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Problems of Transhumanism: The Unsustainable Autonomy of Reason

J. Hughes

Ethical Technology

January 08, 2010

Reason is not self-legitimating. Like all Enlightenment advocates for reason, transhumanists find that the project of Reason erodes all premises including the superiority of reason over unreason. Consequently transhumanists, like Enlightenment advocates in general, need to defend our values with nonrational a prioris. Unfortunately some transhumanists continue to advocate a naïve conception of pure rationality as an end in itself.

This article is part of a continuing series. See also:

Problems of Transhumanism: Introduction
Problems of Transhumanism: Atheism vs. Naturalist Theologies
Problems of Transhumanism: Liberal Democracy vs. Technocratic Absolutism
Problems of Transhumanism: Moral Universalism vs. Relativism
Problems of Transhumanism: Belief in Progress vs. Rational Uncertainty

The Enlightenment and Reason

Reason was the central value of the Enlightenment. Some historians see the beginning of the Enlightenment in the early seventeenth century “Age of Reason,” associated with the Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hobbes, Locke, and Berkeley. Historian Dorinda Outram defined the central claims of the Enlightenment around its appeal to reason:

Enlightenment was a desire for human affairs to be guided by rationality rather than by faith, superstition, or revelation; a belief in the power of human reason to change society and liberate the individual from the restraints of custom or arbitrary authority; all backed up by a world view increasingly validated by science rather than by religion or tradition. (Outram, 1995: 3)

When Kant wrote his essay (1784a) “Was ist Aufklärung” or “What is Enlightenment?” for the Berlinische Monatschrift, he summed up the slogan of the Enlightenment as “sapere aude” or “dare to know.”  Though divided by epistemology and theology, these thinkers attempted to ground philosophy on uncontestable propositions such as “cogito ergo sum.”

This thorough-going undermining of all irrational a prioris led to a number of philosophical dead-ends, however, immediately generating a score of post-rationalist movements. In the midst of the Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau valorized the primitive and decried the harmful effects of hyper-rationalism on morality (Glendon, 1999). After all, as Hume underlined, the Enlightenment had severed any connection between the IS and the OUGHT. Although Kant and the utilitarians would attempt to re-ground ethics on what appeared to be empirical observations about human nature, they could never answer the next question: why should ethics be grounded on observations about human nature and not something else, like ancient religious dogmas?

Eighteenth century Romanticism was also a reaction to the overreach of reason in its assertion of the value of aesthetic and emotional experience. From the eighteenth century through World War Two, movements on both the right and left turned against Enlightenment rationalism. On the Left, the Frankfurt School writers criticized the Enlightenment’s instrumental rationality for its complicity in authoritarianism (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2006; Marcuse, 1964; Saul, 1992; Gray, 1995). Various strains of feminism and anti-imperialism attacked the patriarchal and Eurocentric construction of Enlightenment reason (Harding, 1982). These post-rationalist movements rejected the autonomy and universality of reason because it came into conflict with other values of the Enlightenment, such as respect for the rights of persons and for cultural diversity. Meanwhile, theologians and philosophers of the Right blamed communism on the totalizing logic of the Enlightenment’s assertion of utopian reason. 

In the 20th century, Enlightenment rationalism also began to question its own first principles. One example is found in Wittgenstein’s turn from logical positivism. The logical positivists attempted to ban from philosophical discourse all terms and concepts without empirical referents. Ludwig Wittgenstein, although an early and influential advocate of this position, eventually changed his mind as he further investigated how language actually worked. Having turned empirical investigation on the process of reasoning itself, and attempting to purify language of all irrationality, Wittgenstein concluded that the goal was chimerical (Wittgenstein, 1953). Language is a series of word games in which meanings are created only in reference to other words and not to empirical facts. The positivist project of building a rational philosophy from uncontestable empirical observations is impossible.

Foucault, Derrida, and the postmodernists also represent an implosion of Enlightenment reason.  Although I believe postmodernist “criticism” to be mostly a dead end, the essential insight is true: all claims for Enlightenment reason are historically situated and biased by power and position. The Enlightenment is just one historical narrative among many and there is no rational reason to choose the Enlightenment narrative over any other. Reason can only be argued for from metaphysical and ethical a prioris, even if those are only such basic assumptions as ‘it is good to be able to accomplish one’s intended goals.’

Most tangibly, contemporary neuroscience, also a product of Enlightenment reason, now recognizes that reason severed from emotion is impotent. In Damasio’s (1994) now classic studies of patients with brain damage that severed the ties between emotion and decision-making, the victims were incapable of making decisions. The desire to stop deliberating and make a decision is not itself rational-it is a product of temperament. Reason was built to serve, but is incapable of generating its own commands.

Transhumanists and Reason

Most transhumanists argue the Enlightenment case for Reason without ackowledging its self-undermining nature. For instance Max More’s Extropian Principles codified “rational thinking” as one of its seven precepts (More, 1998):

Like humanists, transhumanists favor reason, progress, and values centered on our well being rather than on an external religious authority. (More, 1998)

The Transhumanist FAQ defines transhumanism as the consistent application of reason:

The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason…We might not be perfect, but we can make things better by promoting rational thinking, freedom, tolerance, democracy, and concern for our fellow human beings… Just as we use rational means to improve the human condition and the external world, we can also use such means to improve ourselves, the human organism. (Humanity+, 2003)

One of the central transhumanist blogs is Less Wrong, based at Oxford University under the aegis of transhumanist philosopher Nick Bostrom and dedicated to “the art of refining human rationality.” A frequent contributor there is Eliezer Yudkowsky, an auto-didact writer on artificial intelligence and human cognitive biases who also is a co-founder of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence. Yudkowsky has said that one of his goals is to lead a “mass movement to train people to be black-belt rationalists.” The Less Wrong blog highlights Yudkowsky’s definitions of rationality and their importance as its raison d’etre:

What Do We Mean By “Rationality”?

We mean:

1. Epistemic rationality: believing, and updating on evidence, so as to systematically improve the correspondence between your map and the territory. The art of obtaining beliefs that correspond to reality as closely as possible. This correspondence is commonly termed “truth” or “accuracy”, and we’re happy to call it that.

2. Instrumental rationality: achieving your values. Not necessarily “your values” in the sense of being selfish values or unshared values: “your values” means anything you care about. The art of choosing actions that steer the future toward outcomes ranked higher in your preferences. On LW we sometimes refer to this as “winning.”

But why should we want a map that corresponds to the territory? Where do the values that rationality help us achieve come from? What if the valuation of instrumental rationality in fact is an obstacle to achieving the things we value, as the romantics claim, such as beauty, meaning, contentment, and awe? Yudkowsky goes so far as to acknowledge the problem in order to define it as something that is simply not to be discussed:

… many of us will regard as controversial—at the very least—any construal of “rationality” that makes it non-normative. For example, if you say, “The rational belief is X, but the true belief is Y” then you are probably using the word “rational” in a way that means something other than what most of us have in mind…  Similarly, if you find yourself saying, “The rational thing to do is X, but the right thing to do is Y” then you are almost certainly using one of the words “rational” or “right” in a way that a huge chunk of readers won’t agree with.

Fortunately for Yudkowsky, he has been ceded authority by his readers to write off all philosophical debate about the relationship of IS and OUGHT. But this will leave his transhumanist rationality experts defenseless debating those with different metaphysics, or when they face their own dark nights of the soul.

One of the central philosophical debates between bioconservatives and transhumanists, and “bioliberals” more generally, over the last two decades has been over the legitimacy of emotivist arguments such as Leon Kass’ (1997) “wisdom of repugnance” (Roache and Clarke, 2009). In 2003, the bioconservative Yuval Levin wrote in “The Paradox of Conservative Bioethics” of the tragic dilemma faced by conservatives trying to devise rational arguments in defense of irrational taboos. Once liberal democracy forces the conservative to abandon appeals to tradition or intuition, democratic debate naturalizes the new.

The very fact that everything must be laid out in the open in the democratic age is destructive of the reverence that gives moral intuition its authority. A deep moral taboo cannot simply become another option among others, which argues its case in the market place. Entering the market and laying out its wares takes away from its venerated stature, and its stature is the key to its authority. By the very fact that it becomes open to dispute—its pros and cons tallied up and counted—the taboo slowly ceases to exist… A conservative bioethics…is forced to proceed by pulling up its own roots, and to begin by violating some of the very principles it seeks to defend. (Levin, 2003)

Transhumanists and the Enlightenment face the opposite dilemma: how to advocate for rationality in a way that avoids its potential for self-erosion. Just as the bioconservatives cannot validate their taboos and ethical a prioris in the public square, there is likewise no rational reason why society should reject taboos and superstition in favor of a transhuman future; value judgments in favor of tradition, faith, and taboo, or in favor of progress, reason, and liberty both stem from pre-rational premises.

Transhumanists need to acknowledge their own historical situatedness and defend their normative and epistemological first principles as existential choices instead of empirical absolutes somehow derived from reason. One example of a transhumanist acknowledging the pre-rational roots of transhumanist values is anti-aging activist and IEET Fellow Aubrey de Grey’s 2008 essay “Reasons and methods for promoting our duty to extend healthy life indefinitely.” De Grey directly addresses Leon Kass’ emotivist argument and turns it on its head. What, de Grey asks, is more repugnant than sickness, aging, and death? Those arguing the anti-aging cause, de Grey concludes, should start from these shared intuitions and prejudices instead of starting from reasoned arguments that presume the “objectivity of morality” and the “unreliability of gut feelings.” When I first heard de Grey’s argument, I demurred, thinking he had given away too much to the emotivists. But that was simply my own fear of letting go of my superior rational ethical viewpoint.
When I imagine the project of Reason, I think of building a house in mid-air. I look over at the other houses floating in mid-air, the pre-Enlightenment houses, and they are ramshackle huts of mud daub and random flotsam, tied up with string. To get from one room to another in our neighbors’ houses, you have to crawl to the basement and then up a laundry chute. They sit in darkened rooms with few windows, and none that show that the house is not in fact rooted to the earth.

With the pure, lean precision of Reason we have built our houses of Kantianism, utilitarianism, liberal democracy, and other clean architectural marvels, Frank Lloyd Wright structures of thought with lots of windows, and even glass floors. But most of us steadfastly ignore the fact that, just like our neighbors, we are floating in mid-air. Acknowledging that we are all in mid-air and don’t know how we got aloft in the first place is damned scary, and we have repeatedly seen people defect from our Enlightenment houses with glass floors to our neighbors’ houses of faith and dogma where they are not forced to look down. We need to learn the courage to acknowledge that we got this thing in the air through an act of will—that Reason is a good tool but that our values and moral codes are not grounded in Reason—or else we will lose many more people to the forces of irrationality in the future.


Adorno, T. W., and Max Horkheimer. 2002. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford UP.

Berlin, Isaiah. 1998. The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays. Farrar Straus Giroux.

Damasio, Antionio. 1994. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Putnam.

de Grey, Aubrey D.N.J. 2008. Reasons and methods for promoting our duty to extend healthy life indefinitely. Journal of Evolution and Technology 18(1): 50-55.

Glendon, Mary Ann. 1999. Rousseau & the Revolt Against Reason. First Things 96 (October 1999): 42-47.

Gray, John. 1995. Enlightenment’s Wake: Politics and Culture at the Close of the Modern Age. Routledge.

Harding, Sandra. 1982. Is Gender a Variable in Conceptions of Rationality? A Survey of Issues. Dialectica 36: 226-241.

Humanity+. 2003. Transhumanist FAQ.

Kant, Immanuel. 1784. Was ist Aufklärung. Berlinische Monatschrift Dezember-Heft: 481-494.

Kass, Leon R. 1997. The wisdom of repugnance. The New Republic 216(22): 17-26.

Levin, Yuval. 2003. The Paradox of Conservative Bioethics. The New Atlantis 1(1): 53-65.

Marcuse, Herbert. 1964. One-dimensional man: Studies in the ideology of advanced industrial society. Boston: Beacon Press.

More, Max.  1998. The Extropian Principles v3. Extropy Institute.

Outram, Dorinda. 1995. The Enlightenment. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

_____. 2005. The Enlightenment, 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Roache, Rebecca and Steve Clarke. 2009. Bioconservatism, Bioliberalism and Repugnance. Monash Bioethics Review 28(1):4.1-21.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1953/2001. Philosophical Investigations. Blackwell Publishing.

James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)


Contact: Executive Director, Dr. James J. Hughes,
IEET, 35 Harbor Point Blvd, #404, Boston, MA 02125-3242 USA
phone: 860-428-1837