The Transhumanist Promise: Happiness You Cannot Refuse

Transhumanism, a diverse movement aimed at transcending our present human limitations, continues to gravitate away from the fringes of public discussion toward the mainstream. It is an idea that, to many people, is starting to sound less like a wildly unrealistic science-fiction concept and more like a vaguely plausible future. I imagine that as the prospect of a transhumanist future begins to take on the air of plausibility, it will both exhilarate and mortify in roughly equal measure.

Recently, Jamie Bartlett wrote a short profile of the transhumanist project near the conclusion of which he observed, “Sometimes Tranhumanism [sic] does feel a bit like modern religion for an individualistic, technology-obsessed age.” As I read that line, I thought to myself, “Sometimes?”

To be fair, many transhumanist would be quick to flash their secular bona fides, but it is not too much of a stretch to say that the transhumanist movement traffics in the religious, quasi-religious, and mystical. Peruse, for example, the list of speakers at last year’s Global Future 2045 conference. The year 2045, of course, is the predicted dawn of the Singularity, the point at which machines and humans become practically indistinguishable.

In its aspirations for transcendence of bodily limitations, its pursuit of immortality, and its promise of perpetual well-being and the elimination of suffering, Transhumanism undeniably incorporates traditionally religious ambitions and desires. It is, in other words, functionally analogous to traditional religions, particularly the Western, monotheistic faiths. If you’re unfamiliar with the movement and are wondering whether I might have exaggerated their claims, I invite you to watch the following video introduction to Transhumanism put together by British Institute of Posthuman Studies (BIOPS):

All of this amounts to a particularly robust instance of what the historian David Noble called, “the religion of technology.” Noble’s work highlighted the long-standing entanglement of religious aspirations with the development of the Western technological project. You can read more about the religion of technology thesis in this earlier post. Here I will only note that the manifestation of the religion of technology apparent in the Transhumanist movement betrays a distinctly gnostic pedigree. Transhumanist rhetoric is laced with a palpable contempt for humanity in its actual state, and the contempt is directed with striking animus at the human body. Referring to the human body derisively as a “meat sack” or “meat bag” is a common trope among the more excitable transhumanist. As Katherine Hayles has put it, in Transhumanism bodies are “fashion accessories rather than the ground of being.”

posthumanism crossIn any case, the BIOPS video not too subtly suggests that Christianity has been one of the persistent distractions keeping us from viewing aging as we should, not as a “natural” aspect of the human condition, but as a disease to be combatted. This framing may convey an anti-religious posture, but what emerges on balance is not a dismissal of the religious aims, but rather the claim that they may be better realized through other, more effective means. The Posthumanist promise, then, is the promise of what the political philosopher Eric Voegelin called the immanentized eschaton. The traditional religious category for this is idolatry with a healthy sprinkling of classical Greek hubris for good measure.

After discussing “super-longevity” and “super-intelligence,” the BIOPS video goes on to discuss “super well-being.” This part of the video begins at the seven-minute mark, and it expresses some of the more troubling aspects of the Transhumanist vision, at least as embraced by this particular group. This third prong of the Transhumanist project seeks to “phase out suffering.” The segment begins by asking viewers to imagine that as parents they had the opportunity to opt their child out of “chronic depression,” a “low pain threshold,” and “anxiety.” Who would choose these for their own children? Of course, the implicit answer is that no well-meaning, responsible parent would. We all remember Gattaca, right?

A robust challenge to the Transhumanist vision is well-beyond the scope of this blog post, but it is a challenge that needs to be carefully and thoughtfully articulated. For the present, I’ll leave you with a few observations.

First, the nature of the risks posed by the technologies Posthumanists are banking on is not that of a single, clearly destructive cataclysmic accident. Rather, the risk is incremental and not ever obviously destructive. It takes on the character of the temptation experienced by the main character, Pahom, in Leo Tolstoy’s short story, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” If you’ve never read the story, you should. In the story Pahom is presented with the temptation to acquire more and more land, but Tolstoy never paints Pahom as a greedy Ebenezer Scrooge type. Instead, at the point of each temptation, it appears perfectly rational, safe, and good to seize an opportunity to acquire more land. The end of all of these individual choices, however, is finally destructive.

Secondly, these risks are a good illustration of the ethical challenges posed by innovation that I articulated yesterday in my exchange with Adam Thierer. These risks would be socially distributed, but unevenly and possibly even unjustly so. In other words, technologies of radical human enhancement (we’ll allow that loaded descriptor to slide for now) would carry consequences for both those who chose such enhancements and also for those who did not or could not. This problem is not, however, unique to these sorts of technologies. We generally lack adequate mechanisms for adjudicating the socially distributed risks of technological innovation. (To be clear, I don’t pretend to have any solutions to this problem.) We tolerate this because we generally tend to assume that, on balance, the advance of technology is a tide that lifts all ships even if not evenly so. Additionally, given our anthropological and political assumptions, we have a hard time imagining a notion of the common good that might curtail individual freedom of action.

Lastly, the Transhumanist vision assumes a certain understanding of happiness when it speaks of the promise of “super well-being.” This vision seems to be narrowly equated with the absence of suffering. But it is not altogether obvious that this is the only or best way of understanding the perennially elusive state of affairs that we call happiness. The committed Transhumanist seems to lack the imagination to conceive of alternative pursuits of happiness, particularly those that encompass and incorporate certain forms of suffering and tribulation. But that will not matter.

abolish sufferingIn the Transhumanist future one path to happiness will be prescribed. It will be objected that this path will be offered not prescribed, but, of course, this is disingenuous because in this vision the technologies of enhancement confer not only happiness narrowly defined but power as well. As Gary Marcus and Christof Koch recently noted in their discussion of brain implants, “The augmented among us—those who are willing to avail themselves of the benefits of brain prosthetics and to live with the attendant risks—will outperform others in the everyday contest for jobs and mates, in science, on the athletic field and in armed conflict.” Those who opt out will be choosing to be disadvantaged and marginalized. This may be a choice, but not one without a pernicious strain of tacit coercion.

Years ago, just over seventy years ago in fact, C.S. Lewis anticipated what he called the abolition of man. The abolition of man would come about when science and technology found that the last frontier in the conquest of nature was humanity itself. “Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man,” Lewis warned, and when it did a caste of Conditioners would be in the position to “cut out posterity in what shape they please.” Humanity, in other words, would become the unwilling subject of these Last Men and their final decisive exercise of the will to power over nature, the power to shape humanity in their own image.

Even as I write this, there is part of me that thinks this all sounds so outlandish, and that even to warn of it is an unseemly alarmism. After all, while some of the touted technologies appear to be within reach, many others seem to be well out of reach, perhaps forever so. But, then, I consider that many terrible things once seemed impossible and it may have been their seeming impossibility that abetted their eventual realization. Or, from a more positive perspective, perhaps it is sometimes the articulation of the seemingly far-fetched dangers and risks that ultimately helps us steer clear of them.



7 thoughts on “The Transhumanist Promise: Happiness You Cannot Refuse

  1. I’m not sure I buy all this. Sometimes I think we live too long and suffering also builds character. These ideas all build on the thought that there is nothing significant after death. Maybe they are wrong.

  2. I haven’t read too much on disability studies (or transhumanism for that matter), but I bet it would be a very fruitful intersection to dissect. I suspect disability studies scholars would critique transhumanists for following social scripts of what constitutes a good body/mind/ the letter, and then augmenting those scripts to ridiculous degrees.

  3. This is very interesting. At risk of juxtaposing some rather unintellectual pop culture references with your academic tone, it reminds me of the movie, starring Justin Timberlake, called “In Time”. If you haven’t seen it, it is an interesting social commentary. Essentially, the human race has been ‘engineered’ to stop aging at 25, but on their twenty-fifth birthday a body clock begins giving them one year to live. Time can be added to these clocks, extending their lives. Thus, time becomes the currency. The poor die young and the rich live for hundreds of years. This is quite in tune with C.S. Lewis’s warning.

  4. Of course anything related to this subject is going to draw my attention…

    Many of these themes are already in the pop culture, with shows such as Almost Human and Intelligence (which I watch) and the new movie Transcendence with Johnny Depp. With Transcendence it seems the Transhumanists are already anticipating severe opposition because in the movie, according to the Wiki article, “extremists who oppose technological advancement” target Depp’s character. This suggests to me that, subconsciously, the TH movement knows what it’s doing can have severe negative consequences , but are operating on the assumption that these will be outweighed by the positive benefits. That is, of course, as long as a majority is on board.

    I saw a video of Asimov filmed shortly before he died where he expressed that we will need to answer some serious questions in the coming years. One is: since we have the ability to pursue a certain path, does that necessarily mean we should do so? We have to keep asking this question.

    Though the post related to Genesis 1-11 and the historicity of Adam and Eve, I made a comment on a Patheos blog by Peter Enns in October that addressed this subject:

    “This wasn’t mentioned in this column, but I’ve theorized that the next doctrine to shift in evangelicalism is the nature of the resurrection. It will come about through the interaction with technology and those who insist singularity is and must be the next step in human evolution. Voices within evangelicalism will call for conversation and dialog and bring up questions such as, “How do we know that this isn’t God’s way of bringing about the resurrection of the dead?” or “How could Christians be so heartless to oppose measures that extend life?” or some other crazy question. I know this may be an over exaggeration, but from what has come down the literary pike in science and sci-fi for the past 150 years, this is where things are headed. It’s either conform or be left behind. Those who conform will show themselves more enlightened and will be worthy of entering the brave new world. Those who insist on the dogmatism of a bodily resurrection in some new creation are only holding human society back.”

    I was not aware that what I was describing was the immanentizing of the eschaton.

    Enns disagreed (I was say pooh-poohed, but that’s JMO) saying, “I think that would go nowhere, Kedric. Resurrection leaves no footprints that can be discerned by scientific/historical means. The ‘but the resurrection is next to go’ is a common retort, but it has no teeth in my opinion.”

    I hope that is the case, but was we’ve seen, stranger things have happened.

  5. Reblogged this on Highest Good News and commented:
    I believe this is an important conversation to engage in, societally. Many intellectual and tech savvy mellinials are actively pursuing this line of inquiry, particularly the AI movement. Evaluating the known and unknown consequences of building transhumanist society is an important step for our Community to engage in. At this point I sit on the fence seeing the potential goodness and disaster that could result from human techno tinkering. Engaging inquiry is healthy for our society en toto. May the chip be with you…..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s