Up@dawn 2.0

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Transhumanism and Personhood (Devin Atkins)

(Posted for Devin Atkins)

Transhumanism and Personhood

            Transhumanism is fundamentally about transforming humanity
into something post-human. To discuss a bit of ethics behind this, we
have to clean up some language. The first is distinguishing a
difference between human and person. The former describes Homo
sapiens. The latter is what we’re more interested in and is much more
important. Now we could go into a very very very long post into the
definition of personhood, but for now let’s try to keep it simple with
some common criteria without going too far into specifics. Virtually
all humans have personhood: we are self-aware, can learn, and have
higher cognitive skills. There are, however, some exceptions, such as
humans in a vegetative state / braindead. There’s no cognitive actions
happening, and no self-awareness, just a body mechanically alive,
pumping blood. What’s less often thought about, however, is the idea
of non-human persons. This could be as simple as intelligent alien
life: think Vulcans from Star Trek. Sure, they aren’t human, but I
doubt anyone would argue Spock isn’t a person.

It gets trickier when we look at artificial intelligence, where we
also hit another word to more clearly define. Artificial literally
means made by a person, however we often think of it in a sense of
fakeness (such as artificial flavors). So artificial intelligence is
not “fake intelligence” but “designed intelligence” (as opposed to
naturally evolved). Going back to how this relates to personhood, we
can again look to Star Trek for a great example of an AI with
personhood: Data. Most would consider him a person, as he can also
learn from mistakes, has higher cognitive skills, and is self-aware.

I use examples like this because we are familiar with them and
comfortable; they are easy to accept if you’ve seen a few episodes of
the show. Even if you haven’t, there are plenty of similar examples
that are easy to draw from. But here the ego starts creeping in: what
does this have to do with humanity? Well we don’t look down on Spock
or Data for not being human. They are people, just in a slightly
different way than us. Then why should we look at our hypothetical
altered selves any differently? So often the criticisms of genetic
engineering, cybernetic implants, and all that jazz are the sense of
something lost. There’s a general thought that by fundamentally
altering humanity, we are lesser in some way for it. But this is a
double standard: doesn’t Spock have different genes from humans?
Doesn’t Data have a synthetic brain rather than an organic one? If we
keep characters like this in mind, it’s easy to see that humanity
changing into something post-human does not mean it has lost out on
personhood or some moral fiber. It’s simply another step towards

I wish I could have gone into more detail, really fleshing out ideas
behind genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and cybernetic
implants. These posts, however, have already gone well over the usual
range, and we discussed a good bit of one of those topics in class, so
the point of this was to take a step back. We worry so often about
smaller details that are an issue right now, but sometimes it helps to
instead look hundreds of years into the future instead of simply
decades. To say, hypothetically, if we mastered it, is it right? Or is
there something fundamental at the core of transhumanism that is
wrong? And so for these last 3 blog posts I focused on parallels
between it and problems in the past, what’s happening now, and how it
could look in the future. Hopefully you’ve gained some perspective on
current developments in science and see that limbs and heartbeats and
even brains don’t make you a person, just your mind.


  1. Good! Minds make persons, and there are (or at least it's hard to see why there can't be) all kinds of minds. What do minds have in common? The capacity to feel, to suffer, to undergo, to experience. What is experience? Awareness of the passing show and one's participation in it. So of course Spock's a person, and Mr. Data (though we beg the question as to whether an android really ever could attain the degree of "humanity" he exhibits, thanks to Mr. Spiner's dramatic talents).

    Next question, now that we've settled personhood: "humanity"-what's that? How will we know when post-humanity has arrived? And should we be pleased to ponder that eventuality, or affronted? I've probably already suggested this, but if you're interested in this question you should wrestle with Bill McKibben's "Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age".

    If you have more to share on this topic, Devin, send it on. I'll be happy to post it.

  2. I really like this post. I think people aren't any less of a person if they are genetically different or have alterations. They are still a person, but with different circumstances. Everybody is unique in their own way.