Response to Julia Mossbridge’s Critique of Transhumanism

transhumanist-symbolJulia Mossbridge, a neuroscientist for whom I have loads of respect, has recently written a blog post that is (in Julia’s warm, friendly way) rather critical of transhumanism...

In a follow-up conversation on a private consciousness-research email list of which Julia and I are both members, I gave some responses to her post.  Here I’ll summarize some of the highlights of my responses, putting them in Q&A form for convenience….  (Please note: the Q’s and A’s are both given in MY wording; these are not exact questions that Julia or anyone else posed to me!  I’m just using Q&A as an expository device here…)

Most of these points have been made before in various places, but given that the same objections to transhumanism keep popping up again and again, it seem plain that the well-known counterarguments haven’t been framed quite optimally yet.   I think it’s worthwhile keeping the dialogue going, at least when the critic involved is as thoughtful and respectful as Julia.

Q: What is the relation between transhumanism and Silicon Valley tech community?

A: Well there are more transhumanists per capita in the Silicon Valley tech world than in most places, that’s for sure.

However, the transhumanist community is actually highly diverse both geographically and in terms of the members’ professions and orientations.

You mention a dearth of psychologists involved in Humanity+. As you know I’m a Board member (and Vice Chair) of Humanity+; and while not a psychologist, I did put in a few years as a researcher in a psych department (at the University of Western Australia) back in the 90s and I’ve written a lot about cog sci, consciousness and so forth; so maybe that halfway counts as having a psychologist involved!

Natasha Vita-More, the Humanity+ Chair, is an artist not really a technologist… though she does know her way around certain technologies rather well!

Also, none of the current Board members are from Silicon Valley, are they? — we’re based in Hong Kong, Australia, London, Texas and LA….

The last two Humanity+ conferences I ran were in Hong Kong and Beijing; and I’m about to launch a version of H+ Magazine in China, and one in Ethiopia. I know a load of young Chinese transhumanists in mainland China; for instance there’s a quite active QQ chat group on transhumanism (in the Chinese language).

Q: Isn’t the desire to live a really long time an indication of some sort of egomaniacal, excessive estimate of one’s own personal importance?

A: Everyone has their own motivations. But speaking personally, I can say that is not my own motivation for seeking personal immortality. Nor is my main motivation a strong emotional attachment to my own self or life or body or whatever. Rather, my main motivation for wanting to not die is CURIOSITY. I want to see what happens next — in 100 years, 500 years, a billion years. I want to know what it feels like to be a flying robot, a superhuman mind, a global brain, a woman, a three-headed cat, a self-refuting mathematical equation, and a zillion things I can’t even imagine right now.

Sure, you could say that curiosity is a desire and good Buddhists shouldn’t act out of desire. Well I never claimed to be a particularly good Buddhist. But just because I’m OK with being personally strongly motivated by curiosity, doesn’t mean I’m somehow grandiosely self-important or especially attached to myself.

Perhaps you think it should be enough for me to know that something discovers what life is like 1000 years from now — even if that something is not any kind of evolution of my current self? Well, I’d certainly be happier dying knowing something would experience a wonderful life 1000 years from now. But I’ll be even happier living to experience it myself — that is: having a mind that has continuously evolved from my current mind experience it…

Q: Shouldn’t we focus on living live in the here and now, and improving the real world around us, rather than on potential awesome future realities that may not even be possible or sensible?

A: Transhumanists are not people who are shying away from experiencing everyday life and real humanity, in order to save themselves for some hypothetical future. We are living, loving, reproducing, and doing practical projects to help people as well as advance technology (e.g. I’m involved in starting an educational project in Ethiopia)…..

We also want to see what happens next, and keep growing our knowledge and understanding and experience rather than have so much of it fade when our bodies die.

Yeah, kids and creative works are a form of immortality. But as Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to experience immortality through my works. I want to experience it through not dying.” Well actually I want to experience it both ways!! 😉

Q: Isn’t it too hubristic to think that we can outsmart Mother Nature? Don’t death and other natural phenomena exist as they are for good reasons, figured out by evolution and nature which know much more than we do?

A: So the idea is that, since Nature programmed our bodies to die and Nature is Wise, we shouldn’t go against Her great wisdom…?

But of course, this same line of thinking could be used to argue against civilization or language, right? Nature didn’t supply us with language, really — we created it out of our cultural interactions. Nature sure didn’t provide us with civilization, or with books, or computers…. All of these things were introduced in clear violation of Nature’s way of doing things! At what point do you think progress should be stopped? At this exact point, right now? Why not in the Stone Age?

Of course, it doesn’t really matter what any individual thinks about this — because progress will NOT be stopped, and technology will keep on advancing, and humanity will give rise to transhuman synthetic intelligences just as surely as tribes gave rise to civilizations, and the industrial era gave rise to the computer era, etc.

Q: Isn’t  the Transhumanism FAQ on the Humanity+ website wrong to focus on shaping the world via “applied reason”, when in fact reason is only one aspect of the faculties humanity needs to bring to bear on shaping its present and future?

A: Well — actually, yes, I can accept that criticism.

In general, I’d note that the Humanity+ website serves its purpose and I don’t think it’s grossly misleading, but it’s not a world-class work of literature or design either. The organization has focused on other things than its website.

I’d also note that the Transhumanist Declaration has been wordsmithed a lot more than the FAQ or the generic text on the Humanity+ website — there’s less to quibble with there, as a lot of quibbling was already done in the group process formulating the declaration.  The FAQ is generally pretty good IMO, but it’s an informal document not a fine-tuned body of prose.

Anyway, about reason and its role — I think that applied reason is very important for human (and transhuman) progress, but I also think that reason can’t stand alone. One thing I’ve found in my applied AI work is that logical reasoning is almost useless for complex problems unless coupled with some other sort of approach for providing “inference control” or “inference guidance.” That is, reason can’t really work, given limited energetic resources, unless guided by some sort of non-inferential “intuition.” Reason must be coupled with intuition to function. The transhumanist FAQ on the website (which was put together long ago, helpfully but mainly by folks no longer directly involved with Humanity+) doesn’t acknowledge this, in its current wording…

Q: But really — does it make sense to be stressed about our individual survival, instead of spending our energies working on technologies that help people and support compassion?

A: Well, in my world-view, since I don’t adopt the perspective that “nature knows best, and the way evolution gave us is obviously wise and preferable” , when an old person becomes feeble and demented and then dies, it’s basically just as bad as if a young person were to become feeble and demented and then die.

So to me, basic COMPASSION immediately leads to the desire to extend life and abolish the diseases of old age that lead to death. It’s true that some old people have adopted belief systems that make them reconciled emotionally to their own deaths. But to me, that’s fairly comparable to when an 18 year old suicide bomber adopts a belief system that makes them reconciled emotionally to their own death. Peoples’ minds are quite plastic and they can rationalize almost anything. The fact that people have managed to accommodate themselves emotionally to death – to a quite limited extent, though, on the whole – doesn’t, to me, change the brute unpleasantness of what happens to us as we get old, nor the sadness of the loss of information, feeling, and understanding that happens when an old person dies. So, to me, compassion immediately leads to the desire to abolish aging and death…

Some have argued that human longevity would cause problems due to limited resources, but of course this is a very limited view — there is lots of mass-energy in the universe available now; and I don’t buy “don’t disturb nature” arguments that tell us it would be bad to use the mass-energy in Mars or Jupiter or the sun to enable more humans to live and flourish for longer…

Of course you can take a cosmic, nonattached view, and say that any individual’s death doesn’t matter, because life will go on — and even if life doesn’t go on; the universe will go on…. However, one can also take an even more nonattached view, and say that nobody’s life on Earth matters now in the big picture — so why bother to stop a child from being killed in front of one’s face; why shed a tear if one’s own children are tortured and murdered; etc. …. To me it doesn’t make sense to draw a line and only care about suffering that is viewed as “unnatural” relative to the particular biological and cultural situation that we find ourselves in…

The human mind, in its ordinary form anyway, also involves a huge amount of suffering. Wisdom traditions have sought to minimize this suffering for a very long time, with limited success. I have given my (probably a bit controversial!) views on the evolutionary and cultural roots of human psycho-cultural suffering in a couple blog posts a few months ago: see Why Humans Are So Screwy and The Bullshit at the Heart of Humanity.

My view is that advanced technology has the potential give us ways to improve the typical human state of mind dramatically, so that future human minds can experience drastically less suffering and more joy than people now.

Of course you can argue technology should be unnecessary for achieving this purpose, because a certain (very very small) percentage of humans have achieved states of great ongoing joy via spiritual practices, or via fortuitous neurochemistry and life-history, or whatever.  But looking at the world today, it’s hard for me to believe that these practices are going to project humanity into an overall state of massively greater joy. Both rationally and intuitively, the odds seem higher to me of achieving radical widespread joy increase via appropriate use of advanced technologies

Q: Don’t transhumanists make a mockery of spirituality — ignoring the deep value that the spiritual side of life has had, throughout the history of humanity?

A: I guess you’re aware of Giulio Prisco and his Turing Church, and Martine Rotthblatt’s TeraSem? And Lincoln Cannon’s Mormon Transhumanist Association (with a few hundred members)? There’s a strong strain within transhumanism that specifically seeks to develop its spiritual aspect….   I’ve touched on these themes in my own nontraditional way in A Cosmist Manifesto, as well…

Q: You paint a view of transhumanists as being compassionate and open-minded, but is that really so? Aren’t there a lot of selfish, egomanical transhumanists, who idolize technological and logical thinking and consider their secular techno-centered world-view superior to everything else?

A: Well, transhumanists are an extraordinarily diverse bunch, so it’s hard to generalize…. Plenty of transhumanists are coming from compassion; and plenty are coming from a pure form of materialistic selfishness…. There’s a huge diversity of personalities and perspectives involved, for sure….


Mossbridge’s post ends with the following exhortation:
5) Then, when you turn 90 years old, decide whether you think you are too important to lose. Decide whether you think your mind, or the “computer minds” you create, can solve problems better than your children, who have molded their minds to this world, can. Decide whether you think you have a better plan than thousands of millions of years of evolution. 6) If you do think you are that important, then clearly you are not being reasonable. So do yourself and all of us a favor, and let your life go in love and peace. Be reasonable and move on.


Re-reading this while assembling this article, I had three thoughts:


The first was, “Before you use that birth control, decide whether you think you have a better plan than thousands of millions of years of evolution”   😉 …..

This is not the advice I’ve given my kids, nor will give my next round of kids!



The second was: While the human mind DID adapt for a long time to life on the African savannah, it actually is not very well adapted to the modern world that we live in.   Nor is the human mind/body optimally adapted to the African savannah; I suspect future AIs/robots will be able to do better even there, in terms of goals like survival and lack of harm to the environment.   And I have close to zero doubt that future AGIs / robots will be able to do better than humans at solving the problems of the world


The third was to remember two quotes from George Bernard Shaw, in response to Julia’s kindly yet macabre “Be reasonable and die” exhortation…


The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

— G.B. Shaw


Reason enslaves all whose minds are not strong enough to master her. 

— G.B. Shaw

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