Jethro Knights: DIY Omnipotender — Tale of a Self-Made Superman by Chris T. Armstrong

by Chris T. Armstrong

(Note: Below is the full article from which I excerpted for my speech given at the Transhuman Visions Conference in San Francisco, produced by Hank Pellissier Feb. 1st, 2014

 

“What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.

Man is something that shall be overcome.

The time has come for man to set himself a goal.

The time has come for man to plant the seed of his highest hope.”

— Friedrich Nietzsche 

“We are at the cusp of incredible things. It’s time to wake up and embrace it. 

We didn’t evolve through billions of years to remain animals. 

I believe that the biology has to go. Essentially, we’re living in a flesh coffin. 

I think we need to get down to the point when we’re basically pure data in machines.”

— Zoltan Istvan

Toward the Omnipotender

Jethro Knights is the protagonist of the philosophical novel, The Transhumanist Wager, by Zoltan Istvan. Knights is a transhumanist, (transhuman means, “beyond human”) which is someone who wants to transcend their biological limitations through the use of advanced science and technology, including radical life extension leading to an eventual indefinite lifespan. His approach to transhumanism is to fashion himself into an omnipotender: “one who contends for omnipotence.” (80)…an “elite transhuman champion…the ideal and zenith of the life extension and human enhancement populace…This omnipotender is an unyielding individual whose central aim is to contend for as much power and advancement as he [can] achieve, and whose immediate goal is to transcend his human biological limitations in order to reach a permanent sentience.” (33)

Jethro’s quest for power is the result of his most fundamental guiding principle: 

“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.”(19) He views power as an essential tool to be used, as Istvan has described it: “…to preserve his life, security, and goals indefinitely…In order to be guaranteed to be able to protect himself, he really needs to be ‘all’ powerful.” A true omnipotender wants “a universal dictatorship—or at least a draw—over everything and everyone.” (80)

In service of this goal, Jethro creates the Three Laws of Transhumanism.

1) A transhumanist must safeguard one’s own existence above all else. 

2) A transhumanist must strive to achieve omnipotence as expediently as possible—so long as one’s actions do not conflict with the First Law. 

3) A transhumanist must safeguard value in the universe—so long as one’s actions do not conflict with the First and Second Laws. 

The extreme nature of these laws will lead to extreme actions by anyone who follows them to the letter when pushed into a situation that calls for difficult choices to be made. These laws leave no room for subtlety, equivocation, or nuanced exceptions arising from extenuating complications. The power of these laws comes from their black and white simplicity. In fact, the first law is really all Jethro needs, if followed without fail. The second law is merely a potent mechanism in support of the first law. While the third law supports the preservation and accumulation of like-minded people, technologies and ideas that contribute positively to the aims of transhumanism. But, make NO mistake, absolutely EVERYTHING is subordinate to the preservation of Jethro’s life, including the lives of any and ALL other beings, if they should present a threat to his life. If such an improbable scenario should ever present itself that forced him to extinguish every other living being on earth, or elsewhere, in order to save his life and it was within his power to do so, the first law would compel Jethro to do it.

“The world and every one of its inhabitants [are] not worth living or dying for.” (53)

“There [is] no right and wrong when it [comes] to dying or not dying. There [is] only success or failure.” (53)

For Jethro, there is no question about whether “the ends justify the means.” Rather, the means are only “justified,” valued and implemented according to his own transhumanism-oriented “utility function”: whether or not they contribute to the expedient realization of transhumanist goals in general and the preservation of Jethro’s life in particular.

Yes, Jethro’s first law leads to harsh actions that would be unacceptable to Transhumanists who focus on the “humanist” part of the concept, but one thing is undeniable: people who have some line that they refuse to cross in defending their life, will necessarily be less successful in preserving their life than Jethro, who will protect his life at ANY cost. 

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. 

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, but 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 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. “There [is] only success or failure.”

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 anything required to achieve lesser goals. Prior to the future 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.” 

Transhumanist Morality

According to Jethro, Transhumanist morality is “defined and decided by the amount of time we have left to live.” (85)

The only thing allowing Jethro’s goal to avoid being designated as nothing more than Quixotic madness is his informed and calculated vision of paradigm-overturning breakthroughs that can be achieved within a couple of decades given the proper conditions. With a concentrated research program made up of the world’s best transhumanist scientists all working together, Jethro determines that the beginnings of significant life-extending develops can occur in “[e]ight to twelve years, with enough funding. More years of experiments afterward to eliminate perils, unwanted side effects, and dead ends. In less than two decades, however, we could be at the doorstep of a reasonably waged, ongoing sentience.” (157) 

Because Jethro sees his goal of achieving an indefinite lifespan as possible and within reach in his lifetime, he views all efforts to stop, or even delay, the requisite research and development of life extension technologies as a form of life threatening aggression: 

“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)

The Effect of Jethro’s Youth On His Developing Philosophy

 An often overlooked factor that needs to be considered when encountering Jethro Knights’ philosophy is his age at the time he begins formulating it. He was an undergraduate student of philosophy in his early 20s when he wrote his final essay, Rise of the Transhuman Citizen. Even though Jethro “knew he was still young and had much to learn” (33) and his philosophy “still needed much development” (38), he viewed it as something that could inspire any transhumanists who had become complacent and inert due to the unsupportive, and increasingly aggressive, anti-transhumanist policies of most of the governments around the world. Knights wanted nothing less than to inspire a revolution of transhumanist thought and action. “He wanted his philosophy to convince transhumanists of their moral right and obligation to rapidly push their ambitions forward, regardless of cultural headwinds or religious interference.” (33)

We can see his youthful enthusiasm, zeal and single-mindedness when he speaks of “using whatever means necessary to accomplish [his] aims” (53) and a steadfast refusal to allow any “compromise of core transhuman ideals.” (181) For Jethro, his pure philosophy “is what it is and, like mathematics, can never be altered or compromised.” (183)   

There are also some times when his thinking goes quite a bit beyond a “youthful enthusiasm, zeal and single-mindedness” as when he writes of something with the chilling title: The Humanicide Formula, which is to be used to determine “whether an individual should live or die based on an algorithm measuring transhuman productivity in terms of that individual’s remaining life hours, their resource consumption in a finite system, and their past, present, and potential future contributions.” (215)

The Humanicide Formula could be viewed as Jethro’s conception of his “dictatorship over the universe,” wherein he has complete control over all of those who might hinder his progress toward immortality and other transhuman goals. Any who are not going along with the program to a sufficient degree, in this hypothetical scenario, will be eliminated. It’s as simple as that. 

In a strong field of scary statements, writings, and thoughts of Jethro Knights that could “wither the blubber off a Bishop” and curdle the blood of any gentle Humanist, “meek and mild”, The Humanicide Formula is the clear frontrunner, for its sheer visceral impact on the human psyche. However, we can see that this is nothing more than an intellectual exercise in exploring the extremes of where his principles could ultimately lead since, even when Jethro attains power over the entire world, he does not set up any such system as outlined in his Humanicide Formula conception. To the contrary, there are several times when he demonstrates concern and compassion for innocent life while at war with the aggressive governments of the world. 

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 his traits and actions that serve to disconfirm these kinds of diagnoses. Unlike people afflicted with the disorders mentioned above, he is empathetic even toward his enemies and is able to experience a powerful loving relationship with Zoe as well as strong bonds and fully-functional relationships with his closest compatriots. 

Beyond Good, to Evil?

What then are we to make of such an extreme and unapologetic totalitarian formulation? 

Perhaps the most reasonable interpretation is that Jethro is exploring the boundaries of the omnipotender concept. This is the kind of scenario that could follow from a unyielding commitment to become all powerful combined with a vow to defend one’s life at any cost. 

The genesis of the omnipotender concept comes from Jethro’s chosen self-image as a being that is already in the process of transcending his status as a human being. 

As Istvan has explained:

“The Humanicide Formula is the core part of the story and philosophy. One must be able to do “whatever” it takes to preserve one’s immortality, including pursuing the extinction of every other advanced living entity on Earth by one’s own hand if they don’t contribute to the overall gain and threaten one’s ascent to becoming the omnipotender. 

This is why 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. But it is a perfect and logical moral code for someone who is aspiring to be an omnipotender–who wants to end up as God. Even Jethro in the story may not be able to do it. However, he understands the logic of the philosophy. It’s indisputable. And he’s striving to think purely like a machine. It’s worth discussing and writing about on Transhumania. They do not shy away from dangerous, difficult ideas–even awful ones.

Furthermore, when we design AI, this will be the way a being with no sense of inborn morality or understanding of murder will be like. My novel is a bridge to understanding how dangerous AI can become.

As I’ve stated many times, The Transhumanist Wager can be interpreted as a source of inspiration, and as a warning. I take it as both, myself.

Finally, the Humanicide Formula is also a literary device that’s used. Many books have used such devices. The classic one is of Noah’s Arc in the bible.

…[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.”

As Istvan said in a podcast interview, “Jethro is not the best humanist, but he may be the best transhumanist.”

At this point, it should be obvious that the most important fact about Jethro Knights is: 

HE IS NOT LIKE US. 

I’ll presume to speak broadly about Transhumanists. We self-identify as humans. Humans who want to extend our capabilities and transcend our limitations but who are still undeniably human. 

Transhuman, Reprogram Thyself

The discrepancy between Jethro’s most threatening statements and his much more humane actions once he attains world power can be explained by the specific psychological device he has been employing since he began putting his budding philosophy into practice. The device could be thought of as a form of psychological self-programming or reorientation of his entire human psyche designed to put himself into a state wherein he views himself as a being who has already transcended his humanity. He is doing all he can to move himself toward his idealized vision of a much more powerful, durable, and far superior being relative to the most advanced humans alive at the time. 

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. 

And Zoltan Istvan himself is not of the variety of transhumanist who imagines himself living 1,000+ years while assuming he will remain human, or even biological.

“At some point we will probably discover other entities to become…sub-atomic particles, pure energy, all sorts of cool nanotechnologies that will exist, but I don’t believe that biology is going to make it. I think it’s fragile. I think it’s crude. It’s also beautiful…for where we are now, the human being is also a magnificent creature. But in a hundred years, we’re going to look back and say: Wow, the human being was such a fragile entity.” — Zoltan Istvan

We can see a clear example of Jethro’s self-programming when he describes a set of “meditations” that he “reads and considers everyday” because he deems them to be “essential” precepts that will help him “to get what [he] wants out of life.” In these meditations, he writes of always using a “statistical analysis of value”; following the “best, most logical path”; form following function; avoiding “slavery to emotions (or anything else)”; not being “fundamentally one with the Earth, its people, or its multitudes of life”; not being a “beholden spawn or child of the universe”; being “alone and distinct”; shunning “any sense of social pride from others or in [himself]”; learning from his errors and making “fewer and fewer mistakes as the years pass”; “always focussing on long-term growth patterns…and not necessarily [on] the immediate moment, which may reveal little of reality or [his] ultimate destiny”; “zero tolerance for betraying [his] ambitions and quests…the universe and one’s existence can offer no forgiveness for failed opportunity”; completely eschewing love…”[he] is self-sufficient, not needing anything or anyone else.” (69-70)

With these self-imposed commandments, Knights girds himself against any internal weaknesses he may fall prey to should he let his “eternal vigilance” falter, as well as reinforcing the kinds of strengths required to approach the omnipotence required to “insure” an indefinite “ongoing sentience.” While his “rules” are nothing if not rigid and unwavering, he does avoid the kind of rigidity that inevitably renders unquestioned religious commandments brittle and outdated, by occasionally [adding] to them or even [rewriting] them. 

Old-timey software engineers, like myself, may recognize Jethro’s self-programming methodology as akin to the 20th century computer programming paradigm known as “top-down design through stepwise refinement,” which is quite appropriate, metaphorically, considering Knights’ desire to explore and even attain a “cold precisionlike morality” (33) and a “harsh machinelike objectivity.” (12)

A Superman Encounters His Kryptonite?

“There is always some madness in love.” — Friedrich Nietzsche 

Throughout the novel, Jethro is constantly contemplating the extremes he may need to go to in order to reach his ideals. There is one challenge, however, that gives him the most difficulty in adhering to his Spartan, super-hero, warrior code. This challenge comes in the form of a diminutive, beguiling, and unnerving temptress by the name of, Zoe Bach. 

Zoe’s Asian-influenced spirituality and ability to comfortably embrace contradiction and paradox serves as a counterbalance to Jethro’s no-nonsense pragmatic functionalism. She is the yin to Jethro’s yang. She challenges his basic assumptions about the universe and life, and he is willing to consider her often diametrically-opposed points of view to an extent that he might not otherwise, had they come from anyone other than his beloved soulmate, Zoe Bach. 

Jethro had written his set of “meditations” prior to meeting Zoe. The final one of the set was this:

“An omnipotender doesn’t fall in love. I will fail to achieve my goals if I lose myself in another, live for another, or place my happiness and aspirations in another. I am self-sufficient, not needing anything or anyone else.” (70)

All of which stands in stark contrast to his eventual surrender to Zoe’s love, causing her to exclaim: “Wow, you must be really smitten with me. The man whose most important goal in life is to achieve immortality has fallen in love with someone who doesn’t believe there’s a need to do that.” (55)

But his inner battle between his growing feelings for Zoe and his Man-as-Island Transhumanist ideals begins when he realizes what a like-minded and philosophical “fellow traveller” Zoe is, even while recognizing that she has many confounding mystical and extra-scientific views about how the universe operates and her place therein.

“His heart was a puzzle. The conflict in him, between her Zenlike acceptance of the universe and his aggressive, egocentric views on transhumanism, was growing. A dangerous tempest was gathering in their future. He knew it. She knew it.” (61)

Eventually, he could no longer deny that he had fallen in love with Zoe. “He was in love with her fiercely incisive mind. Her body that perfectly fit his. Her iron work ethic and competence as a surgeon. Her faith in destiny taking care of itself. Her dark, death-wish soul aspiring for passion and life.” (65)

However, not too long after this conflicted relationship had begun, Jethro, with great difficulty, decided that they needed to be apart while he began establishing his Transhumanist movement. Only after this was accomplished, did he feel that he could resume his relationship with Zoe. 

“Now that Transhuman Citizen and TEF, [his organization and philosophy] were established and operational, Jethro knew it was time to make contact with Zoe. He was still wary of what she made him feel inside, how loyal he felt to her—the overriding instinct of love and bonding that often seemed in total conflict with TEF. But he could accept it now. He was ready to take that chance.” (99)

When they were finally reunited, Jethro proclaimed to Zoe: “I love you. I’ve always loved you. I haven’t reconciled anything. Everything is still at odds. But I can accept it now and still pursue my transhuman dreams.” (111)

Ultimately, Jethro did not find the “madness of love” and quest-undermining distraction he feared would be the unavoidable result of loving and “losing himself” in Zoe. Their deep connection continued to grow and will, as Istvan has foreshadowed in the book as well as in interviews, even transcend a single finite lifetime.

Embrace Seeming Contradictions and Shun Rigid Ideological Purity

A complete presentation of Jethro’s philosophy, TEF, Telelogical Egocentric Functionalism, is far beyond the scope of this essay, but a short exploration of some aspects of the Functionalism portion of the concept will help to flesh-out some important facets of Jethro’s character and also provide some indispensable clues to Zoltan Istvan’s unique philosophical ethos.

It has not been unusual for critics and interviewers to point out seeming contradictions in Jethro’s ideology and actions. At times he seems very libertarian, while at others, he is decidedly quite non or anti-libertarian. On one hand, he promotes great autonomy and on the other he is quite dictatorial. For those accustomed to very linear, logical systems of ideology, this propensity of Jethro’s is quite off-putting and to the harshest critics it is indicative of a muddled, disorganized, amateurish mind guided by an impoverished philosophy. 

But consider another interpretation…

As Zoltan explains in a podcast interview:

“When you are taking a truly utilitarian approach, there’s no such thing as “double-think.” Every single time you have a dilemma or a question, you ask yourself: What is the most functional perspective to take at that moment, given the long-term goals that you’re after?…You just simply always choose the quickest and most expedient method that would lead to the most transhumanist inspired world that you can find…I realize that’s an idealist perspective. It’s probably very difficult to ever achieve such a thing. However, as a philosopher, these are the ideas that I want to bring forth, because it gets people to think: Well, maybe these are improvements that we can make.” 

In another context, Zoltan has said:

“Think of it in terms of Walt Whitman: ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)’”

This philosophy is eclectic, functional, and pragmatic rather than faithfully ideological. Just as Zoe Bach is completely comfortable with contradiction and paradox, the TEF philosophy is not compelled to have an “either/or” worldview. A “both/and” approach may be more suitable to its ends…until some point when even that is no longer “functional” and something else will be chosen that will get the job done, with no fear of being labelled “contradictory.” 

“Of course I’ve contradicted myself. I always do. Only cretins and logicians don’t contradict themselves. And in their consistency, they contradict life.” — Tom Robbins

Conclusion: Beyond “mammalian niceties”

Zoltan Istvan:

“I tended to write the story from the perspective of a simple question: How far would one man go to achieve his immortality? 

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 book] 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 it’s 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.”

And finally, I’ll leave you with the very last sentence of The Transhumanist Wager: 

“This is just the beginning of Jethro Knights.”

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