The one percent discovers transhumanism: Davos 2016

Land of OZ

The World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland just wrapped up its annual gathering. It isn’t hard to make fun of this yearly coming together of the global economic and cultural elites who rule the world, or at least think they do. A comment by one of the journalists covering the event summed up how even those who really do in some sense have the fate of the world in their hands are as blinded by glitz as the rest of us: rather than want to discuss policy the question he had most been asked was if he had seen Kevin Spacey or Bono. Nevertheless, 2016’s WEF might go down in history as one of the most important, for it was the year when the world’s rich and powerful acknowledged that we had entered an age of transhumanist revolution.

The theme of this year’s WEF was what Klaus Schwab calls The Fourth Industrial Revolution a period of deeply transformative change, which Schwab believes we are merely at the beginning of. The three revolutions which preceded the current one were the first industrial revolution which occurred between 1760 and 1840 and brought us the stream engine and railroads. The second industrial revolution in the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought us mass production and electricity. The third computer or digital revolution brought us mainframes, personal computers, the Internet, and mobile technologies, and began in the 1960’s.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution whose beginning all of us are lucky enough to see includes artificial intelligence and machine learning, the “Internet of things” and it’s ubiquitous sensors, along with big data. In addition to these technologies that grow directly out of Moore’s Law, the Fourth Industrial Revolution includes rapid advances in the biological sciences that portend everything from enormous gains in human longevity to “designer babies”. Here we find our rapidly increasing knowledge of the human brain, the new neuroscience, that will likely upend not only our treatment of mental and neurodegenerative diseases such as alzheimer’s but include areas from criminal justice to advertising.

If you have had any relationship to, or even knowledge of, transhumanism over the past generation or so then all of this should be very familiar to you. Yet to the extent that the kinds of people who attend or follow Davos have an outsized impact on the shape of our world, how they understand these transhumanist issues, and how they come to feel such issues should be responded to, might be a better indication of the near term future of transhumanism as anything that has occurred on the level of us poor plebs.

So what was the 1 percent’s take on the fourth industrial revolution? Below is a rundown of some of the most interesting sessions.

One session titled “The Transformation of Tomorrow”  managed to capture what I think are some of the contradictions of those who in some respects feel themselves responsible for the governance of the world. Two of panel members were Sheryl Sandberg COO of Facebook, and the much lesser known president of Rwanda Paul Kagame.  That pairing itself is kind of mind bending.  Kagame has been a darling of technocrats for his successful governance of Rwanda. He is also a repressive autocrat who has been accused of multiple human rights abuses and to the dismay of the Obama administration managed to secure through a referendum his rule of Rwanda into the 2030s.

Kagame did not have much to say other than that Rwanda would be a friendly place for Western countries wishing to export the Fourth Industrial Revolution. For her part Sandberg was faced with questions that have emerged as it has become increasingly clear that social media has proven to be a tool for both good and ill as groups like Daesh have proven masterful users of the connectivity brought by the democratization of media. Not only that, but the kinds of filter bubbles offered by this media landscape have often been found to be inimical to public discourse and a shared search for Truth.

Silicon Valley has begun to adopt the role of actively policing their networks for political speech they wish to counter. Sandberg did not discuss this but rather focused on attempts to understand how discourses such as that of Daesh manage to capture the imagination of some and to short-circuit such narratives of hate through things such as “like attacks” where the negativity of websites is essentially flooded by crowds posting messages of love.

It’s a nice thought, but as the very presence of Kagame on the same stage with Sandberg while she was making these comments makes clear: it seems blind to the underlying political issues and portends a quite frightening potential for a new and democratically unaccountable form of power. Here elites would use their control over technology and media platforms to enforce their own version of the world in a time when both democratic politics and international relations are failing.

Another panel dealt with “The State of Artificial Intelligence.” The takeaway here was that no one took Ray Kurzweil ’s 2029 – 2045 for human and greater level AI seriously, but everyone was convinced that the prospect of disruption to the labor force from AI was a real one that was not being taken seriously enough by policy makers.

In related session titled “A World Without Work” the panelists were largely in agreement that the adoption of AI would further push the labor force in the direction of bifurcation and would thus tend, absent public policy pushing in a contrary direction, to result in increasing inequality.

In the near term future AI seems poised to take middle income jobs- anything that deals with the routine processing of information. Where AI will struggle making inroads is in low skilled, low paying jobs that require a high level of mobility- jobs like cleaners and nurses. Given how reliant Western countries have become on immigrant labor for these tasks we might be looking at the re- emergence of an openly racist politics as a white middle class finds itself crushed between cheap immigrant labor and super efficient robots. According to those on the panel, AI will also continue to struggle with highly creative and entrepreneurial tasks, which means those at the top of the pyramid aren’t going anywhere.

At some point the only solution to technological unemployment short of smashing the machines or dismantling capitalism might be the adoption of a universal basic income, which again all panelist seemed to support. Though as one of the members of the panel Erik Brynjolfsson pointed out such a publicly guaranteed income would provide us will only one of Voltaire’s  three purposes of work which is to save us from “the great evils of boredom, vice and greed.” Brynjolfsson also wisely observed that the question that confronts us over the next generation is whether we want to protect the past from the future or the future from the past.

The discussions at Davos also covered the topic of increasing longevity. The conclusions drawn by the panel “What if you are still alive in 2100?” were that aging itself is highly malleable, but that there was no one gene or set of genes that would prove to be a magic bullet in slowing or stopping the aging clock. Nevertheless, there is no reason human beings shouldn’t be able to live past the 120 year limit that has so far been a ceiling on human longevity.

Yet even the great success of increased longevity itself poses problems. Even extending current longevity estimates of those middle-aged today merely to 85 would bankrupt state pension systems as they are now structured. Here we will probably need changes such as workplace daycare for the elderly and cities re-engineered for the frail and old.

By 2050 upwards of 130 million people may suffer from dementia. Perhaps surprisingly technology rather than pharmaceuticals is proving to be the first order of defense in dealing with dementia by allowing those suffering from it to outsource their minds.

Many of the vulnerable and at need elderly will live in some of the poorest countries (on a per capita basis at least) on earth: China, India and Nigeria. Countries will need to significantly bolster and sometimes even build social security systems to support a tidal wave of the old.

Living to “even” 150 the panelists concluded would have a revolutionary effect on human social life. Perhaps it will lead to the abandonment of work life balance for women (and one should hope men as well) so that parent can focus their time on their children during their younger years. Extended longevity would make the idea of choosing a permanent career as early as one’s 20s untenable and result in much longer period of career exploration and may make lifelong monogamy untenable.

Lastly, there was a revealing panel on neuroscience and the law entitled “What if your brain confesses?” panelists there argued that Neuroscience is being increasing used and misused by criminal defense. Only in very few cases – such as those that result from tumors- can we draw a clear line between underlying neurological structure and specific behavior.

We can currently “read minds” in limited domains but our methods lack the kinds of precision and depth that would be necessary for standards questions of guilt and innocence. Eventually we should get there, but getting information in, as in Matrix kung-fu style uploading, will prove much harder than getting it out. We’re also getting much better at decoding thoughts from behavior- dark opportunities for marketing and other manipulation. Yet we could also be able to use this more granular knowledge of human psychology to structure judicial procedures to be much more free from human cognitive biases.

The fact that elites have begun to seriously discuss these issues is extremely important, but letting them take ownership of the response to these transformations would surely be a mistake. For just like any elite they are largely blinded to opportunities for the new by their desire to preserve the status quo despite how much the revolutionary the changes we face open up opportunities for a world much different and better than our own.

 

Religion and violence revisited

Tatiana_of_Rome_(Menologion_of_Basil_II)

A few weeks back I did a post on religion and violence the gist of which was that it’s far too simplistic to connect religiosity to violence without paying much closer attention to the social context. Religious violence should been seen, I argued, as the response to some real or perceived mistreatment. In addition I also suggested that perhaps what appears to make believers in monotheistic faiths particularly prone to violence is their insistence that they alone possess religious truth.

That post got some push back, particularly here, and especially over the issue of whether references in the Koran especially made Muslims more prone to violence than other religious groups. As I tried to make clear in the discussion, it makes much less sense to try to understand the most relevant form of religious violence today, that is, Islamist violence, through reference to the Koran than it does to grapple with the actual historical and social context in which such violence occurs.

For the most part, I still think that. Where my views have become somewhat more nuanced is in the role of belonging, for at least if some recent work in moral psychology is correct, religious violence is just the flipside of the moral community all successful religions help create.

It seems that while I wasn’t paying attention the case being made by some of  the most vocal New Atheists was itself changing. Back in October of last year, Sam Harris, who could be accused of having made the most inflammatory statements about Islam published a dialogue with the former Islamist radical Maajid Nawaz. Having himself been jailed and tortured for his political views in Egypt, Nawaz has developed a four part model of the causes of religious extremism:

  1. grievance narrative (real or perceived)
  2. identity crisis
  3. a charismatic recruiter
  4. ideological dogma

It’s not this model, however, where Nawaz has managed to convert Harris to a less nihilistic interpretation of Islam, but through the implications of Islam’s long history of pluralism.

Sunni Islam especially, having no “pope” and no body of scholars in charge of defining what Islam is, the faith is essentially defined by what the majority of Muslims understand it to be. The task then, Nawaz argues, is to shrink the significant minority of Muslims who believe that either violence is a legitimate way to address political grievances, or that some group of believers has the right and duty to enforce their particular interpretation of Islam on not just other Muslims but non-believers as well.

Yet despite the power of Nawaz garners from his personal experience for explicating religious violence the one element he seems to miss is the one deemed most important by recent psychosocial research on the topic- namely communal participation. According to such research, religious violence, when it does indeed occur, has much less to do with the messages found in scriptures, actual belief, or even, oppression (though the last I still think the most important among the three) than the kind of hive- like nature of groups that human beings, almost alone outside of the eusocial insects, are able to create.

This at least is the case in two recent works by leading philosophers in the field of moral psychology- Paul Bloom’s Just Babies: the origins of good and evil and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. The last decade or so has seen a flood of popular and quite good books by moral philosophers and psychologists using evolutionary theory and clever experiments to gain insight into human thinking about moral topics. Bloom and Haidt are two of the best, but there’s also Joshua Green and, although covering quite different topics Daniel Kahneman both of whom I’ve written about before.

Perhaps I’ll write proper reviews of Bloom and Haidt’s books some other time, for now I just want to focus on one question: what does the latest work in moral psychology tell us about the relationship between religion and violence?

First off- it’s complicated. Bloom, in his discussion of the issue in Just Babies, points out how difficult it is to disaggregate anything from religion, for, as he phrases it, “religion is everywhere”. In his book Bloom also points out that though research on how religiosity affects behavior isn’t as informative as we might like, it does show a strong correlation between religion and charitable giving. It seems that religious individuals donate a higher percentage of their income to charity than secular persons, and even give more than non-religious individuals to charities that are secular, which is kind of mind blowing.

One might think that all this giving by religious people was somehow the result of adherence or belief. That is, one could reasonably assume that the reason religious individuals were so damned charitable is that their scriptures command it, and/or giving is the product of belief in an afterlife of rewards and punishments for how one acted in this life. Charity would  here be seen as a kind of non-temporal investment.

According to Bloom, however, that is not what the studies show. Bloom quotes the famous sociologist Robert Putnam to make his point, that it is neither adherence or belief that makes religious people more charitable but membership in a group:

“…. the statistics suggest that even an atheist who happened to become involved in the social life of the congregation (perhaps through a spouse) is much more likely to volunteer in a soup kitchen than the most fervent believer who prays alone. It is religious belongingness that matters for neighborliness, not religious believing.” (203)

This good side of religious belonging is mirrored by religion’s darker side where, again, it seems that it is a matter of participation in a religious community that predicts support for violence in the supposed defense of that community rather than the measure of the person’s depth of belief.

Jonathan Haidt characterizes religions as “moral exoskeletons”, or “moral matrixes”  For their members they establish communities of trust, but their very success in binding groups together means they can also lead to moralistic killings against what is believed to be betrayal of the group or result in martyrdom in the name of the community’s defense.

Anything that binds people together into a moral matrix that glorifies the in-group while at the same time demonizing another group can lead to moralistic killing, and many religions are well suited to that task. Religion is therefore often an accessory to atrocity, rather than the driving force of atrocity. (310)

The problem is that the very same features that allow religion, such as in the case of abolitionism, to work in the defense (even the violent defense) of minorities allows those same groups to act violently against minorities- whether Jews in the case of Christians up until very recently in historical times or groups like ISIS today against very vulnerable religious minorities such as the Yazidis or social minorities such as women or homosexuals.

The dilemma is that the atrophy of communal ties undeniably fosters the autonomy of individuals, yet we have not reached the point where we can be certain such a society lacking strong communal ties is sustainable over the long term. As Haidt puts it:

Societies that forgo the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully on what will happen to them over several generations. We don’t really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades. They are the least efficient societies ever know at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few). (311)

At one point the smart money was predicting religious belief would be largely irrelevant to humanity  by the end of the 2oth century. If religion has appeared an especially powerful force during that period and into our own such an appearance is partly an illusion caused by the incredible atrophy of former secular collective bonds that at one point appeared to have replaced religious ties- nationalism- both ethnic and civic, socialism, communism or even the hold of political parties.

What we’ve gotten instead are a plethora of micro-affective communities competing for our attention and commitment some of whom target the very darkest aspects of human nature: our bloodlust, fear, or our anger. Sadly, the pluralism and diversity so beloved by liberals (myself included) fails to offer solutions to the problems posed by either fundamentalist inspired violence or the right’s ascending off of our fear of it; namely how to sustain a society over the longue duree absent some shared definition of the good, when our communications architecture seems built to result in sharp divisions, rival truths, and an environment where the violence of extreme minorities continually results in calls to either suppress minorities at home and protect vulnerable minorities in regions that have yet to discover the West’s pluralism.

 

Was Nazi Evil Unique?

Hitler as Antichrist 1942

 

‘The God of Israel said, to the Rock of Israel [David]; I rule man; who rules Me? It is the righteous: for I make a decree and he may annul it’.

Babylonian Talmud 16b

A few weeks back I was sitting in a laundromat watching my clothes spin round and reading a book on the Holocaust. Not quite sure why such a situation would lend itself to commentary from strangers, but I was approached by a 50ish or so middle class looking guy who felt it his duty to point out to me that Stalin and Mao had killed a lot more people than Hitler. I responded that “I knew” and I sighed in the recognition that the moral meaning of history is ultimately undone precisely by such “facts”.

Recently there have been whispers that we might be nearing a tipping point towards the historical normalization of the Nazi regime. This is not so much an issue of pop culture where any attempt to adopt Nazi iconography becomes instantly ridiculous, and where the use of National Socialism as focus for our political fears continues despite the fact  that the Second World War is rapidly sliding from living memory as the greatest generation passes out of history.

Arguments for historical normalization are instead coming from the academic sphere where there have been attempts to grapple with the least disturbing aspects of some of that system’s innovations in areas such as public health where the Nazi’s, though for reasons most of us now find repulsive, proved to be ahead of their time, as in their attitude towards smoking and cancer.

At least some of this stance towards normalization isn’t just a matter of those still trapped in what remains the very dangerous atavism of racism, or even those merely in pursuit of historical clarity, but by figures seeking a way out of the ideological cul de sac of left vs right in which the West has been stuck since the French Revolution. Here we have thinkers such as Steve Fuller who argues not merely that eugenics should be rehabilitated, but that positions on the question of enhancement should become the new defining political axis. For Fuller this would entail no longer seeing the Nazis as the sort of personification of evil they have become in popular imagination, but as a kind of political forerunner to a 21st century transhumanist politics. As he wrote in Humanity 2.0:

Put bluntly, we must envisage the prospect of a transformation in the normative image of Nazi Germany comparable to what Barrington Moore described for the French Revolution. This is not easy… there have been only the barest hints of Nazi rehabilitation. But hints there are, helped along by the deaths of those with first-hand experience of Nazism. (244)

Such merely academic pleas for a reassessment of the Nazi legacy are not, however, what should worry us most, nor should we be worried that Nazism will be resurrected in anything resembling its 20th century form- swastikas and all. Rather, what is troubling is that many of the political narratives National Socialists created remain very much in play and may be given added rather than diminished vigour in the 21st century. This is already the case for the kinds of anti-semitic conspiracy theories that pass for political analysis in the Middle East, and can be found in the underlying racial and cultural anxieties sweeping both Europe and the United States as a world dominated by white Christians gives way to a much more diverse order at the same time social decay results in a revival of dystopian nightmares about “devolution”. By concentrating too much upon blatantly Nazi or racist iconography while some academics sow the seeds of historical normalization, we may be missing the areas where “Nazi like” thinking creeps into political judgments- including our very own.

On that account, I was struck that the book I was reading that night as I waited for the drier to do its job not only managed to secure my understanding of the peculiar and extreme immoralism of National Socialism, but also made a compelling case that the kinds of nihilism found in Nazi ideology wasn’t just a matter of racial and Western insecurity regarding the future, but might characterize the most dangerous forms of 21st century politics globally, and for much different reasons than in the 20th century.

The name of the book was Black Earth: The Holocaust As History And Warning by Timothy Snyder. One of the book’s great strength is that it takes Hitler’s Mein Kampf seriously not only as a sort of political plan (which it certainly turned out to be), but also as a work of political philosophy. Hitler may have been an extremely vulgar and simplistic political theorist, but he also certainly had a clearly definable worldview that had (and continues to have) resonance with the darker corners of the human psyche.

What this taking of Hitler’s philosophy seriously allows one to do is to see that Nazism is indeed distinct from perhaps every other totalitarian ideology before or since. Whether one looks at the idea of a utopian end of history that inspired communists, or the kinds of millenarian aspirations driving radical religious groups such as ISIS or Al Qaeda, what one finds is the promise of an ultimate end to human savagery and the initiation of an era of universal human community after some “necessary” period of horrendous human suffering.

In distinction, Hitler saw any such promise of universalism or a utopian/millennial end to history and the elimination of suffering as itself the enemy. The idea that human beings were any better than animals and could ever escape, even with the help of God, the war of all against all that was the fate of animals, Hitler thought, was a lie brought into the world by the Jews who had used it to achieve dominance over more naturally powerful peoples. As Snyder put it:

For Hitler the bringer of the knowledge of good and evil on the earth, the destroyer of Eden, was the Jew. It was the Jew who told humans they were above other animals and had the capacity to decide their future for themselves. It was the Jew who introduced the false distinction between paradise and nature, between humanity and struggle. (p. 4)

What Hitler sought was the undoing of what he considered to be the distortions found in every humanistic, progressive or millenialist way of thinking. For him, the only true freedom was the freedom to submit to the eternal dictates of nature, dictates which had been discovered by science, especially in the form of Darwinism, but which neither technology, nor human made law would ever permit us to escape. Hitler thus subsumed politics under his limited understanding of nature as an eternal, and necessarily pitiless evolutionary struggle.

Hitler’s philosophy was the penultimate form of Malthusianism and the opposite of techno-progressivism in the sense that he believed scarcity to be unsolvable by technical means and resource security- especially in terms of food- something that could only be obtained through conquest.

Reading Snyder’s take on Mein Kampf gave me nightmares of Hitler as nothing but a gaping mouth and bottomless stomach. Hitler seems to have been terrified of starvation, a fear that, perhaps, grew out of his experiences of the British blockade during the First World War. Yet rather than this give rise to any humanitarian instinct it left Hitler seeing famine as a legitimate weapon of conquest and war, so that, long before the Nazi invasion of Eastern Europe, the Nazi’s were planning to starve to death millions of the non-Germans who lived there. In this Hitler was following what he believed to be the way US had killed the “Red Indians” in its own interior and there created the world’s “breadbasket”.

Before the so-called Green Revolution, in the decades after World War II, fears of widespread starvation were indeed legitimate, and mass starvation to Germany’s east was already a reality due to the catastrophe of Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture. Yet Hitler was not merely arguing that the humanitarian needs of Germans would be secured by whatever means necessary, but with his re-conceptualization of Lebensraum as both living space and “lifestyle” essentially claimed a right to starve rival peoples if that was the only way German consumers could enjoy the same standard of living as their American counterparts.

Hitler’s political logic formed a circular cage meant to explain every event. In this view it was the Jews who with their universalism tried to weaken the only truly natural ties, which were those between members of a race. Liberated from these moral fetters the Germans would be free to carve out their own empire in Europe along the lines of the continental state built by the Americans or the overseas empire then held by the British.

What is apparent is that this Nazi demonology which saw the Jews as the source of cultural degeneration was no mere rhetorical ploy but the very soul of the movement, and, in a very real sense superseded the rational goals, of traditional state policy during the period in which the Nazis ran Germany. As Snyder shows, German allies, many of whom had adopted anti-semitic policies in order to curry favor with the Nazis, abandoned those policies once they knew the war was lost, whereas Germany, despite its cost in resources accelerated their murder of Jews in the face of defeat.

Hitler was not a German nationalist, sure of German victory, aiming for an enlarged German state: He was a zoological anarchist who believed that there was a true state of nature to be restored. (231)

It is this kind of metaphysical racism which made Hitler’s policy against the Jews distinct from other forms of state sponsored killing whatever the relative number of deaths.

The Holocaust was different from other episodes of mass killing or ethnic cleansing because German policy aimed for the murder of every Jewish child, woman and man. This was only thinkable because the Jews were understood as the makers and enforcers of a corrupt planetary order. (327)

There was a religious element to Hitler’s thinking as well though the creator he imagines is morally unrecognizable:

…. this ancient earth of races and extermination was the creation of God. [Hitler wrote] “Therefore I believe myself to be acting according to the wishes of the creator. Insofar as I restrain the Jew, I am defending the work of the lord.” (4)

Were I ever to teach a course on the Holocaust I would assign Snyder’s book in conjunction with The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, for Snyder manages to clarify, and bolster, many of Arendt’s more philosophical observations regarding Nazism and the state, and what Arendt called “stateless peoples” and both thinkers see statelessness as a condition that makes genocide politically possible.

An historical fact of which I was unaware before I had read Snyder’s earlier book Bloodlands, was that it was actually safer to be a Jew in German than to be one in any of the states destroyed by the Nazis. Contrary to Ben Carson, who thinks that Germans were able to kill Jews because of the latter’s lack of guns, or a common libertarian misconception, which I myself once shared, that genocide was brought about because of an overly powerful, machine-like state, Snyder shows how Jews were saved by bureaucracy. Where state rules and institutions remained intact, even in Germany itself, deliberate genocide proved difficult and lumbering, whereas in states destroyed by German (and Soviet) occupation, such as Poland the Nazis took advantage of this institutional vacuum to pursue deliberate genocide.

Ultimately, what Snyder wants us to reflect upon is whether or not such a conflation of nature and politics such as that imagined by Hitler is possible in our century, and whether or not we are vulnerable to the types of conspiracy theories, scapegoating and inhumanity, especially towards the stateless, that characterized the Nazi treatment of Jews, among others. Sadly, Snyder’s answer is yes:

The Planet is changing in ways that might make Hitlerian descriptions of life, space and time more plausible…

As Hitler demonstrated during the Great Depression, humans are able to portray a looming crisis in such a way as to justify drastic measures in the present. Under enough stress, or with enough skill, politicians can effect the conflations Hitler pioneered between nature and politics, household, between ecosystem and household, between need and desire. A global problem that seems insoluble can be blamed on a specific group of human beings. (326)

Jews can again be seen as a universal threat, as indeed they already are by increasingly important political formations in Europe, Russia and the Middle East. So might Muslims, gays, or other groups that can be associated with changes on a worldwide scale. (327)

Such a vision certainly sounds dystopian, but then again 2015 was the year when a Middle Eastern war, at least partially brought about by an ecological crisis, led to state failure and the rise of a vicious millenarian cult and a flood of now stateless refugees into Europe larger than any since the Second War War. In an atmosphere of terrorist attacks and a culture of fear we saw the rise of populist demagogues on both sides of the Atlantic who distorted the nature of the crisis into a clash of civilizations and religions in which all Muslims were suspect. It is not hard to imagine scenarios that would push us much further along this dark path.

I began this post with a quote from the Babylonian Talmud. It is a rabbinical interpretation of what I think is one of the most important stories in the Hebrew scriptures when Abraham tries to bargain with God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Though his pleas didn’t ultimately work, what I find intriguing is that Abraham tries to gently show God that the city should not be destroyed if it contains even a small number of innocent people. It’s a moment where human beings, through the figure of Abraham, discover moral maturity in a way almost the exact opposite of when Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac at the command of God in a story that was so beloved by Søren Kirkegaard.  In the 21st century West we don’t understand fear and trembling unless it comes in the form of a video game. Though perhaps a video game where one plays the role of the vulnerable child is the best way to see how deeply disturbing the binding of Isaac is as a foundation legend- which means we’ve begun to finally reading the story correctly.

In any case, Abraham’s other story, the story of his bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, gives us a much better founding myth. One in which human distinction lies in following our moral conscience even when our moral perception went against the dictates of nature, society, or even God himself. It was a conceptual leap made perhaps first by the Jewish people and from it would come almost everything that promotes human flourishing in our world. It is a thin ledge of hope, which Hitler tried to push us off of. Upon it we place our aspirations for a future better and more compassionate than the past or present. We need to forever remind ourselves just how close we were to falling off of it and into the abyss.

Religion and Violence

One moring at the gates of the Louvre

Sometimes, I get the uneasy feeling that the New Atheists might be right after all. Perhaps there is something latently violent in the religious imagination, some feature, or tendency, encouraged by religion that the world would better be without.

I kind of got that feeling after Paris and Mali, I felt it a little bit more after the attack on the Planned Parenthood office attack in Colorado, but it really hits me when I reflect on the recent brutal killings in San Bernardino where both the intimate cruelty of the act- the persons killed were one of the killer’s co-workers whom he was supposedly friends with and knew well- and the fact that the other murderer was this man’s wife, and the mother of their young child. Nothing I know about human nature allows me to make sense of how far this couple was able to step outside our evolutionarily forged instincts against harming those whom we are intimate with, and where maternal bounds prove stronger than ties of any other kind. Maybe the physicist Steven Weinberg was right when he said:

With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.

This seems to be the main point the New Atheists want to get across, as Steven Pinker did recently in a public discussion with Robert Wright on that topic, among others. Much more suffering, Pinker argued, has been caused by people acting in the name of religion than by those acting in the pursuit of self-interest in the form of raw power or wealth. For those who would counter with a list of the horrors committed by the secular totalitarian regimes in the 20th century Pinker would argue that such movements amounted to little more than religion in drag with God replaced by “History” or “Race”.

In light of recent events such an argument has the heavy feel of Truth in one’s hands, but upon reflection what seems solid begins to fall apart at the joints. To state the obvious, it simply cannot be the case that any religion is the primary cause of violence  because any society in which violence ran as deep as religious sentiment would very quickly destroy itself. Whatever Donald Trump might think, there are anywhere from 5- 12 million Muslims in the United States- were any significant portion of them driven to violence by their faith the country would truly be on fire. It’s a fact that is just as true when it comes to Christians opposed to abortion on moral grounds.

Religion has certainly been the source of many human conflicts and the origin of much suffering inflicted in the name of dogmatism, but has it really, as Pinker claims, inflicted more suffering throughout the whole of human history than all the other non-religiously based wars? Has the suffering inflicted by religious fanaticism been greater than that of oppression based on naked self-interest? Has religion not played an important role in both the charity to offset, or the direct challenge (as in the abolition of slavery) to such oppression? In any case, how in the world is one supposed to disaggregate those who were motivated to commit atrocities by their religious beliefs from those who used religion as a cover for self-interest or the blatant desire to destroy as no doubt a number of princes did during the Reformation.

It seems a gross over simplification to single out religion as a unique source of human violence. Nevertheless, I think we miss something important if we fail to see religious thinking and aspirations as indeed a deep aspect of the way the human capacity for violence has manifested itself in recent decades. This religious connection in large part grows out of the claims of the world’s major religions to be the unique possessor of spiritual truth and sole path to human salvation.

The potential for violence latent in such monopolistic truth claims is made even more dangerous by the world’s very democratization and the communications revolution of the past few decades. For in such an atmosphere religious institutions and elites are no longer able to control the beliefs and actions of their believers. It is a situation that bears an eerie resemblance to the European Reformation and Wars of Religion, but is now global in scope- our luck so far is that so very few of us have fallen under the spell of such a conflict and instead are under the enchantment of the consumerist paradise in which we live where life and its needs drown out everything else.

It’s not so much any particular religion’s claim that it is the possessor of the truth which is the origin of any tendencies towards violence as it is the belief of its adherents that they have the right to enforce conformity with their beliefs through violence if necessary. Still, with the exception of where, as is the case with ISIL, such a demand for conformity comes to rule or where deep sectarian divisions intersect with political conflicts within a society, much of this new violence appears to be waged almost as a form of communication, an attempt to break through the cacophony and materialism of pluralistic societies and be heard.

On this score, violence is just as likely to be racially (as it was in the case with Timothy McVeigh, Anders Breivik, and Dylann Roof,  or even environmentally motivated e.g. Ted Kaczynski aka the “Unabomber”) as it is to emerge from religiously based commitments. One need not take the worldview behind such violence seriously, but one should certainly take it as a barometer of deeper social fissures and political failures that go unaddressed at our peril. The same types of systemic failures that have led many on the left, with more legitimate claims to justice, into the age of protests.

The more insular and unresponsive our political and economic elites appear and the more ideological conflicts in our societies become, the more likely it is that those who believe themselves to be permanently disenfranchised will turn to political conspiracies to explain events, and the more likely a small but very dangerous minority of these disaffected will turn to violence as a form of political action. Should that become the case, elites are likely to retreat even further into their gated communities and rely on technology as a means of social control absent democratic legitimacy, commitment to the common good, and the quest for international solidarity. Such a world would represent a dark, mechanized analog to the promise of universalism and concern for the other at the heart of all the world’s great religions: a noosphere absent a world soul.

 

The Revenge of the Pagans: Ovid as prophet of the posthuman

Study of a woman with ram horns, Jean-Léon Gérôme

I would argue that as far as imagining the future is concerned many of us, in the West at least, have had our vision blurred from what amounts to a 2,000 year philosophical hangover called Christianity. But no one ever seems to care about this point. The most common response I’ve gotten from a certain sect of singularitarians and transhumanists upon pointing out that both their goals and predictions seem to have been ripped from a man on the street’s version of Christianity has been- who cares?

“Sure”, they’ll argue, “God’s” appearance in the form of a form of artificial superintelligence that promises to grant us personal immortality or destroy us all might sound a lot like Christ in the Book of Revelation, and certainly, the goal of personal immortality might resemble the “good news” of Christianity, but what we’re talking about is the real deal. Not some mumbo-jumbo about a spiritual world and the soul, but the natural consequence of our scientific and technological mastery over nature.”

Initial assumptions, however, should always be unpacked. Using science and technology to pursue a world fleshed out by the religious imagination provides no guarantee that such a destination is actually reachable via those routes. In fact using religiously derived prophecy to divine the future in such a way might give us a very distorted notion of where we are headed or even the destination we should attempt to reach.

This gap between hope and reality is likely to be pregnant with all sorts of sparks and potent frictions. At the moment my bet for where these frictions will become apparent centers on the monotheistic bent of technological predictions especially in the singularitarian eschatology. That, and what freedom from death would really do to our notions of the self should we ever obtain some materialistic version of Christian immortality.

On monotheism: whether one takes a largely rosy or pessimistic position on the potential arrival of superintelligence, such superintelligence is most often conceived in the singular. In this view, it seems there can be only one superintelligence just like in Judaism, Islam and Christianity there can be only one God. (Please don’t make me talk about the Trinity.) How exactly the first superintelligence manages to abort all its near rivals before they too obtain something like a similar state is unclear to me, but the time between the appearance of the first superintelligence and whatever stable order follows certainly seems the most dangerous, if superintelligence proves to be something like the movie The Highlander and “there can be only one”.

Here we could be left with the dead stability of the desert with only one intellect left standing “god” again alone and by itself. Then again, perhaps the whole idea of a lone intellect, a Boltzmann Brain, floating there in space and not embedded within a world of other intellects is simply unintelligible. Perhaps, intelligence can only ever exists as Wittgenstein would have said in a social world meaning a world where intelligence is plural.

What seems more likely to emerge as the ultimate outcome for any Cambrian explosion of artificial intelligence isn’t some metallic version of God,  but the kind of “balance of power” you find in ecology or international relations whereby there are multiple competitors none of whom proves capable or willing of overpowering or destroying its peers or even the vast majority its lessers, thus allowing a kind of blooming of diversity as players occupy and conform to niches. That’s not the totalizing God of monotheism whose distortions were tragically on display recently in Paris, it’s more like the gods found in the classical paganism that preceded Christianity.

James Hughes has discussed the challenges to our Christian derived notion of selfhood material immortality (should it ever arrive) might bring either in the form of indefinite biological lifespan or the much further off notion of uploading as moving us closer to the notion of immortality found in Buddhism. We can find something similar if we place ourselves in the religious world Christianity replaced and might understand the future as a sort of la revanche des païens.

The figure who best gives us insight into this pagan horizon is Ovid, a Roman poet who lived in the half century before Christ burst onto the scene and replaced that worldview with radically new ones. He was located on one of those hinges of history in which one period begin to slides into a very different future. The poet’s world was one in which what we call the “pagan” gods (Ovid would not have recognized the term-the whole idea of something called paganism was invented by Christianity) were losing their grip on the human imagination, and were being replaced by both philosophy (Stoicism, Neo-platonism) and mystery cults that saw the gods in either more abstract/ rational/ethical or mystical ecstatic ways.

The very fact that the pagan gods were disappearing over the imaginative horizon meant that Ovid was free to exercise his creativity and playfulness in retelling their tales which is what he does in his most famous work, the epic The Metamorphosis.

The central, overriding theme of The Metamorphosis is just what the title implies- transformative change. To get a grasp of Ovid’s proto-posthumanism it’s perhaps best to start near the very end of his epic work in Book 15, and with the figure of Pythagoras.The Metamorphosis begins with the story of the world’s creation and ends with the mysterious man from Samos whom Ovid displays admonishing us to abandon our consumption of meat and adopt a life of vegetarianism.

O human race! Do not, I beg you, and concentrate your minds on my admonitions! When you place the flesh of slaughtered cattle in your mouths, know and feel, that you are devouring your fellow-creature.

Greatly distinct from the notion that the soul was only a possession of human beings, and all the evil this would cause, Ovid illustrates the belief that there is no clear line that separates the human from the animal and that for us such a lack of a boundary has clear moral implications.

What would have been more striking here, though, for Ovid’s pagan audience was that after having told in a new key the story of the Greco-Roman gods Ovid was undermining the major ceremony by which these gods were worship which was in the form of animal sacrifices where the gods were thought to feed off of the smoke. We may picture something exotic and outside of our experience, but perhaps it was more like my uncle Tom’s pig roasts.      

In any case, the rationale behind Ovid’s pythagorean injunction that we refrain from eating meat was based on the belief in the oneness of animal life and especially the fact that the soul was thought to move between different types of animals from one life to the next. We might find such beliefs in such metempsychosis silly, but it is very close to the de-privileging of the psychological status of mankind found in posthumanism.

It its own way it’s also much closer to the actual truth of the matter animals are thrown into the world just like we are as is clear from a passage in her book Deep Play by the poet science writer Diane Ackerman that I’ve used before:

The moment a newborn opens its eyes discovery begins. I learned this with a laugh one morning in New Mexico where I worked through the seasons of a large cattle ranch. One day, I delivered a calf. When it lifted up its fluffy head and looked at me its eyes held the absolute bewilderment of the newly born. A moment before it had enjoyed the even, black  nowhere of the womb and suddenly its world was full of color, movement and noise. I’ve never seen anything so shocked to be alive. (141-142)

And while the calf may never grasp and abstract the strangeness of being thrown in such a way and abstract it into German as Geworfenheit in the way Heidegger did, or will never compose a great rock song about it, the experience of surprise and Being is there all the same.    

The recognition of what me might call such spiritual equality between human beings and animals for those who take a particularly Christian derived take on sigulartainism and transhumanism would appear to pose the same sorts of dilemma Christian parents face when asked to justify the absence of something like “doggie heaven” for their the beloved, deceased pets of their children.

I am not sure exactly how Frank Tipler and his Omega Point cosmology, which posits that a material superintelligence in the Universe’s future will resurrect the dead in the same way promised by Christianity deals with all the deceased animals of the past besides human beings, but even if he and fellow travelers admit that some animals might be resurrected, once one starts talking about any cutoff point you’ve got to wonder whether the human species at this stage would really be on the right side of it.

Yet the main spiritual orientation we might find helpful to draw from Ovid for the future isn’t so much this challenging of singulartarian assumptions as it has to do with a world in which the boundaries between the self and other are no longer as sharp as they once appeared, and where even the idea of a permanent self no longer makes sense.

Ovid gives us the beautiful Caenis of Thessaly who wished to be, and was, transformed into a man after her brutal rape by the god Neptune. He gives us another rape story that of the male Hermaphroditus by the female nymph Salmacis. Upon the prayer of Salmacis that the two never be departed they were transformed so that:

Now the entwined bodies of the two were joined together, and one form covered both. Just as when someone grafts a twig into the bark, they see both grow joined together, and develop as one, so when they were mated together in a close embrace, they were not two, but a two-fold form, so that they could not be called male or female, and seemed neither or either.

In Ovid humans become animals or even plants as part of the unfolding of their spiritual fate. The daughters of Minyas become bats, Arachne is transformed into a spider, Narcissus is changed into a flower. We might never experience such transformations in actuality, but as our understanding of the brain, not just in humans but in all other animals, improves along with our ability to create increasingly believable virtual worlds not just through projection, but by directly interfering with the brain, rest assured we will imaginatively. Such understanding and technology should give us greater access into the experience not merely of fellow human beings but our fellow animals as well.

Virtual reality could allow us the closest thing possible to a first hand experience of humanitarian crises, analog and augmented live action role playing games allow us to personally experience what it’s like to be the other- of another class, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, not to mention inhabit the worlds of creatures that have never existed. We will eventually reach a place where all new sexual and emotional experiences open up for us in ways that will likely challenge any notion of a stable self across time.

We will likely expand these experiences in ways that allow us to enter into the minds of animals as well, so that Thomas Nagel’s famous question “What is it like to be a bat?” becomes in a sense answerable. Our treatment of animals might gain a great deal of moral depth were we to actually experience what it is like to live and die in the slaughter house, or to be hunted for our tusks.

Assuming our survival, given enough time it seems almost inevitable that we will someday be able to directly share our thoughts and experiences with one another. Given the sheer scale of deep time it seems highly inconceivable that should we ever obtain something like material immortality what we think of as our individuality could be preserved across the vast stretches of time in front of us, unless, that is, yet another Christian assumption- that of a timeless end of history- is adopted as well.

If we are forced to turn to religious concepts in order to peer over this historical horizon I think it better to turn to ideas regarding transformation, change, and even magic. If we are lucky, we are not entering the era of history’s climax at an Omega Point, but an age of metamorphosis.

 

H.P. Lovecraft and the Horror of the Posthuman

The Shadow Over Innsmouth

Most boundaries have their origin in our fears, imposed in a vain quest of isolating what frightens us on the other side. The last two centuries have been the era of eroding boundaries, the gradual disappearance of what were once thought to be unassailable walls between ourselves and the “other”. It is the story of liberation the flip-side of which has been a steady accumulation of anxiety and dread.

By far the most important boundary, as far as Western culture at least is concerned, dealt with the line that separated the human from the merely animal. It was a border that Charles Darwin began the process of destroying with his book The Origin of Species in 1859, but though it was strongly implied in that work that human beings also were animals, and that we had emerged through the same evolutionary processes as monkeys or sea slugs, that cold fact wouldn’t be directly addressed until Darwin wrote another masterpiece – The Descent of Man in 1871.

Darwin himself was an abolitionist and believer in the biological equality of the “races”, but with his theory, and especially after The Descent’s publication, the reaction to his ideas wasn’t the a scientific affirmation of the core truth found in the book of Genesis- that despite differences in appearance and material circumstances all of humanity were part of one extended family- but a sustained move in the opposite direction.

Darwin’s theories would inadvertently serve as the justification for a renewed stage of oppression and exploitation of non-European peoples on the basis of an imagined evolutionary science of race. Evolutionary theory applied to human being also formed the basis for a new kind of fear- that of “master races” being drug back into barbarism by hordes of “inferior” human types- the nightmare that still stalks the racist in his sleep.

Darwin held views that while attempting to distance his theory from any eugenicist project nevertheless left itself open to such interpretations and their corresponding anxieties. Here Darwin’s humanism is much more obscure than on the question of race, for he drew a conclusion most of us find difficult to accept- that our humanistic instincts had combined with our civilizational capacities in such a way as to cause humanity to evolutionarily “degenerate”.  As he wrote in The Descent:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

Still, the ever humane Darwin didn’t think such degeneration was a problem we should even try to solve given, for in doing so we might lose those features about ourselves- such as our caring for one another- that made our particular form of human life meaningful in the first place. Yet, despite his efforts to morally anchor the theory of evolution his ideas became the starting point for the project to replace the religious nightmares populated by witches and demons that were being driven from the world from the light of an increasingly scientific and secular age with new “scientifically based” fears.

What indeed could have been more horrifying for bourgeois whites than barbarians breaching the gate they had so assiduously built, between Western and subject peoples, the upper and middle classes and the poor- who often were of another color and language, or lastly, erosion of the sharp line that had been established between man as the master of nature and nature herself?

H.G. Wells was one of the first to articulate this new seemingly scientific nightmare that would replace older religious ones. If evolution was even now reshaping our very bodies and minds should we not fear that it was molding us in ways we might dread?

Wells in his novel The Time Machine thus imagined a future in which evolution had caused a twisted bifurcation of the human species. The upper class after eons of having had every need and whim provided had become imbeciles and gone soft-his childlike Eloi. Yet it was Wells’ imagined degenerates, the Morlocks, the keepers of machines who had evolved to live underground and who lived off the flesh of the Eloi that would haunt the imagination of a 20th century beset by the war between classes.

In The Time Machine Wells reworked European anxiety regarding “savages” into an imagined future of European civilization itself that might be brought about should the course of future human evolution come to be shaped by the failure to address class conflict and preserve the types of challenges that made gave life meaning and had shaped human evolution in the past. He would explore a  similar to erosion of boundaries, only this time between the human and the animal, with his 1886 novel The Island of Dr Moreau, which I’ve discussed on a prior Halloween.

Yet Wells would never explore the racial anxieties that were unleashed with the Theory of Natural Selection, probably because he remained both too intelligent and too humane to be taken in by the pseudoscience of race even when racism was a common opinion among educated whites. The person who would eventually give vent to these anxieties was a strange and lonely figure from Providence Rhode Island whose rise to popularity might serve as a sort of barometer of the early 21st century and its’ mixture of new and old fears.

I can’t say I’ve read much of H.P. Lovecraft, perhaps because I am no great fan of horror fiction generally, but after reading his 1931 tale The Shadow over Innsmouth I did understand much better what all the fuss over the last decade or so has been about.

Lovecraft is an excellent example of the old saw that brilliance and moral character need have nothing to do with one another. Indeed, he is a master storyteller of a sort of who excels at tapping into and exploring the darker human emotions. Where Lovecraft especially outperforms is at capturing less the emotion of fear than the sensation of suffocating disgust. Yet for all his brilliance, the man was also, indisputably, a racist asshole.

The plot of The Shadow over Innsmouth deals with an unnamed antiquarian who in search of the origins of an obscure kind of “crown” finds himself in the bizarre and ultimately horrifying coastal town of Innsmouth. What the protagonist discovers upon his arrival at Innsmouth is something close to a ghost town, an almost post- apocalyptic place neither fully abandoned nor alive and inhabited. Despite the tale’s setting near the sea the atmosphere Lovecraft describes reminded me very much of what is left from the man made disaster that is the town of Centralia, a place where our fantasies of the underworld meet reality in a way I know all too well.

The backdrop is important for the message I think Lovecraft is trying to convey, which is that civilization is separated from barbarism and violence, the angelic from the demonic, or the human from the animal, by a razor thin boundary that might disappear in an instant.

Against this setting Lovecraft succeeds in a mashup of the anxieties that haunted Westerners over the course of the modern age. The churches of Innsmouth have been converted over to a type of devil worship. Indeed, one of the most striking scenes in the story for me was when the protagonist sees one of the darkly robed priests of this cult walking across the street and finds himself struck with a strange sense of mental insanity and nausea- what fear can sometimes feel like as I myself have experienced it. Still, Lovecraft is not going to center his story on this one deep seated, and probably dying fear of devil worshipers, but will hybridize it and create a chimera of fears old and new.

The devil the inhabitants of Innsmouth worship will turn out to be one of the deities from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. In fact, Lovecraft appears to have almost single-handedly revived the ancient Christian idea that the gods of “pagans” and “heathens”, weren’t, as modern Christian mostly understand them, fictions or childish ideas regarding the “true” God, but were themselves real powers that could do things for their worshipers- though for a demonic price. The ship captain who brought the worship of a dark gods from lands in the Pacific did so for purely utilitarian reasons- prayer to the entity works- unlike prayers to the Christian God, who in a twist I am not sure Lovecraft grasped the cleverness of, has left the the fishing community of Innsmouth with empty nets.

In exchange for full nets of fish, the people of Innsmouth agree to worship these new “dark ones” and breed with them like the “sons of God” did with the “daughters of men” in the Book of Genesis, and just like in the Bible where such interbreeding gives rise to human monsters hybrids that God later destroys with the Flood, in The Shadow over Innsmouth the product of these unnatural couplings result in similar hybrids only, in a dark reversal of both the Noah story and historical evolutionary movement from sea to land, the hybrids will be born human only to devolve by the time they reach adulthood into a sort of immortal fish.

Okay, that’s weird… and deep.

What’s a shame is that it’s likely Lovecraft we’ll be talking about in 2100, much more so than Joseph Conrad, who, despite attempting to wrestle with similar anxieties, and from a much more humane perspective, will likely be anchored in the 19th and 20th centuries by his historical realism.

Lovecraft will likely last longer because he was tapping into archetypes that seem to transcend history and are burned deep into the human unconscious, but it’s not just this Jungian aspect to Lovecraft’s fiction that will probably keep his version of horror relevant in the 21st century.

The very anxieties, both personally and in fiction, that Lovecraft exhibited are almost bound to become even more acute as fears over immigration are exacerbated by a shrinking world that for a multitude of reasons is on the move. These fears are only the tip of the iceberg, however, as boundaries are breaking down in much more radical ways, as the kinds of revolutionary changes in public perception of homosexuality and the transgendered within just the last couple of years clearly attests.

Add to that what will only be the ever more visible presence of cyborgs, the dread of animated environments, and ubiquity of AI “deities” running the world behind the scenes, and all this combined with the continued proliferation of subcultures and bio-technological innovations that will blur the line between humans and animals, and one can see why anxiety over boundaries may be the most important fear in terms of its psychological and political impact in the 21st century.

What makes Lovecraft essential reading for today is that he gives those of us not prone to such fears over eroding boundaries a window directly into the mind of someone who experiences such erosion with visceral horror that as in Lovecraft’s time (he wrote during the era when Nazi propaganda was portraying the Jews as vermin) quite dark political forces are prone to tap. For that we might be thankful that the author was as dark of soul as he was for because of it we can be a little more certain that such fears are truly felt by some, and not just a childlike play for attention, even while the adults among us continue to know there aren’t any such monsters under our beds waiting until the lights go out to attack.

 

God’s a Hedge fund Manager, and I’m a Lab Rat

God_judging_adam_blake_1795

Of all the books and essays of Steve Fuller I have read his latest The Proactionary Imperative: A Foundation for Transhumanism is by far the most articulate and morally anchored. From me that’s saying a lot given how critical I have been on more than one occasion regarding what I’ve understood as some troubling undercurrents justifying political violence and advocating a kind of amoral reading of history found in his work.

Therefore, I was surprised when I found The Proactionary Imperative which Fuller co-authored with Veronica Lipińska not only filled with intellectual gems, but informed by a more nuanced ethics than I had seen in Fuller’s prior writing or speeches.

In The Proactionary Imperative Fuller and Lipińska aim to re-calibrate the ideological division between left/right that has existed since the French Revolution’s unfortunate seating arrangement. The authors set out to redefine this division that they see as antiquated with a new split between the adherents of the precautionary principle and those who embrace a version of what Max More was the first to call the proactionary principle. The former urges caution towards technological and especially biological interventions in nature whereas the latter adopts the position that the road to progress is paved with calculated risks.

Fuller and Lipińska locate those who espouse some version of the precautionary  principle as tracing their modern origins back to Darwin himself and his humbling of the human status and overall pessimism that we could ever transcend our lowly nature as animals. They lump philosophers such as Peter Singer (whom I think David Roden more accurately characterizes as a Critical Posthumanist) within this precautionary sect whom they argue are united by their desire for the rebalancing of the moral scale away from humans and towards our fellow animals. Opposed to this, Fuller and Lipińska argue that we should cling to the pre-Darwinian notion that humans on a metaphysical and ontological level are superior and distinct from other animals on account of the fact that we are the only animal that seeks to transcend its’ own nature and become “gods”.

Fuller himself is a Christian (this was news to me) of a very peculiar sort- a variant of the faith whose origins the authors fascinatingly trace to changes in our understanding of God first articulated in the philosophy of the 12th century theologian Duns Scotus.

Before Scotus the consensus among Christian theologians was to stress the supernatural characteristic of God, that is, God was unlike anything we had experienced in the material world and therefore any of our mental categories were incapable of describing him. To use examples from my own memory an extreme Scotian position would be the materialism of Thomas Hobbes who held God to possess an actual body, whereas the unbridgeable gap between ourselves and our ideas and God, or indeed the world itself, is a theme explored with unparalleled brilliance in Milton’s Paradise Lost and brought to its’ philosophical climax in the work of Kant.

Fuller and Lipińska think that Scotus’ narrowing of the gap between human and godly characteristics was a seminal turning point in modernity. Indeed, a whole new type of theology known as Radical Orthodoxy and associated with the philosopher Slavoj Žižek has hinged its’ critique of modernity around this Scotian turn, and Fuller takes the other side of this Christian split adopting the perspective that because God is of this world we can become him.

Problems with using religious language as a justification for transhumanism or science I’ve discussed ad nauseum such as here, here and here, so I won’t bore you with them again. Instead, to Fuller and Lipińska’s political prescriptions.

The authors want us to embrace our “God-like” nature and throw ourselves into the project of transcending our animal biology. What they seem to think is holding us back from seizing the full technological opportunities in front of us is not merely our fossilized political divisions whose re-calibration they wish to spur, but the fact that the proactionary principle has been understood up until this point on primarily libertarian terms.

Transhumanism if understood as merely the morphological freedom of individuals over their own bodies for Fuller and Lipińska fails to promote either rapid modernization or the kinds of popular mobilization that can be found during most other eras of transformative change. We need other models. Unfortunately, they are also from the 19th century for the authors argue for a reassessment of the progressive and liberal aspects of late 19th and early 20th century eugenics as a template for a new politics, and it’s right about there that I knew I was in for a let down.

Fuller and Lipińska conceptualize a new variant of eugenic politics they call “hegentics”. From what I can gather it’s meant to be a left- of- center alternative to both the libertarian view of transhumanism as mere morphological freedom and the kinds of abuses and corporate capture of genetic information seen in novels like Michael Crichton’s Next or Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. This alternative sees genetic inheritance being reconceptualized as the collective property of groups who can then benefit from their genes being studied or shared.

The authors also want to encourage individual genetic and medical experimentation and encourage/celebrate individual “sacrifice” in the cause of transhumanist innovation in something akin to the way we celebrate the sacrifice of individual soldiers in war.

As in the past, I think Fuller fails to grapple with the immoral aspects and legacy of medical experimentation and eugenics even outside of the hellish world concocted by the Nazis. He seems to assume that the lack of constraints on human medical experiments will lead to more rapid medical innovation in the same way fans of Dick Cheney think torture will lead to actionable intelligence, that is, without assuming that this is a case that needs to be proved. If it were indeed true that weak rules on human experimentation lead to more rapid medical innovation then the Soviet Union or China should have been among the most medically advanced nations on earth. There’s a very real danger that should we succeed in building the type of society Fuller and Lipińska envision we’ll have exchanged our role as citizens only to have become a very sophisticated form of lab rat.

Another issue is that the authors seem informed by a version of genetic determinism that bears little resemblance to scientific reality. As Ramez Naam, no opponent of human enhancement indeed, has pointed out even in cases where genes are responsible for a large percentage of a trait such as IQ or personality, literally thousands of genes seem to be responsible for those traits none of which has been found to be so predominant that intervention is easy or without the risk of causing other unwanted conditions, so that, for example, enhancing the genes for intelligence seems to increase the risk for schizophrenia.

Naam points out that it’s unlikely parents will take such genetic risks with children except to protect against debilitating diseases- a case where genetic changes appear much easier in any case. Fuller and Lipińska never really discuss parental rights or more importantly protections for children, which is odd because eugenics has historically been aimed at reproduction. Perhaps they were thinking of the kinds of gene therapies for adults promised by new techniques like Crispr, but even there the kinds of limitations imposed by complexity identified by Naam continue to apply.

Nor do Fuller and Lipińska really address how bio-electronic prosthetics and enhancements fit into their idea of hegenetics. Here the idea of biology as individual or ethnic property would seem to break down as does the idea of state subsidized experimentation and enhancement unless we were to create a system of periodic and free “upgrades” for all. It’s a nice dream, but then again I can’t even get the state to pay to fix a broken tooth. Welcome to godhood.