Review of ‘Against Transhumanism’ by Richard Jones

Physicist Richard Jones, author of the (highly recommended) nanotechnology book “Soft Machines: nanotechnology and life” and editor of the Soft Machines blog, has written a short book provocatively titled “Against Transhumanism – The delusion of technological transcendence.” The book, an edited compilation of essays previously published on Soft Machines and IEEE Spectrum, is free to download.

It’s not that unusual for outspoken anti-transhumanists to show a crystal clear understanding of transhumanism. Francis Fukuyama denounced transhumanism as “the most dangerous idea in the world” in an influential 2004 article in the Foreign Policy magazine.

“As ‘transhumanists’ see it, humans must wrest their biological destiny from evolution’s blind process of random variation and adaptation and move to the next stage as a species,” noted Fukuyama. That’s a clear and good definition of transhumanism, one of the best that I have seen.

Jones, like Fukuyama, understands transhumanism. Chapter 2 of the book, titled “The strange ideological roots of transhumanism,” outlines the Marxist and Christian roots of transhumanism in the works of Russian Cosmists (e.g. Tsiolovsky, Fedorov) and British Marxists (e.g. Bernal, Haldane). See my review of the chapter and my related essays “The Russian Cosmists” and “John D. Bernal’s The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, a transhumanist classic.”

Jones considers transhumanism as essentially spiritual and religious, a view shared by Robert Geraci in “Apocalyptic AI: Visions of Heaven in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Virtual Reality” and (at times) Ray Kurzweil himself, who said that we can regard “the freeing of our thinking from the severe limitations of its biological form to be an essentially spiritual undertaking.”

Chapter 3, dedicated to nanotechnology, criticizes Drexler’s vision of self-replicating molecular nanotechnology (see my essay “The nanobots are coming back“). Jones doesn’t deny the feasibility in-principle of molecular nanotechnology (MNT) – he acknowledges that biology proves the feasibility of molecular nanotech – but underlines the huge challenges ahead. “Of course, none of these issues constitutes a definitive proof that the MNT route will not work,” he says. “But they certainly imply that the difficulties of implementing this program are going to be substantially greater than implied by [its proponents].”

“My own view is that radical nanotechnology will be developed, but not necessarily along the path proposed by Drexler,” said Jones in the Soft Machines book. “I accept the force of the argument that biology gives us a proof in principle that a radical nanotechnology, in which machines of molecular scale manipulate matter and energy with great precision, can exist. But this argument also shows that there may be more than one way of reaching the goal of radical nanotechnology.”

Jones’ thesis is that, while Drexlerian “mechanical” nanotech designs must work against nanoscale physics, biological evolution has found powerful ways to take advantage of the same nanoscale physics – a superior design approach. I think molecular nanotech will be eventually combine mechanical nanotech, wet bio-inspired engineering, and other approaches that somebody will think of.

In Chapter 4, Jones presents arguments against mind uploading but acknowledges that mind uploading might eventually be possible. “[Mind] uploading being impossible in principle [is] a conclusion I suggest only very tentatively,” he says “But there’s nothing tentative about my conclusion that if you are alive now, your mind will not be uploaded. What comforts does this leave for those fearing oblivion and the void, but reluctant to engage with the traditional consolations of religion and philosophy?”

I am in total agreement with Jones about mind uploading technology being very unlikely to be developed in useful time for those alive now. I consider both molecular nanotechnology and mind uploading as feasible in-principle and likely to be achieved by our grandchildren, or theirs, but I find Jones’ predictions more plausible than Kurzweil’s.

Jones mentions hope in cryonics and radical life extension as a mental strategy that transhumanists use to cope with the idea of death. I propose a Cosmist Third Way (described by Disinfo as “An Afterlife For Atheists” and by Motherboard as “The Religion of the Future“) as a better coping strategy.

I think we transhumanists should realize that molecular nanotech, superintelligent AI, mind uploading, interstellar travel and all that aren’t arriving anytime soon, and find coping strategies. My coping strategy, openly religious, is to think of future technologies able to resurrect the dead from the past with advanced science, space-time engineering and “time magic.” So I don’t fear death too much and I can enjoy the slow hike to the future.

“[The] tantalising possibility remains that we will truly learn to harness the unfamiliar quantum effects of the nanoscale to implement true quantum computing and information processing,” says Jones in Chapter 3 on nanotech, but he warns that the quantum aspects of nanoscale physics make molecular nanotech very challenging. Similarly, in Chapter 4 on mind uploading, Jones argues that the random quantum behavior of matter at the nanoscale poses significant conceptual problems for mind uploading. I disagree, but the discussion is interesting.

Chapter 5 echoes Dale Carrico’s views and can be summarized as Carrico minus insults. A difference between Jones and Carrico is that, while Carrico sticks to personal insults, Jones addresses the technical arguments proposed by transhumanist scientists in support of futuristic technologies like molecular nanotechnology and mind uploading. Another difference is that Jones acknowledges the good arguments of his opponents, and tries not to look like a fool.

OK, I will admit that I found Jones’ book via Carrico’s blog, of which I am an avid reader. I find Carrico’s blog interesting and often fun, especially when he insults me – I remember laughing for 10 minutes non-stop reading a particularly fun series of insults against me a few years ago. Carrico is an asshole, but one with a sense of humor, and he says intelligent things when he forgets being an asshole. Note: Dale hasn’t been insulting me much recently, I guess we are getting old.

Jones’ translation of Carrico’s views into reasonable arguments and polite language is likely to be taken more seriously than the original. The book is called “Edition 1.0,” and I look forward to reading future editions.

Replies to especially interesting points in Jones’ book.

“[Contrary] to the technological determinism espoused by the transhumanists, technologies don’t develop themselves.”

Technological determinism is not as common among transhumanists as Jones thinks. We (that is, I and similarly inclined transhumanists) don’t make predictions, but plans. It isn’t a predetermined outcome fixed in stone, it’s a project. “Will” is not used in the sense of inevitability, but in the sense of intention: we want to do this, we are confident that we can do it, and we will do our fucking best to do it.

“I think the brain is a computer, by the way, but it’s a computer that’s so different to manmade ones, so plastic and mutable, so much immersed in and responsive to its environment, that comparisons with the computers we know about are bound to be misleading.”

I don’t know anyone who seriously thinks that the brain is similar to today’s computers, perhaps powered by Intel 20ium and Nvidia JupiterForce, and running Windows 30. That is a restrictive and unnecessary assumption. The brain is a computer in the sense that it is a physical system that follows physical laws. Once these laws are well understood and engineers are able to reproduce the key physical features of the neural substrate, there’s no reason mind uploading shouldn’t be feasible. If a conscious mind can run only on a substrate with certain specific properties, then we will have to engineer substrates with the same specific properties to upload minds. (More…)

“It seems to me that all the agonising about whether the idea of free will is compatible with a brain that operates through deterministic physics is completely misplaced, because the brain just doesn’t operate through deterministic physics… The molecular basis of biological computation means that it isn’t deterministic, it’s stochastic, it’s random. This randomness isn’t an accidental add-on, it’s intrinsic to the way molecular information processing works.”

This is the most interesting part of Jones’ book. That the brain doesn’t operate through deterministic physics is trivially true if fundamental quantum physics isn’t deterministic. However, perhaps quantum physics is not only present as random background noise but plays a strong fundamental role in how the brain’s wetware generates consciousness. If consciousness depends critically on subtle quantum aspects of  our neural circuitry, not present in silicon electronics, then we wouldn’t be able to upload a mind to a silicon computer. If so, we will have to develop alternative substrates that exhibit the key quantum properties found (actually not yet found) in carbon-based biology. Jones doesn’t think we need fundamentally new physics to understand the brain-mind system, but I’m not so sure.

“Radical ideas like mind uploading are not part of the scientific mainstream, but there is a danger that they can still end up distorting scientific priorities… I think computational neuroscience will lead to some fascinating new science, but you could certainly question the proportionality of the resource it will receive compared to, say, more experimental work to understand the causes of neurodegenerative diseases.”

Any opinion “distorts” scientific priorities. But the term “influence” is more appropriate than “distort” in this case, and the right of citizens (including transhumanists) to influence public policy decisions is called democracy. I don’t think transhumanist research should receive disproportionate public funding at the expense of more urgent priorities, but appropriate resources should continue to be allocated to highly speculative science and technology driven by curiosity and visionary imagination, because history shows that’s the way to get good things done. Scouts don’t cost too much and come back with useful findings.

“Carrico sees a eugenic streak in both mindsets [transhumanist and bioconservative], as well as an intolerance of diversity and an unwillingness to allow people to choose what they actually want. It’s this diversity that Carrico wants to keep hold of, as we talk, not of The Future, but of the many possible futures that could emerge from the proper way democracy should balance the different desires and wishes of many different people.”

Of course democracy should balance the different desires and wishes of many different people – including transhumanists. It is Carrico who is intolerant of diversity and unwilling to allow people to choose what they actually want. Of course Carrico is a rhetorician with no power to enforce conformity, and at times he says intelligent things in a fun way, but the fact remains that he doesn’t tolerate dissent and claims the right to tell people what they must think and what they must want. I enjoy reading Carrico (who used to be a transhumanist himself a few years ago), but his views are entirely motivated by hatred of libertarianism. Like many American liberals, Carrico sees only the fake libertarianism of guns and predatory capitalism and ignores the real libertarianism of self-ownership and personal rights (of which transhumanism is an expression), but Jones should know better.

“For Carrico, transhumanism distorts the way we think about technology, it contaminates the way we consider possible futures, and rather than being radical it is actually profoundly conservative in the way in which it buttresses existing power structures… [Tranhumanism]/singularitarianism constitutes the state religion of Californian techno-neoliberalism, and like all state religions its purpose is to justify the power of the incumbents.”

See above about “distorts.” There’s something true here, but Carrico and Jones see only one side of the coin. Of course the incumbents are powerful and ready to take advantage of all trends, for example they are trying to turn the Internet into a tool for mass spamming, surveillance and mind control, and Bitcoin into a tool of the banks. But others are trying to find ways to use technology to give more power back to the people, and I think it’s more appropriate to consider transhumanism as their “state religion.” Here again, Carrico and Jones conflate very different aspects of libertarianism, bad ones and good ones, and throw away the baby with the water.

Image from Transcendence, a recent transhumanist film featuring mind uploading and molecular nanotech.

  • David Román

    I’m reading Jones’ tract right away; from my understanding of your post, Giulio, I get the impression that his critique against transhumanism is similar to the one posed by neo-atheists against traditional religions: that they are mistaken versions of science, or in this case a critique of what they see as a mistaken approach to science. It’s a very reductive reading. In a 2012 interview, the late sociologist Robert Bellah gave an intriguing response: “Religion is a thing you do… Religion is about action, and faith is about trust.”

    • Giulio Prisco

      Hi David, Jones is a good scientist and writer (his book “Soft Machines” is _very_ good) and deserves consideration. As far as the scientific plausibility of transhumanist ideas is concerned, he is saying that 1) developing molecular nanotech and mind uploading technology should be feasible in-principle, but 2) the development will take much longer than we wish. I totally agree with that.

      As far as political positions are concerned, I think Jones has both head and heart in the right place, but he insists on seeing only one side of libertarian politics. He seems infected by the ideas of Carrico, who is particularly good at brainwashing.

      Love “Religion is a thing you do… Religion is about action, and faith is about trust.”

      • David Román

        Or, to quote the great Jalen Rose quoting the almost-as-great Martin Luther King: “faith is taking the first step without seeing the entire staircase.” Here in the 21st century, we barely see the first step at all. That’s why a church is needed, rather than a set of hopes.

        • Giulio Prisco

          Is there a difference? To me, a church is a set of hopes.

          • David Román

            True, it partly is. But it’s more than that: it’s also an organization geared towards achieving that set of hopes.

          • Giulio Prisco

            I would reword that as “an organization geared towards helping people to achieve that set of hopes.” The difference seems small, but it’s important: a good church should give people a powerful motivation and drive to turn hopes into reality, and perhaps provide organizational and financial support, but shouldn’t think of itself of an entity that has goals of its own (which is the case of Christianity, Islam, and all organized religions that I can think of).

          • David Román

            Good point. I read Jones’ piece overnight, and I think it’s a pretty interesting one. My main issue with it is that it may be marred by a straw-man fallacy, which I think is inadvertent. Jones thinks that transhumanists are mostly a group of people who are overconfident in the future, who think technology is this great fixer of all problems that will unavoidably dominate space and time, and there’s no way to stop the march of progress towards the singularity. I think he’s wrong there, but maybe we would need a poll on the website to gauge other people’s opinions. The poll might be Twitter-style perhaps, along these lines:

            “Do you think that technology will eventually solve all of mankind’s problems, regardless of what humans do in the present time?

            1-Yes, we just need to sit back and relax: Google and Elon Musk and the rest will take us into the singularity even if our colleges suck and our politicians sell themselves off to Wall Street: technological
            progress is that strong, it can’t be stopped by stupidity or dysfunctional societies

            2-No, if we do nothing, mounting dysfunctions in the West and elsewhere will lead to a halt, even a reverse in technological
            progress, or a derailing of that progress towards non-essential goals, such as having people connected to Matrix-style virtual worlds for their entire lives; progress is fickle, civilization needs tinkering with to survive; mankind needs to colonize the stars now to avoid the danger of being wiped off entirely”

            I have no doubt that my response would be “2”.
            And that would negate the premise put forward by Jones: that transhumanism is, as he puts it in page 4, a sort of dangerous optimism that things will sort themselves out. On the contrary, I think something like the Turing Church is needed because things will not sort themselves out. Like you said: “a good
            church should give people a powerful motivation and drive to turn hopes into reality.” We are not, we can’t be, about hoping for the best alone.

            In page 13, Jones goes back to this supposedly transhumanist idea that history is destiny. Again, I don’t see myself described there: history is not destiny. It’s just the result of a series of human choices, plus pure luck. Alexander the Great dying off sickness on his return
            from India. Julius Caesar preferring to ignore warnings of a murder plot. Prussian troops arriving back in Waterloo just in time to protect Wellington’s flank. Adolf Hitler surviving the Beer Hall putsch because the bullet struck the guy next to him. Albert Einstein with free time in his hands because he had a dead-end job.

            I completely sympathize with Jones’ arguments about how mind uploading is really complicated and stuff like that. I think you do
            too. It may take a million years to get that particular technology right. So what? Our point is to get the ball rolling, not to score the winning goal. But we need to make sure you construct, or help to construct, an entity which is durable enough, and powerful enough, to keep its eye on the ball and make sure it goes in the right direction for centuries and more. Something like the Catholic Church, in a sense, so that even when Christ is gone the machinery is still working. Like Jones says, overconfidence in the future is extremely dangerous and the source of social ills. I think we should work against such

            I really believe Jones is a transhumanist already. He just didn’t realize yet.

          • Giulio Prisco

            Of your two options I vote for 2. Transhumanism is a project, not a prediction. We must work smart and hard to make our dreams come true.

            But I would add a third option, which is the option that I choose:

            3.Probably things will sort themselves out on a cosmic scale, some alien civilizations far away in space and time will develop god-like powers, and elevate love and compassion to the status of fundamental forces, key drivers for the evolution of the universe. Perhaps alien techno-gods [do/did/will] take a benevolent interest in humanity, including you here and now. But there is no guarantee that our species will become part of the galactic community of techno-gods if we don’t work smart and hard, and of course human techno-gods are more likely to take a benevolent interest in humanity here and now than alien techno-gods. In summary, dream pleasant dreams but also roll your sleeves up and do good works.

            I would call Jones a transhumanist in the sense that he is open to the possibility that even the most visionary transhumanist aspirations might eventually come true, and he isn’t against that possibility (or at least he doesn’t say so). He isn’t a transhumanist in the sense that he doesn’t believe that visionary transhumanist technologies are imminent, but then, I don’t believe that either.

            Re ” It may take a million years to get that particular technology [mind uploading] right.”

            Nah, don’t be so pessimist. I think we will be able to do that in a mere few millennia, perhaps even centuries. ;-) ;-)

            Re ” So what? Our point is to get the ball rolling, not to score the winning goal.”

            Totally agree.

          • David Román

            I like your third option, but I would add a tactical note. Astrophysicists are very interested in the existence of alien civilizations, and most believe it’s very likely that they are out there, someplace. But they never rely on alien life for any explanation of observable phenomena, because they have been disappointed too many times. They have this saying: “it’s never the Aliens!” To some extent, and perhaps tongue-in-cheek, we could follow that example, at least for now… More seriously, there’s the small but real chance that complex life is the results of many huge coincidences and only arose in Earth. That makes this project even more relevant: if complex life only exists here, then humans are not just unique and very important, but the most important part of the Universe, by far, and the preservation, multiplication and resurrection of human life trumps any other considerations.

          • Giulio Prisco

            Of course we can’t rule out the possibility that life is extremely rare in the universe. But perhaps the universe is full of life. I think the Fermi paradox is more about our current technological limits than advanced civilizations out there, which might use communication channels that we don’t perceive and have a small footprint on the universe (Ref. Greg Egan’s Diaspora).

            Some scientists think that favorable conditions for the emergence of life and intelligence are built in the very fundamental laws of physics, and therefore life is likely to emerge wherever we can, even it very exotic (to us) environments like neutron stars (Ref. Robert Forward’s Dragon Egg).

            I guess time will tell – but only if we go out there and find out.

          • David Román

            I totally agree. With one caveat: I think it was Ashlee Vance who said in some podcast recently that Elon Musk is very worried that we’ll find alien life in Mars. May be somebody else, I would need to double check. His rationale is that alien life in Mars would create a complication by giving an argument to those opposed to colonizing or even exploring Mars at all, out of fear of destroying or contaminating the aliens. May happen down the line too, Avatar-style. The encounter with aliens may end up reinforcing “Earth-isolationists.”

  • Extropia DaSilva

    On the subject of molecular nanotechnology, I would point out that Eric Drexler wrote in ‘Nanosystems’, “many of the steps described will, if attempted, spawn a host of subproblems, each demanding long, hard, and creative work. It would, however, become burdensome to point this out at every turn. Developments that will one day make molecular manufacturing fast and easy will result from efforts that are slow and difficult”.

    So, on that basis, I would say Drexler’s attitude toward the feasibility of MNT is not too different to that of Richard Jones.

    As for Dale Carrico, it was my experience that he would insist on all replies to his blog first being moderated by him before publication (which I did not mind) and then if it was published it was not what I exactly wrote, but an edited version that was much easier for him to ridicule (which I did not like).

    • Giulio Prisco

      Ignoring all caveats and qualifications is a very typical straw-man, which Carrico uses a lot.

  • advancedatheist

    Who cares what Carrico writes on his blog? He has so few readers that I wonder why he bothers. Compare him with Dark Enlightenment bloggers whose posts receive hundreds of responses from readers every week, and some of whom have started to receive notice in the mainstream conversation – for example, Steve Sailer and his “Sailer strategy” for winning presidential elections in the U.S. Sailer, especially, blogs about the things core Americans really care about, hence his growing influence. Sailer also mocks transhumanists on occasion, but for good reasons. He claims he crossed paths with Martin Rothblatt in MBA school in the early 1980’s before Rothblatt turned weird and “transgender.” Sailer points out the absurdity of Rothblatt’s claim that he “always felt like a girl on the inside” when Rothblatt displayed male interests in science fiction and new technologies, along with an aggressive drive for success, before deciding to LARP as a woman.

    • Giulio Prisco

      Never heard of Sailer! I don’t see why interests in science fiction and new technologies should be “male interests.” Lots of women love science fiction and new technologies, and lots of men love flowers, puppies and children. Those gender wars are becoming sooooo boring.

    • spud100

      I haven’t read Carrico’s blog, but i think i might start. Often, very bright people get overlooked completely, in their time. think, Ramanujian, the math guy, or Bohm, and basil hiley, with physics. The transgender think i don’t know about, but the people who say they are, including one i met years ago, are very serious and do not seem delusional in any way i can detect. I would conclude that nature isn’t perfect. Women are getting techy more and more, because they (anthropologically speaking) gain more power if they use tech or knowledge. Maybe with evolution, its an equalizer against male upper body strength, oooh! oooh!

      i am totally with you and even, Tipler, but am less confident, over time, (with tipler) as there really has not been any great development in his theory since 1993. Your, comfort comment on how long technology takes to bear fruit is absolutely correct. This is why so many Transhumanists, support advanced AI. Supporters believe that AI will accelerate human knowledge’s pace, 10,000 times, and thus, uploading, and salvation will be a snap! I, like yourself, are more cautious, about all this and side with the possibility of pessimism, or the mundane, prevailing.

      For all this my muddled thoughts bear comments.

      1. God Saves (salvatori) Click!
      2. Rudy Rucker in his blog once commented about ‘life with pot holders,’ or marx and hegel’s opiate of the people.
      3.with his background in software development, eric steinhart, in his philosophies, do a great job with naturalistic computational afterlives proposals. he thinks like Goertzel, even though they have never met, their ideas are very, very, close. Someone should introduce them.
      4. the downside to Cosmism is (suffer the little children to come unto me) that humanity burns itself up with nuclear weapons-forget Ai, or nanotech, or hallitosis. One, mental, cure for this is that we exist in Hugh Everett’s multiverse, and in one, humanity survives to produce the Friendly singularity, in which humanity evolves in the Cosmist way. In this manner the whole Multiverse would crystalize, and salvation is a guarantee. I wrote Tipler about this, and he said that the laws of physics demand that every universe in the multiverse will make it to the omega point. Well, I asked, Tipler was kind enough to answer, and who am i to argue?

      I think a scientifically, plausible reason for akashic database life recovery is a terrific idea. I am but a soon to be unemployed, computer operator, and somehow, lack the control over this universe (shocking!), so the sooner someone develops this Cosmist App for the religious believer and atheist alike, the happy i shall be!


      • Giulio Prisco

        Ciao Spud. In Everett’s multiverse all information is preserved – the information that appears irretrievably lost in one branch is scattered into other branches. Therefore the multiverse is an akashic database, and Everett proposed a scientifically plausible reason for its existence, built in the most consistent interpretation of quantum physics found to date.

        Another scientifically plausible reason could be formulated more or less like this:

        It seems sort of plausible that the universe may be optimally energy-efficient. So it should be a reversible computer. But apparently the universe isn’t a reversible computer because information is irreversibly erased in wavefunction collapse. But if the information is just stored away instead of destroyed, the universe can still be a reversible computer. Assuming the MWI interpretation, the lost information is, indeed, still available. So the MWI follows from Landauer theorem with some plausible assumptions.

        I am sure somebody must have written about this much better and in much more details.

  • advancedatheist

    Jones mentions hope in cryonics and radical life extension as a mental strategy that transhumanists use to cope with the idea of death.

    I wouldn’t call something you can actually do a “mental strategy.” This breakthrough in brain cryopreservation doesn’t seem to have gotten much notice yet, and it invalidates for example Michael Shermer’s criticism from 15 years ago that cryopreserving the brain necessarily turns into a mush like frozen strawberries: “Aldehyde-stabilized cryopreservation,” reported by the cryobiologists Robert L. McIntyre and Gregory M. Fahy:

    The independent neuroscientists at the Brain Preservation Foundation have evaluated McIntyre’s and Fahy’s findings, and they find them quite impressive:

    • Giulio Prisco

      Hi advancedatheist, I really hope brain cryopreservation and/or other forms of brain preservation such as the chemical preservation promoted by the Brain Preservation Foundation will work. I wrote an essay titled “Chemical brain preservation: cryonics for uploaders”:

      Besides hoping that brain preservation will work, I am reasonably confident, but my point here is to emphasize that there are other coping strategies based on possible future technologies able to realize all the promises of religion, and able to reach back in time and retrieve us from death.

      • advancedatheist

        Transhumanists need to do a whole lot more than hoping and coping if they want to survive. I’ve lived long enough to see about three cycles of transhumanism since the 1970’s, and I just laugh at the current one, with all the theater involving “applied rationality” self-help voodoo, phony transhumanist “institutes” and “startups,” bad animatronic replicas of spouses, coffin buses and such. When these follies become the public image of transhumanism, I can see why regular people don’t take it seriously.

        • Giulio Prisco

          Fun description of the current cycle (I could name examples of all your categories), but how would you characterize the previous two cycles? What is missing now that we should revive?

  • There is an important distinction between necessary conditions and sufficient conditions. Developing machine-phase nanotech this year could trigger a singularity and make it possible to reanimate cryonics patients. However, if we don’t develop it, the options aren’t ruled out. The necessary condition is much broader than that — the process needs to be achievable within the laws of physics using attainable resources.

    Failing to develop machine-phase nanotech is not only dependent on the problem being a hard one from our current perspective, but also on continuing to lack the resources to solve it quickly. Jones apparently lacks the breadth of understanding needed to realize that industrial growth with even macroscale machinery can span the solar system in a matter of a few decades.

  • As to the concept that transhumanism is a religion, I disagree. It is only your religion if you choose to make it your religion, and that is of course a deeply personal matter. Many of us have not chosen to do so.

    I consider myself a non-religious atheist, not a transhumanist, where religion is concerned. Some transhumanists are undoubtedly Catholic or Mormon. I don’t approve of their religions, but I don’t try to tell them transhumanism is their real religion or anything like that.

    • Giulio Prisco

      Hi Luke. I agree with “is only your religion if you choose to make it your religion, and that is of course a deeply personal matter.” As you say, many of us have not chosen to do so. But others have.

      Following William James, I suggest that interpreting transhumanism as a religion – an interpretation focused on long-term thinking, future Clarke’s magic, eschatology, and all things spiritual – makes sense if it’s useful to individuals and societies. I think it’s useful to individuals because it permits contemplating afterlife and resurrection in a scientific framework, and useful to societies because it helps people to resist personal urgency – the urgency to achieve the unachievable right now because one is afraid to die – and finding motivation for getting good things done, step by step, even if the ultimate goals can’t be achieved in a lifetime.

      I often say that I would be happy to clean toilets for a living, if I could do that on a starship. But we are all crew members of Spaceship Earth, en route to a wonderful future that our generation will not achieve. Transhumanist religion can help people find that awesome and wonderful, and be happier while working on the here-and-now.

      In “Apocalyptic AI” Geraci makes a clear case for categorizing transhumanism as a religion.

      According to Geraci, Apocalyptic AI is a religion: it is a religion based on science, without deities and supernatural phenomena, but with the apocalyptic promises of religions. And he thinks that, while the Apocalyptic AI religion has a powerful but often hidden presence in our culture, the Transhumanist community embraces it openly and explicitly. Transhumanism is first defined as “a new religious movement“, and throughout the book Geraci continues to see it as a modern religion. This may shock and upset many transhumanists readers who proudly see themselves as champions of science and rationality against religious superstition. Not this reader, though. I remember my first impressions after joining the Extropy mailing list in the late 90s…

      Since joining the Extropy list in the 90s I have been interpreting our ideas as an essentially spiritual worldview. I remember thinking of Extropy as a beautiful and powerful “new religion” for the new millennium (in the sense of an alternative / replacement for traditional faith-based religions, able to provide the same sense of wonder and meaning). Since then I have studied the writings of Tipler, Moravec and many others, refined my own thinking, and enjoyed the ongoing discussion with a small but growing group of like-minded “spiritually-oriented transhumanists…

      • I think what you really mean to say is that you see transhumanism competing with and displacing religion. That’s not untrue, in fact secular science has displaced religion considerably since (for example) Darwin’s theory of Evolution was published.

        Those who compare existential risks such as those from AI to religious apocalypse are for the most part making disingenuous attempts to smear transhumanism (and/or those seen as ideologically allied with it, such as libertarians), which serve only to prevent rational debate. The comparison is meaningful only at the most superficial level. The risk of nuclear annihilation or global warming from CO2 emissions are equally as comparable.

        Secular arguments such as those advanced by transhumanism (not to mention humanism, feminism, and many other secular movements), are notably distinct from those advanced by religion, because they do not demand nor attempt to create a separate space wherein they are free of criticism. We of course don’t seek the kind of unprofessional rhetorical abuse that Carrico and others have in the past brought to the table, but we do seek logical scrutiny and empirical evidence.

        If you call that a religion, I would have to say you’ve stretched the metaphor beyond the breaking point. But then, people who use the banner of religion have always been notoriously inconsistent with their use of terminology anyway.

        • Giulio Prisco

          As you say, I see transhumanism competing with and displacing religion. But competing with and displacing religion means invading religion’s home turf of cosmic visions, transcendent aspirations and hopes. If so, transhumanism (or, more precisely, my interpretation of transhumanism), can be considered as a religion because it can play the role of a religion for those who need a religion.

          Suppose Intel, which is not a biotech company, develops a successful biotech program and gains market share. Then, Intel becomes a biotech company (among other things), doesn’t it? Apple is very likely to start making cars (electric self-driving cars). Then, Apple will be also a car company (among other things). Same here. If my ideas become popular, transhumanism will be a religion, among other things.

          My definition of religion doesn’t include “free of criticism.” Actually, history shows that no religion has ever been free of criticism. Martin Luther (and countless others) strongly criticized dominant religions and established alternatives.

  • Darren Reynolds

    Chapter 4, like many transhumanists, misses the point about ‘uploading’. Giulio has it. We are not talking about emulating a brain with a modern-day GPU, a neural network chip, or anything resembling a descendant of either. We are talking about reverse-engineering qualia and building a new quale machine. That means understanding the objective observations of brain-matter that correspond to subjective experiences, then working out how to construct a machine capable of the same and more. It would be to brains what aeroplanes are to birds: clearly not the same, superior in the essential respects, and yet functionally equivalent in key ways.

    This will not be easy but to claim it is impossible or even improbable is just ridiculous. Unless you think climate change or nuclear holocaust is going to destroy human society then it is close to being inevitable.