Can science and technology not only change a person's life, but contribute to their self-improvement? What are the pros and cons of artificial intervention in the evolutionary process? These questions are at the core of the concept of transhumanism.
Transhumanism is a contemporary philosophical concept whose ideas launched the eponymous social movement. Adherents to this movement believe we should look at humans and their future from a fundamentally different perspective. They believe that human evolution has not come to its end - instead, it’s only starting. Transhumanism can be viewed in both a narrow and broad sense.
Implementation of modern technologies
In a narrow sense, transhumanists are championing the implementation and widespread use of modern technologies. Their goal is to improve our physical and mental abilities. There is great potential in this area: preventing diseases, delaying aging processes (ideally, achieving immortality), bringing new superhuman abilities to the human body. Transhumanist ideas are aimed at overcoming limitations of the human body by using scientific developments in the fields of genetic engineering, robotics, biotechnology and others.
A new step in evolution
In a broad sense, transhumanism marks the start of a new step in evolution, a qualitative shift and transformation of the human body. The modern person is moving towards the next step in development thanks to science and technology. This is a fundamentally new step, because it allows humans to completely overcome all physical ailments, and eventually achieve immortality. Scientific immortalization (using science to delay the time of death) can be considered one of the primary goals of transhumanism.
Posthumanists also believe that human evolution is not completed and will continue progressing. This concept has much in common with transhumanism. That’s why many experts share the opinion that transhumanism is just one of the types of posthumanism.
The essential ideas of transhumanism
The World Transhumanist Association was founded in 1997. In 2008, its name was shortened to Humanity+. The association supports projects and research geared towards the development and improvement of humans using technology, while popularizing transhumanist ideas and dispelling any myths about the movement.
The core goals and values of this movement were described in a declaration made by Humanity+. The main aspect of transhumanist philosophy is their approach to technological achievements. Transhumanism takes a rational approach to them, understanding that any technology can either help or harm humans, the environment and the future evolution of life on our planet. Transhumanist ideologists proclaim their responsible attitude towards scientific innovations, warn about the importance of prior evaluation of potential outcomes and carefully weigh the positives and negatives.
Humanity+ adherents insist that our innate human potential - characteristic for all of humanity - is not fully actualized. People have opportunities for further development and improvement.
Transhumanist philosophy is clearly articulated to ensure its core values aren’t violated. Transhumanists must respect rights of individuals, strive for widespread access to technology (as opposed to elite), and care for all highly functioning beings, including animals.
In mass culture, partially influenced by critics of the movement, there is a popular image of transhumanists as people obsessed with turning humans into robots. This is a huge misconception. In reality, transhumanist philosophy is far from these aspirations. As mentioned earlier, transhumanists believe their mission is to improve the human body and mind, minimize suffering, and overcome our natural limitations. Modern technologies and scientific discoveries are just tools that can be used to achieve these goals - not the goals themselves.
We can already witness some successful attempts to improve the quality of life: for example, bionic prosthetics. Some less obvious examples from the medical field can also be attributed to transhumanism. For example, antidepressants or neural stimulants (nootropics) developed by medical scientists can help people overcome their suffering and expand the range of their abilities.
The development of new technologies is the cornerstone of transhumanism. Its adherents pay particular attention to the development of ultramodern fields like information technology, biological engineering, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, AI development, and many others.
Trends and concentrations
Transhumanism only started actively developing quite recently, in the 1980s. It developed at such a rapid pace that resulted in several concentrations in this relatively young movement. Each of them has its own methods of achieving the final result.
Radicalism and common sense
One of the most radical concentrations allows for the option of completely transporting human consciousness into the virtual world, thus merging it with a computer. Identity becomes similar to artificial intelligence, with no reliance on a physical body. Both temporal and spatial limitations no longer matter - this entity achieves immortality and freedom from physical boundaries.
But this view of the human body is an exception rather than a rule for transhumanism. Most of its concentrations allow for the idea of keeping a physical body (at least, for now), while improving and developing it in various directions. Humanity has some astonishing prospects for future development. We will gain full control over our appearance and mood, we will be able to manage our thought processes, expand the boundaries of sensual experience, and gain access to fundamentally new ways of understanding the world. The problems attributed to modern civilization, such as epidemics and famine, will be resolved.
The main concentrations include libertarian transhumanism, technogaianism, anarcho-transhumanism and communist transhumanism. Each one of them is based on an existing social ideology and establishes a tight link with transhumanism.
For example, libertarian transhumanism - uniting libertarianism and transhumanism - aims to remove any restrictions on expanding the potential of the human body. Its proponents believe that our bodies belong to us, so any ban on body modification is an infringement on civil rights and freedoms. The government should not interfere in any way.
The main objective of technogaianism is environmental preservation. The movement’s adherents urge everyone to use new technologies to restore and protect the environment. The use of natural resources should be limited, with technology aiding humans in obtaining everything they need from alternative sources.
Anarcho-transhumanism is a cross between transhumanism and anarchism. Its proponents rally against government tyranny, capitalism - and their own genes. They believe that people should be completely free - not just politically and economically, but biologically as well.
Communist transhumanism is a mix of humanitarianism, scientism and rationalism. Its followers believe that transhumanism should help humanity achieve communism.
Transhumans and posthumans
Some followers of transhumanism believe that as a result of rapid technological development, a qualitative shift in life and a rapid evolution process, we will see the emergence of posthumans: people who have gone through so many changes that they can no longer be considered human. That’s why posthumans, who are qualitatively different from the modern human, will become the next step in evolution. But evolution will be gradual, which is why we need a transition stage. Within this philosophy, the transhuman (who is not yet prepared to become a posthuman) will bridge the evolutionary gap.
The mental and physical capabilities of a posthuman will be incomparably more advanced than those of the average human. Disease and aging won’t affect their body, death will no longer affect them. Although it’s too early to make precise predictions, there is some likelihood that advanced artificial intelligence will serve as a basis for the posthuman.
Transhumanism in Russia
Today, the interest towards transhumanism is at a record high. Presenters at scientific events and conferences across the globe are actively discussing transhumanist issues (philosophy, objectives, difficulties, etc.). In Russia, this is mostly done by the Russian Philosophy Society and the RAS Institute of Philosophy. The main organization uniting transhumanists in Russia is the Russian Transhumanist Movement, founded in 2004. On their website, you can find detailed information about transhumanism and immortalism and discover facts about Russian and global projects/events dedicated to this movement.
Transhumanism in Russian education
Articles on transhumanism are being regularly published in many Russian philosophy publications. Russian transhumanists support online communities of interest, including the popular Life Extension Party. The ‘Russia 2045’ movement which emerged in 2011 is trying to actively promote the ideas of transhumanism within contemporary society.
Transhumanism and posthumanism are described in detail in scientific texts from many noteworthy Russian philosophers, including V.S. Stepin, B.G. Yudin, I.V. Vishev, I.V. Artyukhov. The most interesting foreign philosophical research comes from Francis Fukuyama and Nick Bostrom.
Transhumanism is a revolutionary movement, so it’s no wonder that it has had a mixed reception so far. Many people are violently opposed to this movement. It is the source of many discussions and neverending debates.
Technological improvement of humans raises concerns among regular people and scientists alike. For example, American philosopher, political scientist and writer Francis Fukuyama believes that transhumanism is an extremely dangerous idea that puts the entire world at risk.
Types of criticism
All criticism towards transhumanist ideas can be grouped into two groups (which are often combined):
- ‘Practical’ criticism (doubts about the possibility of achieving transhumanist objectives).
- ‘Ethical’ criticism (disagreement with transhumanist worldview and ethical beliefs).
Critics of transhumanism believe that the movement poses a real threat for the existing values of all of humanity; they also worry about violations of human rights and freedoms. In reality, many of these accusations lack objectivity. Today, most transhumanists:
- Support social programs geared towards improving the education system and developing information technology.
- Rally to support the protection of human rights and freedoms.
- Adhere to democratic traditions.
- Participate in development of technologies to resolve the ecology and poverty crises, improve living standards, etc.
Loss of humanity
Most critics of the movement tend to highlight the fact that transhumanism will strip us of humanity. Thus, humans will lose the traits that define our species. Here, it’s worth noting that some transhumanists really believe that their objective is to move to a new stage of evolution, for the posthuman to emerge. The trait that is actively criticized as a potential threat becomes the main objective for transhumanists.
Interference with the natural way of life
Critics of the movement often wonder how it’s possible to interfere with natural processes in such a bold manner: what about the risk of technological improvement bringing discord into the existing balance and leading to irreversible consequences? Won’t the posthuman project turn out to be a great tragedy as well as a pointless sacrifice in the eternal quest for perfection?
There is a prevailing idea that new technology will be elitist, unavailable for most people. Many people believe that this will lead to elite members of society using these technologies to turn the rest of the population into their personal workforce, or even guinea pigs for their experiments. They even draw a parallel between transhumanism and eugenics, a movement that supports evolution of the fittest and destruction of the weakest members of society.
Posthumans: a replacement for humans?
Humanitarianism, transhumanism and posthumanism are usually compared to each other. Many critics are certain that transhumanism is the first active expression of posthumanism. These two movements share a common goal of creating a new type of intelligent being, which begs the question: will this new species replace humans, by destroying or bending the latter to their will?
Criticism of transhumanism can be encountered in contemporary culture - for example, in science fiction films and literature. However, these pieces are more focused on fiction than objective analysis of real problems.
In short, critical experts and regular observers agree that the movement offers ambiguous prospects for development, and humanity should seriously consider all implications before setting off on the enticing high tech journey.
What do religions think of transhumanism?
Representatives of the world’s major religions mostly hold negative attitudes towards transhumanism, noting that followers of the movement concentrate on physical improvement without considering the human soul and its needs. According to most religions, transhumanists mistakenly try to take on the role of Creator.
In Russia, patriarch Kirill expressed the view of the Orthodox Church on this matter, stating that transhumanism threatens to completely eradicate humanity. People will lose the qualities that make them human.
From the Christian perspective, transhumanism and immortalism are based around a materialistic atheist core, or even obviously against God. By trying to create Heaven on Earth and achieve immortality, transhumanists are basing their objectives on a purely scientific and rational foundation, without considering the Christian doctrine about God, humans, mortality of the body and immortality of the soul.
Islam holds similarly critical views on transhumanism: followers of the religion believe that transhumanism is attempting to lead people away from God and the true meaning of life. They are opposed to technocratic development, where the idea of living comfortably with no suffering has reached its peak in attempting to get rid of the largest discomfort - death. Both Islam and Christianity agree that life without death is unnatural, with the potential to lead humanity towards catastrophe.
It appears that only Eastern religions take an interest in transhumanism, despite their cautious attitude towards the movement. For example, the spiritual Buddhist leader - the 14th Dalai Lama - believes that science should be intertwined with spiritual traditions. He allows for the connection of a robotic body with human intelligence, and he believes that the creation of artificial intelligence represents a natural step in human evolution.
Famous representatives of the movement: in Russia and abroad
The most famous and active representatives of transhumanism in Russia include Valerya Pride and Danila Medvedev, the creators of the Russian Transhumanist Movement and members of its Coordinating Council today.
Valerya Pride, as one of the most promising futurologists, sociologists and transhumanist theorists in Russia, created the first ever cryonic company in Eurasia, KrioRus. Cryonic technology can keep deceased people and animals in a state of deep cooling, with the hopes of reviving them in the future.
Danila Medvedev is a Russian social activist, philosopher and futurologist. He is the Chairman of the Board of Directors of KrioRus and creator of a fascinating project titled ‘Systemic framework of human aging’.
Contemporary foreign activists include Nick Bostrom, the founder of Humanity+; Eric Drexler, whose book on molecular nanotechnology ‘Engines of Creation’ had an enormous impact on the emergence of transhumanism; robotics scholar Hans Moravec; transhumanist and media artist Natasha Vita-More and exceptional philosopher and Extropy Institute founder Max More.
What does it all add up to?
Despite falling victim to various types of criticism and skepticism, transhumanism continues to gain rapid popularity, and today it represents a powerful international movement united by common intellectual, cultural and ideological values. The movement’s supporters strive to improve human anatomy and the ways we learn about the world. They mostly have good intentions, because they promise to relieve people from suffering linked to old age and disease.
Transhumanist ideologists promise to use technical modifications to transform regular people into superhumans with amazing potential and superpowers.
We can only guess what the world will be like if transhumanist objectives are met. But even today, we can safely say that this idealistic image of the future has a dark side with many problems. In their quest for perfection, transhumanists offer a path that might be dangerous for humanity at large. Over the past century, many dystopian writers have described an image of the future world, divided into castes: those who have access to a ‘happy’ life, and those who do not. What was once mere fiction can be considered a real threat today. Will people be happy in this new reality? Will each person be able to tap into this infinite potential promised by transhumanism, or will we be defeated by technology and transformed into mere cogs in the machine of the new world?
Will there be conflicts and wars between regular humans and new posthumans?
Or is it a blessing?
Representatives of Humanity+ try to think positively, claiming that these fears are unfounded and pointless. They promise that new scientific discoveries and opportunities for innovation will bring the next generations of humans a society where peace and kindness rule supreme. New people won’t have to deal with disease, aging and death. They will have a large set of powers that they will use exclusively for the good of society.
Time will tell
Although we should all trust that things will turn out well, we should remain rational when observing the gradual changes in our civilisation. In the end, we are all responsible for the future of our world.
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