Hungarian Conservative

Transhumanism and the History of Philosophy

Man and Machine by Hannah Hoch, detail (1921)
Wikimedia Commons
As philosophical materialism and the resulting transhumanism are atheistic systems of thought, it is extremely important for Harari—as it is for Dawkins—to deny the idea of God. Just as Richard Dawkins replaces a transcendent creator with the theory of evolution, so does Harari use evolution as a justification for the theory of transhumanism.

To talk about the meaning of history for most of us may seem like an outdated proposition. We can even talk about the sinking into complete irrelevance of the concept of ‘ultimate meaning’, which, according to Karl Löwith’s fundamental work Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History, can be considered to be one of the most important elements of the philosophy of history.

By meaning we usually understand some kind of goal to be achieved, for example a form, shape or character that can be grasped by a line of development, something towards which certain tendencies are already directed from the beginning of world history. Christianity—which determined the spiritual perspectives of the West for a long time—pictured the ‘progress’ of the world—as history is the vehicle for God’s work in the world—as part of a salvation-historical process. This leads from the starting point (Creation) to an ending point (Last Judgment). In the meantime, a huge drama is played out between Creator and creature, with such key concepts as the Fall, Redemption, the Apocalypse, and New (Heavenly) Jerusalem.

Although today’s philosophical consensus in the Western world is clearly not directed toward a theological meaning of history, announcing ‘the end of the philosophy of history’ would be—despite all appearances—difficult to justify. As an academic discipline, the philosophy of history really seems to be accessible only to a narrow professional audience, but it can definitely be observed that it is still alive in the form of so-called ‘popular science’.

Today, the market of ‘popular science’ is dominated by authors like Noah Harari, Richard Dawkins or Steven Pinker.

Their books can be found in every major bookstore all around the world and they are fairly popular. These authors, despite the fact that their explanations are wrapped in a relaxed, colloquial style and in the current technical language of natural science, typically use conceptions that can be regarded as philosophical interpretations of history.

Their work can be seen as a direct continuation of the philosophical paradigm of ‘historical progress‘ of the 18th and 19th centuries. The difference, of course, is that today, the new disciplines emerging from the first half of 20th century, such as evolutionary psychology, appear as the main line of their argumentation. Their materialist worldview—presenting itself not as philosophical materialism, but as some kind of abstract ‘science’—emphasises its objective, verifiable and empirical nature.

Marxism for one had also highlighted the emphatically scientific nature of its worldview, namely that Marxist philosophy is not speculative, ‘idealistic’, but founded on a scientific (i.e. materialistic) basis. Nevertheless, Marxism basically discussed the question of ‘progress’ in the classical conceptual approach of philosophy, while today’s popular progressivism places a sharper emphasis on applied science.

For the Christian view of history, as Saint Augustine’s ‘two cities’ and Leibniz’s famous ‘theodicy’ also represented, the evil (as moral evil and as the imperfection of human capabilities) in the world is inseparable from human nature, and cannot be cured by human ‘medicine.’ The moral interpretation of human history from a Christian perspective sees the Fall at the beginning of history as ‘God’s punishment’ and regards the restoration of the Fall as ‘God’s atonement.’

Whether it is about individual redemption, or collective justification, or history unfolding in the sense of the ‘Kingdom of God’ (as some Protestant interpretations may suggest), there is no real progress in history, since man is incapable of creating institutions or a society that are better than his own nature. The secularised modern ideologies of the ‘progressives’ ‘distilled’ themselves, so to say, from the original Christian understanding of world history, and removed the Original Sin as early as in the 17th century (see Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis),

and suggested that ‘progress’ of the human race is both possible and limitless.

As Yuval Noah Harari—one of the most influential supporters of the secular progressivist paradigm of the philosophy of history and the advocate of ‘transhumanism”—wrote in his Sapiens:

‘True, we still don’t have the acumen to achieve this, but there seems to be no insurmountable technical barrier preventing us from producing superhumans. The main obstacles are the ethical and political objections that have slowed down research on humans. And no matter how convincing the ethical arguments may be, it is hard to see how they can hold back the next step for long, especially if what is at stake is the possibility of prolonging human life indefinitely, conquering incurable diseases, and upgrading our cognitive and emotional abilities.’[1]

According to Harari’s main argument, technical development could ultimately make homo sapiens ‘redundant’ (that is, homo sapiens as the currently known human race) and replace it with ‘homo deus,’ that is, the divine man. The result of the author’s technological utopia is the human consciousness enhanced by machines and made immortal, or possibly even separated from the physical brain, that can be ‘developed’ to exceed the consciousness and intelligence of today’s homo sapiens. He perceives and imagines this in the sense of ‘transhumanism’, which has become a fairly well-known phrase since his first book on world history was published in 2014.

As philosophical materialism and the resulting transhumanism are atheistic systems of thought, it is extremely important for Harari—as it is for Dawkins: see his famous book The God Delusion—to deny the idea of God.

Just as Richard Dawkins replaces a transcendent creator with the theory of evolution, so does Harari use evolution as a justification for the theory of transhumanism.

Naturally, ever since the publication of The Origin of Species, this method cannot be missing from the toolbox of militantly atheist authors. Dawkins and Harari are by no means the only ones with a ‘firm conviction’ that evolution is a process which, contrary to the observable and describable laws of the physically perceivable universe, without any ‘human’ intention, purpose, will or causa efficiens, not only creates itself, but can also create complex and stable realities.

Since, according to them, ‘man is an animal’, there is no separate evolution of the appearance and development of the living world on earth and an evolution of human history. There is simply ‘progress’, and progress works according to the law of development assumed to be general and universal. It simply moves from point A to point B and it is still undefined what the end of the process will look like.

According to Harari, this endpoint of history will be the coalescence of man and technology.
Would this be the ultimate goal of humanity, or is the true meaning of history the omega-point towards which history is directed? Is this Löwith’s ‘ultimate reason,’ which can provide purpose, rationality, and coherence to the process of human history? Is this the reason for the philosophy of history itself? It seems so, according to Harari.

He mentions technology as the most important creation of evolution. Through technology, man can create superhuman computers and, moreover, can create himself as a superhuman computer. As he writes:

‘Imagine another possibility—suppose you could back up your brain to a portable hard drive and then run it on your laptop. Would your laptop be able to think and feel just like a Sapiens?’[2]

The author regrets that at the beginning of the 21st century the idea of transhumanism has not yet managed to convince everyone about the beneficial nature of this technical utopia. However, he is especially happy that soon, if the technological development continues and every politician in every government will be convinced that only ‘digitalisation’ can be the ‘inevitable’ end of everything towards which the supposed direction of progress leads, or rather pushes, us.

The time will undoubtedly come for the realisation of these ideals. Then the ‘ethical’ and ‘political objections’ that have so far ‘unfortunately’ put obstacles in front of ‘human-research’ will cease.

But what will happen to those few who do not want to become superhuman through technology,

or are still not convinced of the positive goals of ‘unlimited’ technological progress? To those who don‘t want their ‘cognitive and emotional abilities’ to be ‘enhanced’ by machines or simply lose their livelihood as a result of digitalisation? The author alludes to this in an extremely sinister-sounding line of his book Homo Deus: ‘The most important question in twenty-first-century economics may well be what to do with all the superfluous people. What will conscious humans do, once we have highly intelligent non-conscious algorithms that can do almost everything better?’[3]

What can be learned from such a philosophy of history for a conservative mind? In addition to the realisation that the transhumanist interpretation of technical development bears striking resemblance to social Darwinism, a theory most objectionable to conservatives (see, for example, the utilitarian term ‘superfluous’), a broader lesson can be learned. Conservatives have always warned about the dangers of utopias—and thus also of technical utopias—; it can be noted that these trends prove that their warnings and predictions about the manipulation of reality by machines are not at all unfounded.

If we—as Harari—understand modernisation in general as a technological revolution, we can also understand human history as the realisation of the rule of machines; mechanisation on an ever-increasing scale. Today’s capitalism and post-capitalism are in very close connection with this mechanisation. Looking at the tendencies of ‘transhumanism’ represented by Harari and others, we can assume that if economic processes, thanks to modernity’s highly technological economy, continue to develop at a pace similar to the current one, that will also help mechanical and technical processes to take over other and new areas of life.

If a number of dystopian ideas, along with the ideas of bureaucratisation, robotisation and digitisation, are interpreted by various advocates as ‘progress,’ conservatives should warn of the inherent dangers of those trends. As T. S. Eliot wrote in connection with Chesterton’s critique of the machine: ‘The problem is not that machines are mechanical, but that people are made mechanical.’[4]

[1] Yuval Noel Harari, Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind, Signal Books, E-book, 627.
[2] Harari, Sapiens, 635.
[3] Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow, Harper-Collins, E-book, 326.
[4] Gergely Egedy, ‘A „józan ész konzervativizmusa.” Gilbert Keith Chesterton’, in Vigilia 2004/6, 424-430, 427.

As philosophical materialism and the resulting transhumanism are atheistic systems of thought, it is extremely important for Harari—as it is for Dawkins—to deny the idea of God. Just as Richard Dawkins replaces a transcendent creator with the theory of evolution, so does Harari use evolution as a justification for the theory of transhumanism.