Transhumanism. What is transhumanism? What’s the definition of this concept, and where does this term come from? What kind of trends and developments are taking place within this field? And what does the relationship between transhumanism, technology, science and singularity look like?
How does this philosophical movement affect me as an individual, and humanity as a whole? What kind of dangers does transhumanism pose? What are my thoughts on this?
What is transhumanism?
What is Transhumanism? It’s not a physical or tangible object, but rather a philosophical movement. Transhumanists (advocates of this philosophy) argue that humans have reached the highest possible level of evolution that we could attain biologically. Now it’s time for us to take matters into our own hands. We have the opportunity – and the duty – to use technology to shape our future evolution.
Proponents of this idea mostly base their arguments around technological and scientific progress. Take nanotechnology, biotechnology and cyborgs. Ways to blend the human body and electronics. Cyborgs. Or digitalization. According to the most well-known transhumanist, Ray Kurzweil, it won’t take long before we’ll be able to upload our own thoughts [more about this later on in the article].
Another prevalent idea within transhumanism, is to freeze your body and/or your brain after you die. This is also known as cryonics, or cryonic suspension. This refers to people that have their bodies and/or brains frozen after they die.
Once technology has progressed enough that the disease they suffer from can be cured, they intend for their bodies to be thawed again. Worldwide, there are about 400 people being preserved cryogenically right now [more about this later on in the article].
When I give a keynote or presentation about biohacking, I also include transhumanism in this theme. Not as a specific technological development, such as DNA hacking, quantified self or artificial intelligence. But as an overarching philosophy, a meta-development on top of all those exponential technologies [link at the bottom of the article].
This part zooms in on what transhumanism means, and on the different forms that this philosophy can take on.
What’s the definition of transhumanism? According to Wikipedia, it’s about breaking through the barriers put in place by mother nature.
“Transhumanism is a recent formulation of a speculative philosophy that aims to break through the barriers that were set by nature.” The main belief is that humans can transcend themselves – through science and technology.
Julian Huxley was the first person to define transhumanism in these terms, back in 1957. More recent examples of famous transhumanists include the previously mentioned Ray Kurzweil, Aubrey de Grey and Max More. In 2015, Max More and I had a chat at a Summit in Helsinki [link at the bottom].
In 2016, a US presidential candidate openly expressed that he was a proponent of transhumanism. What’s more, this candidate (Zoltan Istvan) outright made this into an explicit aspect of his election campaign [link at the bottom].
Different types of transhumanism
Similarly to Christianity, there’s not one single, exclusive form of transhumanism. There are different groups of people within transhumanism, who believe in different concepts and ideas. Different types of transhumanists have different beliefs concerning religion, politics and ideology.
There are various subdivisions within transhumanism, of which Christian transhumanism, transhumanist socialism and the hedonistic imperative are just a few examples. The latter is a movement that aims to eliminate all forms of human suffering.
Because of the differences between the various subgroupings, it’s difficult to speak of ‘transhumanism’ as one fixed ideology with one agreed-upon definition – however, all subgroupings do have a number of things in common. The philosophy is always centered around the words ‘humanism’ and ‘trans’.
‘Humanism’ refers to a certain respect for rationality and science. ‘Trans’ refers to anticipating and acknowledging radical technological developments.
Another concept related to transhumanism, is posthumanism. Posthumanists, however, argue that humans aren’t at the center of everything. Humans are just one component of a complex, all-encompassing system that comprises humans, animals and plants, as well as the material world (fossil fuels, drinking water) and non-human life (bits and bytes).
Artist and scientist Kristof van Baarle summed it up as follows: “Humanism is the shift from God to humans as actors in the world.” Posthumanism doesn’t necessarily discard humanism in its entirety. However, posthumanism does try to steer clear of the blind spots of humanism. Humans are not the absolute center of the world and the cosmos.
Advocates of transhumanism
What kind of individuals subscribe to the ideas and ideologies posed within transhumanism? In his book ‘To be a machine’, author Mark O’Connel zooms in on transhumanists themselves [link at the bottom]. His perspective on transhumanists is similar to the impression I generally get when I attend events and conferences about this topic.
Most of the visitors tend to be male, and/or Northern-European or American. Something that often sticks out to me, is the level of education of the participants. Most of them work in science, in fields such as biotechnology, medical biology or economics.
The essence of O’Connel’s story comes down to the conception that transhumanists have of the human body: it’s inefficient, slow and mortal. In an article for De Correspondent, Lynn Berger explains that the discussion between proponents and opponents of this movement isn’t fundamentally different from that of any other technologies. “It functions as a laughing mirror that amplifies and deforms our biggest fears and desires, but doesn’t necessarily change them in any fundamental way.”
Aubrey de Grey is one of the most famous transhumanists in the world
This part zooms in on arguments in favor of this development. Will humans be able to play God?
A concept that is often used as an argument for transhumanism, is singularity. But what exactly is singularity? This concept can be defined in various ways. These are the most common definitions:
#1 The synergy and mutual reinforcement between technological developments, such as nanotechnology, drones, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, genetics and more.
#2 The moment in time when artificial intelligence will overtake humans, in terms of intelligence. When this happens, we as humans will no longer be able to understand society.
#3 The blurring of boundaries between humans and robots. Enhanced humans or cyborgs, those are the people of the future. In Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari argues that technology will play a prime role within the process of natural selection: ‘The organic body will blend together with devices such as bionic hands, artificial eyes or millions of nanorobots in our bloodstream, that will be able to diagnose us when we’re sick and then repair the damage. These cyborgs will be capable of much more than a normal human body’.
At the core of the theory on singularity, lies exponential growth. This is related to Moore’s Law: the exponential growth pattern in the complexity of integrated circuits. These double in numbers every year, while their cost simultaneously decreases by 50%. Technology is undergoing a similar growth pattern, which means that it is developing at an incredibly high pace.
The previously mentioned transhumanist Ray Kurzweil also concurs with this. According to him, exponential growth will lead to significant changes in our paradigm, and to possibilities we can’t even imagine based on our current worldview. Why wouldn’t we use those technological developments in a way that benefits us as humans?
Humans playing God
In the book Homo Deus, Harari describes how humans are going to start playing God. Imagine if we could end hunger, disease and war – the only issue left, would be getting rid of boredom. What other questions or dilemmas could we keep ourselves busy with?
Especially given the possibilities we have now, concerning computer science and biotechnology. Harari argues that two main aspects will determine how these new developments might progress: the quest for happiness and the quest for immortality.
That might seem far-fetched right now. But as described by Gawie Keyser in De Groene Amsterdammer: ‘Just like the ancient Egyptians couldn’t imagine life without pharaohs, or people in the Middle Ages would have laughed at the idea that God might not exist, one day it will seem normal to us that humans are playing God’.
Ray Kurzweil, a famous transhumanist
This part zooms in on my critical notes on transhumanism, and my personal vision.
Transhumanism has been met with a fair deal of criticism. In May 2016, I attended a lecture by Marcel Messing – anthropologist and philosopher – about the anthropological, philosophical and ethical aspects of this ideology.
His presentation was incredibly interesting. There were a few things that stood out to me in particular.
- Power (and brainwashing by Hollywood)
- What does it mean to be human?
#1 ‘Eugenics’ already sounds a bit more daunting than ‘transhumanism’. Eugenics is aimed at reducing certain genetic factors within humans. It’s the scientific study of improving the genetic quality of a race.
This concept is based around the idea that there are inferior and superior races in society. That’s a scary thought. Think of the Übermensch from Nietze’s ‘Thus spoke Zarathustra’ and of the Holocaust.
#2 Power. Which companies, organizations and institutions are currently financing the developments taking place within transhumanism? In other words: ‘Follow the money’. It’s mostly big banks, the CIA, the NSA, Facebook, Google, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and Monsanto. Alright, that does raise some questions.
What I’m a bit more sceptic about, is the people that are linking transhumanism to a myriad of conspiracy theories. According to Messing, it’s organizations such as Bilderberg and Rothschild that are the biggest players behind the scenes. Thanks to their influence and power, they’re the ones that decide which developments do and do not take place.
To take this one step further: some people believe that Hollywood has a vested interest in this as well. According to them, movies such as Avatar, I am Legend, Oblivion and other science fiction movies were created to prepare us for the technological developments that are to come. We’re being brainwashed into normalizing transhumanism.
On the other hand, Hollywood has also produced movies such as The Matrix – a movie that paints a bleak picture of a transhumanist future, rather than a positive one. A movie that inspires you to think critically about what technological progress really means. In addition to the great action scenes, of course.
#3 What does it mean to be human? What will it mean to be human when we can live on forever in the digital world, because we can upload all of our thoughts? That sounds a bit like the Matrix. What if we could cure death and live forever, just like in the TV show Highlander?
Messing refers to concepts such as the soul, purpose, free will, compassion, forgiveness and consciousness. These concepts truly make us human. That’s what distinguishes us from robots. No matter how well we can map our brains out, being human can’t simply be quantified or put in a box with a label on it.
And as to our emotions. Are those purely physiological, and should we think of them as chemical, hormonal and energetic processes? Or is there something more to us humans? More that connects us to each other? A higher power?
Marcel Messing about being brainwashed by Hollywood.
It’s great to talk to someone with a completely different perspective or worldview every now and then.
My friends sometimes accuse me of being a techno-utopist. I believe in technological progress; in the opportunities that this provides me with as an individual, as well as the opportunities it provides humanity with to solve some of the world’s biggest problems and challenges.
These are my personal thoughts on this topic.
- There’s certainly more to humans than just bones, muscles and a brain.
- It’s important that these discussions are held and that we open up a public dialogue about this. Presentations, keynotes, conferences and talks also contribute to this.
#1 To start off with the first one. These past 6 months, I’ve been trying to focus more inward, on my own emotions and intuition. Aided by psychedelics, I’ve had several spiritual experiences.
How is that possible? Well, us humans aren’t just purely physical creatures. There’s something intangible to us. Whether you call it God, Mother Nature, energy or something else. That’s my own personal opinion.
#2 The second one is a bit more general. I think technology is super interesting and exciting. In my perspective, technology takes on a broader meaning than just the technical aspects. I think of concepts such as healthy eating, earthing, minimalist barefoot shoes or ice swimming as technology as well.
New technologies are often seen as neutral. In a way, that makes sense, as it’s how the technology is used that determines what kind of impact it will have. And whether that’s a positive or a negative impact. Technological progress can’t be stopped; that’s why it’s so important to talk about the philosophical and ethical questions it raises.
With this article, I also hope to contribute to this discussion.
Two particularly interesting transhumanist theories are ‘mind uploading’ en cryonic suspension. First, I’ll examine mind uploading.
Mind uploading is a theory in which it’s possible to scan the contents of our brain, and upload these into a computer. The computer is then able to run a simulation of all of this brain activity, in exactly the same manner that the human brain would do this. This concept is also known as ‘Whole brain emulation’ (WBE), ‘brain uploading’ and ‘mind transfer’.
According to transhumanist Ray Kurzweil, this technology will exist in 2045. What’s more, he believes that around 2100, we’ll have replaced the human body with computers and machines.
Through ‘mind uploading’, we could become “digitally immortal”. Right now, this technology is considered one of the most important technologies within the field of transhumanism. Some people argue that it’s the best way we could possibly preserve our human identity, even more so than with cryonic suspension. This technology could offer us a way to travel to digital space (the ‘uploaded’ astronaut), and it would be less vulnerable in case of a meteorite or other natural disaster wiping out all forms of biological life on earth.
Asimov wrote a nice paragraph about this in his book ‘I, robot’. In the book, a robot talks to two people: ““Look at you,” he said finally. “I say this in no spirit of contempt, but look at you! The material you are made of is soft and flabby, lacking endurance and strength, depending for energy upon the inefficient oxidation of organic material. … “Periodically you pass into a coma and the least variation in temperature, air pressure, humidity, or radiation intensity impairs your efficiency.”
In Nick Bostrom’s vision, ‘mind uploading’ is a logical result of the progress that is being made within neuroscience, neurotechnology and neuroinformatics. At a Meetup I organized about neuroscience, however, Martijn van den Heuvel (Dutch Connectome Institute) was a bit sceptical about Bostrom’s vision.
Professor Kenneth Miller (Columbia University) is critical as well. According to him, the development of neurons and the communication between them, are based on complex, ever-changing biological, electrical and chemical processes. In his opinion, it will take hundreds of years before science will reach a point where it can simulate this.
Neuroscientist Randal Koene has founded an organization called ‘Carboncopies’, which aims to support the development of this technology [link at the bottom]. According to their point of view, there might be a lot of scientific and practical questions around this technology right now, but it will definitely be possible in the long run.
In this part, I zoom in on cryonic suspension.
Cryonauts are people who choose to be cryonically frozen after death – opting to have either their head frozen, or just their body. They intend to be thawed once technology has progressed far enough that their disease can be cured.
Alcor Life Extension Foundation is a company that offers the possibility of cryonic suspension. I met the CEO, Max More, at a conference in Helsinki once.
James Bedford, a professor in Psychology who passed away in 1967, was the first person who – at his request – was cryonically frozen in liquid nitrogen, intending to be brought back to life at a later point in the future. He’s one of Alcor’s 146 ‘patients’ that are currently in a state of cryonic suspension: 52 bodies that are frozen in their entirety, and 94 frozen brains. The age varies from patient to patient. Some of the cryonauts are seventy, but there’s also a three year-old girl who has a (currently) incurable brain tumor.
UPDATE: on 31 December 2017, there were 154 patients in the clinic (114 men and 40 women). Alcor has 1.143 members (people who will become cryonauts after they pass away).
One of Alcor’s conditions for cryonic suspension is that you have to be legally dead before you can be frozen. Right now, there are thousands of people on their waiting list. Cryogenic surgery is a very costly procedure: right now, it costs about $200.000. In addition, you also have to pay membership fees, which cover a variety of expenses – for instance, an emergency response team that will tend to your body and preserve it as soon as possible after you die. All in all, it’s a substantial investment, considering that it’s not actually possible (yet) for cryonauts to be thawed and brought back to life.
However, scientists are optimistic that with all the technological progress we’re currently seeing, this will be possible in the future. In 2006, scientists conducted a successful experiment with the kidney of a rabbit. It was frozen, thawed, and then transplanted to another rabbit.
The technique that is used for cryonic suspension, is called vitrification. This process converts the body into a glass-like substance. Biologists take as many fluids from the body as possible, and replace them with a mixture of antifreeze molecules; once these molecules have cooled down, they turn into a more solid substance.
This prevents the cells and organs from being torn apart. In theory, once the body is thawed, the antifreeze fluids could be pumped from the body and blood could be added again.
Some cryonauts argue that life is too short. CEO Max More stated in an interview: “I could make a long list of all the things I’d like to do and see, a list that I wouldn’t be able to finish within a hundred years.” Others, such as Elaine Walker (a client of Alcor’s), are mostly curious about the future of the human race: “I would like to see us reach immortality and unravel the universe.”
But how can you be sure that at some point in the future, you will in fact be thawed and brought back to life? Max More: “Our clients know that we can’t guarantee anything. All we do is provide the chance – the only chance – to survive until far into the future.”
This part zooms in on additional information, such as my presentation on this topic and the reading list.
Presentations on transhumanism
I gave a presentation about transhumanism at a Biohacking Meetup in Utrecht.
You can check out the slides below.
My presentation on transhumanism
Would you like to find out more about transhumanism? Feel free to contact me if you have any questions! Please reach out if you would like to invite me to give a talk or presentation for a corporate event, conference or symposium.
Take a look at my keynotes and presentations page for an overview of previous keynotes and presentations I’ve given.
Transhumanism is super interesting. I’ve previously written the following articles, related to this topic:
I’ve read the following books on this topic:
These are the external links that I’ve used:
What are your thoughts on this? Leave a comment!