Transhumanism has been defined as the use of science and technology to improve the human condition, and the aspiration to go beyond what is traditionally defined as human, but it can be something broader: rational self-improvement while ignoring the boundaries set as typical. There’s a lot of “self-improvement” out there, and a fair deal of promoting rationalism in debate and analysis, but these don’t always come together. For instance, a highly rational individual might spend their entire day in front of a computer, neglecting exercise, and failing to take opportunity of a huge category of potential self-improvement. Conversely, someone preoccupied with “self-improvement” might believe in trendy nonsensical ideas about self-improvement that don’t actually work.
People usually start off in life with a certain set of aptitudes, such as brains, social skills, strength, or looks. A fun way of embracing life is to try to maximize these qualities no matter where you start out on them. Even though I tend to fall on the “nature” side of the nature-nurture debate, I still think there is a tremendous amount that can be done to improve shortcomings that people make excuses to avoid improving. Social skills would be one example — several transhumanist friends of mine have remarked how they used to be socially inept, and now are clearly extremely comfortable in social situations, because they made simple choices, like joining a rationalist community or a debate team.
This broader transhumanism means feeling personally obliged to improve yourself, both for your own benefit and for those around you. Let me focus a little bit on those around you, because there’s been so much discussion on improving for yourself. Many groups and communities are only as strong as the average of their weakest members, due to aggregation effects that can be hard to explain. That’s why an effective team working towards a goal needs to have every member be disciplined; one undisciplined member can be a thread that unravels the whole tapestry. When you neglect your physical appearance, your social skills, or your intellectual standards, you don’t just hurt yourself, but those around you. Of course, no one can be perfect. The point is not to be perfect, but to at least try to improve, and put your ego aside to the extent that you are willing to accept criticism from others, sometimes even so-called “unconstructive” criticism. “Unconstructive” criticism tends to contain a grain of truth that can be the seed for future self-improvement.
Because the body is the seat of the mind, and the human animal’s mind is deeply interconnected with their body, the first priority of self-improvement should be a healthy lifestyle. Being overweight is linked to anxiety and depression. Exercise is connected to positive mood, self-esteem, and restful sleep in dozens of studies. Rigorous exercise, rather than lazy shortcuts, lead to real benefits. It’s not really a question of time — tremendous benefits can be gained by exercising rigorously for as little as 30 minutes a couple times a week. There is no one who is too busy to exercise. A transhumanist who professes to be interested in transcending the human who is too lazy to exercise is like a Christian who is too lazy to pray or attend church — a lemming attaching themselves to a social label rather than someone who can live up to the ideas they value. You have the tools to improve yourself now — take advantage of them! Don’t sit around for decades waiting for a pill to solve all your problems. If you aren’t active yet, starting thinking of yourself as the type of person who should be active, and behavior will follow.
After making a commitment to improving the body, you should improve your mind. Intellectuals should be expected to have a book in their queue pretty much perpetually. Books are quite cheap, and there is so much to learn that anyone not reading is someone who is neglecting their intellectual curiosity. Articles on websites tend to be short and emotionally charged, not the kind of careful analysis or inspired literature that exists in books. Reading quippy front-page articles on Reddit or Digg is not a good cornerstone for a balanced intellectual life. Don’t even get me started on television. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t get information from diverse sources, but that the true foundation of intellectualism is, and has always been, books. “Infotainment” like the Colbert Report is just entertainment.
After you get your information, you have to process it properly. Be aware of cognitive biases. Never trust anything you think the first time. The greatest enemy of rationality is not the church, or the mainstream media, or the Republicans/Democrats, but your own brain. A true rationalist can be exposed to the most idiotic information sources and still extract useful evidence and insights by applying their own frame to the facts, rather than using the framing of the presenter. A rationalist does not get emotional while arguing, because nine times out of ten, emotions get in the way of proper analysis. Do a cold, clean analysis first, then, maybe a few hours or days later, you can start indulging in the emotions that flow from true beliefs. Maybe it’s even best never to get emotional at all. Emotions are fast-and-frugal heuristics for processing information, far inferior to dispassionate analysis. I like to get emotional about issues that aren’t really important, like my favorite songs or games. For those issues that really do matter, like geopolitics, social psychology, philosophy, and science, I try to keep emotions to a minimum.
Don’t be so sensitive. We are all idiots in comparison to what is possible. Human beings are just monkeys, a node on the chain of being. One day in the not too distant future, minds will be created that put all of our best to shame. Don’t worship the human spirit as if it were a god. The human spirit is nice, but it has plenty of flaws. People are balanced when they are slightly skeptical about everything by default, not when they embrace everything by default. Remember that skepticism triggered the Enlightenment, and if it weren’t for skepticism, we would probably still be in the Dark Ages. Praise people who are skeptical of your ideas in good faith, don’t discourage them.
Improving ourselves is not easy. That the definition of “improvement” itself has many subjective elements is part of the challenge, though many types of improvements tend to be self-evident in retrospect. The hardest part of improvement may be the willingness to make yourself vulnerable to criticism from others. All of us have our downfalls — we’re overweight, lazy, irresponsible, or overconfident. To some degree, I am all of these things. I’ll bet most of you are too. Since everyone tends to have weaknesses, the idea is not to eliminate all weakness, or achieve some social standard of competence and then give up, but to whittle away at your weaknesses and reap the benefits from incremental gains. That’s what transhumanism is — slow improvement, using the best tools at our disposal. Never giving up, and never saying we’ve done enough. There is always more to do — more to read, more to learn, more to say, and more to act on. Go out and do it.