Who do we think we are?
baona/Getty By Joanna Kavenna “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.” Here we are discussing transhumanism, defined by evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley in 1957 as the belief that the human species can and should transcend itself “by realizing new possibilities” of and for human nature. What relevance could the poet John Donne have to such a discussion? A more recent explanation of transhumanism, by Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom, calls it “a loosely defined movement that has developed gradually over the past two decades… Attention is given to both present technologies, like genetic engineering and information technology, and anticipated future ones, such as molecular nanotechnology and artificial intelligence.” This formulation resembles the poetry of English clerics even less than Huxley’s did. But though Bostrom does not express himself in quite the same fashion as Donne, the overarching sentiment is not dissimilar: Death, thou shalt die, or at least thou shalt be postponed as far as possible. Bostrom continues: “Transhumanists view human nature as a work-in-progress, a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways.” In other words, before death postponed or otherwise, life might be made considerably nicer: less fraught with disease and suffering, and altogether less “half-baked”. This is a metaphor from cooking, and transhumanist rhetoric is awash with such, at times treacherous, metaphors. “Transhumanists hope that by responsible use of science, technology, and other rational means we shall eventually manage to become posthuman, beings with vastly greater capacities than present human beings have.” Bostrom’s lovely sentiment – that the half-baked human must be improved by “the responsible use of science” – has driven humanity for millennia, ever since we began using technologies of flint and fire and so on, and through innumerable and utterly vital developments in medicine and science. So one key question that we must pose and seek to discuss is how, specifically, the transhumanist “movement” will depart from or further enhance this consistent strain in human history? Transhumanism’s signature ambition, that we may become “posthuman”, leads us to a baroque and venerable question: what does it mean to be human, anyway? If we want to go beyond something, to transcend it, it is clear we must understand our starting point, the point beyond which we desire to go. The quest to fathom the self, to understand what it means to be human, is fundamental to almost every civilisation known to us. It defines one of the earliest works of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh from ancient Mesopotamia, in which our protagonist embarks on a quest to understand who on earth he is and what he’s meant to do with his mortal span of years. In ancient religious texts such as the Upanishads, all creation begins with the moment of becoming: “I am!” That is, the world comes from mind itself. In many global religions, the human self is divided into body and soul, a material and an immaterial part. During the Enlightenment, Descartes famously tried to reconcile this ancient distinction and also placate the church by proposing that the material and immaterial somehow communicated or mingled via the pineal gland. Skipping boldly through a few centuries of thought, we might arrive (blinking in surprise) at the philosophical novels of Philip K. Dick and his brilliant Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? This poses the ancient question again: what does it mean to be human? When is someone/something “convincingly” human and when are they not? Is your version of “being human” the same as mine? Or the same as the next human’s? As the Australian philosopher David Chalmers has said, consciousness – this mysterious thing that every human possesses or feels they possess – remains “the hard problem” of philosophy. We lack a unified theory of consciousness. We don’t understand how consciousness is “generated” by the brain, or even whether this is the right metaphor to use. We speak of such mysteries in a funny system of squeaks and murmurs that we call “language” and that swiftly drops into the blackness of prehistory when we seek to trace its origins. We don’t know who the first humans were: that fascinating quest likewise drives us straight into a great void of unknowing. There is nothing wrong with unknowing: it is the ordinary condition of all humanity, so far. Yet, undeterred, we devise bold, elegant theories and advance them in many disciplines of thought. We develop beautiful and exciting almost-human machines and speculate about uploading consciousness. And in so doing, we are consistently rebaking, reheating or refrying the ancient philosophical dilemma: what does it mean to be human? Pace Bostrom, transhumanism has not developed over the past few decades. Its predilections and concerns have developed over several millennia, and possibly further back, within civilisations we no longer recall. To go back in time to Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun. We are still here, and human, with our paradoxical longing to transcend the human condition. More on these topics: