End of the Human: Extinction or Transcendence?

Posthumanism, Transhumanism, and Superhumanism in the 21st Century

The symposium on Transhumanism, held on Sunday afternoon, May 13, 2012, was well attended and conducted through a set of four talks whose ideas (and related discussion) seemed to develop synergistically, though this was clearly unpremeditated.

The tone was set by Dr. Obadiah Harris, president of UPR, who read out his paper on “The Creative Aspect of Evolution.” Corresponding to a physical evolution, as introduced by Darwin, was the philosophy of an evolution of consciousness Dr. Harris drew on philosophy, religion and science, the three muses of the Philosophical Research Society, who have parted company in modern times, to show how an emergent evolutionary perspective could be seen at the base of each of these, when read deeply. Contemporary scientific theories of chaos pointed in the direction of the emergence of new complexities of order. This yielded the new science of emergent systems, which at the animate level, could be applied to the phenomena of consciousness. Dr. Harris also touched on the philosophy of evolutionary consciousness in our times and ended with the theological idea of evolving consciousness present in mystical Christianity. The movement towards the superhuman was the realization of Christ in man, according to this view, achieved through “conscious evolution,” not an unconscious process as in the rest of nature.

Dr. Harris’ talk was backgrounded by a number of modern philosophers whom he didn’t name explicitly, but whose ideas were clearly present in his views. Some of these thinkers were Henri Bergson, the philosopher of creative evolution, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the thinker of the noosphere, and Sri Aurobindo, the modern philosopher-yogi of India who spoke of human self-transcendence and the emergence of the superman. All these thinkers were referenced in the talks that followed.

The next talk was by Debashish Banerji, faculty at UPR and professor of Indian and Sri Aurobindo studies as well as an art historian. Dr. Banerji further specified the post-Enlightenment history of the Modern Age, showing its ideological nature and encapsulating its philosophy in G.W.F. Hegel’s Philosophy of History. Hegel’s philosophy however, left little creativity to humans, making them instruments of a cosmic agency (Time-Spirit or Zeitgeist) which worked out is experiments leading towards the emergence of Philosophic Man, the apotheosis of the European Enlightenment, who had arrived at perfect rationality due to the full emergence of the Logos. Banerji contrasted this vision with that of Friedrich Nietzsche, who displaced the cosmic agency of the Logos to the Will-to-Power, active in many forms, but in its higher forms, present as the creative Will-to-Aesthesis in the human being. This force led towards self-exceeding in the individual and presaged a state beyond the human, in the Overman (Ubermensch). Nietzsche was not unconscious of the more destructive aspects of the Will-to-Power, either as a blind will-to-survival or the fascist will-to-ideological-subordination or the will-to-technology. Banerji dwelt also on the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the postmodern philosopher of social media, Marshall McLuhan.

Rich Carlson followed Banerji’s talk with further considerations of Marshall McLuhan and the co-evolution of technology and human consciousness. Going back to Plato, Carlson, developed the idea of technology (particularly contemporary communication technologies) as pharmakon, something which could be curative or poisonous depending on its use. He drew on such contemporary thinkers as Jean Beaudrillard, Bernard Stiegler and Katherine Hayles to demonstrate how contemporary technology has broth us into an age in which simulacrum becomes collective reality, attention deficiency disorder abounds and deep attention is replaced by hyper attention and increasingly more real-time targeted stimulation. Carlson ended with the thinking of Friedrich Nietzsche and the late thought of Michel Foucault, calling for resistance at the individual level through the “disciplines of the self.” Carlson related these Greek-inspired systems of askesis with the ancient Hindu idea of tapas (or generation of heat through concentration), which returns in our times in the thought of Sri Aurobindo, who like Nietzsche, called for a human self-exceeding into the superman. Carlson dwelt further on Foucauldian processes of subjectivation (as opposed to the objectification of institutional and non-institutional modern discourse) and pointed to the dangers of the reification of future-seeing practitioners such as Sri Aurobindo, whose teachings run the risk of being turned into a religion, instead of remaining open as forms of experience. Carlson ended by pointing to the self-exceeding of the human as a possibility of “poetizing the self” in the Neitzschean, Foucauldian and Aurobindian sense and thus a practice refusing homogeneity and embracing instead a radical plurality.

Dr. Jon Dorbolo, director of technology across the curriculum at Oregon State University followed with a talk and power-point presentation on Collective Intelligence. He drew on a genealogy which began with the public library system in the US as a space of collective reference and dialog and expanded this through a history of communicative technologies of cross-referencing leading to hyper-text on cyberspace. The individual here was demonstrated by Dorbolo to be a participatory subjectivity in becoming, expanding through hyper-text into something perhaps akin to a cosmic consciousness. (Dorbolo did not use this term but it seemed to this author that the braiding of a plural text made such an expansion possible). It brought to mind the fact that though Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote of the first phase of an expansion beyond the human as a noogenesis, the development of a kind of cosmic mind, the second phase was seen by him to be a Christogenesis, the individuation of such a cosmic consciousness in each person. Such a vision would resonate with Dr. Harris’ mystical reading of a post-human evolutionary becoming in the teachings of Christ. Returning to the thought of McLuhan, if cyberspace could be thought of as a kind of impersonal collective or cosmic consciousness, with its pharmakon-like capacity to destroy individuality and deep attention or enable it, depending on its use, Dorbolo was pointing to the kind of agency of a will-towards-knowledge accessing a structurally pliable universal archive plurally and making for multiple individualized idea-cosmoses, expanding through self-practice. However, the dangers of self-fragmentation through the ubiquitous technologies of subjective targeting and control were no less severe here, but countered by the creative practice of hyper-attention. What this left unsaid but implicit, is that for this to be effective, what was needed at the individual level, was the cultivation of deep attention, a will-towards-knowledge which is an askesis in itself.

The final talk was by Dr. Makarand Paranjape, professor of culture studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India. Dr. Paranjape was visiting on a Science and Spirituality grant, so as to prepare the ground for an international conference on Transhumanism in New Delhi early next year. He acknowledged the various ideas which had been expressed and expressed the need for a dialog between the critique of technology in transhumanism and the seeking for a technological immortality by transhumanists such as Ray Kurzweil.

Tech-transhumanists see human beings at this stage of history working towards the construction of a new silicon and carbon hybrid lifeform which would far exceed the capacities of the human and into which human beings could “upload” their memories and subjective experiences. These would then be the overmen or supermen dreamed by prophets and philosophers, premised on the obsolescence of the human. The “deep problem of consciousness” is of course begged in such visions, which continue to equate consciousness with rationality, as per the project of the Enlightenment. Paranjape was also interested in the dimension of science fiction to project collective archetypes of future possibilities of human transcendence, both utopian and dystopian. He ended with an invitation to all participants to attend the international conference in New Delhi in early 2013.