Redefining Beauty Through the Lens of Transhumanism
Redefining Beauty Through the Lens of Transhumanism
Transhumanism, a term first used by Julian Huxley in 1956 and later developed into a philosophy by Dr. Max More, is the idea that humanity can transcend its current limitations and shortcomings through the development and implementation of biological and artificial technologies (“Transhumanist FAQ”). Philosophical offerings of transhumanist themes are perhaps most obviously evident in the writings of Nietzche (Sorgner). From the viewpoint of this philosophy it is seen that Darwinian evolution has taken humanity as far as it can and that it is now up to us to grasp our situation and manufacture our own destiny. One need only stop for a moment to see this autoevolution in action: As I sit here and type this paper, Human Enhancement Technologies (HET) are visible and active all around me. Students communicate almost instantaneously with one another via text message and listen to music through headphones while at the same time retrieving, processing, and manipulating information from all corners of our planet and beyond. What is truly staggering is that we have only existed in our current anatomically modern biological state for approximately 200,000 years (Larsen). And if one thing is certain, this ever-accelerating advancement of humanity will not be stopping any time soon.
More than simply being aware of our past, present, and future transformations, it is important to theorize about the impact these technologies will have on the foundations of the human experience. Of these foundations, this paper will focus on the philosophical realms of beauty, taste, and aesthetic appeal. It is my belief that future enhancements of the human organism will dramatically alter our capacities for the creation of, and interaction with, art. In doing so, our conceptions of beauty and taste will change in ways unimaginable.
As individual organisms, many of our functions are dependent on the hardware with which we operate, namely, our bodies and, more specifically, our central nervous systems. This nervous system can be viewed as a multi-faceted instrument with which we sense, process, analyze, and alter our environment. This epistemological notion is not new by any means and can in fact be traced to the theories of early empiricists, some of which - including Hume and Hutcheson - we have already studied in our Aesthetics course this semester. The problem with our brains, the control center and intellectual powerhouse of the body, is that they cannot currently be escaped; there is no way for us to think or exist outside of our minds. As a result, our biological facilities define our mental capabilities which, in turn, manifest our sense of what is beautiful and what is not. For example, a person who is born without functioning eyes can never know the visual beauty of a sunset over the Grand Canyon, no matter how many descriptions they hear or how powerful their imagination. This limitation of their sensing apparatus restricts their access to and understanding of a beauty which lies latent in their perceived reality. However, if the blind person was suddenly, and seemingly miraculously, granted the gift of sight, it would be as if a hidden doorway was suddenly opened on a once inconceivable realm of beauty, energy, and life. The once latent beauty is then manifested in all of its spontaneous brilliance. Thankfully for such people, it appears as though this technological advancement is not far from becoming reality. The National Eye Institute is currently involved in the research and development of an artificial retina which uses electrodes surgically implanted in the eye, a camera on the bridge of the nose and a video processor strapped to the waist to grant users the gift of sight. While it is still in the beginning phases of development, it seems that only time stands in the way of achieving “one of science’s most-sought-after holy grails: making the blind see.” (Belluck).
It seems obvious then that if the medium through which we interact with reality is dramatically altered, so too shall be our aesthetic conceptions. But an interesting argument arises when considering this change of beauty: Do new human capacities simply modulate the frequency of a beauty which has always existed and is not fundamentally impacted by our evolution? Or by transcending the limits of ourselves are we actually birthing a new entity which simply cannot begin to be comprehended through our current lens of conception? Some may argue, and rightly so, that the development of culture and technology has existed for tens of thousands of years and that human enhancement is nothing new. I agree with this statement completely. One need only examine for a moment the tremendous impact psychoactive substances have had on the catalyzation of human creativity and imagination to find evidence of this human endeavor. However, all of the technological advancements up to this point have only served to enhance the biological framework already present and have yet to redefine our consciouness and very being. It is my belief that a tipping point will be reached when we move beyond enhancement and into the realm of creation. Rather than merely continuing to tweak our current neurological constructs, we shall rise out of this potentially obsolete mental environment and step into a completely new realm of categorization, thereby becoming Posthuman.
One of the most elegant ways in which this may occur is the freeing of mind from body via digital upload. While this momentous achievement may currently be out of arms-length, the impact it would have on humanity is staggering. Bruce Katz, professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Sussex, believes that freeing the mind from the body “will allow us to manipulate thought directly, and this will produce the most gains in intelligence, creativity, and in achieving harmony with other sentient beings and the universe as a whole.” (Katz). It will then become clear that beauty is not a divine, removed, and unchanging entity, but rather, a creation of consciousness - just as maleable as the cosmos from which it emerges. This overcoming of our current lack of understanding of beauty and aesthetic appeal will result in a redefinition of the experience itself. Take for example the Chinese Room Argument, a thought experiment proposed by John Searle which argues against the possibility of “strong AI” (Searle). Searle summarized the Chinese Room Argument as follows: “Imagine a native English speaker who knows no Chinese locked in a room full of boxes of Chinese symbols (a data base) together with a book of instructions for manipulating the symbols (the program). Imagine that people outside the room send in other Chinese symbols which, unknown to the person in the room, are questions in Chinese (the input). And imagine that by following the instructions in the program the man in the room is able to pass out Chinese symbols which are correct answers to the questions (the output). The program enables the person in the room to pass the Turing Test for understanding Chinese but he does not understand a word of Chinese.” (“The Chinese Room Argument”). Now, imagine that the room is the human mind which contains a library of prescribed, aesthetically pleasing references (produced through the joint interactions of nature and nurture) as well as instructions for the identification and labeling of beauty. The human mind encounters objects, ideas, and experiences and uses the tools hardwired into it to answer the question of what is beautiful and what is not. While our minds allow us to create these distinctions, just like the man in the room, our syntactical understanding of beauty is not equivalent to a semantic understanding. In other words, as long as we remain within the room of our minds, we may continue to experience beauty but shall never be able to understand it. Only by removing the man from the room and empowering him as an observer, a metaphor for the removal of mind from body which I touched on above, can the meaning behind the process be understood. This theory is a cornerstone in my belief that Transhumanism will ultimately alter our conceptions of beauty.
One counter-argument of this theory that I foresee is the assertion that technology, being a creation of the human mind, is unable to remove our consciousness from the containing vessel of mind itself; one can never be freed from one’s mind since every effort at escape, be it via system or philosophy, is itself a product of mind. As a result of this, our conceptions of beauty shall forever remain a derivative of our inescapable minds and, as such, remain fundamentally unchanged. However, if the mind is viewed as an outwardly expanding set of rooms, each one contained by it’s successor and containing it’s predecessor, it is seen that each departure of consciousness results in an improved understanding of the system within which it resides. This concept is not unlike The Allegory of the Cave used by Plato in The Republic to illustrate his Theory of Forms. A removal from, and understanding of, the complete system is not required for a step-wise, systemic enlightenment to alter fundamental human conceptions such as beauty.
Cosmelli and Thompson raise another important point in their essay ‘Embodiment or Envatment? Reflections on the Bodily Basis of Consciousness’ which I feel is highly relevant to the removal of consciousness from the body and the implications this would have for our subjective experience of beauty. They begin by explaining the brain-in-a-vat thought experiment which asks the reader to “suppose that a team of neurosurgeons and bioengineers were able to remove your brain from your body, suspend it in a life-sustaining vat of liquid nutrients, and connect its neurons and nerve terminals by wires to a supercomputer that would stimulate it with electrical impulses exactly like those it normally receives when embodied. According to this brain-in-a-vat thought experiment, your envatted brain and your embodied brain would have subjectively indistinguishable mental lives.” However, theorists often view the brain from a “unidirectional control perspective” and fail to acknowledge “that the brain needs to be seen as a complex and self-organizing dynamical system that is tightly coupled to the body at multiple levels.” The essay goes on to say that “our default assumption should be that the biological requirements for subjective experience are not particular brain regions or areas as such, but rather some crucial set of integrated neural-somatic systems capable of autonomous functioning.” (Thompson). In a nutshell, this means that consciousness is not created in its entirety by the brain but rather, through the dynamic functioning of a total system, of which the brain is a part. This has important implications for my argument that the transhuman, autoevolution of the human species will alter our conceptions of beauty. This would occur due to an alteration of the “integrated neural-somatic systems” into which our brains would be placed if they were indeed removed from our current biological bodies. Since removal of the brain from the body would no doubt be done, at least in part, to free us from the restrictions of our bodies, it stands to reason that the new system into which our brains were placed would drastically alter our consciousness due to the changes in the overall system. Since beauty is a subjective experience of our consciousness, it can then be argued that our experience of and interaction with this phenomenon would be radically shifted. While this sort of neuroengineering feat is not the only avenue for transhuman expansion of our species, it certainly serves to illustrate the fundamental changes such endeavors could illicit.
While a comprehensive argument for the transformative power of Transhumanism is beyond the scope of this essay, I feel I arranged a number of key arguments which illustrate the exceptional way in which such human transformation will alter our conceptions of beauty. While it is nigh on impossible to determine exactly how our new sense of beauty might be arranged, it is useful to develop hypotheses which seek to create possible outcomes of such changes. In this way, humanity may step toward the future, not as a blind and naive diaspora, but as an open-minded and enlightened collective whose consciousness is prepared for all possibilities. May we find what we are looking for.
Belluck, Pam. “Burst of Technology Helps Blind to See.” The New York Times. 26 Sept. 2009. Web. 09 Oct. 2009. <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/27/health/research/27eye.html? pagewanted=1&_r=1>.”Chinese Room Argument.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 01 Dec. 2009. <http://www.iep.utm.edu/chineser/#H1>.Katz, Bruce. “Will We Eventually Upload Our Minds?” H+ (Humanity Plus Magazine) Fall 2009: 43-43. Print.Larsen, Clark Spencer. Our Origins Discovering Physical Anthropology. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008. Print.Searle, John R. Mind, Language, and Society Philosophy in the Real World. New York: Basic Books, 2000. Print.Sorgner, Stefan L. “Nietzsche, the Overhuman, and Transhumanism.” Journal of Evolution and Technology 20.1 (2009): 29-42. Journal of Evolution and Technology. Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, Mar. 2009. Web. 10 Oct. 2009. <http://jetpress.org/v20/sorgner.htm>.”The Chinese Room Argument.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 01 Dec. 2009. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/chinese-room/>.Thompson, Evan, and Diego Cosmelli. “Embodiment or Envatment? Reflections on the Bodily Basis of Consciousness.” Enaction: Towards a New Paradigm for Cognitive Science(2008). MIT. Web. 05 Dec. 2009. <http://individual.utoronto.ca/evant/EnactionChapter.pdf>.”Transhumanist FAQ.” Transhumanism’s Extropy Institute - Transhumanism for a better future. Web. 06 Nov. 2009. <http://www.extropy.org/faq.htm>.
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