Humanism After All

Zoltan Istvan is a self-described visionary and philosopher, and the author of a 2013 novel called The Transhumanist Wager that he claims is a “bestseller” because it briefly went to the top of a couple of Amazon’s sales subcategories. Yesterday, Istvan wrote a piece for the Huffington Post arguing that atheism necessarily entails transhumanism, whether atheists know it or not. Our friend Micah Mattix, writing on his excellent blog over at The American Conservative, brought Istvan’s piece to our attention.

While Mattix justly mocks Istvan’s atrociously mixed metaphors — I shudder to imagine how bad Istvan’s “bestselling novel” is — it’s worth pointing out that Istvan actually does accurately summarize some of the basic tenets of transhumanist thought:

It begins with discontent about the humdrum status quo of human life and our frail, terminal human bodies. It is followed by an awe-inspiring vision of what can be done to improve both — of how dramatically the world and our species can be transformed via science and technology. Transhumanists want more guarantees than just death, consumerism, and offspring. Much more. They want to be better, smarter, stronger — perhaps even perfect and immortal if science can make them that way. Most transhumanists believe it can.

Why be almost human when you can be human? [source: Fox]

Istvan is certainly right that transhumanists are motivated by a sense of disappointment with human nature and the limitations it imposes on our aspirations. He’s also right that transhumanists are very optimistic about what science and technology can do to transform human nature. But what do these propositions have to do with atheism? Many atheists like to proclaim themselves to be “secular humanists” whose beliefs are guided by the rejection of the idea that human beings need anything beyond humanity (usually they mean revelation from the divine) to live decent, happy, and ethical lives. As for the idea that we cannot be happy without some belief in eternal life (either technological immortality on earth or in the afterlife), it seems that today’s atheists might well follow the teachings of Epicurus, often considered an early atheist, who argued that reason and natural science support the the idea that “death is nothing to us.”

Istvan also argues that transhumanism is the belief that science, technology, and reason can improve human existence — and that this is something all atheists implicitly affirm. This brings to mind two responses. First, religious people surely can and do believe that science, technology, and reason can improve human life. (In fact, we just published an entire symposium on this theme subject in The New Atlantis.) Second, secular humanists are first of all humanists who criticize (perhaps wrongly) the religious idea that human life on earth is fundamentally imperfect and that true human happiness can only be achieved through the transfiguration of human nature in a supernatural afterlife. So even if secular humanists (along with religious humanists and basically any reasonable people) accept the general principle that science, technology, and reason are among the tools we have to improve our lot, this does not mean that they accept what Istvan rightly identifies as one of the really fundamental principles of transhumanism, which is the sense of deep disappointment with human nature.

Human nature is not perfect, but the resentful attitude toward our nature that is so characteristic of transhumanists is no way to live a happy fulfilled life. Religious and secular humanists of all creeds, whatever they believe about God and the afterlife, reason and revelation, or the ability of science and technology to improve human life, should all start with an attitude of gratitude for and acceptance of, not resentfulness and bitterness toward, the wondrousness and beauty of human nature.

(H/T to Chad Parkhill, whose excellent 2009 essay, “Humanism After All? Daft Punk’s Existentialist Critique of Transhumanism” inspired the title of this post.)

Transhumanist Resentment Watch II: Breathing, Ctd.

[A continuation of our Resentment Watch series.]
In my last post, I described the anti-humanism of utilitarian philosophers like Peter Singer, who more than rhetorically ask the question of whether humans should exist. While I don’t believe (as, say, Wesley J. Smith does) that Singer’s anti-humanism is now characteristic of the West in general, Singer’s apparent loathing of human existence in all of its supposed misery is at least shared by many transhumanists.
The discussion thread for a recent post here exploring the full human phenomenon of breathing illuminates the point. Commenter IronKlara says,

You sound like you actually *like* being trapped in these meat cages. And like you think it’s bad to want to escape a cage that does pretty much nothing except find new ways to hurt and malfunction.

It’s hard to see how we could contrive new good things outside our “cages” if all we know is inside them and all that’s inside them is bad.

Similarly, commenter Jonathan is concerned about “the loss of life (particularly infant life) that cerebral hypoxia causes each year,” invoking a utilitarian calculus to claim that “the good of preventing an infant death outweighs the good of those joys of breathing to which Schulman refers.” Commenter tlcraig, whose comments on this thread are smart and funny, aptly asks, “How does this help me to decide whether being without breathing would be a better way for me to be?” Not only does it evade the central question, but if you tease out Jonathan’s comment, it amounts to claiming that if I like breathing, I support allowing infants to die, which veers into South Park farcical political ad territory (“If you support this, you hate children. You don’t hate children … do you?”).
To put it mildly, of course, the “breathing versus dead infants” idea is what they call a “false choice,” and one that, aside from its odiousness, manages to put the problem precisely backwards. If there are infants with cerebral hypoxia, or anyone with any sort of hypoxia for that matter, the problem is that they have a fundamental need they are unable to meet, and that we should focus our medical efforts on helping them meet it. The commenter seems to be saying, however, that if someone has trouble breathing, then instead of eliminating the trouble, we should eliminate the breathing.
Okay, but what’s left over once we do — particularly if we consistently apply this standard of eliminating rather than fulfilling needs? One would have to say we should do away with arms because some babies are born without them, and do away with sight to accommodate the blind. For that matter, if this idea is really fully and consistently applied, one would have to say we should eliminate all needs, and do away with life, because so much death results from it. And so at the root of this utilitarian transhumanist argument we find the same anti-humanism as we did at the core of Singer’s: the ostensible concern for eliminating suffering hollows out our understanding for why we should even be alive. Rather than maintaining aspects of our humanity like breathing, it’s the whittling away of everything that is essentially human from our self-understanding that poses the real threat to our existence.

Transhumanist Resentment Watch

[NOTE: This post has been edited since it was first published. See the postscript below.]

In a recent post, I discussed the combative rhetoric of transhumanists, and concluded that their resentment is directed not so much against critics, but against their own human nature. Given how widespread this resentment is, I think it would be worthwhile to start chronicling it.

With apologies for the vulgarity, here is the first in the series (via Michael Anissimov at Accelerating Future):
Found on [XXXXX]’s Facebook…. [XXXXX is a member of the board of directors of the] Methuselah Foundation.
Towards whom is this “bold gesture” directed? It doesn’t seem to be anyone in particular. Again, [XXXXX] seems to literally be giving the finger to his own human nature. Beyond the strangeness of that self-loathing, the transhumanists bizarrely seem to be personifying human nature itself in order to antagonize it.

POSTSCRIPT (January 14, 2013): The image above has been altered to block out the face of the man flipping the bird. The original image appeared in a post by Michael Anissimov, which has since been removed, but you can still find it in the Internet Archive. We have now altered the picture to obscure the man’s face and edited the post to remove his name, since he says that he was not responsible for the picture (he says his face was photoshopped in) or the words. Although it seems that he endorsed the picture and sentiment at least halfheartedly — he either posted it on Facebook or left it up there for some time after someone else did — we are happy to take it down at his request.
Since one of my comments to this post mentioned the man by name, I’ve also removed it (our platform offers no option to edit comments). It appears below with the name redacted. This comment originally appeared third in order, in response to the comments by “The Boss” and “citizencyborg,” and was dated October 22, 2009 at 8:25 PM:

@The Boss: Yes, [XXXXX] is, as you say, giving “aging the finger.” But as I noted a while back, giving the finger to aging means giving the finger to something written into our very nature. [XXXXX] is giving the finger not to some abstract enemy called “aging,” but to an aspect of who he is — from his distinguished graying hair to the crow’s feet beside his eyes.

@citizencyborg: I don’t see any mention of “aging-related diseases” in [XXXXX]’s caption, just a gesture directed at the human aging process writ large. This is not a frivolous point. There is, in general, a distinction to be made between (on one hand) wanting longer lives and wanting to prevent premature death, and (on the other hand) wanting to abolish entirely the process of aging unto death. To be sure, the distinction between therapy and enhancement is imperfect. But it does shed light on what it means to live warring against your own nature.

The Crisis of Everyday Life

Over at The Speculist, Phil Bowermaster has fired a volley across our bow. His post contains a few misrepresentations of The New Atlantis and our contributors. However, we think our body of work speaks for itself, and so rather than focusing on Mr. Bowermaster’s sarcastic remarks, I’d like to comment on the larger substantial point in his post. In covering a talk at the Singularity Summit last weekend, I wrote the following:

[David] Rose says the FDA is regulating health, but he says “everyone in this room is going to hell in a handbasket, not because of one or two genetic diseases,” but because we’re getting uniformly worse through aging. And that, he says, is what they’re trying to stop. Scattered but voracious applause and cheering. It’s that same phenomenon again — this weird rally attitude of yeah, you tell ’em! Who is it that they think they’re sticking it to? Or what?

Bowermaster responds, “Gosh, I can’t imagine,” and contends that my question arises from the fact that “the New Atlantis gang … ha[s] a difficult time even imagining that the positions they routinely take on issues — being manifestly and self-evidently correct — could be seriously opposed by anyone, much less in a vocal and enthusiastic way.” He adds that my question appeared to be one of “genuine puzzlement.”
In the haste of blogging in real time, I may have failed to make clear that my question wasn’t expressing “genuine puzzlement,” but was rhetorical. But now, with the leisure to spell out my concerns more fully, I’d like to expand on the point I was trying to make — and thereby to address Mr. Bowermaster’s post.
The combative rhetoric of transhumanists
I posed my question — Who is it that they think they’re sticking it to? — not just in response to the specific scene I had just described, but because of the pervasive rally-like attitude at the conference. That sense of sticking it to an unnamed opponent was part of the way many presenters spoke. Their statements — however technical, mundane, or uncontroversial — were often phrased as jabs instead of simple declarations. They spoke as in defiance — but of adversaries who were not named, not present, and may not have even existed. (The worst example of this was in the stage appearances by Eliezer Yudkowsky, as I noted here and here. Official videos of the conference are not yet available, but the point will quickly become evident in any video of his talks you can find online.)
This combative tendency demands examination because it is so typical of transhumanist rhetoric in general. To take just one egregious example, consider this excerpt from a piece in H+ Magazine entitled “The Meaning of Life Lies in Its Suckiness.” This piece is more sarcastic and vulgar than most transhumanist writings, but its combativeness and resentment are fairly representative:

[Bill] McKibben will put on his tombstone: “I’m dead. Nyah-nyah-nyah. Have a nice eternal enhanced life, transhumanist suckers.” Ray Kurzeill [sic] will be sitting there with his nanotechnologically enhanced penis and wikipedia brain feeling like a chump. Whose life has meaning now, bitches? That’s right, the dead guy.

The combativeness of transhumanist rhetoric might be more justifiable if it emerged chiefly in arguments with critics dubious of the transhumanist project to remake humanity (or to “save the world,” or whatever the preferred rendering). But their combativeness extends far beyond direct responses to their critics. It is rather a fundamental aspect of their stance toward the world.
Take, for instance, the discussion I was blogging about in the first place. A member of the audience asked whether the FDA should revisit its definition of health; the speaker’s rally-like attitude (and the audience’s corresponding response) could not have been directed at anybody in particular, for the FDA has nothing to do with what either the questioner or the speaker were talking about. Both the question and answer were detached from reality, but the speaker acted as if the FDA were really shafting the American people, and he nursed the audience’s sense of grievance at their perceived loss.
The fault, dear Brutus…
Against whom, then, is their grievance directed? Or — as I suggested in my initial post — against what is it directed? The ultimate target of the unhappy conferencegoers’ ire was not the FDA. Nor does the H+ Magazine author I quoted above have much of a case against Bill McKibben. Rather, the grievance of the transhumanists is against human nature and all of its limitations. As my co-blogger Charles T. Rubin wrote of prominent transhumanists Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil, they “share a deep resentment of the human body: both the ills of fragile and failing flesh, and the limitations inherent to bodily life, including the inability to fulfill our own bodily desires.”
Despite tremendous advances in our health, longevity, and prosperity, man’s given nature keeps us in bondage — and the sense of urgency in the effort to slip loose those bonds paradoxically grows as we comprehend ever greater means of doing so.
Transhumanism’s combative stance derives from this sense of constant urgency — what Yuval Levin has dubbed “the crisis of everyday life.” The main target of the combativeness, then, is man’s limited nature; the transhumanists are warring against what they themselves are. Any anger directed at critics like Bill McKibben or the FDA is rather incidental.
The transhumanists’ stance might become more clear — or at least more honest — if they acknowledged that their resentment is more directed at their own human nature than at any particular humans. But to do so might imperil their position. For they might realize — if the history of which they are exemplary is any guide — that as their power grows, their resentment at the remaining limits will only deepen, and will increase their hunger for ever more power to chase those limits away.
If their power did allow them to vanquish the last of their limitations — if “man’s estate,” to borrow Francis Bacon’s phrase, were fully relieved — to what purposes would these posthumans then turn their power? What purpose would they find in their existence when the central reason they have now for living was at last fulfilled? Through what struggle would they flourish when their struggle against struggle itself was complete?