Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Transhumanism and "meaning"

I must admit that one early indoctrination I had into transhumanism was the film Total Recall.

The original, that is.

In it, a man is given the opportunity to upload "false" memories into his mind. False or not, these memories would feel like legit, "really happened" experiences to this man. This prompted a protracted...and honestly fairly deep for 19 year-olds...discussion with a friend about the underlying principles of the film. Was the story we saw portrayed real? Did it happen to the character or was it all an implanted memory? What is "real"? And if the memories were not real, are they any less meaningful to the holder?

This question of meaning arose for me once more as I read an article at Singularity Weblog. Written by Matt Frohlich, the thinkpiece was entitled "Transhumanism Needs to Establish a Meaning to Life."  It's a meditative piece that is quite heavy on philosophical reasoning. So much so that I still find myself mulling over its full ramifications. It's a somewhat Pickwickian take on the mode of thought with which transhumanism is approached. Maybe that's why I'm still thinking about it.

Frohlich wastes no time stating his thesis in the first sentence: "It is important that the transhumanist movement establish a consensus on the meaning of life. Failure to do so will result in conflict, the extent of which is difficult to predict." Like many schools of thought, transhumanism is indeed a loose confederation. As such, "consensus" can be an elusive devil. Frohlich also asserts that there are three motivations for transhumanism: utilitarianism, freedom, and meaning. He further contends, and not without a large degree of merit, that these motivations can be conflicting and at times contradictory.

As to the latter point, I think that the majority of "movements" have contradictory aspects to them. That should not be seen as unusual. The issue of "meaning" is much trickier. Matt Frohlich cites numerous examples from the book Brave New World, warning of an existence where suffering is all but banished. The people of BNW are profoundly happy, but their lives are ultimately meaningless. No argument there. Then again, by what yardstick are we measuring "meaning?" How many of us would meet the bar these days? I'm not entirely sure that I would. Then again, this may be the exact sort of thing that the author is arguing for transhumanists to button down.

Without consciously intending to stray from the arguments addressed in the piece, wandering off on a tangent is exactly what my mind did. In fact I got downright self-centered. How do I define "meaning" in my life? How will transhumanism help me to achieve it? First question first.

You might say I've been on a lifelong search for meaning. Many of us are, I suppose. I find meaning in achievement. By that I mean working with my mind to produce writing and thought that can help us consider and understand our world, and if I might be so grandiose, to act for the world's betterment. Failing that, then maybe the betterment of the individual lives of my students.

Yeah, I've just never been able to see any meaning in a life that makes and sells widgets for somebody.

How does transhumanism come in? My shirttail response is: it will help me to optimally pursue said meaning. Through transhumanism, I may be able to assume control of my biology and thereby nimbly avoid disease and ward off aging. I will have the blessing of more time, more time to pursue that which I value and that which gives my life meaning. Taking it further, transhumanism may allow me to enhance my mental abilities, giving me the means to accomplish even more and to set even higher goals. If taken to an extreme point, one where I would not require food or shelter, I would not be dependent on an income to "make my living." That's a rather pie-in-the-sky scenario, but it is one that would allow me to full-on pursue what is meaningful to me without any regard to finances.

What about this riff on Total Recall: I get uploaded and become disembodied intellect and consciousness. What then? Am I, like the memories from that film, not "real"? That said, those memories were real to the ones remembering them. Does that not suggest a meaning? At least on one level? "Meaning" may need to be redefined as we enter more virtual states of being.

Yeah, it's all something of a mind-bender but I can't help but think about it.

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