A Few Thoughts on Transhumanism
In the furor and frenzy of the recent presidential election, you almost certainly didn’t hear about third-party candidate Zoltan Istvan, spokesman for the “Transhumanist Party.” Istvan’s quixotic campaign—characterized by its relentless fixation on technological progress as the road to eventual human apotheosis—was almost completely dead on arrival, but the questions he and others have raised have been percolating within culture for some time. A recent episode of the cyber-dystopian anthology TV series Black Mirror also explored transhumanist themes—and, in a dramatic departure from the show’s typically pervasive cynicism, ended happily, with its protagonists “dying” in the real world in order to live forever in an intricate digital simulation.
Transhumanism is not exactly a hot topic in theological circles (though it overlaps somewhat with bioethics issues). For one thing, it’s hard to pin down exactly what the term “transhumanism” encompasses—the word is used to refer to everything from artificial organs, to cybernetic brain implants, to digital uploads of one’s consciousness into the “cloud.” More to the point, there’s been very little need to devote intellectual resources to the subject: the promises of transhumanists have remained almost totally ephemeral.
In an effort to better understand this school of thought, I recently read through Istvan’s “The Transhumanist Wager,” a philosophical manifesto disguised as a (very poorly written) sci-fi novel—and, given the persistence of this subject among futurists, a few observations on this topic are perhaps in order.
Istvan describes transhumanism as entailing a willingness to challenge death and maximize one’s own power at any cost, even if it results in the destruction of other sources of value. This goes beyond a merely descriptive “survival of the fittest” theory to become a normative moral claim—and indeed, Istvan’s genocidal protagonist comes off like a hybrid of John Galt, Josef Mengele, and Mao Zedong. The story’s utter moral aberrance aside, to see the concept of transhumanism as theologically problematic requires accepting its metaphysical presuppositions as legitimate—a step few philosophers would likely be willing to take.
The notion of an evolutionary transition of consciousness from flesh to software lacks a firm theoretical foundation. Not only does Istvan’s radical transhumanism hand-wave away the “hard problem of consciousness” (instead assuming blindly that the human mind can be seamlessly transitioned from the body to a computer with no loss of content), it also encounters the age-old “Ship of Theseus” problem: how many parts of a weathered vessel can one replace before it becomes a new ship altogether? (The “Swampman” thought experiment is an updated version of this). Likewise, if one copies one’s likeness into digital form, which “self” retains continuity of subjective experience? The entire transhumanist obsession with self-deification collapses if there is no discrete “self” to be found.
The transhumanist promise of immortality fares no better. Flesh decays; digital components break down; minds stretched across endless eons begin to fray. Even assuming a best-case scenario—consciousness preserved in electronic form and maintained by automated sentinels, a scenario depicted in Black Mirror—the universe’s resources are not infinite. Billions and billions of years after man’s evolution to godhood, the heat death of the cosmos will inevitably arrive and the jig will be up. All transhumanism can offer, in the face of that eventuality, is a longer time horizon. Eternity is nowhere to be found.
Obvious conceptual problems aside, Istvan’s transhumanism is a deeply silly worldview, combining the worst elements of “Internet atheism” with a Philosophy 101 reading of Nietzsche and the theoretical rigor of the “I f***ing love science” Facebook page. It is abundantly clear, for one thing, that Istvan (like Eliezer Yudkowsky, another figurehead of this movement) lacks the actual scientific knowledge required to move beyond mere buzzwords. Furthermore, given that his book reads like an Objectivism-inflected apologia for Lord Voldemort, it’s not at all clear who would be attracted to Istvan’s philosophy. None of the atheists I know share Istvan’s all-consuming obsession with the threat of death, none of the progressives I know would countenance Istvan’s glib dismissal of welfare recipients as “lazy” and his glorification of techno-oligarchy, and none of the libertarians I know would favor Istvan’s world of coercion and totalitarian scientism.
Life extension need not be a terrible, deviant thing—modern medical science gave me years with my grandparents that previous generations would’ve forfeited. But at the same time, there need be no terror in acknowledging the finitude of earthly life. The passage of time may impel us to trade complacency for action, but that reckoning is an essential part of what makes us human in the first place.
I don’t claim to have the bioethical expertise necessary to offer a fully reasoned account of proper and improper “human enhancement technologies.” That being said, contemporary transhumanists have advanced a future vision extreme enough to warrant a rebuttal—though, in all fairness, knocking these ideas down is the academic equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. In short, until its adherents come up with the scientific proficiency, moral vocabulary, and philosophical acumen needed to resolve these issues, the Transhumanist Party is likely to linger in well-deserved obscurity—though the “eternal life” it promises may be tempting to some.
If this is the best that transhumanist thought can offer, the rest of the world has very little to worry about.