Some weeks ago, I saw a review of Zoltan Istvan’s book “The transhumanist wager.” It was a rave review and I was interested in the topic, so I got curious. Shortly after, Istvan himself contacted me and offered me a copy of the book, asking me if I’d like to review it. I accepted.
I have finally finished the book and am ready to give my verdict. However, I will also use the occasion to reflect on some of the philosophical matters touched upon in the book, which I believe will be of more interest to my readers than the book itself.
As you probably have guessed, “The Transhumanism Wager” is about transhumanism. More particularly, it is about the struggle between transhumanism, religion and (in the author’s opinion) our outdated morality. If you don’t know what transhumanism is, I’ll summarize the idea here: transhumanism is the belief that humans should strive to improve themselves and their bodies, using technology to better the human race and transcend its biological limitations, such as (but not limited to) death and aging.
I consider myself a transhumanist or, at least, I am not opposed to many of their tenets. As I have argued elsewhere, I don’t want to die, mainly because I like living. If I was given the chance to go on living, I’d probably take it. If I could make myself smarter and stronger and faster and able to fly, I’d probably do it. I don’t hold my current form in such high esteem that I wouldn’t want to change it.
That said, I found the book to be lacking as a defense of transhumanism, precisely because it goes too far with it. The debate about transhumanism is presented as having two sides: in one, there are the smart and capable scientists that want to build a transhumanist world. On the other, there are the religious zealots, which hold the human body as sacred and do not want it to be changed. These religious zealots, on top of that, are portrayed in an extremely sinister light, which does not do justice to a great fraction of religious people out there.
The reason I don’t like this is that, by minimizing the opponent’s case, the arguments for transhumanism sound weaker. I would have liked to see several factions, each with good reasons for rejecting what the transhumanists had to offer. This way, I would have actually enjoyed reading all the (extremely long) philosophical discussions and speeches, which in this case were just too obvious to merit any further consideration. By only taking into account the religious arguments against it, Istvan made the transhumanist philosophy look naïve. That does not do the transhuman movement any favors.
There is something else that made me uneasy: in the book, transhumanism is equated with being in favor of social inequality and opposed to universal health care, for example. In the words of the author, “your freebies are over.” He actually goes out of his way to say, through the main character, things like: “if you offer no value, you will be eliminated” or “only people who can demonstrate their productivity will be allowed to reproduce.” I have two problems with this: first, I think these represent the author’s extreme right-wing views and have nothing to do with transhumanism itself, so mixing those two actually misrepresents the philosophy. Second, if what he was trying to do was convince people that transhumanism is not so bad, that’s a heck of a way to start: advocating eugenics and the state-approved killing of unproductive individuals.
However, it was precisely this brutal ideology that made me want to keep reading the book. I found it at odds with my own beliefs but quite fascinating in its own right. Even though the tone of the writing seemed quite juvenile (I was actually convinced the author was in his early twenties until I found his webpage) the novel was easy to read. I was even excited at some points, especially when he delved into some subjects that have been touched upon in this blog and that I won’t reveal in case someone wants to give this book a go.
Istvan’s main point seems to be this: we are in a race against time to achieve immortality. We should devote every single resource available to this task. Any individual who does not contribute should be left to his or her own devices: we are in the middle of a battle against death and we cannot afford to waste any resources. Not doing anything is actually murderous, if you think about the amount of people who are being condemned to dying and who could be living forever. There is also another point that ties in with the former and which has Nietzschean resonances: every human strives to become the most powerful self they can. This is undeniable human nature. Moral rules are for the weak: for the transhumanist (his kind of transhumanist) there is only one imperative: become as powerful as you can, as fast as you can, through any means available. The first step for this is, of course, not dying.
The author has a utilitarian view of humans that would have horrified Kant: he sees them as means to achieve power and immortality, nothing else. The analogy he uses is comparing himself to a machine that tries to achieve a certain objective in the most rational way possible. Humans are just pieces in the game, variables to be considered. Nothing more.
Istvan’s idea seems to be that in such a Darwinian society, creativity would thrive and technology would advance by leaps and bounds. I am not so sure. Furthermore, I’m also not sure whether I would like to live in such society, even if it did advance that fast. There are plenty of examples of non-egalitarian societies and none of them seem like a great place to live. Believing that only talent (and not the ability to drink socially and suck up to people, for example) is enough to gather riches is naïve at best.
Istvan seems to have some understanding of science, though every time he speaks about physics (“you have to harness the power of quantum”) or mixes it with philosophy (when speaking about “quantum Zen”) I cringe a little. At one point he mentions a “photon generator,” which made me laugh out loud. I have several at home: they’re called “lamps.”
All in all, I found “The Transhumanist Wager” a fun read, though slightly embarrassing at times and lacking in serious philosophical discussion (in the sense that it lacked competing, coherent points of view). If you are a fan of transhumanism and the most brutal brand of capitalism, you might enjoy it. Even if you’re not, it’s still fun to read.