Transhumanism and Egoism

I’ve been called upon to give a transhumanist perspective on egoism. I think that this is a pretty simple critique so I’m going to largely spend this piece talking about why egoists should take it seriously. If you’re already convinced of the importance of thinking rigorously, please just skip my self-indulgent rant and go to the final two paragraphs.

It should be pretty uncontroversial to place Stirner within the skeptical tradition, as he calls for us to interrogate both our inherited ideas, as well as our values and motivations. Both of these have significant overlap with transhumanism. Individuals coming to realize the possibilities available to them, critically evaluating the assumptions they inherited from society and discarding those that limit them is obviously aligned with transhumanist aspirations. Take for example the discourse around things like anti-aging, with many people reflexively being against anti-aging because it violates some perceived natural order. This is a very obvious point of overlap between transhumanists and egoists (I imagine few egoists with all their talk of “the unique” would want to die before their time).

But at the same time, the deconstructivist aspirations of transhumanism go far further. I’ve already written on how our individual consciousness is not some inviolable fact of nature but is rather contingent. Consider the practical implementation of technologically mediated swarm minds or the creation of artificial intelligences that force us to come face to face with radically different minds from what our species has encountered so far on Earth (both in terms of other humans and animals/plants). Such possibilities may well be centuries away, but even our crude attempts at hacking our senses could very well lead to a much wider expansion of phenomenological experience and further fuzzing of one’s sense of self. Most egoists I know are neurodivergent, but technology opens up a much wider space of possibilities than the already fairly wide set of ways of experiencing the world given to us by genetics.

Or to put it in meme form: “the ego is a spook”.

If we accept that modification of our bodies is possible and that what defines individuality is open to change, this makes clearly delineating what the “ego” is, to say nothing of what it ought to do, difficult. This is not to say there’s no way to salvage the notion of self-hood, see for example a recently published paper that defines individuality as systems that propagate information from the past to the future. But even if we have some way to analytically talk about individuality once our sense of self starts to blur, making this part of our “common-sense” is another question.

To give some deliberately fictional examples to highlight why egoists should want better ways of talking about selves, consider some two clear-cut examples. A community that mandates its members adopt technology that connects them to the point where the collective genuinely counts as an “individual” from the perspective of information theory. Conversely the atoms that make you up could be rearranged in such a way that the amount of information being conveyed would create far more “selves”. Whether it be individuals coming together to form a collective agent whose individual or individuals being decomposed into many different selves, the point is that the options opened up by technology allowing us to reconfigure ourselves means that any fixed sense of self is unlikely to survive. There may be entities that look a lot like baseline humans in terms of minds in such a future, but it’ll just be one way of constructing things.

I don’t know what the egoist response to such scifi scenarios are (to say nothing of the technical challenge of manifesting them). But I nonetheless think that regardless of one’s beliefs we should place considerable importance on making sure our models aren’t trashed on contact with radical change in the world. An emphasis on individuals deciding for themselves what to pursue is certainly noble, but you have to believe in some highly questionable metaphysics to not think that selfhood is a slippery concept that will only be further eroded by technological progress.

Again radical transhuman possibilities might very well be centuries away. But there’s plenty of intermediary steps between that world and ours that will slowly complicate notions of self-hood. This has practical relevance for egoists since the basic dynamics of self-selection and tolerance for weirdness means that self-identified egoists are more likely when compared to the rest of the population to know the biohackers and grinders who are at the cutting edge of this sort of thing.

Hence there are plenty of reasons to make sure our philosophical assumptions actually map on to reality. After all, history is full of various movements that failed to keep abreast of scientific discoveries and subsequently collapsed or eroded (I assume that every egoist reading this wants to affect the world in some way and hence has reason to care about accuracy).

Consider one of the most spectacular examples of how poor models can lead to disastrous outcomes, namely Marxism. Marxists wedded themselves to a mess of descriptive claims to justify a set of normative claims (that many denied they held). This created massive problems when it became increasingly clear that while there was some truth to Marxist claims the framework was flawed in a variety of ways.

Remember that once upon a time, mass social democratic parties that had Marxist ideas at their center were seriously radical – they would refuse to take part in government, were built on significant working class institutions that were separate from the state and faced significant repression from the government. Their subsequent incorporation into the capitalist state was partially a result of the failure of Marx’s predictions about the expansion of an immiserated, interchangeable working class. While there were still large numbers of working people, they had myriad interests and the majority were not interested in socialist revolution in any developed country. The result was that once radical parties went increasingly reformist, both in response to a decline in worker radicalism, but also out of a need to do something with the political power they had obtained. 

Egoism is unlikely to fail in such a spectacular way, but relative degrees of failure are nonetheless failure. Moreover, more subtle forms of failure can, in the long run, be more important than the obvious catastrophes. They may grab your attention, but they tend to be the result of a million small contingencies that people had some agency over.

And while the catastrophic failures of Marxism have obvious negative consequences, the response by those inspired by Marxism (be they activists or intellectuals) has only worsened the damage. Once they reached a critical mass, Marxist states and parties were always going to tragically fail, but how people responded to those failures is incredibly important because it has shaped the trajectory of the left to the present.

That some of my favorite contemporary Marxists in terms of rigor and analysis are imploring their comrades to catch up with scientific breakthroughs like entropy or information theory that are almost a century old speaks to how badly the response has gone. And this isn’t Sherlock Holmes refusing to learn whether the sun goes around the Earth or vice-versa because it has no practical utility for his detective work – no, these are scientific discoveries that, among others things, lie at the heart of the computer revolution that has been reshaping the global economy for over half a century at least. You would think that people interested in the “means of production” would care about how they actually work.

The only reason that such ignorance doesn’t discredit Marxists and Marxism as being hopelessly out of date is because the standards and incentives for political discourse more broadly are even worse. This sort of thing is, unfortunately, normal in our society.

But just because status quo liberals and reactionaries can get away with being intellectually lazy does not mean it’s acceptable. There are serious asymmetries when it comes to wanting to change the world versus wanting to maintain some sort of arbitrary order. Radically reconfiguring society in a more egalitarian / liberatory direction is just a lot more work than enacting superficial changes or squashing the agency of people entirely. They can get away with inferior models of the world because they don’t need to have answers for how things might work in a radically different manner.

What’s really concerning is that many leftists who’ve got themselves stuck in such epistemic ruts were not stupid. That very smart people who are part of very smart communities can nevertheless get trapped in their model is evidence that raw intelligence is no defense against adopting and maintaining faulty models. Moreover, this failure directly hurt their ostensible goals of equality and/or freedom. That such epistemic closure isn’t even instrumentally rational is an incredibly strong argument for Stirner’s emphasis on not letting yourself become entrapped by ideas.

But resisting such failure modes is work. And to be incredibly fucking self-indulgent for a minute, I want to give some praise to C4SS and the broader community I see myself belonging to for doing that work. While I’m obviously biased when I say this, the “left-wing market anarchism” (LWMA) community is, currently, probably the most epistemically rigorous place on the Internet when it comes to thinking about politics. This isn’t just simple ingroup signaling (it may be complex ingroup signaling however!). I say that having tried fairly hard to find other places that I deem of similar quality, seriously reading not just liberals / socialists / libertarians, but even “serious” reactionary intellectuals. All came up short compared to LWMA. If I had found some other group I considered more rigorous/insightful, I would let you know.

Because raw intelligence or the capacity to grind through big books can give you the superficial impression of insight, actual understanding requires not just consuming vast amounts of information but the tricky process of weighing evidence and discarding / refining theories. And all this is tinted by the basic human biases that encourage friend / enemy thinking when it comes to politics. Thinking rationally about political questions is hard.

This isn’t a reason to rest on our laurels. But the fact that the LWMA community has managed to thread the needle of presenting a serious alternative to Marxism both in terms of analysis of capitalism and a model for what could come after without collapsing into advocacy for technocracy or red-brownism makes it depressingly unique as a framework / community.

But we should never assume that to be inherent to what we do. An insight that Stirner and plenty of other philosophers across the ages have repeatedly arrived at is that one should never mistake labels for the thing itself. Diligent inquiry into political and ethical concerns is not inherent to LWMA, whether you want to define it as a line of inquiry, a political / ethical project or a community of people. We may seem promising today but tomorrow we may be overrun with group-think (one concern I have is what might happen if our ideas were to quickly increase in popularity by a couple orders of magnitude). People (and the communities they form) are not intellectually rigorous, rather they engage in intellectual rigor and can just as easily stop.

So with that somewhat self-indulgent diversion to articulate why I take epistemic rationality incredibly seriously out of the way, I ask egoists, what is your response to the fuzzing / queering of individualism brought about by technology?

(On a lighter note you should totally go read Ken MacLeod’s The Cassini Division which has transhumanist egoist-communists face off against posthumans and anarcho-capitalists in the future. Particularly since it has the coolest description of egoist philosophy ever put to paper).

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