James Hughes’ Problems of Transhumanism: A Review (Intro + Part 1) – Article by Ojochogwu Abdul

James Hughes’ Problems of Transhumanism: A Review (Intro + Part 1) – Article by Ojochogwu Abdul


Ojochogwu Abdul

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5


In 2010, James Hughes, Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), having then just stepped down from the Board of Directors of the World Transhumanist Association (presently known as Humanity+), took up an interesting challenge during the Spring of that year to reflect on the current state of transhumanist thought and determine what the questions were that the transhumanist movement needed to answer in order to move forward. Introducing a series of articles with which he hoped to navigate through a number of heady ideas and issues concerning transhumanism, Hughes opens by posing: “What are the current unresolved issues in transhumanist thought? Which of these issues are peculiar to transhumanist philosophy and the transhumanist movement, and which are more actually general problems of Enlightenment thought?” Further, he queried, “Which of these are simply inevitable differences of opinion among the more or less like-minded, and which need a decisive resolution to avoid tragic errors of the past?”

Some clarification is made by Hughes on the “Enlightenment” as referring to a wide variety of thinkers and movements beginning in the seventeenth century, continuing through the early nineteenth century, and centered in Britain, France, Germany, and as increasingly demonstrated by recent scholarship, manifesting on a global dimension with significant contributions from thinkers and movements across Europe, North America, and the Caribbean. Hughes points out further the relevance of these thinkers and movements in terms of their endeavour in broadly emphasizing the capacity of individuals for achieving social and technological progress through application of critical reason to investigate nature, establish new forms and institutions of governance, and transcend such stagnating (or even retrogressive) forces as superstition and authoritarianism.

The engagement Hughes then sets for himself as he proceeded forward were a set of reflections which he was to structure around two general questions:

  1. An attempt to parse out which unresolved problems transhumanism has inherited from the Enlightenment; and
  2. How transhumanist technological utopianism has both inspired and delayed scientific and political progress over the last 300 years.

By addressing these questions, Hughes proposed to challenge a prevailing anti-utopian sentiment and hopefully furnish awareness of the way that dynamic optimism about transcendent possibilities motivated scientific innovation and democratic reform through the work of such thinkers and proto-transhumanists like the Marquis de Condorcet, Joseph Priestley, and J.B.S. Haldane. Indeed, for Hughes, transhumanism and techno-utopianism are part of the family of Enlightenment philosophies, both of which could be traced back to the original Enlightenment thinkers 300 years ago. The ideological conflicts within transhumanism today are, therefore, as Hughes would argue, to be understood by transhumanists as but the product of some 300-year-old conflicts within the Enlightenment itself.

The outcome of this effort, thankfully undertaken by Hughes, was a series of six essays grappling with diverse transhumanism-related issues ranging from problems surrounding the unsustainable autonomy of reason/rationality, and the belief in progress in contrast with rational uncertainty, to matters of deism, atheism and naturalist theology, from liberal democracy and technological absolutism to moral universalism and relativism, and from ideas concerning liberal individualism to the (threat of) erosion of personal identity.

Hughes titled this series of essays “Problems of Transhumanism”, each with its distinctive sub-title. And if one thing at least is to be appreciated from reading these articles, it is, in my modest opinion, the success with which they present the modern transhumanist project as bearing within its character and objective “the unfinished internal contradictions of the Enlightenment tradition.” The author, of course, emphasizes from the onset a yet important motive to his attempt which was to make clear which criticisms of transhumanism are internal contradictions, and which proceed from “external, non-Enlightenment predicates.”

Over the next week or so, I’ll be doing a review of these articles serially, starting with Part 1 below, while also incorporating some relevant views from a number of other thinkers as may be necessary, to aid commentary or analysis of Hughes’ arguments. This exercise, on my part, is essentially intended and hopefully geared to serve as an expository approach towards highlighting the contemporary philosophy and cultural movement of transhumanism whilst encouraging further discourse on the subject.

I invite and would be glad to have as many that may be interested in working through these ideas and issues with me, even as I endeavour, with these series of articles, to open conversations about them.

Part 1: The Unsustainable Autonomy of Reason

The Enlightenment is said to mark the most dramatic step towards secularization and rationalization in Europe’s history, and this it does no less in the wider history not just of western civilization but, arguably, of the entire world. It plainly follows from this that it was one of the most important shifts in the history of humankind. Aside from a strong optimism about the future, and a belief in progress and science as the source to cure all ills for humanity, Reason, as championed by a number of thinkers, became the central value of the Enlightenment. Indeed, some historians of ideas see the beginning of the Enlightenment in the early seventeenth century as the “Age of Reason,” associated with names like Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hobbes, Locke, and Berkeley. Transhumanism as a philosophy, and as some commentators would hold, is also rooted rather firmly in Enlightenment Philosophy, especially in its character of favouring Reason alongside science, progress, freedom, and other values centered on the well-being and improvement of humans.

In his work tracing contradictions from the Enlightenment roots of transhumanism, James Hughes, however, points out a problem in the often taken-for-granted autonomy of Reason by stating: “Reason is not self-legitimating. Like all Enlightenment advocates for reason, transhumanists find that the project of Reason erodes all premises including the superiority of reason over unreason. Consequently transhumanists, like Enlightenment advocates in general, need to defend our values with nonrational a prioris. Unfortunately some transhumanists continue to advocate a naïve conception of pure rationality as an end in itself.”

Do we have a ground for Reason?

Going back to the Enlightenment, the thinkers of this period, though divided by epistemology and theology, attempted to ground philosophy on foundationalist, uncontestable propositions such as Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am), or the Empiricists and idealists who sought certain foundations in the form of unquestionable sense impressions, self-evident concepts, or intellectual intuition. In other words, there was some rational a priori from which all other knowledge, truth, and morality would follow. Implied in this was a thorough-going undermining of all irrational a prioris which, according to Hughes, “led to a number of philosophical dead-ends, however, immediately generating a score of post-rationalist movements.” In the midst of the Enlightenment, Hughes states, “Jean-Jacques Rousseau valorized the primitive and decried the harmful effects of hyper-rationalism on morality.” Further, reactions against what was perceived the overreach of reason and Enlightenment rationalism manifested in such movements as 18th century Romanticism (which rather asserted the value of aesthetic and emotional experience), and moving on from the 18th century through World War Two, movements (on the Left) like the Frankfurt School, and various strains of feminism and anti-imperialism which attacked the patriarchal and Eurocentric construction of Enlightenment reason. The autonomy and universality of reason was rejected by these post-rationalist movements because, as Hughes explains, “it came into conflict with other values of the Enlightenment, such as respect for the rights of persons and for cultural diversity.” Theologians and philosophers of the Right, on their part, also held the totalizing logic of the Enlightenment’s assertion of utopian reason as what was to blame for communism.

In the latter part of the 20th century, Foucault, Derrida, and other thinkers of postmodernism again got to represent a collapse (or threat of collapse) of Enlightenment reason. The essential insight of the postmodernist critique of the Enlightenment, that is, all claims for Enlightenment reason are historically situated and biased by power and position, is one that Hughes accepts as true. The Enlightenment, as argued by this school, is “just one historical narrative among many and there is no rational reason to choose the Enlightenment narrative over any other.” Arguments for Reason hence can only be done from metaphysical and ethical a prioris, Hughes qualifies, even if those are only such basic assumptions as ‘it is good to be able to accomplish one’s intended goals.’ Speaking, for example, about David Hume, the Enlightenment’s severance of connections between the IS and the OUGHT, and the effort by Kant and the utilitarians to re-ground ethics on what could seem as empirical observations about human nature, they could never, as Hughes contends, “answer the next question: why should ethics be grounded on observations about human nature and not something else, like ancient religious dogmas?”

To Hughes therefore, the structures we’ve built on Reason, just like those built on faith and dogma, are all like houses built in mid-air. He makes this interesting analogy to communicate his point:

“When I imagine the project of Reason, I think of building a house in mid-air. I look over at the other houses floating in mid-air, the pre-Enlightenment houses, and they are ramshackle huts of mud daub and random flotsam, tied up with string. To get from one room to another in our neighbors’ houses, you have to crawl to the basement and then up a laundry chute. They sit in darkened rooms with few windows, and none that show that the house is not in fact rooted to the earth. With the pure, lean precision of Reason we have built our houses of Kantianism, utilitarianism, liberal democracy, and other clean architectural marvels, Frank Lloyd Wright structures of thought with lots of windows, and even glass floors. But most of us steadfastly ignore the fact that, just like our neighbors, we are floating in mid-air. Acknowledging that we are all in mid-air and don’t know how we got aloft in the first place is damned scary, and we have repeatedly seen people defect from our Enlightenment houses with glass floors to our neighbors’ houses of faith and dogma where they are not forced to look down. We need to learn the courage to acknowledge that we got this thing in the air through an act of will—that Reason is a good tool but that our values and moral codes are not grounded in Reason—or else we will lose many more people to the forces of irrationality in the future.” (Hughes, 2010).

Inheriting this problem from the Enlightenment, most transhumanists likewise are found arguing the Enlightenment case for Reason without acknowledging its self-undermining nature. Hughes cites Max More, for example, as declaring, “Like humanists, transhumanists favor reason, progress, and values centered on our well being rather than on an external religious authority.” However, transhumanists and the Enlightenment, according to Hughes, “face the opposite dilemma: how to advocate for rationality in a way that avoids its potential for self-erosion. Just as the bioconservatives cannot validate their taboos and ethical a prioris in the public square, there is likewise no rational reason why society should reject taboos and superstition in favor of a transhuman future; value judgments in favor of tradition, faith, and taboo, or in favor of progress, reason, and liberty both stem from pre-rational premises.” Consequently, Hughes makes this submission which follows from his logic but which may seem confrontational to many self-convinced rational-minded transhumanists:

“Transhumanists need to acknowledge their own historical situatedness and defend their normative and epistemological first principles as existential choices instead of empirical absolutes somehow derived from reason.” (Hughes, 2010)

In essence, Hughes, by this essay, presents a critique of the transhumanist tendency to “fetishize rationality”, one which, as his argument implies, comes with the risk of a relapse into the naturalistic fallacy. Thus, Hughes recommends an acknowledgment of the need for transhumanists to “examine and embrace their irrational first principles, desires and values.”

Dissension from Hughes’ position, however, could be gleaned from some ideas of Max More, especially his Pancritical Rationalism (PCR), which is an epistemological approach with substantial support among transhumanists. This epistemology differs radically from much Enlightenment epistemology. Many Enlightenment thinkers, as we have earlier noted, defended some form of foundationalism, and even today, it must be granted that, in addition to a widespread commitment to rationalism, there also exists a (rather small) contingent of Ayn Rand-inspired transhumanists who remain committed to a foundationalist epistemology, a view which explicitly claims that knowledge is hierarchical in nature, being based on undeniable axioms. PCR, by contrast, and importantly, rejects this “justificationism” – the view that beliefs must be justified by appeal to an authority of some kind – in favor instead of the view that nothing is justified or beyond question. The idea of foundations to knowledge is rejected because there are no foundations to knowledge. Acquiring and improving knowledge is based essentially on conjecture and criticism according to PCR, and we can jettison justification while retaining a healthy and useful respect for objectivity, argumentation, and the systematic use of reason. More speaks of the popularity of critical rationalism among transhumanists due to its character, and its clearly close fit with the transhumanist drive toward continual improvement and challenging of limits.

Summarily, More’s approach emerges as one transhumanist argument which, though agrees with Hughes about rationality not being self-justifying, still disagrees with him that we have a problem in figuring out “how to advocate for rationality in a way that avoids its potential for self-erosion.”

Ojochogwu Abdul is the founder of the Transhumanist Enlightenment Café (TEC), is the co-founder of the Enlightenment Transhumanist Forum of Nigeria (H+ Nigeria), and currently serves as a Foreign Ambassador for the U.S. Transhumanist Party in Nigeria.