Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Friday, June 11, 2010

Happiness, Freedom, and Transhumanism

Our friend Roger Scruton, who has an essay in the forthcoming Summer issue of The New Atlantis, has a new book coming out called The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope. The New Humanist has run a short preview excerpted from the book, concluding with this take on transhumanism:

There is truth in the view that hope springs eternal in the human breast, and false hope is no exception. In the world that we are now entering there is a striking new source of false hope, in the “trans-humanism” of people like Ray Kurzweil, Max More and their followers. The transhumanists believe that we will replace ourselves with immortal cyborgs, who will emerge from the discarded shell of humanity like the blessed souls from the grave in some medieval Last Judgement.

The transhumanists don’t worry about Huxley’s Brave New World: they don’t believe that the old-fashioned virtues and emotions lamented by Huxley have much of a future in any case. The important thing, they tell us, is the promise of increasing power, increasing scope, increasing ability to vanquish the long-term enemies of mankind, such as disease, ageing, incapacity and death.

But to whom are they addressing their argument? If it is addressed to you and me, why should we consider it? Why should we be working for a future in which creatures like us won’t exist, and in which human happiness as we know it will no longer be obtainable? And are those things that spilled from Pandora’s box really our enemies — greater enemies, that is, than the false hope that wars with them? We rational beings depend for our fulfilment upon love and friendship. Our happiness is of a piece with our freedom, and cannot be separated from the constraints that make freedom possible — real, concrete freedom, as opposed to the abstract freedom of the utopians. Everything deep in us depends upon our mortal condition, and while we can solve our problems and live in peace with our neighbours we can do so only through compromise and sacrifice. We are not, and cannot be, the kind of posthuman cyborgs that rejoice in eternal life, if life it is. We are led by love, friendship and desire; by tenderness for young life and reverence for old. We live, or ought to live, by the rule of forgiveness, in a world where hurts are acknowledged and faults confessed to. All our reasoning is predicated upon those basic conditions, and one of the most important uses of pessimism is to warn us against destroying them. The soul-less optimism of the transhumanists reminds us that we should be gloomy, since our happiness depends on it.


  1. I wonder if Scruton would dismiss efforts to cap the Deepwater Horizon well as "false hope."

    I suspect not. People discover they believe in technological inevitability when a sufficiently dire emergency backs them to the wall and they demand solutions to it.

  2. The uses of pessimism and the dangers of false hope. Let me rephrase that. Hope for the best but prepare for the worse.

  3. But of course all the capping and junk shotting and top killing big-talkers are peddling false hope. Futurological "false hope" drives corporate-militarist marketing and promotional salesmanship from high-level think-tank scenario-sketching about "geo-engineering" all the way down to windmill and sunflower images in mainstream greenswashing advertising discourse. When BP skirted regulatory oversight by promising that off-shore drilling disasters were inconconceivable and that unspecified -- because non-existent -- techno-fixes were surely available for every possible contingency in any case, they were indulging in the same hyperbolic irresponsible immaterializing futurology that suffuses the neoliberal imaginary across the board, from the financialization and logo-ization of the economy, to the digital-utopianism of media theorists, to the phony cosemeceuticals and boner pills and infantile Boomers in denial, to the accelerationalizations of techno pundits who mistake amplified neo-feudal predation for an "escape velocity" leaving history -- and all to our ruin as actually incarnated, actually ecologically-embedded, actually socialized beings in the world.

  4. Mr. Plus,
    I wonder whether there isn't a rather important distinction between activating human ingenuity to provide for beings such as we are -- which would seem to allow for a deeper 'background' recognition of the limits of our power and, say, the ultimately tragic character of situation -- and the attempt to remake ourselves according to a particular and highly questionable conception of what kind of beings we are in the hope that by doing so we will be freed of all or most or the most important evils. So, I am comfortable with trying to cap the well -- even if I think it scandalous that we have been building deep-water wells apparently without the capacity to address such a predictable accident -- but I am unsure about the sensibility of 'replacing ourselves with immortal cyborgs'. At no point do I need to believe in technological inevitability.


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