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[*This article was first published in the September 2017 issue of Paradigm Explorer: The Journal of the Scientific and Medical Network (Established 1973). The article was drawn from the author’s original work in her book: The Future: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2017), especially from Chapters 4 & 5.]
We are at a critical point today in research into human futures. Two divergent streams show up in the human futures conversations. Which direction we choose will also decide the fate of earth futures in the sense of Earth’s dual role as home for humans, and habitat for life. I choose to deliberately oversimplify here to make a vital point.
The two approaches I discuss here are informed by Oliver Markley and Willis Harman’s two contrasting future images of human development: ‘evolutionary transformational’ and ‘technological extrapolationist’ in Changing Images of Man (Markley & Harman, 1982). This has historical precedents in two types of utopian human futures distinguished by Fred Polak in The Image of the Future (Polak, 1973) and C. P. Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ (the humanities and the sciences) (Snow, 1959).
What I call ‘human-centred futures’ is humanitarian, philosophical, and ecological. It is based on a view of humans as kind, fair, consciously evolving, peaceful agents of change with a responsibility to maintain the ecological balance between humans, Earth, and cosmos. This is an active path of conscious evolution involving ongoing psychological, socio-cultural, aesthetic, and spiritual development, and a commitment to the betterment of earthly conditions for all humanity through education, cultural diversity, greater economic and resource parity, and respect for future generations.
By contrast, what I call ‘technotopian futures’ is dehumanising, scientistic, and atomistic. It is based on a mechanistic, behaviourist model of the human being, with a thin cybernetic view of intelligence. The transhumanist ambition to create future techno-humans is anti-human and anti-evolutionary. It involves technological, biological, and genetic enhancement of humans and artificial machine ‘intelligence’. Some technotopians have transcendental dreams of abandoning Earth to build a fantasised techno-heaven on Mars or in satellite cities in outer space.
Interestingly, this contest for the control of human futures has been waged intermittently since at least the European Enlightenment. Over a fifty-year time span in the second half of the 18th century, a power struggle for human futures emerged, between human-centred values and the dehumanisation of the Industrial Revolution.
The German philosophical stream included the idealists and romantics, such as Herder, Novalis, Goethe, Hegel, and Schelling. They took their lineage from Leibniz and his 17th-century integral, spiritually-based evolutionary work. These German philosophers, along with romantic poets such as Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge (who helped introduce German idealism to Britain) seeded a spiritual-evolutionary humanism that underpins the human-centred futures approach (Gidley, 2007).
The French philosophical influence included La Mettrie’s mechanistic man and René Descartes’s early 17th-century split between mind and body, forming the basis of French (or Cartesian) Rationalism. These French philosophers, La Mettrie and Descartes, along with the theorists of progress such as Turgot and de Condorcet, were secular humanists. Secular humanism is one lineage of technotopian futures. Scientific positivism is another (Gidley, 2017).
Transhumanism, Posthumanism and the Superman Trope
Transhumanism in the popular sense today is inextricably linked with technological enhancement or extensions of human capacities through technology. This is a technological appropriation of the original idea of transhumanism, which began as a philosophical concept grounded in the evolutionary humanism of Teilhard de Chardin, Julian Huxley, and others in the mid-20th century, as we shall see below.
In 2005, the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford founded The Future of Humanity Institute and appointed Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom as its Chair. Bostrom makes a further distinction between secular humanism, concerned with human progress and improvement through education and cultural refinement, and transhumanism, involving ‘direct application of medicine and technology to overcome some of our basic biological limits.’
Bostrom’s transhumanism can enhance human performance through existing technologies, such as genetic engineering and information technologies, as well as emerging technologies, such as molecular nanotechnology and intelligence. It does not entail technological optimism, in that he regularly points to the risks of potential harm, including the ‘extreme possibility of intelligent life becoming extinct’ (Bostrom, 2014). In support of Bostrom’s concerns, renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, and billionaire entrepreneur and engineer Elon Musk have issued serious warnings about the potential existential threats to humanity that advances in ‘artificial super-intelligence’ (ASI) may release.
Not all transhumanists are in agreement, nor do they all share Bostrom’s, Hawking’s and Musk’s circumspect views. In David Pearce’s book The Hedonistic Imperative he argues for a biological programme involving genetic engineering and nanotechnology that will ‘eliminate all forms of cruelty, suffering, and malaise’ (Pearce, 1995/2015). Like the shadow side of the ‘progress narrative’ that has been used as an ideology to support racism and ethnic genocide, this sounds frighteningly like a reinvention of Comte and Spencer’s 19th century Social Darwinism. Along similar lines Byron Reese claims in his book Infinite Progress that the Internet and technology will end ‘Ignorance, Disease, Poverty, Hunger and War’ and we will colonise outer space with a billion other planets each populated with a billion people (Reese, 2013). What happens in the meantime to Earth seems of little concern to them.
One of the most extreme forms of transhumanism is posthumanism: a concept connected with the high-tech movement to create so-called machine super-intelligence. Because posthumanism requires technological intervention, posthumans are essentially a new, or hybrid, species, including the cyborg and the android. The movie character Terminator is a cyborg.
The most vocal of high-tech transhumanists have ambitions that seem to have grown out of the superman trope so dominant in early to mid-20th-century North America. Their version of transhumanism includes the idea that human functioning can be technologically enhanced exponentially, until the eventual convergence of human and machine into the singularity (another term for posthumanism). To popularise this concept Google engineer Ray Kurzweil co-founded the Singularity University in Silicon Valley in 2009. While the espoused mission of Singularity University is to use accelerating technologies to address ‘humanity’s hardest problems’, Kurzweil’s own vision is pure science fiction. In another twist, there is a striking resemblance between the Singularity University logo (below left) and the Superman logo (below right).
When unleashing accelerating technologies, we need to ask ourselves, how should we distinguish between authentic projects to aid humanity, and highly resourced messianic hubris? A key insight is that propositions put forward by techno-transhumanists are based on an ideology of technological determinism. This means that the development of society and its cultural values are driven by that society’s technology, not by humanity itself.
In an interesting counter-intuitive development, Bostrom points out that since the 1950s there have been periods of hype and high expectations about the prospect of AI (1950s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s) each followed by a period of setback and disappointment that he calls an ‘AI winter’. The surge of hype and enthusiasm about the coming singularity surrounding Kurzweil’s naïve and simplistic beliefs about replicating human consciousness may be about to experience a fifth AI winter.
The Dehumanization Critique
The strongest critiques of the overextension of technology involve claims of dehumanisation, and these arguments are not new. Canadian philosopher of the electronic age Marshall McLuhan cautioned decades ago against too much human extension into technology. McLuhan famously claimed that every media extension of man is an amputation. Once we have a car, we don’t walk to the shops anymore; once we have a computer hard-drive we don’t have to remember things; and with personal GPS on our cell phones no one can find their way without it. In these instances, we are already surrendering human faculties that we have developed over millennia. It is likely that further extending human faculties through techno- and bio-enhancement will lead to arrested development in the natural evolution of higher human faculties.
From the perspective of psychology of intelligence the term artificial intelligence is an oxymoron. Intelligence, by nature, cannot be artificial and its inestimable complexity defies any notion of artificiality. We need the courage to name the notion of ‘machine intelligence’ for what it really is: anthropomorphism. Until AI researchers can define what they mean by intelligence, and explain how it relates to consciousness, the term artificial intelligence must remain a word without universal meaning. At best, so-called artificial intelligence can mean little more than machine capability, which will always be limited by the design and programming of its inventors. As for machine super-intelligence it is difficult not to read this as Silicon Valley hubris.
Furthermore, much of the transhumanist discourse of the 21st century reflects a historical and sociological naïveté. Other than Bostrom, transhumanist writers seem oblivious to the 3,000-year history of humanity’s attempts to predict, control, and understand the future (Gidley, 2017). Although many transhumanists sit squarely within a cornucopian narrative, they seem unaware of the alternating historical waves of techno-utopianism (or Cornucopianism) and techno-dystopianism (or Malthusianism). This is especially evident in their appropriation and hijacking of the term ‘transhumanism’ with little apparent knowledge or regard for its origins.
Origins of a Humanistic Transhumanism
In 1950, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955) published the essay From the Pre-Human to the Ultra-Human: The Phases of a Living Planet, in which he speaks of ‘some sort of Trans-Human at the ultimate heart of things’. Teilhard de Chardin’s Ultra-Human and Trans-Human were evolutionary concepts linked with spiritual/human futures. These concepts inspired his friend Sir Julian Huxley to write about transhumanism, which he did in 1957 as follows [Huxley’s italics]:
The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself—not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way—but in its entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realising new possibilities of and for his human nature (Huxley, 1957).
Ironically, this quote is used by techno-transhumanists to attribute to Huxley the coining of the term transhumanism. And yet, their use of the term is in direct contradiction to Huxley’s use. Huxley, a biologist and humanitarian, was the first Director-General of UNESCO in 1946, and the first President of the British Humanist Association. His transhumanism was more humanistic and spiritual than technological, inspired by Teilhard de Chardin’s spiritually evolved human. These two collaborators promoted the idea of conscious evolution, which originated with the German romantic philosopher Schelling.
The evolutionary ideas that were in discussion the century before Darwin were focused on consciousness and theories of human progress as a cultural, aesthetic, and spiritual ideal. Late 18th-century German philosophers foreshadowed the 20th-century human potential and positive psychology movements. To support their evolutionary ideals for society they created a universal education system, the aim of which was to develop the whole person (Bildung in German) (Gidley, 2016).
After Darwin, two notable European philosophers began to explore the impact of Darwinian evolution on human futures, in other ways than Spencer’s social Darwinism. Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas about the higher person (Übermensch) were informed by Darwin’s biological evolution, the German idealist writings on evolution of consciousness, and were deeply connected to his ideas on freedom.
French philosopher Henri Bergson’s contribution to the superhuman discourse first appeared in Creative Evolution (Bergson, 1907/1944). Like Nietzsche, Bergson saw the superman arising out of the human being, in much the same way that humans have arisen from animals. In parallel with the efforts of Nietzsche and Bergson, Rudolf Steiner articulated his own ideas on evolving human-centred futures, with concepts such as spirit self and spirit man (between 1904 and 1925) (Steiner, 1926/1966). During the same period Indian political activist Sri Aurobindo wrote about the Overman who was a type of consciously evolving future human being (Aurobindo, 1914/2000). Both Steiner and Sri Aurobindo founded education systems after the German bildung style of holistic human development.
Consciously Evolving Human-Centred Futures
There are three major bodies of research offering counterpoints to the techno-transhumanist claim that superhuman powers can only be reached through technological, biological, or genetic enhancement. Extensive research shows that humans have far greater capacities across many domains than we realise. In brief, these themes are the future of the body, cultural evolution and futures of thinking.
Michael Murphy’s book The Future of the Body documents ‘superhuman powers’ unrelated to technological or biological enhancement (Murphy, 1992). For forty years Murphy, founder of Esalen Institute, has been researching what he calls a Natural History of Supernormal Attributes. He has developed an archive of 10,000 studies of individual humans, throughout history, who have demonstrated supernormal experiences across twelve groups of attributes. In almost 800 pages Murphy documents the supernormal capacities of Catholic mystics, Sufi ecstatics, Hindi-Buddhist siddhis, martial arts practitioners, and elite athletes. Murphy concludes that these extreme examples are the ‘developing limbs and organs of our evolving human nature’. We also know from the examples of savants, extreme sport and adventure, and narratives of mystics and saints from the vast literature from the perennial philosophies, that we humans have always extended ourselves—often using little more than the power of our minds.
Regarding cultural evolution, numerous 20th century scholars and writers have put forward ideas about human cultural futures. Ervin László links evolution of consciousness with global planetary shifts (László, 2006). Richard Tarnas in The Passion of the Western Mind traces socio-cultural developments over the last 2,000 years, pointing to emergent changes (Tarnas, 1991). Jürgen Habermas suggests a similar developmental pattern in his book Communication and the Evolution of Society (Habermas, 1979). In the late 1990s Duane Elgin and Coleen LeDrew undertook a forty-three-nation World Values Survey, including Scandinavia, Switzerland, Britain, Canada, and the United States. They concluded, ‘a new global culture and consciousness have taken root and are beginning to grow in the world’. They called it the postmodern shift and described it as having two qualities: an ecological perspective and a self-reflexive ability (Elgin & LeDrew, 1997).
In relation to futures of thinking, adult developmental psychologists have built on positive psychology, and the human potential movement beginning with Abraham Maslow’s book Further Reaches of Human Nature (Maslow, 1971). In combination with transpersonal psychology the research is rich with extended views of human futures in cognitive, emotional, and spiritual domains. For four decades, adult developmental psychology researchers such as Michael Commons, Jan Sinnott, and Lawrence Kohlberg have been researching the systematic, pluralistic, complex, and integrated thinking of mature adults (Commons & Ross, 2008; Kohlberg, 1990; Sinnott, 1998). They call this mature thought ‘postformal reasoning’ and their research provides valuable insights into higher modes of reasoning that are central to the discourse on futures of thinking. Features they identify include complex paradoxical thinking, creativity and imagination, relativism and pluralism, self-reflection and ability to dialogue, and intuition. Ken Wilber’s integral psychology research complements his cultural history research to build a significantly enhanced image of the potential for consciously evolving human futures (Wilber, 2000).
I apply these findings to education in my book Postformal Education: A Philosophy for Complex Futures (Gidley, 2016).
Can AI ever cross the Consciousness Threshold?
Given the breadth and subtlety of postformal reasoning, how likely is it that machines could ever acquire such higher functioning human features? The technotopians discussing artificial superhuman intelligence carefully avoid the consciousness question. Bostrom explains that all the machine intelligence systems currently in use operate in a very narrow range of human cognitive capacity (weak AI). Even at its most ambitious, it is limited to trying to replicate ‘abstract reasoning and general problem-solving skills’ (strong AI). In spite of all the hype around AI and ASI, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI)’s own website states that even ‘human-equivalent general intelligence is still largely relegated to the science fiction shelf.’ Regardless of who writes about posthumanism, and whether they are Oxford philosophers, MIT scientists, or Google engineers, they do not yet appear to be aware that there are higher forms of human reasoning than their own. Nor do they have the scientific and technological means to deliver on their high-budget fantasies. Machine super-intelligence is not only an oxymoron, but a science fiction concept.
Even if techno-developers were to succeed in replicating general intelligence (strong AI), it would only function at the level of Piaget’s formal operations. Yet adult developmental psychologists have shown that mature, high-functioning adults are capable of very complex, imaginative, integrative, paradoxical, spiritual, intuitive wisdom—just to name a few of the qualities we humans can consciously evolve. These complex postformal logics go far beyond the binary logic used in coding and programming machines, and it seems also far beyond the conceptual parameters of the AI programmers themselves. I find no evidence in the literature that anyone working with AI is aware of either the limits of formal reasoning or the vast potential of higher stages of postformal reasoning. In short, ASI proponents are entrapped in their thin cybernetic view of intelligence. As such they are oblivious to the research on evolution of consciousness, metaphysics of mind, multiple intelligences, philosophy and psychology of consciousness, transpersonal psychology and wisdom studies, all providing ample evidence that human intelligence is highly complex and evolving.
When all of this research is taken together it indicates that we humans are already capable of far greater powers of mind, emotion, body, and spirit than previously imagined. If we seriously want to develop superhuman intelligence and powers in the 21st century and beyond we have a choice. We can continue to invest heavily in naïve technotopian dreams of creating machines that can operate better than humans. Or we can invest more of our consciousness, energy, and resources on educating and consciously evolving human futures with all the wisdom that would entail.
About Professor Jennifer M. Gidley PhD
Author, psychologist, educator and futurist, Jennifer is a global thought leader and advocate for human-centred futures in an era of hi-tech hype and hubris. She is Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, UTS, Sydney and author of The Future: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2017) and Postformal Education: A Philosophy for Complex Futures (Springer, 2016). As former President of the World Futures Studies Federation (2009-2017), a UNESCO and UN ECOSOC partner and global peak body for futures studies, Jennifer led a network of hundreds of the world’s leading futures scholars and researchers from over 60 countries for eight years.
[To check references please go to original article in Paradigm Explorer, p. 15-18]
[This short blog is a second entrée to Chapter 4: “Crystal Balls, Flying Cars and Robots” in my new Oxford book The Future: A Very Short Introduction.]
“In this brilliant and concise overview [of The Future,] part of the Oxford University Press Very Short Introduction series, [Jennifer Gidley] gives readers multiple insights into the field and ways of thinking about the future… She is careful to emphasise that the future is not just something that happens, nor is it inevitable, but we co-create it through our thoughts and actions within both a cultural and global or planetary context.”
David Lorimer, Editor, Network Review: Journal of the Scientific and Medical Network (2017) No. 123.
Trivialisation of the Future
Which is the more compelling image in thinking about future time?
The magnificent bronze “Celestial Globe” was created by the ancient Persians in Isfahan, Iran, around 1144 CE. An artefact of Persian astronomy celestial globes, like astrolabes, were a way to try to understand the cycles of the celestial bodies to help to predict the future. This one is the third oldest surviving in the word, and is held in the Louvre Museum in Paris. The ancient Persian culture is a great example of an early culture with a strong relationship to both time and the future. For example, the old Persian calendar is one of the oldest chronological records in human history, in existence since the second millennium bce, pre-dating Zoroaster.
The second image is a typical cliché of how the media trivializes the future, by using a crystal ball image, frequently accompanied by a rather silly looking person – aka a ‘futurist.’
No matter how many scholarly books are written about futures studies, or how many university courses provide education in futures concepts, theories, and methods, the media frequently trivializes the future, and especially ‘futurists’. Commonly, futurists are dismissed as crystal ball gazers (see image above). The second trivialization is that futurists are all involved in high-tech, especially flying machines or space-tech, and science fiction (see second article in this blog series). Thirdly, there is the idea that futures studies is dominantly involved with robotics, AI, drones and so on (see third article in this blog series).
Believe it or not, a large body of futures literature has been published over fifty years, which includes conceptual and methodological innovation and engagement with real world issues. In spite of this, misconceptions abound in academic, professional, and policy circles. The term ‘future’ is increasingly used in these circles, mostly without reference to the published futures studies material. As a consequence, futures literature is under-appreciated, while decision-makers and policy-makers work largely in the dark.
Why is this so? I see several reasons.
First, futures writing is transdisciplinary so does not easily find a home in academic journals, which are largely discipline-based. Secondly, some futurists ideologize futures concepts and methods as if they were the next new grand theory that would save the world. This contributes to academic siloism rather than knowledge exchange and circulation.
A third challenge is that futures/foresight journals are the most likely to accept futures and foresight articles, increasing the likelihood of futures literature becoming cut off from other academic discourse. The problem here is that if futures research becomes too isolated within its own domain, the field may not remain up to date with other leading-edge discourses. Furthermore, others will continue to miss out on the futures resources available. It is vital in these complex and challenging times, that futures literature is more widely accessible.
These challenges are exacerbated because of media misrepresentation of the futures studies field and futurists. At one end of the spectrum is the misbelief that futures studies is solely about prediction and forecasting based on extrapolation from present-day trends. At the other end of the spectrum is the idea that the future is inherently unknowable, and therefore futures studies can be nothing more than ungrounded speculation. While there are many futurists who rely on predictive methods and some pop futurists who engage in poorly researched speculative fantasy, these extreme views do not reflect the breadth of the field.
I have decided, somewhat mischievously, to do a ‘quick and dirty’ experiment on LinkedIn by presenting the exact same blog twice. The first time I will use a meaningful image as the featured image, to reflect something of the depth of the field, with a trivial image as the second image. The second time I will reverse the two images, and lead with the trivialized cliché. I am curious which will attract most attention.
The strange case of the crystal ball
I was interviewed a few years ago by journalists from two Australian magazines, because I had become President of the World Futures Studies Federation. Given that both magazines claimed to be writing balanced and informed articles about futures studies, and in fact they both did, I was astounded to discover that both used the visual metaphor of the crystal ball to illustrate their articles. Even more surprising is that researchers from one of the Grand Écoles in Paris held an event in 2016 on the histories of prediction using just another cliché crystal ball image to advertise it.
This strange case of the crystal ball appearing so often to represent futures thinking makes me wonder if there is something very deep in the human psyche, a kind of collective memory of when humans used divination and talismans to get a handle on the future. This cultural memory goes back as far as the ancient Druids, yet still inspires us today, even if unconsciously.
Another possible explanation is that the futures studies field is so hard to grasp from the outside that the media resort to trivialization as a defence mechanism. One interviewer even asked me how my ‘pot of rabbit entrails’ was going on the stove. I proceeded to offer him some insight into the complexity of ways to approach the future that are more recent than the sibylline oracles.
And yet there are so many compelling images of transformational futures that are already being designed and even developed.
For instance, here are two images that could very adequately represent ‘the future’ or, even better, ‘alternative futures’. The first is a very impressive Solar Power Plant already developed in Andalucia in Southern Spain.
The second is a design for a self-sufficient Sub-Biosphere that can house up to 100 people under the sea, as an adaptive response to rising sea levels. Designed by London designer Phil Pauley, over twenty years, it is a prototype that no doubt will be given serious consideration as global warming increases and seas continue to rise.
I hope this short piece offers a broader view of how we can metaphorically represent the complexities of non-trivial futures in a more nuanced way, and that you will think again next time you see a crystal ball being used to illustrate an article on the future.
More about these ideas can be found in Chapter 4 of my new book “The Future: A Very Short Introduction” published by Oxford University Press (2017).
See also my Amazon Author Page.