"L'uomo che rimane umano, ma che trascende se stesso, realizzando le nuove potenzialitą della sua natura umana, per la sua natura umana"
Humanism as core value of transhumanism
I describe the
roots of transhumanism in renaissance and
1. The roots of
1. The roots of
James' paper claims that
contemporary transhumanism is based in anarcho-capitalist thought. I would
say, given some views expressed on this list and encountered in society,
that one could just as well claim it has technocrat communist roots. In fact,
it is likely more important to get away from those roots than the
The paper begins with the
history of ExI, and this produces the impression that ExI really *is* modern
transhumanism. While the influence of Max, Natasha, T.O. Morrow and all the
other founders and thinkers linked to ExI is beyond doubt, they did not
start out in a vacuum with their ideas. Later in the paper FM 2030 is
acknowledged, and further back even more remote historical sources. I think
this approach creates the mistaken impression that transhumanism is
something very recent and with shallow
But the true origin of
transhumanism can be traced back to the renaissance humanists.
Mirandola's triumphant _Oration on the Dignity of Man_ expresses the
transhumanist project admirably:
"We have given you,
O Adam, no visage proper to yourself, nor
While the renaissance
humanists were more concerned with issues of human freedom and dignity than
the possibility of immortality or morphological freedom, there is no
contradiction here and as Brian Manning Delaney pointed out at TransVision
2001 they would likely have embraced it. They in turn drew on the
Aristotelian ideas of eudaimonia, the life of excellence.
After the renaissance
these ideas of human freedom, potential and dignity became central for the
enlightenment. Technological progress was still mainly seen as separate
from (but helpful to) human progress, although early ideas of
technological enhancement of the human condition per se are suggested in the
writings of Benjamin Franklin and Condorcet. Many of the enlightenment
ideas are today so integral to liberal democracy that they are not even
recognized as being non-trivial and based on a certain perspective on
humanity (except possibly when challenged by theocrats and conservatives,
who have different views of what constitutes a human being and the good
life). When extropians are called libertarians and anarcho-capitalists, it
often turns out that the issue is often their defense of enlightenment ideas
in opposition to later romantic and especially collectivist ideas.
The first real "transhumanist"
vision (n.b. that I will call it transhumanist here for simplicity, although
I will in the next section show that it is not a correct denotation) that
clearly included technological enhancement of the human condition was stated
by (as James points out) H.G. Wells, and followed by the influential
writings of J.B.S. Haldane and J.D. Bernal in the 20's and 30's. Now the
ideas of life extension (as science, not magic), cyborgisation, a future in
space, posthumans, enhanced intelligence - and of course eugenics - appear
at full strength.
It is important to note the
collectivist emphasis here: the goal was not to create a better life for
individual humans but for all of humanity - the collective, rather than the
individual ("the individual is only a function of the collective", as Marx
put it). The profound influence of collectivism in this period cannot be
overstated, regardless of it being Marxist class collectivism, Nazist race
collectivism or nationalist collectivism. It is no coincidence that
Stapledon describes his posthuman and advanced alien civilizations as
communist or fascist states, with global consciousness as the supreme goal.
WWII devastated the
collectivist form of "transhumanism" by its association to nazism and
fascism, as well as the absorption of the socialists into the east-west
dialectics. The stagnation of technological development in the east -
especially in the biosciences - moved the idea of human enhancement into the
mists of social conditioning and dialectical evolution, i.e. back to the old
idea that the only changes necessary or possible were due to social and
The ideas of
technological enhancement in the west instead took the route through science
fiction and the pro-science subcultures that emerged during the space race,
where they eventually stimulated thinkers like FM 2030 and Max More. Note
that this postwar period also largely separated them from the social ideas
before - the enlightenment ideas were largely taken for granted since they
were embodied in the surrounding (American) society and the idea of a unity
between science and progressive ethics was lost in the gulf between the two
cultures of the humanities and the natural sciences (especially since the
humanities came to drift in a somewhat more leftist direction).
2. What is transhumanism
On Mon, Jan 07, 2002 at
10:45:19PM -0500, J. Hughes wrote:
I feel it ironic that James
began his essay by quoting me about this. I have indeed argued in the past
that transhumanism in its pure form as rational radical improvement of the
human condition is largely independent from political ideology. But I have
also changed my opinion greatly on this since 1994 when the quoted text was
The problem here is the
definition of transhumanism, and what goals it is assumed to aim for.
across the 90's
I think a digression about
my own ideological development may be in place here, because I also think it
shows a change in transhumanist thought.
When I started out thinking
along transhumanist lines, I took a wholly technocentric view. The goal was
to maximize the information content or complexity of the universe; to
achieve this certain steps of technological development were necessary (such
as space colonization and AI), and to make these possible other developments,
including political, economical and social ones, were necessary subgoals.
Society and to some extent the individual were secondary to a grandiose
As time went on, I realized
that these sub-goals were in fact important. A transhumanism that did not
care for the individual or the real, current world other than as a stepping
stone would never truly motivate anyone, get anywhere or if it did, become a
kind of techno-fascism I found distasteful. Instead I began to focus on
methods of self-transformation, the issue of how humans - real, individual
humans - could become better in different ways. I did not concentrate on
collectives since I knew that people are unique, have different goals and
This was the position I had
in 1994 when I wrote the quoted text: transhumanism would, through its
inherent positive technological effects, not need any specific ideological
position other than those necessary to bring about the effects. In a way it
was a mirror of utopian socialist idea that as technology marched on
everybody would become socialists.
But the story does not end
there. The more I interacted with people inside and outside transhumanism
and learned about the history of ideas and technology, the more I realized
that *politics does matter*. Philosophy matters. Technology doesn't
solely drive social and cultural changes, quite often they instead drive
technological development. Without any values to motivate and direct
transhumanism it would not get anywhere, and quite likely become hijacked by
other groups. Even more, not all interpretations of transhumanism were
meaningful - quite a few were simply transhumanist ideas of technological
transformation arbitrarily tacked onto political views with no attempts as
consistency. As the breadth of transhumanism increased, it also became
shallower. In the ever more noisy list environments any discussion that did
not keep to strictly defined engineering matters and instead moved into
issues related to ideology and current day policy would be embroiled in a
low-quality discourse where most participants lacked significant knowledge
and instead let their opinions play freely.
I more and more felt that
transhumanism as a term had lost any meaning if it could denote both someone
advocating a centralist socialist economy, someone advocating
anarcho-capitalism and someone advocating mystical contemplation as long as
they all thought nanotechnology was great. Transhumanism seemed to be
nothing but technophilia or even just awareness of radical technology as a
possible future option (which was a definition that circulated briefly
during the work on the Transhumanist Principles - according to that
definition Jeremy Rifkin would have been a transhumanist! That observation
of course quickly led to an amendment of the definition).
Over the last years I
have come to the conclusion that we need to rethink the core values of
transhumanism, or rather, define the core values. The problem is that
the term transhumanism is by now so diluted that it hardly means anything,
and that there hardly exists any standards body that can claim "ownership"
of the term or its official definition - WTA might be the closest thing, but
we shouldn't overestimate the impact of such pronouncements.
2.2 Core values of
Is there any core values
of transhumanism? Note that the definition of transhumanism as "rational
radical enhancements of the human condition" does contain an assumption that
there has to be some underlying values being furthered - something is
enhanced relative its past state. It also implies some concept of human
condition (and of what is rational and radical, but I'll leave those for
Where does these values
come from? Either they are inherent in transhumanism, or they come from
other assumed value systems such as political ideologies hooked on to
transhumanism as some kind of external motivating engine.
But in the later case it
seems pointless to discuss transhumanism at all, since the issue would
rather be "How should we socialists work to bring about the nanotechnology
revolution" - transhumanism would simply be a part of the big program of the
ideology than anything independent of the ideology. In this case the
transhumanist forums would be just meeting places of people of different
politics sharing a few goals, just as there are non-political forums of
peace, environmentalism or furthering the humanities. If this is true,
thentranshumanism is nothing more than a shared issue.
But this is contradicted by
the history and scope of transhumanism, the amount of interest that has been
focused on problematizing the human condition, examining the consequences of
human enhancement and its relationship to the world. I would argue that
transhumanism is in fact - or should be - seen as an ideology on its own.
If we look back at the
roots of the idea, we see that - with the exception of the pre WW II
collectivist "transhumanists" - there were strong underlying assumptions
about what it means to be a human and what the goal of a human life ought to
be. The human concept is the humanist one, with an independent yet social
human seeking individual self realization. If this humanist conception of
human and the individual good is extended (mutatis mutandis) to current
technological visions we get essentially the "mainstream" transhumanist view
(here in a somewhat abridged form):
Humans have an inherent
value in themselves, a human dignity that must be respected. They are
uniquely individual, yet social beings. They have different goals, ambitions
and abilities, but in general they achieve happiness and fulfillment by
striving to excel along their freely chosen directions. There are many
different tools and methods that can support this striving for individual
excellence, including help or interaction with others as well as technology.
The goal should be to develop oneself to one's fullest potential.
These humanist values
and ideas embodied here are in my opinion core values and ideas of
transhumanism, and not just something externally added on. A movement might
advocate technological transformation, but unless it is based in humanism,
it cannot honestly call itself transhumanism or any other title including
humanism. It would be just as semantically incorrect for people
disagreeing with Marx to call themselves Marxists (it might of course be
politically expedient, but for the moment we are looking at the definitions
of core ideas rather than how they best can be implemented).
Liberal democracy is
also built on much of this humanist concept. It is founded on the idea
of the rights of individuals, rights which in the end are traced back to the
properties and goods of humans and the desire to further the individual good.
What distinguishes liberal democracy from collectivism is that the
well-being of the existing individuals is the goal rather than the
well-being of an abstract class, and that their rights are valid even when
they interfere with the desires of the majority.
Also, there is no
contradiction here with a libertarian stance, since it is based on the
same respect for human rights. The difference between a radical
anarcho-capitalist and a liberal democrat lies mainly in the emphasis and
relative ranking of certain rights, general views on how society should be
organized and - usually the controversial part - what level of coerciveness
is acceptable. While this tends to lead to loud and long-winded debates here
and elsewhere (and in practice of course deals with extremely important
social issues), it is imperative to recognize that both parts (and the
whole spectrum between them) have more in common with each other than with
the groups with a non-humanist perspective.
2.3 Critique of
I have already criticized
how collectivist perspectives place abstractions such as humanity, the race
or the collective above the existing humans, and not just treat them as
theoretical primaries but also the beneficiaries of the good society. This
perspective makes humans mere tools to support abstractions.
Many collectivists would
however protest against this, since they claim their aim is truly to help
the existing people en masse. But it is unlikely any approach that attempts
to externally impose the good on people or bases this interaction on a
collective view of people will be successful, at least not if one has a
humanistic view of what it means to be a human.
The good life is not
universal. We are all unique, with different background, predilections and
opportunities - my ideal life is utterly different from your ideal life,
even if they may share some or many elements. The individual usually knows
best what is good for him or her, so most systems that attempt to centrally
bring about the good to everyone will in fact usually not supply it at all.
But even if some system could know what the best possible life is for every
person, it could not force them to live it. It is impossible to force
somebody to be rational, since rationality is a volitional state and cannot
be activated by somebody else's coercion (at best it is activated to deal
with the coercion attempt). That a human changes their life situation has to
be based on knowledge about the situation and why it can become better, as
well as their own will to change it. To impose a decision on somebody, even
if it is a good one, is not a way to get them to understand their situation
and begin a better life.
Even when certain things
may have been good for us if we had chosen them on our own, they may not be
good for us when they are imposed from the outside. In this case we are
being reduced to an externally controlled robot, and we lose an important
aspect of our humanity, our agency. Agency is necessary for living a good
life since we need to be able to take responsibility for our own actions
(and this responsibility vanishes when somebody else controls our actions)
and to develop our full potential - it is the active life that is the good
life. Without agency we cannot grow, we can at best be shown how a good life
might have appeared from the outside but we do not experience it.
A good life is not anything
we create for others, because it is not possible to give another human
prestations, achievements, happiness, self-realization or self-worth. They
can only be created from inside through moral, character, willpower and
Freedom may not be a
sufficient condition for living a good life, but it is a necessary condition.
2.4 What ideologies
are compatible with transhumanism?
If transhumanism is to
be interpreted as driven by humanist values rather than any imported value
system, then it is clear that not all political aims or ideologies are
compatible with it.
The Prometheans are calling
for loyalty to and sacrifice for an eugenic super-race. There does not
appear to be any real concern for achieving human happiness or individual
excellence, all is subordinate to the survival of the race. This is a good
example of collectivism at its worst, and obviously has nothing to do with
any form of humanism. Hence it cannot be regarded as transhumanism.
The debate about the
removal of the Xenith site is otherwise a good example of why a better
definition of transhumanist core values is necessary. The problem was the
lack of consensus or official position on what is and isn't transhumanism
rather than a sizeable support for the ideas. With a better awareness of the
ideology inherent in the term transhumanism the issue would have been far
easier to resolve.
A group that was not dealt
with much in James' text is mystical transhumanism. Although some of the
millennialist aspects of the Singularity concept were mentioned, a far more
common thread is the tendency towards "cybergnosticism" that Mark Dery
derided and the intoxication with cosmic perspectives that combine
transhumanist trappings with what is essentially a pre-rational world of
Powers, grand evolution towards the highest and personal transcendence. By
its openness the transhumanist movement has acquired a sizeable contingent
of people who are more interested in the mystical overtones than the
fails through its irrationality; most adherents are not seeking to actually
become posthuman through their own efforts, but rather to achieve it thanks
to the mercy of posthuman deities. While this passivity is not per se
against humanism, it seems that it does not produce any incitement towards
personal excellence in most of its adherents. If one adds the rationality
aspect of transhumanism to the definition, mystical transhumanism is not
transhumanism in the same way as laying on the sofa waiting for the
revolution of the proletariat to provide for one is not a correct
interpretation of socialism.
The concepts of radical
democratic transhumanism mentioned cover a broad range, from specific issues
like Haraway's cyborg feminism over welfare reforms like guaranteed income
to utopian (nano)socialism and Ken MacLeod's pro-dynamist skepticism of both
the traditional and non-traditional left *and* right. It is not clear what
the connecting thread is, except that they are not part of the libertarian
perspective (which is doubtful in the case of Ken MacLeod) or the strongly
collectivist perspective (which is doubtful in the case of Singer). It does
not appear that a political program or society could incorporate all or even
most of these.
Still, as a hypothetical
program one could imagine something akin to a modern western liberal
democratic welfare state, with a commitment to equalization of opportunity
through voluntary treatments and a certain level of income redistribution,
basic guaranteed minimal income and medical treatments and culturally
dominated by ideas of tolerance, cooperation and the rights of minorities.
While there are many practical issues about the financing of such reforms,
how to ensure government accountability and fairness, and what limits on
coercion this state would pose, the main question is whether this is
compatible with the transhumanism.
As far as I can see,
such a system may be in accordance with the humanist conception of the human
as a striving, self-realizing being: help for individual striving is
provided, but giving help or advice is not agency-limiting coercion. The
protection from abuse is also in full accordance with humanist rights. Where
things get iffy is the secondary consequences of providing these things;
since some form of taxation has to be employed to pay, means of coercing
taxes from the citizens (or their organizations) have to be included which
limits individual freedom beyond the limitations that appear due to the
reciprocity of rights (if I claim to have a right to my property, I must
also acknowledge your right to your property or end up in inconsistency).
This could in principle be avoided if the society was recognized as a
voluntary organization where citizens agree to play by the legal rules and
submit taxes for their mutual benefit.
There are other potential
effects counter to humanist aims due to strong equalization attempts, such
as equalization of outcome (which can occur even if the aim is equalization
of opportunity if citizens achieving good outcomes are relatively penalized
both by taxation and by extra support given to competing outcome-poor
citizens) and the risk of mistaking or switching negative rights for
positive rights (a quite common tendency today, where rights are often
interpreted as entitlements). But given the assumption that this society
rests on a voluntary basis there is no fundamental ethical reason why it
would not be transhumanist. It might be less (or more) effective in
supporting human excellence than other possible societies, but if the
participants have agreed on this society it is their problem and by the same
arguments given before against collectivism it would seem that it would be
inconsistent with a transhumanist position to prevent them from doing so. On
the other hand, forcing people into agreements to join such a society is by
the same arguments, counter to the humanism underlying transhumanism.
To sum up, the version
of radical democratic transhumanism I have sketched here seems to be in
accordance to the basic humanist values as long as it is voluntary.
Adherents to this form of transhumanism will of course argue that it is a
more effective way of achieving human excellence than other forms such as
libertarian transhumanism, but the effectiveness issue is not as
important in this context as the recognition that both sides share important
core values. That they also have very divergent outlooks is not a
problem, since in principle a voluntary radical democratic transhumanism (somebody
better invent a shorter term!) can co-exist and cooperate when suitable with
a libertarian transhumanism. Just as individual excellence can be pursued in
many unique ways, there is no reason transhumanism - even with defined core
values - has to be expressed or implemented in a single model. But the same
arguments that lead to humanist recognition that this pluralism of
individual striving must be respected lead to the respect of people to
freely choose what social models to join.
It seems to me that the
best way of reconciling the differences between the different views is to
recognize transhumanism as a meta-ideology, not attempting to prescribe all
aspects of political ideology but providing an underlying set of values and
2.5 The problem with
a technology identified transhumanism
I hope that by now it is
fairly clear why I do not accept a definition of transhumanism only in terms
of its commitment to advanced technology. Such a definition has no core
values (other than possibly that technology itself is somehow a good),
and even when paired with another ideology such as utopian socialism (nanotechnology
will provide us with enough material plenty to enable a true communist
society) the result is meager. Besides just creating a slightly updated
variant of an old ideology, it also makes this variant strongly dependent on
the actual success of the technology. Should nanotechnology never arrive, or
have properties making it unsuitable to the vision of public domain matter
compliers in every corner, then the nanosocialist vision crashes.
But the future development
of technology is highly uncertain (although plenty of transhumanists suffer
from technological determinism, one of the less desirable inheritances from
the enlightenment progress idea) and subject to not just random accident but
complex social, economic and political factors, where ideologies and visions
are important. Connecting an ideology too strongly to a certain technology
is a recipe for either becoming obsolete, or an invitation towards
technocracy where the ideology now motivates its adherents to implement the
technological vision it believes in, regardless of whether it is truly
efficient or achievable.
Transhumanism is not
about technology, it is about placing technology, the human condition and
their interactions in a humanist context.
This escapes the trap of
requiring certain technologies to achieve transhumanity - we might live in a
cruel universe where most of the technologies discussed on this list are
3. What should
transhumanism as a movement strive towards?
I have now dealt with some
of the roots of the transhumanist movement, as well as a concept of
transhumanism that is firmly based in terms of the humanist perspective and
an ideology in itself. Now, what do we do about it as a movement?
It is important to remember
that there is a difference between the movement (which consists of a number
of persons adhering to views they themselves call transhumanist or share
with other self-professed transhumanists) and the ideology of transhumanism.
Redefining the term
transhumanism in a more narrow sense and with clearly defined values is
trivial; the nontrivial part is to turn the redefinition into political
reality. Maybe one could call it humanistic
transhumanism, but such a redundant term seems far less appealing
than either reclaiming the term transhumanism, developing a new term or
maybe ignore the naming issue altogether - it is in many ways a trivial
distraction, and a movement that needs a shared name to exist clearly lacks
the shared ideas to survive.
As James points out the
transhumanist perspective is under serious attack from a variety of
directions, and it is clear that unless the movement does something it and
its views are going to be relegated to an insignificant underdog position (something
that may actually appeal so some people, since being an underdog culturally
in the west has been viewed as a sign of purity and righteousness - as well
as a way of getting one's own small, manageable social corner rather
than have to deal with complex issues in a setting where there is a
plurality of opinions and one is just one part among many). However, if
there is no other transhumanist ideology than "technology often is good"
then it seems unlikely many people would invest their time and effort to
counteract the often persuasive and passionately delivered opposition - it
is too broad and too shallow. Instead, if transhumanists are ideologically
aware of their underlying values, how these values also underlie many other
highly regarded institutions in modern democracies (everything from freedom
of press to the dignity of man) and their long historical roots connecting
them to an immense amount of philosophical and cultural capital - then they
can find not just motivation but powerful allies.
There is a danger in
assuming that the broadest possible movement is the best. There are always
people eager to flock to any banner but who do not contribute anything, do
not share the basic values or are willing to compromise them in exchange for
small victories. This problem becomes worse if the movement is overly
broad and does not know its own values. When discussion turns to actual
politics, it can be devastating to not have developed one's own ideas fully.
We have seen many
examples during the 20th century of how strongly ideological groups, even
when they wield minimal power or have relatively few members, have affected
broad policies and shifted political consensus in their direction by
exploiting the lack of ideology of their opponents (e.g. the
environmental movement and parts of the left). What happened was that the
less ideological part made a compromise and moved halfway to their opponent,
while the opponent remained at their original position.
We are currently seeing how
the corporativist-technocratic establishment is starting to crack; instead
of the until recently mainly technological/administrative discourse in
politics value issues are becoming more important again. This is an opening,
but also a terrible risk. There are many other values out there, and many
of the currently most successful values are not particularly conductive to
human flourishing - be they religious or political fundamentalism, romantic
nationalism with fascist overtones, national security as more important
than human rights in the US or European "throw out the niggers so we get
more welfare" racism in Italy, Holland, Denmark and Austria.
description of the struggle between dynamism and stasism may be a (helpful)
oversimplification, but one thing is clear: the anti-humanist ideas above
are clearly on the stasist side in that they seek to control and limit the
future and human potential. On the dynamist side we find ideas about the
right of humans to set up their own goals, to create their own life projects
freely - necessary conditions for transhumanism.
In the end we as
transhumanists want to live in a dynamistic world where our own aims of
personal and social excellence are possible to pursue to their fullest. But
to reach this we clearly need to 1) recognize our core values, 2) extend our
ideology/ideologies from these values, 3) show the other people the moral
and practical benefits of embracing them as practical policies. This is a
large task, and cannot be done in the wrong order.
Transhumanism has so far
never been truly fighting a political battle, neither as an ideology or as a
movement of people. So far it has never produced any truly hard and
innovative challenges to the current dominant ideological systems. That has
The ideologies of today in
general have their roots in other material and cultural conditions. If we
seek to retain ties to ideologies that at best developed in 1850 (and in
several cases long before that) because they are our only source of values,
then we are bound to lose touch with reality. We cannot rely on naive faith
But we can recognize our
core humanist values and build on them. In a changing world, they are
surprisingly stable and likely the last things we will ever change in
ourselves in some unimaginable posthuman future. We can strive for human
flourishing and recognize what is and isn't transhumanism in this sense. We
can extend our ideas beyond a mere liking for technology into an integrated
ideological framework wide enough to encompass a wide spectrum of practical
dynamist position - while at the same time having clear enough goals to
avoid getting shallow and opportunistic.
"I cannot say whether
things will get better if we change; what I