IEET > Vision > Affiliate Scholar > Steve Fuller > Sociology > Philosophy > Psychology > Technoprogressivism
We May Look Crazy to Them, But They Look Like Zombies to Us: Transhumanism as a Political Challenge
Steve Fuller   Sep 8, 2015  

One of the biggest existential challenges that transhumanists face is that most people don’t believe a word we’re saying, however entertaining they may find us. They think we’re fantasists when in fact we’re talking about a future just over the horizon. Suppose they’re wrong and we are right. What follows? Admittedly, we won’t know this until we inhabit that space ‘just over the horizon’. Nevertheless, it’s not too early to discuss how these naysayers will be regarded, perhaps as a guide to how they should be dealt with now.

So let’s be clear about who these naysayers are. They hold the following views:

1) They believe that they will live no more than 100 years and quite possibly much less.
2) They believe that this limited longevity is not only natural but also desirable, both for themselves and everyone else.
3) They believe that the bigger the change, the more likely the resulting harms will outweigh the benefits.

Now suppose they’re wrong on all three counts. How are we to think about such beings who think this way? Aren’t they the living dead? Indeed. These are people who live in the space of their largely self-imposed limitations, which function as a self-fulfilling prophecy. They are programmed for destruction – not genetically but intellectually. Someone of a more dramatic turn of mind would say that they are suicide bombers trying to manufacture a climate of terror in humanity’s existential horizons. They roam the Earth as death-waiting-to-happen.

This much is clear: If you’re a transhumanist, ordinary people are zombies.

Zombies are normally seen as either externally revived corpses or bodies in a state between life and death – what Catholics call ‘purgatory’. In both cases, they remain on Earth beyond their will. So how does one deal with zombies, especially when they are the majority of the population? There are three general options:

1) You kill them, once and for all.
2) You avoid them.
3) You enable them to be fully alive.

The decision here is not as straightforward as it might seem because the prima facie easiest option (2) requires that there are no resource implications. But of course, zombies require living humans (i.e. potential transhumans) in order to exist in the manner they do, which in turn makes the zombies dangerous; hence (1) has always proved such an attractive option for dealing with zombies. After all, it is difficult to dedicate the resources needed to secure the transhumanist goal of indefinite longevity, if there are zombies trying to anchor your existential horizons in the present to make their own lives as easy as possible.

This kind of problem normally arises in the context of ecological sustainability as ‘care for future generations’: Our greedy habits of mass consumption blind us to the long-term damage it does to the environment. However, the relevant sense of ‘care’ in the transhumanist case relates to sustaining the investment base needed to reach a state of indefinite longevity. It may require diverting public resources from seemingly more pressing needs, such as having a strong national defence — as the US Transhumanist Party presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan thinks.  It is certainly true that if people routinely lived indefinitely, then the existential character of ‘the horror of war’ would be considerably reduced, which may in turn decrease both the likelihood and cost of war. Well, maybe…

So what about option (3), which is probably the one that most of us would find most palatable, at least in principle?

Here there is a serious public relations problem, one not so different from development aid workers trying to persuade ‘underdeveloped’ peoples that their lives would be appreciably improved by allowing their societies to be radically re-structured so as to double their life expectancy from 40 to 80. While such societies are by no means perfect and may require significant change to deliver what they promise their members, nevertheless the doubling of life expectancy would mean a radical shift in the rhythm of their individual and collective life cycles – which could prove quite threatening to their sense of identity.

Of course, the existential costs suggested here may be overstated, especially in a world where even poor people have decent access to more global trends. Nevertheless the chequered history of development aid since the formal end of Imperialism suggests that there is little political will – at least on the part of Western nations — to invest the human and financial capital needed to persuade people in developing countries that greater longevity is in their own long-term interest, and not simply a pretext to have them work longer for someone else.

The lesson for us lies in the question: How can we persuade people that extending their lives is qualitatively different from simply extending their zombiehood?

Steve Fuller is Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick. From 2011-14, he published three books with Palgrave Macmillan on ‘Humanity 2.0’. His next book, due out in Autumn 2017 from Anthem Press, is on ‘post-truth’.


I’m deeply sorry but I’m going to have to go troll on this article and all others like it.

My life is crap.

I have no income.

I have an endless amount of bills.

I live in a society which cannot seem to afford me the barest essentials of survival much less wellbeing and improvement. Why the hell are we talking about living a hundred years from now when I am suffering so badly today that I have difficulty figuring out how I’ll survive to the end of the year. =|

Sorry Alonzo
It seems to me that Transhumanism is gearing up intellectually to justify genocide.  It has become an extreme ideology that seeks to justify anything in its quest for technological power.

You (and me) aren’t just “loosers” like Donald Trump likes to refer to his opponents, we are undead monsters who should be either killed or converted (killing may be more cost effective, therefor preferable).

Anything and everything can, should, and will be sacrificed so that a new improved, immortal, god-like master race of tech bros can rule the universe!!!

I find the rhetoric of Professor Fuller both mistaken and dangerous.

The idea that in a world where people are biologically immortal those who chose to cling to something like the mortality we have now would somehow be akin to “zombies” is obscene.

Let’s imagine for a moment that the most optimistic view of us getting hold of the problem of death within the next few decades are correct. It might be that many of the people around us, including people very close to us, our parents, our spouses etc choose NOT to live forever. Those who might do so would certainly not be “living corpses” just what we now call human beings. (Something is only a corpse if it is actually dead.)

The danger with this type of rhetoric is not only how much it smacks of racist discourse about “savages”, but how freakishly similar it is to the kind of rhetoric used by anti-Semites both medieval and modern a kind of politics of the macabre fostered a fear that those unlike us are somehow secretly monsters and trying to keep us from the “light” or bring us into a state of “darkness”.

Contra Prof Fuller it is actually much more imaginatively expansive to envision a world where mortality and immortality are much more fluid (like that in Buddhist and Hindu mythology)- and some simply chose to be biologically immortal, or take on a new form, or merge into some collective entity, or hibernate, or not exist at all- rather than remain stuck in a Manichean version of the world where angels battle demons that is just yet another secular version of Christianity. 

Actually, if Rick Searle considered my transhumanist writings in the round, and not simply the parts that frighten him, he would see that on some points I agree with him, especially in terms of the need to reinvent a classical sense of liberalism within Humanity 2.0 that is tolerant of the wider range of lifestyle differences that will be made available in the future. (See for example my ‘Transhumanism’s Big Political Blind Spot’:

(Also, I think Searle doesn’t quite realize that irony can be used in writing to highlight consequences of a way of thinking that the thinkers themselves may not quite have grasped. This piece was written with that sense of irony, since if transhumanists claim to to be the biggest defenders of indefinite life, then those who don’t share that belief are from their standpoint the walking dead.)

However, what I definitely don’t buy is the appeal to Buddhism, which is just political escapism. In the end, transhumanism can’t go anywhere if it does not openly recognize and embrace both power and will. Yes, this then opens big scary questions about political organization and especially the role of democracy. But no one in their right mind believes that immortality or the Singularity will be brought about by some magical process of ‘self-organization’. Buddhism simply wishes the implicit power issues away, and consequently makes itself political irrelevant.

@Steve Fuller:

Thank you for your response. I should be clear that it’s not that I think your views don’t belong to the progressive/left part of the political spectrum. After reflection your perspective seem more to resemble the Bolshevists than anything- as in the worship of a revolutionary/modernizing state. In itself I find that problematic, but I should fry one fish at a time.

The problematic I’ll concentrate on at the moment is this desire on Prof Fuller’s part to define the transhumanist project in terms of a sharp and artificial inside/outside friends/enemies.

This would be much less troubling to me did you not present this division in the kinds of essentialist/metaphysical language that has proven to be of great danger in what amounts to the recent past.

It’s here where the Buddhist/Hindu example might be helpful (though both Fuller and myself are trucking in caricatures when it comes to both) Ultimately, this idea of a battle between “light and darkness” that I believe can be found in Professor Fuller’s polemics is derived from Xianity which later morphed into the ideological conflicts of the 20th century. Why not look elsewhere for a model of what the future could be like?

If we ever arrive at a truly radical place where one human consciousness can be merged with another or many others or where minds can be transferred into another substrate the idea of some division the living and the dead or even those who are opposed and those who embrace indefinite lifespan will certainly seem silly. None of us will never know if after some stretch of time 1,000 years, 10,000 years we will chose to exit. Many indeed at some point in their existence might chose to die in the sense of change form or merge into something larger they may even willfully and rationally chose not to exist at all. 

I would rather we push towards that kind of world rather than try to bring back from the dead the kinds of religious like ideological conflicts that I thought we had left behind us at the end of the Cold War.

I don’t hide the Christian basis of my thinking because of its motivational power in intellectual history, not least the history of science. You talk about the character of the world in which you would like to live. That’s nice and Buddhism may be good for mood music, but it won’t get you there. How do I know? Because Buddhism never gave us science or much technology in the first place. For better or worse, Buddhism is not a proselytising religion and as a result it has no motivational force vis-a-vis transhumanism. Buddhists have never needed fancy technology or physical immortality to get their utopia. If anything, they’ve tended to move in the opposite direction. It is only by envisaging ourselves as profoundly lacking in being—yet remediable in ways related to our own efforts in the material world—that you can motivate the massive efforts that are necessary to get from the present to the transhumanist utopia. Christianity—yes, with all its polarizing rhetoric and proneness to violence—is the religion that has most consistently stepped up to the plate on these matters.

I don’t deny your points about the damage caused along the way, but I guess I’m indeed with Stalin when he said you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs. If you raise the cessation of suffering to some sort of ultimate end, or even auxiliary constraint in the pursuit of transhumanism, you’ll basically stop progress altogether, I’m afraid. Rather, we need to think more explicitly about compensation and redress of damages, which we regret when they happen but know will happen anyway—and are prepared to deal with the consequences. This is one reason why I think that transhumanists can learn from the military when it comes to long-term strategic thinking.

What I find ironic is that IEET ( an organization that claims to be ethical and devoted to the democratic control of technology) would make Steve Fuller an associate “scholar” .  The day after he posts a propaganda piece that lays out the rational for murdering opponents to Transhumanism (they are zombies, they wont leave you alone, the government wont educate them to be transhumanists, so the only (final?) solution is to kill them.)

Steve Fuller knows that it is of vital importance to dehumanize your opponents if you want to do great harm to them.  We are not barbarians who need to be civilized, we are not a degenerate race that needs to be ruled, we are undead monsters who must be killed.
That is the frame through witch Steve Fuller wants Transhumanists to view the rest of humanity.  Any and every act of evil towards the rest of humanity is justified if we are nothing but undead monsters.

Jim, because the irony of the original post is lost on you, the serious message is lost on you as well. If I were really this monster you think I am, do you think I would be so explicit in my ‘monstering’? The people you really need to worry about are the ones who are nudging you to dystopia by ‘democratic’ means.

whoa whoa whoa people!

I posted Steve Fuller’s article so I will take some responsibility for this.

I regard the article as Ironic, as Steve has stated. I find it “funny” -  humorous, like Swift’s “Modest Proposal” - but updated, to link into our fascination with zombies. Ha ha ha.

I think the rhetoric above saying the article is about dehumanization, racism, genocide, killing, evil, etc. - is being “Way Too Serious”

I am not insisting that you Chuckle at it, but I don’t think it is necessary to attack anyone who finds amusement in the whimsical zombie metaphor.

Steve Fuller has repeatedly framed opposition to Transhumanism as being the equivalent to facing off against undead monsters.  Now he may be trying to be hip and edgy and ironic but the effect is the same, dehumanization of his political opponents.

Hank Pellissier
you may find someone calling for the murder of his political opponents funny but I don’t.  You may have many funny jokes about the holocaust or the trail of tears but I probably wont be laughing at those either.

Although Transhumanism is a marginal and extremist political philosophy now, these are turbulent times.  If Transhumanism were to gain political power its hilarious disregard for the humanity of its opponents wont end up being very funny.

Steve Fuller
“If I were really this monster you think I am, do you think I would be so explicit in my ‘monstering’? ”  I expected you to do exactly what you did, if called on your dehumanizing your opponents: try to pass it off as a joke.

I am curious tho, what serious point were you trying to make in this ironic call for genocide?

I would not for a moment suggest that Steve Fuller was in any sense advocating genocide with his zombie article, but I can’t help bring up the historical blind spot found in his response:

“If I were really this monster you think I am, do you think I would be so explicit in my ‘monstering’?

To which I’d say “Hello?? Haven’t you heard of Mein Kamp?” 

I should though concentrate on responding to Fuller’s last response to my comments. Honestly, I am not sure either of us know what we are talking about when it comes to Buddhism except Buddhism via Western philosophy via Schopenhauer, so perhaps we should step away from the example. Anyone curious on what Buddhists actually think on these topics should probably ask James Hughes- he was a monk once.

I probably should have used the example of paganism anyway. For what I am trying to draw attention to is that we need to escape the grip of battles between “good and evil” found at some sort of edge/end of history as it is the most dangerous myth we have invented.   

And then there’s this Professor Fuller wrote:

“I don’t deny your points about the damage caused along the way, but I guess I’m indeed with Stalin when he said you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs.”

What he is talking about is the exercise of political violence to achieve transhumanist ends and revolutionize society ”from above”. Yet violence always contains the possibility of slipping out of control and in this circumstance risks making the life of safe Westerners actually dangerous rather than the types of apocalyptic fantasies we engage in when we watch “The Walking Dead”.  And a mortally dangerous life would be the last thing those hoping for the kinds of breakthroughs that would indefinite lifespans in their lifetimes are likely to risk. 

First, I thank Hank for intervening on my behalf, since I introduced some irony in the discussion in order for those of us who identify with the transhumanist movement to think a bit more coolly (and that’s one meaning of being ‘cool’) about the implications of what we’re saying.

After all, humanity has been perennially defined as ‘being unto death’, our mortality has been an essential part of it. Once we try to remove that, then in what sense do we remain human? Transhumanists, I take it, believe that mortality is a non-essential feature of humanity, but then the challenge is to reinvent humanity in the envisaged transhumanist era; otherwise, we’re just talking about ‘posthumanism’, i.e. some state of being where being human is seen as an atavism.

Also, I’m trying to talk politics to a movement that seems mired in various dys/utopian fantasies as the world moves on. This was exactly Marx’s strategy against the utopian socialists, which I take the bulk of IEET’s constituency to be at heart. Even if B is so wonderful, how do we get there starting from A? The route may look nothing like B. In fact, it may even be, in certain respects, worse than A. Welcome to the dialectic!

Zoltan Istvan is a ‘probe’ for political transhumanism: The test is how many other candidates pick up on his really quite-easy-to-understand themes, all of which would immediately open up the larger transhumanist conceptual space. I give the man a lot of credit for sallying forth with boundless enthusiasm. I wish him well, even though I would disagree with him in a serious conversation.

As for the prospect of harm and violence in transhumanism, frankly, I don’t know why you’re in the movement if you’re not willing to absorb a fair amount of these things. As I said, science and technology are surplus to requirements, if you’re a Buddhist. Sure, there are guys like Schroedinger who invoked Indian religions but these guys kept their Hindu/Buddhism within a Western world-view that is ultimately concerned with mastery and control.

Here I think ‘Ye shall know them by their works’ is a good operative principle. Compare Christianity and Buddhism as world-historic intellectual movements, especially vis-a-vis the goals that most concern transhumanism. It’s really no contest. Buddhists are too easily satisfied, so they don’t even try to take the relevant risks. They don’t need science and technology. At least, some—if not most—Christians do. Now, there may be an argument for incorporating certain aspects of Buddhism in some ultimate transhumanist state of being. But Buddhism ain’t going to get us there—it will just be a nice emergent effect.

My sense is that Buddhism is so popular because it dovetails with the postmodernist tendency to absolve oneself of responsibility for what one proposes by denying that there is any coherent sense of self or agency. So people can spout off about all sorts of sci-fi-fantasy future without ever having to be held accountable because by the prediction date we will have become someone else. In this respect, I have a lot of respect for Ray Kurzweil, because for better or worse he sees the moral point of making a prediction to which he will be held accountable.

Buddhism is extremely valuable to transhumanism, IMO. Many transhumanists are Buddhists, or inclined to Buddhism, including the majority of IEET’s Board of Directors.

David Pearce’s transhumanist intention to achieve the “abolition of suffering” is Buddhist. So, of course, is the Buddhist Right Speech policy that I have thankfully not had to enforce on this thread.

“Buddhist Geeks” is a current group that seeks to use technology to improve humanity and the human condition. Several IEET scholars and directors belong to Buddhist Geeks.

to conclude, I respect and admire and appreciate the Buddhist contribution to IEET.

That said, I feel the same way about all contributions to IEET, religious and non-religious.

I am not going to compare them, or promote any of them as being more valuable to IEET than another.

by the way, I do appreciate this spirited discussion. I think debate is wonderful at IEET, as long as the attacks aren’t too rude

IEET supports Democracy.

We do not want any Transhumanism that has demolished Democracy.

We want Democracy improved.
We applaud politicians that strive to improve Democracy.
We do not approve of politicians that seek to circumvent Democracy in any way.

@Steve Fuller:

Re: “My sense is that Buddhism is so popular because it dovetails with the postmodernist tendency to absolve oneself of responsibility for what one proposes by denying that there is any coherent sense of self or agency. So people can spout off about all sorts of sci-fi-fantasy future without ever having to be held accountable because by the prediction date we will have become someone else.”

Again (and now I am starting to belabor the point) I brought up Buddhism only to contrast the kinds of Manichean rhetoric found in Christianity, secular ideologies and professor Fuller’s conception of trans-humanism. I am not a Buddhist, but there have been people working on aligning Buddhism with transhumanism and showing how the former can inform the latter i.e. James Hughes, who has also worked in to find points of overlap between trans-humanism and virtue ethics, which professor Fuller claims in his other piece this week is also incompatible with transhumanism.  You say tomato I say to-ma-to.   

Re:” As for the prospect of harm and violence in transhumanism, frankly, I don’t know why you’re in the movement if you’re not willing to absorb a fair amount of these things.”

The question is whether transhumanism resembles those types of movement that needed to establish rights through violence—say labor rights, political emancipation, national sovereignty or something like later identity movements that were largely non-violent—- abolition outside of the US, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, animal rights? My guess is it’s the latter and that transhumanism will be built on the basis of what professor Fuller seems to think are antiquated rights such as that of the individual to bodily autonomy, but I am pretty sure that it will not come from the type of transformation from above he is advocating in the very least because the era where power was invested in some centralized entity or party seems to have historically closed and was likely a sort of historical illusion that emerged when people reflected on the power the state had exercised during the First World War. Where does one see the will or the ability to resurrect such a state? Even accerationist marxists don’t dream of building such a monstrosity, but of it appearing like a ghost out of the machine after capitalism has reached its apogee and collapse. Or, in other words, professor Fuller’s ideas would be more at home in 1917 than 100 years later.     

Here I think I’m stumbling into the political correctness of the IEET community. For me, transhumanism and posthumanism are quite different things. The former is trying to raise humanism to the next level, the latter to get rid of the human from the centre of value and ethics. I see Buddhism’s natural home in posthumanism, not transhumanism, in that sense. Indeed, Buddhism acquired its initial popularity in the West via Schopenhauer and others in the early 19th century as a foil to Christianity’s insistence on human mastery (as beings created imago dei) which has only led to mass suffering, both in the ancient and modern periods. To return the compliment, the more violent-oriented secular Christians formerly known as ‘Marxists’ called such Buddha-worshippers ‘decadent’.

My point here is that Buddhism, left to its own devices, would have no particular need for the fancy science and technology promoted by transhumanists. Indeed, Buddhism can already serve a posthumanist world-view without fancy science and technology, namely, by taking seriously the avoidance of suffering as the aim of a good society (whichever beings happen to be included in it).

Buddhism is not an anthropocentric religion at all. In fact, our being hung up with our human embodiment is the problem that Buddhists have identified which they are then trying to solve—without creating more problems in the process.

I appreciate that as a sociological fact many people who contribute to this website have Buddhist sympathies, but it’s not clear what’s the value-added of being Buddhist to a specifically ‘transhumanist’ movement. I grant that Buddhism can be a helpful benchmark for posthumanism, and here I agree with Peter Singer. But transhumanism is still anthropocentric, when it gets right down to it.

Hi Steve—if you want to familiarize yourself with IEET articles on Buddhist ideas, it is probably best to start with David Pearce, and James Hughes, and a bit by Mike LaTorra and George Dvorsky, and a tiny bit by myself.

Ouch! For me personally, accusing me, and IEET, of “political correctness” is quite painful, and I don’t think it is remotely accurate.

I also think that—it is not constructive to intellectually look for tiny ways in which we differ—I’d prefer that we all work together for commonly-agreed-upon goals.

Academics battling over definitions of “isms” - I’d prefer not to do that.


You really need to think more outward about this. It’s not about my reading what you say and then understanding it in its own terms. Take that as given. I’m pretty sure your Buddhism is just as heretical as my Christianity. The question is what exactly do you expect to gain by identifying with Buddhism?  Why not Epicureanism, for example? Moreover, given that Buddhism doesn’t have a great track record in pushing politically progressive policies relating to science and technology, what’s the value-added of being Buddhist?

I understand Buddhism as defining a kind of utopia for most of you, but I don’t see it as very instrumental in how you manage to get to that utopia—other than perhaps preaching non-violence, which I regard as a hostage to fortune vis-a-vis any sense of positive action, especially when dealing with matters the full consequences of which we’re unlikely to know until we try them out.

I know you guys advance all sorts of ‘technoprogressive’ things, most of which I agree with. But I ask: Where’s the Buddhism in all this? 

It’s not about me not knowing what you think, but rather why you think your own world-view will enable you to achieve the concrete states you want achieved (and with which I agree).

Hi Steve—I suppose you live in Warwick, where you teach, and I don’t know anything about Buddhists there.

I live in Oakland, near Berkeley. This area - Alameda County - is probably the most progressive county in the USA, and it might also be the most “Buddhist.” There are also many Buddhists - American Buddhists - in nearby San Francisco County, and Marin County.

So, my experience with local Buddhists is that they are invariably progressive. And almost vice-versa. Buddhism has quite permeated the culture here.

This doesn’t mean that Buddhism has been progressive all over the world for 2,500 years. It is just progressive now, in my particular region. And in many other regions of the USA too, I am certain.

But that’s enough discussion for me, like I said in the previous note.

I believe our time is much better spent looking for common causes, than arguing about differences.

I understand. But “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” strategy only gets you so far in politics.

By the way, if you live in Oakland, you should check out The Breakthrough Institute, whose Ecomodernist Manifesto should be in sync with many transhumanist (though not necessarily posthumanist) interests:

Speaking of which, the concern about overpopulation is a more obvious concern to those who see the alleviation of suffering as the overriding moral problem than those who take a more qualified or even instrumental view on suffering.

Hi ya!

Just popped in to answer a question that Steve Fuller posed that none has yet answered, yet before I get to it I would just like to add my take on this article.

Re: X-Men vs “The Walking Dead”

I can’t really identify any irony in this article, (perhaps this is the irony?) However, I don’t believe you will get many laughs or converts by proposing that folks who don’t subscribe to anti-death research are holding back progress and deserve what they get, (whole arguments regarding Euthanasia rights aside)?

Now to the question posed..

“I know you guys advance all sorts of ‘technoprogressive’ things, most of which I agree with. But I ask: Where’s the Buddhism in all this?”

What use is Buddhism to Trans-Humanism?

IMO: Specifically the philosophy of Anatta, “No-Self” doctrine that is the foundation stone for Trans-formation of body, mind and acceptance of diversity of forms, as well as the support for the scientific methodology towards establishing the mind/body as biological process, and viewing the mind/body problem from similar scientific perspective?

Also as noted above by most, Buddhism philosophy of “do no harm” is not un-useful when promoting Trans-Human acceptance and tolerance, (are Physicians closet Buddhists?)

Yet point taken also regarding conflicts concerning “Aspirations” and will to action. For sure true Buddhists see “Grasping” for future wants as well as “Clinging” to mortality and Longevity as irrelevant, and perhaps even obstructions?

This is why I have on numerous occasion proposed Hinduism as more aligned with acceptance of Trans-Human aesthetics, (example: babies born with multiple limbs are customarily accepted within Hinduism as blessed by the divine Universal Self, rather than rejected as cursed mutants). Hinduism is not adverse to aspirations for longevity and transformation, nor scientific progress and knowledge of the Universe.

What is clear is that talk regarding alignment of Trans-Humanism to Christian ideology merely highlights the assimilation and dangers of differentiation of sub-species dead or alive, and so Rick is absolutely right to continually point out dangers of replacing one antiquated view with another?

ps. If you are really looking for any Categorical imperative, then having “choice”, contemplation and option to “do no harm” should be difficult to argue against?


Thanks for these forthright comments. However, your justification of Buddhism’s transhumanist credentials make me feel like Alice in Wonderland.

First of all, the article you’re commenting on was not meant to be something that Zoltan Istvan might use to get non-transhumanists to vote for the Transhumanist Party. It was rather holding up a mirror to transhumanists themselves. Even National Review’s Wesley Smith, whose level of commentary normally doesn’t rise above that of Fox News, figured out that much—and so had no trouble recalling actual transhumanists saying things not too far from what my article said.

But the main issue you raise concerns Buddhism, and I appreciate your explicitness, even though I remain baffled.

First of all, you’re right that ‘do no harm’ is very Buddhist. It is also the Hippocratic oath, as you allude to. But more importantly, it is the foundation of the precautionary principle, which transhumanism is supposed to be AGAINST.  For me, Max More’s Proactionary Principle manifesto was a defining moment when transhumanism became clearly distinct from posthumanism.

The question for any Buddhist who thinks they’re ‘transhumanist’ is what does ‘humanist’ mean to the Buddhist?  At least in the Abrahamic religions, humans are specifically created in the image and likeness of God, and so you have a metaphysical basis for trying to turn people into deities. And if nothing else, the Abrahamic religions are religions of personality and self—especially the person of Jesus as some kind of exemplar of the man/god. However, as you rightly point out, Buddhism is ultimately about annihilating the self.

Don’t you see a disconnect here? Buddhism doesn’t privilege human beings. Of course, Buddhism doesn’t call for the end of humanity. But it gives us no positive reason to think—let alone licence to try—to do the sorts of radical things to ourselves and the natural world that transhumanism encourages.

For example, how does a Buddhist deal with all the transhumanist interest in the resurrection of the body (aka cryonics)? Wouldn’t a Buddhist just find that sort of project fetishistic (‘clinging’ as you might put it) and in fact impeding our release from matter into some undifferentiated world soul? Like it or not, however, that materialistic side of transhumanism is actually what’s giving Zoltan Istvan whatever mileage his presidential campaign gets.

To my mind, if Buddhists simply said they were ‘posthumanists’ and made it clear that they don’t privilege humans above all other creatures—and thereby distance themselves from the more anthropocentric projects that generally characterize transhumanism—then I would have no complaint. But what I find problematic is the strategic ambiguity of trans/posthumanism that Buddhists play with to present what strikes me as a pretty incoherent set of views.

@ Steve

Thanks for your reply. I am not familiar with National Review’s Wesley Smith, and don’t watch or subscribe to Fox news, so will have to take your word for the appraisal.

I did presume that your article was not specifically directed at Transhumanists, (although I should have noted the title does indicate otherwise), however, I always presume that all and everyone reads these articles, including those new to Trans-humanism. So I do find your perspective rather condescending to normal “dead folk” and potential converts?

“Don’t you see a disconnect here?”

Very much so, it is the same dichotomy that proponents of mind-uploading cannot avoid, that is, to preserve the “Self” one must deconstruct the Self, and moreover “must believe” that the Self can be reconstructed, else the exercise and adventure is doomed from the very start?

I think you’re correct to align Buddhism ideology more with Posthumanism, however, are too quick to dismiss it’s usefulness as I described, (do you class uploaded “minds” as potentially “Human” and indefinite in lifespan?)

To add to my previous comments, neither are Buddhism nor Hinduism necessarily concerned with eschatology of individual or species, which again avoids “this and that”, “them and us” wrong attitudes?

Also as a final point and personal “beef”, Immortality is infinitely distanced and different from goals for Longevity, and whereas convincing “dead people” of the former may prove difficult and time consuming, natural progress with the latter would prove more beneficial towards acceptance of Trans-human politics?


Glad you’re back. I didn’t think you came around these parts anymore.

I think Fuller defines transhumanism/post humanism to fit with his own very personal political agenda and seems oblivious to any other views on these questions, so arguing with him is a little like debating with a wall. It’s not that I don’t find his views interesting or thought provoking it’s that for a while now I’ve found them very dark and dangerous:

But don’t take my word for it. Listen to this video from around 9 min on.

Should we call this “dark transhumanism”? Though that would still be inaccurate given it has nothing to do with humanism. 

No, it’s not there’s no point arguing with me, Rick Searle, but rather there’s a difference in starting point and what we take for granted—and what we call into question.

You see, in Planet Academia, where I’m from, ‘posthumanism’ is already a very respectable position. And it’s strongly aligned with the politically correct elements of the left. And here Donna Haraway deserves enormous credit (or blame, depending on how history pans out). I notice that Haraway rarely figures here. That may be because ‘posthumanism’ in my circles stands against everything that ‘humanism’ has stood for IN PRACTICE (not necessarily in theory): namely, male/White/etc. dominated world. In this respect, ‘posthumanism’ speaks for ALL the disenfranchised life-forms (animals, plants, etc.) through a process of mutual identification and collective rejection of the value attached to the label ‘human’. It is, in effect, a kind of positive anti-humanism.

On Planet Academia, ‘transhumanism’ is not really very known—except for its libertarian side, which is seen as aiming to push everything that posthumanists see as bad in humanism to the Nth level. Now, from my standpoint, the role of transhumanism should be to salvage the movement from that stereotype. But that doesn’t mean becoming posthumanist (which seems to me what I lot of people here are willing to do). Rather it means reviving what has been always good about the humanist project and showing how science and technology can take it to the next level. And this involves not just drooling over new gizmos but also thinking about the new social, political and economic arrangements that will be necessary for this future to be realized.

If you want a historical benchmark to the trans/posthumanism distinction in the way it appears in academia, you should have a look at the Sartre-Heidegger exchange on the ‘problem of humanism’ in the aftermath of WWII. Sartre is a proto-transhumanist and Heidegger a proto-posthumanist. However, Sartre was not thinking about technology realizing humanism’s potential but rather collective action on a mass scale (Remember he liked Maoist China). And he was fully aware—as I think people in the discussion tend not to be—that it’s very hard to do good without doing harm along the way. This was his signature idea of ‘dirty hands’. I’m just saying that we need to always bear this in mind if we wish to go forward realistically.

Hi Steve,

It seems like the discussion of Buddhism here is revolving around a more Therevada perspective, which focuses on the cessation of desire. You mention that Buddhism is not a proselytizing religion, but that’s not quite correct, if you look at the Bodhisattva ideal in Mahayana Buddhism, you find a proselytizing agenda very similar to Christianity. Mahayana Buddhism also evolved around the Eurasian region along the silk road and so it, appears to also be a mixture of Zoroastrian (Persia next door) and Hellenic influences (the Bactrians). So, for example, early Buddhism in India did not produce any statues - those emerged later up near Afghanistan. Art historians have shown that these statues are very Greek in their aesthetics. So there’s a case to be made, I think, that Mahayana Budddhism is a potentially Hellenized modification of the Buddhism that came out of North-East India.

My own involvement with Buddhism before coming to university was with the organization Soka Gakkai International, which actually bills itself as an organization with a progressive humanitarian agenda. It’s a very clear example of a modern Buddhist institutions that is not at all like the oriental Epicurean that gets passed around on the internet via cherry picked Dalai Lama quotes. One reason I actually got out was that it was too proselytizing. The underlying theology comes from Nichiren and Tendai Buddhism which are based on the Lotus Sutra (which I think has been shown to written a long while after the Buddha was alive) - so rather than a cessation agenda, they believe that “earthly desires are enlightenment”. This roughly means that they identify the Buddha nature with the aspirational life force, and so for them, enlightenment is about constantly struggling against personal and social limitations rather than seeking a life of comfort and ease. They get a bad rap for this, because that idea often gets reduced to this idea that SGI practitioners “chant for cars and money”. New members were encouraged to do because small victories eventually lead to a broader outlook.

They are a major political force in Japan constituting the voting base for the Komei party and have a strong stake in world peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons. They’ve also set up a number of schools and two universities (one in Japan, one in the US) that attempt to extend their peace agenda (the founder, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi was an high school teacher influenced by John Dewey).

There’s also the Pure Land sect, who in many ways sound quite Christian as well. They believe that their devotional practices towards Amita Buddha will guarantee rebirth in their next life in the “pure land”, an equivalent to a Christian heaven. The mundane world they find themselves in can be thought of as a kind of purgatory and the human condition is an opportunity to move up the ladder.

I’m still not certain if these Buddhisms necessarily give everything that you need to for a transhumanism, for example, there is still an emphasis on non-dualism and dependent origination in Nichiren Buddhism (SGI). But it does paint a different picture of Buddhism as a politically active entity, one that can push a humanitarian agenda. I think you are still right in your characterization of the recent popularization of Buddhism in the West though, as a kind of yearning for an oriental (exoticized) Epicureanism. That definitely was a problem I noticed in the SGI, that we would get new people looking for calm and tranquility who would inevitably be put off by the moralistic emphasis the SGI places upon personal and social responsibility.

@Steve Fuller:

Oh, I know all about Planet Academia, but as with everything academic it’s not as if some permanent, universal definitions have been established. For example,
David Roden would consider what you are calling post- humanism Critical Post-humanism, and he wouldn’t recognize your definition of trans-humanism as in your hopes for a radical break with current human existence- he’d calls that post-humanism and sees trans-humanism as rather boring humanism with “gizmos” as you call them.

But there are other views as well. For instance, you can see James Hughes’ piece in the Trans-humanist Reader, which if I remember it correctly and understood it, argues that trans-humanist will have to wrestle with post-human lines of thought should they ever achieve their goals.

I continue to find your argument in terms of ‘dirty hands’ and “breaking eggs” or willingness to embrace the violence of the past troubling (and wildly inappropriate to the current political circumstance) and in light of that am thankful you remain locked up in your ivory tower far from the realm of actual politics where your attraction to the terror of the sublime might lead to the harm of real people - post-human or not.

Yes, there are many different views out there, and if all we were doing here was spinning out fantasies, then the more the merrier. But insofar as there is a political agenda associated with transhumanism, then stating and resolving differences of viewpoint is an important activity, however difficult or painful that may turn out to be. It is also an intellectually useful exercise in getting clear what’s of primary, secondary, tertiary, etc. importance (what gets called ‘lexicographic’ preferences in that bad old academic literature) in terms of the movement’s values.

For example, I certainly don’t want to increase the amount of suffering in the world more than is necessary, but that is quite different from placing the elimination of suffering is some sort of overriding value, which I find bonkers. If you really believe the elimination of suffering is an overriding value, you should then just learn to come to want you expect will already happen. No need for fancy gizmos or pushing for futures that at the moment seem rather unlikely without a massive change in prevailing trends.

I personally have never argued that the goal of any political movement should be the total elimination of suffering, which I think is impossible. I do however believe that you are far too comfortable with political violence both past and present. As you were on Nazi violence in Humanity 2.0 here:

“Put bluntly, we must envisage the prospect of a transformation in the normative image of Nazi Germany comparable to what Barrington Moore described for the French Revolution. This is not easy… there have been only the barest hints of Nazi rehabilitation. But hints there are, helped along by the deaths of those with first-hand experience of Nazism. (244)”

I don’t believe these sentiments have a place in a movement that considers itself progressive or in any sense an inheritor of the legacy of humanism. What I think would be helpful would be for you to establish the limits to your ideas of political violence. Where is it necessary? More importantly what are its’ limits?

First, let me thank Leah Carr for her very helpful intervention concerning Buddhism. I will study the sources she mentions to reach a more considered view. However, her account underscores the extent to which the ‘Buddhism’ of relevance here has been mediated by Western religious and therapeutic philosophies.

But on to Rick Searle, who raises a legitimate question about my attitude towards political violence. There is much to say about this topic. But the first thing is that ‘humanism’ has itself been a vehicle for the rise of political violence (typically in the guise of ‘revolution’) in the modern era, though you may wish to blame (or praise, as I tend to do) the Protestant Reformation for it. For a sense of contrast, in what Catholics still regard as the good old days of Thomas Aquinas, ‘revolution’ was a right you as a serf had only if your masters didn’t treat you as you were entitled to by ‘natural law’, which in turn justified the system that made you a serf in the first place. So, revolution was licensed when people didn’t play by the rules of their own game. But modern grounds for revolution rest on restrictions placed on people’s full self-realization, i.e. legislating for their own lives (a la Christianity’s imago dei view of humanity). In other words, even established orders that kept the peace could be subject to revolution, if these regimes were repressive of human potential. In that case, you may need to eliminate some people for everyone to benefit. Thus, in Marx, class warfare was meant to replace humanity’s historic battle against nature for survival. He basically thought that in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, humanity had effectively conquered nature and that only other people (i.e. the rich capitalists) stood in the way of our living together equitably. I see transhumanism as very much in that ‘progressive’ tradition – and other transhumanists do as well, though they rarely acknowledge the intellectual lineage of their views.

Now, at the practical level, I don’t think how much political violence I would tolerate is the right question to ask. We already tolerate boundless amounts of political violence – for at least two reasons:

(1) the violence is sufficiently diffused over time and space, so it appears in shorter and harder lives but not outright warfare: e.g. capitalist exploitation;

(2) the violence is sufficiently distant in time and space, so it appears abstract and lacks personal relevance; hence, the need for a ‘Holocaust Industry’ that promotes the memory of experiences that would otherwise lose their specific vividness over time.

My attitude towards political violence is very much that of the military, namely, it is always regrettable but it may not only be necessary but also it may result in collateral damage. But this recognition is not an argument for avoiding any such violence but rather an argument for providing clear accountability for it: i.e. ‘if you break it, you own it’. (Its evil precautionary twin is ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.)  Once again, this means schemes of insurance, compensation, etc. Indeed, the most successful cases of military annihilation of national infrastructures – say, in Germany and Japan after World War II – have been accompanied by well-thought-out medium-term investment strategies to rehabilitate those nations, which quickly restored them to major players in the world arena.

It is striking that the US had relatively little problem committing to restore Germany’s national infrastructure, which clearly presupposed that there was something worth preserving and taking forward in the German people, despite their mass consent to the Nazi atrocities. Yet this attitude did not extend to Nazi science, unless the scientists had migrated and often reinvented themselves – typically in the US.

However, I believe that the inevitable victims of violence in any attempt (however misguided) to advance the human condition are best served by making the research involving them generally available and usable by others, especially those who do not share the ideology that turned those subjects into victims. And so when I talk about ‘Nazi rehabilitation’, that is what I mean. If humanity is such a wonderful entity to merit a 2.0 version – aka transhumanism – then I think we’re virtually obliged to try to find the progressive silver lining in any passing political cloud. 

Great discussion. Started out writing a comment of my own, but this blew up in to a blog post, as sometimes happens.

@ Rick.. Hi and thanks..

But I’m not really back. After reading so much focus on US Trans-Human Politics I’ve decided to focus entirely on pragmatics and “Techno-Progressivism” this lifetime, and then hopefully jump straight to Posthumanism, (or at least on the journey align with a more Humanist and palatable politics for H+)?

There is case for convincing by “doing” yes, but with such poor attitudes towards fellow “man”, I’m not so sure what the mission statements really are any more?

For me, it does indeed begin with the “Lesser vehicle”, (and Freedom and Autonomy are paramount)!

Put simply: our political process is both ossified and at loggerheads.  The only dynamic force is technological growth.  Furthermore, cultural baggage is very stubborn, but it can be demonstrated convincingly that popular opinion can change on a dime.

I bet most people on this website are aware of the exponential rate of technological improvement, and The Singularity.  Instead of pressing for linear political progress and public opinion evolution, the much cleaner, faster, and better thing is for public opinion and political progress to stand still so technological progress can, well, progress.

I could show you much more vividly with memes or graphs, but instead I just want to remind you that we are at the elbow of an exponential curve of technological progress.  What is going to emerge in the next 20 years defies imagination, even among those who are keenly aware of the unprecedented phenomena.

My advice: just stay alive for the next two decades, and watch the transformation.  Don’t give up hope, and don’t take any risks or do anything drastic.  That amazing, game changing, unimaginable abundance is going to come to you.  Why bother with or be bothered by the zombies?

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