On Transhumanism

One of the most optimistic – perhaps excessively optimistic – philosophies that take shelter under the umbrella terms of atheism and humanism is transhumanism. Transhumanism is a set of loosely associated philosophies which all share a belief in the desirability of transcending the biology of the human condition through technology.

At the marginally more plausible end of the scale, this may entail feats of technology such as preserving the terminally ill by cryogenically freezing their bodies, to be thawed out in a future age once a cure is discovered; or the invention of genetic or other treatments that arrest or reverse the aging process, allowing people to live greatly extended lives. On the far more enthusiastic end of the scale, other transhumanist ideas include nanotechnology that can repair or reconstruct the human body from the inside, or the ability to digitally scan and simulate our brains to create robot doubles that would think, believe and act just like the originals. (Whether these “uploaded” beings would be the originals is a matter of considerably more debate.)

Of course, none of these wonders are presently possible. At the moment, even the most modest transhumanist ideas are little more than pipe dreams. On the other hand, the accelerating growth of technology has already allowed us to transform the human body in ways that previous eras would have found inconceivable. We can already transplant limbs and organs from one person to another, or in some cases, replace them with mechanical duplicates. We have nascent technologies that can read brainwaves or the firing of neurons and transform them into robotic action. Our ability to treat disease through genetic therapy is still rudimentary, but there can be little doubt that it will improve. In the far future, some of the transhumanist dreams may be possible. What should our response be to this kind of technology?

The first thing I have to say is that, even if these ideas become possible in the future, there are more basic problems we should confront first. As long as human beings still suffer from poverty, malnutrition and treatable disease, we should concentrate on eradicating those. It’s already an injustice that some people have access to vastly better medical care than others because of the circumstances of their birth. It would be a far greater injustice if rich people of the First World had access to life-extending innovations while others still suffer needlessly from easily curable diseases. Before we start work on raising the human baseline, in my opinion, we should ensure that everyone is lifted up to that baseline.

But if this could be done, other problems would soon follow. If human beings could live forever, then we would inevitably face a severe problem of overpopulation, since all life, of whatever form, must consume resources. The Earth is only so big, and the natural resources we can tap, however carefully managed, are finite. It seems the physics of our universe conspire to prevent interstellar travel on any large scale, and although it’s conceivable that those limits will be circumvented, we can’t just assume that this will be the case. If this is so, then it might be argued that humans have a duty to die – at the very least, to cease life-extending treatments after a certain period and allow natural aging to resume.

The last issue concerns the “uploading” of human minds into software. While I find this idea almost too strange to countenance, there’s nothing about it that’s physically impossible. If it were ever feasible, it would raise deep questions about the nature of personal identity, which I hardly feel qualified to address. But, I have to point out, it could not create two identical individuals – at least not for long. If an uploaded person is truly a mind, they will have the same capacity for learning, reflection and personal growth. A mind modeled in software, therefore, could not help but diverge from the original (which will inevitably have different experiences) over time. Eventually, we would have not one but two distinct people. Perhaps uploading, even if it were one day possible, would not be a way to create identical copies of ourselves, but merely a very new and unusual way to reproduce.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • bestonnet

    Original article:

    The first thing I have to say is that, even if these ideas become possible in the future, there are more basic problems we should confront first. As long as human beings still suffer from poverty, malnutrition and treatable disease, we should concentrate on eradicating those. It’s already an injustice that some people have access to vastly better medical care than others because of the circumstances of their birth. It would be a far greater injustice if rich people of the First World had access to life-extending innovations while others still suffer needlessly from easily curable diseases. Before we start work on raising the human baseline, in my opinion, we should ensure that everyone is lifted up to that baseline.

    We need to be doing both (and some of the technologies that would extend life in the first world would also be useful for curing diseases in the third world).

    Also one needs to be careful when it comes to equality as it is much easier to get equality by making the rich poor than it is by making the poor rich.

    Original article:

    It seems the physics of our universe conspire to prevent interstellar travel on any large scale

    The technology to reach the nearest star in decades is foreseeable and does not violate the laws of physics in anyway. With those kinds of speeds we (or any other alien civilisation) could spread over the galaxy in tens of millions of years (an instant in geological time). Faster than light doesn’t look possible (though I’m not going to dismiss it completely) but we can expand through the universe just fine with even non-relativistic rockets.

  • Nightcap

    There just doesn’t seem to be much difference between the Christian’s hope for a bodily resurrection in some poorly-defined “glorified” form and the new age hope that the human mind can somehow be “uploaded” into something else. The mind is an active and complex set of biochemical/electrical processes that simply cannot be separated from the functioning of the brain and the body any more than light can be separated from a lightbulb. Once unplugged, neither the light nor the mind exist. The best we can do is upload a limited and static snapshop of a small portion of our minds, which I have just done. :-)

  • Gary

    bestonnet: I think Ebonmuse was referring to ideas about a large part of the human population moving to new planets, as a means of attenuating overpopulation. That wouldn’t work because we simply don’t have the resources to send very many people into space. Maybe people could find a way to live, reproduce, and build new societies on Mars, or on the moons of Jupiter or Saturn, but they would not be able to leave Earth in large numbers. Such colonies might be a means of putting our eggs in multiple baskets, but it would not solve overpopulation on Earth.

  • DB Ellis


    It seems the physics of our universe conspire to prevent interstellar travel on any large scale, and although it’s conceivable that those limits will be circumvented, we can’t just assume that this will be the case. If this is so, then it might be argued that humans have a duty to die – at the very least, to cease life-extending treatments after a certain period and allow natural aging to resume.

    It is not necessary to ban immortality for the sake of fighting overpopulation.

    One needs only a law in which it is stated that one can only have immoratality so long as one does not opt to reproduce. Anyone who choses to have a child forfeits their immortality.

  • bestonnet

    Why not just expand throughout the solar system and then the universe?

    Humans aren’t the most efficient form of intelligent life possible so uploading would allow a very large virtual population to use very few resources and the choice of upload or die would be better than taking away a person’s immortality (though when one considers the resources of the solar system it’d take a while for that to happen).

    Also interesting in light of the typical contents here are:
    http://www.jetpress.org/volume14/specialissueintro.html and http://www.jetpress.org/volume14/bainbridge.html

    Much of the appeal of religion is due to the afterlife so transhumanism does represent a very big (albeit mostly unintentional) attack on them (since people who can expect to live for thousands of years at a higher standard of living than anyone on Earth today aren’t going to be too interested in the promises made by religion).

    BTW: I’m getting intermittent blank pages when viewing this site and very slow response even when it is working.

  • http://www.xanga.com/andrea_thatonegirl TheNerd

    Very good points about transhumanism and its place in our society. One point you didn’t address, though, is that our economy can’t even support the proper research and development needed to make this feasable on a grand scale. As the population continues to rise, this issue will become even less of a priority as funding is diverted into energy research and improved agricultural methods. While sci-fi come reality is fun to daydream on, it can’t be feasible until all the important social problems are addressed first.

  • Kemal Eren

    Main article
    then it might be argued that humans have a duty to die – at the very least, to cease life-extending treatments after a certain period and allow natural aging to resume.

    Not necessarily! Whenever people speculate on life extension, for some reason they forget the other possibility: just reducing the number of births. Arguments from fiction aside, I see no reason not to reduce the number of humans on this planet over the next couple generations by using birth control. There are way too many of us anyways; imagine how bad it will be when people live much longer.

    Besides, a living person has more right to life than a potential one. If someone were to choose to die, fine. But no one should be required to die after an arbitrary amount of time.

    @Nightcap:
    The mind is an active and complex set of biochemical/electrical processes that simply cannot be separated from the functioning of the brain and the body any more than light can be separated from a lightbulb. Once unplugged, neither the light nor the mind exist.

    Certainly that is true now. But there is no reason why a mind, and all the complex biochemical processes attending it, could not be modeled. A sufficiently complex simulation would do the trick. We are already well on the way!

  • Polly

    Immortality or at least hyperlongevity would inevitably lead to stagnation on Earth. We’d have to stop reproducing, so the only people on Earth would be the same generation that was around when the technology became widepsread, with a few newbies added in every few centuries to make up for major wars and disasters. But, then again, it would be better for us to just take those population losses. So it would be a few thousand years before we got any new blood. Think of how insipid we might become after being locked into the same old modes of thinking for 1,000s of years! Without youths running around pointing out our foibles, we’d be doomed to inanity.

    OTOH, we already have reality TV, celebrity gossip, and endless chain stores. Seems like stagnation has set in anyway.

  • bestonnet

    Comments seem to be appearing out of order, I only saw the comment by the DB Ellis when composing my previous one despite it being more recent than another two.

    Nightcap:

    There just doesn’t seem to be much difference between the Christian’s hope for a bodily resurrection in some poorly-defined “glorified” form and the new age hope that the human mind can somehow be “uploaded” into something else. The mind is an active and complex set of biochemical/electrical processes that simply cannot be separated from the functioning of the brain and the body any more than light can be separated from a lightbulb. Once unplugged, neither the light nor the mind exist. The best we can do is upload a limited and static snapshop of a small portion of our minds, which I have just done. :-)

    I may not be able to run 6502 software on an x86-64 laptop natively but that doesn’t stop me using an emulator.

    Some proposed methods of uploading actually will destroy the brain in the process of scanning it (though it does seem that long term memories exist as structure in the brain and not as electrical impulses so all that would likely be lost is short term memory and there might even be ways around that).

    Some of the differences between the Christian hope and the transhumanist hope are that:
    1. Transhumanism is presented as an ought and a best guess, not as the eternal truth
    2. Transhumanism actually has a chance at delivering on its promises
    3. Transhumanism recognises the right of people to disagree with it

    Gary:

    bestonnet: I think Ebonmuse was referring to ideas about a large part of the human population moving to new planets, as a means of attenuating overpopulation. That wouldn’t work because we simply don’t have the resources to send very many people into space. Maybe people could find a way to live, reproduce, and build new societies on Mars, or on the moons of Jupiter or Saturn, but they would not be able to leave Earth in large numbers. Such colonies might be a means of putting our eggs in multiple baskets, but it would not solve overpopulation on Earth.

    Commercial aviation went from non-existent to carrying billions of passengers per year in about a century or so and if the commercial space industry can get that kind of growth over the next century we’ll be quite capable of pulling it off (and a space elevator would make it pretty trivial too).

    As for where they’d live, free floating space stations which rotate to produce artificial gravity, planets are a waste of mass which we’ll probably get around to converting to more efficient uses (a sphere has the most volume per surface area and it takes a lot of mass to produce real gravity meaning you can make thousands of times the surface area of a planet by turning it into a space settlement).

    TheNerd:

    Very good points about transhumanism and its place in our society. One point you didn’t address, though, is that our economy can’t even support the proper research and development needed to make this feasable on a grand scale. As the population continues to rise, this issue will become even less of a priority as funding is diverted into energy research and improved agricultural methods. While sci-fi come reality is fun to daydream on, it can’t be feasible until all the important social problems are addressed first.

    Energy is already solved, look up nuclear fission and if that’s not enough (unlikely) we’ll probably have fusion in a few decades (I know they say that every few decades) and space solar power will hopefully only need better space infrastructure (unless something unexpected comes up). Agriculture is also going pretty well (to the point at which the developed world has been increasing food production while reducing land usage) and genetic engineering should give us further improvements there. Finding the money to spend on researching favoured transhumanist technologies is not going to be that much of an issue, it’s ensuring they can become legal that’ll probably be the biggest problem.

    TheNerd:

    While sci-fi come reality is fun to daydream on, it can’t be feasible until all the important social problems are addressed first.Never stopped us before, besides, the money needed for R&D of transhumanist technologies is nothing compared to what you’d need to spend to fix the problems this planet has (and a lot of problems can’t be solved by spending money, at least not directly).

    Polly:

    Immortality or at least hyperlongevity would inevitably lead to stagnation on Earth. We’d have to stop reproducing, so the only people on Earth would be the same generation that was around when the technology became widepsread, with a few newbies added in every few centuries to make up for major wars and disasters. But, then again, it would be better for us to just take those population losses. So it would be a few thousand years before we got any new blood. Think of how insipid we might become after being locked into the same old modes of thinking for 1,000s of years! Without youths running around pointing out our foibles, we’d be doomed to inanity.

    Planck did say something along those lines although allowing emigration to new places would serve to solve that problem if we can’t solve it through making those who are old more amenable to change.

    Polly:

    OTOH, we already have reality TV, celebrity gossip, and endless chain stores. Seems like stagnation has set in anyway.

    Endless chain stores are progress, not having them would have been stagnation.

    Celebrity gossip has probably always existed anyway and we’ll probably have to put up with it forever.

    ‘Reality’ TV can be considered progress in appealing to idiots (maybe not the good kind of progress but progress anyway).

  • http://hoilund.org/ Mikael Høilund

    DB Ellis:

    At some point, assuming immortality is pretty might a right at that time, wouldn’t that be murder? Wouldn’t making a person choose between life or family be rather … cruel?

    Wheeee, so much fun can be had from such obscure (albeit awesome) scenarios. <3

  • http://wilybadger.wordpress.com Chris Swanson

    The last issue concerns the “uploading” of human minds into software. While I find this idea almost too strange to countenance, there’s nothing about it that’s physically impossible. If it were ever feasible, it would raise deep questions about the nature of personal identity, which I hardly feel qualified to address. But, I have to point out, it could not create two identical individuals – at least not for long. If an uploaded person is truly a mind, they will have the same capacity for learning, reflection and personal growth. A mind modeled in software, therefore, could not help but diverge from the original (which will inevitably have different experiences) over time. Eventually, we would have not one but two distinct people. Perhaps uploading, even if it were one day possible, would not be a way to create identical copies of ourselves, but merely a very new and unusual way to reproduce.

    Why is the theme music for Red Dwarf suddenly playing in my mind? Oh, well. As long as we don’t end up with a world full of Rimmers, I’ll be happy. :)

    I actually posted something up on my blog about the ideal version of an afterlife, at least as far as I’m concerned. The curious may look at http://wilybadger.wordpress.com/2008/05/19/diy-afterlife/

  • http://www.dhagrow.org/ dhagrow

    You forgot to mention the concept of singularity, which, I think, is a key component of transhumanist thought. The basic idea is that with all the ways we will be able to modify our bodies, humans will begin to grow in intelligence exponentially up to a point (the singularity) beyond which we are incapable of understanding, given our limited capabilities. The theory then, is that whatever problems we have today, they will seem trivial to these superintelligent post-humans who will be living lives we can’t even conceive of.

    Of course, assuming any of this is possible, there’s no way to say whether it will actually be good for us.

  • Steve Bowen

    Not liking the assumption that old means stagnation. If an extended life lies in front of me I’m damn sure I can be as inventive and radical as any spotty teen (and I should know, I am both father to one and partner to one). Transhumanist reality will inevitably lead to a re-orientation in attitude; why plan for retirement in your sixties if you can still earn in your second century? BUT Ebon is right to point out that finite resources will limit the acceptability of the adoption of those technoligies so in reality we will have to solve (or at least ameliorate) the iniquities that exist on our planet (which is not to say Bill Gates won’t get downloaded first).
    In context, extending life either naturally or artificially, is a different proposition to aspiring to “everlasting life” in heaven. It has real potential if not for us then for our descendents and the fallout will probably be dealt with on the fly to start with (Although short termism will necessarily die an ignominious death). I do not think it inconceivable that my generation will see it’s first bi-centegenarian and my daughters’ generation potential immortality. Will that create conflict? probably when third world citizens may still be dying at thirty and that is for the contempory protagonists to solve (may still be us guys).

  • Polly

    The universe has been around for 14 billion years. There’s been time enough for an intelligent species to sprout and then modify itself into super-intelligence. Perhaps, such beings already exist.

    heh, maybe they’re on their way over…

    Our semantics-based intelligence seems to be inherently limited. I wonder what other paradigms for thought generation exist. Our brains are mostly a function of nature, fashioned by environments that have long since ceased to matter. By definition, a “superior” way of thinking about problems (if indeed that concept is even valid) and solutions would be outside of human purview.

    Language exists to pass on accumulated knowledge. But, if transhumans are born/grown/created under a new scheme of intelligence, the need to teach/learn may disappear. Perhaps, universal algorithms will already be hardcoded into the thinking aparatus allowing each new member of the transhuman species to derive all current knowledge and concepts on the fly. Achieving a certain fundamental level of intuitive understanding of the universe, all knowledge may simply become the extrapolation of concepts.

    Also, identity and individuality may fall by the way side. Transhumans, may merge into one large entity, each individual serving as a node – enjoying sentience – but in a real way, also serving as a component of a greater, singular sentience simultaneously. It would be like each one of my neurons being self-aware while contributing to making the awareness that “I” enjoy. In this case, it may be that the emergent properties of all those linked, sentient nodes would be the level-after-the-next.

    Interesting to dream. In the short run, I’d love to live an extra few centuries. There are so many careers I’d like to try and so much I still want to learn. Life is too short.
    Only the bored deserve to die.

  • Entomologista

    Before we start work on raising the human baseline, in my opinion, we should ensure that everyone is lifted up to that baseline.

    That assumes these are mutually exclusive activities, which I don’t believe. In my field we use modern technology to find new ways to combat pests and feed people. In any case, it isn’t going to help anything to stop working on quantum computing (for example) until everybody has enough to eat. In fact, quantum computers would probably help improve my research. The leading edge tends to pull everybody else along. We’ve actually gotten a lot more from space travel than moon rocks and pretty pictures.

  • Andreas

    I agree with the above commenter. I don’t think there’s a dichotomy between helping people in the developing world on the one hand, and pursuing longevity research and research on other transhumanist technologies on the other. As Ray Kurzweil argues, we’ll probably be even more capable to help the poor and sick if we enhance ourselves.

  • http://superhappyjen.blogspot.com superhappyjen

    I love sci fi stuff. I want to put my brain in an android! I want to live on Mars! Unfortunately people researching life-extending research aren’t likely to concern themselves with poverty and over-population, anymore than those researching bio-fuel are solving the hunger crisis. Fortunately, I can see that we’ll be living in the future very soon, if we aren’t already. How cool is that?

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    I agree with Entomologista and Andreas as well.

    The best way we can help fight poverty around the world isn’t by charitable acts for people we view as lower than us, but to simply stop exploiting them every chance we get.

    When I was going through water survival training, we were taught that it’s better for a struggling victim to drown alone than for him to drag down his rescuer as well. The feasibility of trans-humanism aside, there’s a close parallel between survival training and the ethical questions of inequality. If it were really a dichotomy between trans-humanism and social justice, I’d go for the trans-humanism in a heartbeat and worry about social justice later.

    Now, trans-humanism is for the most part science fiction, and most people actually enjoy it as science fiction. But it also poses ethical questions that, like it or not, we may be facing at some time in the future. If there is one area where humanity makes slower progress than anywhere else, it’s ethics. Someday, future generations may be glad that someone 2,000 years before them had thought of some of these problems the way that we sometimes look at the Socratic dialogues.

    In fact, some of the questions posed by Ebon about self-identity are exactly the same issues that Plato himself contemplated. Ever hear about the merchant ship that has all of its parts replaced, piece by piece, until someone else takes all the original parts from the scrap yard and puts them back together? Which one is the original ship? This kind of paradox terrified the ancients, just as trans-humanism seems to terrify us now. But when the day comes that some of the science fiction becomes possible, we’ll look back at the ancients and giggle at how they couldn’t even contemplate it. To them, it might be as ubiquitous as text messaging is to teenagers today.

  • bestonnet

    Chris Swanson:
    For that to actually happen arbitrary time travel would need to be possible which seems very unlikely to be the case (and time travel may destroy the universe) although preserving brains might be able to do the job for some people (provided you can keep the brain in good condition for a while, this is starting to sound like cryonics with mind uploading at the end).

    Polly:

    The universe has been around for 14 billion years. There’s been time enough for an intelligent species to sprout and then modify itself into super-intelligence. Perhaps, such beings already exist.

    The numbers do look convincing at first but then you run into the Fermi paradox and have to conclude that we’re very likely to be alone, at least in this galaxy. Whether the great filter is in our past or future is the big question here and I sure hope it is in our past.

    bbk:

    If there is one area where humanity makes slower progress than anywhere else, it’s ethics.

    Religion has been a major retarding force there so if we were to lose it that would probably improve somewhat.

    From a secular point of view there’s really nothing inherent in transhumanism that is ethically troublesome since no one is going to be forced to become better than they are and tolerance of those who wish to remain “all natural” is part of transhumanism (with democratic transhumanism even suggesting that enhancements be subsidised to deal with inequalities).

    The only area related to transhumanism where I foresee coercion is a requirement to fix genetic disease of children but that’s just an outgrowth of the legal duty of some parents (should be all, as has been discussed here before) to provide medical care for their children.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    A very good discussion! Let me offer some further thoughts:

    bestonnet: I think Ebonmuse was referring to ideas about a large part of the human population moving to new planets, as a means of attenuating overpopulation. That wouldn’t work because we simply don’t have the resources to send very many people into space.

    What Gary said. Actually, I’m skeptical of both the economics and the physics of space travel. No, it doesn’t technically violate any laws of physics to have slower-than-light ships traverse the distances between stars. But it raises the serious question of why any human being would ever volunteer for such a mission. How many people could you find to set out for such a trip knowing it would be their destiny to die in space and never see their destination?

    And human beings (what Charles Stross calls “canned primates”) would face an entirely new set of risks and dangers from interstellar travel. There are serious questions about whether humans could travel even as far as Mars without being debilitated by radiation exposure. Plus there’s the question of micrometeorites – even space dust could be a dangerous source of ablation at such high velocities. If the ship is traveling at relativistic speeds, both these problems would be a lot worse. The amount of shielding that would be required to protect such a vessel would raise the cost from astronomical to well beyond astronomical, particularly if it’s envisioned that the ship would carry any more than a handful of people. What would be the incentive for our home world to underwrite such an immense effort when it’s all but guaranteed to bring no tangible return?

    Commercial aviation went from non-existent to carrying billions of passengers per year in about a century or so and if the commercial space industry can get that kind of growth over the next century we’ll be quite capable of pulling it off (and a space elevator would make it pretty trivial too).

    bestonnet, by this logic, a seventeenth-century transhumanist would have forecast that by our time we’d have sailing ships that traveled at thousands of miles an hour. Not all technology is capable of exponential scale-up.

    I also want to pay special attention to this point of Polly’s, because I think it’s something that needs to be considered more often:

    Immortality or at least hyperlongevity would inevitably lead to stagnation on Earth. We’d have to stop reproducing, so the only people on Earth would be the same generation that was around when the technology became widepsread, with a few newbies added in every few centuries to make up for major wars and disasters.

    I shudder at the thought of practical immortality. In the far future? Perhaps. But now, or any time in the near future, when our species’ moral attitudes are still as retrograde as they are? A horrible thought! Just imagine the mullahs of oil-rich Iran purchasing immortality for themselves, locking their people into a never-ending theocracy. Imagine Kim Jong Il becoming the perpetual ruler of North Korea in truth and not just in ideology. Imagine how many wealthy tyrants would avail themselves of this.

    At the moment, I’m sorry to say, we need death. As much of a curse as it is, it’s also a blessing, in that it ensures that the hatreds and prejudices of yesterday will inevitably fade away. We shouldn’t underestimate how much moral (and scientific) progress has been achieved by the passing of older generations that clung to their preconceptions till the end. A world without senescence would be a world where that would no longer happen. I don’t think we’re at all ready.

  • bestonnet

    Ebonmuse:

    What Gary said. Actually, I’m skeptical of both the economics and the physics of space travel. No, it doesn’t technically violate any laws of physics to have slower-than-light ships traverse the distances between stars. But it raises the serious question of why any human being would ever volunteer for such a mission. How many people could you find to set out for such a trip knowing it would be their destiny to die in space and never see their destination?

    Extended lifespans would make even a slow journey possible (and there don’t need to be many people who want to go to the stars, just a few will be more than enough) and the technology to travel to nearby stars in a current human lifespan doesn’t violate the laws of physics.

    EbonMuse:

    And human beings (what Charles Stross calls “canned primates”) would face an entirely new set of risks and dangers from interstellar travel. There are serious questions about whether humans could travel even as far as Mars without being debilitated by radiation exposure.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deinococcus_radiodurans
    Just have a genetic engineer figure out how to give that ability to humans.

    Nanotech would also serve to repair radiation damage rather well. Transhumans might not even bother with shielding at all if their cell repair mechanisms are decent.

    Ebonmuse:

    Plus there’s the question of micrometeorites – even space dust could be a dangerous source of ablation at such high velocities. If the ship is traveling at relativistic speeds, both these problems would be a lot worse.

    Then you put a heap of material at the front of the ship to protect it.

    Ebonmuse:

    The amount of shielding that would be required to protect such a vessel would raise the cost from astronomical to well beyond astronomical, particularly if it’s envisioned that the ship would carry any more than a handful of people. What would be the incentive for our home world to underwrite such an immense effort when it’s all but guaranteed to bring no tangible return?

    What makes you think Earth will foot the bill? By the time the first manned starship is launched the majority of humans will live in space and the main industry of Earth will be tourism.

    When you build multi-kilometre diameter cylinders for millions of people to live in by the thousands, starships start to look pretty trivial (BTW: those cylinders would be pretty much self-sufficient as far as food goes) and that is what we will end up doing, regardless of any planetary chauvinism people may have.

    bestonnet, by this logic, a seventeenth-century transhumanist would have forecast that by our time we’d have sailing ships that traveled at thousands of miles an hour. Not all technology is capable of exponential scale-up.

    I can see good reasons why expendable launch vehicles aren’t likely to scale up to billions of passengers per year (though they probably can be made cheaper than they are now) but I can not see any reason why we can’t build reusable launchers that could do that, we just need a market big enough to pay the R&D (space tourism looks to be our best bet there).

    Ebonmuse:

    I shudder at the thought of practical immortality. In the far future? Perhaps. But now, or any time in the near future, when our species’ moral attitudes are still as retrograde as they are? A horrible thought! Just imagine the mullahs of oil-rich Iran purchasing immortality for themselves, locking their people into a never-ending theocracy. Imagine Kim Jong Il becoming the perpetual ruler of North Korea in truth and not just in ideology. Imagine how many wealthy tyrants would avail themselves of this.

    Immortality in transhumanism doesn’t mean living forever but having an undefined lifespan so the perpetual rulers could still be killed or have a nasty accident (and probably would be).

    I also see nothing wrong with throwing the mullahs, Kim Jong Il, etc in jail for the rest of their lives, however long they may be.

    Ebonmuse:

    At the moment, I’m sorry to say, we need death. As much of a curse as it is, it’s also a blessing, in that it ensures that the hatreds and prejudices of yesterday will inevitably fade away. We shouldn’t underestimate how much moral (and scientific) progress has been achieved by the passing of older generations that clung to their preconceptions till the end. A world without senescence would be a world where that would no longer happen. I don’t think we’re at all ready.

    I would prefer for us to figure out how to prevent people from hanging onto such things until the end but if we can’t do that allowing those who are really fed up to leave might just be the only option.

  • DB Ellis


    DB Ellis:

    At some point, assuming immortality is pretty might a right at that time, wouldn’t that be murder? Wouldn’t making a person choose between life or family be rather … cruel?

    Facts are facts; cruel or not. We can’t have it both ways….at least not as biological beings.

    As uploads and infomorphs, though, its a whole other story.

    If uploading is available then rather than dying one would have to upload upon reproducing.

    But the scenario, as I understood it, was assuming immortality had become possible before uploading. And we can’t both live forever and reproduce (at least beyond the small annual number who die in accidents). It just isnt feasible.

  • Christopher

    Ebonmuse,

    “At the moment, even the most modest transhumanist ideas are little more than pipe dreams.”

    Such things as flight, underwater ships, control of lightning and going to the moon at various points in our history – yet these things are very much a reality today. One man’s pipe dream is another man’s vision of the future.

    “As long as human beings still suffer from poverty, malnutrition and treatable disease, we should concentrate on eradicating those.”

    Never going to happen – there will always be haves and have-nots in our world (barring some means of producing infinite resources, of course – but I don’t see such a thing being plausible). I say we look out for our own – improving our existence through any means necissary, even if it means denying the have-nots our resources.

    “If human beings could live forever, then we would inevitably face a severe problem of overpopulation, since all life, of whatever form, must consume resources.”

    No we wouldn’t: there would be no incentive to reproduce (or at least not in significant quantities) as there would no longer be a need to pass on a genetic legacy – as our genes can survive indefinately in the bodies they currently reside.

    And unlike the eternal life offered by religion, this would be an immortality we could actually experience *before* we die – so even if we eventually did over-populate (an almost laughable prospect for immortals) it would be well worth the experience; or at least I think so anyways…

  • Christopher

    Ebonmuse,

    “There are serious questions about whether humans could travel even as far as Mars without being debilitated by radiation exposure. Plus there’s the question of micrometeorites – even space dust could be a dangerous source of ablation at such high velocities. If the ship is traveling at relativistic speeds, both these problems would be a lot worse. The amount of shielding that would be required to protect such a vessel would raise the cost from astronomical to well beyond astronomical, particularly if it’s envisioned that the ship would carry any more than a handful of people. What would be the incentive for our home world to underwrite such an immense effort when it’s all but guaranteed to bring no tangible return?”

    What incentivezed civilizations to explore new territories in the past? And who’s to say that many of the early explorers won’t be persons that the civilization in question considers expendable (as was the case with many European colonists or the Spanish sailors that accompanied Columbus)? So long as there’s the promise of fortune and glory to be achieved, those with the resources and expendable populations to claim them will attempt to do so – even if it means that there’s the potential for no gain at all…

  • DamienSansBlog

    Oh, dear, transhumanism again. Haven’t we already had a fight — discussion, sorry, discussion! — about this?

  • Entomologista

    What should our response be to this kind of technology?

    I’m guessing the response to transhumanist technologies will be the same as the response has always been:

    1. We’re all going to DIE!
    2. Those damn kids.
    3. crappy horror movies

  • bestonnet

    Entomologista:

    I’m guessing the response to transhumanist technologies will be the same as the response has always been:

    1. We’re all going to DIE!
    2. Those damn kids.
    3. crappy horror movies

    That seems to be what is already happening although there is a fourth response of “transhumanism is going to destroy liberal democracy, let’s make a global dictatorship to prevent it” (well the people who advocate that aren’t coming out and saying global dictatorship but that’s what they’d need to stop technological progress, sadly if those people did get power they’d probably be able to succeed, after all, Imperial China was stagnant until outside contact forced the issue and there probably won’t be any outside contact for us).

    The non-religious are less likely to oppose transhumanist technologies.
    From http://www.jetpress.org/volume14/bainbridge.html

    Among people who selected one of the five choices indicating some doubt in the existence of God, 28 percent felt that cryonic suspension was a good idea, compared with only 13 percent among those having complete faith in God. Discounting the second story, which was too bland to elicit strong opinions, we see a solid tendency for religiously faithful people to reject the other transcendent technologies as well. On average, only 26 percent of highly religious respondents think the plan in a story is good, compared with 39 percent of those with a range of religious views. In a larger study, with sufficient numbers of respondents to compare across all different beliefs in God, we would expect to find an even great range of reactions to the stories.

    Table 2 shows results comparable to those in Table 1 for a second religion item that measures a very different attitudinal dimension. “Organized religion” was one of a set of four “institutions in this country,” the other three being medicine, the scientific community, and major companies. The instructions asked: “As far as the people running these institutions are concerned, would you say you have a great deal of confidence, only some confidence, or hardly any confidence at all in them?” About 25 percent of the respondents expressed a great deal of confidence in organized religion, whereas 36 percent had some confidence and 37 percent had hardly any. For the scientific community, the comparable percentages were 30, 52, and 14. The table shows that approval of technological transcendence is negatively associated with confidence in religion, and positively associated with confidence in science.

    Table 3 is also worth a look, it seems that it is the religious that want to ban cloning outright while only a minority of those who had doubts about the existence of a god would support an outright ban.

  • Christopher

    Entomologista,

    “I’m guessing the response to transhumanist technologies will be the same as the response has always been:

    1. We’re all going to DIE!
    2. Those damn kids.
    3. crappy horror movies”

    You seem to have excluded “let’s welcome these ideas and make them our own” from your list…

  • Quath

    One of the issues I see coming is how humans will modify humanity. What part of evolution do we decide is outdated and should be modified? Our aggression? Sexual desires? Desire for individuality or for social unity? Desire to live a long time?

    My guess is that humanity will split up and make different choices. Some will want to remain biologically pure. Some will want to be a little more cybernetic and some may go fully into a new media altogether (if possible).

    I think the ability to back up our software (minds) will be a very fundamental change to humanity. Why not back our minds up and have a Deathmatch? Why not try some extreme sports when death is no longer a real concern. But people grow bored with life. So you get to choose when you want to die. Maybe go into cold storage and wake up every thousand of years or so to catch up.

  • http://deconbible.blogspot.com bbk

    I think the ability to back up our software (minds) will be a very fundamental change to humanity. Why not back our minds up and have a Deathmatch? Why not try some extreme sports when death is no longer a real concern. But people grow bored with life. So you get to choose when you want to die. Maybe go into cold storage and wake up every thousand of years or so to catch up.

    If we could finally figure out a decent way to get rid of sleep altogether, then maybe I’d finally have enough time to do everything that I set out to accomplish every single day. In some surprisingly significant ways, you could say that trans-humanism began in the coffee shops during the Renaissance. Most people have a zest to live happy, meaningful lives.

    Nothing is ever risk-free, especially technology. Trans-humanism would offer an opportunity, not a guarantee. I think in some ways, evolution would favor those who use technology for positive things, while those who are self destructive or apathetic would end up putting themselves in an even more disadvantageous position than they are now. Chances are, people who are self destructive or apathetic in one area would also have the same tenancies in other areas, including when it’s time to make that “backup.”

  • bestonnet

    bbk:

    If we could finally figure out a decent way to get rid of sleep altogether, then maybe I’d finally have enough time to do everything that I set out to accomplish every single day.

    Transhumanism should also lead to increased processing speeds which is going to be much more important than getting rid of sleep (which might be required for a neural net, maybe we could replace with something less disruptive though).

  • http://taitoday.blogspot.com/ Ennis

    Hey bestonnet,
    Which religion were you hoping to remove? There seems to be a lot of faith being expressed on this blog. Speculating about the unknown is sort of a religious thing, heh? I for one think freedom of thought is healthy but if all religion is removed are we then disallowed this liberty? Would that be ethical?

  • bestonnet

    Ennis:

    Which religion were you hoping to remove?

    I’d like to see them all go.

    Ennis:

    There seems to be a lot of faith being expressed on this blog. Speculating about the unknown is sort of a religious thing, heh?

    I don’t think of it as religious at all nor would I want faith since I’d rather have good reasons for believing as I do.

    Ennis:

    I for one think freedom of thought is healthy but if all religion is removed are we then disallowed this liberty? Would that be ethical?

    You can believe whatever you want, that is a freedom that we must have but that doesn’t mean I can’t want religion gone (just that I won’t force the issue too much).

    If religion disappears because people realise that it was a bad first attempt and that they can get what religion offered through other means then that would be ethical.

  • http://taitoday.blogspot.com/ Ennis

    bestonnet:

    nor would I want faith since I’d rather have good reasons for believing as I do.

    You do have good reasons for “believing” as you do but that still involves an element of faith until it is proven absolutely. Do you admit to any gaps in your theories that haven’t been filled? If so it is faith that drives you to find the answer.

  • bestonnet

    Ennis:

    You do have good reasons for “believing” as you do but that still involves an element of faith until it is proven absolutely.

    Nothing is ever proven absolutely (though in some cases we’ve come close enough).

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    Ennis,

    You do have good reasons for “believing” as you do but that still involves an element of faith until it is proven absolutely.

    That is simply not so. Rejecting the belief in god due to a lack of evidence doesn’t constitute a positive assertion of belief on my part, hence there is no faith behind it.

    Do you admit to any gaps in your theories that haven’t been filled? If so it is faith that drives you to find the answer.

    I admit that there are lots of gaps in our knowledge of the universe, but that doesn’t mean that my disbelief in your god is faith-based. And, no, it’s not faith that drives me to find an answer, but curiosity.

  • http://taitoday.blogspot.com/ Ennis

    OMGF:

    it’s not faith that drives me to find an answer, but curiosity.

    Correct, curiosity looks for an answer but faith presupposes what it will be.

  • Mrnaglfar

    Ennis,

    Correct, curiosity looks for an answer but faith presupposes what it will be.

    Faith is believing the answer before you know it or can know it. What about imagination or logic from past trends? Those two can certainly drive the search for what could be without believing that it’s definitely that way. I can imagine up a story without believing it’s actually true.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Ennis,
    You are making an assumption that I am presupposing something, and therefore I have faith. This is simply not true. If I am presupposing something, then perhaps you should point it out to me. Your answer – if I may venture a guess – will either be that I am presupposing that there is no god, or I am presupposing that matter is all there is. Did I get it right?

    Let me disabuse you of the notion that either of those are faith, because they simply are not. In the first example, I am not expressing faith in there being no god, but simply acknowledging that you (the theist) have not met your burden of proof in order for me to accept that a god exists. This does not require faith because I am not presupposing anything, I am simply saying that you have not shown why your presuppositions should be held by me. In the second example, it’s really just a re-phrasing of the first, so the answer to the first should be sufficient. I would also add that the only evidence we have is that matter does exist and has always existed, so it’s rational (not presuppositional) to accept that evidence and think that it may indeed be true (not that it definitely is true). Once again, however, this is not faith, but acceptance of evidence and rejection of unevidenced claims.

  • bestonnet

    Ennis:

    Correct, curiosity looks for an answer but faith presupposes what it will be.

    If you presuppose what the answer will be then you are taking actually looking for one.

    To really look for answer you have to be willing to accept whatever that answer is, regardless of what you want or thought the answer probably would be before you investigate.

    The only area where it might be possible to claim that I have faith would be in the assumption that there is a real world (i.e. that I’m not just imagining everything).

  • DamienSansBlog

    Returning to topic…

    In some surprisingly significant ways, you could say that trans-humanism began in the coffee shops during the Renaissance.

    Thank you, bbk! I’ll have to write that down for quoting at people later.