Reply to Peter Rothman: Transhumanism is all about getting high

Peter Rothman, editor of H+ Magazine, has written a piece on “What is Transhumanism?” I like Peter’s article, and mostly agree with his opinions. However, here I want to focus on the points of disagreement.

First, there is no single, canonical interpretation of transhumanism. Max More and Natasha Vita-More recently edited a comprehensive reference work on transhumanism, The Transhumanist Reader, a (highly recommended) book of hundreds of pages. I doubt anything shorter than that can capture all relevant interpretations of and trends in transhumanism. If anything, I am sure Max and Natasha left something out.

There are no canonical texts or predetermined methods,” Peter himself says. “What it is, is up to us.” But then he goes on and explicitly excludes from transhumanism some of the interpretations and trends discussed in The Transhumanist Reader.

Peter starts with “Transhumanism is a positive philosophy about the future based in optimism, rational thinking and the application of science and technology to improve the human condition. We seek to live longer, stay healthier, and become smarter and even more physically fit. We want to develop tools and technologies to help ourselves and others do the same.”

I certainly don’t disagree. Transhumanism is all that, AND (AND is really a magic word) other things. But this definition sounds to me as bland, simplified transhumanism on a bumper-sticker. It reminds me of those ultra-rationalists addicted to vitamin supplements, obsessed with living longer, and in love with their (self-proclaimed) high IQ. I know one or two transhumanists like that. I will call them Nate Caplan.

Nata Caplan is a fictional character ridiculed by Greg Egan in Zendegi. He is an extropian entrepreneur, a mind uploading enthusiast and a transhumanist cliché. When he first meets the main character, he introduces himself as “My IQ is one hundred and sixty. I’m in perfect physical and mental health. And I can pay you half a million dollars right now.” Caplan is really a fake in black and white, far too extreme for a believable character, but I know some monomaniac transhumanists obsessed with their health, IQ and “rationality.”

Of course, there is nothing wrong than that. I certainly don’t condemn those who want to live longer. WTF, I wish I could live forever myself (though I don’t think the universe gives a damn, and I prefer to enjoy life instead of obsessing over how long I will live). And if you like to think that you are the smartest in the world, who am I to complain? Let happiness rule!

I will just note that I know people all over the Bell curve and, in my experience, those who boast about their IQ all the time are, um, not the smartest people in the world, not even in the (only) operational sense of [IQ = ability to do IQ tests]. Concerning rationality, I love it, it is great, but rationality is a tool and not an end. It is a very good tool with a very wide, but limited, scope of applicability. The best screwdriver is not of much help when what you have is a nail — sometimes a hammer is much more useful.

Peter knows that “One area where transhumanists differ is politics. There are transhumanists all over the political spectrum.” But he doesn’t acknowledge that transhumanists differ also in their aesthetics and philosophical worldviews.

Here is where I call BS:

“While transhumanism has a history in the 1960s drug culture and countercultural thinkers such as Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna, this is largely now historical. Transhumanism is not a new age religion or replacement for religion. It is also not about getting high…”

This is fine as long as it is stated as a personal opinion. Of course Peter, like everyone, is entitled to have personal opinions. But so am I. And my personal opinion is that Timothy Leary, Terence McKenna, and other visionary thinkers, represent the spirit of transhumanism much better than the petty Nate Caplan.

Peter and I can speak of our personal interpretations of transhumanism, but we cannot speak of THE interpretation of transhumanism, for we would both be wrong.

My personal interpretation:

TRANSHUMANISM IS ALL ABOUT GETTING HIGH with exciting visions of a radically better and more interesting future, the infinite possibilities of intelligent life in a vast, still mysterious universe, colonizing space, becoming more than human, then becoming much more than human, leaving biology behind, developing vast artificial intelligences and merging with them, and moving beyond petty daily thinking to explore altered states of consciousness.

In a recent online talk Rémi Sussan, the author of Les utopies posthumaines, defined transhumanism as “the philosophical branch of science fiction.”

What transhumanists have in common, is that we are science fiction fans. “So what?,” says Rémi. Science fiction fans get high with good science fiction, and even higher with science when it begins to look like science fiction. In the past, hard science fiction gave inspiration and drive to the scientists and engineers who developed today’s technology. Future scientists, engineers, managers, administrators, businessmen, artists, “cultural engineers,” and politicians, will develop wonders that we can’t even imagine, but THEY MUST GET HIGH FIRST, and that’s what transhumanism is all about. Let’s get them high, just like we got high with vintage science fiction and the space program of the 60s (a truly magic decade), and they will do great things.

Terence McKenna, a “Psychedelic Transhumanist,” knew how to get us high with powerful ideas. “Everything is about to get very much more complicated, much larger, the number of choices are about to exponentially explode. In a sense, these technologies point us toward, if not literal godhood, then a kind of fictional godhood,” he said. “We are all going to become the masters of the narrative in which we are embedded. Our separate stories are going to take on dimensions so multifarious that for all practical purposes we will each move into a cosmos of our own creation and control.”

Don’t these words give you a powerful, beautiful spiritual high? Don’t they push you to get out of bed and do something to participate?

“Most people know Timothy Leary as the ‘LSD guru’ who encouraged people to ‘Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out’ in the 1960s. But a surprising number of transhumanist types don’t know that he was one of them,” writes R.U. Sirius. “In fact, Leary may have been the first to signal a memeplex for the transhuman future — SMI2LE (Space Migration Intelligence Increase and Life Extension) ”’ back in the mid-1970s.” I think all transhumanists should read R.U. Sirius’ book “Timothy Leary’s Trip Thru Time.”

“The first of eight points in ‘The Transhumanist Declaration,’ originally written in 1998 and revised, reads, ‘We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering and our confinement to planet earth’,” writes R.U. Sirius. “In other words, SMI2LE. Leading transhumanists rarely acknowledge that Leary defined the movement with precision 38 years ago.”

Here is a transhumanist who acknowledges, loud and clear, that Leary defined the movement with precision 38 years ago. I think modern transhumanism needs more Leary. From the book:

“Transhumanism is spreading and Leary may have something to tell us about keeping the goals of self-enhancement aimed at evolving a humane, playful, novelty-rich culture as opposed to just building up IQ points and biological years out of some unthinking Western goal oriented pursuit of quantity.”

Also, our society needs much more Leary. R.U. Sirius says that “our civil liberties have gone” and asks: “So do we drop a dose of Timothy Leary into this mess?” His answer is, yes, we should drop a major dose of Leary in today’s world.

I totally agree. From the book:

“Timothy’s politics may have been a mix of liberalism, libertarianism and leftism, but if there was anything he despised, it was austerity — whether as reflected in a conservative man’s personality or by a systemic lack of generosity. He would — as he always did — have something to say about the politically correct excesses of liberalism. He was, after all, a smoking man who didn’t like excessive intrusion upon his personhood. Finally, he would have had a lot to say about what you have to do just to get on an airplane.”

Yes, let’s put more Leary in “modern” transhumanism, and let’s put more Leary in “modern” politics. And more McKenna. Much more of both.

In the comments, Peter says: ” Leary is of historical interest and his writings are motivational. But they don’t tell you anything about how to accomplish any of his ideas. Dreaming is important and imagination is indispensable to us. But dreaming doesn’t make things happen by itself and Leary never tells you how to accomplish anything at all. Inspiration must be followed with science.”

True, but Leary’s inspiration was followed by science. Don’t forget that the information revolution was a direct result of the bohemian spirit of the 60s (See: R.U. Sirius 2006 – How the Sixties Shaped the Personal Computer Revolution, in True Mutations). I am afraid the dull, defeatist contemporary spirit is not providing much of an inspiration to the next generations, and I look forward to seeing new visionary, inspiring thinkers like McKenna and Leary.

Another point where I strongly disagree with Peter is:

“Modern transhumanism has no true historical links to alchemy or the Western hermetic traditions. However, some individuals have tried to make these connections.”

I am one of those who try to make these connections. I make also connections between Aristotle and modern philosophy, Leonardo and modern engineering, Shakespeare and modern literature.

“You, with no limit or no bound, may choose for yourself the limits and bounds of your nature,” wrote Giovanni Pico della Mirandola in his famous book Oration On The Dignity Of Man, about religion, philosophy, natural philosophy and magic. “To you is granted the power, contained in your intellect and judgment, to be reborn into the higher forms, the divine.” Isn’t this transhumanism, very inspirational transhumanism? See Part 3 of Guillermo Santamaria’s Brief History of Transhumanism for more parallels between alchemy and transhumanism.

An example of Western hermetic tradition is the amazing beautiful philosophy known as Russian Cosmism (and, more recently, just Cosmism). I think we can look, again, at the Cosmist philosophy to renew our enthusiasm and drive with beautiful and energizing cosmic visions, and to remember that wonderful adventures are waiting for us in outer space.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was a brilliant scientist and engineer, but his motivation and drive came from his philosophical convictions, his belief in humanity’s destiny to leave the Earth and colonize the universe, and his vision of a deep unity between man and the cosmos. Tsiolkovsky’s mentor, the Cosmist mystic and transhumanist precursor Nikolai Fedorov, was one of the first modern thinkers who dared to propose a scientific formulation of religion. Some day, Fedorov thought, science and technology may be able to resurrect the dead and bring back to life every person who ever lived.

This shows that, contrary to Peter’s dismissal, some of the true historical roots of modern transhumanism can be found in alchemy and the Western hermetic traditions. Transhumanism is, first and foremost, about realizing the same transcendental visions.

UPDATE – This article has been republished on H+ Magazine with the great “getting high” image below (click the image to see the animation).

Transhumanism is all about getting high