The Transhumanist Wager

Zoltan and the anti-Istvan petition – Jethro or Zoe?

A group of transhumanists issued a petition to “Disavow Zoltan Istvan Candidacy for US Presidency.” Many good friends invited me to sign the petition, but I didn’t sign it.

The signatories disavow Zoltan’s candidacy for US Presidency and the Transhumanist Party USA, “so long as it cowers under authoritarian control, so long as it denies the diversity of Transhumanist values, and so long as it mongers unnecessary hostility toward others.”

Instead of the anti-Istvan petition, I signed a statement issued by the Italian Transhumanist Association (only posted to Facebook at the moment).

“We are persuaded that Zoltan Istvan’s work can create seeds for anyone to grow according to their convictions, and believe the ‘sabotage’ attempt is detrimental also to those, like us, who don’t necessarily share all of [Istvan’s] thinking,” reads the statement. “The Italian Transhumanist Association fully supports Zoltan Istvan, without blindly agreeing with all parts of his program, and declines the invitation to sign the petition.”

I am not worried about the first issue – Zoltan’s authoritarian control – mentioned in the anti-Istvan petition. It’s his party, and he is entitled to run it as he wishes. It’s then up to others to choose whether to join under him or not. The second issue – denial of diversity and hostility mongering – worries me more.

I wrote one of the first reviews of Zoltan’s book “The Transhumanist Wager,” and the first review to appear on a top website. “It’s a story that Istvan has painted in strong saturated colors, and with little room for intermediate shades and character development,” I wrote. “After reading it from cover to cover, and then reading it more carefully, I have mixed love/hate feelings about this novel.”

The hate part is all about the denial of diversity and hostility mongering mentioned in the anti-Istvan petition. In particular, the rabid atheism of Zoltan’s main character Jethro Knights reminds me of Stalin and other ruthless dictators who oppressed and mass-murdered believers. Jethro and Zoltan have been wrongly described as Libertarians, but some of Jethro’s actions in the novel and some of Zoltan’s writings (see for example this article) are totally incompatible with Libertarianism. Try Stalinism instead.

So why didn’t I sign the anti-Istvan petition, and signed a pro-Zoltan petition instead?

Reading The Transhumanist Wager

I never took the Transhumanist Party seriously, because I consider it as a single-issue fringe party that, at this moment, can only appeal to a very small constituency (small like one person in a million or something like that). From a real political party I want workable solutions for the real issues – the economy, employment, welfare, health care, civil rights, immigration, foreign policy, etc. – and the Transhumanist Party has nothing to say about that.

I always considered the Transhumanist Party as a daring publicity stunt, and as a publicity stunt it has been successful because Zoltan is all over the mainstream press. Of course only a negligible handful of transhumanists will vote for him, but now many people know Zoltan’s name and the T word. Zoltan’s publicity stunt has been unprecedentedly effective in promoting a subset of transhumanist ideas.

Zoltan only promotes a subset of transhumanist ideas, and ignores – or actively opposes – another equally important subset. He is in favor of life extension and advanced research on emerging “transhumanist technologies” (all things that I also support) but he is (or used to be, or wanted to appear as) a rabid atheist opposed to everything that sounds like religion, including my own spiritual formulation of transhumanism.

However, I can’t criticize Zoltan for promoting his ideas efficiently, and I can’t criticize him for promoting his ideas instead of my ideas. If I want to promote my ideas, I have to do that myself. We shouldn’t blame Zoltan if his interpretation of transhumanism is getting more media coverage – we should blame ourselves. Trying to shut down Zoltan just because he is a better communicator is too cheap – we should learn from him and try to become better communicators ourselves.

I am persuaded that Zoltan’s militant atheist bigotry is mostly posturing to grab media attention. I fact, his recent article “An Atheist’s Perspective on the Rise of Christian Transhumanism” is surprisingly reasonable and balanced. Perhaps Zoltan is growing out of his bigot phase and ready to engage in constructive dialogue? I hope so, and I continue to consider him as a fellow traveler despite our differences.

It’s very important to note that the other main character in Zoltan’s book, Jethro’s girlfriend Zoe Bach, is a spiritual transhumanist who believes in the quantum interconnectedness of all things and imagines that the self could be preserved, encoded in the entangled twists and folds of quantum reality, after physical death. Jethro doesn’t disagree – in fact, he speculates about future technologies able to retrieve the dead from unseen quantum oceans and bring them back to life.

After Zoe’s tragic death, Jethro promises to find her and bring her back. In my essay “Zoe Bach’s ‘Quantum Zen’ as a ‘Third Way’ scientific religion,” I argue that Zoe’s – and Jethro’s – ideas are essentially identical to mine, and represent a new Cosmist scientific religion, a “Third Way” alternative to traditional belief based on science, but at the same time able to offer all the benefits of religion. Zoltan said in a comment:

“Basically, I think there’s lots of room for spiritual beliefs and I encourage them, so long as they don’t detract from the progress of science. In fact, managed properly, creative spiritual ideas (such as Zoe’s) could actually help science progress faster.” (Zoltan Istvan)

I totally agree.

An important difference is that Zoltan prefers to frame Zoe’s Cosmist ideas in opposition to traditional religions, whereas I prefer to emphasize the continuity aspect. I am persuaded that, through science and technology, future generations will realize all the promises of traditional religions, re-engineer space-time, and resurrect the dead – and probably some alien civilizations have already been there and done that. This is the important parallel between Cosmism and traditional religions, and the difference (scientific vs. supernatural framework) is unimportant. As Deng Xiaoping used to say, “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice.”

Jethro forces himself to refrain from embracing Zoe’s spiritual transhumanism – or “Quantum Zen” – because he chooses to focus on Immortality Now, after which he will have all the time to pursue super-science. But here is where, in my opinion, Jethro and Zoltan are deluded. I am (sadly) persuaded that there are no realistic chances of achieving radical life extension or software immortality via mind uploading in our lifetime. Therefore, there is no point in rushing toward fixing death now. We should instead continue hiking the slow road to scientific and social progress, and we will find immortality when the time is right. In the meantime, Zoe’s Quantum Zen can offer us hope, happiness, and the drive to make the world a better place.

“Perhaps Istvan has hidden the key to our future in this book after all, in the form of Zoe Bach’s ‘Quantum Zen’,” writes Nicole Sallak Anderson in a recent review of Zoltan’s book.

“Follow her, rather than Jethro Knights, and the singularity, as well as world peace and tolerance, might just be around the corner.” (Nicole Sallak Anderson)

Well said, Nicole!

  • Zoltan Istvan

    Thanks for an interesting and well-written story. I think what many people don’t understand about my atheism articles is why I write them. Much of the reason is to grow transhumanism. Atheists outnumber transhumanists by a large margin (perhaps 50 to 1), and they are a natural group to reach out to for support, in the same way the LGBT or disabled communities are). So while religious people may take some of my atheist articles as personal attacks on them–those articles are actually functional ways to grow the transhumanism movement by attracting nonreligious supporters. Thanks!

    • Giulio Prisco

      Hi Zoltan. I see your point, but I think you should consider ways to attract atheists without unnecessary attacks to religious people.

      Intelligent atheists, like all intelligent people, are attracted by solid, rational and imaginative ideas and arguments, which can be formulated without attacking believers. On the contrary, attacking believers for the sake of attacking believers can only attract those bigot and, mmm, less intelligent atheists who make a fundamentalist religious belief of their atheism. Surely those atheist talibans are not the followers that you want.

      I hope I can interpret your recent bridge-building pieces, like the article linked in the text, as a move in this direction.

      It’s good that you attract (intelligent) atheists to transhumanism. I prefer to try reaching religious people, who outnumber transhumanists by an even larger margin (perhaps 1000 to 1). Let a thousand flowers bloom!

      • Kathy Wilson

        Thank You Lincoln, Giulio and Zoltan for the thoughtful, articulate discussion. I appreciate knowing and being a part of such a responsible group of thinkers. Your contributions to this movement is very valuable and meaningful.

        • Giulio Prisco

          Good to see you Kathy The Diplomat !!! ;-)

    • Matthew Barrett

      I’m sorry, I’m not buying this. Laying aside the moral implications of playing to the lowest common denominator of the largest crowd…if you are trying to grow transhumanism by converting a larger group (atheists), why aren’t you targeting an even _larger_ group–theists?

      • … exactly, and then an even larger group: all who aspire to human flourishing.

    • Samantha Atkins

      Well, someone will surely point out that there are a LOT more religious folks than there are atheists. So if growing the movement quickly was the point you would go through some pains to not too strongly estrange them.

      • Giulio Prisco

        In fact, Zoltan’s argument is very weak. It seems to me that he tried to quickly grab the media niche of unthinking atheists of fundamentalist taliban persuasion, without thinking of the consequences. I hope he will realize that and change his strategy.

  • I wish I could agree. The comment exchange between Giulio and Zoltan illustrates why I cannot. Zoltan’s candidacy is irredeemably positioned to attract bigots to Transhumanism. The example of reaching out to religious Transhumanists is several months old and Zoltan’s more recent articles have increased in antireligious sensationalism. No amount of publicity has a net positive value for Transhumanism in such circumstances. I don’t know of another way to salvage the situation more effectively than doing our best to ensure further attention to Zoltan’s campaign is also increasingly connected with attention to Transhumanist resistance, so that it is clear the campaign is controversial among Transhumanists, as Giulio points out even if he chooses to express it individually through this article rather than through the group action of signing the petition.

    • Giulio Prisco

      Hi Lincoln, that’s why I have written this article indeed: to show that Zoltan’s campaign and articles show only one side of transhumanism and ignore (or attack) another, equally important side – one that, on the other hand, is prominently featured in Zoltan’s novel, embodied in the character (Zoe) that most readers prefer.

      My advice to Zoltan is to put less Jethro and much more Zoe in his campaign and writings.

      • Agreed

        • Giulio Prisco

          Also, I think that a petition to shut Zoltan down is the wrong way to go. His arguments should be countered by better arguments, not censure. I challenge Zoltan to debate me anytime.

          • Many have long offered much better arguments. You cannot counter media exposure merely with better arguments. You cannot counter media exposure that purports to represent Transhumanism merely with better arguments that get media exposure. You must counter with media exposure that demonstrates the bigotry does not represent Transhumanism, which requires a group effort. I cannot do it alone. You cannot do it alone.

          • Giulio Prisco

            Yes you can, provided your arguments get as much media exposure as those of the “enemy.” This is what we should work on in my opinion.

          • My argument is that Zoltan’s candidacy does not represent Transhumanism. The argument is vacuous without evidence. The petition is the evidence. Do you have other evidence to suggest that does not rely on your word against Zoltan’s?

          • Giulio Prisco

            Yes, this article. I am saying that Zoltan doesn’t represent me. It’s a fact.

          • Okay. The petition gathers dozens of such facts into one place to substantiate a general claim that cannot be substantiated by your blog alone. That is the practical benefit. Media attention cannot as effectively be directed at dozens of independent blogs.

          • Giulio Prisco

            I understand, but I wouldn’t sign a public document against a named person (unless In really extreme circumstances). That’s not my way, would feel like mobbing to me. Also, I strongly disagree with Zoltan on some things, but I agrre with him on others.

            Perhaps we could contact HuffPost and Motherboard to publish our replies to Zoltan there.

          • Matthew Barrett

            You say that as if we have to choose between better arguments and censure. We can, and should, do both.

      • Matthew Barrett

        If only he read this blog, he might get your advice. I bet he reads that petition against him sooner than he reads this article.

    • Samantha Atkins

      I think that saying Zoltan attracts bigots to transhumanism is very gross overstatement that frankly makes me doubt your own fair-mindedness. Many many transhumanists are extremely fed up with religion and have been for as long as I have been around it. I am not one of them as I understand the beauty and power of spirituality and the best parts of religion more than most while still being leery of the existing religions. These wondrous memetic machines were designed to preserve core teachings, superstitions and pure dogma and all, over many many generations. It is difficult to entrust quite new “wine” to these old “bottles”. But as it may be paraphrased, we are not here to deny and destroy the spiritual aspirations of humanity but to fulfill them! Though not quite in the form that most everyone has held them.

      • Giulio Prisco

        Hi Samantha. Re “any many transhumanists are extremely fed up with religion”:

        Unfortunately many atheist transhumanists have knee-jerk reactions at the first mention of spirituality, and take refuge in name calling. Einstein had something smart about that to say, as usual:

        “I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth.” – Albert Einstein

        I think there should be much more tolerance between believers and atheists, but it appears that the temptation to thought-police others remains strong.

  • Here is another illustration of the reason I cannot agree with your decision not to sign the petition. Zoltan’s most recent article on religion attacks Catholicism and the Pope. The original comments in response to the article were well reasoned and highly negative toward Transhumanism. It now appears that Zoltan has chosen to remove the comments, underscoring the fact that good arguments alone are insufficient for responding to his media attention. http://motherboard.vice.com/read/where-were-going-we-dont-need-popes

    • Fortunately, Disqus preserves the comments even when they are no longer embedded on the original article. https://disqus.com/home/discussion/motherboardus/despite_his_popularity_the_pope_remains_a_force_of_oppression/

      • Giulio Prisco

        He couldn’t remove an article or a comment here, or on your website. Come on Lincoln, in war you choose the place and the time, you don’t let the enemy choose. Politics and media is war!

        • That’s right. I chose the time and place of the petition, to substantiate the argument that Zoltan does not represent Transhumanism with real evidence and not just my words. Our personal blogs are not sufficient in themselves to win this battle. Media exposure of one more independent voice is not sufficient to win this battle. I believe the only way to clear victory is to provide substantial evidence that Zoltan does not represent Transhumanism and to ensure that evidence gains media attention. The petition is an effort in that direction. I know of no other effort that has done even near as much toward achieving the goal you appear to share with me.

    • Matthew Barrett

      Outrageous! Such staggering ignorance of his subject matter: “Catholics—along with Christians and Muslims—have locked themselves and their religious rules into their sacred texts and its meanings. And that will be their downfall, since no rational person can justify such backwards biblical rules or perspectives, such as that evolution is hoax.”

      Pssst, Zoltan: the Pope has come out in favor of evolution, reiterating a stance the Catholic church has long held, possibly since St. Augustine.

      • Samantha Atkins

        After how many centuries the church said it was wrong on many things and still clings to other positions ignorantly and to the harm of millions. He is not all wrong here.

    • Samantha Atkins

      Last time I checked Catholicism as well as many of the world’s religious structures could do with a bit of critical deflating. I think the point is not mere bigotry that many a religious institution will and/or does stand strongly opposed to transhumanist aspiration to the degree they are on their radar at all. I have seen more and more religious group sourced anti-transhumanism pieces. We are going to have a serious issue ahead of us here.

  • Matthew Barrett

    Guilio, I had not heard of this petition against Isvan until now, but you have convinced me…to sign it. Here’s what you said:

    “However, I can’t criticize Zoltan for promoting his ideas efficiently, and I can’t criticize him for promoting his ideas instead of my ideas. If I want to promote my ideas, I have to do that myself. We shouldn’t blame Zoltan if his interpretation of transhumanism is getting more media coverage – we should blame ourselves.”

    That’s right, and this petition is exactly the opportunity we need to get that media attention, setting the record straight that he does NOT represent all of transhumanism.

    “Trying to shut down Zoltan just because he is a better communicator is too cheap – we should learn from him and try to become better communicators ourselves.”

    The petition IS communication. Disavowing him is not silencing him–he can still speak. We ARE learning from him, and we are adding a dissonant voice to the publicity he has generated around transhumanism. That dissonant voice is deeply needed so that Istvan–and his followers, and the world–know that he does not represent all transhumanists.

    • Giulio Prisco

      Hi Matthew, interesting point. I guess I have too much sense of fair play. I want to win with arguments, not by mobbing (sorry Lincoln, that’s how it honestly feels to me).

      OK dinner time, back tomorrow.

  • Samantha Atkins

    Ah, my friend, I agree with you on so many points here. I had much the same reaction to The Transhumanist Wager and was one of the first to post on it on Facebook. I have asked Zoltan more than once to please clean up some things like his “omnipotender” (There Can Be Only One) zaniness from the book but thus far to know avail. I really liked the book for making a strong non-apologetic case for transhumanism. I think that that stepping boldly for it much needed. And it is a highly thankless task making one a lightning rod for not only our true opponents but for the ire and upset of many “friends” as well. It sort of goes with the territory.

    I do think Zoltan has made more than a few mistakes and serious blunders and has not responded very skillfully to criticism. But I am glad he tried this. I think it has awakened many transhumanists to take more real world action. I salute his energy, spunk and courage.

    • Giulio Prisco

      Same here. I strongly dislike two of Zoltan’s main points – his rabid hostility to believers, and his endorsement of authoritarian, anti-Libertarian policies – but I think he has done good work to promote a subset of transhumanist ideas. Now it’s up to us to promote other subsets.