Not the usual critique of transhumanist thought

The Huffington Post of Jan 14, 2015 publishes Zoltan Istvan’s thoughts on his candidacy for Presidency in 2016 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zoltan-istvan/should-a-transhumanist-be_b_5949688.html ), obviously taking strictly transhumanist stance. What follows is my take on some of the unstated logical inconsistencies of transhumanist thought as expressed in that publication, and not the usual criticism leveled at transhumanists. First, Istvan’s statements are copied, and then my reactions to them follow.
He intends to

1. “…attempt to do everything possible to make it so this country’s amazing scientists and technologists have resources to overcome human death and aging within 15-20 years” . Although overcoming senescence is one of the rooted ideas of transhumanism, this idea, positive in itself, does not deal in any way with i., the question of who would benefit from it ii., the repercussions of the burden to feed everyone iii., the repercussions on the manner in which every facet of social life is conducted. In other words, the connections between living indefinitely and carrying out one’s usual activities are so complex that “fixing” the death and aging problem does not really fix anything. More importantly than this, however, transhumanism does not explain the manner in which overcoming death would lead to life without pain.
2. “…create a cultural mindset in America that embracing and producing radical technology and science is in the best interest of our nation and species.” It is interesting that even though transhumanists normally take the view that transhumanism abolishes differences in gender, race, and all the sociological categories, this statement brings forth nationalism, a category which is problematic if married to a specific intellectual movement. Furthermore, it is rather questionable that “the best interest of our…species” be placed in the hands of the president of the United States, any one person or group of people for that matter. The inclusivity and openness that transhumanism seems to represent are destroyed here.
3. “…create national and global safeguards and programs that protect people against abusive technology and other possible planetary perils we might face as we transition into the transhumanist era.” Although this is a worthy goal, the manner in which this is to be achieved is not all all apparent. Moreover, the precautions and safety measures assume that globally, everyone is sold on the idea of transhumanism, which obviously is not the case.

Istvan continues:
4. “Artificial hearts will become better than the best human hearts. Bionic arms will become superior to human arms. Smart phones will become the size of a fingernail and will likely be implanted into your body. Speaking out loud will disappear as the modern world uses mindreading headsets to communicate, which already exist. Where will you stand? How far will you take technology in your life?” The comparison between what is (not very good) and what will be (better than today’s best) is a rhetorical device to postpone to some moment in the future all that is better, as if minute improvements in people’s lives now do not really matter.
5. “Transhumanism is not a political end, but a life-affirming commitment to becoming one’s best self using the help of reason, science, and technology.” The inconsistency here is the fact that the point of comparison is still a human being: one’s self. Until now, humans had ideal, albeit general views of what could constitute the best human being. This view was based on millennia of experience with religious beliefs, philosophical musings, observation of nature, and later, on education (especially humanistic education). Clearly, postmodernism did away with all this and therefore, on the surface, left the burden on the individual, to find out what s/he believes is to be the “best self”. Now logically speaking, it is impossible to do this on one’s own today, when mass media and social media bombard everyone with all kinds of things that can “better” our life. Transhumanism does not define “one’s best self”, and therefore leaves that definition without scrutiny.
6. “The transhumanist era is literally upon us. Those paralyzed and bound to wheelchairs can walk via exoskeletons. Those who have never heard sound can now hear via implants. Gun shot victims who are dead are brought back to life via suspended animation. The poverty rate is the lowest it’s ever been around the world. Science and technology are responsible for these joys and successes.” The inconsistency here is the fact that all of these technological and scientific successes and joys are born within the military applications and are driven by military needs. In other words, until the uses and applications are for the most part military, there can be no joys and successes for the general population.
7. “Yet, we spend so little of our resources on the brilliance that science can bring all of us. America still spends almost 10 times its resources on defense than on science and medical research. It spends approximately four times its resources on the prison system than on education for our kids. It spends at least 100 times its wealth on bureaucratic-inspired legal fees than on critical life extension science to keep its citizens alive.” It would seem foolish to keep citizens alive in a system which is really bent on profit, unless these citizens, living longer, can produce more profit.
8. “The Transhumanist Party will not win this election. But it can change the questions the real elected leaders will ask. That is something significant, indeed.” This statement assumes that “real elected leaders” will actually take note of transhumanism, forgetting that in 2009 the ethical questions of human enhancement were made public (http://ethics.calpoly.edu/NSF_report.pdf).

What can be concluded from Istvan’s piece? Until transhumanism gives more concrete answers to questions of education, human relations, and enhancement, especially committing to social justice, it will not gain ground with the general population. One thing is clear, though: now is the time to decide how and whether humanity can/should/must overcome its natural biological boundaries, but not in the naïve sense of “healing” (i.e. getting an artificial heart), but in the sense of going beyond the human (acquiring night vision, a set of gills, uploading one’s mind). The trouble is that no one individual has complete knowledge and the know-how of how this can be achieved: the social still wins over the individual, despite the postmodern burden on the “self” to embark on its own quest.

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4 thoughts on “Not the usual critique of transhumanist thought

  1. Great article! It really begs the question: “How far is too far?” Technology can be a fantastic thing, but when we speak of technology this advanced and this complex, we start bringing up moral, ethical, social and cultural issues. Your response to Istvan’s statements covers quite a few of them, but his statements concern me a lot. Where are the consequences for violent crimes that inflict physical damage to another if that damage can be quickly righted by technology? Where is the privacy of thought when I am walking down the street and will I be judged or persecuted for my thoughts because they are contrary to popular belief or law? How do we deal with the boom in population and how do we progress if we have a society that functions with members who come from so many different generations and schools of thought?

    Technology can be a fantastic thing, but if it is misused, can cause disaster. While Istvan’s thoughts are interesting and are certainly revolutionary, the biggest question I have: is this a revolution that we can get behind or will it cause chaos and disaster for life as we know it?

  2. 1. Apparently your view of human nature is so nasty, you can’t conceive of people living to 1,000 who are actually doing rational, productive activity making their world a better place, instead of just being another mouth to feed.

    2. I’ll concede to you here. We are all global citizens, and transhumanism should be in line with that political idealism. That said, scientists are often naive at understanding their place in a corrupt political paradigm.

    3. Intelligent individuals already have been doing this all along. All technological advances that are in resistance to political oppression (e.g. bitcoin, 3d printing, and many innovations to combat state surveillance) are great examples. In other words, the “manner in which this is to be achieved” is to allow and encourage innovation.

    4. This point is incomprehensible. All that is being stated is a theory of human progress through innovation, which is supported by the history of humankind. If you are skeptical of this history, please feel free to live as a Neanderthal for purposes of contrast.

    5. This point is plainly silly. Philosophical handwringing aside, each one of us experientially knows what the self is. We are bombarded by ridiculous religious messages that attempt to confound us, but that doesn’t mean we can evade reality. The self is a volitional being that exists in its own right for its own happiness. Enhancing oneself is a noble virtue by any rational point of view.

    6. It is not the fault of science that the military-industrial complex has bullied its way to monopolizing engineering and technology. It is the fault of the fascist government and the selfless idiots who call Chris Kyle a hero.

    7. I have literally no idea what you’re talking about. The speaker was addressing wasteful government spending that could instead be more usefully funneled into technologies that help humans live longer, happier lives. This point has absolutely nothing to do with profit. Of course, that being said, the profit-motive has traditionally been a great driver of improvements in quality of life (see this blog post)

    8. It’s quite a petty point to argue about whether or not politicians or the public happen to take note of one thing or another. People who value human life will take note, and will pressure those who do not, requesting that they take action to make human longevity, health, and happiness a priority. That’s the way all activism works.

    Well, do you have any other objections to science helping humans live longer and happier?

    • 1. what makes you think that my view of human nature is nasty?
      2. the question is: How can scientists become less naive about their place in a corrupt political paradigm?
      3. yes, with some caveats
      4. no comment – you may wish, as an introduction, to read Luigi Pirandello’s work.
      5. there are various ways to “enhance oneself” – which one are you referring to?
      6. and therefore?
      I have no objection whatsoever to science helping humans live longer and happier – what makes you think I have objections? My critique was intended to have readers think just a bit deeper about what is really important and to help those with transhumanist leanings think about real answers possible objections.

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