Originally published in Extropy #10 (4:2), Winter/Spring 1993
We, however, want to be those who we are _ the new, the unique, the incomparable, those who give themselves their own law, those who create themselves!
[Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, p335]
`Will a self.' _ Active, successful natures act, not according to the dictum `know thyself', but as if there hovered before them the commandment: will a self and thou shalt become a self.
[Friedrich Nietzsche, Assorted Opinions and Maxims.]Self-transformation and personal extropy
Self-transformation is a process that increases personal extropy. Extropy is a measure of a system's intelligence, information content, available energy, longevity, vitality, diversity, complexity, and capacity for growth. Clearly, I intend "self-transformation" to necessarily imply "positive self-transformation." The changes that I will discuss, rather than being value-neutral, all in some way amplify the extropy in your life and person: They make you more intelligent and wiser, physically healthier and more vigorous, increasingly psychologically effective, more creative, rational, and productive, and more effective at gathering and filtering information.
The Extropian philosophy of life sees self-transformation as a primary virtue. A virtue is a psychological characteristic, a moral excellence that propels us to live superbly in a particular manner. The virtue of independence, for example, is the characteristic exhibited by a person who makes their own decisions, using their own judgment, rather than allowing their decisions to be made by others by default. The virtue of self-transformation is a characteristic that reflects and empowers a person's drive for physical, intellectual, moral, and psychological excellence. A commitment to self-transformation means a refusal to acquiesce in mediocrity, a questioning of limits to one's potential, and a drive to perpetually overcome psychological, social, physiological, genetic, and neurological constraints.
Self-transformation is more than a mere preference. Ayn Rand identified the fundamental and ultimate choice perpetually confronting every organism: To live or to die. Without necessarily endorsing Rand's view that all values and virtues can strictly be derived from the ultimate choice to live, I do affirm the claim that a commitment to successful and fulfilling living _ Aristotle's vision of human flourishing and Nietzsche's will to power _ requires a conscious effort to overcome ourselves, to push past all limits to our growth. Self-transformation is a virtue because it promotes our survival, our efficacy, and our well-being. As a dynamic process of self-overcoming, an internally generated drive to grow and thrive, it is the very essence and highest expression of life.
The nature of self-transformation provides part of the reason why the Extropian philosophy has no place for notions of gods and the supernatural. As Feuerbach and Nietzsche realized, positing a divine realm of perfection undermines life since `God' and `spirit' are reactive concepts, being defined in terms of what physical life is not. In the major religions, the World is base and corrupt, our physical existence transitory and inferior. Allegiance to life consists in resolving to seek vitality within, not from an external deity or a supernatural realm. A conception of a perfect, infinite, eternal, and wholly good supernatural realm, contrasted with the world of experience, degrades and strips our world and our physical selves of worth and significance. Life is fundamentally a ceaseless process, whose quintessence is a self-overcoming, a progression, a self-transformation and self-augmentation. Life's purpose is not mere survival, for its energies remain once that basic goal is secured; nor is its purpose a drive to serve or glorify anything external, for then it would be self-alienating. The essence of life is what Nietzsche called the will to power _ life's perpetual drive toward its own increase and excellence. Extropic life can thus never manifest self-sacrifice or worship of superior beings.
The practice of self-transformation interacts synergistically with the other Extropian principles, as they are embodied in an individual's actions.1 Dynamic optimism serves to motivate continuous personal transformation, and to sustain transformative efforts, conquering barriers and overwhelming discouragement during times of difficulty or weariness. Boundless expansion as a society provides the context required for us to sustain truly long-term personal progress, to provide energy, space, and the framework for the diversity implicit in individual self-transformation. Intelligent technology in this context means directing science and technology toward the transcendence of our hitherto inherently limited abilities. Spontaneous order is an enabling condition, allowing each individual to pursue his or her self-transformation with minimal interference from others and to maximum mutual benefit from the resulting diversity.
The extropian commitment to self-transformation coheres naturally with the extropian desire for extreme longevity and the quest for physical immortality. Practically immortal transhumans will need both to modify themselves continually to keep up with the world, and to ensure fulfillment over the long term. Completion of the ancient alchemists' quest for the key to abolishing aging is in sight. After crawling along for years with only minor successes (such as dietary restriction and Co-enzyme Q10 experiments), over the last five years interventive gerontology has begun to employ the tools of molecular biology. Progress in both theory and practice is accelerating, and will make another leap forward once the analytical and interventive tools of nanomedicine are brought to bear, probably by the end of the first quarter of the 21st century. It is no longer so radical to claim that we can expect enormous extension of the human lifespan by the middle of the 21st Century (and perhaps much sooner).2
Many of those who think superficially about the possibilities and consequences of indefinite lifespans paint a picture of stagnant persons grown bored with life. They picture those advanced in age to be psychologically decrepit. They equate deep maturity with boredom and ennui. This is a false image, except for those who (at any age) choose a passive life of stagnation despite the pressures of change. We need not look into the next century to see how this projection obscures rather than illuminates. Even now, with estimated lifespans approaching 80 years (ignoring future gerontological advances), the conditions of life relevant to personal transformation have undergone drastic changes as compared to the historically recent past. When most people died in their thirties or forties, or younger, and technology, culture, and social organization changed at a glacial rate, personal transformation was neither necessary nor lauded. A man working on the land in 16th century Europe felt no need to challenge his limits in favor of an innovative life. His job would likely remain unchanged throughout his entire life. He would probably be married for life, and the organization of his family would be set _ no troubling alternative lifestyle to upset his equanimity. He would rarely, if ever, have to rise to the challenge of new technologies, important new ideas, or significant political change.
Now, in 1993, few people can get through life without undergoing major change, and almost no one (the Amish may be exceptions) can avoid some changes to their lifestyle. Increasingly absurd in a young person is the belief that they can train for a career and stay in that career indefinitely. Workers in manufacturing have had to learn service skills; business executives have had to become proficient at using computers; and doctors have had to adapt to new diagnostic and treatment modalities. Family structure is no longer a given, to be entered into unconsciously, and by which to be bound for life. The male provider and head of the household is being challenged, as is the need for a large family, a partner of the other sex, and lifelong commitments. We have a growing choice of ideas, gadgets, cultures, sports, and games to choose from, and the choices grow at an accelerating rate due to population growth and economic pressures.
So, even now, self-transformation _ learning new skills, modifying habits, selecting new interests and behaviors _ is necessary if we are to stay involved in our protean world. Whereas the Old World smothered personal innovation in a sea of stasis, the contemporary world repeatedly electrifies us with the charge of change. The 21st Century _ the era of the transition from the human to the transhuman _ can only boost this current. While some conservatives will always seek to stagnate as far as possible, the pressures will all favor personal transformation. Biotechnology, nanotechnology, neural networks, synthetic intelligence, expansion into space, intelligence intensification, and neurochemical modification (plus innovations as yet unforeseen) will ensure the flow of change and the widening field of choice. We are used to associating `advanced age' (as we now think of it) with lack of vigor, ill health, and senility. But the centenarians of next century will appear youthful and exude energy. Not only will physical illness become practically unknown, we will fully understand the basis of depression and lack of enthusiasm, allowing us to choose to maintain ourselves in a perpetually high energy condition. With the termination of aging, chronic illness, and depression, advanced age will cease to imply weariness, retirement, or resignation.
Apart from transforming ourselves in order to keep up, we would-be immortals will find self-transformation necessary for a fulfilling, meaningful life. Whereas old views held that a meaningful life required a strong and stable bond to a particular community, a particular social role, and a particular god, the Extropian view sees meaning and fulfillment partly in the bonds one chooses to form, and in the process of growth, renewal, and the dissolving of old bonds and the forming of new ones.3 A stimulating, challenging, and fulfilling life will require periodic, though not continual, metamorphosis. Rather than permanently retiring after six decades, the long-lived will take periodic temporary retirements in order to reflect on their current life, to slow the pace for a time, or to learn new skills. No matter how long we live, we can always find new interests, new fields of study, new friends, new cultures and subcultures, and new sports and games. By avoiding stasis, we can forever elude the existential boredom typified in tales such as Capek's The Makropulos Case. Some may eventually choose to end their otherwise limitless lives, as does Elina Makropulos, but only those who do not challenge themselves to transform.
A long-lived and deeply mature person will be quite different from the humans of today (even ignoring the technological augmentations sketched below). In comparison, all of us today are callow, undeveloped infants. We make our decisions based on a narrow perspective arrived at after a small number of years, like the view of a dark auditorium illuminated by a solitary spotlight. Our senior selves will have come to understand their own and others' motivations, desires, and behavior far more deeply; they will have experimented with many more ideas, cultures, and relationships. These senior selves will look back on their first century of life, and see their early selves as immature and impulsive, ignorant and ignoble, making decisions largely in ignorance of the world and of their own selves. Up until the 20th Century, all the experience and wisdom accumulated by the oldest persons has been degraded by old age, and annihilated by death. The elders of the future will be able to build on their learning, evolving a level of sophistication and maturity that we mere neonates are incapable of fully comprehending.
Immortalism and self-transformation belong together in another way: Some of us now living will not remain alive until the abolition of aging. In light of this, longevists with sufficient foresight, independence, and determination, are making arrangements to have themselves placed into biostasis (currently in the unperfected form of cryonic suspension) in the event of cessation of life functions resulting from disease, accident, or old age. Opting for biostasis is a probable life-saver, but brings with it the possibility of true future shock. Patients remaining in biostasis for more than a few years will be greeted by a joltingly different world. The prospect of such a rude jolt shooting them from a familiar to a strange world has been enough to frighten people away from the idea of biostasis. The prospect unseats those people so much that they choose risking becoming food for worms over facing an alien future. The more committed we are to self-transformation, the less fear we will have of a sudden jump into the future. We will be familiar with the unfamiliar. We will be experienced in adapting, learning, and innovating. We may even reflect on this prospect more with excitement than trepidation.
One thing is needed _ `To give style' to one's character _ a great and rare art! He exercises it who surveys all that his nature presents in strength and weakness and then molds it to an artistic plan until everything appears as art and reason, and even the weaknesses delight the eye.
[Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, p.290]
The history of humanity has been a history of the growth of our ability to define ourselves as individuals. Our future will see the continuation and deepening of this evolutionary process. The primitive lifeforms from which we evolved were completely defined by forces external to choice, such as genetic and environmental determinants. The continued importance of these factors manifests itself in the tired "nature vs. nurture," or genetic heritage vs. environment, debate. Yet we, more than any previous organisms or earlier humans, have the power to define our selves, to choose who and how to be. As Richard Dawkins argued in The Selfish Gene, as conscious beings we can understand and thus allow for the imperatives of our genes. We can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators. This capacity for rebellion against our genetic programming is what allows us to control our reproduction, to redirect our sexual energies, and to rethink and reorganize gender roles and family structures. As our environments have grown more diverse, so our range of choices has grown. Many humans may continue to be programmed by aspects of their environment (incoming information, family upbringing, geographical location, political ideology, predominant morality, religion, etc.), but now they must usually choose between competing programming forces. Here lies the budding of autonomy. The existence of diverse options facilitates _ but does not guarantee _ that any individual will make conscious choices.
The continuing increase in our behavioral, morphological, neurological, and genetic freedom can be seen in examples ranging from the superficial to the profound. Our choice of clothing can be used both to express something about ourselves ("I'm an efficient executive," "I'm a Grateful Dead fan") and to help us attain an appropriate mood. Adopting a more formal attire for certain times of the day may help us to focus on the task at hand. Dressing in sporting gear may generate a mood favoring exercise. Advertising provides crude role models and may help us to feel like a certain kind of person by using the product.
The partial personas we find in books and in film _ more encompassing and profound than those in advertising _ act as templates guiding us in sculpting ourselves into the self we want to become. Many males try, at least partially, to emulate tough characters portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, and Jean-Claude van Damme. Lately women, too, have had the choice of personas portrayed in Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, and Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor. Many readers of this journal have, to varying degrees, sought to emulate qualities found in the characters of writers Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein. By focusing on the paradigm personalities in these didactic stories, we can home in our desired self without having to deduce the requisite behavior from abstract rules. An image of our intended result is more effective at promoting change than is an abstract set of prescriptions. In times of intellectual opposition and isolation, for instance, recalling an image of Rand's Howard Roark will stiffen our resolve and independence more than advising oneself to "be independent!"
Changes of name have long been a method for redefining and committing oneself to specific values. Traditionally, woman who marry have given up their surname for that of their husband. This action was a way of supporting the belief that men were primary and women were subservient. Adoption of a new name may reflect rejection of one's native culture, religion, or nationality, and identification with new communities. Assumed names are common on the computer networks, the new names frequently differing wildly from standard names. A number of Extropians have adopted new names, to project what they value, rather than retaining a label connecting them to an unchosen background.
The computer networks are now a major locus of self-definition, at least with respect to the ability to choose how we appear to others. Apart from use of assumed names on the Net, some like to present a virtual image different from their physical image. Some women use a normally male name and carefully maintain this pretense in order to see how differently they will be treated. Since what you can know about someone regardless of their wishes across the Net is severely limited by the medium, it is easy to present personal characteristics selectively, or even misleadingly. Those who want to interact with others free of sexist, racist or nationalist prejudice may withhold or conceal these facts about themselves. The precocious but acne-ridden adolescent can contribute to discussions without fear that others will discount his or her contributions due to age or appearance.
What will happen as network speeds increase, allowing affordable video and voice transmission? Will this force virtual images to conform to physical images? At first perhaps, but further computational advances will allow real-time modification or synthesis of our virtual appearance. An amusing and plausible example of this is found in Bruce Sterling's SF novel Schismatrix, where video images are processed to remove stubble and skin blemishes, and to enhance attractiveness in the absence of make-up. Morphing techniques and digital image processing are already moving us in this direction. Just as netters now use adopted names, many in the future will create synthetic faces and voices as vehicles of expression. Their bodies will largely cease to constrain their mode of expression; they will be able to choose a form mildly or drastically different from their actual form. Further in the future, if we upload ourselves and exist primarily in the computational world (downloading ourselves into a range of bodies as it suits us), the range of possible forms and their ease of adoption will become practically unlimited. The distinction between virtual image or identity and actual image will increasingly weaken over the coming years, and will dissolve entirely if we upload. Our synthetic images will have become our actual images.
Attention to posture and bodily motion is another path to achieving a desired psychological state. More physically drastic modifications, such as cosmetic surgery and implants, are becoming increasingly common. As costs fall and expertise climbs, more people will choose more radical surgical and physical modifications, especially once nanomedicine has superseded crude surgical alteration. We may yet see physiognomic choices as bizarre as those of the Urban Surgery youth group portrayed by SF writer Walter Jon Williams.
In the 21st Century, the depth and significance of self-transformation and augmentation will far exceed our current experience. Within a decade biologists will have decoded the human genetic program, and we will then accelerate our ability to understand and correct genetically-related physical (and psychological and intellectual) deficits, and to enhance normal abilities to transhuman levels. Today's gene therapy is a magnificent achievement, but will seem minor once nanomedicine is able to alter any of the DNA of a developed, adult human. Each of us can then choose to alter mildly or massively our physical constitution. We can boost our immune systems, alter our facial features, become taller or shorter, stronger or more delicate, and sharpen our senses.
These capabilities will leave us still human, merely giving us a choice of the peaks of humanity. But genetic changes could be radical enough to make the appellation `human' inaccurate. If some people's genetic coding is different enough from that of humans, they will be a distinct species. If the changes are positive changes, these new peaks in the evolutionary landscape will be transhuman. Genetic enhancement will be used alongside neurochemical modification, and other cognitive enhancements such as neural-computer integration (as described below). We who prize moving forward, thrusting past old limits, and seeking new abilities, will no longer be confined by our genetic, biological, and neurological heritage. We will ignore the biological fundamentalists who will invoke "God's plan," or "the natural order of things," in an effort to imprison us at the human level. We will move through the transhuman stage into posthumanity, where our physical and intellectual capacities will exceed a human's as a human's capacities exceed an ape's. To fully flower, self-transformation requires a rebellion against humanity. As Nietzsche put it:
I teach you the superman. Man is something that should be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?
[Thus spake Zarathustra, I prologue, p.3]
Emerging and future technologies of transformation will be resisted by some religious and humanist groups precisely because of their powerful abilities to change our human constitution. Some opposition will result from fears about purported dangers of these technologies. Granted, caution is warranted, but such fears typically are vastly overinflated _ as the hysteria over genetic engineering research illustrated. Opposition will also be motivated by a vaguer notion that humans should not `interfere' with `God's plan,' or `the natural order.' This notion should only amuse us who believe in no god and who understand that transformation of self and environment is perfectly natural for humans.
In pursuing self-transformation we face a plethora of options of both ends and means. Questions about ends may include: Which skills shall I concentrate on developing? Do I want to become more or less judgmental? More or less giving to others? What kind of occupation do I desire? Is physical cultivation important to me? With regard to means, we may ask: Should I stay in/return to formal education longer? Should I work for others or work for myself? Should I use the current generation of smart drugs? Should I sign up for cryonic suspension? Proceeding effectively in our self-sculpting will require a clearly defined goal. Knowing our destination will allow us to set priorities, and to choose among methods and means, picking those we find most desirable and believe most effective.
Setting a goal for self-transformation is best implemented by creating for ourselves a paradigm, an idealized model of the person we want to become. Comparing our present condition to our paradigm will allow us to steer a course through distractions and temptations more effectively than trying to reason our way along soley by using abstract rules, principles, and guidelines. Cybernetic control systems work on this principle. They have some map or representation of their destination, and continually compare their present state or location to the map, then make adjustments to keep on track. Our paradigm _ which I will call the ideal self, or the Optimal Persona4 _ differs from the map of many cybernetic systems in that it is dynamic, not static. We decide who we want to become, and there is nothing to prevent us from changing our minds (though we should realize that constancy and tenacity are generally more productive than frequent changes of direction). Our ideal self should evolve as we revise the ranking of our values, as we see come to recognize new goals as worthwhile, and as we learn new behaviors that contribute more effectively to our ideal. The Optimal Persona is Nietzsche's Ubermensch, the higher being existing within us as potential waiting to be actualized.
Constructing and periodically revising an Optimal Persona requires a high degree of self-awareness, an understanding of what we are motivated to do and what are the causes of these motivations. We need to have an idea of what we can reasonably expect to change in any given timeframe. Before setting out to change some of our personality characteristics so as to cohere with and support other characteristics, we should think critically about which parts of our current selves we have freely chosen and which we adopted unconsciously, absorbing them from the familial and cultural environment. For instance, someone might have been raised to be unfailingly polite, never speaking out directly against something they regard as mistaken or despicable. This person may have adopted this pattern of behavior, feeling it to be a part of them, yet critical reflection may lead them to decide that this behavior frustrates their more considered values and goals _ those that are more truly personal because they were formed consciously in the light of their broader view of themselves and of the world. Beliefs, values, or behaviors adopted largely unreflectively (i.e., most of those personal qualities acquired early in life) may nevertheless form part of one's ideal self, but only after examining and reaffirming their worth and their coherence with other desired qualities. [See sidebar for a practical exercise based on the ideal self.]
Danger lurks in any desire to be different from our current self. Holding a conception of an Optimal Persona, and the critical self-examination necessary to actualize it, introduces the possibility of denying the worth of one's current self. Self-disgust and self-denigration, whether in recurring but transient episodes or as an enduring characteristic, is common among persons of high standards. Such people often treat themselves far more harshly for their shortcomings than they would another person. On making an error, on discovering their ignorance of something, or on failing their own standards, these individuals curse themselves, insult themselves, and in extreme cases may physically punish themselves. To avoid this, we need to be aware of the difference between dissatisfaction on the one hand, and disgust, anger, and hatred on the other. You can respect and esteem yourself for what you can do, for what you get right, and for what you achieve, while simultaneously being dissatisfied with yourself. Dissatisfaction means you believe you can (and perhaps should) do better. Self-disgust means that you believe you must do better, that you are worthless unless you are perfect. Even if perfection is measured by your own standards, this kind of perfectionism is both painful and self-defeating.
Hatred of self brings depression and paralysis. A better response to mistakes, slips, and backsliding is to praise yourself for your current and past achievements and successes, while acknowledging the faulty behavior and focusing on ways to prevent a recurrence and to minimize the negative consequences. Similar remarks apply to the temptation to repress feelings that you believe to be inconsistent with your ideal.5 One might, for example, feel fear when confronted with some threat or uncertainty. Repressing the emotion, rather than experiencing it and acting appropriately in response, will bury important information about yourself and your situation. A better response is to acknowledge the unwelcome feeling of fear, anxiety, anger, or weakness, and to investigate the possible ways of changing yourself or your situation so that these emotional responses will not occur. In the case of fear, this might mean working out or arming yourself for more physical confidence, or learning the skills needed to cope with a difficult situation. Or the best strategy might be to learn to live with the unpleasant emotion, reducing its severity by critically challenging the basis of the feeling, such as by thinking of a frustration as an inconvenience rather than as a disaster.
Before describing some possible cognitive, physical, and psychological transformations possible today or in the future, I wish to stress the importance of the self in "self-transformation." Discussions of actual and hypothetical instances of radical transformation usually provoke the question, "But is the person after the change really the same person as the person before the change?" This is too complex an issue to explore adequately here.6 I will limit myself to claiming that an important consideration determining whether a person undergoing dramatic change remains logically the same is the extent to which that person selects and directs the changes.
The sense in which the pre- and post-transformation individuals are the same is the logical, not the qualitative sense. Clearly, by hypothesis, they are significantly different qualitatively. They are the same _ they are logically identical _ if they can reasonably be considered as two temporal stages of one persisting entity. If a person suffers a massive brain injury, causing loss of all rational capacities, major changes in emotional response, an inability to recognize close friends, and erasure of memory, the psychological connections between the earlier and the later individual are too tenuous for them to count as the same person (though we can say the same body persists). Loss of continuity need not (at least in principle) require a loss to occur. If the entire psychology of someone changes instantaneously and these are changes for the better (even according to their pre-change standards), personal continuity will have been destroyed, leaving behind a new person. Obviously, a spectrum exists between cases of total discontinuity and total absence of change; personal continuity may be disrupted to varying degrees.
There are two reasons why self-direction of one's transformation is important in maintaining continuity. The more obvious reason is that another person is less likely to make the changes in you that you would choose, either because they don't know what those are, or because the modifications they choose to make will be influenced by their own interests. The second reason is that continuity requires that later stages of an individual develop out of earlier stages, rather than simply usurping their place. Thus replacing 90% of a person's brain with neural matter of a different configuration would not preserve continuity, because in no way is the resulting person a development out of the earlier. Changing ourselves is more likely to result in continuous development rather than disruption of self since the outcome will better reflect our values and goals. In choosing which changes to make and when to make them, we will be better able to integrate the new or modified characteristics into our overall character. Control over our own transformations will grow in importance as more powerful technologies (some described below) are introduced, e.g., genetic engineering, neurochemical modulation of mood and cognition, neural-computer integration.
This category of self-transformation encompasses intellectual virtues that foster personal growth, non-technological methods of enhancing intelligence and rationality, and technologies capable of augmenting our intellectual powers to a superhuman level.
The intellectual virtues are those enduring qualities of character that reveal themselves in our methods and habits of thinking. Rationality _ the unlimited application of critical thinking _ should be regarded as the primary intellectual virtue. Rational thinking means not believing assertions casually; it requires a habit of asking questions such as: "What is your evidence for that?" "According to whom?" Rationality means questioning, examining, assessing your own beliefs for their coherence and grounding, and an avoidance of belief in a proposition simply because it is easy or comforting.
Rationality does not allow room for accepting ideas on faith. `Faith,' in the sense used here, means believing in something in the absence of or contrary to the evidence; I do not use the term to include trust in what someone says where that trust is justified on the basis of past experience. Faith in a method of personal transformation leads to stagnation, since the continuing failure of the method to produce results will be ignored or rationalized. Critical rationality play an essential role in effectively assessing competing means to our goals. For instance, we should be open to evidence showing the ineffectiveness of current nootropics (smart drugs), so as not to waste our resources and to free us to pursue other methods.
Determining where to draw the line between persistence and faith can be difficult. Some methods of self-improvement may only take effect after considerable and repeated effort; abandoning them too soon will as surely lead to stultification as will clinging to failed methods. Knowing when to abandon one avenue of exploration in favor of a fresh one will partly depend on knowledge about our own propensities either to give up prematurely or to persist irrationally. Critical rationality therefore requires a balance; it is not simply a matter of being constantly and supremely critical. A propensity constantly to criticize all attempts at self-improvement may reflect, not a reasonable caution, but an evasion of the responsibility to choose a method and implement it.
Achieving this balance between persistence and critical analysis requires an ability to tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity. Authoritarian personalities, like authoritarian governments, cannot bear disagreement, uncertainty, or alternatives. They demand allegiance to a single goal, a single method, a single agency. Living extropically calls on us to develop and sustain the contrary ability to welcome alternatives, to encourage diversity of opinion, and to thrive on uncertainty. Only the ability to remain open to new information and evidence will be effective in our pursuit of self-transformation. We will heed R.A. Wilson's dictum: "Convictions make convicts," and will think in terms of working hypotheses rather than certain beliefs, and use the probabilistic categories of "fuzzy logic" rather than the black and white knife of classical logic. We can learn to enjoy the progress represented by being corrected more than the comfort of feeling certain. Not only will this be more personally effective, thriving on uncertainty and correction will reduce interpersonal conflict, allowing us to accept the merits of another's argument without needing to reject their entire argument or to attack the argument's proponent.
Cognitive self-transformation requires us to search for and employ the most effective methods of increasing our intelligence. Effective reasoning is possible only if we study the process of reasoning itself, in order to allow for weaknesses in typical ways of thinking, and to seek ways of augmenting our analytical and creative capacities. Meta-reasoning (reasoning about reasoning) will obviously include studying the fundamentals of logic, statistics, and some areas of mathematics. It may include the newer field of fuzzy logic, as implemented in the new generation of electronic goods to handle continuously varying quantities. We can further sharpen our reasoning in regard to decision-making by studying the fields of game theory and strategy, applying iterated Prisoners' Dilemma reasoning (as illustrated in Axelrod's enlightening work), and more controversially, Hofstadter-style superrationality. These fields, added to an understanding of human psychology, will increase our effectiveness in personal interactions, enhancing our ability to achieve our goals while leaving others feeling satisfied rather than frustrated.
Cognitive psychologists have demonstrated biases in human reasoning about the probability of an uncertain event, or the value of an uncertain quantity. They have shown that we "rely on a limited number of heuristic principles which reduce the complex tasks of assessing probabilities and predicting values to simpler judgmental operations. In general, these heuristics are quite useful, but sometimes they lead to severe and systematic errors."7 An example is the representativeness heuristic, in which probabilities are estimated according to the degree to which A is representative of B (the degree to which A resembles B). For example, if given a description of an individual who is shy, helpful, uninterested in the real world, but tidy and possessing a passion for organization, most people will guess out of a list of jobs that he is a librarian. This estimation will usually be made in disregard of prior probabilities; even if there are far more farmers than librarians, for instance, the individual will be assumed to be a librarian because of the closeness of his description to a stereotype of librarians. Avoiding the inappropriate use of heuristics such as this is tremendously difficult. Measuring probabilities by closeness to a stereotype appears to be a natural result of the functioning of our brains. Our neural networks form paradigms or exemplars, to which we compare incoming information.8 The more we familiarize ourselves with these biases, the more frequently we will notice and correct them.
Other typical heuristics and biases include the availability heuristic, in which we overestimate the probability of an event because we easily recall a similar event. So, I might forego buying a Dell computer because I remember the problems my friend had with a Dell, even if there is no reason to believe this to be statistically significant. The Gambler's Fallacy, involving fallacious assumptions about probability and causation, is well known. Other errors arise from mistaken beliefs regarding statistical regression, from anchoring our estimates to previous estimates (a type of cognitive conformism), and from conflation of correlation and causation.
Many other methods of cognitive augmentation are available, even without employing technology. General semantics9 warns of intellectual traps such as wholly identifying one thing with another ("John is a Republican"), and even offers a revision to English _ E-prime10 _ which attempts to avoid use of forms of the verb to be. Artificial languages such as Loglan/Lojban might repay our study by providing a linguistic medium specifically designed to prevent unintentional ambiguity. Philosophy of science can improve our understanding of experimental procedure and scientific warrant11. Speedreading techniques enable us to boost the efficiency of our information gathering, while numerous memory techniques allow us to retain more of the information acquired. These are just some of the non-technological means available for our project of cognitive enhancement, each of which deserves an article, at least, in itself.
Present and future technologies will further expand our intellectual capacities, in conjunction with the foregoing means. The current generation of nootropics (smart drugs) appear to be mildly effective for relatively young, healthy persons, but improved understanding of neurochemistry, synthesis of more powerful compounds, and more precise delivery mechanisms, should allow us to push back our biological and neurological limitations. Our capacities for organizing and presenting information are vastly expanded by use of personal computers, and the Net provides a practically endless source of documents, discussions, and expertise. The appearance, in 1993, of the first generation of personal digital assistants (PDAs) heralds an era of increasingly portable personal computing power and communications flexibility. Soon you will be able to contact most people, and access remote databases, no matter where you happen to be. Software agents and `knowbots' will help us to gather the information that interests us, relieving us of tedious work hunting down and managing information. Recent experiments linking a biological neuron to a field effect transistor point to the day when our computerized assistants will be inside our heads. Eventually our computers will be tightly integrated with our brains, becoming part of us, and abolishing barriers to the attainment of transhuman intelligence.12 We may also genetically engineer our brains to expand their capacities, and even upload our consciousness to superior hardware, thereby endowing ourselves with the unlimited potential of posthuman intelligence.13
Superior cognitive performance will not persist for long if our bodies are deteriorating, aging, and dying. Elevating personal extropy will therefore include physical self-transformation. As with cognitive enhancement, many physical improvements can be made without employing current or future technologies. Living extropically will involve a concern for maximizing our health through diet and exercise, from widespread practices such as high-fiber, low-fat foods, weight-training and aerobic exercise, to well-established but lesser known practices such as the very low calorie, very high nutrition Walford (High/Low) Diet14, which has consistently reduced the incidence of many diseases and extended both mean and maximum lifespan in widely varying species.
Even given an extropian commitment to physical transformation, we face conflicting choices. Physical transformation refers to a collection of goals, including health, longevity, strength, resilience, speed, stamina, suppleness, and beauty. Some of these goals may be, to a degree, mutually inconsistent. For instance, the Walford Diet is tremendously effective at promoting health and longevity, but will preclude extensive muscle-building. If we choose primarily to pursue the peaks of performance, whether strength, stamina speed, or suppleness, we will likely have to sacrifice some health, longevity, or possible beauty (depending on your standards). Aerobic exercise exceeding about 30 minutes, three to four times weekly, will increase stamina but produce no further cardiovascular protection, while producing more free radical activity and injuries, and (temporarily) suppressing immune function. Injecting anabolic steroids will reliably increase muscle mass and strength, but sustained use brings several deleterious health effects. So, while all Extropians ought to challenge themselves with exercise and a careful diet, the particular mix of performance vs. health and longevity will be a personal choice.
The decades that lie ahead will bring technologies of transformation enabling us to modify, augment, and replace our human, biological bodies with superior vehicles worthy of our evolving intelligence. Increasingly, those of us desiring bodies beyond those evolved by natural processes, will engage in a process of what I call transbiomorphosis _ the engineering of improved bodies by intervening in biological processes, and by incrementally replacing our biological forms with synthetic life-sustaining bodies. As Nietzsche realized in the late Nineteenth century, humanity is not the end of the story of evolution:
...Man is a rope, fastened between animal and superman - a rope over an abyss...what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal.
[Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Pt.1, p.3]
Already we can enhance our health and longevity with a multitude of nutritional supplements and drugs. The 1990s have seen the beginning of gene therapy; we can expect genetic engineering to progress from restoring defective systems (today's medical paradigm) to pushing back natural limits (tomorrow's medical paradigm). Much discussed artificial organs will be a temporary measure, merely a stand-in until the arrival of nanotechnological medicine which, without cutting or poisoning will cure disease, regenerate limbs, reverse aging, and will allow us to reinforce our bones, massively strengthen our immune systems, and re-engineer our bodily structure as we please.15 Apart from structural enhancement, we can anticipate unprecedented control over our appearance, including the possibility of complete and reversible change of gender.
Transbiomorphosis will involve the merging of our machines and technologies with the human body. Earlier, I said that computers will continue to shrink, while their power grows, and the degree of interconnectivity with our brains increases until they become part of our brains. We can also expect our senses to be sharpened and new senses to be added through interfaces with mechanical sensors.
Most people feel alarmed or horrified by the prospect of human-machine integration or merging. They fear, understandably, a loss of humanity in becoming "mechanized." This fear is fed by popular images, whether it is the collectivist monstrosity of the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the programmed behavior of Robocop, or the rigidly robotic imagery in the pioneering techno music of Kraftwerk. Mechanization of this kind is indeed to be shunned, for it extracts the vitality of life, simplifying thought and behavior, subjecting the agent to programming and external control. This is the very antithesis of the Extropian drive for self-actualization, personal growth, and individual freedom. These undesirable and misleading connotations of the term `mechanization' explain why I prefer to talk of transbiomorphosis. Our future integration with the products of technology will not be a mechanizing, constraining, subtracting process, but the very opposite.
Recent years have revealed a clear trend toward making our artifacts organic (in the abstract sense), fluid, responsive, and living. While rigidly programmed computers will probably always be used for some purposes (due to their blinding speed at logical computations), we are witnessing the emergence of connectionist machines _ neural networks that learn from experience, adapt, and solve problems without a human determining the algorithms. Such artificial neural networks are modeled (more or less abstractly) on brain function. The new field of artificial life (A-Life)16 attempts to evolve computational and robot organisms that share the characteristics of our familiar carbon-based life. Software designers are developing knowbots and other software agents that respond to our needs and desires, learning from us and helping us. Fuzzy logic is being implemented in electronic devices, obviating the need for rigid on-off responses. These and other examples illustrate ways in which some technologies are diverging from traditional rigid machine behavior, and evolving towards an organic, flexible, complex function suitable for supplementing our limited brains.
In this section I will comment on self-transformation as applied to personality and behavior. This will include what would normally be called morality _ questions of what behaviors and dispositions are good and bad. However, standard notions of good and bad are deeply stained by the religious metaphysics that I have already rejected. In place of moral concepts we might evaluate our psychological characteristics as healthy and unhealthy or sick. As Norton says, expressing Nietzsche's view: "Health denotes all that contributes to ascendent vitality, while sickness characterizes whatever contributes to life's degeneration and demise..." (Norton, p.82.)
If we are to actualize our ideal selves, we must first choose that self. The self we encounter when we first look within may not be a self we have chosen. Before we can realize ourselves, we need to discover and choose ourselves. This requires a thorough, unrelenting self-examination in order to uncover the sources of our current psychology. We will expose the contribution of our family, our teachers, and our culture to our development, and will see that we absorbed many of those influences largely unconsciously and uncritically. Choosing an ideal self asks of us that we "revaluate all values," that we look at our person as a fascinating stranger, and determine whether we wish to affirm, modify, or relinquish each of our important beliefs, habits, associations, relationships, and dispositions. Since self-transformation is a dynamic process and the ideal self an ever-evolving paradigm, the initial period of revaluation must be followed by recurrent self-examination and course correction. A range of psychological techniques can facilitate self-understanding (such as the sentence-completion exercise frequently employed by Nathaniel Branden17), as can meditation techniques. Some internal explorers report breakthroughs facilitated by drugs such as the empathetic MDMA ("Ecstasy") and the psychedelic LSD.
Once a self has been affirmed and an ideal self or Optimal Persona created, we need to take responsibility for our own lives, and we will demand the right of self-determination. In our quest for self-realization and transformation we will want to experiment with alternative methods of growth, including those discussed earlier. This requires that others not interfere with our free and responsible choices. Unfortunately, the government of the U.S.A., in common with every other state in the world, arrogates to itself the power to circumscribe our experimentation. In our pursuit of health, longevity, and cognitive enhancement, our greatest enemy in the U.S.A. is the Food and Drug Administration, with its monopolistic approval process.18 The barriers to self-development raised by agencies such as this show that political awareness and action should form part of our plans for transformation. Only in a truly free community can we fully realize our potential.
External obstacles should never be used as an excuse for failing to explore our potentials in the many ways left to us. We can try out new careers and projects, developing new skills and aspects of ourselves; we can mix with different types of people; experiment with new types of relationship; and visit new locations, learning about diverse cultures. A commitment to experimentation, flexibility, and personal evolution will protect us against our own dogmatism, stagnation, and the thoughtless comfort of conformity.
A core feature of successful psychological transformation is self-discipline. Without the ability to control our impulses and to maintain our carefully planned course, we will fritter away our energies in every direction. Lack of self-control will leave us vulnerable to those who would use us as tools for their own ends: "He who cannot obey himself is commanded." Self-discipline and the conscious self-guidance of our lives will allow us to achieve ever higher goals, as we raise our sights with each triumph. Effective self-rule will free us of the desire to control others. Contrary to popular interpretation, the Ubermensch are not the Blond Beast, the conqueror and plunderer. They are those who neither rule others nor tolerate others' attempts to rule them. The developed, self-chosen self will exude benevolence, emanating its excess of health and self-confidence. As a well crafted and integrated individual, the self-transforming person will have the strength to be honest and sincere, to reveal and express him/herself. One who has long practiced self-transformation will present an appearance of depth, stability, discipline, and of being at ease.19
Changing aspects of our personality and determining our mental state can be tremendously difficult. Joining the non-technological tools already at our disposal soon will be powerful means of cognitive and emotional modulation. Modification of our DNA and resulting brain structure may be able to alter the ancient evolved drives over which we currently have minimal control. For instance, we may be able to reliably control our drives for sex, for territory, and for violence. If we come to understand the relation between our brain structure and endemic desires for intellectual comfort and certainty, we might be able to modify ourselves (with a cautious eye on the consequences) to reduce our need to be proven `correct,' and raise our tolerance for seriously considering alternative interpretations of the world.
Since our cognition and our emotions are deeply interwoven, future abilities to edit genes, modify the hormonal output of the neuroendocrine system, and to affect the levels of the numerous neurotransmitters, should grant us far greater choice of how we typically think and feel. We may develop chemical-releasing implants, controlled by a computer interfaced with our brains, that allow us to rapidly alter our state of mind, for instance to dramatically increase alertness, or to disconnect sexual impulses when they are distracting, or to gear us up for a major intellectual challenge.20 These possibilities may alarm some people, but they are merely extensions of everyday, much cruder methods of neurological and emotional control, such as the use of exercise, sex, food, drugs, and television.
I have attempted to demonstrate the centrality of self-transformation to an extropic life, and to explore several aspects of and means toward self-transformation. We face an open-ended future looming large with potential for defining and transforming ourselves to an extent unthinkable in all past human history. As is to be expected in regard to this topic, I have focused on selves as individuals, since we each have to take charge of our own destiny, and accept responsibility for who we are and who we can become. This stress on the individual should not be taken to denigrate the extensive contribution to self-development afforded by suitable groups and cultures. We need not be isolated, totally self-sustaining achievers. Support and encouragement by fellow extropic-minded persons is enormously valuable. Extropian friendships, cultural groups, and activities provide a stimulus for us to move onward, upward, outward. Let us encourage each other by setting examples of what can be achieved, let us share our discoveries, and accelerate ourselves toward the attainment of individual and cultural excellence.
1 I have developed other Extropian principles in previous issues of Extropy: Spontaneous Order in "Order Without Orderers," Extropy #7 (vol.3, no.1), and "Dynamic Optimism," Extropy #8 (vol.3, no.2), and summarized all five principles in The Extropian Principles 2.6.
2 A survey of the increasingly optimistic views of professional gerontologists appeared in Life, October 1992.
3 See "Transhumanism: A Futurist Philosophy." Extropy #6 (Summer 1990).
4 I borrow the term "Optimal Persona" from Bruce Sterling's excellent near-future novel, Islands in the Net, though in Islands the Optimal Persona is a common hallucination rather than a consciously constructed model.
5 A good discussion of this can be found in books by Nathaniel Branden, especially The Disowned Self, and Honoring the Self.
6 I analyze this issue in detail in Chapter 6 of my Ph.D. dissertation (in progress), The Diachronic Self: Identity, Continuity, Transformation. Contact me at the Extropy Institute address if you would like a copy.
7 Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, p.3 of Kahneman, Slovic, Tversky, 1982. See also, Nisbet and Ross, 1980.
8 See Paul M. Churchland, 1989.
9 The classic reference is Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity, 1933.)
10 On E-Prime, see D. David Bourland, Jr. and Paul Dennisthorne Johnstone, eds., 1991, and the Summer 1992 issue of ETC. A Review of General Semantics.
11 A good place to start would be Klemke, Hollinger, Kline, eds. 1980, and Lambert and Brittan, Jr., 1970, 1979.
12 See E.A. Wan, et al, 190, and J.D. Foley, October 1987.
13 Hans Moravec, 1988.
14 Roy L. Walford, The 120 Year Diet, 1986
15 Nanotechnological medicine is described in Drexler, 1986, and Drexler, Peterson, Pergamit, 1991.
16 For an introduction to A-Life, see Simon! D. Levy's "Neurocomputing 5: Artificial Life," in Extropy #8 (vol.3, no.2), Winter 1991-92.
17 His first book illustrating this often startling technique is The Disowned Self.
18 I critique the deadly policies of the FDA in my talk, "Recreational Drugs and Smart Drugs: Paternalism and Responsibility," available on audio tape.
19 An effective portrait of the developed, self-transformed person is presented in Wayne Dyer's books, Your Erroneous Zones, Pulling Your Own Strings, and especially The Sky's the Limit. Unfortunately I cannot recommend later books by Dyer, who appears to have abandoned useful insights for New Age vagueness and platitudes.
20 A recent SF novel by Greg Egan, Quarantine, contains the best portrayal to date of these possibilities and their effects on our self-conception and sense of identity.
Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation. (Basic Books, New York, 1984.)
D. David Bourland, Jr. and Paul Dennisthorne Johnstone, eds., To Be or Not: An E-Prime Anthology. (International Society for General Semantics, 1991.)
Nathaniel Branden, The Disowned Self. (Nash Publishing Corporation 1972, Bantam Books, New York, 1973.)
Nathaniel Branden, Honoring the Self: The Psychology of Confidence and Respect. (J.P. Tarcher 1983, Bantam Books, New York, 1985.)
Paul M. Churchland, A Neurocomputational Perspective: The Nature of Mind and the Structure of Science. (Bradford Books, MIT Press, 1989.)
Eric Drexler, Engines of Creation. (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1986.)
Eric Drexler and Chris Peterson with Gayle Pergamit, Unbounding the Future: The Nanotechnology Revolution. (William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1991.)
Greg Egan, Quarantine. (Legend Books, London, 1992.)
ETC. A Review of General Semantics, Summer 1992 (vol.49, no.2).
J.D. Foley, "Interfaces for Advanced Computing," Scientific American, October 1987: 127-135.
Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky, Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. (Cambridge University Press, 1982.)
E.D. Klemke, Robert Hollinger, A. David Kline, eds., Introductory Readings in the Philosophy of Science. (Prometheus Books, 1980.)
Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity. (International Non-Aristotelian Library, 1933.)
Bart Kosko, Fuzzy Logic and Neural Networks... (or forthcoming popular book).
Karel Lambert & Gordon G. Brittan, Jr., An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. (Ridgeview Publishing Company, 2nd edition 1979.)
Simon! D. Levy, "Neurocomputing 5: Artificial Life." Extropy #8 (vol.3, no.2), Winter 1991-92.
Hans Moravec, Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence. (Harvard University Press, 1988.)
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra. Parts I and II published in 1883, Part III published in 1884, Part IV written in 1885, published in 1892.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science. (1882, 2nd expanded edition 1887.)
Friedrich Nietzsche, Assorted Opinions and Maxims. (Published in 1879 as the First Supplement to Human, All Too Human; 2nd edition, 1886.)
Richard E. Nisbett & Lee Ross, Human Inference: Strategies and Shortcomings of Social Judgment. (Prentice-Hall, 1980.)
David L. Norton, Personal Destinies: A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism. (Princeton University Press, 1976.)
Bruce Sterling, Schismatrix. (Ace Books, New York, 1985.)
Bruce Sterling, Islands in the Net. (Ace Books, New York, 1988.)
Roy L. Walford, M.D., The 120 Year Diet: How to Double Your Vital Years. (Pocket Books, Simon and Schuster, 1986.)
E.A. Wan, G.T.A. Kovacs, J.M. Rosen, and B. Widrow, "Development of neural network interface for direct control of neuroprostheses." Proc. Second Int'l Conf Neural Networks (Washington, D.C., Jan 15-19 1990) II-3-21.
Walter Jon Williams, HardWired. (Tom Doherty Associates, Inc, 1986.)
Biological fundamentalism: A new conservatism that resists asexual reproduction, genetic engineering, altering human anatomy, overcoming death. A resistance to the evolution from the human to the posthuman.
Ideal identity: A internal model of our personality as we wish it to be; the person we seek to become.
Immortalist: A person who believes in the possibility of, and who seeks to attain, physical immortality.
Longevist: A person who seeks to extend their life beyond current norms (but who may not wish to live forever).
Morphological freedom: The ability to alter bodily form at will through technologies such as surgery, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, uploading.
Nanomedicine: The use of molecular-scale devices to repair damage and boost the immune system.
The Net: The interlinked collection of computer networks, including the Internet, allowing remote conversation, data processing, and information retrieval.
Optimal Persona: A personally constructed and sustained model of the person into whom you intend to develop.
Smart drugs/nootropics: Substances that, without negative side-effects, can enhance retention, recall, and concentration.
Transhuman: Someone in the transition stage from human to biologically, neurologically, and genetically posthuman. One who orients his/her thinking towards the future to prepare for coming changes and who seeks out and takes advantage of opportunities for self-advancement.
Transbiomorphosis: The transformation of the human body from a natural, biological organism into a superior, consciously designed vehicle of personality.
Uploading: The transferance of personality patterns embodied in the brain to an appropriately configured supercomputer, allowing the same person to live in more powerful hardware.
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