the gods of the old religions were born in the skies and came to earth. the gods who are coming will be born on earth and move into the skies. they will not be empty stories or metaphors or dreams or fantasies – they will be stories made real by plans and efforts, metaphors turned common nouns, dreams turned into waking realities, fantasies found real.
It has been said that humans should advance by enhancing themselves, adding on various gadgets or features, so that they are still human, just with additional capabilities. Imagine a chimpanzee dressed in a hat, coat, and trousers. Does it seem human? or ridiculous? The same applies to dressing up humans in the trappings of posthuman beings. Humans with superhuman powers will simply promote their own primitive natures and advance their ancestors’ destructive tendencies.
Human beings, who cannot control themselves, have taken control of the world through accelerating technologies and are now out of control, on the verge of destroying themselves and all life on earth. The solution is for humans to turn the entire force of their scientific investigation and technology fully on themselves, with the goal of reinventing themselves as a species that can survive and flourish.
If human nature is the source of the problem, it is also the source of at least the seed of the solution. The way out has been glimpsed by human beings for millions of years, in their dreams, hopes, visions, and heroes. If man made God in his own image, as Ludwig Feurbach said, then humans have already long ago begun to redesign themselves in theory.
I am not talking about applying technology to externalities, humans’ outward appearance, or their peripheral capabilities, but rather applying technology to the very core of what it means to be human. What needs to be ‘upgraded’ is the very nature of the human animal, its deepest, most fundamental characteristics and processes. Humans need to aim their technology squarely at their own hearts, minds, and souls.
This solution first and foremost calls for greater scientific research into the brain and the human mind, including understanding the evolutionary background of human psychology as well as the theoretical possibilities of all mentality. It also requires the beginning of a tremendous, earth-wide discussion and consensus building involving all persons and insights from all cultures. Everyone, young and old, male or female, from every place on earth, must have a say and help decide how humanity will move forward. This solution also calls for developing technologies that could work to modify the human mind, either by changing the way the brain is organized and works, or by transferring the mind into an artificial substrate and body and altering the mind in that medium.
But we do not have to wait for advancements in science and technology to implement what little is already known. Humans today can make the step toward a greater-than-human future by cultivating in themselves the superhuman characteristics that will displace the human, to the extent that they can. There are mental/spiritual practices, philosophies, exercises, trainings, and other techniques humans can extract from the entire history of human civilization, techniques that change how people think and act and feel and live to more closely align them with the posthuman nature. Some of the ancients called this ‘sanctification,’ or ‘imitation of God.’ Human beings are now in a better position than the ancients to understand how to do these things and to use reality-tested, evidence-based strategies to develop more refined methods to cultivate ‘godlike’ qualities. Humans can become more sane, more rational, more compassionate, more understanding of themselves and others, more intelligent, more committed to truth, and attain greater happiness and bring greater happiness to others.
As long as human beings stay merely human, they will always be liable to lapse back to the worst possibilities of human nature. But it is through working to ascend that humans will relieve some of their own suffering, lessen humanity’s self-destruction, slow humanity’s approach to extinction, and put themselves in the best state of mind and life to contemplate and then design and implement the next step for humanity.
I am about to write something that sounds very negative, frightening, and sad, but I want it to be understood that I mean this only as describing a problem. I have perfect faith this is a problem that people can, and will, solve. In fact, the solution will not merely solve the problem; the solution will lead to an inestimably better life and experience for everyone, and a better world.
Humans will be extinct in a few decades. The mismatch between the accelerating advances in technology, especially weapons, and the sluggish pace of cultural and social improvement will eventually lead to a crisis in which weapons far in advance of the minds that wield them will end the species.
The only question is whether humanity will end by advancing and changing into a more advanced species, or whether humanity will end by simple extinction, leaving no successors.
Weapons are not only becoming more and more powerful; they are also becoming easier and easier or one or a small number of persons to build and deploy. In addition to the dangers of warfare are the tremendous dangers of the false peace of unjust social and economic orders. These systems smother human potential and wreck human happiness.
Humans face extinction as a species and as individuals, but they are not doing enough to prevent either. Many people are ground under by unjust political systems and cannot effectively bring themselves to fight to correct those systems, or if they do, they are destroyed in the attempt.
Many others, living in better conditions, mesmerize themselves with mindless entertainments or distraction by news that is hardly newsworthy. The most well off often either do not do the simplest things to protect their lives or the world, or else they do not even want to — they are so incapable of appreciating life or finding a way forward to true happiness that they numb themselves with drink and drugs, or else commit suicide outright.
Humans also continue to pollute the atmosphere, the oceans, and the earth itself, making life unlivable for themselves and other forms of life. Scientists talk of this as an age of mass extinction, a mass extinction caused by human beings and their influence on the ecosystem.
As Albert Einstein said of existential technological threats in his day, everything has changed “except our way of thinking.” Some have argued that humans are making progress in reducing violence and warfare through cultural and ethical advances. But even the most optimistic have not suggested that improvements in human ethics are advancing exponentially, the way human technology is.
Humans may have evolved to be adaptive as small bands of hunter-gatherers in the prehistoric ecosystem — they may have been fit enough for that earlier time — but humans have shown they are unfit for this era of large populations and advanced technology. What is clear is that human beings, members of the species homo sapiens, cannot and will not continue in their current form.
At the root of all these problems is human nature. Human nature is the source of all the foolishness, ignorance, stupidity, illogic, irrationality, superstition, thoughtlessness, unconcern, callousness, cruelty, addiction, death-wishing, jealousy, insatiable thirst for high status, and every other flaw of human beings that brings them suffering and harm and holds them back from the highest attainments.
Humans must now use every tool at their disposal — science, technology, philosophy, spirituality and so on — to decide what would constitute a better nature and then permanently and irreversibly change human nature for the better by modifying the mind itself, in the brain or some other substrate, in each and every person. The result will encompass every good thing or even neutral thing in human nature, but add to it so much more — more self-understanding, self-control, wisdom, compassion and awareness of others, and so on. The result will not be human, but rather better than human.
This is something to understand, but not something to be afraid of. Humans are on the verge of a transformation, a metamorphosis, a transition to something incalculably better for themselves and the universe.
Every snake molting struggles to extricate itself from its skin. Every caterpillar struggles to build its cocoon. Every child grown almost to adulthood feels the tempests of the experience — the approaching end of one thing, the approaching beginning of another. Humans have also reached the time when they cannot stay what they were, what they have been.
what does it mean for something to be possible?
for some people, what is possible is what they know how to do now, or what they know someone else knows how to do now. but there is a different meaning of possible – possible meaning what could be done right know if you or someone else knew how to do it. this is ‘theoretical’ possibility, but it is important to understand that it is only ‘theoretical’ by being relative – what is possible to you might not be possible for me, or what is possible to me might not be possible for you. so the first meaning of possibility refers to persons — this or that person can or cannot do it. the second meaning of possibility refers to the task itself — whether anyone might be able to do it, under any circumstances.
surely those who are interested in expanding their powers should be aware of the first meaning of possibility — but it is a simple matter to know what you can or cannot do. the second meaning of possibility is more important — because it is about what you might be able to do, under the right circumstances, for example, if you knew enough, or were smart enough, or were skillful enough, or had the right equipment or tools. we can make the impossible possible in this sense by learning, becoming more intelligent, or developing technology and skills. impossibility does not rest in the task; it rests in the person.
nuclear power plants, if they could have been built, would have worked just as well in neanderthal times as in our own. airplanes would have been able to fly over australopithecines just as they fly over human cities today. antibiotics could have healed homo erectus individuals, just as the heal human patients today.
nothing in the nature of the world has changed. scientific facts and laws are timeless. what has changed is human ignorance — it has been rolled back slightly. but we don’t live in some privileged time when all ignorance has dissipated. there is a vast sea of ignorance still in front of us. yet all the scientifically, actually possible things are possible right now.
it is not possible to say nature has posed any limits to what is possible in this sense. people sometimes say ‘theoretically possible’ and think wishfully thinking, not practical, or even false. but all things are possible, so humans are limited in what they can do only by their ignorance. what is humanly possible is a tiny subset of all things that are possible – possible right now, just as they someday will be realized by those who know ho to do them.
Change and continuity have always marked human life. However, the pace of change has always been accelerating. In the past, however, major changes did not usually happen within a human lifetime.
After humans first evolved, around 300,000 years ago, they lived as small bands of hunters and gatherers. They made only modest, gradual advances as the tens of millennia passed — better and better stone tools, cave and stone art, the invention of the bow and arrow, and the domestication of the dog.
With the invention of agriculture around 13,000 years ago, population size increased dramatically and the first cities arose. Humans invented writing, domesticated the horse, and learned to work iron. Significant changes were happening by millennia, or even by centuries.
It wasn’t until around 600 years ago that human beings invented systematic science, making significant progress in anatomy, physics, and astronomy. After this, humans also began printing books with movable type, navigated the oceans of the world with ships, and developed rational philosophies. By around 300 years ago, people began to sense that significant change was encroaching on a century, and almost the lifespan of a single generation. Descartes, in the 17th century, was among the first to notice that an individual person’s life was not long enough to experience the changes and discoveries that were being made by humanity.1 In 1780, Benjamin Franklin wrote,
The rapid Progress true Science now makes, occasions my Regretting sometimes that I was born so soon. It is impossible to imagine the Height to which may be carried in a 1000 Years the Power of Man over Matter. We may perhaps learn to deprive large Masses of their Gravity & give them absolute Levity, for the sake of easy Transport. Agriculture may diminish its Labour & double its Produce. All Diseases may by sure means be prevented or cured, not excepting even that of Old Age, and our Lives lengthened at pleasure even beyond the antediluvian Standard. O that moral Science were in as fair a Way of Improvement, that Men would cease to be Wolves to one another, and that human Beings would at length learn what they now improperly call Humanity.
The industrial revolution began only about 250 years ago, bringing the discovery of evolution by natural selection, the first practical applications of electricity, and the internal combustion engine. It was only about a hundred years ago that airplanes were invented, followed by sophisticated rockets, and nuclear weapons. People who grew up in the horse-and-buggy era lived long enough to see jet airplanes.
By the 1950s, the prominent scientist John von Neumann seems to have been among the first to notice that technological progress was accelerating toward a unique moment in human history. As recorded by Stanislaw Ulam,
One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.
Acceleration, by the mid-twentieth century, was beginning to cause significant changes to happen within the span of a human lifetime, in decades. The mathematician Vernor Vinge fleshed out more ideas about the Singularity in The Coming Technological Singularity:How to Survive in the Post-Human Era. The inventor Ray Kurzweil developed these ideas further in his 2005 book, The Singularity is Near.
Yet many people, by a habit sprung from prior generations, continue to think of all significant technological changes as centuries or even millennia away, when it is really more likely only decades or even years away. Research is now underway to extend lifespans indefinitely and build artificial intelligence superior to human intelligence. Human beings are already closing in one some of the thousand-year predictions of Benjamin Franklin, in less than three hundred years, yet they are also facing the consequences of continuing to be the morally unimproved “wolves” Franklin described.
1 See Gruman’s A History of Ideas about the Prolongation of Life. The Evolution of Prolongevity Hypotheses to 1800.
“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” – Paul of Tarsus
life is a patchwork of changes and continuities, shot through with a stretch of story that connects them all. there is a story each human being has, and a story the human species as a whole has. and there is a story that will continue, through human evolution into beings beyond human.
one of the characteristics of godhood in ancient theology was eternity, not in the sense of divinity lasting forever, but in the sense that all times past and present and future were equally available for view. human beings cannot experience this fully, but there is a transhuman way to approach eternity, by being simultaneously aware of the past, the future, and the present.
as with widening the circle of compassion to other persons and sentient beings, widening the circle of awareness from the present to other times vastens your mind and heart, opens your experience of the world, and connects you to the meaning of all that you are aware of and all that you are empathetic toward.
you can think about the past by considering the past, becoming aware of the history of different times and places. you can think about the future by imagining the likely world that ingenuity and passion and consideration will create. you can be aware of the present through mindfulness of the people, sentient beings, and objects around you. eternity is holding all of these in your mind at once – this is a difficult exercise that requires practice.
but in this way you can see human beings are growing up into godhood. as with children growing into adults, there will be memories, new experiences, old practices let go, sometimes with nostalgic sadness, and new exciting adventures. it is right for these things to unfold, in the way that they will, and for humanity to turn the page.
the word morality comes from a latin word for custom, tradition. morality is the way people behave, or think they should behave, that they inherit from their culture, the traditions of their ethnic group, their religion, their community, or nation. people acquire morality by imitating others without thinking too much about it. they practice morality to fit in, to be accepted.
ethics comes from the greek term used for the philosophical examination of behavior. people come to a sense of ethics by critical thinking, by questioning the traditions they inherited, by being open-minded about alternatives, by examining their conscience, by weighing the evidence, by making careful judgments based on experience.
part of being transhuman is emerging, however much or slowly, from morality, and working toward an ethical system in one’s life. as with science, ethical improvement is ongoing and never really ended. there is a search for better ethics and better ethical ways to live, but never a final, perfect ethics, even in theory.
so, even if one acts ethically, as one thinks, one may be acting unethically, as one later realizes — and that one had good intentions is little consolation. also, if ethics is not consonant with a person’s whole mind, hypocrisy and akrasia and error are all possible. bringing one’s whole mind to bear on ethical considerations and fully living out the implications of one’s ethics are difficult transhuman tasks. the important thing is to keep taking steps forward and not to quit in the face of obstacles or failures.