The Transhumanist Program

Hava Tirosh-Samuelson’s recent volume on transhumanism opens with the statement of purpose “This anthology takes transhumanism seriously not because it is a significant social movement, which it is not, but because the transhumanist vision compels us to think about ourselves in light of current technological and scientific advances and to reflect on the society in which we wish to live.” I disagreed with many of the essays in the books, but not with this statement.  Transhumanism is, based on my participation in and observation of its organizations over the past five years or so, definitely a fringe vision, but Francis Fukuyama called it “the most dangerous idea of the 21st century” for a good reason.   ‘Dangerous’ is a unwarranted judgment, but what is it about transhumanism that merits further reflection?*

On the surface, transhumanism is just another glossy scifi future. The basic idea is that through science and technology, we can take control of our biological destinies, both as individuals and as a species, and engineer away such inconvenient facets of human existence like disease, unhappiness, stupidity, aging, and death. In novels, and in more serious works of futurism like Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation and the 2002 National Nanotechnology blueprint, this image of the future is one where Silicon Valley gadgetry meets biomedicine to put humanity on a perennial upgrade path guided by turtle-necked tech gurus with enthusiastic product launches. This view of transhumanism is the most common one, and is easy to mock, but underneath this shallow gee-whiz techno-utopianism, transhumanism poses a radical answer to a very old question: “What is our place in the universe?”

The oldest and most universal answer to this question of existence is divine creation: some greater force made the universe, put humanity on this Earth, and imbued us with special purpose. All faiths emphasis the importance of Obedience, Transcendence, and Redemption: Obedience to moral laws of divine origin, the possibility of personal Transcendence from a mundane world of suffering to a divine world of perfection in this lifetime, and the future Redemption of the entire world to state of perfection when the divine will is finally enacted. The combination of these elements and their exact details vary significantly across faiths, but their divine origins and importance to everyday life are the foundations of all religion.

The problems with divine solutions to this question of existence are twofold. First, there is no “Universal Religion”, no single true divine law on which all humans agree. There are multiple religions, which differ not just on minor points of the revealed word of God, but on basic theological issues. Attempts to convert others to the ‘true faith’ have caused bloody wars and left syncretistic intrusions of older myths in the new faith.

Moreover, divine revelation is one of the most disruptive and dangerous forces in history. I am an atheist, and while I personally don’t believe in god, I recognize that people can feel a very strong connection to some higher power. Institutionalize churches and theological governments, with their legitimacy based in both interpretation of the arcana of past revelations and worldly political power, are threatened whenever people can start to directly experience the divine.  Look at difficulties of the Catholic Church in containing evangelical movements like that of St. Francis of Assiz, or the more contemporary problems of the Mormon faith transitioning from the personal revelation of Joseph Smith to an institution lead by Brigham Young and his successors. Religion can rule, but it loses its sacred power in the mess of politics.

With the decline of supreme religious power, codified in the west in the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which reestablished freedom of (Christian) worship as a European right, people began looking for answers to this existential question outside the structure of divine revelation. Enlightenment humanism established the idea of the rational individual engaged in reasoned discourse to create progress in a naturalistic universe as a new foundation of order. Human beings were uniquely endowed with intellectual faculties: primarily logic, language, and empathy; which could be used to engage with others across space and time to discover and clarify moral laws and progress towards a state of perfection. The universe was taken as an external fact, objective and the same for all observers, the nature of which could be understood through empirical inquiry.

Humanism is at the center of Western philosophy, but it has taken quite a beating in the 20th century. Major ideologies like Fascism and Communism were flatly anti-humanist, dealing in masses rather than individuals. Disciplines such as economics and ecology replace the individual with larger abstractions, like the market or the environment. Academic elites used post-modernism, post-colonialism, and feminism to critique the humanist tradition as arbitrary and exclusive, gutting it from within. The horrors of the Holocaust and the world-ending threat of the atom bomb made the idea of the perfection of human wisdom through intellectual achievement laughably obsolete. And on a gut level, the past 150 years of rapid technological change have orchestrated greater changes in the human condition than the previous 1,500 years, or possibly even the previous 15,000 years. Marx was right: All that was solid has melted into air. We post-moderns feel profoundly disconnected from the humanist tradition.

The transhumanist program is based on an  idea of human beings as an evolved biological system, with a lineage that can be traced back billions of years to the first self-replicating bits of RNA, and then onto simple cells, multicellular organisms, and so on. Modern humans are unique among the animals because we coexist with a second evolved system, which are broadly speaking encompassed by the categories of culture and technology.

What distinguishes transhumanism from a naturalistic reading of history is the transhumanist teleology. Transhumanists see humanity merging with its tools, becoming a cybernetic species—one capable of regulating its individual bodies, and its collective environment. The classical cyborg was an idealized astronaut, designed for exploring the cosmos, and the transhuman goal is the expansion of human-descended beings through time and space. Mere biology and a single planet is too frail to guarantee our survival. Avoiding extinction over deep times means we need to turn our intelligence to the problems of existence, durability, and change.

There is a lot that I take issue with within the transhumanist program. Their theory of evolution is shallow and based more on hearsay than any kind of actual science. On an individual level, the disposable gadget orientation towards biology doesn’t have much relevance to real bodies, which are stubborn and recalcitrant things. On a larger scale, if transhumanists are serious about embarking on a project of radical evolution, they’ll need to engage and win over a skeptical public.  Currently, “responsible” policy-makers have set themselves up the direct antithesis of transhumanists, defending an intrinsic human nature from gene-hackers and insane AIs, among other existential threats.

But for all the flaws of transhumanism, the reason why I call myself a transhumanist is that it is the only ideology which is attempting to grapple seriously with the problems of our future as a technological species. We’ve already altered our planet; the new word in conservation is the anthropocene. The wonders of modern medicine have increased healthcare costs more than they’ve extended life; we need to move beyond curing death one organ at a time towards a holistic rejuvenation approach. The weakening of social cohesion, widespread increases in psychological instability, and the inexplicable nature of contemporary violence, can be laid on the rise of greed as the only universal value. Money is a useful tool, but there must be other ways to find value and purpose in the world. And finally we need to begin looking seriously at the fragility of our technological networks, and ways in which they can be made more resilient. These problems are wicked; fraught with irreconcilable conflicts over values and the basic terms of the debate, but I believe that debate and action are necessary.

Transhumanists may be committing the crime of hubris, but hubris is better than willful irresponsibility. The overwhelming public dissatisfaction that the status quo is breaking down can only be met with new ways of seeing, thinking, and being in the world.

*This essay is the companion to January’s Three Faces of Transhumanism