The old cliché that the “future is not written” is an allusion to free will and the indeterminate nature of the self. Invoking hope and courage, the implicit corollary is “for we are in the process of writing it.” We may yet, it seems, create progress in spite of the looming obstacles before us.
The phrase, however, is an odd one because it is merely stating a definitional truth: if an event is written down, it is no longer a potentiality, it is history. History itself is in large part defined by its being written, with human events before written language being known as “pre-history.” There is another saying about the future, history, and writing that has a simultaneously Orwellian and Foucauldian tone to it – namely, Churchill’s line “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”
Transhumanism, like all political philosophies, focuses on the future. All politicians of any function whatsoever endeavor constantly to either alter and undo or entrench and codify the status quo. The task of the political is to effect change over time. A political philosophy, therefore, is interested in movement towards the good over time.
Political philosophy, unlike, say, pure philosophies like pragmatism or existentialism, sees its values as embedded in and subject to time. A political philosophy can track its progress towards its goals. An Epicurean merely shows how everything through out time has, is, or will be either directly or indirectly given itself value in relation the pleasures of the senses – those being the central good – while a political philosophy, even a totalizing one like Marxism, has a goal end point, the Revolution, that has not happened yet, but is being worked towards over time. Political philosophies like to track their progress, doing customized readings of history to show the long arc of their march forward, cataloging the struggles and victories against the retroactive forces they oppose.
But there is a problem that confronts all political philosophies, particularly those that offer “progress.” Three men, Michel Foucault, Charles Darwin, and Thomas Kuhn, have torn our ability to see history and progress as real things utterly apart. They showed us that “progress” is largely history written by the victors to show themselves as the apotheosis. Evolution’s “survival of the fittest” is so often misinterpreted that it should be rephrased as “what you see is all that has managed to survive, all the other versions died ignominious and bereft of offspring, they will all soon be replaced.” We only see our selves as the fittest and the result of progress because of a sort of totalizing intellectual harmonic effect that stabilizes discourse just long enough to make sure those who think they’ve figured out the real path of progress and the real best way to be are unceremoniously dumped and embarrassed by the next paradigm shift. In short: progress is not objective, it is a subjective retrospective on suspect history and used to justify our view of ourselves and the current paradigm.
So, now we are confronted with the knowledge of this preternatural foolishness of the human race. And yet, still we claim to see the future, to be working towards some absurd goal that exemplifies our construction of the greatest good under the reigning paradigm. We look back, drawing a line through our species’ incomprehensible, repugnant, and magnificent tenure as chief intelligence on this planet. What are we to make of this compulsion for hindsight, for revisiting countless times from countless angles the actions of our dead forebears? Why? Why goggle at the horrors and triumphs of our greatest religions; why search among the ruins for evidence of a halcyon we know never was; why sift through the verbal diarrhea of five millennia of dead thinkers who have done nothing but bicker and nitpick one another in the name of something they couldn’t even agree upon? Why now, with full knowledge of just how subjective and constructed and soon to be laughable our current mindset is, do we presume in arrogance to have some sort of hold on history that is any better than what came before?
Because our species is obsessed with understanding itself. Because knowing that “progress” is constructed doesn’t make it any less real than joy that comes from the success of a fictional character. Humans may be grasping at straws, infinitely fallible, and condemned to destroy ourselves with our own achievements, but we do so in search of the good. With every paradigm shift there is an evolution of thought and, though perhaps imperceptible from our own blink of history, a step towards progress. With every iteration arguments of the Good are refined, our efforts to implement them more coherent, our awareness of our own limitations and failings more apparent. As a species, we are moving slowly, awkwardly, and circuitously towards better knowing ourselves and, in doing so, moving forward.
Thus, the goal as a philosopher and thinker is not to move forward or direct the lumbering beast but to move with it to understand where it is going and observe the sights along the way. Through our various studies and interactions, we build tools of observation, of navigation, of understanding and analysis, stockpiling the storeroom of our own personal Beagles, floating around the intellectual ocean as it burbles forward in time. Humanity moves on, whether we believe we are prodding it one way or being dragged along by it in another.
Transhumanism is merely the latest iteration of ideas as to what our species can be. I support it because I believe not in its goals but its idea of seeing of life as a whole as a self. By seeking to better understand the self, we can improve the self. Augustine postulated that to know the self, to look inward, was, in effect, to look upward, to God. As we strain to grasp what we are, how we are, where we are, who we are we will better come to understand why we are and how to be.
Kyle Munkittrick, IEET Program Director: Envisioning the Future, is a recent graduate of New York University, where he received his Master's in bioethics and critical theory.
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