Re: Definitions for Transhumanism

Nick Bostrom (
Thu, 16 Apr 1998 02:58:05 +0000

Max More writes:

> At 02:02 AM 4/13/98 +0000, Nick Bostrom wrote:
> >
> >I'm not suggesting we change any definition, I'm just asking what
> >short explanation people give when they are asked what is
> >transhumanism.
> I'm puzzled here. At the end of your message you *do* in fact offer another
> definition. Clearly what you suggest is not an *explanation* as distinct
> from a definition, since explanations are longer than definitions.

Well, yes in a sense. What I was trying to say was that I did not
want to redefine the concept, i.e. alter the meaning of
the term 'transhumanism. Rather, I was trying to give an alternative
characterization of the pre-existing concept. In this sense there can
be several definitions that are all correct (though they can't, of
course, substantially contradict wach other).

> >"Transhumanism is the idea that the human condition will
> >be dramatically transformed by technology and that it is a good thing
> >to use rational methods to overcome our biological limitations."
> "the human condition will be dramatically transformed" won't do because it
> leaves open all kinds of tranformations that we certainly do not seek. Are
> we to transform ourselves into mindless drones? Into animals? Into
> creatures lacking the human drives to create, to understand, to learn? My
> definition avoids this problem.

The definition doesn't assert that we *want* any of those
transformations. It leaves open the possibility that they might
happen. If we were 100% sure that the transformation could only
happen in the way we prefer, then we could cancel our efforts and
spend the rest of our days drinking cocktails. I see it as a virtue
that the difinition doesn't simply assume that things will work out

As I see it, transhumanism has a descriptive and a normative

The first conjunct in my definition expresses the
descriptive component. This is the hypothesis that the human
condition will be dramatically transformed by technology. It could be
weakened to "can be dramatically transformed". This would make the
prediction conditional upon the appropriate actions being taken. But
I think that practically every transhumanist believe the stronger
claim that this *will* happen (in a good way or in a bad way), so why
water it down.

The second conjunct expresses the normative component, that we *want*
the human condition to be transformed, and that we *want* it to
happen in such a way that we can overcome our biological limitations.
(Individual transhumanists might in addition have more specific
goals, such as libertarianism, hedonism, the Far Edge party etc.

> Okay, so here is my revised definition. I'll refine it further if anyone
> can pick holes in it! The final version will go in the Neologisms section
> of ExI's web site, and I'll also contact the editor who called me from the
> Oxford English Dictionary. (They are considering the terms "transhumanism"
> and "extropy" and "extropian" for the next revision of the OED.)


> TRANSHUMANISM: Any philosophy of life that seeks the acceleration of our
> development beyond its currently human limitations by means of science,
> technology, creativity, and other rational means.

Now, if it's going into the OED, we have to work on it hard. (I think
this version is much better than the previous one.) Here are some
more comments:

1. Is the "of life" really necessary? It sounds a bit clumsy to me.
Also, not all aspects of transhumanism are directly related to the
"How to live?"-question: part of it is very theoretical discussions
about the likelihood of extraterrestrials or the future development
of microprocessors.

2. I miss the descriptive, factual part. As it stands, it is purely
THROUGH TECHNOLOGY". I think an essential part of transhumanism is
the belief that the human condition *will* (with high probability) be
dramatically changed by technology. (However, hopefully "we seek"
will be understood to imply that we believe the possibility exists.
Since I can't think of a nice brief formulation that makes the
factual claim more explicit, I won't include it in the modified
version I will suggest below.)

3. "the acceleration of our development..." I like the *sound* of
this, but I have some ideological problems with it:
"accelerate" means move faster. While we tend to be excited by new
technological breaktroughs, I wonder whether this speed-paramenter
should be part of the definition. Sure, we want to develop further,
and yes, other things equal, most of us would presumably want this to
happen sooner rather than later. But what the optimal speed of
development is, is something that depends on a complex tradeoff
between costs, benefits, risks, practicalities and policy-issues. I
think transhumanists can have different views on this. We shouldn't
make the "As fast as possible, no matter what!" attitude a
transhuman catechism. Suppose someone is impressed by the dangers of
nanotechnology, and wants development to be delayed until we
have developed proper nano-immune systems. Such a person might think
that the pace at which we are developing today is about right; it
wouldn't be good to accelerate more. It seems to me this person could
be a perfect transhumanist. I'm sure the above definition could be
streched and interpreted in such a way as to accomodate for this; but
there does appear to be some strain. I think it much more
important that we get to our goal than that we get there a couple of
years sooner or later, though I'm aware of the enormous amount of
misery that every year or month of delay will cause. We want to be
sane, responsible drivers, not speed-intoxicated madmen ideologically
compelled to max the accelerator.

What about(?):

TRANSHUMANISM: Any philosophy that seeks to advance our development
beyond its currently human limitations by way of science,
technology, creativity, and other rational means.

Nick Bostrom
Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method
London School of Economics