Philosopher’s Corner: Does This Pro-science Party Deserve Our Votes?

Philosophers and scientists have long struggled to get the relationship between science and politics just right. The balance of opinion suggests that the two should periodically interact for mutual benefit but otherwise keep a studied distance from each other. However, what if a political party came along that put the promotion of science and technology at the top of its agenda? How would that work? And would it be a good thing? For better or worse, this is already happening in the United States. It is the Transhumanist Party, fronted by Zoltan Istvan, which consistently polled fifth during the 2016 presidential campaign.

If you find immortality desirable, yet you do nothing about it in this life by promoting the relevant science and technology, then if God doesn’t exist, you most certainly won’t become immortal.

Istvan is not himself a scientist. In fact, he holds a degree in philosophy and religion from Columbia University. And he has never held elective office or established any sort of political track record. He is best known as the author of the award-winning science fiction novel The Transhumanist Wager. The novel provides a sense of Istvan’s motivation for starting a science-based party. The Transhumanist Wager is a bit like Pascal’s Wager, which is a philosophical argument for believing in God on the grounds that if you don’t and the deity happens to exist, then you might be condemned to eternal damnation, whereas if you do believe and turn out to be wrong, you likely won’t have lost much, if anything at all. The argument is meant to persuade by highlighting the unacceptable level of existential risk assumed by atheists.

Istvan makes a similar pitch, but now aimed at secularists who nevertheless hanker for what religion has traditionally promised. He argues that if you find immortality desirable, yet you do nothing about it in this life by promoting the relevant science and technology, then if God doesn’t exist, you most certainly won’t become immortal.

Istvan drove home the point during the campaign by driving a coffin-shaped bus across the United States, culminating in the Martin Luther-like gesture of presenting a Transhumanist Bill of Rights on the doorstep of the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Along the way, he made many creditable radio and television appearances and wrote a number of “on the road” articles for online publications, including the Huffington Post. Istvan even caught the eye of the leading third-party presidential candidate, the Libertarian Gary Johnson, who considered making him his running mate.

What Istvan offered voters was a clear vision of how science and technology could deliver a heaven on earth for everyone. The Transhumanist Bill of Rights envisages that it is within the power of science and technology to deliver the end to all significant suffering, the enhancement of one’s existing capacities, and the indefinite extension of one’s life. To the fans whom Istvan attracted during his campaign, these added up to “liberty makers.” For them, the question was what prevented the federal government from prioritizing what Istvan had presented as well within human reach.

Perhaps predictably, Istvan tended to downplay the risks associated with many of the proposed treatments and techniques that would deliver the promised goods. Instead, he appealed to the libertarian streak in most of his followers, arguing that the government spends too much on the military. This serves only to increase the level of risk to which people in the United States are exposed, which in turn provides a pretext for the curtailment of their liberty.

Istvan’s Transhumanist Party is, in equal measures, philosophically interesting and problematic. Interestingly, his candidacy was not endorsed by any major scientist or scientific group. But none condemned it, either. This studied silence suggests that the scientific community may be ill-equipped to deal with someone who perhaps takes the promises of science more literally than do scientists themselves. After all, scientific research is funded not out of the pockets solely of scientists, but from the pockets of millions of taxpayers who have been led to believe in science. If taxpayers had an accurate understanding of, say, the rather limited efficacy of funded medical research vis-à-vis health problems, they might think twice. However, taxpayers buy into the faith that in the long run medical research will cure all of their ailments, or at least the ailments of their descendants. That’s already a pretty big leap of faith, and Istvan artfully capitalizes on it to issue his more extravagant claims for immortality.

More problematic is Istvan’s dismissal of the military as a drag on the funds that could be channeled into research promoting human immortality. Underlying the quest for immortality has been the fear of vulnerability. It is not by accident that the modern welfare state was invented by the Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck. He was repulsed by the idea that ordinary people would be called on to defend their country in times of war, yet couldn’t defend themselves against disease or want in times of peace. The prospect of civilian-targeted warfare in today’s world has brought the realms of national and personal security even closer together. This is exemplified by the image of the virus, which may refer to something either in silicon or carbon, but in both cases may be lethal to the body politic.

Istvan fails to appreciate that by making immortality, which amounts to invulnerability, an explicit goal of public policy, he is courting military-style perspectives on the conditions under which it might be both achieved and undermined. Indeed, recent mission statements from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which stress the need to synchronize the workings of human biology and technology, could easily provide an intellectual backdrop for the Transhumanist Bill of Rights.

What would happen if one day Istvan, or some upgraded version of him, were swept into the Oval Office and the Transhumanist Party agenda could be implemented? A harmonic convergence of politics and science would presumably enable everyone to live forever. The key philosophical questions would turn on those who refuse the offer of immortality. Would they be allowed to die? If so, when, on what grounds and by what means? And how would these remnants of Humanity 1.0 integrate into a society where people would be routinely encouraged to embrace immortality, if not be forced outright to undergo relevant treatments?

Istvan himself has remained silent on these questions, perhaps assuming that everyone would find immortality desirable. Yet some transhumanist thinkers have already envisaged a speciation process resulting in a Humanity 1.0 and a Humanity 2.0. In the more humane scenarios, the latter would create sanctuaries so the former can continue to flourish for their abnormally shortened lives. This would be in keeping with today’s moral thinking about the treatment of the great apes from which Homo sapiens originally divided. But of course, that original understanding was long in the making, and throughout most of history much direct and indirect violence was inflicted on the apes because they were seen as subhuman. Perhaps the take-home message here is that those inclined to support a pro-science political party should be careful what they wish for.

Steve Fuller holds the Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom.

Cite this Article

Fuller, Steve. “Philosopher’s Corner: Does This Pro-science Party Deserve Our Votes?” Issues in Science and Technology 33, no. 3 (Spring 2017).

Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, Spring 2017