"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Dangers of Transhumanist Fantasy-Science

“Transhumanism . . . . is the idea of humanity attempting to overcome its limitations and to arrive at fuller fruition.” --Julian Huxley

Gifted investigator, writer, and former evangelical Christian, Meghan O'Gieblyn, has published an abridged version of her important essay on transhumanism in The Guardian.  What is transhumanism, and why should we care?  

In short, transhumanism is the pseudo-scientific belief that human evolution will “advance” within the foreseeable future to a super-biological state, whereby consciousness, or some digital high priest's version of it, will be coded and uploaded to a version of supercomputers that defies the limitations of human organisms and opens the window to limitless possibility and eternal, um, life?

Like the theologians at my Bible school, Kurzweil [author of The Age of Spiritual Machines], who is now a director of engineering at Google and a leading proponent of a philosophy called transhumanism, had his own historical narrative. He divided all of evolution into successive epochs. We were living in the fifth epoch, when human intelligence begins to merge with technology. Soon we would reach the “Singularity”, the point at which we would be transformed into what Kurzweil called “Spiritual Machines”. We would transfer or “resurrect” our minds onto supercomputers, allowing us to live forever. Our bodies would become incorruptible, immune to disease and decay, and we would acquire knowledge by uploading it to our brains. Nanotechnology would allow us to remake Earth into a terrestrial paradise, and then we would migrate to space, terraforming other planets. Our powers, in short, would be limitless.

While historically tracing the connections of this high tech scientism to millenarian Christian sects focused on the Rapture, O'Gieblyn does a terrific job of laying bare the theistic underpinnings of this romanticized dystopianism that is intent upon engineering a future society that will advance their dubious prophecies couched as scientific inevitability:

. . . although few transhumanists would likely admit it, their theories about the future are a secular outgrowth of Christian eschatology. The word transhuman first appeared not in a work of science or technology but in Henry Francis Carey’s 1814 translation of Dante’s Paradiso, the final book of the Divine Comedy. Dante has completed his journey through paradise and is ascending into the spheres of heaven when his human flesh is suddenly transformed. He is vague about the nature of his new body. “Words may not tell of that transhuman change,” he writes. 

Dante, in this passage, is dramatising the resurrection, the moment when, according to Christian prophecies, the dead will rise from their graves and the living will be granted immortal flesh. The vast majority of Christians throughout the ages have believed that these prophecies would happen supernaturally – God would bring them about, when the time came. But since the medieval period, there has also persisted a tradition of Christians who believed that humanity could enact the resurrection through science and technology. The first efforts of this sort were taken up by alchemists. Roger Bacon, a 13th-century friar who is often considered the first western scientist, tried to develop an elixir of life that would mimic the effects of the resurrection as described in Paul’s epistles.

Aren't these transhumanists just fringe elements, you may ask.  Not quite:

Transhumanists today wield enormous power in Silicon Valley – entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk and Peter Thiel identify as believers – where they have founded thinktanks such as the Singularity University and the Future of Humanity Institute. The ideas proposed by the pioneers of the movement are no longer abstract theoretical musings but are being embedded into emerging technologies at organisations such as Google, Apple, Tesla and SpaceX.

In the end, it is not the transhumanist religious belief system that is the danger here but, rather, the operationalizing of this belief system to shape society (economics, culture, morality, science) in ways that would appear to make a religious goal, which is based really on an unacknowledged faith, achievable in a secular world:

What makes the transhumanist movement so seductive is that it promises to restore, through science, the transcendent hopes that science itself has obliterated. Transhumanists do not believe in the existence of a soul, but they are not strict materialists, either. Kurzweil claims he is a “patternist”, characterising consciousness as the result of biological processes, “a pattern of matter and energy that persists over time”. These patterns, which contain what we tend to think of as our identity, are currently running on physical hardware – the body – that will one day give out. But they can, at least in theory, be transferred onto supercomputers, robotic surrogates or human clones. A pattern, transhumanists would insist, is not the same as a soul. But it’s not difficult to see how it satisfies the same longing. At the very least, a pattern suggests that there is some essential core of our being that will survive and perhaps transcend the inevitable degradation of flesh.

As with other dogmas that end up imposing their faith as a result of treating it as fact, the operationalized cult of the transhumanist agenda sends science and technology on a narcissistic goose chase, just at a time when science represents one of the few remaining tools that may help to sustain life on earth as we know it.

While holding out the ridiculous fantasy that human consciousness, or some manufactured version of it, can be uploaded into virtual time and space, transhumanism represents a capitulation to the eventuality of environmental end times, and it offers a free pass to the murderous corporate exploitation of life on Earth. 

And while we wait for the high priests of Silicon Valley to devise the algorithm to transport what is ineffable of humans into ones and zeros that can self-organize in such ways as to “break through the material framework of Time and Space,” society must be prepared to expect attempted domination of a highly-lucrative techno-religiosity into all human enterprises.  

If the transhumanists have their way, theirs will be the final religion.

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