dw2

25 January 2019

To make a dent in the universe

Suppose you saw that science and technology had the potential to significantly extend healthy lifespans, but that very few scientists or technologists were working on these projects.

Suppose you disagreed with the government spending huge sums of public money on the military – on the capability to kill – and wished for more spending instead on the defeat of aging (and all the terrible diseases that accelerate with aging).

Suppose you felt that too many leadership decisions in society were influenced by out-dated ideologies – for example, by belief systems that regard as literal many of the apocalyptic statements in millennia-old religious scriptures – and that you preferred decisions to be determined by cool reason and scientific evidence.

What might you do?

If you were Zoltan Istvan, in October 2014, you might decide on an audacious project. You might decide to announce your candidacy for becoming the President of the United States, as a representative of a newly conceived “Transhumanist Party”. You might decide that the resulting media attention would raise the public understanding of the possibility and desirability of using science and technology in favour of transhumanist goals. You might decide the project had a fair chance of making a dent in the universe – of accelerating humanity’s trajectory onwards and upwards.

Here’s what Istvan wrote at the time, in the Huffington Post:

Should a Transhumanist Run for US President?

I’m in the very early stages of preparing a campaign to try to run in the 2016 election for US President. I’ll be doing it as a transhumanist for the Transhumanist Party, a political organization I recently founded that seeks to use science and technology to radically improve the human being and the society we live in.

In addition to upholding American values, prosperity, and security, the three primary goals of my political agenda are as follows:

1) Attempt to do everything possible to make it so this country’s amazing scientists and technologists have resources to overcome human death and aging within 15-20 years—a goal an increasing number of leading scientists think is reachable.

2) Create a cultural mindset in America that embracing and producing radical technology and science is in the best interest of our nation and species.

3) Create national and global safeguards and programs that protect people against abusive technology and other possible planetary perils we might face as we transition into the transhumanist era.

In line with his confident personality, Istvan went on, in the very next paragraph, to issue a challenge to the status quo:

These three goals are so simple and obvious, you’d think every politician in the 21st Century would be publicly and passionately pursuing them. But they’re not. They’re more interested in landing your votes, in making you slave away at low-paying jobs, in keeping you addicted to shopping for Chinese-made trinkets, in forcing you to accept bandage medicine and its death culture, and in getting you to pay as much tax as possible for far-off wars (places where most of us will never step foot in).

In later months, Istvan decided to add two more ingredients to the project, to increase its potential impact:

  1. A declaration of a “Transhumanist Bill of Rights” in Washington DC
  2. The journey of a huge coffin-shaped “Immortality Bus” across the USA, to reach Washington DC.

What happened next has already been the subject of chapters in at least two books:

After the books, the film.

“Immortality or bust” has its first public showing tomorrow (Jan 26th), at the historic United Artists Theatre in Los Angeles, as part of the Raw Science Film Festival. The film has already received the “Raw Breakthrough Award” associated with this festival. In view of the public interest, I expect people will have the chance to see it on Netflix and/or HBO in due course.

I had the opportunity to view a preview copy earlier this week. The film stirred a range of different emotions in me, particularly towards the end. (Spoilers are omitted from this blogpost!)

The producer, Daniel Sollinger, cleverly weaves together several different strands throughout the film:

  • The sheer audacity of the venture
  • The reactions of Istvan’s family – his wife, his mother, and his father – and how these reactions evolve over time
  • The various journalists who are shown interviewing Istvan, sometimes expressing sympathy, and sometimes expressing bemusement
  • Istvan’s interactions with the other transhumanists, futurists and life-extensionists who he meets on his journey across the USA
  • The struggles of the bus itself – the problems experienced in its “plumbing” (oil), as a kind of counterpoint to Istvan’s wishes for radical improvements in human biology
  • Encounters with members of different political parties.

There were a couple of times I wanted to yell at the screen, when I thought that Istvan’s interlocutors were making indefensible claims:

  • When John McAfee (yes, that John McAfee) was giving his interpretation of Darwinian evolutionary theory
  • When John Horgan of the Scientific American effectively labelled transhumanism as a kind of cult that posed a problem for the good reputation of science.

Assessment

How will history ultimately assess the Immortality Bus and the Transhumanist Bill of Rights? In my view, it’s too early to say. In the meantime, the film Immortality or Bust provides a refreshing birds-eye view of both the struggles and the (minor) triumphs of the adventure so far.

Those who would criticise Istvan for his endeavours – and there are many – need to say what they would do instead.

Some choose to work on the technology itself. That’s something I respect and admire. My own assessment, however, is that the community of transhumanists needs to do more than contributing personal efforts to the science, technology, and/or entrepreneurial development of pro-health startups. We need to change the public conversation – something that Istvan has persistently tried to do.

In particular, we need to find the best ways to raise public awareness of the possibility and desirability of many more people getting involved in science and technology projects in support of significantly increased human flourishing. We need to answer the naysaying objections of bioconservatives and other opponents of transhumanism. We need to affirm that humanity can transcend the limitations which have held us back so many times in the past – the limitations in our bodies, our intellects, our emotions, and our social structures. We need to proclaim (as on the opening page of my own newly published book) that a new era is at hand: the era of sustainable superabundance – an era in which the positive potential of humanity can develop in truly profound ways.

We also need to transform the political environment in which we are all operating – a political environment that, if anything, has grown more dysfunctional over the last few years. That takes us back to the subject of the Transhumanist Party.

Going forwards

The Transhumanist Party which Istvan conjured into existence back in October 2014 has travelled a long way since then. Under the capable stewardship of Gennady Stolyarov (who took over as Chair of the party in November 2016), the U.S. Transhumanist Party has grown a leadership team of many talents, a website with rich content, and a platform with multiple policy proposals in various stages of readiness for adoption as legislation. It has revised, twice, the Transhumanist Bill of Rights, with version 3.0 being agreed by the party’s internal democratic processes on Dec 2-9 last year.

So far as I’m aware, there’s no v3.0 (or even v2.0) of the immortality bus. Yet.

What about overseas? Well, most of the Transhumanist Party organisations set up in other countries, from 2015 onwards, have long since faded from view. In the UK, however, a number of us feel it’s time to reboot that party. Watch out for more news! Or come to the London Futurists event on the 2nd of February, “Politics for profoundly enhanced human wellbeing”, where you will hear announcements from the UK party’s new joint leaders.

22 December 2013

A muscular new kid on the block

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-Transhumanist-Wager-e1368458616371The 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:

  1. 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.
  2. Second, instead of just thinking about our own personal advancement, we have important obligations to our families, loved ones, and our broader social communities.
  3. Third, by being overly strident, we may antagonise people and organisations who could otherwise be our allies.
  4. 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”.

Postscripts

1.) A version of the above essay currently features on the front-page of the online Psychology Today magazine.

DW on front cover2.) If you can be in San Francisco on 1st February, you can see Zoltan Istvan, the author of the Transhumanist Wager, speaking the conference “Transhuman Visions” organised by Brighter Brains:

Transhuman-Visions2-791x10243.) I recently chaired a London Futurists Hangout On Air discussion on The Transhumanist Wager. The panelists, in addition to Zoltan Istvan, were Giulio PriscoRick 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.

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