This article was written as an exploration – and has no initial agenda or objective outside of discovering potential interesting connections through a look at transhumanism through the lens of Transcendentalism. Transcendentalism was not created with the thought in mind that one day man would merge with machine in order to become more capable, durable, intelligent, enlightened – and so I’ve had to extrapolate some of the concepts of the philosophy to these more modern moral concerns.
I should not that I’m no formal scholar in Transcendentalism, but I know enough about it to know that it is dangerous to assume that it can be boiled down to a concrete number of tenets. It rather seems to have themes and premises, and these will be the basis for our inquiry on the matter.
In a similar manner as I have attempted in my inquiry on transhumanism and stoicism, I will aim to:
- Identify and define a set of tenets that represent important themes within the philosophy itself
- Apply those tenet (roughly) to some ethical scenarios involving the transhuman transition (mind uploading, cognitive enhancement, etc)
We’ll begin with what might be the most well-known tenet of Transcendentalism (thanks in large part to Emerson’s essay “Self Reliance“):
Self / Individualism
For the Transcendentalist, one’s own individuality is sacred, and that humans are innately “good” and one with God. With this being the case, action and thought are imbued with meaning and importance, with carrying out God’s will through his window through which he may act – the individual and his or her consciousness. In addition, this view holds that one must know the world only through his own eyes (this begins to lean into the tenet of intuition) and his own personal experience, as this is what is true to him, what resonates and connects to his being.
In a reality where the biological humans are significantly enhanced (physically, cognitively, etc…) by technology, we might imagine a resistance from transcendentalists, who we might imagine to be defenders of our human form, of our human essence as an eminence of God in the world. It is hard to imagine Thoreau spending hours to see a Blue Jay nesting, or watching ants on the ground – then making the quick transition to “plugging himself in” in order to make the most of his individuality.
The innate connection to “nature” might hold true as a staple of what some transcendentalists see as their “genuine individuality.” In the moment I say this without any particular passages or texts to back up this potential defense, but only with the knowledge of the intense connection that transcendental thinkers saw with the natural world.
(Though it would entirely be the topic for a separate inquiry, we might wonder how much less “natural” a computer chip is than a series of neural connections – or we might wonder what constitutes an innate human “essence” of which we must defend.)
We might also imagine, however, that if the technology were functional enough to gain the popular adoption, and was seen to be capable of magnifying the essence of what is good in man and eliminating the “bad,” then transcendentalists might see adoption of such a technology as normal.
Taking technology and sentient potential even further, assuming a connectedness of nearly all intelligence in a “Singularity” context, it would seem as though transcendentalists might lose their individuality (as it is now conceived) in a collected and aggregated conscious one-ness.
The details of such a reality are so foggy that it seems difficult to imagine exactly what this situation might entail. It may be that all of the “consciousnesses” of all living things would still maintain a sense of self despite massive enhancement / development / etc… It might also be imagined that individual consciousnesses would be “swallowed up” by a higher intelligence, or aggregated and somehow added onto this larger intelligence. It would seem that if any of these transitions were against the will of the conscious agent, transcendentalists (and most humans) would object.
However, just as a parent does for a child what the child does not know is best for itself, a super-conscious, super-capable, super-developing, super-intelligent being might (maybe even rightly) have its way with our bodies, minds, and consciousnesses. If this allowed for the expansion and further development of one’s consciousness to an infinite potential and richness (which we might imagine it would, so long as our own sense of sentience and consciousness was not snuffed out), we might assume that a modern transcendentalist might not object to this transition to the singularity.
Oversoul Connection of Man, God, and Nature
To a transcendental thinker, there is an innate, not fully graspable, connectedness of all consciousness and all reality – and to the divine. There is a sense that all is connected, and a seemingly Platonic view that what is “real” or “best” in us already exists, and that the most genuine expression of ourselves in art and in life implies an unfettered outflow of this universal intelligence. For Emerson, even poetry was much less about the novel contribution of the poet, and more about the authentic expression of ideas and tenets that come from outside the self, yet are part of each of us and of the world.
In a transhuman reality, the transcendentalists might hope for enhancements in our conscious ability to draw from the rest of the world and nature, and/or a greater ability to recognize this connectedness (more on this in our next tenet, “the quest for truth”).
It would seem as though an “enhanced” individual (integrated with non-biological intelligence) would not only have a greater capacity to calculate and understand, but would be connected to greater resources outside of itself. This might be an “internet of consciousness,” or it may take the form of a physical plug in one’s skill used to transfer information (IE: “The Matrix” film). In either regard this connectedness might be understood at a higher level – especially in terms of its grounding in the properties of physics and chemistry which we might presume to underlie everything in our presently known world.
A transhuman individual may also have their emotional and “mystical” senses enhanced so as to experience this one-ness more fully and deeply than any biological human could hope to experience. This might translate also to a kind of expressed virtue in thought and action that takes this one-ness fully into account more genuinely than any biological human might be capable of. Of course, this conception of “virtue” would likely extend far beyond what we understand of the term now, but it might translate to generosity, benevolence, and a more harmonious kind of progress than our biological minds could ever allow for.
Moving closer to the singularity implies a more and more literal embodiment of “unity,” and a potential creation of – if not connection to – a kind of “Oversoul.” Like transhumanism, this transition is too speculative to pin down, and may occur in any number of ways that might align – or potentially very much not align – with transcendental ideals of “right” and “wrong.”
The transition towards the singularity might involve a snuffing out of all other sentience other than the great and massive consciousness that is the arise and carry itself forth through the universe(s). It might also entail an aggregation and harmonious unity of all sentience into this “Singularity” or “Oversoul,” which may allow for a maintenance of individuality, or may merely imply a blending and “absorption” to a greater and centralized super-consciousness and super-intelligence.
If in fact this aggregating one-ness could be attained while still maintaining (even with “blending”) the consciousness of those absorbed, then we might imagine transcendentalists to be sympathetic to the idea of this transition, as well.
The Quest for Truth
If transcendentalists seek truth, it might be easy to assume that they see the profound limitations of the human body and mind as exactly that – limitations. One might assume that if Emerson could have remembered each line he ever read or wrote – without having to record and go back to notes – that he would certainly have preferred this. Similarly, we might imagine that if Thoreau was able to sense the subtle chemical communicators that dictated the movement of ants, or the inaudible sounds of the forest at night – that he would not have turned down the opportunity to go beyond his human abilities to understand nature and truth (within himself or in the world).
In addressing the quest for truth, it seems important to address the topic of “mysticism.” It may generally be said that the transcendentalists held that many aspects and facets of the world could not be comprehended and understood outside of hints through enlightened personal experience – but that the science of the day could neither “put a finger” on these “truths,” nor could words adequately express them.
It seems that even in a transhuman future, there would always be unknown answers, whether about the reaches of reality or the connectedness and potential of its elements. In this respect, it seems that the transcendental sense of mysticism could remain in humans enhanced with non-biological intelligence. This sense may be productive in the sense that it is useful to bear in mind that there are elements of reality which we do not yet comprehend, and still to make strong suppositions about what those possibilities may entail, mean, or be.
“Mysticism” may, in other regards, be brought to be questioned thanks in large part to this same growing, ever-evolving intelligence. What we “sense” to be true and to “know” without “evidence” may be proven wrong more and more when our knowledge of what is expands at blinding speeds. Just as mystics once worshiped the sun as a god, it the transcendentalists might have their “mystical” knowledge broken down by the breakneck speed of expanding intelligence.
As an example, the concept of the “Oversoul” (in Emerson’s essay of the same name) may find no grounding in terms of a general universal essence of consciousness – or even between the connection of various consciousnesses in the world. When consciousness itself is grasped, it may be realized that the “feeling” of oneness which we experience in nature or with other people is a particular kind of emotional experience which had at some point served a purpose in our development and human beings but in fact was not grounded in anything “real.”
Just as man once may have believed with absolutely all of his heart that the sun was a god and that the lightning was a warning of the gods, man’s further understanding of the nature of consciousness, physics, neurology, and emotion may shed light on this idea of “unity” as a mere mental sensation which has – over millennia – been experienced and understood to represent some kind of greater connectedness which in fact does not exist. Even if we do not like this thought, it seems dogmatic an closed-minded to imagine that it could never in any way be proven to be false.
With that being said, it seems as though a transition to transhumanism and the Singularity would undoubtedly be firmly grounded in a further and further quest for truth in terms of understanding the world. It seems that most transcendentalists would be quicker to embrace this increased capacity to understand and experience than to cling to their mystical “sense” of what truth might be – and to shut out the genuine developments of science and understanding.