Kaj Sotala (Xuenay) (xuenay) wrote,
Kaj Sotala (Xuenay)
xuenay

Transhumanism: Happiness, Equality, Choice

What is transhumanism? It is often described as the philosophy that we should use technology to transcend our current physical and mental limitations, but it is more than just that. Transhumanists keep tab on emerging technologies and debate their risks and benefits; they promote public awareness of the topics and help divert funding to research; they work to make sure that humanity is better off from new technology. There exist tranhumanist think-tanks like the Institute of Ethics and Emerging Technologies, transhumanist research groups devoted to bringing forth new technologies, like the Metusaleh Foundation, and transhumanist research groups devoted to the risks of new technologies, like the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence. I am a transhumanist - I believe that one of the major ways of making humanity better off is by developing new technology.

Around two years back, I was talking with somebody who asked - "but what does all of this have to do with happiness? Technology doesn't make people happier." Now, this is a serious point. There have been studies showing that people in more advanced countries aren't necessarily happier, and that the effect of any new technological gadget soon fades away as soon as people get used to it. Technology has advanced, but mostly the things making people happy are the ones they've always been - friends and family, achievement, religion.

Currently, humanity is trapped in a cruel cycle. We yearn for bigger houses, higher-paying jobs and new gadgets, but not because those things would really make us happier. We crave for them because craving for such things helped spread our genes in our ancestral environment. But evolution does not optimize happiness, nor does it bargain with the creatures it has created. Evolution does not say, "okay, you have the greatest fitness in this population, now you get to be happy". We're driven to develop better communications, better television, overall better standards of living - and in the end, little of that really seems to matter when it comes to happiness. We might strive for a luxurious living, because a luxurious living meant you'd survive better in the past, but then feel bored when do have all the luxuries. But we still want them.

So is technology really such a great thing? Is researching it really one of our highest priorities, if it doesn't even make people happier?

In a word, yes. For there is a way out. Not every technology is meaningless - technology has indirectly made our societies more open-minded, helping members of different minorities feel more accepted. Happiness studies suggest that one's health is a major component to their happiness, so improvements in healthcare help as well. The key seems to be that technology needs to primarily modify, not our environment, but ourselves. If evolution has given us such a crappy deal, where we keep striving for externalities that don't make us any happier, let's beat evolution and modify the internalities.

That, of course, is what transhumanism is all about. In fact, since technology has such a great capability for making people happier, I would argue that anyone who cares about the happiness of others has a moral responsibility to be a transhumanist.

So, just what sort of technology exactly is there that we should be working on to develop? Glad that you asked.


  • Cognitive enhancement will be a boon for those with below-average intelligence. Having your intelligence enhanced might not necessarily make you any happier if you already have a normal or above-normal intelligence, but it's not at all fun to be stupid. Having a low IQ gives you a serious handicap in both social life and with handling everyday life. It's easy to find anecdotal evidence for stupidity causing unhappiness - how many people do you know who enjoy hanging around those they consider imbeciles? - but the effect of intelligence on life has also been documented by actual studies:

    [IQ 75 and below] is the "high risk" zone: high risk of failing elementary school, being unmasked as incompetent in daily affairs (making change, reading a letter, filling out a job application, understanding doctors’ instructions, monitoring one’s young children), being cheated by merchants and exploited by friends and relatives, remaining unemployed, dependent, and socially isolated, and 'consistently fail[ing] to understand certain important aspects of the world in which they live, and so regularly find[ing] themselves unable to cope with some demands of this world' (Edger-ton, 1993, p. 222). Many eventually lead satisfying lives, but only with the help of a benefactor or strong social support network or only after a long struggle to find a self-affirming social niche. -- Linda Gottfredson (1997). Why G matters. Intelligence, 24, p. 79-132.

  • Elimination of old age. Currently, growing old is not a very enjoyable thing - your health begins to fail, your close ones start dying off, you become too tired to create new social circles when you lose the old ones. It is no wonder that there have been reports of disproportionally high suicide rates among the elderly. All of this could be avoided if we could eliminate aging and prevent all age-related decline, so people would stay healthy and physically young forever. This is a project many transhumanists are actively working on or supporting by donating to the Metusaleh Foundation - we already know what causes old age, so all that remains is fixing it.

  • Mentally becoming what you want to be. Many people are conflicted between competing desires - a desire to be a good person competing with a very short temper, or a desire to be a good lover competing with an unhealthy jealousy. I would like to be a good transhumanist and help improve the world, but I frequently grow lazy and end up wasting time doing something else when I could be studying things that might help me in this. As we learn to better understand the working of our brain, we can start modifying it. Oxytocin is a chemical which has been suggested to make people more trusting of each other, and there exist concentration-improving chemicals which could help me study (were they not currently prescription drugs). Eventually, such treatments will become more elegant and more accepted, and we'll be able to make ourselves be exactly what we want to be. The Cyborg Buddha project of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies is an effort to promote awareness of these possibilities.

  • Physically becoming what you want to be. Sex-reassignment surgery is the most obvious example of this category. People might be unhappy with the physical shape they are in - be it their sex or their weight. Biotechnological and nanotechnological advances will help in this category, with improved virtual reality setups helping people forget their current shape until the technology arrives to actually make actual shape changes reality.

  • Baseline modification. It appears that a large part of happiness is genetic - some people are born naturally happy, and others are naturally unhappy. If the exact factors making some people happier than others can be isolated, everybody could potentially have their brain chemistry tweaked so that their baseline emotional state would be that of greater happiness.

  • Continued existence. Finally, one can't be happy if one's dead. There are problems ranging from meteorite impacts to global pandemics - existential risks - which might either kill all of us or a considerable portion of us. Technology such as cognitive enhancement or artificial intelligence will give us a better grasp of our problems, helping ward off such dangers.


All six categories - and others I have not mentioned - increase equality. People are not randomly condemned to be stupid. People are not condemned to be unhealthy simply because they're old. Like intelligence, some are naturally more talented at self-control than others: by increasing our control of our own brains, these inequalities diminish. Some people are not condemned to live in bodies they're unhappy with, while others get great ones. People are not condemned to be naturally less happy than others. People are not wiped out of existence when they'd still rather live. All of this increases people's happiness, and giving people control over these things gives them more choice. These are some of the core values that transhumanism's all about: Happiness, Equality and Choice.

Of course, transhumanism is not about embracing new technologies unthinkingly or without question. Every new technology carries with it new risks as well as new opportunities. Nanotechnology, one of transhumanists' favorite technologies, carries within it the potential to do vast damage in addition to vast good. Regulation will be undoubtably be needed - and transhumanists will be at the forefront of that as well, evaluating emerging technologies and bringing up the issues that might be involved.

Like all movements, transhumanism isn't something that just happens. It isn't obvious that technological progress will happen as fast as we like, that needless fears won't ruin it, or that the appropriate safeguards are taken. Transhumanism isn't a reason to go "cool, let's wait for these new toys". Transhumanism is a rallying cry for everyone who cares about humanity - to get up to date, to do something to help. Personally I blog and try to promote awareness about transhumanist issues, donate to valued organizations like the Singularity Institute, and work on my cognitive science degree. Everyone can help out somehow, by spreading the word if by nothing else. (Some other suggestions of how one might help can be found at Accelerating Future.)

In his book Our posthuman future, Francis Fukuyama worries about biotechnology reducing humanity's diversity. It is certainly a fact that in some ways, advancing transhumanism will reduce diversity - it will reduce the diversity of suffering, the diversity of unhappiness, the diversity of inequality. Instead, as people become more capable of changing into what they really want to be, it will increase diversity of expression, diversity of thought and diversity of mind.

It is entirely understandable that people might feel resistance to transhumanist aims and goals. Even I sometimes wonder if this is what I really want - having lived an entire life in a certain sort of society, one naturally gets attached to it. I wonder if the problems caused when true mindcrafting becomes possible will be worth it, feel annoyance at the thought of a world where I might have no unique talents that everybody couldn't obtain via technology. It is only human to grow much too attached to the ills of the world, only human to prefer a safe status quo instead of healthy change. It is human, just as it is human to grow fragile and mentally sluggish with age, to lack intelligence and to discriminate against others, to suffer and to be unhappy. I recognize my flaws for what they are - the worse part of my human nature, the one that diminishes where it could ennoble.

Something to transcend.
Tags: philosophy, transhumanism
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