Religion & Philosophy / Social Justice / Society & Politics

A humanism that forgets too many humans?

Curse you, internet, for the unending curiosities. This afternoon, I randomly stumbled upon a peculiar blog while poking around on a website about Brave New World, and it’s currently sending me down a whole new rabbit trail of ideas.

It’s a blog titled A Cosmist Manifesto, at it’s basically a rough draft of a book that someone named Benjamin Goertzel wrote a few years ago.  Its main topic struck my interest because at first glance it seems to be loosely relevant to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, which is currently getting a fresh update via Neil deGrasse Tyson. I am an avid, fervent, rabid fan of the late Carl Sagan and I count his series Cosmos among the top lost of things that have significantly, and irreversibly, impacted my worldview.

And, contained within that blog, it seems there is finally a label for the awe-inspiring, mind-blowing paradigm that makes the stars glitter a bit brighter, makes the mysteries of science and nature of paramount importance, and calls upon the values of humanism and human ambition to solidify a sense of global community and intrinsic responsibility. It is, roughly:

Cosmism: a practical philosophy focused on exploring, understanding and enjoying the cosmos, in its inner, outer and social aspects

Cosmism advocates
-pursuing joy, growth and freedom for oneself and all beings
-ongoingly, actively seeking to better understand the universe in its multiple aspects, from a variety of perspectives
-taking nothing as axiomatic and accepting all ideas, beliefs and habits as open to revision based on thought, dialogue and experience

That’s a pretty wide umbrella, but it’s nice to have an -ism for my inclinations. It seems to be closely related to the concept of transhumanism, and I say that mainly because it was on a list of links regarding Transhumanism.

I haven’t read very far into transhumanism, and I think it sounds pretty interesting. It brings to mind the sort of imaginative future reminiscent of Isaac Asimov’s The Last Question, which is the sweeping, billions-of-years chronicle of the future of humankind in the universe (if you haven’t read it, it’s quick read and quite intriguing. I feel ambivalent towards the ending, but I get it, and it’s fun to discover). Perhaps, as imagines Asimov in his story and transhumanists in general, we will somehow merge with technology, or totally overcome human limitations through technology, or even evolve beyond our current point as a species, closely influenced by our relationship with the technology we create.

While I find it compelling, and acknowledge its relevance in world with ubiquitous technology, I’m not totally on board with it. At least, I’m not going to spend a significant amount of my mental/emotional/social/activist/etc capital focusing on transhumanist concerns or debates. However, I say all that with only having a very light familiarity with the concept, as I have not read anything beyond simple summaries of what transhumanism is. Still, I have my suspicions about it. This quote from the Wikipedia article I linked earlier (and here is another link, in case you missed it) sums up exactly what my current reservations are:

Some secular humanists conceive transhumanism as an offspring of the humanist freethought movement and argue that transhumanists differ from the humanist mainstream by having a specific focus on technological approaches to resolving human concerns (i.e. technocentrism) and on the issue of mortality.[46] However, other progressives have argued that posthumanism, whether it be its philosophical or activist forms, amount to a shift away from concerns about social justice, from the reform of human institutions and from other Enlightenment preoccupations, toward narcissistic longings for a transcendence of the human body in quest of more exquisite ways of being.[47] In this view, transhumanism is abandoning the goals of humanism, the Enlightenment, and progressive politics.

That’s where I’m having difficulty getting too excited about transhumanism, or this new term of Cosmism. Transhumanism seems to exist in a bubble of first world problems, and cosmism seems to find fantasy such as Asimov’s to be a real possibility. I don’t doubt that technology can get there, or that there is a “posthuman” quality to the direction that technology is headed – I just think it might not be as practical as the author, Benjamin Goertzel, or other transhumanist claim it is.

Goertzel says it is a “practical philosophy,” which he defines as “a world-view and value-system — but one that, in addition to containing abstract understanding, provides concrete guidance to the issues we face in our lives.” I can see that. It’s practical like Daoism or humanism or any other philosophy is practical, in that you can adopt it as a framework for how you see and conduct yourself in the world and for how direction may be proposed for the operations of society at large.

But, even with my concessions in that regard, I have this nagging thing in the back of mind that pins this whole thing – however attractive or inspirational it may be – as so… so.. what’s a good way to put it? It’s like it forgets about the rest of the world. It strikes me as the brainchild of an upper-middle-class secular-minded tech geek who’s seen Cosmos more times than I ever have, who has read more philosophy works than I ever have, and follows things like Less Wrong ferociously (don’t get me wrong, love me some good brain-pickin’ rationality too, every once in a while)… who saw the fabulous advent of something like Google Glass and thought, “by golly, technology is becoming a part of us!” I say that a bit facetiously, and I’m as giddy as the next guy over how cool electronics stuff is, but transhumanism strikes me as the product of seeing the glitter of the Apple Store while ignoring the homeless guy down on the corner. It’s a humanism that forgets too many humans. I’ll put it that way.

This technology stuff – everything from increasingly functional artificial limbs to cell phones more powerful than the computers that first sent us to the moon, to the ubiquity of the internet, to cloud storage and telescopes and cloning and genetic engineering, and all manner of eye-popping, goosebumpy innovation – is, indeed, fantastic. It is, indeed, improving at an accelerated rate. We’re connected across the globe, breaching the confines of outer space, and curing diseases. It’s great!

But, who is enjoying all of this innovation? Who is surrounded by this shining explosion of invention? Who is puzzling over the details of physics, cosmology, chemistry, engineering, programming? Who is participating in the economy that makes these things available? Certainly not the billions of people across the world who are starving, abused, caught in all manner of conflict, and trapped in multi-layer webs of poverty and oppression.

Transhumanism and Cosmism are wonderful to explore, but I fear the propensity to focus on those subjects and leave the rest of the world behind. I simply can’t put so much stock into a philosophy that seems to think humanity is on a one-way track to some sort of singularity, some proliferation of artificial intelligence, some merging with feats of engineering, or the like… when it is really only a small slice of the earth’s population that can really find the time to dream of that.

I love Cosmos, I love imagining the grand possibilities of the future of our species, and I love philosophical quandaries as much as any hungry intellect. I certainly am among those in the world who can sit in front of a computer and type and re-type words on a screen to an empty audience, whiling away my time with the thoughts bouncing around in my head. I marvel at glittery things, and ignore the destitution around me. I’m guilty.

I just feel, in any case, it is absolutely necessary to keep one foot down to earth, as it were. I am suspicious of any philosophy or worldview or prediction that might forget the earth as it is right now, as it is in this very moment. It’s not that I or you or anyone can necessarily go and do anything about it right now, but I believe there is currently necessary attention that must be paid to the condition of humanity as it is in the present, before we can – as a conglomerate forum of minds across academia and other similar realms – put too much stock in a fantastical future that still sounds more like science fiction rather than emerging reality.

Having said all that, I don’t reject it outright. I just think it’s worth emphasizing and pointing out the risk of leaving the world behind, with its current tumults and troubles and deeply fucked-up situations that prevent most of the human population from even remotely being able to follow the tech geeks of the world into a transhumanist future.

And, also having said all that, I must provide the caveat of my earlier admission: I haven’t read or explored very deeply into transhumanist sources. This, very obviously, is a first impression. A glance. I’ve saved a copy of the PDF file for A Cosmist Manifesto with the future intent of reading it (good lord, my reading list is getting longer than the average human life span), and I’ll certainly be perusing that list of transhumanism links. It’s only fair – My current impression could be totally off-base. I generally assume most things are far more nuanced than I take them to be at first glance, and I’m probably sympathetic towards most of the ideas contained therein anyway.

In conclusion, I’ll leave you with a word from a mind who did always manage to keep the world as it is within the scope of his grand, cosmic purview:

The choice is with us still, but the civilization now in jeopardy is all humanity. As the ancient myth makers knew, we are children equally of the earth and the sky. In our tenure on this planet we’ve accumulated dangerous evolutionary baggage — propensities for aggression and ritual, submission to leaders, hostility to outsiders — all of which puts our survival in some doubt. But we’ve also acquired compassion for others, love for our children and desire to learn from history and experience, and a great soaring passionate intelligence — the clear tools for our continued survival and prosperity. Which aspects of our nature will prevail is uncertain, particularly when our visions and prospects are bound to one small part of the small planet Earth. But up there in the immensity of the Cosmos, an inescapable perspective awaits us. There are not yet any obvious signs of extraterrestrial intelligence and this makes us wonder whether civilizations like ours always rush implacably, headlong, toward self-destruction. National boundaries are not evident when we view the Earth from space. Fanatical ethnic or religious or national chauvinisms are a little difficult to maintain when we see our planet as a fragile blue crescent fading to become an inconspicuous point of light against the bastion and citadel of the stars.

. . .

Human history can be viewed as a slowly dawning awareness that we are members of a larger group. Initially our loyalties were to ourselves and our immediate family, next, to bands of wandering hunter-gatherers, then to tribes, small settlements, city-states, nations. We have broadened the circle of those we love. We have now organized what are modestly described as super-powers, which include groups of people from divergent ethnic and cultural backgrounds working in some sense together — surely a humanizing and character building experience. If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth. Many of those who run the nations will find this idea unpleasant. They will fear the loss of power. We will hear much about treason and disloyalty. Rich nation-states will have to share their wealth with poor ones. But the choice, as H. G. Wells once said in a different context, is clearly the universe or nothing.

Cosmos (book) by Carl Sagan

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