Techno-immortalists who pine (in my view incoherently) after a spiritualized digital eternity as "uploads" take a measure of comfort from Egan's daring and dazzling and, above all, detailed fictional explorations of this terrain.
Where I look for (and inevitably find) provocation in Egan, I suspect many of the transhumanists are seeking plausibility in his work, hankering after a "reality effect" with which they can infuse their superlative aspirations, a welter of details sufficiently substantial to offer a hat-hook to the hyperbolic hat of their techno-utopian handwaving.
Where for me Egan rewards the suspension of disbelief with an enrichment of imagination, I fear that for many transhumanist-types he affords an ascension into True Belief that impoverishes sense.
It must have come as something of a shock, then, to read Egan's dismissal of much of the transhumanist "movement," so-called, in the comments section of Russell Blackford's blog Metamagician and the Hellfire Club a few days ago. I am going to devote a few posts to an engagement with Blackford's discussion, as well as to some of the other comments to his post, but I wanted to begin by quoting Egan's comments, with most of which I agree.
I am excerpting from a few different comments Egan made over time and in conversation, and so I strongly encourage people to follow the link to Blackford's blog for the full passages in their actual context, both the initial piece and ensuing conversation, all of which are well worth your attention.
Though a handful of self-described Transhumanists are thinking rationally about real prospects for the future, the overwhelming majority might as well belong to a religious cargo cult based on the notion that self-modifying AI will have magical powers….
While at some level it's good to insist that every quality of the human phenotype be subject to clear-eyed scrutiny, the word "Transhumanist" appears to suggest the foregone conclusion that everything about the present species is destined for the rubbish bin -- which neither accords with what most people who've considered the matter would wish for, nor does much to encourage anyone else to treat the movement seriously….
I share [the] concern that so many prominent Transhumanists are anti-egalitarian, but at this stage, quite frankly… I [simply] consider a self-description of "Transhumanist" to be a useful filter to identify crackpots….
The word "transhumanism" (or, even worse, "posthumanism") sounds like a suicide note for the species….
And I'm not sure quite how much solidarity I'm compelled to have with someone, just because they've also noticed that we're not going to see out the millennium with physical substrates identical to those we've had for the last 200,000 years. People who think their manifest destiny is to turn Jupiter into computronium so they can play 10^20 characters simultaneously in their favourite RPG are infinitely more odious and dangerous than the average person who thinks this whole subject is science-fictional gibberish and would really just like to have 2.3 children that are members of his/her own species, so long as they don't have cystic fibrosis and live a slightly better life than their parents.
I don't doubt that there are, also, some dangerously intemperate adherents to the notion of humanity retaining its ancestral traits forever.... But for actual deranged monomaniacs on this particular subject, the pro side has a far higher proportion of nutjobs than its opponents….
I don't want to single anyone out for disparagement, either here or in private, because I haven't actually read anyone's entire corpus. I don't spend much time reading academic papers on this subject, or Transhumanist manifestos; the impression I've gained of the movement comes largely through the popular media and random exposure to blogs by people self-describing as "Transhumanist", regardless of their affiliations and qualifications. A large number of those bloggers will be people whose names are not famous and who have no particular influence; nonetheless, they consider themselves to be part of the Transhumanist movement, and so surely they contribute something to the wider public's impression of what such a movement entails. As with, say, socialism, it's not the academic definition that interests the general public, it's the behaviour of people they know (either personally or through the popular media) who self-describe as socialist.
Now there are obviously some grave deficiencies with such a viewpoint; I mean, a similarly based impression of quantum mechanics would also yield a picture of a world dominated by crackpots. But while quantum mechanics has a sound historical and academic bedrock that can (largely) withstand all the noise that surrounds it, I'm much less sanguine about the T word, given that its origins lie as much in SF, SF fandom, and technopunditry as it does in bioethics and other fields of philosophy. There's nothing wrong with that; SF and various non-academic techno-boosterist subcultures ought to be inspirational. But the lines between what's imminent, what's plausible in the medium term, what's possible in the long-term, and what's sheer wish-fulfilment fantasy, remain utterly blurred for most "rank-and-file" Transhumanists I encounter on the web, and also (from my limited reading of them) a substantial number of more prominent commentators. It's this that prompted me to say, earlier, that to first order I consider a self-identification of "Transhumanist" to be a sign of a crackpot. While there are doubtless people to whom that's unfair, filtering out anyone who uses that label is a pretty reliable way to ensure that you don't end up wasting time reading people who've completely lost touch with reality.
Notice that Egan has not offered up a substantial critique of transhumanism here for the most part, nor has he tried to leave the impression that he has done. He is just testifying to impressions of transhumanism that seem to me to be pretty generally true of people (though transhumanists are very quick to deny this, often in something of a panic), but which become especially notable coming from a writer and thinker whose imagination shares common ground with so many transhumanist preoccupations.
Egan makes comments about the PR problems of any movement foolish enough to name itself "post-humanism" and then expect human adherents here and now, and worries that a movement with goals arising out of sf fandom is going to be bedeviled in general by hyperbole that renders it impractical. But he hasn't asked here the question whether it makes sense in the first place to organize a "movement" based on shared identity (and on the relative disparagement of those outside that identity) that seeks to achieve technodevelopmental outcomes that sweep the world, including those who share the world but not the subculture itself. This is not a "PR" problem to be addressed, as Blackford honestly and well-meaningly proposes, by insisting on greater "inclusiveness" and "outreach" by the sub(cult)ure. Exclusivity is built in to any identity politics model, sub(cult)ural movements always substitute a moralizing fantasy of prevailing over difference for the properly political work of the ongoing, and in fact interminable, reconciliation of the aspirations of the diversity of stakeholders with whom we share the world.
For me, the transhumanists make the mistake of hoping to circumvent the political altogether (the "anti-egalitarian" tendencies of many of its adherents that worry Blackford and Egan -- both those transhumanists who incline disturbingly in the direction of market-fundamentalist foolishness or toward eerily eugenicist parochialism -- are just the iceberg tip of this deeper anti-politicism in my view) through the application of transcendentalizing technologies.
What Egan dismisses as a rather muddled enthusiasm arising out of fandom, I think is in many (possibly most) cases better described as a pernicious commandeering of the uncertainties of disruptive technoscientific change by a constellation of uncritical True Beliefs, an investment of a superficially instrumental vocabulary with what I describe as super-predicated "outcomes" -- superintelligence, superlongevity, superabundance -- that both mime and mine the irrational energies of the theological imaginary: omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence. This suggests that the problem of transhumanist implausibility is not an accidental expression of overeager undereducated fans, but arises out of the very substance of transhumanism as such.
Richard Jones is a critic of Superlativity who focuses on the very questions of science that no doubt Egan would be most interested in himself, and Jones makes the point that the primary or at any rate unique content of transhumanism ultimately is confined to its rhetoric, its ideology, its subcultural idiosyncrasies. And hence it is to those dimensions of transhumanist discourse -- and not to the so-called "technical" questions that transhumanists at once hyperbolize beyond sense but then commandeer to create the impression of their relevance -- that we should turn if we would understand how transhumanism operates in the world, how it solicits identification among its members, how it impacts the discourse of technodevelopmental deliberation more generally and so on.