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  • Samuel Loncar

Apocalypse Now: The Revolt Against Auto-Genocide

Samuel Loncar on Adam Kirsch's The Revolt Against Humanity: Imagining a Future Without Us

photo credit | Marginalia Review of Books

Adam Kirsch’s The Revolt Against Humanity: Imagining a Future Without Us, is part of Columbia University’s series titled “Global Reports.” Kirsch—best known as a poet and literary critic—has written a concise book that will appeal to many readers, and in a clear and personal style provides excellent reportage on the two leading views that welcome the “end of humanity’s reign on earth”—the Anthropocene antihumanists and the transhumanists.


Kirsch shows Anthropocene antihumanists share the same view of the world as environmental activists who are continually predicting an inevitable “doomsday” and, in response, anticipate and encourage the extinction of our species. Since humans are the cause of our ecological crisis and the destruction of other humans, they’ve pronounced us guilty and their judgement is death.


As one of many examples, Kirsch quotes prominent antihuman theorist and author of The Ahuman Manifesto: Activism for the End of the Anthropocene, Patricia McCormick, who calls for “an end to the human” and the ‘deceleration of human life through cessation of reproduction” by “advocating for suicide [and] euthanasia.” Kirsch also mentions Richard Powers 2019 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Overstory, whose central point is that “trees are morally superior to humans.” The last words of the novel are spoken by a botanist who drinks poison from a tree: “Dying is life, too.”


Human sacrifice isn’t a new idea. That those who are guilty must die for their crimes to protect the crops and the community (or in this case, the planet) is an idea as old as the species. The age of the Anthropocene is a primal return to our blood-soaked past full of dark gods that demand our mortal coil, the least progressive option to our current ecological crisis.  


Transhumanists, on the other hand, believe they “hold the keys to the future in the form of the technologies abbreviated as GNR—genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics.” Rather than wishing humanity to end, they want it to transform the species, especially through radical life extension.


Kirsch shares prominent examples of transhumanists like Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page (or like innovator and futurist, Ray Kurtzweil, who welcome the Singularity) who believe in the transformation of the species and radical life extension through ridding ourselves of our biological forms. Google founders Brin and Page “established a division called California Life Company, or Calico, that is devoted to anti-aging research; Time magazine reported on it 2013 under the headline ‘Can Google Solve Death?’”


Shedding our bodies isn’t a new aspiration. It’s ancient. Transhumanism is a dumbed down and hyped-up version of ascetic and gnostic philosophies from antiquity, which reveled in describing the body in disgusting and dehumanizing terms. Many transhumanists who hold such a philosophy say we should “shed our meat bags” and merge with machines.


Read Porphyry’s “On Virginity”—or many Christian saints railing against the flesh in disturbingly lavish detail—and discover that transhumanism is the logical development of certain ancient ideas, backed now by enormous financial and technological power. The language of Silicon Valley transhumanism is a form of the most anti-flesh, apocalyptic philosophies from the past. As I wrote about in 2015, Silicon Valley has a vibrant religious life, and it’s killing the economy.


Anthropocene antihumanism and transhumanism seek the end of humanity. They are auto-genocidal philosophies that enable radical policy programs for auto-extermination, and it is our self-extermination that is the source of their debate.


Adam Kirsch, The Revolt Against Humanity: Imagining a Future Without Us. Columbia Global Reports, 2023. Pp.104. $16, paperback.

The revolt isn’t asking, “Should we keep the species alive?” Rather, it assumes our destruction, our collective death. The arguments are about how: do we let ourselves go extinct, should we hasten our destruction, or should we actively shed our biological existence and merge with machines?


These two ways of thinking stem from modern liberal modes of thought and comprise a revolt against humanity that is, as Kirsch says, a “spiritual development of the first order.” As a liberal humanist, he has no easy response to either view, but he’s right that is a significant spiritual development.


The modern, secular liberal has no account of the human because it has no account of its own history, and its history is both religious and philosophical, and therefore spiritual.


As I’ve argued in much of my scholarship and in my forthcoming book, modernity and liberalism are forms of Protestant Christianity, and the history of Christianity itself is a story embedded in antiquity, where there was no distinction between philosophy, science, and religion, which are modern categories.


The Enlightenment’s simplistic narrative of science and progress was inherited from Protestantism’s revolt against systemic abuses of spiritual power by the medieval church. The Reformation was a historical and technological revolution, made possible by a new historical philosophy (Renaissance humanism) and a powerful, new technology: Gutenberg’s printing press.


The Protestant Reformation was a revolt against the authority of the church, of the right of hierarchical institutions alone to interpret scripture, a revolt of individual believers against priests. The individual has the right to read sacred texts because it is only the individual who is held responsible for how they live. Most importantly, it was a revolt based on the authority of the church’s own text: the Bible.


What the Reformation is to the church, so the Enlightenment is to Christianity as a whole. Based on the authority of the West’s central text, the Bible, Enlightenment thinkers pointed to the corruption of Christianity and claimed that Reason alone was the new authority, the authority of the human, which replaced external authorities like the church and the Bible.


So the self-subverting logic of Christianity continues now in transhumanism, more accurately called posthumanism. What the Enlightenment did to the whole of Christianity, so transhumanists do to Humanity. The power of science and technology, derived from Reason, gives the self-appointed gods of posthumanism the right to determine the fate of the species—so they think.


As Kirsch says, “the revolt against humanity is in many ways a scientific translation of religious impulses and categories, and religious tradition has always seen the end of days as both wonderful and dreadful.”


At the book’s end, Kirsch says that “in the Talmud, the rabbis debate whether or not it is desirable to be alive when the messiah comes, knowing that it will be a time of enormous and frightening disruption.”


According to Kirsch, Rabbi Ulla says to let the messiah come, but only after he has died, so he won’t see him. Rabbi Yosef says, “Let the messiah come, and I will be privileged to sit in the shadow of his donkey’s excrement.”


Kirsch understands Rabbi Ulla’s pessimism. As a liberal humanist, he acknowledges he has no easy response to these attacks on humanity and our right to live, and this leads to foreboding and dread. May it not be in our time, we may wish to say; for whether “it” is the Singularity or some Messenger from the Stars or nuclear war or global warming or AGI killing us all, there is a lot to fear.


When a scientist of the stature of Geoffrey Hinton, the “godfather of AI,” shifts his entire life to AI safety, humans are pressured to confront what we are doing: AGI is humanity’s first open aspiration to make a god, and current technology thus summons back with a vengeance the source of all superstition and delusion: fear of the gods we have made with our own hands: nuclear power and now, some are already saying, our successor species, an immortal tech god coming from the digital Clouds.


But like many in Silicon Valley, I side with Rabbi Yosef. The sages teach we each have a spark of the Messiah, and by nourishing it, we bring in the world of human flourishing we all desire. When I teach Ray Kurzweil and other transhumanists, as I did in Germany last year, I remind my very secular students: these people really believe they will live forever. I marvel at their faith: they believe the Messiah will come in their time, and by their hands. If the rest of us fear their god as an Antichrist, a talking head or modern Molech, we need more faith in the future, not less, to fight the battle ahead. At stake is, truly, our humanity.


And it’s in our hands.


Samuel Loncar, Ph.D. (Yale) is a philosopher and writer, the Editor of Marginalia Review of Books, the Director of Marginalia’s Meanings of Science Project, and the creator and founder of the Becoming Human Project. He has taught at Yale University, Otto-Friedrich University Bamberg, and as consultant speaker has worked with clients like the United Nations, Oliver Wyman, and Red Bull Arts. His book, Becoming Human: Philosophy as Science and Religion from Plato to Posthumanism is forthcoming from Columbia University Press. Tweets @sammuelloncar


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