IEET > Contributors > Alex McGilvery > HealthLongevity > Enablement
Transformation, Transcendence and Human 2.0
Alex McGilvery   Feb 5, 2012   Ethical Technology  

It is the nature of transhumanism to work to make humans better.

When I mentioned this idea to my wife her first thought was the Six Million Dollar Man.  As much as we make fun of Steve Austin, that was groundbreaking thought at the time. Replacement limbs could be not just as good but better than the original!

Years later we are still working toward that goal. Some lucky people have dozens of pairs of legs while others struggle to have just one.

As important as cybernetics and augmentation are to transhumanism, that isn’t the entire goal. Yes we can be faster and stronger, maybe even live longer, but is that really making us better as a species? If we take the image of the cyborg out of the picture, when we think better human being, most people will think of someone who is more ethical, more creative, smarter. Those are the aspects that will bring us closer to Human 2.0.

Hank Pellissier provided us with a great list of things not to do to so as to not damage our intelligence.. What is more challenging is to see what we can do to improve it. Drugs are one suggestion. Ritalin is often used to temporarily force focus, and it has been shown to help in emergency decision making. It is less clear what long term effects brain enhancing drugs might have. At the least, I would expect that we would gradually become acclimatized to them as we do to virtually every drug on the market necessitating new drugs and higher doses.

The other problem with drugs is economic. How are we going to pay for these drugs for everyone? We won’t. The people who can afford them will get smarter and the people who can’t will, in relative terms, get dumber.

Electrical stimulation is another area being explored to increase intelligence and creativity. Unfortunately, we know so little about the brain that we are reduced to almost random stimulation of different areas in the hopes that some combination will produce instant genius. As with drugs we don’t know the long term cost of directly stimulating the brain.

There is the possibility of direct interface between human and computer. After all if we have as a long term goal the complete upload of a human mind into electronic form, we will need as a bridge measure the ability to talk to computers without cumbersome devices like keyboards and fingers. There are some very rudimentary programs that are at the edge of this very thing. Imagine being able to update one’s memory or add a processor. Think of using Google, not to search the internet, but our own memories.

While all of these technologies have the potential to transform humans and make us smarter; they may not make us better in terms of our moral and ethical existence. Yet even here research is taking place. IEET is co-hosting a conference next month on Moral Enhancement. Again the methodology is drugs and technology and they have their place, but the irony is that we need to examine the ethics behind enhancing our ethical abilities. What will be the cost of augmentation? And more importantly, will it be generally available?

Still, it seems that we are already approaching Human 2.0 - faster, stronger, smarter, more ethical. The transformation of individual humans appears to be on the horizon. That’s still a far cry from the transformation of the species. Even if some people gain literal superpowers there will still be the problem of learning the skills to go along with the transformation. A comic book that comes out of the Islamic world suggests that as people gain new powers they need to learn to use them, then they need to learn to use them ethically. Like the superheroes of the Ninety-nine , we need to do more than just transform ourselves, we need to transcend our weaknesses.

Religion has been working on transcendence in one way or another for millennia, Many religions have used drugs and some still do - peyote and ganja are good example, but Carlos Castaneda believed enlightenment came through the use of psycho-tropic drugs.  Religions have used technology to a lesser extent, but the concept of prayer wheels and such are early examples. The use of the internet by a great many religious groups is a later example.

Yet more important than the technologies of enhancement is the practice of transcendence. People can learn quickly to use modern technology, even in situations in which they have had little opportunity to use it before.  But learning to use technology to find new information is a far cry from learning a new way of being.

Making people faster, stronger, smarter and even more empathetic will not necessarily make them more ethical. Imagine you picked a person off the street and made them faster and more agile, then dropped them into an NBA basketball game. They would need to learn the rules of the game and how their enhancements fit into those rules before they could dominate the game.

Religions have been helping people understand the framework and rules of the world for aeons. It hasn’t always been helpful, but there are still things we can learn from them. The first is that it takes practice to be ethical.

Much of the discussion around Peg Tittle’s column on ethics and business was that the process was unwieldy.  Yet with time and practice decision makers would be using that process without needing to count on their fingers to make sure they didn’t miss a step. It is like the progression of response in Kung Fu:

“Avoid, rather than check. Check, rather than hurt. Hurt, rather than maim.
Maim, rather than kill. For all life is precious.”

The challenge with this progression is that it takes practice and skill to know how to react and stop at each level of violence. In our world it is easy to leap right to killing, then justifying our actions by blaming the other for their own death.

Image by Sam Perkins-Harbin

What religion can offer is the practice of mindfulness. Meditation increases empathy as studies of Tibetan monks has begun to show.  I think if you dug deeper you would discover that the process of increasing empathy has to do with mindfulness. The more aware we are of ourselves, the more likely we are to be aware of others and their needs. Meditation is not just for Tibetan monks, almost every religion around the world has some form of meditation.

Meditation is only one part of the path to mindfulness. Zen refers to something called beginner’s mind. It means making a practice of seeing things as if for the first time. In Christianity we are called to be like little children. Much of creativity is being able to see clearly. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain may not be current science, but its emphasis on seeing as a primary skill for creativity is vital and effective.  I remember spending the first day in chemistry class looking at a candle burning and learning to observe without making prior conclusions.

We might mock the idea of confession and absolution in our modern world. Why would we need to tell people about how we broke the rules created by a non-existent being? So instead we spend large amounts of money paying therapists to listen to our tales of maladjusted woe and tell us that we are still OK. As long as we remain human enough to make mistakes we will need to have a mechanism to name those mistakes and move on. When those mistake effect the lives of others the process of forgiveness will be required.

Transcendence is about rising above what is is to be human and becoming more than just Human 2.0. It has been a goal of religion throughout history. How do we become more than we are? By trial and error practices have emerged that make it more likely for something to happen. This doesn’t mean that transhumanism needs to find religion, yet recognizing what religion has to teach will save much time and effort.

As we get closer to recreating ourselves as Human 2.0 the problem of learning to use our new abilities and to use them in a way that is more ethical remains. If you haven’t read Theodore Sturgeon’s book More Than Human, you’ll want to skip the next sentence. It is ethics (more or less) that moves the gestalt being to the next level of existence. The equation hasn’t changed since 1953, we still need ethics and we are working on them, but we also need to work on the practices that will make the ethics truly a part of us instead of an awkward encumbrance.


Alex McGilvery is currently living in Flin Flon, Manitoba, Canada. He is an author and serves as the minister of a thriving United Church congregation.


“We might mock the idea of confession and absolution in our modern world. Why would we need to tell people about how we broke the rules created by a non-existent being? So instead we spend large amounts of money paying therapists to listen to our tales of maladjusted woe and tell us that we are still OK.”

Now you’re cooking with gas. Going beyond that, religion is as close as we have come to socialism, but then all the more reason for a libertarian to dislike religion and socialism in equal measure wink

I would suggest that painting generalizations is a dangerous game. Not all religions approach anything like socialist values, though some do. If we are going to move beyond chasing the ‘next big thing’ like six year olds after a soccer ball, we will need to think carefully before we make assumptions. Then we will need to test our assumptions to see if they hold true.

Life is complicated. So, while I have no difficulties annoying libertarians, I will do so when it seems that it is necessary for their enlightenment. I have also been known to annoy socialist and the religious.

Having said that, I do suggest that the scripture do not support either capitalism or socialism, but an economy of sufficiency for which we do not yet have a name.

To write “religion has been the closest thing to socialism we have had” wasn’t saying much; only that one can join a house of worship and get along fairly well if one swallows one’s pride (there is always what we think but do not voice in pursuit of self-control). However in business you have much stricter rules, if the boss says to wear a tie around your rear end to work, then you wear a tie around your posterior.

Alex, I agree that ritual (and associated psychological affects) is analogous to the technological acts we anticipate for enhancement. Religion has long anticipated transfiguration and resurrection beyond present notions of death. Those too will be rituals.

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