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.



Strangers to Ourselves

For reasons that I probably do not myself fully understand, I am endlessly intrigued by discussions of the ever elusive state of being we call authenticity. At least part of the intrigue lies in how a discussion of authenticity can ensnare within itself philosophical, sociological, technological, and even religious considerations. It makes for lively and stimulating discussion in other words. Authenticity talk is intriguing as well because it may be under its guise that the ancient debate about what constitutes a good life and the venerable quest to “know thyself” survive today.

Both of these considerations also suggest a serious difficulty presented by authenticity talk: the word authenticity, as it is commonly used, masks a complex and diverse set of concepts. This complexity and diversity threatens to introduce a slippery equivocation into what might otherwise be well-intended conversations and debates. At least this has been my experience. But then again, discussing what exactly authenticity is is part of what makes such discussions lively and interesting.

My own thinking about authenticity is sporadic and owes more to serendipity than to any conscientious scholarly endeavor. For example, most recently, from no particular quarter, the following question formulated itself in my mind: What is the problem to which authenticity is the answer?

There is nothing particularly insightful about this question, but it did get me thinking about the whole set of ideas from a different angle. The meandering mental path that subsequently unfolded led me to identify this problem as some sort of psychic rupture or dissonance. We don’t think  of authenticity at all unless we think of it as a problem, and it presents itself as a problem at the very time it enters our conscious awareness. It is a problem tied to our awareness of ourselves as selves.

There are many interesting paths that unfold from that point, but I want to offer this one subsequent stab at defining what we (sometimes) mean by authenticity: Authenticity is a seamless continuity between the self, time, and place. It is a sense of complete at-homeness in the world. For this reason, then, we might see nostalgia as another manifestation of the problem of authenticity. Nostalgia — first in its literal sense as longing for spatial home, and then its more contemporary form as longing for a home in time — is a symptom of the rupture in the continuity between self, time, and place that generates an awareness of the self as a problem to be solved, an awareness that constitutes the problem of authenticity.

Framing the discussion as matter of at-homeness (or a lack thereof) recalled to my mind the work of the medical doctor turned novelist cum philosopher, Walker Percy. Percy went from being a diagnostician of physical maladies to one of existential maladies. With his acute Pascalian eye, Percy made a literary career of diagnosing the modern self’s inability to understand itself. This was the theme of his send-off of the self-help genre, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book.

Percy chose the following passage from Nietzsche as an epigraph for Lost in the Cosmos:

“We are unknown, we knowers, to ourselves … Of necessity we remain strangers to ourselves, we understand ourselves not, in our selves we are bound to be mistaken, for each of us holds good to all eternity the motto, ‘Each is the farthest away from himself’—as far as ourselves are concerned we are not knowers.”

A little further on, in his inventory of possible “selfs” (or should that be “sevles”), Percy offered this description of the lost self:

“With the passing of the cosmological myths and the fading of Christianity as a guarantor of the identity of the self, the self becomes dislocated, … is both cut loose and imprisoned by its own freedom, yet imprisoned by a curious and paradoxical bondage like a Chinese handcuff, so that the very attempts to free itself, e.g., by ever more refined techniques for the pursuit of happiness, only tighten the bondage and distance the self ever farther from the very world it wishes to inhabit as its homeland …. Every advance in an objective understanding of the Cosmos and in its technological control further distances the self from the Cosmos precisely in the degree of the advance—so that in the end the self becomes a space-bound ghost which roams the very Cosmos it understands perfectly.”

Percy was writing in 1983. Centuries earlier, St. Augustine wrote, “I have been made a question to myself.” The problem of authenticity is much older than we sometimes realize. Perhaps we might say that it is a perpetually possible problem that is more or less actualized given certain historical or psychological conditions. Perhaps the problem of authenticity is not a problem at all, but as C.S. Lewis once wrote of nostalgia, the “truest index of our real situation.”

Too Visible to Be Seen

The late David Foster Wallace opened his well-regarded Kenyon College commencement address of 2005 with a joke*:

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?'”

The point, of course, is that we tend to lose sight of the most pervasive realities. Or, as Wallace put it, “The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.” This is, as Wallace went on to say, a rather banal observation to make. And yet, it’s not. Or at least, it is an observation that we must make over and over again because, by its very nature, it slips unnoticed from consciousness.

In “The Machine Stops,” an early story of science-fiction by E. M. Forester, the Machine drones on incessantly but the noise is never noticed because it is never not present. In a very different context, C. S. Lewis wrote, “The music which is too familiar to be heard enfolds us day and night and in all ages.” Too familiar to be heard. Too familiar to be seen. Too familiar to be noticed. The most pervasive forms of visibility fade into invisibility. And so it is with all of our senses. There is a paradoxical threshold past which a sensation is too pronounced to be any longer noticed. My understanding is that Hegel made a similar observation about the invisibility of the familiar, but I don’t pretend to be conversant with Hegel.

In any case, the point is simply this: we tend to be disconcertingly unaware of the realities which most profoundly make us the sort of people we are and that give shape to our day-to-day existence.

Sociologist Arnold Gehlen divided culture into background and foreground. He understood this in terms of the choices that present themselves to us. We experience the foreground of culture as a realm in which choices are before us. The background appears to us a realm in which choices are foreclosed. In reality, we do have choices in both cases; but the background elements of culture present themselves with such taken-for-granted force that the choice remains veiled.

In the classic example, we chose what clothes to wear this morning (foreground), but whether or not to wear clothes at all did not present itself to us as a choice (background). Again, ubiquity and pervasiveness serve to blind us. Now putting it that way is unnecessarily pejorative. In fact, we probably couldn’t get very far as individuals or as a society if certain decisions had not moved into the background of culture.

I bring all of this up to register a corollary point regarding technology. Ubiquitous technologies that recede into the realm of shadowy familiarity are perhaps best positioned to exercise a formative influence over us precisely because we have stopped thinking about them.

So take a look around. What technologies have worked their way into the background of our lives, ever present and unnoticed? What choices do they veil? What assumptions to they engender? What patterns of life do they facilitate? What have they led us to take for granted?

These will all be difficult questions to answer — thinking about them is not unlike trying to jump over your own shadow — but we’d better try and keep trying if we’re to live well-ordered lives.


* I was reminded of this little story while reading a fine essay titled, “Orangic, Locally-Grown Technology.”

On the Reading of Old Books

Following on the Christmas holiday, here is a little something that is, given the book from which it is taken, tangentially related. Both of these paragraphs are from C. S. Lewis’ Introduction to an edition of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. They each contain a great deal of wisdom about the reading of old books. First, on actually reading the old books:

“There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.”

And secondly, on the epistemological benefits of reading the old books:

“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” – lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”

That said, then, to quote from one very old book, tolle lege.

Capitalism, Magic, and Technology

In his chapter on the “cultural preparation” for the age of the machine in Technics and Civilization, Lewis Mumford cites, among other phenomenon, capitalism and magic. Here’s the abridged version:

“Thus although capitalism and technics must be clearly distinguished at every stage, one conditioned the other and reacted upon it.”

“It was because of certain traits in private capitalism that the machine — which was a neutral agent — has often seemed, and in fact has sometimes been, a malicious element in society, careless of human life, indifferent to human interests.  The machine has suffered for the sins of capitalism; contrariwise, capitalism has often taken credit for the virtues of the machine.”

“… indeed, the necessity to promote continual changes and improvements, which has been characteristic of capitalism, introduced an element of instability into technics and kept society from assimilating its mechanical improvements and integrating them in an appropriate social pattern.”

“Between fantasy and exact knowledge, between drama and technology, there is an intermediate station: that of magic. It was in magic that the general conquest of the external environment was decisively instituted.”

“In sum, magic turned men’s minds to the external world: it suggested the need of manipulating it: it helped create the tools for successfully achieving this, and it sharpened observation as to the results.”

“As children’s play anticipates crudely adult life, so did magic anticipate modern science and technology …”

“… magic was the bridge that united fantasy with technology: the dream of power with the engines of fulfillment.”

Capitalism, magic, and technology — an odd grouping at first blush, but less so upon further reflection. The common denominator? Human desire — its generation, manipulation, and satisfaction.

Interestingly, this was a confluence of influences (sans capitalism) also eloquently articulated by C. S. Lewis, a scholar of Medieval and Renaissance literature, in The Abolition of Man:

I have described as a `magician’s bargain’ that process whereby man surrenders object after object, and finally himself, to Nature in return for power. And I meant what I said. The fact that the scientist has succeeded where the magician failed has put such a wide contrast between them in popular thought that the real story of the birth of Science is misunderstood. You will even find people who write about the sixteenth century as if Magic were a medieval survival and Science the new thing that came in to sweep it away. Those who have studied the period know better. There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse. I allow that some (certainly not all) of the early scientists were actuated by a pure love of knowledge. But if we consider the temper of that age as a whole we can discern the impulse of which I speak.

There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique ….