by Editorial Board
Last summer, Juniata hosted “Our Transhuman Futures,” a conference where presenters speculated on the future technological enhancement of human beings. For those not in the know, transhumanism is the philosophy that human beings should technologically “upgrade” themselves via genetic engineering, cloning and cybernetic implants to reach some sort of immortal post-human condition (details vary).
Transhumanism has grown in popularity in the early 21st century with adherents in the tech industry, academia and popular culture. There’s even a presidential campaign by the incredibly serious-sounding Zoltan Istvan, who is running in the 2016 race under the Transhumanist Party. He’s running in a coffin-shaped “Immortality Bus” on a platform to abolish human mortality.
Perhaps it should be no surprise that some of the biggest support for this techno-optimist quest for godhood has come from the moguls in the Silicon Valley. Ray Kurzweil, the popularizer of the future Singularity, where human beings merge with newly super sentient AI, is now a top executive at Google. Cofounder of Paypal Peter Thiel has set up an eponymous foundation to fund anti-aging technology and semi-autonomous floating cities for fellow oligarchs. There is consistent logic for the supporters: the ultra-rich have already avoided life’s certitude of paying taxes, why not beat the other constant of death?
One could contest that these promises are elusive, like those of flying cars, but what has been discussed is how, despite the glimmering sci-fi edge to a lot of these ideas, transhumanism is quite banal as an ideology.
Despite labeling itself as revolutionary, the imagination of transhumanism is quite unoriginal from the cocktail of scientific hubris, libertarianism and nauseating American optimism that it emerged from. Reading a transhumanist website will make you imagine that practically anything is possible with our soon-to-be limitless technology, from cryogenics to asteroid colonies.
Yet mention a word about how this handle of godhood will be distributed equally in our income-gapping world, silence will descend upon the room of mind uploaders in the waiting. It’s hard to imagine the hedonistic treadmill of this New Olympus outside of the ambient sunshine, Roman decadence and class division of Southern California where the majority of transhumanist patrons live.
Transhumanism seems to be the same old reckless consumerism encouraged by our corporate masters, except only they have the purchasing power for these extravagances and then dangle the carrot over us plebs.
The base of enthusiasm for transhumanism might be problematic for anyone who isn’t a death-terrified tech mogul, but surely that doesn’t discredit the ideas behind it. The fact that the privileged are attracted to the belief that they can conquer the meddlesome human condition doesn’t help deflect the claims of the inherent narcissism of “upgrading” humanity.
The mere application of technology has not had a good track record for helping humanity overcome its own selfishness, banality and materialism, traits that are rewarded in our capitalist age. We only need to look at the endless slew of smooth and shiny gadgetry.
Whenever we finally get to unwrap whatever promised breakthrough that tech pundits are paid to blog about, the advertisement on the box always looks more promising than the actual thing in terms of benefits and often overlooked negatives. We find the same empty lacking that is the human condition. I expect the future to be just as disappointing as any other hyped and lackluster invention like nuclear power, DDT or Tinder.
With the often theological descriptions of transhumanism, it isn’t surprising that Don Braxton, who chairs the religious studies department, was one of the main organizers of the transhumanism conference at Juniata. In some sense, transhumanism is the natural outgrowth of a thoroughly post-religious western outlook; once you get rid of God, man becomes a new object of worship, thus the humanism and the prefix trans.
But it this ultimate anthropocentrism that is the least appealing element; human beings make quite lousy gods. Many religions sound somewhat absurd—even believers will concede this—but arguably none more so than humanism.
A bedrock faith in the goodness and rationality of the human race is so milk-snortingly laughable that it makes stories of talking snakes, virgin births and flying horses galloping into heaven seem infinitely more plausible in comparison. It’s hard for an elusive deity to fail us; but humans are all too present and quite disappointing the more you get to know them.
If there is anything defensible about religion or spiritual traditions, even to the most acidic of skeptics, it’s the idea of trying to go beyond the closed-mindedness of the self to something greater than itself or transcendence.
The concept of transcendence traditionally meant something more metaphysical than augmenting our otherwise disappointing hairless primate bodies.
We may all believe seemingly impossible and absurd things in one way or another, but we should hold beliefs that, at least in principle, try to elevate us from our most base nature to something more sublime. The end of history shouldn’t consist of bored, rich, cyborg libertines on Mars trying to entertain themselves. It should be something a bit more climatic.
Categories: Volume 97 Issue 8 Oped