[ExI] ASU Conference on Transhumanism, "General Repudiation of Transhumanism: Part II"

John Grigg possiblepaths2050 at gmail.com
Tue Apr 29 19:14:12 UTC 2008

I attended a Templeton sponsored workshop on Transhumanism at ASU this past
Friday and had a fascinating time.  The speakers were generally very good,
though ironically some of them admitted from the start to not knowing very
much about the subject (and it at times really showed).  I was offended when
at the very start of the conference, Transhumanism was called a "shallow
ideology" that did not warrant even being called a philosophy yet.  And yet
it supposedly needed to be addressed because as Fukyama stated, "it is the
world's most dangerous idea."



The conference was set up to be for basically only academics and so I was
touched to be invited.  But the closed nature of the event (I had to "sniff
it out" to even pursue going) bothered me.  I feel it should have been
advertised (it is not even mentioned on their website!) and the general
public allowed to attend.  But it was believed that keeping things closed
would keep out many possibly noisy Transhumanists. lol  Several of the
speaking academics were very critical of Transhumanism and I was very
troubled that there were no prominent Transhumanists there such as Max More,
Natasha Vita-More, Nick Bostrom, Anders Sandberg, James Hughes, etc., to
counterbalance them.  It was definitely needed at times!  But I was told
several Transhumanist academics had been invited, but for one reason or
another did not accept.  I was very saddened to learn this.

I reached the end of my rope when Andrew Pickering, of the University of
Exeter, who admitted from the start to having known nothing about
Transhumanism before he was asked to give a talk at the workshop, gave his
opinion that Transhumanists, with their vision of humanity uploaded into
super computers, had a total lack of imagination as to how the future might
be!  He went on about Transhumanists wanting to "freeze their form for the
ideal of Transhumanist perfection."  I shook my head at this because of
course Transhumanists want the freedom to take on whatever configuration
they desire and not to be "locked in" to just one form.  This stereotyping
of *all* Transhumanists wanting the same scenario/goals and his general
ignorance on the subject really disturbed me.

Andrew Pickering:

But the tipping point for me was when Professor Sarewitz (mentioned in my
last post), of ASU, chimed in and said Transhumanists "suffered from a
desiccated imagination."  I finally stood up for us and said that I had seen
Transhumanists accused of many things, but lack of imagination was not one
of them! LOL  I stated that Transhumanists were not all of one mind and that
uploading was just one option that some of us we embraced.  And that others
wanted to simply augment the bodies we currently have.  At that I was told
it was just another example of Transhumanist lack of imagination! ha

Dan Sarewitz:

Things felt Monty Pythonesque when a professor started waxing poetic about
how great it would be to be genetically modified so you could have wings and
fly.  It was decided by the group (very seriously I might add) that this was
indeed a very great idea and better than what Transhumanists could dream
up.  The unintentional comedy potential of academics in a group is really

Later, the final speaker, Ted Peters, read a quote from Ray Kurzweil on
humanity transforming the universe, and then looked my way and with a smile
on his face and acknowledged how you could never justly accuse
Transhumanists of a lack of imagination!

Don Ihde, of Stony Brook University, started off the lectures by discussing
the four "idols" of futurism.  Paradise, techno-fantasy (he saw
Transhumanists falling for this one, especially), prediction and cyborgs
were the deadly failings.  He referred a great deal to the failed
predictions of the past.  But the man lost me when he said Transhumanism was
man versus nature (in some ways true), while the Japanese cultural approach
to technology was different by being highly integrative.  I do admire Japan
for their pro-tech pro-robotics endeavors, but I don't see how they should
be viewed as the enlightened alternative to Transhumanism.

Don Ihde:

Jean-Pierre Dupuy, a Frenchman of both Stanford and École Polytechnique, was
a very charming and extremely energetic fellow who referred again and again
to Hannah Arendt's 1958 book, "The Human Condition."  Dupuy said she foresaw
even then what is happening now with technology and society.  Regarding Nick
Bostrom (described as a "very bright guy") and other prominent Transhumanist
scholars, he was "they are not stupid, they know their stuff."

Dupuy went on to say some modern scientists are seized by the spirit of the
Sorcerer's Apprentice myth.  The goal is not control but actually having
their creation get *out* of control.  I think he misunderstood the classic
Disney cartoon because Mickey did not want the spell on the broom to get out
of hand! lol

A sweet moment in his presentation was when he gave very adoring background
information about a professor he was about to reference and then he brought
up a picture of the lovely female academic who just so happened to be his
wife! lol  Dupuy was quite the charmer and was almost a living stereotype of
the classic bright, romantic and energetic French intellectual type.

He claimed that "love would become incomprehensible in a Transhumanist
world" and to support that view he shared the Greek myth of Alcimena.  Zeus
took the form of her husband (who was off fighting in a war) and then had
sex with her, getting the woman pregnant.  This resulted in baby Hercules.
The story was brought up to take into consideration the Transhumanist/SF
idea of making a copy of a former lover who had died.  But as a female
professor said to a girlfriend, "how could a woman not know it was another
man, despite appearances?" lol  I think female intuition is not to be

The French professor commented that Nick Bostrom had written what he
considered a superb paper about how Transhumanism should be seen as the
height of humanism.  But at the same time he said the big irony was that
Transhumanism would ultimately eliminate humans as they now exist.

Jean-Pierre Dupuy
Katherine Hayles, of UCLA, spoke about "wrestling with Transhumanism."
People laughed (so did I) when she confessed, "Transhumanism to me is like
being very obsessed with a former lover and not being able to fully let go!"

She said a strongpoint of Transhumanism is that it takes "techno-genesis"
extremely seriously, while many other future oriented groups/movements do
not.  But Hayles felt a comparative weakness is the emphasis on the
individual, which is sometimes divorced from the larger picture/society.
And going along with that is a naiveté regarding the idea that Transhumanist
technology will be good for everyone.  I see her points, but I think if she
had been reading Transhumanist email lists over the last year or two she
would not have claimed we had these weaknesses to the extent she thinks we

I was very impressed that she felt reading science fiction was an excellent
way to explore various possible future scenarios.  Hayles went into great
detail about the superb Hugo-winning "Beggars in Spain" series by Nancy
Kress, that focused on genetic engineering and the social
conflict/cooperation it may engender.

Katherine Hayles took Transhumanism seriously, despite many criticisms and
she very much impressed me.  But I was distressed by her closing statement
that Transhumanist philosophy (not ideology!, lol) and logic were just not
at present sufficient to deal with the extremely complex and very hard to
anticipate consequences of convergence technology on society.

Katherine Hayles:

Ted Peters, of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, felt that no amount of
technological progress could truly lift humanity out of its dark and
self-destructive nature.  He discussed nano, bio, info, cogno convergence,
but also added artificial intelligence (isn't this "info?") , capitalism
(need money!) and intelligence amplification (isn't this "cogno?").

Peters brought up William Jennings Bryan, who he said defended evolution
largely out of the fear that if the public embraced it, that it would
corrupt them by greatly cheapening the value of human life due to its view
of life forms competing fiercely for survival.  Bryan had witnessed some of
the crimes against humanity (mass murder of the Hottentots) the pre-WWI
Social Darwinist Germans committed against their colonial underlings in
Africa and he had been appalled.  Peters felt we must be careful or
Transhumanism could go down a similar twisted path among at least some of
its future adherents.

This speaker was the only one who really examined Transhumanism from a
religious perspective.  He explained that this had been requested from the
conference organizers.  I suspect it may be a requirement from the Templeton
Foundation (an avowedly religious foundation, set up to explore connections
between science and religion) to have at least one speaker at a largely
secular conference focus on the religious aspect.

I found it interesting when he brought up the differences between
immortality in Transhumanist thinking and how it is envisioned in mainstream
Christianity.  The speaker compared the Transhumanist upload immortality
scenario to the concept of Platonic resurrection.

Engendering much discussion was the subject of evil/sin existing in a
Transhumanist Post-Singularity society and how even as we ascended to
godlike status we would be bringing the dark side of our natures with us, in
essence corrupting our technological Eden.

Ted Peters:

Around the conclusion of the conference a grad student brought up Nietzsche
and "the will to power," in regards to Transhumanism.  She wanted to wanted
to know what kind of future world Transhumanists really wanted to live in
and what drove them on/made them tick.  There was a silence and you could
have heard a pin drop after she finished speaking.  Finally, people started
responding but not to my satisfaction.  I could tell the woman who made the
comment was not content with the replies she had been given.  And the heads
of various professors were turning and looking my way to see if I would give
an answer...

I said Nietzsche was a source of inspiration for Transhumanists but he had
been rehabilitated by scholars over the past several decades and was no
longer falsely seen as an evil poster boy for Hitler.  And so it would be
wrong to make the horrible assumption that Transhumanists were on their way
to becoming futuristic Nazi's.

Regarding what kind of future Transhumanists wanted to live in, I told her
many of us envisioned a universe where various intelligent beings of
different levels of power and ability, unaugmented humans, greatly enhanced
humans still in a humanoid body, and nearly god-like uploads would co-exist
in harmony in (I admitted) a near-utopian society, at least compared to the
civilization we have now.  I said that what drove us was the desire to reach
that place.

All eyes were on me as I said these things and there was a palpable feeling
of focused attention and energy there.  When I finished speaking people
seemed to be mildly impressed and the professor in charge of the conference
gave me a kind smile of affirmation.  I felt really good at doing my best
(in the very limited time I had to speak) to defend Transhumanism.

As Ted Peters did his Q & A session, Dan Sarewitz rounded out things by
saying Transhumanism will not be able to overcome sin/the human dark side.
He also stated that to be realistic we need a "muddle through" mentality and
the other people there approved of this idea.  Finally, he asked why
academics at any level even buy into the Transhumanist future technology
exponential growth scenario.

Dupuy added that he felt Transhumanism must not be dismissed, but instead
confronted.  And that at times Transhumanists behave like a sect/cult.  Once
again (he loved to bring this up), he said how shocking it was that William
Bainbridge is the head of a 1.5 billion dollar research grant allocating
department within the U.S. government.

Growing up Mormon I remember how Evangelical bookstores would make a great
deal of money selling "exposes~" on the LDS Church.  Books, audiotapes,
films and the guest speakers pushing them became extremely popular.  I
suspect up to a point a similar thing could be happening in academia, but
the focus is Tranhumanism.  It is the new, exciting and best of all
frightening idea/movement/ideology/philosophy that can attract the grant
money and resources to build up one's name and organization/department.
Many Mormon Transhumanist Association members could give their own insights
into this parallel.

I believe if these academics are representative of what is going on
worldwide, that there is a strong effort going on to at first marginalize
and then later quite possibly supplant us as various sectors of society garb
themselves with the mantle of Transhumanism (as it gets more popular) and
relegate us to the fringes.  But for now using us as a straw man/scary Bogey
man seems to be the order of the day.

I did learn a great deal from the conference, generally had a wonderful time
(including the difficult moments), and took copious notes.  But the
antagonism and lack of respect for Transhumanism, coupled with no prominent
Transhumanist academics present to try to off-set unfair criticisms, really
concerned me.

John Grigg
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