Rebooting Human Nature

Minds uploaded into new bodies; lifetimes encompassing vast eons; the merging of man with machines—these prospects, held out by transhumanists, might be dismissed as the fantastic notions of a few Silicon Valley denizens too much influenced by Hollywood.

But to dismiss as simply outlandish the transhumanist project of transforming man through technology would be a grave mistake, says Charles T. Rubin in his new book, Eclipse of Man: Human Extinction and the Meaning of Progress. Rubin, in weighing the moral significance of transhumanism, argues that it is no fringe phenomenon but a “grand vision” that demands a serious response. He offers that serious response by setting contemporary transhumanism in a long tradition of intellectual efforts to supersede humanity and then drawing on this tradition to expose the moral vacuousness of the transhumanist project.

The author, an associate professor of political science at Duquesne University*, first sets out the moral presuppositions of transhumanists (and their fellow travelers such as posthumanists and singularitarians). They begin with the common observation that humans are imperfect. Rather than viewing this as a permanent fact to be addressed, for example, by conceiving of man as a creature between beasts and gods, with virtues appropriate to such a being, or by accepting man as sinful but with the prospect of salvation, transhumanists reject—and quite indignantly reject—the necessity of accepting human imperfection. They postulate not merely the possibility of perfecting man but the desirability of doing so:

[Transhumanists’] dissatisfaction with the merely human is so great that they can barely bring themselves to imagine why anyone would make a rational decision to remain an unenhanced human, or human at all, once given a choice.

To imagine human perfection as a possibility, transhumanists must make mind, not body, essential to the human self. A perfected mind, as it reckons with and compensates for the frailty of human flesh, must also be ever more reliant on technology rather than mere nature to support its activity. A perfected mind also retains fewer marks of individuality, as individual traits and personality quirks come to be seen as glitches in the rational operation of a perfected mind. Thus transhumanists, no doubt believing themselves to be holding high the banner of individualism, let that banner fall to the ground. As Rubin points out, some of them go so far as to doubt the existence of a “self” that is worthy of preservation separate from a perfected, impersonalized mind. He quotes one transhumanist who calls the self a “user illusion.”

Transhumanists welcome the merger of mind with machine as a benevolence that will perfect and immortalize mind while suppressing individuality. Mistaken in their own self-conception, they similarly mistake what their project represents. Rubin concludes that it cannot be viewed as one of perfecting human beings but of rendering them extinct, for what remains will no longer be truly human.

Most people would reject the extinction of man as abhorrent, and the transhumanists have the burden of defending this prospect. However, they have no sure grounds for making this case: having rejected nature as an insufficient guide to the human good and having cast aside religion, they have no moral core on which to base a defense of the project of human extinction.

The moral emptiness of transhumanism concerns everyone since, Rubin shows, the technological transformation of human beings is not a matter merely for those who might choose to be enhanced. The “one percent” and the “99 percent” of recent political discourse would take on a whole new meaning if the former came to be so enhanced that their economic output far outstripped that of the rest of us, leaving us little to contribute. If so, those who opted out of enhancement would be “freely” accepting a vastly subordinate position.

The introduction of vast inequality and greatly diminished freedom for the unenhanced does not pose a problem for them, though. Writes Rubin:

This kind of coercion is not of much concern to transhumanists; they are content to offer that it does not infringe upon freedom because, as the rules of the game change, one always retains the freedom to drop out. Indeed, the transhumanists seem to take particular delight in pointing out that anyone who opposes the idea that the indefinite extension of human life is a good thing will be perfectly free to die. In a world of enhancement competition, consistent “bioluddites” will be self-eliminating.

Because the unenhanced (and even the merely less enhanced) will eventually die out or be reduced to a very low station, today’s society will be transformed—and not just transformed but remade. Foreseeing the eventual total remaking of humanity and society, transhumanism qualifies as a “grand vision,” in Rubin’s words. The grandeur of the transhumanist vision is what prompts many to dismiss it as simply too fantastic to take seriously, but he insists that we do so.

Why? First of all, grand visions have the power to capture the imagination. Humans, after all, have a noble impulse to be part of something much bigger than themselves. When enough are drawn to a grand vision that it becomes a political movement, the results can be devastating.

Rubin offers Marxism as a grand vision to which we should compare the potential power of transhumanism. Marxism envisions an inexorable historical dialectic that leads to the wholesale overthrow of present society and its replacement by a communist utopia, and it offers its adherents a place in the revolutionary vanguard. Similarly, transhumanism envisions the establishment of a new type of society of perfected men, and it offers its adherents a place in the vanguard of human enhancement. The suggestion is that transhumanism might grow from fringe movement to civilizational challenge, just as Marxism did.

While cautioning against worst-case scenario thinking, Rubin argues that, nevertheless, we must understand and confront transhumanism’s grand vision if we are to respond adequately to the transhumanist element in the technological innovations now part of quotidian life:

It is very likely that the world we will have in the future will not be exactly the one laid out by today’s transhumanists. Still, our utter dependence on continuing scientific and technological development makes it impossible to dismiss the broad goals of transhumanism outright; indeed, it is hard to imagine how we will avoid making choices that could provide building blocks for a project of human extinction. Even if in most instances these choices will actually be made with a view to the contingencies of the moment—arising from scientific curiosity, engineering creativity, military necessity, or commercial possibility—the transhumanist grand vision of the eclipse of man will be there to influence, rationalize, and justify favoring certain alternatives.

Some of these alternatives are already on the horizon. He mentions nanotechnology, which may, in the coming decades, allow physicians to introduce miniscule machines into cancerous cells to replace or destroy them. Or it may enhance military snipers’ vision by inserting tiny devices in their eyes similar to devices already used to treat macular degeneration. We can easily imagine deciding to allow these applications of technology so we can better treat cancer or better overcome enemy insurgents; indeed, it might be wise to allow these to go forward. But if we say yes to these human enhancements, we will be willy-nilly entering the transhumanist future.

Hence, Rubin insists, we must confront the meaning of doing so—not by considering one application at a time but by looking at the transhumanist project writ large.

We have, as he shows, many intellectual resources to bring to bear in our confrontation with transhumanism. Transhumanists present their ideas as novel; in this they err, perhaps out of ignorance of their predecessors. One of the achievements of this book is to set transhumanism in a long tradition of efforts to supersede humanity, with origins in the early modern period and clear intellectual precedents from the Enlightenment forward. The author ranges widely through 18th, 19th, and 20th century European and American philosophy and scientific thought—from the Marquis de Condorcet to physicists who led the search for extraterrestrial intelligence—to show that contemporary transhumanism is just the latest expression of arguments about what it would mean for mankind to confront, and then to aspire to become, beings superior to mere human beings.

Since transhumanist ideas have long precedent, we have the benefit of a long tradition of critiques of their moral presuppositions. While drawing on the scientific and philosophic tradition, Rubin also brings in Western literature and the visual arts as crucial to our confrontation with transhumanism, for the latter offer a “realistic and morally nuanced picture of the issues at stake in human self-overcoming.” From contemporary science fiction, to Rubin’s own short fiction used as chapter prologues, from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s famous Landscape with the Fall of Icarus to the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, we see how works of the imagination draw out the implications of technology as applied to human beings—the gains that accompany it, but also the loss of other psychic, social, and bodily goods. Transhumanism emerges, through this exegesis, as both attractive and potentially very damaging to human beings.

This is followed by a rebuttal of the moral vision of transhumanism with a rival vision of the worth and dignity of ordinary life as it emerges in the history of each individual. Instead of individual traits being akin to glitches, to be suppressed by a perfected mind, meaningfulness emerges for individuals during their past and present through relationships with other individuals and the world around them. Technological innovation should not be rejected, Rubin argues, but it should be evaluated with regard to how it will affect our ordinary lives:

We can admit the desirability of innovation and still value the continuities that for better and worse influence the meaning that those innovations will come to have for our lives, projecting the past and present into the future rather than the other way around.

In addition to affirming an enduring connection between past and future, Rubin counsels that we must cultivate intellectual modesty about our ability to predict the consequences of human enhancement. Human intellect will fail to predict everything that follows from these enhancements and human vices will prompt malevolent uses of some enhancements. Rather than rush headlong into a transhumanist future, we should move slowly, learning about the consequences, intended and unintended, of new technologies, so as to discern clearly whether they have had the benevolent consequences we hoped.

Is Rubin’s rebuttal of transhumanism as a grand vision convincing? How could a due regard for ordinary life, buttressed by intellectual modesty, ever dissuade those lured by the grand vision offered by transhumanism?

In asking this question, we must be mindful of the difficulties in confronting any grand vision. Here again, Rubin’s comparison between transhumanism and Marxism is helpful. The grand vision of Marxism was exceedingly difficult to defeat; indeed its defeat “remains an incompletely accomplished task,” he writes, because what the West has to offer can seem much less compelling by comparison. While Marxism puts before its adherents a grand vision of a utopian future and a place in the vanguard of revolution, the West offers a rich tradition of rights and liberties that leaves everyone to find—or fail to find—his place. The West, having made religion and “the meaning of it all” a matter of individual conscience, cannot offer its own grand vision and so is perpetually vulnerable to totalitarian ideas, of which transhumanism is simply the most recent.

Resisting grand visions is a permanent task for the West. Rubin’s moving account of ordinary life is indeed a worthy example of how to counter such exciting mirages. Following his example, we must exert ourselves to understand the drive to develop and apply new technologies, and to put forward, rationally and with steadfastness, a cautionary argument that affirms the value of human life.

* In the interest of full disclosure, I am listed by Dr. Rubin in his acknowledgements.