Transhumanism

Common Misconceptions About Transhumanism

By July 3, 2017 No Comments

Transhumanism and idea systems that predate it have been around for a long time, but it’s only now that this thought movement is getting more mainstream attention. Mainly, this is because many of the technologies that underpin the transhumanist agenda are now in fact not just science fiction, but poised to come about in the lifetime of humans that are alive today.

With mainstream exposure comes misinformation. There are a lot of misconceptions floating around the internet and wider media about what transhumanism is and what transhumanists actually advocate. This page is dedicated to listing some of the more common misconceptions, and debunking or clarifying them.

Obviously, some of these misconceptions may apply to certain individual transhumanists, but they don’t represent the movement as a whole. Transhumanism is a movement supported by a diverse group of people with a wide range of beliefs, and there aren’t that many universal transhumanist beliefs. So let’s have a look at the most common misconceptions about transhumanism and explain why they aren’t accurate.

Transhumanism is a Religion

Transhumanists tend to be secular, which has led to the belief that transhumanism itself is a secular placeholder for religion. Some may think that these are people who have religious needs but can’t buy into the supernatural nature of traditional religion, and so put their faith in transhumanism.

One of the main reasons for this belief is likely the radical life extension component of transhumanism. Many religions offer an afterlife, reincarnation, or spiritual immortality. So it makes sense that people would draw a parallel between those religious ideas and transhumanist ones such as mind uploading or life extension.

The problem is that religions are not defined by the details of their beliefs, but by the path people follow in order to get to those beliefs. Transhumanism does not have any dogma and does not require faith. It does not require people to believe a doctrine or accept things “just because”. It’s perfectly possible that none of the predictions about the future of technology, or how humans will use that technology, will ever come true. It’s not a prophecy, but rather a grand thought experiment that’s better described as a very educated guess; one which is revised periodically as the facts of cutting-edge science change.

Essentially, it can’t be a religion because it requires no faith. Of course, it’s perfectly possible for an individual person to treat transhumanism as a religion, but that’s a personal foible and is not a part of transhumanism proper. It is, however, fair to say that transhumanism is an ideology. This is also true of other movements such as humanism. An ideology makes certain statements about the way the world ought to be and transhumanism certainly does this. Religions are also ideological, clearly, but most people understand that non-religious ideologies are abundant.

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Transhumanism is an Atheistic Movement

While it is true that most transhumanists are at least secular and often agnostic or atheistic, there is nothing in transhumanism that prohibits people from also being religious. There are, of course, many religions that have beliefs and rules that would prohibit their members from also being transhumanist, but that has nothing to do with transhumanism itself.

So therefore you may find that many transhumanist are perfectly happy with the compatibility of their faith and their transhumanist beliefs. It’s also important to note that transhumanism is not an all-or-nothing idea system. It’s perfectly OK to embrace some aspects of transhumanism while rejecting those that conflict with one’s personal ethics.

Transhumanists Want to End Humanity

This is another misconception that sort of relates to the belief that transhumanism is a religion or perhaps even a cult. Many faiths have something to the effect of the Christian book of Revelations which describe end-times. To many casual observers, transhumanism sounds like it’s advocating for the end of humanity. Words such as “posthuman” conjure a terrifying future vision for many people. This is understandable, but not an accurate portrayal.

The first reason this is not an accurate view is that transhumanism is simply doing two things – it’s saying how it thinks the world will turn out and it’s saying which of those potential future developments are desirable. So it’s not that transhumanists believe people should be forced to become posthuman, but that it’s something that will inevitably happen when the technology is right for it. Since transhumanism takes much of its moral philosophy from humanism, it has individual happiness, liberty, and rights at its very core.

People who wish to become posthuman should be allowed to do so. At the same time this should be true for people who wish to remain human. To be a transhumanist is not to denigrate what it means to be human, but to recognize the limitations of humanity and accept that they do not define us or need to be in place.

Transhumanism is Just Dehumanization

This is another common idea that gets bandied about in discussions about transhumanism. Essentially, it boils down to a number of fallacious premises such as the fact that something being natural means that it is good. It also stems from the idea that there is something sacred about being human. So even being “more than human” or “other than human” are intrinsically taboo.

Therefore, we see ideas put forward that argue transhumanism “trivializes” what it means to be human or wants to make people inhuman or less than human. One of the big problems with these ideas is that we haven’t really settled what it means to be human. If your definition of being human is strictly biological and only includes people who are born naturally and have 100% human genes, then technically this misconception could be true. After all, any deviation from that narrow definition literally “dehumanizes” someone.

But the debate on what it truly means to be human is far from settled. In fact, it is getting muddier all the time. We now have the issue of non-human persons such as dolphins and chimpanzees, to name but two. With the advance of AI we may soon be joined by more non-human persons and transhumanists may themselves become non-human persons by today’s standards one day.

I say by today’s standard because, quite frankly, we may simply widen the definition of what it means to be human to accommodate more people. While this may be seen as simply arguing semantics, what’s not in doubt is that transhumanism has nothing in it that suggests people should be dehumanized, but much of what constitutes this argument is, in the end, highly subjective.

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All Transhumanists Want to Upload Their Minds

Because mind-uploading is such a radical and prominent idea, there’s a common belief that this is the goal for all transhumanists. This is, of course, entirely untrue; many transhumanists have, in fact, a fundamental philosophical problem with mind-uploading because it essentially means that you are copying yourself and not preserving your original consciousness.

This once again comes from the idea that there is supposed to be some sort of transhumanist “bible” that you need to follow in order to be a part of the movement. Instead, transhumanism is a diverse intellectual movement with people from all sorts of disciplines. Much of the most serious and valid criticisms of transhumanism comes from within the movement itself. So the idea that mind-uploading is a universal desire of all Transhumanists falls apart as soon as you think about it for just a minute.

It’s Unfeasible Hype

This is one we hear a lot, and not just from regular people but highly-regarded experts in various scientific fields tapped into by transhumanism. Whether this actually turns out to be a misconception really depends on if the things actually happen that transhumanism indicates may come to pass.

Even the top experts in a field can’t claim to know the future, and no transhumanist can do so either. We are all just speculating, to one degree or another. There can be no doubt that some ideas in transhumanism will take a very long time to come to pass. Except, of course, if the technological Singularity actually comes, in which case it will all happen almost at once.

It is, however, completely untrue that transhumanism as a whole is uncritical hype and it’s not constructive to think so. It is a collection of ideas which each need to be evaluated on their own merit – something that transhumanists themselves do all the time.

All Transhumanists are Singularitarians

While the Singularity itself is a transhumanist idea, it does not follow that all transhumanists believe in it or even think it is possible. Transhumanism does not require an exponential increase in the speed of technological development. Even if progress proceeded (or accelerated) at a linear rate, much of the technology transhumanism speaks to will simply come to pass at a much later date in the future.

That’s disappointing to the people who may now never live to see or experience that future, but at the scale of history it’s just a minor bump in the road. In fact, there are plenty of transhumanists that are skeptical that the Singularity is really possible, mainly because it relies on infinite acceleration, which generally does not describe how things work in the natural world.

All Transhumanists Think Cryogenics is a Good Idea

So, if not all transhumanists think the Singularity will bring them effective immortality within their own lifetimes, then they must all at least approve the idea of freezing yourself to be resurrected in the future, when these technologies do in fact come to pass. As with most things, it turns out that transhumanists are not universally fans of cryonics either. In fact, on this site you’ll find an article dedicated to the major caveats of cryogenic freezing. It’s also a fact that only a very tiny minority of people actually go through with the process, so it’s very much a fringe thing at this point. That may change with the improvement of both preservation and revival technology, but at the moment most transhumanists care about things other than cryonics.

Transhumanists are in Favor of Social Darwinism or Eugenics

I can never quite understand the source of this idea – many people assume that, because transhumanists believe human beings can and should transcend their own limitation through science and technology, we also believe that “inferior” humans should be eliminated. Apart from the fact that this stance would be completely incompatible with humanism in general, this requires that transhumanists as a group be completely apathetic to morals and ethics. In any context both social Darwinism and Eugenics are indefensible, but from a humanist position they are even more so.

In any case, it makes little sense to hold such views when the contents of a person’s genes is a personal choice. In a transhumanist future, the only way a person would be “inferior” is through choice. As I mentioned above, transhumanism, like humanism, puts personal choices pretty high on its list of values.

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Transhumanism is an Existential Risk

An “existential” risk is one that threatens the existence of humanity as a whole. For example, global nuclear war is such a risk. Transhumanism as a whole is often pointed out as just such a risk. It’s true that some of the technologies that transhumanism espouses could be existential risks. For example, the “gray goo” problem in nanorobotics is a terrifying prospect which could not only wipe out humans, but also Earth and perhaps beyond.

However, it’s one thing to point out the dangers of a specific technology (which transhumanism does anyway) and another to say that a general philosophy towards technology and humanity is by its nature an existential risk. Certainly the point is not to uncritically pursue technology at any cost.

The other take on this relates back to the idea of dehumanization I discussed earlier. The semantic nature of “human” comes up again because if posthumans are not human, then “humans” have technically ceased to exist. The same arguments I made above apply here too.

Life Without Death Is Meaningless

This is another philosophical one, where people have an objection to transhumanism on the grounds that removing death will make life mean less than it does now. There are really a lot of people who think that radically extending life is a bad thing for the quality of human life. This is another variation on the “natural is good” argument, which is a pretty fundamental fallacy. It also reflects a misunderstanding of transhumanism in that the goal is not to eliminate death, but to liberate humanity from it as an imposition.

If a person lived twice the average current lifespan, would that mean their life is half as meaningful? This is obviously nonsense. Meaning is something that human beings make, they don’t discover it like gold or iron. Even if we wanted to, ultimately it is impossible to extend life indefinitely. Eventually our solar system will die; the galaxy will be gone too eventually, and right at the end the whole universe itself will be gone.

No, the point is not to do away with death, but to empower us to decide when we’ve had enough. If a 10,000-year-old person decides they have seen and done enough, they should have the freedom to pop out of existence. Transhumanism may even involve entirely new ways to die. For example, you may choose to edit your own mind until you become someone else. How about destructively merging with another mind to create a new person? If anything, transhumanism is set to create new meanings to life and death that most people have never imagined.

Transhumanism is Pointless

This is the last one that I think is worth bringing up. Sometimes people question the purpose of the movement itself. The main reasoning behind this is that these technologies, such as life extension, are coming anyway. So why package it into something like transhumanism?

This is a misconception simply because technology does not develop free from politics or ideology. Transhumanism provides a set of ideals towards which to steer developments or handle them. Think of something like atomic energy. If your values are militaristic you may make bombs, but if they are humanistic you may aim for clean atomic power. In either case, the fundamental science is the same, but how we use that knowledge differs depending on our values and views.

Transhumanism is a movement that tries to envision the maximum good that technology can do for us as human beings. That doesn’t seem pointless at all.

That’s All Folks

As with anything, this list is not exhaustive, but I think it covers the most common misconceptions you’ll encounter in discussions about transhumanism. It’s certainly not a perfect movement and lots of good criticism is out there, but we should always make sure we are not criticizing a straw man!