The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man. – George Bernard Shaw, “Man and Superman”, 1903
How far should we go, to be the best that we can be? If personal greatness lies at the other side of an intense effort, should we strain every muscle, muster every personal resource, and vigorously push away every distraction, in order to seize that crown?
For example, should we accept the “Transhumanist Wager”, as dramatically portrayed in the trenchant new novel of the same name by former world-traveller and award-winning National Geographic journalist Zoltan Istvan?
The book, which hit the #1 best-seller spot in Amazon a few months back (in both Philosophy and Science Fiction Visionary and Metaphysical), is a vivid call to action. It’s a call for people around the world to waken up to the imminent potential for a radical improvement in the human condition. The improvement can be earned by harnessing and accelerating ongoing developments in medicine, engineering, and technology.
However, in the nightmare near-future world portrayed in the novel, that improvement will require an intense effort, since the seats of global power are resolutely opposed to any potential for dramatic, human-driven improvement.
For example, under the influence of what the novel calls “a rogue group of right-wing politicians – those who considered Sunday church a central part of their existence”, the US government passes sweeping laws forbidding experimentation in stem cell therapies, genetic reprogramming, human enhancement, and life-extension. Istvan puts into the mouth of the President of the United States the soporific remarks, “Good old-fashioned, basic health, that’s what the people really want”.
That ambition sounds… reasonable, yet it falls far, far short of the potential envisioned by the hero of the novel, Jethro Knights. He has much bigger sights: “My words define a coming new species”.
Anyone reading “The Transhumanist Wager” is likely to have strong reactions on encountering Jethro Knights. Knights may become one of the grand characters of modern fiction. He challenges each of us to rethink how far each of us would be prepared to go, to become the best that we can be. Knights brazenly talks about himself as an “omnipotender”: “an unyielding individual whose central aim is to contend for as much power and advancement as he could achieve, and whose immediate goal is to transcend his human biological limitations in order to reach a permanent sentience”. Throughout the novel, his actions match his muscular philosophy. I read it with a growing mix of horror and, yes, admiration.
The word “wager” in the book’s title recalls the infamous “Pascal’s Wager”. French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal argued in the 17th century that since there was a possibility that God existed, with the power to bestow on believers “an infinitely happy life”, we should take steps to acquire the habit of Christian belief: the potential upsides far outweigh any downsides. Belief in God, according to Pascal, was a wager worth taking. However, critics have long observed that there are many “possible” Gods, each of whom seems to demand different actions as indicators of our faith; the wager alone is no guide as to the steps that should be taken to increase the chance of “an infinitely happy life”.
The transhumanist wager observes, analogously, that there is a possibility that in the not-too-distant future, science and technology will have the ability to bestow on people, if not an “infinitely happy” life, a lifestyle that is hugely expanded and enhanced compared to today’s. Jethro Knights expounds the consequence:
The wager… states that if you love life, you will safeguard that life, and strive to extend and improve it for as long as possible. Anything else you do while alive, any other opinion you have, any other choice you make to not safeguard, extend, and improve that life, is a betrayal of that life…
This is a historic choice that each man and woman on the planet must make. The choice shall determine the rest of your life and the course of civilisation.
Knights is quite the orator – and quite a fighter, too. As the novel proceeds to its climactic conclusion, Knights assembles like-minded scientists and engineers who create a formidable arsenal of remote-controlled weaponry – robots that can use state-of-the-art artificial intelligence to devastating effect. The military stance is needed, in response to the armed forces which the world’s governments are threatening to deploy against the maverick new entity of “Transhumania” – a newly built seasteading nation of transhumanists – which Knights now leads.
It is no surprise that critics of the book have compared Jethro Knights to Joseph Stalin. These criticisms come from within the real-world transhumanist community that Istvan might have counted to rally around the book’s call to action. Perhaps these potential allies were irritated by the description of mainstream transhumanists that appears in the pages of the book: “an undersized group of soft-spoken individuals, mostly aged nerds trying to gently reshape their world… their chivalry and sense of embedded social decency was their downfall”.
I see four possible objections to the wager that lies at the heart of this novel – and to any similar single-minded undertaking to commit whole-heartedly to a methodology of personal transcendence:
- First, by misguidedly pursing “greatness”, we might lose grasp of the “goodness” we already possess, and end up in a much worse place than before.
- Second, instead of just thinking about our own personal advancement, we have important obligations to our families, loved ones, and our broader social communities.
- Third, by being overly strident, we may antagonise people and organisations who could otherwise be our allies.
- Fourth, we may be wrong in our analysis of the possibility for future transcendence; for example, faith in science and technology may be misplaced.
Knights confronts each of these objections, amidst the drama to establish Transhumania as his preferred vehicle to human transcendence. Along the way, the novel features other richly exaggerated larger-than-life characters embodying key human concerns – love, spirituality, religion, and politics – who act as counters to Knights’ own headstrong ambitions. Zoe Bach, the mystically inclined physician who keeps spirituality on the agenda, surely speaks for many readers when she tells Knights she understands his logic but sees his methods as not being realistic – and as “not feeling right”.
The book has elements that highlight an uplifting vision for what science and technology can achieve, freed from the meddling interference of those who complain that “humans shouldn’t play at being God”. But it also serves as an awful warning for what might ensue if forces of religious fundamentalism and bio-conservatism become increasingly antagonised, rather than inspired, by the transformational potential of that science and technology.
My takeaway from the book, therefore, is to work harder at building bridges, rather than burning them. We will surely need these bridges in the troubled times that lie ahead. That is my own “transhumanist wager”.
1.) A version of the above essay currently features on the front-page of the online Psychology Today magazine.
3.) I recently chaired a London Futurists Hangout On Air discussion on The Transhumanist Wager. The panelists, in addition to Zoltan Istvan, were Giulio Prisco, Rick Searle, and Chris T. Armstrong. You can view the recording of the discussion below. But to avoid spoiling your enjoyment of the book, you might prefer to read the book before you delve into the discussion.