Transhuman(-ism?), Stanford, and me.

Transhumanism: How I got there.

I always knew I was going to have to go to extreme measures to be a normal person in the world. I was raised without that core of love in me, the thing that draws one to people instead of repelling one from them.

I had abandonment issues, ego issues, all kinds of issues, so many issues I had volumes. I was killing myself with highly processed food, soda, a sedentary lifestyle, sacrificing everything I had to sustain my habit of writing stories online with my friends. Then I did an entheogen, and immediately started going about the habit of changing everything about myself, starting with quitting smoking cigarettes and progressing to winning the educational lottery to get into Stanford, then actually graduating.

But in the middle there, I had an odd set of choices and a lot of struggle.

So I’ll tell you what the process of being educated at Stanford was like, to a me that welcomed change no matter how much it hurt, and looked to be shaped by outside forces that I absolutely knew were more in tune with Actual Reality than my shaky views.

So there I am in 2013, and I’m looking around Stanford at all these incredible opportunities in different fields. The arch opinions and powers of the historian seem a little nuanced for me – I could just read books to get much of the same. The engineers are a serious draw, but the classes at Stanford are so brutal that I can only reliably take one or maaaaaybe two at the same time without barely passing all of them. I am certain, from what I learned at Stanford, that I would have adjusted properly if I had good emotional coping skills, but alas, that me was a little more dumb than I am now.

I did manage 3 engineering classes in a quarter, but a professor who wanted us to be reallllllllly good at algebra made the course way more difficult than it needed to be, and that, combined with his very soft voice, meant that I ended up frustrated, and I started skipping courses, which took a toll on my grade. So did the THC I was doing for other reasons. Long story short, I would have had to retake the course to continue engineering. It wasn’t the prof’s fault: he really was an excellent teacher for people who are not old and hard of hearing in the higher registers, like any male over 25.

It was a freshman engineering class, you guys.
I got destroyed.

So I really wanted to do something mathy – I love math! I always have. And I settled on cognitive science, because they occupied the intersection of weird and rigorous and verbal, with a generous helping of computer science, so generous that while I took a minor equivalent of cognitive science, I would have needed one more CS class for everything to count properly, and I was so done with school by the time that mattered that I just resolved to learn the stuff on my own, which I have been doing for the past year.

I’ve always felt like an alien, sent here to observe these odd human creatures. I express surprise when I learn of possible generalizations people make or observe about the human condition.

I also try to observe observers. I love podcasts by people who make observations about the world and the events, and people, in it. I am drawn to Tim Ferriss’s podcast, which is randomly #1 on the podcast chart – he’s the 4-hour Work Week guy who broke my head the first time I read his book, though I should have been a little more critical when I read it. He’s been using too many ads in his podcast lately for my liking.

It might seem like I was being wishy-washy about picking something to major in. You would be right. I was being inexorably drawn to Philosophy, because I understood that’s where they thought about what knowledge even is…

I had not yet started down my academic path of Defense Against The – wait, you know. I think it’s more like The Dark Arts, not particularly Defense Against The. Except you find out along the way that the Light Arts are just creative uses of the Dark Arts which have net positive side effects instead of net negative.

Because that’s what Symbolic Systems, alongside Stanford Philosophy, felt like.

You learn some game theory, you learn some psychology, you learn some math, you learn some philosophy, you learn some computer science, you start to perceive how it all fits together, and bam – your world changes, you realize the alien view might be the correct view, and you start to feel both more alone and more present than you’ve ever felt before. Toss in some philosophy – which I kid you not, teaches some crazy shit, and if you consider yourself an appreciator of ideas, then as one to another, I urge you to read every item on this list critically, preferably while answering detailed writing prompts and receiving feedback from a philosophical friend on each draft.

Except then, as you learn the dark arts, there are many kinds of depression you experience, as you learn how wrong about humans a person can be, and in how many ways. But also, how many cynical views are, in truth, correct: the applicability of game theory and some of its ugly implications about how to deal with uncooperative choices in a potentially cooperative world – and how many common views are blatantly wrong, like the idea that a person needs only freedom to be the fullest kind of happy, or that possessions will affect one’s happiness without people with whom to share them.

Philosophy teaches that there is much to appreciate and fear in humanity. Some tendencies of humanity might be really ugly, like antisocial psychopathy/sociology; tribalism; what one friend calls fanaticism, that sort of thing. However, with the right frame of reference, other humans are not just an environmental hazard to be avoided. People can greatly augment one another as well.

In coming to appreciate humanity, sometimes through medical interventions, one may start to feel connected, a little less alien. One cooperative human being can realize that they are one of these cooperative creatures, except you, considering that you are still reading this, are one of the weird ones who chose to read a thousand books rather than bed a thousand partners, not always on preference, but always with some amount of joy or sadness or raw empathy, not realizing that the tons of black ink would start to accumulate over the years, jamming up inside your mental colon until you couldn’t help but poop out some words onto pages. No organization, just clutter onto pages, like so much detritus of the ink-being that now occupies the soul.

You accidentally wielded the Dark Arts in public sometimes, and on friends. You’ve been confessed to. You have always been confessed to, because people around you perceive that you can handle it, that you can be the repository for their discomfort with their decisions. You didn’t catch it at the time, just internalized it. It created a slightly different version of you, and you detected that, so you fought back, and soon you started seeing a fight everywhere you went.

While you study, while you learn about the human good you’ve been cynical about your entire tortured (and self-tortured) existence, you come to believe that maybe there is a meaning to everything after all, and with that glorious realization comes the immediate pain of guilt for having acted in ignorance for so many years. You realize you’ve been doing everything wrong for years, you just didn’t know it, and didn’t understand the pain you might have been causing with casual remarks.

You realize you’ve been exposing people’s inner demons for ages, right out there in the open, where they can die in the light, without a care for what it feels like to have a serious cognitive dissonance ripped from you, what it feels like to have one’s existence clinging and holding on with doubt and anxiety against change, like any comfortable nervous system.

But then later, you realize that all of that guilt is unnecessary, that you were living out your life in the best way you knew how, acting with given information to solve all the problems laid out in front of you by your particular path, which is not well-worn but which is often well-attended, because it involves a long, shitty climb out of the propagandized slave class and into some kind of class limbo where what you do next, that’s what determines the ending class, you have successfully put yourself into superposition, now are you going to fall back to earth, or are you going to fly?

Once you decide to fly, it’s exhilarating, until someone points out that you have no wings, and it’s at that moment that you understand how logical you are, because you can either die of embarrassment, or ask how the other person defines wings, because that shit in your head, at least, because you studied philosophy, that well-earned poop has some fancy wings on it.

Many people study ideas. It seems like they do so specifically in order to develop opinions on those ideas, about how things should be done in the world given those ideas, or maybe sometimes how to interpret the world to serve the correctness of the ideas. Then they profess, like mouthpieces, calling out their solutions to the world in the hopes that some intrepid explorer might come to their call and possibly bringing bags of cash their way, and even in some cases their deck with a nice hot tub on a cool evening.

But you studied the act of idea-having, the techniques of knowledge acquisition, the machinery of critical thought, and you can parse it all while you talk to people, mostly, unless you come across hypnotists or charmers. You can see when people are deluding themselves – conversations seem to end very quickly with some people when they notice you notice their bullshit. You are accused of putting people on blast, on the regular. You discover you are kind of aspie, and that telling it like it is is a cultural no-no, particularly if it involves talking about other people “behind their backs.”

You come to realize that you were raised by at least seven personality disorders and/or drugs with only one actual agent involved, and the agent went away when you turned 12. But that was okay: the personality disorders gave you allllll kinds of experience with, uh, “dealing with adverse situations,” because the personality disorders considered that a boy became a man at the age of 12, just like it said in this book.

You have been an atheist since you were six and realized, in a prophetic-level, whole-body-encompassing dream, that everyone you knew was going to be tormented for all eternity if what you read in that book was true. But then, when you are going through therapy, and coming to understand your own reactions and childish coping mechanisms, you come to understand a new philosophical concept of what a god is, and you pair and compare that with religious notions of god from several angles, and then you study the most excellent people in terms of self-discipline and virtuous action, and notice parallels, and you see that people use and maintain all these useful illusions, and these myths, and the notion of habits making a person, and things like forgiveness and knowing when enough neuroticism is enough.

So now you’ve been reading all this stuff, and have made great progress on changing your dietary habits, your exercise habits, your social toxicity is becoming bearable to even disagreeable people. You still talk about yourself poorly and have some trouble internally modeling accurate statistical thinking, and suspect you might have a math learning disability. You feel alone except when you’re with the Symbolic Systems people, because learning about how agents think distinguishes you from everyone else in so many ways, that it seems like only the Symbolic Systems folks must understand even part of what it is like to be you.

While doing all this, you ignore the fact that you have been ignoring the philosophy department, who seem to be a great group of people severely dedicated to hashing over very dry, technical, world-changing ideas that seem destined never to see the light of day, but which will assuredly change our view in some fashion at some point down the line.

Then you see an advertisement for the transhumanist society, and meet up with their President and hit it off as friends, and meet a whole group of people who are also about changing themselves. But they don’t really buy into the modern day society you were raised in – they question the validity of the structures themselves, they go way further than you had dared.

They want to upgrade humanity, to surpass it, just like you have done with your raggedy self, and all the effort you’ve put in since then. These, you think, are your people, and you think they must have some pretty solid and good philosophy behind them. And you even find out they do! But then you hear them making these very libertarian arguments behind closed doors that will probably result in the death or unemployment of mostly everyone. And you wonder what’s going on, and you decide to be a voice.

 

So you hang around anyway, because if nothing else, they are super interesting. Here’s a bunch of people who are willing to, laws be damned, do anything and everything necessary to bootstrap the rest of humanity, including themselves, into the next level of cooperative social competence, the kind of social environment that makes interstellar travel or asteroid mining into a reality.

That’s how I got acquainted with Transhumanism. I still think it needs a new name. And I don’t think it’s merely an -ism.

 

I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

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