Review: Human Purpose and Transhuman Potential by Ted Chu

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Ted Chu’s first book, Human Purpose and Transhuman Potential, is a book that is going to appeal to many transhumanists, futurists and readers of H+ especially those that are looking for a spiritual or cosmist approach to transhumanism. The book, subtitled “A Cosmic Vision for Our Future Evolution”, offers an optimistic view of human possibility and our future potential while at the same time presenting a humbling view of our place in the greater scheme of evolving cosmic intelligence.

This book will mostly appeal to philosophically minded and spiritually oriented transhumanists that are open to considering alternative ways of knowing or anyone looking for an approach emphasizing the integration of transhumanist ideas and spiritual or religious systems and beliefs. Although several different world religions are discussed, this book is not written from the perspective of a practitioner of any specific religion. Fans of Ben Goertzel’s Cosmist Manifesto will find that this volume makes a welcome companion work.

Although the word “transhuman” appears in the title, this is not really a book about transhumanism or the current transhuman predicament in which we all find ourselves today. Starting on page 4, Chu discusses transhumanism and its “discontents” spending some time on Francis Fukuyama’s critique in particular. Transhumanism isn’t really discussed again specifically for several hundred pages. Readers looking for an introduction to transhumanist thought will be better off with the contemporary scientific and philosophical perspectives presented in the books The Transhumanist Reader and Singularity Hypotheses.

The focus of Chu’s book is rather on humanity’s role in creating a “cosmic” posthuman being which Chu calls the Cosmic Being or CoBe for short. The inclusion of transhumanism in the title of this book is somewhat misleading therefore given the rather lean coverage of the topic within the book itself. And that is too bad because a more nuanced and complete presentation of transhumanism might have fruitfully informed some of the discussions here.

Despite the fact that it isn’t really about transhumanism, Human Purpose and Transhuman Potential is a good introductory work to some of the ideas of transhumanism for the right person.

The shear breadth of material covered is staggering and references range across a variety cultures, specialties, and eras. However this is a philosophical and metaphysical work, and does not include much coverage of current scientific and technological progress within the all-important NBIC technologies or other areas of interest to transhumanists.

Strong scientific transhumanists and hardcore atheists may find themselves challenged through some of this book. The entirety of Chapter 4 may be rough going for example and there are many references to “sages” and religious teachers in various places throughout. As a graduate of the University of California at Santa Cruz, I found the “East Meets West” religious paradigm presented here not particularly unique or novel although it may be of interest to other readers.

Unfortunately absent from this discussion is almost any mention of shamanistic religious traditions which are dissimilar from both the Judeo-Christian traditions and the Buddhist or Taoist approaches emphasized here. African and South American religions emphasize polytheism, shamanism, and animism, are frequently syncretic, and some practitioners may make use of ethnobotanical substances. None of these traditions are mentioned  and the book could be improved by a broader inclusion of religions and traditions.

Open-minded readers of this book will be richly rewarded.  Even if you do not accept or agree with portions of the Chu’s argument, this book lays out a clear vision and purpose for humanity that is compelling despite its flaws. Chu very notably outlines actions individuals can take to make a difference themselves, an important point not always apparent from reading only academic presentations. The book is full of quotable nuggets and interesting bits of knowledge from diverse fields and authors. But is also notable as much for what is missing as for what is included. John von Neumann gets a mention, but Claude Shannon is missing in action. Some of the choices of what to include or omit seemed odd.

Chapters 9 and 10 are worth reviewing for all transhumanists. Chapter 9, Conscious Evolution, lays out a solid philosophical framework for understanding and applying the idea of consciously controlled and directed evolution. Chapter Ten is a worthwhile discussion of the so-called “fear bias” and our tendency to apply a precautionary approach rather than a proactionary one. While this discussion doesn’t delve very deeply, it gets to the heart of the matter quickly.

Chu’s vision of the CoBe however falls prey to a common fallacy of all futurist projections: we don’t know what we don’t know. Whatever a future posthuman is, or will be, and whatever technologies and science underlie that existence, it is quite possible that we simply do not have the basic underlying prerequisite knowledge to grasp it. We therefore can extrapolate into the future to some limited extent, and certainly ideas such as genetic engineering, life extension, and space travel seem important to a transhuman and posthuman future. However the implications of all possible and potential developments remain unclear. A CoBe might control energies or physical effects that are unknown to us and remain to be discovered.  It seems at least possible that human imagination might fail as we try to understand what is possible for such a being.

When considering powers vastly beyond what we know to be possible today, the character Doctor Manhattan from the Comic book and film Watchmen immediately comes to my mind. Dr. Manhattan is for me an archetype of a CoBe from this expanded perspective of possibility. Some background for those not familiar with the story, Doctor Manhattan was a physicist who was transformed into a blue-skinned super-human being after he disintegrated himself in device known as the “Intrinsic Field Subtractor”. 

Dr. Manhattan’s powers include superhuman strength, telekinesis, and teleportation, all of which is sort of typical superhero fare, but also he has control over matter at a subatomic level, for example enabling Dr. Manhattan to change the size of his body or to duplicate himself at will.

He also perceives the past, present and future as happening simultaneously giving him a sort of clairvoyance which is however limited to events that he will directly experience in the future. A cosmic being might have direct control over matter and energy and they would certainly create technologies, materials, and science beyond any which has been imagined today. 

Some of the assertions made here about the future are unsupported. For example, Chu claims that the CoBe “can not be a super-fast digital computer” because brain function is influenced by “chemical compounds” in the bloodstream which the computer lacks. I found this argument unconvincing to say the least and I expect most H+ readers will as well. I also question Chu’s assertion that the transition to a posthuman future must inevitably include conflict although I do agree that it is likely to be problematic if we do not address certain areas.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book is Chu himself. His background as the Chief Economist for General Motors and the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority lends credibility to this work that might not otherwise be there. The fact that someone as serious as Ted Chu is presenting such a vast and far reaching posthuman future is important and notable. However, this is not an economics text and economic issues are not really discussed.

Human Purpose and Transhuman Potential is being published by Origin Press, another aspect of this book which sets it apart from other recent works about transhumanism and the future. As perhaps suggested by the title of the book, Origin is better known for its “new age” publications and books about the human potential movement. Origin’s other books include topics such as Atlantis and UFOs and will be found in the spirituality section or metaphysical bookstores. Some readers might find this association problematic, however I will note here that Origin’s readership offers a new community of individuals that may become interested in transhumanism through reading this book.

The book is long, clocking in at around 400 pages, and it is intellectually dense, but it does not require any particular technical expertise to understand it. This book is sparsely illustrated and includes a few graphs and even one equation. While I applaud the editor of Human Purpose and Transhuman Potential’s decision to include an equation, unfortunately the equation included hits a pet peeve of mine: non-mathematical abuse of mathematical notation.

Specifically, the book includes a limit formula that purports to describe the path to enlightenment in which the reduction of the ego leads to a feeling or perception of unity with the universe.

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Both those familiar with the mathematical notation and Eastern meditative traditions will find this description objectionable. The path to enlightenment is nowhere described as a monotonically increasing process for example, nor is it necessarily continuous. Individuals on the path may suffer setbacks or regressions. And both Zen Buddhism and the Tibetan tantric schools posit a sudden  or “lightning” approach to enlightenment which the presented equation clearly does not account for at all. Those familiar with the mathematics will possibly also be aware of how notoriously misleading common sense is when applied to limit processes and using them as metaphors for subtle spiritual or philosophical ideas is likely to be confusing or simply wrong. The quasi mathematical presentation is unnecessary to the main argument of the book and I hope this will simply be removed from future editions.

The book has elsewhere been described as “Nietzsche 2.0” but for me it falls short of the mark. Nietzsche envisions a path to the future for those daring enough to cross the tightrope whereas Chu’s CoBe is presented as a replacement of humanity. This seems at best to be a revision of Nietzsche’s ideas or is perhaps a radical misunderstanding of them.

In summary, Human Purpose and Transhuman Potential is a great new addition to any transhumanist or posthumanist library, and it is a book that spiritually minded transhumanists will especially enjoy. This book is likely to be cited and quoted, so even those who disagree with its approach or specific contents will want to read it and generally be aware of what is in this book. Scientific minded and strong atheist transhumanists may want to avoid it but might benefit from some of its contents if they can remain open minded and ignore the rest.

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