[This article represents the opinion of the author and does not represent an official position of Humanity+ or H+ Magazine.]
In a recent article over at the ironically named “Evolution News”, an intelligent design blog, ID advocate and frequent critic of transhumanism Wesley J. Smith gets nearly everything wrong.
But what is interesting about this article is not how wrong Smith is, that is hardly newsworthy, but rather how his mistaken views highlight the failure of transhumanists to communicate effectively.
Smith writes, “Tellingly, from my perspective, we have seen no real discussion of love at the conference — except an oblique reference to a ‘Christian transhumanist”‘(not present) who disagrees with the thrust toward intelligence.” It seems unfortunate that the message wasn’t made clear to Mr. Smith here because there are in fact are many Christian transhumanists, there is a Facebook group devoted to their interests and there is of course the Mormon Transhumanist Association as well. Another misconception that Smith holds is that transhumanism is a “replacement” for religion. There exist multiple religious movements that define themselves in part by their belief in transhumanism. These include the Terasem movement, Mormon Transhumanists, and so on.
The existence of Christian transhumanists is of course a pretty large problem for Smith’s storyline. Are they the enemy like other transhumanists?
Smith has a problem because he has set up transhumanism as an enemy or replacement for existing religions and specifically of Christianity. But that is simply not true. However this mistaken belief isn’t surprising as many transhumanists self identify as atheists and oppose all forms of religiosity. The recent transhumanism inspired novel, The Transhumanist Wager, encourages and reinforces the idea for example, but reverses the roles with the religious government presented as small minded enemies of transhumanism. However in real life many transhumanists are spiritually inclined and inspired and there is a growing movement of Christian Transhumanists. Some of the most advanced work in the field is being done by people with religious beliefs and of course at government funded DARPA.
Transhumanism suggests (and arguably requires) both morphological freedom and cognitive freedom; the rights to become and think what we want. We suggest that “what it is, is up to us” and that individual transhumanists define the movement through their own actions. DIY. We don’t have a book that tells us what to do or what to think and so there are a wide variety of beliefs and ideas about how to apply transhumanism in real life. We let many flowers blossom. And contrary to Smith’s misunderstanding here we certainly don’t have a dogma that rules out higher consciousness of various sorts or which discounts “true” love.
Smith likes to talk about human exceptionalism and how transhumanists reject the idea. However what transhumanists reject is not exceptionalism but uniqueness. We note, for example, that other animals use tools and structured forms of communication.However we actually celebrate those elements of humanity which are “exceptional”, things such as art, music, literature and yes science. We seek to amplify joy, and even love. Transhumanism in my view actually suggests that we can enhance our lives, live longer, and be more alive and joyful in each moment. And it suggests some specific ideas and methods for doing it. Transhumanists want to amplify and extend exactly those aspects of the human which are “exceptional” . We seek to become even more exceptional.
Another problem for Smith, some transhumanists are intelligent design advocates. The Simulation Argument is an idea that many self described transhumanists ascribe to, and is often seen by critics as a variant of creationist thinking. With the Simulation Argument, a mysterious and supernatural God is replaced by the mysterious and ultimately unknowable masters and controllers of “the simulation”. Both ideas suggest a pre-existing intelligence created the reality which we experience.
And that’s the point. Smith is reporting on a “conference on transhumanism” but he didn’t leave this event with an increased understanding of what the transhumanist movement is about or the variety of ideas which it contains. And that is too bad.
Mr. Smith obviously enters into the equation with a biased point of view, but he didn’t leave with a clearer picture. He did not come to understand that there are many transhumanists that agree with him on various levels, for example they might accept Jesus Christ as their savior but also have an interest in cognitive enhancement or gene therapy.
More importantly from my perspective, after this event, he still sees transhumanism as merely a futuristic utopian project rather than a current description of the world in which we already find ourselves today. The future is now. Transhumanism is something that Already Happened <tm> .
Mr. Smith himself, whether he likes the idea or not, is already transhuman. He’s using electronic media for instance, re-structuring the very operation and connections in his brain and the brains of other people in response to electronic signals produced by a machine. We call this “blogging”.
Mr. Smith wants the theory of evolution to be wrong so badly that he’s set up transhumanism as a bogeyman for his beliefs. But this makes no sense.
Transhumanism as a philosophy does not rely on the theory of evolution, although we do seek to take conscious control over our personal development and advancement aka “evolution”. Obviously most transhumanists would also accept the scientific theory of evolution and the general genetic science of modern biotechnology. But some transhumanists also believe we live in a simulation which is a designed environment, although perhaps subject to Darwinian evolution after its initial creation.
And Smith is increasingly going to have problems with the argument against genetic theories, for example as gene therapies advance and demonstrate that the fundamental theory of evolution is correct. Perhaps Mr. Smith and his readers will reject future rejuvenation or anti-aging treatments and other medical techniques that rely on evolutionary ideas for their operation. I doubt it, but if they do it certainly would make a nice demonstration of “survival of the fittest”.
Transhumanists that want to advance our ideas and want to work towards their fruition should be concerned about our failure to communicate effectively. Effective communication and expansion of understanding is something we can all contribute to. Let’s do it.