Superhuman, Transhuman, or Fully Human: Whose Future Is It?

This is the text to the talk I gave at the Deus ex Machina conference sponsored by Masaryk University, Brno,Czech Republic on 26/2/21. The conference was fascinating, with many excellent presentations, covering wide areas of contact between traditional notions of the occult and the technological developments that seem to parallel many aspects of the esoteric. I hope you get something out of it.

Superhuman, Transhuman, Fully Human: Whose Future is It?

A Talk for the Deus Ex Machina Conference 26/2/21

         Let me begin by saying thank you for inviting me to speak at this conference. I was happy to accept the invitation because after looking at some of the themes that were going to be addressed, they all struck me as in some way related to a question that I believe will become more and more dominant as the century goes on. This is the question of what it means to be human. We are already well on our way to eroding the meaning of “man” and “woman,” a concern C. S. Lewis addressed long ago in his little book The Abolition of Man, which is well worth reading. I recently read somewhere that in Canada, I believe, in order to differentiate between the sexes, science professors are no longer allowed to use the terms “man” and “woman,” or even male or female, but must refer instead to “egg producing” and “testosterone producing” humans, I guess. It may be the case that in a few years that term “human” too will be jettisoned.

Not long ago at a symposium at the Esalen Institute in California, I had one very earnest academic tell me that he had a “real problem with the term human.” Personally I don’t – which isn’t to say that I am entirely happy with the species to which it refers. In fact, a certain dissatisfaction with the “only human” will inform what I am going to say today.

As my title suggests, I’ll be looking at three different ways of understanding what it means to be human. Or perhaps I should say that I will be looking at what some ideas of “transcending” the human, going beyond our apparent limitations, suggest about what we used to call “human potential,” our untapped resources, the possibilities latent within us. I am of a generation that believed in and experienced some of these possibilities – I still do – and which remain fundamentally potentialities of consciousness, the actualising of which informs the process of becoming what the psychologist Abraham Maslow – incidentally one of the most important figures from the early days at Esalen – called “fully human.” I am borrowing the term from Maslow here, as I have done in some of my books, as a general notion of a state of being more fully “ourselves” than the one which we usually unquestioningly accept as given. That doubt about the term “human” should arise at the Esalen Institute, which began in the 1960s, and which is dedicated to the discovery and actualisation of human potential, seems to suggest that confusion about what it means to be human has spread rather far.

I should point out that technically, the attempt to arrive at a metaphysical or ontological answer to the question “what does it mean to be human,” or, as it used to be asked, “What is man?”, rather than a biological or political or social one, was the province of a school of thought from the last century known as philosophical anthropology. In the early twentieth century, among others, Ernst Cassirer, Max Scheler, and Nicolai Berdyaev were some of the major names associated with philosophical anthropology, and I write about their work in my book The Caretakers of the Cosmos. This is where I take my own shot at an answer to the question of the purpose of humanity, the part we play in the grand cosmic process.

Maslow’s “fully human,” the self-actualised human being, who has made real his or her potential, is a goal, an ideal. No one is ever completely self-actualised, just as in the Jungian school no one is ever completely individuated. But we can be more actualised or less, and in this sense Maslow remarked that it seems that some people are “more human” than others, in the sense that they have “made real” more of themselves than others have. After all, to “actualise” something is to make it “actual,” that is, to make it real. So to actualise yourself means to make yourself real.

If being “fully human” is the goal, the starting point is what we can call the “only human,” or the “good enough human,” as it were; presumably below this would be a realm of the “almost human,” but that doesn’t concern us.  The “only human,” of whom we can expect only so much, is the standard, commonly accepted view of ourselves as perhaps well-meaning, but deeply muddled, severely limited creatures, devoid of free will and entirely dependent on the environment for our behaviour, a kind of walking stimulus/response machine. We are reminded of this assessment in a variety of ways by science and culture, and I trust I need offer no examples. We are flawed, inconstant individuals, and the best we can hope for is to declare our inadequacies outright – indeed little else is popular in “serious” culture and self-help chat shows these days – and huddle together to share some human warmth.

Perhaps the noblest expression of this highly restricted perception of mankind is the existentialist, that sees humans as “authentic” when we stoically endure the meaninglessness of life and the universe and our inability to make sense of either. The more common expression is the average person, who works to achieve the satisfaction of what Maslow calls our “deficiency needs”, what we lack – food, shelter, sex, and self-esteem – and is happy if he does.  He feels no strong urge to go “beyond” himself. This urge to go beyond, Maslow tells us, is a “creative” or “being” need, not one of deficiency, an expression of the hunger to self-actualise, for which mere happiness is irrelevant. In fact, it can often be a hurdle.

Superheroes as models for self-actualisation

Now, what does all this have to do with comic book superheroes? Well, were I asked to say when my interest in consciousness, the occult, the esoteric, the mystical, philosophy, psychology, literature and everything else I have devoted quite some time and energy to studying and writing about began, I would have to say it started when I was around five years old and that the source was comic books. That was the revelatory moment. I know I was that age because I have a very vivid memory of one day asking my grandmother for 10c to buy a comic–  it was The Flash and when I got to the candy store, the owner told me they had gone up in price to 12c. I had a considerable time getting the other 2c from my grandmother, so the event stayed in my memory. I must have been reading comics before this, because the hike in price was a shock. The price increase happened in late 1961, in the midst of what is known as the Silver Age of comics, before my sixth birthday, so I must have been a devotee from fairly early on.

         Another vivid, even earlier memory associated with comics involves the meaning of the word “cosmic.” I started out, as many other young boys did (comics really were a “boy thing” then) as a reader of DC comics, with Superman, Batman, the Flash, Green Lantern, and so on. It would be a few years before I discovered Marvel. My favourite comic at the time was the Justice League of America – the nationalist tag was later dropped – because in it you got six heroes for the price of one. Another team effort was the Legion of Superheroes, superpowered teen agers from other planets, one of whose members was Superboy; they appeared in Adventure Comics.

One member of the legion was a character called Cosmic Boy. He wasn’t a favourite but I was curious about his name. His superpower was magnetism – rather like Marvel’s supervillain Magneto – and I wondered why he wasn’t called Magnetic Boy. I asked my sister, who was a few years older than me, what “cosmic” meant. She couldn’t tell me, so I asked my mother, who didn’t know either. So in one sense you could say that I’ve been trying to find out ever since.

         This is merely to say that like many other young boys at the time, comic books introduced me to a world rather different than the one I knew around me, a much wider, deeper, more interesting world, in which anything was possible. The everyday world of parents, siblings, school, friends and relatives was implacably there and would become more so as time went on. As Wordsworth says, “the shades of the prison house” close in as we move from the paradise of childhood into the dreary world of adults. But there was an escape, a portal into another world, in which one could travel in space and time, to other planets, and meet remarkable people and have amazing adventures, and in which one felt more at home than at the dinner table or in the classroom.

And just as the superheroes who took you on these adventures kept their secret identities hidden, you too felt that you were two people: one who had to get the homework done and listen to boring lessons, and another who travelled to the far reaches of the galaxy or into the depths of the earth or into the past or future, with, if I am allowed the metaphor, a comic book as the flying carpet to take you there.

Romanticism

In other words, comic books were my earliest introduction to romanticism, not as a school of literature and thought – that wouldn’t be for another few years – but as a hunger for something more than what I later learned the philosopher Heidegger called “the triviality of everydayness.” My refusal to accept the world on its own terms started at a young age. I can remember some adult asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Before I could say anything my sister intervened and said “And you can’t say a superhero. They’re not real.” I think I left the question hanging but I can honestly say that I never entertained any idea of occupying some serious, normal position in life. For some reason still unknown to me, I have always thought that I would be a poet, or artist, or writer or something along stereotypically romantic lines. I might add that the one time that I did contemplate admitting defeat and accepting that I would have to find a place for myself in the “real” world – rather than forge one of my own – proved utterly disastrous, although it was the kind of disaster that led to better things.

Evolutionary appetites

This hunger for something more than everyday life, which is the essence of romanticism, is also the essence of what I call the “evolutionary appetite.” This is our inbuilt urge to transcend ourselves, to self-actualise; in other words, to grow and to develop our powers and abilities in order to master life and explore our own being. At this stage we can say that the “only human” are those who, once entered into adulthood, jettison the interest in “other worlds” and reluctantly or otherwise, accept the “triviality of everydayness” as unavoidably inevitable. These seem to make up the majority of people and whatever loss they feel in “putting aside childish things” they seem to make up for in satisfying their deficiency needs: earning a good living, having a home, a family and the good opinion of their peers. There is nothing wrong with this and in many cases it warrants respect. It is difficult enough to achieve any success in life, which is a pretty grim business.

Some individuals reach the furthest limits of these lower needs and achieve the esteem of thousands of people; these are celebrities. Maslow posited a level of actualisation beyond this, a creative level free of the need for immediate gratification – that is, of the good opinion of others – that could sustain itself through its own activity, what Nietzsche called becoming a “self-revolving wheel.” These are the self-actualisers. They are motivated by something coming from within, not by the pursuit of external rewards.

         Romantics who are unable to make the transition to the real world, but who lack the vitality, talent, and sheer stubbornness to force the world to take them at their own valuation, usually have a difficult time of it, and their appetite for other worlds generally takes on a different character, their magic carpets often coming in the form of alcohol, drugs, or some other means of escape. We can say that in a sense the superhero is the romantic who is not defeated by life, who maintains his inner vision in spite of it. The romantic who is defeated, sinks into a fantasy world as a compensation. The romantic who isn’t defeated, in some way is able to transform life, to re-create it, to, in a sense, make the fantasy real. That is, to actualise it.

Adam Strange

It was while writing The Caretakers of the Cosmos that I realised that one comic book hero, who was a favourite of mine, embodied the essence of romanticism. I don’t know if Julius Schwartz, Gardner Fox, and Mike Sekowsky, who developed the character, realised it, but in Adam Strange – who appeared in Mystery in Space – they had hit on the perfect metaphor for the romantic consciousness, which is, in essence, as mentioned earlier, the sense than man is a creature of two worlds.

         In the Adam Strange stories, this notion was taken literally. The hero is an archaeologist and on a trip to the Andes something remarkable happens: he is hit by a weird ray of light coming from outer space – he later learns it is called the “zeta beam” – and finds himself transported to the planet Rann, an earth-like world, orbiting Alpha Centauri, some 25 trillion miles away. There he meets a beautiful woman, has adventures, saves the planet, and becomes a hero, while all the while sporting a nifty rocket pack and ray gun. (It is, of course, a variation on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars novels.)

But then the effect of the zeta beam wears off and he finds himself back on earth. He discovers that he can calculate where and when the zeta beam will again appear, and for the rest of the series he is off, heading into the jungle or up a mountain, to intercept the zeta beam and return to Rann, only to be sent back to earth once again. But he is determined to become a citizen of this new world and to find a way to remain on Rann forever…

This is, of course, the romantic’s dream. It is also the neurotic’s fantasy and the creative individual’s model for how the world should be. Not that he would wish an exact copy of Rann – that would be too much to hope for; it is quite a fantastic place – but he can wish that life on earth should be as exciting and interesting as it is on Rann. And that, Maslow would say, is within the realm of possibility.

So here we have comic book superheroes as gateways as it were to the romantic side of the human psyche and also to our inherent, latent evolutionary possibilities. The two, indeed, are practically synonymous, with one suggesting the other.

Teenage mutants on the rise!

It was while writing my first book, Turn Off Your Mind, about the “occult revival” of the 1960s, that I noticed that this notion of some coming evolutionary change in humans, that would produce a new race of supermen, was at the centre of the popular culture of that decade. It was also at the heart of the burgeoning youth movement. The book that kickstarted the 60s occult revival, Pauwels and Bergier’s The Morning of the Magicians, spoke a great deal about mutants and a coming mutation affecting the human race.  I saw a correspondence of this idea with several other products of sixties pop culture, specifically the film Village of the Damned, which came out in 1960 – the same year as The Morning of the Magicians – and which was based on John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos, published in 1957, and the Marvel comic The X-Men, which started in 1963, the year in which I discovered Marvel and switched my allegiances from DC. I also suggested that this idea of a breed of children possessing strange powers who threaten the older generation with extinction was also hitting the streets in Haight-Ashbury. By 1966, in the San Francisco Oracle,the hippies were declaring themselves “mutants” and were encouraging others like them to join them in order to “be free.”

I might mention that Jeffrey Kripal, whose Mutants and Mystics looks at the connection between superheroes, mysticism and the paranormal in fascinating and exciting detail, tips his hat to me in the book, remarking that Turn Off Your Mind had pointed him in that direction.

John Wyndham, overlooked evolutionary novelist

The hippies are long gone but the X-Men have become a highly successful film franchise. In some ways, it pays to be a mutant. However it strikes me that John Wyndham’s work has not been mined for its evolutionary themes as much as it should be, and I’d like to take advantage of this talk to mention this. The Day of the Triffids is known, mostly through the film and television versions. But novels like The Chrysalids, Plan for Chaos, The Kraken Wakes all deal with the idea of another race taking over from humanity. A reader of George Bernard Shaw who also read Wyndham would recognise that he engages with the same evolutionary questions that Shaw did. Man and Superman, which adds a Nietzschean spice to the Don Juan story, is the best known of Shaw’s works of “creative evolution.” The notion of a creative evolution, rather than the mindless Darwinian variety, goes back to Henri Bergson, and is at the foundation of any notion of “human potential.” But Back to Methuselah, Shaw’s “metabiological Pentateuch,” was also familiar to Wyndham, who treated the question of longevity – a central concern of transhumanism –  in Trouble with Lichen. Incidentally, someone should tell the feminists about this book. In it, it’s women who receive the gift of life-extension and upon whom the next step in human evolution depends.

Although Marvel cornered the mutant superhero market – and had other evolutionary themed characters, such as the Inhumans (Fantastic Four) and the New Men (Thor) – science fiction had got there before them. Bookshelves in most hippie households held copies of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, Theodore Sturgeon’s More than Human, and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. (Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, based on Clarke’s story “The Sentinel,” was about “ancient aliens” tampering with human evolution.)These works, and others, approached the mutant theme with more seriousness than the comic version. (Readers of today’s comics must shake their heads at the lack of sophistication in the comics I was reading; but comics were for kids then, and were not considered “serious” material, and I must admit that I’m not entirely sold on their own mutation into the “graphic novel.”) But one work of science fiction dealing with the idea of a sudden change coming over the human race rarely gets mentioned. It was not a hippie “must read,” and was written decades before they appeared. And the change coming over humanity was not one the hippies would have welcomed.

H.G. Wells and Star Begotten

Star Begotten is a late novel by H.G. Wells; it was published in 1937, well after the early science fiction that made him famous. In it the protagonist, a historian, begins to feel that some strange change is coming over the people around him. The normal, ordinary world he is used to seems somehow – wrong. People close to him now seem distant, and his own work strikes him as insipid. When he overhears a conversation about how cosmic rays may be increasing human intelligence, he begins to wonder if someone is doing this purposefully…

He suspects that the Martians are using the cosmic rays to turn human beings into – well, better people, actually. The powers the cosmic rays are imbuing humanity with include a new seriousness about life, a disinclination to waste time on trivialities, a rejection of old, inefficient behaviours, and above all a desire to apply their energies to some worthwhile purpose beyond themselves, not to the pursuit of riches, power, or fame, the means of shelter, sex, and self-esteem, the lower rungs on Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.”

In fact, the Martians are making people more the way Wells himself wanted to be, as he makes clear in his Experiment in Autobiography, published in 1934. “I do not now in the least desire to live longer unless I can go on with what I consider to be my proper business.” What was his proper business? To do “originative intellectual work.” “The originative intellectual worker is not a normal human being and does not lead nor desire to lead a normal human life. He wants to lead a supernormal life.”

We can say he wants to lead a self-actualised life. And what difference is there between the supernormal and the superhuman?

Wells hit on a suggestive metaphor to describe people like himself – creative workers – and the people like those in Star Begotten who have been affected by the Martians’ cosmic rays. He says they are like “early amphibians… struggling out of the waters into the air, seeking to breathe in a new fashion and emancipate ourselves from long accepted necessities…But the new land has not yet definitively emerged from the waters and we swim distressfully in an element we wish to abandon.”

This is a corollary to Wells’ assertion that just as birds are creatures of the air and fish creatures of the sea, human beings are creatures of the mind. Or at least we should be. We are not there yet, but it is our evolutionary destiny. Most of us still need to be subsidized by large helpings of approval from others to top up our self-esteem, and after a few hours of intellectual work, are happy to sink back into stupid living. But in people like himself and other creative workers, Wells saw the beginning of a race that would be able to maintain itself purely through mental activity, without the props and supports that come from outside. In other words, he had a sense of a generation of Maslow’s self-actualisers on the rise.

And if being able to stay on land without having to return to the water is Wells’ definition of a human doing his proper work – if I can stay with his amphibian metaphor – we can say then that there is no sense in talking about transhumanism, when most of us aren’t fully human yet.

Attack of the Mind Parasites

One writer of science fiction who took Wells at his word was the British existentialist Colin Wilson. I said that my interest in the sort of thing I write about began with comic books when I was five years old. Another major event in this line of development happened some fourteen years later, in 1975, when I was living on the Bowery in New York and making a precarious living playing in a rock band. It was in that milieu that I came upon a copy of Wilson’s book The Occult, published in 1971. Until then I had no interest in the occult and what gripped me about Wilson’s work – and literally changed my life – was that he approached the occult from the perspective of existential philosophy – phenomenology, in fact – and that it interested him because in it he saw evidence for potentialities of human consciousness far beyond those allowed by official accounts. In fact, early UK paperback editions called The Occult “the ultimate book for those who would walk with the gods,” which is, one must admit, quite pitch.

I can’t go into detail about Wilson’s attempt to create a new “positive existentialism,” to avoid the dead end reached by Heidegger, Sartre and Camus – I do so in Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson – but I can mention here that in it he drew on Maslow, particularly his notion of the “peak experience,” the sudden bursts of “newness,” bringing vitality and joy – mini mystical experiences – that Maslow believed were experienced by all healthy people.

Another thinker bubbling in Wilson’s evolutionary brew was Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, which is essentially the study of the structures of consciousness. Again, time forbids any detail. Those unfamiliar with Wilson’s work will have to take my word for it that for our purposes here the place where these two thinkers come together most effectively in Wilson’s oeuvre is in his Lovecraftian novel The Mind Parasites, written at the behest of August Derleth for his Arkham House press, and published in 1967.

Wilson too believed that a change had come over humanity. He placed the start of it in the late eighteenth century, with the rise of romanticism, which in essence was informed with a sudden sense of man as something godlike, and which we can find  in Beethoven’s symphonies, Blake’s visionary epics, Hegel’s vast metaphysical system, and other, similar titanic works. Yet so many of the later romantics died young or went insane. Wilson’s first book, The Outsider, asked why they did. In The Mind Parasites he arrived at an phenomenological answer to that question, in the form of a kind of psychic vampire, that has been sucking away at human vitality and creativity and killing off its visionaries for the past two centuries. The hero of the novel discovers their existence, but he also discovers the means of expelling them: intentionality, which is the central point of Husserl’s philosophy. We can say the parasites are defeated by phenomenology – a first, I think, in science fiction, or any genre.

Cracking the Black Room

Husserl’s central insight is that perception is intentional. We have a “will to perceive” as well as perceptions. Consciousness is not a passive reflection of the world, as Descartes believed, but an active reaching out and “grabbing” it. We “intend” the world, but are unaware that we do. Wilson’s protagonist is able to reach into himself, to the source of intentionality, with the result that he is able to throw off attacks by the parasites – coming in the form of existential despair, madness, bleak depression and thoughts of suicide – by inducing Maslow’s “peaks.” But he discovers that intentionality can also have an effect on the physical world. He and his colleagues develop enormous psychokinetic powers which eventually defeat the parasites by pushing the moon, where their base is, out of earth’s orbit and further into space. (Readers familiar with the Gurdjieff’s cosmology will note the allusion.)

We can say that the protagonists of The Mind Parasites develop what we would call superpowers, solely through understanding their own consciousness. That is, by becoming “fully human.” Through the discipline of phenomenology, Wilson’s “evolutionary existentialism” reveals powers latent in the human mind that we call psychic, or occult, but which are exactly like those attributed to superheroes. (There in nuce is the theme of Mutants and Mystics.)

I might mention that in another novel, The Black Room, a spy story, the hero attains a similar power over his mind while trying to crack the challenge of a sensory deprivation chamber, designed to break his will. I said earlier that the official view of humankind is that we are entirely dependent on stimuli coming from the environment to motivate us. This view has been at the centre of western ideas about human psychology since John Locke first argued that there is “nothing in the mind that wasn’t first in the senses.” This means that we are tabula rasa , blank slates, until impressions from the outer world “write” something on our minds. This suggests that our minds are like empty flats, and that we have to go to the equivalent of Ikea to fill them up with stuff. 

Wilson rejects this, and in The Black Room, the hero manages to make contact with the wellsprings of intentionality and so is able to remain in the chamber indefinitely, when others had gone mad. He is no longer dependent on outside stimuli because he has got in touch with an inner purpose. We are at our best, Wilson noted, when faced with a challenge. This is why his “outsiders” throw themselves into “living dangerously.”  But when the challenge recedes, we slip back down to our “only human” selves, just as Adam Strange found himself sent back to earth. If we are ever to become “self -revolving wheels” as Nietzsche says, we need to find a way to draw on the vitality we tap when faced with a challenge, without the challenge. Without, that is, the need for anything outside to stimulate us. Oddly enough, this is something many of us have had to face in some form during the Covid 19 crisis.

When we are able to do this, we would then be on our way to being fully human.

We’re only transhuman, aren’t we?

Now, what does this have to do with transhumanism? It strikes me that transhumanism is a kind of literalising of the powers associated with superheroes, a way of “actualising” them in a very literal way through technology. In some ways I would say that transhumanism is similar to the ideas that the gods were “ancient aliens,” that magic and the supernatural are expressions of an extra-terrestrial  “super science,” turned into myth by our overawed ancestors. But my main question about transhumanism is: Is it really transhuman at all? That is to say, does it aim for something that truly transcends the human in the way that Maslow’s “fully human” transcends the “only human,”  or is it really interested in only an extension of what humans already do – which in essence is what technology can achieve, and what thrilled adolescents like me when reading about our favourite superheroes?

We can put it this way: which Superman does transhumanism aim at? Nietzsche’s or Jerry Siegel’s and Joe Shuster’s? (I should say I’m a fan of both.) We know the comic book Superman is “faster than a speeding bullet” and “has powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal man.” Without going into detail – the literature is there if you want to check– we know that much of the transhuman agenda involves the kind of invulnerability, super strength, speed, flight and so on that Superman possesses, provided not by our yellow sun and earth’s low gravity (compared to Krypton), but by technology and science. Superman was known as the “man of steel” and the “man of tomorrow,” and that’s whom the transhumanists have on their agenda.

Nietzsche’s Superman possesses no powers, unless you want to call his ability to say “Yes!” to life and to will its eternal return a power. He is able to do this because he has tapped the inner springs of power and health – psychological health – the Dionysian “yea-saying”. He cannot fly or see through walls, but no technology can induce sense of “zest and well-being” that comes to those who become “self-revolving wheels, “ or who can endure the challenge of the black room without sinking into insanity. The heroes of The Mind Parasites achieve extraordinary power over the outer world, of a kind that a “super science” could conceivably match. But can technology produce the ability to perceive a meaning independent of the senses, a certainty of inner purpose that defeats the black room? This seems to be achieved, if it is, solely through our own efforts at understanding the mental actions involved in intentionality, which is essentially the process of becoming aware of the active character of consciousness. It is something that depends on us, not that happens to us.

Transhuman, all too transhuman

Nietzsche, I think, would regard the techno-superman as “transhuman, all-too-transhuman,” meaning that his aims and purposes remain on the level of the “only human,” indeed perhaps even of Zarathustra’s “last men,” and are not “transcendent” at all. They strike me as the dreams of clever school boys who are determined to really fly, or whatever, in a very literal sense, rather than discover how to take the interior journey that the hero of the black room does.

It is interesting that the term “transhumanism” was coined by the biologist Julian Huxley, brother of Aldous, in the early 1950s. Huxley’s picture of man as “the managing director of evolution” has much more in common with Wells’ “Martians” or Maslow’s self-actualisers, than it does with the transhumanism of today, which acknowledges Huxley’s coinage, but is quite clear about its own agenda. More than half a century ago, Huxley recognised that humanity had reached a unique position, both in its own development and in that of the planet. We had reached the point where we could determine what direction human evolution would take, rather than remaining the passive recipients of environmental forces and the chance helpful mutation. Huxley saw that the way to our evolutionary future lay in “exploring human nature” in order to “find out what are the possibilities open to it.” He saw those possibilities in art, culture, spiritual achievement, social improvements, science – but he said little about technology. Indeed, if anything, like many at the time, Huxley was concerned about technology’s increasing dominance and its effect on society, just as his brother was. One wonders what he would have said about the usurpation of his belief in a “transhuman” future by the very technology that worried him? He might agree too that it was sadly, “transhuman, all too transhuman.”

One point I wanted to make but did not allow time for, is that the transhuman ethos has much in common with the sorts of occultism that we find all over the internet today, and in which the net itself serves the purpose of the old school “astral light,” akashic record, or some such medium through which occult forces work. I would say that just as the internet has in many ways “literalised” these ideas, so too transhumanism has literalised a variety of occult powers: immortality, clairvoyance, astral travel – or, I should say, it would like to. If there isn’t one already, a book about how the transhuman agenda is a techno re-tread of ancient Hermetic ideas – along the lines of Erik Davis’ Techgnosis – is waiting to be written.

I would suggest that unless what goes by the name of transhumanism today is willing to forget its emphasis on technology and embrace something along the lines of the “fully humanism” I’ve tried to present here, it should really change its name. I would suggest “non-humanism” or “unhumanism”, since the future it envisions seems, to my mind at least, aimed at doing away with the human altogether, and replacing it with some technological version of the hermaphrodite, part human, part machine, which is, I guess, what we know as Star Trek’s Borg. And we know how that worked out, don’t we?

Thank you.

19 thoughts on “Superhuman, Transhuman, or Fully Human: Whose Future Is It?

  1. This is a magnificent, insightful and important presentation, Gary. I am impressed. If I could, I would just like to add a little bit of historical background that, I think, is of critical significance. The teacher who had a massive influence on Abraham Maslow was a neuropsychiatrist and pioneer in the field of brain injury rehabilitation (which is my own field and how I became aware of him), Kurt Goldstein–a first cousin of Ernst Cassirer as it turns out. Goldstein is an amazing, towering figure with a personal biography that is striking and instructive, but which I won’t get into here. Goldstein wrote a seminal book summarizing his clinical experience and concepts derived from it, titled ‘The Organism. A Holistic Approach to Biology Derived from Pathologic Data in Man’
    ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Organism ) in which he introduces the concept of ‘self-actualisation’ as the basic and most fundamental motive in living creatures. That is, the engagement in the process of actualising personal (ie. individually specific) potential. This concept relates, as well, to the distinction that arises in quantum mechanics between the relational reality of potentiality, and the physical actuality of existence as finite physical beings. This distinction between what David Bohm referred to as the ‘Implicate Order’ and the ‘Explicate Order’, respectively, is crucial because it refutes nominalism and the position of physicalism that derives from it. The implication is that it is relational, the ‘semiotic’, that is real, and not the physical. It is the relational that is associated with the potentiality that then shapes the actual. That is the fundamental point that is deeply inherent in Goldstein’s concept of self-actualisation. What does this imply? It implies that we need to engage in a new non-nominalistic relational understanding of human existence that restores the concept of ‘person’ to human existence, as the late John Deely has argued. This is important for at least three huge important reasons. First, nominalism and its partner, physicalism, lead inevitably to skeptical nihilism and a huge ‘dead end’ which we are now encountering as a species, as has been clearly pointed out by Toby Ord in his book, ‘The Precipice’–if everything is nominal and finite and physical, then one slips easily into the belief that there is really no lasting purpose to human existence. Second, nominalism leads to a deep undermining of the scientific process by turning ‘science’ and the fully openness of inquiry that CS Peirce maintained was at the core of the scientific enterprise, into ‘scientism’, which is the faith in physicality only. That is, that anything relational, is ‘woo-woo’ and ‘hogwash’ and ought to be de-bunked. Huge mistake! This is basically an aggressive undermining of the esoteric traditions that complement the exoteric. And it spells disaster for human survival to consider that only the physical can be considered to be real, and that there is no such thing as potentiality or possibility. Because it implies a circular repetitive timeframe and that, as the Preacher in Ecclesiastes maintained, ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’ Which implies that, as physicist Lee Smolin maintains in his book, ‘Time Re-born’, the possibility of creative problem-solving is undermined when we do not consider that time is a real continuum, and that only the physical is real. Third, and most importantly, is the fact that, as Nathan Houser has pointed out, nominalism implies an undermining of moral agency. It puts the exclusive emphasis on Ego, assumes that only the Ego is ‘conscious’, and that thought exceeds and effectively overrides affective experience. And this also spells disaster for human survival. Because it supports what CS Peirce called the ‘Gospel of Greed’ as quite distinct from his Synechism–the idea that everything is one Continuum of consciousness, of Mind–which calls for a ‘Gospel of Love’ and a Levinasian fundamental prioritization of Other over Self–that, when it comes to the question of moral agency, the guiding and necessary ethos can be summarized in one French phrase: ‘apres-vous’… this is the moral necessity for the insurance of human survival. Which involves the full recognition of the Unity that underlies apparent Multiplicity…the idea that there is one single ontological primitive that pervades all of existence, that fills the universe, and that is Consciousness, or Mind, or, I would maintain, the process of Semiosis which sustains Communication, interconnectedness and interdependence.

  2. One additional comment: the implication of this all is that it changes what sits at the very top of ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy’… Maslow put Goldstein’s concept of ‘self-actualisation’ at the top of the hierarchy… but that is fundamentally problematic in the context of the fundamental ethos that is required as previously noted. What really goes at the top of the hierarchy, then, is the effort and energy expended directed toward helping the Other to self-actualise. That is, the purpose of existence is not to be focused on the task of fully self-actualising one’s Self, but to be present to the Other in service to their process of self-actualisation. That is what CS Peirce referred to as ‘Evolutionary Love’ or, in the context of his evolutionary process metaphysics, ‘agapism’–as Thirdness, where Secondness is brute-force relative connection of necessity–‘anancism’, and Firstness is the chaotic noise that forms the foundational energetic basis of reality–‘tychism’–out of which the new and creative arises…

    1. Many thanks for this. You and Robert Shuman – who has posted some comments here – seem to have much in common. You both brought up Kurt Goldstein, an important influence on Maslow’s work. One can’t put everything into a talk, so thank you both for mentioning this. I recently re-read Colin Wilson’s New Pathways in Psychology, where he looks at Maslow in the context of existential psychology (Binswanger, Boss, etc.) and also Frankl, Assagioli, Jung and so on. It was written in the early 70s, just after Maslow died, and remains a very good overview of his work, and also a good introduction to Wilson’s own ‘new existentialism’, which avoids the dead end of Sartre and Co. As far as I understand it, self-actualisation involves the actualising of values, which are beyond the self: objective ‘goods’ such as truth, beauty, and the good in itself. This needs to be made clear so we don’t fall through the trap door of emphasizing the “self” part of the process, which, by the late 70s, had become somewhat more of a “me” actualising… Any evolution of consciousness cannot take place in a vacuum; it requires values beyond the self.

      1. Gary, I could not agree with you more! The ‘self’ actualizes through the process of assisting the Other to optimally self-actualize which puts us all into an interdependent relational network where we benefit from the efforts of others and they benefit from our own efforts. Actualising the self is bound up in actualizing the other.

  3. Dear Gary, I greatly enjoyed the text of your talk at the Deus ex Machina conference. I have several personal experiences and observations that may be of interest. I am very pleased that in this talk and several of your previous books you have acquainted your readers with the seminal work of Abraham
    Maslow. I was a student in the last university class (1969) he taught and often refer to two of his major themes in my work as a psychotherapist and as a writer of books on the psychology of chronic illness and illness as a rite of initiation.

    Maslow saw self-actualization as a process that was the outcome of a well developed life, possibly in the same way that Gurdjieff described the “good householder,” as the base from which consciousness went further. In the second edition of Motivation and Personality (1970), for example, Maslow addresses the collegiate readers of his text who questioned whether they were “self-actualized.” (Maslow had borrowed the term “self-actualization” from the pioneering neurologist Kurt Goldstein, who studied the capacity and drive of brain-injured people to function as well as they could.) Maslow responds by listing his criteria for self-actualization, the first two of which are the achievement of identity and autonomy. It is interesting to see how many of the remaining conditions for self- actualization are consistent with a recognition of limits, imperfection, and humility.

    “Young people,”he writes,” have not had time enough to experience an enduring, loyal post-romantic love relationship, nor have they generally found their calling, the altar upon which to offer themselves. Nor have they worked out their own system of values; nor have they had experience enough (responsibility for others, tragedy, failure, achievement, success) to shed perfectionistic illusions and become realistic; nor have they generally made their peace with death; nor have they learned how to be patient; nor have they learned enough about evil in themselves and others to be compassionate; nor have they had time to become post-ambivalent about parents and elders, power and authority; nor have they generally become knowledgeable and educated enough to open the possibility of becoming wise; nor have they generally acquired enough courage to be unpopular, to be unashamed about being openly virtuous.

    Another important theme of Maslow’s are what he calls the B-values, or values of being. In Toward a Psychology of Being (1962) describes a psychology of values that acknowledges what philosophers, poets, and artists have long known. To flourish as an individual, it is necessary to have certain goods in our lives. Just as we need vitamins A,B,C,D,etc., to be physically healthy, there are values we must have to live well. to be physically healthy, there are values we must have to live well. Experiences of truth, beauty, justice, order, richness, playfulness, and meaningfulness are all food for the soul. Without them, we are vulnerable to the sicknesses of cynicism, bleakness, mistrust, depression, grimness, and despair.

    One day in his class, Psychology of Humanistic Education, Maslow introduced an older graduate student, a refugee from Castro’s Cuba and a local, young entrepreneur to speak of a center that they were starting. It was to be called “Cumbres,” crediting the “peak experience” concept of Maslow, who served on the board of directors. They presented their vision and I asked a question which I don’t remember and after class a man with lit eyes and an accent stood in front of me and said, “Come to Cumbres.” So, I did. And at twenty one ran “the spiritual series,” inviting individuals on the circuit to present workshops at our “east coast Esalen.”

    My own life experience at that point, surely privileged, but for me, preparation included a dream that recurred several times during my adolescence. I was on a roller coaster on a steep descent when it stopped suddenly whipping me awake with a great voice from the sky, “Beware the cosmic winds.” Omen? Prophecy? The etymology of beware can suggest meanings ranging from guard against to protect or defend.

    And at college, our professors included people who as graduate students participated in the Marsh Chapel LSD experiments that led to Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert’s dismissals from Harvard. There were also those interested in themes of consciousness and teaching and learning about the Sufis, different esoteric traditions, including the traditionalists from Guenon to Lings on Shakespeare (The Penguin Metaphysical Series). Professor Larry Rosenberg, later long time head of the Cambridge Zen Center, in his course, The Sociology of Consciousness, introduced me to In Search of the Miraculous: The Teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff, by P.D. Ouspensky, the Sufis, different esoteric traditions and invited Krishnamurti to speak. Professor James Fadiman “founded” the academic field of transpersonal psychology.

    Given the politics of the times, anti war activism, hippie utopianism, drugs, and “new age” and “new religion” seeking, we were experiencing a mild and safer 19th century Russia as described in your book. Fortunately, no Tsarist prison and life and I go on!

    1. Robert, thank you for this wonderful reminiscence. You make me jealous – I only came upon these things later and mostly through books. But I have imbibed Maslow’s ideas for some forty years now and they remain an important influence in my life.

  4. And, hell, this way of seeing things is based on EMPIRICAL RESULTS from Quantum Physics. But it is also based on observations of the human condition at the ‘macro’ level. I, like Goldstein, have spent a career observing what a human being challenged by brain injury is able to accomplish in the way of reconstitution of a meaningful life. When I started my career almost 40 years ago, the ‘nihilist assumption’ remained dominant and the qualitative achievements of rehabilitation of brain-injured persons went unrecognized because they could not be easily ‘measured’. It was a victim of what Guenon called ‘the reign of quantity’. But we continue to learn how to cross the ‘quality-quantity’ divide. My personal feeling is that this can be done at the level of neuroautonomic measurement–for example, measures of heart-rate variability that reflect emotional as well as physical well-being, which can be easily obtained these days.

  5. Hi, relative to Maslow’s concept of self-actualization including concern and action for others, two of his frequent references were to Alfred Adler’s, the founder of child guidance clinics, ideal of “gemeimschaftsgefuhl” or feeling for others and the point of Buddhist meditation for greater compassion, as demonstrated by the Buddha’s refusal of full “awakening” until all sentient beings were awakened, as well. Or as the Dalai Lama says, *my religion is kindness.”

      1. Found this whole talk to be fascinating… a couple of comments…

        1. Victor Frankl’s insistence that the human ‘will-to meaning’ was far more powerful and necessary to existence than Nietzsche’s will-to-power and Freud’s will-to-pleasure is a meaningful realization

        2. How to approach the understanding of meaning and value through a legitimate scientific approach? Scientism claims that they cannot be approached scientifically in spite of the fact that Peirce insisted that nothing should be considered to be beyond scientific inquiry and that the greatest ‘sin’ as far as science is concerned to to put an obstacle in the road to inquiry… which is what considering meaning and value as beyond logic and reason and the scientific approach does. As Peirce recognized in his architectonic philosophical system, the issue is that we are meaning-making organisms who are constantly interpreting our experience, and that the way this is done is through ‘the action of signs’ which is fundamental to communication, information exchange and a form of realism in which the boundary between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ for the organism is, in fact, totally permeable. Rather than, as the Cartesian nominalism of modernity maintains, there is no real communication between inside and outside and that we are essentially encasketed, with no possibility of penetrating the veil that divides us each from the world. No wonder there is a sense of meaninglessness and alienation and metaphysical and axiological skepticism in the context of our isolated living locked inside and surrounded by a devitalized, disenchanted world, devoid of continuity.

      2. Thanks for passing my name on to Shantena Sabbadini at the Pari Centre. It looks like I’ll be presenting a two hour talk on Colin Wilson’s ‘new existentialism’ in June. I’ll post the details when I get them. Cheers!

  6. Hi Gary. I enjoyed this piece very much. This sentence brought up a question: “Or perhaps I should say that I will be looking at what some ideas of “transcending” the human, going beyond our apparent limitations, suggest about what we used to call “human potential,” If phrase “human potential” is now past its expiration date, do you know of a new phrase that will better serve? By the way, I am delighted to see Dr Goldberg reference Evolutionary Love, as for me it is a guiding force. Adam Crabtree made me aware of Peirce’s work on this and wrote a book on the topic a few years ago. I have read that late in life, Maslow revised his hierarchy to add self-transcendence at the top, above self-actualization. This may fit better with Peirce’s vision. By the way, my husband Jim and I were in the room during that meeting at Esalen. Hoping to be back there in the not too distant future!

    1. Many thanks for your comments. I know Adam Crabtree’s work, especially his book Multiple Man and his history of hypnotism. I know that Maslow kept revising his ideas until his untimely death. One of the things that troubled him in his last years was the fact that not everyone reaches the self-actualisation level, and seem to stay stuck at the self-esteem stage. He spoke of what the social consequences of this may be, the effect of what I call “actualisation envy.” I write about it here: https://garylachman.co.uk/2011/02/05/an-out-take-from-politics-and-the-the-occult/ But in general, I think you and some others who have commented on the talk seem to miss the main point. This is the difference between being a “stimulus/response robot,” dependent on outside stimuli to motivate you, and a “self-revolving wheel,” which is capable of acting without outside stimuli. Here is another talk that you may find interesting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vwDvPR4l4a0&ab_channel=TheWeekendUniversity Cheers!

  7. An excellent article, with the added bonus of introducing me to the work of Jeffrey Kripal. A previous article brought Mitch Horowitz to my attention, for which I owe you thanks as well. My leisure reading is now entirely consumed with the triumvirate of Lachman, Horowitz, and Kripal, with exceptions for Jordan Peterson’s and Cal Newport’s new works.

  8. I wonder what you and Colin would say about this quote?

    What is the final bottom line of acceptance and surrender? That there is truly no “me” who can do anything. There is really, truly no “me”. Nothing happens, unless it is the will of the Source, the will of God. The sense of personal doership is an illusion. This is the final understanding.

    Ramesh Balsekar

    1. Hmm. I don’t think Colin had much faith in acceptance and surrender. He disagreed with Gurdjieff that we cannot ‘do’, although he understood why he insisted on this – it was shock tactic. No, we can ‘do’ and it is up to us to learn how to do more. There is a ‘real I’ – it just isn’t the one we are familiar with.

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