Monday, June 6, 2011

Mailbag Monday: Transhumanism and Personhood

Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers' questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don't quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to with 'Mailbag Monday' in the subject line.

John writes,

Would you be willing to do a piece on transhumanism? I've started to hear a lot about cyborgs and life extension and stuff, but it all sounds like science fiction. Is there anything to it, or is it all just hype?
Yeah bro, sure thing. Transhumanism is interesting as hell.

So, broadly transhumanism is a movement that seeks to move past our human limitations by using technology. Think of all the cool shit we can do - we are already giving injured bros robotic limbs. And not shitty arms that just open and close like they're trying to pick up a stuffed animal - these arms are getting more and more badass by the day. If we invent an arm strong enough to throw a car and articulate enough to write in cursive, why wait to lose an arm the hard way? Just tack that shit on. We've invented a drug that literally makes you a paper-writing machine for eight hours straight - you can do fucking anything when you take something like Adderall, and it's a felony in the US to take it unless you have a doctor's note. A lot of transhumanists think that's not cool at all - think how much smarter we could be if everyone had access to super-focus.

Of course, while no one wants to be weak or dumb, what no one really wants to be is dead. Plenty of bros, especially existentialists, have written about the human condition as it relates to death; mostly, that it's fucking inevitable, and if we don't get over our fear of that we're going to waste our lives cowering. But who says we can't conquer death?

We can replace hearts, for fucksake. If we figure out a way to grow custom organs, we can get past death due to organ failure pretty much forever. Already, Dick Cheney doesn't even have a pulse thanks to his artificial circulator. If that's not a step toward Darth-Vader-style human preservation, I don't know what is. And who's to say that we can't also replace a brain?

"WOAH WOAH WOAH. Replace a brain? Doesn't that seem a bit extreme?" Well, yeah, it does. Isn't that the point, though? Here's where the rubber really meets the road on transhumanism - how far exactly can we push ourselves? At bottom, important questions about transhumanism are questions about what we are. Where does our identity lie?

If you believe that human beings have souls, for example, then transhumanism is probably out of the question for you. Dualism has fallen way out of favor recently, but there are various motivations to keep it around - especially certain religious metaphysics. And that's not necessarily a bad thing - Alvin Plantinga is an incredibly well-respected philosopher who is such a strong dualist he makes Descartes look like Stephen Hawking. As it pertains to transhumanism, though, dualism is pretty much a dead-end.

If you're a physicalist with respect to identity, transhumanism gets a little easier. The big problem for physicalists is that our body is constantly replacing old cells with new matter. There is almost certainly not a single cell left in your body that was around for your third birthday, unless you're ten, in which case - do your parents know what sort of filthy, sweary blogs you're reading, kid? So if your identity is in your body, but your body is completely different parts from when you were a kid, then who the fuck are you? This isn't a new problem, and there's a clear bullet to bite. The Yankees don't have any players from their first season, either; that doesn't mean they're not the Yankees. Sure, I'm not any of the original cells, but I'm all the same structures; I've just been patching up broken down parts for a while is all.

So if you're a physicalist who buys change over time, then transhumanism is possible - we can just start replacing individual neurons in your brain, one-by-one. Over time, your brain will become more technological than organic, and that's okay. As long as it's a gradual process, such that you have a chance to make the new neurons as much a part of you as that steak you had for dinner last night will become a part of you - really, what's the difference? - then we're not changing who you are; we're just guiding it, the same as you guide it when you read a book to learn. As your organs fail, we can replace those too, just as if you got a kidney transplant with tissue; soon enough, you won't be constrained to any of that squishy wetware that's so fond of dying all the time. Awesome.

Psychological continuitists, bros who believe that identity resides in some continuous mental function - usually but not necessarily memory - will have the easiest time with transhumanism. There doesn't have to be anything gradual at all about the transition - as soon as we invent the technology, we can upload our minds into fucking battle-mechas if we want and just go the fuck to town. We can ditch the body pretty much ASAP.  Badass, right? Except, you know: amnesia. If a bro wakes up somewhere where he's never been and has no idea who he is, who is he? Is he still the same person? What if I upload my mind into an Optimus Prime build, because obviously that's the first thing I'd do, but a magnet accidentally gets passed over my head and the "hard drive" gets erased. Am I just... dead? Maybe there's a backup copy somewhere - but then, wouldn't I exist in two places at once? Is there no uniqueness at all to "me"? Could someone program "me" from the ground up if he just got a good look at the relevant memories?

So maybe it's possible that we can extend the biological lives of human beings into technological immortality. And if that's all there is to humanity, then yeah, transhumanism can indeed make us immortal, which would be sweet. But precious few of us believe that identity is quite that simple. Maybe someone could program a robo-Philosophy Bro who could walk, talk and swear exactly like me. Would he be exactly me
? That's not so clear.

This just scratches the surface; transhumanism brings to light a lot of the problems that metaphysicians who deal with identity have been struggling with for centuries, and a whole host of problems ethicists have to deal with, too. Science can tell us how we function, but not who we are; now more than ever, well-reasoned answers to these questions are important. 

Check out the SEP article on the philosophy of neuroscience for a really in-depth treatment of what advances in brain science tells us about identity.

The Wikipedia page on transhumanism touches on the brief set of issues I've touched on and has suggestions for a much wider range of issues and potential developments. I've only really scratched the surface here.

The Humanity Plus organization has a lot of resources for people interested in learning more about transhumanism; The Transhumanist Declaration is a good place to start.


  1. Regarding transhumanism and being "uploaded" i've always wondered what would happen to our perception of time... would a bro's sense of time and shit be all sorts of fucked up because of the processing power of the machine which, if moore's law persists, would grow exponentially? Could I, for instance, experience, like, 500 rounds of simulated beer pong in less than the blink of an old school eye?

  2. Bit of a cheesy video but relevant as hell,

  3. @J I recently read Warwick's book. On one hand he writes that the technology became a part of him: it became part of the human. Thus, what it means to be human is a profoundly unshakeable thing. On the other hand, he writes that 'upgraded' humans will become a new 'species' that will inevitably supercede the biological humans. Thus, being human is not a profoundly unshakeable thing.

    I concluded that he hadn't really thought objectively about it yet.

  4. @anonymous above me. Has anyone ever "thought objectively"? About anything?

  5. I have to wonder if a person whose mind has been transfered into a machine is even capable of being the same person. To pull from Kant, aren't the categories a substantial and necessary component of who we are? Aren't facts about the way my senses collect information, the way my nervous system relays it, and the way my brain processes it, facts about me? If my mind, as is, were moved into a computer, all of those things were changed. Even if my memories and personality remained intact, it seems like they would function in such a different manner that I would be in effect a radically different person.

    If you realy believe that such a computer would be you, what is the difference between such a transfer, and you just programming a (very advanced) computer to act like you and then killing yourself as it starts up? I'm sorry, but to me at least, my death becomes no more acceptable because a copy of me is made somewhere else. That copy might think it's me, but it's not, and if the original me hadn't been destroyed, no one would try to claim that it was.

    One thing's for sure, you wouldn't get me to step into one of those Star Trek transporters!

  6. Hey bro. Good shit.

    Your neurons today are the ones you had before you were even born. I ain't making that shit up.

  7. Yo DG, sweet article, but your shit today doesn't look anything like your shit from yesteryear. Neurons are awesome mother fuckers cause they do all sorts of shit through hooking up with their bros. Just like if you chill with your bro Pete every week, you and his ass are tight. But if he does some dumb shit like screwing your sister...well you ain't hanging with his ass anymore. Maybe you hang with Charles now. Neurons same way, but their friendship circle is huge and changes all the time, and everytime it does, they change structurally. It may be that same neuron, but his connections are different, like your speed dial. Ain't the same as it was 10 years ago I bet. So question is, if you're a neuron and your speed dial defines your function, are you the same neuron if all your hommies change?

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