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?
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!