It wasn’t that long ago that listing transhumanism, human enhancement, the Singularity, technology-driven evolution, existential risks, and so on, as academic interests on one’s CV might result in a bit of embarrassment.
Over just the past decade and a half, though, there seems to have been a sea change in how these issues are perceived by philosophers and other scholars: many now see them as legitimate subjects of research; they have, indeed, acquired a kind of academic respectability that they didn’t previously possess.
There are no doubt many factors behind this shift. For one, it seems to be increasingly apparent, in 2011, that technology and biology are coming together to form a new kind of cybernetic unity, and furthermore that such technologies can be used to positively enhance (rather than merely alter) features of our minds and bodies.
In other words, the claim that humans can “transcend” (a word I don’t much like, by the way) our biological limitations through the use of enhancement technologies seems to be increasingly plausible - that is, empirically speaking.
Thus, it seems to be a truism about our contemporary world that technology will, in the relatively near future, enable us to alter ourselves in rather significant ways. This is one reason, I believe, that more philosophers are taking transhumanism seriously. (In fact, the subject of human enhancement has become a rather prominent one in contemporary Ethics, with philosophers from Frances Kamm to Peter Singer writing about it.)
An important recent event that’s changed the perception of techno-futurological issues among philosophers (if you’ll excuse the odd coinage) was David Chalmers’ presentation at the 2009 Singularity Summit in New York. Chalmers is, by all accounts, one of the most influential contemporary philosophers of mind, and as a result of his work, many in the philosophical community have been persuaded that the Singularity hypothesis is not silly speculation but a robust extrapolation into the future worth thinking about.*
In fact, I recently received an email requesting submissions for an upcoming Springer book entitled The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment. What struck me most about this email is that it was sent to me via a large academic mailing list specifically for philosophers. Thus, the fact that this announcement was sent out on such a list - right next to information about conferences on “Psycho-Ontology” and “Emergence and Panpsychism” in my inbox - suggests that techno-futurological issues like the Singularity are gaining a significant degree of academic respect.
Not only are such issues being discussed and written about by established academic philosophers, but philosophers with a prior interest in issues like these are getting quite good positions at venerable institutions. As many readers are aware, Nick Bostrom, who co-founded the World Transhumanist Association (WTA, now dba H+) with David Pearce in 1998, has a position at Oxford University. And the IEET’s own Susan Schneider currently holds a position in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania.
On a personal note, when I first discovered transhumanism, I was extremely skeptical about its claims (which, by the way, I think every good scientific thinker should be). I take it that transhumanism makes two claims in particular, the first “descriptive” and the second “normative”: (i) that future technologies will make it possible for us to radically transform the human organism, potentially enabling us to create a new species of technologized “posthumans”; and (ii) that such a future scenario is preferable to all other possible scenarios. In a phrase: we not only can but ought to pursue a future marked by posthumanity.
Now, if accepting both claims is necessary for one to be a transhumanist, then one might fail to be a transhumanist by rejecting either the first only, or the second only, or both the first and second together.
As I mentioned above, condition (i) is becoming increasingly difficult to reject, if only for empirical reasons. I take it that most bioconservatives, for example, agree with (i) while rejecting (ii). In their view, there are more preferable future scenarios than the one in which we cognitively, physically, and emotionally enhance ourselves with technology. It would nonetheless be possible, though, for one to accept (ii) but for various reasons reject (i) as implausible.
(I argue in a forthcoming paper, for example, that philosophers didn’t much consider the “meta-philosophical” position that Mark Walker calls “inflationism” - i.e., that we should use technology to create better philosophers rather than, say, deflating the goals of philosophy to better fit our limited philosophical abilities - because (i) didn’t seem all that plausible until relatively recently. Thus, I suspect that philosophers like William James, as well as Bertrand Russell and many of the Logical Positivists, would have agreed with (ii) while rejecting (i).)
For me, though, two simple considerations were sufficient to convince me that talk of posthumanity is not - or at least need not be - the result of “irresponsible fantasizing.” First of all, I recognized that the cyborg is already among us: the contemporary world is increasingly cluttered by organism-artifact hybrids, as a result of pacemakers, cochlear implants, pharmaceuticals, and even more mundane objects like glasses, which (some philosophers argue) become an embodied part of our phenomenological selves.
And second, I realized that Darwinian evolution is a “non-teleological” process, which simply means that life isn’t evolving towards any end goal or telos. If there is any global progress in evolution, it is backwards-looking rather than forwards-looking.
Thus, there’s absolutely no reason to think that Homo sapiens will remain in its present form for any significant period of time, since species are dynamically plastic entities, not static types with unchanging essences. It follows that even if radical human enhancements are never actualized, we should still expect our species to undergo evolutionary changes, that is, to the extend that fitness-driven differential reproduction occurs.
Put these two reasons together and one has pretty good reason for thinking that posthumanity is not some wacky or fantastical idea.
But what about the normative question concerning whether we should enhance? Probably the two best arguments, in my opinion, for why the transhumanist “map” for the future ought to be taken seriously are these: first, unless an existential catastrophe occurs, the genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR) revolution is going to happen. I call this, somewhat facetiously, “ceteris paribus inevitability” - i.e., unless something huge happens to disrupt current trends, these trends will continue no matter what.
Put differently, the idea is this: Yes, a profound catastrophe like an existential risk could indeed prevent radical enhancement technologies from being developed to their fullest. But the development of such technologies will not be stopped by government-imposed moratoria, by international policies of relinquishment, by technophobic disapproval among the population, and so on. The realization of radical human enhancements is in exactly this sense “inevitable, ceteris paribus.”
And finally, I became persuaded that a future full of posthumans might actually be preferable (in addition to being virtually unavoidable). One good argument for this comes from Mark Walker, who begins by noting that many GNR technologies are “dual use” in nature: that is, they’ll not only produce great benefits for humanity, but they’ll introduce a whole panoply of potentially catastrophic risks too. Thus, Walker argues (to paraphrase): who better to lead us through this perilous future than a new species of superintelligent and, at best, morally superior posthumans?
It was these (and other related) considerations that convinced me that transhumanism, human enhancement, and so on, have the potential to be as philosophically respectable as any other issue traditionally studied. A similar change of mind, a similar move towards acceptance of and respect for these issues, appears to be occurring now among philosophers throughout academia - especially young philosophers, although I have only anecdotal evidence to support this claim.
I will conclude with this: Nick Bostrom writes in his “A History of Transhumanist Thought” (2005) that he and David Pearce co-founded the WTA “to develop a more mature and academically respectable form of transhumanism, freed from the ‘cultishness’ which, at least in the eyes of some critics, had afflicted some of its earlier convocations.” As far as I can tell, from as distant and disinterested a perspective as I can manage, Bostrom and Pearce’s goal seems to be well on its way to being met.
* Chalmers later published a paper in the Journal of Consciousness Studies expounding the ideas he discussed in his Singularity Summit lecture. A PDF of the paper can be found at this link; it’s well-worth the read.