Is the “human condition” a condition–a factual state of affairs–or is it a condition–a physical ailment? Generally, this phrase is associated with the first definition, but the growing transhumanist movement espouses the second, as is explicated in Mark O’Connell’s recent book To Be a Machine, thoughtfully reviewed by Olga Rachello in the journal The New Atlantis. As Rachello’s review reveals, though, the central pillars of transhumanism are even more radical than this redefinition of words: transhumanism attempts to redefine human nature itself, proposing that the self is ultimately informational rather than material.
This departure from strict materialism is intriguing considering the overwhelmingly secular worldviews of contemporary transhumanists, but this fact does not necessarily indicate inaccuracy. Nevertheless, an alarming prospect overshadows the transhumanist utopia of immortality–if the transhumanists prove to be wrong, if human nature is actually inextricably intwined with human embodiment, the potentially instantaneous annihilation of mankind as we know it will necessarily pass unnoticed. The robots into which we attempt to transform ourselves won’t know there’s something missing from their experience of humanity. Barring the existence of an afterlife from which we the true humans will observe the trajectory of human (or unhuman) history, human memory will be forgotten; the subjective turmoil of human emotion that transcends data will go the way of the water closet in a world of robots. If consciousness turns out to be something more than machines and information, its loss will never be grieved.
As represented by Rachello’s review, O’Connell’s book reflectively acknowledges this grave possibility, but it does not make light of the transhumanist’s longing to transcend the feeble human frame and its inevitable demise. (This review served as an excellent whetstone for my philosophical appetite; if I have the chance to read the book myself this summer, I’ll be sure to share my thoughts more fully here.) Even though the transhumanist party has few members now, its presence, goals, and objections to the truths so many of us take for granted are momentous. Let’s hope that the respect O’Connell gives this issue in his book will become prevalent in the near future.