What is it that makes you, really you? It’s a question philosophers have pondered extensively, but technological change may make the answer much more important. For a long time, people’s physical bodies have played a massive role in their lives and identities. Issues like racism, sexism, ableism, and more stem from the fact that for thousands of years, humans have been stuck in bodies they didn’t get to choose. Our bodies are generally regarded as an important part of who we are. They will be in the future, too – it just might be in new and different ways.
Let’s take a moment to look at the issue of transgenderism. Whatever you feel about the subject, I think you’ll find that for a long time people were generally expected to behave in one of two ways: as a man, or as a woman. Whether you were a man or a woman was generally defined by whether you were born in a male body, or a female one. There were strict rules for how men behaved and how women behaved, and you followed the rules or else.
Jump forward to the present day. Some folks think that maybe being a man or a woman shouldn’t be defined by what body you have. They think it should be a question of gender identity: basically, whether you feel like or want to be a woman, or a man, or both, or neither, or something in between. There’s a whole other kettle of fish about whether feel like means the same thing as want to be, or if they’re different which counts as being a real reason to be one thing or another, or a bunch of other technicalities that I’m not going into here. The important part here is that a whole kerfuffle has started about the words “man” and “woman” and what they really mean.
What does this have to do with transhumanism? More than you might think at first. For example, say someone feels like a woman. In the present day, they can acknowledge those feelings, change how they dress, change their name, etc. They may even get costly surgery to change various parts of their body to conform more to the ideal of femininity – which usually means looking more like they were born female – but they can’t change their bodies completely.
In the future, this person can still acknowledge those feelings, change how they dress, and change their name. But body modification technology will have progressed. Maybe you can just put on a new body like a change of clothes, maybe it’s more complicated, but you can fairly easily and convincingly change your body to look exactly the way you want it to look.
Obviously for people who feel like they’re stuck in the wrong body, this is a wonderful boon. But what does it mean for identity? What is race, or sex, or age, when you can be in any body you want? Well, the truth is we don’t know yet. It seems reasonable to assume that people will start focusing on what’s still immutable. The mind is a popular candidate, but the truth is minds change all the time, and will only change more, not less, as technology improves. We’ll have to find new and different ways to define ourselves, to find the root of who we are. A wild frontier stretches ahead of us, where you get to say what makes you, you, and no one can prove you wrong – not yet, anyway.