E-tika podcast: Transhumanism

The E-tika podcast series focuses on social and ethical dimensions of digital technologies. We discussed many interesting topics with guests from different relevant areas of expertise in the second season. As the podcast is in Slovak only, we decided to bring you an english summary of each of the episodes. 

Transhumanism is a social and philosophical movement that advocates the development and use of various technologies for the enhancement of current human physical and cognitive abilities. It consists of multiple strands, but shares a common desire to make human existence more bearable

In this episode, the E-Tika podcast welcomed Martin Farbák, who is a doctoral student at the Department of Philosophy and History of Philosophy at Comenius University in Bratislava. In his research, he deals with current issues in transhumanism and its visions of biochemical enhancement of humans. 

In order to get a better understanding of what transhumanism is, it is necessary to briefly mention its historical and philosophical underpinnings. As the word suggests, it is humanism that is at the core of transhumanist thinking. Trans- refers to a notion of change, of movement from humanism to posthumanism, from “old human” to “new human”. More specifically, it is renaissance humanism and later modern philosophical and enlightenment rational thinking. It was in the writings of authors such as Nietzsche or Darwin where humans were the central figures, able to shape the world and themselves in ways previously unthought of. 

It is in light of these thought developments we can best understand what today’s transhumanism stands for. It is a continuation of humanistic thought and utilitarian ideals. Its proponents believe that scientific and technological developments can help and benefit humanity as such – solve poverty, hunger or treat diseases

In order to achieve these goals, transhumanism does not shield itself from using biochemical, cybernetic or genetic engineering. It might not seem like it, but current science already allows us to do things that we have previously only imagined in sci-fi books or movies. At the same time, however, there is constant fear and risk that such technological and scientific developments would be used for unfair or evil goals. 

In his research, Martin is currently focusing on two aspects of transhumanism and their relations – love and happiness. There are various transhumanistic perspectives on these areas of life. It often proposes a rather narrow vision where such emotions are downplayed to simple chemical reactions. 

Certain technological developments would then allow us to enhance our emotional wellbeing and happiness. Some transhumanists suggest that certain chemical compounds should be used to augment and intensify our love relationships. Similarly, happiness is understood as something that can be enhanced through biochemical engineering. 

This is to some extent already happening in medical research, where some substances are used in experimental treatments of PTSD or certain forms of autism. Using biochemical engineering and substances by healthy people is however perceived as problematic. This has to do with the fact that it is often the various crises and hardships that we overcome that shape our identity and help us develop. A lot of what we consider valuable and important in our lives comes out of experiences that were painful or negative

Transhumanistic thought is inherently related to the notions of human nature. Historically, humankind has been very successful in adapting to the environment and using it to create tools and technologies that help us survive. In situations when our vision is poor, we start wearing glasses. Technologies are often understood as tools and as our extensions. It is however also important to think about and reflect on the consequences of developments where science and technology become central to our existence and to human nature as such. Today, we have the technological capacities to augment embryos. This opens up a variety of possibilities but also ethical and moral considerations – to what extent would prenatal enhancement of humans affect their autonomy and dignity? 

From a transhumanist perspective, enhancement does not always have to relate to physical or cognitive abilities of humans. It can also include moral enhancement.  There are proponents of using all available technoscientific means in order to enhance our moral capacities. They often argue that our current moral capacities evolved very slowly and in radically different contexts. Thus, they are not sufficient for today’s world. 

The biological source of our morality is said to be playing a more crucial role than the various socio-cultural factors. From this perspective, our capacity to do good would not be trained by everyday experiences and norms, but rather imposed into our brains through various biochemical procedures

Here at KInIT, we often discuss the notions of values and ethics in relation to artificial intelligence. This is no coincidence, as also transhumanism often embraces artificial intelligence and its potential to benefit humanity, but at the same time contemplates on the ethical risks associated with it. According to transhumanists, AI has the potential to increase our cognitive capacities. However, it remains a question of how to conceive AI as an entity of its own. What consequences will it have on our perception of what it means to be human? These are all crucial questions still to be answered.