Cins: Is transhumanism an idea that seems friendly to humanity but will actually harm humanity? Will people lose importance if transhumanism succeeds?
Cins Magazine interview
with David Pearce
DP: Transhumanists want to create a world of superlongevity, superintelligence and superhappiness: a “triple S” civilisation. Unlike humans and other animals, transhumans won’t crumble away and die: the terrible disease we call aging will be treated and then cured. Human cognitive limitations can be transcended: rewrites of the human genome together with AI augmentation will create a society of full-spectrum superintelligences. The biology of pain and suffering can be retired in favour of a more civilised signalling system. The negative feedback-mechanisms of the hedonic treadmill will be recalibrated. And transhumans will enjoy a new architecture of mind: life animated entirely by gradients of intelligent bliss.
Should humanity feel threatened by this major evolutionary transition?
Well, if the transhumanist project succeeds, then archaic humans will no longer exist. So if taxonomic abstractions were real, then maybe “Homo sapiens” should be worried! In reality, individual humans shouldn’t fear the prospect of becoming superhuman any more than a toddler should fear growing into a mature adult. I think we should worry about the obstacles and hidden pitfalls ahead, but not the destination. Mastery of our reward circuitry will ensure that ordinary everyday life in posthuman civilisation will be glorious beyond the bounds of human experience.
Today, some people feel threatened by the growth of machine intelligence. Digital computers and silicon robots outperform humans in ever more domains. Won’t humans become redundant? However, Elon Musk’s crude prototype, Neuralink, prefigures a world of ubiquitous neurochips. Later this century and beyond, smart implants and neuroprostheses may become the everyday norm. Moreover, the timescale of technological change is accelerating. Compare the time-lag between the introduction of primitive mobile phones and the worldwide penetration of sophisticated smartphones. “Narrow” superintelligence-on-a-neurochip means that you’ll be able to do everything that a programmable digital zombie can do – and more. Transhumans will be superintelligent and supersentient.
Inevitably, some religious traditionalists are alarmed by the transhumanist project. If you believe that Man is made in God’s image, then any change in human nature will necessarily be for the worse. By contrast, transhumanists recognise that human beings are the stepping-stones to something better – something unimaginably sublime.
Cins: What would you like to say about the possibility of biotechnology becoming dangerous over time, especially for mankind?
DP: I believe that the biggest underlying threat to human civilisation isn’t biotechnology, but human nature, and more specifically, male human nature. Natural selection “designed” male humans both to hunt other sentient beings and wage wars of territorial aggression against rival coalitions of other human male primates. In an era of weapons of mass-destruction, our (conditionally-activated) genetic predisposition to harm others may be globally catastrophic. For example, synthetic gene drives (cf. gene-drives.com) can, in theory, be used to defeat vector-borne disease, promote compassionate stewardship of the living world and create a happy biosphere. But weaponised gene drives could be used by state actors or bioterrorists to wreak havoc and kill hundreds of millions of people (cf. Risks).
How can these risks be minimised?
One surprising solution to global catastrophic risk is simple but not easy: a biohappiness revolution. Universal access to preimplantation genetic screening and counselling for all prospective parents, and access to tools of gene editing like CRISPR, can ensure that all children are born innately happy. The link between (un)happiness and global catastrophic risk might not seem obvious. Yet the more passionately people love life, the more eagerly they act to protect and preserve it. Other things being equal, a constitutionally happier world will be a safer world. But first, we need a revolution of “designer baby-making” to replace the genetic crapshoot of traditional sexual reproduction.
Cins: Why do you strongly defend transhumanism so much? Can I find out about your motivation?
DP: The transhumanist movement is diverse. Most transhumanists focus primarily on either radical life-extension or machine superintelligence. I too aspire to a world of perpetual youth and extreme intelligence-amplification. But my primary reason for being a transhumanist is the problem of suffering. Darwinian life is inconceivably cruel. Hundreds of millions of people suffer from chronic pain and/or depression. Billions of nonhuman animals – each as sentient as a human infant or toddler – suffer and die in monstrous factory-farms and slaughterhouses. Trillions of their free-living counterparts suffer and die each day in the natural world. The only comprehensive solution I know to the problem of suffering is to rewrite genetic source-codes and reprogram the biosphere. When the abolitionist project is complete, then I think our ethical duties will have been discharged.
But why stop? Mastery of our reward circuitry promises further hedonic revolutions. The “darkest depths” of posthuman life may be richer than the most blissful transhuman peak experiences.
Cins: Is the ultimate end of transhumanism human immortality?
DP:Indefinite youthful health isn’t the ultimate goal of transhumanism; rather, youthful vitality is the precondition of continuing to enjoy all the activities that make life worth living. All transhumanists aspire to defeat death and aging via science. Cryonics – and perhaps cryothanasia – are stopgaps for older people who don’t want to miss out on posthuman paradise. Figuratively speaking, yes, transhumanists seek immortality. But (1) no viable proposal currently exists to cheat the so-called heat-death of the universe; and (2) the idea of immortality rests on philosophical notions of an enduring metaphysical ego that are logically untenable. For example, the half-life of a typical protein in the brain is around 12 to 14 days. In any case, would you want to be the functional analogue of an immortal toddler? Defeating the biology of aging isn’t the recipe for stasis. Unlike the inexorable physical and intellectual decline of aging in archaic humans, a regime of indefinite youthful health can promote indefinite personal growth.
Cins: Is transhumanism a need or a blueprint?
“A goal without a plan is just a wish”, remarked poet Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Today, a plea for superintelligence, superlongevity and superhappiness sounds more like a slogan than a credible design. Yet compare gerontologist Aubrey de Grey’s groundbreaking Ending Aging (2007). Or philosopher Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence (2014), a scholarly exposition of the I.J. Good/Eliezer Yudkowsky’s “intelligence explosion” scenario of recursively self-improving software-based AI. Or psychopharmacologist Alexander Shulgin’s PiHKAL (1991) and TiHKAL (1997), which offer cookbooks and a methodology for exploring alien state-spaces of experience as different as waking consciousness is from dreaming consciousness: everyday Darwinian consciousness is only one state-space among billions.
My own focus – the replacement of the biology of suffering with life based entirely on gradients of intelligent bliss – combines elements of wish-fulfilment with technically detailed policy-proposals. Unintuitvely, phasing out the biology of suffering could in theory be achieved with recognisable extensions of existing technologies, most notably CRISPR genome-editing and synthetic gene drives. Ultimately, the biggest challenge to the abolitionist project is not technical, but ethical-ideological and political. In the abstract, lots of people are happy to echo Gautama Buddha’s plea for an end to suffering. Many people pay lip service to ahimsa, the ancient Indian principle of nonviolence extending to all living beings, and to the peaceable kingdom prophesied in Christian biblical book of Isaiah, and indeed to Allah’s mercy (raḥmah) for all creation. Yet are we ready to contemplate the concrete, biological-genetic steps to eradicate suffering that the abolitionist project entails? I’d love to be able give you the hotlink to a detailed political blueprint – a Hundred-Year Plan to end suffering, conducted under the auspices of the United Nations and the World Health Organization. In practice, such a timescale for internationally co-ordinated action is (probably) just a utopian fantasy. Admittedly, I’m temperamentally one of life’s pessimists. I fear hundreds of years of pain and suffering still lie ahead before we get rid of experience below hedonic zero altogether. The death-spasms of Darwinian life will be nasty – and full of vicious surprises. But the molecular biology of suffering has no long-term future.
Cins: Haven’t we polluted the world with technological developments in the last centuries?
DP: From habitat-destruction to factory-farms to weapons of mass-destruction, technological developments have indeed often made the world a worse place. Why assume the future will be different?
Well, for a start, biotechnology offers us the tools to make suffering physiologically impossible. The ordinary meaning of anything “going wrong” changes if noxious stimuli induce only an information-sensitive dip in subjective well-being rather than emotional distress. Compare Jo Cameron (cf. “A World Without Pain" - New Yorker magazine). With her naturally extraordinarily high levels of anandamide (from the Sanskrit for “bliss”), Jo never experiences pain, anxiety or depression. Yet she is a socially responsible vegan and retired schoolteacher who has gone through life animated by information-sensitive gradients of well-being. What’s more, until recently, Jo assumed she was normal! For sure, creating a world of Jo Camerons has huge pitfalls. But so did countless other inventions and interventions we now take for granted, for example, pain-free surgery. If we are ethically serious about building a civilisation where all sentient beings can flourish, then we must use advanced technology.
Ethically, I don’t know of any alternative.
Cins: Does transhumanism aspire to a society without people? Isn't this the end of the world?
DP: In the words of writer Richard Bach, “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.” A society of beautiful and blissful super-geniuses who never grow old is not a society of malaise-ridden Darwinian humans. The post-Darwinian transition will certainly mark the end of the world as we know it. But the world’s last experience below hedonic zero won’t mark the end of civilisation, just the beginning.
Social Media (2021)
The End of Suffering
The Good Drug Guide
The Abolitionist Project
Quora Answers (2015-21)
The Reproductive Revolution
MDMA: Utopian Pharmacology
Critique of Huxley's Brave New World
Interview of Nick Bostrom and David Pearce
Interview of DP by Sentience Research (2019)
Interview of DP by Immortalists Magazine (part one)