There have been glowing reviews at the IEET of Zoltan Istvan’s The Transhumanist Wager. This will not be one of those. As I will argue, if you care about core transhumanist concerns, such as research into pushing out the limits of human mortality, little could be worse than the publication of Istvan’s novel. To put it sharply in terms of his so-called First Law of Transhumanism “A transhumanist must safeguard his own existence above all else”; Istvan, by creating a work that manages to disparage and threaten nearly every human community on earth has likely shortened the length of your life
The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.
You shouldn’t be worried about anti-transhumanist, fundamentalist terrorism or any other sort of boogey man but a much, much bigger danger: the collapse of the very supports, financial, political, and social by which transhumanism could obtain any of its ends. Indeed, if what Istvan presents in his novel as the philosophy of transhumanism is anything near to reality, the movement does not deserve to survive. Techno-progressives should then truly divorce themselves from a movement which sadly has taken a fascistic and frightening turn.
Where even to begin?
The protagonist of The Transhumanist Wager is a man called Jethro Knights. At least in the first half of the novel, Knights recapitulates the inarguably fascinating life of Istvan himself: solo-circumnavigation around the world on a ship filled with books, writer for a barely disguised version of National Geographic, war correspondent. From there, I have no idea how the views of the protagonist and the novelist diverge, but Knights himself shows all the traits of narcissistic personality disorder meaning one of the core clinical traits of a psycho-path.
It is not merely that Istvan’s Knight is in the in the throes of NPD in terms of being “preoccupied with thoughts and fantasies of great success, enormous attractiveness, power, intelligence” he builds an entire transhumanist philosophy – Transhumanist Egotistical Functionalism (TEF) around such narcissism.
Knight’s idea of what he calls “the omnipotender” is certainly an example of an ego that has lost its grip on factual reality:
“His ultimate goal was that of the omnipotender: one who contends for omnipotence. He wanted a universal dictatorship- or at least a draw over everything and everyone.” (80)
Jethro desperately yearned for life, for power, for air into his lungs, for his mind to control and triumph over his physical surrounding- for the universe that only his will forged. (emphasis added) (171)
Knights is a man who thinks the universe is his to own and control. In this reading, the continuation of life is not the ultimate goal of transhumanism, but merely the stepping stone on the road to a kind of Randian-technologic power fantasy- the desire for which Knights takes to be the throbbing heart of evolution itself.
This omnipotender is an unyielding individual whose central aim is to contend for as much power and advancement as he could achieve, and whose immediate goal is to transcend his human biological limitations in order to reach a permanent sentience. “ (33)
Starting from such turbocharged Hobbesian assumptions it should come as no surprise that the philosophy Knights crafts ends up being a kind of fascist utilitarianism. Again, this is firmly in line with NPD in the sense of“failing to recognize other people’s emotions and feelings”, or better still the worth of others’ thoughts and feelings.
As Istvan describes Knights:
Even if he looked a person in the eye, he often failed to recognize anything of utility. Jethro perceived their presence, the space they took up the resources they used on his planet. (p.12)
If individuals you have actually met in the flesh have no value for you beyond some utilitarian calculus in reference to your own ends, it stands to reason that the vast majority of human beings whom you have never and will never meet are little more than mere “variables” in your calculations. Fellow human beings whose worth can be deemed negative or positive based on what you desire to achieve.
We need to divert the resources to the genuinely gifted and qualified. To the achievers of society- the ones who pay your bills by their innovation, genius, and hard work. They will find the best way to the future. Not the losers of the world, or the mediocre, or the downtrodden, or the fearful. They will only drag us down, like they already have. (127-128)
There was not right or wrong when it came to dying or not dying. There was only success or failure. It spoke of using whatever means necessary to accomplish those aims, of thinking and acting with the same cold clarity a super-intelligent machine would use- something they were quickly evolving into anyway, the essay asserted. The world and all of its inhabitants were not worth living and dying for. (53)
It is not clear whether Knights himself has devised what Istvan calls “The Humanicide Formula” or if it is the product of anti-transhumanist propaganda. Whatever its origins in the narrative it certainly aligns with the overall immortality of TEF and Knights himself.
… not all human beings will be a net-positive in producing omnipotenders. Any individual who ultimately hampers the optimum transhuman trajectory should be eliminated. (215)
Knights is truly not being hyperbolic when he says something like:
A transhumanist has no immediate concern for others, for family, for state, for heritage, for humanity, for God; only for its power and the preservation and growth of that power. (281)
Indeed, he is willing to apply this kind of emotional lobotomy to his own heart. Under “inquisition” by the cartoon of religious evil Istvan has set up as the foil to his protagonist, Reverend Belinas, Knights admits of his wife, Zoe Bach, the woman he has loved the most deeply:
What you say is true, preacher. I would kill my wife a thousand times over to reach my goals. (246)
If any of this strikes you as inhuman rather than post-human Knights would claim that it not him, but you, who suffers from psychological disconnect.
This was the essence of the world’s unmasked collective soul, the quintessential character flaw- that people were bred and conditioned to be afraid to do what they most deeply wanted to do: become invincible. (242)
If The Transhumanist Wager was supposed to be a novel of ideas, an artistic representation of transhumanist thought, as Istvan has stated it, the book fails miserably on the score. Real novels of ideas put more than one idea up against one another, explore the space between the known and unknown. By contrast, The Transhumanist Wager has only one idea- a fascistic interpretation of the meaning of transhumanism in which the complexity of every other current of human thinking, including transhumanism itself, is reduced to a cartoon.
Futurism has always contained within itself a hatred of the past, and everything we have inherited from the past, religion yes, but also culture, art, architecture, literature. Istvan’s novel has left no room for continuity between transhumanist aims and the longings and attempts at transcendance that was invented by the world’s religions, even if the version of transhumanism he presents is nothing but a ripped off and upside down version of fundamentalist Christianity. In fusing the so-called militancy and cultural illiteracy of the New Atheism with a religiously infused interpretation of transhumanism, Knights, or Istvan, has merely created a new form of fundamentalism- its barbarism no better than the kinds of real barbarism seen when the Taliban destroyed the beautiful 5th century Buddhas of Bamiwam.
Istvan’s imagined willful and unnecessary destruction by transhumanists of cultural treasures in the West; Vatican City, where the Pope himself is killed, the incomparable Notre Dame and Versailles, along with the jewels of Western culture it holds, certainly struck home for me, and I am sure they will not fit well with many other Westerners of similar secular bent to myself who nonetheless understand the exquisite and fragile beauty of these places.
Yet, the damage of Istvan’s novel for the transhumanist movement might be much more strongly felt outside of the West rather than inside it. He imagines transhumanists destroying the Imperial Palace in Japan, The Forbidden City in Beijing (which even the anti-historical madman, Mao, left in tact), Delhi’s parliament building and its cultural treasures are destroyed, Moscow’s gorgeous Kremlin- leveled. The most sacred site of Muslims, the Kaaba, is destroyed along with their Dome of the Rock. The Wailing Wall, sacred to Jews both religious and secular since 70 C.E. is annihilated. Istvan’s transhumanists destroy what is probably the most exquisite piece of architecture built on the African continent the Great Mosque of Djenné, and blow up Brazil’s iconic Christ the Redeemer.
All of this is troubling and amounts to madness, for certainly there were other ways of displaying imagined transhumanist power in the novel that refrained from destroying the civilizational legacy not just of particular cultures but all of humankind. It is perhaps easy to sit in the comfortable West where religious violence is largely a figment of our imagination, and persons who write inflammatory tomes like Istvan’s aren’t arrested but protected by the police from the assault of maniacs and fanatics. It’s quite another thing to be associated with these ideas without any such protections and indeed their opposite.
The Transhumanist Wager might very likely put the lives of some transhumanist individuals in danger, and suck in individuals who are merely trying to move their societies in a more scientific direction. If you were living in Saudi Arabia and interested in transhumanism to the extent of owning literature on the subject, wouldn’t you now burn these books and papers, if not for your own protection, then, so unlike Knights himself, that of your family? Might you not also be tempted to burn your books about science given the possible conflation between an interest in science and a sympathy for transhumanism?
Where I am left is wracking my brain is in figuring out the origins of these fascist trends in in transhumanism, for it is twice now that very recent books have pushed the thinking of the movement in the direction of what can only be understood as technological fascism. It is clear that it is not his individualistic Randian assumptions alone that led Istvan in the directions of this type of thinking, for Steve Fuller, in his Humanity 2.0 arrives at a similar anti-human philosophy from a collectivist rather than a hyper-individualistic perspective.
The more I think on it, the more it seems that the kinds of fascist transhumanism seen in Fuller and now Istvan is a result of a quite narrow understanding of the meaning of technology which transhumanists of their stripe have adopted from the world of technological hardware, the kinds of things we normally associate when we hear the word technology, but whose narrowness when applied to the human and living world can lead to some pretty dark distortions. In a sense all transhumanism, even clearly progressive transhumanism, suffers from a kind of technological fetishism, and thus might gain insight from confronting what results when the logic of a mechanized technological advancement itself becomes the end through which human aspirations are funneled.
If we get out of the mindset that technology is only something that we have deliberately engineered it’s quite easy to see almost everything human beings do as making use of a sort of technology. In this interpretation law is a sort of technology which mediates social and economic interactions. Religion is a sort of technology, a path to some particular human definition of transcendence. A kind of universal moral heuristic such as the Golden Rule is a sort of technology which guides human moral behavior.
The kinds of fascist transhumanism seen in Fuller and Istvan treats both persons and culture as if they were something like cell phones. The “functionalism” at the end of Istvan’s TEF gives it away. He has established criteria by which the “worth” of a human being can measured like one would a gadget. If someone fails to meet this criteria, or worse from his point of view, is a bug in the overall system they are to be “discarded” like one would a smart phone model from the last innovation cycle. Fuller goes so far in his desire that we reconceive our nature to be one of “designers” that he is a vocal supporter of teaching the pseudo-science of intelligent design in schools in order to inspire students with the “god-like” tasks in front of them.
Perhaps what morally grounds techno-progressivism as a branch of transhumanism is that it is more prone to tap into deeper ethical stands and currents (themselves a very potent form of moral and social technology) and is thus informed by traditions such as that of rights (including animal rights), or the desire for social justice that is lost by the transhumanism of Fuller or Istvan that reduces everything to the cruel logic of products. Yet, if narrow ideas regarding technology can result in the emergence of fascist trends of thought within transhumanism, the kind of heavy weight put on what is now mere engineering is also often too much for that type of human action to bear.
On the one hand there is the collision of our daydreams with the sheer complexity and surprises that confront us when faced with reality as shown to us by science. We have inherited aspirations regarding human life from religion and political philosophy which may or may not have a technologically engineerable solution, and there is no way to know in advance if they do or do not. Just because we can dream of something does not mean it is technologically or economically possible, or may only prove possible in ways utterly different from our initial dreams, though we may be able to achieve some ends such as social justice not through gadgets and technical innovation but through changes in the technology of economic structures and using the “engineering” that we call politics.
Indeed, some of our least sophisticated and deliberately engineered means of human enhancement are the best we have so far. Quality education, good nutrition, and supportive and loving home environments continue to be more effective in raising human intelligence than all the neurological interventions we have come up with. The biggest gains we have clocked in increasing human longevity were not so much the product of high- tech medicine, but decidedly low-tech improvements in public health.
This is not to say that much greater gains in cognitive capacity or longevity aren’t there for us to find once we have a firmer grasp on neurological mechanisms and a more developed understanding of the process of aging. What it does suggest is that unless we free ourselves from our narrow understanding of technology we might end up running to stand still as failure to invest in education robs children, in the aggregate, of the ability to learn, or failure to invest in public health gives rise to a median decline in lifespan at the very moment we’ve grasped the neurological mechanisms behind learning and memory and discovered how to slow life’s clock. What good, after all, would an understanding of the underlying neurological mechanisms behind artistic ability do us if we no longer publicly supported art classes for kids?
The temptation transhumanists face is the urge to re-orient all the resources of society towards technological efforts to solve only one problem- the problem of personal death. In setting the bar so high, as in the achievement of personal immortality within their lifetimes, many transhumanists have enabled a sort of existential panic as the years pass by without the needed breakthroughs to definitively achieve such an end. Istvan’s Jethro Knights is cruel precisely because of the intensity of his impatience. The whole world needs to be overthrown because unless it is he will die.
What is lost in this impatience is the space between humanity and the at the moment very uncertain promises of post-humanity. Almost all ideas regarding post-humanity rest on what amounts to speculative science and technology even in the face of the fact that human beings have a very poor record predicting such things. The science and technology of the future will in all likelihood prove full of surprises- closing off some aspirations while at the same time making us aware of new ones.
The danger here is that the scientifically probable suffers in comparison to the enchantingly possible. Istvan is telling here for he is especially disdainful of investments in what is often called public health seeing it in a sense as a rival to much more ambitious transhumanist medicine. This attitude skirts the fact that it was largely the investments in rather mundane public health that nearly doubled our longevity in the first place. Istvan’s impatience due to his own mortality leads to a blindness to the likely gradualism to anything like post-humanity. We’ll probably learn how to keep people fit and healthy into their 80’s long before we figure out if biological immortality is scientifically possible let alone something like uploading. Viewed from a social rather than a personal level gradualism towards greatly changed conditions for human beings is probably a very good thing- giving society time to adjust.
Techno-progressives need to pay more attention to this space immediately in front of us. Such an effort would give us a better idea of where to prioritize their political efforts in terms of pushes for research funding and the like that would have the greatest immediate impact. Given the accelerating pace at which the world’s population is aging many of these priorities are likely to be shared by a broad swath of society many of them, yes, religious.
This is a much better strategy than engaging in a power fantasy in which your personal survival has become a political question, nothing in the world is more important than this survival, and what you believe most puts your survival in question is the fact that the whole world is your enemy. For, if transhumanists continue to put out works like Istvan’s Transhumanist Wager such paranoia may tragically become true and almost nothing could be worse in terms of real progress towards the movement’s long range aspirations.