TL;DR: This is the text of a keynote lecture I delivered to the 'Transcending Humanity' conference at Tubingen University on the 13th July 2017. It discusses the alleged tension between the transhumanist ideal of biological freedom and the glorification of technological means to that freedom. In the talk, I argue that the tension is superficial because the concept of freedom is multidimensional.
1. The Paradox of Transhumanism
In September of 1960, in the official journal of the American Rocket Society (now known as the American Institute of Aerospace and Astronautics), Manfred E Clynes and Nathan S Kline, published a ground-breaking article
. Manfred Clynes was an Austrian-born, Australian-raised, polymath. He was educated in engineering and music and he still is an original and creative inventor, with over 40 patents to his name, and a competent concert pianist. Nathan Kline was a Manhattan-based psychopharmacologist, one of the pioneers of the field, responsible for developing drugs to treat schizophrenia and depression. Their joint article was something of a diversion from their main lines of research, but has arguably had more cultural impact than the rest of their work put together.
To understand it, we need to understand the cultural context in which it was written. September 1960 was the height of the Cold War. The Soviet Union had kick-started the space race three years earlier with the successful launch of its two Sputnik satellites into Earth’s orbit. The United States was clambering to make up lost ground. The best and brightest scientific talent was being marshalled to the cause. Clynes and Kline’s article was a contribution to the space race effort. But instead of offering practical proposals for getting man into space, they offered a more abstract, conceptual perspective. They looked at the biological challenge of spaceflight. The problem, as they described it, was that humans were not biologically adapted to spaceflight. They could not breathe outside the earth’s atmosphere, and once beyond the earth’s magnetic sphere would be bombarded by nasty solar radiation. In short, humans were not ‘free’ to explore space.
What could be done to solve the problem? This is where Clynes and Kline made their bold proposal. The standard approach was to create mini-environments in space that are relatively congenial to human beings. Hence, the oxygen filled spaceship and the hyperprotective spacesuit. This would suffice for short-term compatibility between fragile human biological tissue and the harsh environment of space, but it would be a precarious solution at best:
Artificial atmospheres encapsulated in some sort of enclosure constitute only temporizing, and dangerous temporizing at that, since we place ourselves in the same position as a fish taking a small quantity of water along with him to live on land. The bubble all too easily bursts.
If we ever wanted to do more in space — if we wanted to travel to the farthest reaches of our solar system (and beyond) — a different approach would be needed. We would have to alter our physiology through the creation technological substitutes and extensions of our innate biology:
If man attempts partial adaptation to space conditions, instead of insisting on carrying his whole environment along with him, a number of new possibilities appear. One is then led to think about the incorporation of integral exogenous devices to bring about the biological changes which might be necessary in man’s homeostatic mechanisms to allow him to live in space qua natura.
This is where Clynes and Kline made their most famous contribution to our culture. What should we call a human being that was technologically enhanced so as to adapt to the environment of space? Their suggested neologism was the “cyborg” - the cybernetic organism. This was the first recorded use of the term — a term that now generates over 40 million results on Google.
Modern transhumanists share something with Clynes and Kline. They are not interested in winning the Cold War nor, necessarily, exploring the outer reaches of space (though some are), but they are acutely aware of the limitations of human biology. They agree with Clynes and Kline in thinking that, given our current biological predicament, we are ‘unfree’. They wish to use technology to escape from this predicament - to unleash us from the shackles of evolution. Consequently, transhumanism is frequently understood as a liberation movement — complete with its own liberation theology, according to some critics — that sees technology as an instrument of freedom. Attend any transhumanist conference, or read any transhumanist article, and you will become palpably aware of this. You can’t escape the breathless enthusiasm with which transhumanists approach the latest scientific research in biotechnology, genetics, robotics and artificial intelligence. They eagerly await the critical technologies that will enable us to escape from our biological prison.
But this enthusiasm seems to entail a strange paradox. The journalist Mark O’Connell captures it well in his recent book To Be a Machine
. Having lived with, observed, and interviewed some of the leading figures in the transhumanist movement over the past couple of years, O’Connell could not help but be disturbed by the faith they placed in technology:
[T]ranshumanism is a liberation movement advocating nothing less than a total emancipation from biology itself. There is another way of seeing this, an equal and opposite interpretation, which is that this apparent liberation would in reality be nothing less than a final and total enslavement to technology.
(O’Connell 2017, 6)
This then is the ‘paradox of transhumanism’: if we want to free ourselves in manner envisaged by contemporary transhumanists, we must swap our biological prison for a technological one.
I have to say I sympathise with this understanding of the paradox. In the past five or six years, I have developed an increasingly ambivalent relationship with technology. Where once I saw technology as a tool that opened up new vistas of potentiality, I now see more sinister forces gathering on the horizon. In my own work I have written about the ’threat of algocracy
’, i.e. the threat to democratic processes if humans end up being governed entirely by computer-programmed algorithm. I see this as part and parcel of the paradox identified by O’Connell. After all, the machines to which we might be enslaved speak the language of the algorithm. If we are to be their slaves, it will be an algorithmic form of enslavement.
So what I want to do in the remainder of this talk is to probe the paradox of transhumanism from several different angles. Specifically, I want to ask and answer the following three questions:
(1) How should we understand the kind of freedom desired by transhumanists?
(2) How might this lead to our technological enslavement?
(3) Can the paradox be resolved?
In the process of answering these questions, I will make one basic argument: human freedom is a complex, multidimensional phenomenon. Perfect freedom is a practical (possibly a metaphysical) impossibility. So to say that transhumanism entails a paradox is misleading. Transhumanism entails a tradeoff between different sources and forms of unfreedom. The question is whether this tradeoff is better or worse than our current predicament.
2. What is Transhumanist Freedom Anyway?
How should we understand the transhumanist desire for freedom? Let’s start by considering the nature of freedom itself. Broadly speaking, there are two concepts of freedom that are used in philosophical discourse:
Metaphysical Freedom: This is freedom in its purest sense. This is the actual ability to make choices about our lives without external determination or interference. When people discuss this form of freedom they often use the term ‘freedom of will’ or ‘free will’ and they will debate different theories such as libertarianism, compatibilism and incompatibilism. In order to have this type of freedom, two things are important: (i) the ability to do otherwise than we might have done (the alternative possibilities condition) and (ii) the ability to be the source of our own decisions (the sourcehood condition). There are many different interpretations of both conditions, and many different views on which is more important.
Political Freedom: This is freedom in a more restricted sense. This is the ability to make choices about our lives that are authentic representations of our own preferences, without interference or determination from other human beings, whether they be acting individually or collectively (through institutions or governments). This is the kind of freedom that animates most political debates about ‘liberty’, ‘freedom of speech’, ‘freedom of conscience’ and so on.
Obviously, metaphysical freedom is the more basic category. Political freedom is a sub-category of metaphysical freedom. This means it is possible for us to have political freedom without having metaphysical freedom. My general feeling is that you either believe in metaphysical freedom or you don’t. That is to say, you either believe that we have free will in its purest sense, or you don’t, or you think we have to redefine and reconceptualise the concept of free will to such an extent that it becomes indistinguishable from other ‘lesser forms’ of freedom. This is because metaphysical freedom seems to require an almost total absence of dependency on external causal forces, and it is really only if you believe in the idea of non-natural souls or agents that you can get your head around the total absence of such dependency. (Put a bookmark in that idea for now, we will return to it later).
Political freedom is different. Even people who are deeply sceptical about metaphysical freedom tend to be more optimistic about the possibility of limiting interference or determination by other external agents. Thus, it is possible to be politically free even if it is not possible to be metaphysically free. It is worth dwelling on the different types of political freedom for a moment, doing so will pay dividends later on when we look at transhumanist freedom and the enslavement to technology. Following Isaiah Berlin’s classic work, we can distinguish between positive
senses of political freedom. In the positive sense, political freedom requires that individuals be provided with means to act in way that is truly consistent with their own preferences (and so forth). In the negative sense, political freedom requires the absence of interference or limitation by other agents.
I’m going to set the positive sense of freedom to one side for the remainder of this talk, though you may be able to detect its ghostly presence in some aspects of the discussion. For now, I want to further clarify the negative sense. There are two leading theories of political freedom in the negative sense. The distinction between the two can be explained by reference to two famous historical thought experiments. The first is:
The Highwayman: You are living in 17th century Great Britain. You are travelling by stagecoach when you are waylaid by a masked ‘highwayman’. The highwayman points his pistol at you and offers you a deal: ‘your money or your life?’* You give him your money and he lets you on your way.
Here is the question: did you give him your money freely? According to proponents of a theory known as ‘freedom as non-interference’ you did not. The highwayman interfered with your choice by coercing you into giving him the money: he exert some active influence over your will. Freedom as non-interference is a very popular and influential theory in contemporary liberal political theory, but some people argue that it doesn’t cover everything that should be covered by a political concept of freedom. This is drawn out by the second thought experiment.
The Happy Slave: You are a slave, legally owned by another human being. But you are happy slave. Your master treats you well and as luck would have it, what he wants you to do, lines up with what you prefer to do. Consequently, he never interferes with your choices. You live in harmony with one another.
Here’s the question: are you free? The obvious answer is ‘no’. Indeed, life as a slave is the paradigm of unfreedom. But, interestingly, this is a type of unfreedom that is not captured by freedom as non-interference. After all, in the example just given there is never any interference with your actions. This is where the second theory of negative freedom comes into play. According to proponents of something called ‘freedom as non-domination’, we lack political freedom is we live under the dominion of another agent. In other words, if we have to ingratiate ourselves to them and rely on their good will to get by. The problem with the happy slave is that, no matter how happy he may be, he lives in a state of domination.
Okay, we covered a lot of conceptual ground just there. Let’s get our bearings by drawing a map of the territory. We start with the general concept of metaphysical freedom — the lack of causally determining influences on the human will — we then move down to the narrower political concept of freedom. Political freedom is necessary but not sufficient for metaphysical freedom. Political freedom comes in positive and negative forms, with there being two major specifications of negative freedom: FNI and FND.
The question I now want to turn to is how to understand the transhumanist liberation project? How does it fit into this conceptual map? The position I will defend is that transhumanist freedom is a distinct sub-category of freedom. It is not full-blown metaphysical freedom (this is important, for reasons we shall get back to later on) and it is not just another form of political freedom. It is, rather, adjacent to and distinct from political freedom.
Transhumanists are concerned with limitations on human freedom that are grounded in our biology (this links back, once more Clynes and Kline’s project). Thus, transhumanist freedom is ‘biological freedom’:
Biological Freedom: The ability to make choices about our lives without being constrained by the limitations that are inherent in our biological** constitution.
What kinds of biological limitations concern transhumanists? David Pearce, one of co-founders of the World Transhumanist Association (now Humanity+), argues that transhumanists are motivated by the three ‘supers’:
(i) superlongevity, i.e. the desire to have extra long lives; (ii) superintelligence, i.e. the desire to be smarter than we currently are; and (iii) superwellbeing, i.e. the desire to live in a state of heightened bliss. The desire for each of these three ‘supers’ stems from a different biological limitation. Superlongevity is motivated by the biological limitation of death: one of the unfortunate facts about our current biological predicament is that we have been equipped with a biological machinery that tends to decay and cease functioning after about 80 years. Superintelligence is motivated by the information-processing limitations of the human brain: our brains are marvels of evolution, but they function in odd ways, limiting our knowledge and understanding of the world around us. And superwellbeing is motivated by the biological constraints on happiness. This is Pearce’s unique contribution to the transhumanist debate. He notes that some people are equipped with lower biological baselines of wellbeing (e.g. people who suffer from depression). This puts a limit on how happy they can be. We should try to overcome this limit.
There are other forms of biological freedom in the transhumanist movement. A prominent sub-section of the transhumanist community is interested in something called ‘morphological freedom’, which is essentially freedom from biological form. Fans of morphological freedom want to change their physical constitution so that they can experience different forms of physical embodiment. The slide shows some examples of this.
For what it’s worth, I think characterising transhumanism as a liberation movement with the concept of biological freedom at its core, is better than alternative characterisations, such as viewing it as a religion or a social movement concerned with technological change per se.
There are two advantages to characterising transhumanism in this way. The first is that it is reasonably pluralistic: it covers most of the dominant strands within the transhumanist community, without necessarily committing to a singular view of what the good transhumanist life consists of. If you ask a transhumanist what they want, beyond the freedom from biological constraint, you’ll get a lot of different views. The second is that it places transhumanism within an interesting historical arc. It has long been argued — by James Hughes in particular — that transhumanism is a continuation of the Enlightenment project. Indeed, some of the leading figures in the Enlightenment project were proto-transhumanists: the Marquis de Condorcet being the famous example. Where the Enlightenment project concerned itself with developing freedom through the celebration of reason and the desire for political change — i.e. to address the sources of unfreedom that arose from the behaviour of other human beings — the transhumanist project concerns itself with the next logical step in the march towards freedom. Transhumanists are, in essence, saying ‘Look we have got the basic hang of political freedom — we know how other humans limit us and we have plausible political models for overcoming those limits — now let’s focus on another major source of unfreedom: the biological one.’
Let’s take a breath here. The image below places the biological concept of freedom into the conceptual map of freedom from earlier on. The argument to this point is that transhumanism is concerned with a distinct type of freedom, namely: biological freedom. This type of freedom insists that we overcome biological limitations, particularly those associated with death, intelligence and well-being. The next question is whether in their zeal to overcome those limitations transhumanists make a Faustian pact with technology?
3. Are we becoming slaves to the machine?
The transhumanist hope for achieving biological freedom certainly places an inordinate amount of faith in technology. On the face of it, this makes a lot of sense. Humans have been using technology to overcome our biological limitations for quite some time. One of the ancient cousins of modern day homo sapiens
is homo habilis
. Homo habilis used primitive stone tools to butcher and skin animals, thereby overcoming the biological limitations of hands, feet and teeth. We have been elaborating on this same theme ever since. From the birth of agriculture to the dawn of the computer age, we have being using technology to accentuate and extend our biological capacities.
What is interesting about the technological developments thus far is that they have generally left our basic biological form unchanged. Technology is largely something that is external to our bodies, something that we use to facilitate and mediate our interactions with the world. This is as true of the Acheulean handaxe as it is of the smartphone. Of course, this isn’t the full picture. Some of our technological developments have involved tinkering with our biological form. Consider vaccination: this involves reprogramming the body’s immune system. Likewise there are some prosthetic technologies — artificial limbs, cochlear implants, pacemakers, deep brain stimulators — that involve replacing or augmenting biological systems. These technological developments are the first step towards the creation of literal cyborgs (ones that Clynes and Kline would have embraced). Still, the developments on this front have been relatively modest, with most of the effort focused on restoring functionality to those who have lost it, and not on transcending limitations in the manner desired by transhumanists.
So this is where we are currently at. We have made impressive gains in the use of externalising technologies to augment and transcend human biology; we have made modest gains in the use of internal technologies. Transhumanists would like to see more of this happening and a faster pace. Where then is the paradox of transhumanism? In what sense are we trading a biological prison for a technological one? We can answer that question in two stages. First, by considering in more detail the different possible relations between humans and technology, and then by considering the various ways in which those relations can compromise freedom.
There have been many attempts to categorise human-technology relationships over the years. I don’t claim that the following categorisation is the final and definitive one, merely that it captures something important for present purposes. My suggestion is that we can categorise human-technology relations along two major dimensions: (i) the internal-external dimension and (ii) the complementary-competitive dimension. The internal-external dimension should be straightforward enough as it captures the distinctions mentioned above. It is a true dimension, continuous rather than discrete in form. In other words, you cannot always neatly categorise a technology as being internal or external to our biology. Proponents of distributed and extended cognition, for example, will insist that humans sometimes form fully integrated-systems with our ‘external’ technologies thus on occasion collapsing the internal-external distinction.
The complementary-competitive dimension is a little bit more opaque and possibly more discontinuous. It comes from the work of the complexity theorist David Krakauer
, who has developed it specifically in relation to modern computer technology and how it differs from historical forms of technological enhancement. As he sees it, most of our historical technologies, be they handaxes, spades, abaci or whatever, have a tendency to complement human biology. In other words, they enable humans to form beneficial partnerships with technology, oftentimes extending their innate biological capacities in the process. Thus, using a handaxe will strengthen your arm muscles and using an abacus will strengthen your cognitive ones. Things started to change with the Industrial revolution when humans created machines that fully replaced human physical labour. They have started to change even more with the advent of computer technology that can fully replace human cognitive labour. Thus it seems that technology no longer simply complements humanity; it competes with us.
I think what Krakauer says about external technologies also applies equally well to internal technologies. Some internal technologies try to work with our innate biological capacities, extending our powers and enabling greater insight and understanding. A perceptual implant like an artificial retina or cochlear implant is a good example of this. Contrariwise, there are some internal technologies that effectively bypass our innate biological capacities, carrying out tasks on our behalf, without any direct or meaningful input from us. Some brain implants seem to work like this, radically altering our behaviour without our direct control or input. They are like mini autonomous robots implanted into our skulls, taking over from our biology, not complementing it.
I could go on, but this should suffice for understanding the two dimensions along which we can categorise our relationships with technology. Now, even though I said that these could be viewed as true dimensions (i.e. as continuous rather than discrete in nature), for the purposes of simplification, I want to use the two dimensions to construct a two-by-two matrix for categorising our relationships with technology.
This categorisation system muddies the waters somewhat from our initial, optimistic view of technology-as-tool. It still seems to be the case that technology can help us to transcend or overcome our biological limitations. We can use computers, the internet and artificial intelligence to greatly enhance and extend our knowledge and understanding of the world. We can use technologies to produce more valuable things and to get more of what we want, thereby enhancing our well-being. We could also, potentially, use technology to extend our lives, either by generating biotechnological breakthroughs that enable cell-repair and preservation (nanorobots in the bloodstream anyone?), or, more fancifully, by fusing ourselves with machines to become complete cyborgs. This could be achieved, in part, through external technologies but, more likely in the long-term, through the use of internal technologies that directly fuse with our biology. At this point we will reach an apotheosis in our relationship with technology, becoming one with the machine. In this sense, technology really does seem to hold out the possibility of achieving biological freedom.
The mud in the water comes from the fact that this reliance on machines leads to new forms of limitation and dependency, and hence new forms of unfreedom. This is where the paradox of transhumanism arises. If we want to take advantage of the new powers and abilities afforded to us by machines, it seems like we must accept technological interference, manipulation, and domination.
There are many ways in which technology might be a source of unfreedom. For illustrative purposes, I’ll just mention three:
Technological coercion: This arises when conditions are attached to the use of technology. In other words, we only get to take advantage of its powers if we explicitly or tacitly agree to forgo something else. We see this happening right now. Think about AI assistants or social media services or fitness tracking devices. They arguably improve our lives in various ways, but we are often only allowed to use them if we agree to give up something important (e.g. our privacy) or submit to something unpleasant (e.g. relentless advertising). Sometimes the bargain may involve genuine coercion — e.g. an insurance company promising you lower premiums if you agree to wear a health monitoring bracelet at all times — sometimes the coercive effect may be more subtle — e.g. facebook offering you an endless stream of distracting information in return for personal information that they can sell to advertisers. But in both cases there is a subtle interference with your ability to make choices for yourself.
Technological domination: This arises when technology provides genuine benefits to us without actually interfering with our choices, but nevertheless exerts a dominating influence over our lives because it could be used to interfere with us if we step out of line. Some people argue that our current situation of mass surveillance leads to technological domination. As we are now all too aware, our digital devices are constantly tracking and surveilling our every move. The information gathered is used for various purposes: to grant access to credit, to push advertising, to monitor terrorist activities, to check our mental health and emotional well-being. Some people embrace this digital panopticon, arguing that it can be used for great good. Sebastian Thrun, the co-founder of Google X, for example imagines a future in which we are constantly monitored for medical diagnostic purposes. He thinks this could help us to avoid bad health outcomes. But the pessimists will argue that living in a digital panopticon is akin to living as a happy slave. You have the illusion of freedom, nothing more.
Technological dependency/vulnerability: This arises when we rely too heavily on technology to make choices on our behalf or when we become helpless without its assistance. This undermines our freedom because it effectively drains our capacity for self-determination and resiliency. This might be the most serious form of technological unfreedom, and the one most commonly discussed. We all probably have a vague sense of it happening too. Many of us feel addicted to our devices, and helpless without them. A clear example of this dependency problem would be the over-reliance of people on services like Google maps. There are many stories of people who have got into trouble by trusting the information provided to them by satellite navigation systems, even when it was contradicted by what was right before their eyes. Technology critics like Nicholas Carr argue that this is leading to cognitive degeneration (i.e. technology is actively degrading our biological mental capacities). More alarmingly, cybersecurity experts like Marc Goodman argue that it is leading to a situation of extreme vulnerability. Goodman uses the language of the ‘singularity’, beloved by technology enthusiasts, to make his point. He argues that because most of technology is now networked, and because, with the rise of the internet of things, every object in the world in being slowly added to that network, everything is potentially hackable and corruptible. This is leading to a potential singularity of crime, where the frequency and magnitude of criminal attacks will completely overwhelm us. We will never not be victims of criminal attack. If that doesn’t compromise our freedom, I don’t know what does.
These forms of technological unfreedom can arise from internal and external technologies, as well as from complementary and competitive technologies. But the potential impact is much greater as we move away from external, complementary technologies towards internal, competitive technologies. With external-complementary technologies there is always the possibility of decoupling from the technological systems that compromises our freedom. With internal-competitive technologies this becomes less possible. Since transhumanism is often thought to be synonymous with the drive toward more internalised forms of technology, and since most of the contemporary forms of internal technology are quasi-competitive in nature, you can see how the alleged paradox of transhumanism arises. We are moving down and to the right in our matrix of technological relations and this engenders the Faustian pact outlined at the start.
Before I move on to consider ways in which this paradox can be resolved, I want to briefly return to the diagram I sketched earlier on in which I arranged the metaphysical, political, and biological concepts of freedom. To that diagram we can now add another concept of freedom: technological freedom, i.e. the ability to make choices and decisions for oneself without interference with, domination by, or limitation by technological forces. But where exactly should this new concept of freedom be placed? Is it a distinctive type of freedom or is it a sub-freedom of political freedom?
This may be a question of little importance to most readers, but it matters from the perspective of conceptual purity. Some people have tried to argue that technological freedom is another form of political freedom. They do so because some of the problems that technology poses for freedom are quite similar to the political problems of freedom. This is because technology is still, often, a tool used by other powerful people in order to manipulate, coerce and dominate. Nevertheless, people who have taken this view have also noted problems that arise when you view technological unfreedom as just another form of political unfreedom. Technological domination, for example, often doesn’t emanate from a single, discrete agent or institution, as does political domination. Technological domination is, according to some writers, ‘functionally agentless’. Something similar is true of technological coercion. It is not directly analogous to the simple interaction between the highwayman and his victim. It’s more subtle and insidious. Finally, technological dependency doesn’t seem to involve anything like the traditional forms of political unfreedom. For these reasons, I think it is best to understand technological freedom as a distinct category of unfreedom, one that occasionally overlaps with the political form, but is dissociable from it.
4. Dissolving the Paradox
Now that we have a much clearer understanding of the paradox (and how it might arise) we turn to the final and most important question: can the paradox be resolved? I want to close by making four arguments that respond to this question.
First, I want to argue that there is no intrinsic
paradox of transhumanism. In other words, there is nothing in the transhumanist view that necessarily entails or requires that we substitute biological unfreedom for technological unfreedom. The tension between biology and technology is contingent. Go back to the two-by-two matrix I sketched in the previous section. I used this to explain the alleged paradox by arguing that the transhumanist dilemma arises from the impulse/tendency to move down and to the right in our relationships with technology, i.e. to move towards internal-competitive technologies. But that should have struck you as a pretty odd thing to say. There is no reason why transhumanists should necessarily want to move in that direction. Indeed, if anything, their preferred quadrant is the bottom-left one (i.e. the internal-complementary one). After all, they want to preserve and extend what is best about humanity, using technology to compensate for the limitations in our biology, not to completely replace us with machines (to the extent that they wish to become cyborgs or uploaded minds they definitely want to preserve our sense of self). So they don’t necessarily embrace extreme technological dependency and vulnerability. The problem arises from the fact that moving down and to the left is less accessible than moving down and to the right. The current historical moment is one in which the most impressive technological gains are coming from artificial intelligence and robotics, the quintessential competitive technologies, and not from, say, more complementary biotechnologies. If our path to biological freedom did not force us to rely on such technologies, transhumanists would, I think, be happier. Admittedly, this is the kind of argument that will only appeal to a philosopher — those of us who love differentiating the necessary from the contingent — but it is important nonetheless.
The second argument I want to make is that there is no such thing as perfect freedom. Pure metaphysical freedom — i.e. freedom from all constraints, limitations, manipulations and interferences — is impossible. Furthermore, even if it were possible, it would not be desirable. If we are to be actors in the world, we must be subject to that world. We must be somehow affected or influenced by the causal forces in the world around us. We can never completely escape them. This is important because our sense of self and our sense of value is bound up with constraint and limitation. It is because I made particular choices at particular times that I am who I am. It is because I am forced to choose that my choices have value. If it didn’t matter what choices I made at a particular moment, if I could always rewind the clock and change what I did, this value would be lost. Nothing would really matter because everything would be revisable.
This then leads to the third argument, which is that whenever we think about advancing the cause of freedom, we must think in terms of trade-offs, not absolutes. Since you cannot avoid all possible constraints, limitations, manipulations or interferences, you must ask yourself: which mix of those things represents the best tradeoff? It is best to view freedom as a multidimensional phenomenon, not something that can be measured or assessed along a single dimension. This is something that philosophers and political scientists have recognised for some time. This is why there are so many different concepts of freedom, each one tending to emphasise a different dimension or aspect of freedom. Consider the philosopher Joseph Raz’s theory of autonomy (which we can here deem to be equivalent to a theory of freedom).*** This theory argues that there are three conditions of freedom: (i) rationality, i.e. the ability to act for reasons in pursuit of goals; (ii) optionality, i.e. the availability of a range of valuable options; and (iii) independence, i.e. freedom from interference or domination. These conditions can be taken to define a three-dimensional space of freedom against which we can assess individual lives. The ideal life is one that has maximum rationality, optionality and independence. But it is often not possible to ensure the maximum degree of each. Being more independent, for example, often reduces the options available to you and makes some choices less rationally tractable (i.e. you are less able to identify the best means to a particular end because you stop relying on the opinions or advice of others). Furthermore, we often willingly sacrifice freedom in one domain of life in order to increase it in another, e.g. we automate our retirement savings, thereby reducing freedom at one point in time, in order to increase it at a later point in time.
This is a long way of saying that transhumanism should be interpreted as one view of how we should tradeoff across the different dimensions of freedom. Transhumanists think that the biological limitations on freedom are great, having shorter lives, less intelligence and less well-being than we might otherwise leads to diminished human flourishing. Consequently, they might argue that we ought to trade these biological limitations for technological ones: what’s a loss of privacy compared to the gain in longevity/intelligence/wellbeing. Their critics — the technological pessimists — have a different understanding of the tradeoffs. They think that biological limitations are better than technological ones. That living under a technological panopticon is a much worse fate than living under the scythe of biological decay and death.
This brings me to my final argument. This one is slightly more personal nature. For what it’s worth, I tend to sympathise with both transhumanists and technological pessimists. I think most of the transhumanist goals are commendable and desirable. I think we should probably strive to remove the various forms of biological limitation identified by transhumanists (I am being cagey here since I disagree with certain interpretations and understandings of those goals). Furthermore, I think that technology — particularly internal-complementary technologies — represent the best hope for transhumanists in this regard. At the same time, I think it is dangerous to pursue the transhumanist goal by simply plunging headlong into the latest technological innovations. We need to be selective in how we embrace technology and be cognisant of the ways in which it can limit and compromise freedom. In essence, I disagree with understanding the debate about technology and its impact on freedom in a simple, binary way. We shouldn’t be transhumanist cheerleaders or resolute technological pessimists. We should be something in between, perhaps: cautiously optimistic technological sceptics.
To conclude, and to briefly sum up, the paradox of transhumanism is intriguing. Thinking about the tension between biological freedom and technological freedom can help to clarify and shed light on our ambiguous modern relationship with technology. Nevertheless, the paradox is more of an illusion than a reality. It dissolves upon closer inspection. This is because there is no pure form of freedom: we are (and should always be) forced to live with some constraints, limitations, manipulations and interferences. What we need to do is to figure out the best tradeoff or compromise.
* I have never quite understood the logic of this deal. Although this is the popular way of phrasing it, presumably the highwayman’s actual offer is ‘your money or your life and your money’ since his ultimate goal is to take your money.
** If I were being more technically sophisticated in this discussion, I would point out that the concept of the ‘biological’ is controversial. Some people argue that certain biological categories/properties are socially constructed. The classic example might be the property of sex/gender. If you take that view of at least some biological properties, then the distinction between biological freedom and political freedom would be more blurry. If I were being even more technically sophisticated I would point out that social construction comes in different forms and not all of these are threatening to the distinction I try to draw in the text. Specifically, I would argue that most of the biological limitations that preoccupy transhumanism are causally socially constructed rather than constitutively socially constructed.
*** There is, arguably, a technical distinction between freedom and autonomy. Following the work of Gerald Dworkin we can argue that freedom is a local property that applies to particular decisions, whereas autonomy is a global property that applies to an extended set of decisions. The two concepts are ultimately related.