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Tranhsumanist Roots in Western Culture

by Miriam Leis

Jul 28, 13 • General3 CommentsRead More »

Since the philosophy of transhumanism originated in the West, many of its core concepts are deeply related to Western civilization, philosophy, and religious elements. It can be said that some of the core ideas of transhumanism can be traced back to the Italian Renaissance’s multi-talented Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) as well as philosophers, scientists and statesmen like Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), Condorcet (1743-1794) and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832).

Leonardo da Vinci can be regarded as the epitome of the Renaissance man, an innovative human, way ahead of his time, with excellent knowledge in multiple fields of science and arts, a quality that by many is also considered to be the archetype of the transhumanist (trans)human ideal. Francis Bacon had the vision of a perfect society which he described in his work “New Atlantis“, where instead of the (Christian) God, knowledge, science and applied technologies stand in the center of society. He also antedated concepts of genetic engineering and nanotechnology. Benjamin Franklin already had envisioned life extension, immortality and cryonics. Marquis de Condorcet has been a huge proponent of equality and education and had the idea that human beings and society are evolving intellectually which will eventually lead to real perfection of humankind, the “real improvement of man“[1].

The progress of science and technology, the human and societal evolution and eventually the perfection of humankind are key elements of modern transhumanist thought and its predecessors. However, in Western philosophical and religious tradition science, technology and the perfection of humanity have always had the association of sin, evil and transgression. Traditionally, in the West there is a big line drawn between Humans and God as well as humans and machines which ought not to be crossed. If humans try to become God-like, they will be doomed and if humans will merge with machines they will lose their souls. In Eastern philosophy and religion, on the other hand, such points of view are less prominent. The lines between humans and gods as well as humans and machines are rather gradual and fluent.

The Greek pre-Christian god Prometheus gave us the fire – representing knowledge, science, technology and civilization – to humankind against the will of the other gods, whereupon he was punished by Zeus, the Greek king of gods (every day, an eagle will eat Prometheus’ liver, which will then regenerate to be eaten again and again). In contrast to Mātariśvan as described in the Indian Rig Veda, Prometheus steals the fire, which sets the relation of science, progress and technology with transgression and sin, also in later interpretations and Christian thought. The re-discovery of the fire by Mātariśvan in Hindu philosophy on the other hand is regarded as something positive – a rediscovery – although this is less associated with science and technology, but nonetheless seen as an initiator of prosperity due to its ritual properties.

Disobedience to God is also a central theme in the biblical story of Adam and Eve who disobeyed God by eating fruit from the tree of ‘knowledge of good and evil’. Thus it is interesting to note that in central myths of Western civilization the disobedience to God by mankind and the topic of knowledge and science, coincide. This coincidence seems to have established itself in the collective memory of Western thought and has remained there until today. Even today in technologically advanced countries like Germany, innovation, new technologies and applied sciences are still regarded with a considerable amount of skepticism and connections are still being drawn to WWII Germany. In contrast, the enthusiasm about innovation and new technologies (e.g. robotics, biotechnology, neurotechnology, nanotechnology, cybernetic technologies) in many East and South East Asian countries is much higher.

Ironically, it is true that most of modern science and technology – including the resulting problems of misuse and unforeseen or neglected negative side effects – originated in the West. From this perspective people may agree that there might indeed be some truth in the myths and philosophies. On the other hand it would be fatal, untrue and nonconstructive to say forever that there is no way for humanity to improve and no way for technology to finally create something lastingly positive for humankind. Just look at what science and technology has already achieved until today to improve knowledge, communication, health and well-being for humankind. Where would we be if we had never received the fire? It is true that from a Western perspective, transhumanism centrally connects two intrinsically controversial topics: technology and perfection.  Therefore, one needs to ask in how far will Western society be able to embrace the idea that humankind has the potential to become perfect and that there may not exist an intrinsic antagonism between humans and machines?

Let us interpret the myths as a warning that something can go wrong if we lack knowledge, foresight, insight and wisdom. But let us decouple technological progress from the notion of transgression by default. still It is true that technology bears the potential of misuse, malfunction and destruction. But humankind cannot survive without technology. Therefore if we know of the potential, we should be able to better guide it. Also, currently humankind is far away from perfection – and perfection also means more than superhuman strength – but does this tell us anything about the possible future capabilities of humankind? Let us connect with the visionary spirit of Leonardo da Vinci, Francis Bacon, Benjamin Franklin, Condorcet, Jeremy Bentham, Richard Feynman, John von Neumann and all their modern successors.

Reference:

[1]. “It is manifest that the improvement of the practice of medicine, become more efficacious in consequence of the progress of reason and the social order, must in the end put a period to transmissible or contagious disorders, as well to those general maladies resulting from climate, aliments, and the nature of certain occupations. Nor would it be difficult to prove that this hope might be extended to almost every other malady, of which it is probable we shall hereafter discover the most remote causes. Would it even be absurd to suppose this quality of melioration in the human species as susceptible of an indefinite advancement; to suppose that a period must one day arrive when death will be nothing more than the effect either of extraordinary accidents, or of the slow and gradual decay of the vital powers; and that the duration of the middle space, of the interval between the birth of man and this decay, will itself have no assignable limit?” (Condorcet, 1796). http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=712&Itemid=262)

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3 Responses to Tranhsumanist Roots in Western Culture

  1. Brad Arnold says:

    “Therefore, one needs to ask in how far will Western society be able to embrace the idea that humankind has the potential to become perfect and that there may not exist an intrinsic antagonism between humans and machines?” There will be some of us that abhor the union of man and machine, and others (like myself) that embrace it. I predict the first step will be a computer chip that monitors blood chemistry and vitals, routes the information through our cell phone, to a monitoring company – a paid subscription to be watched 24/7 and always having a known location, and the EMTs called for a medical emergency. Will “our society” embrace such a violation of our privacy (that we must pay for)? We’ll see by the end of the decade – I bet the answer will be YES.

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