The Joy of Suffering: Towards a Romantic Transhumanism

romantic trans wb

I have a dog. Not just any dog: Ayla is the product of many generations of selection for hardiness, speed, intelligence, and extreme endurance. She’s a mix of several herding breeds, designed by cattlemen and sheepherders to travel long distances over rough terrain in harsh weather, to respond fearlessly to predators, to be simultaneously ultra-responsive to human commands and highly independent. As a result, my dog is a complex, potent being. And like any complex, potent being, she requires stimulation and challenge.

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That’s why I found myself scourged by icy pellets of wind-driven rain on a recent stormy afternoon. Standing on a bluff high above an unquiet grey sea, my body in sway to the bluster, chilly hands red and raw, I felt a surge of fierce joy. My very embodiment, my capacity to feel the sting of the rain, the force of the wind, seemed cause for celebration. My solitude amongst the howling trees and roaring water and racing, many-colored clouds drew me into the muscular embrace of the sublime, at once a singular self-contained consciousness, and a vessel filled with universal essence. It was glorious and raw and transcendent, and it wouldn’t have come about if I didn’t have a dog who needs lots of exercise.

The presence of pets in our lives is weird. While humans have been coexisting with animals for much of our history, they have, for the most part, had an easily identifiable purpose: Farm labor, hunting and herding help, transportation, pest control, food. Pets, in contrast, provide something far more amorphous and hard to define: They are companions, surrogate family members, projections of our identity and proclivities. But their actual utility is arguable. We spend money and time caring for them that we could devote to other pursuits. Keeping my dog happy and sane requires an enormous expenditure of energy on my part: She is a burden and a liability, even as she brings me great joy and pleasure.

As Hal Herzog argues convincingly in Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, there’s little reason to think that keeping pets provides measurable benefit. And yet – having Ayla prompted me to venture out into the cold and rain, to immerse myself in the intensity of untrammeled nature. This experience brought me unanticipated bliss, a deep sense of myself as an embodied being – and a resonant awareness of my own mortality. While her actual “use-value” might be nil, the unlooked-for benefits of having Ayla in my life are profound.

Just as we don’t “need” to keep animals around, there may come a time when we don’t “need” these fallible meat-bodies.

I’m firmly against the simple acceptance of received wisdom, the shrugging justification, “That’s just the way things are.” Some transhumanists argue that the stories we tell ourselves about death and suffering are just that: Hollow justifications made by people who had no other option but to accept the horror of consciousness’ obliteration. Now that technologies of cyberneticsradical life-extension, and uploading are beginning to seem not only possible, but likely, avenues of human enhancement, shouldn’t we do our utmost to lengthen human life and eliminate suffering?

Transhumanist thinkers have long wrestled with the ethical implications of life extension and human enhancement (see Nick Bostrom’s excellent summary of the literature, “A History of Transhumanist Thought”). However, the prevailing view among transhumanists is one of optimism and excitement. Far from impoverishing the human experience, they argue, the elimination of pain, suffering, and physiological and psychological limitations will enable us (and perhaps all sentient beings) to experience greater satisfaction and joy.

Novel technologies of human enhancement (ones that will perhaps obviate our need for bodies) present intriguing possibilities. But feeling the vulnerability of my form before the immensity of nature (and the concomitant awareness of myself as vigorous and vital) was an occasion for ecstasy. Experiencing the sting of rain on my exposed face, the chill of wind beneath my collar, the scent of my own acrid sweat, I was unafraid of my dissolution in death, even as I became acutely aware of its inevitability (or probability, at least). Yes, some would dismiss my response as mere self-delusion, a desperate attempt to drown out my own objections to impending mortality. But, just as I’m not compelled by the promise of an afterlife, the potential for a much longer lifespan or immortality in the material realm (or in a computer) doesn’t really excite me. Glimpsing the eternal from my limited, embodied vantage, on the other hand – that is glorious!

Just as owning a dog got me out into the fearsome, wild weather, and brought me a totally unexpected experience of transcendent joy, owning a body capable of suffering (with which my consciousness is inextricably entwined) yields unanticipated riches.* A posthuman being could experience more net joy, less suffering. A disembodied consciousness could experience entirely novel sensations many orders of magnitude more intense than those available to us primates. But our embodiment, as much as our technology, makes us human. Even as we are destined to evolve and change, there’s value in our current form. Our limitations are precious.

I’m a proponent of scientific endeavor and striving after progress. I embrace – revel in! – humanity’s complex and ever-changing relationship with technology. I’m open to a radical transformation of the human person through technological means. But all of this is tempered by respect for the depth of our connection with the irrational and the sublime, that which is mysterious and beyond our control. So – I’m going to go ahead and call myself a Romantic Transhumanist.

*Of course, some people’s (and non-human animals’) lives are characterized by almost unremitting suffering, and that’s troubling – but does that make the wholesale elimination of suffering a viable goal?

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One thought on “The Joy of Suffering: Towards a Romantic Transhumanism

  1. You misunderstand the historical concept of Romanticism. Romanticism is not synonymous with irrationalism; indeed, the historical development of the Romantic revolution hinges in large part upon an interpretation of Kant’s categorical imperative which, though individualist in contrast to Kant’s universalist understanding of the idea, still maintained, as Kant did, that, ‘to discover what I ought to do I have to listen to an inner voice’, and that this voice is Reason. Transhumanism is by definition Romantic, as fundamental to both philosophies is the idea that ‘the essence of man is self-mastery–the conscious choice of his own ends and form of life–[that] to be free is to issue laws to myself, [that] it is not authority from without, no matter how sublime the source [natural or divine], that constitutes the validity and truth of principles of action, but the fact that it is ordained by a free agent’. This mirrors closely the Eighth Affirmation of the Transhumanist Declaration: ‘We favour allowing individuals wide personal choice over how they enable their lives. This includes use of techniques that may be developed to assist memory,’ etc. There is no possible way to twist this to mean that the suffering of humankind must be eliminated without individuals’ explicit permission. If one wants to retain the biology and neural architecture of suffering, so be it; if it gives one pleasure and meaning overcome challenges and in doing so to experience pain–so be it. Suffering, masochism, and martyrdom are necessary elements of neither philosophy; the belief that long-sufferance is central to Romanticism is mistaken: Romantics do not place a premium on suffering, they merely, as you do, acknowledge that in some cases it can be beneficial as a means to a greater end. The term “Romantic Transhumanism” is tautological and rests on a misunderstanding of both philosophies..

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