If we could do what we wanted. The challenges of transhumanism

By Michael Hauskeller, May 2020

Transhumanism is a spreading philosophical and cultural movement and worldview which has set itself the goal of transcending the human being. This is to be done with the help of modern technology which is developing so rapidly today that it is difficult to predict how much it will soon allow us to do.

Hitherto unimagined opportunities are opening up which we should use, in the view of the transhumanists, to give the random nature of natural evolution a helping hand and ensure the optimisation of the human being. Because with the aid of technology we are able not just to bring external nature further under our control but also our inward nature: what we ourselves are and previously could not help being. It was desirable and necessary to do this because human beings, such as they are, were bad, or at least not good enough, and urgently needed improvement.

What evolution has made of us is anything but perfect. There are so many things we are unable to do simply because our limited nature does not allow us to do it. We cannot fly like birds, swim like fishes or follow a scent like a dog. That may not seem like a problem but it is clearly a restriction on our freedom to act, so why should we simply accept it when it could also be different? Being able to do more is always better than being able to do less. Other limitations have greater consequences, such as the limitations of our thinking. Thus, although we fundamentally have the capacity to reflect on things, understand connections and find our way around in the world, all these things cost us a lot of time and effort and today can often be done much faster and more reliably by machines. In many areas artificial intelligence has already outstripped natural intelligence. Education can support our existing abilities but only within the limits set by our nature.

That is not good enough for the transhumanists. Even with the best education we still suffer from the weaknesses of our ability to remember things, the rapid exhaustion of our attention span and various cognitive distortions. Often we are just not clever enough to understand complex situations. So there are a lot of things here that could, and in the view of the transhumanists, should  be improved upon. Because if we were all more intelligent and could understand greater numbers of things faster and better, we would also have greater control over our life and could ensure more effectively that the world doesn’t tread on our toes, and could always lead good and happy lives.

A radical improvement of our cognitive abilities would bring us greater security and independence and thus put our happiness on a much more reliable foundation. Greater control over our feelings would also contribute to this since they often make us do things which are anything but reasonable and can harm rather than benefit us. Machines are better off in this respect since they don’t have to struggle with feelings.

The right to “morphological freedom”

But the thing that is the greatest obstacle to our happiness in the view of transhumanism is the fact that we all grow old and eventually have to die. That, too, is a consequence of our human (or rather animal) nature. For transhumanists this is a moral stumbling block and simply unacceptable. For them, death is the greatest evil which is why there is nothing more important than for science to get to the bottom of the reason for our mortality in order then to reconstruct us with this new knowledge so that, although we can still die, for example through an accident, we do not have to age and die. Whether we succeed in that remains to be seen. But since the ageing process which finally leads to death is a biological process based on natural laws, it cannot be excluded that the transhumanists turn out to be right and we will indeed soon find a way radically to extend human life. We would then have arrived at the place where transhumanism would like us to be: a post-human future released from our inner nature.

Transhumanists consider this “post human” to be the true human. The radically improved human of the future would be so different from us today that we would have difficulty in still recognising them as human. On the other hand they will have become what we have always been in potential and were perhaps always intended to be: a virtually divine being that is free or at least can make themselves free to become anything they want to be. This freedom is what characterises the human being for the transhumanists. It is therefore claimed as a fundamental human right: the so-called right of “morphological freedom”.

Everything should be improved and replace

Transhumanism demands that we support its values and goals and work forcefully towards overcoming human nature. We are encouraged to take things in hand ourselves and recreate ourselves in the expectation thereby to overcome all suffering, radically extend life and abolish the inevitability of death; and, lastly, to extend and determine our autonomy, the ability to determine and extend the laws of our being and becoming, ourselves and may even perfect it.

And the society in which we live is anything but averse to this goal. Transhumanism is the avant-garde which we are happy to let show us the way. Cosmetic firms advertise products which even just through their name promise eternal youth and liberation from the bonds of mortality, such as Yves Saint-Laurent’s “Forever Youth Liberator” series of products. We are offered so-called “smart drugs” to help us study and they are widely used to give a competitive advantage and outdo the competition.

Mood enhancers (“happy pills”) are recommended for when we feel low, restoring our happiness when we happen not to be. We find it natural and morally imperative always to be in a good mood. Equally, we find it morally imperative always to be good. That opens the market to apostles of morality who however, in practice, are concerned with making us more accommodating and pliable. The improvement of the body is followed by that of the thinking, feeling and morality. Prostheses are replacing dysfunctional or missing limbs and sense organs such as they eyes and ears, and even vital organs such as the lungs, heart and parts of the brain can be artificially simulated and replaced – a replacement that is often experienced and celebrated as an improvement. Humans fuse with machines or increasingly transform themselves to become more like machines. In this way our culture is passing through a process of progressing transhumanisation.

What does “improving” the human being mean?

But what remains completely open, albeit hidden by the question, is what precisely we should understand an improvement of the human being and their nature to mean.

That is by no means as clear as might seem to begin with. What appears to be a weakness in our biological and psychological constitution might be a strength in certain contexts or simply be connected with other strengths so that the one cannot be had without the other. Many of our apparent cognitive and perhaps also moral weaknesses are of this kind. And we don’t need to know and understand everything in order to live well. We don’t have to remember everything. If we did, we would soon bitterly regret it. And even if we sometimes wish that we were no longer exposed to some feelings that overwhelm us unasked, they can nevertheless only exist as feelings when it is not up to us to switch them on or off as we please. Seen as a whole, would we really be better off without them?

And, lastly, as far as ageing and death and our various vulnerabilities are concerned, their existence too may have good reasons and even contribute to the beauty and depth of life. Human solidarity arises from the empathetic recognition of our mutual dependency, fragility and destructibility. Complete autonomy is a figment of our fevered imagination and ultimately only to be had for the price of the complete detachment from life and other living beings.

Sometimes, as Voltaire once remarked, perfection is the enemy of good. Sometimes good is good enough, or at any rate should be. And perhaps there are more important things in life than our own unlimited continued existence which transhumanism strives for.

About the author: Michael Hauskeller is professor of philosophy at Liverpool University and author of numerous books, including Mythologies of Transhumanism (2016) and The Meaning of Life and Death (2019).

Follow