The ideal behind transhumanism is to free humanity from its biological constraints. Our frail bodies and physical environments limit us in many ways. The standard solution is to make use of technological developments that allow us greater control over the environment -- and eventually even our biological selves. But I wonder if it might be worth considering an even more radical idea. Perhaps we could shift our very medium of existence, and live in a world of our own creation -- a "virtual" world -- rather than this physical world that limits us so. Perhaps we should not stop at mere 'transhumanism', but rather, go all the way and embrace what I will call transphysicalism.
It is important to note that this virtual world would be no less "real" than our own. It would just be real in a different way. (Cf. me and David Chalmers on The Matrix.) The fundamental building blocks of our physical universe are (we may suppose) particles like quarks, electrons, and the like. Our created universe would rest upon a computational rather than physical substructure. Its fundamental building blocks would be computational 'bits'. But those bits are real, just as real as electrons, and when arranged correctly they can yield a computational representation of an object, just as particles can be arranged to form physical representations of objects. This difference in 'medium' has no intrinsic importance. And at the 'surface' level, the results would be indistinguishable.
The difference is of practical significance, though, because humans could potentially create a computational universe. I do relish that thought. We could design and build our own universe, to meet our own specifications. We wouldn't just be free from our biological constraints. We would be free from the freaking laws of nature. We could do anything!* I feel giddy just thinking about it.
Realistically,** I guess we would end up imposing our own constraints on the created world. Omnipotence would soon get boring. Humans need challenges. It sounds cliched, but often striving for a goal really is more important than attaining it. So we would need to bear that in mind, in creating a universe ideal for human flourishing. Still, I expect it should be possible to improve upon the present one.
One might question how well this fits with my desire-fulfillment theory of well-being. Recall that what matters is whether our desires are fulfilled in actual fact, not merely whether we believe them so. But the implications for transphysicalism will depend upon the content of our desires. I have previously suggested that most of our everyday desires are concerned with the "common world", i.e. whatever world it is that we happen to inhabit, which contains tables and chairs and such. It would not matter if it turned out that those tables and chairs were fundamentally constituted by computational bits rather than physical particles. If I'm in the Matrix, and I want a car, then what I desire is that I have a car in the Matrix, it doesn't matter that I don't have a car in the physical world. That turns out not to be the world that I care about. I care about this world.
Now, supposing that our current world is physical (we're not in the Matrix), could we create our own "Matrix", or computationally-based universe, and transfer our desires into that world? I see no necessary reason why not, though it would depend on the individual. Some people would be happy to pursue their projects in the computational world, and others might continue to care exclusively about the physical world. The latter group would presumably refuse to join us in moving to the new world. (That's fine, nobody's forcing them.) But the former group, at least, would have goals that can be achieved in fact through the computational world (for short, "the Matrix"). For example, a budding politician might desire to be president-in-the-Matrix. Others might merely desire to start a family***-in-the-Matrix, get a good job-in-the-Matrix, and so forth. All of these goals are indexed to the computer world. If you desire to get X-in-the-Matrix, and so you enter the Matrix and achieve X, then your desire has been fulfilled in fact. It is objectively true that you have X-in-the-Matrix. Your desire is fulfilled, it's not merely an illusion. (Alternatively: if you desire an illusion, and achieve it, then the fact that it's an illusion does not matter. You really have achieved just what you wanted.)
Now, all this has been pretty "out there" so far. It's not like any of this is going to occur within our lifetimes. But we can already take moderate steps in this direction. There are multiple "worlds" with which we interact, each offering different advantages and opportunities. Video games are an obvious example of "virtual worlds". People can create their own characters, and achieve great**** things with them. Granted, most of us don't care about such worlds very much. But if somebody really did care deeply about a virtual world, and managed to achieve many of the goals they set themselves within it, then I see no reason to deny that this would contribute value to their life, and boost their well-being.
The same goes for cyberspace more generally. Indeed, just look at blogs. We all get to create our own little worlds, our own goals, our own standards for success. And if we achieve them, then isn't that something important? Isn't that something real? I can't see any principled reason to think it any less real than success in such "socially constructed" physical arenas as sports, acting, or pop music. Obviously it doesn't come with the same incidental benefits -- you won't get rich or famous from it. But insofar as the intrinsic value of achieving one's goals is concerned, I don't see any good reason to privilege the physical world over computational ones.
So, should people be encouraged to emotionally invest more in cyber-pursuits, if this would provide them with greater chances of success than might otherwise be open to them? I'm not sure. Probably not - at least, not too much. The cyberworlds available at present are awfully limited, too "artificial", and generally not capable of providing the sort of emotional nourishment that humans need, and that - at present - only the "real" world can provide. But that is due to differences in surface structure, and to how people relate over the internet. It isn't a fundamental difference between the mediums. (As noted above, a computational world could potentially be indistinguishable from our physical world, and thus equally emotionally nourishing.)
But perhaps we can conclude that it would be desirable if cyberworlds were developed so as to become more able to provide for human needs, more able to mediate meaningful human connections, and so forth. The transphysicalist ideal might be a long way off yet, but I hope that this post has at least presented some reasons to think it worth aiming for -- a genuine 'ideal'. And in the meantime, even if it would be unhealthy to overinvest in cyberworlds, we can at least grant that they can contain value, and that some (limited) personal investments in them could well prove worthwhile.
*(Well, within logical limits.)
**(that word so does not belong in this post, ha.)
***(note that the other people you interact with would be quite real, just like you. We want to interact with real people, not artificial simulations, of course. But the computational world allows for that. It is inhabited by other real people, with whom you causally interact. Again, the only difference is that the causal interactions take place against a computational rather than physical backdrop. Cf. my comment here.)
****(by the internal standards of such worlds.)