Sarah Bakewell on Posthumanism, Transhumanism, and What it Actually Means to Be “Human”
“Will machine minds ever acquire anything like our ability to have thoughts of seriousness and depth?”
Every time a person dies, writes Russian novelist Vasily Grossman in Life and Fate, the entire world that has been built in that individual’s consciousness dies as well: “The stars have disappeared from the night sky; the Milky Way has vanished; the sun has gone out… flowers have lost their color and fragrance; bread has vanished; water has vanished.” Elsewhere in the book, he writes that one day we may engineer a machine that can have human-like experiences; but if we do, it will have to be enormous—so vast is this space of consciousness, even within the most “average, inconspicuous human being.”
And, he adds, “Fascism annihilated tens of millions of people.” Trying to think those two thoughts together is a near-impossible feat, even for the immense capacities of our consciousness. But will machine minds ever acquire anything like our ability to have such thoughts, in all their seriousness and depth? Or to reflect morally on events, or to equal our artistic and imaginative reach? Some think that this question distracts us from a more urgent one: we should be asking what our close relationship with our machines is doing to us.
Jaron Lanier, himself a pioneer of computer technology, warns in You Are Not a Gadget that we are allowing ourselves to become ever more algorithmic and quantifiable, because this makes us easier for computers to deal with. Education, for example, becomes less about the unfolding of humanity, which cannot be measured in units, and more about tick boxes.
John Stuart Mill’s feeling of being fully “alive” and “human” as one comes of age; Arnold’s sweetness and light; Humboldt’s “inexpressibly joyous” experience of intellectual discovery—these turn into a five-star system for recording consumer satisfaction. Says Lanier: “We have repeatedly demonstrated our species’ bottomless ability to lower our standards to make information technology look good.”Will machine minds ever acquire anything like our ability to have such thoughts, in all their seriousness and depth?
To see this demeaning thought taken to its logical conclusion, we can turn back by more than a century to—surprisingly—George Eliot. Not normally known as a science fiction writer (or, indeed, as a pessimist), she came up with a terrifyingly pessimistic sci-fi image in her final book, Impressions of Theophrastus Such, published in 1879. A character in the chapter “Shadows of the Coming Race” speculates that machines of the future might learn to reproduce themselves. Having done so, they might also then realize that they do not need human minds around them at all. They are able to become all the more powerful “for not carrying the futile cargo of a consciousness screeching irrelevantly, like a fowl tied head downmost to the saddle of a swift horseman.” And that is the end of us.
Oh well. These days some think that, if humanity ends in disaster, caused by rogue artificial intelligence or environmental collapse or some other blunder, the world would be better off without us anyway. We are hardly a good influence: we are wrecking the planet’s climate and ecosystems, obliterating species with our crops and livestock, and redirecting every resource to the production of more and more humanity.
Even our satellites proliferate like a rash over the night sky. Our impact is so great that geologists are debating the possibility of officially designating our epoch the Anthropocene, a period that may be identifiable in the sediment, in part, by a layer of our domesticated chicken bones. That puts the screeching fowl of consciousness in a new light. But if we do humanize everything, in the end we will consume the basis for our own lives, too, and thus dehumanize everything again.
Contemplating this, some human beings seek paradoxical consolation by embracing the prospect. “Posthumanists,” as they are sometimes known, look forward to a time when human life is either drastically reduced in scope or no longer around at all. Some propose deliberately bringing about this self-destruction ourselves. That is the message of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT), founded in 1991 by environmentalist and teacher Les U. Knight. Half serious and half a surreal work of art, the movement advocates doing the Earth a favor by giving up breeding and waiting for ourselves to gently fade away.
Posthumanism has a benign air of modesty about it, yet it is also a form of anti-humanism. Somewhere at the heart of it, I think, is an old-fashioned sense of sin. The desire is to imagine the Earth returned to an Edenic state, with humanity not just expelled from the garden but actually uncreated. It is not all that remote from the idea of a few extreme Christians that we should accept (or even accelerate) the environmental crisis on Earth, because it will bring Judgment Day all the sooner. In a 2016 survey, 11 percent of Americans endorsed the statement that, with the end times coming anyway, we need not worry about tackling the climate challenge. More puzzlingly, 2 percent of those identifying as “agnostics or atheists” agreed with it, too.Where, in all this pure divinity and mysticism, is the richness of actual life?
Others devoutly wish for a different consummation. “Transhumanists,” unlike posthumanists, look forward eagerly to technologies that will, first, extend the human lifespan considerably, and, later, allow our minds to be uploaded into other data-based forms, so that we can ditch the need for human embodiment. Some talk of a moment of “singularity,” when the rate of development has accelerated to the point that our machines and ourselves may fuse into one.
In the stage after that, as Ray Kurzweil writes in The Singularity Is Near, “vastly expanded human intelligence (predominantly nonbiological) spreads through the universe.” Posthumanism and transhumanism are opposites: one eliminates human consciousness, while the other suffuses it into everything. But they are the sort of opposites that meet at the extremes. Both agree that our current humanity is something transitional or wrong—something to be left behind. Instead of dealing with ourselves as we are, both imagine us altered in some dramatic way: either made more humble and virtuous in a new Eden, or retired from existence, or inflated to a level that sounds like that of gods.
I am a humanist; I cannot happily contemplate any of these alternatives. As a science fiction enthusiast, I used to have a weakness for transhumanism, however. Years ago, my mind was blown by a classic science fiction novel: Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, published in 1953.
The story begins, as many in the genre do, with aliens arriving on Earth. They promptly shower us with gifts, which include hours of entertainment. “Do you realize that every day something like five hundred hours of radio and TV pour out over the various channels?” asks one character in the book, conveying 1953’s idea of a cornucopian abundance. But the bounty of the aliens comes with conditions: humans must stay on Earth and give up exploring space.
A few people resist the gilded cage, declining to watch the entertainment and proclaiming defiant pride in human achievements. But as time goes on, this aging minority is forgotten and a new generation emerges. They have new mental gifts, including the first stirrings of an ability to access the “Overmind,” a mysterious shared consciousness in the universe, which has outgrown “the tyranny of matter.”
That generation in turn gives way to the next, and these beings are hardly human at all. Needing no food, having no language, they simply dance for years, in forests and meadows. Finally they stop and stand motionless for a long time. Then they slowly dissolve upward, into the Overmind. The planet itself becomes translucent like glass and shimmers out of existence. Humanity and the Earth have gone, or rather, they have been transfigured and merged into a higher realm.
Such an ending for humanity is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, writes Clarke; it is just final. So is his novel, in a way. It pushes fiction to its limits. Earlier science fiction writers had also imagined a future in which humanity dies, notably Olaf Stapledon in his 1930 work, Last and First Men. But Clarke goes further, into a realm where there can be no more stories at all. Species have vanished; even matter has vanished, at least from Earth. He goes where Dante went in his Paradiso—and Dante complained in that work’s first canto that this necessarily defeats the powers of any writer. To write about Heaven is “to go beyond the human”—transumanar—and, says Dante, this also means going beyond what language itself can accomplish.The Earth is not a cradle; we are not alone here.
When I first read Childhood’s End, I loved its finale. Now I feel the melancholy of such a vision far more. It leaves me in mourning for those flawed, recognizable individuals that we are and for the details of our planet and our many cultures, all lost to a universal blandness. Every particularity has gone: the atoms of Democritus, Terence’s nosy neighbor, Petrarch’s lack of patience and Boccaccio’s bawdy stories, the Lake Nemi ships and the fishlike Genoese divers, Aldus Manutius and his exuberance (“Aldus is here!”), students floating down rivers, Platina’s recipe for grilled eel à l’orange, Erasmus’s polite farts, the Encyclopédie (all 71,818 articles of it), Hume’s games of backgammon and whist, Dorothy L. Sayers’s comfortable trousers, Frederick Douglass’s magnificently photographed face and his eloquent words, the priestly and poetic Kawi language, sea squirts, bloomers, the Esperanto plaque by Petrarch’s beloved stream, M. N. Roy’s good soups, ridiculous heraldry, Rabindranath Tagore’s classes under the trees, the windows of Chartres, microfilms, manifestos, meetings, Pugwash, busy New York streets, the yellow line of morning. They have all gone up in the ultimate bonfire of the vanities. To me, this no longer says sublimity; it says, “How disappointing.”
Where, in all this pure divinity and mysticism, is the richness of actual life? Also, where is our sense of responsibility for managing our occupancy of Earth? (Not that Clarke himself supported abdicating such responsibilities—quite the contrary.) And what about our relationships with fellow humans and other creatures—that great foundation for humanist ethics, identity, and meaning?
These dreams of elevation perhaps emerge from memories of being a small child, lifted out of a cradle by big arms. But the Earth is not a cradle; we are not alone here, since we share it with so many other living beings; and we need not wait to be spirited away. Give me, instead of the Overmind, or the sublime visions of any religion, these words of a more human wisdom by James Baldwin:
One is responsible to life. It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.
A sense of sin is of no help on that journey; neither is a dream of transcendence. Dante was right: we really cannot transumanar, and if we have fun trying—well, that can produce beautiful literature. But it is still human literature.
I prefer the humanist combination of freethinking, inquiry, and hope. And, as the late scholar of humanism and ethics Tzvetan Todorov once remarked in an interview:
Humanism is a frail craft indeed to choose for setting sail around the world! A frail craft that can do no more than transport us to frail happiness. But, to me, the other solutions seem either conceived for a race of superheroes, which we are not…or heavily laden with illusions, with promises that will never be kept. I trust the humanist bark more.
Finally, as always, I am brought back to the creed of Robert G. Ingersoll:
Happiness is the only good.
The time to be happy is now.
The place to be happy is here.
The way to be happy is to make others so.
It sounds simple; it sounds easy. But it will take all the ingenuity we can muster.
Excerpted from Humanly Possible: Seven Hundred Years of Humanist Freethinking, Inquiry, and Hope by Sarah Bakewell. Copyright © 2023. Published by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Random House LLC.