The transhumanist bill of goods
by Karl D. Stephan | January 22, 2019
Depending on your point of view, the intellectual movement (and now political party) that goes under the name of "transhumanism" is either a set of fringe beliefs held by a small number of people who can be safely ignored, or the leading edge of something that will completely transform human life as we know it.
The truth probably lies somewhere in between. One of transhumanism's intellectual fathers is Ray Kurzweil, who coined the term "the Singularity" to mean the moment when artificial intelligence, cyborgs, and uploading peoples' minds into software converge to create a kind of Big Bang of superintelligent activity that will make everything everyone ever wanted come true, and will also render ordinary biological human lives obsolete.
Significantly, Kurzweil now holds a high-level position at Google, and other tech leaders such as Elon Musk have promoted transhumanist ideas.
Not satisfied with the Silicon Valley reins of power they already hold, the transhumanists have formed a political party and issued a Transhumanist Bill of Rights. The first version (called 1.0, naturally) was delivered to the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 14, 2015. Its subsequent fate did not make the news.
In a recent piece reprinted in the Human Life Review, Wesley J. Smith noted that version 2.0 contains enough wacky ideas to wreck the economy, violate fundamental religious freedoms, and erase the difference between people and machines.
For a group that tends to ignore the past and live mentally in the future, the writers of the Transhumanist Bill of Rights clearly acknowledged some historical precedents. The very title, Bill of Rights, comes from that 230-year-old set of amendments to the U.S. constitution of the same name.
Their preamble says they "establish" the Bill to "help guide and enact sensible policies in the pursuit of life, liberty, security of person, and happiness." That phrase goes one better than Thomas Jefferson's in the preamble to the U.S. Declaration of Independence—he left out "security of person."
And at the very end, almost as an afterthought, in Article XV (25, to those of you who can't read Roman numerals), they incorporate by reference all the rights in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was enacted by the then-new U.N. in 1948.
Like the U.N.'s declaration, the transhumanist Bill is aspirational, not legally binding. And here is where the vast differences between the U.S. Bill of Rights and this document show most vividly.
The people who gathered in 1789 to debate how best to carry their young experiment in democracy forward were elected leaders of a real nation. In a sense that the transhumanists don't seem to appreciate, they held their future in their hands.
The fate of a country that they and their compatriots fought for, and many had died for, depended on the wisdom with which they reconstituted their republic, which at the time was suffering from serious problems.
Looking back, we can say that while they didn't do a perfect job—the canker of slavery would have to be removed from the body politic in a horrendous Civil War two generations hence—the constitution they forged has withstood the test of time.
Contrast what those founding fathers did with what the transhumanists are doing with their Bill of Rights 2.0. For one thing, the transhumanist Bill's direct effect on the actual politics of the nation has been nil.
Despite the window-dressing of Roman numerals and references to historic documents, the actual content of the Bill reads like something out of a speech at a Comic Con convention. One can come closest to being able to predict the things most desired by transhumanists by imagining a teenage boy of exceptional intelligence but limited experience, and asking him what his ideal world would be like, given unlimited technological resources and a free imagination.
The answers might go something like the following:
Gee, well, nobody would be poor (Article XVIII: "Present and future societies should ensure that their members will not live in poverty solely for being born to the wrong parents.").
And there wouldn't be any discrimination or prejudice (Article XVI: "All sentient entities should be protected from discrimination... "), and everybody would be healthy (Article VII: "All sentient entities should be the beneficiaries of a system of universal health care."). And (snigger) there'd be plenty of sex (Article XII: "All sentient entities are entitled to reproductive freedom...").
And college should be free (Article XX: "Present and future societies should provide education systems accessible and available to all... "). And we wouldn't have nutcases like Trump running the government (Article XXIV: "Transhumanists stand opposed to the post-truth culture of deception. All governments should be required to make decisions and communicate information rationally and in accordance with facts...").
Maybe Kurzweil, Musk, and their fellow transhumanists are experts in their deep, narrow pursuits that require specialization in technical fields and a certain amount of leadership and management expertise.
But in politics, they seem to think that if you take some half-baked left-wing notions, mix them with some technospeak, put Roman numerals on them, and quote a few well-known historical documents, the public will come flooding to your door and ask to join.
On the other hand, perhaps we should read this document not as a step in a democratic process that involves persuading the sovereign public to accept one's ideas, but more as a manifesto of what an elite, powerful group of people plan to do once they manage to dispose of all the stupidity and traditionalism of the vast majority of people in the world and run the place the way they know (from their superior expertise) that it ought to be run.
Wesley Smith worries that transhumanists in power would establish a communist-like society. And I think he is right.
If transhumanists by some means gained real power to implement their ideas, the totalitarian government that would result might very well end human life as we know it—and leave nothing in its place but some buzzing machinery that would run down faster than anyone expects.
Sources: Wired published the Transhumanist Bill of Rights 2.0 at https://www.wired.com/beyond-the-beyond/2018/08/transhumanist-bill-rights-version-2-0/ on August 21, 2018. Wesley J. Smith's article "The Transhumanist Bill of Wrongs" appeared in the Fall 2018 edition of the Human Life Review on pp. 91-93, and was reprinted from the American Spectator.
Karl D. Stephan is professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics,which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.