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"You're playing God."
"Somebody has to!"
Steve Martin, The Man with Two Brains.
"I teach you the overman. Man is something that is to be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?"
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, I prologue, p.3.
Should we "play God?" We might expect Humanists, having accepted that there is no divine creator, shepherd, and purpose-giver, to respond affirmatively. However, I contend that many humanists, though pro-reason, science, and technology, and though opposed to many religion-inspired dogmas, still fear their own Promethean urge to challenge the gods.
This fear shows itself especially in the common (though not universal) humanist reaction to the possibility of the technological achievement of physical immortality or agelessness. Many humanists, even if they grant the possibility of such a monumental scientific accomplishment, shrink from this prospect. "It's unnatural." "Life without death would be meaningless." "I don't want to live longer than my allotted time." Not only physical immortality, but also the acquisition of superhuman (or posthuman) intelligence and ability they view with fear and trembling. Many episodes of the humanist Star Trek series embody these attitudes: Transcending the merely human always brings disaster, starting with the 2nd episode, "Where No Man Has Gone Before."
Such tales smell as rotten to me as those of Icarus, Frankenstein, and the Tower of Babel: Humans should just accept their limits. Don't build wings! Don't build towers that penetrate the heavens! Don't try to conquer aging and death! Cure the sick, but don't strengthen the healthy!
Despite sharing so many values and goals with humanism, this failure of courage and vision explains why there are a growing number of people calling themselves transhumanists. As the term suggests, transhumanists anticipate our future as posthumans, and adjust their view of their lives accordingly. The most organized group of transhumanists call themselves Extropians. (Others are found in advocacy groups for life extension, space exploration, and so on.) We develop extropian perspectives on technology, science, philosophy, and art in our journal, Extropy: The Journal of Transhumanist Thought, in the Extropy Institute newsletter, email forums, and conferences. Extropians have a specific conception of transhumanism, involving certain values and goals, such as boundless expansion, self-transcendence, dynamic optimism, intelligent technology, and spontaneous order. Extropians are those who consciously seek to further "extropy" a measure of intelligence, information, energy, life, experience, diversity, opportunity, and growth.
Extropian transhumanism emphasizes aspects of humanism, rather than conflicting with it. For example, we share most of the values and goals listed in "The Affirmations of Humanism", being stirred particularly by principles stating that "We are citizens of the universe and are excited by discoveries still to be made in the cosmos." "....we are open to novel ideas and seek new departures in our thinking." "We believe in optimism rather than pessimism..."
Though the theme of this issue is "Playing God", I will propose here not that we seek to play God or become gods, but that we strive to become posthuman. Talk of "God" or "gods" raises the specter of traditional, outdated, primitive conceptions of superior beings. Let us leave no assumption unquestioned while conceiving of our possible future selves. No matter if we become immortal and incredibly powerful, we will not be supernatural ghosts unbound by physics, nor will we be jealous, vengeful enforcers of Judeo-Christian morals. So, leaving aside gods, I will ask: First, is a posthuman condition truly possible? Second, should we seek to become posthuman? Is it desirable?
The transition from human to posthuman can be defined physically or memetically. Physically, we will have become posthuman only when we have made such fundamental and sweeping modifications to our inherited genetics, physiology, neurophysiology and neurochemistry, that we can no longer be usefully classified with Homo Sapiens. Memetically, we might expect posthumans to have a different motivational structure from humans, or at least the ability to make modifications if they choose. For example: transforming or controlling sexual orientation, intensity, and timing, or complete control over emotional responses through manipulation of neurochemistry.
Clearly we have already taken our first steps along the road to posthumanity. We have begun to directly alter our genetic structure to remedy nature's failures. We use Prozac, Piracetam, Hydergine, and Deprenyl to modify our psychology, enhance our concentration, and slow brain aging. Research into more specific and powerful neurochemical modifiers accelerates as we apply new tools from molecular biology, computer-assisted molecular design, and brain imaging.
The merging of human and machine is clear to those who survey the arena. Machines are becoming more organic, self-modifying, and intelligent. Driving these developments are fields such as artificial life, neural networks, fuzzy logic, intelligent agents, and machine intelligence. At the same time, we are beginning to incorporate our technology into our selves. We began with pacemakers, artificial joints, and contact lenses. Artificial retinas are under development, and signals have successfully been passed back and forth between a neuron in vitro and a field effect transistor. The researchers suggest the next step is to connect up an array of neurons and electronic components. Computers and their interfaces rapidly evolve to fit us: From mainframes and text-based interfaces to PCs and GUIs, PDAs, voice-recognition, and knowbots. How long before our computers are implanted in our brains, as seamlessly integrated into our cognition as an extra hemisphere? Maybe 10 years, maybe 50 or 60, but it's coming.
The dawn of the new millennium will see the ability to use engineered viruses to alter the genetic structure of any cell, even adult, differentiated cells. This will give us pervasive control over our physiology and morphology. Molecular nanotechnology, an emerging and increasingly funded technology, should eventually give us practically complete control over the structure of matter, allowing us to build anything, perfectly, atom-by-atom. We will be able to program the construction of physical objects (including our bodies) just as we now do with software. The abolition of aging and most involuntary death will be one result. We have achieved two of the three alchemists' dreams: We have transmuted the elements and learned to fly. Immortality is next.
Some machine intelligence researchers, roboticists, and cognitive scientists foresee even more radical posthuman possibilities. We may be able to "upload" our selves (our psychology, memories, emotional responses, values, feelings) from our biological brains into synthetic brains. Running on new hardware, perhaps connectionist nanocomputers, our mental processes could run up to a million times faster, and should admit of far easier and more extensive modification than allowed by our natural brains.
And life itself confided this secret to me: "Behold," it said, "I am that which must always overcome itself. Indeed, you call it a will to procreate or a drive to an end, to something higher, farther, more manifold"
Thus Spake Zarathustra II 12
Why reach beyond ourselves and our humanity? Why seek to become posthuman? Why not accept our human limits and renounce transcendence? To ask these questions is almost to answer them. The hypothetical questioner sounds timid, cringing, or self-satisfied. The Enlightenment and the humanist perspective assure us that progress is possible, that life is a grand adventure, and that reason, science, and good will can free us from the confines of the past. Certainly, we can achieve much while remaining human. Yet we can attain higher peaks only by applying our intelligence, determination, and optimism to break out of the human chrysalis. Evolution, despite our efforts, has channeled our behavior in particular directions built into our neurology. Our bodies and brains restrain our capacities. Our creativity struggles within the boundaries of human intelligence, imagination, and concentration.
Aging and death victimizes all humans. To transhumanists, in the words of Alan Harrington, death is an imposition on the human race and no longer acceptable. The infuriating truth is that, just as we begin to accumulate a modicum of wisdom and skill, aging sneaks in to sap our energies. Nature has not allowed us to capitalize on our first few decades of experience. Death swoops down to deliver the final insult. Thus, to Extropians and other transhumanists, the technological conquest of aging and death stands out as the most urgent, vital, worthy quest of our time.
Some fear that life will lose its meaningfulness without the traditional stages of life produced by aging and the certainty of death. Extropians regard such an attitude as an understandable rationalization, a mechanism for making the best of what has hitherto been inevitable. Certainly, the achievement of posthuman lifespans will require extensive revision of our way of life, our institutions, and our conception of our selves. Yet the effort is worth it. Limitless life offers new vistas, unexplored possibilities, unbounded self-development. Not only will agelessness and deathlessness not rob life of its meaning, I believe the contrary is true. Meaningfulness and value require the continual making and breaking of forms, a process of self-overcoming, not a stagnant state. Besides, the drive for transcendence is too strong and central to life. We see it in our unquenchable thirst for heroes to admire and, in a distorted, externalized form, in the persistence and ubiquity of religion. Better to recognize and harness it rationally than to ignore or eradicate it.
The contemporary medical paradigm embodies a distinction common to our culture: The sharp distinction between curing disease and enhancing function to extraordinary levels. Doctors see their job as remedying disease and defect, not as augmentation of already-healthy function. I see this as related to a limited conception of "the natural". When we cure a defect, we simply make things as nature (or God) intended. It's unnatural, it's said, to live without end, or to boost the body and brain beyond the norm. Thus, we find acceptable psychiatric drugs but reject intelligence-boosting drugs; we practice heart surgery but not deep-freezing the barely dead.
Yet we should regard transhuman transcendence as natural. Nature embodies within itself a tendency to seek new complex structures, to overcome itself to take on new, more effective forms. Nietzsche recognized this in his view of the universal will to power. More recently, we have partly uncovered this drive towards complexity through complexity theory, evolutionary theory, artificial life, and neurocomputing. Overcoming limits comes naturally to humans. The drive to transform ourselves and our environment is at our core.
No one will punish us for opening Pandora's box, for equipping ourselves with wings of posthuman intelligence and agelessness. Our old myths, holding us back from radical innovation, were adaptive in our early history, when we lived on the edge of extinction. New techniques that changed ways of life could lead to the starvation of a community of primitive humans. Yes, we need to step carefully in modifying our brain function, our genes, and our physiology, but let us not hold back out of fear or false reverence for Nature as we find it.
Life and intelligence should never stagnate; it can re-order, transform and transcend its limits in an unlimited progression. Let our goal be the exuberant and dynamic continuation of this boundless process. The goal of religion is communion with, or merely serving, Goda superior being. A true humanist goalan extropian goalis our own expansion and progress without end. Humanity must not stagnate: to halt our burgeoning move forward, upward, outward, would be a betrayal of the dynamic inherent in life and consciousness. Let us progress on into a posthuman stage that we can barely glimpse.
God was a primitive notion invented by superstitious people, people only just beginning to step out of ignorance and unconsciousness. The concept of God has been oppressive: a being more powerful than we, but made in the image of our crude self-conceptions. Our own process of endless progression into higher forms should and will replace this religious idea. Humanity is a temporary stage along the evolutionary pathway. We are not the zenith of nature's development. It is time for us to consciously take charge of ourselves and to accelerate our transhuman progress.
No more gods, no more faith, no more timid holding back. Let us blast out of our old forms, our ignorance, our weakness, and our mortality. The future belongs to posthumanity.
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