Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Sunday, June 13, 2010

James Hughes, the Enlightenment, and the radiant future

[Continuing coverage of the 2010 H+ Summit at Harvard.]

James Hughes had the morning talk after Patrick Hopkins. He basically did a rapidfire ten-minute version of a mini-essay he published earlier this year on transhumanism's inheritance of Enlightenment problems. That mini-essay was supposed to be part of a seven-essay series, although it looks like only five have been published. We have discussed a few of these essays on this blog (here, here, here, and here).
James Hughes, far right, enlightened by his laptop's glow.
Because of the short time slot, Hughes compressed his talk into a thesis with which I'm generally in agreement: that transhumanists don't usually realize that very many of their debates recapitulate Enlightenment debates, and they have a responsibility to learn about and engage with those arguments. We part ways with Hughes on the details, though (as evidenced by our series of responses), and in particular I'm skeptical about the idea that transhumanism's fractured Enlightenment inheritance spells positive things for its coherence and goodness, even when that inheritance is recognized and engaged with.

Here's just one example. Hughes notes that continental Enlightenment thinkers laid the foundations for the utopianism we find alive today in transhumanism. In particular, they pioneered the idea that pure reason would liberate us from the shackles of death and tyranny, a notion that Hughes more or less embraces (albeit with a huge caveat).

Hughes calls particular attention to the Marquis de Condorcet, who "wrote one of the most remarkably utopian essays in the history of the Enlightenment, which proposed that reason would eventually liberate us all from the church and the state, that there would be women's suffrage eventually, that we would get rid of slavery eventually, and that we would get rid of unnecessary involuntary death." He's referring here to the Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit.

Although Hughes notes the difficult conditions under which Condorcet wrote his Sketch — he "was part of the French Revolution but was being hunted down by the Jacobins" when he wrote it — Hughes misses the significance of that fact. As Charles Taylor explains in his book Sources of the Self:

Certainly the greatest and fullest statement of the philosophy of history of the unbelieving Enlightenment is Condorcet's Esquisse [Sketch], taking us through ten ages of human existence, the tenth being the anticipated radiant future of mankind.... This passage takes on an additional poignancy when one reflects that it was written in 1793, when its author was in hiding in Paris, with a warrant for his arrest by the Jacobin-controlled Committee of Public Safety as a suspected Girondin, and that he in fact had only a few months more to live. There were, indeed, "errors, crimes, injustices" for which he needed consolation. And it adds to our awe before his unshaken revolutionary faith when we reflect that these crimes were no longer those of an ancien régime, but of the forces who themselves claimed to be building the radiant future. [Emphasis added.]

One can only hope that transhumanists will heed the darker lessons of the Enlightenment in their call for a radiant future incomprehensibly brighter than that dreamed of by the Jacobins. But that would require levels of responsibility and restraint that are not only not in evidence among transhumanists, but are basically inimical to its goals.

[NOTE: I'll have a few more posts tonight or tomorrow, catching up on other presentations from the conference, along with some more pictures and a few concluding thoughts.]

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