Re: The Politics of Transhumanism

From: Mark Walker (
Date: Mon Jan 14 2002 - 13:55:44 MST

----- Original Message -----
From: "Anders Sandberg" <>
To: <>
Sent: Sunday, January 13, 2002 2:36 PM
Subject: Re: The Politics of Transhumanism

> OK, I have waited a bit with my comments, because I have been
> awfully busy, and also interested in seeing what kinds of
> comments would appear.
> First, I think James has written an important paper. Not that I
> agree with it or its conclusions, but in that it is an attempt to
> start a transhumanist ideological discourse on a higher formal
> level. We need that to develop ideologically, since it both
> provides documents that can later be more easily referred to and
> commented upon, and that it requires a broader view than just the
> current thread on the mailing list.
> My comments got a bit (!) longer than I intended, so I will
> divide this mail into a number of sections. An abstract:
> I describe the roots of transhumanism in renaissance and
> enlightenment humanism, and discuss its relationship with the
> collectivist "transhumanism" in the 20s and 30s. I also discuss
> my own experience of how the transhumanist environment has
> developed during the 90s. I then argue that transhumanism is not
> an ideologically empty idea, but that inherent in it are strong
> humanist values that resonate well with both libertarianism and
> liberal democracy. These values are however not consistent with
> collectivism or fascism, and not tied to technology per se.
> Finally I discuss the need for transhumanism as a movement to
> identify its core ideology and begin developing it.
> Contents
> 1. The roots of transhumanism
> 2. What is transhumanism really about?
> 2.1 Transhumanism across the 90's
> 2.2 Core values of transhumanism
> 2.3 Critique of collectivist transhumanism
> 2.4 What ideologies are compatible with transhumanism?
> 2.5 The problem with a technology identified transhumanism
> 3. What should transhumanism as a movement strive towards?
> 1. The roots of transhumanism
> James' paper claims that contemporary transhumanism is based in
> anarcho-capitalist thought. I would say, given some views
> expressed on this list and encountered in society, that one could
> just as well claim it has technocrat communist roots. In fact, it
> is likely more important to get away from those roots than the
> libertarian ones.
> The paper begins with the history of ExI, and this produces the
> impression that ExI really *is* modern transhumanism. While the
> influence of Max, Natasha, T.O. Morrow and all the other founders
> and thinkers linked to ExI is beyond doubt, they did not start
> out in a vacuum with their ideas. Later in the paper FM 2030 is
> acknowledged, and further back even more remote historical
> sources. I think this approach creates the mistaken impression
> that transhumanism is something very recent and with shallow
> roots.
I agree this is a major flaw with the paper. As an aside I should note that
James presented this paper as part of a panel at a Science and Technology
convention with Nick Bostrom and myself. (Nick's paper was "Transhumanists'
Values) My paper was entitled "Transhumanism as Platonism" which should give
you some idea of how far back we can trace some of the ideas here.
> But the true origin of transhumanism can be traced back to the
> renaissance humanists. Mirandola's triumphant _Oration on the
> Dignity of Man_ expresses the transhumanist project admirably:
snip snip
>> While the renaissance humanists were more concerned with issues
> of human freedom and dignity than the possibility of immortality
> or morphological freedom, there is no contradiction here and as
> Brian Manning Delaney pointed out at TransVision 2001 they would
> likely have embraced it. They in turn drew on the Aristotelian
> ideas of eudaimonia, the life of excellence.
As I have suggested on this list previously, I understand Transhumanism to
be the conjunction of the following:
1. The Means Thesis: Within a hundred years humanity will possess the
technology to reengineer Homo sapiens.

2. The Ideal Thesis: The goal in the remaking task is to perfect

3. The Ethical Thesis: We ought to employ this means to realize this

Transhumanism holds 2 and 3 with much of the tradition of the West--all the
way back to Plato and Aristotle. What distinguishes Transhumanism 1, but
this does not mean that 2 and 3 are optional. I spell out this argument in
"What is Transhumanism?, Why is a Transhumanist? and "Absolute versus Human
Perfectionism" Much of the history
of the West is a battle over what should be the means thesis. Plato,
Aristotle, Hegel, etc., thought that he means to overcome our human
limitations was through philosophical reflection. The Enlightenment (which
still has strands operating today) sees science as the means for overcoming
our human limitations. (A favorite metaphor is that with science we will
understand nature the book of nature and thus the mind of God--a metaphor
employed by Galileo and Hawking). The Romantics (particularly Sturm und
Drang) saw art as the vehicle for emancipation from our human limitations. I
am thinking of Schelling, Holderlin etc. When transhumanists advocate
technology as opposed to something else as the means thesis I think it is
important to see this as one minor variation on an ancient theme.

> After the renaissance these ideas of human freedom, potential and
> dignity became central for the enlightenment. Technological
> progress was still mainly seen as separate from (but helpful to)
> human progress, although early ideas of technological enhancement
> of the human condition per se are suggested in the writings of
> Benjamin Franklin and Condorcet. Many of the enlightenment ideas
> are today so integral to liberal democracy that they are not even
> recognized as being non-trivial and based on a certain
> perspective on humanity (except possibly when challenged by
> theocrats and conservatives, who have different views of what
> constitutes a human being and the good life). When extropians are
> called libertarians and anarcho-capitalists, it often turns out
> that the issue is often their defense of enlightenment ideas in
> opposition to later romantic and especially collectivist ideas.
> It is important to note the collectivist emphasis here: the goal
> was not to create a better life for individual humans but for all
> of humanity - the collective, rather than the individual ("the
> individual is only a function of the collective", as Marx put
> it). The profound influence of collectivism in this period cannot
> be overstated, regardless of it being Marxist class collectivism,
> Nazist race collectivism or nationalist collectivism. It is no
> coincidence that Stapledon describes his posthuman and advanced
> alien civilizations as communist or fascist states, with global
> consciousness as the supreme goal.
I am no Marxist but I truly wonder sometimes how many people around here
have actually read anything of Marx. Marx is not Stalin just as Nietzsche is
not Hitler. There is a scholarly tradition that sees Marx through the
influence of Hegel as opposed to Stalin. (And given the relative poverty of
backwards causation I have some sympathy with this view). Hegel sees the
history of the West as the march of Freedom, the goal or telos of the World
is for all to be free. (Not just for some to be free, as with the Ancient
Greeks, or for the one to be free, as with the emperor/god models of the
Egyptians, etc.) Marx stands in this tradition. He thought that capitalism
constrained rather than enabled freedom and that the state would wither away
once the final stage of history was achieved. Marx believed that people
would freely choose how to spend their time in productive activities, in his
famous remark (which roughly goes) Individuals can choose to "hunt in the
morning, fish in the afternoon,
rear cattle in the evening, write literary criticism after dinner. I think
that Marx was naive about this, but that no more makes him responsible for
Stalinistic excess than Nietzsche is responsible for fascism. It is true
that Marx endorsed a coercive collective action to help free victims of
bourgeoisie ideology. We may disagree with his assessment of who needed
saving, but it is not a distinction we can do without. Some of us think, for
example, that we might legitimately use coercive action to save victims of
cult brainwashing. Marx thought that capitalism similarly brainwashed its
victims. Given the horrors of the twentieth century I doubt Marx would be a
Marxist if he were alive today.

> When I started out thinking along transhumanist lines, I took a
> wholly technocentric view. The goal was to maximize the
> information content or complexity of the universe; to achieve
> this certain steps of technological development were necessary
> (such as space colonization and AI), and to make these possible
> other developments, including political, economical and social
> ones, were necessary subgoals. Society and to some extent the
> individual were secondary to a grandiose technological
> imperative.
I am glad to see you have stepped back from this. As I have suggested on
this list in the past, I find the negentropy metaphor somewhat dangerous.
The danger lies in the fact that entropy in the second law sense does not
allow for qualitative rather than quantitative measurements. Compared to the
rest of the universe the molecules of a banana and a human are information
dense. How many bananas does it take to exceed the quantitative information
of one human? ..Perhaps it is more negentropy efficient to upload
> The
> difference between a radical anarcho-capitalist and a liberal
> democrat lies mainly in the emphasis and relative ranking of
> certain rights, general views on how society should be organized
> and - usually the controversial part - what level of coerciveness
> is acceptable. While this tends to lead to loud and long-winded
> debates here and elsewhere (and in practice of course deals with
> extremely important social issues), it is imperative to recognize
> that both parts (and the whole spectrum between them) have more
> in common with each other than with the groups with a
> non-humanist perspective.

> To sum up, the version of radical democratic transhumanism I have
> sketched here seems to be in accordance to the basic humanist
> values as long as it is voluntary. Adherents to this form of
> transhumanism will of course argue that it is a more effective
> way of achieving human excellence than other forms such as
> libertarian transhumanism, but the effectiveness issue is not as
> important in this context as the recognition that both sides
> share important core values. That they also have very divergent
> outlooks is not a problem, since in principle a voluntary radical
> democratic transhumanism (somebody better invent a shorter term!)
> can co-exist and cooperate when suitable with a libertarian
> transhumanism. Just as individual excellence can be pursued in
> many unique ways, there is no reason transhumanism - even with
> defined core values - has to be expressed or implemented in a
> single model. But the same arguments that lead to humanist
> recognition that this pluralism of individual striving must be
> respected lead to the respect of people to freely choose what
> social models to join.

I agree here that in the grand scheme of things there is a lot of common
ground here. In fact I think that we are agreed that we should allow a
number of experiments in living. (I think that James agrees with
this--unless it was the whiskey doing the talking;).

Here are some of the features I would like to incorporate as a political
1. A World Federalism
2. Direct democracy--e voting: every citizen of the world should have access
to the net.
3. Enough flexibility for different experiments in living among the
federated states. There should be possibility of libertarian and social
democratic states.
4. Provisions for protecting and educating children--there will be limits to
what experiments in living can be applied to children.
5. A certain economic egalitarianism among the federations--what they do as
an internal matter will be left to some degree up to them.
6. Freedom of expression for all.
7. Freedom of movement between states.

Other things being equal, I think smaller is better: smaller governments and
smaller capital/management structures.
I would like to see more emphasis by Transhumanists on how existing
technologies might advance the lives of humanity now. I would like to see,
for example, transhumanist declare a world government based on a direct
democratic model whose sphere of influence would include at least cases of
imminent existential threats (in Nick's sense). Obviously no one will
listen to us initially, but if we get enough people on board we might get
some attention. I think projects like this will show the politically and
ethically progressive nature of technology.

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