating a clearer picture of the good society. But other questions, such as the problematic nature of “Reason” within Enlightenment thought, are not answered by the technoprogressive project and perhaps shouldn’t be. Some of these conflicts are simply matters of philosophical taste, inevitable disagreements of interpretation which can be accepted as part of the welcome diversity within a shared framework of values. Other conflicts, such as between liberalism and totalitarianism, are fundamental. 

The second question I want to address in these essays is how transhumanist technological utopianism has both inspired and retarded scientific and political progress over the last 300 years. I want to challenge the prevailing anti-utopian sentiment and highlight the way that dynamic optimism about transcendent possibilities motivated scientific innovation and democratic reform through the work of people like the Marquis de Condorcet, Joseph Priestley, and J.B.S. Haldane. 

At the same time I want to seriously examine how, at different points in history, scientific innovators and political reformers have been threatened by the radicalism of the techno-utopians, and how the failure of techno-utopian hype has sometimes produced an anti-scientific backlash. I want to take seriously the idea that “superlative technocentricity” performs an anti-democratic ideological function, that promising techno-fixes for social problems can be used to distract from immediate social needs and injustices. More darkly yet, I want to discuss how the techno-utopians’ association with eugenics and totalitarianism set back both democratic and scientific progress in the 20th century. 

Starting with the “contradictions of the Enlightenment” I will be presenting seven arguments over the next couple of weeks:

  • First, that the Enlightenment project of Reason to which many transhumanists are committed is self-erosive and requires nonrational validation. Transhumanist advocates for Bayesianism and transcending cognitive biases need to confront the repeated implosions of the religion of Reason into romanticism and mysticism, and develop more sophisticated and nuanced defenses of rationality.
  • Second, while most transhumanists are atheists, their Enlightenment belief in the transcendent power of intelligence generates new theologies. These theologies can follow from consistently naturalist predicates and therefore call into question the presumption that transhumanists must be New Atheists.
  • Third, while most transhumanists are liberal democrats, their Enlightenment beliefs in human perfectibility and governance by reason can also validate technocratic authoritarianism. Even staunchly libertarian transhumanists appear to be blithely unaware that arguments for government by benign superintelligent beings that know human interests better than we do recapitulate arguments for totalitarianism from the French Revolution through Marxist-Leninism.
  • Fourth, transhumanists are divided on the balance between democracy and the market because anarcho-capitalism and radical democracy are the two most popular interpretations of the Enlightenment’s vision of a society of equal, self-governing citizens.
  • Fifth, transhumanists are in contradiction over the inevitability of progress because the Enlightenment tradition is conflicted between teleological expectations of unstoppable progress, on the one hand, and rational scientific awareness of the indeterminacy of the future on the other. We may even have inherited this problem from pre-Enlightenment millennialism, which simultaneously argued that God’s kingdom of heaven on Earth was inevitable, but that we nonetheless needed to devote ourselves to ensuring the defeat of Satan.
  • Sixth, transhumanists are divided between advocates of ethical universalism and ethical relativism because both are products of the Enlightenment. On the one hand, transhumanists advocate for a universal, non-anthropocentric standard of ethics and citizenship that would treat humans, animals, aliens, and robots alike based on their sentience and personhood. On the other hand, our decisions about which qualities to use as the basis of moral standing are profoundly and (so far) inescapably neurotypical and human-centric. It is not clear yet how we maintain a commitment to both moral equality and normative diversity.
  • Seventh, the center of the Enlightenment project is the individual self, seeking happiness, long healthy life, and free and equal exchange with other individuals. But the Enlightenment’s rational, materialist neuroscience reveals that there are no discrete, persistent selves, no “real me” homunculi in the brain. Transhumanism has therefore inherited, in the most acute form yet, the Enlightenment’s need to develop post-individualist values, to reinterpret liberty, equality, and fraternity for a world in which we no longer pretend that there are authentic selves.

I’m looking forward to working through all these heady ideas with you.


James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)
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Excellent! At least, potentially so.

All worldviews need this kind of even-handed, informed and thorough self-examination in an open forum (a very Enlightened position I know).

I look forward to the coming articles.

A decade later and still going strong—good on you, Dr J!

>Transhumanist advocates for Bayesianism and transcending cognitive biases need to confront the repeated implosions of the religion of Reason into romanticism and mysticism

Good luck with this one, yes Bayesianism seems to be very much the Singularitarian religion—in a very real sense you could simply interchange their use of the word ‘Bayes’ for ‘God’.

On various lists I’ve indicated what seem to me to be very clear weaknesses with the idea of making Bayes some sort of grand theory of science, but Bayesian Believers go right on believing it, it’s just like speaking to Jehovah’s witnesses.

In short, Bayes seems to be effective at making predictions and decisions once precise models of the world are available, but it seems to fail to capture the creative analogy making (concepts or categorization) and integration of different perspectives (communication, knowledge sharing, brain storming) required to generate these models in the first place.  The latter is what seems to need to feelings and conscious experience, on which Bayes is silent.

As far as I can tell the Bayesian paradigm is just the old fallacy of Hume (that tries to reduce causality to mere ‘correlations’ between events) dressed up in modern language.  I’m sure precise reasoning (Bayes) always relies on a deeper guiding ‘big picture’ awareness (Intuitive categories) to be effective.  But Bayesians disagree.

The question of whether the Bayesian paradigm of science really is all encompassing or not probably needs experts in logic and cognitive science to finally resolve, but in the mean time, I’m sure that erudite social observations about the personalities of believers are still possible wink


“Bayes seems to be effective at making predictions and decisions once precise models of the world are available…”

I’m not quite up to date on Bayesianism, but from what I’ve heard from one of its prophets, Eliezer Yudkowsky, you seem to be right on. In fact, you have captured a general failing of current AI theories/models.

In my limited capacity as a cog sci/AI student, I’m working towards a solution to this oversight in conjunction with an excellent teacher, prof. Vervaeke, through the development/alteration/extension/integration of models with the aim of capturing the essential cognitive feats of problem formulation and relevance realization.

“it seems to fail to capture the creative analogy making (concepts or categorization) and integration of different perspectives (communication, knowledge sharing, brain storming) required to generate these models in the first place.”

Analogy, insight, and creativity are intimately connected to problem formulation and relevance realization, and, as such, play a central role in my work, as well as my professor’s.

“The latter is what seems to need to feelings and conscious experience, on which Bayes is silent.”

It is my view that the selective integration of different : internal : perspectives (ex. concurrent perceptual interpretations) is a necessary component of conciseness. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that such selective integration, achieved through hierarchical opponent processes, is a fundamental quality of all brains; by extension, consciousness is, perhaps, contingent on the extent of selective mental integration (including temporal (memory), perceptual and conceptual : although the distinctions between these can blur). Note that this is not an attempt to tackle qualia and the hard problem, which I view to be fundamentally beyond the reach of science.

Bayes is so old-school. Bühlmann is the wave of the future. (said tongue-in-cheek)

Excellent post, lots of interesting points. Looking forward to reading more on the enlightenment ties to transhumanism.

Why are you taking a break though? Could you have not done this still sitting on the board?

I wonder if transhumanism has more legs than extropianism. A few years ago the principals at Extropy Institute said, in effect, “Poof! Extropianism doesn’t exist any more.”

I suspect a middle-aged reality check, combined with improgression towards extropian goals in a normal life span, had something to do with the extropians’  collapse of purpose. Will something similar happen to transhumanism by 2020 if we see yet another decade of drunkards’ walks instead of “progress” towards transhumanist goals?

I think we must accept the fact that the transhumanist movement is fragmented in different groups promoting different interpretations of Transhumanism and Enlightenment philosophies. Once we accept that there may be differences difficult to reconcile, we can work together to promote our common goals, and agree to disagree on other issues.

Political differences are, I think, unavoidable. Core transhumanism, the conviction that human enhancement is doable and good, can be adopted by persons with very different philosophical and political ideas. “Pure” transhumanists, if such persons exist, may tweak their political positions to match their transhumanist worldview, but most people will simply adapt their favorite interpretation of transhumanism to the ideas of their chosen philosophical and political camp.

I think the idea that “superlative technocentricity” performs an anti-democratic ideological function, that promising techno-fixes for social problems can be used to distract from immediate social needs and injustices, is a strawman invented by intellectually dishonest idiots to support their thought policing attitude, and should not be taken seriously. On the contrary, I think it is perfectly possible to be a technoprogressive social activist focused on here-and-now AND a transhumanist, or if you prefer a “superlative technocentric”, and it is easy to remember which hat is more appropriate to the situation at hand.

I certainly do not share the presumption that transhumanists must be New Atheists. If by New Atheists you mean those intolerant and aggressive atheist fundamentalists who wish to force others not to believe, my message to them is, feel free to buy as much ad space on city buses as you like, but let others think with their own head.

Enlightenment belief in the transcendent power of intelligence generates new theologies. These theologies can follow from consistently naturalist predicates. I agree, and I am very interested in current experiments to design religions compatible with science.

Excellent list. Defines (by omission) the lack of awareness of our animal natures which is probably going to provide, in some investigation, the solution to some of these impasses. Especially if we are talking about taking on new bodies.
(The self is an urge, a product of evolution. Reason has sought enlightenment by effacing this subject in order to find meaning among a group of observers in conversation.)
Only by finally dealing with these devils incarnate, the old bodies, will we be able to take on new bodies successfully, or at least with a minimising of conflict.

The recognition that the self is a vital lie will be the most profound aspect of these efforts.

Will a Buddhist striving to overcome striving be of help here? I wonder.

Personally, I think transhumanism gives the little guy the opportunity to tell the big guy off. It basically creates an equalizer. For instance, the concept of grading on a curve. Would it still exist? Probably not. And what if it did? What then? Would transhumanists accept people oppressing them? Forcing them to compete like animals on a race track? I don’t believe so. I believe when the full ability to embrace transhumanism appears, people need to start respecting each other. Otherwise, there is the possibility that various individuals will be removed from society and that the Earth could be destroyed.

AX, how can transhumanism provide the possibility that various individuals will be removed from society (unless people are respecting each other), violently I assume, and at the same time creates an equalizer? If people are respecting each other, why is the little guy telling off the big guy?
Maybe I’m just reading you the way you intended…
(None of this was a commentary on transhumanism, by the way.)

As an American conservative, I’ve always felt that technological development was much more important than many political philosophers of all parties would let on.  This is certainly true for American history.  I’m the sort of conservative who seeks to conserve the American processes that generate technological growth and development.

When I read Kurzweil’s, The Singularity is Near, I realized there were others, far more learned than myself who agreed with my sentiments.

It is true that Transhumanists and Singulatarians come in all political flavors.  However, accelerating technology introduces some interesting possibilities, the foremost of which is the end of all economics of scarcity, including present-day capitalism and socialism.

When people can “grow their own” everything, the need to fabricate specific items at specific places (factories) and then ship these items to other factories, shops, and homes in highly complex networks of coordination and integration becomes nonsensical.

At this point, hierarchies are shredded, money becomes obsolete, and such distinctions as “rich” and “poor” become nonsensical.  All of this with very little in the way of a political movement pushing it, at least not in the way the Marxists would conceive it.  I consider this possibility to be likely with an increasing probability to near certainty by mid-century.

With all that in mind, as a technophile, I’m about as radical as they come.

On a somewhat related point, have you considered the possibility that the Enlightenment was the effect of 18th century accelerating technology?  I’m reading a book on Ben Franklin, and I see (unintentionally by the author) accelerating tech’s footprints all over that century.

@ Sally

Your question about whether the Enlightenment was a product of technology or not is very interesting. I certainly am not a believer in ideological or cultural determinism, and believe in a strong role for technological shaping of culture. But it is a stochastic filter more than a determiner.

In other words, it is very hard to imagine the spread of Enlightenment ideas in the absence of agricultural surpluses, the printing press, intercontinental trading, stable currencies, and so on. The idea were enabled by and a reflection on the tangible progress that could be observed in Europe.

However, the Enlightenment ideas were not the only ideas that could have emerged and spread, and the Enlightenment had many competitors. I don’t believe the success of the Enlightenment was ordained by industrialization, nor is it clear that the Enlightenment has ever really established true hegemony. Today Islamic medievalism and Chinese authoritarianism are giving it a run for its money.

As a side note, I love the role of coffee and coffee houses in the emergence of the Enlightenment, especially in light of research on the way that caffeine opens the mind to new ideas. Hopefully widespread use of modafinil and psychedelics will accomplish the same thing for Enlightenment 2.0.

I don’t believe technology mandates a certain response either.  But it does permit it.  But I think there was something about the specific array of technological developments in the 18th century that did trigger a philosophical and political response.  Not just the specific technologies you list, but the overall sense of felt progress among the leading thinkers of the time.  Sort of the 18th century version of our trope “If we could send a man to the moon…”  That sense of accelerating technology is what I had in mind for my argument.

The “transhumanist” movement, at first glance appears to offer the possibility of collapsing into an gnostic existentialism intent of annihilating nature and history.
Of course, this would be a radical or extreme condition but one in which man (libido dominandi) is more than capable.
Transhumanism derives from that ‘liberalism’ spawned by the Enlightenment Project that badly miscalculated the pernicious effect of suppressing the Christian religion in European man, where the established spiritual order is replaced by an ideology that is the derivative of a deformed immanent reason functioning without benefit of any memory or knowledge of the tension of existence. It is this condition that acts to infer ideology into politics and historically derail the liberal constitutional model.
Transhumanism appears to be yet another Enlightenment derivative system that seeks to rebel against religion and metaphysics, destroy the transcendent pole of the metaxy, and obliterate metaphysics. But not only has transhumanism failed to recover the tension of existence, it is merely another example of a “new doctrine” proffering self-salvation in a world-immanent consciousness.

“badly miscalculate”

What else is new?

(All too human.)

The Enlightenment didn’t have a “project” so to speak.  There’s too much anthropomorphism in such sentiments for my taste.

Actually, the Enlightenment was a vaguely coherent response (as I noted above) to perceived speed-up in technological, and hence, political change.  Anyone even slightly familiar with human history has noted that for most of those tens of thousands of years, change occurred, but very slowly.  No one human noted any technological, cultural or political change in his life time, unless there was a war.

And then the 18th century happened, with all its well-recorded tremors of societal change.

Christianity did contribute its portion of thought to the development of modern science during the Renaissance.  But as students of cultural evolutionary developments will note, unintended consequences often occur.  Very Christian gentlemen of means developed modern scientific methodology to, in their words, “understand nature and better understand the mind of God.”  The unintended result was a powerful naturalistic process of learning and knowing.  Which in turn helped catalyze further accelerating technologies.

I date the final divorce between science and religion in the 19th century.  This does not mean there were no more scientists with religious beliefs, but all scientists, including Christians, when they did science, did NOT do religion.

It is true that socialists played the scientistic game, assuming human societies could be run as if they were physics experiments.  But, if you’ve paid attention to such developments as quantum mechanics, and chaos and complexity theory, you will have noted that those scientists who really know their stuff also know that human societies are genuinely chaotic (in the scientific sense) and like Hayek, they know they can’t be run from the center any more than weather systems can.

Those socialists failed to think through the truly revolutionary implications of the Enlightenment.  Hayek gives them to you in his works in bits and pieces.  Here is his take on the notion of individualism as developed by Enlightenment thinkers:

“the respect for the individual man qua man, that is, the recognition of his own views and tastes as supreme in his own sphere, however narrowly that may be circumscribed, and the belief that it is desirable that men should develop their own individual gifts and bents.” —The Road to Serfdom

Now, when you plug in such political notions as individualism, democracy, freedom, a certain amount of equality, what you get is the kind of society where almost everyone is developing their own gifts and bents, and a society emerges among them of extraordinary creative power.  We will not be at all surprised to find that that society itself is triggering massive technological, and then political and cultural changes in the world.  And of course, we know the name of that society:  The United States of America.

In one sense, I agree with Mr. Cheeks.  Transhumanism does derive from the Enlightenment and takes it to its ultimate destiny.  If the great Transhumanist thinkers, such as Kurzweil, are right, Transhumanism will lead us to the Singularity, where accelerating technology is accelerating so fast that it is doubling in hours, minutes, than seconds.  At that point, the indescribable society (to us today) will emerge and will indeed “destroy the transcendent pole of the metaxy, and obliterate metaphysics.”  Not to mention end every notion and every reality we’ve ever had or known of human limits.

Stay tuned.

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