by Francesco Cascio
«The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself – not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way, but in its entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.» (Julian Huxley, New Bottles for New Wine, 1957)
The transhumanist world is full of shades. It’s not really easy to explain it as a coherent system of thought; probably because that’s not what it is. It is definitely a movement, in the sense that those who endorse it have a particular view of the world and humankind, as well as defined goals regarding both of them.
Officially, transhumanism in an association: it’s called Humanity + (formerly WTA, World Transhumanist Association). It was founded in 1998 by Nick Bostrom, professor at the university of Oxford, and David Pearce, author of The Hedonistic Imperative. It is active in dozens of countries, with the declared mission of “advocating the ethical use of technology to expand human capacities.” (1) Applying a multidisciplinary approach that includes bioengineering, computer science, nanotechnologies and philosophy, they endeavour to surpass human nature and the human condition, using the power of technology and technological hybridisation. That’s what that the “trans” in “transhumanism” means: they believe that mankind is currently going trough a transition phase that separates the biological humans from the post-human form; a situation where humanity acquires full control of its own biological and evolutionary processes, a post-darwinian and post-mortality condition. Transhumanists are definitely dreamers. They dream of a mankind where everybody (2) can achieve enhancement that allows us not to die, not to suffer, and to express our highest possible potential in pretty much any task. Dreamers they may be, but they are neither naïve nor ill-equipped. Not naive, because they are conscious of the potential risks involved in technological development: Nick Bostrom is mostly known for his work on existential risk, and several transhumanists take part in the work of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk from the University of Cambridge, whose goal is to study the risks threatening human extinction that may emerge form technological advances. The transhumanist movement is seriously and thoroughly enquiring about the relation between technological development and humanity. This is probably one of the main tasks of philosophy nowadays.
Transhumanists are also definitely well-equipped, not just because a lot of them are successful authors, (Ray Kurzweil) artists (Natasha Vita-More) scientists (Aubrey de Grey, Eric Drexler) and professors, or because of the number of research institutes related to transhumanism (3), but mostly because the transhumanist ideology is widely supported by influential tech entrepreneurs, such as Peter Thiel (CEO of PayPal), Bill Gates (founder of Microsoft), and Elon Musk (founder of Tesla). This fact is really significant, and we’ll come back to it. The overarching goal of transhumanism is, as we saw, to transcend, to set humans free from the shackles of their nature, to let them be the most perfect form of humans imaginable. It is an ideological battle for human freedom. But is it really like this? In this short paper I’ll try to argue that this battle for freedom reveals itself to be the latest stage of the enslavement of humans to products; far beyond the most perfect of his reifications. To show this, I’ll refer to one of the most important non-academic philosophers of the nineteenth century, who is also a point of reference for the critical analysis of technology: Günther Anders, pseudonym for Günther Stern (Breslau, 1902 – Vienna, 1992). He was an Austrian philosopher, writer and journalist, as well as a tireless activist for the nuclear disarmament. Student of Husserl and Heidegger, his work is mainly focused on the relationship between technological development and human nature, and on the drastic consequences of the former on the latter. His major work, Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen (The Obsolescence of Humankind) published in two volumes, still lacks an English translation. Therefore, all the translations are my own.
What we find in the book is a series of essays where a particular kind of philosophy is at work, which the author calls “occasional philosophy”. It is:
“a hybrid mix of journalism and metaphysics: a philosophy whose object is today’s situation, characteristic sights of today’s world; yet not just as object, since it’s precisely the opaque and unsettling nature of these sights that let our philosophy start.” (4)
What Anders criticizes in his philosophy is what he experienced in first person, working in the industries of Los Angeles and witnessing the explosion of consumerism in America in the 40s and 50s . He claims to have identified a new kind of shame: The Promethean shame (5). It is what human beings feel with respect to the technological products, when they recognize that they are inferior to them. To the individual human being, the machines, whose working principles are to him unknown, appear to be more suitable to the contemporary world then he is. In this situation, the man is a faulty construction, the saboteur of his own endeavours. Machines are faster, stronger and more precise than we are, and the only limit to their abilities is us, for machines are used and piloted by us fallible human beings.
Machines could, in principle, travel to many distant planets, resist to high temperature and pressure, and achieve lots of other goals if they were not impeded by those who lead them (6). Not anymore because his wing’s wax doesn’t hold up, Anders says, Icarus fall. It’s Icarus itself that doesn’t resist. If he could dump himself, dead weight, his wings could reach the sky. Technological products are not to be considered as separate entities but rather as a singular, continuing process. Due to this, machines are free:
«The correct description of our world of products is not a sum of permanent single pieces, but rather a process: the new daily production of daily fresh new pieces. It’s not at all a fixed world then, it’s rather undetermined, open, plastic, willing to modify itself day after day, constantly ready to adapt to new situations, always on the verge of new tasks; transformed through the error and trial method, it presents itself differently everyday.» (7)
Man, on the other side, is not. Their form is fixed, morphologically constant. The body of the modern engineer is pretty much the same as the one of his pre-historical ancestors. This is the root of his shame. His dishonour is to be born, to be shaped a priori, and to not have been produced. The natum-esse is something to be ashamed of, because it brands the humans as ontologically (8) inferior to the products. Humans’ reaction to this, Anders says, is human engineering. Due to their fixed form, men lack freedom, and are less suitable and less valuable for the contemporary world then machines, for considering the latter as a general process makes them plastic, free, and hence superior. Therefore, in order to try to fill the gap between himself and the realm of machines, and to still be able to live in the world, man must provide an attempt to become equal to products. Human beings must:
«absolutely try to show their devotion to things, try an “imitatio instrumentorum”, a reform of themselves; provide at least to “enhance” themselves, enough to minimize the “sabotage” that he causes because of his “original sin”, the birth.» (9)
This “imitatio instrumentorum” is human engineering, that is the use of technology with the aim of surpassing human limits, that is exactly the goal of the transhumanist philosophy
This is the framework within which I believe that transhumanism should be interpreted. Thanks to Anders’ speculation is in fact possible to understand that the transhumanist project for the creation of a new kind of humanity is actually the final stage of its enslavement to the world of products and to the products’ production standards. The need for surpassing human limits, that are felt as unbearable, derives from the shame of man in the regard of his products. These limits become unbearable only when humanity is evaluated on the machine’s standard. It can be objected that this is not true. Avoiding death—which is probably the most fundamental issue of transhumanism—for example, is one of the oldest dreams of mankind and it has nothing to do with the historical contingency of the technological development. Proofs of this are ancient traditions like the ones of alchemy and magic. The objection would be correct, but nevertheless the way in which transhumanism is trying to defeat death reveals the implicit desire of becoming immortal as things, and not as human beings. Let’s consider, for example, the theory of Mind-Uploading. It is, in a nutshell, the attempt to transfer the consciousness and the identity of someone from their brain to an artificial substrate, namely some sort of supercomputer, in order to avoid biological degradation (10). With this approach, what will survive is pure mind, pure “calculation power”. The corporeality, that is the fundamental vehicle of the human relation with the world, is sacrificed. Furthermore, mind-uploading is aiming to achieve reproducibility of someone’s identity. This reproducibility is another characteristic that, according to Anders’ interpretation, constitutes the products’ ontological superiority to human beings : they are not affected by the “uniqueness malaise”. (11)
The transhumanist upgrade of man could be read as an attempt to finally fill the gap that divides us from products, and in doing so finally eliminate the shame. It’s a superhuman act that conceals a total prostration, the result of which will be to surpass man’s feeling of inadequacy because his transformation into a product would finally be achieved. This should be rejected, not in defence of an ideal and vague “human nature” that would be violated, but rather because it is an abjuration of humanity for non-human reasons:
«No, the modification of our body is not something radically new and shocking because by means of it we give up our “morphological destiny” or we transcend the limits that are set up for us, but rather because we transform ourselves for the love of our machines, because we take machines as a sample for our alterations; by doing this we stop referring to ourselves as a unity of measurement, and so we limit our freedom, or we give it up.» (12)
The Hybris of the transhumanist is then completely different from that of Prometheus, Anders would say. It is humble, because it is imposed by surrender. Deceived, I would add, because it’s blind in respects of its very own causes.
Transhumanists are probably considered by most to be an eccentric group of thinkers, whose ideals are not taken seriously. Fukuyama, for example, situates them at the outskirts of the intellectual world. This can be argued for. Let’s reconsider the strong bond between transhumanism and influential tech entrepreneurs. It’s not hard to see that those leading tech companies don’t sell just products; they endorse a lifestyle, a defined set of values. Apple is probably the best example of this new market management. How many of those values are compatible or derived from the transhumanist philosophy? Will this apparently marginal philosophy be spread by the market? This is not an easy matter and it deserves to be developed, but what we pointed out seems to be enough to pose these interesting questions. Maybe in some decades we’ll consider transhumanism to be a mass philosophy; the technological philosophy for technological times.
(2) This “everybody” is of course problematic. It seems highly improbable that these enhancing technologies will be available in the same way all over the world, considering how big the wealth disparity between first and third world countries already is. This is more or less the claim of F. Fukuyama in his contribution to the Foreign Policy special “The World’s Most Dangerous Ideas”: http://foreignpolicy.com/2009/10/23/transhumanism/ . And here is Bostrom’s reply to the article: https://nickbostrom.com/papers/dangerous.html
(3) Just to name a few: Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET) https://ieet.org/ , SENS Research Foundation http://www.sens.org/ , Foresight Institute https://about.foresight.org/
(4) G. Anders, Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen. Über die Seele im Zeitalter der Zweiten Industriellen Revolution, 1987, Beck’sche Reihe, Page 8.
(5) The dissertation about the Promethean shame is quite accurate and well developed in Anders’ work. It’s worth taking a look at his essay, for a more in-depth analysis of the phenomena and for responses to some objections.
(6) See: pages 31-35
(7) Page 33
(8) Pages 36-41
(9) Pages 36-37
(10) For further reading on the topic see: G.M. Martin, Brief Proposal on Immortality: An Interim Solution, in: Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, N°14, 1971. And P. Moore, Enhancing Me. The Hope and the Hype of Human Enhancement, 2008, Chapter 3.
(11) Pages 50-56
(12) Pages 46-47
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