April 17, 2008

Events focus attention on ‘transhumanism’ definitions

Posted: April 17, 2008
April 21, 2008 - April 25, 2008

Some day – perhaps sooner than we think – we just might be saying “the transhuman race” instead of “the human race.”

As technology marches forward at a dizzying pace, the “human-ness” in human beings is under siege. What will it mean to be human as time goes on?

Transhumanism, or the transition phase from the “human” to the “posthuman,” brings with it a host of scientific, religious, technological and philosophical questions.

Those questions will be discussed in a series of free events this month on the theme of “Transhumanism and the Meanings of Progress,” sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict.

The first is a free public lecture by Dan Sarewitz, director of the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at ASU, at 7:30 p.m., April 21.

His lecture “Can Technology Make Us Better?” will take place in Armstrong Hall’s Great Hall.

On April 22, Sarewitz will join other faculty members in a panel discussion on “The End of Privacy,” at 12:15 p.m. in Bateman Physical Sciences Building A-206. This event is part of the Mathematics and Cognition seminar series.

The third event, planned with students in mind, is “The Ethics of Transhumanism,” at 5 p.m., April 23, in the University Club. This event, which includes dinner, is a Lincoln Center Seminar on Real Life Ethics with Brad Allenby and Sarewitz.

The final event is a two-day workshop on “Transhumanism and the Meanings of Progress,” April 24-25 at the University Club, which is an invitational event. Participants include Sarewitz, Don Ihde, Jean Pierre-Dupuy, Katherine Hayles, Andrew Pickering and Ted Peters.

“Technological change and social change go hand-in-hand,” says Sarewitz, who is concerned with enhancing the social benefits of science and technology. “Technology is as much a part of humanity and the human condition as culture or politics. Understanding the implications of our own ingenuity is an important part of understanding ourselves.

“As new areas of innovation, such as nanotechnology, biotechnology and neurotechnology, begin to emerge and proliferate, our ability to govern them for societal benefit demands that we understand the ways in which politics and culture guide – and are guided by – technological change.”

The four events are part of a multiyear grant (2006-2009) from the Metanexus Institute, a global, interdisciplinary “think tank” that sponsors educational activities and networking worldwide to address the challenges of our changing world – to conduct the Templeton Research Lectures.

The theme for the four years is “Facing the Challenges of Transhumanism: Religion, Science and Technology.” This year’s events focus on the acceleration of knowledge and technologies that are rapidly changing the human condition, and exploring new ways for perceiving and analyzing a world that is far more complex than once imagined.

ASU is one of 15 universities worldwide to receive a grant to conduct the Templeton Research Lectures, says Carolyn Forbes, assistant director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict.

But ASU’s focus is a bit different from that of the other participants, she says.

While the primary aim of the Templeton Research Lectures is to promote dialogue and research between the physical, biological and human sciences, “ASU is unique in using transhumanism as a theme to talk about how the changes taking place in biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science – and a host of other inter-related technologies – may affect the evolution of the human species,” Forbes says.

History professor Hava Tirosh-Samuelson is the guiding force behind ASU’s Templeton Lectures and the other events organized around the theme of transhumanism.

“My interest in transhumanism is part of a larger and deeper commitment to the dialogue of science and religion, which is rooted in the conviction that, historically and conceptually, science and religion are not antagonistic but intertwining cultural forces,” Tirosh-Samuelson says. “The term ‘transhumanism’ signifies a young and still-changing ideology that envisions a new phase for the human species as a result of new scientific discoveries and technological advances, especially in genetic engineering, robotics, informatics and nanotechnology.

“As a humanist concerned about the future of humanity, I believe we must not let these developments take place without engaging them from a variety of perspectives: philosophical, ethical, social, political, legal and religious.”

In 2004, Tirosh-Samuelson and several faculty members at ASU established a faculty seminar they called “Being Human: Science, Religion and Technology” that continues to meet under the auspices of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict.

As a result of that seminar, the faculty applied for the Templeton Research Lecture grant.

“It is my hope that, through our engagement, lectures and public events, we will bring transhumanism to the attention of the public at large and inspire people to reflect on the impact of new developments in science and technology that deeply affect the meaning of being human,” Tirosh-Samuelson says.

For more information about the events or the grant, contact the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at (480) 965-7187, or visit the Web site www.asu.edu/transhumanism.

Judith Smith, jps@asu.edu
Media Relations