Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Friday, December 6, 2013

Humanism After All

Zoltan Istvan is a self-described visionary and philosopher, and the author of a 2013 novel called The Transhumanist Wager that he claims is a “bestseller” because it briefly went to the top of a couple of Amazon’s sales subcategories. Yesterday, Istvan wrote a piece for the Huffington Post arguing that atheism necessarily entails transhumanism, whether atheists know it or not. Our friend Micah Mattix, writing on his excellent blog over at The American Conservative, brought Istvan’s piece to our attention.

While Mattix justly mocks Istvan’s atrociously mixed metaphors — I shudder to imagine how bad Istvan’s “bestselling novel” is — it’s worth pointing out that Istvan actually does accurately summarize some of the basic tenets of transhumanist thought:

It begins with discontent about the humdrum status quo of human life and our frail, terminal human bodies. It is followed by an awe-inspiring vision of what can be done to improve both -- of how dramatically the world and our species can be transformed via science and technology. Transhumanists want more guarantees than just death, consumerism, and offspring. Much more. They want to be better, smarter, stronger -- perhaps even perfect and immortal if science can make them that way. Most transhumanists believe it can.

Why be almost human when you can be human? [source: Fox]
Istvan is certainly right that transhumanists are motivated by a sense of disappointment with human nature and the limitations it imposes on our aspirations. He’s also right that transhumanists are very optimistic about what science and technology can do to transform human nature. But what do these propositions have to do with atheism? Many atheists like to proclaim themselves to be “secular humanists” whose beliefs are guided by the rejection of the idea that human beings need anything beyond humanity (usually they mean revelation from the divine) to live decent, happy, and ethical lives. As for the idea that we cannot be happy without some belief in eternal life (either technological immortality on earth or in the afterlife), it seems that today’s atheists might well follow the teachings of Epicurus, often considered an early atheist, who argued that reason and natural science support the the idea that “death is nothing to us.”

Istvan also argues that transhumanism is the belief that science, technology, and reason can improve human existence — and that this is something all atheists implicitly affirm. This brings to mind two responses. First, religious people surely can and do believe that science, technology, and reason can improve human life. (In fact, we just published an entire symposium on this theme subject in The New Atlantis.) Second, secular humanists are first of all humanists who criticize (perhaps wrongly) the religious idea that human life on earth is fundamentally imperfect and that true human happiness can only be achieved through the transfiguration of human nature in a supernatural afterlife. So even if secular humanists (along with religious humanists and basically any reasonable people) accept the general principle that science, technology, and reason are among the tools we have to improve our lot, this does not mean that they accept what Istvan rightly identifies as one of the really fundamental principles of transhumanism, which is the sense of deep disappointment with human nature.

Human nature is not perfect, but the resentful attitude toward our nature that is so characteristic of transhumanists is no way to live a happy fulfilled life. Religious and secular humanists of all creeds, whatever they believe about God and the afterlife, reason and revelation, or the ability of science and technology to improve human life, should all start with an attitude of gratitude for and acceptance of, not resentfulness and bitterness toward, the wondrousness and beauty of human nature.

(H/T to Chad Parkhill, whose excellent 2009 essay, “Humanism After All? Daft Punk's Existentialist Critique of Transhumanism” inspired the title of this post.)

6 comments:

  1. I actually like being a human. It is just that I prefer not to be a *dead* human.

    There might be some things I would like even more than being human. It would fit with the model of progress that humanists usually embrace, if that were to be the case. However, being a rotting corpse is certainly not one of those things. Being dead is a form of irreversible regression and decay.

    About the only positive thing about being dead is the lack of capacity for suffering. That is because the mechanisms for suffering are destroyed. But the mechanisms for joy are also destroyed in the process. Ultimately, it is a greater negative than it is a positive.

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  2. "Religious and secular humanists of all creeds, whatever they believe about God and the afterlife, reason and revelation, or the ability of science and technology to improve human life, should all start with an attitude of gratitude for and acceptance of, not resentfulness and bitterness toward, the wondrousness and beauty of human nature."
    Beautiful. Thank you.

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  3. "Human nature is not perfect..."

    Why not? What else could it be?(to the atheist, physicalist, secularist)

    "...the resentful attitude toward our nature that is so characteristic of transhumanists is no way to live a happy fulfilled life."

    Indeed.

    "...creeds ...should all start with an attitude of gratitude for and acceptance of, not resentfulness and bitterness toward, the wondrousness and beauty of human nature."

    Would be great, but some creeds, by logical necessity, reject any wonder or beauty in human nature.

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  4. A quick reply to your comments, jweaks:
    I think that both religious and non-religious people can recognize that human nature is not quite perfect. From a religious perspective, it is obvious that humans are less perfect than God. From a secular perspective, we can note that human physiology is less perfect than we might imagine it could be. Bioethicist Allen Buchanan points out that evolution has left us with a few instances of “sub-optimal design,” like the inability of humans (unlike most other mammals) to synthesize vitamin C. If our bodies could synthesize vitamin C, that would be all the better for us, and our inability to do so is a simple illustration of the fact that our bodies are not quite perfect. But, of course, instead of feeling resentful about this fact or embarking on a dangerous, costly, and difficult scheme to genetically re-engineer the human body to correct this flaw, we ought to just get over it and drink some orange juice.

    It is true that the transhumanists tend to reject the idea of wonder and beauty in nature and human nature, but not, I think, out of a logical necessity so much as out of the disposition that many transhumanists happen to have. If you mean that the creed of science rejects wonder and beauty in human nature, I would say that there are many perfectly good scientists who are filled with a sense of wonder and an appreciation for the beauty of human and non-human nature.

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  5. The great Peter Lawler has a nice post on Istvan, atheism, and transhumanism (focusing just on immortality), over on Lawler's own blog.

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  6. When it comes to transhumanism, there is nothing to fear but fear itself.

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