Transhumanism and Subhumanism

I am intensely skeptical of Transhumanist ambitions. Much as I admire the intermediate goals of increasing human lifespan or human comfort through medical technology, the long term goals cause me reservations, or even revulsion. Allow me to explain using the most indirect means possible: by discussing fantasy stories.

Anyone who does not sense or suspect that modernity is missing something, something important that once we had and now is lost, has no heart for High Fantasy and no taste for it.

I don’t regard the statement as controversial. To me it seems not worth discussing that the present age differs from the past. The only question worth discussing is the nature of the differences. And, by extension, the nature of the future the present trends will tend to create.

What is wrong with the world? Where are we heading?

Are we heading toward the higher peak of the superhuman, or to a subhuman abyss? If I may be permitted a drollery, let me phrase it this way: shall our children be the Slans of A.E. van Vogt or the Morlocks of H.G. Wells?

A philosophical discussion would use different terminology and would bore to tears readers not philosophically inclined. So instead of discussing the nature and extent of the influence of Locke and Marx and Shaw and Nietzsche, let me discuss instead more popular manifestations more fun to read, that is, the science fiction writings, and discuss the nature of the influence of JRR Tolkien, and Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, of Robert Heinlein, Ayn Rand, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Peter Watts.

This may seem an odd way to proceed, to discuss a philosophical problem in terms of science fiction yarns. It is not odd at all. Art, including popular art like genre fiction, is an attempt to put one’s view of the world into a succinct and concrete example or image: and the drama of art issues from the innate drama of the world, its wonders and horrors.

Readers of science fiction have an advantage of perspective over readers who limit themselves to mainstream books, namely, that any work taking place in a year as yet unborn, or in a world as yet unknown, must concentrate the attention on those things we take for granted; because in worlds to come they may indeed no longer be taken for granted, nor exist at all.

The science fiction reader, as if from the vantage point of some shining skyscraper of the future, can look back through time to this our present, and see what we here might not.

Fantasy likewise occupies a different vantage. A reader of Fantasy stands outside of time altogether, as if atop the haunted mountain of far and unvisited Kadath topped by the onyx citadel of the dream gods, or the scarred and smoking slopes of sinister Mount Doom where evil was forged, and he looks from a dreamland or a Middle Earth where magic lives in all its horror and wonder into a world, our world, a grayer world, where magic does not.

The main difference between Fantasy fiction and realistic fiction is the presence of magic. The main difference between Tolkien style Fantasy and Robert E Howard style is the attitude toward magic.

In High Fantasy magic is usually not magic at all, but miracle: a wondrous good beyond hope reaching from without the edges of the world. When Gandalf the Gray returns from the dead as Gandalf the White, that is not a Raise Dead spell. There is also, like its shadow, black magic, which has a satanic character and tone. The practitioners are necromancers and witches, and not friendly witches like Glinda or Sabrina or Samantha or Hermione, but cruel witches like Achren or Jadis.

High Fantasy occupies the mental universe where (1) truth is true (2) goodness is good (3) life is beautiful unless marred by sin and malice: and when marred, life may yet, not without terrible price, be saved.

That this is an honest, virtuous, and sublime picture of the universe is a high matter for debate beyond the scope of this essay: for now, let us accept for the sake of argument that it is healthy view of the universe, one suitable for the psychology of human life, and joy.

In Sword-and-Sorcery, by contrast, the magic is malign: Conan kills evil sorcerers with the edge of the sword. There is magic afoot in the world, but it is cruel, and to study it leads one along the paths of madness. Any benevolent magic tends to be the aid of wise men or the caprice of unseen powers as unexpected as a dolphin helping a drowning sailor stay afloat. This is the view of magic the pagans of old had: something that disgusted and terrified even those who indulged in it.

There is not a separate name for the genre that follows Gary Gygax or Michael Moorcock or Jack Vance, but we should note many a story where the magic power is nothing more than an alternate technology, to be used for good or ill as the practitioner sees fit. There is no spiritual element to such depictions at all. Let us call it Sword-and-Magic-User fiction.

In the mental universe depicted by Sword-and-Sorcery or Sword-and-Magic-User the noticeable thing lacking is a figure like Aslan in Narnia or Elbereth in Middle-Earth. There is no Christ, no Virgin Mary. Men like Conan and (ironically) Solomon Kane are on their own. Elric, Corum, and the like are also on their own: a universe torn between forces of inhuman law and inhuman chaos lack the sense of hierarchy implied by High Fantasy, where Prince Caspian serves Aslan serves the Emperor Over the Sea.

High Fantasy has a Roman Catholic flavor to it, whereas Sword-and-Sorcery is somewhat Protestant. Conan in particular represents the rebellion of a healthy barbarian against a corrupt and over-civilized decadence. Truth might still be true, but you are on your own to find it: no authority speaks with authority. Gandalf may come from the Blessed Lands, but not Ningauble of the Seven Eyes.

Again, Sword-and-Magic-User tales are syncretic, polytheistic, disinterested in things of the spirit. Call it Unitarian.

Science fiction is stories about the magic of the future. It differs from other magical stories because the magic is metaphorical: it concerns the miracles of modern science rather than the miracles of God, the magic of technology rather than the magic of hobgoblins. If differs from other genres because we or our children may one day see those miracles come to pass, even as readers of Jules Verne and their children saw in their day such fantastic things as the submarine, the flying machine, the moonshot.

But then again, even among Hard SF writers, we find their most famous works seeped in magic as much as any tale of King Arthur or Achilles; it is merely called by other names. The powers of Paul Mu’ad-Dib or Michael Valentine Smith or the prophecies of Hari Seldon or the luck of Teela Brown are not called magic, but they are. These characters hale from Hard SF classics of the genre. Nor does this differ for softer science fiction: Darth Vader from can read minds as easily as can Mr. Spock, and can levitate objects as easily as Bill Bixby’s uncle from MY FAVORITE MARTIAN.

In Science Fiction the role of magic is ambiguous, and this reflects the ambiguous attitude of the modern age toward all things supernatural.

To be sure, we all tell ourselves that no modern enlightened man believes in magic, and many an enlightened modern treats science as a useful tool by which means he can make for himself what sort of life he pleases: but then again, an unusual number of we modern men substitutes an attitude toward science which is indistinguishable from a cult belief, as if science will discover laws of history or psychiatry and tell us the truth about human nature that will set us free; or else it is indistinguishable from an occult belief, as if new discoveries will harness parapsychological or psionic powers, and New Age will dawn of mystic revelation, or an expression of some life-force or evolutionary end-purpose moving us down the channels of time toward Utopia; or else it is indistinguishable from devil worship, as if science justified or required the extermination of the unfit, the unborn, the unwanted, or the genocide of lesser races in the name of dry-eyed and ice-hearted Darwinism, or looks upon mankind as an expendable raw material out of which to build the superman.

These four types represent the four stages of a decay toward the nihilist abyss: the worldly man, the cultist, the occultist, the anarchist.

In sum, science fiction precisely reflects both the exhilaration and also the discontent of man in his modern world, particularly his attitude toward the magical and supernatural.

The exhilaration comes from one source: the greater liberty, knowledge, technology and wealth we enjoy than our medieval and ancient forefathers. The discontent comes from the same source as the discontent of our forefathers, which our greater liberty, knowledge, technology and wealth cannot assuage and indeed quite aggravate, which is the depraved, corrupt and self-destructive nature of human nature.

The writings of Robert Heinlein serve as a perfect example of the Worldly Man, that is, the man who rejects Revelation, and seeks truths nowhere but in practical morals and empirical facts. The attitude portrayed in his writings toward religion is ecumenical neglect and contempt. Christianity is a source of a threat to liberty, as personified by Nehemiah Scudder (who, at the time of this writing, is due to be elected next year, in 2012!) but never depicted as a source of any goodness, charity, or beneficial reform.

Other religions, particularly esoteric or even Martian, are worthy of respectful disbelief. The attitude tolerates religion provided it is castrated and kept as a private pastime for lesser beings. One day we will outgrow it.

The Worldly Man is content to mind his own business and seek his own pleasures after his own fashion, and demands his neighbors do the same. The business he minds is to maintain the public peace (as in STARSHIP TROOPER) and to get laid (as in STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND).

The virtues needed to accomplish this can be lauded—no one waxes more poetic in his praise of the sacrifices of servicemen than Mr Heinlein— but those virtues have no metaphysical or theological foundation. For the Worldly Man, “absolute truth” is a question for folk with too much time on their hands.

Ayn Rand does not display this avuncular tolerance for Christianity: the religion is condemned as an unambiguous evil, and its practitioners as hatred-eaten mystics. (Other religions, one assumes, find no more favor in her eyes, but there is only one she condemns.) This is not the impatience of a worldly man for the mirage called absolute truth; this is the odium of one who defends an absolute truth against its rivals, or, to be precise, the hate of a heresiarch for orthodoxy. 

She is an example of a Cultist amid the science fiction community. (And do not tell me Ayn Rand is not a science fiction writer: an inventor discovers the secret of a self-generating power source from atmospheric electricity, and combines in a secret society with other inventors of supermetals and voice-activated locks and mirage-casting ray-screens and with masters of pirate battleships to overthrow the evil world masters who control a sound-wave disintegration ray? John Galt is cut from the same pattern as Doc Savage or the Gray Lensman.)

The Cultist takes the science and industry which affords the Worldly Man his pleasures, and scorns his pursuit of mere pleasure: truth, hard truth, absolute truth is the object of the Cultist search. Nothing but matter exists, hard facts, and the question of how to organize human life on earth is a deduction from fact. Any opposition or lack of enthusiasm is seen as treason.

Don’t be misled by my example to think I am singling out Libertarian writers for scorn. Socialists like H.G. Wells and Atheists like Philip Pullman would serve just as well. What gives the Cultist his particular flavor is the humorlessness, the intolerance, and the zeal of his pursuit. I call it Cultic because the poor fool is trying to place a simplistic or mechanistic understanding of the universe in the place of divine revelation: he serves an idol.

The Cultist believes he has discovered the secret to a life of happiness on Earth, and the discoveries always retain an eerie simplicity. I remember hearing one science fiction writer once saying how everything in life would be better if only religion were abolished. Really? Everything? Religion is the source of ALL evils? Cultists of other breeds select a different one simple scapegoat whose abolition will usher in the Utopia: for Ayn Rand, eliminating altruism is the panacea; for H.G. Wells, eliminating private property. I can think of at least one feminist SF writer who thinks the abolition of men would do it, or, at least, of all masculinity.

The Cultist, whether he wishes it or not, is always an enemy of virtue. This is because the nature of virtue is a matter of the careful balancing of extremes between two relative evils, and the extreme repudiation of absolute evils. The Cultist is an absolutist, and admits of no balance, no median. The Cultist is bedeviled by the alluring simplicity of his panacea, his one idea, and so compromises with absolute evils as if they were matters of taste. It is no accident that both Heinlein and Rand praise keeping one’s oath in their writings, and both portray favorably the violation of matrimonial oaths by fornications and adulteries.

In the same way the Cultist rebels against the worldliness of the Worldly Man, the Occultist rebels against the Cultist, and insists that there is more than just a material world and one brief and stoical life lived within it.

Ursula K LeGuin seems to me to be the most famous and most articulate representative of this stance within the science fiction community: while her books have favorably portrayed an anarchist utopia (as in THE DISPOSSESSED) she lacks the grinding dogmatism of an Ayn Rand. Note the gentle parable of LATHE OF HEAVEN that no direct solution to problems actually solve them, or the explicit teaching of the relativity of all truth in FOUR WAYS TO FORGIVENESS.

I don’t mean the word Occultist here to mean a palmist armed with Tarot cards. I am using the word in its original sense. I mean it is one who believes in a hidden reality, a hidden truth, a truth that cannot be made clear.

In the modern world, the Occultist is more likely to select Evolution or the Life-Force as this occult object of reverence, rather than the Tao. Occultists, in the sense I am using the word, explicitly denounce no religion nor way of life except the religion of Abraham, whose God is jealous and does not permit the belief in many gods, nor the belief in many views of the world each no better than the next.

Postmodernism which rejects the concept of one over-arching explanation for reality is explicitly Occultic: the truth is hidden and never can be known.

Occultists tend to be more wary of the progress of science and technology than Cultists or Worldlies. They see the drawbacks, the danger to the environment, and the psychological danger of treating the world as a mere resource to be exploited, rather than as living thing, or a sacred thing.

The Occultists believe in undemanding virtues, such as tolerance and a certain civic duty, but even these are relative and partial. There is beauty in his world, indeed, this is often his only approach to the supernal, but that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and there is no absolute truth and very little goodness aside from good manners and political correctness.

Of the final stage, the pure nihilism I here call anarchy, I can think of only one representative in science fiction, Peter Watts, and at that, only one of his books, BLINDSIGHT. As with Heinlein, I am not speaking of the author himself, whose opinions I do not know and refuse to guess, I am merely speaking of the worldview as portrayed in his fiction.

(The nihilist viewpoint is more often seen in fantasy or horror, as in H.P. Lovecraft, where the universe has literally nothing but roaring madness at its core, with crawling chaos serving it.)

The Anarchist rebels against the soft mysticism of the Occultist as against the zealous dogmatism of the Cultist, but he also despises the Worldly as weak and inconsequential, if not an enemy.

For the Anarchist, the only truth is that there is no truth, no absolute truth, and even the few virtues maintained by the Worldly necessary to maintain the social order are despised. Contrast the soldier Amanda Bates in BLINDSIGHT with Juan Rico in Heinlein’s STARSHIP TROOPERS. The virtue of loyalty which forms the core of Rico’s character is utterly lacking in Bates.

There is no discussion of morality in BLINDSIGHT: all decisions are at first merely a matter of expedience, and then, after the universe eliminates the uselessness of human consciousness as an evolutionary excrescence, no decisions whatever are made. The meat machines merely carry out their inbuilt programming.

The aliens turn out to be unintelligent in the sense of being unselfaware, but more intelligent than man in terms of being more highly organized. They are the ‘Chinese Rooms’ of Searle’s famous thought experiment brought to life, and, in this tale, the Chinese Room is better organized than the human brain and can out-think it. The entire Earth at the end of BLINDSIGHT is overrun with vampires the human race created itself (a bizarrely meaningless and self-destructive act) and society fails when too many humans enter the artificial paradise of electronic nirvana, uploaded into worlds of their own dream-stuff, so that the remaining real life population cannot maintain the machinery (a bizarrely selfish and self-destructive act).

This is pure quill nihilism. For the Anarchist, life is meaningless, and destruction is the only creative act. The destruction of human life on Earth is part of the necessary evolutionary process to eliminate the ineffectiveness called the soul. Only the vampires are left, sleek and efficient and not human in any sense of the word, not even self aware.

In the anarchist world, (1) the only truth is that there is no truth (2) vice and virtue are interchangeable, equally meaningless, and human action is an epiphenomenon of biological motions (3) beauty is ugly and ugliness is beautiful. Here we have reached the mere opposite of the world of High Fantasy.

Here we have reached the abyss. In the anarchist world, no act is meaningful except to throw a bomb, and blow up the innocent. Man is lost in a despair so huge that it does not even seem like despair any longer.

If you wish to see a visual metaphor of this state of mind, stroll through any modern art museum, and look at the distortions and aberrations of the human form displayed there. All of modern art is nothing but propaganda for one Anarchist principle, namely, that beauty does not exist, and that ugliness can be made beauty merely by all of us agreeing it is so. The proposition is false, and cannot be made true, no more than modern art can be made free of technical defects, much less aesthetic ones.

Now we can see what the modern world is missing, aided by the admirable clarity of the blindsight of BLINDSIGHT. The Anarchist is rightfully devoted to destroying everything in the world, including himself, if in fact there were no truth, goodness, nor beauty in the world, or no way to achieve them. If we are all just programmed meat machines, suicide is the noblest option.

But if there is beauty, even it is ineffable, something never to be captured in words, a mystic feeling elusive as a ghost, then the Occultist is right to eschew all talk of truth and virtue, and right to tolerate any man’s approach to the inapproachable.

But if there is truth, even if it is hard and cold and tinged with bronze, the Cultist is right to impose it on the world, no matter the cost in human suffering, and let all competing truths and claims of other virtues be damned. The only beauty is what serves the Cause.

But if there is virtue, then men must get along with each other, and also go along with each other just enough to maintain the public weal. The talk of truth can be tolerated as long as no violence is done in its name, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

But if there is magic, then there is a force in the world which sets the standard of truth and beauty and goodness, and bright magic is both more fair than dark magic, and merits our loyalty. Each man must find that light for himself, because no authority is to be trusted.

But if there are miracles, and I mean miracles from God, then there is an authority, a divine and loving Father who has both the natural authority of a parent and of a creator and of king. If one of those miracles is the Resurrection, then to all these other claims of authority, the divine can also claim the most romantic authority of all: the authority earned by merit. Christ has authority because he earned it by suffering the quest to the bitter end, and rescuing the fair bride from the red dragon.  The crown of thorn is his reward.

If there are miracles, there is at once truth and beauty and goodness, for all these flow from the same source.

The question, finally, is one of philosophy, and, all drollery aside, it cannot be reduced to an analogy to science fiction. The philosophical question is whether Revelation is Truth? Unfortunately, without going into a long discussion of how Descartes and Hume and Kant attempted to ground philosophy on an epistemology of rationalism or empiricism, and failed to produce a coherent account of life, that last question cannot be answered.

That question must wait for another day. We asked what is wrong with the world. What is wrong is that modern thought is caught in the disease of nihilism, the idea that there is no revelation.

That disease causes the worldliness of sophisticates who wish religion would not bother them. They say that whatever truth there is or is not, it is not central to the business of life.

That disease causes the stiff ferocity of zealots in any number of political movements with semi-religious or cultic overtones, from libertarianism to totalitarianism. They say truth is what the Cause says it is.

That disease causes the tiresome vagueness and severe intellectual disorganization of moral relativism and postmodernism. They say truth is private, partial, relative, ineffable.

That disease causes the madness of nihilism. They say truth is not truth.

The rise of science and technology did not cause this disease, but the prestige of science aggravated it, because theology and philosophy cannot be reduced to algorithms, nor can skeptics willing to bow to the results of an experiment be persuaded to bow to virtues, powers and principalities they cannot see.  There is a scientific method and a Socratic method, but there is no method for making revealed truths a living part of your soul.

Transhumanism, beyond its near term goals of improving human life through medicine and expanded human life span, has a long term goal of abolishing human mortality. This is a worldly doctrine carried to an extreme.

Immortal humans would be devils, since we would decay in our sins over the centuries, becoming ever more selfish and arrogant. Ah, but another long term goal of transhumanism is to eliminate human sin and selfishness through technological manipulations of whatever bodies or housing our thought happen to occupy in the days after the Singularity. The Transhumanists, which childlike faith, merely assume the technology to redact, edit, program and condition human thoughts and personalities one day will exist. And we can turn our leaden souls to gold.

The problem of who would program whom, and who conditions the conditioners, can only be solved by reversion to the cultic frame of mind. Simplistic absolutes are the only things the Thought Police can impose on the human cattle. Sinners themselves, their ability to envision, much less create sinless epigone is no greater than the ability of men and women now, here in this era, to raise perfect children. We cannot even picture what such Perfect People would be like, except unless we picture a simplistic caricature: the John Galt of the Libertarians, or the New Man of the Marxists.

The Perfect People would, of course, assuming anyone survived the perfection operations and the surrounding wars and genocides, would still retain the mind-conditioning technology. Now there are only two possible options: first, they would retain enough of their human nature to be discontent with life. Seeking contentment, and not finding it in perfection, they must of course turn to what I call occultism, the search for hidden things that cannot be put into words. But the mere process of trial and error, some other form of being will eventually be created, perhaps intelligent, perhaps self-aware, but not human in any sense we mean the word.

The second option is that the Perfect People would not retain their human nature. Creatures without souls but with intellects capable of free will are devils. The only thing they can do is destroy. At that point, eventually, the great anarchy will reign, and the only thing these heirs to the one-great human race will find to occupy their immortal and endless and meaningless time, is discover ways to destroy themselves and each other.

That is why I am skeptical of the Transhumanist ambitions.


AFTERWARD: a Note on Poul Anderson.

Sean Michael asks a question about the essay above:

“I would ask, however, how Mr. Wright would fit the later major works of Poul Anderson into his argument. It’s my view Anderson stove to show mankind striving to reach “transhumanism” but never quite reaching or achieving it. And it’s my view Anderson it was precisely that inability to reach perfect transhumanism which was what saved the human race from nihilism.”

Poul Anderson quite explicitly rejects transhumanism in his HARVEST OF STARS and sequels. His Sophotects are inhuman and the human spirit is tamed and domesticated under their leadership: under their rod of iron, the human spirit is both broken (in the sense of house broken) and broken (in the sense of shattered). Anson Guthrie, Anderson’s version of a Bob Heinlein self-made man, represents the last of the pioneer spirit (ironically, since Guthrie is a download). In the tragic opening and ending sequences, we see the colony at Alpha Centauri end in failure, but the implication is, if I am remembering the book aright, that the human spirit lives on. But not on Earth, where the artificial intelligences have eclipsed it.

In other words, the Sophotects were ambiguous villains: not evil, merely not human, and having no concern for that adventurous spirit which someone like Guthrie sees as man’s highest calling.

I don’t think Anderson was warning that the Sophotects would create the nightmarish Brave New World of Aldous Huxley, but I would have been curious to see how he would have handled the confrontation between the saints of the church of Christ and the Sophotects.

Anson Guthrie might be Heinlein’s image of the best in man, but he is not the image of Saint Francis of Assisi, or Saint George, or Saint Thomas Aquinas, or Saint Simeon Stylites. Therefore my hunch is that the attitude of Anderson’s fictional superhuman machines would be the same as that I have here above called ‘the Worldly Man’ — benign neglect. Unlike a Worldly Man writer, a Christian writer would only regard it as realistic in a story if such machines regarded Christianity as a prime threat against their worldly suzerainty, and be required by their own internal logic to destroy the Church at all costs.

My classification is regrettably simplistic: I am trying to wedge rather complex ideas and personalities into a fourfold scheme, and, as you can see, with only moderate success.

Nonetheless, Poul Anderson’s writings (I speak of the writings which I have read, and not the man who I cannot read)  is like Heinlein: he is a Worldly Man. All four of the stages can see and hate the errors in the other stages, but none delves deeply enough to see the underlying error that all stages share. The worldly man can see the evils in the Cultic man, which is why Anderson’s villains in HARVEST OF STARS are the Adventists, that is, the Transhumanists. He explicitly makes their devotion to their ideal sound religious: there is a scene where one adventist is daydreaming of the heavens and hells the artificial intelligences will one day impose on the faithful and the faithless.

HARVEST OF STARS can defend the glories of the human spirit as well as STARSHIP TROOPERS can defend patriotism. But, absent being rooted in divine revelation, these argument have no roots: the argument rests on sand. Any man not inclined by sentiment or experience to prefer the human spirit to comfortable sloth will not understand Anson Guthrie or consider him heroic; any man not inclined by sentiment or experience to see the grim necessity of war and the sad heroism of the nameless footsoldier will not understand Mr Rico of the MI. This is because Heinlein’s book takes the grim necessity of war as a given; Anderson’s book takes human nature as a given. Neither book touches on the deeper topic of where that grim necessity comes from, or where that nature comes from.

And, as humans, human nature is something we by definition we will never fully understand–only our maker understands us. What He says of us, we cannot confirm or deny by worldly means, because the tools are not given to us. Human reason can distinguish between a good theory and a poor, a valid geometric poof and an invalid, but it cannot account for human reason itself, where it comes from or why it works. (And I do not consider a ‘Just So’ story that prehuman apemen capable of correct categorical thinking along abstract metaphysical categories of essence and accident where spared by paleolithic tigers, whereas those not capable were eaten to be an account. To tell me evolution produced a working eyeball does not tell me why the stars inspire awe.)