Wednesday, November 24, 2004


You may have noticed that one of the "-isms" that describes my philosophical outlook is transhumanism.* Unless you're big-time into geek culture, you probably have no idea what this is. For a while, I've wanted to write a post explaining just what transhumanism means, and why I ascribe to it.

Transhumanism, simply put, is the position that it is desirable to improve the human condition through technology. This is above and beyond medical treatment; transhumanists want people to be better than well. Don't just cure illness: cure death. Don't simply maximize our natural capacities: exceed them. The technologies used to enable such developments include genetic engineering, robotics, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology.

But transhumanism is also about freedom of choice, and I choose those words deliberately. Transhumanists support procreative liberty: the right to have an abortion, but also the right to clone yourself, or to combine your DNA with that of a same-sex partner for children. The right to genetically modify your offspring in any beneficial way. Legal or not, these technologies will exist within our lifetimes; we can embrace them or cower from them.

The freedom of choice extends beyond reproduction. Transhumanists support body modification of any kind as a right. At the moment we have tattoos, piercings, and oft-maligned cosmetic surgery. One day we might have gene therapy, bionics, grafts, implants, and other technologies, and it is the individual's right to control their body as they see fit. This is also known as "morphological freedom." The transgendered are unknowing allies of the transhumanist movement.

Transhumanists also believe in cognitive freedom. Mind-altering substances today are crude, but they are voluntary and it should not be criminal to use them. Transhumanists support the right to use any future mind-alterations, including memory enhancement, brain-computer interfaces, and mind uploading.

Finally, transhumanists believe that "human" is not the only possible definition for "person," and that personhood should include any being capable of self-awareness. That would include radically modified humans, uploaded minds, artificial intelligence, and advanced robots. Some would also lower the standard to include the great apes and possibly dolphins and whales.

Here is where there is a schism. The original transhumanists were also right-libertarians, and believed that these ideas should be brought about through the free market. These libertarian transhumanists are also often referred to as "extropians." They believe that government regulation and intervention is always bad, so the market will provide access to all of these developments. In their version of the future, the market ensures that anybody can do anything to themselves and everybody wins.

Unfortunately, libertarianism is bullshit. Recently, however, some on the left have also embraced transhumanism, and the idea of democratic transhumanism was developed. It is this branch of transhumanism that I ascribe to. We believe that government regulation is essential to ensure safety and access. We support government funding of transhuman technology development. Strong investment in research and technology to repair the environment and eliminate risks to survival. Equal access to reproductive and medical technologies. Increased development of robotics and a guaranteed basic income, leading to the end of work as we know it. All of the usual progressive ideas, plus the hardware to back it up.

Dr. James Hughes is one of the leading democratic transhumanists, and his "11-point program" is a good overview of the sorts of policies we would like to see.

(1) Build the transhumanist movement, (2) Guarantee morphological freedom and bodily autonomy, (3) Defend scientific research from Luddite bans, while embracing legitimate safety and efficacy regulations, (4) Protect scientific access to knowledge from overly aggressive intellectual property law, (5) Expand federal funding for research into transhuman technologies, (6) Create national health plans which include transhuman tech, (7) Expand federal support to education, (8) Provide job retraining and an income to the structurally unemployed, (9) Solidarize with sexual, cultural, and racial minorities, especially with morphological minorities such as the disabled and transgendered, (10) Support rights for Great Apes, dolphins and whales, (11) Strengthen democratic world government.

I strongly recommend reading the expanded version of the program in Dr. Hughes' Democratic Transhumanism, and indeed the entire essay if you have the time. Other resources:

* For the record, other "-isms" I ascribe to include activism, atheism, civil libertarianism, Darwinism, empiricism, environmentalism, evolutionism, feminism, humanism, internationalism, leftism, liberalism, moral relativism, optimism, passivism, progressivism, rationalism, skepticism, socialism, utilitarianism, and vegetarianism.

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