Printed: 2020-09-18

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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The Symphony of Personal Creation

Anne Corwin

Existence is Wonderful

September 27, 2006

This isn’t about religion, though it was inspired by coming across an article by someone whose motivations for writing about the “sinful” nature of transhumanism seem to be rooted at least nominally in religious convictions.  I say “nominally” because the attitudinal undercurrent that drives people to make statements about the sanctity of the contemporary human form (or genome) is present both in devout believers in the deities of organized religion, and in equally devout worshippers of unaltered “nature”.  The yuck factor—the gut feelings people use to dismiss notions of human transformation and transhuman / posthuman existence—seems to be more a symptom of discombobulation and future shock more so than the internalized tenets of any particular doctrine.

Certainly, accelerating and emerging change confuses people (particularly people who don’t tend to think more than a week or so ahead of their present temporal position).  But I also suspect that a person’s reaction to many of the ideas commonly discussed in transhumanist circles can reveal something about how that person views the world at large.  Consider the following passage from the article linked to above:

Indeed, the real problem is that the very urge and desire to eclipse human limitations is an act of defiance grounded in profound ingratitude. At the core of transhumanism is a basic hatred of humanity.

Ignoring, for the moment, the fact that concepts like education and modern medicine have already allowed us to “eclipse human limitations” to degrees not remotely imaginable by our savannah-dwelling ancestors, this quote reveals plenty about a particular attitude toward change, particularly change that affects persons.

This is the way I see it: We humans are here, for whatever reason, on a tiny orb in a great, big, exciting Universe.  And yet even our own planet, though small in the grand scheme of things, is positively brimming with possibilities, information, and potential experiences for us to have.  Zooming in one step deeper, every sentient person alive has an utterly tremendous realm of sensory experience, individual perspective, and personal life-narrative to develop.  Layers upon layers of complexity and wonder and delight and potential.  Neither the limit of inner space nor that of outer space is known—we don’t even know what we don’t know yet.  And still, we know enough to fill our lives with such richness and splendor and hope that some of us are working to help ourselves and others have the opportunity to take part in more life, to experience the abundance of potential experience that most assuredly exists. 

I am not a religious person myself, but my grandmother is.  Nevertheless, we get along very well, and I consider her to be one of my favorite people—I spent many a happy childhood vacation roaming around the hills of her Vermont property, exploring the sights and sounds and smells and tastes of the wilderness.  My grandparents are both retired teachers, and not a single mealtime went by without some interesting discussion of some phenomena: animals, stars, plants, weather patterns (and perhaps a logic puzzle or two from my grandfather, who is a brilliant lateral thinker). 

At any rate, my grandmother’s take on science and technology is that God gave us brains and rationality and that it would be an insult to this creation not to use these things.  I cannot specifically say she endorses anything called “transhumanism”, but she certainly didn’t oppose seeing her 91-year-old mother through hip replacement surgery (is my great-grandmother a cyborg now?) or her husband through heart valve replacement surgery (is my grandfather now a “human-bovine hybrid”?).  She also doesn’t have a problem with the idea of installing a computer and Internet connection in her house up in the hills; clearly, making use of modern technology is not “spoiling” or corrupting the sprawling beauty of where she lives or in any way cheapening the experience of being a sentient Earthling. 

Personal technology—even when applied in the capacity of “enhancement” (though I prefer the neutral term modification and believe that enhancement is truly only judged in the eye of the person choosing a particular modification and deeming it positive)—is not about “hating” humanity or feeling inadequate or somehow rejecting the “gift” of live existence.  Rather, it is about realizing that the world extends beyond the boundaries of our bodies and that ideas extend beyond the boundaries of our present minds.  Evolution has granted us—through its convoluted iterations over time—a basic set of sensory feedback mechanisms, fairly impressive memory storage, probability-estimation ability, and a built-in system for imagining the future and planning to react to what it might bring. 

Wanting to explore more, do more, and explore and act for a longer period of time than present biological constraints would permit is no more indicative of “self-hatred” than is writing a symphony, painting a picture, or proving a theorem for the sheer delight of intellectual exercise involved.  One does not paint a picture, after all, because one feels inadequate, or because one feels that the wold is sadly lacking for not having a particular painting in it—but because there is joy in creating and joy in process and joy in looking back at what one has done and sharing it with others.  The perpetuation of delight is not a defect or a disease or an expressed sense of pathological feelings of inadequacy—it is precisely because we do recognize the remarkable random gifts of evolution that we are compelled to use them, to stretch their boundaries, and to customize them to better allow us to bring our existence into harmony with the wonders we imagine could occur in the future. 

To suggest that a person who seeks an extended lifespan, greater memory capacity, a wider spectrum of visual acuity (I’d love to be able to see electromagnetic signals in the RF range—that would be very useful at work!) is somehow suffering from an inadequacy complex is like suggesting that someone who wants to attend college is suffering from a similar complex.  And that’s just ridiculous: freely-chosen education is an excellent analogue for freely-chosen technological or biological modification.  Both represent the tangible expression of a person’s wanting to participate in aspects of existence that, while they may require some initial investment of time and resources and possibly some risk, fit with that person’s sense of imagination, adventure, and drive toward personal evolution.

Good emotional health allows us to see the wonderful things about our present state of being (and to seek to maintain those aspects of this state of being that enrich our lives) while at the same time imagining what we could become, what we could experience.  A desire for enhancement and expansion doesn’t spring ex nihilo from a person’s mind, after all: a healthy person’s individual enhancement goals will generally be in concert with the very things that person already likes about herself.

There are some people who do maintain a sense of inadequacy and who lack the introspective ability to sort their healthy personal goals and hopes from the pressures that a particular societal assumption set is attempting to impose on them (or which they perceive as pressuring them in some way).  And certainly, anyone constantly seeking change for the mere sake of change (or worse, trying to change themselves to fit into what they see as someone else’s idealized vision of them) would probably benefit from some serious efforts at self-analysis or possibly even some therapy. 

For example, someone seeking plastic surgery because their fiancee has told them that they’ll leave them for someone prettier if they don’t get that surgery, probably doesn’t need that surgery.  Rather, what they need is a new significant other.  Changing yourself in a particular way out of fear of being rejected, or in deference to someone else’s shallow demands, is not healthy.  But technological modification is simply a tool, and just because some people who might use the tool might have unhealthy motivations for using it doesn’t mean that using the tool at all means you are unhealthy!  Rather, the opposite can be true in many cases, and it is these cases into which many of the motivations I see in transhumanism fall. 

To deny ourselves the opportunities to push our own limits in order to travel between the stars or breathe underwater like fishes or wonder at the soundscape of the utterances of bats does not make sense to me as someone who is constantly and unremittingly surprised at the vastness and complexity of the universe we inhabit.

Anne Corwin was an IEET intern 2006-2007, and is an engineer and technoprogressive activist in California. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Humanity Plus, and is active in the longevity movement through the Methuselah Foundation and in the neurodiversity movement addressing issues along the autism spectrum. Ms. Corwin writes the blog Existence is Wonderful and produces a related podcast.


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