Nick Bostrom on transhumanism and our biggest problems

In this interesting TED talk, Nick Bostrom tackles hummanity’s biggest problems — from a very original point of view. Nick Bostrom is a transhumanist. As he defines in his “Transhumanist FAQ“,

Transhumanism is a way of thinking about the future that is based on the premise that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase.

This kind of idea seems to generate great controversy, as is apparent from the comments to his video on TED’s website. However, it is interesting to think of it as a fact — the fact that we are changing who we are and what we do through technology. In an important sense Bostrom isn’t trying to impose an agenda. He is pointing the facts.

It is much more constructive to join him in debating the ethical consequences of this fact, and thus guarantee the “humanism” in “transhumanism”, than arguing that we should somehow prevent it from happening.

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The problem of death, as stated by Bostrom, seems to have particularly inspired debates. I think I can understand both sides of the discussion.

Death is a natural phenomenon which is not in itself bad or good. It is a problem from an individual point of view, but from the point of view of our species the only important thing is continued reproduction. From a species perspective death is in fact essential: heredity and variation are at the heart of evolution’s capacity to adapt, and these processes can only happen (in a region of limited resources) with death. But we should be careful attributing “values” to a biological species when in reality evolution is a blind random process. Our genes don’t “want” to reproduce, they just happen to reproduce.

But in an individual scale death is in fact a big, big problem. A problem is the difference between what one has and what one wants, and most of us would want to live happy, long (even if not eternal) lives. Fear of death is encoded in our genes. This is not a judgement of value, but a statement of fact.

The solution to the problem of death, however, may be arguable. Extension of lifespans through technology is a solution. Acceptance of death as a natural phenomenon, through a process of deconstruction of the ego, or whatever means, is another solution. Debating which is *the best* solution is pointless. Both should be pursued to the extent that they are helping people achieve what they want.

I think most of all, if looked upon with an open, unprejudiced mind, Nick Bostrom’s worldview is essentially optimistic. It is a world view that imagines the possibility that we can all be happier and more fulfilled than anyone ever thought possible. If we are open to discuss how to achieve that, and allow freedom for each individual to pursue happiness as they see fit, even if through unconventional means, we will have made a big step towards becoming more human than ever.


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