On Being Human


One of the more important questions to understanding and being transhuman is the basic question of ‘what is human anyway?’.  If we are transferring human or altering human or just being better human we are still modifying that basic concept.  Of course philosophers and scientists throughout history have struggled with this question and there is no easy or single answer but it is worth examining some of the basic realities of being human and what that means to explore some of the ideas around it and what that means for transcending, transferring, transposing, transgressing or otherwise trans* humanity.

When we look at a human we see the obvious.  An upright bipedal mammal with clear sexual dimorphism.  Two arms, two legs, two eyes etc.  We see distinctive faces and body shapes and hear distinctive voices.  Cues that we have developed to help in determining who in the world it is we’re talking to.  These are natural guidelines and if you ask people on the street a question of ‘what is a human’ these physical features will often be a considerable part of their answer.

The defining feature of humans is their brain.  It really is the focus of human survival and evolutionary advantage.  No other known species has a brain as large relative to their body as do humans.  This has led to humans being sapient and sentient and really has been the leading force in enabling humanity to not only survive but thrive.  Every species has its evolutionary advantage and a big brain is ours.  What is odd about this is the fact that big brains are not the sort of thing that one would think of as being such an advantage.  They take up a lot of resources.  With demands that far outstrip any equivalent bodily mass of cells and they don’t do much more than data processing and output.  This is part of the reason other species have never gotten quite such a ratio and why evolution hasn’t, to our knowledge, succeeded in reaching this level of capacity before.

So evolution built the human around the brain.  So what?  It means we are smarter than your average organism and can abstract things in ways not seen in other creatures but that’s just evolution.  Transhumanism is about more than evolution isn’t it?  Going beyond what nature has given us to take charge of our own destiny and making things better all around is certainly at the core of the Transhuman ideal.   But what this fundamentally means is that what we take with us on that journey must be the human mind since that is where we live.   If a human loses an arm their life is made more difficult.  The same applies for any limb or organ.  We regularly replace hearts, livers, kidneys etc. now and none of these things fundamentally change who a person is.  Indeed the fact that who we are resides in the brain is right there in the term ‘personality’.  You can knock or damage anything else but if you just dent the brain fundamental changes take place to the individual.  They may not be the same individual who they were before having different actions and reactions to the same stimuli.   As we go forward then what we need to remain human is only what is in our heads.

Interestingly this doesn’t strictly mean that we always have the brain.  Nor that the brain is somehow sacrosanct.  The cellular structures making up a human brain are a substrate on which we run the software that is the mind and perhaps if one wants to get metaphysical, the soul.  The mind is truly what we are at the most basic level.  It is the effect of all that processing power and myriad connections that allows us to ‘think’ and it is the thoughts, the ideas, the memories and the will that we need to take with us.  For these are the elements that make up the mind.   What we need to be careful us is that we don’t damage or lose the mind along the way.

People may choose to change their mind structures whether that means brain alteration through physical or chemical means or simply that they didn’t like their previous decision.  That is part and parcel of morphological freedom but this is where we have to be careful.  This is the area where we are truly and centrally human and once we start making alterations to that we are truly into unknown space.  We may alter our hands into paws or change our mouths to fans or simply replace everything with a fancy new helicopter body.  None of that changes who we are at the most fundamental level.  It is just a new face or coat of paint on the basic mind.   But we should think long and hard about any changes to that mind itself.  We should keep in mind all the possible outcomes and remind ourselves that we will not be the same once it is done.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it at some point or at some level.  The human mind has its limitations just like everything else and while we want to take great caution in doing so there are definitely opportunities for improvement.  Indeed we are already deep into this territory.  Just as more visible prosthetics are being used to improve the functioning of other parts of the body there are a host of interventions that alter the brain in various ways and thus impact the mind.  The majority of these are chemical in nature and come from a host of drugs that can have impressive effects on neurochemistry.  Many are used clinically but some of the most popular have been banned because they are seen as detrimental or harmful.

The drug war(s) and their effects are perhaps the most visible example of the debates that are only going to increase as mind alterations become ever more visible and substantial.  The issues at hand should be carefully considered in who we are and what we may wish to become as humans.  We can and should change our bodies in a variety of ways to suit our needs and should worry far less about that.  If we replaces our bodies with robot parts or leaves we are still still human fundamentally.   But once we change our minds in a permanent way we may begin to ask questions about what that means.  Where are the lines and what kinds of limitations should there be?  This is a much deeper discussion and warrants the whole range of reasoned debate.  What thoughts do you have on the mind as the defining feature of humans?  Where would you fall on the question on how we should approach it?

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