Libby Emmons, editor-in-chief at The Post Millennial, Canada’s non-Woke “young” media outlet, offered some unexpected thoughts on transhumanism, the idea that we must take charge of the evolution of our species — sometimes expressed in the idea that we can upload ourselves as digital entities and live forever. Emmons is not sure that transhumanism is really a form of liberation.
With the widespread acceptance of human augmentation, bio-tech, AI, and transgenderism, we are removing agency from the human body, and granting it entirely to the mind. But our humanity lies not in our consciousness, but in the biological bodies from which that consciousness arises. It is our bodies that suffer pain and spectacular sensation, and that feed our minds with data about the external world and our relationship to it. In its various forms, transhumanism is an attempt to reify an illusory mind-body dualism that has consequences well beyond what we can currently imagine. This is an idea that is advancing without a constituency. As long as transhumanists are the only ones focused on the issue, they can effect enormous changes in the absence of a large constituent base, because ethics conversations lag behind huge advancements in tech and identity politics.
But concerns we perceive to be on the fringes of culture, or esoteric and only vaguely relevant to some distant future, are in fact part of a giant ideological redefinition of humanity. If we do not attend to these debates and their implications, we are going to awaken one day to find that developments have overtaken us, that it’s too late, and that our bodies are of no importance. What we forget is that the mind must serve the humanity of the body — in suffering, joy, pleasure, pain, tickles, itches, even death. Without that submission, the mind is nothing but ego, without any checks on its power or influence. To be a mind without a body is to have no relationship to the physical world, and no stake in it. If we perceive ourselves and others to be disembodied minds piloting meat machines — bodies of mere matter that do not matter — what horror will we be capable of inflicting on the bodies of others? When we renounce our humanity, we forget what it means to inflict pain and to suffer.
Choice, the determining factor, resides with each individual alone. The transhumanists are right in at least one respect: the responsibility for humanity lies not with the state, nor any NGO, but with each of us. In awarding the mind complete power and authority over the flesh, we are not liberating ourselves, but submitting to the oppression of a consciousness we do not yet properly understand. The risk is that we only belatedly realise that transhumanism is oppression disguised as liberation.Libby Emmons, “The Transhumanism Revolution: Oppression Disguised as Liberation” at Quillette (July 11, 2018)
Emmons’s concerns are well-advised. But a problem arises. If she thinks that human consciousness merely arises from the human body, she is adhering to one pole (physicalism or “body only” ) while the transhumanist adheres to the other one (all mind and we can radically alter or dispense with the body). She does not make clear in this thoughtful essay whether she is a physicalist or rather accepts the intrinsically dual nature of the human being (mind and body).
That’s important because it is not clear what problems physicalism would solve. That is, if we are merely physical beings, there is no mind to bother with; the mind is an illusion and we are driven by our genes and our environment. The mind uploaded to artificial intelligence would then be a robotic mind anyway, by the way. But there would be, on the physicalist view, no other kind so that wouldn’t matter.
Traditional dualism (the human being is inescapably both mind and body) enables a proper critique of transhumanist fantasies.
On Sunday, we will be looking at a dialogue between neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and theology of science professor Joshua Farris on Cartesian dualism: For that point of view, what works and what doesn’t?
Note: Emmons provides some useful reflections on transgenderism as a form of transhumanism.
You may also wish to read: With transhumanism, what happens to human rights? The transhumanist accepts suffering for the individual if suffering can advance the evolution of the species toward immortality and singularity. (J. R. Miller)