|Montreal, October 15, 2004 / No 147|
by Gennady Stolyarov II
My aim here is nothing less than the union of two intellectual worlds.
These two worlds have too often been dubbed by their adherents as mutually exclusive, as a result of certain bilateral misinterpretations among many Objectivists and Extropians/Transhumanists. I shall endeavor here to show how Objectivism, the fundamental ideological system developed by Ayn Rand, and the Principles of Extropy, established by Max More and comprising a prominent part of the body of ideas known as Transhumanism, are compatible with one another and integral to fully achieving each other's goals. In addition, anyone belonging to the libertarian movement at large will find numerous arguments, concepts, and methodologies in both systems to aid the extension of individual liberty in a broad sense.
The Fundamentals of Objectivism
Objectivism is an intellectual system remarkably integrated by lengthy expositions and chains of argument performed by Ayn Rand in her fiction and nonfiction works. Thus, to do it full justice in a brief treatise is, admittedly, impossible. I shall attempt here to present a brief skeletal outline of Objectivism, upon which I shall elaborate as pertains to its relationship with Extropian thought.
Ayn Rand was once asked to explain the fundamentals of her system standing on one foot. Her response was as follows:
2. Epistemology: Reason.
3. Ethics: Self-Interest.
4. Politics: [Laissez-Faire] Capitalism. (Ayn Rand, Introducing Objectivism, p. 3)
The Principles of Extropy
Extropy, defined as "the extent of a living or organizational system's intelligence, functional order, vitality, and capacity and drive for improvement," is a broad term covering a vast array of human aspirations and objectives. Dr. Max More, the architect of the Principles of Extropy, does not consider them a fully self-contained intellectual structure. Rather, in his most recent version of the Principles' formulation, he dubs them "an evolving framework of values and standards for continuously improving the human condition." Dr. More conceives of the Principles as postulates to guide individual thought and inspire intellectual progress – a purpose compatible with Objectivism, since it does not purport to replace the Objectivist hierarchy of ideas, and also harmonious with libertarianism stemming from any fundamental value system, so long as a sincere commitment to individual freedom, life, and progress is present on the part of the person examining the Principles.
3. Practical Optimism
4. Intelligent Technology
5. Open Society
7. Rational Thinking
Max More's Principles of Extropy take the virtue of Productiveness to its logical conclusion:
Consider an intelligent individual who is capable of reading a single book every day. Let us suppose that this individual has set it as his goal to read the entire collection of books available at his local library, about 100,000 books. Assuming that he is fortunate enough, in the status quo, to live for 100 years, he will only have read 36,500 books, or little over a third of one library. But, were he to possess indefinite life, how many libraries would he be able to intellectually consume? As a result, how competent in terms of his reasoning, wealth of ideas, and technical skills will he become, if he is given ample time to implement his newly-found learning as well?
The Principles of Extropy view man as he is presently as a transitional stage in his advancement to what he could be and should be, which is whatever his reason and self-interest dictate. Perpetual Progress implies that man ought to depart increasingly from the animal realm whence he had evolved, and increasingly assume full, conscious control of aspects of life that the animals leave to "instinct" (i.e. fallible, automatic reaction) and sheer chance. The Principles of Extropy consider this departure a transition from man as we know him to the "transhuman," an entity fully liberated from animal limitations. The transhuman stage can be considered a result of rapid artificial evolution by which the men of the future will fully part with their animal origins, just as natural evolution had once brought about the divergence of animals from plants from fungi from protists from primitive bacteria. Rand also alludes to the desirability of "transhumanity" by her insistence that men lead lives fully directed by the one faculty the animals lack: volitional consciousness, from which man's rational faculty and his ability to transform his environment to suit his needs are derived. "Man has to be man – by choice; he has to hold his life as a value – by choice; he has to learn to sustain it – by choice; he has to discover the values it requires and practice his virtues – by choice." (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 25.) Rand's own stance in support of technology is unambiguous, and implies that, the more advanced his technology, the higher the quality of man's life and the degree of his fulfillment will be.
Dr. de Grey estimates that, with sufficient scientific attention, the reversal of aging (and thus the attainment of indefinite or at least extremely long human lifespans) can occur in approximately thirty years. The first step of this process involves attaining the necessary technological knowledge as well as proving to the public the feasibility of the life extension effort by artificially prolonging the life expectancy of mice from three to five years (or 180 mouse-years), for which purpose Dr. de Grey and the entrepreneur David Gobel have established the Methuselah Mouse Prize, modeled after the immensely successful X Prize for private space flight. The Methuselah Mouse Prize has already attracted six teams of researchers to compete for it. The inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil agrees with Dr. de Grey's predictions and additionally foresees the development in thirty years of nanoscopic robots that will be embedded in the human body and brain, to provide for more efficient biological functions, the combating of senescence, and the artificial enhancement of human intelligence.
While many "traditional" value systems do not provide support for the desirability of such advances, the Principles of Extropy, assisted by the firm, interrelated conceptual hierarchy of Objectivism, make it possible to argue in their favor on the most fundamental moral levels and reverse the prevailing mainstream paradigm which holds that such radical technological advances are either undesirable or impossible. Libertarians of all stripes should rejoice at the proximity of these opportunities, as well as their immensely beneficent implications for individual freedom. As I explained in my science fiction novel, Eden against the Colossus, resistance by governments, criminals, and irrationalist intellectuals against individual liberty and initiative will be futile once indefinite life is attained.
As already shown, Extropian thought and laissez-faire capitalism are splendidly aligned. The Open Society Principle of Extropy implies, according to Max More, "supporting social orders that foster freedom of communication, freedom of action, experimentation, innovation, questioning, and learning… opposing authoritarian social control and unnecessary hierarchy and favoring the rule of law and decentralization of power and responsibility… preferring bargaining over battling, exchange over extortion, and communication over compulsion."
A society committed to this principle must tolerate dissent, diversity, and competition and acknowledge in individuals the full choice to associate with whom they will, to exchange ideas how they will, and to make the material innovations they will, reaping either the rewards of their productive work or the consequences of their failure. Max More recognizes that societal controls imposed by cliques of government bureaucrats are unable to sustain a system in which individuals are allowed to pursue their highest values through the autonomous use of their reason:
Analysis of the other Principles of Extropy demonstrates how More's defense of capitalism has foundations similar to those employed by Rand. The principle of Rational Thinking implies that one "not accept revelation, authority, or emotion as reliable sources of knowledge. Rational thinkers place little weight on claims that cannot be checked. In thinking rationally, we rely on the judgement of our own minds while continually re-examining our own intellectual standards and skills." How reminiscent this is of Rand's recognition that there can be no ultimate authority except the reasoning mind of the autonomous individual, that feelings, visions, and commandments, or any other "extra-rational" methods are not legitimate tools of cognition!
Both Rand and More agree that reason is an exclusively individual tool for dealing with reality, and, from this, follows the need to leave man free to develop and apply his own rational ideas, for no one can ultimately interpret and work with the external reality better than he in the context of improving his own situation. Thus, no external agency, public or private, should be permitted to coerce an individual into an action that his autonomous will would oppose. What logically follows from this is the absolute separation of the State from the economy and from the private decisions of individuals.
Moreover, both Rand and More recognize another fundamental pillar for the defense of capitalism: selfishness, or the holding of one's own life as the ultimate value. More devotes three Principles of Extropy, Practical Optimism, Self-Transformation, and Self-Direction, which closely correspond to the Objectivist ethics. Practical Optimism suggests that "living vigorously, effectively, and joyfully, requires prevailing over gloom, defeatism, and negativism. We need to acknowledge problems, whether technical, social, psychological, or ecological, but we need not allow them to dominate our thinking and our direction." In other words, this is a view which holds the universe to be fundamentally open to man's creative accomplishment, and the proper attitude with regard to man's work to be the radiant, heroic pursuit of success against all obstacles. The man of Practical Optimism refuses to demean or diminish himself, and the man embodied by the Objectivist virtue of Pride would agree. According to Rand, Pride means "never placing any concern, wish, fear or mood of the moment above the reality of one's own self-esteem. And, above all, it means one's rejection of the role of a sacrificial animal, the rejection of any doctrine that preaches self-immolation as a moral virtue or duty" (The Virtue of Selfishness, pp. 29-30).
The principle of Self-Transformation "implies not self-absorption but a continued attempt to understand others and to work toward optimal relationships based on mutual honesty, open communication, and benevolence." This parallels Rand's trader principle as the guide for human interaction. Men, according to Rand, ought to treat one another not as masters or slaves, but as mutually respected individuals who communicate to exchange value for value, be it in a material or an intellectual sense. Honesty is an explicit Objectivist virtue, as is Integrity. Both imply the refusal to fabricate reality and the sincerity of individuals in manifesting their genuine thoughts and motives to others in such a manner as may best serve their selfish interests in the objective reality.
Post-Randian Objectivists, such as David Kelley, have further explored the virtue of Benevolence and the ways in which mutual politeness, respect, and toleration can foster more efficient value trading. Max More agrees. "Benevolence implies a presumption of common moral decencies including politeness, patience, and honesty. While self-direction cannot mean getting along with everyone at any cost, it does imply seeking to maximize the benefits of interactions with others."
The principle of Self-Direction holds that each individual ought to have the freedom to determine what will ultimately become of his life and character, and the corresponding responsibility of choosing to control his inner capacities and directing them for worthy purposes. This requires that each man use his autonomous mind as his ultimate judge of deciding which aspects of his life and character to change, which to keep the same, which risks to engage in, and which associations to make. The more each man employs this autonomy, the less susceptible he becomes to the tendency to unconditionally obey others. Antithetical to this Self-Direction is the attempt by others to regulate a man against his own will.
Mutual Value Trading
As they stand today, neither Objectivism nor Transhumanism, when left entirely to themselves, represent the entire range of their logical implications, often due to their willful separation by their respective adherents into needlessly warring camps. Certain Objectivists, for example, take Rand's insistence that each entity necessarily follows its own nature to imply that man is consigned to follow some set, static, immutable "human nature" which dictates finitude of lifespan. However, this is not a fundamental conflict between Objectivism and Transhumanism, as the Objectivists in question have simply misinterpreted Rand.
Rand's sole prescription for man's nature was that he is a being of volitional consciousness, with reason as his sole guide in discovering and applying truth. The "transhuman" will retain these fundamental characteristics, while departing only from those that are not human nature, i.e., those aspects of susceptibility to "natural" perils that modern man still, unfortunately, shares with the animals. Any flaw, fallibility, or vulnerability in man is not a defining trait of his nature qua rational, volitional entity. This, of course, includes senescence, an affliction that is indeed common among man and most animal species.
Certain Transhumanists commit errors with regard to their perception of Objectivism as well. Mark Plus, a member of the Immortality Institute has claimed, for example, that Objectivists are detached from "pro-survival goals" since "their lives are organized around constructs like 'heroism,' 'self-esteem,' 'romantic love' and other make-believe that distract us from our real problems." But, if man were not to esteem himself, how would he be able to effectively deal with the problems of mortality, disease, and intellectual limitations that currently plague him? How would he be able to proudly assert his capacity to overcome these evils, instead of cowering before them submissively? If man did not have the potential to be heroic, what would he be? Mediocre? Unable to function as the conquering master of his environment and the intellectual creator that he must become in order to fulfill both the Objectivist virtues and the Principles of Extropy? If man did not conceive of his love romantically, what would separate his sexual relationships from crude, unthinking animal lust (i.e. precisely the condition that a transhuman would not exhibit)?
The Extropians' focus on practical problems afflicting man is commendable, but it should not act to the detriment of moral values and a radiant affirmation of human life through abstract principles such as self-esteem and romantic love. Rather, advocates of Extropy should seek counsel in the words of Rand: "The practical is the moral." Each follows from the other, binding the two inextricably under a fully rational, integrated worldview. Neither practicality nor morality, the stuff of the body and mind, can exist severed from one another. As Rand would say, morality detached from practicality, a mind without a body, is a ghost, and practicality detached from morality, a body without a mind, is a corpse.
To integrate practicality and morality, an association between Objectivists and Extropians would be of utmost benefit. Objectivism has, since the days of Rand, developed an immense body of written works containing prescriptions from abstract theory to current events, as well as a growing abundance of rational painting, sculpture, and music. The Extropian movement, on the other hand, has produced a flowering of innovative scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs, whose visions of a technological future have the potential of becoming the concrete manifestations of Objectivist theory. Objectivist art and written works can serve as the intellectual fuel to guide these creators in their endeavors and recall to them man's potential for competence and efficacy, while the practical innovators can encourage the Objectivist theorists, writers, and artists to furnish further masterpieces by giving them vast scientific accomplishments to analyze, glorify, and depict. The worldviews of both of these intellectual movements can be broadened substantially by extending the scope of Objectivism's influence in the sciences, and Transhumanism's power in the humanities. Furthermore, each side can find in the other intellectual arguments in favor of laissez-faire capitalism, from various scientific and humanitarian perspectives, to supplement their already existing arsenals.
As for the libertarians examining both movements, but not explicitly belonging to either, I recommend that they extract the best from both worlds, adopting whatever principles their autonomous minds are ready to accept. No matter to what degree these ideas penetrate the mainstream culture and amplify the intellectual stockpiles of individuals, their effect will be a beneficent one.