Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Is Transhumanism Religious?

The buraq; the flying horse woman thing that carried Muhammad to Jerusalem before his death.
Disney didn't invent this. It's actually a lot older. Like three years older.
The reason for the mattresses? Because soon enough they'll come back down.
Yes, it's a trick. What you might not be able to see is precisely how it works. There's a reason for the cane, the carpet, and the baggy clothes.
He can fly so hard even his snakey stick can fly!
Half Jesus, half Moses, all American.

Clearly flying strikes a chord in human beings. Like transcending death and being able to have the most awesome sex forever, flying is one of those things we all kinda wish we could do. It's not surprising, then, that it crops up sometimes in transhumanism.

First, what is transhumanism? The belief that the singularity cometh! Soon technology will enable us to overcome all human limitations and we will live forever! Because science!

To that end, something as simple as braces is transhumanism. Artificial limbs and eyeglasses are transhumanism. It's just that, unlike most of the promises transhumanism makes, we've actually already got those.

On the more sci-fi end, transhumanism is also cryonic preservation so that at some point in the future scientists can discover the cure for whatever killed you, unthaw you, cure you, and then you can go on your merry way, futuring it up in the science.

Transhumanism is the ability to upload your brain into a computer and wile away the eons until the heat death of the universe.

Transhumanism is the ability to upload your brain into a computer on a space ship and explore the universe forever. I told you there'd be flying.

Transhumanism is the ability to genetically modify yourself so you can grow wings and fly in a more prosaic way.

Transhumanism promises that all of this is just around the corner.


In the 19th century, a French cartoonist was commissioned to show what things would be like at the end of the following century (nowish). He showed a room full of students with collanders on their heads getting their lessons transmitted directly to their brains via the electrical fluid.

As the twentieth century progressed and knowledge did the same, our dreams didn't really change. People still assumed that technology would increase human lifespans and make everything that was difficult easy. The promise was always fifty to one hundred years down the road, but soon, science will make it so you can know and do anything, even live forever. Until the middle of the twentieth century, the promise always seemed to be that all of this would happen by the end of the century.

Of course, by the time the 70s and 80s rolled around, the end of the century was a little too close for that to be plausible, so the end point for when science would turn to magic kept getting pushed forward. These days, the magic date seems to be 2045.

Sound a little like religion? Jam tomorrow, jam yesterday, never jam today.


The common link in transhumanism, going back to the 19th century and the French cartoons I mentioned (how I wish I could find them), is that the transhumanists look at the wonderful discoveries made by science and assume that something truly wonderful is just over the horizon. It's far enough away that no one will be able to call them on it when their prediction doesn't work out, but close enough that most people alive today have a reasonable hope of living that long. They always assume that somehow the discoveries of today will lead to some discoveries that will make all our dreams come true... but they never specify what those discoveries will be, not even what they might look like. It's just a nebulous "something".

I really don't think anyone in the transhumanist movement is being deliberately deceptive. Well, perhaps some are milking it for profit, selling books and the like, but the vast majority are probably just engaging in wishful thinking and self-deception. They're just very hopeful that all the things that make life difficult will be magicked away by science. And I'm using "magic" deliberately here.

I think this self-deception and wishful thinking is illustrative of the religious impulse. We don't need to posit some ill-begotten motive or deliberate design to explain the origins of religion. All we need is the ability to imagine that things be not difficult, and the wish that it be so. The frailties of an evolved mind will fill in the blanks with rationalizations and generalizations as needed.

Somewhere in this playlist is an instructive lecture on transhumanism. I wish I could be more precise than a window of 20 hours of video, but it's been a few weeks since I watched them. I'm pretty sure it's in one of the first six, not the last four.


Oh, and here's the explanation for the photographs (as contrasted with the drawings) above. It's very difficult to do, but you can jump in the lotus position. Take a picture in mid-jump and you have the appearance of someone placidly meditating in mid-air. That photo's good because it shows someone who achieved that in the middle of the picture and two who rather badly failed, one at either end. You can see that they've jumped.

As for the dude sitting in mid-air with his hand resting on a cane above a square of carpet; that's a rather common trick. It's even more impressive when you see one man apparently sitting comfortably above the head of another. Either way the trick is the same; the carpet hides the base of the stand, the baggy clothes hide the seat, and the cane or bamboo staff is the connection between the two. Notice the baggy cloth of the individual sitting "in mid air". Notice the baggy sleeves of the man sitting on the street. Wouldn't it be nice if you could levitate? All you have to do is give the guy some money and he'll teach you how...
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