My last piece explored the contrasting philosophical worldviews of Dark Mountain collapsism and utopian Transhumanism. There is not much more to be said about the Dark Mountaineers. Their fatalistic view is that our current scientific/technological civilization is doomed to collapse, and their main concern seems to be how to deal with that collapse and return to humanity’s role as part of nature, rather than dominating nature.
Transhumanists envision a rosy future, defined by a humanity that will rise to the challenge of solving the daunting problems that we currently face. But within the transhumanist movement, there is considerable disagreement over the path we must take to that future utopia, and what its nature will be. That will be the focus of what follows here.
All transhumanists are advocates of improvements to our minds and bodies through the use of technology. These improvements include cybernetic limbs and computer-enhanced brains, advanced pharmacology, nanorobotics, gene editing, and even extending beyond the human body to geoengineering and artificial superintelligence. The sky is not even the limit to these futuristic dreams.
The goal is to transform ourselves into…what? Call it “post-human.” The web site for transhumanism’s primary think tank, the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET) puts it this way:
“Transhumanists look to biotechnologies and other emerging technologies for these purposes [and] predict that human beings may eventually be able to transform themselves into beings with such greatly expanded abilities as to merit the label Posthuman.”
But how do we get there? This is where Transhumanists disagree. Ray Kurzweil, the famous futurist, says that, given the accelerating pace of technology, machines will attain human-level intelligence before 2030, and from there, the exponential curve will combine software and hardware with “wetware” – human brains. Computers and brains will be united in what can only be called “superhuman” beings.
Kurzweil predicts that these emergent superhumans, billions of times more intelligent than we mere humans, will begin converting matter into “computational substrate,” an as-yet-undefined substance that serves as the medium for ever more computing power, which continues until the entire universe is more or less one massive computer, in which all manner of realities can be experienced by the consciousness within. He calls it the “Singularity.”
Even with his impressive record in predicting technological advance, this sounds a bit far out, to say the least, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Kurzweil’s vision has some skeptics shaking their heads.
Among the prominent skeptics is Zoltan Istvan. In 2016, he ran a shoestring campaign for President of the United States as the candidate of the somewhat nebulous Transhumanist Party. He later set his sights on California’s governor’s mansion, running for the Libertarian Party’s nomination in 2018. In 2019, he actually sought the Republican Party’s nomination for president, running against Trump. Running as a Republican might make one tend to question his sanity, since he is an avowed atheist. Istvan has rejected what he sees as the fairytales of religion and has opted instead to spread the good news about the wonderful world that might be, if only society would get behind transhumanism. He considers Kurzweil’s Singularity a distraction from real-world progress in that respect. “Don’t focus on the Singularity as anything rational,” he says.
If transhumanists are going to break through to the mainstream and have a real impact on policy and culture, they need to focus on “what can and will likely happen,” which Istvan says, “is the creation on earth of a massive techno-utopia society based on humanitarian impulse and transhumanism empathy and progress.”
But Istvan has his own unlikely dream: He wants to “conquer death.” Not just in the sense of improving one’s health and lengthening one’s life. Death is Istvan’s nemesis. His 2016 presidential campaign’s primary gimmick was to drive across the country in a giant RV shaped like a coffin dubbed “The Immortality Bus.” Throughout his speeches, interviews, and articles written for numerous online outlets, it has become clear that defeating death is an obsession with Istvan. He says Kurzweil’s Singularity is not rational, but his batshit dream is no better.
So, which is it? Kurzweil’s Singularity or Istvan’s human immortality? Despite all the grand promises of AI salvation or cybernetic immortality, a much more likely scenario is the continuing work of serious academics and thinkers, and techno-optimists from across the disciplines who put in the real work to figure out how we are going to get there, and it’s probably gonna take a long time. The Dark Mountaineers say we don’t have that much time so we’re doomed and are headed back to a simple agrarian life.
James Hughes, executive director and cofounder of IEET, thinks both Kurzweil and Istvan are wrong. Hughes agrees that massive technological change is coming, but for the transhumanist vision to be realized, it needs to meld with progressive values regarding social justice, income equality, labor rights, and bodily autonomy. Transhumanism needs to divorce itself from the theories of Kurzweil and Istvan, which he considers irrelevant distractions from the work that transhumanists should be engaged in.
But Hughes also has his utopian dreams.
“Without a clear strategic goal of a humanity freed from work through the gradual expansion of automation and the social wage, all policies short of Luddite bans on new technology will have disappointing and perverse effects,” wrote Hughes in 2017. “If liberals and the left do not re-embrace the end of work and the need to give everyone income as a right of citizenship, unconnected to employment, they will help usher in a much bleaker future of growing class polarization and widespread immiseration.”
It is not clear whether the transhumanists or the Dark Mountaineers are correct in their vision of the future, but it is clear that industrial capitalism, as it is currently being practiced, is not sustainable. It is poisoning the ecosphere faster than it can heal or adapt, and even though technological development has been accelerating exponentially, it hasn’t slowed the ecological destruction significantly.
It seems likely that the predictions are correct that a major upheaval is coming. How far in the future is anybody’s guess. Humanity could continue to muddle along for the rest of this century, or even longer, if some corrective actions are taken, but we are on an ultimately unsustainable path. The only uncertainty is when the trainwreck will happen, if we do not deal with it. In that sense, both the Mountaineers and the Transhumanists are providing a needed stimulus to force us all to confront the problem. If we just continue to kick the can down the road, the results will be dire for future generations…if there are any.
Acknowledgement: Most of the information herein came from an article in the May/June issue of Free Inquiry magazine, titled “Post-Humans on a Sterile Promotory: The New Myths of Transhumanism and the Dark Mountain.”