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James Hughes’ Problems of Transhumanism: A Review (Intro + Part 1) – Article by Ojochogwu Abdul

James Hughes’ Problems of Transhumanism: A Review (Intro + Part 1) – Article by Ojochogwu Abdul

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Ojochogwu Abdul


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Introduction

In 2010, James Hughes, Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), having then just stepped down from the Board of Directors of the World Transhumanist Association (presently known as Humanity+), took up an interesting challenge during the Spring of that year to reflect on the current state of transhumanist thought and determine what the questions were that the transhumanist movement needed to answer in order to move forward. Introducing a series of articles with which he hoped to navigate through a number of heady ideas and issues concerning transhumanism, Hughes opens by posing: “What are the current unresolved issues in transhumanist thought? Which of these issues are peculiar to transhumanist philosophy and the transhumanist movement, and which are more actually general problems of Enlightenment thought?” Further, he queried, “Which of these are simply inevitable differences of opinion among the more or less like-minded, and which need a decisive resolution to avoid tragic errors of the past?”

Some clarification is made by Hughes on the “Enlightenment” as referring to a wide variety of thinkers and movements beginning in the seventeenth century, continuing through the early nineteenth century, and centered in Britain, France, Germany, and as increasingly demonstrated by recent scholarship, manifesting on a global dimension with significant contributions from thinkers and movements across Europe, North America, and the Caribbean. Hughes points out further the relevance of these thinkers and movements in terms of their endeavour in broadly emphasizing the capacity of individuals for achieving social and technological progress through application of critical reason to investigate nature, establish new forms and institutions of governance, and transcend such stagnating (or even retrogressive) forces as superstition and authoritarianism.

The engagement Hughes then sets for himself as he proceeded forward were a set of reflections which he was to structure around two general questions:

  1. An attempt to parse out which unresolved problems transhumanism has inherited from the Enlightenment; and
  2. How transhumanist technological utopianism has both inspired and delayed scientific and political progress over the last 300 years.

By addressing these questions, Hughes proposed to challenge a prevailing anti-utopian sentiment and hopefully furnish awareness of the way that dynamic optimism about transcendent possibilities motivated scientific innovation and democratic reform through the work of such thinkers and proto-transhumanists like the Marquis de Condorcet, Joseph Priestley, and J.B.S. Haldane. Indeed, for Hughes, transhumanism and techno-utopianism are part of the family of Enlightenment philosophies, both of which could be traced back to the original Enlightenment thinkers 300 years ago. The ideological conflicts within transhumanism today are, therefore, as Hughes would argue, to be understood by transhumanists as but the product of some 300-year-old conflicts within the Enlightenment itself.

The outcome of this effort, thankfully undertaken by Hughes, was a series of six essays grappling with diverse transhumanism-related issues ranging from problems surrounding the unsustainable autonomy of reason/rationality, and the belief in progress in contrast with rational uncertainty, to matters of deism, atheism and naturalist theology, from liberal democracy and technological absolutism to moral universalism and relativism, and from ideas concerning liberal individualism to the (threat of) erosion of personal identity.

Hughes titled this series of essays “Problems of Transhumanism”, each with its distinctive sub-title. And if one thing at least is to be appreciated from reading these articles, it is, in my modest opinion, the success with which they present the modern transhumanist project as bearing within its character and objective “the unfinished internal contradictions of the Enlightenment tradition.” The author, of course, emphasizes from the onset a yet important motive to his attempt which was to make clear which criticisms of transhumanism are internal contradictions, and which proceed from “external, non-Enlightenment predicates.”

Over the next week or so, I’ll be doing a review of these articles serially, starting with Part 1 below, while also incorporating some relevant views from a number of other thinkers as may be necessary, to aid commentary or analysis of Hughes’ arguments. This exercise, on my part, is essentially intended and hopefully geared to serve as an expository approach towards highlighting the contemporary philosophy and cultural movement of transhumanism whilst encouraging further discourse on the subject.

I invite and would be glad to have as many that may be interested in working through these ideas and issues with me, even as I endeavour, with these series of articles, to open conversations about them.

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Generating Transhumanist Enlightenment in Nigeria: Reflections from a Transhumanist Presentation at the 2017 Convention of the Atheist Society of Nigeria – Report by Ojochogwu Abdul

Generating Transhumanist Enlightenment in Nigeria: Reflections from a Transhumanist Presentation at the 2017 Convention of the Atheist Society of Nigeria – Report by Ojochogwu Abdul

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Ojochogwu Abdul


The Atheist Society of Nigeria (ASN), an organization with the groundbreaking record of being the first secular group to achieve official registration in Nigeria, recently recorded another first by hosting the ASN Convention on 11th November 2017, the first event of its kind in Nigeria. Among the guest speakers featured at the Convention were Bill Flavell, Vice President of the Atheist Alliance International (AAI), Roslyn Mould, Chair of the African Working Group, International Humanist and Ethical Youth Organization (IHEYO), and Leo Igwe, President of the Humanist Association of Nigeria (HAN). Also featured as speaker was myself, Chogwu Abdul, Co-Founder of the Transhumanist Forum of Nigeria (H+FN) and United States Transhumanist Party (USTP) Foreign Ambassador for Nigeria, and I eventually presented a talk on the topic: “Merging the Human Brain with Computer: Implications for the Future of Humanity.” The talk focused primarily on the rising phenomenon of Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs), but also broadly on the movement and philosophy of transhumanism as the general idea within which BCIs are contained.

As a transhumanist with a manifest interest in promoting the philosophy across Nigeria, and hopefully, throughout the African Continent, the presenter took the lecture as an opportunity to introduce the concept of transhumanism to a broad audience and initiate a discourse on the cultural, scientific, and philosophical movement within the public space of Nigeria. The reception given to the presentation at the Convention was seemingly warm, and some good interest was generated and expressed. But the work, realistically, is only just beginning, and practically speaking there is still so much to be done and perhaps millions of miles to go before transhumanism can go mainstream in Nigerian society – although it is the personal and sincere hope of this writer that the turn of events prove such a prediction wrong and the changes get to happen faster than expected.

At present, however, transhumanism is simply much of an unknown idea in Nigeria, with very few in the country having heard about the word or even knowing what it means. And even when some technologies or practices related to transhumanism, for example genetic engineering and biomedical engineering are proposed or seem to gradually find a way into Nigerian society, much resistance is witnessed, especially as presented by religious conservatives. Nigeria, if it must be said, is at it stands a very religious environment, and so far religious beliefs and attitudes indisputably hold much sway over the thought and lives of multitudes across the country, at least for the time being. Religious conservatism is at present therefore rife, and a lot that goes with scientific thinking still struggles from the margins, faced by challenges in trying to reach wider acceptance and influence.

However, there is, at least as perceived and discerned by some trend observers, something of a silent revolution gradually taking place across the country. Some have called this the slow dawning of a long-awaited mental awakening, one in which an increasing number of Nigerians, especially the current youth generation, are gradually becoming more embracing of critical thinking, science, rationalism, and secular reasoning. Much that goes with the manifestation of this trend is to be found on the Nigerian social media, where a secular community has been emerging and becoming increasingly vocal in challenging dominant conservative religious beliefs and practices, while at the same time promoting science, rationalism, and critical thinking. Secular humanism could be perceived as having found something of a confident foothold in Nigeria, and this gradual mental shift provides cause to hope that transhumanism could find a springboard and fertile ground from which to launch, grow, and spread across the country.

And then there is also that stubborn challenge of technological backwardness suffered by the country and much of Africa, which is yet another impediment that cannot be ignored in evaluating the transhumanist promotion task and prospects in this part of the world. The state of scientific and technological development in Nigeria is relatively (and realistically speaking) poor. Investments in research and development for science, technology, and even health have so far remained floated and struggling at very low points; technological infrastructure across the country is either absent, degrading, or fails to meet up with global standards, and much of the country’s finest minds in science, technology, and medicine are either already resident in foreign countries or are seriously working towards joining the exodus and brain drain flowing in the direction of the Nigerian Diaspora. For reasons as these, much that exists as a technological presence in the country mostly is available as a result of technology transfer, imported into Nigeria from foreign climes, and with quite a number of them arriving at the nation’s shores not as state-of-the-art, cutting edge innovations, but more as outdated technologies which represent a stage, away from which the exporting country has made or is already making noticeable progress.

Technological development therefore remains a key factor to be addressed in Nigeria for the transhumanist vision to gain foundations upon which to thrive, and this was highlighted in the presentation at the Convention. As a matter of encouragement though, there are, however, indications which give cause to expect some coming changes in the technological condition and fortunes of the country and Africa generally as a Continent. These indications derive from the growing number of tech-themed workshops, seminars, conferences, innovation hubs, and tech start-ups that are gradually but steadily exploding across Nigeria and a number of African countries. The Continent’s youths are becoming audaciously innovative and entrepreneurial, and more are doing so through developing homegrown technological solutions as responses to local problems. Such interventions are giving rise to a movement of indigenous innovation, and if this trend continues and gains sufficient support, then one could be cautiously optimistic enough to anticipate that it should only be a matter of time before versions of a host of emerging and converging technologies (nanotech, biotech, infotech, cognitive science and neurotech, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, robotics, biomedical engineering, etc.), get developed within local African contexts and as best suited for the African condition.   Moreover, interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education and STEM-related enterprise is gaining a fresh boost, the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation unveils very talented engineers and innovations from across sub-Saharan Africa yearly, and a very unique project by the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) known as the Next Einstein Initiative (NEI), which has been on course for over a decade now and has among its objectives the actualization of a scientific revolution in Africa, further provides a great vista for reasonable hope. Several young, bright Nigerian (male and female) scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, among their counterparts from other African countries, are seriously involved in this AIMS-NEI programme, undertaking research, and pleasantly enough, are breaking new grounds in several STEM-related fields.

The combination thereof, of a fledgling secularism and rational thinking culture with an emerging consciousness and demonstration for scientific and technological development in contemporary Nigeria, can be leveraged upon by transhumanists as strategic factors making for a more possible environment, as that opportunity of a slight opening in the door which could and should be seized upon to kick the doors open even wider for transhumanist thinking, technologies and practices to pour in and ubiquitously find their way into the Nigerian space.

The presentation on BCIs made at the 2017 ASN Convention was meant to create an awareness among Nigerians with regards to the state of movements in transhumanist thought, and to stir the people into action in connecting the now helpfully available threads of rational thinking, creative imagination, science, technology, and enterprise into the fabric of a transhumanist culture which would yield much progress for Nigerian society and human life. The response to this nudging – though it is yet early in the day to clearly tell – has so far been encouraging.

There are some of us here in Africa who believe that the Continent is currently going through an African Renaissance and as well stands at the thresholds of a Scientific Revolution. Some of us are also plugged in to other parts of the globe enough at least to be aware that there is present talk of a Second Enlightenment and a coming Fourth Industrial Revolution, aspects of an emerging, global transhumanist civilization, and to which bringing Africa up to speed should be a major concern. There are indeed several stages in the march of human civilization (for example, the European Enlightenment Era and the First and Second Industrial Revolutions) which Africa neither “positively” nor “proactively” participated in, and for which Africa can no longer afford the luxury of time in going through them again at this point in history, for what the Continent currently pragmatically needs is nothing short of a giant leap through the aid mostly of technology, if it must, as it obviously has to, catch up with the rate of advancement of the rest of the world.

Connecting the trajectory of Africa’s unfolding Renaissance and burgeoning scientific revolution to the dimensions of the Second Enlightenment, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and generally the transhumanist civilization through technology, education, enterprise, and any other agency necessary, thus should become the logical cause and big picture inspiring the transhumanist project in Nigeria and Africa within the 21st Century. For this objective then, and in these parts of our planet, the adoption and indigenous innovation of emerging technologies associated with and promoted by the transhumanist movement are to attract deliberate emphasis as the core of this vision and narrative. This is pertinent, for should humankind eventually evolve into a new, posthuman species, then the peoples of the continent from which Homo Sapiens originated, Africa, need not, and must not be left behind in this great transformative event.

The group currently known as the Transhumanist Forum of Nigeria (H+FN), or by any other name with which it shall be formally recognized in the near future, has therefore set out on the task of spreading transhumanist enlightenment and engaging the Nigerian public with transhumanist discourse, and from this to hopefully progress into helping forge a strong and effective transhumanist network across the African Continent. The work, we can say, has sincerely begun.

Chogwu Abdul

Co-Founder, Transhumanist Forum of Nigeria

USTP Foreign Ambassador for Nigeria

November 2017