Transhumanism and Ideology

The nineteenth century is famous for a lot of things – the Napoleonic Wars, the 1848 revolutions in Europe, the Atlantic slave trade (it’s continuance and then its termination), the American Civil War, the industrial revolution, colonialism, and much else. But many of these things could probably be put broadly under one title: the rise of ideologies. Socialism/communism, liberalism, capitalism, republicanism, and nationalism are among the most well-known of such ideologies. The seeds sown in the nineteenth century resulted in the poisoned fruit of the twentieth century: the rise of Fascism/Nazism and Communism, the two World Wars, and the Cold War. Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man attempted to declare that liberal politics and capitalist economics had triumphed over all other ideologies; the book is both lauded and derided by people on all sides of the political spectrum. But we have merely come up with new ideologies – or, at least, mutated and adapted old ideologies to fit our times.

Roger Berkowitz in a Quillette article adapted from a collection of essays he edited titled The Perils of Invention: Lying, Technology, and the Human Condition says:

[Hannah] Arendt defines an ideology as a system that seeks to explain “all the mysteries of life and the world” according to one idea. Nazism is an ideology that blames economic disaster, political loss, and the evils of modernity on the Jews—inhuman flotsam who must be exterminated to allow a master race to flourish. Bolshevism, on the other hand, “pretends that all history is a struggle of classes, that the proletariat is bound by eternal laws to win this struggle, that a classless society will then come about, and that the state, finally, will wither away.” The bourgeoisie are not simply class traitors, they are a dying class, and killing them only supports a law of history. As ideologies, both Nazism and Bolshevism insist on explaining the events of the world according to theories “without further concurrence with actual experience.” The result, Arendt argues, is that such ideologies bring about an “arrogant emancipation from reality.”

And later he says:

The earth, then, is Arendt’s name for that one aspect of man’s reality—his mortal finitude—that must remain if man is to remain subject to the traditionally conceived human condition. While humans may cultivate crops and domesticate animals, while we may build dams and form polities, we cannot shed our mortal coil. To be alive, man, just as animals and plants, must be born and he must die—an organic and natural process that must remain free from the artifice and fabrication that humans bring to all other aspects of earthly existence.

And so our ideological flight from reality is simultaneously met by our desire to master that reality through technological means—with both of these forces causing a rejection of reality’s power.

Read the whole article here.

This is saying that transhumanism – the merging of humankind with its technology – is an ideology that disregards the human condition for the idea of overcoming our human condition through technology. I have transhumanist sympathies, although more out of pessimism for the human condition than out of optimism for a transhuman future. There is obviously an ideological bent to transhumanism, but is it an ideology on par with Nazism or Communism?

Let’s forget for now that transhumanism is already a reality in many ways and instead point out that the naturalistic fallacy (or appeal to nature) and status quo bias are both at play in the anti-transhumanist position. In the first case, the argument seems to be that humans are naturally mortal, flesh-and-blood creatures, and therefore it is good that humans are mortal, flesh-and-blood creatures – getting the ought (that humans ought to be flesh-and-blood and that humans ought to die) from the is (that a human is flesh-and-blood and that a human is mortal). In the second case (status quo bias), the fact that humans are mortal, flesh-and-blood creatures is taken as the baseline condition and that it is the condition to be preserved because it is what we are familiar with.

There are certainly plenty of ways in which the transhumanist project could go wrong (or even that it could be impossible to accomplish). But there are just as many (if not more) ways that the status quo could go wrong (or be impossible to maintain). Transhumanism is not like Nazism or Communism in that we don’t have plenty of data to point to in order to show just how dangerous and harmful it is. We are also gathering plenty of data that the status quo will not work in the long run.

There are two questions at play here:

  1. What is an ideology?
  2. What does it mean to be human?

The first question, I think the Berkowitz/Arendt definition that “…an ideology as a system that seeks to explain ‘all the mysteries of life and the world’ according to one idea” is a useful working definition. Ideologies are popular because they provide a simple, clear-cut framework in which to understand the world, as well as a simple litmus test for who is “one of us” and who is “one of them.” I got caught up in the libertarian ideology for a time, and one of the reasons why (as I discuss in the linked post) is because it was based on a simple, elegant, logical framework starting from the seemingly self-evident axiom of self-ownership. It was simple, even comforting, to see things through this lens; to be confident that all the problems in the world are because of governments having too much power and that the simple solution to all such problems would be to reduce (or even to eliminate) government power.

The world, and humans, are (un)fortunately too complicated for any single ideology to encompass. No ideology will ever be perfectly implemented, and even if it were, it would quickly decay away from the ideal, to some deviation or perversion of the ideology (and this is assuming that a particular ideology being perfectly implemented would even be desirable).

There is another way to think about ideology, though: everyone has an ideology (and likely can never escape having some kind of ideology, contrary to what Marxists seem to think), a way they think the world works and a way they think the world ought to work. In the United States, the ideology (broadly speaking) is liberal politically and capitalist economically. Even those on the far right and far left tend to see the world in this way: that freedom and equality are good (though they will have differing definitions of what freedom and equality means and what they should motivate us to do). Liberalism is at the center of our Overton Window.

This ideology also gives us a view of human nature and what the good life is. Humans, the ideological wisdom goes, are to have a happy childhood, a productive (and consumerist) adult life, have enough children to continue the growth trend (population and economic), and then get out of the way (die) sometime between the ages of 75 and 100 (depending how much of a burden you are on productive society). Most people, even the leftiest of the leftists, buy into this wisdom (they might see productivity in terms of activism).

This ideology is why things like antinatalism is seen as so radical (i.e., being too far outside the Overton Window). I would say the same goes for transhumanism. As such, opposing transhumanism isn’t the avoidance of ideology, but simply preferring the currently adopted ideology (i.e., the status quo).

This gets us to the second question I asked above: what does it mean to be human? The current ideology (which I will broadly call liberalism) views humans in a syncretic form of deontology and utilitarianism, where the former determines our adherence to notions like human rights and equality while the latter determines an axiology based on productivity, transactionalism, economic progress, and the pleasure principle. Productivity in that we view people who “make something of themselves” and contribute to society in some tangible way. This brings us to what I mean by transactionalism, wherein productivity is defined as the production of those things that can be done as transactions: money, commodities, and favors. Then economic progress means that our productivity ought to be something that adds to economic growth: new inventions, greater productive capacity, or expansion of wealth (one’s own or that of the firm they work for). And the pleasure principle determines how we place value on the goods and services to be transacted: those commodities that deliver pleasure (or at the very least reduce displeasure) are good, while anything else is superfluous or even a waste of time/resources.

Obviously, the broad ideology of liberalism has many more sub-ideologies (e.g., secular humanism, social democracy, green politics, paleoconservatism, neoconservatism, libertarianism, constitutionalism, republicanism, etc.), but all of them will accept most of the above in some form (even most modern dictators pay some lip service to being democratically elected or claim that their policies will be better for their people in terms of pleasure or freedom or equality etc.). What has allowed this ideology to function is that it has complemented our industrialized, globalized world better than any other ideology (e.g., Fascism, Communism). This form of liberalism brought more people out of poverty than any other nineteenth to twentieth century ideology, brought pleasure to more people, gave us greater advances in both science and in morality (because of liberal values, we now understand that war, slavery, violence, bigotry, etc. are morally reprehensible).

What we’re seeing in the twenty-first century, however, is that liberalism seems to be more and more at odds with what the world is becoming. Having no ideology is not an option (at least as long as humans remain human), and so we will require a new ideology to take the place of liberalism. Transhumanism is one candidate ideology. Another (perhaps the opposite end of the spectrum to transhumanism) would be something like anarcho-primitivism, neo-Luddism, or other varieties of degrowth. These, to me, form another axis on the political spectrum.

Many people are familiar with the 2D political compass:

A third axis, then, might lie between transhumanist on one end and degrowth on the other. Between the two extremes are many other more moderate positions (e.g., techno-progressive ideologies like metamodernism), but I contend that this third axis is necessary to understand ideological positions in our twenty-first century world. We already know, for instance, that there are different political flavors of transhumanism, corresponding to different regions of the 3D political compass.

The point, though, is that in the twenty-first century, everyone will need to add this third axis and take a position in the higher-dimensional political compass. Transhumanism is just one of the positions one can take, but any position on this new axis will inform an overall ideology. To hold up the status quo is the best option is an ideological position, and likely one that is untenable, because it is extremely unlikely to occur.

The above schematic, from Nick Bostrom’s 2007 paper “The Future of Humanity“, attempts to illustrate what could happen in the future should transhumanism win (the lines going above the narrow band of the human condition) or should degrowth win (the lines going below the human condition) or attempt to remain with the status quo (the high-frequency line remaining within the human condition). As the description says, when we look far enough into the future, the idea that we’ll maintain the status quo begins to appear obviously absurd. Something like transhumanism or something like degrowth will almost certainly occur.

It is important to ask what it means to be human. But we need to keep in mind that when answering this question, we are filtering our reasoning through an ideology (hence the status quo bias arising). That we humans have the flesh-and-blood bodies we do, that we are mortal, that we possess certain sentiments about the need for meaning in our life, are facts (the is). But should these facts dictate our future prospects (the ought)? Would it be better for humanity to go extinct, or to live in a world with gratuitous suffering, just to cling to our sentimental notions of the human condition? Should we abide so strongly to the precautionary principle that we allow the current problems humanity faces to be our downfall? Is the comfort of the familiar worth throwing away future possibilities?

And ultimately, do we even have a right to deny ourselves, or our future descendants, the ability to reach much greater potential? If our morality is predicated on the richness and fullness of conscious experience, and transhumanism has the potential to greatly expand human consciousness, then isn’t it incumbent on us to bring such higher states of consciousness into being?