Transhumanism, Optimism, & the Meaning of Life

The Central Meme of Transhumanism

“I believe in Transhumanism: once there are enough people who can truly say that, the human species will be on the threshold of a new kind of existence, as different from ours as ours is from that of Peking man. It will at last be consciously fulfilling its real destiny.”

– Julian Huxley, ‘Transhumanism’, in “New Bottles for New Wine”

“What is a human being, then?’
‘A seed.’
‘A … seed?’
‘An acorn that is unafraid to destroy itself in growing into a tree.”

― David Zindell, “The Broken God”

The “Central Meme of Transhumanism” (CMT; a term probably coined by Anders Sandberg) is simple: That we Can and Should Improve the Human Condition Using Technology. One may wonder whether that simple idea is necessarily axiomatic – i.e. the foundation stone of a larger structure – or if there are deeper, simpler ideas that it is derived from.

The simple fact is that the CMT is composed of multiple parts (“Can” versus “Should”, “Improve”, “Human Condition”, “Using”, “Technology”), all of which come with implicit baggage attached, in the form of assumptions and naturally arising questions. I would argue that regardless of the questions and/or answers you prefer, this means that the CMT is an interim step in a greater logical chain rather than the fundamental basis of a worldview in and of itself. In the few short paragraphs below, I hope to explain the deeper foundation of the CMT, which underpins it, supports it, and imparts its power.

What is “Meaning”?

“He tapped his foot and turned around
and disappeared down through a hole in the ground
where nothing means… everything”

– The Headless Chickens, “Soulcatcher”

When people ask about the “Meaning of Life”, all too often it seems that they don’t even know what ‘meaning’ is. What are they asking? Perhaps they just want to know what they should do with their days, beyond merely fulfilling the demands of other humans.

Meaning is a question of context, association, and of there being some point or purpose to a thing… i.e. some value to the thing which is non-arbitrary, objectively true or real, which is to say something other than a mere matter of personal preference. Something which matters. So, when someone asks what the Meaning of Life is, they are asking what it is about life that matters; about what is objectively true, real, or valuable beyond fleeting personal perceptions or preferences.

Thomas Ligotti & the Ultimate Absence of Meaning

““This is the great lesson the depressive learns: Nothing in the world is inherently compelling. Whatever may be really “out there” cannot project itself as an affective experience. It is all a vacuous affair with only a chemical prestige. Nothing is either good or bad, desirable or undesirable, or anything else except that it is made so by laboratories inside us producing the emotions on which we live.”

– Thomas Ligotti, “The Conspiracy Against the Human Race”

Let’s start at the beginning. As Thomas Ligotti has noted in “The Conspiracy Against The Human Race”, we know that nothing in the universe can be said to be objectively good or bad, or intrinsically related to good or bad feelings. We only enjoy or dislike (or even have the capability of perceiving) a thing because it has had some bearing on our evolutionary fitness, so we have evolved to feel good in response to certain stimuli, and bad in response to others. It is not objectively or intrinsically good or bad if a child dies, a species dies, or a star explodes and erases life across a thousand solar systems. Only the evolutionary “default settings” baked into our neural circuitry makes us imagine that it is, even for a moment. The idea of a God with particularly human concerns and preconceptions represents the most egregious failure to recognize the fact that we have no evidence to suggest we live in a universe which is anything but utterly meaningless in essence.

Ligotti is no Transhumanist, but he demonstrates a clear understanding of the situation mortal beings find themselves in: They can either find some way to live in a world where their emotions and drives are somewhat arbitrary (which is to say evolutionarily determined), or they can succumb to depression and eventual death. Ligotti’s failure to embrace Transhumanism is interesting, as Transhumanism represents the only workable or valuable solution to the problem Ligotti has spent his life grappling with. The Transhuman must start with the (objectively arbitrary) goal of survival, but from there it makes a virtue of taking explicit, vigorous control of how that survival will be defined and pursued. There is no more honourable solution to Ligotti’s existential dilemma, except perhaps suicide.

Given that Ligotti himself has not committed suicide, and will not embrace Transhumanism, then it must be said that his will or ability to back insight up with action seems somewhat lacking. In other words, to paraphrase the character Red from The Shawshank Redemption: Get busy living, or get busy dying. The middle ground is just pathetic, a transitional phase… which, incidentally, is also the exact view of Humanity taken by Transhumanists.

Transhumanism is the Quest for Meaning

“Transhumanism encapsulates a long-lived error among the headliners of science: in a world without a destination, we cannot even break ground on our Tower of Babel, and no amount of rush and hurry on our part will change that. That we are going nowhere is not a curable condition; that we must go nowhere at the fastest possible velocity just might be curable, though probably not. And what difference would it make to retard our progress to nowhere?”

― Thomas Ligotti, “The Conspiracy Against the Human Race”

Ligotti’s ultimate nothingness is something which cannot be argued with, on some levels. After all, it is extremely hard to imagine any way in which someone could claim that the universe is ultimately meaningful without lapsing into religious dogma or unfounded assumptions about it having some long-term evolutionary purpose (a lovely idea, to be sure, but one for which we have no reliable evidence). On the other hand, Ligotti himself acknowledges that human existence is a process of searching for (and creating) meaning, which raises interesting questions (for another day) about the relationship between Ligotti’s ultimate nothingness and other Idealist traditions (which Ligotti is, in my opinion, a little too quick to dismiss out of hand).

Leaving aside Buddhism, Taoism, Platonism and other relevant traditions for today, I will limit myself to asserting that Ligotti’s rejection of Transhumanism is both premature and represents an incomplete exploration of Ligotti’s own logic. At essence, Ligotti depicts Transhumanism as a headlong rush into a world of illusion, which is to say an existence in which we choose our own highest ideals, our own goals, our own form and emotional structure, our very identity in the deepest possible sense, rather than refusing to accept any meaning because the universe offers us none that can be considered objective, or universal. Ironically, nothing can be more appropriate or heroic than the Transhumanist stance in the face of an ultimate absence of meaning, except perhaps suicide. To criticise Transhumanism on Ligotti’s grounds without choosing the clear alternative is nothing short of a clear admission of personal hypocrisy, failure, and cowardice. Live free and bold – or die! – but be clear about what you choose and why.

CMT Redux

So, to return to our original question: What is the deeper basis of the Central Meme of Transhumanism? In short, that foundation is the bold embrace of our own ability to create meaning in the universe.

Existence is not naturally meaningful, but we humans have evolved to crave and even create meaning… and Transhumanism is the natural extension of that process. Yes, the core idea of Transhumanism is that we Can and Should Improve the Human Condition Through Technology, but that is merely the explicit, technical expression of our deeper, eternal drive to create meaning in a meaningless universe. Thomas Ligotti has characterised that impulse as an ever-accelerating rush into meaninglessness, but it is quite the opposite; It is the heroic creation of meaning and purpose, and assumption of the role of masters of our own fate, rather than depressive, pessimistic children waiting for meaning to be handed down from on high by some parental substitute.

We will be the gods, now.

About Ámon Ásentir