Sometimes people don't want to hear the truth because they don't want their illusions destroyed. - Friedrich Nietzsche
Few realize that Nietzsche is father to myriad offspring which propagate modern thought. He is one of the pioneers of critical theory and transhumanism along with the inspiration for the superhero Superman.
When I first became familiar with the transhumanist movement, I immediately thought that there were many fundamental similarities between transhumanism and Nietzsche’s philosophy, especially concerning the concept of the posthuman and that of Nietzsche’s overman.
Nietzsche’s relationship to transhumanism has been debated for years, and one can find scholars on any point of the spectrum regarding Nietzsche’s affinity and or founding to this movement. In this essay I will explore this relationship and other issues that are central to Nietzsche’s thought and transhumanism. These issues include the overman (or the superman), the post-human, eternal recurrence, nihilism, evolution, education, asceticism, enhancement, bio-enhancement, morality, pain, suffering, longevity, and immortality. Nietachzes man was a treasure trove of brilliance.
For Nietzsche the Overman (superman) is needed to transcend the cultural malaise brought about by a vacuous feeling left behind form religion and God. If one does not have God to emulate, one needs to strive to become the Overman. This herculean task is not achievable by most, which is what causes much of the anxiety Nietzsche feels and what is causing rampant decay in Western society. Without God most people are devolving into a form of Hegel’s “Last Man”- nihilistic, shallow, weak, and immoral. When religion was more prevalent, last men existed, but they had religion to follow as a code and god(s) to emulate as an adult. Striving to better oneself is how a mortal traverses the path of the gods.
Will To Power
Nietzsche holds a dynamic will-to-power metaphysics, which implies that all things are permanently undergoing some change. Nietzsche admired the pre-socratics like Heraclitus. There is nothing which is eternally fixed. According to Nietzsche, human beings are organisms constituted out of individual power quanta or will to power constellations.
One can clarify his concept by reference to Leibniz’s monadology. A power quantum is a single entity like a monad. In contrast to the monad, it can interact with other power quanta, it can grow, it can nourish itself, and it has a perspective on the world. This perspective enables the quantum to decide what to do next, which depends upon its options and its conception of power whereby it employs an extremely wide and open notion of power. Every state, in which a power quantum is stronger, more capable, than another, and has the potential to dominate the other, represents a state of power.
According to Nietzsche, all entities are constituted out of such power constellations. The dynamics of power also underlie the process of evolution, which was responsible for bringing about the human species, animals, and plants. All organisms came into existence because the conditions were such that bringing about the respective organisms was the best possible means for realizing the striving for power of the preceding organisms.
Individual members of a species have only a certain limited potential, which is limited by their belonging to a specific species. Each species represents a species not only because it is a community whose members have the potential to reproduce themselves with one another, but also because its members have certain limits.
I want my lion and eagle around so that I can always have hints and forebodings to know how great or small my strength is. Must I look down on them today and fear them? And will the hour return when they look up at me - in fear? - Nietzsche
A human being as a human being has only a limited amount of potential and capacities, as he belongs to the human species, and any species is defined by its limits. It cannot go beyond that limit. If a human being has acquired special capacities, then he cannot pass them on to his descendants, Nietzsche holds. However, a certain kind of Lamarckism can also be found in Nietzsche, as he stresses that certain tendencies can get inherited.
In addition to the ontological dynamics, which can be found both in transhumanisn and in Nietzsche’s philosophy, the same dynamics also applies to the level of values. He presents his interpretation of the evolution of values in his account of the “Genealogy of Morals”. Values undergo a change on various levels, on a social and cultural level as well as on a personal one. Nietzsche’s concept of power, to which the concept of value is closely related, can change given new experiences and insights. The content of the concept of power is perspectival. There are no absolute and unchanging values, as there is no Platonic realm of ideas in which something could remain fixed.
Both Nietzsche and transhumanists have an outlook on the world, which diverges significantly from the traditional Christian one, or one which has inherited many Christian values. As one can still find many elements of Christian thinking in the value system of many people today, both Nietzsche and transhumanists are in favor of bringing about a revaluation of values.
Nietzsche’s respect for critical thinking was immense – he is widely regarded as one of the harshest critics of morality and religion. Furthermore, he also values scientific inquiry immensely, even though his respect for science has often been underestimated. In various passages, he points out that the future age will be governed by a scientific spirit, which is why he thinks that many future people will regard his philosophy as plausible, as his way of thinking is supposed to appeal to scientifically minded people.
Nietzsche’s theory of the eternal recurrence is based upon premises, which have been held by many scientists. His will-to- power anthropology bears many similarities to scientific ones. Even though he is critical of Darwin, he also holds a theory of evolution. Nietzsche very often is most critical of thinkers who are closest to his own understanding of things. In Darwin’s case, Nietzsche’s critique is mainly rooted in his concept that human beings strive solely for power. Hence, a concept, which implies that a struggle for existence or a will to life is the fundamental human drive, is the one from which he feels the need to distinguish himself. Human beings strive for power. The struggle for existence represents only a marginal type of expression of the fundamental will-to-power.
If you will power, then it is in your interest to enhance yourself. Enhancement, however, is just what transhumanists aim for.
Transhumanism is in favor of technologies and other means which could be used for “enhancement of human intellectual, physical, and emotional capacities so that posthumous could come into existence - Bostrom
Courage is a significant virtue within Nietzsche’s favored morality. In addition, he stresses the importance of science for the forthcoming centuries, and does not reject that development. Given these two premises, I cannot exclude the possibility that Nietzsche would have been in favor of genetic engineering, even though he mainly stresses the importance of education for the occurrence of the evolutionary step towards the overman. If genetic engineering, or liberal eugenics, can actually be seen as a special type of education, which is what transhumanists seem to hold, then it is possible that this position would have been held by Nietzsche, too, as education played a significant role in his ethics. He affirmed science and was in favor of enhancement and the bringing about of the overman.
Each power constellation, and hence each human being, according to Nietzsche, has a different perspective on the world and as each individual concept of power depends on who one is and which history one has had, each human being has a unique concept of power, and consequently a unique conception “of what their own perfection would consist in.” Nietzsche himself has a clear concept of power, and what he regards as the highest feeling of power, which is directly connected to the classical ideal. A similar ideal seems to be upheld by transhumanists.
Transhumanism imports from secular humanism the ideal of the fully- developed and well-rounded personality. We can’t all be renaissance geniuses, but we can strive to constantly refine ourselves and to broaden our intellectual horizons. - Bostrom
Not only the aspect of the “fully-developed and well-rounded personality” can be found in Nietzsche, but also the striving “to constantly refine ourselves and to broaden our intellectual horizons.” In Nietzsche, this aspect is called “overcoming”. Higher humans wish to permanently overcome themselves, to become stronger in the various aspects, which can be developed in a human being, so that finally the overman can come into existence. In transhumanist thought, Nietzsche’s overman is being referred to as “posthuman.”
Who is a posthuman? Which qualities does he have? I think that the only qualities, which all transhumanists can subscribe to, are the following: we lack the capacity to form a realistic intuitive understanding of what it would be like to be posthuman. We simply do not know, if humans will become cyborgs or ethereal minds in the cloud.
A new species that represents a further stage of evolution is referred to as the posthumans. Hence, transhumans and human beings have the capacity to reproduce themselves with each other, but posthumans would not, in the same way that we cannot reproduce ourselves with great apes, at least not in a sexual manner. It might even be the case that posthumans need to rely on technological means for reproduction. This might seem outlandish to some, but think of the current use of pharmaceuticals and surgeries for some couples to conceive children. This is a form of technological leverage being employed to propagate the human species - transhumanism in action.
It becomes clear that posthuman capacities cannot be identical to the qualities current human beings have. Both current human beings, as well as posthumans, belong to the species of human beings, which implies that they have the potential to reproduce themselves with another by means of sexual reproduction. Posthumans are not a separate species but a particular group of humans with capacities which cannot yet be imagined by us, but which can involve an enhancement in all human aspects including a physiological, emotional, or intellectual enhancement.
Let me clarify some options of general enhancement, whereby I will employ the notion of eugenics, but which I regard as appropriate. We have had examples of state regulated and liberal eugenics. State regulated eugenics is the type of eugenics present in the Third Reich, which is morally despicable, and which is regarded as something to avoid today by most, if not all serious, Western ethicists. Liberal eugenics, on the other hand, is being discussed today, as a morally legitimate possibility.
Transhumanists, as mentioned before, also regard liberal eugenics a morally legitimate way of enhancing human beings. Both state regulated and liberal eugenics, however, are heteronomous types of eugenics, which means that people decide about the enhancement of other people. In the case of state regulated eugenics, the state decides, whereas in the case of liberal eugenics, the parents have the right to decide what ought to be done to offspring. Transhumanists seem to identify a further type of eugenics, which I suggest could be called autonomous eugenics. People may decide for themselves whether they wish to be transformed into posthumans by technological means.
According to Nietzsche, individual members of the species of human beings have the capacity to develop only certain limited qualities. It is supposed to be characteristic of all species that their respective members can develop only within fixed limits. Given certain conditions, which Nietzsche does not specify, evolution can take place.
According to Nietzsche, evolution is not a gradual development from one species to another, but takes place in steps. If the conditions within one species are such that an evolutionary step can take place, various couples at the same time give birth to members of a new species. The couples, who give birth to the overman, must have qualities that Nietzsche would refer to as those of higher humans. One of the conditions necessary for an evolutionary step to occur is that many higher humans exist. Normally, a higher human cannot simply transfer his outstanding capacities to his descendants. However, if there are many higher humans and some other conditions are present too, such an evolutionary step can occur.
I assess the power of a will by how much resistance, pain, torture it endures and knows how to turn to its advantage. Nietzsche
Higher humans still belong to the human species, but have some special capacities, which an overman could also have. However, higher humans cannot pass on their special capacities to their descendants by means of sexual reproduction. By chance, higher humans have the potential they have and, in addition, they must put significant effort into developing their various capacities. According to Nietzsche, Goethe represents the best example of a higher human. Nietzsche’s higher humans are based upon a special nature that they have by chance. Their nature enables them to develop into higher humans, if they realize their potential by working hard at enhancing themselves. Hereby, he particularly stresses the development of intellectual capacities, the ability to interpret. Nietzsche does not refer to technological means of improvement. However, Nietzsche does not exclude the additional possibility of technological enhancement either.
The overman has a significantly different potential from that of higher humans. So far no overman has existed, but the normal capacities of an overman are beyond the capacities even of a higher human. Like every species, the species of the overman has limits, but their limits are different from the limits of the human species. The overman comes about via an evolutionary step, which originates from the group of higher humans.
Nietzsche does not exclude the possibility that technological means bring about the evolutionary step. His comments concerning the conditions for the evolutionary step toward the overman are rather vague in general, but in this respect his attitude is similar to that of transhumanists. However, he thinks that the scientific spirit will govern the forthcoming millennia and that this spirit will bring about the end of the domination of dualist concepts of God and metaphysics, and the beginning of a wider plausibility for his way of thinking.
As Nietzsche defends that the species of human beings has strict limits, it is rather unlikely that the concept of a type of human being with capacities, which have not yet existed, is consistent with his philosophy. Consequently, we can conclude that Nietzsche and the transhumanists share many aspects in their general anthropologies and their values, but Nietzsche’s concept of the overman does not correspond to the concept of the posthuman of all transhumanists. However, there are transhumanists whose concept of the posthuman bears many significant similarities to that of Nietzsche’s overman.
Nietzsche explains the relevance of the overman for his philosophy. The overman may even be the ultimate foundation for his worldview.
Nietzsche sees philosophers as creators of values, which are ultimately founded in personal prejudices. He regards his own prejudices as those that they correspond to the spirit, which will govern the forthcoming centuries. “Spirit” here does not refer to an immaterial nous in the Platonic sense, or some ghostly spiritual substance. “Spirit” in Nietzsche’s writing refers to a bodily capacity of interpretation by means of language, which is based upon physiological strength. He distinguishes between a religious and a scientific spirit.
Weak reactive human beings, who cannot fulfill their wishes in the here and now, incorporate the religious spirit, which makes them long for a good afterlife. This spirit was dominant among human beings for a very long time. However, eventually human beings grew stronger and consequently more and more developed a scientific spirit. The importance of the scientific spirit has increased significantly, particularly since the Renaissance. Nietzsche expects this spirit to become even more dominant in the future. As his worldview is supposed to appeal to the scientific spirit, it is supposed to become more and more attractive to the people of the future.
Amor Fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely to bare what is necessary, still less conceal it – all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary – but love it. - Nietzsche
According to Nietzsche, Plato can be seen as a representative of a philosophy based on the religious spirit, Nietzsche as representative of a philosophy based on the scientific one. Christianity, which was dominant in Western countries for a very long time, has to be regarded as Platonism for the people. It is Nietzsche’s intention and need to turn Platonism upside down. He refers to his own philosophy as inverted Platonism. In the same way, as Christian thought has dominated many centuries, his scientific way of thinking is supposed to govern forthcoming centuries. Consequently, inverted versions of the main elements of Platonic- Christian thinking have to be found in Nietzsche’s thought.