Friday, October 4, 2013

Reading The Transhumanist Wager

Last month I finished reading The Transhumanist Wager by Zoltan Istvan. This is his first novel. Istvan attempts a great deal with his piece of fiction. He tries to capture the essential philosophic and cultural implications of the various aspects of the transhumanist movement, projecting slightly forward in time. He attempts to do so with dramatic flair. The novel contains a passionate love affair, a world war, and lots of heavy pontifications by the primary characters.

In this regard it is not unlike what Fyodor Dostoyevsky does in The Brothers Karamazov and what Ayn Rand does in Atlas Shrugged. Both of these novels are great literature in their distinctive ways and I recommend them to any who might be looking for a long read that requires a bit of mental chewing to fully appreciate. Alas, The Transhumanist Wager fails to accomplish these heights.

Though an intriguing read in portions and in underlying narrative, the novel is rather poorly written overall. It reads too much like a textbook. I don't find myself particularly sympathizing with any of the characters. I enjoy the ideas Istvan is wrestling with but his telling and resolution of them in the novel feels rather shallow to me. So, while I enjoyed the novel as a fascinating mental exercise in fiction, it comes off even more preachy and predictable than either Rand or Dostoyevsky. And that turns me off.

Jethro Knights is the novel's primary character. He is a brilliant young futurist with leanings toward radical human life extension. There comes a time when transhumanists worldwide are under attack by religious groups and, ultimately, certain governments for their attempts at human life extension and the emergence of genuine virtual consciousness. During this time Knights is a mover and shaker in the transhumanist sphere.

He meets and falls in love with an equally brilliant half-British, half-Chinese physician named Zoe Bach. They have a complete and erotic affair, though the writing itself is technical and devoid of any true eroticism. (At least Ayn Rand managed to be slightly more erotic in her work.) The couple are totally into one another physically and intellectually though there is a lot of friction as they don't philosophically agree about the nature of death and of transhumanism itself. That is some great material to work with. Unfortunately, the relationship's passion is more reported than described and possesses little power in the actual prose of the novel.

In the end, idealistically and somewhat naively on Istvan's part, all the transhumanists of the world retreat to their own artificial island and live there (again, this has echoes of John Galt). There transhumanism receives its full and unadulterated freedom. Within less than a decade they are on the verge of transforming what being human is all about. The world reacts and a world war results. Transhumanism is triumphant and the religions and former institutions of government in the world are transformed. Kind of an unbelievable overkill for my tastes but, as I said, it isn't a really good novel even though I find its various narrative elements fascinating.

My interest in transhumanism dates back to the 1990's. I became interested in life extension, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology. During this time I worked out my present regimen of exercise, supplementation, nutrition, sex, yoga, artistic and intellectual stimulation. My intent was very specific. I did not seek the truth. I sought to live as healthily as I could for as long as I could. Maybe later in life I could upload my brain into an artificial reality. Maybe I could be preserved until such a possibility or its equivalent is routine reality. Or something to that effect. That was my motivation at the time.

Over the past couple of decades I have pondered how traditional human culture might react to the radicalization of the Now posed by transhumanism, by being able to extend my experience and awareness for centuries if not indefinitely. That seems absurd. And the more fundamentally religious you are the more it seems down-right evil, to be denied and persecuted in this sinful world. So, the possible negative reactions to transhumanism depicted in Istvan's novel are certainly plausible in my opinion.

Istvan does a pretty good job of summarizing the underlying polarity.  "The conflict over transhumanism was straightforward. Futurists, technologists, and scientists touted transhuman fields like cryonics, cloning, artificial intelligence, bionics, stem cell therapy, robotics, and genetic engineering as their moral and evolutionary right - and as crucial future drivers of the new economy and an advancing cultural mindset in America. Opponents said transhumanism and its immortality mantra were anti-theistic, immoral, not humanitarian, and steeped in blasphemous egoism. They insisted that significantly altering the human condition and people's bodies via science and technology was the devil's work, regardless of how lucrative it might be for the economy. Many opponents said transhumanism was proof the end times was coming. Others labeled it 'the world's most dangerous idea.'" (pp. 7-8)

Toward the end of his novel, Istvan gets rather preachy, as I mentioned, through Jethro Knights. But, to honest, I find myself agreeing with him more often than not. "From the day you were born until this moment, two things have been hounding you, blinding you, and holding you back. The first is the human race's defunct culture. The second in our species' handicapping mammalian biological instincts. Human culture is the most debilitating of the two. For many thousands of years now, the human race has been indoctrinated to submit to orthodoxy and to cower before authority, and to swallow endless nonsense of both. You have been brainwashed to sacrifice your innermost desires, your most obvious needs, your most natural outlook on reality, just to live as a hostage in a cage of carefully regulated and fabricated cognitive existence." (page 273)

I have written in several previous posts how our culture is a outworn pathetic mess, particularly where the association of guilt is concerned, the most worthless human experience in the world. "To transhumanists, the most grotesque of all the methods of control was the perpetuation of fear in your lives; not by threat of violence, but by implicit guilt. This powerful addiction of worrying about what others think of you, and about what is socially acceptable to others, has been systematically instilled in humans for thousands of years, perpetuated by world religion, ethnicity, and government. It's aim is to weaken people's wills and to silence their most precious independent tool: the ability to freely, guiltlessly, and publicly judge and criticize the world around them." (page 275)

Then he sounds a bit like Morpheus from The Matrix. "The truth is so simple to see once you understand it: Religion, ethnic heritage, state power, material addiction, and media entrapment are nothing more than pieces of an intangible psychological construct designed to keep you thinking and living a certain way. It's designed to keep you in fear of becoming as powerful as you can be; to keep you producing for others and contributing to their overall gain, and not your own." (page 276)

Next he seems to espouse the grandeur of Nietzsche's greater insights. "We live according to what we believe we are becoming; we call it the futurization of values. We do it because we know the universe is not finished. The universe is changing, evolving. And with it, each of us is evolving. And in this evolution, a modification of values is not only immediately necessary, but also constantly necessary. This evolution and its futurization of values is the examination and comprehension of everything we consider important, and it is the best foothold we have in facilitating our climb to the highest powers we can achieve. By living that way, we will inevitably become that way - the way we desire." (page 280)

But, ultimately, the Transhumanist movement, by definition, is about leaving much of our humanity aside. And here we enter the realm of science fiction or at least lofty speculation of the possible in the vane of Ray Kurzweil and Eric Drexler. "The coming androids, cyborgs, thinking robots, artificial intelligence system, and other transhuman entities in our civilization will operate off different ethics than do purely biological beings. Their value system will be sounder, less emotionally fragmented, more purely related to computational logic, and free of baggage culture and archaic instincts. They may not need food; they might not need sunlight; they may not need air. They may not even need the Earth at all anymore. They will be stronger and more resilient than we are. Those are all the reason Transhumanians will promote them - and why we will transform ourselves into them. We transhumanists are on an ascent from being frail, disease-prone savages to being conscious, self-designed entities that may never need health maintenance again. And after that, who knows what will become and how far we will evolve." (page 284)

I would summarize the narrative tension of this novel from my own purely philosophical perspective. Transhumanism represents a distinctive form of human wonder. It challenges traditional human wonder and is, therefore, acutely dangerous to it. A basic quality for all of joyful humanity is a sense of wonder connecting through bountiful pathways in our intimate lives. It is a component vastly under-studied and under-rated, though certainly Joseph Campbell did his part to correct this error. Possessing a sense of wonder is the cornerstone for our intimate human Being and you simply cannot experience happiness or even contentment without wonder. It is impossible.

Historically, wonder has come from mystery, from not knowing, from appeasement to higher forces or through paths toward understanding of the human self as it is now. The mystery of our nature is our joy. This is so fundamental across the spectrum of human Lifeworlds that it is transparent, you can not see it, it is not even discussed. Yet, its importance and volatility is readily apparent once the Tranhumanist paradigm is injected into the orthodoxy of mystery. Instead, transhumanists are motivated by and, indeed, can be said to worship, the wonder of possibility. Possibility and mystery do not mix. The former is a proactive invention, the latter is a quest for what already is. They form a potent dialectic, which is why I believe The Transhumanist Wager is right-on in predicting a nasty global cultural backlash against what it attempts to do. It threatens to change the sense of wonder in humanity in addition to attain radical life extension, even immortality, and the possibility of non-biological life and meaning.

No religion or self-awareness technique or psychological practice on the planet is prepared to accept this. It threatens all of them because it renders them meaningless. Nothing devalues mystery like longevity of experience. And the longer the experience, the less appealing mystery becomes through the passage of time and the more possibility is elevated. Who needs the mystery of humanity when you possess the possibility of living many centuries, experiencing entirely different versions of yourself, at your own choosing, within your own power and complete freedom? Mystery is then pointless.

That, to me, is what The Transhumanist Wager is all about. A fascinating topic, unfortunately the novel comes off as more of a geeky high school level read than a fine-tuned work of fiction worthy of serious consideration as literature. It is cult-fiction masquerading as profundity. There is a lot of potential punch here that instead comes off like a lame and sterile textbook. But if you can handle rather predictable, one-dimensional characters who never question themselves and are filled with self-righteous certainty, then give it a try. Interesting ideas unfortunately don't make for great prose anywhere in this case.

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