Succinctly described, transhumanism is a project for making a new, immortal life form as the evolutionary successor to Man. How this is to be done is not yet clear, for whether humanity’s imminent replacement should be robot, mutant, or a mix of both has not yet been settled among transhumanists themselves. Nor, for that matter, is the final purpose of all our urgent becoming something else entirely clear, either.
Mythic presentations are often more useful than abstract description in evoking what movements, philosophies, or cultures are about; as such, the late Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction tale 2001: A Space Odyssey could be seen as functionally comparable to the ancient Achaeans’ Homeric vision.
In his novel, Clarke describes what he saw as the inevitable development of life and society, from a decidedly Gnostic vantage point: From organisms, to higher and more perfect machines, to yet even higher and even more perfect disembodied minds composed of pure energy:
â€œâ€¦ as soon as their machines were better than their bodies, it was time to move. First their brains, and then their thoughts alone, they transferred into shining new homes of metal and of plasticâ€¦ but the age of the Machine-entities swiftly passed.
In their ceaseless experimenting, they had learned to store knowledge in the structure of space itself, and to preserve their thoughts for eternity in frozen lattices of light. They could become creatures of radiation, free at last from the tyranny of matter.
Into pure energy, therefore, they presently transformed themselvesâ€¦ the empty shells they had discarded twitched for a while in a mindless dance of death, then crumbled into rust.â€
This is a recurrent theme in Clarke’s work. For example, the Nebula-Award winning short story “A Meeting With Medusa” features as protagonist a cyborg alienated from human society, who spends part of the story reflecting upon the obsolescence of homo sapiens. Another novel, Childhood’s End, also depicts an evolutionary leap: A unified world government paves the way for the absorption of a select few superior humans into an invisible, intangible cosmic Overmind. (The majority of humans are annihilated in the process, along with the Earth — to paraphrase Lenin, one cannot make the omelet of progress without breaking a few eggs.)
In the real world transhumanists advocate abandonment of what they deem a superstitious reverence for the natural order, which stands in the way of the yearned-for metamorphosis. They also advocate rejection of any taboos which might cause men to err on the side of restraint in development of human cloning, artificial intelligence, personality-altering drugs, stem-cell research, and nanotechnology. Those who would warn that re-engineering homo sapiens is â€œplaying Godâ€ fail to realize that playing God is precisely what transhumanism is all about.
Transhumanism has gained considerable ground in academia, replacing Marxism as the most cutting-edge “value system”. One proponent is Dr. James Hughes — professor of public policy at Trinity College, former executive director of the World Transhumanist Association, and author of colorfully-entitled essays such as “Embracing Change With All Four Arms“.
As with any other movement there are variants within transhumanism, and Hughes in particular is a partisan of “democratic transhumanism“, which he distinguishes from more individualistic forms of transhumanism. While he approves of the libertarian inclination to “expand personal and economic liberty”, Hughes’ objects that excessive concern for liberty operates “to the exclusion of social policies to ameliorate inequality or democratize economic power”.
At least one of Hughes’ statements is dead-on — namely, that transhumanism is “the natural extension of the ideas of the Enlightenment, and the rationalist and radical democratic tradition it birthed.” His interpretation of transhumanism emphasizes “liberty, equality, solidarity” as well as “the belief in reason and scientific progress, that human beings can use reason and technology to improve the conditions of life.”
Clearly this places neoconservatives and advocates of Michael Novak’s “democratic capitalism” — many of whom would regard transhumanism with abhorrence — in bit of a quandary. Those who accept the ideals of the French Revolution have little ground to stand on in rejecting the next juicy fruit of the Enlightenment. Michael Ledeen’s doctrine that
“We tear down the old order every day, from business to science, literature, art, architecture, and cinema to politics and the law. Our enemies have always hated this whirlwind of energy and creativity, which menaces their traditions (whatever they may be) and shames them for their inability to keep paceâ€¦
One can hardly assent to such comments extolling the destruction of human traditions as a good in-and-of-itself, and then turn round and demand to be taken seriously when casting stones at those who advocate the development of newer and more interesting chimeras. While occasionally thought-provoking, criticism of transhumanism coming from neoconservative quarters ultimately boils down to little more than Francis Fukuyama calling the posthuman kettle black. To do transhumanists justice, they are more rigorously honest than are neocons, and some of them actually have a practical if not philosophical grasp of what they are talking about: It is safe to assume that Ray Kurzweil — computer expert, member of the US Army’s Science Advisory Board, and transhumanist advocate — knows more about artificial intelligence than David Frum knows about war.
The “singularity” as described by Kurzweil in his recent book The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology puts modernity’s Gnostic (and Hegelian) metanarrative in the form of predictive speculation, rather than science fiction. Enlightened humans who can think are now developing even-more enlightened spiritual machines which can think even better, which will in turn quickly develop even more enlightened, more spiritual machines which can think even better, and so on and so on in an exponentially-expanding Big Bang of intelligence. Man may then cue the orchestra to belt out “Thus Spach Zarathustra” and hand over the world to his evolutionary heirs with confidence — or perhaps opt to be absorbed into the newly-emergent superbeing.
All one need do is have faith in the prime mover of this scenario: Enlightened humans who can think.
Many keystrokes have been pounded in the effort to distinguish transhumanism from a science-based religion. One icon of the movement who has expended much effort toward this goal is a popular philosopher named Max More, pedigreed by the
Transhumanism is clearly not a religion, explains More, because unlike religion (which is centered upon “faith and worship”) the posthuman philosophy “looks inside us and beyond us.” Which religions More regards as not looking “inside” at the soul and “beyond” at eternity & infinity is not entirely clear, any more than it is clear how faith in Progress and praise glorifying its benefits fail to play into his movement.
“No more gods, no more faith, no more timid holding back. Let us blast out of our old forms, our ignorance, our weakness, and our mortality,” he has declared. “The future is ours.”
Like proletarians, posthumans have a world to win, and nothing to lose but their chains. More’s vision mandates neither violent revolution nor complacently awaiting the arrival of the new order, but an aggressive program of cultural transformation. Piety will not wither away on its own, he notes with frustration — even though science has debunked the sentimental religious mode of thought several times over. (After all souls don’t show up on MRI-photos, and Neil Armstrong failed to find any pearly gates in the
Though he rejects God and any attendant superstitions about hubris, More professes not atheism but rather “eupraxophy”, which is a “non-religious philosophy of life” seeking to “increase meaningfulness through a philosophical framework.” The term, coined by SUNY professor Paul Kurtz, is explained in more detail by its progenitor in a 1991 issue of Humanism Today. Kurtz described an epiphany following “a dialogue with atheists at the Institute for Scientific Atheism” in the Soviet Union: His counterparts related to Kurtz the sad failure of Soviet policies to snuff out the “transcendental temptation” of Christian Russia. From this discussion Kurtz drew a single conclusion: “The lesson here is that it is perilous to attempt to suppress religion by force.”
The victims of the worldwide Marxist experiment would no doubt agree about the “perilous” part of Kurtz’s assessment if not his priorities. Throughout the article the moral dimensions of totalitarian oppression, of efforts to transcend good-and-evil, of using people as guinea pigs for testing out pet theories, of forced-labor camps, of 20 million people murdered since the October Revolution remains a largely-unexplored aside to the central, more-important question of how to stomp out faith and prevent “a new outburst of orthodox theism, and new cults of irrationality”. (Eupraxophy is not a cult of irrationality, of course — just ask eupraxophists.)
Interestingly enough one could draw Kurtz’s conclusions via a study of other conservative figures unwilling to change (much less abandon) fundamentalist creeds and traditions under great duress; yet in this alternative wealth of potential research material on the failure to establish a new order Kurtz was strangely uninterested.
(The name Kurtz is certainly appropriate. “By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded,” noted Joseph Conrad’s fictional creation from Heart of Darkness, in his 2nd most-famous quotation.
Religious savages take note — fear not, for Kurtz only seeks to exert his good will upon you.)
In any event, eupraxophy is Kurtz’s response to the practical flaw of old-school godless totalitarianism: Since threats and murder failed, atheists and would-be world-makers must change their approach and provide a whole, comprehensive system of living to the masses in order to liberate them from their benighted condition. If the Cyclops fails, try Sirens instead.
Of course nothing said on this matter by either Kurtz or More was not already said and said better by Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci in the 1930′s via the concept of “cultural hegemony”, and his analyses of the problem of why workers of the Western world failed to unite behind their own supposed economic self-interests. (In short: It’s the culture, stupid.) But one must keep in mind that Kurtz is an academic, and hence has a career to foster and laurels to be gained by the coining of neologisms. The uninitiated may be forgiven for finding this one suspiciously like the plain-vanilla concept of atheism smothered with sweet syllables of technocratspeak. Possibly the term “freethinking” has become too glaringly ironic a creed to be of further use.
Although a more appropriate title for More’s seminal essay might be “God Is Dead: And We Really Mean It This Time”, he chose the more prosaic “Towards A Futurist Philosophy” — which brings up the other niggling problem that the good doctor is a Johnnie-Come-Lately in the field. In 1909 the poet Filippo Marinetti expressed with his own Futurist Manifesto all the essentials a Futurist philosophy needs — complete with technology-fetish, a dismissal of inherited wisdom, and an adoration of velocity, energy, and power:
“We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.” (How Marinetti thought speed, in and of itself, to be a new concept is inexplicable; apparently he was absent the day fleet-footed Mercury was mentioned in Poetry 101.) “A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of
Later Marinetti made the prophetic if demented assertion that “war is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metallization of the human body.” Certainly Marinetti was correct in believing that the mechanization of society would be promoted by the militarism of the 20th-Century’s centralized superstates — the state-capitalist synthesis we inhabit, perks and all, is largely the result of the carnage of the 20th-Century. The conveniences and entertainments of modernity are built upon a mound of human sacrifice — worth it or not.
It is difficult to see how one could acknowledge the profundity of those sacrifices — from Auschwitz to Nagasaki to the USSR — without veering dangerously close to religiousity.
The cult of Progress and the dazzling technological conquests of Nature over the past several centuries may be understood via a Pyrrhic general who decides victory will come more quickly if he dispassionately conceives of the people in his charge as “units”, hills and streams as “tactical obstacles”, and towns as “strategic targets.”
Should this mode of thinking become an ingrained and lasting habit, the question of what may be lost in the conquering process is rendered “obsolete” — as is the question of whether there may be another, better way to engage the world and its challenges.
Transhumanists do not of course advocate warfare (except toward Nature), yet if one broadens the term “war” to include cultural-war, then the posthuman perspective appears in a very different light. Like most enthusiasts of modernity, transhumanists defines violence in purely materialistic terms of hygienic-morality.
Social elites may continue to use their leverage, wealth, and connections to transform a man’s community into something he finds alien, abhorrent, and uninhabitable — and the man still has no cause to object much less resist, so long as they do not herd him into a gas chamber at the point of a gun.
Though the reader is patiently reminded that transhumanism is not an ideology any more than it is a religion, it has demonstrated comfortingly that old-fashioned manifestoes, at least, have not been rendered obsolete just yet. More’s wife, Natasha Vita-More, is the author of the Transhumanist Extropic Arts Manifesto . While devoting considerable energies to administrative duties — she is founder of the Transhumanist Arts & Culture World Center (TACWC), and former president of the Extropy Institute — Mrs. Vita-More also finds time to foster her strong interest in the arts, hence the poetic tone of her declaration of independence from the human race:
We are the transhumans
Our art integrates the most eminent progression
of creativity and sensibility
merged by discovery.
I am the architect of my existence.
Not exactly Homer or Dante, or even Marinetti for that matter — but impressive enough, it seems, for NASA and the European Space Agency. A copy of Vita-More’s manifesto was placed aboard the Cassini-Huygens deep space probe prior to its rocketing toward the gas giants of the outer solar system in 1997.
As of this writing, the manifesto is somewhere in the vicinity of Saturn, carrying the transhumanist creed on behalf of the American and European peoples — an appropriate tribute to Clarke’s literary legacy.