The current foundation phase of “Transhumanist” politics deserves a critical discussion of the philosophical principles that implicitly underlie its new political organization. As part of the effort towards a self-critical evaluation of political transhumanism, which is undoubtedly still in a very early phase of development, this chapter discusses the philosophy drafted by the founder of the “Transhumanist Party of the USA”, Zoltan Istvan, in his bestselling novel “The Transhumanist Wager” (2013) dedicated to develop the vision of a better society. Istvan called the philosophy underlying his meta-national, if not global, vision “Teleological Egocentric Functionalism”. We discuss the achievements, contradictions and dialectics of and within this philosophy; its possible relation to realistic social policy programs; as well as the potential implications and consequences. The goal is to achieve a more considered overall discourse at the contested new ideological interface between humanism and transhumanism which could define an influential zeitgeist of our time.
By Roland Benedikter, Katja Siepmann, and Annabella McIntosh
Introduction: The Framework
In recent years the importance of technology in daily life has been growing steadily. This trend is reflected by the rise of technology and its applications to ever more crucial factors within the economy, the health care sector, the military and political rhetoric. Among the systemic factors that are shaping globalization from a medium- and long-term perspective, technology has indeed become probably the most influential factor – to the point that critics speak of a “universalization” of technology in our time that is replacing the former lead roles of politics and economics.
Indeed, the computer and internet have revolutionized society since the 1990’s; genetics, bio- and neurotechnology have modified aspects of our image of the human being.[ i ] Furthermore, new technologies and its derivatives have also profoundly changed the ways we look at the desirable future. To a certain extent, technology has not only changed the traditional – including ideological – utopias, but has itself become the most important utopia, if not the embodiment of a utopian ideal as such. Technology as ideology is in the process of displacing most other ideological approaches both from the left and the right. This displacement has become possible given that technology -as objective process- can claim to be a new “neutral” ground between traditional political factions and their mostly “binary” inclinations that shaped the 19th and 20th centuries.[ii]
I: The “Transhumanist” Movement And Its “Proto-Political” Character
As a consequence, a technology-inspired “transhumanist movement”[iii] has begun to arise out of (as at yet mostly Western) civil societies to start to influence opinion-makers and governments, and is increasingly imitated in its basic ideas by non-democratic governments in Asia and elsewhere. The main “transhumanist” goal as far as it has been elaborated, is not only to further modernize civilization, but to overcome the existing human condition, which it regards as in principle still unsatisfactory, given its dependency on factors outside human influence.[iv]
The literal meaning of “transhumanism” is, as the term suggests, to “go beyond the existing human being”[v] through as free and open as possible application of technology to all sectors of human activity. But – more important – the meaning of “transhumanism” is also about merging technology with human biology, in order to extend human lifespan dramatically and, if possible, to eventually defeat death.
Zoltan Istvan, one of the most publicly present and well-known advocates of transhumanism, stated clearly but controversially:
What are transhumanists to do in a world where science and technology are quickly improving and will almost certainly overcome human mortality in the next 30 years? Will there be a great civil rights debate and clash around the world? Or will the deathist culture change, adapt, or even subside?
First, let’s look at some hard facts. Most deaths in the world are caused by aging and disease. Approximately 150,000 people die every day around the world, causing devastating loss to loved ones and communities. Of course, it should not be overlooked that death also brings massive disruption to family finances and national economies.
On the medical front, the good news is that gerontologists and other researchers have made major gains recently in the fields of life extension, anti-aging research, and longevity science. In 2010, some of the first studies of stopping and reversing aging in mice took place. They were partially successful and proved that 21st Century science and medicine had the goods to overcome most types of deaths from aging. Eventually, we’ll also wipe out most diseases. Through modern medicine, the 20th Century saw a massive decrease of deaths from polio, measles, and typhoid, amongst others.
On the heels of some of these longevity and medical triumphs, a number of major commercial ventures have appeared recently, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the field of anti-aging and longevity research. Google’s Calico, Human Longevity LLC, and Insilico Medicine are just some of them.
Google Ventures’ President Bill Maris, who helps direct investments into health and science companies, recently made headlines by telling Bloomberg, “If you ask me today, is it possible to live to be 500? The answer is yes.”[vi]
As a consequence, Istvan outlines the resulting political and social attempts of transhumanists to make the most out of this new potential by starting a broad public debate, including dialogue with the traditionalist and religious stripes of the population:
Recently, a number of transhumanists, including myself who is an atheist, have attempted to work more closely with governmental, religious, and social groups that have for centuries endorsed the deathist culture. Transhumanists are trying to get those groups to realize we are not necessarily wanting to live forever. Transhumanists simply want the choice and creation over our own earthly demise, and we don’t want to leave it to cancer, or an automobile accident, or aging, or fate.
To change the deathist culture in America and abroad, it’s important for people to understand that lengthening lives and having the ability to overcome human mortality is not something that has to be seen as clashing with religion. I’ve often told Christian friends, for example, that living longer could be seen as a way for religious missionaries to spread their message further – to save more people if that’s how they want to view it.
Longer lifespans and more control over our biological selves will only make the world a better place, with more permanent institutions, more time with our loved ones, and more stable economies.
In the end, transhumanism is not really trying to overcome deathist culture, but get it to understand that transhuman culture can also stand functionally next to it, helping the aims of everyone involved. Together, we can find the middle ground, and give everyone the choice to follow whatever path they want when it concerns dying or not dying in the 21st Century.[vii]
II: Another Transhumanist goal: Cognitive expansion
Another “transhumanist” goal is to expand and enhance human perception and cognitive potentials through the systematic application and broadest possible employment of neurotechnology, Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI’s) and Brain-Machine Interfaces (BMI’s). These technologies can provide direct interfaces between the human brain, the spinal cord and various technological devices through implants (and other interface technology), and such technologies have already reached a noticeable level of maturity and applicability.[viii]
Given their positive, if sometimes flamboyant basic drive, “transhumanists” are gaining relevance in several sectors of society. This is particularly the case with regard to those sectors of innovation which are involved in discussions about the possibility – and desirability – of future scenarios for mankind under “super-technological” conditions. These sectors include the debates about a rising “global imaginary”[ix]; about what humans should become both body- and consciousness-wise[x]; and about the ethics of technology application both in the broad vision and with regard to more specific anthropological implications and consequences in particular.[xi]
The most important point to consider here is that all these topics are in essence “contextual political” dimensions and thus “proto-political” in themselves by definition. In other words: Although mainly about imaginations as interconnected with technological advances, transhumanist ideas about what the human being may (and should) become, bear (willingly or unwillingly) remarkable political and social implications. These implications are presently implicit both in the topics addressed and in their specific interpretation by transhumanist ideology, including the respective public narratives. The politics inherent in transhumanism await being clarified, sooner or later, by public debate and analysis in explicit ways. This analysis needs to rise above the critique of the (unavoidable?) ethical limits of both traditional politics and transhumanism[xii], to highlight the socio-political potentials of technology in a globalized, accelerating, transdisciplinary and “fluid” social, cultural and institutional framework.
III: 2014: The Transformation of Transhumanism From “Worldview Movement” To Applicable Political Force
The constellation of ideologies and activities that comprises the transhumanist movement reached a somewhat new phase in 2014, with the outreach of transhumanist ideology from civil society to politics. Although there have existed since the 1980s several very well organized transhumanist and, more broadly speaking, “human enhancement” associations and groups able to attract synergies and sympathies both on national and international levels, and although there have been many well-known philanthropists providing funding over that time, 2014 brought something new, at least from a formal viewpoint. The year saw the more or less simultaneous founding of transhumanist political parties in several countries, including the U.S. and the UK, as well as an ongoing process in Germany and Austria towards such initiatives, several of them loosely interconnected within the more general project of a “Transhumanist Party Global”[xiii]. In the first half of 2015, all these new parties were preparing for general and presidential elections such as those of May 2015 in the UK[xiv] and those of 2016 in the USA, with the goal of gaining impact on big-picture policy decisions. All of them were directly or indirectly (i.e. through the hoped-for influence upon other, more important political parties and actors) aspiring to political power in order to maximize the impact of what is, compared to the past, a radical technological agenda for Western societies.
Most important, the publicly well-known author, columnist, adventurer and transhumanist Zoltan Istvan (born 1973)[xv], who might be viewed by now as a leading libertarian political figure of the transhumanist movement, in November 2014 founded the “Transhumanist Party of the United States of America”[xvi] with the goal to run for U.S. presidency in 2016[xvii]. Istvan elaborated – as one of his main ideological bases – the philosophy of “Teleological Egocentric Functionalism”[xviii], a fictional transhumanist system of ideas developed in his best-selling book “The Transhumanist Wager” (2013)[xix].
This philosophy, although not the only one within the still very pluriform and diverse transhumanist movement, is partly challenged by prominent leftist and progressive transhumanists. However, it does appear to be the first clear condensation of existing transhumanist ideology that is, to a certain extent (as will be discussed), likely to drive the transhumanist movement’s political engagement. Because technology is declared in essence as “neutral” within transhumanism, the current Transhumanist Party claims to have a structure and agenda beyond the traditional dialectics between left and right. However, the same “classical” dichotomy between left and right, as exists in other parties, seems to characterize its present state and constellation. This can be seen with “progressivists” (or “collectivists”) in the U.S. sympathizing with a more “leftist” UK faction (which is not least a product of the traditionally rather “leftist” UK healthcare system), and with the “Technoprogressive Declaration”[xx] propagated as an alternative to the libertarian approaches of Istvan and his followers within the overall transhumanist movement. As detailed and sharp-minded as the “progressivists” contributions are, though, the libertarian “Transhumanist Wager” still remains the defining work of the transhumanists’ political and social agenda in the view of large parts of the broader public, because of Istvan’s outstanding public outreach.[xxi]
Therefore, at the start of an inquiry into the ideological bases of transhumanist politics, the question must be posed to what extent “Teleological Egocentric Functionalism”, or TEF, might be able to impact the future of transhumanism as a movement, and if and how it might become influential for politics in the broader sense beyond the inner transhumanist debate. Although there might be restricted implementation potentials for TEF in applied day-to-day politics, there will be most likely many mutual influences between TEF and the “Transhumanist Party of the USA”’s practical political aims.
IV: Pillars of Transhumanism
In order to analyze “Teleological Egocentric Functionalism” and its political potentials, it is first necessary to take a closer view of transhumanism, as that forms the departing basis of TEF, and may therefore indicate how TEF fits into the greater array of posthuman and transhuman philosophies of the present.
The philosopher Max More (a telling pseudonym, as transhumanism is clearly about “maximizing and more” in every sense!) often addresses issues of transhumanism in his speeches and papers. He explains the basic transhumanist philosophical approach through its key theoretical and practical elements. According to More, transhumanism is a mindset which strives to overcome the physical and psychological barriers of being human, by rationally using technology and science to their fullest and without inhibition. The most significant aims of transhumanism are a distinctive extension of life, improved intelligence and the “optimization” of the human body. To ensure that this mindset and its aims will be supported by current society, the transhumanist movement claims to be based in both its ideology and its aspirations on rationality, including partly the tradition of rationalism.[xxii]
Nick Bostrom, professor of philosophy and director of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford[xxiii] and of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology[xxiv], includes in his definition of transhumanism “The study of the ramifications, promises and potential dangers of the use of science, technology, creativity, and other means to overcome fundamental human limitations.”[xxv]
In such a framework, most transhumanists (in the first instance independent of their political inclination) explicitly promote a fundamental “enhancing transformation” of humans, in particular of human bodies and human consciousness. This position can be clarified in three parts, firstly by transhumanists being part of a long historical tradition consisting in the perpetual strivings of humans to overcome their boundaries, which therefore can be understood as a primordial human instinct, without which for example the history of medical advances would not have been possible, achieved as it was through a centuries-long battle against theology.[xxvi]Secondly, transhumanists claim that postmodern high-tech times (since the 1990s) make it possible to extend further beyond previous human options than ever before, and to take the endeavor of human emancipation against bodily and natural restrictions to a new level.[xxvii]Thirdly, transhumanists regard it as human destiny and determination to take an active role in human-technology development, including the development of the human body which was subject to nature until only recently, but which can now in their view and to a formerly unthinkable extent be “transferred” to human responsibility.[xxviii]
V: “Teleological Egocentric Functionalism”, or: The Philosophy of Becoming an “Omnipotender”
On these bases, the book “The Transhumanist Wager” by Zoltan Istvan (2013) introduces a transhumanist philosophy called “Teleological Egocentric Functionalism”, which is developed by the fictional protagonist and transhumanist Jethro Knights (another potentially telling name, since according to their mainstream discourse patterns, a number of transhumanists seem to conceive themselves as “knights” in the present “battle” for a better future against those unwilling, or incapable of recognizing the new technological opportunities – including a well-pondered self-irony hinting to “Star Wars”). Jethro Knights begins to evolve the TEF philosophy after a near-death experience, which brings him to the conviction that his aim in life must be to conquer death, and this core tenet also applies to all transhumanists worldwide.[xxix] While developing TEF, the key terms “omnipotender” and “transhumanist wager” are introduced at an early stage in the novel and then explained throughout the book’s story. According to the story, being the “omnipotender” means to become “the elite transhuman champion [and] the ideal and zenith of life extension and human enhancement populace.”[xxx]
Further, Jethro Knights as an individual is characterized as uncompromising, striving for the most possible power and improvement. Thus, he will overcome biological limitations and find a lasting form of life, and in the end immortality.[xxxi] The protagonist describes the significance of his transformation of consciousness, from humanistic individual to radically egocentric, as “advancing my memories, my value system, my emotions, my creativity, my reasoning”[xxxii], and therefore as an entire “enhancement of consciousness”. In this view, to transform an individual’s consciousness does not only mean to question one’s experiences, knowledge and culture, but in doing so to think and act as “reasonably” as possible. However, the exact meaning of the term “reasonable” is never clarified in detail by Istvan, and never compared to competing usages of the term, historically or in the present.[xxxiii] When applied to individuals as “systems nested in collectives nested in societies”[xxxiv], as neuroethicists John Shook of the University at Buffalo and James Giordano of Georgetown University(2014) define them, reasonable in this context could mean to examine, revise and in some cases replace current values, norms, social and governmental structures in order to reach a “transhuman” world that acknowledges the human in transition – a world in which everyone can have at least the potential to become their own most efficient and enduring self, in ways that comport with social citizenship at large and small scales. However, the question remains as to whether the version of transhumanism implied by Shook and Giordano aligns with those espoused by Bostrom and Istvan.
VI: “To love life means to become a Transhumanist”
Besides these obvious ambiguities, the “Transhumanist Wager” is clear in one point: The “wager” is about the decision each individual must make whether or not to be part of the transformation into a transhumanist world. In face of this decision, the “wager” implies the most primordial (and thus maybe most important) statement of TEF:
If you love life, you will safeguard that life, and strive to extend and improve it for as long as possible. Anything else you do while alive, any other opinion you have, any other choice you make to not safeguard, extend, and improve that life, is a betrayal of that life. (It) is a betrayal of the possible potential of your brain.[xxxv]
In essence this subtly suggests that to love life means to become a transhumanist almost automatically, and logically.
As a result, TEF – like transhumanism in general – considers the advancement of research and technology to be its first priority, as this prioritization is most likely to realize the transhumanist agenda through science. Science – and its outcome, technology – thus becomes the centerpiece of virtually “everything”, with politics, economics, culture and religion taking second place, as servants of the natural sciences. This in essence makes the humanities irrelevant, since they stem from centuries ago and will therefore have to be rebuilt from the scratch for the new transhuman world that arises.
Focusing on the individual this radically might lead to the conclusion that TEF does not pursue any kind of personal relationship between transhumanists and ultimately “omnipotenders”. But on the contrary, TEF asserts that while it is true that “a transhumanist has no immediate concern for others”[xxxvi] she or he is nevertheless able to have intimate relationships with others, such as Jethro Knights has with his wife, friends and co-workers. According to Istvan, the reason for this is that while transforming into the omnipotender, the transhumanist individual is still dependent on the knowledge of and inspiration by others; and as such can experience happiness through interacting with others. Therefore, in the vision of TEF a transhumanist society encourages family cohesion as long as it is reflected through reason and in harmony with transhumanist values.[xxxvii] When this is not the case, i.e. if one individual has lost its value to the other or is in any way in contradiction to transhuman development, then this individual will lose everything and finally be forced out of transhuman society.[xxxviii]
VII: How to Deal with Conflict If You Are an “Omnipotender”?
Taking these aspects together, it might seem surprising that while TEF supports upholding peace for as long as possible, it legitimates the use of “whatever means necessary”[xxxix] – including violence -, when it comes to conflict situations with anti-transhumanists. This is one of many parallels to other philosophies of “selfishness”, such as “Objectivism” conceived by Russian-American writer and philosopher Ayn Rand (1905-1982)[xl], which inspired the Reagan era of American politics and had prominent followers such as Alan Greenspan (the former chief of the Federal Reserve) who was a personal disciple of Rand in New York. “Objectivism” hails egoism as the true altruism since, as the saying goes, “If everything cares about himself, everybody is taken care of”. Rand legitimizes extreme violence of “first handers” (i.e. entrepreneurs) against “second handers” (i.e. employees), including cold-blooded murder of the helpless, in her monumental novel “Atlas Shrugged”[xli]. The historic goal of Objectivism to achieve “true egoism” appears to align with TEF: that is, to define “true egoism” as taking care about oneself and thus to create a world of “first handers” against a society where altruism has falsified reason by producing “second handers”, who rise against those who are the inventors of machines and progress.
Transhumanism as condensed in the novel “The Transhumanist Wager” is not far from such a vision, particularly when it comes to interaction with opponents.[xlii] However, TEF proposes any actions taken are, as far as possible, characterized by the recognition of the potential value other individuals have for themselves. When asked in this regard, the fictional protagonist and developer of TEF in Istvan’s novel declares:
We want to teach the people of the outside world, not destroy them; we want to convince them, not dictate them; we want them to join us, not fight us. They may not be essential, but they may help make it possible for us when it is time to journey through what is essential.[xliii]
Is there not implicit in these sentences a differentiation between “first” and “second handers” (those “not essential”)? Confronted with such ideals, it is unavoidable to ask questions concerning their social and political implications and how those might be concretely put into reality. Some arising questions could for example be, what negative effects might TEF as a mind-set have on the issue of community, and how should a technocratic society of the future deal with these issues? How would a majority of individuals be able to reach omnipotence without getting in conflict with each other, and what consequences would arise from such conflict? Who would be able to participate in the institutions of government and policy development and how would that differ from now? And finally, how would transhumanism be supposed to prevent misuse of inventions and technologies? These questions may be of particular concern for the concrete social and political possibilities of “Teleological Egocentric Functionalism” for years to come.
VIII: Can TEF Be Put Into Political Reality?
Whilst the book “The Transhumanist Wager” ends by outlining a thoroughly positive outcome for transhumanism and creates a clean and bright future scenario that seems a utopia, it is questionable in what sense the transhumanist transformation would be likely to happen in reality. For instance, massive social and political alterations such as a “world wide [sic] government”[xliv] and a broadly shared civilizational convention of a “one person universe, existence and culture”[xlv], seem rather unrealistic in the near future, since there are competing narratives that oppose this vision. “Posthumanistic” philosophies are not necessarily egocentric and egoistic like TEF; and neither are “postmodern” ones, not to speak of “third way” approaches or even the surviving leftist systems of ideas – rather on the contrary.[xlvi]
The author Zoltan Istvan himself states that with regard to his political campaign for U.S. presidency in 2016 he distances himself from TEF and Jethro Knights’ envisioned “measures” to spread the transhumanist mission in the world.[xlvii] He explains this with the need for a civil competition between transhumanists and its governmental or religious opponents. Indeed, rather than through mobilization on the streets, Istvan wants his party to focus on publicity-based measures to attract attention, in order to make transhumanism popular foremost as a “soft power” and thus to prepare the ground for a “transhumanist mindset” that in his hope will receive widespread voluntary support at least in the technology-driven U.S. and in the most developed Western nations.[xlviii]
This peaceful and nonaggressive approach can also be found within TEF, as seen when the fictional protagonist declares in his speech to the world’s population that the transhuman nation “will strive to settle all disputes, conflicts and problems without violence”.[xlix] This at first gives a positive impression of the actions of the new transhuman citizen and might even lead to further interest in transhumanist psychology. But the statement in the book continues by stating that transhumanists “firmly believe in possessing the most powerful weapons, having an aggressive police force, and using military might against enemies.”[l]
The first two points might remind readers all over the world of the arms race between the West and Russia during the cold war. Striving for the most efficient weapons, and frightening the other country with their possible use, created at the time a feeling within society of constant endangerment rather than reassurance. In addition, a strong police force might further add to an oppressive atmosphere, since it could give the individual the impression of constantly being controlled for “wrong” behaviour. Although the punishments foreseen in this case by the transhumanist’s police executives are mostly non-violent ones, they do interfere drastically with the individuals’ possibilities of self-realization and egoism.
IX: How To Become A “Transhuman Citizen”?
By addressing someone as a full “Transhuman Citizen”, the fictional transhumanist leader Jethro Knights means an individual who has become a citizen of “Transhumania”, his transhumanist nation. This individual has broken with everything connected to her or his history, country of origin and personal provenance; she or he will only care for someone or something outside of “Transhumania”, when this is of value for the cause of the new “Transhuman Citizen”.[li] If not so, she or he could be exiled from “Transhumania” for ignorance[lii] and most likely never receive a second chance to reintegrate into society, which would mean isolation not only from family and friends, but also from the benefits society provides to the individual, such as security or rights and freedoms. As “Transhumania” is supposed to be a worldwide nation, this would also mean that the exiled individual could not be able to turn to any other country and become a citizen there. In reality this would mean all established nations and their governments would have to be “integrated” or replaced by one “transhuman” government.
This seems to be a very unlikely scenario for the foreseeable future, though, as it would cause more conflicts than it could settle. Leading transhumanist thinkers such as Nick Bostrom have long underscored that many crucial ethical questions concerning the human body or the further development of the human brain, in relation to new technologies, will not be solved quickly; since in the age of globalization they would require a global government which in their view is quite unlikely to come into existence anytime soon.[liii]
On the other hand, such a scenario could open the way for one forceful authority to bypass the variety of existing ones – a not very reassuring vision, in a time when new extremist movements are rising around the world. Nevertheless, it seems safe to say that the program of the “American Transhumanist Party”, does indeed include plans to build up an internationally connected and unified transhuman political movement. This unification can be seen in the so-called “Transhumanist Party Global”[liv], which Zoltan Istvan stated in an interview in early 2015[lv] was formed to maximize the international political influence of the movement.
X: The “Three Laws of Transhumanism” and Mainstream Politics In A Democracy
The motivation behind the transhumanist drive for increased political influence is similar to that in Istvan’s book, and in the reality of his political initiative. Both are linked to the main goals of the transhumanist movement: First, supporting life extension research with as much resources as possible to give a majority of people the chance to benefit from the findings and applications of new technologies, and eventually even overcome death.[lvi] In order to do so, it is necessary, secondly, to spread the transhuman mindset, and thirdly, to participate actively in the development of new technologies, to be able to control them and to protect society from possible misuse of new technologies as well as other dangers they may incur. As Istvan put it in his “three laws of transhumanism”
A transhumanist must safeguard one’s own existence above all else.
A transhumanist must strive to achieve omnipotence as expediently as possible – so long as one’s actions do not conflict with the First Law.
A transhumanist must safeguard value in the universe – so long as one’s actions do not conflict with the First and Second Laws…[lvii]
In response to these “laws” John Hewitt writes “If energetically adopted, these deceptively simple maxims ultimately compel the individual to pursue a technologically enhanced and extended life. (Transhumanists) have come to see the choice to accept or reject these principles as something far more fundamental than the choice between liberal or conservative principles.”[lviii]
This assumption may be correct, as technology is indeed substituting traditional political mechanisms by a new logic.
However, while transhumanists such as Zoltan Istvan want to push forward according to the “three laws” both philosophically and politically, they appear unaware of any larger risks or even contradictions in the joint endeavor. Researchers from scientific fields involved such as neuroscientist and neuroethicist James Giordano of Georgetown University[lix] recognize the potential benefits of technological evolution and policy focus, but nevertheless express concerns about the all too direct political plans of the transhumanist political movement. Even though Giordano also sees positive perspectives, he points out that there are many contradictions in programs such as those espoused by Istvan, for instance between the push toward the development of radical technologies and the safeguard of society’s safety when the innovations are not to be restricted by regulations.
This indeed poses an important question that most likely will arise louder in the years to come: what is the relationship between radical technology and safety under the condition of a potential “Transhumania”? Presumably, the absence of a compelling solution for this issue will be a hindering factor for the spread of the transhumanist mindset. Furthermore, adequate financing of transhumanist technologies and research might also become an issue when, as conducted in the fictive nation “Transhumania”, the government applies the lowest possible taxation rate on citizens’ income and as the price to pay for this discontinues the payment of retirement and public pensions[lx], as well as ceasing all governmental welfare.[lxi]
This may be interpreted by some observers as an attempt of the new political aspiration of transhumanism to get Republicans as well as rightist civil society movements such as the “Tea Party” on board. Unfortunately, Zoltan Istvan has not made any clear statements yet to address the issue of financing the transition from the present into a transhuman world. However, Istvan has stated that if twenty percent of the defense budget were to be redirected into longevity science, that would trigger in short order a great change for reaching the transhumanist core goal of defeating death.[lxii]
XI: Connecting Fiction, Philosophy and Politics
Taking all of the above into consideration, it is obvious that Zoltan Istvan lets his political agenda be influenced by “Teleological Egocentric Functionalism”, but promotes these values in a more moderate form, so to speak. By at first focusing his manifesto on just three aims and otherwise concentrating his efforts on acquainting the public with transhumanism, he has been able to reach out to a broader public and achieved at least an increasing discussion about transhumanism and its political relevance. However, it is due to more than Istvan’s personal commitment that transhumanism will likely become more prominent in international political and social debates, as transhumanist parties are also in the process of being founded in Europe – with other continents most probably following. Consequently, this could mean that when a committed figure such as Zoltan Istvan manages to connect and unify transhumanist parties around the world through his prominence and public presence, then the latter could influence conventional parties and gain impact without growing a big membership first.
This influence, combined with the increasing role technology plays in globalized life, could push forward a culture which, while not fully transhuman, will be in all practical sense a more transhumanistic oriented society. If such a combined approach is successful then this transition will be achieved smoothly and without being noticed by the public and conventional politicians. Despite all its shortfalls, the developments around technological research and the transhumanist movement constitute a realistic potential for transhumanist parties to gain relevance in the political sphere. The ascent of transhumanism to a concrete social and political force at least in the US now seems based on the philosophical fundament rooted in “Teleological Egocentric Functionalism”. The question, as to the extent that TEF itself is inspired by other philosophies of “selfishness”, such as Ayn Rand’s “Objectivism”, is a matter requiring further research into the direct and indirect relationships, affinities and differences involved.
XII: Conclusion: Four questions for critical debate. First Question: To What Extent Is U.S. Transhumanist Politics Driven By TEF?
To conclude this discussion on the philosophical basis of transhumanism, four crucial questions remain to be answered. (However, given the current fluid nature of transhumanist politics, more such questions are likely to arise.)
The first question concerns the extent to which the U.S. Transhumanist Party is actually driven by the statements made concerning TEF and the Transhumanist Wager in Istvan’s novel, given that Istvan distances his own policies from those of fictional lead figure Jethro Knights as previously described.
The answer to this first question is, at least for the immediate future, simple: We’ll have to wait and see. There are different, partly opposed signals and indications with regard to the proximity or distance between Istvan’s fiction and his envisaged political reality. Besides the goal of “putting science, health and technology at the forefront of American politics”, we know very little about the politics of the U.S. Transhumanist Party. There has been little discussion of the implications, derivatives, consequences and side issues involved in this manifesto. The Party is still in an early stage of development, with no sign of an encompassing, concrete political program, besides the three goals formulated in Istvan’s manifesto article in the Huffington Post[lxiii], and a reference to the “Transhumanist Declaration” [lxiv]. Neither of these sources provides a description of concrete policies, as opposed to general claims concerning the improvement of our lives by the means of technology.
Moreover, there is the fiction-reality question, which is always difficult to answer. Without doubt, there has been an influential hermeneutic circle between science fiction in particular, and practical societal progress in Western civilization throughout the past one and a half centuries. This synergistic feedback loop – of mutual inspiration and the building of stories and mythologies – can stabilize a concrete technological social agenda in the face of disputes. This allows access to the broadest possible number of people, giving the agenda an identity (possibly only transitorily) which can expand and strengthen. Given the current trend in which the imaginary and reality are becoming increasingly interwoven and mutually influential within a combined framework of a “society of images and ideas”, it may become increasingly difficult to fully differentiate or even segregate the fictional imaginary of a novel from its effects on reality – especially if it is in itself, a strongly politically colored account like the Transhumanist Wager.
Indeed, on the one hand the TranshumanistWager is a novel about a future society and not an explicit political program. But on the other hand, this novel contains many explicit ideas about the reorganization of society which are profoundly political. Furthermore, it has been written by the subsequent founder of a political party and presidential contender, which makes it inevitable to consider its implicit and explicit political contents as related to any subsequent practical political efforts. In addition, the Transhumanist Wager contains many autobiographical parallels to Istvan’s life; and even though Istvan publicly distances himself from some ideas of his book, they still remain his proper thoughts, and thus potentially practical policies.
XIII: Second Question: How Much Influence Can One Person And His Work Of Fiction Have On A Political Movement?
A second question that is often posited is, how much influence can one person (Istvan) have on the (necessarily) greater whole of a party and political movement, and what are his real intentions, within the broadening network of his sponsors and collaborators?
Generally speaking, a political network becomes more complex the more it advances over time and the more successful it becomes. In the present stage, the U.S. Transhumanist Party appears to be largely a one-man-show, but this may change once the party gets going and expands its outreach activities. If the party is to avoid becoming a kind of subtle dictatorship (and we don’t see any signals for this at the moment), the issue of competing wings will become more accentuated, and the interior ideological debate may sharpen, as it is natural with any developing democratic party (and visible even in non-democratic parties). Comparing Istvan’s public statements, columns and the ideas formulated in the Transhumanist Wager, a picture of the presidential candidate’s political agenda becomes apparent that shows it to be rather unfinished, and in any case unconventional. In this agenda fiction, philosophy and politics appear mixed up, and Istvan’s ideas in some points appear inconsistent as a result. Depending on the occasion, Istvan still seems to decide case by case, whether a statement of him should be interpreted as a “fictional idea” of him as an artist, or as a “serious idea” of him as a political contender. In his recent columns on Motherboard, it seems as if he advocates for the same radical technologies described in his novel to be put into practice, but personally envisages a different transhumanist philosophy and social policy than in his fictional book.
There are many examples of this dichotomy. In the fictional world of the novel the main goal is to become the “Omnipotender”, and radical egocentrism is presented as a moral value. In a recent column in the online technology and science magazine Motherboard with the title: “Do We Have Free Will Because God Killed Itself?” Istvan in turn argues:
The problem with being god – a truly omnipotent being – is that of free will. […] Being all-powerful is a very strange, ironic dead end. The only thing omnipotence can truly equal is a total mechanistic void. Achieving omnipotence is literally the act of suicide, in terms of forever self-eliminating one’s consciousness. This is because a conscious intelligence, as reason dictates, is based on the ability to discern values—values, for example, to know whether as an all-powerful being, one can create something so heavy that one can’t lift it. Values require choice. But omnipotence means that all choices have already been made, and nothing can ever change, because all variables are already accounted for and no randomness or anomalies exist.[lxv]
In another article on Motherboard, Istvan writes about the future of politics and the role Artifical Intelligence (AI) should play in it:
Should we let AI run the government once it’s smarter than us? Take that one step further—should we let that AI be the President—maybe even giving it a robot form for aesthetics or familiarity’s sake? […] We would have government and a leader who really is after the world’s best interests, free from the hazards of corporate lobbyists and selfishness. As a futurist and a politician, a central aim of mine is to do the most good for the greatest amount of people.[lxvi]
Here Istvan clearly distances himself from the ideal of selfishness and egocentrism – thus leaving the libertarian approach apparently in favor of a move toward the center, or even toward the “leftist”, or to put it in more appropriate terms, participatory wing of the Transhumanist movement as for example represented in the “Technoprogressive Declaration” of November 2014 signed by many transhumanist associations and organizations[lxvii].
Something similar appears to be the case with regard to social politics in the stricter sense. In his novel Istvan abolishes most forms of social security (retirements, public pensions, governmental welfare etc.) But to the surprise of many readers of the Transhumanist Wager, Istvan in his political columns advocates not only for free education, but also for a Universal Basic Income (UBI), i.e. for one of the allegedly most “socialist” ideas of the post-Cold-War era:
To begin with, there’s no point in pretending society can avoid a future Universal Basic Income -one that meets basic living standards- of some sort in America and around the world, if robots or software take most of the jobs. Income redistribution via taxes, increased welfare, or a mass guaranteed basic income plan will occur in some form, or there will be mass revolutions that could end in a dystopian civilization – leading essentially to what experts call a societal collapse. […] The elite may not want to part with some of their money (I myself support many libertarian ideas) via wealth redistribution, but I think they probably want to avoid an ugly dystopian world even more – especially one where they would be despised rulers.[lxviii]
I specifically advocate for free education at all levels, including higher education. In fact, I support increased education levels, too, including some forms of mandatory preschool and 4-year college for everyone.[lxix]
It remains to be seen if there will be some ties with transhumanist higher education initiatives, such as the “Singularity University”[lxx] founded in 2008 by leading transhumanists like Ray Kurzweil to prepare for the upcoming age of AI and to “educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges”.[lxxi] The dispute here seems to be predetermined: The Singularity University is about leaders, as is the way of “most” transhumanist initiatives so far. Istvan seems to favor a socially broader educational agenda, beyond hierarchies and classes, which contrasts starkly with the present day American educational system that, under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, focused more on business needs than ever before. Therefore, Istvan’s agenda may sound revolutionary to many.
Here we will discuss an area of conflict that will represent one of the major challenges for the relationship between Teleological Egocentric Functionalism and the applied political pragmatism of the transhumanist movement in the years ahead. The crucial issue that will define public discussion, not only within the framework of the U.S. presidential campaign 2015-16, but worldwide (and one currently dominating the international debate since the publication of Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century in 2014[lxxii]) is equality versus inequality – in crucial areas such as fairness, participation, inclusion and access to technologies. Yet the ethical dimension (i.e. inequality, and how to avoid it) of the transition into a transhumanist society is barely addressed in the TranshumanistWager. Rather, it is presented as an individual choice to be solved by everybody for him- or herself. However, in reality the choice is highly dependent on socio-economic factors, as Istvan rightly points out in his political statements:
The controversy with this technology is two-fold. Will conservative or religious people let us remake the human being into a more functional version of itself? And will all people be able to afford it? Editing a genome isn’t going to be cheap, at first. Neither will driverless cars. Furthermore, I surmise the Ivy League undergrad education download is also going to be costly (although, it’ll probably still be much cheaper than a physical education). So, is all this transhumanist child rearing tech fair to those who can’t afford it?
The short answer is: Of course, not. But neither are the costs of AIDS treatments in the world today. Hundreds of thousands still die because they can’t afford the proper technology and medicine. And it’s a fact that wealthier people live far longer, fuller lives than poor people—about 25 percent more on average. So what can we do to even the playing field?
To begin with, let’s not stop the technology. Instead, let’s work on stopping the inequality and create programs that entitle all children to better health and child rearing innovation. As a society, let’s come up with ways that make it so all peoples can benefit from the transhumanist tech that is changing our world and changing the way our children will be raised.[lxxiii]
XIV: Third Question: What Is Better Suited To Meet The Needs Of Politics In A Pluralistic Society: TEF or TF?
A third crucial question to be discussed with regard to the interface between TEF and concrete transhumanist political programs is: To what extent is the “Egocentrism” of TEF necessary? Might a better basis for international transhumanist politics be a Teleological Functionalism (TF) rather than a Teleological “Egocentric” Functionalism (TEF)?
This question once again points to the fundamental logical (not necessarily ethical) contradiction within Istvan’s interpretation of the potential political agenda of transhumanism as a consequence of TEF. Varying Istvan’s own question, “should a transhumanist run for president?”[lxxiv], we could pose the principal question: Should an egocentric become president – a job to represent and act in the interest of a nation?
Society is without doubt rapidly changing, and with it the basic expectations directed towards leaders with regard to their identity and ideological stature. “Egocentrism” may be viewed rather critically by larger parts of the public as a poor attribute for a political leader and a socio-political movement to hold, since politics by traditional definition in the West, is about the representation of the interests of others, and their thoughtful and pondered consideration versus specific “ego” concerns. For sure, most people consciously or unconsciously in “postmodern” globalized societies (necessarily) act egocentrically. However, in the mind of many average voters (and not to forget many leading Western intellectuals) there remains a difference between psychological/automatic egocentrism and moral/rational egocentrism. As Harvard scholars Nicolas Epley and Eugene M. Caruso explain this difference:
People see the world through their own eyes, experience it through their own senses, and have… access to the others’ cognitive and emotional states. This means that one’s own perspective on the world is directly experienced, whereas others’ perspectives must be inferred. Because experience is more efficient than inference, people automatically interpret objects and events egocentrically and only subsequently correct or adjust that interpretation when necessary.[lxxv]
In essence, the problem with moral egocentrism seems to be that in the “postmodern” (or contradictorily materialistic and idealistic) era people in general “regard their own thoughts and needs as most important and willfully fail to account for the needs and intentions of others in making their decisions”.[lxxvi]
Moreover, there are more strictly philosophical and logical implications with regard to the relation between ideas and concrete political potentials. The issue of “egocentrism” is not necessarily implicit in establishing transhumanist thought, and it is not necessary to promote human enhancement or transhumanism. On the contrary, many motives, including the opposite value of selfishness – altruism – could be used to legitimize many transhumanist technologies, for example extended life spans and improved physical and cognitive abilities, as a means to care longer and better for others. Thus, a logical conclusion could be to detach the “Egocentric” suffix of “Teleological Egocentric Functionalism”, leaving “Teleological Functionalism” aimed at practically improving the lives of the greatest amount of people possible in an open society, focused on evolving, rather than on structuring and consolidating what it has. Nevertheless, it is not clear what “Teleological Functionalism” may mean without “Egocentrism”. Could it become a “Teleological Social Functionalism”? And if so, in which direction would that concretely aim, and what would it mean in practice?
XV: Fourth Question: How Does TEF Fit Into The Greater Array Of “Social Futurist” Visions Of The Present?
While the discussion so far and the conclusions reached highlight further issues to be addressed, the fourth and final question to be asked here is: To what extent might a “Teleological Functionalism” (with or without “Egocentric”) fit with the “social futurist” moral vision promoted by “alternative” thinkers such as Amon Twyman of the UK Transhumanist Party[lxxvii]?
If the central meme of transhumanism is that it is ethical and desirable to improve the human condition through technology, the central meme of social futurism is that it is ethical and desirable to improve society through technology.[lxxviii] The flip side of this second meme seems to be the principle of ‘Nobody Deserted’. Indeed, Twyman has written this up in Principle 3 of the program of the UK Transhumanist Party (TP):
We advocate these freedoms in the context of strong social support for society’s weakest members, and base policy on the principle ‘Nobody Deserted’. All citizens shall have a right to sustenance, clothing, shelter, energy, healthcare, transport, education, and access to information resources. TP also advocates that all citizens must be able to contribute to society, in their own fashion, without blemish to their dignity or sense of self worth.[lxxix]
If the different positions within the transhumanist movement are to be integrated, the question here is how selfishness and egocentrism on the one hand and the principle of “Nobody Deserted” on the other hand, can coexist, or be brought together in applied policy. If technological progress requires a certain level of solidarity and thus necessary care for others, as for example, due to the disappearance of jobs as Istvan pointed out in his plea for a universal basic income, selfishness and egocentrism must be logically submitted to and integrated into a greater picture in order to avoid new revolutions and class fights.
Nevertheless, the principle of egocentrism and selfishness in itself requires to not be subordinated to any other principle, and that absolutism lies in the basic meaning and content of the term “egocentrism” itself. The result is a similar contradiction in ideology to the one Istvan himself pointed out with regard to the issue of “omnipotence”: Once “egocentrism” is fully established according to the logical meaning of the term, it starts to socially implode. That once again shows the inconsistency of some basic pillars of current “transhumanist” political core terms.
“Teleological Egocentric Functionalism”, levitating as it still seems between fiction and reality, remains in many ways an unfinished and contradictory basis for transhumanist politics. While TEF is an inspiring attempt to integrate transhumanist thought into politics and presents without doubt many interesting approaches and some surprisingly novel views on traditional standpoints, the fact is that there remain many inconsistencies within its underlying structure, logic and argument; and the same can be said of its inventor and his practical political statements regarding many issues of social practice, in particular with regard to social politics.
What does this mean?
For now, the outlook is wide open. If Istvan’s promise: “If you want to live forever, vote for me” wants to be taken seriously, he will have to realize some of his visions within the circumstances of the environment he is in – for example free education or universal basic income. However, this will be a huge challenge, since the U.S. hardly seems prepared to move in such a direction, even should Istvan be voted in as president, or as is currently in vogue, the “new social agenda” that all presidential candidates for 2016 are putting on the table to gain the votes of an unsettled middle class, which sees the “American dream” threatened by structural and systemic inequality that is getting out of hand.
Finally, if transhumanist politics wants to stabilize a broad and sustainable agenda in the center of society (as Istvan seems to aspire to), the further development of transhumanism as a political force will have to address the existing contradictions in some of its underlying philosophical terms and beliefs. And it would be well advised to address these with the help from and discussion with other approaches, for example including the experience and the views of more “humanistic” ones.
Lots of questions remain to answer; and lots of fascinating debates lie ahead.
Wood, David (2015): Q&A with Zoltan Istvan, Transhumanist Party candidate for the US President. Youtubevideo:
Access: 31.03.2015, 13:52.
Roland Benedikter, Dr. Dr. Dr., is Research Scholar at the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies of the University of California at Santa Barbara, Senior Affiliate of the Edmund Pellegrino Center on Clinical Bioethics of Georgetown University, Trustee of the Toynbee Prize Foundation Boston, Senior Research Scholar of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs Washington DC and Full member of the Club of Rome. Previously, he was a Research Affiliate 2009-13 at the Europe Center of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford U
Roland Benedikter is Research Professor of Multidisciplinary Political Analysis 2015-17 at the Willy Brandt Center of the University of Wroclaw/Breslau, Senior Affiliate of the Edmund Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics of Georgetown University, Trustee of the Toynbee Prize Foundation Boston, Senior Research Scholar of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs Washington DC and Full member of the Club of Rome.
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