The transhuman desire for transcendence as a way to get away really misses what humanity is about. It’s a desire to cut ourselves off, to wrap ourselves in pleasure, to get distance, to “win.” It just makes us less human. It’s not transhumanism – it’s inhumanism.
Among the books that I have been meaning to write about for ages, and never managed to do so because I was intimidated by the prospect of having to say something coherent about it, is Barrows Dunham's Man Against Myth. I've mentioned it in passing before — it's the work of a man who had just seen the United States and its allies emerge from WWII with both blood and dust on their hands, and was worried that a number of social myths that had been prevalent before and during the war would continue to lead men astray long after it. Among those myths: "That There Are Superior And Inferior Races", "That the Rich Are Fit And The Poor Unfit", "That You Can't Change Human Nature", "That You Have To Look Out For Yourself" — does any of this sound familiar? (The last is particularly haunting and relevant right now: "That You Cannot Be [both] Free And Safe".)
Whenever I hear some new creed that purports to be new and courageous simply repeating the fallacies of the past, I suspect the one who devised it hasn't done his homework.
I hate to sound like I'm beating on transhumanism as a whipping boy, because I don't think all transhumanist thought falls into the Übermenschen Twaddle Gap. The problem is that too much of the stuff that's most broadly circulated and enthusiastically received by those capable of actually enacting it falls into that gap headfirst. It becomes less about exploring a broader realm of human possibility — which, after all, should be part of the mission of any of our lives — and more about simply finding yet another way to divorce yourself from a world (and a universe) that you are part of whether you like it or not. It embodies a politics which takes the self as the highest authority; not even in the sense of the old-school anarchists or the Dōgen-school Zen Buddhists, where moral propriety must come first and foremost from one's relationship with the world, but in the militant, tyrannical sense of the term.
I don't doubt for a second there are plenty of transhumanist thinkers and doers who don't believe their view of the world should lead to a militant splitting-off from it. I applaud them for not falling victim to verbal magic. It's the more divisive thinking of their comrades that I deplore, where you either lead on to Galt's Gulch or get out of the way (as followers would only be regarded with contempt at best).
Steven's notes about the various Buddhist realms made me realize another reason why the more arrogant variants of the transhumanist mission are misguided. They revolve around a limited, and rather myopic, view of what constitutes a more evolved being to begin with. A sentient being is not more evolved because of the degree of power he has over material reality. Not merely because that power cannot always guarantee his continued survival, although it can tip the odds in favor of it. (A beaver's dam-building is not of much use against an asteroid strike.) The real hallmark of being more highly evolved is how much more gracefully, without self-contradiction, one can live in the universe — how well one can not only stake a claim but surrender it when the time comes, because that time always comes.
But, see, there's the grand temptation. Perhaps, we tell ourselves, we can one day arrange things so that we can stake claims to the universe and never have to surrender them. We do not ask what this will cost, because we believe (after all, a man can dream, can't he?) that the ultimate outcome of this exercise is to abolish the whole idea of life having a cost — to live, in Leszek Kołakowski's words, as a rentier and not a journeyman.
I see only two ways for this to be possible. The first is the one Steven and I have explored before, where the resulting life is not life at all, but a stasis that we can call life only at the great cost of pretending that nothing was ever lost in the first place. The second method is where the costs of living are abolished only by way of force and dominion over others, exercised not just once but unceasingly.
It ought to be enough for some to split themselves off from the rest of the human race, to create their own artificial nation (as some have explored) and live as they will. But the greater the freedom desired for such an arrangement, since such freedom requires freedom from being obliged to others, the greater the isolation also required — and the greater the isolation, the greater the paranoia and the monomania needed to maintain it. There is at least one such nation in the world right now that practices such a philosophy; it is slightly to the north of Seoul, and it is not generally considered a model for any desirable human future. Those born into such a system who bother to ask what it costs to maintain it usually learn about that cost firsthand in fairly short order, by being herded into a work camp along with their children and their parents.
One of the problems Dunham cites with the Machiavellian / fascist / power-centric view of the world is how
... you are [constantly] forced to choose a lesser evil instead of a positive good ... because events have put it out of your power to do more than stave off catastrophe ... [because] your use of craft and force over a long period of time inevitably creates and unites against you the forces necessary for your overthrow.
This overthrow does not have to consist of other sentient beings, either. It might well arrive in the form of the universe coming to collect the bill due for one's perpetual attempts to cheat it. A more evolved being, whatever his level of mastery over material reality, knows better than to get into such debt to begin with. "The gains hardly seem worth the degeneracy," as Dunham put it when describing the violence one has to do not only to others but one's self to maintain such a life.
Again, I don't believe that the end goal of any transhumanist mission is power hunger. My mission was not to prove the fascist origins of transhumanism or somesuch. I just feel that any such mission needs to be tempered by both an unblinkered view of history and a sense of charity and compassion for the rest of creation, high or low. Dunham had lived through seeing a few men attempting to sacrifice the rest of the world for the sake of their bids to godhood. He had good reason to be wary of their justifications coming out of the mouths of others, no matter how elegant or clever they sounded. So do I.