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To Keep or Not to Keep? Mortality, Humanity, and Transhumanism
Recently, I’ve been watching videos about cosmology and related subjects, such as the theories of general and special relativity, quantum mechanics, and astrophysics. Discussions on such cosmic scales involve “deep time,” which poses how, in a few trillion years, the stars will die out, how, after a thousand trillion, trillion, trillion, million years, protons will decay and matter will dissipate, and how black holes will evaporate after 10^92 years, before our universe returns to pure darkness.
Reflecting on such prospects reduces human life to utter insignificance in a rather beautiful and humbling way. Yet not everyone is willing to accept our mortal limitations, nor the probability that human civilization will end long before the first black holes start to evaporate. There is an intellectual movement whose proponents are dissatisfied with our mortal limitations. Its exponents wish to take on the entire universe, to traverse the stars and extend life to be as long as deep time itself.
This movement is called transhumanism. The first formally transhumanist ideas were advanced by Julian Huxley in 1957. And in 1990, futurist philosopher Max More presented a broadly accepted definition of transhumanism: that a “posthuman condition” was both necessary and morally good for humanity. While it shares a similar respect for reason and science with conventional humanism, transhumanism diverged by anticipating and embracing “radical alterations” in the nature and possibilities of the human being through advanced technology.
Since More, different visions of transhumanism have flourished, all with existential consequences for human life. Here are just a few branches: postgenderism (the voluntary elimination of biological differences), immortalism (the active search for technological immortality, for instance by uploading oneself into a supercomputer), and extropianism (an attempt to actively guide and speed up human evolution). However, at their core, all transhumanist theories pose that death and/or the inevitable decay of the body is fundamentally undesirable and that humanity needs to surpass such limitations.
I am not sure what to think of “upgrading” my body, or the idea of accelerated, engineered evolution. There are things that I have grown used to as an embodied creature. I cannot imagine existence without physical touch. I am sure a food critic or a wine taster would likely have reservations about being unable to enjoy the sensation of taste. I feel that the unity of our sensual appreciations and our lofty conceptual thinking is what makes us human. Even if we were to replicate the sensations of our feelings in some vast, collective memory bank in the distant future, can we be totally sure that our experiences could even be called “human”?
Instinctively, I feel as if there’s something quite noble in the transhumanist cause. It recognizes that human beings are fundamentally flawed. It believes that humanity, seen in evolutionary terms across hundreds of thousands or millions of years, is kneecapped by numerous handicaps that could lead to extinction far more easily than other successful and enduring species. Religions also articulate humanity’s fundamental shortcomings. Yet transhumanism deviates from the paths of religion through a hyper-charged expression of secular humanism: upgrade who we are through the products of reason and science, namely high tech and artificial intelligence.
I feel that transhumanism asks the right questions but gives unsatisfactory answers. Buddhism agrees with transhumanism that humanity suffers from certain existential flaws that need to be surpassed. Buddhism also concurs with the idea that death is an ill that can be overcome. Where the two philosophies radically differ are their prescriptions to the maladies of the human condition.
When it comes to accelerated human evolution, transhumanism offers hi-tech cybernetics, android upgrades, and somehow separating our consciousness from our bodies. Leaving aside the staggeringly complex philosophical can of worms these scenarios might pose for Buddhism, the Buddhist religion posits that true evolution is actually attained through particular techniques and methods that lead to Buddhahood—a state of being far beyond human imagination and human mortality
What about surpassing the inevitability of death? Transhumanism advocates ideas such as uploading our consciousness to a cloud or a supercomputer. We could replace our fragile, fleshly bodies with robotic upgrades. We could become androids, or even nigh-indestructible cyborgs. This might have sounded unbelievable a few decades ago, but the technological distance between our smartphones, currently devices separate from our bodies, and our minds being interconnected supercomputers, is perhaps not as vast as we think.
At face value, I concede that the latter prospect seems quite exciting. Should we wish to move beyond our solar system as a species and become a star-hopping civilization, which would require millions of light years of travel, moving toward transhumanism seems a wise choice. But as I believe in rebirth, prolonging this life and interfering with its natural karmic flow could have disastrous consequences.
Our “precious human rebirth,” as the Buddha called it, is the perfect vessel to attain enlightenment and escape the cycle of samsara. Transhumanist solutions seem to lock us into samsara. If immortality means simply not being able to leave samsara at all, whether as an ageless android or as a program in a database, that sounds like a terrible prospect (unless we can apply Buddhist practices in our upgraded bodies). Buddhism suggests that we can eliminate our suffering right now, without a single change to our human bodies.
Even taking away spiritual considerations of the afterlife, if transhumanism is a non-religious attempt to transcend humanity, it still is trapped in its own worldview: that the stars will one day all die, and that even black holes will eventually evaporate. If this predicted end of the universe is likely, then isn’t the whole transhumanist project just ultimately one long and futile (albeit truly epic and galaxy-crossing) attempt at life extension?
Nothing is permanent, not even this universe. But who wants to stay in this universe forever, anyway? I believe that the true answer is not only out there. It is out of this cosmos altogether.
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The Science of Mindfulness and Beyond: An Interview with Prof. Richard J. Davidson, PhD