Luke Robert Mason: You’re lis­ten­ing to the Futures Podcast with me, Luke Robert Mason.

On this episode I speak to soci­ol­o­gist, Professor Steve Fuller.

If we’re imag­ing a repub­lic of human­i­ty and we’re imag­in­ing it in the con­di­tion or mor­pho­log­i­cal free­dom, then we’re going to have to imag­ine a much wider range of human embod­i­ment than we even imag­ine now.
Prof. Steve Fuller, excerpt from interview

Steve shared his thoughts on tran­shu­man­ism as a sci­ence based reli­gion, the val­ue of tak­ing a death based approach to life, and why Friedrich Nietzsche is the futur­ist we need today.

This episode is an edit­ed ver­sion of a recent livestream event. You can view the full, unedit­ed video of this con­ver­sa­tion at future​spod​cast​.net.

Now tran­shu­man­ism argues that we should pre­serve and extend the unique prop­er­ties that make us human, by rad­i­cal­ly alter­ing our­selves and the envi­ron­ment around us. Recently, tran­shu­man­ist think­ing has seen a resur­gence, thanks to new tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments that point towards the pos­si­bil­i­ty that many of its promis­es will soon be realised. In his new book, Nietzschean Meditations: Untimely Thoughts at the Dawn of the Transhuman Era, Professor Steve Fuller delves deeply into the chal­lenges that aspir­ing tran­shu­man­ists might soon face, from how they will choose to manip­u­late or upgrade their bod­ies, to how they might approach the taboo of death—especially if, in prin­ci­ple, they could live for­ev­er. Steve, you’re one of the very few aca­d­e­mics that actu­al­ly takes the project of tran­shu­man­ism seri­ous­ly. For those who might not know, what is tran­shu­man­ism and what are some of the pos­si­ble direc­tions it might take?

Steve Fuller: Okay, first of all, Luke, thank you for hav­ing me on this pod­cast, and the way you intro­duced tran­shu­man­ism is basi­cal­ly cor­rect. It’s in the word tran­shu­man.” It’s basi­cal­ly tak­ing those prop­er­ties of human beings that are most distinctive—especially dis­tin­guish­ing us from oth­er animals—and ampli­fy­ing and mag­ni­fy­ing them. Typically, the kinds of things that tran­shu­man­ists are inter­est­ed in are extend­ing, of course, bio­log­i­cal life span, but large­ly in the con­text of want­i­ng to expand our abil­i­ty to have greater con­scious­ness, greater ratio­nal­i­ty, greater con­trol over things. In a way, to have a greater com­pre­hen­sion of the envi­ron­ment, much more so than any oth­er ani­mal would. 

I think the thing that is very impor­tant to stress at the outset—and it comes across in my book as well—while this is a rel­a­tive­ly new project in name, it’s in fact been very much kind of the tra­jec­to­ry of the human con­di­tion ever since sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy became the dri­ving force in how humans both under­stand them­selves, and recon­struct the envi­ron­ment to live in the world. We’re talk­ing about a project that might be asso­ci­at­ed with the sci­en­tif­ic rev­o­lu­tion, with the enlight­en­ment, with the indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion. Transhumanism, in a sense, just takes it to the next lev­el. In that respect, it is very con­tin­u­ous with devel­op­ments in mod­ern his­to­ry that we’re already famil­iar with.

Mason: Now it feels like tran­shu­man­ism has this pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with over­com­ing mor­tal­i­ty or con­quer­ing death. Where do you think that comes from?

Fuller: The first point to make is that in a sense, mod­ern med­i­cine has already been on that tra­jec­to­ry, and indeed there is a sense in which, very often, the way we talk about advances in med­i­cine is in terms of the length of life that peo­ple have. This has been a preoccupation—the pre­ven­tion of death, as it were. It’s a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion of about 150 years. Prior to the mid 19th cen­tu­ry, most med­i­cine was about peo­ple cop­ing with what was regard­ed as a nat­ur­al life span, which is to say peo­ple are born, they mature, they decline and they die. The idea of med­i­cine was to get peo­ple used to that cycle. 

Starting in the mid 19th cen­tu­ry, we start­ed to get a dif­fer­ent con­cep­tion of the human body, basi­cal­ly, and the human poten­tial, which tran­shu­man­ism, in a way, pig­gy­backs on—which is to think of the body as a kind of plat­form, you might say, for a vari­ety of capac­i­ties, prop­er­ties, what­ev­er, that you want in a sense to car­ry on per­form­ing in this way, indefinitely—as if a per­pet­u­al motion machine. In a way, tran­shu­man­ism car­ries on that tra­jec­to­ry, but now of course bring­ing into its light the kind of more recent devel­op­ments that have to do with gene tech­nol­o­gy, for exam­ple, and advances in nootrop­ic drugs that can expand our con­scious­ness, and of course, cyborg enhance­ments through tech­nol­o­gy. All of these things, you might say, are part of the tran­shu­man­ism arma­ment to extend the human con­di­tion. Yet the ques­tion you ask is: Why? Why do we have this pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with this? Why can’t we just be sat­is­fied with liv­ing for X num­ber of years and dying? I think that’s a very inter­est­ing ques­tion, and it goes to this idea of human excep­tion­al­ism. It’s kind of okay for ani­mals to die, and in fact that’s kind of the ani­mal nature. Animal nature is very much this kind of cycli­cal process of repro­duc­tion. The same kind of species com­ing into being over and over and over again. But human beings have some kind of inher­ent pro­gres­sive kind of thing that breaks the cycli­cal view of his­to­ry and goes off into the indef­i­nite future, in some sort of infi­nite space—to bold­ly go where no man has gone before and all that jazz. This is a mark of human excep­tion­al­ism. It seems to me that is very much at the core of the tran­shu­man­ist mentality.

Mason: Now it feels like the tran­shu­man­ist project on a whole is split. It goes down a pos­si­bil­i­ty of two routes and it feels like we’ve got Aubrey De Grey and his indef­i­nite life exten­sion project on one hand, and then we’ve got Ray Kurzweil and his idea of uploaded con­scious­ness on the oth­er. How can these two world-views coex­ist under the same banner?

Fuller: Well I think large­ly because they’re both attacked by the same peo­ple, but actu­al­ly they move in quite dif­fer­ent direc­tions. I think in a way, this is a mark of just how niche, you might say, or mar­gin­al tran­shu­man­ism is that in fact, these two rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent visions of the tran­shu­man future—and there are oth­ers of course, because nei­ther of them is real­ly a prop­er cyborg vision—coexist at the moment. You’re absolute­ly right—they do.

In fact, when you look at the his­to­ry in the recent past—over the past 25 years, let’s say—of all of the var­i­ous tran­shu­man­ist man­i­festos and so forth, you will find guys like De Grey, who’s pri­mar­i­ly inter­est­ed in our being able to live in the bio­log­i­cal bod­ies of our birth indefinitely—that’s his project—and Ray Kurzweil who basi­cal­ly wants us to upload our con­scious­ness into machines and to aban­don biol­o­gy alto­geth­er. These are com­plete­ly con­trary projects. Nevertheless, you find these guys are both tran­shu­man­ist. They both sign the same doc­u­ment and they both claim that they’re inter­est­ed in indef­i­nite­ly con­tin­u­ing the human con­di­tion. I think what they have in com­mon is this idea that I was men­tion­ing ear­li­er. Namely, a cer­tain sense in which the human body is, in a way, treat­ed as a platform—no more and no less than that. What real­ly mat­ters about the human being is in fact the var­i­ous capac­i­ties and pow­ers that can be launched from that plat­form. The tran­shu­man­ists would ask the ques­tion: What is the best plat­form, as it were? From which one could we have max­i­mum con­scious­ness, max­i­mum intel­li­gence, max­i­mum whatever—than human beings are nor­mal­ly dis­tin­guished from oth­er ani­mals on? What is the best plat­form for that?

Now, De Grey’s way of look­ing at things has a cer­tain kind of intu­itive appeal if you think that very much part of being a human being is actu­al­ly the expe­ri­ence of being in the human body, and the sens­es, and all that kind of stuff. The inter­face prop­er­ties of the human organ­ism with regards to larg­er real­i­ty. If you think that’s very much essen­tial to what a human is, then obvi­ous­ly De Grey’s project will seem very attrac­tive. On the oth­er hand, if you have a more abstract notion of the human being, this is the kind of view of the human that I think if you go back into the ancient times, even, with the Greeks, when we talk about being human, until we actu­al­ly get to about the 18th cen­tu­ry, human was pri­mar­i­ly a set of prop­er­ties. In a sense, yes, typ­i­cal­ly these prop­er­ties were prop­er­ties had by these upright apes, but nev­er­the­less not all of them were eli­gi­ble to have these prop­er­ties. In any case, even if they were, they would have to under­go some kind of edu­ca­tion, some kind of train­ing. In oth­er words, the bio­log­i­cal body itself, on this sec­ond view, was always regard­ed by a source of resis­tance. Something that has to be shaped and has to be mould­ed. It’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly a nat­ur­al vehi­cle by which to con­vey all of these prop­er­ties like high­er con­scious­ness, high­er intel­li­gence and so forth that tra­di­tion­al­ly has dis­tin­guished human beings from oth­er ani­mals. It’s when you start to get that more abstract con­cep­tion of the human that then some­thing like Kurzweil’s project starts to make some sense.

This is kind of, in a way, rep­re­sents De Grey and Kurzweil—even though they are both tran­shu­man­ist, clear­ly, and clear­ly they have futur­is­tic images of the human being—nevertheless, both of them are quite root­ed in rather alter­na­tive visions of what it means to be human in the first place. 

Mason: I mean, ulti­mate­ly, is the ques­tion that tran­shu­man­ism is ask­ing: what is the val­ue add of being a human in the 21st cen­tu­ry? 

Fuller: That’s right. I think that’s right, and I think this real­ly ends up putting tran­shu­man­ists in very tricky posi­tions. Especially if you start going down the Kurzweil route. I mean, both De Grey and Kurzweil have some—you might say—some haz­ards, if you go down either of their routes. I think in the case of Kurzweil, of course there is this issue that we’re actu­al­ly begin­ning to come to grips with at a sort of pol­i­cy lev­el. Then it’s the idea of if you do believe that the sil­i­con vehicles—the computers—are ulti­mate­ly the pre­ferred vehi­cle, the one that actu­al­ly can ampli­fy and extend and all the oth­er stuff, the prop­er­ties that we tra­di­tion­al­ly have con­sid­ered most valu­able for humans. If you find that to be in fact the case, then you might wonder…well, once you get a few of these things up and run­ning like through brain emu­la­tions or some­thing like that—and there’s some tran­shu­man­ists who write about this as well—where in some sense, you know, once you upload a few brains into machines and they have as it were the com­plex­i­ty of the brain but they’re just per­form­ing the func­tions in sil­i­con in the enhanced way that sil­i­con allows, then why are you going to need bio­log­i­cal bod­ies at all? At a pol­i­cy lev­el, we already face this with the prospects of tech­no­log­i­cal unem­ploy­ment, even at rel­a­tive­ly high intel­lec­tu­al per­for­mance levels—medicine, law, and places like that—not just with regards to man­u­al labour which there’s a long his­to­ry of tech­nol­o­gy already replac­ing. There’s going to be this ques­tion on the Kurzweil side: what is the added val­ue of being human, once we actu­al­ly get the sil­i­con ver­sion up and run­ning? That’s one ques­tion, that’s a ques­tion for him. 

With regards to De Grey, there’s going to be the issue of hav­ing too much of a good thing with regards to hav­ing a lot of human beings liv­ing around for­ev­er. As you know, first of all, we already have pop­u­la­tion pres­sure as it stands. But peo­ple like De Grey would like to say, You know, if you’re liv­ing for­ev­er, then you don’t need to have so many kids because you can pret­ty much do all the stuff that in the past, you’d hope your kids would be able to do.” In oth­er words, you can have a slow­er rate of inter­gen­er­a­tional repro­duc­tion and per­haps, if every­body can live for­ev­er, then there’ll be no need to have chil­dren at all.

That has a lot of haz­ards with regards to, in fact, the kinds of fea­tures that we’ve tra­di­tion­al­ly con­sid­ered to be dis­tinc­tive of human beings. One of which has been the capac­i­ty for rad­i­cal con­cep­tu­al change. Human beings, unlike animals—at least the way ani­mals have been tra­di­tion­al­ly conceived—aren’t stuck in a kind of pre­pro­grammed way of see­ing the world. They can reprocess their expe­ri­ence and in a sense, repro­gram them­selves in very sub­stan­tial ways, even if not nec­es­sar­i­ly in a genet­ic way. Of course, this is part of what cul­ture does—the kind of super­struc­ture of cul­ture that is around us pro­vides oppor­tu­ni­ties for rad­i­cal­ly restruc­tur­ing the human mind. The key com­po­nent of that is the fact that each new gen­er­a­tion comes in with a blank slate. In oth­er words, they don’t have the bag­gage of his­to­ry. They don’t have the per­fect mem­o­ries of the past. They can take this world that they’re faced with and actu­al­ly come up with some­thing new.

In fact, his­to­ri­ans and soci­ol­o­gists rou­tine­ly show that one of the prime dri­vers of rad­i­cal con­cep­tu­al change is gen­er­a­tional change. If you got De Grey’s sce­nario up and run­ning, it’s not at all clear how you’re going to get that. Especially giv­en that tran­shu­man­ists, as you know, are very fix­at­ed on this idea of end­ing Alzheimer’s dis­ease. These guys aren’t just going to live for­ev­er, they’re going to have per­fect mem­o­ries. That is going to be a night­mare for any young per­son. It’s already a night­mare, and it’s going to be a night­mare the more and more these peo­ple accu­mu­late on the plan­et. In both respects, Kurzweil and De Grey—if you real­ly allow their imag­i­na­tions to flow and you allow them to suc­ceed at the lev­els that you want them to suc­ceed, I think you could start under­min­ing, as it were, some of this human exceptionalism.

Mason: In a fun­ny sort of way it feels like sci­en­tif­ic progress often hap­pens one funer­al at a time. I want to turn to the fig­ure who’s quite dom­i­nant in the book—so dom­i­nant that he’s actu­al­ly on the front cov­er. That’s Friedrich Nietzsche. He is a dom­i­nant fig­ure in the book, and you say that he was the orig­i­nal tran­shu­man­ist. Not just the orig­i­nal tran­shu­man­ist, but the futur­ist that we need now.

Fuller: Yeah. I think every­body knows who Friedrich Nietzsche was—at least in some vague, cul­tur­al sense—but let me just put a few mark­ers down on the table and say exact­ly what I do with Nietzsche in the book. I say that the book is not about Nietzsche but for Nietzsche—that’s the first sen­tence of the book—I don’t want the Nietzsche schol­ars breath­ing down my neck. Nietzsche is, nev­er­the­less, I’d say a very icon­ic fig­ure in the mod­ern era. Nietzsche’s liv­ing, basi­cal­ly, in the sec­ond half of the 19th cen­tu­ry, and he died in 1900. He’s a guy who’s orig­i­nal­ly trained in clas­si­cal theology—Ancient Greek, Latin and all of that. He gets a ner­vous break­down and has to live on a pen­sion for the rest of his life, and it’s dur­ing this peri­od that he actu­al­ly writes all these very inflam­ma­to­ry works. The thing that Nietzsche is confronting—remember, we’re tak­ing in the late 19th cen­tu­ry so this is a peri­od where indus­tri­al­ism and impe­ri­al­ism and Darwinism and all of these what will become very sig­na­ture mod­ern fram­ing devices for the 20th century—all of these things are real­ly pick­ing up pace and becom­ing very dom­i­nant. What they’re doing is chal­leng­ing the human self understanding.

Of course, along­side all of this great human progress has been some rad­i­cal shifts in how human beings think about them­selves. For exam­ple, one of the things that I stress in the book is the the­o­log­i­cal ori­gin of the human excep­tion­al­ism idea and the way this moti­vat­ed sci­ence in the ear­ly mod­ern peri­od, includ­ing fig­ures like Isaac Newton, for exam­ple. However by the time you get to the 19th century—especially after Charles Darwin—you have this high­ly demys­ti­fied notion of the human being. As it were, okay, peo­ple think they’re cre­at­ing the image and like­ness of God—that leads them to do science—but then once they do sci­ence, low and behold they dis­cov­er that they’re real­ly ani­mals. Then the the­ol­o­gy dis­ap­pears, and then what are you left with? This is where Nietzsche comes in. Nietzsche’s say­ing, My God, we’re in a very fun­ny posi­tion here, because we’ve some­how thought that sci­ence is this great ennobling project, and now we do some sci­ence and look what we find out—we’re just glo­ri­fied ani­mals.” Nietzsche’s not going to put up with it, basically

At the same time, Nietzsche believes, as he said very famous­ly, God is dead.” and so we have to take things into our own hands, basi­cal­ly. In some sense, we have to recon­cep­tu­alise. We have to reestab­lish, as it were, our excep­tion­al sta­tus in a world that refus­es to give it to us—partly because the God who gave it to us is no longer there, but also because the sci­ence that we’ve come up with does­n’t give us that either. We are look­ing at the abyss, basi­cal­ly. It’s kind of a blank cheque—the future.

How do you go from there? Nietzsche was real­ly the first thinker who took this mat­ter very seri­ous­ly, and did not despair in any obvi­ous sense. There are oth­er fig­ures from the 19th century—Schopenhauer, I talk about him a lit­tle bit—who in a sense, despair at a lot of this stuff. Nietzsche, in a way, is a kind of risk tak­er. He’s a per­son who cel­e­brates this and this is quite an impor­tant fea­ture of the tran­shu­man­ist men­tal­i­ty. Veronika Lipinska and I wrote a book a few years ago called The Proactionary Imperative, and that’s about hav­ing a very open and pos­i­tive atti­tude towards risk. Nietzsche was very much in that mould. But Nietzsche was, at the same time, very cog­nisant of the fact that you take a lot of risks and you may just fail. You may just die. There’s no guar­an­tee, just because you’re this hero­ic, risky fig­ure that you’re going to suc­ceed. You have to be in the right mind­set to approach this sit­u­a­tion. You can’t assume that it’s all going to work out. In fact, there’s a good chance that it won’t work out, but nev­er­the­less, the risk may still be worth tak­ing. Nietzsche’s basi­cal­ly try­ing to cre­ate a kind of new moral­i­ty. A new moral­i­ty for this kind of post-theological world that refus­es to go down slow­ly as an ani­mal. The Übermensch,the Superman—which lit­er­al­ly is what Übermensch means—is the over­com­ing; the man who over­comes’. It’s over­com­ing a lot of things. It’s not just over­com­ing the ani­mal nature in the way you might say Aubrey De Grey and Kurzweil are inter­est­ed in doing. Both of them are try­ing to over­come the ani­mal nature in a pret­ty straight­for­ward, lit­er­al kind of way. Nietzsche’s also talk­ing about, in a way, over­com­ing all of the sen­ti­ments and atti­tudes that, on the one hand, have been tra­di­tion­al­ly asso­ci­at­ed with human excep­tion­al­ism. All of the tra­di­tion­al foun­da­tions from Nietzsche’s stand­point are false. At the same time, also to be able to over­come, as it were, the fear—the dread of this kind of open world that we’re now in, where we have an enor­mous amount of pow­er in our hands—through sci­ence, through indus­try, through all the rest of it—but at the same time, it’s not clear what our nature is. It’s not clear what the end­point is. It’s not clear what the goal is, anymore. 

Nietzsche, in the ear­ly peri­od of his reception—that’s to say the peri­od before the First World War, mainly—is seen as a kind of hero­ic, exis­ten­tial kind of fig­ure in this respect. A per­son who is bold and coura­geous, and real­is­tic at the same time, and future-forward. One of the things I men­tion is that the first English book on Nietzsche is actu­al­ly pub­lished in the United States. It’s not by acci­dent, giv­en the United States’ aspi­ra­tions in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry. The point is, after World War II, of course, a dif­fer­ent kind of Nietzsche emerges in light of his hav­ing been appro­pri­at­ed by the Nazis. This whole idea of the Übermensch kind of goes into rapid decline because the Nazis embraced this notion and kind of made it their own, you might say. A total­ly dif­fer­ent vision of Nietzsche starts to emerge after World War II. Heidegger is very much behind this, and it’s a more back­ward look­ing Nietzsche, you might say. A Nietzsche that is con­cerned about the geneal­o­gy of morals, where our ideas of moral­i­ty come from. Michel Foucault is high­ly influ­enced by this kind of Nietzsche that I’m talk­ing about here. 

What I’m try­ing to do in the book is go back to the orig­i­nal Nietzsche. The Nietzsche of the Übermensch, when Übermensch was not a dirty word and it did­n’t mean Nazi, either. That’s kind of why I put Nietzsche at the fore­front of this. Unlike a lot of con­tem­po­rary tran­shu­man­ists, Nietzsche saw risk in a very robust sense. That is to say some­thing that is chal­leng­ing, that is worth embrac­ing, but for which there are no guar­an­tees as to what the out­come may be. I think that this is the spir­it in which tran­shu­man­ism should pro­ceed. It should not pro­ceed on the assump­tion that par­adise is just around the cor­ner if we accel­er­ate a bit more.

Mason: I want to explore a bit fur­ther this idea of the­ol­o­gy and how that plays into tran­shu­man­ism. You say in the book that tran­shu­man­ism some­times feels like a sci­ence based reli­gion. Do you think it’s time that tran­shu­man­ists come to terms with the the­o­log­i­cal roots of their world­view? It feels like things like the idea of the orig­i­nal sin is so impor­tant to actu­al­ly under­stand­ing mod­ern transhumanism.

Fuller: Yes. That’s right. Let me start with busi­ness about tran­shu­man­ism being a sci­ence based reli­gion. In a sense, that’s true. I mean, tran­shu­man­ism has a lot of the qual­i­ties of reli­gion, except it does­n’t real­ly have a very self con­scious the­ol­o­gy attached to it. My view is—and maybe this reflects my sym­pa­thies for Protestantism—is that tran­shu­man­ism would be a lot bet­ter off if it kind of under­stood the the­ol­o­gy bet­ter and got rid of a bit of the reli­gion. In a sense, there’s some very pro­found the­o­log­i­cal ideas that I think do inform the tran­shu­man­ist imag­i­nary. Original sin is a very inter­est­ing one.

I think the fig­ure in Christian the­ol­o­gy who is most inter­est­ing as a kind of touch­stone for think­ing about tran­shu­man­ism is Saint Augustine. Saint Augustine who’s one of the ear­ly church fathers from the 4th cen­tu­ry. He was the one who real­ly, in a way, iso­lat­ed orig­i­nal sin as a doc­trine from Genesis, and made it a big deal. It’s quite clear that human beings dis­obeyed God, and so they were expelled from par­adise and all that stuff. The ques­tion, though, was: What exact­ly was the nature of the sin, and what was the nature of the pun­ish­ment that was met­ed out? The point that Saint Augustine makes was the idea that we think of ourselves—or are maybe inclined to think of our­selves, and cer­tain­ly oth­er reli­gions tend to think of human beings this way—as supe­ri­or ani­mals. He thinks that’s a very debased way and not real­ly a prop­er way to come to terms with what God did to humans, but rather that human beings are failed Gods. Augustine believes that in the begin­ning, human beings were Gods, essen­tial­ly, and that we should take all that lan­guage about human­i­ties being cre­at­ed in the image and like­ness of God very literally—Augustine believes that. The expul­sion from the gar­den of Eden, in a way, turned us into ani­mals. Animals are not what we actu­al­ly are—we are actu­al­ly Gods, but we have fall­en from that state. 

Nietzsche inhab­its some of that men­tal­i­ty. Nietzsche isn’t sat­is­fied with the idea that we’re just glo­ri­fied ani­mals. In a sense, that makes life too easy for us. It does­n’t explain enough of the nature of our dri­ves, the nature of our ambi­tions, and things of that kind. I think this is cer­tain­ly true. Look at this from a pure­ly Darwinian stand­point. Darwin says, We are ani­mals, and we are smart ani­mals.” You might want to say supe­ri­or ani­mals in some sense, but Darwin prob­a­bly would­n’t. Nevertheless, if you are to live like an ani­mal and to live ade­quate­ly like an ani­mal, what you are try­ing to do is to be basi­cal­ly in bal­ance with your envi­ron­ment, so that you have, as it were, a steady car­ry­ing capac­i­ty gen­er­a­tion after gen­er­a­tion. You can repro­duce your­self with­out exhaust­ing the envi­ron­ment and there­by putting your­self out of busi­ness. You have a sus­tain­able repro­duc­tive pat­tern, and this is the Darwinian view of all ani­mals, includ­ing human beings. If you want human beings to think of them­selves that way, then would they be engaged in all of this crazy sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy that ends up extend­ing life spans indef­i­nite­ly and upload­ing con­scious­ness and ampli­fy­ing our ambi­tions all over the place, and enabling humans to live all over the plan­et and all over the uni­verse poten­tial­ly, in space­ships, and all the rest of it. This is not the way an ani­mal thinks. This is not the way an ani­mal thinks, accord­ing to Darwin. In fact, I dare any evo­lu­tion­ary psychologist—they pre­tend to explain every­thing about our minds—to explain how sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy in its most extrav­a­gant and char­ac­ter­is­tic forms of the kind we have seen in the mod­ern era on which peo­ple like De Grey and Kurzweil trade, how does that make sense from an evo­lu­tion­ary stand­point? That is just set­ting a big­ger and big­ger risks for the human con­di­tion to encounter. This busi­ness that we live in today—the so-called anthropocene—is a reflec­tion of that. What kind of a being acts this way? Well, not an ani­mal, right, but some wannabe God. In a sense, orig­i­nal sin responds to this idea. Augustine is say­ing that in a sense, we still, as it were, have the divine aspi­ra­tion that we had in the begin­ning before the fall. It’s just that we are bum­bling around try­ing to realise it, and in fact we might bum­ble our way into extinc­tion in the process. The point is, that’s the idea. That the human being even in its fall­en state is still a fall­en God—not a supe­ri­or ani­mal. I think Nietzsche, in his own kind of athe­is­tic way, is actu­al­ly quite res­o­nant on this idea.

Mason: Basically, what you’re say­ing is the way in which we can express our God-like capac­i­ty as human beings is through will­ing­ness to take exis­ten­tial risk. Saying that feels very trans­gres­sive. It con­jures the fig­ures like Prometheus and Faust who attempt­ed to be Gods but found out, to their detri­ment, that that was a prob­lem­at­ic trajectory.

Fuller: I’ve spent a lot of time, espe­cial­ly on the Faust sto­ry, which unfor­tu­nate­ly seems to have fad­ed a bit from the com­mon cul­ture. I can assure peo­ple out there that Faust was in fact the most char­ac­ter­is­tic way of talk­ing about the Western mind in the 20th cen­tu­ry. If you had to come up with one cul­tur­al lit­er­ary fig­ure that epit­o­mised the Western mind in the 20th cen­tu­ry, then the name of Faust would always come up. The key thing about Faust—and the Faust sto­ry has a kind of bib­li­cal res­o­nance because there’s actu­al­ly a sto­ry in the New Testament that sort of reflects the Faust story—basically what you have is this very learned guy who is learned in sci­ence and in the­ol­o­gy. He picks up the bible and he sees Genesis: human beings are cre­at­ed in the image and like­ness of God. For him, that gives him license to fig­ure out God’s tricks. It’s basi­cal­ly as sim­ple as that. If I believe the bible and the bible says this is who I am, then I’m enti­tled to find this stuff out. Faust is basi­cal­ly try­ing to find this stuff out by what­ev­er way he can. He does stuff in labs, he’s kind of like a magi­cian, a proto-experimentalist. But he also hooks up with Satan, who makes him an offer he can’t refuse. He ends up sell­ing his soul in the process, and of course that leads to a kind of down­fall. Interestingly, in the most famous ver­sion of Faust, Goethe’s Faust, from the ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry, God is mer­ci­ful for Faust and actu­al­ly ends up send­ing him to heav­en in the end, which is quite interesting.

Mason: Hearing that is just con­jur­ing images of robots. The idea of cre­at­ing some­thing in the image and like­ness of us, are we cre­at­ing robots and forms of non-human life in the image and like­ness of us? Is that project what you mean when you talk about the idea of try­ing to dis­cov­er our divine pos­si­bil­i­ties? Is AI part of that?

Fuller: Yes of course, and again, this is not new. There was an excel­lent book writ­ten about maybe five, ten years ago now by Philip Ball, an excel­lent sci­ence writer, called Unnatural’—I real­ly rec­om­mend it to peo­ple. It’s basi­cal­ly about the his­to­ry of cre­at­ing life, and where does it start? It starts with alche­my, it starts with magi­cians. It starts with the kind of things that Faust was actu­al­ly work­ing on. You see this in the Faust play, the so-called homuncu­lus which is like the small­est unit of intel­li­gence that you could con­jure up in a test tube. This is a con­cept that comes from the Middle Ages. This does­n’t require embry­on­ic stem cells or any of that jazz. This is some­thing that you can already find in the 12th, 13th cen­tu­ry, and this is one of the things that Faust is try­ing to do in order to get these God-like pow­ers. There’s a whole con­tin­u­ous tra­di­tion of this.

In fact, one thing that I talk about a bit in the book is this term robot’ which comes from 1920—the orig­i­nal robot in the play Rossum’s Universal Robots—R.U.R—the Czech play­wright Karel Čapek—those robots in that orig­i­nal play from 1920 are basi­cal­ly home­grown. They are kind of grown from embry­on­ic stem cells it would seem. They are organ farmed. They are syn­thet­ic life. They are not machinery—this is the inter­est­ing point—they are not machin­ery. I think what Čapek actu­al­ly had in mind was the kind of more up to date ver­sion of Frankenstein. Frankenstein is also made of spare parts. This is a slick­er ver­sion of that. It’s all bio­log­i­cal substance—it’s not machinery.

What is mechan­i­cal in the play—and this is the thing that made it polit­i­cal­ly inter­est­ing at the time—was the fact that these liv­ing things that have been cre­at­ed live under the mechan­i­cal rou­tine of cap­i­tal­ism. The mech­a­nism comes from the social order—it does­n’t come from the nature of the thing which is liv­ing. This then leads the humans to have sym­pa­thy with these robots and try to lib­er­ate them from their plight. This is what the play is about. This is the first pub­lic men­tion of robots—it’s about that. This idea of mechan­i­cal robots—that actu­al­ly comes a lit­tle bit later.

Mason: All of this real­ly comes full cir­cle and it comes back to the idea of: what should our rela­tion­ship with nature be? Transhumanism feels like a very high tech endeav­our and in many ways, it is. But its tra­jec­to­ry is very depen­dent on how human­i­ty sees itself in rela­tion to nature. What should the appro­pri­ate rela­tion­ship be between human­i­ty and nature? 

Fuller: Well this is a very com­plex issue, and it’s an issue that again, I would rec­om­mend peo­ple who are sym­pa­thet­ic to tran­shu­man­ism, I would advise to see this as a growth area because there’s real­ly very lit­tle seri­ous think­ing about this ques­tion in tran­shu­man­ism. Transhumanism is very curi­ous. Transhumanists would rather spend a lot of time talk­ing about what it’s like to go off to oth­er plan­ets and how to do it than to actu­al­ly fig­ure out how to live prop­er­ly on Earth. It’s a very curi­ous thing. It’s almost as if tran­shu­man­ism has already writ­ten off the Earth. 

But I haven’t done that, and in fact, one of the things that I talk about in the book—in the first chap­ter in particular—is this envi­ron­men­tal move­ment which I think in a way, can dove­tail nice­ly with tran­shu­man­ism, and that’s eco­mod­ernism. Ecomodernism is basi­cal­ly a high tech envi­ron­men­tal­ism, but it’s a high tech that in a way, con­sid­ers it to be, as it were, the chal­lenge. If we want to talk about how spe­cial human beings are and how excep­tion­al we are among all the oth­er crea­tures of nature, the way we’re going to do it is by show­ing that we can do more with less. In a way that’s the fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple of effi­cien­cy, but the point is, let’s imag­ine this as a kind of eco­log­i­cal strat­e­gy. In oth­er words, we want to be able to do all the things we can do and so forth, we should not be using so much bio­mass. We should not be using fos­sil fuels. We should not be liv­ing so much on the back of dead ani­mals, essen­tial­ly, and some­times liv­ing ani­mals as well. In a sense, min­imis­ing that kind of depen­den­cy and min­imis­ing the bio­mass bases of ener­gy is a way in which human beings show the fact that they can decou­ple from nature. Again, if tran­shu­man­ism is to a large extent about sep­a­rat­ing our­selves from nature in terms of our capac­i­ties, then one of the ways to do that is of course not to be so depen­dent on nature for all of the fuels and so forth that we need in order to keep our lives going. It seems to be that this would be the direc­tion of trav­el for a tran­shu­man­ist approach to envi­ron­men­tal­ism, and eco­mod­ernism does pro­vide a kind of blue­print for that.

Mason: In a fun­ny sort of way, what you’re show­ing us is how exces­sive detach­ment from nature is fuelled by an exces­sive depen­dence on nature. In oth­er words, if we need to fell trees and kill ani­mals, then we’re unable to accord nature the respect it deserves. That real­ly sounds like a fall­en state—what you were describ­ing ear­li­er. The fact that we’re tak­ing full advan­tage. That’s not very God-like. Surely, God-like abil­i­ty is to man­i­fest resources of our own cre­ation and now have to take advan­tage of nature as a raw material.

Fuller: That’s exact­ly the point. That’s exact­ly the point. Or, I mean anoth­er way to look at it as well is not only that we rely on our own resources, but in a sense, we’re not depen­dent on some very spe­cif­ic kinds of things. This is where it gets kind of inter­est­ing from the stand­point of: if you want to look at the moti­va­tion of the peo­ple who are keen on tak­ing off into oth­er plan­ets and so forth—and I’ve been involved in that kind of project, with Rachel Armstrong, and it’s a very intel­lec­tu­al­ly inter­est­ing project and who knows—if the plan­et real­ly does go to hell, it may be necessary—but thing that’s very inter­est­ing in the con­text of eco­mod­ernism about this idea of there being a space art, where some­how in life, with oth­er Earth life, can actu­al­ly trav­el indef­i­nite­ly across the cosmos—is that it forces us in a very inter­est­ing way to rein­vent our­selves. If human beings are so excep­tion­al and if we are so detach­able from par­tic­u­lar forms of nature, then we should be able to rein­vent our­selves in all dif­fer­ent kinds of nature. This is, in a way, part of our spir­i­tu­al­i­ty as it were, or ethe­re­al­i­ty. We’re not just depen­dent on one plat­form. We can in fact migrate across plat­forms. We can sur­vive in many dif­fer­ent set­tings, both envi­ron­men­tal set­tings and even plat­form set­tings. That’s why the idea of mor­pho­log­i­cal free­dom is a key tran­shu­man­ist tenet that I spent quite a bit of time talk­ing about in chap­ter two. This is the idea that human beings have the right to be in what­ev­er form they want. 

Mason: Let’s talk about mor­pho­log­i­cal free­dom from the per­spec­tive of one fig­ure in the tran­shu­man­ist move­ment who real­ly embod­ies the future, and that’s Martine Rothblatt—she’s the founder of SiriusXM radio, she’s had gen­der reas­sign­ment surgery, she’s a biotech pio­neer, she advo­cates for this idea of mind clones and works on xeno­plan­ta­tion which is the idea of trans­plant­i­ng ani­mal organs into the human. In what way is Martine Rothblatt’s trans­gen­dered tran­shu­man­ism real­ly the cur­rent embod­i­ment of mor­pho­log­i­cal freedom? 

Fuller: Martine Rothblatt does­n’t just talk the talk, she walks the walk. In a sense, she is the mor­pho­log­i­cal­ly free per­son, and she the­o­ris­es it in a very inter­est­ing way, as well. She is one of the peo­ple who’s works I would assign not just in terms of the con­ti­nu­ity between the trans­gen­der stuff and the human stuff, but also in terms of the idea of mind cloning and hav­ing mul­ti­ple identities—some online, some offline—and what are the legal ram­i­fi­ca­tions of that. I think for peo­ple who are only vague­ly famil­iar with Martine Rothblatt, I think it’s worth men­tion­ing that she’s a trained lawyer. She actu­al­ly comes to these mat­ters with a very keen legal mind about locus of agency, locus of respon­si­bil­i­ty and so forth—if you’re going to be in this mor­pho­log­i­cal­ly free state.

I do think one of the things that her career illus­trates very well in a kind of broad­er his­tor­i­cal sweep in which we think about tran­shu­man­ism is that mor­pho­log­i­cal free­dom needs to be seen as kind of the lat­est devel­op­ment in lib­er­al­ism. Where lib­er­al­ism is under­stood as this mod­ern move­ment which began when peo­ple’s iden­ti­ties were no longer tied to their birth. By birth, of course, if we’re talk­ing about the 18th cen­tu­ry, we’re talk­ing about who your par­ents were and what class of soci­ety they were from. Were they peas­ants? Were they nobles? Whatever. You start to get a lib­er­al­i­sa­tion of the law, start­ing in the late 18th cen­tu­ry which opens the door to all this. Basically, peo­ple become able to get into pri­vate con­tracts to set­tle their sta­tus. The job you get is no longer the job you inher­it from your father, but rather it is the job that you con­tract your labour for in the city. That’s already a kind of mor­pho­log­i­cal free­dom in terms of how you’re con­fig­ur­ing your­self with regards to the labour market. 

Of course, these things con­tin­ue through­out the 19th and 20th cen­turies. It’s hard, it’s tough. Morphological free­dom in all of its var­i­ous forms are not very much accept­ed. I think with regards to the trans­gen­der stuff we see that there are kind of obsta­cles there as well. One of the obvi­ous con­se­quences of peo­ple hav­ing the free­dom to alter their iden­ti­ties is the basic cat­e­gori­sa­tion by which soci­ety is organ­ised. Society, for bet­ter or worse, tends to be organ­ised along the lines of race, class, gen­der, age. All these social mark­ers, that in a way, clas­si­fy peo­ple. If you’re able in some way to move between them at will in some sense—maybe as a result of some pro­ce­dure or some­thing but nev­er­the­less it is your choice to do it—then on the one hand it demo­c­ra­t­i­cas. It makes the world a kind of freer place in that sense. People have more access to dif­fer­ent things, but what the over­all effect is—what does a soci­ety look like as a coher­ent unit that allows so much free­dom in the change of iden­ti­ty? That is some­thing that we strug­gle with. Obviously with the trans­gen­der move­ment, that isn’t the case now, but tran­shu­man­ism in a way ought to be in the fore­front of this kind of dis­cus­sion. Transhumanism, in a way rep­re­sents, you might say, the ulti­mate end­point of all of this.

Mason: One of the ways that tran­shu­man­ism can be part of that dis­cus­sion is through tran­shu­man pol­i­tics. You spend a lot of time in the book out­lin­ing what a tran­shu­man­ist pol­i­tics would real­ly look like. In a fun­ny sort of way, you say that tran­shu­man­ism has bipo­lar pol­i­tics. It has a man­ic mode and a depres­sive mode. Could you explain exact­ly what you mean by that?

Fuller: Well, I mean there is this enor­mous opti­mism about tran­shu­man­ism and this is usu­al­ly when tran­shu­man­ism is dis­cussed in lib­er­tar­i­an terms. There’s all this free­dom for the indi­vid­ual and we can upload our minds, we can live for­ev­er, all this kind of stuff. Of course, if you recall in 2016, Zoltan Istvan pro­duced this tran­shu­man­ist bill of rights, ran as pres­i­den­tial can­di­date in the elec­tion and got an enor­mous amount of media atten­tion. To my mind, he actu­al­ly did a lot to pop­u­larise tran­shu­man­ism and kind of get tran­shu­man­is­m’s issues in some kind of dia­logue with the typ­i­cal pol­i­cy issues that politi­cians talk about. I give him a lot of cred­it for that.

The point is that in a way, it’s very indi­vid­u­al­is­ti­cal­ly focused. I think the prob­lem is that you’re going to real­ly need some kind of wel­fare state idea if tran­shu­man­ism isn’t just going to end up exag­ger­at­ing the dif­fer­ences that already exist in soci­ety. The prob­lem is that when tran­shu­man­ists start to think in col­lec­tive terms—you might say—the only thing they only ever seem to be able to come up with is exis­ten­tial risk. The idea is: we’re all equal­ly threat­ened by super­in­tel­li­gence, oh my god! We’ve got to some­how put an end to this or reg­u­late it, or I don’t know what. Half the time tran­shu­man­ists are say­ing they want super­in­tel­li­gence and the oth­er half of the time they say it’s going to destroy us. This is very weird. Nick Bostrom would be an exam­ple of this, who speaks from both sides of his mouth, who’s been in fact one of the peo­ple who’s been sup­port­ing super­in­tel­li­gence but who at the same time has been say­ing, Oh my god, it’s going to destroy us, and so there­fore give me a mil­lion dol­lars so I can start an institute.”

I think what this reflects is that tran­shu­man­ism real­ly has not yet—and maybe is not even real­ly very comfortable—thinking about the full social con­se­quences of this stuff becom­ing true. I mean, I think in a way, tran­shu­man­ism seems like a sort of jol­ly project at the moment, because every­body at the back of their minds knows: it’s not going to hap­pen that soon, so we’re going to have time to think about the con­se­quences. I’m not so sure. Who knows what’s hap­pen­ing in China, for exam­ple. Some of the things that the tran­shu­man­ists are promis­ing us may in fact hap­pen soon­er than we think. In which case, we’d bet­ter have the right pol­i­tics in play, oth­er­wise we’re going to have a very rad­i­cal­ly divid­ed and divi­sive world.

Mason: You say in the book that what we need is a repub­lic of human­i­ty. In oth­er words, pol­i­tics that’s going to be able to deal with the impli­ca­tions of humans ris­ing to Godhood and ani­mals or machines ris­ing to the lev­el of humans, or a sit­u­a­tion where some peo­ple have their minds uploaded, some peo­ple are poten­tial­ly liv­ing for­ev­er. There’s going to be a spec­trum of dif­fer­ence that’s going to emerge if all of these tran­shu­man­ist projects are equal­ly tak­en seri­ous­ly. What does this repub­lic of human­i­ty look like?

Fuller: The idea of a repub­lic just from a stand­point of polit­i­cal the­o­ry: a repub­lic is basi­cal­ly a soci­ety of equals and where cit­i­zen­ship is the mark of equal­i­ty. Citizenship is some­thing that in republics is typ­i­cal­ly not some­thing that you nec­es­sar­i­ly inher­it, but that some­how you have earned by reach­ing a cer­tain stan­dard. In a lot of the ear­ly city states that were republics, wealth was typ­i­cal­ly the marker—but of course when we talk about cit­i­zen­ship tests these days, we talk about peo­ple being able to pass lit­er­a­cy tests and stuff like this.

The idea is that these equals in a way…you’re imag­in­ing that peo­ple are com­ing from many dif­fer­ent back­grounds. You’re all mov­ing into this repub­lic, and so you need some kind of com­mon stan­dard by which you can judge them to say that they are equals, from the stand­point of the repub­lic. If we’re imag­in­ing a repub­lic of human­i­ty and we’re imag­in­ing it in the con­di­tion of mor­pho­log­i­cal free­dom, then we’re going to have to imag­ine a much wider range of human embod­i­ment than we even imag­ine now. As you know, the his­to­ry of pol­i­tics in the mod­ern era has been one long strug­gle for even achiev­ing a lev­el of polit­i­cal equal­i­ty among peo­ple whose dif­fer­ences are sim­ply at the lev­el of race or gen­der, or class. But now imag­ine if we’ve got big­ger dif­fer­ences to play with. Online, offline. Machine, ani­mal. Imagine the dif­fer­ent kinds of needs that these beings have, the dif­fer­ent ways in which they express them­selves. The dif­fer­ent ways in which they would flour­ish. Trying to estab­lish a kind of com­mon stan­dard by which all these beings could live togeth­er in a state of mutu­al recog­ni­tion is actu­al­ly quite an enor­mous polit­i­cal chal­lenge. It seems to me, this is the polit­i­cal chal­lenge that tran­shu­man­ism needs to take on board if it is to be con­sid­ered a seri­ous polit­i­cal project. That’s what the repub­lic of human­i­ty stands for. 

Mason: You look at our cur­rent politics—our left-right politics—and you argue that what might actu­al­ly hap­pen is a move to an upwinger and down­winger pol­i­tics, where basi­cal­ly pol­i­tics is judged by its approach to exis­ten­tial risk and whether we’re able to social­ly deal with some of these risks that we may be pur­su­ing. I guess soci­ety will recov­er though, won’t it? Through some­thing like adap­tive pref­er­ence formation? 

Fuller: Well, yes.

Mason: I guess what I’m real­ly ask­ing is: what hap­pens when we move from a left-right pol­i­tics to an upwinger-downwinger pol­i­tics. How will that change our approach to exis­ten­tial risk?

Fuller: So we’re kind of famil­iar with the left-right dis­tinc­tion in pol­i­tics that comes from the French rev­o­lu­tion. It had to do with the seat­ing arrange­ment in the nation­al assem­bly after the rev­o­lu­tion. The peo­ple on the right were the ones who want­ed to return to the monar­chy, basi­cal­ly; return to the status-quo. The peo­ple on the left were a com­bi­na­tion of what we would now call lib­er­als and social­ists, who basi­cal­ly want­ed to break with the past. 

Of course, Western pol­i­tics in par­tic­u­lar have been very much dom­i­nat­ed by this polar­i­ty for the last 200 plus years. The thing that this dis­tinc­tion had in com­mon was that these dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tions were com­pet­ing for con­trol of the state. The state was the thing, and mobil­is­ing the state in the way that these ide­olo­gies want.

Now, the state has in fact become less and less salient as a way of organ­is­ing social life, cer­tain­ly since the end of the Cold War. This has then thrown up a kind of issue which we see increas­ing­ly about people—especially younger people—not being par­tic­u­lar­ly engaged with this kind of tra­di­tion­al left-right pol­i­tics, because they don’t real­ly see the state as this kind of bul­wark that can actu­al­ly do stuff and make soci­ety right or some­thing like that. The state does­n’t have that kind of salience for them any more, and so vot­ing and stuff like that does­n’t mat­ter so much. Younger peo­ple have a kind of dif­fer­ent ori­en­ta­tion, in fact.

This is where the up-down thing comes in. While of course there’s prece­dent in the old­er gen­er­a­tion of course—most tran­shu­man­ists are quite old people—but nev­er­the­less, this is a kind of younger per­son dis­tinc­tion: up ver­sus down. I think you have to imag­ine the metaphor work­ing in the nor­mal way, where the upwingers are peo­ple who imag­ine that the sky’s the lim­it. Human beings—we can do any­thing. We can inhab­it the cos­mos, we can eman­ci­pate our­selves. We can do what we want, right? We just have to allow our­selves the free­dom and the oppor­tu­ni­ty to do it. The down-wingers are the peo­ple who believe that at the end of the day, we are very much implant­ed on plan­et Earth and that’s the only way we’re going to sur­vive. If we don’t get on on plan­et Earth then that’s the end of human­i­ty. No ifs, ands or buts.

This is the kind of polar­i­sa­tion we’re talk­ing about. We’ve got these very tran­shu­man­ist technophiles; peo­ple who are quite hap­py with escap­ing the plan­et if nec­es­sary. On the oth­er hand, we have the Greta Thunbergs of the world and all of the Extinction Rebellion and very rad­i­cal envi­ron­men­tal move­ment. Both of these have a lot of young peo­ple attached to them. What they’re doing is real­ly dis­en­tan­gling and dis­in­te­grat­ing the com­mon con­cep­tion of human­i­ty that the state upheld and which had kept the left and the right on the same wave­length for 200 years. That being split apart by this up-winger-down-winger dis­tinc­tion. I asso­ciate the up-wingers with the tran­shu­man­ists, and the down-wingers with the post-humanists. The down-wingers include not only envi­ron­men­tal­ists as we nor­mal­ly under­stand them, but I also put in that category—and I think this is not a triv­ial point—Pope Francis. Pope Francis, in his var­i­ous encycli­cals, has been very keen and very shrewd in asso­ci­at­ing envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice with social jus­tice. The pre­car­i­ous­ness of the plan­et is close­ly tied to the pre­car­i­ous­ness of the poor. We see this with the pan­dem­ic and everything—these things are the most vul­ner­a­ble. With cli­mate change, the poor are most vulnerable.

I think one of the things that Pope Francis picks up—and I think this is where the pull of the down-winger per­spec­tive comes from—is that the tran­shu­man­ists don’t show, as it were, enough sense of sol­i­dar­i­ty with the human con­di­tion. It real­ly does some­times look like every man for him­self. I think that is a kind of pub­lic rela­tions prob­lem that tran­shu­man­ism has, that I think is going to be pret­ty hard to shake unless it real­ly takes its polit­i­cal the­o­ris­ing seriously. 

Fuller: Now Steve, I want to ask you about a very par­tic­u­lar sec­tion of the book, about death. It’s one of these things that it feels like tran­shu­man­ists strug­gle to deal with. It’s a lot about over­com­ing death, but they nev­er talk about a rela­tion­ship with death itself. In this book, you are unapolo­get­i­cal­ly con­fronting death—what Timothy Leary called the last taboo’. In what way do you think that death is cen­tral to the human con­di­tion, and the tran­shu­man­ist world view?

Fuller: Death, in the his­to­ry of Western phi­los­o­phy: mean­ing in life only comes from, ini­tial­ly, the recog­ni­tion that you’re only around for a lim­it­ed peri­od of time, so that forces you to allo­cate your resources wise­ly, you might say. In oth­er words, you realise at some point in your life—perhaps ear­ly, per­haps late—that you are going to die, and all the things that you think you might be able to do or want to do, you’re not going to be able to do, and so you have to think about: how am I going to organ­ise my life? It becomes a kind of bud­get­ing prob­lem, you might say—budgeting prob­lem of time and energy. 

It’s in that process that mean­ing in life is gen­er­at­ed. This is a very clas­si­cal, philo­soph­i­cal view. In this view, for exam­ple, sui­cide was jus­ti­fied when some­one fig­ured out: okay, I have now done what I think I could do, and I don’t see why I need to hang around any longer. I’ve done it, and it’s over, and spend­ing the extra years hang­ing around, suck­ing up the air, is not intrin­si­cal­ly valu­able. Suicide is one con­cept that is very close­ly tied to this idea of life hav­ing mean­ing. You might be able to reach it before your time is up.

Transhumanism, in a way, kind of prob­lema­tis­es this kind of premise. Transhumanists are con­stant­ly say­ing they want to live for­ev­er, and they’re real­ly try­ing to, real­ly hard. It’s almost like the most impor­tant thing. You ask, Well then, what is the mean­ing of a life that can go on forever?”—this is not exact­ly obvi­ous what the answer is. Transhumanists, when they try to approach this ques­tion, say an enor­mous amount of banal things. Transhumanism has some high points. There are some things about tran­shu­man­ism that are very sharp and very smart. But when they talk about the mean­ing of life, it is awful. It’s basi­cal­ly: We have more time to con­sume. We can go on hol­i­day for­ev­er. We can try out dif­fer­ent things. We don’t need to have our chil­dren do things that we were hop­ing to do—we can do them our­selves. We are just seen as this recep­ta­cle of pure expe­ri­ence, that expe­ri­ence is for­ev­er. In a way, it’s kind of a con­sumer paradise.

It seems to be that it miss­es the whole point of what the mean­ing of life is sup­posed to be. The mean­ing of life is not just about accu­mu­lat­ing expe­ri­ence. One has to think about: what should be the place of death in this tran­shu­man­ist imag­i­nary? The way I approach the mat­ter is that death, in a way, first of all should be at least vol­un­tary. One of the things that one wor­ries about with tran­shu­man­ism is that a lot of the ideals that it projects—especially the ide­al about liv­ing forever—is an offer­ing you can’t refuse. In oth­er words, if you say, No, I don’t want to live for­ev­er. I don’t even want to live as long as I’m sup­posed to be liv­ing.” I don’t know what a tran­shu­man­ist would make of you. I have heard some tran­shu­man­ists say, Such a per­son is crazy.” I have heard tran­shu­man­ists say stuff like that. If peo­ple are offered the oppor­tu­ni­ty to live for­ev­er and they say, No”, they’re nuts.” I think that’s wrong, of course.

Mason: Do you think the dis­cus­sion of life exten­sion should actu­al­ly go hand in hand with the dis­cus­sion of euthana­sia? What you call in the book ratio­nal sui­cide’. How do we bring both of those to the table when the idea of death is so taboo?

Fuller: Look, this is the point. If you have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to live for­ev­er, a whole lot of world issues start to arise—especially giv­en the issues that I was rais­ing ear­li­er with you about the gen­er­a­tional change stuff. In oth­er words, if part of the point of tran­shu­man­ism is to pro­mote human excep­tion­al­ism, we’re talk­ing about some­thing that is excep­tion­al­ism of the species—not the excep­tion­al­ism of you as an indi­vid­ual. You still have an oblig­a­tion to human­i­ty as a whole, even if you, indi­vid­u­al­ly, are allowed to live for­ev­er. Part of that respon­si­bil­i­ty may be to make sure that you’re able to make room for new peo­ple to come on the scene, who might come up with rad­i­cal new ideas and rev­o­lu­tion­ary new ways of see­ing things, that do not require and are not depen­dent on this long mem­o­ry that you have been pre­serv­ing through the hun­dreds of years that you’ve been alive, like Methuselah. There may be a kind of moral respon­si­bil­i­ty to get off the stage at some point.

Now, one does­n’t have to be so dras­tic about this, though I would say that’s a seri­ous option. Again, the pol­i­tics of life expectan­cy ought to go into this kind of issue. Namely, even if you have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to live for­ev­er, do you have the right? And whether there should be some oblig­a­tion placed on how peo­ple man­age their lifes­pans. There are a lot of ways one can be think­ing about this, but the bot­tom line is that it does­n’t mean that every­one will be allowed to live for­ev­er. The alter­na­tive, of course—if peo­ple insist on liv­ing for­ev­er and they’re in this won­der­ful, healthy state that Aubrey De Grey thinks—then send them off to colonise oth­er plan­ets. I think that’s a great use for Methuselah. Just send these peo­ple off. This would be Elon Musk’s clientele.

Mason: It might get to the point where we can’t actu­al­ly send our body off the plan­et so what we would have is a form of sui­cide where we’d basi­cal­ly vacate our sub­strate and then upload our minds and then send the infor­ma­tion off into space, into some robot­ic avatar on some oth­er planet.

Fuller: You’re rais­ing a very, very inter­est­ing point—a very pro­found point, I think—about how this death busi­ness that we’re talk­ing about feeds into the way peo­ple think about what mind upload­ing is. At the moment, I think all the stuff that Kurzweil talks about with regards to mind upload­ing is so philo­soph­i­cal­ly prob­lem­at­ic, because peo­ple have a real issue about how exact­ly you would infor­ma­tise; turn con­scious­ness into a stream of infor­ma­tion that then you could some­how upload into a machine that would con­tin­ue pro­cess­ing it. People have prob­lems under­stand­ing exact­ly how that process would work.

However, what we do have now—and this is where the death part comes in—is we do have this bur­geon­ing indus­try, which anoth­er one of my PhD stu­dents, Debra Bassett, has writ­ten on: the dig­i­tal after­life indus­try. That’s the new look at death. It starts to look a lot like mind upload­ing. The idea, of course—and there are Black Mirror episodes devot­ed to this and all the rest of it already—is you take advan­tage of the fact that peo­ple on Facebook and all of these oth­er social media platforms—and peo­ple have been doing this before social media—is self-archive. When you keep pho­tos in albums and you keep all your old let­ters, and you keep all of your drafts of your books and papers. That long tra­di­tion of self-archiving where you have all these works that you don’t pub­lish but that you want to keep so that oth­ers will see when you’re gone. What in German is called nach­lass—there’s a long tra­di­tion of that.

It used to be some­thing that schol­ars and impor­tant peo­ple do—or self-important peo­ple do—but nowa­days any­one can do it on social media. They can do it on their Facebook plat­form. They can put up their pho­tos, put up their videos, put up their audio, and peo­ple boy-oh-boy do that. They’re just putting stuff up all the time. Text—everything. Of course, when the per­son dies, this is an amaz­ing kind of lega­cy. It’s an amaz­ing dig­i­tal lega­cy. Both the peo­ple who do this and the peo­ple who you might say would be the nat­ur­al audi­ence for it—the loved ones—both of them have got inter­est­ed in this idea of a dig­i­tal after­life, which isn’t just the main­te­nance of the plat­form after the per­son is dead, but also you could put in some fan­cy algo­rithms that enable some mix­ing and match­ing and splic­ing, and enables some repro­gram­ming. You can come up with new ver­sions of audio, video and text that are in the style of the deceased par­ty. As it were, they con­tin­ue to have this con­tin­u­ous life. The algo­rithm, as it were, is pro­cess­ing all of this mate­r­i­al that has been inputted, and then pro­duc­ing new ver­sions; new avatars of the deceased one. Depending on the algo­rithm, the algo­rithm could have inter­ac­tive effects through this avatar. Conversing with peo­ple on cyber­space. It may devel­op new ideas, new traits.

There have been cas­es, for exam­ple, where chil­dren have been spooked out by their algo­rith­mi­cal­ly dri­ven dead dad. If this dig­i­tal after­life stuff becomes more sophis­ti­cat­ed and more accept­ed, then I think there will be ques­tions aris­ing as to what the dif­fer­ence is between that and mind uploading.

Mason: I want to look at the more nuanced way you’re look­ing at death with­in the last chap­ter of the book, because you devel­op this idea of necro­nom­ics: the abil­i­ty to find val­ue in some­thing as irredeemable—or seem­ing­ly irredeemable—as death. You actu­al­ly come up with a whole bunch of pos­i­tive pro­pos­als for necro-politics, which to me was very sur­pris­ing. I won­der if you could share those with our audience. 

Fuller: Oh, there are lots of them. The busi­ness about gen­er­a­tional change is, in a sense, very much a key kind of idea. Namely, one of the things that you have to think about when you think about the mean­ing of your life is that the mean­ing of your life may in fact not be some­thing that you direct­ly expe­ri­ence, but is some­thing expe­ri­enced by oth­ers. Therefore, the rela­tion­ship of your life to oth­ers mat­ters a lot. I talk, for instance, about the fact that there’s a lot of cas­es where peo­ple who die younger, by acci­dent or what­ev­er, actu­al­ly end up…their lega­cy ends up becom­ing a lot more pro­found than peo­ple who just hang around past their sell-by date, as it were, and then die old and their rep­u­ta­tion some­how gets warped and changed and trans­formed. It sug­gests that in terms of peo­ple’s rep­u­ta­tions, one almost gets a sense that there is an opti­mal time in life where it’s best to get off the stage, if one wants to pre­serve the val­ue of what one’s already done. That’s a very dif­fi­cult con­cept for a lot of peo­ple to think about, but it’s one where—it seems to me—if you take the idea of the mean­ing of life seri­ous­ly, and that the mean­ing of life is some­thing that is expe­ri­enced by oth­ers, not nec­es­sar­i­ly by your­self, then that I think is a very wor­thy consideration—especially in a con­text where you have quite a lot of dis­cre­tion. As you would if you had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to live for­ev­er, you have a lot of dis­cre­tion to decide exact­ly how you man­age the time. 

Mason: Our first ques­tion from YouTube is, What is the most dire eth­i­cal dilem­ma for transhumanism?”

Fuller: Okay, I mean I think there are two, and in a way it kind of brings togeth­er issues we were just talk­ing about. One is the issue of inequal­i­ty, and giv­en the lib­er­tar­i­an strain of tran­shu­man­ism, how do you pre­vent inequal­i­ty from just going even cra­zier than it already is? In oth­er words, tran­shu­man­ism has the poten­tial to exac­er­bate the worst ten­den­cies of cap­i­tal­ism. How do you pre­vent that?

The sec­ond one has to do with: what is a respon­si­ble atti­tude towards life if you do have extend­ed life, and how do you need to think about your rela­tion­ship to oth­ers, includ­ing sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions in light of that?

Mason: We have anoth­er ques­tion from YouTube here, from David Wood, who asks, Are there any tech­nolo­gies that you think should be treat­ed in a pre­cau­tion­ary way? E.g. exper­i­ments to make bioweapons more dead­ly, for example.”

Fuller: You know the ter­ri­ble thing about all this is that when you put it in that way, I don’t want bioweapons to become more deadly—but of course that’s not the con­text in which these things ever get devel­oped. They’re devel­oped in the name of nation­al secu­ri­ty, by coun­tries that feel they’re tremen­dous­ly threat­ened. You have to think about this mat­ter in a non-question beg­ging way. In oth­er words, you’re absolute­ly right—we don’t want things that are going to be real­ly bad. But what is real­ly bad? The deep­er prob­lem here is that in fact, a lot of the sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy that would cre­ate these bio­log­i­cal weapons of mass destruction…the biol­o­gy that would be used is prob­a­bly the kind of biol­o­gy that prob­a­bly gets used for all kinds of won­der­ful things. Something short of hav­ing some sort of mul­ti­lat­er­al arms agree­ment that just stops build­ing weapons of cer­tain kinds alto­geth­er at an inter­na­tion­al level—that might be one way to go on this—but you’d have to get all the coun­tries to sign on board for that to have any kind of effi­ca­cy. I just don’t think one can give any kind of gen­er­al answer oth­er than that. 

Mason: We have a ques­tion from Jose Cordero who asks, Steve’s fear of over­pop­u­la­tion reminds me of Malthus, but pop­u­la­tion can increase with more and bet­ter tech­nol­o­gy, and in many coun­tries the prob­lem is shrink­ing.” So, how do we deal with this whole pop­u­la­tion issue, I guess is the question. 

Fuller: The pop­u­la­tion issue—I think he’s right, in a way. I men­tioned that, but I don’t think it’s the most impor­tant issue. I think the more impor­tant issue is the respon­si­bil­i­ty to future gen­er­a­tions, and the idea of how you’re going to make room. We may get a kind of sus­tain­able pop­u­la­tion and it may be with zero repro­duc­tion. We’ll have a very sus­tain­able pop­u­la­tion of the same peo­ple who will live for­ev­er. This is what I wor­ry about. 

Mason: There’s anoth­er ques­tion from YouTube, a very short one. Can you be born a tran­shu­man­ist?” and I guess to add to that, is it nature or is it nur­ture? Does it come from spend­ing too much time on Internet blogs? 

Fuller: Well you know, it’s inter­est­ing, because I do think tran­shu­man­ism is a bit of a brand­ing thing, you might say. When Julian Huxley coined the term tran­shu­man­ism’ in the 1950s, he was just talk­ing about our abil­i­ty to direct our genet­ic future; that in a sense we can elim­i­nate dis­eases and we can make peo­ple health­i­er at the genet­ic lev­el, and we can do all kinds of won­der­ful things like that. The way Huxley was pre­sent­ing it was very much a con­tin­u­a­tion of the sort of task of mod­ern med­i­cine, as I was describ­ing it—it was­n’t that different.

I do think that what makes tran­shu­man­ism dis­tinc­tive is the par­tic­u­lar sorts of tech­nolo­gies and strate­gies that turn out to be the focal point of inter­est. This fix­a­tion on cell regen­er­a­tion and the kind of stuff Aurbey De Grey does. The fix­a­tion on cry­on­ics. The fix­a­tion on mind upload­ing. I think in a way, these are the things that get most close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with tran­shu­man­ism. They seem rather exot­ic on the sur­face, but the gen­er­al sen­si­bil­i­ty I think is very much an indef­i­nite con­tin­u­a­tion of the mod­ern men­tal­i­ty. I don’t think it’s that weird to be able to get, actu­al­ly. I do think the media, by the way, presents both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive ver­sions of this all the time. I think we’re in a media envi­ron­ment that is very open to this kind of thinking.

Mason: We have anoth­er ques­tion here from YouTube which asks, How does tran­shu­man­ism con­front some­thing like nihilism?” You men­tion briefly in the book the idea of Nick Land’s Dark Enlightenment. I know you touch briefly on this idea of nihilism. 

Fuller: So there is this kind of evil twin of tran­shu­man­ism, which is a cer­tain kind of posthu­man­ism. It is posthu­man­ist in the sense that it wants to decen­tre the human, which post human­ists regard as the orig­i­nal sin, you might say. Post human­ists basi­cal­ly think that this priv­i­leg­ing of the human is the source of all of our prob­lems; envi­ron­men­tal prob­lems; all of the oth­er prob­lems in the world. There is this evil twin of tran­shu­man­ism which Nick Land, who is this British philoso­pher now liv­ing in China, pro­motes under the rubric of The Dark Enlightenment’. He says: Ray Kurzweil and all of these tran­shu­man­ists who are talk­ing about the accel­er­at­ing rate at which tech­no­log­i­cal change is hap­pen­ing, and how we’re on the cusp of this sin­gu­lar­i­ty that will com­plete­ly put us in a total­ly dif­fer­ent world, mind­space, every­thing. Of course when tran­shu­man­ists say this, they’re being pos­i­tive. They’re basi­cal­ly talk­ing about, This is when heav­en hap­pens.” but Nick Land—while he believes that this accel­er­a­tion is hap­pen­ing and it will take place—he does­n’t believe the con­se­quences will be very benign at all. In fact, he believes that it’s going to basi­cal­ly blow the plan­et apart, essen­tial­ly. He says, Bring it on!” He says, Bring it on, because that’ll final­ly cut those god­damn humans down to Earth. Then on the oth­er side of this apoc­a­lypse caused by all of this accel­er­a­tionism, then peo­ple will regroup and they will be more hum­ble. They’ll realise that they’re just one species in a hier­ar­chy of nature. They will then be able to live sus­tain­able lives that will not be jeop­ar­dis­ing them­selves and the plan­et all the time, but it will be in a much more dimin­ished form and it won’t involve the kind of hubris that tran­shu­man­ism trades on.” That’s a kind of nihilis­tic vision, that as it were, takes the tran­shu­man­ist premise but then draws a com­plete­ly con­trary conclusion.

Mason: In that sce­nario, it’s only about 70% of the pop­u­la­tion that we’re sup­posed to lose, so 30% is our growth poten­tial. You con­clude the book by look­ing at tran­shu­man­is­m’s PR issues. Sometimes tran­shu­man­ists are dis­missed as fan­ta­sists, or per­haps they’re just obsessed with this idea of escapism. What are some of the ways in which tran­shu­man­ism can solve this poten­tial PR issue?

Fuller: To my mind, I think in a way it goes back to some of the nar­cis­sism of some of the tran­shu­man­ist dis­cus­sion. It’s not by acci­dent that the kinds of dead­lines that are being giv­en all the time for the sin­gu­lar­i­ty to hap­pen for what­ev­er, the next great break­through to hap­pen. It’s always with­in the lifes­pan of the peo­ple mak­ing it. Just enough, just enough. You hang on long enough, you might be 70 or 80 but you’ll be one of the first peo­ple to be suc­cess­ful­ly going to cry­on­ics and being able to get unfrozen. There is this kind of nar­cis­sism about it. What you don’t get from tran­shu­man­ism is any sense that a lot of this very risky research—and let’s not make any bones about this, whether you put your­self in deep freeze—of course, it does­n’t mat­ter with cry­on­ics because you’re already dead to begin with—putting your­self in cry­on­ics while you’re alive would be a lit­tle riski­er. The thing is that all of this research, if we’re talk­ing about tak­ing drugs that only ani­mals are allowed to take but if humans take them then they might extend their life expectan­cy and all of this oth­er kind of risky research of xeno­trans­plan­ta­tion, all this kind of stuff—I’m all for that research. But, I do think that tran­shu­man­ists need to present it as risky, and that they take the risks. This is not nec­es­sar­i­ly going to be plain sail­ing, and in fact, all of these promis­es, while they may be deliv­er­able in the long term, may not be deliv­er­able in the short term. In fact, there may be a lot of car­nage along the way in terms of peo­ple’s lives being lost, espe­cial­ly if we allow for more risky exper­i­ments to take place.

Transhumanists need to be very straight about this kind of stuff, because that’s the only way in which you’ll actu­al­ly get peo­ple to take you seri­ous­ly. What peo­ple do not take seri­ous­ly is a bunch of nar­cis­sists who are basi­cal­ly promis­ing that there are going to be this break­throughs that just so hap­pen to coin­cide with their lifes­pan. I think peo­ple find this a lit­tle too con­ve­nient. It may or may not happen—I’m not say­ing it won’t happen—but I’m just say­ing that it does­n’t seem com­pelling. Transhumanism has to, in oth­er words, project itself as a project that peo­ple are in it for the long haul. They’re in it for the long haul, and they them­selves may not ben­e­fit from it, but it may be sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions who ben­e­fit from it. It has to be worth­while at that lev­el. It needs to have a greater sense of self sac­ri­fice built into its ethos.

Mason: I was about to con­clude but we just had a fan­tas­tic ques­tion from YouTube which I think you would enjoy, Steve, which is: If we were to teach kids tran­shu­man­ism at school on the cur­ricu­lum, should it be taught with­in reli­gious edu­ca­tion or sci­ence stud­ies?” I know you have a lit­tle bit of a back­ground in edu­ca­tion policy.

Fuller: That’s a real­ly inter­est­ing ques­tion. That’s a real­ly inter­est­ing ques­tion. Let’s put it this way: I’m going to give you a very prac­ti­cal answer. If you real­ly want to teach tran­shu­man­ism in its very full throat­ed sense, which makes it very excit­ing and dan­ger­ous and all the rest of it, teach it in reli­gion. A sci­ence class will not tol­er­ate it.

Mason: I want to con­clude with just real­ly think­ing about all of this togeth­er. Do you think that any of this will come to pass in our life­time? If not or if it will, but I guess if not, is it worth believ­ing in tran­shu­man­ism if you don’t direct­ly stand to ben­e­fit from it? 

Fuller: This is my point. You have to believe in it, even if you don’t ben­e­fit from it. Otherwise, the thing is a fraud. In oth­er words, look at some­thing like Marxism for exam­ple. People believed in that for a long time and it actu­al­ly did a lot of good for a lot of people—I’m sor­ry to say, but it did. The point was, peo­ple were in it for the long haul, and they suf­fered through it. Actually, if you look at the his­to­ry of sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy, until we get to the last twenty-five, thir­ty years when we start going ethics crazy and every­thing has to be reg­u­lat­ed, pri­or to that time there was an enor­mous amount of self-sacrifice and sac­ri­fic­ing of oth­ers that went on in the name of sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy. We need to recov­er that kind of spir­it. In the his­to­ry of that, it has not nec­es­sar­i­ly been the case that the peo­ple who have done the sac­ri­fic­ing have per­son­al­ly ben­e­fit­ed from it, but sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions have. I think that is the spir­it in which tran­shu­man­ism needs to present itself. It is a project for the long haul, and it’s not just a project for peo­ple to think that if they invest in the next freeze that comes down the track, they’ll be the first per­son to live for­ev­er. I think that’s not the right way to think about it.

Mason: I guess the indi­vid­u­als who are in the longest haul of them all are those cur­rent­ly in cry­on­ics. Definitely a long haul. The only med­ical pro­ce­dure where the patient actu­al­ly has to be patient. On that note, Professor Steve Fuller, I want to thank you for your time.

Fuller: Well thank you, and thank you to every­one who participated.

Mason: Thank you to Steve for shar­ing his unique per­spec­tive on the tran­shu­man­ist world view. You can find out more by pur­chas­ing his new book Nietzschean Meditations: Untimely Thoughts at the Dawn of the Transhuman Era, avail­able now. 

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Further Reference

Episode page, with intro­duc­to­ry and pro­duc­tion notes. Transcript orig­i­nal­ly by Beth Colquhoun, repub­lished with per­mis­sion (mod­i­fied).


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