Closing The Divide
The world is currently in a state of rapid technological change. Even those with just the slightest of interests in the broader scheme of things can accept this reality. The problem is that this change is creating a divide, two diverging perspectives of how we should handle the ever growing power of technology.
One of the groups, referred to has neohumanists, believe in a conservative approach to handling technology. They point to the ethical consequences of technology, and the implications it has on human identity and self-perception.
One major argument that neohumanists make is that a merging of technology into human body, especially the brain, would be a breakdown of established boundaries of human capability, and therefore a breach of individuals’ self-perceived identity. And so the incorporation of technology would be detrimental to one’s human core, the conscious singular “I”.
The major problem I have with point is that it assumes these established boundaries of human capabilities can only be compromised if technology is physically merged with our brains. But as David Chalmers’s extended mind thesis has shown the world, technology has already transcended these boundaries. It has slipped under the radar without anyone noticing. The smart phones that we hold in our hands can be thought of as extensions of our minds. The fact that we use them instead of our memories, to store numbers, names and birthdays. That we use them as planners, as problem solvers and listen to their recommendations to help us make decisions. All this proves that we are clearly outsourcing some of the most fundamental human cognitive capabilities to our mobile devices, and therefore in a way already starting to break the established boundaries that neohumanists believe to be important.
However, the above argument doesn’t change the neohumanist belief that the growing use of technology will lead to the eventual demise of the singular human identity, the conscious “I”.
Worldwide communication through the internet, and the outsourcing of our cognitive capabilities, is making us more and more similar from a global perspective. Our differences are slowly being broken down, and all this is happening only on a very basic scale at the moment (English language, music, science, awareness of major events). But as we continue to connect, outsource and extend our cognitive capabilities, it is not hard to imagine the eventual breaking down of cultures, personal difference in interests and possibly even identity, the perceived core of human experience.
Thinkers from both sides of the divide believe, given technology remains on its current trajectory, this convergence will eventually occur. The difference is that neohumanists are heavily against something like this happening, well on the other side, the transhumanist embrace the technological revolution.
As mentioned earlier, the neohumanists are fearful that technology could severely compromise our human core, the singular “I”, that which they firmly believe gives meaning to our existence. Technology would not only change the world around us, but also our understanding of ourselves, our future, and more importantly our past. Some argue that there would be a declining respect for literature, art, religion and philosophy, as well as a deterioration of different values that have been round for centuries: Therefore we would be moving forward with complete disregard for our rich antiquity of culture, culture that would eventually exist with irrelevance, if at all.
On the other hand, transhumanists embrace the growing mergence between humans and technology. They see it as a natural part of our development towards a greater intelligence. The transcendence of established human capabilities to them, is the breaking of physical, biological limitations that have held us back throughout our past. The integration of artificial intelligence, the use of nano-technologies and expanding connection will push us into a new epoche of evolution, a stage that they see as completely natural to life’s process.
One of their responses to the neohumanist argument is that technology has been around for centuries. From the time we started using language and tools we were using technology. Developments of humankind have always been strongly supported by some kind of external system. We have just become so comfortable in using the outsourced technology, that it becomes natural to us, a part of our condition.
The problem is that the current technological transition exceeds even the most radical changes in our past, including the change from grunting cave men to linguists with the ability to socialize and express meaning. The technological revolution will profoundly shift our understanding of what it is to exist as human beings, and this is what lies at the crux of the division.
It is therefore more of a philosophical division than anything else. So to simplify, the neohumanists hold the continuation and exploration of the individual, self-centred conscious “I”, to be most important. Any sort of technological integration that would compromise their understanding of an individual’s singular “I” goes against their core belief.
On the other hand, the transhumanists don’t take the singular “I” as seriously. They find value in the holistic development of humankind, and see it as a natural progression towards a higher level of life. It is what Kurweil calls the singularity and what Kelly calls the Technium or 7th kingdom. Peter Diamandis explains it as this completely interconnected complexity of 7 million individuals that form this sort of holistic meta-intelligence, which exists as this new individual organism. The focus is therefore shifted away from the individual human experience, towards the support and development of this meta-intelligence.
This idea of believing in something bigger than oneself is not exactly unique, in fact it has existed in various forms throughout human history. The difference is that it has been seen as a sort of epiphenomenon, something outside of the human reality. Spirituality exists because of this inert desire to believe in something bigger than oneself, but doesn’t have the positive feedback loops that we thrive upon, and so many don’t take it seriously.
We therefore find ourselves in a situation, where we might want believe in something greater, but don’t receive the vital feedback we need for affirmation. Without this, we have shifted toward a kind of self-affirmation in recent history, placing the individual-self on a pedestal.
However, there are glimmers that allow us to see the real value of positive feedback loops in relation to belief in something greater than one’s self. Sports and organizations are prime examples of people putting their belief in something greater than themselves and receiving the necessary feedback to assess how they are contributing to towards the growth and success of the group as a whole.
Transhumanism, in a way, satisfies this desire to believe in something greater than the individual, and it has the vital component of being something tangible, that exists within the future of our reality. It is a goal that can be visualized, understood and give us the necessary positive feedback as we develop towards it. Most importantly, it gives us hope, hope that our future will in some way be greater than our past. By believing in life as a singular meta-intelligence as a higher stage of life, we become driven as a collection of many different individuals towards a single goal.
The obvious problem is that most people don’t see this sort of technological meta-intelligent world as one that is better than their current one, therefore they don’t feel the drive to move towards it. They find purpose in pursuing their own happiness, family, relations, self-integrity and competing to reach top of the societal ladder. Any movement away from the self-affirming individual experience would seem absurd to them.
For the most part, I am one of these people. Of course, we all are, it is the way we have been lead to perceive the world. However it is not impossible to contemplate the possibility of a genuine purpose that favours the tranhumanist perspective.
If we unpack the major life purposes relating to the current individual self, such as happiness, love, family and dominance, we find that they are all related to the secretion of vital organic chemicals, for example oxytocin and dopamine in the brain. Furthermore, the existence of these organic chemicals is linked back to one simple objective, survival of life.
These organic chemicals have helped us to continuously find ways to survive, deal with dynamic threats and keep ushering in new generations. Every part of us is geared towards protecting the continuation of our biological information. Could this be why, on a planet growing towards overpopulation, we keep trying to live longer, cure illness and have children? From the outside it would seem completely irrational, but because we are driven by a deep desire to survive, we cannot help ourselves.
After giving it some thought, survival might seem like an obvious purpose for life to you. But from our everyday perspective, this purpose eludes many of us because we have been born into a world of minimal perceived threats. We therefore go looking for other things to put purpose into, and so distance ourselves from this core.
It could be argued that if nothing is threatening life then there is no point seeing survival as a core purpose. This however is, to me, one of humankinds biggest flaws and the next great barrier we have to break through. We need to get over this irrational tendency to underestimate threats that we haven’t experience before. In order to ensure the survival of life, we should be planning for potential threats in the years to come. One of the major areas of concern is the change in global climate, which could be a real threat to our survival in the future. Yet, even with all the information warning us of this growing threat, the fact that we haven’t experienced its consequences makes it incredibly difficult to change our behaviour towards it.
If we look even further into the future, we see an increasing possibility that threats coming from outer space could easily destroy life on our planet. Solar flares, meteors and asteroids are all well-known threats that we will have to deal with at some point in our future. There is even the possibility of an asteroid colliding with Earth in 2036.
Whether these threats are coming from changes in our planetary conditions or outer space, the point is that they have the capabilities of compromising the survival of life on the planet. And for too long we have pursued irrelevant kinds of purpose, and simply assumed that people in the future will be able to sucessfully deal with any major threats. This is a dangerous assumption.
Life cannot do anything if it does not survive, and therefore securing life’s survival in the long term should always be our core priority.
And if this is our core priority, It then seems obvious that we would incorporate a more tranhumanistic perspective, as finding solutions to these future problems will only be possible if we are putting effort into the development of technology which will lead to a higher levels of science and intelligence.
This kind behavioural change will only be possible if we change the current perspective of how we view life, to something that is not owned by an individual, but is rather a flow of biological information through time, from the very first prokaryotic life forms to the complexity of humankind. From this perspective, we are not just responsible for the continuation of our own life, but rather, the continuation of life itself, as this anti-entropic process in a universe of mostly entropy. Looking at life as something in itself creates a whole new understanding of our responsibility. Because if we aren’t able to deal with future threats to life’s survival, then all life’s successes leading up to that point would be in vain.
The above is of course just a theory, but it is a theory that shows that maybe the transhumanistic perspective should be taken more seriously. Technology is growing at a rapid rate anyway, and so we can either fight against the grain, or embrace it and effectively use it to increase the probability of life’s continuation in the long term.
Nick Bostrom discusses some similar ideas in a talk about existential risk at TedOxford.
I am incredibly interested to hear others opinions on the matters discussed. Please share your thoughts.