Deconstructing the Transhumanist Impulse

Libertarian futurists such as Tyler Cowen and Brink Lindsey sometimes write as if the point of all our remarkable techno-progress—the victory of capitalism in the form of the creative power of “human capital”—is some combination of the emancipatory hippie spirit of the 1960s with the liberty in the service of individual productivity of Reagan’s 1980s. Cowen says “the light at end of the tunnel” is the coming of a world in which we will have plenty of everything, and all the time in the world to play enjoyable games. Lindsey writes that Karl Marx’s view of communism was wrong in only one respect: In order to live in a world of bohemian enjoyment, we’ll need to remain productive.

Often the libertarians’ (pretty lame) defense of the increasingly inegalitarian present is that the same-techno enjoyments—mainly those displayed on screens—are more available to us all. Wishing us nothing but good, the libertarians would have us free ourselves from the puritanical repression that would discourage enjoyment for any reason other than deferring gratification to enhance productivity. Those who do defer gratification intelligently—who can repress themselves, but in the right way—supposedly deserve to have more money for toys than those who insist on being gratified right now.

That way of thinking reminds us of John Locke’s insight that we free beings are hardwired to pursue happiness but never actually catch it. The life of the productive capitalist has been described as the joyless quest for joy. If that description seems exaggerated, it’s partly because it is very possible to enjoy—usually by being obsessed with—your life’s work.

There are deeper problems, however, with Marx’s light at the end of the tunnel, his promised realm of freedom that he misleadingly calls communism. The utopia he posits, of unobsessive or random enjoyment of one activity after another, implies a life unmoved by love and death. That’s why, apparently, there’s no marriage and no familial raising of children under communism. Somehow, I guess, the production of adults is socialized—dependent on no one in particular—as is the production connected with the running of machines.

The overcoming of natural scarcity seems to mean, for Marx, that no sweaty or nasty work is going on in either factories (with machines) or nurseries (with diapers). The person is somehow freed from all the imperatives that come with bodily necessity. Marx’s promise is not just, as we say today, that women will be free to choose not to be moms; their liberated lives won’t be distorted by being determined by the natural bonds of motherhood. Without that latter liberation, women aren’t really free to choose.

We know, of course, that being a mom, and being a child, and personal love in general will never really be lifestyle options on some menu of choice. It’s a self-indulgent fantasy to put them outside the realm of what Elvis sang about; our “can’t helps” will always be there. They are the the limits on our freedom that in fact make life worth living. On that point, our Darwinians will be never be completely wrong. We will remain, among other things, guided by the natural instincts of social animals.

And the existentialists—from their unerotic viewpoint—remain right that no self-conscious mortal can live a life full of unobsessive enjoyments. They, being both too “authentic” and too “hip” to admit to being defined by love, turn our attention to death—to our consciousness of our contingency and mortality. If we were born only to be happy, we wouldn’t have been born to die. So our lives in front of screens can look like pathetic diversions from what we really know. That’s why Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn heard just beneath the surface of the happy-talk of American pragmatists the howl of existentialism. And that’s why many free persons these days seem to experience their very being as more contingent than ever. So they spend their lives obsessively trying to avoid the risk factors that imperil their health and safety, that could so easily be the cause of personal extinction.

It’s easy to connect that consistently libertarian or individualistic or deeply unrelational way of thinking to a world where children are disappearing, where marriage becomes a whimsical lifestyle option rooted solely in feeling in love, and where we believe that the John Lennon, “human rights” version of Marx is propelling us in the direction of a post-political, post-religious, and post-familial world. The French philosopher Pierre Manent has reminded us that this view of progress is based on hatred of bodies, on rejecting those relational constraints we necessarily have as social beings born to love and die.

The Marxist/libertarian vision of our future of unobsessive enjoyment depends, it seems, on clamping down on being defined as a person by love and death. Certainly our libertarians are drawn to the transhumanist impulse that we can exist and enjoy forever as conscious machines. And maybe even exist, enjoy, and worship. In the spirit of the movie Her—a final mention, and yes, I do admit to a kind of obsession with that film—humans can imagine that love itself is only impeded by matter and that soon we can all experience the infinite yet still somehow impersonal love of the Christian God as the result of the singular success of our techno-efforts to transcend the limits of this natural world altogether.

Spirit is already something understood as being free from the limits of our bodies, from matter itself. It stands to reason it could be included in the transhumanist vision. How easy and natural for us techno-beings, who can’t help but think of ourselves as made in the image of the free and creative and loving personal God, to include it. After all, in the virtual world we’ve created—someone might say the spiritual world—everything, every word and every image, exists forever.

But isn’t there a problem with this, if we are Darwinian creatures, determined by the relational imperative of social mammals? The libertarian’s and transhumanist’s individual—neither male nor female nor in any way hemmed in by mammalian concerns—is pretty out there. We still think of ourselves as conscious beings dependent on our bodies. To be sure, we as Darwinians have come to understand our bodies as very much like machines. If our bodies are machines made up of basically replaceable parts, then regenerative medicine will succeed in achieving a kind of indefinite longevity for each of us. The apt comparison is with classic cars. They can’t last forever, of course, but can run much longer than they were made to if meticulously cared for. The biologists say nature brought each member of our species into being to spread our genes, raise our young, and be replaced by those natural replacements.

If to be natural can be understood as to be mechanical, then we free beings can take charge of—and thwart nature’s intention for—the machine that each of us is. There may be a cost to our relational lives, but maybe not. Not if we understand our relational possibilities more virtually or imaginatively. We need to understand ourselves more virtually or imaginatively as free beings in charge of the machines on which we depend.

That, potentially, brings Darwin up to (transhumanist) speed: We can replace and improve upon the disposable machine in the service of what is unique and irreplaceable: the creative me. Men are not angels, we believe, because angels aren’t dependent on machines. It might be more precise to say we think of ourselves as angels located in machines, with the angelic power of eventually subjecting the matter that is the machine to unimpeded spiritual control. Exercising that power, we enter the world of pure consciousness.

It’s true that we can, with great success, refuse to identify ourselves as parts of some whole—as parts of nature or a species, a family, a country. But as far as I can tell, the view that personal identity could be simply immaterial is a fantasy. It’s the body in some sense that differentiates us. In fact it is our Christian religion that first led us truthfully to believe that to be a person is to be an irreducible relational whole. We cannot transcend our dependence on bodies and body parts in some sense without being dissolved into some pantheistic or oceanic whole, at least not without the help of a God who will always elude our full comprehension and our control.

The mechanical understanding of nature—including our own natures—is of undeniable use in expanding our power as techno-creative beings. One problem, of course, is that understanding other persons and the other animal species as machines, as resources, makes us prone to manipulate them for our convenience and nothing more. I won’t linger over the thoughtless cruelty of considering pigs and chickens as nothing but our tasty nutrition machines, although I will mention that the issue is complicated by the fact that we free persons did invent varieties of pigs and chickens better suited to our needs than those given to us by nature.

Suffice it to say that we need to examine more closely the distinction we techno-creative beings rest upon: that between personal techno-creativity and impersonal machines. We have expanded our power over nature rather successfully, as I say. I admit that the project of indefinitely extending the lifespan of particular persons has made big strides. We can already point to the new birth of freedom most women have in the decades after menopause. But that distinction between personal techno-creativity and impersonal machines, in truth, began as a conscious distortion in the service of the conquest of nature. The distortion is seductive. It begins to take over, leading us to do more than invent endlessly entertaining games, more than cultivate innovative foodstuffs. We are seduced into forgetting that no matter what we do we’ll remain born to love and die.

We can, of course, distract ourselves by becoming obsessive workaholics, constantly fighting against the nature that so implacably is out to extinguish each of us forever. We can lose, or try to lose, the sweet sentiment of existence that graces life itself for all God’s creatures. We can try to ignore that we’re irreducibly erotic and relational beings, and that it’s the polymorphous character of love that allows us to reconcile ourselves to both birth and death.

We can easily defer gratification, or as Thomas Hobbes says, seek power after power, until death or the ultimate power failure extinguishes the light. We can easily forget that the hardest and best thing for self-conscious mortals is to be in love in the present—that one loves persons and there’s no way to love either “pure consciousness” or a machine.

Truth to tell, there has never been and never will be a conscious machine. Operating systems will never transcend the limits of being programmed and we will never somehow morph into operating systems.