Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Transhuman Apotheosis/Transhuman Apocalypse

Note: This post is a companion to "The Psychedelic Solution," posted here.

It doesn't bother me that Transhumanism meddles with the forces of nature - bending nature to our will has been the human story since the first tool was made or the first potion was brewed. And it doesn't bother me that Transhumanism will inevitably primarily benefit the rich, despite all of the protests to the contrary from its apologists - I'm used to that kind of thing by now.

What really bothers me is that Transhumanism is a religion.
A religion every bit as totalizing and apocalyptic as the ones it seeks to replace. It preaches apotheosis and deliverance from death and it makes universal claims of salvation. It even has its own rapture in the form of the Singularity. And that makes debate nearly impossible.

We've already seen some fairly intemperate language from the Transies when it comes to dealing with opposition- how could we not? They believe that Transhumanism is going to turn us- and by us, I mean the super-rich and a handful of their lackies - into gods, who will live forever, out-think supercomputers, and generally make Nietzsche's Overman look like Beavis and Butthead. Anyone who would stand in the way of that is a fool, right?

I'm not opposed to rejiggering the human machine in principle- it's done on a daily basis for both better and worse. Nothing's going to change the fact that very few of us wouldn't like to be stronger, smarter and sexier. If someone could offer me a way out of the daily obstacle course of pain I have to run, there's not much I wouldn't do. But my experience with the latest wonder drugs for my condition has been anything but wonderful, so forgive my cynicism about the latest and the greatest.

But again, my main concern is this: what I'm reading in Transhumanist literature is religion, of the old-fashioned variety. And the problem with religion is that once it establishes itself you can't argue with it.

To be perfectly frank, I'm also old enough to have seen a lot of these techno-Utopias be hyped as the next big thing fail to change everything. Virtual Reality is still more concept than reality, simply because it's extremely difficult and time consuming to animate even simple virtual environments. I remember watching a lecture on CSPAN in which Tom Wolfe darkly warned that we were entering the decade of neuroscience and everything was going to radically and suddenly change. That was 15 years ago. Nanotechnology was another promise/threat that's still more theory than reality. And let's not forget all of the DARPA wonder weapons that never seem to make it to the field.

The problem is that Scientism is every bit as evangelistic as the supernatural religion it claims to despise. It's usually overly eager to proclaim the good word once the numbers are all worked out. But the problem is that these things take time, they cost money, they use up a devilish amount of energy, manpower and resources. Things rarely go according to plan. And when you're talking about screwing around with biology you have to deal with the immune system, which is kind of like Nature's version of black magic. The Transhumanists should ask the pharmaceutical companies how easy it is to get the immune system to behave itself. It could also ask the transplant industry how well artificial organs are tolerated.

Or is this all too obvious?

Even so, I haven't seen much of that on sites like IEET and H+. Because a religion is self-evident: Transhumanism has to work because the Transhumanists believe that it will. If you question that, you're an enemy, an infidel. And if this Transhumanist apotheosis is in fact ever achieved, it's a pretty sure bet that the first order of business will be to do something about the goddamn humans, who are screwing everything up and need to be dealt with.

Religion also tends to inspire backlash.
Transhumanism could all go very badly and inspire a new purtianical Luddism and a vogue for human devolution (well, one even worse than the present variety). Thanks to digital technology, the cognitive elite's power is pretty awesome as of this writing, but things have a nasty habit of changing suddenly and returning to the laws of the jungle. Romans thought their civilization was eternal, too. It took more than five centuries of disease, squalor and carnage to rebuild Europe once it fell.

Now, you'd think a lifetime of sci-fi fandom would soften me up for the Transhuman pitch, but it's just the opposite. Which brings me to my next topic.

I already recommended the work of Mike Mignola as my favorite example of the interface between magic and art, so let me just make a recommendation for your wishlist that deals with all of the topics explored today.

BPRD: Garden of Souls introduces a gaggle of Steampunk transhumans. They're members of a 19th Century scientific secret society called the Heliopic Brotherhood who've survived by transferring their consciousness into robot bodies. But they have bigger plans- they are engineering super-Golems that will play host to millions of souls. To free up all of this conscious energy they plan to engineer earthquakes and tsunamis in the south Pacific which will transhumanize the local population. For their own good, you understand.

That's a pretty good allegory of religious Transhumanism run amok. The Borg and their Doctor Who predecessors the Cybermen are another. And that's what concerns me. Whether or not any of this will come to pass is by no means the sure bet the Transies claim it to be. As I've said before we live in a very dangerous neighborhood and one of the dangers is waking up one morning and finding out none of our electrical equipment works anymore for whatever reason. And so on.

I love technology, and I love the idea of using it to solve seemingly intractable human problems.
Any art, philosophy or science should be dedicated to the alleviation of human suffering. But I don't love religion - meaning a reductive binding principle- and don't think that grafting its worst impulses onto what I see as very speculative science will help matters any. Just one man's opinion, but maybe one informed by a sense of history.