Human and transhuman dignity

This semester, I’m teaching a brand new class: FutureProofing Humanity. The course takes as its premise that some people have a religious worldview of using science and technology to rescue humanity from existential risks.

Some immediate questions you might have:

  1. What’s existential risk?
  2. Does it have something to do with existentialism?
  3. Why is protecting the human species through the use of technology a religion?

Well here are some quick answers:

  1. Existential risk = a risk that endangers the entire human species. Nick Bostrom is most famous for articulating this. Such risks include rather extreme things like nanotechnology grey goo scenarios, terminator AI scenarios and rather more mundane (and far more likely) scenarios like catastrophic climate change.
  2. No, it doesn’t have anything meaningful to do with existentialism.
  3. You’d really have to take the class to understand what’s religious about it all. After all, my institution charges students $3-4k per person to sit there. So I can’t very well go around giving out content for free! 😉

Except I can!

So here’s something fun from what we’ve been doing:

Over a couple of weeks we read a bunch of transhumanist authors: classics in that domain like Robert Ettinger, FM-2030, Bostrom, and Julian Huxley and newcomers like Philip Butler. On a following week we spent some time on criticisms of tranhumanist thinking from Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, Alexander Bogdonov, and Bill Joy.

The crux of my title above is that my students and I enjoyed putting Tirosh-Samuelson into dialogue/debate with Philip Butler. I know and admire both authors, and my students think I should figure out how to get them in the same room once covid is more manageable and my college has money for events again. 🙂 You see, Tirosh-Samuelson has for some years decried the dangers of transhumanist thinking because, for her, transhumanism challenges essential aspects of human dignity and virtue (for example, see here). Butler, however, argues that the Black community was never (or, at least, never in the past couple of centuries) afforded basic human dignity or even perceived as legitimately human. As such, he argues that technology provides the Black community with a chance to leapfrog “being human” and become transhuman (go get his book!). Tirosh-Samuelson, being Jewish (like me), can certainly identify with having her community excluded from the boundaries of the human, so I expect she might be interested in hearing how Butler proposes that that Black people simply skip trying to make themselves a part of that human dignity and build up a new dignity altogether.

I’m on the fence regarding the merits of transhumanism, and so I’m having a lot of fun discussing this stuff with my students.

p.s. I snagged that image of Twitter ages ago and I have no idea who the creator is. I hope that person doesn’t mind my use of it! Happy to attribute if anyone knows….

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