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 futurespodcast.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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