A commitment to progress in one form or another has been an element of Western culture since the Enlightenment.
However over the last half century some scholars, especially those of a postmodern stripe, have abandoned this commitment. They have remained fashionably negative. Although perhaps acknowledging technological advance, they have taken a dim view of humans’ track record in changing their cultures and characters for the better.
At times, I must confess, this perspective has seemed convincing. Nonetheless, considerable evidence across the broad arc of human history suggests otherwise. The recent works of Steven Pinker are recommended for those interested in a comprehensive, data-based analysis.
Just to be clear, I am not proposing some mystical force is pushing us ever upward. Nor do I deny that through our folly things might well come crashing down tomorrow. But constrained by evidence I must acknowledge that, on balance and over the long haul, many of the things most of us consider important have in fact gotten better.
I'm still wary enough, however, to have reservations about several elements of our likely future. One of these is the interaction of technology and human character. Always a complex matter, this issue has acquired additional complications in the twenty-first century.
Now it seems likely that technology will be turned back directly on character itself. Humans intend to pull themselves up by their boot straps. They have radical plans. Genetic engineering. Digital implants. Things not yet imagined.
Consider just the first two of those three. Genetic engineering, when aggressive, starts down a path toward increasing deviations from our biological norm. Digital implants, by definition, steer that norm out of the biological altogether. It is not difficult to imagine such alterations eventually shaping us into considerably different versions of ourselves.
Of course the ultimate effect of any given alteration is difficult to predict. Also difficult is drawing a line on what we consider the boundary of "us". If we introduce a gene that reduces aggression in human males by 10%, have we crossed this line? That conclusion seems a bit rigid. But if we find a way, say through an infusion of nanobots, to speed up cognitive processing while damping down unhelpful emotions? Certainly at that point we are entering new territory.
We may be on trajectory to “transcend” ourselves, but whether that's good is a separate matter. Ultimately guiding this project of self-directed evolution will be our values, our conceptions of the desirable. Thus there is likely to be considerable debate over each new technique along the so-called transhuman path. And throughout it all will be continuing controversy about the perils of setting out on such a path in the first place.
But make no mistake, debate or not, the transhuman express has left the station.
Along the way it will come as no surprise if the economic turns out to have more impact than the ethical. Wealthier individuals and their descendants will have more access to transhuman technology. Among other things this could well be a force for even greater economic inequality, in an all too familiar cycle of one advantage leading to another.
Extrapolated even further into a dystopian future, such a cycle could conceivably result in a kind of biological caste system. For the first time in history the ruling classes actually might become what they have always claimed to be: "better people". Depending, of course, on what one considers better.
And so like many others I view the dawn of our radical transformation with considerable hesitance. But this is not just because of the obvious political and moral complexity. I am perhaps even more concerned about the fate of our consciousness.
Significant changes in our biology will assuredly mean changes in our mentality (for a discussion of related issues see "Against Dualism", another of my essays on this site.) At some point in coming generations technology may produce a qualitative shift of ongoing experience, a new phenomenology. In a day to day experiential sense, we may become other.
To illustrate that notion with a folksy hypothetical, consider this common wish of older persons: to be transported back to their youth while retaining the wisdom of age. An understandable wish, perhaps. But also, I submit, an unintentionally suicidal one.
Why? Again, mentality is not separable from physiology. If the memories and wisdom of an older person were somehow magically implanted into their youthful body, the resulting interaction would be something new. The wisdom--and in some ways even the memories--would change. In an experiential sense the older person would die.
Transhumanist visions, involving various degrees of alteration to our physiology, incur the risk of an analogous kind of death. But of course proponents do not label it a risk; their goal, after all, is the radical transformation of humans.
So ultimately my objection may be reducible to nostalgia. I don’t want the fundamental functioning of the human brain to be greatly altered. I would miss the old brain, warts and all. I want it to go on living.
But I doubt nostalgia will stop the transhuman express.