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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Friday, February 22, 2008

Roko on transhumanism and atheism

Roko has a nice blog post about transhumanism and atheism on his Transhuman Goodness blog over here.

I made a comment that is long enough to merit repeating here (with additions and some corrections to typos). It may not make complete sense outside of the original context.

On the general relations between transhumanism and the naturalistic worldview, I do think there's some synergy, although I'm a philosophical naturalist before I'm any sort of transhumanist. I don't think that naturalism necessarily leads to a full-on commitment to transhumanism ... more to a realisation that many of the popular objections to it are bogus. In fact, it's possible to be committed to some forms of transhumanism from within at least some religious viewpoints.

It's long struck me, though, that if we see the current human form and its attendant capacities as massively contingent evolutionary outcomes, rather than as the products of a divine plan, we will naturally wonder how they might be improved (improved from the viewpoint of our existing values). A naturalistic viewpoint that emphasises our evolutionary history and the imperfect, jerry-rigged outcomes of evolution, will tend to be friendly to transhumanist aspirations, at least in principle.

On the other hand, I can't imagine transhumanism ever playing the role in my life that religion plays in many people's lives ... and perhaps there I am at least a bit different from some of my transhumanist friends. For me, that role is played by, if anything, relationships, literature, art, and philosophy.

I defend transhumanism up to a point, and I do my best to encourage rational discussion of it ... and I think all this is important! But I'm not focused so much on what transhuman technologies might do for me, personally. E.g. I'm on the wrong side of 50 now and not likely to belong the first immortal generation. It's more the ideas that interest me than something more concrete than I, personally, am going to get out of it.

On the gripping hand, I do thank goodness (but not a deity) that I live in a time when 50 really is pretty much the new 30 ... if I go to the dentist, the orthodontist, the endodontist, the periodontist, blah, blah, exercise a bit, and generally take advantage of everything that modern living has to offer, I'm in a situation, here in a rich and relatively enlightened country, where I can look, act, think, and feel nothing like the 50-y.o.'s of past generations. (Have a look at some 19th century photos and see how blokes in their 40s look, to our modern eyes, like men in their 60s or 70s.) I realise how lucky I am compared to people who lived in less fortunate times, or who live in less fortunate countries or less fortunate personal circumstances, but there's no way that I'm going to object to this kind of social development ... and may it accelerate!

As for naturalism versus the lure of religion ... now I come to think of it, I don't think I ever found the promise of heaven remotely plausible, even in the days when I was supposedly a Christian. I find the naturalistic worlview liberating, because it lets me focus on a rational understanding of the world I find myself in, and on working out what I personally value, not on whatever is taught in some ancient tradition - however much reinterpreted - or ascribed to some imaginary being.

1 comment:

Roko said...

"A naturalistic viewpoint that emphasises our evolutionary history and the imperfect, jerry-rigged outcomes of evolution, will tend to be friendly to transhumanist aspirations, at least in principle."

- that's very well put! I'm giving a lecture to the university atheist society on the links between atheism and transhumanism in a few days time, and I think I'll use that.


I think that underneath all of this lurk hard philosophical questions about what is valuable in life. For, on the one hand, no-one wants to walk around thinking that life is pointless, for the simple reason that they find it makes them extremely unhappy. Nihilism is probably the worst torture you can inflict upon a human being.

On the other hand, few people have the time, commitment or intelligence to spend their lives thoroughly investigating these questions in the way that philosophers do. Religion thus offers a quick way out - a moral "curiosity stopper". What's the meaning of life? God is! Done! Nihilism cured, now you can go off and be happy. (Eliezer Yudkowsky has written well on a similar phenomemon - factual curiosity stoppers)

I think that the most important part of the transhumanist enterprise is not some particular techno-gizmo-fix, but that it provides the groundwork for a non-question-begging answer to the meaning question.

I'm still working on writing this up properly, but eventually I want to write a piece on why anyone with a naturalistic worldview should want to adopt the transhumanist stance: that the point of life is to use the tools we find around us to take ourselves to a more advanced level of existence.

Nick Bostrom has put this well here:

"The range of thoughts, feelings, experiences, and activities accessible to human organisms presumably constitute only a tiny part of what is possible. There is no reason to think that the human mode of being is any more free of limitations imposed by our biological nature than are those of other animals. In much the same way as Chimpanzees lack the cognitive wherewithal to understand what it is like to be human – the ambitions we humans have, our philosophies, the complexities of human society, or the subtleties of our relationships with one another, so we humans may lack the capacity to form a realistic intuitive understanding of what it would be like to be a radically enhanced human (a “posthuman”) and of the thoughts, concerns, aspirations, and social relations that such humans may have."