Rapture of the Nerds? On The Transhumanist Quest for Transcendence
May 30, 2012
What will the world look like in ten years? Thirty? Fifty? Until recently I cannot say I’ve given the future much thought beyond idle, offhanded speculation. While well aware of many of the challenges facing humanity over the next decades – continued environmental, economic and political strife, as well as new technological developments – I honestly do not expect to see major changes in the world and the ways in which we imagine our place in it. However, according to inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, my intuitive view of the world does not correspond to reality. Kurzweil asserts that, when considered from the standpoint of technological development, human history is not linear, but exponential. Citing example after example of cases in which technological change started off slowly, then took off at an alarming rate, Kurzweil has formulated a concept which he calls the law of accelerating returns – the observation that right now the pace of change is itself accelerating exponentially. During the first half of this century, Kurzweil asserts, developments in biotechnology, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence will bring about changes so profound as to lie beyond the scope of our current imagination. Nanobots will be implanted in our bodies to regulate our health, and also in the earth to clean up our environment. We will come to spend so much time in virtual realities that the distinction between “real” and “simulated” will lose its meaning. Ultimately, the creation of superintelligent robots and the reverse-engineering of the human brain will enable us to upload our consciousness onto computers and live forever in a virtual world. The term which Kurzweil uses to describe these mind-boggling changes is the technological singularity.
“What is the singularity?” Kurzweil asks at the beginning of 2005 book on the subject, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. “It’s a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed. Athough neither utopian nor dystopian, this epoch will transform the concepts that we rely on to give meaning to our lives, from our business models to the cycle of human life, including death itself” – which, Kurzweil believes, will ultimately be transcended as humans transition from their biological state to a machine state. If Kurzweil can be believed, we will have human-level AI – robots that can tell jokes at cocktail parties, empathize with us, and pass the Turing Test of machine intelligence, in which robots attempt to personify human conversation so well as to convince judges of their humanity – before the end of the 2030’s. The Singularity itself – when, in the words of science fiction writer Vernor Vinge “the human era will be over” – is charted to occur in 2045.
The purpose of this essay is not to speculate over the likelihood of the huge technological and social transformations that Kurzweil predicts, but rather to explore transhumanism, the philosophical and political movement that has developed around the Singularity idea. Although this social phenomenon is relatively new, World Transhumanist Association Founder Nick Bostrom seeks to contextualize the movement, suggesting that its antecedents can be found in the Greek myths of Prometheus and Daedalus and its true intellectual roots can be located in Pico della Mirandola’s concept of man as the shaper of his own destiny and Francis Bacon’s emphasis on relentless empiricism as the most reliable way toward understanding the truth. According to Bostrom, the transhumanist movement is not restricted by its association with the technological Singularity, but rather encompasses all attempts to use science and technology to enhance human beings, whether through cosmetic surgery or memory pills or mind uploading. In the Transhumanist Declaration published in 2009, Bostrom asserts,
Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by science and technology in the future. We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth.
For Kurzweil, Bostrom and other transhumanist thinkers, the desire for a transition toward what some have called “Humanity 2.0” is a logical extrapolation of Enlightenment values focused on the rational ideals of human progress and advancement. Indeed, rationality and the desire to brutally and unrelentingly correct one’s own cognitive biases constitute a major priority for many in this movement, who view such rigor as the first line of defense against many of the risks inherent in the technological developments which they hope to realize. However, looking at the relentlessly optimistic, euphoric tone and totalizing teleological worldview expressed in Kurzweil’s book (he predicts that by the end of this century our artificial intelligence apparatuses will have gained domination over the entire universe) I cannot help but notice some correlation with the religious worldviews that proponents of this movement largely reject – an eschatological zeal parallelling that of certain millenarian religions. Is this growing movement – whose largely atheistic membership eschews any association with religiosity really as objective as it appears, or is its purported rationality underpinned by an unacknowledged irrationality? And, what is the relation between transhumanism and the human? On the one hand this movement, which traces its roots to Enlightenment thought on the dignity of man, purports to embody the essence of humanity – an essence which Ray Kurzweil describes as the desire to constantly extend and transcend our boundaries (374). On the other hand, I cannot help but observe a latent anti-humanism at work as well. For Kurzweil and his fellow Singularitarians, human enhancement is needed because, in our natural state, human beings are well-intentioned but simply not intelligent enough to solve our most pressing problems, such as environmental destruction, resource depletion, economic inequality and continued political strife. “I’ve never had much respect for the human body,” states Kurzweil in the film Transcendent Man, in which we see our zealous inventor downing 200 pills a day in the hope of defeating his biological limitations. For transhumanists, our biological bodies and brains are simply not good enough. Humanity 1.0 has seen its day, they tell us. Prepare to evolve.
“I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome,” proclaims Nietzsche in the famous prologue to Thus Spake Zarathustra. “What have you done to overcome him?” All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man?” With this famous statement, Nietszche’s prophet calls for a radical transformation of mankind, a rejection of corrupted instincts that lead toward weakness and decay in favour of those that lead toward greater power. Transhumanist philosophy resonate with many Nietzchean ideals – the materialist rejection of dualism, the repudiation of so-called slave morality that previously glorified human weakness, and the high valuation of the will to power and transcendence. However, while Nick Bostrom acknowledges this apparent connection, he seeks to distance his movement from Nietzche as quickly as possible. According to Bostrom in his “A History of Transhumanist Thought,”
What Nietzsche had in mind was not technological transformation but a kind of soaring personal growth and cultural refinement in exceptional individuals (who he thought would have to overcome the life‐sapping “slave‐morality” of Christianity). Despite some surface‐level similarities with the Nietzschean vision, transhumanism – with its Enlightenment roots, its emphasis on individual liberties, and its humanistic concern for the welfare of all humans (and other sentient beings) – probably has as much or more in common with Nietzsche’s contemporary the English liberal thinker and utilitarian John Stuart Mill (5).
While Bostrom’s point is certainly fair, I cannot help but raise an eyebrow at Bostrom’s insistence on grounding his movement in the Enlightenment rationalist tradition and rejecting a philosophy commonly (perhaps not correctly) associated with a kind of irrationalism or mysticism seen as abundant in the critique of that tradition – an irrationalism which Bostrom prefers to attribute to the contrary movement, bioconservativism, with what he describes as its “Romanticist view of nature, certain religious (anti-humanistic) interpretations of the concept of human dignity and of a God-given natural order, and…various Continental philosophers’ critiques of technology, technocracy, and the rationalistic mindset that accompanies modern technoscience (23). Perhaps, in Bostrom’s view, Nietszche’s philosophical approach is just too “spiritual,” too anti-irrational for the rational transhumanist movement. After all what is there less spiritual or irrational than wanting to live forever? But, before I can charge transhumanism as being too narrow in its concern for a wide range of human values (including supposedly irrational ones), I must return to Kurzweil, who incidentally also refers to Nietzsche in his book, as well as to a panoply of philosophy, literature and religious traditions. While Kurzweil clearly disavows traditional religion’s search for truth in revelation, he reveals a greater sensitivity than Bostrom to that side of human experience which is sometimes called spiritual. Kurzweil has no qualms about describing his particular approach to transhumanism as a new form of religiosity which combines traditional religion’s respect for human consciousness with the secular arts and sciences’ value of knowledge and learning. For Kurzweil, who believes that at some point the entire universe will be infused with the power of machine intelligence, the answer to the question of whether God exists is “not yet.”
Evolution moves toward greater complexity, greater elegance, greater knowledge, greater beauty, greater creativity, and greater levels of subtle attributes such as love. In every monotheistic tradition God is likewise described as all of these qualities, only without any limitation…So evolution moves inexorably toward this conception of God, although never quite reaching this ideal. We can regard, therefore, the freeing of our thinking from the severe limitations of its biological form to be an essentially spiritual undertaking (389).
Kurzweil even goes so far as to describe his new religion as the antithesis to the deist creationism residual in many religious worldviews today. While the former conceived God as an entity which created the world and then withdrew from it, Kurzweil sees God as an entity that is created by humanity and gradually becoming a reality through the promise of technological transcendence. It is easy to see why Kurzweil might seem something of a prophet; however, I would argue that his eschatology – which conceives of nonbiological human machines creating a completely new order on earth and then spreading throughout the entire universe before the end of this century – as embodying some of the negative aspects of religion: a totalizing, eschatological worldview that dismisses or at best marginalizes those people who hold opposing values.
By seeking to reveal this inherent contradiction within a movement that overwhelmingly disavows traditional religiosity while continuing to adopt many of its forms, I hope to point toward the greatest contradiction of all. Is this movement humanistic or anti-humanistic? By seeking to contextualize transhumanism within a history that they view as teleological, forward-progression, both authors suggest that their goals and desires embody the essence of humanity itself – a curious desire to seek new knowledge and perpetually transcend limitations. But, this is clearly not the only characteristic of the human, and one might question if it really is as universal as Kurzweil and Bostrom would have us believe. One such questioner is the well-known environmentalist Bill McKibben, who offers a different vision of human nature. In a talk entitled “Being Good Enough,” he states,
The default assumption in our lives as modern Americans is that more is better—more stuff, more power, more intelligence, more years, more dimensions. When I say default assumption, that’s just what I mean. In fact, we’ve come to call this assumption and the set of traits that underlie it—curiosity, greed, technical prowess, competitiveness—we’ve come to call them human nature. This hyper-individualism is most fully developed in our own culture, and in recent times has produced a political ideology that bridles at any attempt to restrain it in the name of community.
McKibben seeks to expose the extreme individualism embedded in so many aspects of the transhumanist worldview, particularly surrounding the idea of radical life extension, and he expresses concern for the loss of human communities that might be brought about by the libertarian stance underpinning transhumanism. For McKibben, the essential defining characteristic of humanity is not the constant desire for more knowledge and greater personal capacity, but rather the ability to set limits on those desires, to stand back and say “Enough,” to forgo some individual desires in the name of humanity. What transhumanists view as flaws and grave defects in humanity 1.0 which the upgraded version will surely correct, McKibben views as our strength. Referring to one futurist’s view of the immortal conscious machines that transhumanists hope to create through technology, McKibben cites them as celestial beings who will travel the universe seeking answers to some of the deepest philosophical questions, such as why is there something rather than nothing, and where did the universe come from. With a hint of irony, McKibben declares that for him, “With all due respect, these strike me as profoundly uninteresting, at least compared with the deeply human questions of how are you feeling, and can I give you a hand with that, and do you think you could ever love me too.” For McKibben and others of his persuasion, Singularitarian transhumanism is not humanistic, but essentially anti-humanistic, threatening some of our deepest values and traditions – the ability to form close relationships and communities.
As I bring this discussion to a close, I should stress that I have barely scratched the surface of this complex discussion. I have sought to raise the question of whether transhumanism is humanistic or anti-humanistic, but as I think my examples have shown, there is no real consensus on the meaning of these terms, and I have to face the frightening but real possibility that they have no meaning at all. Donna Haraway’s well-known Cyborg Manifesto suggests that we are already a hybrid human machine culture; we are already cyborgs and the attempt to draw a clear distinction between the human and machine or establish defining characteristics for what it means to be human no longer make much real sense. The challenge is to look at the possibility of greater artificiality and increasingly blurred boundaries between the biological and the artificial from multiple perspectives at the same time:
From one perspective, a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet, about the final abstraction embodied in a Star Wars apocalypse waged in the name of defence, about the final appropriation of women’s bodies in a masculinist orgy of war (Sofia, 1984). From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints. The political struggle is to see from both perspectives at once because each reveals both dominations and possibilities unimaginable from the other vantage point.
Nevertheless, I end with my original question. However we may define the human, does transhumanism elevate or denigrate? Does this movement promise ecstatic transcendence, misanthropic contempt for the flesh, downright foolishness or the only logical path forward? Regardless of whether or not Kurzweil’s predictions turn out to be true, this movement forces us to consider crucial questions that will only become more salient as technology continues to develop. And so, we are left with the pressing question – what kind of future do we truly want?
Note: A version of this essay was presented at the 2012 American Comparative Literature Association’s Annual Meeting at Brown University on March 30, 2012.