Let’s Build Our Own Gods and Hope They Like Us: Reservations about Transhumanism

"My fellow Americans..."
Transhumanist philosopher Zoltan Istvan is “running for president.” No, he’s not a supervillain, but good-god-DAMN that’s a good supervillain name. Seriously, he’s not a crank, and he knows he won’t win. And I respect the transhumanist movement even if I’m not all the way on board. Here’s part of his platform:

I’ve only focused on one thing through it all—the same thing I’ve focused on with all my work for much of the last decade: I don’t want to die.

He’s already speaking my language! Tell me more.

Like most transhumanists, it’s not that I’m afraid of death…

Oh. Well, I am. Very much so. But please continue:

…but I emphatically believe being alive is a miracle. Out of two billion planets that might have life in the universe, human beings managed to evolve, survive, and thrive on Planet Earth—enough so the species will probably reach the singularity in a half century’s time and literally become superhuman.

This is where I run into problems with transhumanism in general. I think all things being equal, I could with very few reservations plaster the label onto myself: I feel very strongly about investment in technology directed specifically to the common good, and I believe that as the only creatures we know of who can contemplate our place in the universe, we have an obligation to overcome our burdensome meat sacks and aspire to become something more. And I love this part of his platform:

We want to close economic inequality by establishing a universal basic income and also make education free to everyone at all levels, including college and preschool. We want to reimagine the American Dream, one where robots take our jobs, but we live a life of leisure, exploration, and anything we want on the back of the fruits of 21st Century progress.

But this business about being “literal” superhumans within 50 years is an issue for me. Transhumanists espouse what they call an “optimism” about the future that sounds to me a lot like magical prophecy. Here’s Istvan again:

[T]ranshumanists … want to create an artificial superintelligence that can teach us to fix all the environmental problems humans have caused.

He might as well say he wants to ask space aliens to come and solve our problems with replicator technology, or he wants to pray to the angels to sweep away all our pollution with their fiery swords. This is not a plan.

Too often, when I hear the transhumanists look to the future, it sounds too much like they want us to build our own gods and then hope (fingers crossed!) that they, who are intentionally superior to us, will want us to somehow merge with them.

Look, no one wants an Immortal Robot Body™ more than me. Death scares me shitless, and the idea of transcending it is, I think, a highly worthwhile goal. But this sounds like something else. This sounds like an attempt to create gods where none exist. It’s becoming a cargo cult even though we know exactly where the cargo is coming from.

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