Dr. James Hughes and the Transition to Transhumanism

As a follower of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), I’d been familiar with Dr. James Hughes for some time – but it was a writer from Wired (Brandon Kliem) who convinced me I should reach out for an interview.

We talked about a vast number of topics, with the foremost being a topic of the utmost fascination my eyes (and one that I think deserves the utmost collaboration of expertise and vigilant discernment of progress) is the “transition to transhumanism.”

Altering Our Consciousness and Personality: Where Things Get Interesting

To paraphrase Dr. Hughes in the first half of our interview: “Life-extension technologies and body alterations are relatively ethically trivial, issues of reproduction get a little bit more dicey, but where things get the most interesting – I think – is what we are going to be able to do to our brain, our personality, our consciousness.”

On this topic, Dr. Hughes and I are in complete agreement: there is nothing more ethically relevant and nothing that holds more ethical weight than the creation / alteration of consciousness. The process of these “alterations” or “enhancements” being rolled out into what we now consider to be “regular” human life and society will likely be troubling in many unpredictable ways.

Dr. Hughes speaks of having the ability to modulate our consciousness in order to determine more closely exactly what it is that we want to feel at any given time. If technologies with this capacity are proven same and harmless – then there is no reason to believe a great number of the world’s population would partake (don’t forget, we aim to do this with pharmaceuticals to the tune of billions of dollars per year, already).

However, what if I’ve set my mood-o-meter to “Joyous,” and I witness someone being hit by a bus on my way to work. Certainly I would have concern for this person (assuming that the empathetic response has not been “edited” out of my consciousness), but would I actually want to change my mood-o-meter to be “Melancholy” for day? The answer is… probably not. How does this consistent, joyous state in dealing with tragedy and loss of life make societies and interactions different than they are today?

If we live forever, our experience won’t necessarily shift very much from what we know to be “human.” If we are all 12 feet tall, again, life won’t fundamentally be that different (even if only some of us at 12 feet tall, we’d just have to bend down to talk to our smaller, biological humans). When the nature of our personalities and conscious experience changes, however, even small shifts will likely take us down a path to alter society, human relations, and human experience forever – with the pace of change only speeding up from there.

What is interesting to me is that once we’re able to drastically extend life, or drastically alter our physical form – alterations to our brains and consciousness will similarly be possible (evidenced by many of the studies being conducted now in this domain of altering conscious experience) – and so it is likely in my eyes that before we get to experience 200 years of “regular” human life – we’ll long since have crossed the precipice of no return in terms of what our conscious experience will be like (this – among maybe 4 or 5 thousand other reasons – is why I don’t bother thinking about how it will be when I have grandchildren sitting on my lap – for I may have no “lap”).

Happiness and Transhumanism – Why Don’t We Just Plug In?

What I see as the more grand question of transhumanism is: “Where will this all take us?” In other words, what is the “end” to which we are striving with our transition beyond human potential?

Dr. Hughes brings up an interesting point: “If as part of a public policy we wanted to ‘make everyone happy,’ then why wouldn’t we just jack a wire in everyone’s head – and what does that tell you about the ‘good society’?”

Hedonic utilitarianism, in this respect, could become somewhat of a dead end for transhumanism for this very reason. Dr. Hughes argues that happiness could instead be seen as but one of many capacities that we should be obligated to bring out in people, but not the only one. We might also aim to bring out the capacity to express our talents and develop our skills. Happiness is certainly not inconsequential, but it is one of many “capacities” that we might deem to be important in the living of a worthwhile life (with “worthwhile” admittedly being hopelessly subjective).

In philosophy, the utilitarian argument is between the sad Socrates or the happy pig (clearly a philosopher’s analogy) – and unless we’ve personally had the experience of both – the answer is tough to come to a concrete conclusion on. Dr. Hughes mentions the Abolitionist Project as one such hedonic proponent of ensuring happiness to all sentient beings.

In my personal opinion, any future notion of happiness would likely (in it’s ideal form) incorporate any and all potential components of happiness – which we might imagine to be a super-rich array of experiences completely incomprehensible to humanity. We may suppose this to involve some semblance of striving towards values, the joy of learning and discovery, relationships / bonding, and a nearly infinite number of experiences that cannot be imagined or likely articulated in words. The idea of the “ideal of happiness” being a normal human brain with an electrode permanently lodged in the pleasure center just seems improbable. First, our brain would likely not endure such continued stimularion, and second, because there are undoubtedly many realms of bliss, joy, etc… which the human mind is incapable of attaining.

It is important to note that I personally don’t care for the vision of being “plugged in” with an electrode in the pleasure center of my brain, drooling in a chair. However, I think it would also be fruitless to factor too much of this idea of “dignity” into our notions of what would be “best” – particularly if “best” is framed in a purely hedonistic fashion.

In Conclusion, and More on Doctor Hughes

To learn more about Dr. Hughes, please see his profile here on the IEET website – or check out his book on Amazon. A big thanks to Dr. Hughes for taking the time for the interview – I look forward to the eventual release of his “Cyborg Buddha” book.

-Daniel Faggella