Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

Transhumanism

Considering a posthuman future.

Transhumanism is a movement of sorts that endorses the use of emerging technologies to enhance human capabilities, both physical and intellectual. As Nick Bostrom describes it:

"Transhumanism...promotes an interdisciplinary approach to understanding and evaluating the opportunities for enhancing the human condition and the human organism opened up by the advancement of technology. Attention is given to both present technologies, like genetic engineering and information technology, and anticipated future ones, such as molecular nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. The enhancement options being discussed include radical extension of human health-span, eradication of disease, elimination of unnecessary suffering, and augmentation of human intellectual, physical, and emotional capacities....Transhumanists view human nature as a work-in-progress, a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways. Current humanity need not be the endpoint of evolution. Transhumanists hope that by responsible use of science, technology, and other rational means we shall eventually manage to become posthuman, beings with vastly greater capacities than present human beings have."

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We will be able to enhance our brains by merging them with electronic machines and software. We'll be able to enhance our physical abilities and perhaps treat injuries and illnesses (for example, by using nanotechnology to heal spinal cord injuries), and we'll be enabled to do superhuman athletic feats such as running a sprint for 15 minutes or sitting at the bottom of a pool for hours by using respirocytes, which are robotic red blood cells. There is great potential here, according to people working in this field. I'd love to swim for hours without taking a breath. There are many other positives as well.

There are also potential grave dangers raised by some of the technologies which might be employed in a posthuman future. One well-known scenario would lead to the extinction of human beings and most everything else on the planet (e.g. the grey goo scenario). But who knows how likely such a doomsday scenario actually is?

Many of these technologies, if they become actual, have the potential to greatly improve human life. However, one of my chief worries is the potential loss of control over our selves that could obtain if, as one scholar says, we'll be mostly non-biological beings by 2030. It often seems as if technological advances predicted to increase autonomy actually thwart it, and I wonder what the impact of the merging of biology and machine will do to our ability to be self-governing. If we give up more and more of our functions to non-biological components which may be more likely to malfunction in a way that escapes our control, then this could undermine our ability to direct our lives in meaningful ways. Moreover, I'm not sure we should be seeking a posthuman existence. Humanity, such as it is, is a valuable thing.

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Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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