What is post-humanism? Should we desire to become post-human?

The phrase post-humanism may not be one that is familiar to the average person, but for those who have studied medicine, technology or philosophy will certainly be aware of the term. But what does it mean?

Post-humanism is the idea that human beings will eventually reach a stage of extreme enhancement in health, physical capabilities, and cognitive functionality. Of course, this list is not exhaustive, but the enhancements mentioned are the main areas which we shall be concerned with in this article. In essence, this extreme enhancement could lead to a ‘post-human condition,’ (Bostrum, 2006). I am sure many people have wondered what it would be like to grow old without the subsequent decline in health, or perhaps an increased talent for easily ascertaining foreign languages. These examples would both be possible in the post-human condition.

It is important to note that this article does not seek to address the validity or plausibility of post-humanism, but instead aims to focus on the possible benefits and consequences if post-humanism is actualised.

Just to make sure it is clear what is meant by a post-human enhancement or capacity, I shall use Nick Bostrum’s* definition, that ‘a posthuman capacity, [is] a general central capacity greatly exceeding the maximum attainable by any current human being.’ When I refer to general capacity, I am thinking of the above-mentioned enhancements concerned with improved health, physical ability, and cognitive functionality.

As human beings drift towards the end of their lives, they often note how they wish they had learned more, travelled further and to actually learn the guitar. Let us now consider a post-human world. You, your friends and your loved ones, as well as everybody else, are living longer and more fulfilled lives. You age, but your health does not deteriorate, you have more time to learn new things and a greater cognitive ability to do so. The benefits are obvious and perhaps endless.

These human improvements in health and cognitive ability are understandable. By which I mean to say, we can conceive and picture what having improved health means and we can imagine what it would be like to be able to learn an entirely new language within a week. But thus far your capacities have improved only within the natural human range. Consider now a more advanced stage in your transition to post-humanism.

‘You have just celebrated your 170th birthday and you feel stronger than ever. Each day is a joy. You have invented entirely new art forms, which exploit the new kinds of cognitive capacities and sensibilities you have developed. You are communicating with your contemporaries using a language that has grown out of English over the past century and that has a vocabulary and expressive power that enables you to share and discuss thoughts and feelings that unaugmented humans could not even think or experience.’ (Bostrum, 2006)

Whilst ostensibly you are still a human being, at this stage of the transition into becoming post-human you are finding it increasingly hard to relate to regular human beings. It is no longer easy to relate to the struggles of non-post-humans since their concerns and fears are not shared by you. As a post-human you need not worry about finding a lump or your memory slowly fading. It is increasingly hard to be empathetic towards a group of people that, whilst superficially are the same, are in fact practically alien.

A separation of post-humans and humans seems inevitable. With such a separation it is inevitable feelings of discontent are likely to emerge, but could these feelings result in a negative relationship between humans and post-humans?

There are existential fears that post-human sceptics forward. Namely, that post-humans will become far too powerful and as a result, there is a risk that they could enslave or perhaps eliminate non-post-humans. But this doomsday prediction rests on the idea that post-humans will develop emotions dissimilar to regular humans. We certainly have the capabilities now to enslave or eliminate a certain type of human being if necessary or desired. Yet, generally, this does not happen.

This is because, on the whole, human beings have positive and good intentions. Generally speaking, humans are not constantly seeking genocide and enslavement of other, weaker humans. Therefore, it does not follow that post-humans will seek to enslave and murder regular humans.

But perhaps a legitimate concern is one around power. What would happen to existing power-structures if post-humanism actualised? Would post-humans rule over humans or would the two, now distinct species, have their own unique power structures? If the latter occurs what would this mean for relations between the two? It surely would be the case that both species of human would have separate visions for the future.

Surely the regular human would desire to become post-human, thus it could be the case that whilst the two species have unique power structures, the purpose of the regular human system could be to feed into post-human society. Namely, that those worthy of post-human status achieve it through their achievements in regular human society. The use of the term ‘worthy’ here is an interesting one, that is to say, if there were a selection process for becoming post-human, what would that look like?

Is becoming post-human done through economic means or is it achieved on merit? Considering that superior healthcare, technology, food, education and so forth is currently achieved through financial power, it is reasonable to assume that this would also be the case in becoming post-human. This raises the greater question, is it ethical to allow people to become post-human whilst leaving regular humans behind?

This question, whilst certainly interesting, is not as profound as initially thought. This is because there are many instances in our world currently that would fit the framework of that ethical dilemma. For example, western nations have far greater access to education, healthcare, and technology than any third-world country. Whilst this is a sad reality of the world, it does not stop us from taking advantage of the options available to us.

In fact, the argument could be made that it would not be ethical to prevent western civilizations from accessing superior education and healthcare simply because there are other geographical locations that do not have the same opportunities. The same argument could be made analogously for post-human development. It is perhaps unethical not to allow people to move to a post-human state, despite their being legitimate concerns that the post-human condition may not be available to all.

Many people in hospitals require organ transplants, but the amount of people in need of a new organ far outweighs the number of actual organs available. Therefore, as a result of circumstance it is the case that some people who need an organ transplant will not get one. But it does not logically follow to say that nobody should get an organ transplant because it cannot be done universally. In fact, it would be unethical to say such a thing. Therefore, this analogy further solidifies the idea that it would be unethical to prevent humans who could afford post-humanism status from achieving it.

Earlier, the critique of post-humanism was that it could lead to a divide amongst humans and non-humans. But could it also not be the case that as a result of post-human’s increased health and cognitive functions, they could contribute significantly more to society. Namely, as a result of the post-humans improved abilities, it is plausible to suggest they could generate more wealth, create new products and develop improved medical care that normal humans could benefit from.

For example, if more wealth than ever before is created as a result of post-humans, normal human beings could be compensated in the form of a universal basic income which would enable them to enjoy their shorter existence free from work. This would afford them the luxury of spending their time freely and how they wish, which would perhaps appease feelings of resentment towards post-humans.

Certainly, this example, and there are many others, could be a way of solving the delicate issue of division between humans and post-humans in the immediacy of the post-human transition. I would assume that eventually, after multiple generations of post-humans, the economy would be so healthy that even those who could previously not afford to make the post-human switch would be able to do so through post-human grants. This is because it is surely in the interest of post-humans to continue to expand their population since a greater collective of post-humans would enable far greater achievement and prosperity.

It is perhaps after this stage in the post-human transition that the greatest achievements of the human species could be actualised. Perhaps it is the stage that finally allows us to expand and live amongst the stars whilst simultaneously having the collective cognitive ability to understand the inner-workings of our universe and how it all began.

* Nick Bostrom is Professor in the Faculty of Philosophy at Oxford University and founding Director of the Future of Humanity Institute and of the Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology within the Oxford Martin School.

Photo credit: iStock

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