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RS17 - Transhumanism

Release date: September 12, 2010

What's so great about being human, anyway? The transhumanist movement -- epitomized by organizations like Humanity+ and blogs like Accelerating Future -- advocate the pursuit of technologies to fundamentally change the human condition, tinkering with our brain, bodies and genomes to make ourselves smarter, stronger, happier, and longer-lived.

But many people worry that tampering with human nature could have dire consequences for individuals and society alike. In Our Posthuman Future, political theorist Francis Fukuyama sums up the position of the bioconservatives when he warns that new technologies may "in some way cause us to lose our humanity -- that is, some essential quality that has always underpinned our sense of who we are and where we are going," he writes. In this episode of Rationally Speaking, Massimo and Julia ask, first, are the goals of transhumanism realistic, and second, are they desirable?

Comment on the episode teaser.

Julia's pick:  "Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?"

Massimo's pick: "Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error"

References (1)

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Reader Comments (10)

It's too bad you didn't have more time. One quick point about techno-optimism is that many so-called techno-optimists seem to really be techno-inevitabilists: If we don't build these technologies today, somebody else will eventually anyway, so we might as well do it now and try to influence the use of these emerging technologies toward desirable ends.

- Luke, transhumanist and techno-inveitabilist

September 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLuke

Just wanted to say, I love the podcast. You two manage to cram (at least) an hour's worth of information into every show. I tend to agree with the idea that looking for radical shifts in the paradigm is in general a bad idea (a bit like playing the lottery, really, only with no guaranteed payout). But at the same time, in the case of aging, if people are not looking at it as, as De Grey does, an engineering problem, shouldn't that view at least be explored somewhat? I admit, I don't have a good grasp on the literature surrounding aging, and I agree that his view is unlikely to have the radical benefits he wants, but I would guess, as a layman, that it would at least be worth something in a cost-benefit analysis. Of course, I could be wrong, that could have already been done, and I am simply ignorant. In any case, I still love the show and please, carry on.

September 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterIsaac Sherman

Julia, I wanted to ask you something. On your thoughts on cryogenics; regardless of the nature of the people who revive you, wouldn't it be better to be alive and in danger likely with, but even without, some hope of escape than, well, dead? I'd take my chances, personally, and I consider myself pretty risk averse as well.

September 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterIsaac Sherman

Hey Isaac, thanks! Regarding your question about cryonics: if I thought I could always opt out of my future life if it were too unpleasant, then sure, I'd be happy to take the chance. It's the thought that I might not be able to pull the plug on myself that gives me the willies. For example, if the revival is only partially successful, and I'm conscious but unable to communicate. Who knows how long I might live in that state, given that we're already assuming advanced future technologies?
I'd rather take a 100% chance of death now than even a tiny chance of an indefinitely long nightmare scenario.
And my criticism of the cryonics proponents is that they are too dismissive of the possibilities of such scenarios. I've never gotten the sense that they've honestly given the risks enough thought.

September 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJulia Galef

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September 17, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterswenter

I think that the main problem with waking up in the distant future is not the possibility that you faith will be in bad hands. It's the emotional response that could be quite traumatic. It will be very difficult to to adjust to a completely different environment. People will be over stimulated by technology that they don't know how to use, and they will have no friends of family. Unlike sci fi movies i suspect than many will be depresed and confused and I am not sure it worth it.

September 17, 2010 | Unregistered Commentergil

I can't say that I agree with you, Massimo.
Let's start with your analogy. You imply that in order to plan to get to the stars we should first develop technologies which are likely to get us to Neptune. So this seems to imply that incremental advances in rocket technologies that will get us to Neptune should be given higher priority than experimental science. I strongly disagree with this approach. No matter how good are our rockets, interstellar flight will remain impossible or at least impractical. If our goal is to travel to other star systems we need to look into radically different technologies like travel by wormholes or other forms of superluminary travel. Once we've mastered that, we can travel to Neptune in a practical way also.
Other analogies can be made: Telegraph as an ability to communicate with someone at incredible distances didn't come from incremental advances in previous forms of communication - being able to shout louder, or carry letters faster, but from exploring the unrelated field of electricity.
Similarly to achieve immortality we do not need to aim for 100 years as an intermediate step. We should aim for fixing the mechanisms that cause aging in the first place. In fact Aubrey De Grey identifies a few key mechanisms, and centers his research around them.
As to whether aging is a disease - I personally don't see any other way to perceive it. Aging causes a breakdown of the body and mind. It's a physical - as opposed to a metaphysical - process. How is this not a disease?
And if we accept that aging is a disease, then we can be warranted in saying that a lot of current research concentrates on treating the symptoms of this disease - whereas what we should be doing is concentrating on the cause.

September 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEugine

I'm a recent new listener to the podcast and have been catching up on the archive. So much intelligent skeptical discussion, so little time :)

Anyway, I get to Episode 17, Transhumanism. Frankly, I expected a 100 percent skeptical view of this, so I was surprised Julia gives it such credibility. Listening to Julia defend the various points that Massimo raised, I kept saying to myself, "I don't believe she's saying this". So often, Julia made statements along the lines of "I don't understand the details of it, but so-and-so says this, so it must be true", or "there are a lot of Transhumanist scientists working in that field of research." Where is Julia's skepticism?

I have to agree with Massimo on this, and go a little further to say that Transhumanists are as close to a cult without actually being one, a cult based on science-fiction technological dreams.

The ethical side of Transhumanism needs to be addressed more. This was touched on in the podcast, but, really, it borders on eugenics. Julia repeatedly referred to ageing as a disease, but this is clearly not so. Ageing is a nature's way of making room for a younger, more vigorous generation. One point not addressed is the effect on population size if a significant proportion of people were able to extend their lifespan by, say, fifty years. I agree with Massimo's point that this would very likely spark civil unrest.

Overall, I am astonished that a skeptical freethinker could have such positive opinion of the Transhumanist movement.

March 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterThomas54

There are so many things that human could do today. One main factor that help them a lot is the presence of technology that we do have.

events company in singapore

August 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAngel

while i appeciated the push back Massimo offered, his assertion that aging is not a disease because it's a "natural process" was unfortunate. cancer and heart disease and small pox are also natural processes. if he has a better thought out reason to draw a distinction between aging and disease, i'd be interested to hear it.

January 7, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterpalerobber

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