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Transhumanist Therapy VI: The Final Frontier

Outer space is said to be “the final frontier,” yet that frontier may have closed while one other remains open: the human mind.  In December 1972 I stood in the midnight darkness on a Florida beach to watch the launch of Apollo 17, the last voyage humans have ever taken beyond the confines of Earth orbit, pondering what it meant for our feeble but ambitious species.

I had similar thoughts seven years earlier, when I stood on Hadrian’s wall in Britain, looking northward at the barbarian lands that Rome only briefly conquered but then abandoned, wondering if our own civilization had reached its natural limits, and further progress would require the painful cleansing of a new Dark Age.  In academic social psychology and professional psychotherapy today, there is reason to fear that no progress has occurred over the past half century.  Perhaps we cannot rely upon the denizens of those paralyzed professions to achieve progress, and must ourselves become pioneers, bravely exploring the possibilities for human transcendence.

Dreams are not realities, yet they can motivate innovations that transform reality.  Despite solid accomplishments like weather satellites and the Global Positioning System, the current space programs have a tragic quality.  The technologies developed near the middle of the twentieth century were just barely adequate to launch small payloads into space at costs that would be prohibitive for colonization of Mars or other extensive extraterrestrial activities.  Consider Figure 1, a photograph I took of Apollo 17 on the launch pad, in which you cannot even see the relatively tiny reentry capsule near the top that would hold the three crew members, let alone the lunar modules.  Much of the visible technology is the framework around the rocket, the mobile service structure on the left, and the fixed service structure on the right.  The components of the 363-foot tall multi-stage rocket had earlier been combined in the famous Vehicle Assembly Building, said still to be the largest single-story building in the world, and tallest building in the United States outside an urban area. 

Figure 1: Apollo 17 on its Launch Pad, December 1972

The weight of the Apollo command module, including crew, was 13,000 pounds, yet the thrust of the first stage Saturn V launch vehicle was about 588 times that, a direct measure of how crude a technology chemical rockets are for spaceflight.  Much of the fuel is used to accelerate itself, and much of the hardware is destroyed during the flight.  After Apollo, the Space Shuttle program tried to make chemical rockets more economical, by reusing much but not all of the rocket hardware.  After two highly publicized fatal accidents and less public but equally decisive proof that the costs of frequent spaceflight were still prohibitively high, the shuttle technology was abandoned.  Over our heads, the International Space Station still orbits, but not serving the definitional goal of a space “station” to be the transfer point for interplanetary spaceships.  The scientific payoff from the costly ISS is minimal, but politicians dare not abandon it, given that the general public lacks adequate understanding of the tradeoffs.  Many space experts believe that the cost of the ISS should be invested in three far more valuable but unmanned space activities: (1) Earth environment observation satellites, (2) orbiting telescopes at all wavelengths, and (3) interplanetary robot probes and landers.

Since Jules Verne imagined a space gun a century and a half ago, many alternate spaceflight propulsion systems have been imagined, and coincidentally the last trip to the moon took place in the same year that the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) program was cancelled.  From time to time, waves of enthusiasm have promoted other propulsion ideas, but none of them are anywhere near ready for application for large payload launch to orbit.  Perhaps the emphasis must shift from how we launch into space to what we launch.  Even chemical rockets may be adequate if we leave our bodies on Earth, where they can breathe the Earth’s atmosphere and eat what the Earth’s biosphere provides, and instead send our minds aloft.  Really, that is what we do already, through the orbiting telescopes and deep space probes.  This can be a metaphor for what humanity can achieve more generally, in transcending our ancient limitations even here on our planet of origin.  At times we may wish to use spaceflight as a Rorschach test, for example gazing at Figure 2, a photograph I took of the actual Apollo 17 nighttime launch, and pondering what it might symbolize.

Figure 2: The Nighttime Launch of Apollo 17

The Saturn rocket itself is at the very top edge in the center, but invisible.  We see the bright flame of the first-stage exhaust, an orange color because it used a version of cheap, old-fashioned kerosene as its fuel, reserving the expensive but more energetic liquid hydrogen for the second and third stages.  The flame reflects off clouds and off the water that fills the bottom half of the image.  Near the center we can just barely make out the launch tower, and some clouds from the launch exhaust that also reflect the flame of the rising rocket.  By the moment captured in the photograph, the loud roar of the rocket had reached the many people standing beside me on the beach.  Unexpectedly, the emotional impact for me was not pride in this great accomplishment of humanity, but horror that the slightest error could rip the frail bodies of the three astronauts to shreds.  More abstractly, the image suggests the obscure blend of light and darkness, logic and disorder, that constitutes our view of the human future.

In the 1960s, during the famous space race between the United States and Soviet Union, one of the many other science-related conflicts concerned psychiatry.  This was a multi-front war, for example between Freudian psychoanalysts and pharmaceutically-oriented psychiatrists, or around a cultural movement called Anti-Psychiatry despite the fact that some of its leaders like Thomas Szasz were psychiatrists, and less publically a general disagreement between social science and the medical profession.  These disputes were never resolved but faded from public awareness.  The winners economically but not intellectually were the professionals who were paid to administer dubious treatments to people defined as mentally ill.  Potentially, the disagreement that became public in 2013 between the National Institute of Mental Health and the American Psychiatric Association will reopen all the old wounds.

Science fiction writers and more than a few Transhumanists have hoped that some kind of technological singularity will unlock the secrets of the brain, and governments keep funding brain-focused research initiatives.  To be sure, statistical studies of the correlations between brain disorders and genetic structure will offer some insights, and behavioral studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging will offer others.  But it must be understood that fMRI faces natural limitations comparable to those that burden chemical rockets, chiefly the fact that the spatial resolution cannot be improved much smaller than a one cubic millimeter voxel, through which thousands of neurons pass, without causing convulsions and permanent damage.  In the sixteen years since I first worked for the National Nanotechnology Initiative, I have yet to see a single competent analysis that supported the possibility of sending swarms of autonomous nanobots into the human body, as described in sci-fi.  There are good physical reasons why nature based all lifeforms on carbon atoms, rather than atoms of heavier atomic weight, and artificial carbon-based life would infect the brain rather than perform harmless research on it.

The longstanding perspective within the social sciences has been that many of the human problems for which psychiatrists and psychotherapists offer treatments are not in fact cases of mental illness, thus not resulting primarily from brain defects.  For example, evidence that wider conditions of social instability were often responsible for individual suicides was documented in statistical studies by Adolph Wagner (1864), Henry Morselli (1881), and Emile Durkheim (1897).  Social disorganization was identified as the cause of many personal problems by authors of the Chicago school of sociology in the 1920s and 1930s.  Foreshadowed by Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1872 book, The Birth of Tragedy, many anthropologists of the mid-twentieth century considered mental health to be culturally relative, thus implying that human mental and emotional problems were often just reflections of lack of harmony between an individual’s characteristics and the somewhat arbitrary norms set by the surrounding society.  Suppose for a moment that those relativistic perspectives are at least partly true.  What is the implication for a world that altogether lacks social cohesion and cultural coherence?  Mass madness.

To be sure, some human problems do have biological causes, and mental illness is a meaningful concept, even if it is applied too widely.  Applying the wrong definition to a problem can prevent effective solution, so psychiatry does a disservice to many of the people advised by doctors to undergo its treatments.  The worrisome trends across the world today, from economic degradation of the working and middle classes, to violent inter-group conflict, to climate change, are likely to increase the fraction of humanity vulnerable to mental and emotional distress, and who cannot deal effectively with the challenges life throws at them.  As earlier blogs in this series have suggested, psychotherapy took over some of the functions of religion in the context of secularization.  Therefore, some suffering people may benefit from religious innovations that create new forms of faith and social support better suited to the modern age.  But that is far from a general solution, and especially unhelpful for those of us who doubt the truth of supernatural doctrines.

After the turbulent 1960s, social scientists may have become too defensive, seeking to hold comfortable academic positions rather than deal with the troubling problems of human life.  Social psychology, for example, hid in its laboratories, repeating the same old experiments, making them seem novel through superficial changes, and renaming old concepts so it could pretend to make discoveries.  Defining its status as a science, it needed to claim that undiscovered objective truths existed, yet after fifty years we may be forgiven if we express doubts about this premise.  It may be that exactly zero truths remain to be discovered within the domain of social psychology, but that does not imply that the discipline needs to commit suicide.  Rather, it could reconceptualize itself not as a science, but as a branch of social engineering or an artform.  New truths cannot be discovered; they can only be created!

The human species evolved in a very different environment from modern post-industrial society, and for a century or more anthropologists have pondered the way of life experienced by our distant ancestors who lived in small, cohesive hunter-gatherer bands in East Africa.  In 2004, Satoshi Kanazawa expressed this puzzlement in what he called the Savanna Principle, saying that an “hypothesis about human behavior fails to the extent that its scope conditions and assumptions are inconsistent with the ancestral environment.”  Googling that quotation now gives only 7 hits, but it deserves to be listed alongside Newton’s laws and e = mc2.

One possible corollary of the Savannah Principle is that high levels of human well-being, and thus low levels of misdiagnosed mental illness, can be achieved only by reverting to the way of life of our remote ancestors.  That may be what some of the sadly unsuccessful communal experiments of the past, described in earlier blogs of this series, sought to achieve.  However, perhaps experiments like Oneida and the Process failed in great measure because the surrounding society was corrosive, attacking them directly for violating its arbitrary norms, and eroding them through inhuman economic markets.  Or perhaps like many successful experiments, their brief existence taught us useful lessons.  Now is the time for a new wave of communal experiments, more advanced and more diverse than the ones of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

One of the apparent pathologies of Transhumanism is its individualism.  Its enthusiasts do not seem to be very good at living together.  I seriously wonder how low the biological fertility rate is among Transhumanists.  Perhaps immortals reasonably feel no need to reproduce, but we are not yet immortal.  Admittedly, it would be unwise for hordes of people suddenly to pool their bank accounts and begin living together in group marriages, monasteries, or simulated spaceships.  Planning, analysis, debate, and preliminary experimentation are needed first.

If we are to send our minds rather than our bodies to the stars, how shall our minds advance here on the planet Earth?  At the present time, Internet and related information technologies seem to offer effective tools and conducive environments with which to explore the possibilities.  Figure 3 shows Agartha, a mythical city, hidden in the Earth’s core, symbolizing a cosmos that will be opened for humanity after we have transcended our current limitations.  The people standing about, who appear disoriented, are actually avatars in the online environment called The Secret World, where Agartha is a level of existence outside time and space, which can be entered in order to journey to other realms.

Figure 3: A Virtual Limbo on Internet with Ambiguous Symbolism

Let this Agartha image be a metaphor for the actual current condition of online society: anomic, alienated, confused.  The portals behind the avatars lead to three great cities of the contemporary world - New York, London and Seoul - while the directions away from the portals lead to a variety of terrestrial environments under invasion from supernatural demons.  Online social role-playing games are only one of many new technologies that might assist Transhumanist psychotherapy, but they provide a good starting point for the decades of difficult work that lie ahead of us.  Depending upon our technical skill and personal values, there are three ways we may use information technology to cure the dire ills of our disintegrating civilization: compensatory, progressive, and revolutionary.

To a great degree, online games and other forms of virtual community can compensate people who live ordinary lives, for the lack of social status and material luxuries they often suffer.  Some people may become so involved emotionally in the games that they ignore important aspects of their real lives, and thus a diagnosis like “addiction” may apply.  More often, the gaming experience can enhance the individual’s sense of belonging to a meaningful community and achieving honorable goals.  Much research on religious sects has shown that they can serve similar functions for their members, for example giving them the subjective social status of being God’s chosen people despite the fact that non-members reject this boast.  The current state of the games, especially the fierce competition between them in the economic marketplace, reduces their ability to serve compensatory functions in ways that could most effectively sustain mental health.  Therefore, the goals we innovators may set for ourselves could include identifying the most beneficial online virtual worlds, supporting them through our participation and encouragement, and even inventing new ones that might be even more beneficial for players’ psychological conditions.

Other forms of online community could be more effective than games in advancing progressive innovations in our mundane lives, because they need not promote retreat from real life as games do, but can provide tools for improving it.  IEET is a marvelous example of an online community of technically savvy intellectuals who debate the human implications of technological change, and are ready to offer guidance to a wider public on ethical issues.  Already, a bewildering array of social services, supportive communities, and online rebels exist on Internet.  A few research projects have already begun to assess these movements, identify general principles contributing to success, and communicate their findings.  We also need brave experimenters who are willing to invest time, energy, and their reputations in risky ventures.  The general public tends to conceptualize online innovation in terms of start-up companies and entrepreneurial financial investors.  But many of the most significant social innovations will be incompatible with the capitalist system, and thus require idealistic people to contribute to their development without expectation of economic return.

Revolutionary experiments are difficult in the modern world, because economic and technological self-sufficiency are no longer possible, as they were two centuries ago.  Yet it may be that improved mental health requires the emergence of strong local communities, with little migration in or out, indeed little physical travel to reduce costs both economic and environmental.  I like to joke that the most ludicrous comedy team of the twentieth century was not Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Gallagher and Shean, nor even the Marx Brothers, but the Wright Brothers who costumed bicycles as biplanes.  Seriously, the world might be better off without air travel, and consideration of the net effect of well-established technologies might identify many as surprisingly dysfunctional.  This line of logic may be fallacious, but many other radical alternatives must be considered if we are to achieve sustainable civilization on planet Earth.  If brave pioneers create independent real-world intentional communities, post-modern utopias lasting millennia rather than decades, they may rely upon information technology to manage relations with the outside world, manufacturing almost everything locally with 3D printers, and ending long-distance commerce.

No one radical vision can prove itself worthy of encouragement until we have assessed many through real-world as well as virtual experiments.  The alternative approaches to human mental and emotional well-being may map onto a variety of typologies, not merely the triage: compensatory, progressive, and revolutionary.  It is a painful truth that today’s science cannot reliably predict which people may benefit from psychiatric medications, traditional psychotherapies, intense religious movements, or the utopian experimentation I personally find most attractive.  The one truth we may deduce from the current system of chaotic uncertainty is that we cannot rely upon any self-interested professionals to save us from ourselves.  We must take that responsibility.

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.


“...the disagreement that became public in 2013 between the National Institute of Mental Health and the American Psychiatric Association will reopen all the old wounds.”

Many psychiatrists regard the American Psychiatric Association as a trade union, not a scientific or public health organization, and are very proud to say hen they introduce themselves to each other “I have never been a member of the APA.”

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