August 16, 2010

Could Transhumanism Make Buddhism Obsolete?

In our Summer 2010 issue, there is an interview with transhumanist, bioethicist, and former Buddhist monk James Hughes. In Cyborg Buddha, Hughes takes on the relationship between Buddhism and transhumanism.  Like other transhumanists, he makes the claim that science and technology may eventually enhance the human mind and body so that existential inevitabilities such as suffering, sickness, and death may become a thing of the past, whether through cybernetic implants, physical alterations, genetic manipulation, or advanced pharmacology.  Because Buddhism is rooted in core teachings about the inherent nature of suffering and the inevitability of sickness and death, the assertions of the transhumanist movement present an interesting question: could transhumanism make Buddhism obsolete?

A few months ago, as the scandal and media frenzy surrounding Tiger Woods led to much discussion of Woods's relationship to Buddhism, comedian and social critic Bill Maher stated that Buddhism is already "outdated," and that it is a “'Life sucks, and then you die' philosophy that was useful when Buddha came up with it around 500 B.C., because back then life pretty much sucked, and then you died—but now we have medicine, and plenty of food  and iPhones, and James Cameron movies—our life isn’t all about suffering anymore." As you can expect, many people took issue with such an assertion, for it is, in fact, quite simplistic and ignorant (not to mention that the Buddha's teachings do in fact extend beyond the first noble truth). Yesterday, an article was posted on the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technology blog, in which Bill Maher's statement was analyzed from a transhumanist perspective.

While it’s true that, especially in the first world, we have reached an advanced enough level of technological sophistication that human beings as a whole live longer and live lives less prone to disease, thus decreasing physical suffering, the phenomena itself of physical suffering has not been eliminated. We all still get old, get sick, and eventually die, and up to this point there has been no exception to this.

The piece continues,

Looking forward, specifically looking towards a transhumanist future, our technology and understanding of science will probably improve further from the point that they are at now.  This will bring with it less disease, longer (possibly indefinite) life spans, and more advances in eliminating physical suffering.  Thinking in the arena of smart drugs and the like, we will have further control over our mental states.  Eventually, we may reach a point where humans (or our descendants, whatever form they may take) are immortal, hyperintelligent, and don’t suffer from mental illness. But I don’t know if we will ever be able to overcome the mental suffering we all experience.

Read the complete article here.

Personally, I think it is quite naive to think that technology, while undoubtedly having the ability to drastically change many aspects of our existence, could ever change the fundamental nature of our existence. Thousands of years ago, when agrarian civilization first developed, there were probably people who thought farming and commerce were the answer to humanity's ills, and the same is probably true of the the discovery of electricity, the industrial revolution, and the information age. Yet did any of these advancements actually conquer human suffering?  Of course not. Upon examination of our evolution and history as a species it is safe to say that suffering has evolved with us, adapted to us, and is still just as much an inherent part of our existence as it was in the time of Shakyamuni Buddha. Nevertheless, I could be wrong, and as a Buddhist, I am probably biased. I view the four noble truths as just that, truths.  I don't call them the 'four noble hypotheses.' If a day comes where technology allows us to live forever, thus rendering the Buddha's teachings on birth, old age, sickness, and death obsolete, congratulations to us.  If, as Steven Hawking recently advocated, we colonize space to ensure our survival, and eventually settle on countless planets throughout countless solar systems and galaxies, ensuring an infinite intergalactic existence and disproving the truth of impermanence, congratulations to us. But I have my doubts.

Images: ©Jonathan Rosen

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the mad professor's picture

the deeper suffering buddhism is pointing to is the resistance to the process of change which is ongoing and something every self-aware sentient being encounters. this article seems to have, like bill maher, only a superficial understanding of buddhism and therefore never makes itself relevant.

Surfin Cypherz's picture

No. It would not make Buddhism obsolete. Religions adapt and change, so long as they are willing to accept that they were not 100% dogmatically correct the first time around. I am both a Buddhist, and a Transhumanist. Bill Maher is being fallacious, he obviously knows almost nothing about Buddhism, and probably believes he knows all he needs to know by knowing it is a religion.

Anyone who knows Buddhism knows it is not nihilism, defeatism, or fatalism. Though it shares some parallel ideas with nihilism, the ultimate understanding of Buddhism comes in the execution. It is through the practice of Buddhism we understand the significance of its concepts, which are mere sign post. In the end the words of Buddhist doctrine mean nothing.

“Like vanishing dew,
a passing apparition
or the sudden flash
of lightning -- already gone --
thus should one regard one's self.”
― Ikkyu

My question would be, why is the first noble truth suffering or anxiety, or dissatisfaction? What are these sign posts pointing in the direction of? It says that this is do to us lacking any impermanent core or substance, but what would an impermanent core be like? What is the solution the Buddha gives, and does Transhumanism, with all the changes it will make to our body offer anything that would resolve this condition? I say yes, and no.... what do you think?

Dominic Gomez's picture

To live forever and totally free from aging and illness has always been the dream of civilized humans. But that is not the reality of life. Buddhism does not deny reality. It engages it fully. Like surfing: you ride one wave after another, enjoying each for all it's worth. You live one life after another, eternally, enjoying each for all it's worth, be it rough or smooth. Buddhism's value in that respect is as a philosophy of living that teaches a bigger picture than most others.

Armin's picture

Dear Keith, thank you for clarifying this. I can assure you that even if this lofty goal may be unattainable for yourself, it is very easy for a child of yours. It is a very simple process: "Adopt a computer". Cheers, have fun with your baby...

Keith Henson's picture

"Personally, I think it is quite naive to think that technology, while undoubtedly having the ability to drastically change many aspects of our existence, could ever change the fundamental nature of our existence."

Consider the fundamental nature of (human) existence. We are animals. Humans are animals with a long evolutionary history who lived in an unstable world. We eventually became the top predator so that growth in our numbers beyond what the ecosystem could feed could only be limited by humans being their own predator. (I.e., wars)

Now consider what *really* advanced technology could change.

We don't have to be animals. We could move entirely out of flesh into a world implemented in silicon or something else. If silicon can support an AI of human complexity, there is no reason it could not support a human intellect.

You can see how it might come about here: http://www.terasemjournals.org/GN0202/henson.html

Sabio Lantz's picture

Isn't there a variety of understanding of the nature of dukkha in Buddhism? Some, as the OP author, say, "the inherent nature of suffering" and mean that all is suffering -- making "suffering" almost an ontological entity. While other Buddhists (thinking of Thich Nhat Hanh) just emphasize that suffering and joy and boredom and .... fill reality and that the teaching is a method to limit and possibly extinquish the suffering aspect. I see no reason technology can't help with that [or harm it]. Isn't Buddhism also a technology?

It is how we use our technology and our Buddhism, that matters.

NellaLou's picture

"naive" -good word for it.

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Armin's picture

Well, thank you for helping to clarify what Buddhism is NOT about. This is not the Dukkha the old guy talked about. Just as you can not fix poverty with money, you also can not fix Dukkha by eliminating overt suffering. Creating a kind of eternal paradise for all living beings, even if it could be done (and anybody who thinks so must have lived under some rock for the last 50 years), will NOT change the human condition. Our greatest source of Dukkha is our mistaken belief in a separate self, and this will never be touched upon by any technological advances.
Gassho

Mark's picture

Besides the truth that Victor points out, transhumanism seems incredibly quaint to me, a reminder of the time from the end of WWII to the early 70s when we all just assumed technology would go on advancing forever in a straight line fashion. Part of the thrill of watching a movie like 2001 back in 1968 was that we really believed our world would soon be like that. A little curve ball, however (protracted global recession, climate breakdown, dwindling petroleum reserves, nuclear war, take your pick) and the whole notion of the new cyborg race starts to look pretty ridiculous. Our effortless technological progress, and the unsustainable prosperity that fueled it once upon a time, are things of the past. Advanced technology is increasingly the province of corporate elites and the governments they control. The transhuman ideal won't make Buddhism obsolete because it won't happen.

Victor Fama's picture

Naive is a good description. Unless the trans-humanists plan on removing craving, greed, aversion, ill-will and anger, i.e., in ignorance of the 4 Noble Truths, they won't be impacting suffering-and will be creating more of it. And if they DO remove these causes of suffering, then it would be via technological extension of Buddhist practices, meaning Buddhism would not at all be obsolete.

Technology to this point has actually focused more on creating suffering, by, in ignorance of the 4 Noble Truths, attempting to satisfy cravings and alleviate aversion. Technology has contributed to a decline in our attention spans-the antithesis of the practice needed to eradicate suffering. Technology will have to undergo a radical change before it reduces suffering.

Take, for example, the dishwasher. The dishwasher is a response to people's aversion to doing the dishes. In our ignorance we discriminate and find doing the dishes to be 'drudgery', so we don't like it, we avoid it. Yet, enlightenment, the end of suffering, is to be found in seeing the act of doing the dishes as neither good nor bad, neither drudgery, nor exciting. The dishwasher prevents us from having 'no preferences' and prolongs our suffering. It is the same with many technological 'advances.' More illusion.

Of course, to those on the path, the path of Buddhism, as opposed to a trans-humanist path, they will see this error, hopefully, regardless of technological advancement.

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[...] Tricycle » Could Transhumanism Make Buddhism Obsolete? tricycle.com/blog/?p=2190 – view page – cached In our Summer 2010 issue, there is an interview with transhumanist, bioethicist, and former Buddhist monk James Hughes titled Cyborg Buddha in which the relationship between Buddhism and transhumanism is discussed. Tweets about this link [...]