This piece is part of a series exploring salient aspects of the philosophy known as “Social Futurism” (a term coined and idea developed by myself from 2011-2018). For more full and systematic exploration of these ideas, see http://socialfuturist.party & http://socialfuture.institute.
Remaking the World
We all long for Eden, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most human, is still soaked with the sense of exile.
― J.R.R. Tolkien
The essence of the Transhumanist idea is to remake the world, which is to say both the human condition and environment. To take away the pain and suffering associated with our mortal, biological circumstances, to move beyond our historical limitations. Aside from the fact that most Transhumanists are atheists (or at least agnostic), the reason that religious believers often feel antipathy toward Transhumanism is that it not only treads on the territory of their ancient and unfulfilled promises, but also that it actually has a chance of fulfilling them. With technology and the will to do so, we could in principle remake the world, and make it better.
3.1 Homo Homini Lupus Est: Beyond Human Brutality
As Titus Maccius Plautus said, “Man is as a Wolf to (Other) Men”. For all our ideals and technologies, as a species we are still animals, still quick to resort to violence when frustrated, and to use force (some forms more subtle than others) to get what we want. In reshaping our nature, Transhumanism offers the opportunity to change that… but we must tread very carefully indeed in making any such changes. Our “base animal nature” (to use a very Nineteenth Century phrase) is as it is for very good evolutionary reasons. To put it bluntly, it has kept us alive this long.
The basic ethos of Social Futurism is to embrace the transformative power of technology, but to do so in an intelligent and principled manner. Wilful Neo-Luddite ignorance, badly planned or executed technological intervention, and unprincipled exploitation are all equally problematic “failure modes” from a Social Futurist point of view. Following that logic, messing up an alteration of human nature in ways that endanger others is no less an error than opposing technology altogether, or using it for self-aggrandisement at the expense of the community.
3.2 Abolitionism & the Hedonistic Imperative
It is a small step from considering augmentation of the human condition, to thinking about upgrading nonhuman animals with technology. The latter idea is sometimes referred to as “Uplifting”, and bears some similarities to the idea of Abolitionism, as advanced by philosopher David Pearce. Simply put, Abolitionism is the idea that humans and other animals could be (genetically) engineered so as not to suffer, while preserving the motivational structures that pain evolved to serve. Discussions of the viability of that idea are beyond the scope of this piece, so for now we must restrict ourselves to two simple observations:
(1) Abolitionism is, in principle at least, an explicit aspect of the Social Futurist philosophy. You can be an Abolitionist without considering yourself a Social Futurist, but all Social Futurists must inevitably at least recognise the Abolitionist ideal as one that is compatible with Social Futurist Principle.
(2) That said, Abolitionism is not only an incredibly ambitious technical project, but it also comes with many attendant ethical challenges. Social Futurists are committed to taking those challenges seriously, not as a priori reasons to ban augmentation of animal biology, but as issues to be properly addressed before such work can be undertaken in a manner which is in accord with our principles.
For a whirlwind tour of potential issues, consider the following questions: What potential unforeseen consequences of such alteration might we encounter? How do we approach the matter of voluntary/desired “suffering” in humans? Is that even a real phenomenon, or does desired suffering cease to be true suffering? Can such a thing exist for animals? What about a little melancholy of the sort that has inspired the greatest poets; does that count? On what grounds should humans be able to refuse such alteration, for themselves or their children? Is it a problem that animals cannot give consent? What purely technical risks exist? (i.e. What might go wrong? How, and how badly?) How can such risks be mitigated? And so on.
3.3 Transhumanism as Radical Ecology
Beyond human nature itself, and that of other animals, the third part of our world is our environment (in the “green”, ecological sense). Just as we could in principle improve human and animal nature through the reasoned application of high technology, we could also do the same for the environment. Although technological development and expansion of the human population have caused a lot of environmental damage, the most effective solution to that problem is not to abandon technology altogether (even if that were a realistic option, which it is not). Although technology misapplied has caused considerable problems, the best way to solve those problems is to apply newer, higher technology in an intelligent and principled manner.
What kind of solutions are we talking about, specifically? Nanotechnology will be able to clean pollutants from air, soil, and water. Alternatives to fossil fuels already exist, and are only blocked by political-economic (i.e. Capitalist) interests. Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP) has the potential to render all other fuel resources redundant, even if our civilizational power needs grew to be a thousand times what they are now. The possibility of offworld-living is regularly mocked, but it is not nearly as crazy as people tend to imagine. Decimated rainforests can be replaced with a combination of less reliance on them as a raw resource (who needs wood when vastly advanced synthetic materials are cheaply available?) and genetic engineering to re-establish species on the brink of extinction. We can heal this planet, if we so choose, and that would just be the beginning.
3.4 End Game: Augmenting Intelligence in a World of Natural Stupidity
All of these things are technically feasible, at least in principle. One approach – or even ten thousand – may fail, but we only need one to succeed. The real obstacle is humanity itself, and its stubborn adherence to narrow-minded, old-fashioned ways of thinking and acting. As I have explained in the previous parts of this series, we must break the chains of the past and its conventional moralities if we are to survive and thrive, as a species and a civilization.
Transhumanists and Social Futurists seek not only to create Artificial Intelligences, but to augment our own minds and bodies. To move beyond outmoded constraints, and become more. The world is full of stupidities – some merely regrettable and others dangerously wilful – and we can no longer allow them to hold us back. We must transcend ignorance by all means necessary, save ourselves, and save the planet in doing so.