Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Inherit the Earth

I consider myself a transhumanist--that is to say, I have an interest in ideas about modifying and improving the human body and mind through technology. No, I do not think the Strong AI In the Sky will solve all our problems overnight, though I cannot discount the possibility, either. It seems likely that changes will occur within my natural lifespan which would have been unthinkable at the time of my birth--or even now.

I recognize that misusing technology can spell dire consequences for humanity and the Earth. However, fear and luddism make poor strategies for averting such consequences. No amount of regulation or doomsaying is going to forestall technological progress now. The key to ethical and beneficial advancement lies in understanding technology and making it accessible to more people.

Not just for lightsaber-related injuries!
Transhumanism is an enormous complex of ideas. Here, I would like to focus on the acceptability of human augmentation or modification.

I believe in the right to modify the human body on a voluntary basis. That goes for tattoos, piercings, plastic surgery, cybernetic prostheses, gene therapy, et al. I do think that regulatory/medical oversight should exist for some procedures. However, if I want to amputate my right hand and replace it with a prosthesis at my own expense, I should be permitted to do so. (Edit: I understand the current limitations of prosthetic technology; I am speaking hypothetically in order to underline a philosophical issue.)

Say I lost my hand in a tragic lighsaber...'accident'. Most people would find it understandable if I seek a replacement, and see nothing unethical about it. What if the injury only rendered my fingers useless? Or just less dexterous? What if the hand worked fine but never stopped hurting? I do not see a rational justification for drawing an arbitrary line and saying, "You must be this impaired to seek treatment."

It startles me how many people disagree, even with regard to existing procedures. Though tattoos and piercings have finally gained some degree of mainstream acceptance, many people seem to have reflexively negative opinions of other modifications. I have striven to understand these concerns, and have found the following three most common:

  1. Lack of desire for modification and inability/unwillingness to imagine why no one else would desire it.
  2. Belief that vanity (or some other moral failing) is the primary motivation for modification.
  3. Attachment to ideas of purity (e.g. "The body is a temple") or naturalness (e.g. regarding breast prostheses and implants as 'fake'), and seeing modification as detrimental to same.

I suspect these concerns will fade as the idea of modification becomes less novel. A much more serious potential barrier is the 'gatekeeper' mentality assumed by governments and the medical community toward certain elective procedures. The assumption is that medical information and advice are not sufficient to prevent individuals from making bad decisions. This is probably true in some cases, but I do not think it is right (or effective) to legislate common sense.

We live in exciting and perilous times, and it behooves us to think well on these matters. To be human is to strive and innovate, to overreach and learn from mistakes. Humanity will advance, that is a near certainty; how we do it, though, is still in the air. It is my hope and my goal that we find a way to move forward with wisdom and intent.


  1. My ex worked on an engineering team that constructed artificial limbs that could be controlled by thoughts (nerve impulses) rather than mechanically. It is a new technology not ready to be released mainstream yet, but exciting. I got to see people testing out the devices. Still, they're not as good as the human body. Mechanical parts wear out more quickly. There are limitations on the kind of weather you can use them in and activities you can do. The people in the test labs could drink a cup of water (a feat) but could not, say, chop wood -- or if they chose to, it could break the delicate parts.

    There's also danger in losing the limb as one would glasses (they bother some people so they take them off before sleep, for example). There is also no guarantee that a hand that hurt would hurt less with a new one -- the pain often originates near the spinal nerve root. My guess is that artificial limbs are still limited enough that it would be irresponsible for the medical community to allow people to choose one when it wasn't a necessity; people would have to truly understand the limitations. But maybe someday. :)

    1. I am aware of the current limitations of prosthetic technology, but also confident that they will resolve. The social/ethical/philosophical issues, however, show few signs of resolving, which is why they concern me and why I addressed them here. I do not agree that the medical community or the state should have the final say on such matters. The patient deserves to be fully informed/counseled, and to make his own decisions--for better or worse.

      From what you write, I extrapolate that you are comfortable with the idea prostheses being used on a fully elective basis (i.e. even when not 'medically necessary') when the technology matures. However, the negative attitudes most people have toward human modification are not founded in practical considerations of the procedures' limitations (as yours are).

  2. Yeah, good point. And I should have mentioned that, as it was the meat of your subject. It's true that we'll probably resolve the technical issues before the sociological ones.

    1. I should have also clarified that I do not actually want to replace my right hand. Yet. I might change my mind, though, if this thumb joint does not stop hurting. -_-

    2. Ha!! Awww, poor thumb. :)