This is less of a book review than a report on my experiences before, while and after reading it. When it was published and I became aware of it I was quite determined to read it, but because of time restrictions and because my old ereader had just died it took me several months to get around to it. In the meantime I talked to a couple people one of whom had read it and characterized it as libertarian, something I admit tends to make me suspicious, another, who had not, seemed to take issue with the escalating violence throughout the story. Needless to say these things would not deter me in principle, but especially seeing how the book’s reception indicated its growing significance.
Then in August Zoltan, with whom I had no contact before, addressed me and kindly offered me a free ebook edition which I received soon after. This motivated me to get a new reader and I started on the book in late September.
I am no literary critic, and frankly have no use for them, so here are just some of my perceptions.
After an opening reminiscent of J.J.Abrams, the story had me hooked from the beginning. Naturally within what he calls a ‘philosophical novel’ there are long passages of thought presentation, but the story maintains a fine balance between theory and action and between ‘show’ and ‘tell’. This and the gripping plot, convincing character development and the central themes that are burning issues for any transhumanist, made the book into a true page turner for me. So reading it was quite a joyful experience and as the story has great cinematic potential I am looking forward to a possible film version as long as it does not get hijacked by commercial interests and remains under Zoltan’s control. But already it seems that the book has a major impact on the spread of transhumanist thought, a very welcome effect.
Good guys – bad guys
This is a very common theme in U.S.American story telling, in fact in the ‘national character’. Most of Hollywood’s output and most of U.S. politics are based on this dichotomy, which is part of the reason for the country’s stunted ability to effectively deal with international affairs. Sixty years after Vonnegut started creating his work whose common theme is that nothing really is as it first appears, as shown by many others before him and after, it is surprising how immutable this myth appears. It derives from the infancy of humanity when stories were spread for the benefit of youngsters’ education and works quite well in that context. As a clinical psychologist I was trained in Jungian concepts and practised the methods for five years fairly successfully with our clientele of ‘severely emotionally disturbed’ children. However we, or some of us, are not children any longer but have entered adolescence and have attained the ability to approach solutions to life’s problems with reason instead of emulating what may have worked for others previously. ‘Abrogate are all rituals.’ And I am puzzled by the obsession among many transhumanists with infantile myths such as Tolkien’s, the Star Wars series and ‘superheroes’.
However I only addressed this issue in order to exempt ‘the Wager’ from this critique. Here we have a scenario that accurately reflects prevailing conditions pitting ‘good’ (progressive) forces against ‘bad’ (regressive) ones . In a comment I took issue with the publisher’s categorization of the book as SF, and Zoltan agreed and called it a ‘philosophical novel’. However I really see it as more political than philosophical. Its plot development, as does the analysis of current planetary conditions, points to the need for action more than for reflection. Surely it is necessary to constantly update and refine the thinking on which potential action is based, but this is foremost about survival, as is understood by Jethro, the main protagonist, and this understanding is the driver behind his activities, especially his increasing unwillingness to compromise.
In loyalty to their kind
they cannot tolerate our minds.
In loyalty to our kind
we cannot tolerate their obstruction.
Kantner ’68, based on Wyndham ‘55
The book managed to put me into a pure and unapologetic state of joy with the ultimate outcome, but even more so with the vanquishment of the antagonist representing the system, that happens despite all the abundant technology on a very personal, physical and intimate level by Jethro killing him with his bare hands. How satisfying. Yes, I too am just an adolescent.
The importance of this issue to the story makes me wonder. It is introduced and emphasized by Zoe, Jethro’s great love, and later becomes the main foundation for making his activities possible by way of a billionaire who, like Jethro at the time, has lost his wife and is willing to finance his project in return for the promise to dedicate resources to finding a way of resurrection. First unwilling to compromise, Jethro who besides being a transhumanist also has some qualities as a businessman later strikes a deal. He himself is also obsessed with retrieving Zoe after she is killed by the system. To base the success of his project on this flimsy foundation seems to be out of sync with his otherwise purely rational decision making, but in fairness he is out of options at the time, and needless to say at the end of the story no progress has been made with this issue.
I understand that for many transhumanists resurrection or ancestor simulation is a serious concern. Yes, there may come an end time when the cosmos, meaning this and possible other universes, has been transformed into pure intelligence, and the hope may be that then we will all be happily reunited as in Tipler’s vision, but this intelligence is unfathomable because it will be so different from what we now know and can imagine as human, posthuman, alien or machine intelligence, and as it is so far away in time it becomes totally irrelevant to present transhumanist concerns. Jethro and his colleagues may succeed in their efforts long before that, but I still have several concerns about the intention to resurrect ‘everyone’.
Who is everyone ? Going backwards through the evolutionary history just on this planet we shall soon encounter as yet undefined notions of sentience, as well as blurry distinctions between life and nonlife.
Who is really interested in resurrecting ancestors that nobody has ever met ? There will be a number of unsavoury characters among them, and there are already enough of those alive today.
Most importantly, as choice is the only thing I hold to be sacred or inviolable, and we can not obtain agreement beforehand, this approach is unacceptable. Many of the dead have ended their lives by choice, and many more will not be thrilled to find themselves in an environment characterised by strangeness and loneliness.
I suspect that much of the preoccupation with resurrection is based on pain of loss of loved ones and fear of the possibility. Neither emotion is a very healthy basis for action, but at least in those cases, as in the two featured in ‘the wager’, my three points above do not apply.
The weight given to this idea in the book may also serve to give the hard headed Jethro character a soft spot, namely his susceptibility to true love.
Transhumanism and its representation
Jethro does define his transhumanism in a quite particular way as expressed in his Three Laws and his TEF Manifesto. But by using the TH term he opens himself up to scrutiny by real world transhumanists. Is he representative of transhumanism in its most general terms ?
It appears that one of his main goals is to establish a rule by reason, a demand so obvious and basic that it can be seen as a foundation of transhumanism and related concepts that is generally accepted. From this derives the need to develop sciences and technologies and apply them toward the improvement of the human condition, and one immediate concern is that of life preservation and extension. All of this is quite mainstream TH.
But there are certain issues that I consider central to TH which receive no attention or even mention. In the case of space exploration and travel it can be explained as being not central to the story’s conflict and not too relevant in the immediate future when the story plays out.
More surprising is the absence of concern with moral enhancement. There are plenty of instances where ‘human enhancement’ is mentioned, even in the TEF Manifesto itself, but it is never clearly defined. It often comes hand in hand with life extension and in context can be seen as referring to functional improvement, just as is the case on the molecular level within LE research and application. But changing the decision making process not just by improving and increasing the available intellectual tools but also from its motivational foundation is never addressed. It could be that Jethro implicitly includes this in the term ‘human enhancement’, but I think it needs to be explicitly emphasized, especially given that before as well as after the successful revolution what could be called ‘psychiatric problems’ prevail and represent obstacles. And it would be quite naive to assume that they can be resolved, or simply go away, just by joining the new system and being productive and creative happily ever after.
For Jethro’s answer to this question we have nothing more than a quote by the antagonist of all people, but as it is written in cursive it appears to be a literal, thus accurate, one:
... An individual should live or die based on an algorithm measuring transhuman productivity in terms of that individual's remaining life hours, their resource consumption in a finite system, and their past, present, and potential future contributions.
As it is fair to assume that afflicted persons, such as the antagonist himself, would not survive the application of this formula, Jethro’s answer appears to be elimination. That however would be in conflict with the high priority placed on survival, which admittedly applies mainly to oneself, and it would be extremely unreasonable, because if ‘transhuman productivity’ is also such a high priority, enormous potential, not just of the afflicted person but his possible descendants, would be wasted by elimination instead of the application, enforced if necessary, of a simple fix that would be in easy reach of the scientific power amassed in Transhumania.
Another issue of central importance to me but also within TH as an evolving ideology is that of abolition of suffering. Again one might argue that this is not of significance to the story, but as Zoltan sees the book as a philosophical novel centered around TH it certainly deserves a mention. I understand that an important part of this story is its natural flow by which it grabs and holds the reader’s attention, and too much philosophy could easily destroy that balance. But there are other instances of inclusion of philosophical items which do not contribute to the story. The concept of TEF (Teleological Egocentric Functionalism) is mentioned but never sufficiently explained.
It stands for Teleological Egocentric Functionalism. Teleological—because it is every advanced individual's inherent design and desired destiny to evolve. Egocentric—because it is based on each of our selfish individual desires, which are of the foremost importance. Functional—because it will only be rational and consequential. For a “comprehensive individualist philosophy” this is a rather unsatisfactory attempt. The immediate question raised in my mind by the ‘egocentric’ component is: what if your individual desire conflicts with mine, a highly likely event ? This can be resolved only by the one who is further ahead on the trajectory toward omnipotence overpowering and eliminating the other. And this process is likely to continue to ripple through existence until there is only one left standing. As even Jethro appears to conceive of TH as a social force, this is an unreasonable and absurd scenario. It brings to mind a song by the slowenian band Laibach:
Alle Gegen Alle (All Against All)
unsere kleidung ist so schwarz. unsere stiefel
sind so schön. links den roten blitz. rechts
den schwarzen stern. unsere schreie sind so laut.
unser tanz ist so wild. ein neuer boeser tanz.
alle gegen alle.
(our gear is so black. our boots are so beautiful.
the red blitz in the left. the black star in the
right. our shouting so loud. our dance so wild.
the new evil dance. everybody fights everybody.)
A little later another definition is on offer: TEF is a philosophy defining the most expedient course an individual can take to reach one's most powerful and advanced self, whose primary initial purpose is to achieve immortality so that one creates enough time for oneself to reach omnipotence. But it too is unconvincing because once the above described effect sets in the probability of achieving immortality will be zero for all but one, the lonely survivor, and because the concept of omnipotence in itself is incoherent (see below).
Likewise a dissection of the Three Laws of Transhumanism in the TEF Manifesto is mentioned but never presented, understandably given the scope of the book. But as it stands they are easy targets of similar questioning:
Why is the survival of one person more important than that of TH itself ? In a hypothetical case where self sacrifice would save the movement or even guarantee its success, how can this priority be justified ?
The questions below about omnipotence apply.
How is ‘value’ defined ?
There are two recurring motifs that I did not understand on first reading, and that after additional attention I find to be irrelevant and indeed diminishing the book’s attraction, but also to be possibly confusing to readers.
‘Omnipotender’ – this is a religious or at least mythological concept. It derives from latin ‘omnes’ (‘all’, ‘everything’,’ anything’) and the verb ‘posse’ (‘to be able to’, or if the word in English had an infinitive as it does in french or german ‘to can’). An omnipotender is one who can do anything. The perfect match in english is ‘(the) almighty’. Well, we know who that is. Nobody and nothing can lay claim to that title until such time when the whole cosmos is under its control. I agree that there is a possible scenario within which this could be said to occur when the process of suffusion of all existence with intelligence is complete, but then there will be no individual ‘omnipotender’ left. Thus the incoherence implicit in the concept. Besides it does not contribute to the story and is not relevant to our current situation which the story so forcefully addresses.
‘Humanicide’ – less profoundly flawed but even more confusing, thus opening up potential for misunderstandings, and just as impertinent, it does not even appear to have a commonly agreed definition. Some dictionaries define it as the killing of a human being, but the accepted and legal term for that is homicide. Others refer to the killing of all or large parts of humanity, a more appropriate definition. Jethro himself says: “We will implement a systematic humanicide” but restricts the target to “each and every one of you who defies us”. Another quote, again by the antagonist, claims that “the Humanicide Formula is embedded into the core of your Three Laws of Transhumanism”. This is clearly debatable yet not being debated in the book, indicating that Jethro is in agreement. To an action centered story which this in large part is, hinting at concepts that then are left unresolved is distracting and diminishing, whereas in a philosophical novel resolution is and should be expected.
These two concepts could easily have been left out without any loss, unless a sequel is planned in which they shall come to greater prominence.
I like this term because it is quite self explanatory. It is first introduced in Jethro’s victorious address to the people of earth. He defines and explains it thus:
It started long ago with the inception of civilization, when charismatic leaders and ruling clans began forming permanent communities. Over time, these rulers learned they could preserve their platforms of power by controlling their communities’ thinking and behavioral patterns. Their agendas were simple: dominate with fear through violence; stifle revolutionary and freethinking ambitions; teach adherence to leadership and community before self; implement forms of thought and behavioral control that encourage social cooperation and production, such as communal customs, prayers, taboos, and rites. Variations abounded, but these were the early convoluted versions of human culture and its main intent: to control.
This appears to be essentially so. However it does not go deep enough. He seems to imply that even earlier there existed nonconvoluted instances of culture, a point that i emphasize. Before those permanent communities that could establish and maintain themselves only during the course of spreading agriculture some 10000 years ago, culture was local and concerned with developing survival probabilities. Dominance was assumed and assigned by physical and mental strength exercised in the service of this endeavour. Clever ideas popped up out of the power of imagination and were tested, applied and refined in a continuous process of trial and error. This was the first occurrence of communal application of the scientific method among hominidae.
The difficulties of knowledge gathering, still with us today, were the limiting factor to its efficiency. Technologies like controlling fire and plant growth were subject to easy repeatability. Less predictable were events like hunts and battles, and large scale natural phenomena like weather and geological events were not understood and could not be controlled. Yet people kept trying. Naming was a common way of communication and control among each other, and might work with things, animals, trees, rivers, mountains and even inexplicable natural forces. Rain, when needed, was called upon, the call reinforced by amplifying behaviour such as dance. Dance long and hard enough and sooner or later rain will likely arrive. The only conclusion could be that this works, especially in light of the fact that nothing else did.
This was still science, just, like much of current science, not solid enough to stand the tests of time. But it was also a source of the later development of religions.
Nations governed through it. Religions preached through it. Ethnic groups taught their heritages through it. Big business sold through it. And the media communicated through it.
A correct assessment implying that it is not this baggage culture per se that is at fault but the agencies named here, and consequently dealt with in the story, that created, maintained, developed and applied it for purposes of power. But the underlying question of why this is done is not addressed.
Going back to the palaeolithic scenario, among the many discoveries were the facts that some foods were less prone to spoilage than others. In addition techniques were developed allowing preservation and extension of usability of less hardy foodstuffs. Thus the foundation was laid for hoarding, a technique greatly easing survival pressure in areas subject to periodic seasonal supply shortages, much of the northern hemisphere. Hoarding became a valued technique and soon made the transition from learned behaviour to genetic proliferation. It appears to be now deeply ingrained in ‘human nature’. As a consequence advanced groups availing themselves of this technology became suitable targets for raids by groups without this knowledge. While initially the stored supplies were administered communally, this was the beginning of the need to protect ‘wealth’.
By the time of what Jethro calls the ‘inception of civilization’ above, with agriculture allowing for the aggregation of towns and cities and professional specialisation, and necessitating allotment and distribution of this wealth, the drive to accumulate was well established in the human psyche. Those finding themselves in positions of power andor administration could not help but maximizing the share allotted to themselves, which once accomplished would be used for further power increase by handing out favours and buying allegiance. Thus the concept of private (literally: stolen) property was established. This is the foundation of the need for “these rulers ...[to]...preserve their platforms of power by controlling their communities’ thinking and behavioral patterns.” And amazingly it is also still the foundation of the way we ‘do business’ today, which in turn is the main reason for irrational and obstructive resource management and consequently for much human and animal suffering and death. And this also takes this discussion back to the neglect of specifics on enhancement technologies.
Before moving on to the somewhat related subject of libertarianism I will deal with an issue that has been a thorn in my side and that I have been criticizing and condemning for years.
Jethro speaks: “ you should be afraid to try to become God”. The idea of becoming ‘godlike’, or as here even ‘God’, is very prevalent even among intelligent transhumanists, but it does not withstand analysis, is truly meaningless and serves only to reinforce an outdated and obnoxious meme that is really anathema to transhumanist thought. ‘God’ in its singular and capitalized form usually refers to the abrahamic god, an utterly nasty character with no existence in the real world. There is no rational reason why anyone would want to become him or like him. If the ‘godlike’ quality is invoked the immediate question becomes: which god(ess) ? Any member of the dysfunctional families of european and mediterranean pantheons or their middle eastern and indian relatives ? I do not think so. The pantheistic god who is really the cosmos itself ? That might work if we refer to the above mentioned ‘process of suffusion of all existence with intelligence’, but that is an end time scenario with no relevance for today’s transhumanist struggles. Similarly the majestic hindu concepts of creator, maintainer and destroyer (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva) and their avatars are way beyond the sphere of current concerns and at the same time too specialized to represent desirable models. And we clearly can dismiss nature spirits, angels, demons, and the like. The only mythological or possibly historical characters that have any transhumanist quality are people like Enki, Prometheus, Lucifer and others who are said to have worked towards human emancipation. They might act as guiding principles on our long march, but as I mentioned before, why model ourselves on past concepts now that we are attaining the capability of defining our own individual paths ?
Transhumanism is not interested in some utopian or heavenly end state, and neither in attaining ultimate perfection, but in walking the walk toward continuous improvement and transformation. So please let us drop the useless and counterproductive god meme for good. It is quite incongruous to destroy religious artefacts for their symbolic value, as happens in the story, and then let religionists in again through the backdoor by reinforcing their memes.
To a non U.S. American, even one who has lived there for 12 years and has family there, the U.S. obsession with this idea is quite puzzling. In European politics libertarianism as currently understood in the U.S. plays no role. There is a clear connection between current U.S. libertarianism and capitalism. According to WP, “In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, libertarianism is defined as the moral view that agents initially fully own themselves and have certain moral powers to acquire property rights in external things”. That sounds like wanting to eat one’s cake and have it to. Wanting to own oneself while reserving the right to own others, of course here just ‘external things’ but the potential of controlling others through ‘things’ is inherent in owning. I have already shown that private property is a nonviable concept in the long run, as is the system based on the principle, namely capitalism.
The following excerpt from an opinion written a year earlier describes my view of libertarianism:
The way in which ideological terminology is used in the U.S. is quite confused. I recently reread Jack Parsons' 1946/50 essay: Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword, which today is considered by some to be a classic libertarian manifesto. However he never uses the term and describes his views as the essence of liberalism. This was before the McCarthy propaganda blitz.
After the terms communism and socialism had been blacklisted and distorted into bearing diabolic connotations decades earlier, it now became liberalisms turn. Liberals were described as subversive commie lovers and unpatriotic traitors, and denied legitimacy. In many other places non right wingers would gladly and proudly accept the 'unpatriotic' label, internationalism being a cornerstone of most forms of socialism, communism and anarchism. But in the U.S. where patriotism has been fashioned into a mandatory religion this means crossing a red line, so the poor liberals did not have an answer besides unconvincing denials.
By the time the 60s rolled around the battlefield was littered with dead isms. The revival of liberal tendencies and ideas, brought about by the brutal suppression of countercultural movements by the system was in need of a fresh label, and thus the term libertarianism came to prominence, and this was also the origin of the libertarian roots of transhumanism. However this movement was mainly concerned with the protection of private activities from government intrusion. If there was an economic component inherent it was not, as misrepresented by many of today's 'libertarians', the concern with government's involvement in the economy, but with corporate involvement in government (military industrial complex was a prominent example). So even the term libertarianism has now been distorted into fitting the current right wing political climate in the U.S. Nowhere outside the U.S., and I have lived in about a dozen countries, is the term of much significance.
After writing this I came across this information, which essentially says that “a lobbying outfit which is today credited by libertarians as the movement’s first think-tank — the Foundation for Economic Education — was itself a big business PR project backed by the largest corporations and lobbying fronts in the country”. While I did not bother to verify this it clearly matches what is going on in current U.S. politics with libertarian concepts which have been coopted by plutocracy.
This has nothing to do with what was understood as libertarianism during my formative years, the above mentioned 60’s underground and evolving counterculture whose politics ranged all the way through communism and anarchism. Like Leary who was indeed a self declared libertarian and a strong influence on extropianism, many of us spent time on the run and in jail for the victimless crime of using substances disapproved by the system, and this was the main driver for what I call liberal, not libertarian, tendencies, as elaborated in Parson’s above essay.
After this brief dissection the term becomes quite contradictory and meaningless and I can not agree to accept the libertarian label for the ideology Jethro is promoting despite Zoltan himself adopting it.
One accusation that I hear levelled at the book is that it promotes undemocratic practices. The most notorious critique promoting that view is the one by ‘will’ entitled Transhumanism’s Mein Kampf. While both books constitute calls to action, the comparison is quite absurd, Hitler’s ideology being based on fantastic ideas without valid credentials and Jethro’s on a rational analysis of current conditions; however Jethro’s ideology certainly is in conflict with current ideas and ideals of democracy.
But democracy is a mirage. Literally translated it means rule by the people. It has never been implemented anywhere in this sense and I doubt that it ever will. The main problem is the elusiveness of the term people. When the Greeks developed the idea demos did not carry the meaning of all or everyone. It included only the educated and articulate, which makes sense considering that understanding is a precondition for participating in the decision making process. It was an attempt to counteract authoritarian rule by kings and tyrants by widening the circle of stakeholders. Slaves, women and foreigners were excluded.
The people are currently a mass of individuals with often mutually exclusive ideas, interests, behaviours and covering a wide range of mental capacities and, more often, incapacities. The idea that this aggregate could rule anything is unrealistic. Thus concepts were developed like representation, the ‘one person one vote’ principle, majority rule and the separation of powers. However given that all models retain vestiges of privilege supported by institutions like bicameral parliaments, presidential powers over other elected bodies, ‘electoral colleges’ and procedures like judicial appointments, in addition to the falsification of electoral results by vote buying or manipulation, redistricting, campaign ‘contributions’, lobbying, bribing and buying of the services of lawmakers and finally the susceptibility of large parts of the electorate to irrational influences, it is clear that reality is far removed from democratic ideals.
Thus criticism of Jethro’s ideology for lack of democratic credentials is moot. Given the choice I for one would prefer to live under a system of enforced reason to being subjected, as I am, to the excesses of the ‘democratic’ ones currently on offer.
Another issue impeding implementation of ideal democracy is the problem of crowding. With current population volume cramped together on this little planet it is impossible to grant everybody the right to live by their own choices without endangering the rights of others to live by theirs. Jethro’s response is to establish arbitration on the basis of transhumanist credentials and to outlaw ideologies and groups whose goals contradict reason. This is quite possibly the best or only short term solution. In the long term my own solution which presupposes advances in virtual reality andor space migration, and is designed to restore freedom of choice as the highest value, will imply habitat separation, a topic on which I shall elaborate in a future article.
Jethro identifies correctly and moves decisively against two major ‘baggage culture’ components: religion and nationalism. I am in full agreement with this agenda despite the fact that he endows Transhumania with an official name and even a flag, ridiculous props in the service of the fake ideologies of nationalism; but I shall forgive this faux pas in return for the promise of a society of reason. I have more trouble with his overlooking the third and more profound cultural baggage issue and the underlying psychological ‘baggage’: greed and its institutional implementation as capitalism. Indeed I am not sure if he overlooks it or welcomes it, the latter taking us back to the discussion of libertarianism; he certainly uses its principles in the process of building his vision on the physical plane, but under current conditions this appears to be the only possibility barring the option of letting machine intelligence take over.
Thus despite some minor and a few major disagreements with the underlying philosophy as it is presented in the book, I have the following to say about The Transhumanist Wager:
As a piece of intelligent entertainment it is a good book
As a source of intellectual stimulation, or food for thought, it is an excellent book
And in its function of promoting transhumanist ideas and moving us closer toward a liveable and functional society with the potential to open up unimagined avenues toward further transformation it is a great book.
Thank you, Zoltan.