2012 / 30 December

Stoicism on Transhumanism: An Interview with Professor William O. Stephens


Seneca, Epictetus, Aurelius – even westerners unfamiliar with “Stoicism” recognize many of the names that brought this Philosophy to bear. Today, there are few self-professed Stoics in the world, but I was lucky enough to catch up with one of them last week: Professor William O. Stephens at Creighton University, in Omaha, NE.

Before digging into the topic of my obsession (framing and understanding the transition to a transhuman era – specifically through the light of great thinkers of the past), I wanted to get to know the man himself – as he graduated from my own Alma Mater, the University of Pennsylvania.

Professor Stephens Himself

Growing up in Indiana, not too far from Purdue University, Professor Stephens (not then yet a professor) was introduced to Latin through a teacher who captured his imagination and turned his imagination to the times of the ancient Greek thinkers. He then went on to the College of Wooster and Earlham College, eventually setting out on the grad school track.

With both of his parents being PhDs and professors, it wasn’t too much of a stretch for Mr. Stephens to carry on what he called the “Stephens tradition” of teaching, and he spent the next six years getting his PhD in Philosophy at UPENN under the tutelage of Charles Kahn. It was only with Kahn that Prof. Stephens came in contact with the work of Epictetus, and he was swept away by stoicism, writing his doctoral thesis on the stoic ethics of Epictetus.

Stoics and Transhumanism

Clearly neither myself nor the Professor can speak for Epictetus (who has long since been unable to speak for himself – outside of books), but Dr. Stephens discussed with me three reasons why modern stoics might be sympathetic to the idea of enhancing human cognition and capacities via non-biological intelligence.

  1. The heroic idea for the stoic is the Sage who has overcome the vicious emotions of anger, lust, greed, jealousy, etc…, and has found his path within himself, to take life as it comes and remain virtuous in all ways and tranquil in spirit. If this track of self-development could be forwarded with the aid of technologies that might eliminate vicious tendencies and enhance positive tendencies – all while increasing overall ability (both mental and physical), this might not be as much a “shortcut” as a way to overcome our current barriers to self-development to work on yet higher ones.
  2. Stoics are physicalists (and so do not believe in a mind-body dualism), and so for them, manipulation of consciousness through physical means is not unheard-of or in violation of their conception of what consciousness is composed of.
  3. In addition, the Stoics do not identify with their bodies, but only their reason or ruling center. The “me” that a Stoic refers to has nothing to do with clothes, homes, arms, legs, or even a face, but a sentience (called “Hegemonikon,” often “hegemony” in English) that is there own, that they have built and cultivated through the story of their lives. Hence, transference of this sentience into a non-biological motherboard, or transference of their skills and memories into a machine would not eliminate their selves, any more than losing an arm to in an accident would change their selves.

Stoics and the Singularity

Dr. Stephens and I also had time to discuss the prospect of “The Singularity,” a progression of intelligent technology to the point where all intelligence becomes connected and builds upon itself at faster and faster speeds, becoming essentially omnipotent and god-like, spreading itself through the universe and potentially beyond it.

How Stoics might feel about this transition, Dr. Stephens was less clear. It seems as though there are many potentially beneficial ways that this transition might come about, and many dystopian visions associated with this kind of all-encompassing, aggregated super-consciousness. He did, however, mention a few points to consider that may at least shed light on how stoic thought might relate to the Singularity:

  • The Stoics held the belief of cosmopolitanism, of being a citizen of the world – rather than being attached or too closely tied to a particular geographical area or culture. They believed that Reason steers the entire universe, and itself controls all matter. This higher Reason is often referred to as Zeus, God, or Fate in stoic philosophical texts. The idea is that we have a rational capacity, as do other humans, and in this sense we are part of a great community. If the aggregate happiness, tranquility, and virtuous, self-overcoming pursuit of this entire community would be taken higher by the Singularity, it might not seem dystopian to a modern stoic.
  • Stoics also held that one of the highest marks of the sage is the acceptance of Fate (“If it befalls me, let it be best for me”). One might presume that if the Singularity were an eminent event, a modern stoic would likely welcome the event as the will of Zeus, and – like anything else – view its inevitability with a welcoming spirit.

More from Dr. William O. Stephens

I recently just bought Dr. Stephen’s book Marcus Aurelius: A Guidebook for the Perplexed. He has a number of additional books available, most of which can he found here on his Creighton page.

I’ve also found in interesting interview with the Professor on BoingBoing.com called “Interview with a Stoic” – which can he found here.

I also wanted to say a personal thank you to Dr. Stephens for taking the time to catch up about applying some wisdom of the good life to the issues of the future. I appreciate it more than you, know, Prof!

All the best,

-Daniel Faggella

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