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Transhumanism’s Schism – are we motivated by Greed or Humanism?

Posted: Mon, January 28, 2013 | By: Zeev Kirsch



I’ve been observing the general tenor of trasnhumanism, via video footage on various speakers and events, essays published on the internet, and from speaking to self-identifying transhumanists by phone directly. 

I believe transhumanism is having an identity crisis, or possibly a schism. 

On one hand you have self-identified transhumanists who focus on immortality and other utopian visions such as human-level artificial intelligence, and the possession of god-like powers bestowed upon us by Promethean individuals and institutions.

On the other hand you have numerous men and women who see the mind-blowing promises of our near future and want to be part of a social movement and ethos that embraces those potentials – but this group is frequently reluctant to identify themselves as transhumanists. This second ‘group’ is a loose aggregate of people who are either working in technological fields, or are highly-engaged futurists working in other fields, or not ‘working’ at all. 

My first question is, does transhumanism have an identity set in stone? (At Transhumanity.net there seem to be a long list of articles dealing with the plight of transhumanism.)

Is transhumanism inherently ANTI-humanist because it embraces a future of technologically-advanced human beings who become “gods” compared to a Luddite, or more likely - impoverished - underclass lacking access to the ‘transitioning’ technologies?  

At the present time, several people seem to define the transhumanist ‘identity’. Ray Kurzweil preaches the Singularity. Aubrey de Gray preaches Immortality, David Pearce preaches Abolition of Suffering. The list of other personalities that represent the movement goes on. 

Many non-futurist compassionate humanists look at the prophesies of transhumanists and observe them as mere greed. 

Bearded Aubrey de Gray sells the eons-old philosophers stone to greedy souls who desire more life, instead of more quality of life on their limited stay on earth. 

Ray Kurzweil preaches a future of unlimited leisure and control by virtue of slave armies willing to effortlessly provide for our welfare and warfare. 

David Pearce embraces a vision of utopia where man finally is able to crack the brain electro-chemistry ‘code’ to provide a control mechanism for human emotion thereby banishing  pain and suffering to a realm of impossibility.

Your casual humanist-empiricist observer will tell you the field of medicine was NOT developed by those promising infinite life, the useful arts were NOT developed by those selling slavery of human beings (let alone robots) as a means of improving mankind’s lot in life, and the humanities, including psychology and psychiatry were NOT largely carried forward on the backs of people selling a vision of a suffer-free world.  

All these pursuits of improvement were carried forward by individuals who simply tackled everyday problems of mankind in a meaningful and deliberate fashion.

Cults or religions or secular institutions didn’t push forward these useful arts. In actuality, progress has always been advanced by hard-working individuals who tried to contribute to civilization in the here-and-now. They didn’t selling “promises” of a future. 

Regarding Kurzweil, your average AI programmer and electrical engineer will tell you that decades of human experience in computing has demonstrated that AI will continue to be a work in progress for many decades if not centuries. 

Regarding Aubrey De Grey, your average biologist and doctor will tell you that as the body ages, more things go wrong and the sooner you fix one problem, the sooner another pops up in its place. Cancer—- long thought a singular phenomena is now actually understood by medicine to be a natural and perhaps even necessary part of the normal function of the living body—-it is commonly accepted that people get cancer and beat cancer EVERY DAY of their cellular lives. 

Regarding David Pearce, your average psychiatrist will tell you that, just as the Buddha himself taught and handed down—- psychological suffering IS inherent in the condition of life at some point for all human beings and the desire to eliminate it entirely itself results in overmedication and anxiety about being unhappy; the balance of life must include some misery at some points for all persons.

Kurzweil, De Gray, Pearce, and countless others are offering visions that don’t square up with the experience of many people who themselves are very empirically-oriented futurist thinkers. 

Between all their visions, I look at the superficial social themes defining the transhumanism audience.  I see a vision dominated by various Wants and Desires appealing to the greedy side of human nature, wanting far more than can be reasonably expected from humanity’s abilities at present. 

Certainly a measure of selfish incentive is required for willing progress towards our future. I am, however, left feeling that transhumanism has been busy pigeon-holing itself as something more likely described as “transhedonism” -  a set of values appealing primarily to those technologies we wish will benefit us in the future. 

‘Transhumanism’ does not seem to have really gotten beyond its social/conceptuals roots of cryogenic head-freezing, and calorie restriction to pursue infinite life or health.  It remains a philosophy defined more by a desire to see the world that it wants in the future, than by the world as it is and will likely become soon. 

Hearing Ray Kurzweil ‘correct’ his timing on his prediction for the ‘Singularity’  resonates with my observation of this general psychological/philosophical pattern present in the facial narrative of the transhumanist movement.

Will transhumanism continue to pursue a social and business model appealing to greed - to solicit patronage frm powerful wealthy men who desire more power, and by selling overpriced indulgences in the form of ‘classes’ and ‘certificates’ for as much money as people can be willingly duped into parting with?

I personally spent time (years ago) on the phone with David Pearce and he is very caring and GOOD human being in my estimate. 

I assume Kurzweil and De Gray are also ‘good’ human beings. I do not bring up perceived shortcomings in their visions to discredit them. I bring up the shortcomings to bolster what I would like to believe Should become the positive and popular Humanistic side of transhumanism. 

There are many scientists and technologists out there who have never heard of transhumanism, many people uninterested in the dialectic in our future. But then, there are also many, many people who attend Technology Entertainment and Design conferences (TED), and many other social gatherings to share and explore our social technological future together, many people who are interested in the world we are creating beyond the narrow parcel they farm as part of their livelihood, or contribution to the future we want.  

This brings me towards the schism. 

I believe there is a limited group of transhumanist-friendly folks and tepid members of the ‘movement’, that want to see more of a focus on the future of FAIRNESS in our technological framework. By ‘FAIRNESS’, I do not mean communism or egalitarianism. I mean how will the future be made open to humanity, improving our lot in life by virtue of our efforts. 

One good example is the open source community and the proliferation of open source practices embraced as a general ethos or guideline for behavior.  Commendable in this category are Richard Stallman, and the EFF, but there are many other organizations and individuals involved in this movement. 

Additionally, the digital piracy movement contains in itself a huge amount of people whose simple code of conduct——-copy for free anything and everything that can be copied with the click of a button———is the basis for embracing the notion that ideas are inherently owned by no one. These values are humanistic values because they seek to help human beings.

There are several other examples beyond this. The ethos of many social and individual movements related to the food supply system, the transportation system, the energy generation system, the warfare system, the civilian policing, civilian punishment, security, spying, systems, the psychological and physical treatment system, the education system, the Marriage system, the reproduction (non)system, the environmental/resource system, the Credit/Financial [See my first article ‘Transhumanism and Money’] system. 

There are many individualist-minded transhumanists like myself who are concerned with the western worlds demise into institutional self-dealing and cartel structures, and the financial and behavioral pricing they are imposing on society—[just this week the DMCA laws made criminally-punishable hacking your smartphone] - pushing essentially-costless behavior into the province of social dissidence to the detriment of not only many individuals but to the free-thinking creativity and production they provide for society’s benefit. 

Many individualist transhumanists feel that the focus on improving technologies for individual’s lives (more AI, more Life/Health, less Suffering) is pursuing the very feat mentioned above. I would not disagree. 

I am positing that these pursuits are being couched in a narrative appealing to Greed and Desire, whereas there are others who would like to couch the narrative of futurism as humanist-based. 

I would like to leave on a practical note. I am not just needlessly introducing a fake schism into the non-identity or developing identity of the transhumanist community. I am asking for a practical step. 

I am asking that the community Stop Endorsing overly-expensive requests for payments. By this, I mean the community should request for money connected with providing a service (education) in a manner that is proportionate and provable and OPENLY linked to the costs of those services. When requesting support money not in payment, the transhumanists self-identifying should openly and explicitly acknowledge that costs are not linked to the request because the request is for patronage or charity and that a return of anything of value (other than the pleasure of giving) cannot be expected in exchange for patronage or charity. 

I am not trying to banish all the freakish, geekish, and playful notions of what’s possible from the identify of transhumanism. But I to think that the transhumanist movement lacks a ‘soul’ … for want of a better way of describing it. 

Transhumanists need to come together and pursue a deliberate dialogue regarding the core principles, and ancillary facets of the movement. Without common agreement at some point, the movement will just splinter or fracture into its rather delicate components or sc



Comments:

As I said in my article, nobody owns the word “Transhumanism”. It will be what it will be. Meanwhile, the ethos of Zero State - just do it.

By Dirk Bruere on Jan 28, 2013 at 7:47am

I’ve long been tempted to write an article “Why I’m *NOT* a Transhumanist”.  I self-identify as a future-oriented, technology-oriented (and, possibly, iterated grin ) Humanist—which seems to me to be very different from a Transhumanist for a number of reasons.  My personal top three are:
1.  Transhumanists don’t have a core agreement of what they are.
2.  Too many Transhumanists are blatantly selfish—and the community doesn’t suppress this.
3.  Too many Transhumanists are as blatantly ignorant, prejudiced, and happy about those facts as those whom they look down upon—and the community doesn’t suppress this.

By Mark Waser on Jan 28, 2013 at 8:44am

I invite Transhumanists that would like to show their compassionate side to join the Kiva team of the Mormon Transhumanist Association:

http://www.kiva.org/team/transfigurism

By Lincoln Cannon on Jan 28, 2013 at 9:32am

Hi Mark,

Re “Transhumanists don’t have a core agreement of what they are” - how about the Transhumanist Manifesto, http://humanityplus.org/philosophy/transhumanist-declaration/?

Are there parts of that manifesto that you personally oppose?

Alternatively, for a different (much simpler) take on the common core agreement among transhumanists, how about the so-called “Central Meme of Transhumanism”, namely, “That it is ethical and desirable to improve the human condition through technology”? (See e.g. http://transhumanpraxis.wordpress.com/2012/05/10/cmzs-central-meme-of-zero-state/)

By David Wood on Jan 28, 2013 at 1:35pm

Lincoln you may not know this but the mormon church like the vatican is a large powerful institution with distinctly prsent minded goals.

I advocate AGAINST the co-mingling of any major religion such as judaism,  anglicanism,  cathlicism,  islam,  AND, Mormonism unless you can give me a goid reason to believe otherwise. If you are interested in explaining arguments favoring mormonist transhumanism i would like to hear them privately…please contact hank at transhumanity for my email. I will soon post my google plus social network : zeev kirsh….it may be easier to conduct private dialogue there

By zeev on Jan 28, 2013 at 2:24pm

“Are there parts of that manifesto that you personally oppose?”

There are parts I oppose - most of it in fact.
Stay tuned for an upcoming revisionist document.

By Dirk Bruere on Jan 28, 2013 at 2:27pm

Hi David,

  First off, note that the “Central Meme of Transhumanism” *explicitly* contradicts the Transhumanist Declaration since it affirms the “fundamental desirability” of transformation without making *any* mention of autonomy, individual rights or dignity of those who don’t wish to be transformed.

  I agree with the vast majority of the Declaration (except cryonics) and have a *major* moral disagreement with the CMT.

  Further, I see no signs whatsoever that the vast majority of Transhumanists pay any attention to the declaration.  Maybe Transhumanism as a whole needs to revisit and reaffirm that declaration . . . .

  Do you believe that you see uniformity of support for the Declaration?

By Mark Waser on Jan 28, 2013 at 2:55pm

Hi Zeev. I’m well acquainted with and a member of the LDS Church, although it is not affiliated with the Mormon Transhumanist Association. You can contact me through my website (Lincoln.metacannon.net) if you’d like.

By Lincoln Cannon on Jan 28, 2013 at 5:18pm

Hi Mark,

Where you see an explicit contradiction between the CMT and the Transhumanist Declaration, I simply see that the former says a lot less than the latter.  (A statement S1 surely doesn’t contradict the compound statement S1 & S2).

I don’t mind that the broad community of people who call themselves Transhumanist contains lots of diverse opinions.  It’s similar to the way that many people who would call themselves fans of the scientific method have lots of differences in the details of their thinking.  To that extent, I would say “Transhumanism is a broad church” (except that it isn’t a church!)

But I do share your apprehension that many transhumanists are too focused on the external, libertarian aspects of enhancement, without sufficiently considering internal and collaborative aspects.  I’ve addressed that theme on several occasions in writing - e.g. in http://dw2blog.com/2011/04/17/towards-inner-humanity/ where I state,

>> it’s my strong conviction that any quest to what might be called “outer Humanity+” must be accompanied (and, indeed, preceded) by a quest for “inner Humanity+...”<<

By David Wood on Jan 28, 2013 at 10:39pm

Hi David,

How do you not see a contradiction between “transformation is desirable” (meaning “for everyone”) and explicit support for the preferences of others?  The declaration says that the *availability* of transformation is desirable.  The CMT says that transformation itself is desirable.  The first promotes diversity, the second uniformity.

Diverse opinions are great but you need a common purpose to truly be a group.  Without a common purpose, you can’t plan and measure progress. Also, diverse facts are problematical.

I am also dismayed that many “Transhumanist” libertarians appear (to me) to be far closer to being the selfish Ayn Randian conservatives rather than the more social libertarians.

I’ll even go so far as to say that while Humanists believe in community, the majority of proclaimed Transhumanists believe in the individual—and I find that a problem.

By Mark Waser on Jan 29, 2013 at 5:05am

Hi Mark,

Here’s how I personally interpret the short phrase, “it is ethical and desirable to improve the human condition through technology”:

We should take advantage of technology to offer more choice to people. That’s what it means to improve the human condition.  By itself, there’s no implication that people should be forced to accept widespread change.  Compulsion isn’t part of the package of improvement.

For example, the progress of technology has made synthetic hip replacements widely available.  That’s ethical and desirable.  But it would not be ethical or desirable for me to steamroller my mother into having a hip replacement operation, if she (for whatever reason) had set her views firmly against that particular enhancement.

Of course, there are complications.  Changes in the way society adopts technology means that people who decide not to avail themselves of particular enhancements will find themselves at a disadvantage, or may even have some of their other freedoms curtailed.  For example, when reading and writing became more widespread, people lost the freedom to remain first class engaged members of society, if they insisted on avoiding the effort to learn to read and write.  And as cities accepted different kinds of traffic, the freedom of people to wander all over thoroughfares, in the manner they may previously have done, became constrained.  As technology advances further, society will likely have to consider more choices like that.  But all this, important though it is, is a second level decision, behind the top level meme that there it is desirable and ethical to improve the human condition, and desirable and ethical to use technology for that goal.

By David Wood on Jan 29, 2013 at 1:25pm

Hi David,

    I would interpret that phrase in the same way that you do.  The problem is that not everyone is so reasonable—as many of the people who vociferously support the short meme make quite clear.

By Mark Waser on Jan 30, 2013 at 1:01pm


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