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James Hughes’ Problems of Transhumanism: A Review (Part 5) – Article by Ojochogwu Abdul

James Hughes’ Problems of Transhumanism: A Review (Part 5) – Article by Ojochogwu Abdul

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Ojochogwu Abdul


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

Part 5: Belief in Progress vs. Rational Uncertainty

The Enlightenment, with its confident efforts to fashion a science of man, was archetypal of the belief and quest that humankind will eventually achieve lasting peace and happiness. In what some interpret as a reformulation of Christianity’s teleological salvation history in which the People of God will be redeemed at the end of days and with the Kingdom of Heaven established on Earth, most Enlightenment thinkers believed in the inevitability of human political and technological progress, secularizing the Christian conception of history and eschatology into a conviction that humanity would, using a system of thought built on reason and science, be able to continually improve itself. As portrayed by Carl Becker in his 1933 book The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, the philosophies “demolished the Heavenly City of St. Augustine only to rebuild it with more up-to-date materials.” Whether this Enlightenment humanist view of “progress” amounted merely to a recapitulation of the Christian teleological vision of history, or if Enlightenment beliefs in “continual, linear political, intellectual, and material improvement” reflected, as James Hughes posits, “a clear difference from the dominant Christian historical narrative in which little would change until the End Times and Christ’s return”, the notion, in any case, of a collective progress towards a definitive end-point was one that remained unsupported by the scientific worldview. The scientific worldview, as Hughes reminds us in the opening paragraph of this essay within his series, does not support historical inevitability, only uncertainty. “We may annihilate ourselves or regress,” he says, and “Even the normative judgment of what progress is, and whether we have made any, is open to empirical skepticism.”

Hereby, we are introduced to a conflict that exists, at least since after the Enlightenment, between a view of progressive optimism and that of radical uncertainty. Building on the Enlightenment’s faith in the inevitability of political and scientific progress, the idea of an end-point, salvation moment for humankind fuelled all the great Enlightenment ideologies that followed, flowing down, as Hughes traces, through Comte’s “positivism” and Marxist theories of historical determinism to neoconservative triumphalism about the “end of history” in democratic capitalism. Communists envisaged that end-point as a post-capitalist utopia that would finally resolve the class struggle which they conceived as the true engine of history. This vision also contained the 20th-century project to build the Soviet Man, one of extra-human capacities, for as Trotsky had predicted, after the Revolution, “the average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise”, whereas for 20th-century free-market liberals, this End of History had arrived with the final triumph of liberal democracy, with the entire world bound to be swept in its course. Events though, especially so far in the 21st century, appear to prove this view wrong.

This belief moreover, as Hughes would convincingly argue, in the historical inevitability of progress has also always been locked in conflict with “the rationalist, scientific observation that humanity could regress or disappear altogether.” Enlightenment pessimism, or at least realism, has, over the centuries, proven a stubborn resistance and constraint of Enlightenment optimism. Hughes, citing Henry Vyberg, reminds us that there were, after all, even French Enlightenment thinkers within that same era who rejected the belief in linear historical progress, but proposed historical cycles or even decadence instead. That aside, contemporary commentators like John Gray would even argue that the efforts themselves of the Enlightenment on the quest for progress unfortunately issued in, for example, the racist pseudo-science of Voltaire and Hume, while all endeavours to establish the rule of reason have resulted in bloody fanaticisms, from Jacobinism to Bolshevism, which equaled the worst atrocities attributable to religious believers. Horrendous acts like racism and anti-Semitism, in the verdict of Gray: “….are not incidental defects in Enlightenment thinking. They flow from some of the Enlightenment’s central beliefs.”

Even Darwinism’s theory of natural selection was, according to Hughes, “suborned by the progressive optimistic thinking of the Enlightenment and its successors to the doctrine of inevitable progress, aided in part by Darwin’s own teleological interpretation.” Problem, however, is that from the scientific worldview, there is no support for “progress” as to be found provided by the theory of natural selection, only that humanity, Hughes plainly states, “like all creatures, is on a random walk through a mine field, that human intelligence is only an accident, and that we could easily go extinct as many species have done.” Gray, for example, rebukes Darwin, who wrote: “As natural selection works solely for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress to perfection.” Natural selection, however, does not work solely for the good of each being, a fact Darwin himself elsewhere acknowledged. Nonetheless, it has continually proven rather difficult for people to resist the impulse to identify evolution with progress, with an extended downside to this attitude being equally difficult to resist the temptation to apply evolution in the rationalization of views as dangerous as Social Darwinism and acts as horrible as eugenics.

Many skeptics therefore hold, rationally, that scientific utopias and promises to transform the human condition deserve the deepest suspicion. Reason is but a frail reed, all events of moral and political progress are and will always remain subject to reversal, and civilization could as well just collapse, eventually. Historical events and experiences have therefore caused faith in the inevitability of progress to wax and wane over time. Hughes notes that among several Millenarian movements and New Age beliefs, such faith could still be found that the world is headed for a millennial age, just as it exists in techno-optimist futurism. Nevertheless, he makes us see that “since the rise and fall of fascism and communism, and the mounting evidence of the dangers and unintended consequences of technology, there are few groups that still hold fast to an Enlightenment belief in the inevitability of conjoined scientific and political progress.” Within the transhumanist community, however, the possession of such faith in progress can still be found as held by many, albeit signifying a camp in the continuation therefore of the Enlightenment-bequeathed conflict as manifested between transhumanist optimism in contradiction with views of future uncertainty.

As with several occasions in the past, humanity is, again, currently being spun yet another “End of History” narrative: one of a posthuman future. Yuval Harari, for instance, in Homo Deus argues that emerging technologies and new scientific discoveries are undermining the foundations of Enlightenment humanism, although as he proceeds with his presentation he also proves himself unable to avoid one of the defining tropes of Enlightenment humanist thinking, i.e., that deeply entrenched tendency to conceive human history in teleological terms: fundamentally as a matter of collective progress towards a definitive end-point. This time, though, our era’s “End of History” glorious “salvation moment” is to be ushered in, not by a politico-economic system, but by a nascent techno-elite with a base in Silicon Valley, USA, a cluster steeped in a predominant tech-utopianism which has at its core the idea that the new technologies emerging there can steer humanity towards a definitive break-point in our history, the Singularity. Among believers in this coming Singularity, transhumanists, as it were, having inherited the tension between Enlightenment convictions in the inevitability of progress, and, in Hughes’ words, “Enlightenment’s scientific, rational realism that human progress or even civilization may fail”, now struggle with a renewed contradiction. And here the contrast as Hughes intends to portray gains sharpness, for as such, transhumanists today are “torn between their Enlightenment faith in inevitable progress toward posthuman transcension and utopian Singularities” on the one hand, and, on the other, their “rational awareness of the possibility that each new technology may have as many risks as benefits and that humanity may not have a future.”

The risks of new technologies, even if not necessarily one that threatens the survival of humanity as a species with extinction, may yet be of an undesirable impact on the mode and trajectory of our extant civilization. Henry Kissinger, in his 2018 article “How the Enlightenment Ends”, expressed his perception that technology, which is rooted in Enlightenment thought, is now superseding the very philosophy that is its fundamental principle. The universal values proposed by the Enlightenment philosophes, as Kissinger points out, could be spread worldwide only through modern technology, but at the same time, such technology has ended or accomplished the Enlightenment and is now going its own way, creating the need for a new guiding philosophy. Kissinger argues specifically that AI may spell the end of the Enlightenment itself, and issues grave warnings about the consequences of AI and the end of Enlightenment and human reasoning, this as a consequence of an AI-led technological revolution whose “culmination may be a world relying on machines powered by data and algorithms and ungoverned by ethical or philosophical norms.” By way of analogy to how the printing press allowed the Age of Reason to supplant the Age of Religion, he buttresses his proposal that the modern counterpart of this revolutionary process is the rise of intelligent AI that will supersede human ability and put an end to the Enlightenment. Kissinger further outlines his three areas of concern regarding the trajectory of artificial intelligence research: AI may achieve unintended results; in achieving intended goals, AI may change human thought processes and human values, and AI may reach intended goals, but be unable to explain the rationale for its conclusions. Kissinger’s thesis, of course, has not gone without both support and criticisms attracted from different quarters. Reacting to Kissinger, Yuk Hui, for example, in “What Begins After the End of the Enlightenment?” maintained that “Kissinger is wrong—the Enlightenment has not ended.” Rather, “modern technology—the support structure of Enlightenment philosophy—has become its own philosophy”, with the universalizing force of technology becoming itself the political project of the Enlightenment.

Transhumanists, as mentioned already, reflect the continuity of some of those contradictions between belief in progress and uncertainty about human future. Hughes shows us nonetheless that there are some interesting historical turns suggesting further directions that this mood has taken. In the 1990s, Hughes recalls, “transhumanists were full of exuberant Enlightenment optimism about unending progress.” As an example, Hughes cites Max More’s 1998 Extropian Principles which defined “Perpetual Progress” as “the first precept of their brand of transhumanism.” Over time, however, Hughes communicates how More himself has had cause to temper this optimism, stressing rather this driving principle as one of “desirability” and more a normative goal than a faith in historical inevitability. “History”, More would say in 2002, “since the Enlightenment makes me wary of all arguments to inevitability…”

Rational uncertainty among transhumanists hence make many of them refrain from an argument for the inevitability of transhumanism as a matter of progress. Further, there are indeed several possible factors which could deter the transhumanist idea and drive for “progress” from translating to reality: A neo-Luddite revolution, a turn and rise in preference for rural life, mass disenchantment with technological addiction and increased option for digital detox, nostalgia, disillusionment with modern civilization and a “return-to-innocence” counter-cultural movement, neo-Romanticism, a pop-culture allure and longing for a Tolkien-esque world, cyclical thinking, conservatism, traditionalism, etc. The alternative, backlash, and antagonistic forces are myriad. Even within transhumanism, the anti-democratic and socially conservative Neoreactionary movement, with its rejection of the view that history shows inevitable progression towards greater liberty and enlightenment, is gradually (and rather disturbingly) growing a contingent. Hughes talks, as another point for rational uncertainty, about the three critiques: futurological, historical, and anthropological, of transhumanist and Enlightenment faith in progress that Phillipe Verdoux offers, and in which the anthropological argument holds that “pre-moderns were probably as happy or happier than we moderns.” After all, Rousseau, himself a French Enlightenment thinker, “is generally seen as having believed in the superiority of the “savage” over the civilized.” Perspectives like these could stir anti-modern, anti-progress sentiments in people’s hearts and minds.

Demonstrating still why transhumanists must not be obstinate over the idea of inevitability, Hughes refers to Greg Burch’s 2001 work “Progress, Counter-Progress, and Counter-Counter-Progress” in which the latter expounded on the Enlightenment and transhumanist commitment to progress as “to a political program, fully cognizant that there are many powerful enemies of progress and that victory was not inevitable.” Moreover, the possible failure in realizing goals of progress might not even result from the actions of “enemies” in that antagonistic sense of the word, for there is also that likely scenario, as the 2006 movie Idiocracy depicts, of a future dystopian society based on dysgenics, one in which, going by expectations and trends of the 21st century, the most intelligent humans decrease in reproduction and eventually fail to have children while the least intelligent reproduce prolifically. As such, through the process of natural selection, generations are created that collectively become increasingly dumber and more virile with each passing century, leading to a future world plagued by anti-intellectualism, bereft of intellectual curiosity, social responsibility, coherence in notions of justice and human rights, and manifesting several other traits of degeneration in culture. This is yet a possibility for our future world.

So while for many extropians and transhumanists, nonetheless, perpetual progress was an unstoppable train, responding to which “one either got on board for transcension or consigned oneself to the graveyard”, other transhumanists, however, Hughes comments, especially in response to certain historical experiences (the 2000 dot-com crash, for example), have seen reason to increasingly temper their expectations about progress. In Hughes’s appraisal, while, therefore, some transhumanists “still press for technological innovation on all fronts and oppose all regulation, others are focusing on reducing the civilization-ending potentials of asteroid strikes, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology.” Some realism hence need be in place to keep under constant check the excesses of contemporary secular technomillennialism as contained in some transhumanist strains.

Hughes presents Nick Bostrom’s 2001 essay “Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards” as one influential example of this anti-millennial realism, a text in which Bostrom, following his outline of scenarios that could either end the existence of the human species or have us evolve into dead-ends, then addressed not just how we can avoid extinction and ensure that there are descendants of humanity, but also how we can ensure that we will be proud to claim them. Subsequently, Bostrom has been able to produce work on “catastrophic risk estimation” at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford. Hughes seems to favour this approach, for he ensures to indicate that this has also been adopted as a programmatic focus for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET) which he directs, and as well for the transhumanist non-profit, the Lifeboat Foundation. Transhumanists who listen to Bostrom, as we could deduce from Hughes, are being urged to take a more critical approach concerning technological progress.

With the availability of this rather cautious attitude, a new tension, Hughes reports, now plays out between eschatological certainty and pessimistic risk assessment. This has taken place mainly concerning the debate over the Singularity. For the likes of Ray Kurzweil (2005), representing the camp of a rather technomillennial, eschatological certainty, his patterns of accelerating trendlines towards a utopian merger of enhanced humanity and godlike artificial intelligence is one of unstoppability, and this Kurzweil supports by referring to the steady exponential march of technological progress through (and despite) wars and depressions. Dystopian and apocalyptic predictions of how humanity might fare under superintelligent machines (extinction, inferiority, and the likes) are, in the assessment of Hughes, but minimally entertained by Kurzweil, since to the techno-prophet we are bound to eventually integrate with these machines into apotheosis.

The platform, IEET, thus has taken a responsibility of serving as a site for teasing out this tension between technoprogressive “optimism of the will and pessimism of the intellect,” as Hughes echoes Antonio Gramsci. On the one hand, Hughes explains, “we have championed the possibility of, and evidence of, human progress. By adopting the term “technoprogressivism” as our outlook, we have placed ourselves on the side of Enlightenment political and technological progress.”And yet on the other hand, he continues, “we have promoted technoprogressivism precisely in order to critique uncritical techno-libertarian and futurist ideas about the inevitability of progress. We have consistently emphasized the negative effects that unregulated, unaccountable, and inequitably distributed technological development could have on society” (one feels tempted to call out Landian accelerationism at this point). Technoprogressivism, the guiding philosophy of IEET, avails as a principle which insists that technological progress needs to be consistently conjoined with, and dependent on, political progress, whilst recognizing that neither are inevitable.

In charting the essay towards a close, Hughes mentions his and a number of IEET-led technoprogresive publications, among which we have Verdoux who, despite his futurological, historical, and anthropological critique of transhumanism, yet goes ahead to argue for transhumanism on moral grounds (free from the language of “Marxism’s historical inevitabilism or utopianism, and cautious of the tragic history of communism”), and “as a less dangerous course than any attempt at “relinquishing” technological development, but only after the naive faith in progress has been set aside.” Unfortunately, however, the “rational capitulationism” to the transhumanist future that Verdoux offers, according to Hughes, is “not something that stirs men’s souls.” Hughes hence, while admitting to our need “to embrace these critical, pessimistic voices and perspectives”, yet calls on us to likewise heed to the need to “also re-discover our capacity for vision and hope.” This need for optimism that humans “can” collectively exercise foresight and invention, and peacefully deliberate our way to a better future, rather than yielding to narratives that would lead us into the traps of utopian and apocalyptic fatalism, has been one of the motivations behind the creation of the “technoprogressive” brand. The brand, Hughes presents, has been of help in distinguishing necessarily “Enlightenment optimism about the “possibility” of human political, technological and moral progress from millennialist techno-utopian inevitabilism.”

Presumably, upon this technoprogressive philosophy, the new version of the Transhumanist Declaration, adopted by Humanity+ in 2009, indicated a shift from some of the language of the 1998 version, and conveyed a more reflective, critical, realistic, utilitarian, “proceed with caution” and “act with wisdom” tone with respect to the transhumanist vision for humanity’s progress. This version of the declaration, though relatively sobered, remains equally inspiring nonetheless. Hughes closes the essay with a reminder on our need to stay aware of the diverse ways by which our indifferent universe threatens our existence, how our growing powers come with unintended consequences, and why applying mindfulness on our part in all actions remains the best approach for navigating our way towards progress in our radically uncertain future.

Conclusively, following Hughes’ objectives in this series, it can be suggested that more studies on the Enlightenment (European and global) are desirable especially for its potential to furnish us with richer understanding into a number of problems within contemporary transhumanism as sprouting from its roots deep in the Enlightenment. Interest and scholarship in Enlightenment studies, fortunately, seems to be experiencing some current revival, and even so with increasing diversity in perspective, thereby presenting transhumanism with a variety of paths through which to explore and gain context for connected issues. Seeking insight thence into some foundations of transhumanism’s problems could take the path, among others: of an examination of internal contradictions within the Enlightenment, of the approach of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s “Dialectic of Enlightenment”; of assessing opponents of the Enlightenment as found, for example, in Isaiah Berlin’s notion of “Counter Enlightenment”; of investigating a rather radical strain of the Enlightenment as presented in Jonathan Israel’s “Radical Enlightenment”, and as well in grappling with the nature of the relationships between transhumanism and other heirs both of the Enlightenment and the Counter-Enlightenment today. Again, and significantly, serious attention need be paid now and going forwards in jealously guarding transhumanism against ultimately falling into the hands of the Dark Enlightenment.


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. 

James Hughes’ Problems of Transhumanism: A Review (Part 4) – Article by Ojochogwu Abdul

James Hughes’ Problems of Transhumanism: A Review (Part 4) – Article by Ojochogwu Abdul

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Ojochogwu Abdul


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

Part 4: Moral Universalism vs. Relativism

James Hughes’ essays on the problems of transhumanism continue with a discussion on conflicts, borrowed from the Enlightenment, between universalism and relativism within transhumanism. The Enlightenment event (European and global), in addition to its attack and severance of the roots of traditional European culture in the sacred, magic, kingship, and hierarchy, thereby secularizing all institutions and ideas, also (intellectually and to some extent in practice) effectively set on course the demolition of all legitimizing basis of monarchy, aristocracy, woman’s subordination to man, ecclesiastical authority, and slavery. These were replaced with the principles of universality, equality, and democracy. Included in this was also an argument for moral universalism, a position that ethics and law should apply equally to all humans.

Now, despite profound differences of outlook among the Enlightenment thinkers, there was a wide area of agreement about some fundamental points, i.e., the reality of natural law (in a formulation that signaled a departure from the language of orthodox Catholic or Protestant doctrine), of eternal principles the adherence to which alone could make humans enjoy wisdom, happiness, virtue, and freedom. For theists, deists and atheists, for optimists and pessimists, and for puritans, primitivists, as well as believers in progress and the finest fruits of science and culture, only and just one set of universal and unalterable principles governed the world. These laws were the principles that governed inanimate and animate nature, facts and events, means and ends, private and public life, as well as all societies, epochs and civilizations. Humans degenerate into crime, vice and misery only by failing to follow them. There may have been differences and disagreements among the Enlightenment thinkers about the nature of these laws, the process of their discovery, or who even possessed the qualification to expound them; but that these laws were real, and could be known, be it with certainty or probability, was the widely accepted and central “dogma” of the entire Enlightenment.

Enlightenment thinkers proposed that all humans should be accorded the Rights of Man, though the legitimacy itself of universal, equal rights was advanced by several varieties of argument within the Enlightenment. John Locke, for example, as Hughes explains, argued for universal rights on the grounds that in the human state of nature, as created by God before civilization, we were given possession of our bodies. All humans, therefore, possess these natural rights equally, and interference with individual rights violates natural and divine law. Thomas Jefferson’s statement in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” rested upon this logic.

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James Hughes’ Problems of Transhumanism: A Review (Part 3) – Article by Ojochogwu Abdul

James Hughes’ Problems of Transhumanism: A Review (Part 3) – Article by Ojochogwu Abdul

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Ojochogwu Abdul


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

Part 3: Liberal Democracy Versus Technocratic Absolutism

“Transhumanists, like Enlightenment partisans in general, believe that human nature can be improved but are conflicted about whether liberal democracy is the best path to betterment. The liberal tradition within the Enlightenment has argued that individuals are best at finding their own interests and should be left to improve themselves in self-determined ways. But many people are mistaken about their own best interests, and more rational elites may have a better understanding of the general good. Enlightenment partisans have often made a case for modernizing monarchs and scientific dictatorships. Transhumanists need to confront this tendency to disparage liberal democracy in favor of the rule by dei ex machina and technocratic elites.” (James Hughes, 2010)

Hughes’ series of essays exploring problems of transhumanism continues with a discussion on the tensions between a choice either for liberal democracy or technocratic absolutism as existing or prospective within the transhumanist movement. As Hughes would demonstrate, this problem in socio-political preference between liberalism and despotism turns out as just one more among the other transhumanist contradictions inherited from its roots in the Enlightenment. Liberalism, an idea which received much life during the Enlightenment, developed as an argument for human progress. Cogently articulated in J.S. Mill’s On Liberty, Hughes re-presents the central thesis: “if individuals are given liberty they will generally know how to pursue their interests and potentials better than will anyone else. So, society generally will become richer and more intelligent if individuals are free to choose their own life ends rather than if they are forced towards betterment by the powers that be.” This, essentially, was the Enlightenment’s ground for promoting liberalism.

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James Hughes’ Problems of Transhumanism: A Review (Part 2) – Article by Ojochogwu Abdul

James Hughes’ Problems of Transhumanism: A Review (Part 2) – Article by Ojochogwu Abdul

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Ojochogwu Abdul


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

Part 2: Deism, Atheism and Natural Theology

“The dominant trajectory of Enlightenment thought over the last three hundred years has been towards atheism. Most transhumanists are atheists. But some transhumanists, like many of the original Enlightenment thinkers, are attempting to reconcile naturalism and their religious traditions. Some transhumanists even believe that the transcendent potentials of intelligence argue for a new form of scientific theology.” (James Hughes, 2010)

The Enlightenment was the age of the triumph of science (Newton, Leibniz, Bacon) and of philosophy (Descartes, Locke, Spinoza, Kant, Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu). Unlike the Renaissance philosophers, the Enlightenment thinkers ceased the search for validation in the texts of the Greco-Roman philosophers, but were predicated more solidly on rationalism and empiricism. Religious tolerance and skepticism about superstition and Biblical literalism was also a central theme of the Enlightenment. Most of the Enlightenment philosophers of the 17th century through the 19th century, however, were theists of some sort who, in general, were attempting to reconcile belief in God with rational skepticism and naturalism. There were, of course, atheists among them as well as devout Christians, but if there was a common theological stance and belief about the divine among Enlightenment philosophers, it was probably Deism, a worldview consisting in the rejection of blind faith and organized religion, an advocacy for the discovery of religious truth through reason and direct empirical observation, and a belief that divine intervention in human affairs stopped with the creation of the world.

Deism, as James Hughes accounts, declined in the nineteenth century, gradually replaced by atheist materialism. Nonetheless, the engagement with Enlightenment values continued in liberal strains of Christianity such as Unitarianism and Universalism, united today among some communities as Unitarian Universalism (UU), and hosting congregations with individuals of varying beliefs that range widely to include atheism, agnosticism, pantheism, deism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Neopaganism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Humanism, and many more.

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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

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Ojochogwu Abdul


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

Introduction

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.

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Generating Transhumanist Enlightenment in Nigeria: Reflections from a Transhumanist Presentation at the 2017 Convention of the Atheist Society of Nigeria – Report by Ojochogwu Abdul

Generating Transhumanist Enlightenment in Nigeria: Reflections from a Transhumanist Presentation at the 2017 Convention of the Atheist Society of Nigeria – Report by Ojochogwu Abdul

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Ojochogwu Abdul


The Atheist Society of Nigeria (ASN), an organization with the groundbreaking record of being the first secular group to achieve official registration in Nigeria, recently recorded another first by hosting the ASN Convention on 11th November 2017, the first event of its kind in Nigeria. Among the guest speakers featured at the Convention were Bill Flavell, Vice President of the Atheist Alliance International (AAI), Roslyn Mould, Chair of the African Working Group, International Humanist and Ethical Youth Organization (IHEYO), and Leo Igwe, President of the Humanist Association of Nigeria (HAN). Also featured as speaker was myself, Chogwu Abdul, Co-Founder of the Transhumanist Forum of Nigeria (H+FN) and United States Transhumanist Party (USTP) Foreign Ambassador for Nigeria, and I eventually presented a talk on the topic: “Merging the Human Brain with Computer: Implications for the Future of Humanity.” The talk focused primarily on the rising phenomenon of Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs), but also broadly on the movement and philosophy of transhumanism as the general idea within which BCIs are contained.

As a transhumanist with a manifest interest in promoting the philosophy across Nigeria, and hopefully, throughout the African Continent, the presenter took the lecture as an opportunity to introduce the concept of transhumanism to a broad audience and initiate a discourse on the cultural, scientific, and philosophical movement within the public space of Nigeria. The reception given to the presentation at the Convention was seemingly warm, and some good interest was generated and expressed. But the work, realistically, is only just beginning, and practically speaking there is still so much to be done and perhaps millions of miles to go before transhumanism can go mainstream in Nigerian society – although it is the personal and sincere hope of this writer that the turn of events prove such a prediction wrong and the changes get to happen faster than expected.

At present, however, transhumanism is simply much of an unknown idea in Nigeria, with very few in the country having heard about the word or even knowing what it means. And even when some technologies or practices related to transhumanism, for example genetic engineering and biomedical engineering are proposed or seem to gradually find a way into Nigerian society, much resistance is witnessed, especially as presented by religious conservatives. Nigeria, if it must be said, is at it stands a very religious environment, and so far religious beliefs and attitudes indisputably hold much sway over the thought and lives of multitudes across the country, at least for the time being. Religious conservatism is at present therefore rife, and a lot that goes with scientific thinking still struggles from the margins, faced by challenges in trying to reach wider acceptance and influence.

However, there is, at least as perceived and discerned by some trend observers, something of a silent revolution gradually taking place across the country. Some have called this the slow dawning of a long-awaited mental awakening, one in which an increasing number of Nigerians, especially the current youth generation, are gradually becoming more embracing of critical thinking, science, rationalism, and secular reasoning. Much that goes with the manifestation of this trend is to be found on the Nigerian social media, where a secular community has been emerging and becoming increasingly vocal in challenging dominant conservative religious beliefs and practices, while at the same time promoting science, rationalism, and critical thinking. Secular humanism could be perceived as having found something of a confident foothold in Nigeria, and this gradual mental shift provides cause to hope that transhumanism could find a springboard and fertile ground from which to launch, grow, and spread across the country.

And then there is also that stubborn challenge of technological backwardness suffered by the country and much of Africa, which is yet another impediment that cannot be ignored in evaluating the transhumanist promotion task and prospects in this part of the world. The state of scientific and technological development in Nigeria is relatively (and realistically speaking) poor. Investments in research and development for science, technology, and even health have so far remained floated and struggling at very low points; technological infrastructure across the country is either absent, degrading, or fails to meet up with global standards, and much of the country’s finest minds in science, technology, and medicine are either already resident in foreign countries or are seriously working towards joining the exodus and brain drain flowing in the direction of the Nigerian Diaspora. For reasons as these, much that exists as a technological presence in the country mostly is available as a result of technology transfer, imported into Nigeria from foreign climes, and with quite a number of them arriving at the nation’s shores not as state-of-the-art, cutting edge innovations, but more as outdated technologies which represent a stage, away from which the exporting country has made or is already making noticeable progress.

Technological development therefore remains a key factor to be addressed in Nigeria for the transhumanist vision to gain foundations upon which to thrive, and this was highlighted in the presentation at the Convention. As a matter of encouragement though, there are, however, indications which give cause to expect some coming changes in the technological condition and fortunes of the country and Africa generally as a Continent. These indications derive from the growing number of tech-themed workshops, seminars, conferences, innovation hubs, and tech start-ups that are gradually but steadily exploding across Nigeria and a number of African countries. The Continent’s youths are becoming audaciously innovative and entrepreneurial, and more are doing so through developing homegrown technological solutions as responses to local problems. Such interventions are giving rise to a movement of indigenous innovation, and if this trend continues and gains sufficient support, then one could be cautiously optimistic enough to anticipate that it should only be a matter of time before versions of a host of emerging and converging technologies (nanotech, biotech, infotech, cognitive science and neurotech, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, robotics, biomedical engineering, etc.), get developed within local African contexts and as best suited for the African condition.   Moreover, interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education and STEM-related enterprise is gaining a fresh boost, the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation unveils very talented engineers and innovations from across sub-Saharan Africa yearly, and a very unique project by the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) known as the Next Einstein Initiative (NEI), which has been on course for over a decade now and has among its objectives the actualization of a scientific revolution in Africa, further provides a great vista for reasonable hope. Several young, bright Nigerian (male and female) scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, among their counterparts from other African countries, are seriously involved in this AIMS-NEI programme, undertaking research, and pleasantly enough, are breaking new grounds in several STEM-related fields.

The combination thereof, of a fledgling secularism and rational thinking culture with an emerging consciousness and demonstration for scientific and technological development in contemporary Nigeria, can be leveraged upon by transhumanists as strategic factors making for a more possible environment, as that opportunity of a slight opening in the door which could and should be seized upon to kick the doors open even wider for transhumanist thinking, technologies and practices to pour in and ubiquitously find their way into the Nigerian space.

The presentation on BCIs made at the 2017 ASN Convention was meant to create an awareness among Nigerians with regards to the state of movements in transhumanist thought, and to stir the people into action in connecting the now helpfully available threads of rational thinking, creative imagination, science, technology, and enterprise into the fabric of a transhumanist culture which would yield much progress for Nigerian society and human life. The response to this nudging – though it is yet early in the day to clearly tell – has so far been encouraging.

There are some of us here in Africa who believe that the Continent is currently going through an African Renaissance and as well stands at the thresholds of a Scientific Revolution. Some of us are also plugged in to other parts of the globe enough at least to be aware that there is present talk of a Second Enlightenment and a coming Fourth Industrial Revolution, aspects of an emerging, global transhumanist civilization, and to which bringing Africa up to speed should be a major concern. There are indeed several stages in the march of human civilization (for example, the European Enlightenment Era and the First and Second Industrial Revolutions) which Africa neither “positively” nor “proactively” participated in, and for which Africa can no longer afford the luxury of time in going through them again at this point in history, for what the Continent currently pragmatically needs is nothing short of a giant leap through the aid mostly of technology, if it must, as it obviously has to, catch up with the rate of advancement of the rest of the world.

Connecting the trajectory of Africa’s unfolding Renaissance and burgeoning scientific revolution to the dimensions of the Second Enlightenment, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and generally the transhumanist civilization through technology, education, enterprise, and any other agency necessary, thus should become the logical cause and big picture inspiring the transhumanist project in Nigeria and Africa within the 21st Century. For this objective then, and in these parts of our planet, the adoption and indigenous innovation of emerging technologies associated with and promoted by the transhumanist movement are to attract deliberate emphasis as the core of this vision and narrative. This is pertinent, for should humankind eventually evolve into a new, posthuman species, then the peoples of the continent from which Homo Sapiens originated, Africa, need not, and must not be left behind in this great transformative event.

The group currently known as the Transhumanist Forum of Nigeria (H+FN), or by any other name with which it shall be formally recognized in the near future, has therefore set out on the task of spreading transhumanist enlightenment and engaging the Nigerian public with transhumanist discourse, and from this to hopefully progress into helping forge a strong and effective transhumanist network across the African Continent. The work, we can say, has sincerely begun.

Chogwu Abdul

Co-Founder, Transhumanist Forum of Nigeria

USTP Foreign Ambassador for Nigeria

November 2017