For the next six weeks I will be taking a special topics course, Philosophy of Singularity. This is the third post in a series of five where I will share my notes, definitions, summaries, and commentary from class lectures and discussions. These posts are living documents that I may edit, adapt, and develop as I gain more insights and information throughout the semester.
Summary and Personal Commentary
In Defense of Posthuman Dignity by Nick Bostrom
Nick Bostrom stated in his essay that one of the reasons posthumanity is feared because “the state of being posthuman might in itself be degrading, so that by becoming posthuman we might harm ourselves.” Likewise, one of the concerns towards transhumanism is the idea of losing humanity, dignity, or dehumanizing ourselves. However, there is no reason to believe that posthumans, though no longer human, cannot possess dignity. Dehumanizing is an interesting word. I suspect some who uses it mean to convey subhumanization, treating a person as less than human (see Merriam-Webster definitions below). For instance, slavery, indentured servitude, gender supremacy, extreme racism, or other forms of oppression constitute as subhumanization. I would consider subhumanization a negative form of dehumanization.
On the other hand, if being susceptible to polio is a quality of the human condition, then please dehumanize me. Vaccinate me and deprive me of that human quality and limitation, but dehumanizing isn’t often used with a positive connotation. When a parent puts sunscreen on their child’s back we don’t say, “Look at that thoughtful parent dehumanizing their child, because being susceptible to UV rays isn’t a necessary part of the human condition.” Definitionally, dehumanizing ourselves and each other is something we do every day. There are aspects of being human that aren’t desirable: disease, aging, cognitive limitations, physical limitations, etc. and to transform ourselves to be resistant to those aspects is also what makes us human. This is why we brush our teeth, take vitamins, and get vaccinations—we are compensating for or transcending unwanted aspects of the human condition.
For example, poor eyesight is part of the human condition. To overcome this human aspect, we have glasses, contact lenses, and Lasik eye surgery. Many people don’t have a concern about people with Lasik eye surgery having any less human dignity. So why is it a concern if we invent eye surgery to enhance a person with already functional eyesight? I suspect it has to do with the fact that we have a hard time articulating what it means to be human. What are we so afraid to leave behind? It isn’t poor eyesight.
The challenge is what exactly about our existence makes us human? What does it mean to be human? If we are concerned about dehumanizing ourselves, then why do we do it? We have been using technology since we first picked up a stick, controlled fire, or fashioned a wheel. We have been picking lice off each other’s backs since the dawn of our species. We use technology and tools to accomplish all kinds of goals. We work to cure disease—to heal and comfort. We find ways to increase educational opportunities. We stand against oppression and injustices. It seems as though compassion and ridding ourselves of our limitations is at the essence of what it means to be human.
In class, I had a conversation with a gentleman limited to a wheelchair due to a stroke. He said to me, “A physician friend of mine told me about a future where they could put a chip in my brain to compensate for the damage done by the stroke. If that were now, I would take it in a second.”
I asked, “Would this make you any less human?”
He responded, “I don’t think so.”
Perhaps to be human is to be Transhuman.
Perhaps to be human is to be Transhuman.
Key Terms Defined
Humanity: all human beings collectively, the quality or condition of being human, human nature; the quality of being humane; kindness; benevolence.
Dehumanize: to deprive of human qualities, personality, or spirit
Subhumanize: describing and treating certain individuals as less than human
Dignity: the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed