April 3, 2006

John Bruce describes transhumanism as a cult

I received an email from J Hughes today informing me about how blogger John Bruce has blasted Glenn Harlan Reynolds for promoting transhumanism. Here's the letter:
The blogger John Bruce recently read Glenn Harlan Reynolds' Army of Davids, which promotes transhumanism, and has decided to launch a campaign to have newspapers drop Reynolds on the grounds that he promotes the "transhumanist cult." I exchanged some email with Mr. Bruce trying to bring him up-to-speed, but it had no effect. It seems clear that he is motivated by some personal and partisan agenda I don't full understand. He writes for The Dartmouth Review and The New Partisan, and appears to want Reynolds to blog and link back to launch an "Instalanche" of traffic to Bruce's blog.

This is his letter to the WSJ trying to alert them to Reynolds "cultism."

Monday, April 03, 2006
E-Mail To The Wall Street Journal

I sent the following e-mail to the Letters editor of OpinionJournal, with a copy to the features editor:

I've become concerned that you intend regularly to publish pieces by Glenn Reynolds in your Opinion Journal Federation. I've begun to notice that in his blog posts, as well as in his freelance pieces and in his book, Reynolds is making thinly disguised pitches for a cult-like belief system called "transhumanism". In fact, Reynolds identifies himself as a "transhumanist", but he doesn't make it plain that this involves bizarre beliefs. I don't think the Wall Street Journal should be providing a respectable platform for such opinions without investigation. There are several blogs that have been looking into "transhumanism" and trying to sound alarms, including that of Andrew Keen at http://andrewkeen.typepad.com/the_great_seduction/2006/03/technology_and_.html (Keen wrote one of the very rare unfavorable reviews of Reynolds's book at The Weekly Standard) and mine at

In particular, Reynolds and Raymond Kurzweil share many aspects of this bizarre belief system. Reynolds gave a highly favorable review of Kurzweil's book The Singularity is Near in the WSJ on October 1, 2005. However, I don't believe Reynolds acknowledged the extent to which he
and Kurzweil share the bizarre, cult-like "transhumanist" belief system, and as a result, I believe Reynolds may have had a conflict of interest.

With many other transhumanists, Reynolds and Kurzweil believe in a "Singularity", which is an apocalyptic event predicted within the next 30-40 years in which computers become super-efficient and the human race merges with machines. This will allow the human-machine combine to do things like cure diseases and death via "nanotechnology". In this view, human beings, once they merge with computers, will become immortal robot-like beings (within 30-40 years). A web search should show you that transhumanists typically misuse the term "nanotechnology" to refer to the ability of hypothetical future atomic-size robots to repair disease and reverse any problem that may cause death. This is not the scientific use of the term.

That some may believe in a merged, immortal computer-human life form and nanobots is only part of the problem. Some cultists go so far as to have their brains or whole bodies frozen when they die in anticipation that after the Singularity, the nanobots will be able to fix whatever led to their deaths and bring them back to life. I don't believe Reynolds has expressed a public opinion on this, but Kurzweil is on record as saying he will have his brain frozen when he dies, and by his public example he advocates the practice. Mainstream medical practitioners make it clear there is no scientific support for this practice, and some refer to it as quackery.

However, some believers have gone far enough to request assisted suicide in the belief that if they kill themselves now and have their brains or bodies frozen, they can be brought back after the Singularity and cured without the need to suffer from degenerative diseases. There is at least one case on record of an individual "suicided" with an overdose of barbiturates before having her brain frozen. I'm concerned that the WSJ may, by publishing its favorable review of Kurzweil and by providing Reynolds with a respectable platform, be helping to further these views.

In his review of Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near, Reynolds said

"Naturally, Mr. Kurzweil has little time for techno-skeptics like the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Richard Smalley, who in September 2001 published a notorious piece in Scientific American debunking the claims of nanotechnologists, in particular the possibility of nano-robots (nanobots) capable of assembling molecules and substances to order. Mr. Kurzweil's arguments countering Dr. Smalley and his allies are a pleasure to read -- Mr. Kurzweil clearly thinks that nanobots are possible -- but in truth he is fighting a battle that is already won."

I've read the Smalley piece Reynolds refers to, and this is simply an attempt by a mainstream scientist to debunk the transhumanist cult-like view that atom-size robots can cure all disease, as well as aging and death. The tendency to dismiss mainstream scientific views is, of course, characteristic of cults and quackery. Kurzweil, who is an inventor and self-promoter with no background in chemistry, is portrayed as out-arguing a Nobelist.

If the Wall Street Journal's editors knew that one Scientologist was going to review (very favorably) another Scientologist's book, and the book was a highly slanted apology for Scientology, I don't believe the WSJ would print such a thing. But this is what Reynolds did with Kurzweil. I'm concerned that Reynolds often includes not fully ingenuous pitches for transhumanism, in his blog, in his book, and in his other freelance writing.

I urge the WSJ's editors to review this problem and make a decision as to whether Reynolds should continue to have a respectable platform to advocate cult-like thinking.
So, there you have it. After reading this, I decided to write a letter to John Bruce:
Mr Bruce,

It is extremely regrettable that you have chosen to characterize transhumanism as a cult and to compare it to a known cult like Scientology. With these comments you have not only perpetuated a falsehood about transhumanism, you have trivialized an actual cult that actively goes about its business of ruining lives.

Transhumanism is at most a philosophy of science and broad-based social movement with no fixed political or religious agenda. Futurists, scientists, and philosophers who make conjectures about a possible transhuman future most certainly do not go about creating mindless drones, nor are they engaging in any kind of pseudoscientific or quasi-religious endeavor. As an idea it has been around for centuries, spawned by the Enlightment and a cousin of secular humanism. It has only recently crystallized as an academic discipline and as a social movement that is both concerned and hopeful of various pending technologies.

Some of the world's most distinguished scientists are currently thinking very hard about humanity's future, many of whom agree that a potential Singularity or some kind of 'existential paradigm shift' awaits us in the not too distant future. The idea of a transhuman future is hardly the monopoly of Ray Kurzweil. A short list of highly respected scientists who agree that a posthuman future awaits us include Steven Hawking, Sir Martin Rees, Michio Kaku, Nick Bostrom, Hans Moravec, Marvin Minsky, and James Watson. And there are many, many others; I urge you take a look at the citations in Kurzweil's Singularity book to see how broadly these ideas have disseminated throughout academia and research labs around the world.

You may not agree with any of these thinkers' conclusions, but disagreement hardly justifies the claim that transhumanism is a cult.

Moreover, there are a number of thinkers who have been in opposition to transhumanism who agree that these are plausible projections, particularly the potential for radical life extension. Francis Fukuyama and Leon Kass immediately come to mind. At no time have these individuals described transhumanism as a cult or as pseudoscientific, and I challenge you to prove me otherwise.

Consequently, I am formally asking you to retract your irresponsible and false mischaracterization of transhumanism as a cult.

George Dvorsky
Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies
Board Director
[btw, if you'd like to give Mr Bruce your 2 cents: j.bruce@gte.net]

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1 comment:

Anne Corwin said...

Hello George. I linked over here from Betterhumans, and came upon this entry. That letter from Mr. Bruce was so bizarre that I found myself mentally composing a response for quite a while today. I've linked to this post in my own blog. Hopefully you don't mind the mention!