Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Transhuman and the Postmodern (A Further Response to James Hughes)

My previous post on transhumanism and morality elicited a response from James Hughes, whose recent series of essays was my prompt. I thank Prof. Hughes for his response, although it seems to me to confirm more than not the main point of my original post.

I’m confident that Prof. Hughes understands that what we are calling for the sake of shorthand “Enlightenment values” did not present themselves as “historically situated” but as simply true. Speaking schematically and as briefly as possible, it took Hegel (no unambiguous fan of the Enlightenment) to historicize them, but he did so in a way that preserved the possibility of truth. It took Nietzsche’s radical historicism in effect to turn Hegel against himself, and in so doing to replace truth with willful, creative overcoming. That opens the door to postmodernism.

It looks like it is almost axiomatic to Prof. Hughes that all “truths” are historically situated and culturally relative, so in that postmodern manner he is rejecting “Enlightenment values” on their own terms. Nietzsche, shall we say, has eaten that cake. But why then “privilege” “Enlightenment values” at all? Prof. Hughes wants to keep the cake around to the extent it is useful to pursue a grand transformational project (a necessary one, according to at least some of his transhumanist brothers and sisters). But why (assuming there is a choice) pursue transhumanism at all as a grand project, or why prefer one version over another? To this question Prof. Hughes’s axiom allows no rational answer (“Reason,” he writes, “is a good tool but ... our values and moral codes are not grounded in Reason”) although the silence is covered up by libertarian professions, the superficiality of which Prof. Hughes understands full well.

What Agnes Heller calls “reflective postmodernism” describes a response to the dilemma Prof. Hughes is facing that to my mind is not without problems, but at least seems intellectually respectable. Armed with Nietzsche’s paradoxical truth that there is no truth, the reflective postmodernist is alive to irony, open to being wrong and playful in outlook. But above all, the reflective postmodernist is an observer of the world, having abandoned entirely the modern propensity to pursue the kind of grand, “necessary,” transformational projects that made the twentieth century so terrible. Absent such abnegation, I don’t see how the postmodern-style adherence to “Enlightenment values” Prof. Hughes recommends for transhumanism can be anything more than anti-Enlightenment will to power.


  1. I prefer the appellation "post-post-modernist." But I'm not re-affirming Enlightenment values in order "to pursue a grand transformational project." I simply believe Enlightenment values are the basis of the kind of social and intellectual order that creates the most happiness, wisdom, peace, etc. in the world, compared to its alternatives. The grand transformational project is trying to create a society that maximizes liberty, equality, solidarity, progress, reason etc. The goal of my essays is to show how transhumanism is a natural inheritor of the Enlightenment with all its internal contradictions, and to highlight how some transhumanists appear to be replicating the disastrous wrong turns of some wings of the Enlightenment.

    As to how my post-post-modernist defense of the Enlightenment and H+ amounts to an "anti-Enlightenment will to power" I really don't grok. You seem to want to force all of us H+ onto your Procrustean anti-Nietzsche analytical frame. As I've said, and you've noted, most H+ do not in fact advocate for H+ because of a passion to be ubermensch.

    BTW I found Adam's exegesis of Burke's affirmation of contextualized universal values interesting. I'll read further.

    J. Hughes

  2. I thought transhumanism was actually serious about what Prof. Hughes has called “tools for a better you,” or (to quote the H+ website) about advocating for “technological, scientific, and cultural trends that are changing — and will change — human beings in fundamental ways ... developments in areas like NBIC (nano-bio-info-cog), longevity, performance enhancement and self-modification, Virtual Reality, ‘The Singularity,’ and other areas that both promise and threaten to radically alter our lives and our view of the world and ourselves” [emphasis added]. That’s why I thought it appropriate to speak of a grand transformational project in the way I did, and why “will to power” seemed to me less a Procrustean bed than a matter of “if the shoe fits, wear it.” But apparently, in Prof. Hughes’s mind, transhumanism is really just a version of the Democratic (or Republican, for that matter) party, standing up for “liberty, equality, solidarity, progress, reason, etc.” My mistake. Note to Messrs Keiper and Schulman: is it time for us to just pack up and go home?


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