The transhumanist movement has claimed rationality as its own, shutting down any questions about the benefits of extending lifespan or enhancing human’s rational capacity. But the movement itself is irrational: it is based on shaky scientific grounds, has no workable concept of post-humanity and conflates cognition and reason argues Susan Levin. Read 'The ethical transhumanist' here.
Bioenhancement is among the hottest topics in bioethics today. The most contentious area of debate here is advocacy of “radical” enhancement (aka transhumanism). Because transhumanists urge us to categorically heighten select capacities, above all, rationality, it would be incorrect to say that the possessors of these abilities were human beings: to signal, unmistakably, the transcendent status of these beings, transhumanists call them “posthuman,” “godlike,” and “divine.” For many, the idea of humanity’s technological self-transcendence has a strong initial appeal; that appeal, intensified by transhumanists’ relentless confidence that radical bioenhancement will occur if only we commit adequate resources to the endeavor, yields a viscerally potent combination. On this of all topics, however, we should not let ourselves be ruled by viscera.
Transhumanists present themselves as the sole rational parties to the debate over radical bioenhancement: merely questioning a dedication to skyrocketing rational capacity or lifespan testifies to one’s irrationality. Scientifically, for this charge of irrationality not to be intellectually perverse, the evidence on transhumanists’ side would have to be overwhelming.
Transhumanism is a “totalizing vision”: a comprehensive scientific position on what exists and can be known is supposed to reflect absolutely correct findings of reason and is treated, on that basis, as the rightful guide to how humanity should proceed henceforth. One might take it for granted that, however problematic this moral conclusion, transhumanists support their confident positioning of science in the role of commander with detailed arguments rooted in current findings in psychology, biology, and neuroscience. Stunningly, however, transhumanists neglect deep engagement with these sciences. Perhaps they believe that psychology, biology, and neuroscience testify so patently to the validity of what they propose that their own provision of this support would be otiose.
Not only do transhumanists fail to provide theoretical and practical “proof of concept” for their vision of posthumanity, but they often rely on questionable, even outdated, scientific positions.
If so, they are mistaken: not only do transhumanists fail to provide theoretical and practical “proof of concept” for their vision of posthumanity, but they often rely on questionable, even outdated, scientific positions.
Consider, for example, their advocacy of “cognitive bioenhancement.” The Greeks bequeathed to Western philosophy a conception of human reason as richly practical and contemplative, a faculty through whose non-linear activity remarkable insights emerge. Ostensibly, when foregrounding reason as the linchpin of our humanity, transhumanists ally themselves with this tradition. When telling us how this treasured faculty would be augmented, however, they conflate “reason” and “cognition,” defining the latter in terms of the acquisition, processing, retention, and deployment of information. Squeezed out are forms of rational engagement not reducible to informational manipulation, including the creativity required for fresh scientific discoveries and philosophical insights.
As practical proof of concept for the feasibility of radical cognitive bioenhancement, transhumanists cite off-label usage of psychostimulants, which has been studied extensively. Contra transhumanists, however, this research has yielded strong evidence of cognitive trade-offs (e.g., between working and long-term memory), baseline-dependent effects, and negative impacts on creativity. Since transhumanists’ sole concern with cognitive ability is its maximization, it should greatly concern them that, in subjects with higher cognitive baselines, not merely an absence of benefit from psychostimulants but a deterioration in performance has been documented.
A parallel situation obtains with creativity. “Divergent” thinking is what researchers test to gauge individuals’ creative potential. Though subjects with lower creative baselines receive some benefit from psychostimulants, the creativity of those with higher baselines shows impairment, even with respect to “convergent” thinking. Since transhumanists define “cognition” and its “bioenhancement” informationally, for them, being able to absorb, at lightning speed, the contents of the Library of Congress and Wikipedia would be a dream come true. The question of how, if at all, information could be translated into insight is ignored. Even if we had warranted confidence that cognitive ability could be augmented without cognitive trade-offs—which we assuredly do not—such augmentation would likely occur at the expense of creativity.
Findings such as the above do not reflect incidental features of human biology. For example, individuals with a Met/Met genotype have comparatively large quantities of available dopamine, which correlate with a stronger baseline working memory. Met/Met is thus a genotype that transhumanists would wish to target. Doing so, however, would be counterproductive. When dopamine levels in Met/Met subjects are elevated further via psychostimulants, these individuals show reduced processing efficiency on challenging cognitive tasks. This reduction has a biological basis: the exogenous addition of dopamine eventually overtaxes the human system, with attendant declines in individuals’ cognitive performance (this finding also applies to oxytocin and serotonin). Given the above, it is unsurprising that early research on the possible use of transcranial magnetic stimulation and transcranial direct current stimulation for cognitive enhancement already suggests the potential for cognitive trade-offs and baseline-dependent effects.
Transhumanists are committed to extreme rational essentialism: they treasure the limitless augmentation of rational capacity, treating affect as irrelevant or targeting it (at minimum, the so-called negative variety) for elimination. Further disrupting transhumanists’ fixation with radical cognitive bioenhancement, therefore, is the finding that pharmacological boosts, such as they are, may not be entirely or even mainly cognitive. Motivation may be strengthened, with resulting boosts to subjects’ informational facility. What’s more, being in a “positive” (i.e., happy) mood can impair cognitive performance, while being in a “negative” (i.e., sad) one can strengthen it by, for instance, making subjects more disposed to reject stereotypes.
Theoretically speaking, transhumanists’ conviction that cognition could be singled out from affect for categorical augmentation manifests their view that the mind operates in a segmented, or “modular,” way and that the brain reflects this circumscription. Transhumanists assume that affect, being “nonrational” (i.e., other than reason per se), is necessarily “noncognitive.” This view is outdated, for, in cognitive psychology, there has been a major shift in theorizing about information processing: when “cognition” is defined as “information bearing,” emotion (and other forms of affect) are no less cognitive than reason. Synergistically, in neuroscience, the notion that there are “emotional” and “cognitive” regions is being supplanted, for the receipt, processing, and transmission of information occur throughout the brain. Transhumanists fail to recognize that brain regions involved in “emotional processing” are, as James Woodward observes, “doing ‘cognitive’ processing simply in virtue of doing information processing.”
Klaus Scherer’s “appraisal theory” of emotion delineates and interweaves broad and narrow senses of “cognition”; only in the latter sense is “cognition” interchangeable with “reason.” Prior failures by theorists and researchers to distinguish expressly the two senses of “cognition” fostered the misconception that theoretical and experimental results involving “cognition” all referred to the same capacity. Though transhumanists did not launch this confusion, they are accountable for helping to perpetuate it.
In sum, transhumanists’ informational definition of “cognition” short-changes “reason,” which they conflate with “cognition”; fails to reflect a view that can be technologically implemented even for what they lodge under “cognition”; and undercuts their assumption that extreme rational essentialism is a tenable picture of the mind that neuroscience supports.
It stands to reason that since transhumanism is a totalizing vision, the scientific obstacles to engineering posthumanity would surpass even the serious challenges represented by findings in particular fields. Ultimately, the scientific failures of transhumanism are traceable to an equation of the real and knowable with information that emerged in the 1940s and 1950s. In crucial respects, what transhumanists see as context-independent truths involving information are holdovers from a particular historical and cultural setting, World War II and its aftermath, that are on the verge of being outdated.
Transhumanists are committed to extreme rational essentialism: they treasure the limitless augmentation of rational capacity, treating affect as irrelevant or targeting it for elimination
The conviction that biology is an “information science” was forged by a confluence of developments. In 1943, Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts maintained that individual neurons functioned in a binary, or digital, fashion that they called “the ‘all-or-none’ law of nervous activity.” Instead of relating thought and computer code metaphorically, for a limited heuristic purpose, McCulloch and Pitts concluded that they were essentially alike.
The emergence of a mathematical concept of information, which featured quantification, context-independence, and syntax, reinforced this idea. According to Claude Shannon, “The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point…a message selected at another point. Frequently the messages have meaning.… These semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem.” Before one can address “general problems involving communication systems,” one must “represent the various elements involved as mathematical entities, suitably idealized from their physical counterparts.” Shannon thus divided communication systems into five components that he treated as substrate independent: “an information source,” “a transmitter,” “the channel,” “the receiver,” and “the destination.” The mathematical concept of information quickly assumed a guiding role in molecular biology, which arose during this period.
John von Neumann’s work on automata also facilitated the transfer of machine concepts to living things. In his view, while the account of McCulloch and Pitts fit the level of individual neurons, it did not help us grasp “high-complication automata.” Since von Neumann had embraced the mathematical concept of information, he saw a biological substrate for self-replication as inessential. Within his model of living things as self-reproducing machines, genes functioned as “copiers.” If complexity was reduced to simplicity and the substrate-independence of information taken to heart, scientists would be able to “construct automata which can reproduce themselves and, in addition, construct others.”
Influenced by the above figures, Norbert Wiener originated “cybernetics,” which studied communication and control, whether in organisms or in machines. According to Wiener, “The operation of the living individual and the operation of some of the newer communication machines are precisely parallel.” His book Cybernetics fostered an impression of Wiener as “a visionary who could articulate the larger implications of the cybernetic paradigm and make clear its cosmic significance.… Henceforth, humans were to be seen primarily as information-processing entities who are essentially similar to intelligent machines” (Hayles, 1999).
James Watson and Francis Crick’s discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA in 1953 occurred against this backdrop, as did scientists’ “deciphering” of the genetic “code” between 1961 and 1966. The view of biology as an information science was immediately defended by prominent scientists, among them Marshall Nirenberg, who had played a key role in the code’s deciphering. Indeed, not to classify biology as an information science was simply to misunderstand reality. One witnessed, too, exultation over the power to reconstitute human biology that was, surely, in the offing!
Though there was scientific pushback, it was all-but bound to fail, in no small part because the position being contested was embodied in reified metaphors, such as “code,” “message,” “program,” and “book of life.”
What transhumanists see as context-independent truths involving information are holdovers from a particular historical and cultural setting, World War II and its aftermath, that are on the verge of being outdated.
This informational view of reality and knowledge persists. John Maynard Smith’s “engineering analogy…justifies biologists in saying that DNA contains information that has been programmed by natural selection; that this information codes for the amino acid sequence of proteins; [and] that…the DNA and proteins carry instructions, or a program, for the development of the organism.… Fluctuations in the environment are a source of noise in the system, not of information.” In 2000, James Watson himself dismissed “widespread concerns that we, as humans, may not have the wisdom to modify the most precious of all human treasures—our chromosomal ‘instruction books.’” Exulting over the Human Genome Project, Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, in turn, foresaw “the deliberate ‘rewriting’ of life.… We now gain access to the texture, and hence the calculation, instruction and legislation of the human individual’s organic existence, that is, to a script which until now it has been the privilege of evolution to write, to rewrite and to alter.”
Pressing as they do for humanity’s self-transcendence into posthumanity, transhumanists take to an extreme this faith in information, abetted in no small part by reified metaphors long ago drafted into service as theoretical linchpins.
Concerning the equation of the real and knowable with information, we require “the stake-in-the-heart move.…Compromises don’t help because they don’t alter this basic assumption” (Oyama, 2000). In biology, that stake is provided, at least in part, by “developmental systems theory” (DST), according to which
"no interactant…is privileged a priori as the bearer of fundamental form or as the origin of ultimate causal control.… The organism-environment relations in a developmental system…are indissoluble in the following senses: that no organism can exist or even be characterized independently from a richly elaborated world on many scales of magnitude, that causal responsibility for the whole or for a trait cannot be partitioned among the parts of the system, and that everything that organism does and is rises out of this interactive complex, even as it affects that very complex." (Oyama, 2002)
To the extent that informational talk is appropriate at all within DST, it is not a way to distinguish DNA from other developmental factors.
Regarding human biology, transhumanists confront an analogous problem to what we witnessed with their handling of “cognition”: in cognitive psychology, this term does not single out the faculty that transhumanists prize, namely, reason, for reason and emotion are equally “cognitive.” Apropos of DST, if “information” is a fitting term at all, which is debatable, its employment does not do the work of delimiting genetic from non-genetic influences that transhumanists require for radical bioenhancement.
Findings such as those presented here strongly support the view that, if we embraced transhumanists’ aim, not only would we fail to produce posthumanity, but, in the attempt, we would likely damage human biology beyond repair. Hope and faith need not be unreasonable, for, with awareness, individuals can use them to fill psychological gaps when a viable outcome they favor is not a forgone conclusion. In transhumanists’ case, however, faith and hope, which, in any case, they reject as pillars of their confidence, would themselves run counter to reason. As it turns out, the sole irrational parties to the scientific debate over radical bioenhancement may be transhumanists themselves.
Hayles, N. K. 1999. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kay, L. E. 1995. “Who Wrote the Book of Life? Information and the Transformation of Molecular Biology, 1945–55.” Science in Context 8/4: 609–34.
Levin, S. B. 2021. Posthuman Bliss? The Failed Promise of Transhumanism. New York: Oxford University Press.
Maynard Smith, J. 2000. “The Concept of Information in Biology.” Philosophy of Science 67/2: 177–94.
McCulloch, W. S., and W. Pitts. 1943. “A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity.” Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics 5/4: 115–33.
Oyama, S. 2000. The Ontogeny of Information: Developmental Systems and Evolution. 2nd ed. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Oyama, S. 2002. “The Nurturing of Natures.” In On Human Nature: Anthropological, Biological, and Philosophical Foundations, 163–70. Ed. A. Grunwald, M. Gutmann, and E. M. Neumann-Held. Berlin: Springer.
Rheinberger, H.-J. 2000. “Beyond Nature and Culture: Modes of Reasoning in the Age of Molecular Biology and Medicine.” In Living and Working with the New Medical Technologies: Intersections of Inquiry, 19–30. Ed. M. Lock, A. Young, and A. Cambrosio. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Shannon, C. E. 1948. “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” Bell System Technical Journal 27/3: 379–423.
von Neumann, J. 1951. “The General and Logical Theory of Automata.” In Cerebral Mechanisms in Behavior: The Hixon Symposium, 1–31. Ed. L. A. Jeffress. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
Watson, J. D. 2000. A Passion for DNA: Genes, Genomes, and Society. Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.
Wiener, N. 1950. The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Woodward, J. 2016. “Emotion versus Cognition in Moral Decision-Making.” In Moral Brains: The Neuroscience of Morality, 87–116. Ed. S. M. Liao. New York: Oxford University Press.
Join the conversation