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Transhumanism and Futurism of the Will

An interview with Stefano Vaj

H+ Magazine

Roberto Guerra


Q: Transhumanism: the new scientific futurism?
A: In the last years, one Leitmotiv of my interventions in this debate has been that transhumanism is (or ought to be) a futurism of the will, not a “weather forecast” futurism.
It may be worth here to stress how ridiculous much of the scepticism, past and present, is relative to the possibilities of technoscience. Transhumanism should not tell us what will happen, but what might happen if we want it to. The idea that incredible, unlimited developments are bound to take place no-matter-what, as Kurzweil and other writers appear to suggest, is not only deeply demobilising, reducing organised transhumanism to a bunch of cheerleaders or to a tea party gathered to applaud progress as inevitable as it is automatic, but it is contradicted by what many look upon as a marked decline, if not in the pace of techno-scientific progress, then at least in its acceleration that the ebullient era roughly going from 1870 to 1970, to which we are still largely indebted for present achievements, has accustomed us to take for granted.
I therefore think that transhumanism is, and should be, above all a futurism that invites us to climb again on the “promontory of centuries”, as Marinetti formulates it.

Q: Humanism, posthumanism or even an anti-humanism?
A: What really matters is overcoming humanism (what in Italian we call “umanismo”). In fact, an entire issue of the theoretical journal of the Italian Transhumanist Association, Divenire. Rassegna di studi interdisciplinary sulla tecnica e il postumano, is devoted to this subject with contributions by Riccardo Campa, Luciano Pellicani, Roberto Marchesini, Aldo Schiavone, Mario Pireddu, Salvatore Rampone, Max More, Rémi Sussan, Roberto Guerra, Emmanuele Pilia, Ugo Spezza, Francesco Boco and myself. Because of course, as I discussed with Adriano Scianca in the booklet Interview with Stefano Vaj on Biopolitics and Transhumanism, which can be accessed online here, a posthuman change can only take place if it is preceded by a posthumanist change.
Besides, the essential connections between transhumanism, overhumanism (in the sense applicable to Nietzsche, Heidegger and Marinetti) and posthumanism are perfectly clear to the “humanist” enemies of all this, from Kass to Fukuyama to d’Agostino to Habermas to McKibben to Ratzinger, much more than they are to many transhumanists.
It is true that the now patronising, now diffident attitude of part of the posthumanist culture (see for instance Viroid Life: Perspectives on Nietzsche and the Transhuman Condition by Keith Ansell-Pearson or The Paradox of the Posthuman: Science Fiction/Techno-Horror Films and Visual Media by Julie Clarke) towards “organised transhumanism” does generate some confusion, precisely because of eschatological, Manichean, speciesist and universal, in one word “humanist” residues, which can legitimately be detected in some supporters of transhumanism but which it is certainly abusive to generalise, as all the Italian neo-Futurists, including myself, are here to point out.
Another complicating factor is that in English there exists just a single word, humanism.
Originally it referred to Humanism (what we call in Italian “Umanesimo”), the cultural Renaissance movement of the XIVth and XVth centuries, from Pico della Mirandola to Giordano Bruno, that it would be hard indeed not to identify as the root of the “pagan” recovery of the ancient ethics of knowledge and self-improvement that have ultimately inspired Transhumanism, and which by extension now refers to the contemporary opposition to monotheistic fundamentalism; but nowadays this word also refers to humanism as such, that is to the (exquisitely anti-transhumanist) negation of everything that Max More, Roberto Marchesini, Gregory Stock, Guillaume Faye, Peter Sloterdijk, Yves Christen, etc. stand for, inspired by Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism and by the essentially Nietzschean idea that “man is something that must be overcome”.
In this sense, an early version of the Transhumanist Declaration contained an ambiguous reference to “humanism” (which however no longer figures in the latest version of this text); but here too the idea that this sentence simply meant that “everything good that one could find in humanism is today subsumed by transhumanism” refuted the unlikely interpretation of transhumanism as a “humanism”. A thesis validated by the fact that the person responsible for the inclusion of this reference, that is, David Pearce, is for sure “anti-humanist”, in the sense of a radical anti-speciesist if in no other.
Personally, even though I consider myself an anti-speciesist, I do not share many of Pearce’s stances on “animal rights”, that in my opinion are a kind of “widened human(itarian)ism”; but no doubt Pearce and myself are both equally distant from the idea that all, and only, the members of the human species would have something that makes them incommensurably and definitely diverse from the rest of the natural and artificial world in which we are immersed, and as such “in the image and likeness” of some transcendent Being even when they have not gone beyond the embryonic stage or are born anencephalic.
I should add that I have already had the opportunity to write about the deconstruction of Humanity as a secularised avatar of Christianity in my essay Artificious Intelligences.

Q: What about the soul? Is it a residue of evolution?
A: The soul, that of a person as well as that of a people, is in my view nothing other than “what we are”, what we are summoned to become. That is, what makes us different, and what, as I have argued in Biopolitics. The New Paradigm, technoscience today would allow us to exalt and self-determine to an unprecedented degree, via a quantum leap matched only by the Neolithic revolution if not by hominisation itself.
There is however no doubt that the soul is a cultural and evolutionary construct. It is not an “essence” that pre-exists in some original Hyperuranion or noumenal world, prior to and beyond the perception of its becoming that others may have of it. Like the “spirit” or the “psyche” etymologically refers to the “breath”, to respiration, which allows one to distinguish a living body from a corpse, so the “soul”, what in Italian we call “anima”, is what “animates” the body, or its avatars, or at least its historic trace, and not the pale and oxymoronic ghost of monotheist metaphysics which survives the death of the relevant entity.
Hence transhumanism takes over an “evolutive” vision of the Indo-European conception of immortality of the soul as an empirical, historical survival, through our persistence in the world, not as an otherworldly rapture.

Q: What about transhumanist art?
A: The meeting between overhumanism, as an intellectual moving-on from the humanist legacy, and technoscience, as the practical possibility of human enhancement, does not take place with Futurism by chance. As Divenire III well illustrates, it lies directly or indirectly at the foundation of all transhumanism, and arises not as a movement of engineers, scientists or philosophers (although Riccardo Campa demonstrates in A Treatise of Futurist Philosophy that it is easy to make a scholarly reconstruction of its philosophical worldview), but rather of poets and artists.
But if transhumanism itself, in the tradition of Mafarka the Futurist or of the Order of Cosmic Engineers can be regarded as “art applied to ourselves and the universe”, in the more usual sense of the term there exists a lively artistic movement, with trends and critics explicitly inspired by transhumanist topics. See for instance the living icon par excellence of its American wing, Natasha Vita-More, the current chairman of Humanity+; but also continental representatives like Roby Guerra, my present interviewer, or Giancarla Parisi, aka Carla Rhapsody, whose recent vernissage in Milan bore the heading “Transhuman Woman”. Not to speak of the neo-Futurist artists, like Graziano Cecchini, whom I by definition regard as ideological, if not nominal, transhumanists.

Q: Transhumanism and politics?
A: Today Italian “politics of politicians” is just the vaudeville of the colonial and globalist power that currently runs our territory. Its rowdy quarrels poorly conceal a shared adhesion to passéist, universalist and humanist values that betray a yearning for an “end of history”, as Fukuyama puts it, and sanction the definitive installation of a globalised Brave New World in which everything is sacrificed to stability, to stagnation and to the Biblical cursing of any Faustian temptation, as in the model that Guillaume Faye’s Le système à tuer les peuples prophetically outlined in the early eighties.
And yet, one thing that transhumanists and neo-Luddites or radical anti-transhumanists, be they “secular” or religious, have in common is the identification of a choice between a possible posthuman future and its rejection as the fundamental political question of our time, one that makes crusades on topics such as the electoral system or the colour of sewer covers appear in all their irrelevance.
Here I think that the christians, nowadays scattered over, and infiltrated in, the entire Italian political spectrum, but all the same fundamentally united, could provide an interesting model also to those who instead implicitly or explicitly identify with transhumanist values. Keeping in mind of course that monotheist values, even though mostly in their secular form, still largely prevail in our society, while posthumanist and transhumanist values remain at best the province of a restricted élite, so that our struggle is for the time being much more of a cultural, rather than political, nature, the priority being that of changing the current mainstream mindsets and worldviews.

Q: What about this disturbing Singularity…. the so-called sentient Artificial Intelligence (endowed with consciousness) that Kurzweil and other forecast?
A: As far as I’m concerned I have done all I can (for instance in the essay Artificious Intelligences mentioned earlier) to do away with the eschatological undertones of a hypothetical technological singularity sometimes in the future that could be interpreted as a parousia, as a rapture instigated by the Advent of Infinitely Good, Wise and Rational Superior Beings dedicated to rescuing us from this Vale of Tears. I prefer that the whole concept of an historical singularity be reduced to the original meaning of the metaphor, which, just as in the case of cosmological singularities, does in fact not predict infinite quantities, probabilities higher than one, and other nonsensical results prone to mystical interpretations, but simply refers to changes that are radical enough to outperform the capabilities of our current (“human”) predictive tools and theories. And of course in the case of the technological singularity it refers to the properly transhumanist will that such rupture, such a Zeit-Umbruch will effectively take place. Here on the contrary, in Ray Kurzweil’s vision of the Singularity for example, and in the constant comparison between computer processing power, or that of all the computers connected on the Web, and the human mind, or the aggregate capacity of all human minds, it is not hard to detect an anthropomorphic or anthropocentric legacy that represents the futurist pendant of the residual humanism, providentialism and universalism inherent in the author’s values.
And of course vice versa one should demystify the dystopian pendant of the Uprising of the Machines, which keeps resurfacing, usually under the fashionable and “responsible” cloak of the Precautionary Principle, including in the most unlikely circles.. According to this myth, the gradual increase of the computational capacity of the systems that we are using will automatically bring about the birth of AGIs not only Turing-qualified but ethologically anthropomorphic, and Darwinian in every sense, and this technological “bootstrap”, together with an indefinite architectural flexibility, will yield an exponential acceleration in the occurrence of subsequent iterations (machines designing machines designing machines, ever more advanced, ever faster), with the ultimate result that these machines will accomplish a “revolution”, “take over”, and eventually supplant the human species by more or less violent means.
Faced with these more or less delusionary narratives I allow myself the following remarks:
∙ a phenomenon or a machine does not need not in the least to be either intelligent (in the sense of exhibiting especial abilities to process information) or of a Darwinian nature (in the sense of being “marked by a selectively determined tendency to behaviours functional to competitive self-perpetuation and growth”) in order to be dangerous;
∙ a Darwinian system, in order to be dangerous to any extent, does not need to be especially intelligent (the AIDS virus or Bill Joy’s hypothetical out-of-control self-replicating nanomachinesrepresent two examples from among many other);
∙ a computer can be unlimitedly intelligent and boundlessly dangerous without being Darwinian in the least, and therefore without exhibiting any “mental” processes or motivation of its own, of the kind attributed to the hypothetical “hostile AGI”, and this as a result of altogether ordinary undesirable behaviours (for example depending on the motivations provided to it by its “human peripherals”, or simply because of “deterministic”, but unforeseen, developments dictated by its software and/or the bugs it may contain.)
In any case there do not exist elements that allow us to prove a priori for example that a horse, while certainly more “autonomic”, is intrinsically more dangerous a system than a hooligan-driven motorcycle Road Warrior style, and this only because of the greater “psychomorphic” autonomy of the horse compared with that of the motorcycle.
Then of course it remains to be seen for whom it would be dangerous. Beyond universalist abstractions and XIXth century fables, humans, domestic animals, gods and machines, rarely fight one another as separate classes, no more than do females of the animal kingdom the male gender, or hypothetical social classes that would “objectively” span the entire spectrum of human societies. Rather they work together to fight collectives of adversaries of substantially analogous composition, and in order to keep themselves symbiotically or parasitically alive. Not by chance, pace Hume, Bentham or Stuart Mill, do many of us keep a cat, or tend to garden plants, or celebrate festivities, or paint pictures, or adorn an avatar in Second Life, with resources that could easily save the life of some member of our species on the other side of the world, and this without feeling particularly bad about it. Of course, recently, some humans have had the debatable privilege of being among the first victims of weapons with a non-trivial robotic component, to commence with the drones that are gradually replacing traditional bombers in ground attacks. But, surprise surprise, it so happens that the “motivational” ingredient of these attacks remains altogether external to the robotic ingredient of those weapons, and the increasing intelligence of the weapon plays a part only with respect to its effectiveness, according to parameters that are no different from, for instance, the explosive strength in kilotons or megatons that one of the parties in a (possible) conflict can throw at enemy targets. And this stresses once more the essential equivalence, for all practical purposes, between on one hand the system composed by a human at the keyboard of a component that incorporates some skills and autonomy, via digital devices enjoying a gradually increasing processing and creative proxy, and on the other a system that would instead implement the “human” component on another support. The latter is no doubt also potentially “dangerous”, especially for those who happen to stand at the crosshairs, but no more and no less than its current, more prosaic alternative.

Da: H+ Magazine

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