Printed: 2018-12-13

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies





IEET Link: https://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/Messerly20181122

A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 5 – Transhumanism and Meaning

John G. Messerly


Reason and Meaning


https://reasonandmeaning.com/2018/11/18/a-philosophers-lifelong-search-for-meaning-part-5-transhumanism-and-meaning/

November 22, 2018

16. A Fully Meaningful Cosmos

Thus there are plausible reasons to believe that individual and cosmic death might be avoided. Yet immorality doesn’t guarantee a meaning of life, as the idea of hell so graphically illustrates. Immortality is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a fully meaningful reality. But what do we mean by fully meaningful?

Meaningful things matter and they are good. But to be fully meaningful they must matter completely, be perfectly good and last indefinitely. The more we and the cosmos matter, the better we and the cosmos are, and the longer we and cosmos last, the more meaningful they are. In other words, a fully meaningful life and a fully meaningful cosmos are as significant, good, and long-lasting as they can possibly be. An individual life and the cosmos can be partly meaningful without meeting all of these conditions but they cannot be fully meaningful.

Can we then create a fully meaningful cosmos? I think this is plausible. To bring about such a glorious future we must enlarge our consciousness, perfect our moral natures, and overcome all human limitations. The philosophy which underlies these ideas is called transhumanism.

Transhumanism and Fully Meaningful Cosmos

Transhumanism is an intellectual movement that aims to transform and improve the human condition by developing and making available sophisticated technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physiological, and moral functioning. Transhumanism is based on the idea that humanity in its current form represents an early phase of its evolutionary development. A common transhumanist thesis is that human beings may eventually transform themselves into beings with such greatly expanded abilities that they will have become godlike or posthuman. Notably, this includes defeating the limitation imposed by death.

Now we may fail in these efforts, succumbing to asteroids, pandemics, nuclear annihilation, malevolent artificial intelligence, climate change, vacuum decay, a new Dark Ages, or scenarios we can’t now fathom. But if we do nothing, we will certainly perish. Without sci-tech we are helpless in the face of asteroids, pandemics, and all the rest. On the other hand, if sci-tech conquers individual and universal death and enhances our intellectual and moral faculties, then it will create the conditions that may eventually bring about a fully meaningful reality.

Transhumanism and Religion

What will be the effect of transhumanism on religion? If sci-tech defeats suffering and death religion will have lost its raison d’être—to soften the blow of suffering and death and to give life meaning. For who will pray for heavenly cures, when the cures already exist on earth? Who will die hoping for a reprieve from the gods, when science offers immortality? Who will look elsewhere for meaning when the world boasts a plenitude of it.

So, as our descendants continue to distance themselves from their past, they will lose interest in the gods. In a thousand or a million years our descendants, traveling through an infinite cosmos or virtual realities with augmented minds, won’t find their answers in ancient scriptures. Robust superintelligence won’t cling to the primitive mythologies that once satisfied ape-like brains.

Now some say that transhumanism is just a high-tech substitute for old-time religion and, yes, transhumanism has religious components. Transhumanists want infinite being, consciousness, and bliss as do those who imagine a beatific vision or other heavenly rewards. But there is a vast difference between having faith in the existence of a heaven and gods and actively trying to create them. Posthumans won’t die and go to heaven, they’ll (hopefully) create a heaven. In the future, the gods will exist … only if we become them.

The implication of all this is that we must take control of our destiny; we must become the protagonists of the evolutionary epic. If we don’t play God, no one will. There are risks, but with no risk-free way to proceed, we either evolve or we will die. That is the transhumanist message. But does the past offer any indication that the future really will be unimaginably better and more meaningful?

Cosmic Evolution and the Meaning of Life

Fortunately, a study of cosmic evolution supports the idea that life has become increasingly meaningful, a claim buttressed primarily by the emergence of beings with conscious purposes and meanings. Where there once was no meaning or purpose—in a universe without mind— there now are meanings and purposes. These meanings and purposes have their origin in the matter which coalesced into stars and planets, which in turn supported organisms that evolved complex brains. (I am also sympathetic with panpsychism which posits that mind was present from the beginning. Either panpsychism or emergentism explains mind.) And, since the minds from which meaning and purpose emerge are a part of the universe, part of the universe has meaning too. 

This has a further profound implication—the universe is partly conscious. The story of cosmic evolution is of a universe becoming self-conscious through the conscious minds that emerge from it. Nature creates consciousness which in turn contemplates nature. Reality has grown the eyes so to speak with which it sees itself. We are as windows, vortexes, apertures or nodes through which the universe has become and continues to become ever more self-conscious. In short, when we contemplate the universe, it is partly conscious; and when we have purposes and meanings, parts of the universe do too.

But will the cosmos become increasingly conscious and meaningful? Will it progress toward complete meaning, or approach meaning as a limit? We can’t say for sure but there is a trajectory to past evolution: molecular processes were organized into cells; cells into organisms, and human organisms into families, tribes, cities, and nations. Uninterrupted, this could lead to global and interstellar cooperatives, with a concomitant increase in intelligence that may eventually lead to an omnipotent command of matter and energy—even to omniscience itself.  

Think of it this way. If the big bang could expand into a universe almost a hundred billion light-years across, if some of the atoms in stars could become us, and if unconscious random genetic evolution and environmental selection could give rise to conscious beings, then surely we can direct cosmic evolution toward more perfect forms of being and consciousness. Or perhaps the universe is consciously doing this itself, as some panpsychists suggest. So there are good reasons to believe that reality may become increasingly meaningful.

The Meaning of Life 

If we try to improve reality we may actualize its potential for full meaning. If we are successful in this project we will have been a part of something larger than ourselves. The part will have been meaningful in bringing about a fully meaningful whole. The meaning we found in our lives would then have been connected to  … the meaning of life. In other words, the best ways to find meaning in life contribute to creating a meaning of life.  

In practice, this implies that we find the deepest meaning in life by playing our small role in this upward progression of cosmic evolution. Individually our efforts are minuscule but collectively they transform reality. We do this in relatively mundane ways—nurturing our children, helping others, increasing our knowledge, caring for the planet, loving as best we can. These are simple things yet, simultaneously, they are the most important and meaningful ones.

Here then is our cosmic vision. In our imagination, we exist as links in a golden chain leading onward and upward toward higher levels of being, consciousness, truth, beauty, goodness, justice, joy, love and meaning—perhaps even to their apex. We dream that our descendants will gradually transform and perfect their moral and intellectual natures, make themselves immortal, and bring about a fully meaningful reality. And if all this comes true then there is a meaning of life.

to be continued next week …


John G. Messerly is an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET. He received his PhD in philosophy from St. Louis University in 1992. His most recent book is The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives. He blogs daily on issues of philosophy, evolution, futurism and the meaning of life at his website: reasonandmeaning.com.

Newsletter: http://ieet.org/mailman/listinfo/ieet-announce

Contact: Executive Director, Dr. James J. Hughes,
IEET, 35 Harbor Point Blvd, #404, Boston, MA 02125-3242 USA
Email: director@ieet.org
phone: 860-428-1837