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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, June 27, 2008

Global Spiral special issue on transhumanism

The Global Spiral, an online publication of the Metanexus Institute, has just published a special issue on transhumanism; this contains six articles that appear to be highly critical of transhumanist ambitions. It's quite possible that I'll agree with some of the criticisms that are made, but it's also likely - judging by the provocative excerpts that I've seen so far - that I'll consider the articles to be based on dubious intellectual foundations and on procrustean understandings of that protean phenomenon, the international transhumanist movement.

The editor of the issue and most of the authors are obscure, at least to me, but Kathryn Hales and Ted Peters have contributed an article each, giving the publication some credibility in the circles where I move.

The project is a spin-off from a massively-funded research program operating under the auspices of the notorious Templeton Foundation. I doubtless have readers with a better knowledge than mine as to how the Templeton Foundation, the Metanexus Institute, Global Spiral, and this particular academic project all fit together, so I won't concern myself with that. The point is that the outcome will be an influential (and seemingly hostile) portrayal of transhumanism. That portrayal merits cool, careful scrutiny, giving whatever credit is due, but pointing out the problems.

Thus, I'm going to commit myself to reading - and briefly commenting on - one article per day over the next six days [edit: now I've done one and realised how big a task it is to do at all satisfactorily, I'll have to add that I won't be able to maintain quite such a cracking pace]. Tomorrow [edit: actually it turned out to be "tonight], I will begin by commenting on "Engaging Transhumanism: The Meaning of Being Human" by Hava Tirosh-Samuelson. I'm always suspicious when I see philosophers and other intellectuals talk about the "meaning" of being human (or of anything else that is not actually an attempt at communication). There are contexts where it makes sense to use the word and its cognates as synonyms for something like "satisfaction" (as in, "I find meaning in my work"), or "value" (as in "To poor Adam, life now seems meaningless"), or "personal significance" (as in "Your love means a lot to me"). I don't demand that we eschew all such language, but it is, at best, a helpful metaphor. Often, it is an unhelpful one. Sometimes, it is simply a category mistake or a mask for confusion.

But we shall see. I'll read the article fairly and give it its due.

There will be opportunities in other forums for more detailed responses to the Global Nexus issue and the Templeton project more generally. But this particular forum will allow for discussion among my (almost) invariably smart readers. Let's see how we go. If you'd like to do the reading with me, and to offer your own insights, they'll be welcome.

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