This is a place for exploring Singularity related ideas and inspirations.
This includes Transhumanism, Posthumanism, The Nature of Technology and the Technology of Nature. It is a basic assumption here that innovation is in strata and built on the ground of previous innovations, though sometimes obscured.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Transhumanist Wager

Book Review
Spoilers Included

The Transhumanist Wager is a philosophical science fiction novel about the emergence of a Transhumanism movement in contemporary society and it's ideological and political conflicts with the church and the government. It is a best selling philosophical science fiction on Amazon written by Zoltan Istvan, a former journalist for National Geographic now publishing articles in Psychology Today and The Huffington Post. A year ago I had never heard of transhumanism but have been interested in technological and scientific innovation ever since I watched the first moon landing as a child and read Future Shock and the works of R. Buckminster Fuller as a teen. After studying the Transpersonal and EcoPsychology in graduate school and workeing in IT for over 20 years I naturally became interested in Artificial Intelligence, Nanotechnology and the ideas of a technological Singularity at first from the writings of Kevin Kelly and then Ray Kurzweil and others.
Transhumanism while related to the technological innovations of a Singularity,  is more specifically concerned with the transformation and evolution of humanity through technological enhancements. One of the goals of transhumanism along with improved health is the attainment of longevity and immortality. The Wager referred to in the book The Transhumanist Wager is defined as: "those who love life will strive to extend and improve life as long as possible." In this sense Wager is not so much a bet as a solemn vow, to Wage. The novel chronicles the adventures and struggles of Jethro Knights, a young transhumanist philosopher in his attempts to clarify and promote his philosophy and instill a global technological revolution for the goal of human enhancement and attaining immortality. It begins with a journey of self discovery in a circumnavigation of the planet and Jethro's self defined mastery of western philosophy. The main part of the story takes place in modern America, a divided nation sliding irrevocably into a corrupt theocracy that demonizes all of the technologies of human transformation beyond the simple enhancements for improving health. As a result, support for general technological innovation becomes weakened, the economy falters, and the government and the culture become ripe for totalitarian religious control.

Many of the characters in the novel have rich backgrounds but are elegantly simple, if not exaggerated extremes like dramatic heroes and villains that have been cast to challenge and counterbalance each other. They are in a sense antidotes for each other's poisons and antagonists for each other's weaknesses. Through the lens of depth psychology Jethro, the main character, is not really a whole actualized person but rather represents a rational egoic consciousness, Reverend Belinas and by his extension Gregory Michaelson are Jethro's Shadow and Zoe is his Anima. Jethro's brilliant, audacious and uncompromising intellectual drive to attain immortality is polarized by Reverend Belinas' arrogant, absolute and unyielding faith that has become corrupted by a hunger for power and control. Chaotic Good versus Lawful Evil and Reason versus Faith. Zoe, Jethro's love on the other hand counterbalances his certitude and desire for control over uncertainty with her "Quantum Zen" spirituality, a kind of radical openness to unknown possibilities. Jethro appropriately faces the storm winds of life's struggles much like he does his journey across the ocean, with unwavering certainty and determination. His willfulness and uncompromising certainty in the face of repeated struggles and undeserved misfortunes makes him more of a tragic hero despite some of his successes.

Literature vs Philosophy
At times it seems that there are really two pieces of writing woven together inseparably in the beginning of the novel but growing more distinct as the book progresses. It is as though they were begun with a single inspiration but over time the second struggled to be born out of the weave of the first. First there is the narrative adventure of Jethro's self discovery, his struggle for maturation and self assertion to accelerate innovation and global revolution. This is The Transhumanist Wager. Second is the philosophical critique of the post modern materialistic and ideologically dogmatic influences in our society combined with the beginnings of a vision of conscious technological evolution called The Transhumanist Manifesto. While The Wager and The Manifesto are in a sense inseparable, they do seem to diverge increasingly as Jethro develops his world view, gives impassioned speeches, pontificates, rages against the establishment, lectures the ruling nations of the world and shares his vision of the future of humanity with his colleagues and the people of the Earth. The philosophy of The Manifesto depicted in the novel does not however become a mature and full-fledged philosophy since it is shaped by Jethro's audacious and at times egotistical character and because it was written as an ideological contrast agent and creative catalyst. Some readers and reviewers have sadly not recognized this distinction and unfairly leveled criticism against Jethro's Manifesto and Zoltan personally as though The Manifesto were a complete philosophy meant to be followed to the letter. While I suspect Zoltan has a more mature manifesto cooking in the back room, the novel and it's manifesto is a piece of art with which Zoltan has successfully provoked, evoked and catalyzed conversation on transhumanism. And this it seems is a necessary and timely conversation.

Jethro's philosophy, Teleological Egocentric Functionalism as written in the Manifesto is a utilitarian ideology, a kind of personal and cultural project charter directed toward attaining immortality. The egocentrism therein is naturally defined and emphasized as a good and desirable trait by Jethro and becomes intertwined with his teleological urge for innovation. How to further decode this? Well, to make sense of this I need to borrow from William Blake's Marriage of Contraries. Jethro, despite his rationality is an embodiment of Dionysian creative passion in contrast to the authoritarian political and religious dogma of the great nation of America now ruled by the dictates of Heaven. Faith has made people passive and subservient whereas Reason and the pursuit of Utilitarian Knowledge for technological transformation makes people active and passionate.

The Omnipotender is the quintessential Transhuman in Jethro's philosophy. It is an idealized kind of Uberman, reminiscent of Nietzsche's √úbermensch in it's worldliness and rejection of transcendentalism but somewhat lacking in a holistic and fully actualized moral maturity. He or she maintains an unyielding focus on attaining the necessary power and pushing technological advancement for the goal of transcending human biological limitations to attain permanent sentience. While this in and of itself sounds somewhat uncompromising and potentially horrifying in it's "will to power" I believe Zoltan is using extremes to make a valid point. We must not rely on age old dogma for guidance in navigating the changes ahead in our hyper modern culture wrestling with accelerating change and complexity. We can see this dogma in America today in the conservative rhetoric of longing for that old time religion and the romance of the simpler life of the "good old days" shown in Norman Rockwell paintings and old TV shows painted in sepia tones. The real world Transhumanist Movement in contrast is more techno-progressive and while romancing the future it does not really demonize the past as Jethro does so vehemently.

In reading the Manifesto, I like many people cannot help but have a personal and visceral response to its limitations. What is sadly missing in Jethro's philosophy is co-operation and loving kindness. And throughout the story I repeatedly asked myself where compassion comes into play and where individuals like Mother Theresa, Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr. and others fit in this world view. I gather that I am not alone in this sentiment, and that the central emphasis on Egocentric Utilitarianism in Jethro's Manifesto and business model for the human race is in some ways discomforting and disturbing as it later blends into a kind of scientific totalitarianism. To define value based on utility is a tragic kind of reductionism but this is one of Jethro's character flaws and it is part of the engine that drives the story so successfully. 

Transhuman Revolution (Spoiler Alert)
In much of the novel Jethro, those sympathetic to his movement and the Transhumanist scientists at large were an oppressed minority, ostracized and hunted down. While this is debatably an unlikely scenario, the novel is in part a cautionary tale and not a colorless window into the future. Jethro and the transhumanists, through a dramatic change of fortune and careful planning eventually become the ruling elite of the world. The oppressed spirit of innovation flourishes when freed of restraints but in some ways become oppressive in its own way. Those who are not deemed useful in the teleological movement Jethro at first says they will be marginalized or simply eliminated, later he softens his tune and says they are to be tolerated as long as they don't get in the way. The transhumanist philosophy here moves from fueling the passion for innovation in the beginning to becoming a somewhat dogmatically utilitarian as the transhumanists establish their own nation and prepare to transform the world.  
One of the questions that is stirred up here is: How is it best for an oppressed people to address their oppressors? Peaceful protest and civil disobedience or violent opposition? This is an issue that has arisen in China's occupation of Tibet as well as throughout the Middle East in the Arab Spring. When Mala Yousafzai was interviewed by Jon Stewart, she insisted that responding with violence to the Taliban who tried to kill her is wrong. When she said that terrorism should be fought peacefully with education, was she and those who cheered her on being heroic or naive? I do not know. Where I grew up in a Jewish family, deeply aware of the holocaust since I was a child and my great grandparents escaped the pogroms in the 1800's I do not think I could respond so peacefully or "go gentle into that good night." Where other readers have cited parallels between Hitler's manifesto and Jethro's, I don't think this is entirely fair. The real totalitarian and villain is Reverend Belinas who insists he is doing the will of God by killing those who disagree with him and infusing himself in the political power structure of the government. Make no mistake, Jethro is not a warm and fuzzy leader, he is a force to be reckoned with.

The independent nation of Transhumania is a vision of a utilitarian scientific and technological corporation dressed as a nation ruled by a philosopher king turned CEO. Much like the characters, I don't think this is a true and complete entity, it is not a utopia so much as it is an image of an intentional techno-progressive community built in contrast to the profit and dogma driven nations already dominating the planet. Transhumania is like Jethro is so goal directed it is more of a utilitarian focused community and well ordered polis. The focus is not on establishing a true Republic consistent with a vision of Justice and Truth but the goal of attaining immortality.

Lastly, and maybe more poignantly is the question: Does The Tranhumanist Wager and it's literary Manifesto support and enhance the Transhumanist Movement and it's goals? Or does it do more harm than good? The novel is a dynamic catalyst and it is doing well at provoking conversation and hopefully raiding awareness. Thank you Zoltan.

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