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.