Below is the text of my speech given at the Transhuman Visions Conference in San Francisco, produced by Hank Pellissier Feb. 1st, 2014
by Chris T. Armstrong
Thank you to Hank Pellissier for inviting me to speak and for promoting me from bouncer to speaker…true story.
And also for publishing my first Transhumanist article on Transhumanism and Powerlifting, of all things.
This my first time speaking at a Transhumanist conference. So this is a historic day for me and all of you will get to tell your grandchildren that “you were here” in San Francisco, appropriately, when Chris Armstrong “came out” and declared himself to be “openly Transhumanist.”
And now, on to the book, The Transhumanist Wager, by Zoltan Istvan
I’ll be excerpting from a larger article I’m writing, called:
Jethro Knights: DIY Omnipotender. Tale of a Self-Made Superman
When The Transhumanist Wager was published, I lurked for several months…watching reviews…some of which were scathing, some very positive…probably the most balanced was from Giulio Prisco.
My own review was practically a love letter to the book and to Zoltan.
I had very positive emotions about it even while recognizing the extreme ideas and actions of the protagonist, Jethro Knights…
Several of Jethro’s attitudes and personality traits reminded me of my own when I was young.
I had that same youthful zeal and mono-focus on one goal. I didn’t have a quest anywhere near as grand and epic as Jethro’s. Mine was just to be the most amazing and skilled musician possible.
Like Jethro, I put people in second place, after my sacred mission; told myself that romantic relationships would be unnecessary distractions and should take a backseat to the mission.
And like Jethro, I didn’t always adhere to such a harsh and Spartan ideal in practice.
As I said in my review, Jethro’s words were far more “scary” than his actions.
But why such scary words?
One of Carl Sagan’s most often mentioned lines from his TV series, Cosmos, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” could be paraphrased by Jethro Knights as:
Extraordinary aims require extraordinary expedience.
And what is this extraordinary aim?
Oh, nothing more or less than to defeat death!
“Death must be conquered. From now on, that is my first and foremost aim in life. That is the quintessential first goal of the transhumanist.”
He has chosen a goal that is literally impossible to achieve at the time, but believes it could be achieved, with a strong concerted effort by the best scientists, within a couple of decades.
In order to increase his long term chances for survival he decides to fashion himself into an omnipotender: “one who contends for omnipotence.”
He needs power to push research forward and to defend against those who would try to interfere with the achievement of much needed scientific breakthroughs and even threaten his life directly.
Extraordinary aims require extraordinary expedience.
Any other non-life-or-death oriented goal a human being can aspire to is something that they can strive for with all their energy and if they fall short they will suffer disappointment but may have the option to get back on track and try again, depending on the nature of the goal and the amount of life/health-span they have ahead of them. For nearly all goals, a failure to reach them can be seen as a temporary setback — an opportunity to regroup, begin again or pickup at the point of the failure and attempt to finally accomplish the purpose of the quest.
But what happens when the goal chosen is to avoid death at any cost, when a failure to reach that goal means, the end…period? No regrouping for another attempt. No second chances. Failure to achieve immortality, or even a radically extended lifespan, is fatal and final. Game over. For anyone seriously committed to such a goal, there can be no such thing as “moderation”; no resigned acceptance of defeat; no room to allow ANYTHING to take precedence over the accomplishment of this goal. In Jethro’s mind, he is engaged in a classic zero-sum, success-failure enterprise. No middle ground is desired, tolerated, nor even POSSIBLE. At any given time, you are either dead or alive. Period.
The extreme nature of a goal that is still, at the time that it is committed to, quite literally IMPOSSIBLE, requires a level of commitment and downright zealotry that is far beyond the purview of lesser goals. Prior to the achievement of indefinite lifespans, all possible goals a human being could aspire to exist within the context of a finite and relatively short timeframe within which to accomplish them. A finite lifespan has always been our fundamental physical AND psychological constraint and anyone attempting to do battle with this inviolate limitation could quite reasonably be said to be “out of touch with reality.”
According to Jethro, Transhumanist morality is “defined and decided by the amount of time we have left to live.”
At this point, we need pause to understand the most important fact about Jethro Knights: HE IS NOT LIKE US.
For a moment, I’ll presume to speak broadly about Transhumanists. We self-identify as humans. Humans who want to extend their capabilities and transcend their limitations but still undeniably human.
In Jethro’s case, I propose that he is doing all he can to engage in a kind of psychological self-programming designed to put himself into a mental state wherein he has already transcended his humanity. It amounts to a self-guided reorientation of his entire human psyche toward his idealized vision of a much more powerful, durable, and far superior being relative to the most advanced humans currently alive.
He already views himself as beyond human and explores this new moral landscape stripped of any human biological imperatives and “mammalian niceties.” In his most extreme moments, his values are no longer commensurate with a humanistic, bio-centric sensibility.
He is constantly exploring the limits of how far beyond his human roots he is willing to go in his quest to become an omnipotender.
Some critics have pointed to Jethro’s most aggressive statements, borderline personality traits and harshest philosophical musings that comport quite well with the kinds of mental states displayed by people with narcissistic, sociopathic and even psychopathic disorders.
The problem with this simplistic and shortsighted conclusion is that it ignores many examples of Jethro’s traits and actions that serve to disconfirm these kinds of diagnoses.
The discrepancy between Jethro’s most aggressive statements and his much more humane actions and close emotional bonds with other people — even attaining full-on soulmate status with Zoe Bach — belies any attempts to paint him as a mere psycho and shows his constant struggle between his remaining human “frailties” and his cyborg superman ideal.
Now, I would like to leave you with something very special. It is a deeper look into what is behind this book and what may be coming in the further evolution of Jethro Knights.
This is the scoop. The exclusive. Turn on your recorders. This is right from the horses mouth, Zoltan Istvan, via email:
“I tended to write the story from the perspective of a simple question: How far would one man go to achieve his mortality?
But I wrote this for you the other day in one of my moments when I tend to jot down my ideas, unpolished as they may be. It’s something I haven’t spoken about much, but the ideas of it are also very important to me:
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? 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.”
I’m really looking forward the continuation of this story. As the very last sentence of The Transhumanist Wager says:
“This is just the beginning of Jethro Knights.”