A Critique of Transhumanism by a Transhumanist

A list of my own criticisms of the transhumanist movement.

Content warning: discussion of suicide

Nothing is exempt from criticism, not even the cause that I wholeheartedly support. Unfortunately, many criticisms I've found aren't quite objective enough, tending to be based in fear of change and reactionary politics. People are wise to be concerned, but the validity of their concerns flies out the window when they contain the "sacredness" of nature, gender essentialism, or antisemitism masquerading as a warning against some cabal of reptilian overlords.

So, I've compiled a list of my far less ridiculous criticisms that I hope other transhumanists as well as non-transhumanists will take more seriously. Note that it's likely to be updated in the future.

Nature is not evil.

When it comes to the subject of the great outdoors, there are usually two kinds of people: those who romanticize everything untouched by man (or, to be more accurate, industrialism) and those who think the wilderness is the literal incarnation of the Devil. Both need a reality check.

Transhumanists, unsurprisingly, tend to fall into the latter group. The reason humans left the wilderness should be obvious: for sentient and creative, yet biologically needy and disease-prone forms of decaying organic matter such as ourselves, it kind of sucks. Even low-tech communities protect themselves against the elements with huts and practice traditional healing medicine, taking certain materials from the earth to promote their own well-being (with the major difference being the scale compared to industrial societies).

Those of us in the industrial world can find ourselves craving greener lives because, not only are they simpler and more liberating than congested, asphalt-covered towns and cities, but we've also forgotten exactly how harsh and dangerous life was for our nomadic ancestors. The industrial world offers a level of comfort and safety that cannot be found elsewhere, allowing us to admire the "natural" world from afar. Of course, it also makes us reliant on a lot of things we don't actually need, but I digress.

It's not that nature hates us or wants to kill us. If that were the case, we would have never had the chance to survive. No life form would exist. Nature is not some all-encompassing entity with a will of its own. Nature is all forces and processes that have no concept of humanity, just like the rest of our vast and largely empty, indifferent universe. We cannot condemn an amoral thing that is nothing more than a human construct.

What we can condemn are other people's desires to emulate their perceptions of nature, one of which is "survival of the fittest." Natural selection is often misunderstood to mean that nature intended only the strongest to survive, leading some primitivists to believe that the Industrial Revolution weakened the human gene pool. Although it's true that it introduced many diseases and disabilities, all are believed to have been allowed to bypass evolutionary standards and treated with modern medicine when they would've been phased out with natural selection.

Besides the fact that this is a pretty clear argument for eugenics, it isn't how nature actually works. Any behavior or way of adapting to the environment that leads to an expansion of a population is what makes a species "fit." The ill and disabled may not be "fit" individually, but natural selection doesn't care about "good genes." The most that nature "intends" is survival and reproduction, even if a species turns out to be a threat to the planet (and think not just humans, but also deer when their numbers are too high).

Death is sometimes desirable.

In transhumanist communities, you'll encounter plenty of anti-death sentiment. This is understandable: death is essentially a tragedy. It robs us of our lives and relationships. It's an unfortunate part of our existence, but only because we don't have a choice when our bodies fail to continue functioning. If we could maintain good health by default and reverse aging, not having to have death forced upon us by our biology, transhumanists would surely be friendlier toward the grim reaper.

There are some transhumanists, however, who can't seem to understand why anyone would want to die if we had all the medical wonders ever. Life is beautiful and has boundless potential for experience and creativity. Why would anyone want to opt out, unless they suffer with severe mental and/or physical illness? Even so, I've seen a few say there isn't possibly anything worse than the cessation of consciousness, and that almost everyone who's ever existed should be resurrected someday and death should be defeated altogether.

Here's a hard-to-swallow pill for transhumanists and non-transhumanists alike: life isn't for everyone. The desire to opt out is not always an internal problem (I'm looking at you, industrial society), but even if it is, not everyone would want to be "cured" and turned into a life-loving enthusiast. Whether someone decides they want to leave at 30 years old or 7,000 years old should really be nobody's business but their own.

Unfortunately, we live in a world that is extremely uncomfortable with the idea of giving people that much power over their lives. A person's friends and family (if they have any) expect them to keep pushing through to old age because life is about the struggle, which is supposed to make it worth living—except nobody asks for life in the first place. People get horny like every other animal and make babies without contemplating the risks and consequences. Peter Wessel Zapffe said it best: "A coin is examined, and only after careful deliberation, given to a beggar, whereas a child is flung out into the cosmic brutality without hesitation."

Should there be regulations in place, such as a 30-day waiting period, to ensure nobody makes the most permanent decision on impulse? I think so. We should consider how a person's loved ones would be affected and give them as well as the individual in question time to process and prepare. But neither friends, family, nor the government should get the final say. It doesn't matter how good life is or how well things could turn out. We are not truly free if we don't have the option to exercise ultimate control over our lives and cease existing.

Not all pain is needless.

Not every transhumanist is a negative utilitarian, but those who have suffering-focused ethics often believe that all pain is bad and should be eradicated instead of merely reduced. David Pearce, a fellow transhumanist and author of The Hedonistic Imperative, believes in a noble cause to use biotechnology to replace states of pain and suffering with gradients of bliss. I linked to the manifesto on my Links page, but not because I agree with everything that's written. I think it's worth considering and forces us to question our sense of morality. That doesn't mean I don't think there's anything short-sighted about it.

Pain is complex. It's uncomfortable and undesirable (unless you're into that), yet it drives us to survive and achieve, to evolve. Without it, where would we be as a species? Most agree that pain is necessary and so is suffering to a certain extent. Some of the greatest works of art were created out of grief and despair, and it is these emotions that can connect so many people and prompt us to find deeper meaning and fulfillment.

That isn't to say great art can't be created without great suffering, but clearly not all pain is unnecessary and useless. Would the world be a better place if we had "gradients of bliss" instead? It sounds as if it should be, but it's difficult to imagine such a vastly different timeline that has remotely no evidence of happening any time soon. Humans are extremely diverse and differ in their wants and ideals. The last thing they will do is agree to assimilate into some Borg-like hive mind that believes all pain should be done away with.

I, personally, would not be interested in raising my hedonic set-point to a naturally blissed-out level, and surely there will be others in the future who sympathize. It's not that I believe a natural state of happiness would make me lazy or kill my brain cells. That isn't happiness, that's depression (which can actually cause cognitive damage). Raising my set-point would possibly change my entire identity, destroying my feelings about certain experiences that made me who I am. Whether you disagree or think that would be a good thing doesn't matter because we're different people with different feelings and experiences. You aren't entitled to controlling me (and vice versa).

It should be our moral imperative to reduce pain and suffering not through coercion, but by making the technologies optional. Happier and healthier people are given to be more inspired and productive. We can still desire things, and the only way to manifest those things is to work toward them. You don't have to be crying and bleeding and throwing fists to make strides in life. But some people enjoy the fight, the struggle. Some people like to be on fire, so to speak, and I imagine this addiction to pain will persist like the addiction to life.

I don't intend to sound reductive. The technologies to switch off pain and raise one's hedonic set-point will probably be available someday, but the belief that everyone will use them to the max is ignoring the diversity of the human experience. Pain is an inherent part of life that does good and bad for us. It's a matter of what pain we want to keep and what pain we want to be rid of as individuals. Answers will vary, as they should.

"Disabilities" aren't necessarily disabilities.

Transhumanists tend to forget that the term "transhumanism" was coined by a eugenicist, Julian Huxley. Although the definition of transhumanism has evolved since then and now has mental and physical freedom at its core, its supporters (more so the libertarian types) often forget that and expect humanity to transcend all its weaknesses and impairments.

Deaf culture, for example, is completely alien to some transhumanists. They can't understand why anyone would want to remain deaf if a cure were available and say things like, "Nobody who can hear would ever consider getting rid of their hearing," as if suddenly being able to hear would automatically provide so much more meaning to one's life. There are certainly people whose lives are improved with, say, cochlear implants, but there are others who find the unfamiliar sensory input an overwhelming nuisance.

I understand where transhumanists are coming from. They just want a world with significantly less suffering and more opportunities to expand our mental and physiological abilities. But we get stereotyped as "rationalist nerds who are completely disconnected" for a reason. We have our Silicon Valley tech bros who want everyone to become perfect, ageless beings that don't require sustenance or health care, and our utopian, anti-theist futurists who think the extinction of religion and spirituality will birth a Star Trek universe. We can't always get mad at other people for mocking us.

Let's consider what actually makes a disability a disability. For those of us who live in industrial societies, there are many "disabilities" that are simply behaviors of which are not compatible with the system. You might not like primitivists, especially those who have sent bombs to people, but Ted Kaczynski makes a startling revelation: "Our society tends to regard as a sickness any mode of thought or behavior that is inconvenient for the system and this is plausible because when an individual doesn't fit into the system it causes pain to the individual as well as problems for the system. Thus the manipulation of an individual to adjust him to the system is seen as a cure for a sickness and therefore as good."

Without such a greedy, dog-eat-dog system that only truly benefits those at the very top of the civilized pyramid, there would still be some disabilities as nature isn't perfect, but what would it take to call it a disability then? Personally, I'd consider it a condition that prevents you from interacting with the world in the way you want to. Not everyone with the same condition will have the same feelings, which doesn't and shouldn't invalidate yours. I'm not against searching for "cures" to so-called disabilities, but instead of calling them that, perhaps we should call them "modifications" because that's essentially what they are.

Religious and spiritual transhumanists exist and have existed.

It seems as though modern transhumanists have forgotten a few of their earliest predecessors, such as Albertus Magnus and Francis Bacon, both of whom were religious. The history of transhumanist thought isn't as secular as you'd imagine. We also have Micah Redding, a Christian transhumanist, as well as Lincoln Cannon and Blaire Ostler, both Mormon transhumanists.

Plenty of atrocities have been committed in the name of religion, but not all religions are the same, and not all are anti-science. Jainism, for example, is one belief system that tells its devotees to avoid causing as much suffering as possible. It also has a more empirical view of the universe compared to other systems, and although there's still the idea of souls and reincarnation, you're highly unlikely to find a Jain trying to spread their beliefs through violence or political control.

But some people, including certain transhumanists, are not okay with the idea of coexistence. According to them, all religious and spiritual thought is inherently harmful, as it encourages delusion and disinformation about the world around us. What they don't seem to be aware of is that this line of thinking replaces one fallible source with another: science.

Being fallible is not a bad thing. Fallibility makes learning and growing possible. Science observes the world as it interacts with our five most used senses. It's the best we have in regards to understanding and manipulating the things we can see, smell, taste, hear, and touch, but it doesn't have all the answers. We're humans. We're flawed and limited. We don't and can't possibly know everything. This is why we have religion and spirituality—things that can fill in the blanks that science, at this point in time, cannot.

Wanting to rid the world of religion and spirituality is advocating genocide against an integral part of humanity, one that has birthed artworks, cultures, brilliant minds, and creative archetypes and perspectives that have made us wonder what it means to be human. Yes, they have given us wars and witch hunts and Jim Jones, but so have hunger and lust and greed, all of which predate religious and spiritual thought.

Technology isn't the answer to everything.

A popular transhumanist belief is that technology can and will solve all our problems, from mental illness to climate change. Technology very well has the potential, but without fixing the way we live and use things, how can we expect technology to fix the problems that we created in the first place?

Transhumanists have a tendency to view technology as a Messiah, similar to how Christians view Jesus. It's easier to pin responsibility on technology than to take responsibility for ourselves. It's easier to avoid looking for alternative ways to tackling the problems of the human condition and the system. Rather than, for example, intending to pump yourself with insulin once you develop diabetes from consuming too many refined sugars, just change your diet. Let yourself and nature heal.

Humans are highly innovative, but time and time again we're shown that we can't innovate ourselves out of everything. It's true that the rise of agriculture has resulted in a significantly improved standard of living. People in industrial societies, even the poor, are living in luxurious conditions compared to Medieval European peasants who lived in filth and squalor. But there have been serious trade-offs and consequences that can't all be fixed with more technology.

The problem is that humans, especially Americans, refuse to change. We want more and better without having to fully understand the tech we're using, the people behind it, and its impact on the environment. We want things to magically change around us without having to sacrifice unnecessary and unsustainable parts of our lifestyles. Technology can't fix ignorance or greed; we have to address them ourselves or accept the wall we will eventually hit.

Capitalism guarantees that transhumanist tech will be owned by corporations.

This is an even harder-to-swallow pill for transhumanists, one that is commonly argued against with "new tech becomes more available over time," which isn't really the point. The problem is how unregulated capitalism is, allowing corporations to get away with things that would get the average person locked up in a heartbeat.

Nobody is paranoid for thinking that Neuralink and Facebook making free internet available in Africa are potentially dangerous. A brain chip that can assist the paralyzed and free internet are great ideas on the surface, but the companies executing them are a different story. Silicon Valley execs aren't the most ethical people, as anyone who isn't completely ignorant would know (watch The Social Dilemma). In-brain advertisements or subscriptions could very well become a reality, and the catch to using Facebook's internet is having to use the app, granting it power and control over the world view of its users.

I don't believe our dysfunctional system, which consequently screws over the working class and allows the rich to get richer and greedier, can be reformed. The sad fact is that the vast majority of the population doesn't want to shake up the status quo too much. Sure, leftists demand basic rights for all such as health care, but they usually dismiss issues surrounding big government and Big Tech. Most aren't willing to delete their social media accounts and reclaim their data and privacy rights. They aren't interested in dismantling centralization and moving to the decentralized sliver of the web, such as Neocities (because there isn't an easy-peasy site builder or enough censorship).

Developers, engineers, and biohackers that aren't looking to make a profit need to build their own tools and communities. The only way to ensure technology serves nothing more than the people is to keep it decentralized and open source. As Audre Lorde said, "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." In other words, Big Tech is too powerful to be destroyed. Too many people don't care and will continue to not care. The best we can do, as decentralization and open-source tech advocates, is reach out to those who are willing to decrease their use of centralized technologies.