Nietzsche (Was: Quoting Nietzsche)

From: Anders Sandberg (
Date: Mon Jan 07 2002 - 08:21:12 MST

Here are some of my thoughts on Nietzsche and transhumanism.

On Sun, Jan 06, 2002 at 09:41:56AM +0100, scerir wrote:
> And the extropic quotes
> - Once spirit was God, then it became
> man, and now it is even becoming mob.
> - The future influences the present
> just as much as the past.
> - You must have chaos within you to
> give birth to a dancing star.

I think, if we can get out of the quoting orgy, that we need to think
about Nietzsche's role in transhumanist thinking. That he has written a
lot of very fun, succinct or transhumanesque quotes doesn't mean he is a
good philosopher to build upon; we could just as well quote the fun,
succinct or transhumanesque quotes in the Bible too as support or
decorations for our views.

Of course, part of the problem is that Nietzsche is inconsistent and
changed views a number of times; I'm not enough of an expert to really
tell if it makes more sense of talking about an early or late Nietzsche,
or if a finer temporal or memetic division is needed. But lets look at
the ideas of Nietzsche that seems to resonate with transhumanism:

* The infinite perspectives
* A non-theist worldview, where ethics has to be constructed anew
* The overman
* The will to power

The infinite perspectives in Nietzsche are really a kind of relativism,
and has become tremendously popular in much of modern philosophy. But
does it make sense to build a transhumanism on relativism, and if it
does, how much? Clearly, total relativism would make any claims that
nanotechnology is better than wishful thinking at providing food and
longevity irrelevant. A strong relativism of values would also make
transhumanism something we do because we want to, neither more or less
important than any other human activity like working, playing golf or
collecting stamps. A more refined relativism makes more sense,
acknowledging the subjectivity of our different perspectives but
recognizing that there exists a real world out there and that our
actions affect it and hence ourselves. I think there is a lot of
potential in a more mature relativism, but then one should try to look
beyond the guy who started the whole thing.

Nietzsche is often called a nihilist, but I get the impression he was
really after a way of bootstrapping an ethics out of his minimalist
assumptions. A bit like the philosophy mentioned in Ken MacLeod's _The
Cassini Division_, perhaps. If you can build something certain out of
uncertainty, then it is likely extremely strong - as Descartes believed
about his own system. This idea of bootstrapping an ethics is very
appealing to us transhumanists, since we are essentially problematizing
the entire human condition and do not seek recourse to some deity. The
problem is partly of course that when you cast aside everything old, you
tend to cast aside everything learned too - even if there are obvious
problems with much of the ethics in the past, that doesn't mean it is
valueless and that we should not use the solid pieces when we construct
our own.

The other part, and perhaps more vexing, is that trying to build without
any assumptions is extremely hard, and quite easy goes wrong. But it is
also appealing, especially if you don't want to spend a few years
reading what every bearded greek or german philosopher mumbled about
rights, human nature or categorical imperatives - the Nietzschean
approach seem to promise that anybody with a sufficiently large ambition
(and who haven't, after reading a few quotes from Also Sprach
Zarathustra?) can do it. The result is usually a lot of reinventing the

The overman is of course the most misused idea of Nietzsche; in a way it
his own fault, because he coined a name for a concept, and made the name
so general that anybody can use it to denote their own concept of
something "over" man. To us transhumanists it is of course the
transhuman or posthuman (and by extension ourselves; a lot of the appeal
of transhumanism is likely the self-congratulatory feeling we get when
we imagine gradiose posthumans as ourselves), to a fascist it would be
comebody embodying the national spirit. Nietzsche's overman seems to be
mostly philosophical: somebody who has overcome all illusions about the
world, ethics, himself and his own illusions, and now lives a life
according to his will to power. I guess the Nietzschean overman would be
a loud Zen master, not so much interested in teaching or contemplation
as revelling in his promethean hyperpraxy.

The problem when borrowing the overman term is of course guilt by
association - even using the word transhuman carries a bit of a stigma.
But there is also the problem that when transhumanists discuss the
various over/hyper/post/ex-humans we tend to ignore the human and look
more at the prefix. It is easy to imagine advanced posthumans, it is far
harder to imagine a development path from current humans (us!) that
would lead to them. Some might argue that we have a kind of path
planned (usually the canonical linear sequence life extension - life
enhancement - bionics - nanotech - uploading - grandiose posthumanity),
but that is even at best (and usually it is just handwaving) a
technological progression with no concern for how to get a real human
mind and culture to develop into something fitting to be the software of
these posthumans. I think we all agree we do not want neurotic jupiter
brains or immortals with addiction problems and a hangup on parenting.
The problem is that when dealing with these issues we again have to deal
with the complex and messy side of human existence which is so much
harder to deal with (and not possible to "solve"; at best we can
hope to "resolve" some stuff) than the technology issues - and when the
debate comes up here on extropians, the views rarely seem to move
outside traditional ideological and cultural lines. We may be good at
imagining how to manage replicating nanobots, but where is the similarly
incisive ideas for how we can restructure our habits for a quickly
changing world?

In the end we want to be both the very alive and active overman, and
physically immortal. That goes beyond Nietzsche's original idea.

As for the will to power, I think it is another interesting concept that
whose label is easily affixed to other things. Here I think
transhumanism is actually closer to Nietzsche than most other
interpretations. In Nietzsche it seems to be very much a joi de vivre,
the innate striving of everything alive to remain alive and grow more -
very much a transhuman sentiment. The misinterpretation (?) of it as a
seeking of coercive power and the implied struggle everybody against
everybody else is far less transhumanist. It seems to mirror the common
complaint against transhumanists that we seek to become powerful, and
this will come at the expense of the less powerful - very much a zero
sum way of thinking (but there are unfortunately some transhumanists
with the same naive view). What transhumanism really should be about is
power over ourselves and our lives - and if we regard our enjoyment of
life as valuable, then we ought to regard other's enjoyment of it as
valuable too.

Nietzsche's evolutionary perspective seems resonant with many ideas in
transhumanism that also see evolution as a powerful metaphor or even
underlying regularity. But one has to remain aware that there is a
tremendous difference between biological evolution and human activities
- we let our ideas die in our stead, we help our sick relatives survive
and economic and cultural change (and autoevolution) are far more
Lamarkian than Darwinian. There is a fundamental irreversibility in
evolution as information from the environment flows into the genome,
which seems to run into Nietzsche's affirmation of the present and
cyclic rather than the future and expanding.

Some parts of Nietzsche is clearly not compatible with the transhumanist
perspective: the irrationalism and the idea of eternal return. The
irrationalism (which seems be partly dionysian, partly due to the
infinite perspectives) undermines the enlightenment foundations of
transhumanism, and without those transhumanism is another cult among
others. Similarly, the idea that everything happens again and again and
that progress is either a myth or something transient that has to be
followed by decline, runs counter to the essentially irreversible
character of transhumanism. We need reason, science, empiricism and the
belief in that we can progress to be transhumanists. Without them we
might still believe a lot of stuff, but we are not transhumanists by any
reasonable stretch of the term.

Today we have a broad scepticism against anybody building systems in
philosophy - Nietzsche seems to be one source - but in the end we need
some kind of system or at least systematics if we want to structure our
beliefs about the world, thinking and acting in a way that promotes our

Anders Sandberg                                      Towards Ascension!                  
GCS/M/S/O d++ -p+ c++++ !l u+ e++ m++ s+/+ n--- h+/* f+ g+ w++ t+ r+ !y

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