[ISF] The Jewel and the Lotus

The following post is from the Institute for Social Futurism (ISF). Although its concerns are essentially philosophical, they inform many practical realities for organisations in our network over the coming year and beyond.

If you’re looking for a quick punchline, this is perhaps not the article for you, but you could try skipping to section 1: The Jewel and the Lotus.

0. The Desert of the Real

Over the last few years, we have been developing a network of organisations which share a positive attitude toward technological change while being mindful of the serious challenges the world faces today. The idea is for that network to develop connections with like-minded others who wish to usher in a new paradigm for our society, based on a combination of science, technology, positive values and principles. During that time there has been a natural process of weaving together the ideas and views of many people, and that process has been driving the emergence of a worldview which we call Social Futurism.

Aside from the usual logistical issues of a growing movement, I have become aware of a strong need to reach beyond the complicated tangle of inspirations and concerns which have brought us together, and clearly articulate a single core idea underlying this nascent movement. To momentarily put aside our many assumptions and preconceptions, and examine the deepest ideological nexus which ties them all together. Having done that, we will be able to move forward sure in the knowledge that we are all working toward a common goal, no matter any differences in our philosophies, affiliations, or methods. In short, I have recently felt the need to cast a radically skeptical eye over everything we collectively believe and are committed to, throwing out all unnecessary assumptions in the hope of discerning a single common axiom. It seems to me that any such axiom must be extremely simple and incisive, akin to Descartes‘ “Cogito Ergo Sum“.

The key to this inquiry is to put aside every claim or belief which may not be true, or which can in any conceivable way be countered or argued against. We are of course very much in support of science and greatly value its utility, but no scientific fact can ever be our central axiom, as scientific facts must by definition be potentially disprovable by new evidence. Our common focus must be more akin to a steadfast attitude or conviction than a mere observation that could change at any time. Chinese and Indian philosophy traditionally saw the observed world as composed of myriad relative “facts”, apparent phenomena and distinctions which could change just as easily as a viewer’s perspective, and such schools of thought (particularly Taoism and Buddhism) consistently warned against identifying too closely with ephemera. The traditional Eastern view is that all identification with any apparent fact (perspective, observation, expectation, philosophy or ideal) would cast a “shadow” consisting of everything contrary to that position. Like Descartes, initiates of these religions were urged to let go of every conviction that could be doubted (both the Buddhists’ and Descartes’ conclusion was that everything could be doubted except the existence of Mind), and simply live in the world as they found it. We could learn a lot from the minimalism of this stance, encouraging activists to use the myriad facts of science and the world as necessary, but to embrace a common identity rooted only in a single, fundamental, undeniable axiom. That kind of strong shared identity would enable us to rest assured that we are all “on the same team”, no matter what disagreements we may have over any details, which would be a thing of great practical and strategic value to the movement as a whole.

A recent Western echo of these ancient Eastern ideas is particularly relevant to techno-social concerns in the early 21st Century, and to the future of our movement. In 1999, The Matrix presented such philosophical concerns about the nature of reality, along with issues involving technology and social control, in a very popular action-adventure entertainment format. The movie drew not only upon traditional Eastern thought, but among a great many other things the writings of French Postmodernist philosopher Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard said that we are surrounded by simulacra or simulations which no longer refer to any underlying reality, such as news stories which reflect consumer demand and media manipulation rather than any deep truth. He further claimed that in this ultra-mediated environment, actual reality (i.e. unmediated, unmanipulated things-as-they-actually-are) is now extremely hard to find. We see things almost entirely through the lens of culture and technology, now. This notion of reality as an increasingly hidden, deserted place was summed up in Baudrillard’s phrase “the desert of the real”. The idea that we live in some kind of mediated bubble of false reality while an authentic reality exists “outside” is the central theme of Gnosticism, found today in the work of people such as Science Fiction writer Philip K Dick (both Gnosticism and Dick’s ideas were also prominent in The Matrix).

At this point you may well be asking what all these wild and wonderful ideas have to do with advancing technology, social progress, or indeed the real world. It all boils down to the intrinsic nature of the Transhumanist urge; to go beyond all that we have known in order to become more than human. To transcend the traditional limitations of the human condition. It is no accident that Transhumanists are regularly accused of being “neo-Gnostics”, because the idea of extending human life and health beyond current limitations is indeed reminiscent of the ancient heresy, albeit expressed in a very new way. This is a touchy issue, as Transhumanists are generally at pains to distinguish their technological hopes from ancient religious dreams, despite their clear common origin in simple human yearnings for a greater or happier existence. We should note that it is not as simple a matter as some people calling Transhumanists ‘Gnostics’ and Transhumanists themselves uniformly rejecting the idea. Not only are many Transhumanists open to spirituality of various types, even including nuanced (usually secular) interpretations of Gnosticism, but the “accusers” are often sympathetic to both (neo-)Gnosticism and Transhumanism (and therefore presumably trying to draw attention to what they see as a good thing). Perhaps the best example of this is Erik Davis, in his 1998 book “TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information” (to show the close interrelatedness of all these ideas, we may note that Davis is a scholar professionally interested in the works of Philip K Dick).

The thing that Transhumanists, Gnostics, and the heroes of The Matrix have in common is a pointed and total disrespect for the limitations of a world which pretends to be the whole of reality, but which is in fact only a subset of all that is truly possible. In other words, we Transhumanists are inherently driven to reject any convention or ideology that tells us to be content within our limits, to know our place. Instead, we seek to venture beyond those limits into the “desert of the real”, and in doing so take responsibility for directing our own evolution. I must stress that this need not imply a hedonistic, individualistic flight from communitarian responsibilities, when the very act of transcending limits makes it possible for others to follow our example; and for the whole of society to thus evolve and progress beyond its former limits.

In short, we feel that we could be more, that we could help others in the process, and that no-one has the right to impose their arbitrary limitations upon us. We would explore beyond the safe havens of the world as we know it, and out into the desert of the real… into the darkness of possibilities. This rejection of the world’s distinctions and limitations is the one and only thing that can unite our diverse movement. That movement already includes many people who do not consider themselves to be Transhumanists, and that will only become more true over time, but the common impulse that unites us is clear: To sweep away the old world that stands between us and a much better future. A person might oppose this impulse for whatever reason, but they cannot argue it to be false in any way. It simply is.

1. The Jewel and the Lotus

We have discerned the idea that lies at the heart of our movement’s many manifestations (i.e. not just Transhumanism and other forms of Futurism but all truly modern and progressive activism, and any number of related philosophies, arts, and sciences): That our salvation lies beyond the limits of the world as we currently understand it… and that by transforming ourselves we can transcend those limits. In short, that we can and should remake the world and our place within it. Paradoxically, this idea is truly ancient, and yet its combination with technology makes a powerful new revolution in human affairs possible.

At this point, we should take a moment to note a parallel between the advice offered for individual living by religions such as Taoism and Buddhism on the one hand, and the necessary way forward for any modern activist movement on the other. Followers of the ancient Eastern ways are encouraged to live in the present moment, rather than dwelling unduly on the past or future. This reduces identification with transient things, and thus reduces the suffering caused by regret over the past or anxiety over the future. Interestingly, any truly revolutionary movement would do well to heed the same advice, since the act of relinquishing the past and future (i.e. memories and expectations) is tantamount to rejecting limitation by those things. In other words, to focus on the present and to reject all unnecessary limitations are two sides of the same coin.

Having identified this central idea, our next question is of course how to simplify and condense its expression, to maintain its clarity for ourselves and communicate it easily to others. Traditionally this is the realm of symbols, or simple signs that stand for (and easily summon) complex sets of ideas. In keeping with the ancient Eastern philosophies mentioned earlier, I have settled upon two key symbols with a somewhat oriental flavour: The Jewel and the Lotus. In this section I will explain these two symbols, and their potential value.

It is common to depict an incisive axiom as a blade or sword, as in the cases of Occam’s Razor or Alexander cutting the Gordian Knot (indeed the very word “incisive” implies both clear, rational analysis and the act of cutting). In ancient Indian writings there is mention of a sword known as the Jewel of the Desert, and that strikes me as a particularly apt name for an axiom which refers to the Desert of the Real. This “Jewel” is our central idea – an article of faith which unites our emerging movement – and it can be expressed as follows:

Act Now and Be Free

(Nunc Agere et Liberi)

The only reality is action in the moment, and the bonds of the unreal demand to be cut. In other words, the individual and any movement for positive change must always focus on what they can be or do now, and all apparent limitations conjured by tradition, convention, history, hope or expectation with no solid basis in the reality of the present must be cast aside without hesitation. If an obstacle can be overcome, it should be. If a limitation can be transcended, then transcend it. This is a point of view which should come naturally to Transhumanists, Gnostics, all opponents of arbitrary and unwanted limitation, and all those who would sweep away the old to make way for a better future. It is often said that you can best know a thing by looking at what it opposes, and in this case we are utterly opposed to entrenched limitations which only exist out of a sense of history, social convention, or “natural order” rather than having something clearly positive to contribute to the future of humanity. We must tear down all such false limitations in our bid to remake civilization.

Beyond this central philosophical matter, as mentioned earlier I have become acutely aware of logistical issues that naturally arise with the growth of any movement. I won’t go into the details of these issues, except to say that they boil down to a question of resources: How to get the resources we need, and how to use the ones we have well. Perhaps the most pressing resource issue has been the question of time and communications. A lot of people have something to say or ask, but we simply cannot respond to every such contact in a centralised way. Instead, the network must scale up in such a way that local groups can handle initial contact in most cases, and important messages can be passed through the network as appropriate, meaning that no single part of the network is overloaded with messages from everybody. In order to make my own part of the network more manageable and to set an example, I will be restricting my personal engagement to the activity in eight official channels. I can no longer guarantee any response to any communication outside those channels, which are outlined briefly below.

If every part of the network were to operate in a similar manner, maintaining a small number of recognised and well-maintained collaboration/communication channels, then the result would be something like a mosaic of decentralised activity, a fractal heterarchy or holarchy. A symbol for the network (and any given node within it) which I find to be appropriate and appealing is the lotus flower. The lotus is essentially a memorable image which represents a centre connecting multiple channels or aspects. The lotus is also a symbol common to the various Eastern philosophies mentioned earlier, although a rose would be the equally appropriate counterpart traditional in the West.

Others are free to organise themselves as they see fit, of course, but the specific eight channels which I will personally be focussed upon, going forward, are as listed below. In each case I will only be working with a relatively small core team, rather than attempting to manage all functions of these wider organisations directly. Such functions represent my “close neighbours” within the network, that I collaborate with but am not directly responsible for. If we all operate in this way – with clear cooperative links but limited personal workloads – then we will be maximally effective as a network.

I am currently in the process of reorganising the core teams and preferred communications channels for these groups, and will link to further information and full contact details for all eight channels from here on Friday January 22nd, 2016. In the meantime you can still contact these groups as before.

This post has covered a number of complex and subtle ideas with an unfortunate but necessary brevity, where any of these could be the departure point for long conversations in and of themselves. My objective will have been met, however, if you remember the symbols of the Jewel and the Lotus. That the Jewel of the Desert is simply a determination to stand squarely in the reality of the moment and cut through the proliferation of illusions, distractions, and false limitations which we are constantly told to embrace and respect (or at least take seriously). And that the Lotus is merely a reminder that while remaining focussed and effective, you always have the option of being connected with others in a movement toward something greater.

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[ISF] The Jewel and the Lotus

The official Transhumanist Party blog

This is the official blog of the Transhumanist Party (a registered political party in the UK) and Transhumanist Party Global, maintained by Dr. M. Amon Twyman, Leader of the UK Party and founder of TP Global.

Posts in this blog fall into five categories. You can browse posts in each category by clicking the title links below, or clicking the menu button at the top-right of your browser window.

1. Transhumanist Party (Category: UK)

This category consists of posts about Party news, events, and other announcements from the UK. You can find links to a variety of Transhumanist Party resources at http://transhumanistparty.org.uk.

2. Press Release (Category: Press Release)

This category is for official press releases from the Transhumanist Party in the UK.

3. Transhumanist Party Global (Category: TPG)

In addition to Party news from the UK, this blog offers news from affiliated organisations around the world, acting together as one movement under the umbrella of Transhumanist Party (Global). Posts in this category have the label [TPG] in their titles.

4. Guest-written posts (Category: guest)

You can use this category to search for insights from guest writers affiliated with the Transhumanist Party worldwide.

5. Social Futurism & the Zero State (Category: ISF/ZS)

The Transhumanist Party is connected to a growing web of like-minded organisations, which can be broadly characterised as “Social Futurist” or “Techno-Progressive” in nature. Some of those organisations were predecessors of the Transhumanist Party, while others are its current partners. All of them have the opportunity to tell us about their viewpoints, plans and achievements in this category.

This category is also a place where you can read posts from the Institute for Social Futurism, which is a think tank associated with the Transhumanist Party, exploring the relationship between social justice concerns and the radical transformative potential of modern technology. Posts in this category have the label [ISF] in their titles.

The official Transhumanist Party blog

The birth of Political Transhumanism

A footnote in History: The first explicitly Transhumanist candidate

Political Transhumanism is beginning to coalesce, and will become a force to reckon with as accelerating technologies increasingly transform society, and people seek a new paradigm to handle the wave of disruptive change.

In the past we have seen Transhumanists standing in elections, espousing futurist ideas in general (such as Natasha Vita-More and Gabriel Rothblatt), even one or two elected politicians with Transhumanist views (e.g. Giuseppe Vatinno), and of course the first person to develop and promote the Transhumanist Party idea – US Presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan. Last night we saw the latest development of this trend: The first electoral candidate to face an election on an explicitly Transhumanist platform. That person is Dr Alexander Karran.

Alexander stood as an independent, albeit one with the support of the nascent Transhumanist Party in the UK. His final vote count was 56, coming second last in the constituency, which sounds underwhelming until you stop to think about what we were actually trying to achieve here, and how we went about it. We were never so much as attempting to run a serious electoral race here, and even went so far as to deliberately support a candidate in a safe seat. Instead, we wanted to make a symbolic statement of intent on behalf of a party which only began to exist in the early months of this year, and make some regular people aware of Transhumanist ideas for the positive transformation of society. Also, it was a chance for us to learn something about electoral rules and processes, which we’d had no experience of whatsoever.

Frankly, the very fact that 56 people would vote for someone and something they’d never heard of, with no warning or sense of familiarity, out of simple support for our vision of a Techno-Progressive future is very encouraging indeed. Now, initial statement made (and all of our very modest goals achieved), we can begin the real work of building the party and developing serious, long-term strategy.

The bigger picture: New paradigms wanted!

Stepping back to look at the bigger political picture in Britain, we see a nation-wide thirst for change, and a rejection of old-fashioned political platitudes. People don’t trust politicians anymore, and they want new ideas (take a look at this post from TPUK member, Humanity+ board member and Transpolitica founder David Wood on the kinds of ideas we might offer). The short version is that there’ll be a Conservative government (although whether majority or minority remains to be seen as I write), support for the likeliest “third parties” (the Liberal Democrats and UK Independence Party) disintegrated, the Scottish National Party secured a remarkable 8% of the vote, and that was at the expense of the Labour Party, who will probably have sacked their leader by the end of today.

This is a remarkable result, which among other things has sadly more than decimated much (subtle, implicit, and potential) Transhumanist support in the form of Liberal Democrat MPs such as Julian Huppert. That is a shame, but the bigger picture is that people have made it clear that they want serious change and cannot stomach broken political promises. This underlines the need for the Transhumanist Party to not develop into just another traditional political party, but instead point out a different way forward for society, in which 19th Century models of governance are phased out in favour of direct technical solutions to society’s problems, where possible.

It may be controversial to say so, but I think that with a full Conservative government and a recession that isn’t going anywhere (despite all the obfuscatory talk of “green shoots recovery”) there will be plenty of societal problems for people to think about solving in the coming years. It is our duty to meet those problems head-on, with a radically new and different way of thinking. For further thoughts of mine on the birth of Political Transhumanism and future strategies for the Transhumanist Party, please take a look at this chapter from the recent “Anticipating 2025” Transpolitica book.

What next for the Transhumanist Party?

Globally, the Transhumanist Party movement is just getting started, and the various organisations constituting it are all looking for active and enthusiastic members, so please do check out the TP (Global) website and follow the links there if you’re interested.

In the UK, now that the party’s registration is in the government’s hands and the election is behind us, we are embarking on Phase 2: Our “hard launch” event and first Annual General Meeting, in late summer (date TBC). We need members and supporters, volunteers and donors, so we can build a network of teams putting together something truly special. You can watch this blog for developments as they unfold, or you can go one better and become a party member now, no matter where you live in the world! (Please note that by joining the UK Transhumanist Party you do not automatically gain membership of any other party or group within the movement).

In order to celebrate the launch of this new phase, an anonymous supporter has pledged to match the next £200 received in donations, so please consider making a donation today, to help us get this ball rolling!

Transhumanism needs a voice in the political arena, in order to defend our vision of the future. You can help make that happen.

The birth of Political Transhumanism

What is the Transhumanist Party?

The Transhumanist Party is a worldwide movement of groups working to establish political parties based on the idea of Transhumanism; that the human condition can and should be improved using technology.

Transhumanism as a whole is an intellectual and cultural movement, and the Transhumanist Party exists to extend that movement into the political arena, promoting the idea of positive social change through technology.

For more information about this blog, please see the introduction post.

What is the Transhumanist Party?