This essay is a response to Giulio Prisco’s article on Mike LaTorra’s essay Buddhist Transhumanism in a Nutshell.
Being the ex-Buddhist that I am, who studied and practiced Zen for three years before migrating to the Tibetan tantric tradition, I guess it’s only to be expected that I would have some criticisms of Michael LaTorra’s perspective. However, bear in mind that these are my criticisms alone, so should in no way be taken as authoritative.
As I see it, there are five main problems with Latorra’s take on Buddhism as it applies to transhumanism which I’ll try to address:
1. “Buddhism asserts the doctrines of karma and rebirth. “Your actions now will affect your present lifetime and your subsequent afterlife, just as your actions previous to this birth affected your current life circumstances,” says Mike.”
Well… yes and no. Frankly I find the idea of literal rebirth as described here ludicrous. The idea that you’ll be reborn as a slug just because you did something ‘bad’ in this life is patently absurd. Even the Dalai Lama has said that the doctrine of being reborn in one of the six realms should not be seen as literal, but rather as psychological interpretations of how we find ourselves in the present moment. He’s also said he has no problem with the idea that a future Dalai Lama could reside as a mind-upload - yay! But he’s also said that whilst the idea of a future Dalai Lama being a women is not inconceivable, she would have to be good-looking in order to please her followers. Hmm… not so yay. Nonetheless seeing rebirth as something that happens moment by moment, each fresh and new and filled with possibility makes sense. Whether it be anger, avarice, ignorance, lust, paranoia or kind-heartedness, we experience the six realms here and now - not after death.
2. Another problem with a literal understanding about rebirth is that it is a callous way of looking at the world and the people who inhabit it. Many Buddhist teachers assert, quite reasonably given the above, that people with disabilities, or who find themselves in difficult circumstances, or who suffer the ravages of war or other forms of abuse, ‘deserve’ it given their past actions in a previous life. Again, not only absurd, but inhumane also.
3. Karma is another concept that is greatly misunderstood. Correlation does not equal causation. Karma literally means ‘action’ and it is about our actions in this present world, not some fantasy afterlife. You could equally translate it as ‘habit’. If you become angry at something, and derive satisfaction from that expression of aggression, there is more likelihood that you will react with anger to following situations. The more often you express anger, the more it comes to define you and the more you will become mired in its grasp upon your expectations and behaviour. This, taking the six realms as metaphorical rather then literal, becomes your living hell. You come to live a hellish life because your reaction to the circumstances you find yourself in gravitate towards a hellish approach of always taking offence and reacting combatively. You become stuck in this pattern of behaviour (saṃsāra) until you can address the problem (through Buddhist methods in this case) and see that anger when transformed into its liberated quality becomes like the crystal clarity of undisturbed water, incapable of bias or distortion.
4. To bring in transhumanism, the Buddha famously proclaimed his Three Marks of Existence:
* Sabbe saṅkhāra aniccā — “all saṅkhāras (conditioned things) are impermanent”
* Sabbe saṅkhāra dukkhā — “all saṅkhāras are unsatisfactory”
* Sabbe dhammā anattā — “all dhammas (conditioned or unconditioned things) are not self”
Now I’m not claiming here that the major goals of transhumanism will be achieved, but surely if they were to be attained they would completely negate the first two ‘marks’. Infinite life-extension would strike out impermanency. Better Than Well would strike out unsatisfactoriness. I do think the Buddha’s teaching on ‘not self’ is bang on the money, something that we should take seriously, for example, in our pursuit of AGI. We do not possess a central core to our being, a mind-body duality, but rather are beings whose essence does not depend on other conditions; we are selfless. Yet I fail to see how the first couple of precepts could be maintained in a life of post-humanity, unless LaTorra is suggesting that transhumanist transfiguration equals nirvāṇa, the imperturbable stillness of mind after the fires of desire, aversion, and delusion have been finally extinguished.
And he does seem to suggest this, although as Giulio Prisco says, “I find that rather vague (I guess Mike would say that here vagueness is not a bug but a feature).” I’m not surprised… infinite life-span and euphoria do not equate to nirvāṇa, another metaphysical idea that has no scientifically verified basis in reality.
5. I find the final paragraph equally vague. Prisco quotes Franklin Merrell-Wolff, who says, “It may be valid enough to assert that human consciousness qua human is always time conditioned, but that would amount merely to a partial definition of what is meant by human consciousness… In that case, the consciousness that is not time conditioned would be something that is transhuman or nonhuman.” Prisco goers on to say, “He added that it is in the power of man to transcend the limits of human consciousness,” which seems a good summary of both Buddhism and Transhumanism in a nutshell.” But this doesn’t say anything about what ‘transcending’ human consciousness has to do with Buddhism in the context of transhumanism. It seems to smack more of semantic ambiguity: Buddhism is about transcending human consciousness, so is transhumanism, therefore the two are aiming for the same target. Well, as I said at the beginning of this response - yes and no. The idea (according to Buddhist doctrine and despite what LaTorra suggests) that we can attain nirvāṇa by means of technology as opposed to the hard work of meditation just do not tally up. Buddhist and transhumanist goals may share certain aims, but the ‘Great Truth of Life and Death’ isn’t one of them.
Prisco tells us that the Eightfold Path of the Buddha and transhumanism are similar. To quote, “In both cases, philosophical concerns with eschatology and the ultimate nature of reality are confined to an inner esoteric core, not as evident as the outer exoteric front-end.” I’d agree. In this respect they are similar. But just because you hold a belief system in your ‘inner core’ while giving primacy to your behaviour (‘exoteric front end’) does not make you a Buddhist Transhuman. It makes you a transhuman who holds particular beliefs.
Stephen Batchelor, a proponent of ‘Secular Buddhism’ states: “A genuine spiritual attitude implies the courage to confront what it means to be human. All the pictures I entertain of heaven and hell, or cycles of rebirth, merely serve to replace the overwhelming reality of the unknown with what is known and acceptable. In this sense, to cling to the idea of rebirth, rather than treating it as a useful symbol or hypothesis, can be spiritually suffocating. If we are to take Buddhism as an ongoing existential encounter with our life here and now, then we will only gain by releasing our grip on such notions.” 
I don’t believe for one minute that LaTorra or Prisco are being disingenuous here. I just remain to be convinced that a Buddhist Transhumanist can exist if one’s interpretation of Buddhism is the traditionalist one LaTorra promotes. Leave out the metaphysics, practice kindness and awareness and do what you can to further transhumanist aims.
That’s Buddhist Transhumanism, at least how I see it.