by Sylvia Engdahl
Parts of this were written in 2003 in an online forum called SciScoop. My view of the subject hasn't changed.
Transhumanism is the belief, now increasingly popular, that human beings can and should evolve beyond their biological physical and mental limitations through the use of science and technology. This includes enhancement of the body by means of genetic engineering or implants and of the mind by means of neural interfaces with computers, among other things. A prime aim of transhumanists is the extension of human lifespan, and most feel that the ultimate goal is immortality.
Some transhumanist proposals are personally repugnant to me, but that’s not why I dislike the philosophy underlying them. In my opinion anybody who wants to become a cyborg, or to continue forever in the very limited state we know as life, has the right to make that choice if and when such options become available. The trouble with the transhumanist agenda lies not in what it might permit people to do in the future, but in how it leads them to perceive human nature. It is based on a narrow conception of mind that rules out vast areas of human experience; those that don’t fit are simply shut out of its proponents’ awareness. And that is hardly an attitude conducive to the advancement of science.
Transhumanism is based on a wholly materialistic conception of reality. In effect it says, “What we now understand about the mind and consciousness is all there is to it; there’s nothing left but to fill in the details of how the brain works.” It goes without saying that similar assumptions once made in the field of physics, such as Lord Kelvin’s famous 1900 statement that “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics; all that remains is more and more precise measurement,” proved to be short-sighted.
For millennia the majority of the human population has believed that the mind is more than a biological machine, that it extends in some inexplicable way beyond the individual body both in space (ESP) and in time (continued consciousness after death). The scientific evidence for the former can be denied only by those with closed minds; with regard to the latter, which is outside the present boundaries of science, it is well to remember the well-known aphorism, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” The machine model of the human mind makes no provision for any data pertaining to what is increasingly coming to be referred to as “non-local mind.” Such data is necessarily rejected by anyone bound by that model’s premises, unconsciously if not consciously. And thus if that model is adopted even more widely than it is today, the progress of science—of unprejudiced investigation of all aspects of the universe whether or not they fit today’s preconceptions—will be stalled.
Precisely because I am a strong supporter of science, I don’t believe any area of reality should be arbitrarily ruled outside its field of inquiry. As readers of my novel The Doors of the Universe know, I am not opposed to genetic engineering of humans, and I think a ban on this or any other emerging application of science would be disastrous. I’m all for continued research in biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and whatever else transhumanists wish to devote themselves to. But not at the price of cutting off all other paths of research essential to our understanding of what it means to be human.
The term “transhumanism” is a misnomer for the developments it purports to describe, since the use of increasingly-advanced technology has always been a defining characteristic of our species. Becoming cyborgs will not make us less human, either in the transhumanists’ sense of “beyond human” or in traditionalists’ sense of degradation, any more than the advent of implant surgery or “test tube babies” altered our essential nature. To adapt ourselves and our environment to our needs through technology is our nature; it is what humans do. It is not all we do, however, and any philosophy that fails to acknowledge that fact is doomed to eventual obsolescence.
So I believe that transhumanism as a view of life, as opposed to its advocacy of specific technologies, is a dead end—as will become apparent when attempts to upload consciousness into a supercomputer fail to produce the desired result. I certainly don’t oppose such attempts. On the contrary, I think that they will demonstrate beyond all doubt the naiveté of transhumanist assumptions about reality.
Robert Heinlein, whose science fiction was indisputably far-sighted and supportive of technology, was urged to agree to be cryogenically frozen after his death—a process transhumanists believe may lead to revival of the dead in the future. Alcor, the company that’s doing this, was even willing to waive the usual fee for him. He repeatedly refused. It later came out that he had said to a friend, “How do I know it wouldn’t interfere with reincarnation?” (Reported by Spider Robinson in Requiem, ed. Yoji Kondo, p. 408.) This doesn’t mean that Heinlein believed in reincarnation in the sense that New Agers do; almost certainly he did not, and anyway, if some form of reincarnation does exist, it’s unlikely that freezing bodies interferes with it any more than cremation does. The point is that he was unwilling to be identified with a reductionist view of mind that equates it with the physical brain and holds preservation of the brain to be in itself of value.
The goal of achieving immortality, either through physical modification of the body or through uploading a person’s consciousness to a computer, appears to be a major attraction of transhumanism. It is a way for members of a society that no longer believes in any form of afterlife to cope with the universal fear of death. This no doubt accounts for the emotional fervor with which transhumanists defend an envisioned development that strikes many of us as both unlikely and unpleasant. Presumably its advocates have never been so unhappy as to feel never-ending consciousness would be a burden. If so they are to be envied, for whether or not one believes this life is all there is, a time comes. in old age if not sooner, when one perceives that eternity on Earth—in an enhanced biological body, an artificial one, or a supercomputer—would be either harrowing or intolerably boring. I, for one, can’t imagine wanting to be uploaded; I’d rather take a chance on there being some form of existence a little less confining.
I do agree that longer a longer lifespan, if not burdened by the disabilities of old age, would be desirable—what dismays me is the idea of an endless one. I do not think even increased intelligence would produce the “infinitely interesting experience” some claim, because the amount of input data available to an embodied mind, whether biological or machine-based, would not be infinite.
Transhumanists are quick to say that people who found immortality boring could kill themselves. This is questionable; in a society that viewed perpetual life as an ultimate good, suicide might well be illegal, as it is in my novel Stewards of the Flame. A computer to which minds were uploaded would probably be programmed to prevent them from being deactivated; certainly it would if artificial intelligence, designed to protect human life at all costs, was involved. In any case, many people consider suicide wrong, if not on religious grounds then simply because it is a denial of any intrinsic purpose in life, a denial that would make all previous endurance of suffering pointless.
I have been told by a transhumanist that “Virtual worlds can be much more fun than this one,” which is surely debatable—how many people would consider virtual sex as good as the real thing? Certainly most of us value physical contact with nature, the sensual enjoyment of sunshine and food, and the touch of loved ones. Though to the average person being permanently cut off from these would indeed seem confining, it has been argued that sex, and presumably all sensation, is only something that happens in the brain. So then perhaps in the transhumanists’ ideal world no one would choose to have a body and no more babies would be born. Putting aside what would happen to the experiments with less-than-perfect results (for surely uploading would not have a 100% success rate when it was first offered to the public), what about the intermediate period when some people had bodies and other people didn’t? Lovers, I should think, would have to arrange to be uploaded simultaneously or else experience a good deal of grief over the loss of contact with each other. Or is it assumed that love, as distinguished from sensation and exchange of thoughts, would also be considered obsolete?
The reason many find transhumanism objectionable is that unconsciously if not consciously, they perceive that the transhumanist agenda fails to take the “whole person” into account. And incidentally, the unconscious mind appears to be ignored by transhumanists and artificial intelligence enthusiasts alike. This is a case of going off half-cocked without consideration of a fundamental aspect of humanity that’s known to exist but is not yet understood. It has been recognized for more than a century that a large part of the human mind is unconscious; how then could uploading consciousness into a computer produce the equivalent of a human being?
Objections to transhumanism’s reductionist outlook are often assumed to be based on religion, as indeed some are. But by no means all opinions that don’t fit prevailing scientific dogma are religious, and even they were, that would not invalidate the concepts underlying them. After all, at one time many things now understood by science were dealt with only by religion. Putting aside the beliefs of the ancients, as recently as the nineteenth century belief in life on other planets was widely accepted by both scientists and the clergy on the grounds that “God would not have made a useless world.” Not only was there was no scientific evidence for the existence of exoplanets, let alone for life on them, but it was believed that such evidence would always be impossible to obtain. Today, when the question of whether extraterrestrial life exists is debated on scientific grounds, we see that past conceptions of the boundaries of science were too narrow. In my view, the goal of science is to understand the total range of universal reality, not to define reality in terms of its present capability for gathering evidence and dismiss what doesn’t fit as inherently “religious” and therefore unworthy of acknowledgement.
I have no objection to the view that advanced technology will help to improve human capabilities, so long as that outlook does not close the door to scientific investigation of capabilities that are not physically based. I do not mean that mystic and/or metaphoric explanations of those capabilities should be accepted, and I’m aware that many scientists are turned away from that whole area of human experience by the huge amount of nonsense published that purports to explain it. But serious study of the so-called “paranormal” (which of course, if it exists, is not in any way supernatural) reveals that data concerning it cannot be simply swept under the rug on grounds that silly explanations for it have been offered.
I do object to equating the word “rationalism” with “materialism,” as transhumanists are prone to do. Rationalism, according to the dictionary, is “a view that reason and experience rather than the nonrational are the fundamental criteria in the solution of problems.” I contest not this principle but the unproven assumption that we cannot eventually explain non-material aspects of mind—which presently can be shown to exist through statistical methods, but not explained—by means of reason. Reason is wholly dependent on premises, from which it directly proceeds. Materialistic premises about the mind are basic to transhumanism and by limiting its perception of reality to them, it discourages the questioning of these premises by the people best qualified to investigate alternatives. Can we not develop technological means of extending human capabilities without adopting a worldview that narrows the potential scope of scientific discovery?
As to arguments against materialism that really are religious, transhumanists generally make false assumptions about their nature. Very few people other than fundamentalists (who despite their high profile in the media, are a minority among Christians) believe in a conventional heaven or hell. The afterlife is usually viewed as a state of being perhaps best defined, by analogy, as another dimension with different rules. It is felt that in this state of being there is access, perhaps infinite access, to knowledge that is not known, and in principle cannot be known, on Earth (or elsewhere in the universe as it is perceived in our present state of existence). Who does not wish that all the answers—not merely those a machine could find through analysis of existing data—could in due course be personally obtained?
The thing about machines is that they are built and the builders, even if previous generations of machines, necessarily proceed on the basis of premises. Yet in another state of being the very premises might be altered, thus permitting a level of knowledge that could never be attained in terms of existing ones. To be sure, it may be that there is no such state. If we bind our consciousness to machines or artificial bodies, we will never find out.
But I don’t really believe that, because I suspect that if minds are not wholly material, they would not stay bound to machines. They would enter whatever other “dimension” exists anyway when ready to do so. Thus I am not any more worried about being trapped forever in a machine than I am about becoming a spirit walking around in chains like a ghost in a horror story. Like the characters in Stewards of the Flame who overcome their fear of permanent stasis, I know underneath that the truly horrible thing is not the attempt to preserve life after it’s gone, but the effect that preservation of pseudo-life has on the living.
Throughout human history, in all cultures, there has been a prevalent belief in the existence of an aspect of the mind or soul apart from the physical body, and while collective belief doesn’t prove an idea is true, it does indicate that what’s behind the idea should sooner or later be investigated. In all probability “where there’s smoke there’s fire.” Science often proves a widely-believed explanation of a phenomenon to be wrong—and this is as true of scientific explanations as of earlier non-scientific ones—but it rarely if ever finds that there was nothing to be explained.
Of course an afterlife, if any, is hardly the main issue involving this other aspect of reality. The so-called “paranormal” abilities of humans while alive are what matter to science. Most explanations people have had for such things are, in my opinion, metaphors—metaphors being the means human minds employ to deal with things they don’t understand. I do not think any of these metaphors will turn out to be literally true, any more than the idea that disease is caused by evil spirits is true. The question is, what’s the foundation of the metaphors? We have no evidence whatsoever for saying there isn’t one.
The “biological machine” model of the mind is also a metaphor. It’s useful for practical scientific work; metaphors exist precisely because they are useful. But like all metaphors, it is based on unverified belief, as is every scientific conception of something not specifically proven or disproven. There is no justification for treating it as indisputable fact.
Historically, science has progressed not only by learning more and more in the specific fields it first investigated, such as astronomy, physics, and medicine, but by gradually expanding its scope into fields less easily investigated. Molecular biology and cybernetics are among the most recent examples. Scientific work in psychology has barely gotten off the ground; theories in that field have been primitive and inaccurate, but it’s recognized as a legitimate field of study. Social sciences are not yet very scientific, though the advent of complexity theory will, I think, bring about progress in them. But parapsychology is struggling; only a few scientists are courageous enough to buck the opposition and devote their working lives to it.
Lack of funding and disrespect are formidable barriers to progress in any field. If transhumanism as a philosophy, with its commitment to a focus on material “perfection” of the human race, dominates the twenty-first century, then increased funding, and therefore increased respect for parapsychology, is not likely to materialize; thus it will be left by default to people unqualified to deal with its data scientifically. I want to see science widen its knowledge of reality, not shrink back within old boundaries. To ignore evidence for phenomena such as psi capabilities that reductionistic premises cannot explain—to pretend this evidence doesn’t exist in order to bolster the belief that we’re somewhere near to understanding the mind and can ultimately reproduce it via technology—is to set a goal for science, and for humankind’s future, that is not high enough.
Like the burgeoning field of artificial intelligence, transhumanism offers premature answers to long-standing questions that have been debated since ancient times. It claims that the debate is over, and thus seems to be leading scientific inquiry into a dead end. If it were to succeed in its major aims a crucial aspect of human existence would remain unexamined and unacknowledged.
But I don’t think that is going to happen. Rather, I believe—as I have believed for many years—that when an artificial or artificially-embodied mind technically indistinguishable from a human mind is finally produced, the difference between the two will be so apparent as to invalidate the restrictive premises under which it was created. So perhaps transhumanism is not a dead end after all, if failure of its prime goal proves to be the means by which those premises are overturned.
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This essay is included in my book Reflections on the Future: Collected Essays.