IEET > Vision > Directors > Giulio Prisco > Philosophy
The Marxist and Christian Roots of Transhumanism
Giulio Prisco   Oct 1, 2015   Turing Church  

In an article titled “Transhumanism has never been modern”  Richard Jones argues that “[Transhumanists] have deep roots, perhaps surprising roots… in the views of the early 20th century British scientific left-wing, and in the early Russian ideologues of space exploration.”

The predictable conclusion (Jones is a great guy but he doesn’t like transhumanists much) of the essay is the tired old strawman that transhumanists are guilty of technological determinism (technology is destiny). That’s just wrong – as David Wood rightly says in the comments, “although this flavour of transhumanism is a vocal one, it’s far from being the only one, nor indeed the dominant one.”

Jones’ conclusion is, mmm, not entirely correct, but his historical and philosophical analysis of the roots of transhumanism (excerpt below) is, I think, correct.

My comments to Jones (edited):

I have long been persuaded that transhumanism is essentially a religious movement. Mine is a minority position among transhumanists, but not as much as one may think, and several “spiritual transhumanist” groups embrace it explicitly.

I agree with the key role of both Russian Cosmists (e.g. Tsiolovsky, Fyodorov) and British Marxists (e.g. Bernal, Haldane) as precursors of contemporary transhumanism [See my related essays The Russian Cosmists and John D. Bernal’s The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, a transhumanist classic],  and I am intrigued by your suggestion that Gioacchino da Fiore may be considered as a precursor of both.

But technological determinism is not as common among transhumanists as you think. We (that is, I and similarly inclined transhumanists) don’t make predictions, but plans. It isn’t a predetermined outcome fixed in stone, it’s a project.
Re “If you think that a technology for resurrecting dead people is within sight, we need to see the evidence.”

Of course – but I don’t think resurrection technology is “within sight.” At the same time, I consider the possible development (in the far future) of resurrection technology as not entirely incompatible with current scientific understanding, and quite compatible with some more speculative scientific models. That’s how I (and others) get through the night.

And what’s wrong with wishful thinking? Wishful thinking is what keeps you swimming in rough waters when the shore is so far that you can hardly see it. Of course wishing is not enough, you must also swim.

Excerpt:

“This line of thought has a long and fascinating pedigree. One can identify at least two distinct routes by which this kind of eschatological thinking developed to contribute to the modern transhumanist movement. For the first, we can look to the origin of the coinage “transhumanism” itself, by the British biologist Julian Huxley (not at all coincidentally, the brother of the author of the dystopian novel, “Brave New World”, Aldous Huxley). It was among the British scientific left between the wars that many of the themes of transhumanism were first developed. In a remarkable 1929 essay “The World, The Flesh and the Devil” the Marxist scientist Desmond Bernal gives a slogan for transhumanism “Men will not be content to manufacture life: they will want to improve on it.” Bernal imagines a process of continuous human enhancement, until we arrive at his version of the Singularity: “Finally, consciousness itself may end or vanish in a humanity that has become completely etherealized, losing the close-knit organism, becoming masses of atoms in space communicating by radiation, and ultimately perhaps resolving itself entirely into light. That may be an end or a beginning, but from here it is out of sight.”

“The title of Bernal’s essay hints at the influence of his Catholic upbringing – what was the influence of the Marxism? The aspect of Marxism as a project to fundamentally change human nature by materialist methods is made very clear in a Leon Trotsky pamphlet from 1923, describing life after the revolution: “Even purely physiologic life will become subject to collective experiments. The human species, the coagulated Homo sapiens, will once more enter into a state of radical transformation, and, in his own hands, will become an object of the most complicated methods of artificial selection and psycho-physical training.””

“The second route to transhumanism also has a Russian dimension. It comes through the pioneer of rocketry and influential ideologue of space travel, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Tsiolkovsky was a key proponent of the philosophy of Cosmism, and was profoundly influenced by Cosmism’s founder, the 19th century philosopher and mystic Nikolai Fyodorov. Fyodorov’s system of thought blended religion and materialism to create a vision of transcendence not in a spiritual heaven, but in our own material universe. “God, according to the Copernican system, is the Father, not only doing everything for people, but also through people, demanding, as the God of the fathers, from everyone alive an uniting for the resuscitation of the dead and for the settling by the resurrected generations of worlds for the governing of these lastly”. It would be through science, and the complete mastery over the material world that this would give humans, that the apocalypse would happen, on earth: “We propose the possibility and the necessity to attain through ultimately all people the learning of and the directing of all the molecules and atoms of the external world, so as to gather the dispersed, to reunite the dissociated, i.e. to reconstitute the bodies of the fathers such as they had been before their end”.”

Giulio Prisco is a writer, technology expert, futurist and transhumanist. A former manager in European science and technology centers, he writes and speaks on a wide range of topics, including science, information technology, emerging technologies, virtual worlds, space exploration and future studies. He serves as President of the Italian Transhumanist Association.



COMMENTS

Well Dr. Prisco, my objection to “wishful thinking” is this: what happens, metaphorically, when the runner stumbles, and such thinking does not sustain? This is why I think it is most helpful to be as scientifically, robust, in our conjectures, concerning, re-creation, even though it must wait for a distant era. What I have noticed that is a bit helpful, is that the astronomers and physicists who do cosmology, can describe the cosmos as bigger, smaller, holographic, saddle shaped, funnel shaped, flat, but the science within whatever the shape of space is, must yield to computer science.

Specifically, computer science, digitalism, computationalism, lends itself to working, excellently, no matter what occurs with cosmology. If we dwell in the surface of a cosmic donut, or lay upon the exterior of a brane that is blowing as a flag does, buffeted by some cosmic wind, the math and computer science operates splendidly, no matter what is eventually discovered. This, for me, indicates that some central aspects of Cosmism must be then axiomatically true. This might give us pause to hope. If a program can be run once, it can be run again, and coded better.

@Spud - I don’t know about “axiomatically true” (physics is an experimental science after all), but what you say - “If a program can be run once, it can be run again, and coded better”- is very true.

Considering the universe as a program - a program that computes the future from the present and the laws of physics - an interesting consequence is that we could code the universe and its laws of physics better.

Cosmic life forms, unite and re-engineer the universe! I think Marx would love that. Re-engineering the universe must wait for a distant era, but the prospect can, as you say, give us pause to hope.

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