April 15, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Ever thought about the ethics and philosophy behind our technological progress? Our author Silvia Lazzaris tackles the daunting topic of transhumanism.

Ever thought about the ethics and philosophy behind our technological progress? Well, don’t worry if you haven’t! Our author Silvia Lazzaris has done so for you and tackled the daunting topic of transhumanism

You switch off the alarm, and put on your glasses to orientate yourself in the room. You find your way to the kitchen, where you drink a coffee to then orientate yourself in the world. Outside the window the weather looks cold: perhaps you’ll take a vitamin supplement. You also need some protein, since you are trying to pump your muscles at the gym. After getting ready, you quickly pop over to the ‘Cognitive Center’ to implant your brain with Advanced Business Chinese. You’ve checked and it’s still quite expensive. In the end, there is nothing that you really need to worry about, but what you can or cannot afford – after all, you can know and become anything you want, whenever you want.

But how is that possible? Well the latest technology indicates that there are possibilities that you will never die. All of your memories might soon be stored on a microchip that will survive your brain. And – if you can afford it – there will also be a way to effectively refrigerate your organic components.

This scenario is not familiar to us at all and seems like a science fiction piece about some sort of cyborg. And yet, how much are your glasses and your coffee already altering your human condition? Are the microchip and the refrigerator just as inconceivable as vitamin supplements were some centuries ago?

The future and its possibilities

Supporters of transhumanism would argue that extending your life in this manner may soon become just as routine as the technologies we take for granted today. To them, the scenario is not only worthy of pursuit, but also feasible. Transhumanism is a research program about artificial intelligence, but also a movement with its set of values and beliefs, that developed gradually over the past two decades. Nick Bostrom, a Professor for philosophy in Oxford, is one of the more convinced protagonists in the transhumanist scene. In his book “The Future of Humanity” he explains that “transhumanism promotes an interdisciplinary approach to understanding and evaluating the opportunities for enhancing the human condition and the human organism opened by the advancement of technology”. Through a responsible use of science, technology and other rational means, going through a ‘transhuman’ work-in-progress, we shall eventually manage to become posthuman. This would mean extending the human life-span, eradicating diseases, eliminating unnecessary suffering and augmenting human intellectual, physical, and emotional capacities.

Talking ethically

At first glance, “human enhancement” does not sound like an ethical issue. No death, no disease, no sadness, more intelligence, more knowledge, more emotional control: an improvement of the human condition would be very welcome indeed. However, looking deeper, some philosophers have not only discussed the feasibility of such an approach, but more importantly some ethical controversies related to it.

First, saying “human enhancement” means to have a specific definition for “human” and a specific definition for “enhancement”. Philosophy has been debating the essence of the human condition since it was born more than two thousand years ago in Ancient Greece. Thus, there does not seem to be an exhaustive, definitive answer to the question “what does it mean to be human?”. However, in order to talk about “human enhancement”, an underlying definition of “human” must be given. Disentangling the transhumanist manifesto, the key ideas that we find are materialism and functionalism. In a nutshell, this means that the human condition is seen as characterised by human rationality and human rationality is reduced either to some mechanisms – that may work like those of a computer – or to something material, for example a specific fibre in our brain. Identifying this mechanism or material would make us able to create, shape and handle the whole human experience. However, philosopher R. Penrose, among others, claims in his book “The Emperor’s New Mind” that there is a very profound difference between the mechanisms of our brains and our being human. He demonstrated that even a powerful machine could not solve, with its algorithmic reasoning, a mathematical problem introduced by Gödel, whereas the same problem is easily understood by humans, because it involves creativity. In other words, Penrose highlighted that the transhumanist idea of the human is a hypotheses, an assumption, that cannot be taken for granted.

Now, let’s say that we accept the reduction of the human to the material. Even in this case it may be asked what “enhancement” means. In transhumanist terms, this would be some change that does not alter the core human condition in relation to its rationality. Most of us would not think that wearing glasses alters our human condition, but enhances it. Transhumanists think that implementing a speed-calculus microchip in to our brain, or making us immortal, would still be an example of not altering our human condition, but pushing us forward to evolve into a new, post-human, species. However, in 2011, A. E. Buchanan, philosophy Professor at Duke University, expressed his concerns about the moral aspects of enhancements. His core idea is that it is fundamental to be aware that enhancement technologies always depend on how they are used. Thinking about nuclear energy makes us realise that not every new technology enhances us, but could actually make us worse.

Are post-humans dangerous?

In his book “Our Posthuman Future”, Professor Fukuyama, political scientist and political economist at Stanford University, defined transhumanism as “one of the most dangerous ideas in the world”. Being concerned about equality and democracy, he brings yet another ethical question to the table – What would happen when humans and posthumans coexist in the same world? What sort of interactions would occur between the two distinct species, and even between humans, who are at different levels of enhancement? In our interaction with animals, we assume a superior rationality. This idea leads us to think that we have more rights than them – even the right to kill them. How would this pattern of behaviour apply to a situation in which some post-humans recognise that they have a superior rationality compared to “normal humans”? The issue here is one of democracy: if not everyone can or wants to receive the same level of enhancement, human rights may be threatened.

The same issue of superiority would apply to the question of inequality. Some people might be able to afford becoming exponentially more intelligent than others, with the consequence of being able to control those who can’t or don’t want this enhancement.

Tell me, how autonomous you are

Another important ethical concern comes from Jürgen Habermas, sociologist and philosopher at the Frankfurt School: it deals with the possibility of individual moral autonomy. We are aware that our intelligence is deeply influenced by the leading worldviews of specific cultures and periods, which shape our education and the direction of our interests and choices. Hence, in a situation in which we do not learn things through a book, or a movie, or subliminal propaganda posters, but through a microchip directly placed in to our brains, this shaping becomes more extreme. A microchip is always designed by someone, through the application of some ideas. But then, to what extent would the microchip affect our thoughts and reactions? Could we still make our moral decisions, or would someone – aware or unaware – make them in advance for us?

Thinking about transhumanism blows our minds in a way that can remind us of Blade Runner: the movie made us ask ourselves whether there was an actual difference between men and replicants. However, there is a fundamental difference: transhumanism is happening. It’s not a movie. For this reason, it requires us to reflect and debate in a different way from that of a film-club screening. We need to be aware that we have the right to discuss what we think, who we are and what we need as human beings – especially if and how we want this research program to be pursued.

Silvia Lazzaris is studying for her MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College

Banner Image: Michelangelo’s Transhuman: Sumner