In the academic year 2015-2016 I was the co-director, with my colleague Naomi Stubbs, of a faculty seminar on Technology, Self, and Society. This was part of a larger three year project funded by a grant from the NEH and supported by LaGuardia’s Center for Teaching and Learning. During my year as co-director the theme was Techno-Humanism and Transhumanism. You can see the full schedule for the seminar at the earlier link but we read four books over the year (in addition to many articles). In the Fall 2015 semester we read The Technohuman Condition by Braden Allenby, and Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom. In the Spring semester we read The Future of the Mind by Michio Kaku, and Neuroethics, an anthology edited by Martha Farah. In addition to the readings Allenby and Kaku both gave talks at LaGuardia and since we had room for one more talk we invited David Chalmers who gave his paper on The Real and the Virtual (see short video for Aeon here).
All in all this was a fantastic seminar and I really enjoyed being a part of it. I was especially surprised to find out that some of the other faculty had used my Terminator and Philosophy book in their Science, Humanism and Technology course (I thought I was the only one who had used that book!). The faculty came from many different disciplines ranging from English to Neuroscience and I learned quite a bit throughout the process. Two things became especially clear to me over the course of the year. The first is that many of my view can be described as Transhumanist in nature. The second is that a lot of my views can be described as Existentialist in nature.
The former was unsurprising but the latter was a bit surprising. I briefly studied Sartre and Existentialism as an undergraduate at San Francisco State University from 1997-1998 and I was really interested in Sartre’s work after that (i.e. I searched every book store in SF for anything Sartre related, bought, read it, and argued endlessly with anyone around about whether there was ‘momentum’ in consciousness). However once I got to Graduate School (in 2000) I began to focus even more on psychology, neuroscience, and the philosophy of mind and I gradually lost contact with Sartre. I have never really kept up with the literature in this area (but I have recently read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entries on Sartre and Existentialism), haven’t read Sartre in quite a while (but I did get out my copy of Being and Nothingness and Existentialism is a Humanism a couple of times during the seminar), and don’t work on any explicitly Sartrean themes in my published work (though there are connections between higher-order theories of consciousness and Sartre) but during this last year I found myself again and again appealing to distinctly Sartrean views, or at least Sartrean as I remembered it from being an undergraduate! By the end of it all I came to the view that Existential Transhumanism is an interesting philosophical view and probably is a pretty good descriptor for what I think about these issues. So, all that having been said, please take what follows with a grain of salt.
The core idea of existentialism as I understand it is a claim about the nature of persons and it is summed up in Sartre’s dictum that ‘existence precedes essence’. Whatever a person is you aren’t born one. You become one by acting, or as Sartre might put it, we create ourselves through our choices. Many interpret that claim as somehow being at odds with physicalism (Sartre was certainly a dualist) while I do not. But what does this mean? It helps to invoke the distinction between Facticity and Transcendence. Facticity relates to all of the things that are knowable about me from a third person point of view. It is what an intense biographer could put together. But I am not merely the sum total of those facts. I am essentially a project. An aiming toward the future. This aiming towards something is the way in which Sartre interpreted the notion of intentionality. All consciousness, for him, was necessarily directed at something that was not itself part of consciousness. This is why Sartre says ‘I am not what I am and I am what I am not”. I am not what I am in the sense of not being merely my facticity. I am what I am not in the sense that I am continually creating myself and turning myself into something that I was not previously.
Turning now for the moment to Transhumanism, I interpret this in roughly the same way as the World Transhumanist Association does. That is, as an extension of Humanism. Reason represents the best chance that Human Beings have of accomplishing our most cherished beliefs. These beliefs are enshrined in many of the world’s great religions and espouse principle of universality (all are equal in some sense), and compassion. Transhumanists see technology, at least in part, as a way of enhancing human reason and so as a way of overcoming our natural limitations.
One objection to this kind of project is that we could modify ourselves to the point of no longer being human, or to the point of our original selves not existing any further. Here I think the existentialist idea that there are no essential properties required to be human can help. We are defined by the fact that we are ‘a being whose being is in question’. That is we are essentially the kind of thing which creates itself, which aims towards something that is not yet what it is. Once one takes this kind of view one sees there is no danger in modifying ourselves. This seems to me to be very much in line with the general idea that the kinds of modifications the transhumanist envisions are not different in kind from the kind we have always done (shoes, eyeglasses, etc). Even if we are able to upload our minds to a virtual environment we may still be human by the existentialist definition.
In addition, another objection which was the central objection in the Allenby book, is that the Transhumanist somehow assumes a notion of the individual, as an independent rational entity, which doesn’t really exist. This may be the case but here I think that existentialism is very handy in helping us respond. The kind of individual envisioned by the Enlightenment thinkers may not exist but one way of seeing the transhumanist project is as seeking to construct such a being.
Enlightenment, in Kant’s immortal words, is
….man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’- that is the motto of enlightenment
To this the transhumanist adds that Kant may have been wrong in thinking that we have enough reason and simply need the courage to use it. We may need to make ourselves into the kinds of rational beings which could fulfill the ideals of the Enlightenment.
There is a lot more that I would like to say about these issues but at this point I will briefly mention two there themes that don’t have much to do with existentialism. One is from Bostrom (see a recent talk of his at NYU’s Ethics of A.I. conference). One of Bostrom’s main claims is what he calls the orthogonality thesis. This is the claim that intelligence and values are orthogonal to each other. You can pair any level of intelligence with any goal at all. This may be true for intelligence but I certainly don’t believe it is true for rationality.
Switching gears a bit I wanted to mention David Chalmers’ talk. I found his basic premise to be very convincing. The basic idea seemed to be that virtual objects count as real in much the same way as concrete objects do. When one is in a virtual environment (I haven’t been in one yet but I am hoping to try a Vive or a Playstation VR set soon!) and one interacts with a virtual dragon, there really is a virtual object that is there and that one is interacting with. The fundamental nature of this object is computational and there are some data structures that interact in various ways so as to make it roughly the same as ordinary objects and their atomic structure. Afterwards I asked if he thought the same was true for dreams. It seemed to me that many of the same arguments could be given for the conclusion that in one’s dreams one interacted with dream objects which were real in the same way as virtual objects. He said that perhaps but it depended on whether one was a functionalist about the mind. It seems to me that someone like Chalmers, who thinks that there is a computational/functional neural correlate for conscious states, is committed to this kind of view about dreams (even though he is a dualist). Dream objects should count as real on Chalmers’ view.