Printed: 2019-08-20

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Problems of Transhumanism: Introduction

J. Hughes

Ethical Technology

January 06, 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)


Contact: Executive Director, Dr. James J. Hughes,
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