Something I think we are prone to forget in this age of chattering heads and two-bit pundits is that ideas have consequences. Anyone engaged in public discourse has some responsibility to wrestle with the ethical implications of their thought, and this is as much the case for the Rush Limbaugh’s of the world as it is for that disappearing class of thinkers who once proudly went by the name intellectuals. In a way, artists have always had an easier time than those engaged in more discursive lines of thought.
We hold Plato morally accountable for the ideas he put forward in a work likeThe Republic in a way we don’t hold his contemporary Aeschylus for a play full of human violence like The Oresteia. The reason for this is that philosophers rather than artists it is assumed, not doubt in part falsely, are not just giving us a view into the world as it is, but as they believe it should be.
If ideas are indeed serious things, and we need to hold intellectuals responsible for their moral implications in a way artists need not be, then the pushing open, perhaps better tearing up, of the envelope of our moral horizons found in Steve Fuller’s recent Humanity 2.0: What it means to Be Human: Past, Present and Future needs to be confronted in a way a work of art like the song Vicarious by the band Tool does not, even if both start from a kind of Archimedean point outside or above the normal human perspective to look down upon the world as whole to end up with a sort of metaphysical justification for evil and violence.
Upon picking up Humanity 2.0 I did not expect this. What I anticipated is a recent version of run of the mill transhumanism with an epistemological slant (Fuller is a social epistemologist). Instead, what I got was a rather disturbing set of conclusions embedded within an otherwise banal alternative history of sociology.
There were far too many points throughout Humanity 2.0 where I found myself stopping to exclaim “Did he really just say that?” to discuss them all. So, in what follows I will focus on what I found the most relevant. For starters, Fuller thinks that for transhumanism, or better transhumanism as he understands it, to succeed it has to adopt what can only be understood as a form of politics as deception. The first step in this deception is merely the discussions surrounding transhumanists’ concerns, where, for Fuller:
Intentionally or not, this serves to acclimatize citizens, in the company of their peers, to whatever nano-driven changes might be on the horizon, thereby updating the concept of self-fulfilling prophecy. (147)
In social psychology, this strategy is often dubbed ‘inoculation’, the suggestion being that by allowing people to spend time thinking about extreme or pure cases of some potential threat, you have laid the groundwork for the acceptance of a less virulent version. (148)
Fuller compares this indirect method to be used in the achievement of transhumanist ends to be akin to the victory of socialism which emerged as a way to stave off the communist threat. (150)
Let’s pause and think about what he is saying for a moment. For Fuller, discussions and debates surrounding the issues of the application of science and technology to transform the current human condition are not so much a way to think through the profound challenges and questions transhumanist concerns pose to our understanding of what it means to be human or even post-human as they are a sort of public relations campaign which will win over the public to transhumanist positions the more extreme the proposals it appears to make for the human future.
That Fuller would adopt a perspective more reminiscent of the television show Mad Men that anything we might recognize from the tradition of moral philosophy or democratic politics shouldn’t be all that surprising given that he thinks the bizarre way in which we afford corporations with the rights of individuals to be a primary vector by which his post- human version of utopia will come into being. He muses:
Once the modes of legitimate succession started to be forged along artificial rather than natural lines with the advent of the corporation… the path to the noosphere had been set. (205)
If indeed Fuller means us to associate our modern corporations- our Walmart’s and McDonald’s- with the telos of the world, Teilhard de Chardin will not be the only one rolling in his grave.
Fuller’s love of corporations and his view of them as vectors for what he conceives to be the “real” ends of transhumanism is just one shade of his unabashed collectivism. One of his primary aims is to rehabilitate 19th and early 20th century eugenics. Many of the contemporary proponents of eugenics tend to approach the issue from the standpoint of reproductive rights. The problem with antique forms of eugenics, in their view, wasn’t just that it was based upon bad, meaning pre-genetic and racial science, but that it was focused on empowering the group in complete disdain of the rights and life of individuals.
Fuller will have none of such individualism or talk of “rights”. We should rehabilitate 19th and 20th century eugenics because:
The history of eugenics is relevant to the project of human enhancement because it establishes the point-of-view from which one is to regard human-beings: namely, not as ends in themselves but as a means for the production of benefits… (emphasis added/142)
Lest we think that Fuller is out merely to rehabilitate the image of now forgotten eugenicists like Francis Galton and couldn’t possibly be talking about “rehabilitating” our understanding of National Socialism we have this:
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)
Does the death of those with first-hand experience of Nazi atrocities make us wiser in Fuller’ eyes? This is not the kind of “PR” transhumanism needs.
Fuller’s commitment to collectivism takes him very far from traditional transhumanism indeed. In his hands the universal commitment to the increase in human longevity becomes nonsensical because the individual herself, from Fuller’s perspective, is a non-entity, a bridge to a kind of reborn primordial soup of cells and silicon which from his pantheist perch appears to be the ideal evolutionary future of a disembodied human intelligence or logos.
From his perspective the satirical world of “Utilitaria” imagined by the moral philosopher, Steven Lukes, where the characters are fully cared for from birth until old age only to be literally deconstructed both mentally and physically to serve as “parts” for the young becomes not a searing critique of a purely utilitarian world devoid of human rights, but a prescription for his version of our post-human future.
… with nature-inspired technologies we might think more imaginatively (aka divinely) about the terms on which ‘the greatest good’ can be secured for ‘the greatest number’, especially how parts of individuals might be subsumed under this rubric.” (228)
This zooming out to an amoral height in which the individual no longer has real value aside from whatever benefits they can bring not so much to society as to the process of history leading us to Fuller’s post-human age leads him to embrace a whole host of troubling concepts. He gives gives his proposal to disassemble the panoply of protections we have built up around the use of human beings in scientific research vanilla, soft-nietzschean labels such as “suffering smart”. Where his proposals amount to a kind of martyrology in which individuals sacrifice their own lives and health for the “honors” of propelling scientific research at a faster pace.
Fuller’s version of “heaven” is a return to the Eden of the primordial soup where the distinctions between species, machines, and even individuals has collapsed. In this he is riding the wave of the transformation of biology into an information science where individuals of a species become mere pattern of genes and the boundary between species become permeable. Here, Fuller takes the extremely irresponsible glorification of our new found ability to swap and combine genes between species who have not occupied the same place in lineage since the dawn of life on earth coming from figures like Freeman Dyson to an even greater extreme. Being able to incorporate the genes from other species is less for Fuller a means of human enhancement as it is the road the disappearance of the human into some sort of divine stew.
Fuller takes this transformation of biology into an information science to the degree that he has become one of the most vocal proponents of teaching intelligent design in schools. What? The logic behind his advocation of the pseudoscience of intelligent is that the actual history of life on earth has become irrelevant now that we have reduced it to information.
… nothing much hangs on the fact of whether animals and plants evolved naturally or were specially created, let alone whether it happened over 5000 or 5 billion years… (64)
For Fuller, intelligent design is a sort of noble lie meant to teach its students how to be “God-like” designers of nature.
As far as things to raise critical awareness I will stop there, and am left to wonder how it is possible that Fuller has come up with such a regressive version of transhumanism where debate and discourse is replaced by manipulation, where corporations and collectives have replaced individuals, where not just 19th and early 20th century racists, but Nazis mass murderers are seen as premonitions of transhumanism and that is not be taken as a negative thing, a warning, where individuals become sacrificial animals for a research endeavor whose success would ultimately spell the end of individuals, where intelligent design is touted as a serious version of biological science?
The extent that Fuller flirts with the shibboleths of early 20th century fascism, indeed, he appears to see them as the true harbingers of transhumanist politics, suggested that the most recent offshoot of transhumanist thought, so called techno-progressivism will need to divorce and divest itself from its transhumanist roots if it is to remain ethically viable. Special efforts need to be made to disentangle techno-progressivism from underlying religious aspiration,s for it is these which serve as the launch point from which Fuller would undo much of the moral progress that emerged as a delayed response to the abuses and cognitive distortions of fascism and European imperialism.
As I have warned elsewhere religious rhetoric or the historically unconscious adoption of ideas whose origins are ultimately religious is dangerous to the transhumanist project both because it puts transhumanists and traditional religious persons in an artificial state of conflict, but also because it leads to the very kinds of moral and intellectual hubris found in a work like Humanity 2.0.
Fuller taps into what Susan Neiman in her Evil in Modern Thought declared to be the moral problem that would define the modern age- why is there evil in the world? A problem answered by thinkers such as Gottfried Leibniz with his concept of theodicy. The problem of evil is one of our own limited human perspective. Get up “high” enough and you will see that we live in the “best of all possible worlds”.
It shouldn’t be surprising that theodicy emerged at the same time as modern science and biblical literalism. Before the scientific revolution it was assumed that the everyday world that surrounds us is the worst of all possible worlds only in comparison to the Hell thought to be literally below us both a consequence of ours and the rebellious angels’ fall from grace.
Newton was just the most prominent of the early moderns to have destroyed the gap between the perfect world of the heavens and that of earth; what guided a thrown object here was the same thing that ruled heavenly objects above. Here emerges the idea of God as a celestial engineer.
Many of the early scientists such as Newton or Francis Bacon were proponents of the new biblical literalism. For them the project of freeing our understanding of the world from the hold of ancient and inaccurate science and finding the true meaning of the Bible by clearing it of the distortions caused by Catholicism were a set piece- a dual project. In her The Case for God, Karen Armstrong points out how these early moderns created the literalists idea of God replacing more mystical and metaphorical understandings. What drives debates between vocal New Atheists and fundamentalist is that the two are in fact theological brothers who share their conception of God and are merely arguing over whether this God exists or not.
Fuller places himself within this camp although his argument might be described as a leap from New Atheism to fundamentalism: the literalists creator God of the early moderns (and today’s fundamentalists) does not exist, so we should ourselves become this God. All of history then becomes excused as the mere birthpangs of us a newborn “god”.
The problem is we are not “gods” and are nowhere near “becoming gods”, or are very strange gods indeed. Not the omnipotent creator/designer that is a common power fantasy, but a god trapped within his own creation that needs to create and act anew merely to survive and can never be sure that the next creative act will not spell his end.
Theodicy of the type Fuller promotes denies the very reality that the Copernican Revolution and all subsequent great leaps in our scientific understanding has brought us: We are not at the center of events- we are not the story.
Theodicy implies that we can judge the universe by the moral qualities characteristic of human individuals- good and evil. But we do not exist on the same moral plane of the universe because the universe does not have a moral plane. It creates and destroys with absolute indifference.
When doing science we have to approach the world from above, from an Archimedean point, but morality does not and can not work like this. Justifying the whole of life or the entirety of the universe on moral grounds means a justification which a more theological age called evil, death, pain and destruction, for there is no need to justify the good. Fuller wants to justify historical and natural evil, but instead ends up at the same place as the viewpoint of the character in that Tool song I mentioned earlier who justifies his own voyeuristic bloodlust because the universe itself is a place of pain:
Credulous at best, your desire to believe in angels in the hearts of men.
Pull your head on out your hippy haze and give a listen.
Shouldn’t have to say it all again.
The universe is hostile. so Impersonal. devour to survive.
So it is. So it’s always been.
We all feed on traged
It’s like blood to a vampire
Vicariously I, live while the whole world dies
Much better you than I
The banality of evil is that it comes not so much from this sort of willful malice as a mistaken notion of the good and an obliviousness to our own limits. Fuller’s Humanity 2.0 has both in spades.
The use of artistic images above in no way implies endorsement of the ideas contained in this article. Rather, their use is my own endorsement of the quality of their work in artistically conveying complex and contemporary ideas.