Today, in most communities of science and technology, there is a shared understanding that progress and evolution could bring about a series of transcendent technological advancements for mankind. Human consciousness could be transplanted into a high-tech apparatus. Human brains could become interconnected. Human life could be extended for centuries or longer. Death could be defeated once and for all. This new, highly technological mankind could even become one with the cosmos. These ideal visions are the product of the transhumanist movement — a movement that seeks to reach unprecedented levels of human enhancement through technological progress. But this movement is still in its early stages.
Today, these visions are still — mostly — only visions. James Herrick, professor of Rhetoric at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, has written a helpful book on this subject, entitled Visions of Technological Transcendence: Human Enhancement & the rhetoric of the Future. The following is a basic summary of his thesis and general content, followed by my own critique.
Transhumanism in Focus
Herrick’s main argument is that transhumanism is the product of scientific rhetoric. More specifically, the transhumanist movement is the summation of centuries of mythologies and narratives regarding scientific advancement, progress, and human enhancement. In his words:
This study explores the ways in which technofuturist rhetoric — particularly that associated with transhumanism and human enhancement — casts a transformative vision of the technological future… The substance of transhumanist and related technofuturist rhetoric is, I contend, a skillfully constructed prophetic mythology describing a limitless human future achieved by means of intentionally appropriated technologies.
Rhetoric — the language and discourse of science and science fiction — has been the driving engine behind the transhumanist movement. Transhumanism is, primarily, a skillfully constructed prophetic mythology. The best means of understanding this thesis is to observe the history of the scientific rhetoric associated with progress and human advancement. Therefore, Herrick’s stated goal in writing is to “identify, explicate, and assess the visionary narratives or myths of technological transcendence currently emerging around the central ideas of the human enhancement movement and techno-progressivism generally.” Notice that the book is not as much a critique of the possibility of transhumanism as it is an assessment of the narratives that created the movement itself. Thus, the general content of the book is a historical survey.
Particularly important to Herrick’s thesis is the second chapter, entitled Myth and Rhetoric, in which he writes about the foundations of myth as a vessel for public narratives. Herrick boils down the significance of myths in social circles into five points:
1) myth draws order and meaning out of the diversity of lived experience,
2) myth fosters corporate value and a common social identity,
3) myth adjusts transcendent ideas to the level of human beings,
4) myth is powerful because its transcendent vision is compelling, and
5) myth ultimately determines rationality in human beings.
Each of the chapters that follow are a survey of a particular theme in scientific rhetoric (such as the technological singularity, the connection of transhuman brains, the extension of human life, and artificial intelligence).
For a book of its size (less than two-hundred pages total), Vision of Technological Transcendence is extremely comprehensive in the ground that it covers. With every historical example that he provides, Herrick builds a stronger case for the idea that transhumanism is, in fact, an idea fueled by rhetoric and cultural narratives. Every human being participates in a narrative of some sort. Beliefs and worldviews are always conditioned by narratives; this is the sociological concept known as “cultural imaginaries.” Transhumanism is no different. In order for the transhumanist movement to become a movement, it required generations of visions and theories building on one another. Therefore, if one chooses to believe in the possibilities of transhumanism, they are inevitably partaking in the technofuturist visions that scientists and science fiction authors have helped to create. This observation does not deny the possibilities of human enhancement associated with the transhumanist movement. Rather, on a more meta-critical level, Herrick’s thesis identifies the power of rhetoric in shaping human belief.
Herrick also does a fantastic job of showing how transhumanism is not simply an idea on the fringes of society. Transhumanism is already becoming mainstream in scientific study, especially in the areas of medicine and consumer technology. Within these communities, progress is upheld as the engine that justifies the change. Herrick notes, “in the rhetoric of the future, the rate of technological change can be equated with the rightness of that change” (162). In other words, the narrative of evolutionary progress that fuels the advancement of the transhumanist movement assumes that all change is good change. This notion is widely assumed in some of the most important technological communities in the world today. On this note, Herrick quotes Jaron Lanier, noted critic of the transhumanist movement: “these are ideas with tremendous currency in Silicon Valley.”
Herrick never makes a strong pronouncement as to whether or not the many visions associated with transhumanism will ever come to pass. Indeed, exploring the metaphysical implications of human enhancement and technological transcendence is the work of more philosophical and theological study. However, Herrick does offer a helpful conclusion for thinking about the ethical and religious implications of a transhuman world. His conclusion mostly asks questions and warns the reader of how the changes associated with the transhumanist movement could drastically affect the way we live our lives. How might transhuman ideals infringe on the rights of individuals? Who should determine what types of progress is considered good progress? Can we even know if the human soul can be separated from the body? These are the types of questions that we must ask if the world progresses more and more towards the visions of the technofuturists.
Overall, Herrick’s Visions of Technological Transcendence is a book worthy of our attention. At the very least, it helps the reader recognize the power of rhetoric and public ideas. We may be generations away from the first successful attempts at human enhancement and technological transcendence, but the rhetoric associated with these things is very much alive and well in the world today.
Josh Panos is a freelance writer and a graduate of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He lives in New York City and writes about film and culture on Letterboxd <letterboxd.com/joshpanos>. You can follow him on Twitter <twitter.com/josh_panos>.