Interview With Meghan O'Gieblyn

Interview With Meghan O'Gieblyn

 Aspen Zhang

Aspen Zhang

Meghan O'Gieblyn is a writer whose essays have been published in, among other prestigious publications, n+1, Harper's Magazine, and the New York Times. For this issue of the Gadfly, we interviewed her about her essay "Ghost in the Cloud," which appeared in n+1 last spring. The essay explores how themes of Christian theology and eschatology have recurred in a new guise among Silicon Valley moguls. The piece combines cultural criticism with personal narrative — of her own 'transhumanist' salvation from the gloom of a recovering evangelical.

THE GADFLY: In your piece for n+1, you write that “many transhumanists ... contend that they are carrying on the legacy of the Enlightenment — that theirs is a philosophy grounded in reason.” You also note that individuals throughout the Enlightenment have attempted to harness science to achieve fantastical ends. Yet, ultimately, you imply that transhumanists’ belief in technological progress comes to resemble faith. Has this faith in reason simply replaced traditional religion in our quest for transcendence? Do you think it would ever be possible to abandon these “irrational” desires for immortality and adopt an attitude truly grounded in reason, or are these desires simply part of human nature?

MEGHAN O'GIEBLYN: Yeah, transhumanists often go to great lengths to emphasize that their philosophy is grounded in Enlightenment materialism and has nothing to do with mysticism or the supernatural. Max More, for example, has argued that transhumanism is a philosophy that “rejects faith, worship and the supernatural” and that focuses on “taking personal charge of creating better futures rather than hoping or praying for them to be brought about supernaturally.” But part of what I wanted to demonstrate in my essay is that science and Christian theology evolved in tandem and informed one another, even after the Enlightenment. And once you start looking at the lineage of ideas that led to transhumanism, the binaries between science and religion, or faith and reason, begin to get really blurry. Throughout history, there have been Christians who believed the prophecies in the Bible could be brought about materially, through science and technology. In fact, many of the figures transhumanists claim as intellectual predecessors, like the Russian Cosmists, or Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, were inspired by biblical prophecies about the resurrection and eternal life. Of course, contemporary transhumanists have basically tried to excise the religious legacy of these ideas, and have largely ignored the extent to which transhumanism grew out of Christian eschatology.

As to whether we can leave the desire for immortality behind— that’s a good question. John Gray, a British political philosopher I admire, has written about how we have not yet fully contended with the existential disruption of the Enlightenment—the fact that we were basically booted from our pedestal at the center of the universe. Even though we pay lip service to reason and materialism, there’s still this essentially religious desire to obtain transcendence and immortality. And I suppose that’s what I see when I read a lot of transhumanist writing: an ancient spiritual impulse expressed in the language of modern empiricism. I do think the desire for immortality is probably part of human nature. Christians often point to that longing as proof that there is another reality beyond this one (C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity: “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”). If you don’t believe in God, of course, the source of that longing is more elusive. And when you consider the persistence of that desire across history, it begins to seem somewhat tragic.

Is there something specific about Christianity that lends itself to the transhumanist cause, or do all religions share these traits? What about those that focus on one’s life on Earth, like Judaism?

Sure, there are lots of resonances one could draw—and that have been drawn—between transhumanism and other religions. There’s a way in which concepts like brain uploading or digital resurrection resemble the cycle of reincarnation, so there are obvious parallels with Eastern religions. And once you get into things like the Simulation Hypothesis (the idea that the world is a computer program) there are strong resonances with Gnosticism, particularly the idea that the world is an illusion, or a false world, behind which lurks the true world and the true God.

I think what’s unique to Christianity is the idea that history is a cumulative, teleological narrative that ends with the glorification of the body and the restoration of the Earth to its original, Edenic perfection. This is where I see very strong parallels between Christian eschatology and transhumanism. In The Age of Spiritual Machines, for example, Ray Kurzweil goes all the way back to the Stone Age to demonstrate how technological developments across history have been gradually building toward the Singularity. So there’s this idea that all of history is leading toward a moment of radical transformation. It’s a cohesive, linear story, moving in one direction. Kurzweil sees Moore’s Law—the idea that computing power increases at an exponential rate—as the guiding hand that is going to make that final glorification possible, whereas Christians would argue that God is steering history to its final culmination. This teleological view of history is what’s most interesting to me about transhumanism, and this is something that you don’t really see in Eastern religions, or early Judaic literature, both of which maintain a more cyclical view of history.

There seem to be many flavors of transhumanism that differ in both their technological approaches and their ideas about technology. Can you talk a little bit about these differences as well as what unifies them under the umbrella of ‘transhumanism’?

Nick Bostrom calls transhumanism a “loosely defined movement,” so there are a lot of different schools of thought that fall under its umbrella. There are hedonistic transhumanists, survivalist transhumanists, Buddhist transhumanists. The list goes on. I suppose what unites them is the idea the humanity can use science and technology to transcend its limitations — that’s probably the most general, nutshell definition of transhumanism. But yes, all the different factions disagree on all sorts of things, from the definition of transhumanism to the timeline of when various technologies will be realized. It would be impossible to delineate all those differences here, but one debate I find interesting, and which I wrote about in my essay, is the ongoing disagreements on the question of technological resurrection—particularly disagreements between transhumanists who, on one hand, believe we can transcend the body (through uploading the brain onto a super computer, for example) and those who believe the resurrection must reanimate the entire human form (through cryonics and other methods). What’s interesting is that this is exactly the same debate that divided the early church fathers back in the second and third centuries. One contingent of theologians believed that only the spirit would ascend to heaven after death, while another group—which eventually became the orthodox Christian position—believed that the entire body would be resurrected. I find it somewhat comical that transhumanists are now rehearsing these theological debates, seemingly without any awareness that those questions are part of a much older Christian tradition.

To what extent do you think the figures who label themselves ‘transhumanists’ truly believe in the cause? Or do they treat it more as idle speculation? Does the monetary interest drive the ideology (similar, perhaps, to the benefits of participating in the Church), or does an antecedent transhumanist doctrine lead to the creation of technologies that just happen to be profitable?

As in the church, I think there are transhumanists who are true believers and are actively working to bring about the world to come. And then there is a more casual sort of adherent who is interested in the theories mostly as speculation. Transhumanists don’t have membership jackets or secret handshakes or anything (at least to my knowledge), so it seems like anyone who’s basically an enthusiast can identify by that label, and that enthusiasm can take a lot of different forms.

As far as the money question: It’s somewhat unsettling to me that a lot of these advanced technologies are being developed in the profit-driven sector, at places like Google, Tesla, Apple, and SpaceX. The technologies under development increasingly raise difficult ethical questions, but they are being pursued in environments where the conversation is primarily about profit. There were rumors back in 2014 that Google was going to establish an ethics board after it acquired a startup that specialized in machine-learning algorithms. The fear was that the technology could evolve into self-replication, which is basically an AI nightmare scenario. But it turned out the ethics board was just a PR stunt.

Another question on the economic side of things is: who is going to have access to these technologies and whom are they going to benefit? And yeah, there are probably some parallels here with Christian theology, which depends on the idea of an “elect.” Not everyone gets to go to heaven. Not everyone lives to see the promised land. As kids, we used to watch these movies at church about the Rapture, where all the Christians are suddenly zapped up to heaven, leaving their clothes behind, and all these sad people who weren’t saved have to stick it out on earth. If technology did reach the point where people could become posthuman, it would basically add an existential component to our existing inequality, such that the wealthy and powerful would evolve into another species, leaving everyone else behind.

You write that “the contemporary iteration of the [transhumanist] movement arose ... among a band of tech-industry people with a libertarian streak.” Do these political views manifest themselves in the movement’s aims, and are there other, non-libertarian forms of transhumanist politics?

Transhumanists in the 1980s and 1990s were mostly libertarian, back when they were still calling themselves “Extropians.” It seems like a lot of transhumanists today are still of that political persuasion, though I’m not really sure why. It may have something to do the undercurrent of social Darwinism in both ideologies, or the fact that transhumanists see government regulation as an obstacle to developing some of their more radical ideas. Some high-profile transhumanists like Zoltan Istvan have explicitly argued that transhumanism is an expression of libertarian ideals. On the other hand, there was a piece earlier this year in The American Conservative arguing that transhumanism was “an abomination” of libertarian principles. So it doesn’t seem to cut both ways.

I think transhumanism, like a lot of ideologies, has become more politically diverse as it's become more popular as a movement. There are transhumanists today who are liberal democrats, some of whom call themselves “technoprogressives.” Some of these progressives, on the more extreme end of things, want a one-world government controlled by intelligent machines. Then there are anarcho-transhumanists who want to abolish the state entirely.

Both Christianity and transhumanism seek to conquer death. For transhumanists, though, is immortality the end of humanity’s struggle or the beginning of a new one? Will technology bring about a living paradise, or is there a problem so central to the human condition that technology cannot solve it?

One thing transhumanists hate is when people accuse them of seeking “perfection.” This is something Nick Bostrom has written about, as well as Max More. Both of them insist that transhumanism is an ideology of “perpetual progress.” Presumably, once we conquer death and achieve immortality, there will still be more things to optimize and fine-tune. I suspect they’re so averse to the idea of perfection because achieving it would mean the end of innovation, and also the end of desire. And there’s naturally a sense of dread that accompanies that idea—the same dread I used to feel as a kid when people talked about how wonderful it will be in heaven when all our desires are satisfied. I think most people are horrified by the idea of the perfection. And there are moments when I’m reading transhumanists and I experience the same uneasiness I felt about heaven as a child. For example, here’s Nick Bostrom writing about what it will be like to be posthuman:

You have just celebrated your 170th birthday and you feel stronger than ever. Each day is a joy. You have invented entirely new art forms, which exploit the new kinds of cognitive capacities and sensibilities you have developed. You still listen to music—music that is to Mozart what Mozart is to bad Muzak. You are communicating with your contemporaries using a language that has grown out of English over the past century and that has a vocabulary and expressive power that enables you to share and discuss thoughts and feelings that unaugmented humans could not even think or experience. You plan a certain new kind of game which combines VR-mediated artistic expression, dance, humor, interpersonal dynamics, and various novel faculties and the emergent phenomena they make possible, and which is more fun than anything you ever did during the first hundred years of your existence. When you are playing this game with your friends, you feel how every fiber of your body and mind is stretched to its limit in the most creative and imaginative way, and you are creating new realms of abstract and concrete beauty that humans could never (conceivably) dream of....Things are getting better, but already each day is fantastic.

I assume Bostrom means for this to sound appealing, and you can tell he’s trying very hard to demonstrate that posthumanity is going to involve creativity and community, that it isn’t going to be this static endpoint where we just float around contentedly. But I still feel a sense of dread whenever I read this passage. I’m not sure why. Something about every day being “a joy.” I don’t really want to live in that world.

At the end of the n+1 essay, you seem to question whether the religious fervor that surrounds transhumanism means we should not continue to pursue it anyway. In this same vein, do you think all projects that seek to fend off death (you even bring up exercise) have a religious aspect to them? Does that make them or the goal of immortality less worthwhile?

I definitely feel, in my own experience, that things like exercise and fitness are informed by some underlying desire for transcendence— or to put it less charitably, the delusion that I’m going to reverse the course of entropy. And I do sense that impulse in a lot of fitness and optimization movements. It’s become somewhat fashionable these days to point out how things like CrossFit, yoga, or the Paleo diet have a cultish or religious aspect to them. It seems not coincidental that this obsessive focus on the body has arisen at a time when many Western nations are becoming more secular and have stopped believing in immortality. Maybe physical optimization is our paltry substitute for the bodily glorification we once hoped for.

I don’t think that any idea or pursuit is less credible simply because it has religious undertones. Lots of people have already criticized transhumanism on those grounds, dismissing people like Kurzweil or Elon Musk as “evangelists,” or “prophets,” as though the fact that they display a religious-like fervor or use spiritual metaphors discredits their theories. To my mind, that’s not really a valid criticism. The point of my essay was instead to put transhumanism in a historical context and demonstrate how transhumanist ideas about immortality or the resurrection of the dead are actually part of a longer tradition. I do believe that once you look at that larger context and consider how many people across history have tried to achieve these things, you naturally have a more sober—and perhaps more skeptical—view of the objectives transhumanists believe they can achieve in their lifetimes.

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