As a foremost representative for a school of thought that prides itself in its philosophical features, it is ironic that the famed transhumanist Zoltan Istvan committed a logical error in the first minute of his turn of a debate hosted by the Stanford Transhumanist Association: the false dichotomy.
Istvan, the 2016 presidential candidate for the newly formed Transhumanist Party, used a thought experiment: Imagine a world without science and technology, no vaccines, no planes, nothing. Living in such a world sounds unappealing, ergo technological progress is an inherent moral and social good. For further supporting evidence, he argued that we “cannot argue against statistics” and that technology has “changed the lives of all of us” by extending life expectancies, giving us convenient social networks, helping us get around, and so on and so forth (emphasis mine). According to Istvan, when it comes to intelligent discussion of technology in society, it is an ideological matter of all-of-technology versus no-technology, and if you have a problem with the transhumanist goals, you are an anti-civilizational Luddite. This lack of nuance and rigor was evident throughout the debate.
Istvan is better known as the author of The Transhumanist Wager, a “philosophical” science fiction novel that centers itself around his Three Laws of Transhumanism: (1) A transhumanist must safeguard his own existence above all else, (2) A transhumanist must strive to achieve omnipotence as expediently as possible — so long as his actions do not conflict with the First Law, and (3) A transhumanist must safeguard value in the universe — so long as his actions do not conflict with the First and Second Laws. At least according to Istvan, the fulfillment of these three “laws” via a radical promotion of science and technology in America constitute the political agenda of the Transhumanist Party. The political interests of Istvan and his party reveal an unsettling cultural and political immaturity that has yet to be as seriously critiqued.
Even some transhumanists have criticized the emergence of the Transhumanist Party, questioning the utility of politicizing transhumanist goals. In reality, the ideals the Transhumanist Party embodies are anti-political. In the Huffington Post article announcing his presidential candidacy, Istvan had the bravado to declare that “[the]future is less about social security, climate change, immigrant border traffic, taxes, terrorism, the economy, and the myriad other issues that flash across news headlines every day — and more about how far we are willing to use science and technology to fundamentally alter the human being and experience.” In a political environment as complex and tumultuous as ours, it goes without saying that an ideology like this one is dangerous.
Istvan concluded one of his debate points by saying: “In short, a lot of the problems, a lot of the suffering, a lot of the dilemmas that the human race faces will be eliminated, cured, fixed, and overcome by technology — and that is something that is going to make us all better.” Even if we grant the assumption that any number of new problems will not emerge with these technologies, there are a number of problems that will remain. Surely, we can admit that the development of medical technology may be able to help some of disabled and the diseased, or that the development of energy technology may help rescue the very environment it is destroying, but any hopes that much more will be accomplished for “all of us” warrants deep skepticism. If we plan on grounding our projects in reality, we need only look at the egregious human rights violations in both at home and abroad; or take a step back and look at the unabating threat of nuclear warfare and climate change; or watch civilians torn apart by American drone attacks, where drone technology has begun to enable its masters to wage war as purely financial wagers. How the pure introduction of more technology will begin to solve problems of ideology, freedom, equality, and authority is unintelligible.
To give a sense of the shallowness with which the transhumanists think politically, consider one of Istvan’s responses to a question about how transhumanist politics will combat the wealth gap:
The problem is with the robotic hearts, they cost 200K, so who’s going to get them first? The rich. I got to tell you I’m not happy about that either. My goal, though, is to try to tell people that ask questions like you, that we as a democracy should try to create a system that forces that when these technologies come out, we can apply it to everyone. Now, in a political way, that may be impossible [emphasis mine], but it’s certainly an idealistic version that I hope to aspire to and I hope to tell people — that all transhumanist technology should be allowed to everyone…[The] whole new generation of people leading Google and some of those other giant Internet companies, they don’t seem like the Rockefellers, hardcore people. They seem a lot nicer. I think they’re going to make it so that democracy and wealth actually does trickle down, faster than it has been in the past. It’s not as fast as you would want it, but it’s fast enough.
It is difficult to predict which emerging technologies will influence our politics, but the political issues that are bound to arrive must be dealt with by political scientists, theorists, humanist scholars, not by “life-extensionists, biohackers, technologists, singularitarians, cryonicists, techno-optimists” who are beginning to “get involved in the political game.” Transhumanists also insist on involving themselves in matters beyond their expertise, such as a necessarily political analysis of the ramifications of new and emerging technologies. Their credibility could be enhanced if Istvan offered a more concrete political agenda, in addition to traditional transhumanism, that would be able to contribute to solving 2016’s most serious geopolitical problems. Thus far, no such political agenda — aside from supporting technological growth — has been proposed, thus making Istvan’s “political” agenda nothing more than making the inherently anti-political transhumanist ideology more prominent in the public sphere.
Each major new product of technological progress thus far — the nuclear bomb, the war drone, cures for illnesses, the Internet, social media, etc. — has generated volumes of serious critical discourse. The transhumanists successfully evade such critical discourse of individual tools by discussing technology as an abstract all-encompassing concept and using ideological, false dichotomies to launch themselves unprepared into a new world of political deliberation. This radical form of scientism, unmatched even in Silicon Valley, threatens to deface our world of its humanity if supported seriously enough by the misguided but powerful tech-elite of Silicon Valley, drunk off sickeningly delusional “techno-optimism.”
In a Foreign Policy article, Stanford political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote:
Transhumanism’s advocates think they understand what constitutes a good human being, and they are happy to leave behind the limited, mortal, natural beings they see around them in favor of something better. But do they really comprehend ultimate human goods? For all our obvious faults, we humans are miraculously complex products of a long evolutionary process — products whose whole is much more than the sum of our parts. Our good characteristics are intimately connected to our bad ones…if we didn’t have feelings of exclusivity, we wouldn’t be loyal to those close to us; if we never felt jealousy, we would also never feel love…Modifying any one of our key characteristics inevitably entails modifying a complex, interlinked package of traits, and we will never be able to anticipate the ultimate outcome.
Fukuyama pushes for a return to a sense of humility when it comes to our conceptions of ourselves as beings, a humility that environmentalists have been embracing for a long time now. What we have here is a means-end structure with wildly unpredictable ends, and need to consider serious revision of the means in the structure — just as the unpredictable and uncontainable nature of violence in Nazism and Communism as a means to utopian ends wrought unspeakable horrors that continue to haunt us today. The emergence of the Transhumanist Party symbolizes not a proud representation of our collective imagination, but rather a complete lack of imagination as to what the consequences of their goals might be.
Science and technology are worthwhile pursuits, but Istvan’s ideology, which promotes them as the sociopolitical values par excellence and as the cure to the majority of our problems, is as dangerous as it is delusional. The bottomless moral horror of the twentieth century can be seen as the direct consequence of relying too heavily on these straightforward utopian solutions and foregoing thoughtful and nuanced discourse. Transhumanists talk about bright technological futures, yet many human beings in this world are still denied any future at all — dying of thirst and preventable diseases while we sprinkle our useless grass lawns and contest the safety of vaccines. If the transhumanists were to unlock the secrets of immortality tomorrow, it would be no surprise that only the rich would be able to afford it, and death itself would be a property of poverty. We live in a world of stark tragedy, and in many cases, the abuse of technology or the withholding of healthy technologies has only aggravated these sufferings. Thus, we return to a fundamentally political problem, something that we cannot avoid as political animals, and something anti-political groups such as the Transhumanist Party by definition cannot properly tackle even if they attempt to join the world of politics.
To close, I would defer to Hannah Arendt’s prescient words from 1958 in her major work The Human Condition, a necessary starting point for anyone hoping to analyze or alter the human condition, as the transhumanists dream of doing:
The future man, whom the scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years, seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself. There is no reason to doubt our abilities to accomplish such an exchange, just as there is no reason to doubt our present ability to destroy all organic life on earth. The question is only whether we wish to use our new scientific knowledge in this direction, and this question cannot be decided by scientific means; it is a political question of the first order and therefore can hardly be left to the decision of professional scientists or professional politicians.
Truman Chen, a sophomore studying philosophy, is the technology editor of Stanford Political Journal.