Transhumanist Existentialist | Progressive Dreamer..

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Occasionally, I do a WordPress.com tag-search, e.g. Transhumanism. I am curious to learn what knockers and boosters alike are thinking..

I found this paper, The Magus of Silicon Valley: Ray Kurzweil’s Transhumanism as Contemporary Esotericism, by Egil Asprem,  Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Philosophy and Religious Studies.

A quick reading of this paper revealed to me that Egil Asprem should be counted in the ranks of the knockers / critics of transhumanism, but it was this following paragraph that got me thinking, ’cause where exactly do I find myself among Egil’s list of contributors to the transhumanist “development”..

The list of contributors to this development includes a broad variety of people, from Silicon Valley technologists to well-known New Age prophets, a Russian billionaire, and a group of technophile Mormons“. 

  • Silicon Valley technologist ? – Uncheck..
  • New Age prophet ? – Uncheck..
  • Russian billionaire ? – Uncheck..
  • Technophile Mormon ? – Uncheck..

How about..

  • Irreligious, rational, progressive, existentialist realist and dreamer.. ? – Check !

[ Although this painting is not exactly the best illustration of a progressive existentialist, etc., – I love this painting, and it does emphasize “dreamer”..]

beate beatrice1 208x300 Transhumanist Existentialist | Progressive Dreamer..

The central  notion, according to Egil Asprem, is:

“..a coming apocalyptic event, expected around the year 2045: The Singularity”

Sure, – a central notion to some, perhaps many / most, but deep in our hearts.., – well, we ain’t naive fools, and we are open also to a more controlled, ethical, and gradual progress.. – I know I am, which is not to say I will turn down any offer of an..  elixir of life, should it come my way.. icon smile Transhumanist Existentialist | Progressive Dreamer..

“But will we be transformed to godlike cyborg angels, or swallowed by grey goo?”

Well, – nobody really knows, do they, and that includes Egil Asprem. – Godlike cyborg angels sounds ok to me, and on behalf of all transhumanists I say:

We are optimists, even Utopists,  and refuse to be deterred by doomsayers !

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11 Responses to Transhumanist Existentialist | Progressive Dreamer..

  1. Yeah, I’m going to have to resort to high-school level invective here. Sorry. But this guy Egil Asprem is a friggin’ idiot.

    Apocalyptic event? What’s ‘apocalyptic’ about solving problems like hunger and material want and eliminating disease and extending human life indefinitely? Unless you happen to be a religious miser or a misanthrope who hates life and who loves pain and suffering or something along those lines?

    In fact there’s hardly anything ‘esoteric’ about Kurzweil’s projections. They are democratizing and liberating if anything. They are also very secular and very materialistic and deeply respectful of science and technology if anything. They are about technological accessibility and scientific possibilities -- accessibility to a better quality of life, to a better realization of one’s own potential. Where’s the esotericism specifically? Where are the secrets and mysticism which may make it an ‘esoteric’ philosophy?

    Kurzweil always focuses on technological trends & recent developments and facts; and the only time he ever really waxes philosophical and poetic (when you might say he ‘tiptoes into the esoteric’, but you’d be wrong / because he honestly highlights this as pure speculation and asks others to do so/ esoterics are never honest enough to admit their ‘philosophies’ as speculative/hence, the inaccessibility of the esoteric) is when he is pressed into a corner to imagine what THAT kind of life is going to MEAN for humanity THEN. And only then he may venture with things like, ‘well it’ll be even more democratic, more fulfilling, more creative, etc’. He gets a little poetic then but he also claims that he doesn’t know what the larger cultural impact will be. He admits that that would be speculative so he tends to refrain from it. He pretty much always stays focused on techie trends and current realities and that’s what he projects on (to the point of dullness, not ‘esotericism’) and avoids vague philosophical speculations on the impact of said trends on culture and ‘mind’ and things of that nature. It’s unfair to slam him for this.

    In fact, I’d like to see the cultural, social and political ramifications of life post-Singularity imagined by some writers. Now that would be more esoteric and in some ways, more interesting, then the usual, technical focus of Kurzweil.

    • transhumanisten

      It was my birthday, -- and still is, another 5 min. , which should explain a late reply..

      High-school level invective ? -- If so, -- please give us MORE of it :) -- You are sharp as usual, and your characterization of Kurzweil’s projections -- and transhumanism in general.. -- as being about technological accessibility and scientific possibilities – accessibility to a better quality of life, to a better realization of one’s own potential is very much my kind of rhetoric.

      In order to better understand the things people write, I often look up their bio’s, and I think the following info about Egil Asprem will give you a good idea about why his focus is on the esoteric..:

      My first book, Arguing with Angels: Enochian Magic and Modern Occulture was published by SUNY Press in 2012. I am also the co-editor (with Kennet Granholm) of Contemporary Esotericism (Equinox, 2013), and author of a number of academic and popular articles on subjects ranging from the history of science, to occultism, parapsychology, and ritual magic.
      I’ve been on the board of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE) since 2010, currently serving as the society’s Membership Secretary and Vice-treasurer. Together with Kennet Granholm I run the ESSWE-affiliated Contemporary Esotericism Research Network.

      I wouldn’t say he is “a friggin’ idiot”, and even if he is unfair to Kurzweil, he is not entirely wrong in pointing out -- if not esotericism -- then some kind of vague religiosity perhaps.., e.g. Mormon Transhumanist Asscociation. I also think he is right in pointing to some New-Agey influence.. -- If you read his paper, you will see he mentions Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose, (in)famous for their Orch-OR Model of Consciousness -- Hameroff and Penrose, along with Kurzweil, were speakers at the recent Global Future 2045 event. Lots of hardcore scientists consider Hameroff in particular to be pushing a load of New-Agey Woo-woo and don’t understand why World-famous mathematical physicist Roger Penrose would associate himself. Another speaker at GF-2045 who is considered among the New-Agers, is Amit Goswami. -- However, I am not quite sure those guys think of themselves as transhumanists, and Egil Asprem would have to come up with better arguments..

      • First of all, happy birthday Joern. Sorry for this late reply but I had kind of a crazy day yesterday.

        Anyway, perhaps ‘idiot’ is a tad too strong here and not fair to this guy. I am still human and I still get passionate about things I perceive as unjust.

        But it’s become annoying because you see many like him apply the same kind of misconceived stereotypes with regard to Kurzweil and his projected singularity. So at some point I have to seriously question whether these people even read Kurzweil before they smear him with such labels as ‘esoteric’ or ‘mystic’ or ‘techie evangelist’ or ‘nerd rapture-ist’. If I detect a religious narrative in what Kurzweil projects and suggests, I would be the first to jump ship (I am an atheist and a naturalist /materialist). And if I thought that his projections were some kind of ‘new age’ techie mysticism flavored with cultish overtones, again I would be the first to jump ship (I don’t like clique-ish, groupish behavior/ I am strongly individualistic.).

        I’ve noticed a certain trend lately where Kurzweil’s work is miscast as some kind of techie mysticism and I don’t agree with that. There are people who are trying to fashion him as some kind of cultist or a wannabe-prophet of a new religion based on technology.

        It’s not fair to the man because that’s not what he is. He is very simply an inventor and a futurist with a keen interest in a future not defined by death and decay but by the (probable) continued evolution of humanity and the fruits of empowerment of science and technology. There is nothing esoteric in that. Even Kurzweil’s greatest critics agree that his ‘future’ (where technology gives us power over our ‘fate’ and solutions to most, if not all, material problems) is bound to happen at some point. It’s not a question of if, but when. Most critics are opposed to his projected ‘timelines’ of such an evolution and such a future, but not to whether it will happen. Some of his most strident critics agree that it will happen at ‘some point’.

        Most critics think that he is too ‘optimistic’ with his projections and it will be centuries before we have the kind of technology he is hinting at.

        Now about whether it will happen. Kurzweil acknowledges that this sort future may not come to pass if we annihilate each other in a nuclear WW3 (a good reason to be opposed to the impending ‘intervention’ in Syria btw). So he grants the possibility that none of it will come to pass. He very carefully phrases this actually. He says that IF current tech and science trends MAINTAIN and humans don’t destroy their own species in the next 50 or so years, THEN so and so will probably come to pass in 30-50 years. He never says that his projections are absolute or certain or inevitable. So I don’t see him as the L. Ron Hubbard some people try to cast him as. Plus he doesn’t care if people ‘worship’ him or his ideas, nor does ask anyone to. (And besides I won’t/ I am attracted to some of his ideas yes and I think if current trends maintain he has a good point but it’s not like I worship the man or have a painting of him in my house or attend Kurzweil Rallies, or like, I think it’s all inevitable or that he is above cricitism.) I just don’t like criticism that is unfair when it so obviously hasn’t even read what the man writes of -- or maybe completely misconstrued his writings for whatever reason. That irks me. Criticize Kurzweil and the Singularity all you want -- but at least read what the man wrote and critique him on THAT… (I’m speaking of this guy, not you.)

        • transhumanisten

          Here’s a comment I wrote on Egil Asprem’s blog:

          Last night, Egil Asprem gave a lecture in Norway, titled “2045 -- Rapture of the Nerds”..

          He appears to have some influence, see for instance Wikipedia / Singularitarianism: “Some critics argue that Singularitarianism is a new religious movement promising salvation in a technological utopia.[2]”

  2. I don’t usually meddle in other people’s online discussions about my work, but since the host of this blog asked me to comment, I’ll do that very briefly. First: all the quotations above are from a *blurb* of a popular lecture… That hardly counts for scholarship and shouldn’t be read as being complete scholarly statements. (This of course goes for the list of categories mentioned -- that’s just to name *some of* the people to appear in the lecture, and incidentally you’re not among them ;) )

    For the rest: I certainly don’t consider myself a “critic of transhumanism”. I’m a scholar with an interest in the relation between religion and science, esotericism, and lots of other things. My analysis of singularitarianism for its millennarian and apocalyptic features (“Heisenberg” might want to check what these terms imply in the relevant academic context -- they do *not* simply mean “cataclysmic end of the world”) is part of tracing an interesting development in contemporary religious culture. I believe we do see that singularitarian transhumanism is merging with broadly conceived “New Age” currents, and that the singularity is becoming a new candidate for the future “shift in consciousness” and transformation of the world that apocalyptically oriented New Agers have envisioned. This claim, of course, is *not* the same as saying that all singularitarians are really New Agers. That would be a non sequitur, and it’s not one I can see that I’m making.

    I hope this clears up just a little bit.
    (To answer the question: Yes, I’ve plowed through a lot of Kurzweil’s books, seen his lectures, and read up on supporters, critics, precursors to his ideas, etc.).

    • transhumanisten

      Thanks a lot for your answer.

      Re: “incidentally you’re not among them“..

      Yes, from a psychological point of view, you could be on to something.. :)

      You say you are not a critic of transhumanism.. -- I’ll take your word for it, but you should know you do come across as a critic, -- how else are we to interpret, for instance, “Rapture of the nerds”.. -- The use of “Apocalypse” is also somewhat unfortunate.. -- I looked it up myself, and strictly -- academically -- speaking, you may have a point, but most readers are likely to perceive it negatively.

      This may be of interest: (see:Terasem Survey, part 5)

      What is your religion / belief system?

      81.4% Not Religious
      9.5 Christian
      1.8 Jewish
      1.8 Buddhist
      5.0 other religions

    • “I hope this clears up just a little bit.”

      I’m sorry but it didn’t; and here are some of the problems I have:

      “I’m a scholar with an interest in the relation between religion and science, esotericism, and lots of other things. My analysis of singularitarianism for its millennarian and apocalyptic features is part of tracing an interesting development in contemporary religious culture.”

      Sorry but this is white noise to me. Your writing needs a bit more clarity and you also need to be more specific when you critique a work. You remind us of your scholarship a few times. You even use the word twice in one sentence which I found amusing, not to mention redundant (“That hardly counts for scholarship and shouldn’t be read as being complete scholarly statements”). I went through grad school too but I don’t wear it on my sleeve when responding to people -- it doesn’t add length to your you-know-what… But you’ve had two good-sized posts here already and I learned about close to nil from either one.

      Where specifically in Kurzweil’s writing are you detecting a ‘trace’ of a contemporary religious movement (because that’s indirectly your implication here)? In other words, how is it relevant to what you do as a ‘scholar’ of esotericism and modern religious movements? Or are you maybe searching for patterns where there may be none?

      Because I see you keep referring to his ‘millenarian and apocalyptic features’ but I’m at a loss as to where Kurzweil is talking about things like inevitability or good versus evil or some kind of spiritual transformation or reckoning. He is talking about a world-altering technological transformation as a strong possibility but you would have to be somewhat (very) loose with the ‘millenarian’ concept so as to be able to cast this technological singularity as millenarian. And if by ‘apocalyptic’ you mean merely deeply transformative, then yes his ‘singularity’ is that. But again that’s not really saying much. It’s a rather banal observation.

      “Heisenberg might want to check what these terms imply in the relevant academic context – they do *not* simply mean “cataclysmic end of the world”.”

      Fair enough, but I didn’t say that these *simply* mean those things. I understood that you are taking Kurzweil’s proposed ‘technological singularity’ and its larger social ramifications and likening this projection and the ‘adherents’/fans to a contemporary mystical movement of some stripe which could supposedly fit under the umbrella of ‘New Age currents’. What I’m not catching here is the rationale for this ‘converging’ you’re doing. Because you have to be very loose, or generous, (or maybe looking for unifying patterns in unlikely places) with your definitions. To go from a technological singularity and futurism and to recast these as some kind of irrational millenarian or culturally-and-socially-apocalyptic movements with all of the religious and mystical overtones latent to those concepts seems a non-sequitur to me.

      “I believe we do see that singularitarian transhumanism is merging with broadly conceived “New Age” currents, and that the singularity is becoming a new candidate for the future “shift in consciousness” and transformation of the world that apocalyptically oriented New Agers have envisioned.”

      You could say almost any ‘radical thought’ about ‘anything of social importance’ could become a candidate for a ‘future shift in consciousness'; and then connect this to another movement. But this is way too vague and imprecise for my taste, sorry.

      “This claim, of course, is *not* the same as saying that all singularitarians are really New Agers. That would be a non sequitur, and it’s not one I can see that I’m making. ”

      I’m afraid I’m not sure what you’re saying. Is the singularity movement flowing into a larger river of New Age currents or is it not? Why obfuscate and split hairs about who is a ‘real New Ager’ and who isn’t? First you claim that transhumanism has become (or always was) a part of those New Agey currents yet you go on to say not all transhumanists are New Agers. It’s like you’re afraid to commit to a position. Is the New Age umbrella then to mean something or is it to mean nothing in this case, or is it to maybe mean what you want it to mean only whenever you need it to mean that?

      But the specifics here regarding New Ageisms are: Is he a religious pluralist or something like that in your mind? Does he talk about Mayan calendars or UFO’s or magical gem stones or is he dabbling into the occult or what? Where’s the mysticism? Where’s the inaccessible arcane knowledge which he is proposing? What makes his envisioning of this technological singularity and its social consequences ‘New Agey’. Because I’m not getting anything really New Agey from his writings. He is technical to the point of dullness even and the only time we notice any kind of ‘poetic license’ from him is when he talks through his alter ego Ramona (which is somewhat tongue in cheek and frivolous) and maybe a couple of paragraphs on what some of the social landscape might look like (i.e. transhumans, material abundance, etc) and that’s futurism. But if anything he tends to shy away from the esoteric and mystical. Maybe he should do more of THAT, I don’t know. When he says ‘spiritual machines’ for instance he only means machines which will be every bit as nuanced and as sophisticated and as capable as human beings. But many people misinterpret that. He doesn’t mean machines which will be mind-melding with Jesus.

      “As a scholar of religion, upsetting a few people along the road is inevitable. ”

      Well, first of all I’m not religious. Second, you haven’t really been convincing in showing how the singularity movement is ‘religious’ (you now admit to calling his ‘movement’ this by indirect implication here) for you to make a large claim like this. Third, what I’m most ‘upset’ about is inaccuracy. I still feel like you haven’t read Kurzweil, or if you did, you are misconstruing his thought. Again, he is a futurist who mostly shies away from the larger social and philosophical ramifications of his projected ‘singularity’, which he mostly broaches from a technological point of view. He focuses on technological trends and mentions that these will accelerate and come to a ‘mass’ at some point in the future as such that the changes will be disruptive (socially, economically, politically, etc). And when he says ‘spiritual’ he means as nuanced and as emotive and as creative as humans.

      More interesting to me is criticism that questions the scientific rigor of Kurzweil’s projection. That may be a weakness in his projections (Theodore Modis) but to cast his movement as ‘millenarian and apocalyptic’ (in your academic ‘senses’) or as part of a larger New Ageism (mysticism/religious pluralism/other nonsense) is a non-sequitur to me unless we are being very loose with the concepts here.

      Anyway, thanks for the response, apologies for the long reply, and peace.

      • I can’t respond to such a long post in full, but have the feeling there is too much talking past each other anyway. I’ll just draw out one example, which goes to the heart of it:

        “First you claim that transhumanism has become (or always was) a part of those New Agey currents yet you go on to say not all transhumanists are New Agers. ”

        Truth is, I never claimed anything like the first of those two. You’ll see that if you go to the original paper ms. (which I assumed was what we were talking about). I separate transhumanism as a historical current from the esoteric currents very clearly. However, I illustrated some *structural analogies* (making it very clear that that’s all they are) between the two, before arguing that we are starting to see a merging of these separate spheres in certain current movements. My main example of this is not Kurzweil himself, but rather the Russia 2045 movement of Mr. Itskov -- which events Kurzweil, of course, also frequents and endorses, but which also includes spokespersons coming out of New Age and other esoterically inclined currents. These distinctions are obviously very important, and should not be missed lest one get a completely wrong impression of the argument.

  3. What I mean by saying that I don’t consider myself a “critic of transhumanism” is that this is not my goal. I have much better things to do. ;) That is not to say that some of my independent analyses may be critical, and certainly come across as such to adherents. This is what it means to do serious scholarship: apply organized critical thought. As a scholar of religion, upsetting a few people along the road is inevitable. I do, however, hope that what I say is fair and reasonable and not based on misrepresentations. (My portrayal of Kurzweil’s views on the singularity should correspond well with his elaborate discussion in the Singularity Is Near).

    The link you post is certainly interesting. Self-report views on “religion” have very obvious limits, but its still interesting to know something about what people are prone to answer when asked these pretty simplistic questions. Also intriguing that the rather significant portion of “Other” (5.0) appears to include mostly “esoteric” oriented religious identities (Thelemites, chaos magicians, Gurdjieffians, etc.). That fits well with my observations. Thanks for posting.

    • transhumanisten

      Thanks again. I have no problem at all with criticism, -- notice I begin my article with: I am curious to learn what knockers -- and boosters alike are thinking...
      At the end of the day, it is up to “us” transhumanists ourselves to convince skeptics and the general public, that most of “us” are quite normal, that there is nothing diabolical about transhumanism, that we are deeply concerned about the human predicament, strive for the rights of all sentient beings and the abolition of suffering, that we are, basically, rational, scientifically minded, well educated avant-gardists. Some of us, hopefully most, are also highly empathetic, ethical.., e.g. Institute for ETHICS and Emerging Technologies -- (IEET), -- or check out David Pearce, a transhumanist very much to my personal liking..

  4. Re “apocalyptic”/”apocalypticism” I should also add that some ambiguity about terms is inevitable in translation between academic and popular forums. The paper we discussed above was given in an academic setting, with international experts on esotericism, gnosticism, alternative religiosity etc. in the room.

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