At Any Cost: A Guide to The Transhumanist Wager and the Ideas of Zoltan Istvan by Chris T. Armstrong is a guide and analysis of the philosophy, characters, and plot, of the controversial philosophical novel, The Transhumanist Wager by Zoltan Istvan.
The eBook will be free on Amazon for 3 days 1/26/2021 through 1/28/2021. Amazon free eBook link: https://amzn.to/3cchOom
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The Transhumanist Wager is the controversial philosophical novel published by Zoltan Istvan in 2013. It was A Top 5 Amazon book; #1 Bestseller Science Fiction and Fantasy; #1 Bestseller Philosophy; and Winner Visionary Fiction – International Book Awards. It “tells the story of transhumanist Jethro Knights and his unwavering quest for immortality via science and technology.” In this guide, we will explore all aspects of its philosophy, characters, and plot, featuring insights from Zoltan himself, including:
* In-depth character profiles
* Transhumanist philosophical foundations: real-world and fictional
* Pitfalls of misinterpretation to avoid
* Timeline information
* Transhumania’s advanced technology and what made it possible
* Detailed analysis of Jethro’s speeches and dialogs with “questions to ponder” at the end of each section
* Jethro’s pre-war strategy
* Drivers of the post-war economic and technological boom
* Nietzschean connections
* Philosophical, thematic, and stylistic kinship with Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead
* Transhumanist libertarian vs. techno-progressive perspectives
* Parallels with real-world proto-transhumanist, FM-2030
* Materialistic vs. Spiritual Transhumanism
* and more…
A great resource on the history and future possibilities of space exploration…
Space is Open for Business has an impressive list of advisors and contributors who, along with Jacobson himself, bring to life the inspirational and practical power of space exploration, not only for the sci-tech breakthroughs it provides but for the power of off-world resources to positively affect our current struggles with certain earthly resource-scarcity issues and the future reduction of the environmental impact of relying on one planetary source for all our resource needs.
Humans becoming truly extra-terrestrial explorers will be one of our greatest upgrades in the direction of, what Neuroscientist David Eagleman calls, “possibilianism,” which “emphasizes the exploration of new, unconsidered possibilities.” And to that end, Space is Open for Business is a compendium of possibilities, along with solid plans for transforming possibilities into realities.
An illuminating exploration of the varieties of spiritual transhumanism…
I am not a believer in any of the gods I’ve heard about so far, nor do I feel compelled to fashion my own god-concept that aligns with my values, temperament, and preferences, however, Prisco’s particular vision of a science-compatible religion is, to my surprise, not unappealing to this grumpy old atheist. Given my lifetime love affair with the sciences and mathematics, if I ever feel the need to embrace anything like a religion, Prisco’s “Turing Church” model would be the top contender.
As he explains: “Today, we know too much science to believe in traditional, revealed religions not based on (or in direct conflict with) science. Therefore, if we want to keep the benefits of religion, we must find ways to make it compatible with science. Reviving religion, in new formulations that don’t ask believers to give up science or other desirable aspects of modern thinking, is the main focus of my work.”
It is as though Prisco has adopted Bruce Lee’s method for creating his own approach to martial arts and applied it to creating his own highly personalized approach to religion.
“Research your own experience. Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is essentially your own.”—Bruce Lee
Prisco rejects the meddlesome, proscriptive, and punitive Abrahamic god(s), in favor of a humanistic, deistic concept: “My God is not interested in the petty details of our daily life, as long as we act with love and compassion. My God has no interest in what you do with your genitals, or with whom, as long as you act with compassion and love. My God has no interest in what and when I eat, or drink, or smoke, or inhale, as long as I act with love and compassion. My God has no preference for one or another nation, religion, ethnic group, gender, or sport team. My God is far, Far, FAR above these things.”
What we find, in this expansive book, is a proposal for a form of religion that is “totally compatible with science,” and which provides a way to view the “supernatural” in ways no conventionally religious person would be likely to do. Prisco explains his idiosyncratic approach: “While I call myself a believer, my interpretation of religion is also unconventional, and inspired by transhumanism and science (and science fiction of course).” Elsewhere, Prisco has described transhumanism as an “unreligion because it offers many of the benefits of religion without its drawbacks.”
Because of Prisco’s background in theoretical physics, he is able to entertain vast extrapolations of today’s scientific understandings into a future of revolutionary breakthroughs revealing foundations of reality that are not merely “stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine.” Prisco presents a speculative science-based vision featuring some of the most appealing “benefits of religion,” such as immortality and enlightenment, in the form of “quantum resurrection” and eventually becoming “God-like entities ourselves.” The far-future advances that will enable these “transhuman” upgrades will require a rarefied level of science and technological enlightenment that “will permit playing with the building blocks of space, time, matter, energy, and life, in ways that we could only call magic and supernatural today.”
Prisco has been criticized for embracing the “virtue” of wishful-thinking. How does he plead to this charge? “YES! Guilty as charged, and here’s to wishful thinking! Everything that is worthy and good starts with wishful thinking. Of course, wishful thinking doesn’t come true unless it’s followed by more rigorous thinking and hard work, but wishful thinking is always the first step. I think one of the problems of today’s Western culture is that there is not enough wishful thinking.”
My advice is to delve into this book only if you want to expand your mind in new directions. In the spirit of the scarecrow, of Wizard of Oz fame, “think of things you never thunk before, and then sit…and think some more.” As a bonus for transhumanists: Prisco’s decades-long involvement with transhumanism means you’ll get some insight into the early players and diverse ideas that have made this movement what it is today. And what exactly is it today? We’ll leave that question for another day…
A thoroughly engaging film…
…about transhumanist presidential candidate, Zoltan Istvan, who drives his Immortality Bus, designed to look like a coffin, across the country to deliver his Transhumanist Bill of Rights to Washington D. C. Istvan contends that transhumanists tend not to understand how to use the media to get their message out. Something provocative, like this bus, is what will attract the attention of major media “and that attention spreads transhumanism.”
As a transhumanist, Istvan is aiming to defeat aging and death. As a presidential candidate, this has led to the development of the Transhumanist Party, which is dedicated to “putting science, health, and technology at the forefront of United States politics.”
We follow his adventure across the country, meeting a fascinating and colorful cast of characters along the way, in the form of futurists, transhumanists, techno-progressives, and biohackers, which is an underground movement that engages in DIY, experimental forms of body modification: implanting chips, magnets, and biothermal tags into their bodies, giving them enhanced interaction with their environment and technology.
The venerable, one-hundred-year-old, futurist and social engineer, Jacques Fresco, who has put his energies from a very young age toward “applying the methods of science to the way we live—to the social system” with priority placed on “the wellbeing of people and the protection of the environment.”
Hip-hop artist, Maitreya One, promoting the strong kinship between hip-hop and transhumanism, and more than that—they are one and the same, in his estimation.
One of the leading Cryonics facilities in the world, Alcor Life Extension Foundation, in Scottsdale Arizona.
The transhumanist Church of Perpetual Life, which seeks to “bypass nature and accelerate technology” to bring on the possibility of perpetual life and perpetual abundance. To enable “human beings to escape the confines of nature.”
The Terasem Movement Foundation where people upload their mindfiles and biofiles “for future revitalization.”
We learn about…
The convergence of gene therapies with artificial intelligence that will eventually lead to the advent of an “artificial scientist” with access to all aging research in a massive database, and with the ability to reason and make scientific discoveries, “creating new knowledge.”
Robotic hearts to permanently replace failing hearts.
A future of artificial wombs and their potential freeing aspects for women as well as concerns about the impact on future generations of the yet unborn.
Yes, this is a story of people intensely involved with technology, but it is also a story with a heart and that proverbial, “human element,” as well.
As a man striving for extended longevity—even physical immortality—there is a touching irony in Istvan’s heartfelt talks, about a life well-lived and the meaning of his impending death, with his father who is struggling with life-threatening heart failure. We get some perspective from his wife and mother and see his two young daughters have a burial ceremony for the family cat who has died.
This film makes it clear, for anyone familiar with the transhumanist movement, that Zoltan is unique among transhumanists. I can’t think of any other person who is so outspoken and constantly advocating for transhumanism, IN PERSON, not merely arguing and theorizing about it online or in obscure academic settings, mostly among the already converted. Zoltan is actually interrupting his life and traveling worldwide to promote transhumanism. His passion, energy, and tenacity are the stars of this story as much as are the grand ideas and the other fine advocates for them we meet along this journey.
As a transhumanist, with a longtime interest in the mind-uploading hypothesis, I was keen to read this book, which plunges right into the many counterintuitive issues surrounding the idea of copying the form and function of one’s brain to a non-biological substrate in a non-biological body. However, you don’t need to be a transhumanist to enjoy Transapient. All you need is a desire to immerse yourself in a new and creatively expansive world in which human biological limitations are transcended, enabling adventures to other worlds unbounded by the usual human time constraints.
The author, Andy Brown, a retired research engineer, does well in presenting the issues of identity that will naturally arise when (if) we are able to create multiple “exact” copies of our minds/consciousnesses, as well as the extended capabilities—mental and physical—that will follow; lifespans of indefinite length due to greatly enhanced physical durability and the ability to backup one’s consciousness; all culminating in a new kind of hyper-intelligent being, which will be quintessentially suited to contend with the dangers and vast timespans inherent in galaxy-wide space exploration.
Brown also addresses the fear and distrust of these new beings, called Transapients, by some humans and their acceptance by others. The first transapient comes into being after a schoolteacher dies of a heart attack, but just before death, his brain is scanned and saved as a “molecular brain state matrix” (more details about this process are provided in the book). This “matrix” is installed into his new “transapient body” and the story follows his gradual integration into society along with subsequent transapients who are created as the story develops and become a kind of close-knit family and eventually a larger society. Andy Brown has mentioned that he has done some work on a sequel “that expands on the space colonisation possibilities that Transapients could provide (human embryos and transapient parents transported in digital format)” but it is on hold for now, as he is “just about to publish a book on Prime numbers – not sci-fi, but about pure mathematics.” I will be interested to read this next manifestation of his capaciously creative mind, as well.
If you’d like a story, for once, of a future that is not the typical dystopian “cautionary tale,” but is, instead, an inspiring story of a positive way forward for humans, this is your book. In it, a few brilliant humans create a new kind of existence and become, essentially, their own self-designed descendant-beings: the ultimate tale of “intelligent design.” It’s not about a sad ending of human beings, but, rather, the next stage of being, as transapients. Follow their (our) grand adventures, in the spirit of Buzz Lightyear: “to infinity and beyond!”
Having followed the writings and interviews of transhumanist and futurist, FM-2030, for several years, I was naturally excited to hear of a new biopic or documentary coming out about his life and ideas. Upon finally experiencing the film, I am so pleasantly surprised and intrigued to find that it wasn’t just a dry rendition of the chronology and facts of his life, as so many of these kinds of films are, but rather, it was a multilayered interweaving of fact and speculative-fiction, in a film-within-a-film style. As the director, Johnny Boston, has explained: The film is “not quite a biopic or an homage or even a traditional documentary, ‘2030’ is an engaging docu-drama with thriller and sci-fi flourishes that seeks to answer the deeply philosophical question…‘What will it mean to be human when technology has finally given us a world where no one dies?’”
Even though I know a good amount of facts about FM, I still found this blurring and intermingling of fact and dramatization to be a pleasingly disorienting artistic choice. It heightened my engagement with the flow of these two related, but disparate, narrative streams. It was as though FM’s abstract philosophical musings began to take shape in a more concrete, albeit fictionalized, form as we saw people reacting to, and within, this unusual alternate-universe of ideas that sprang from the decidedly non-neurotypical mind of FM-2030.
FM’s radical and revolutionary ideas and the fact that, upon his death, he was placed in cryonic suspension, are juxtaposed with a fictionalized account of a months-long countdown to his reanimation—a unique and momentous scientific achievement. We see a small circle of people who know it is about to happen and all their anxieties, power-plays, and conflicts of interest. They, along with proponents and critics of these types of sci-fi sounding ideas, speculate about how the world may react to such an unprecedented paradigm-shift in how death will be viewed in the new world, post-FM-2030’s reanimation. Let’s just say, they definitely are concerned about how well it will be received.
There was a good balance between FM’s optimistic vision of future technologies that will enable humans to transcend their biological limitations and the positive impact he believed this will have on individuals and society, versus the often derisive and dismissive statements by critics who don’t share FM’s optimism (to put it mildly) regarding how positively we will move into a world of abundance, cooperation, and indefinite lifespans. Near the end of the film, there are audio collages of a kind of point-counterpoint between FM’s hyper-optimistic statements and the dire pessimisms voiced by his critics.
We also hear from people who knew and loved FM. They recount his charms, his quirks, and how strongly he is still felt in their hearts. Since his passing was not considered to be a death, but more like a pause…to be continued…there was no funeral, nor the other things that would typically attend a process of “getting over” the fact that he will never be seen again. They may have thought they would still be around long enough to see him when he was brought back to rejoin the world of the living and they could continue their relationships. FM made a great impact on them and on those who knew him only through his ideas of hopefulness for an ongoing future.
FM-2030’s animating concepts, which drove his life’s work were: Optimism, Abundance, and Immortality. He was an idealist whose dream was to see humanity “dissolve barriers” and rise to something greater than we have achieved through our glacially slow and undirected process of evolution. He declared that we ought not to put up with being “shoved around by the forces of nature.” His vision was to seize the reigns from evolution and steer our futures toward physical, intellectual, and moral enhancement. His was a program of human-directed “intelligent design.” In the film, we get many opportunities to hear FM speak. One of these inspirational gems comes near the end, when he expresses what may be his core reason for hope that humans can rise above their humble origins and their current shortcomings: “If you travel across, time and time and again, across this planet, one of the things that cannot help but strike you is the remarkable, the remarkable adaptability of us organisms. I don’t see a limit to human adaptability or human resilience or the human capacity to move and to grow. This is, in fact, one of the great great extraordinary things about us.”
As he once wrote, “We humans are not geese or jackasses trapped in genetic and environmental dead ends. Every day we are transcending our programmings…Bit by bit we are de-animalizing our bodies.”
All this is music to the ears of any transhumanist, but maybe this kind of mind-music will also resonate harmoniously in many others who have not yet thought to identify as transhumanist. This film, with its thought-provoking artistic approach, could be instrumental in spreading FM’s vision to those who are interested in creating a positive and transformative way forward.
For the past couple of years, I have been writing a “guide book” about Zoltan Istvan’s philosophical novel, The Transhumanist Wager. I have read Zoltan’s book in its entirety several times and have read certain parts of it many times. I have spent quite a bit of time categorizing its content by topic and connecting-the-dots between related information that may not be apparent to the “normal” one-time-though reader. By now, it’s possible that I have a level of understanding of this book that is second only to Zoltan himself. Given this “unfair advantage,” it’s quite easy for me to spot posts and even some reviews that contain blatantly incorrect/incomplete “facts” about Zoltan’s book. I have slogged through all this data, like “some obsessed verse monger” and now you, dear reader, are the beneficiary of my toil. You’re welcome!
A Cariciture of a Charismatic Character
Recently, there have been some comments online to the effect that Zoltan Istvan and Jethro Knights, the character Zoltan created in his novel, The Transhumanist Wager, can be viewed somewhat interchangeably and the philosophy and actions of Knights depicted in the novel represent Zoltan’s “political manifesto.”
People have referred to Zoltan as “Zoltan/Jethro”; Jethro as Zoltan’s “author Avatar;” and Zoltan has been mischaracterized (to put it politely) as “…someone who thinks it’s okay to slaughter a massive amount of the human race in order for the ‘transhumanist wager’ to be won.” Others assume that because Zoltan created the philosophy that Jethro follows in the novel, Zoltan must necessarily approve of, or endorse, all of Jethro’s philosophy-driven actions as a blueprint for activism in our current “real world” or at least they have a fear that this might be Zoltan’s mindset.
Additionally, it does seem that some people who want to demonize Zoltan by positing a Zoltan-Jethro equivalency also seem to fancy themselves to have a keen mind-reading talent that enables them to “read between the lines” of the novel and discern the true content of Zoltan’s character and his sinister intentions.
To be fair, a certain amount of conflation of Zoltan with Jethro is inspired by the novel itself. Zoltan has admitted that “…the first three chapters of the book are highly autobiographical.” So, the purpose of this essay is to disentangle these actual and fictional personae, one from the other.
The good news is: We don’t need to resort to any form of roundabout revelatory divination to determine the differences between Zoltan, the human being, and Jethro, the uber-“colorful,” extremist, and more importantly, fictitious, character in a novel. Zoltan can tell us directly:
“…I have stated in public that I cannot go as far as Jethro. He may be right in his dark logic, he may be philosophically correct, but it is too blatantly inhuman for me personally…I tended to write the story from the perspective of a simple question: How far would one man go to achieve his immortality?…Art should challenge you…It’s not necessarily my perspective or philosophy. But it’s challenging. How far would you go to live indefinitely? How far would you take transhumanism? My character takes it all the way.”
One reviewer of the novel posits “hypocrisy” on the part of Jethro, in the sense that Jethro shares a core value and aggressive-dispostion with his arch-enemy, the Reverend Belinas, a religious extremist whose organization carries-out bombings of transhumanist facilities (114) and murders of transhumanists, (53) including the murder of Jethro’s pregnant wife and attempted murder of Jethro (163) — ordered personally by the Reverend. (160)
Belinas also has great influence in the US government, to such an extent that he believes he’ll be able, if necessary, to bypass the US President and plot a military strike against the transhumanists directly with the US military. (207)
Jethro is quite an aggressive extremist himself and the reviewer points out that there are several instances in which these two extremists use language and take actions that are similarly aggressive. However, this similarity is not “ironic” nor “hypocritical,” rather the parallels between these two, otherwise, polar opposites are actually the result of “intelligent design” on the part of Zoltan — this is not a “bug” but a “feature.”
A Tale of Two Extremists
This novel is, at its core, a tale of two diametrically opposed extremists and how far they are willing to go to prevail over each other and to reach their goals. Evidence of their mutual-extremism can be found in the fact that they both use the exact same phrase to describe the price they are willing to pay to achieve their ends: For Jethro, it is survival “at any cost,” (5) while for his nemesis, the Reverend Belinas, he must achieve victory over Jethro and all transhumanists, “At. Any. Cost.” (113)
And here we can see an important distinction between Zoltan and Jethro…From Zoltan’s 2nd Singularity 1 on 1 interview: “I’m interested in one goal, and that’s: not dying. And I’ll do whatever it takes, basically within reason, but there’s a lot of stretching there…whatever I can do to make sure that happens.”
In stark contrast, Jethro puts absolutely no limits on how far he will go to obtain immortality. A “within reason” qualification is not even a consideration for him.
How Do They Differ? Let Us Count the Ways
There are two broad categories of attributes that differ greatly between Zoltan and the character in his novel, Jethro Knights. 1) The extremes of Jethro’s philosophy and personality and how those drive him, relative to Zoltan’s philosophy and personality. 2) The extreme (to put it mildly) differences between the circumstances and events in the world of The Transhumanist Wager verses our current “real world.”
Context, Context, Context…
With this minimal foundation in place, we can now approach the most salient feature of this, or any, work of fiction; something that is necessary for a complete understanding of the events and actions of the main characters: the particular details of the world created by Zoltan in The Transhumanist Wager.
Some may think that many events in this novel are preposterous, unrealistic, would NEVER happen. They can refuse to accept the plausibility of the book’s premise all day long, but what they don’t get to do, according to logic, when evaluating the actions of the characters, is to ignore the unique context put forth in the novel — the facts and the causal sequence of events that comprise the world that Zoltan has created. Even if you do this unconsciously, it is still a breach of logic that will lead you to erroneous conclusions.
Two Worlds — Vive La Différence
The most important difference between TTW-world and our-world is that the story of TTW-world begins in an atmosphere of ever-escalating terrorist acts committed by anti-transhumanists against transhumanists. Later in the story, this progresses from “mere” terrorism to an all-out World War initiated by the ten most powerful nations on earth in an eventual effort to wipeout all 10,000 transhumanists on Transhumania via a nuclear attack. (265)
Absolutely ALL actions taken by ALL sides need to be filtered through the lens of this TW-reality: greatly polarized ideologies followed “religiously” by two extremists; terrorism and a war against transhumanists; warnings/threats made by Jethro to the anti-transhumanists; aggression versus self-defense, plus EXTREME personal tragedy, in Jethro’s case, caused by the anti-transhumanists.
The kinds of harrowing events that transpire in pre-war, war, and post-war martial-law scenarios absolutely can NOT be compared to our peace-time reality in current-day America. TTW-world involves powerful plot-driving catalysts, which propel the entire storyline forward and make each character’s actions explicable. If these are omitted from consideration, our analysis of Jethro can’t help but be incomplete and inaccurate.
One glaring example of this kind of context-dropping is a review that spends quite a bit of time discussing Jethro’s odd personality and aggressive philosophical ideas, suggesting that Jethro may be a classic narcissist/psychopath; mentions Jethro’s bombings of government and religious buildings/monuments…AND…does not utter one peep about the terrorist bombings of transhumanist facilities; many murders of individual transhumanists; the attempted murder of 10,000 transhumanists; a war of laws, and then an ACTUAL war, waged against transhumanists, including a planned nuclear strike; the serious injury of Jethro and the murder of his wife and unborn baby in a bombing attack.
Really? Shouldn’t these facts be mentioned when considering Jethro’s extreme statements and reactions? Doesn’t this context give a fuller picture of what motivates Jethro in addition to his philosophy and goals? Specifically, doesn’t the fact that Jethro enters the world of public transhumanist discourse and advocacy during a time of organized, violent, and deadly anti-transhumanist terrorism, deserve mention when evaluating Jethro’s aggressive approach to activism? How can one come away with anything but a biased view of the character and the novel, when these MONUMENTAL plot-driving facts are omitted?
Zoltan, from an interview: “I admit that Jethro Knights, while inspiring and brilliant, can go too far. But in the context of his wife being murdered, his life being repeatedly threatened, and his passion to overcome death, we find a man who no longer values people over his own path towards immortality.”
By a certain point in the novel, Jethro had had quite enough of their crap and was in no mood to give them the “benefit of the doubt” any longer, which he did only briefly, early in the story, when he still had the hopeful-optimism of youth that led him to think that most people would rationally see the obvious value of transhumanism as he did. (23)
Yes, Jethro Knights Is Quite An “odd duck.”
We may get much further in our understanding of Jethro’s psychological/philosophical intersections, and non-intersections, with transhumanism and transhumanists in our world, if we view him, not as a “bad” human, but rather, as a non-human entity altogether—a being that is utterly unlike us in its most basic nature.
Jethro’s chosen self-image is that of a being that is already in the process of transcending his status as a human being. He sees himself as a different kind of being, “thinking and acting with the same cold clarity a super-intelligent machine would use—something [he is] quickly evolving into anyway…” (53)
From Zoltan’s 2nd Singularity 1 on 1 interview: “When I originally wrote The Transhumanist Wager, I was thinking of almost an artificial-intelligence-being…that cold and that calculating.”
Jethro, to the extent that he is able to alter or subvert his human-nature, cultivates this utterly unlike-us-ness at nearly every turn. He views himself as a being driven by a non-human moral code devoid of “unreachable mammalian niceties.” (84) He attempts to cultivate a non-human, machine-like mind, so much so that he gets to the point when he no longer feels human and doesn’t relate to humans as though he is one of them. (188) He also speculates about the nature of a future machine moral system. (232)
I wrote in the margin of page 81 of The Transhumanist Wager, “May be best to think of Jethro as an alien consciousness/psychology.”
We may as well choose to think of him this way, since that’s how he sees himself as he continually strives to become an evermore perfect exemplar of a non-human/alien being: “…embrace the quest to discover how far we can go as humans, as cyborgs, as conscious intelligent machines, as rays of light, as pure energy, as anything the future brings.” (85)
Given this perspective, it is almost as unnecessary to point out the many ways in which we are not like Jethro as it is to point out the number of ways in which humans are unlike jellyfish.
As Zoltan explained to me in an email: “[R]emember, we are not discussing a perfect human being. We are discussing someone whose final aim is all power over everything. Don’t see Jethro only as a human, he is an evolving, amassing point of organized energy in a universe spanning billions of light years. You must try to think how God (should something like that exist) would think.
“You must understand that The Transhumanist Wager is a bridge. AI is coming. Merge with the future powers or be destroyed. It is evolution. And a machine’s moral system is like nothing we know.
“Can I kill my wife a thousands times? [This absurd scenario is put to Jethro in the novel.] Can I kill every person on the planet? Do I want to? Am I supportive of humanicide? The obvious answers are: No. But ask that same question to an AI. And its answer will be a very resounding: Yes. To survive, we must be stronger than AI. These are some of the reasons why I wrote The Transhumanist Wager the way I did.
“The Transhumanist Wager is a message from the future: If you don’t lose the weakness of your species, your species will not survive. You must embrace a new you—a fiercer, bolder you. Otherwise you will be no match for your own inventions.”
Zoltan views the overall scenario played-out in the book to be a cautionary tale of what could happen if we went down one possible path, given extreme circumstances and were led by such extremist super-heroes/villains. But, he sees hope in the younger generations who seem to be less bound by ancient religious ideas and are generally more open to technology since it is just a natural thing for them. His view is that the older generations won’t be around much longer to raise a fuss and it’ll be much smoother sailing with the next generations.
To those who conflate Zoltan with Jethro and think that TTW is a prescription and call for militant action, here is Zoltan from various interviews: “I also hope the scenario in my book is precautionary rather than predictive. Nothing would make me happier than an efficient, peaceful, and lasting transition to a truly pro-science culture in the world. My intent with writing the novel was not to blindly follow someone like Jethro Knights, but to create a story that is both a warning of the future—and also a chance to consider new ideas. The novel and Jethro’s character is, hopefully, also a way to entertain people while challenging them.”
On the issue of the plausibility of the specific events in TTW, even Zoltan himself has said in the first of two Singularity 1 on 1 interviews: “We paint these pictures as novelists in such scenarios where it probably…a set of circumstances like that will never occur.”
Zoltan and Jethro in Lockstep?
People can get understandably upset and hate Jethro and the book in general, especially if they perceive Zoltan as advocating or agreeing with everything Jethro says and does. But Zoltan, decidedly, does not…
From Zoltan’s 2nd Singularity 1 on 1 interview: “When you actually get down to the philosophy of Jethro Knights, in many ways he’s a wonderful human being that would do wonderful things for the world. But there are things about him that are totally outrageous. There are things that people would call downright evil. And there are other things that, when you ask, ‘What is for the greater good?,’ that he is perhaps the best at it.”
A Meeting of Minds…Flesh and Fictional
Here is an example of two perspectives that are very similar between Zoltan and Jethro: “Jethro Knights—who had remained the undisputed leader of the planet for seventeen years—announced it was time to have democratic elections on Transhumania…I’m not going to run…
“Everyone gets it now. A new generation was born with it. People are transhumanists by nature. The old guard just didn’t realize it before. We’ll do fine. Perhaps better.
“Jethro, this is absurd. Your rise to global dominion is historically unprecedented. What about all the power you’ve accumulated? What about the omnipotender? You’re not going to cast that into the hands of fate?
“Not whatsoever. It’s all our closest, most loyal friends who run the world. And I’m sure if I’m needed, they’ll call on me to lead again; however, the truth is I’m simply more useful now as a visionary thinker and philosopher, not as a ribbon-cutting, speech-making, macro-managing ruler.” (290-291)
And similarly, from Zoltan’s 2nd Singularity 1 on 1 interview, regarding his Presidential campaign: “At some point I would probably handover the political party to the community. But, the point is, by the time I hand it over, it’s going to be a kind of world-recognized name…Some people say: ‘Oh, it’s authoritarian that you are running the Transhumanist Party the way you are.’ But it’s not really…give it five years. Just be patient. Grow the name. And then let everything sort of unfold…I’m going to hand it over and hopefully we can grow it into a real third-party…
“Right now all you hear is, ‘Zoltan.’ That’s what everyone is upset about, but once this is handed over…and over a fifteen year period, it’s just going to be, ‘Oh there’s that guy who founded it.’ It’s not going to belong to Zoltan. And that’s…what people don’t get. They’re focussing right now on the here and now, instead of seeing the longer picture.”
From these two examples, we can see that the desire to create a functioning framework that allows and enables transhumanism to flourish is the focus, rather than the accumulation of power for its own sake. This also reinforces the frequently ignored word mentioned in the Three Laws of Transhumanism: “safeguard”— power is only necessary to prevent others from impeding the transhumanists’ goal of defeating death, and to enable the pursuit of other transhumanist values.
Zoltan makes this very clear, on the Future Grind podcast, when he talks about the fundamental philosophy that drives Jethro’s choices and actions: “…a very individualistic philosophy that is very much based on one trying to accumulate as much power as possible in order to protect their own existence.”
Once a stable foundation is laid, whereby safety from interference by others is firmly established, power becomes less valuable, less necessary.
Zoltan and Jethro: Of One Mind, Philosophically?
Zoltan doesn’t follow Jethro’s philosophy, TEF (Teleological Egocentric Functionalism), to anywhere near the “fundamentalist” degree that Jethro does, as Zoltan explains on the Future Grind podcast: “TEF would never work as a philosophy for a nation…TEF would ultimately say that the individual is searching for his own kind of well-being ahead of anyone else’s, and that’s why I distance myself from the book and that philosophy. Because, when you’re trying to run a country, it’s much more about people. It’s much more about society. It’s much more about taking care of the community that you’re a part of.
“And honestly, I’ve said this before, I’m not necessarily even sure yet whether TEF is something I embrace individually or TEF is just something that I created as a way to challenge people to hopefully further their own philosophical aims, because it’s very hard to practice TEF and have a family and have children like I do. Because, ultimately, as the book brings up all these different scenarios: How far would you go to protect your life? Would you protect it over your wife’s life? Over your children’s life? These are incredibly challenging decisions and challenging ideas…The same thing comes kind of with your country: Do you serve your country first or yourself?
“And so, TEF doesn’t really work when you talk about politics, but it does very much work as a philosophical vehicle for getting us to find out how far we want to take science and technology in our lives, and especially if we want to use it to conquer death.”
Further Distinctions Between Zoltan and His Book
From an email, Zoltan: “I lean left politically. So while my book is libertarian in nature, I’m much closer to a ‘libertarian socialist’ in real life (free education, free medicine, universal basic income, etc.).
“The Transhumanist Wager is now an essential read for the transhumanist and futurist movements. It’s now being read in various college courses across the country. There’s even movie interest too from film studios. The Verge, one of the leading technology sites, considers it an important moment in transhumanist history when it was published. I think everyone in the transhumanist community that hates the book needs to…not see the book as a guide for the movement, but as a quintessential read for one major aspect of the movement: its activist side.”
Zoltan and Jethro: A Tale of Two Kinds of Activists
Zoltan’s last statement about TTW’s relevance to activism gave me pause and prompted me to respond to him:
Me: “Can you clarify ‘activist side’ in your original email. There’s a wide-range of things happening in the book, from the promotion of H+ ideas, like radical-life-extension, to all-out war. And I can already see people responding to your support of the ’activism’ in TTW as proof that you are advocating starting a war against H+ opponents.”
Zoltan: “I mean activism in nonviolent ways.”
Me: “Yes, nonviolent, sure, but here’s what I’m confused about: My core approach to TTW is to point-out that the conditions are so extremely different in TTW-world vs. our world, that comparisons about how we should act and react vs. how Jethro does are usually invalid…or at least the unique TTW-world situations need to be taken into consideration when evaluating Jethro’s statements and actions.
“Early-on in TTW, Jethro’s presentation of activism is very harsh…and the threats/warnings get harsher as the story progresses: Jethro’s solution is to launch the Transhuman Revolution and an ‘assertive direct-action organization called ‘Transhuman Citizen.’”: a ‘new stealth form of transhumanism’ that is to be ‘an unyielding, ultra-aggressive declaration to fight anything that stands in the way of our transhuman way of life…Our goal is to lead a global uprising—to transform our backwards planet into a forward-looking transhuman world, full of unlimited scientific promise. Our aim is to make that new world uncompromising in its moral thoughts, actions, and transhuman creations. And we will stop at nothing to do so.’(84)
“Even this comparatively mild statement (relative to later ones) is called ‘ultra-aggressive’ and says he will ‘stop at nothing.’ Now imagine if this were your first/early declaration to our real-world. It would be natural for a listener to respond: ‘Hey Zoltan, just tell us about your goals and ideas. There’s no need to be so preemptively threatening.’
“But Jethro was just getting warmed-up: ‘…we will lobby not only with resources, intellect, and forceful attitude, but also with might. With power. With militancy. With ferocious terror, if we have to. You will know the wrath and morality of a people who will stop at nothing to achieve immortality and the goals of transhumanism.’ (85)
“This entire tone would be premature and over-the-top in our-current-world, however it is completely understandable given the conditions in TTW-world (even early in the story): “There have been more terrorist attacks and many murders of transhumanists. (36, 53) Bombings, kidnappings, and riots are spreading from the US to Europe. (77) Reverend Belinas ‘considers the transhuman movement and their advocacy of human enhancement technology the greatest threat of our time’ (51) and responds by ‘inciting violence against transhumanists’; (50) instructing his most militant followers to terrorize research facilities; (77) and adding Jethro’s name to his list of transhumanists to be murdered, one third of whom have already been killed on his orders.’ (53)
“And again, both the anti-H+ violence and Jethro’s threats escalate significantly, later in the book, so, given that our current-world experiences zero(?) violence directed at H+ers directly, it seems that the style of activism that Jethro employs would be perceived as out-of-context, unjustified, and unnecessarily beligerant, in our current-world. So I don’t see how this kind of TTW-activism would be applicable to our current-world. It seems clear to me that the kind of activism that Jethro employs is not applicable to the current conditions in our-world, so the kind of activism in TTW wouldn’t be an appropriate model for transhumanist activism today. Is there some angle I’m missing?”
Zoltan: “I think one just has to always consider context. It all really comes back to the eternal philosophy: One’s morality changes the less time they have left to live. I might be more on board with Jethro’s extremeness if I was about to die, but right now I’m focusing on 2024 as a real candidate for the Dems. So I’m going to do what is necessary to accomplish that. Activism isn’t always what we think of activism. Activism might be being highly diplomatic—just like perfect integrity might be breaking one’s integrity.”
Me: “Thanks! Yes, that all makes sense. But Jethro is almost never diplomatic..to the contrary…he constantly threatens his opponents with death, if they oppose him too aggressively. How is he/the-book a good model of activism for our world that has no violent anti-H+ aggression? The context in the book is basically: The world at war with transhumanism. So how can the kind of activism in the book be applicable to a world without a ‘war on transhumanism?’ Most of the world hasn’t ever even heard of transhumanism. What of Jethro’s ultra-aggressive activism would we apply here and now? How can his style of activism be quintessential for a, currently, almost totally peaceful relationship between H+ people and non-H+ people?”
[…and then, before Zoltan has a chance to respond, the obvious point starts to dawn on me…]
Me: “OK…I think I see your angle…maybe…If I add the clarification that, by activism, you don’t mean every specific detail of every tactic Jethro uses, in his war-time context…instead you mean the broad principles that can guide activism in our context today, which will manifest in much more diplomatic and restrained ways than Jethro found necessary to resort to in his war-time scenario…”
Zoltan: “I mean the broad principles. Also, you don’t think the world is at war with transhumanism, but the biggest demographic (the youth) might feel differently. They are full of hormones and often desiring a revolution of sorts. The book gives them that guidance, even if there’s no war to fight right now. I agree there’s no war, but there’s plenty of battles where activism is needed. The book can inspire on that angle.”
Me: “Yeah. I can dig that. Sometimes I think that the majority of the world isn’t against H+ only because most people haven’t heard of it yet. But just let ’em hear about it and a lot of them will fear/hate it.”
Zoltan: “Everyone is going to accept it eventually. It’s just getting from point a to b, and being effective about it. You and I are in a precarious position. The life extension stuff will be happening right when we are scheduled to die. If we were 20 years younger, I wouldn’t worry as much. Onward!”
Some of the above email conversation could benefit from some further clarification…
When Zoltan says, “One’s morality changes the less time they have left to live. I might be more on board with Jethro’s extremeness if I was about to die…” He is referring to this principle from the novel: According to Jethro, transhumanist morality is “defined and decided by the amount of time we have left to live.” (85)
Once the conquest of death is deemed to be possible and is chosen as Jethro’s highest aim, it follows that the urgency with which he will purse it is in direct proportion to how far he perceives that his dwindling lifespan may fall short of the time needed for science to enable him to achieve an indefinite lifespan.
In a perfect world, full of resources applied to this goal and devoid of any people/governments impeding progress, Jethro’s urgency would manifest as dedication to moving research along as fast as possible. If Jethro were 20 years old, in good health and the projected date was 5-10 years away, he could afford to be more laid-back about it. But, given the situation in the novel of dwindling research funds, increasing impediments to research, an uncertain timeline for this scientific breakthrough, and his advancing age, Jethro will modify his view of what kinds of tactics are ethical under these conditions.
In TTW-scenario that involves outright roadblocks created by people/governments, another principle kicks-in: “Every time someone gets in the way of life extension and human enhancement goals, every time a new anti-transhumanist law is passed, every time you decide to hinder scientific progress, you are knowingly shortening the lives and productive working hours of transhumanists and your own citizens. We have a specific legal term for that type of behavior in this country. It’s called manslaughter.” (28)
In this kind of situation, impediments to research reach the level of “aggression,” and nearly “murder,” according to Jethro’s value-system.
Given that we, in the “real world,” are not currently experiencing anything near the level of push-back that is depicted in TTW, Zoltan’s level of activism on this issue has amounted to overcoming apathy, familiarizing people with the concepts and principles involved in radical life-extension research, and introducing the idea that impediments to this kind of research are not something that should be tolerated, for any reason. This can be seen in the Transhumanist Bill of Rights that Zoltan delivered to the US Capitol in December, 2015.
“Article 2. Under penalty of law, no cultural, ethnic, or religious perspectives influencing government policy can impede life extension science, the health of the public, or the possible maximum amount of life hours citizens possess.”
This essentially eliminates any “theocratic” influence such as was seen in the stem-cell research-funding debacle during the George W Bush administration.
This is the kind of nonviolent “activism”—drawing attention to transhumanist goals and values and staking moral claims to the freedom to move necessary technologies forward—that Zoltan is referring to when speaking of present-day transhumanists taking inspiration from his book—with the obvious proviso that everything be context/principle-driven, i.e., In our current context, the use of persuasion, education, changing “the system” and boldly countering opposition with better ideas and new laws, are what is appropriate, and not the kinds of specific tactics that Jethro used in the escalating wartime-scenario depicted in TTW.
Zoltan also said above: “Activism isn’t always what we think of activism. Activism might be being highly diplomatic—just like perfect integrity might be breaking one’s integrity.” The classic example of “breaking one’s integrity” to exert a higher-form of integrity is: Although one might hold that truthfulness is one of the most important pillars of integrity, when, in Europe during WWII, some Nazis drop by your house asking if you’re hiding any Jews there, a morally-wise person would not stick to the virtue of absolute-truthfulness as though it were some inviolate dogma, but would realize that a higher-form of integrity compels them to “lie through their teeth” convincingly, and without remorse, by NOT telling the Nazi-bastards that Anne Frank and her family are in-fact hiding in a secret room in their house.
It should be clear by this point that the events in the novel and the characters, Jethro Knights and Reverend Belinas, were created intentionally to portray an extremism of circumstance, thought, and action, that go WELL beyond the conditions of our current world and don’t represent the personal philosophy nor the disposition of Zoltan Istvan, in all details.
No doubt, some will continue to distrust whatever Zoltan says, but at least here we have a record of some of his stated positions, illuminated by more detail, nuance, and clarification. Those who don’t want to base their opinion of Zoltan and his ideas solely on statements made by his critics can find further information in this essay about his ideas and values, straight from “the horse’s mouth.”
HUMANS: I was on the inimitable Adam Alonzi‘s Podcast. We talked about all kinds of exotic things of interest to Futurist/Transhumanist types (and “normal” humans as well). And please check out his previous episodes. He has chatted with a veritable “cavalcade of stars” in the H+ and science worlds.