(This articles was reprinted in Ethics & Emerging Technologies, July 26, 2014. Also reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, August 11, 2014.)
A friend emailed me to say that he believed that transhumanists should strive to be free, if free will doesn’t currently exist, or strive to be freer, if humans currently possess some small modicum of free will. He also suggested that becoming transhuman would expedite either process. In short he was claiming that transhumanists should desire more freedom.
I’ll begin with a disclaimer. I have not done much with the free will problem beyond teaching the issue in introductory philosophy courses over the years. I have also penned two brief summaries of the free will issue, “The Case Against Free Will,” which summarizes the modern scientific objections to the existence of free will, and “Freedom and Determinism,” which summarizes some positions and counter positions on the topic. But that is all, so my knowledge of the issue is rudimentary. I will note that by a wide margin, most contemporary philosophers are compatibilists; they believe that free will and determinism are compatible. Here are the stats: (compatibilism 59.1%; libertarianism 13.7%; no free will 12.2%; other 14.9%.)
I am sympathetic with my friend’s thinking that transhumanists should want free will. Transhumanism is about overcoming all human limitations, including psychological ones, and I think psychological determinism is an obvious limitation. We are limited if we don’t have free will. (Yes, all these terms need to be carefully defined.) That makes sense to me, at least at first glance. If I can’t freely choose to desire psychological health or inner peace, or if I can’t desire to be transhuman, or explore new ideas or new types of consciousness, then I am limited. And transhumanists don’t believe in limitations.
If the majority of philosophers are correct that we now possess a bit of free will because we have highly complex brains—something that rocks, trees and worms don’t have—then why can’t more and better consciousness/intelligence make us more free? Perhaps consciousness and freedom are emergent properties of evolution. And if free will could emerge through natural selection, then why can’t we design ourselves or robots superintelligences to be more free?
I think the problem comes in explaining how you do this. Designing yourself or robot to be free seems counter-intuitive. Maybe you have to increase the intelligence of system and freedom will naturally emerge. But it is hard to see how you implant say a moral chip in your brain that would make you more free. Still, as we become transhuman, freedom and consciousness will hopefully increase.
Perhaps there is even a connection between intelligence and freedom. Maybe more intelligence makes you freer because you have more choices—you know more and can do more. For example, if I am ultimately omniscient I can think anything, or if I’m omnipotent I can do anything. So as we evolve progressively toward transhuman and post-human states, our ability to make choices unconstrained by genes and environment will naturally increase. Why wouldn’t it, if we could bypass genes or choose environments? And yes I think to do all this would be a good thing. (An aside. We also aren’t truly free if we have to die, so defeating death would go a long way to making us freer.)
All of this raises questions that E. O. Wilson raised almost 40 years ago in the final chapter of On Human Nature. Where do we want to go as a species? What goals are desirable? As I’ve stated multiple times in this blog, we should move toward a reality with more knowledge, freedom, beauty, truth, goodness, and meaning; and away from a reality with more of their opposites. We should overcome all pain, suffering and death and create a heaven on earth. We have a long way to go, but that is the only worthwhile goal for beings worthy of existence.