Brian Appleyard wrote a book I didn’t read called How To Live Forever Or Die Trying. In it, he talks to Transhumanists who believe death is a condition we can transcend through science and technology.
According to current definitions, Transhumanism is an “intellectual and cultural movement supporting the use of new sciences and technologies to enhance human mental and physical abilities and aptitudes, and ameliorate what it regards as undesirable and unnecessary aspects of the human condition, such as stupidity, suffering, disease, aging and involuntary death.”
Some of the folks at the forefront of this movement have unleashed a web rag called H+ (PDF), which I also have not had the time to read.
Appleyard says “much of the magazine is just gadgetry with attitude.” Huh.
As a practicing Buddhist, I have a curious relationship with Transhumanism. On the one hand, I believe that, ethically pursued, science and technology have the potential to elevate mankind’s conception of the universe and bring us closer to understanding its limitless complexity (and fundamental impermanence).
On the other hand, I think that technology has the potential to keep us trapped in an endless cycle of desire, as we chase a false utopia that seems to be just around the corner but never actually arrives. Then there’s the idea of massively extended lifespans: would wisdom acculmulate in proportion to years lived, or would not dying result in abject boredom and a runaway ego? And would we stop biologically reproducing? The planet would get crowded really fast if nobody kicked the bucket.
Yet an extended lifespan might provide new perspective on the Self, (or the inherent lack thereof). Without the distortions of our compressed perception of time, we may naturally gravitate towards a clearer view of the intrinsic emptiness of phenomena, including the habitual aggregates of consciousness we call personality. And why keep it to ourselves? A wiki-like awareness could underscore the connection between all phenomena, creating holistic conditions for “enlightenment.”
Transhumanists are sometimes ridiculed as narcissistic and deeply unsatisfied geeks, but the best of their lot are obsessed with improving the conditions for all life. They call it “uplifting,” but is it really so different from the bodhissattvic mission of liberation for all sentient beings?
The biggest danger to Transhumanism as I see it is that it necessitates fiddling with the engine of evolution, which, as far as science can ascertain is “blind.” We still haven’t come to psychological terms with the last century’s misguided experiments in eugenics — what makes us think we have the spiritual fortitude to start making crucial decisions about the whos, whats and hows of human modification? We’re not just talking genetic refinement or alteration — our future tech could enable molecular assembly, consciousness upload and sharing and even the emergence of artificial intelligence that would permanently render the human biological animal obsolete.
If you’re struggling with any of these concepts or think it’s just a bunch of sci-fi gobbledygook, I highly recommend reading The Singularity is Near, by Ray Kurzweil, as a primer.
[Hat tip to The Daily Dish for the Appleyard link]