Presidential candidates currently fall into two camps. In the first, you have about 20 Republican and Democratic front-runners who have received political endorsements or significant national attention. In the second, you have the remaining 1,200 candidates who, according to the Atlantic, are essentially passionate, quirky people who want to be heard.
That includes local yahoos, religious fundamentalists, and fictional characters (with online filing, you’re bound to get a “Deez Nuts”), but there are also savvy activists in the mix, who use fringe campaigns to publicize a single issue. Democratic candidate Lawrence Lessig, for example, promises to pass sweeping campaign finance reform and then immediately resign.
Fringe presidential campaigns are a great American tradition. Yet I must admit that when I first learned of the new Transhumanist Party, I rolled my eyes just a little bit. Transhumanism is an intellectual movement that heralds a radical transformation of the human condition as humanity and technology eventually meld together and create a post-human world of nanobots, immortality, and godlike artificial intelligence. It’s a delightfully weird blend of science fiction and fact, where technological forecasting slips into eschatology.
The eye-roll came when I learned that the Transhumanist Party’s presidential candidate, Zoltan Istvan, is campaigning to end tax subsidies for religion and divert that money to scientific research. Transhumanism itself could be considered a new religious movement that, as A. David Lewis argues, enshrines technology as humanity’s ultimate savior. Does American politics really need yet another religious movement demanding preferential treatment?
RD reached out to Istvan by phone and asked some hard questions about transhumanism as a philosophy and a movement. He may not have won my vote, but Istvan won me over during our discussion of religious subsidies, global warming, and why transhumanism skews white and male. We also explored the spiritual elements of Istvan’s own thinking and debated about whether transhumanism should embrace its religious overtones.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What is transhumanism, and why a Transhumanist Party?
Transhumanism is an international movement of a couple million people now, around the world, that is trying to use science and technology to radically change the human being and the human experience. Most of the movement is centered on the health of the species itself, especially on longevity issues—trying to live a lot longer. The Transhumanist Party was formed as a political vehicle to give the movement some more teeth when dealing with legalities, government, and social issues.
The movement itself is mostly engineers, technologists, futurists, and scientists. We formed the Transhumanist Party as a way to get on the front lines, so that we actually have a political entity that could come up with policy. This has been important because without being in the political game, you really just don’t get very far. You need attorneys and lobbyists to get your voice heard.
What are some political issues or philosophical values that you consider to be underrepresented in contemporary politics?
As part of my presidential campaign, we’re driving across the country to deliver a Transhumanist Bill of Rights to the U.S. Capitol building. We sort of see it like Martin Luther with the 95 Theses, centuries ago. We’re trying to mandate that, that no matter what one’s cultural or religious perspective, you cannot stop health and life extension technologies. In this instance, we point to George W. Bush, who was able to stop stem cell funding for seven years, essentially because of his religious views.
We want to make it law that you’re not able to go against science just because it violates a cultural or a religious perspective.
Another very important issue is that there’s not enough funding for some of the great technologies that are out. It’s crazy the nation spends ten times the amount on bombs than it does on science research, so we want to reverse that. We would like to make that a very different figure so that we spend a huge amount more money on science and medicine for the American citizenry.
What do you think of religious subsidies—the approximately $80 billion a year that the American government spends on religious institutions through reduced income, property, and investment taxes?
We would remove every single one of those deductions. Of course, I say that knowing that that would be an impossibility. But that would be the goal, to remove those types of incentives [and create] a much more fair playing field for the secular-minded folks out there who also have projects that may not be getting the same types of benefits. I actually don’t want to give benefits to anyone doing these projects. I just think it should be a fair playing field. So the idea is we would try to take away those subsidies and put it back into the system.
Personally, I would put it directly into education. One of our main policies at the Transhumanist Party is we want to provide totally free education. And I’m actually also for mandating that everyone in the country goes to college. In the age of much longer life spans, it’s very likely that anyone under twenty will live to one hundred and fifty years old. So, as a nation, if we’re going to be living longer, we should also probably have longer legal educational periods. So I’m also advocating for making college mandatory, just like high school is mandatory. That way, we have a society that’s much more educated and hopefully better to itself.
What is your position on global warming, and what solutions would you explore as president?
Our party, one hundred percent, believes in global warming. There’s no question about it, that it’s happening, and it’s a sad thing. However, there’s also no way to stop global warming at this point. We lost that battle thirty years ago. That was a mistake our species made and we’re now going to have to pay for it. So the Transhumanist Party doesn’t emphasize reducing the carbon footprint as much as it emphasizes the technologies we can use to overcome [its effects.]
What can we do to make it so that the human being can survive any kind of environmental catastrophe? Over the next ten or twenty years, many people are going to become more machine-like. I have a biochip in my hands, my father already has multiple heart [implants], a grandmother has an artificial hip. We are becoming cyborg-like and, when they start coming out with things like robotic hearts and kidneys, there’s no question that we’re going to start remaking our bodies to be much healthier. What would the human being need to survive?
These are the kinds of ways we want to attack the green problem. It is very unique and a bit radical, but unfortunately we blew it as a species and there’s no turning the ship of global warming around any more. It’s too late.
You’ve written that we might go so far as to leave our physical forms completely and become “virtual avatars.” Could you explain that?
It’s just a matter of time before we figure out how to get every single thought in our head—or at least a basic configuration of our brain—into a machine that actually has consciousness. It might be thirty years out, but it’s a radical change that many are spending a lot of money [researching]—Google specifically.
We think that at some point in the future, people might want to have virtual avatars of themselves. If we had the Empire State Building filled with servers, we could potentially recreate all the neural connections of every single living person on earth. You could fit the entire species in one single building, and they could just exist as virtual lives there. It would almost be like The Matrix.
That is one way to fix some of the environmental problems because humans wouldn’t need the planet as it is. I am a big believer in mind uploading. I think it may hold the easiest and most secure path to indefinite life spans of the species over the next hundred years.
In the short term, there’s work to be done in your party. You’ve written before about the need to increase gender and ethnic diversity within transhumanism, which skews white and male.
White males, yes. I fight this all day long. I’m married to an ob-gyn who is a very strong woman and I come from a family of powerful females. I love that, and so it is sad to me that the transhumanist movement has been dominated by white males.
The great thing about transhumanism is that it is, perhaps, the most non-discriminatory philosophy on the planet. I mean, we have people that want to become fish! There’s no sense of bigotry in the transhumanist movement. Unfortunately, because it’s so radical, it may also be alienating.
The good news is that the white male thing seems to be disappearing. I’m seeing a huge amount of Indian, Chinese, Asian, even Latin-American people very interested in transhumanism. There’s even religious transhumanists now, so it’s all crossed the border. We are having a struggle to get women as a part of the movement. One of my highest priorities for the campaign is to try to change that.
You recently compared transhumanism to the LGBTQ movement, pointing to the overlapping desire for freedom of bodily expression. Isn’t there a difference, though, between LGBTQ advocates who argue for broadening our vision of embodying gender, and transhumanists who dream of totally escaping the body through virtual avatars? I can’t help but think that this is related to the white male problem. Moving beyond the material body—with all of its culture, history, and tradition—is probably less attractive to communities like the LGBTQ, or people of color, who have had to fight for the right to have those bodies in the first place.
That was one of the more important articles I’ve written, and I was trying to be careful not to say that, you know, they’re going to evolve directly into transhumanism. They have their own movement and their own sense of identity, and even amongst the LGBT movement there’s a lot of different factions vying for what the movement actually is.
And, of course, transhumanism is something different. We’re advocating for becoming essentially something entirely different. It might even be bodiless in the future. The connection is that we support this concept called “morphological freedom,” which is the basis of the movement and the party. Morphological freedom is where you can do anything you want with your body so long as it doesn’t hurt somebody else. And when it concerns science and technology, the more you do, the better.
Morphological freedom is an attractive concept, and I agree that we should be open to thinking about new relationships between technology and humanity. Personally I don’t believe that there’s any one morally correct way to be human, or that technology is essentially good or evil, but many critics of transhumanism, I think, fear that technology will alter some vision of human life that they happen to cherish.
And yet I get the sense that many transhumanists don’t believe technology to be neutral—they consider it to be inherently good. They espouse their own cherished vision, in which the highest possible human virtue is to become technology itself. How can the Transhumanist Party remain secular while, simultaneously, promoting this ultimate good?
In my opinion, the difference really is the word secular versus reason. I like to think that while we are now a secular movement, and I emphasize secularism all the time, I think beyond that is reason. That’s what I try to base all my choices on. We need to be motivated by logic, and if we’re motivated by logic then we’re going to make choices that are better than anything else that we could come up with.
I agree with you, too—I’m not a big fan of people saying technology is good or evil one way. I just think technology is what it is. I do think the universe has been imbued with a sense of evolution or a sense of progress. It seems to me, I’m not 100% sure, but the universe is evolving into something. And I like that evolutionary process. I’m a fan of the evolutionary process. I think reason is one of the main reasons that the evolutionary process is now progressing forward so fast.
I don’t want to even pretend that [an advanced future will be] devoid of all religion or spirituality. The reason that I like the scientific method, which I base everything on, is that it never allows you to be correct. It allows you to make the best decision at the time, given all the circumstances you have in front of you. And I just don’t believe in truth.
I think we have the best attempt to reach these truths, and we can make the best decisions as we have all this information in front of us, but the scientific method would always say: you’re going to have to re-prove it. I think that humility is the cornerstone of an advancing species. It’s the ability to say “I don’t know, but I’m going [to] move forward carefully with reason.”
I agree with your pragmatism about truth, but the Nietzschean in me wants to push back against your teleological description of the universe. I don’t think the universe is characterized by inherent progress so much as endless variation. A small fraction of that variation includes human history, which is great, but we shouldn’t endow that random walk with a sense of purpose.
So transhumanism offers a teleological cosmology and eschatological visions of a utopic future where we’ve escaped our bodies into a new holographic reality, where we may even have unlimited happiness and health and personal power. At the risk of being pedantic: this feels religious to me. The Transhumanist Party’s position that we need to be done with religion—is that a pot calling the kettle black?
I’m declared atheist. But I know that my atheism is, of course, impossible to really know. No one can know whether God exists or God didn’t exist. So truly it’s an agnostic position. But for cultural reasons I always say I’m an atheist because I have seen firsthand—having gone to Catholic school and read history books—that we’ve been oppressed for a long time and there’s still way too much religiosity inside the system. And so this is my cultural stance, you might call it.
But I’ve also argued, in some of my writings, for some really bizarre stuff. In fact, have you read that article at Vice about theistcideism that I wrote?
No, I haven’t. I’ll check it out.
It argues that, given the fact that the universe is 14 billion years old, and that there are 2 billion habitable planets, it would be incredibly amazing if we were the only advanced life form. In fact, it’s totally impossible from a statistical point of view that we would be the only ones. There are probably thousands and thousands of other life forms far more advanced than us in the universe just given the sheer numbers.
Given how close we are to developing artificial intelligence right now, it’s also easy to think that another species did that on a planet somewhere far away and changed the universe. Given the fact that we’ll have A.I. in two hundred years that will potentially be a million times smarter than us, it could expand through the universe very quickly. I wrote this article suggesting that the very first artificial intelligence that came into being in the universe may have created a system where it would have killed itself and built into this system what I call the “singularity disparity” where no other singularity could be as great as the first singularity.[Ed.- This loosely parallels the Kabbalist concept of tzimtzum.]
The reason that this is important is that it guarantees free will in the system that we have right now from a philosophical point of view. I call it theistcideism because it’s an atheistic philosophy that says God killed him or herself. I suggest it just for reading, and it gives a little bit more complexity into my ideas. While I stand pretty strong behind my atheism, it would be crazy for me to actually suggest that I understand all these things.
The one thing I do understand is that I just don’t like formal religions. They’re so naïve. If we’re talking about something that is much more complex, like we’re living in a holographic universe that’s probably unintelligible to us, that would be something that I would be much more inclined to think. And I put these articles out there just because I think it helps broaden my sense of spirituality, because there is a sense of spirituality even in my secularism.
It just happens to be very science-fictiony, it’s very far-fetched. I’m not interested in discussing Jesus. I’m interested in discussing why super intelligence might want to have nothing to do with us, except let us run through systems and algorithms for an infinite amount of time. Those are the questions that I talk about when I really get into spirituality.
Would it be fair to say that, just as the Transhumanist Party is bringing a new voice into politics, your own transhumanism is bringing new concepts into spirituality and metaphysics? And that, therefore, the religious elements of transhumanism aren’t inconsistencies, but useful features?
I’m very open to Christian transhumanists, Mormon transhumanists. I mean, yes, I might argue against them in my articles but there’s no way that we would ever say they couldn’t be a part of the party. We want to be as open and transparent as possible, so I may moan and complain in my stories, but it’s an open-arm party—so they’re welcome if that’s the way they want to do it. This is a secular-minded party, and so if you’re going to try to convince me that the blood and the body of Jesus needs to be eaten in order to be forgiven of sins, that doesn’t work with me.
That said, we keep ourselves open so that the community doesn’t itself become too fractured. I’m always trying to say that no matter what you do, whatever you believe, we’re all at sort of different stages of our evolutionary trajectory of spiritual development—if you want to call it that, or just psychological development, which is better for me. We can accept everything, but let’s focus on the larger metaphysical concepts, let’s focus on a lot more of the things that don’t get us into the rituals. The rituals kill me. I’ve been writing an article right now on the pope and his ban on contraceptives. This is outrageous; we need bigger metaphysical positions than this.
If our readers are not convinced to vote for the Transhumanist Party, what can they take away from your campaign to help guide their vote next year?
Your readers should pick the politician that’s most open-minded. This is why I’ve said that I would probably favor, at the end of the day, the Democratic nominee, whoever that’s going to be, because I know that their social policies are more tied to morphological freedom and funding science. Some of the Republicans have a history of using their religious ideas to stifle funding for science.
Pick the candidate that’s going to be the most pro-science, and I mean pro-science in a philosophical way. [The candidate should be] ready to allow robots into our homes, to allow CRISPR technology that’s going to give our children ten more IQ points through genetic treatments. The question is: which politician is going to be the easiest one to guide us down this thorny path of evolution?
If the right candidate reached out to you, would you settle for Veep?
One hundred percent. [laughter]
As much as I would like to do what I want to do, I have no real chance of winning right now. I think it would be nice to have a transhumanist in the cabinet saying, “Hey, these are interesting things, let’s have a real pro-techno-optimist discussion on it and see if we can make the world a better place.”
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