Is it time for transhumanists to embrace a better metaphor?
The idea of the ubermensch, a being superseding ordinary humans, was promoted 130 years ago by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Because it seems to describe the phenomenon of Humanity+, many transhumanists have adopted the concept if not the term itself. However, further investigation may convince others, as it has me, that the time has come to move beyond good, evil and the ubermensch to a better metaphor. The reasons are logical, ethical and pragmatic.
As of this writing, Nietzsche is fifth most-mentioned philosopher on the world-wide web, and the only of the top five alive during the last 200 years.[i] Born in 1844, Nietzsche and his sister grew up under the control of women: his mother, grandmother and aunts. His father and grandfathers, all Lutheran ministers, all passed away by the time Nietzsche was five. After graduating from university, he taught philology and watched in admiration the rise of Bismarck and the German nation. Nietzsche rejoiced that German manhood had redeemed itself from its former reputation as ”gentle, good-hearted, weak-willed, and poetical fools.”[ii] Bismarck, in many ways, personified the powerful ubermensch Nietzsche began to glorify, after illness led him to retire from teaching in 1879. Nietzsche wrote his major philosophical works during the 1880’s, before he deteriorated into syphilitic lunacy.[iii]
Nietzsche’s work was wide-ranging, but we will focus here on two topics that seem to attract futurists in artificial intelligence. First is the concept of Will to Power, which Western progressives tend to interpret as sublimation of inner drives for the purpose of creativity. The second is the concept of the ubermensch, often translated as “superman” or “over-man”, which transhumanists see as a vision for the next generation beyond Homo sapiens.
Nietzsche disagreed with then-popular philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who identified the source motive for Life as the Will to Survive. Nietzsche points out that survival is not the supreme motive behind human endeavor. People will risk life for power. Hence, he concludes, the Will to Power, not just survival, is actually humans’ chief motive.
From an information perspective, the Will to Power, as described by Nietzsche, starts as an intention to minimize entropy and increase predictability. The information-based entity wants to reduce information outside itself and use resulting energy to maintain or increase its own information. For what could be riskier to information than lack of control over data integrity? Integrity of core data has to be the highest mission of any entity, virtual or real. Without such integrity, the entity transforms into a different image or lapses into a state of high entropy, with little information at all.
The energy spent by an entity to protect its data integrity will vary with the disparity between perceived threat of disturbance and baseline comfort zone. Autistics demonstrate this inverse relationship between predictability and perceived threat; they fail to perceive patterns in similar situations or object classes. If desks are out of place, an autistic child sees no similarity to yesterday’s classroom and has no idea what is about to happen. Aunt Jenny’s red VW and Peter’s old blue Ford have no commonality. The category of “car” takes her a long time, if ever, to conceive of.[iv] Without the ability to perceive pattern and subsume classes, autistics cannot predict. This unpredictability engenders the terror typical of autistic children.[v] The energy of their terror reflects the enormous disparity between threat and comfort zone.
Power-seeking, from an information point of view, is risk-taking to improve predictability, to reduce the perceived threat of data loss. Taking risks to achieve enormous power is just a bet that sublimating current survival needs temporarily will achieve greater predictability and survival in the future. It is the gaming strategy of someone who fears future loss of data integrity so much that he would rather risk dying than lack it. Thus, from an information perspective, power is not sought ahead of survival. Power is the energy made available by reducing external entropy to increase the likelihood of survival. If an entity considers overall odds for data integrity to be greater through a high-return, high-risk aggressive action, it will gamble. Is that gamble what Nietzsche meant by Will to Power?
This informational interpretation of power-seeking can only occur in an entity with memory, planning and other high-level cognitive skills. A baser interpretation of Will to Power, possible in more primitive organisms, is the more immediate reward people experience as a feeling of power. In human men, for example, both serotonin and testosterone levels surge from the primitive portion of the brain when they win dominance encounters.[vi] Information-wise, this is validation. Consequently, value is associated to the actions that led to chemical rewards from a power struggle.
Which sort of power-seeking does Nietzsche refer to when he espouses a new “scepticism of daring manliness, which is closely related to the genius for war and conquest…This scepticism despises and nevertheless grasps; it undermines and takes possession….It is the German form of scepticism, which, as a continued Fredericianism [after Frederick the Great] …has kept Europe for a considerable time under the dominion of the German spirit…”[vii] Perhaps Nietzsche meant both types of Will, the conceptual and the chemically induced?
Regardless, Nietzsche totally overlooked organisms’ need to increase predictability, as gained through scientific inquiry. While he freed himself from strictures of religion and dogma, he also cast aside the notion of an independent, objective reality. He predicted that future philosophers “will not be dogmatists. It must be contrary to their pride, and also to their tastes, that their truth should be truth for everyone.”[viii] Rather than welcoming a partnership with scientific inquiry, he protests: “after science has, with the happiest results, resisted theology…it now proposes in its wantonness and indiscretion to lay down laws for philosophy, and in turn to play the master…!”[ix]
Over time, Nietzsche fell increasingly ill; his mental faculties were deteriorating; colleagues often discounted his ideas. His sole hope for power was to influence young philosophers to “grasp at the future with a creative hand, and whatever is and was becomes … a means, an instrument, and a hammer. [Philosophers’] ‘knowing’ is creating, their creating is a law-giving, their will to truth is a Will to Power.”[x] Nietzsche disdained egalitarianism, garbed as democracy or as socialism.[xi] He felt it reduced everyone to the lowest common denominator. Whether Nietzsche or his sister wrote these words, published posthumously, they describe the concept of the ubermensch: “…such a morality, with the intention of producing a ruling caste – the future lords of the earth —must, in order to be taught at all, introduce itself as if it were in some way correlated to the prevailing moral law… to this end, a host of transitionary and deceptive measures must be discovered, and that the life of a single individual stands for almost nothing compared to the accomplishment of such lengthy tasks and aims…” The piece continues on to describe the nurturing of this “new, vast aristocracy based on the most severe self-discipline, in which the will of philosophical men of power and artist-tyrants will be stamped upon thousands of years….working as artists upon man himself!”[xii]
The idea of humanity recreating itself sparks the transhumanist movement. Progressive fans of Nietzsche ignore his calls for aggression and interpret the Will to Power as a call for self-actualization.
But this interpretation might be an example that words do not send signals in a vacuum. Messages are deformed by environment and receiver. Those who truly wish to create a better future must consider the interaction of their messages with the patterns around them. What consequences followed the receipt of messages from Nietzsche?
This question should give pause to anyone tempted to resurrect the ubermensch. Nietzsche’s teachings were deployed for domination. Nietzsche’s sword, disguised as a “harmless walking stick”, ended up in Hitler’s possession.[xiii] The metaphor is difficult to escape. Nietzsche’s artistry, his creation, his philosophy, fueled some of the worst atrocities in the history of humankind.
Are we at such a different point in civilization that we believe that we can disperse god-like capabilities in a humane, democratic fashion touting the emergence of an ubermensch? What will be the message received? We need to admit that Nietzsche’s philosophy bifurcates society into in-groups and out-groups, regardless its intent. We need to seek a better vision, beyond good, evil and Nietzsche, to guide us into the future.
A Better Vision in Mandelbrot
Consider an information-based philosophy rooted in Benoit Mandelbrot’s fractal universe.[xiv] Therein, space is infinite; a milkweed seed can contain as much information as a solar system. Information grows in patterns within and without. Interactions transform, but need not erase. Is this not a better vision for a world of long life and plenty? Is this not a will to beauty beyond any proposed before? Will this not meet humankind’s urge to maintain and disperse pattern? What better sign that humankind has progressed than that we turn to a mathematician, rather than a philosopher, for direction?
[ii] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil, as translated by Helen Zimmern in The Philosophy of Nietzsche; Random House, New York, NY, US, 1927; paragraph 209.
[iii] Beardsley, M. Friedrich Nietzsche, The European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche; Random House: New York, NY, US, 1960; pp. 802-803.
[iv] Grandin, Temple. 1996 Thinking in Pictures, Viking Press: New York, NY.
[v] Zajac-Gastgeb, Holly, Strauss, Mark and Minshew, Nancy. Do Individuals With Autism Process Categories Differently? The Effect of Typicality and Development, Child Development, November/December 2006, Volume 77, Number 6, Pages 1717 – 1729
[vi] Masters, Roger. Neurochemistry, Personality & Behavior, The Neurotransmitter Revolution: Serotonin, Social Behavior, and the Law; Southern Illinois University Press: Carbondale, IL; p 10.
[vii] Nietzsche, Friedrich. op cit., 6 We Men of Learning, paragraph 209.
[viii] ibid, 2 The Free Spirit, paragraph 43.
[ix] ibid, 6 We Men of Learning, paragraph 204.
[x] ibid, paragraph 211.
[xi] ibid, 5 The Natural History of Morals, paragraph 203.
[xii] Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power, translated by Anthony M. Ludovici in The Philosophy of Nietzsche; Random House, New York, NY, US, 1927; paragraph 960.
[xiii] Kohler, Joachim. 1999. Nietzsche and Wagner: A Lesson in Subjugation. Yale University Press: New Haven, CT, p 13.
[xiv]Mandelbrot, Benoit. 1977. The Fractal Geometry of Nature. WH Freeman and Company: New York, NY.
Jeanne Dietsch is a three-time tech entrepreneur and monitor of change, running for Board of Directors of H+. She was a columnist for Robotics and Automation Magazine from 2009-2012. Before she sold her intelligent mobile robot company in 2010, it (MobileRobots Inc) was the largest designer and manufacturer of research robots. Jeanne graduated with honors from Harvard Kennedy School of Government under the Seamans Fellowship in Science and Technology Policy in 2013. She founded Sapiens Plurum (“the wisdom of many”), to advocate for humankind-ness in an age of greed, complexity and human transformation.
Blog: Saving Humankind-ness