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Transhumanist Therapy V: The Paradoxes of Transcendental Humanism

Throughout history, small bands of radicals have attempted to transcend the ordinary limitations of human nature and current society.  Were they brave explorers voyaging into alien realms of the soul and intellect, or fools?  In either case, they apparently failed.  Or did they?  Perhaps we can learn from the past histories of perfectionist movements like Oneida and the Process, both of them precursors of contemporary Transhumanism, and from virtual worlds like A Tale in the Desert that today are building imaginary societies based on cooperation and innovative forms of communication.  The current crisis facing psychiatry and social psychology erodes the respect we might have felt for conventional attempts to transcend the human condition, giving renewed plausibility to utopian experiments.  If we are doomed to fail, we might as well do so in an interesting way!

Many paradoxes surround those of us who seek to transcend the ordinary boundaries of human existence.  One that IEET avoids, and thereby implicitly illuminates, is the tendency of people to seek transcendence through separation from humanity, perhaps seceding to start a new species, rather than raising all members of our species to a higher level.  Indeed, there may be two kinds of Transhumanists: Secessionists who believe any Homo superior would need quickly to escape the mass of Homo sapiens, and Unionists who believe we can all evolve together.  As much as we IEET members would like to support Unionism, it is possible that the current evolutionary pressures within Homo sapiens are toward decline rather than advance.  Thus we need to consider Secessionist movements like those described here.

Utopian communities are not a new development in human history, and the landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock in 1620 established a utopian spirit in Massachusetts that may not have entirely died.  Unfortunately, many of the most fascinating ancient examples are very poorly documented.  For example, when the Greek colony at Crotona in Italy was home for Pythagoreans over 2500 years ago, they may have shaped their governmental structure following geometric theorems, but this is speculation.  In the minds of many, the Constitution of the United States was a utopian plan, and perhaps by coincidence its enactment marked the beginning of a century in which many communities within the new nation were built on the basis of idealistic plans, including the Shakers, Brook Farm, Amana, Harmony, the North American Phalanx and Oneida.

Several studies have found that religious utopian communities tend to last longer than secular ones, and in the above list the Shakers, Amana and Oneida stand out for their economic prosperity as well as endurance.  The North American Phalanx was among the most prominent of the brief secular experiments, belonging to one of the worker-oriented movements that arose as a serious scientific response to the Industrial Revolution, described on Wikipedia: “Fourierism is the systematic set of economic, political, and social beliefs first espoused by French intellectual Charles Fourier (1772-1837). Based upon a belief in the inevitability of communal associations of people who worked and lived together as part of the human future, Fourier’s committed supporters referred to his doctrines as Associationism.”  Now that we have entered an equally revolutionary post-industrial period, Fourier’s ideas should be revisited, but the religious communes are more relevant here because they were not only utopias but also psychotherapies, in a period before that dubious profession had been established.

This raises the second paradox we may need to consider, what psychologist and closet mystic William James (1842-1910) called the pragmatic theory of truth: The true is only the useful in the way of thinking.  He used this idea to support the notion of free will, which he associated with religious belief.  Belief in both free will and God, a combination that Calvinist theologians found paradoxical, would support a beneficial moral order, even if in some abstract sense God did not exist.  Personally, I do not find this logic compelling, and am reminded of what Winston Churchill said about propaganda during conflict.  Perhaps in psychotherapy and religion, as in war, the truth must be attended by a bodyguard of lies.  Yet recently several Transhumanists have debated whether their movement might be classified as a religion.  Given that pessimism can grow into depression, we may wonder if groundless hopes are a precondition for mental health.

In the 1965 pages of American Sociological Review, John Lofland and Rodney Stark offered a model of recruitment to deviant cults: “Becoming a World-Saver: A Theory of Conversion to a Deviant Perspective.”  It actually can be applied to recruitment to many kinds of radical movement, and merely happened to be developed on the basis of research in a religious cult.  It is a series of
seven steps that a person takes to become a deployable agent, a dedicated member of the group who could be effective in converting new members:

For conversion it is necessary that a person:

1. experience enduring, acutely felt tensions;
2. within a religious problem-solving perspective;
3. which leads to defining himself as a religious seeker;
4. encountering the cult at a turning point in his life;
5. wherein an affective bond to adherents is formed (or pre-exists);
6. where extra-cult attachments are low or neutralized;
7. and where, to become a “deployable agent,” exposure to intensive interaction is accomplished.

For our purposes here, the second step is especially interesting: problem-solving perspective.  People who experience extreme discomfort in life, that resists ordinary solutions, may go in search of an unusual solution, and this is a perfectly reasonable course for them to explore.  Which direction they go, and what features of a possible solution will seem plausible to them, will depend on how they conceptualize major life problems.  A religious problem-solving perspective suggests that improving one’s relationship to supernatural powers, with the assistance of a spiritually powerful religious group, can solve the enduring tensions.  But Lofland and Stark said that two other problem-solving perspectives were also common: psychiatric and political.  If life feels terrible, there must be something wrong with me!  That is the psychiatric problem-solving perspective, popular among secular people who happen to be timid.  If life feels terrible, there must be something wrong with life!  That is the political problem-solving perspective, popular among secular people who happen to be angry. 

The most successful utopian communities of the nineteenth century seemed to combine all three, as Oneida illustrates.  Originally developed in New England by John Humphrey Noyes (1811-1886), it established its main commune at Oneida, New York, in 1848, continued its utopian experiment until 1880, and today survives as a museum and a brand of silverware.  Noyes studied at Yale, was an intelligent writer, and late in life produced the best early social science books about utopian communes: History of American Socialisms.  Yet as a young man he suffered what he called “eternal spins,” which might today be described as depressive episodes.  After many such spins, he decided that he had discovered the way to achieve Perfection, and his movement is often called Perfectionists.  The uncomfortable analogy to Transhumanism should be obvious.  His doctrines were complex, for example believing that Christ had already returned to initiate the millennium back in ancient times, so we could become angels on earth now, if we followed Noyes.  In terms of social psychology and psychotherapy, he primarily instituted two methodologies: group marriage and mutual criticism.

Among other goals, group marriage sought to prevent exclusive romantic relationships like the one that got Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden of Eden.  Constantly shifting sexual partners was facilitated by a technique called amative intercourse that achieved birth control.  In principle, a couple could produce a child only if Noyes assigned that task to them, following a system he called stirpiculture, based on the eugenic theory that spiritually advanced members would produce naturally superior children.  All members of the community should love each other equally, so children were raised communally, and special bonds between mothers and their children were discouraged.  Not counting stillbirths, Noyes himself fathered thirteen children with thirteen different women, on the logic that he was most spiritually advanced of all the men.  Although these mothers were all adults, his system also involved somewhat ritualistic induction of young girls to sexuality soon after their first menstruations, and the threat of arrest for child abuse eventually caused him to flee to Canada.  This shameful end to Oneida’s experimentation certainly alerts us to the fact that leaders of utopias often create them to serve their own selfish desires, but should not blind us to the possibility that very different family structures can be suitable under various historical conditions that humanity might experience in the future.

Mutual criticism would today be considered a form of group psychotherapy, designed both to resolve an individual’s psychological conflicts and bind the individual more strongly to the community.  Frequently, each member would be the focus of a session in which others would raise criticisms, in a respectful manner, suggesting improvement in the individual’s attitudes and behaviors.  The individual should be neither defensive nor combative, and the general mood of the session was supposed to be positive and supportive.  Aggressive analysis was not imposed, although participants often used metaphors placing the feelings and actions under discussion in the context of Oneida’s religious beliefs.

Of course, John Humphrey Noyes was immune from the requirement to undergo mutual criticism, because he was already perfect.  Or so he claimed.  He illustrates the paradoxical fact that collectivism can be energized as well as corrupted by selfishness.  When is hope merely a lie that we tell ourselves?  When is faith a variety of fraud?  Robert Browning postulated: Our reach should exceed our grasp, or what’s a heaven for?  Yet utopians and Transhumanists seek to seize their hopes, rather than just gaze at them from a distance.  That may be more difficult to attempt, let alone to accomplish, if we are mentally imprisoned by the reactionary mundane culture that surrounds us. 

Nineteenth century America was especially conducive for utopian experiments, not only because the common culture of the United States supported idealism, and much of the territory lacked strong social organizations, but for very practical reasons as well.  Many of the communities were rather like rural villages, supported mainly by farming, thus different from the more general wave of colonization across the continent only in terms of having a religious vision and seeking to shape social relations intentionally.  Utopian communities in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are at a serious disadvantage, both because this degree of economic independence is much more difficult to find, and because the economy and mass media of the surrounding society are invasive.  Thus the communes of the Process, mentioned in earlier blogs of this series, failed largely because they never found a solid economic basis, but also because they were in direct competition with secular psychotherapy in recruitment of adherents.  Here we should consider just one of its therapy routines, to provide comparison.

Psychometry was the procedure that was central to the Telepathy Developing Circle held every week at each Process chapter, and open to the general public.  Other procedures included meditations, for example one at the beginning of a Circle about one’s personal goals for the activity, and “rounds of the room” in which people would take turns reporting what they felt.  For psychometry, the large group would separate into pairs, and Figure 1 shows two men, John on the left and Bob on the right, doing it.  They are initiates of the Process, which means they have been involved for a while but are not yet fully committed and not entitled to wear the uniform of the group.  John is doing a reading on Bob, holding to his forehead Bob’s initiate’s cross, which Bob has worn for many days, and which supposedly absorbed some of Bob’s spiritual aura.  John opens his mind and lets images flow into it from Bob’s aura, which he describes to Bob.  Neither is supposed to analyze the images, but Bob may ask questions about what John is seeing.  After ten minutes, they switch roles, and Bob will hold to his forehead some object John has worn that has absorbed John’s aura.

Figure 1: Two Men Performing Psychometry at the Process in 1972

Now, the idea of a spiritual aura may seem stupid to secular intellectuals, but in fact the Process was very careful not to claim that something magical was happening in psychometry.  It specifically denied that it was a form of mind reading, and allowed people with different philosophies to interpret the interaction in various ways.  Thus, highly mystical people could interpret psychometry literally as spiritual energy flowing from the object into the reader’s mind, while secular people could view it as a non-magical therapy exercise to encourage two people to be open to their feelings around each other.  Either interpretation facilitates building a personal relationship linking the pair.  The priest managing the Telepathy Developing Circle would intentionally pair people off who were not already friends with each other, and different pairings each week would encourage the emergence of a highly interconnected social network giving the Process chapter increasing solidarity.

That paradoxical semi-magical and semi-rational complexity also marks the cultures of many of today’s massively multiplayer online role-playing games.  A Tale in the Desert is among the most unusual, and most fascinating, being a computer simulation of a utopian community based on cooperation and lacking the violence that dominates more popular online games.  It runs in a series of long-duration cycles, called tellings, optimally eighteen months each.  In each telling, players build ancient Egypt from scratch, along the banks of the Nile and in the midst of a huge virtual desert.  In an exceedingly complex series of steps, they collectively develop the technology and resources to build everything from sheep pens to pyramids.  Each player advances along seven disciplines, for example Architecture which requires construction of increasingly difficult structures, and Worship requiring groups to perform ancient Egyptian religious rituals. 

As illustrated by Figure 2, there is a science fiction quality to this virtual Egypt.  My avatar, late in Telling 6, is launching two gliders from a Raeli Gliderport, which looks like a flying saucer and makes me suspect some influence from the real-world Raelian UFO religion.  The large building behind him at the left is a guild hall he built, which allows a group of members to have a special text chat channel and to share resources.  In Tale, players may belong to many guilds simultaneously, and the most popular guilds tend to specialize in helping members cooperate to perform particular tasks in building ancient Egypt.

Figure 2: An Ancient Egyptian Avatar Launching two Gliders from His Raeli Gliderport

Seriously, readers of this blog might not only enjoy but also learn from the experience of living for a while in Tale, which can be glimpsed in YouTube videos, accessed at and studied in the previous telling’s wiki at  Telling 7 officially began this September 11, although we veterans got access on September 10.  Figure 3 shows a large number of player avatars cooperating in the first Dig for the Seven Lakes region of Egypt, on September 12, 2015.  This is a non-violent virtual world, so not much frantic activity can be seen, but beneath the surface a vast cooperative society is organizing itself.  Most avatars are standing roughly in a circle around a digging pit where two avatars are picking up stones that result from this collective excavation.  Each participant has an invisible shovel, and about each minute must click a “dig” command, contributing to the generation of stones, which can be used later in construction projects.  At the end of the Dig, the organizers will give an equal share to each participant, and individuals do not have the power to dig solo.

Figure 3: The First Cooperative Stone Dig in the Seventh Telling for Seven Lakes

For sake of clarity, Figure 3 does not show the text chat channels, which included one for the Seven Lakes region, two others for general communications, and potentially many for conversations between specific pairs of friends.  By the next day, collective efforts had made it possible for Egyptians to build guild halls, and two were placed near this site immediately.  One, called Amigos, was for mentoring new players, and the other, Seven Lakes Research, was to organize the collective efforts required to “research” new kinds of activity and make them possible in this telling.  The several squares on the ground are flax gardens, which individual players are using to grow the raw materials for fabrics, simultaneously with the collective digging effort.  At this early point in their progress, players use this group meeting to facilitate getting 21 signatures on their leadership petitions, and introductions from a variety of other players, thereby advancing two of the status-producing missions in the Leadership and Harmony disciplines.  Another one will flourish immediately after the dig, as pairs demonstrate acrobatic moves to each other, earning points toward completion of a mission for the Human Body discipline.

Participants in Tale do not conceptualize it as a psychotherapy, but as a valued community of friends.  Indeed, one of the best guilds my avatar has belonged to in Tellings 4, 6, and 7 is named Helping Hands of Friends.  Members do actually care about each other, and work hard to accomplish shared goals.  The facts that ancient Egypt is destroyed at the end of each telling, and has little effect on the more slowly decaying civilization that surrounds the players, set limits on the significance of this virtual world.  Yet it can be an excellent research site and training ground for people who want to build an alternative society based on cooperation.

The concluding blog in this series of six will consider the relationship between the Transhumanist Movement and the wider world, from the perspective that the glorious future we collectively imagine will not become reality unless we ourselves create it.  The connection to psychotherapy is the theory that current human culture is innately pathological, despite having some virtues, and a cure does not currently exist.  One hint of the terrible challenges that face us can be drawn by analogy from the original Foundation novels by Isaac Asimov.  We need to create two parallel movements.  A very public First Transhumanism would expand the work of IEET, offering increasingly valuable guidance for the people of the world in their chaotic search for a better future, serving in part as a psychotherapy for a sick civilization.  A fallback option hidden from public view, Second Transhumanism, would prepare an autonomous alternative civilization, ready to rise up after the beginning of the possible future Dark Age. 

Next and final installment: The Final Frontier

William Sims Bainbridge Ph.D. is an IEET Senior fellow, and a prolific and influential sociologist of religion, science and popular culture. Dr. Bainbridge serves as co-director of Human-Centered Computing at the NSF.

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