What Will Stop Peter Thiel from Living Forever?
Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist the internet most loves to hate, has developed a peculiar bromance with 17th century English champion-of-science Francis Bacon. Thiel quotes him frequently, recommends Bacon’s 1627 The New Atlantis on all his reading lists, and has declared in a testimonial on the cover of the latest edition of said book that “If the point of philosophy is to change the world, Sir Francis Bacon may be the most successful philosopher ever — but his work is not yet done.”
Thiel sees Bacon as one who holds the key to reawakening in Americans an appetite for innovation. Whereas we used to be driven by the allure of building our future, Thiel says, now we retain the belief that things will get better but do not view ourselves as causal agents in that change. “Trust the process,” “Keep options open,” “Iterate” — these are the sterile slogans of what Thiel calls the indefinite optimist. Thiel wants to kick-start definite optimism; he wants us to intelligently design our future rather than simply scour for market inefficiencies. Just as Bacon preached that “the mould of a man’s fortune is in his own hands,” Thiel admonishes his followers to “reject the unjust tyranny of Chance.”
And Thiel is putting his money where his mouth is in an area that Bacon defined as a principle end of scientific research but which, despite the success of Bacon’s project in general, scientists have hitherto focused on little: the elimination of death. Not just increasing life expectancy but increasing life span. Thiel invests heavily in biotechnical start-ups focusing on lifespan-extension research, pushes changes in regulatory structure to make such companies more viable, and is benefactor of organizations such as Singularity University and the Singularity Summit that aim to warm the public to transhumanist causes. While Thiel readily acknowledges that “probably the most extreme form of inequality is between people who are alive and people who are dead,” he finds “weird and sociopathic” arguments against the Singularity — the moment when an engineered form of human intelligence becomes so advanced it breaks away from that which created it — on the grounds of its potential to exacerbate inequality, or, for that matter, hasten the robotic takeover, eugenics, global warming, or other such dystopian scenarios. “Even if there are some problems with it,” Thiel says of the Singularity, “it’s better than being dead.” The biggest worry Thiel has about the Singularity is that it will take too long to happen.
One factor that makes Thiel’s embrace of transhumanism so chin-scratching is that he is a self-avowed student of political philosopher Leo Strauss. Not only does Thiel name-drop Strauss with frequency in interviews, but he is a patron of Straussian academic endeavors and regularly hosts conferences on the relation of Strauss’ work to other thinkers: e.g. “Strauss and Girard” in 2004, “Strauss and Nietzsche,” “Strauss and Burke” in 2014, and “Strauss and Bacon” just last year.
Why this is perplexing is that one of the most important (if not always discussed) intellectual contributions of Strauss and his followers is their sustained argument against transhumanism, narratives of scientific progress, and techno-solutionism. Strauss tried to rehabilitate an understanding of human nature outside the clutches of human techno-mastery, and his students have lead the way critiquing the basic principles behind life-extension research. Books on the matter by his followers are numerous: Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics by Leon Kass, Our Posthuman Future by Francis Fukuyama, The Eclipse of Man by Charles Rubin, In the Shadow of Progress by Eric Cohen, to name just a few. Furthermore, Straussians stocked George W. Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics, which argued for tighten restrictions on biomedical innovation in areas such as human stem-cell research, reproductive technologies, and end-of-life care. And they launched and contribute often to the policy journal The New Atlantis (named ironically after Bacon’s fable) which has been a consistent critic of transhumanism. [N.B. I once interned their]. How can Thiel claim, as he has on many occasions, to be a reader of Strauss and yet be so gung-ho about the Singularity?
And for their part, Straussians, have held their powder with respect to Thiel. The aforementioned Fukuyama, who once called transhumanism “the most dangerous idea in the world,” barely pressed him on his investments into human longevity in a 2012 interview in Fukuyama’s The American Interest. The magazine The New Atlantis recently ran a hagiography of Thiel that made no mention of his involvement into biomedical research, one of the things the magazine was founded to combat. (Though the magazine ran some more skeptical comments about Thiel on its blog way back in 2009). Finally, neoconservative publications like National Review and First Things have been more than happy to give Thiel platforms to promote his extremely heterodox views of the relationship between Christianity and transhumanism.
How can we explain this strange menage a trois between Thiel, Strauss, and Bacon? The lazy explanation would write it off as the political naivety or expediency trumping principle (“an enemy of my enemies…” ). Thiel’s prodigious pocketbook might also be mentioned. But a more interesting explanation, I think, is that this strange concurrence in fact reveals an unresolved point in the Straussian position about modernity in general.
Give me a couple of paragraphs to explain: Despite being near-unanimous critics of Bacon’s project of public scientific-technological advancement, Straussians actually were the ones responsible for rehabilitating the study of Bacon’s works. Prior to the 1960s, Bacon was cast aside on the one hand by scientific thinkers for being insufficiently scientific (e.g. “Bacon, I suggest, was not a scientist,” wrote Karl Popper) while at the same time castigated by political thinkers for being unaware that scientific advancement might have disastrous side-effects (e.g. “Bacon had seen the power of science as wholly redemptive,” quipped Quentin Skinner). The Straussians, however, discovered Bacon to be one of their beloved esoteric writers who kept his true teaching guarded from the mass public. If one took Bacon’s esoteric teaching into account, they showed, it was clear that Bacon had all along been aware of the deadly potentials of scientific advancement. Thus, according to this revisionist reading, Bacon predicted both the promises and the perils that a publicly funded push on scientific inquiry might produce. The picture that thus appears of Bacon is that of a great man who can see far into the future; he needed his contemporaries to buy in to the idea that science would lead to utopia simply to get the project off the ground, yet he knew all along it would take humankind not where most expected it would.
But if it was true that Bacon could foresee both “the promises and the perils” of science, by what criteria did he decide the former would outweigh the latter? This is a question that Straussians have thus far been stumped by. The various explanations proposed — that he was motivated by charity, or curiosity, or glory, or wisdom — are all less than compelling (See Minkov’s essay here for why). In effect then, the Straussians have shown that Bacon was an extremely successful propagandist, able to bend generations after him towards a goal that they aren’t even sure he thought was good or believed in. Straussians therefore are prone to fall back on a Nietzsche reading of him that draws a distinction between Bacon and “Baconianism,” between the great master himself and his small-souled followers. Even if they aren’t able to evaluate the former, the surely can snuff their noses at the later. A typical remark in this vein is that “Bacon, to a large extent deliberately, paves the way for the Baconians who miss at least half of Bacon’s thought.”
One would be curious to ask the Straussians who attended Thiel’s conference whether they think him a Bacon or a Baconian. Of course, the correct answer, at least from the standpoint of the American public, is that it doesn’t matter! Only the effects of what Thiel is proposing should be up for discussion. Whether he truly believes in living forever or is just funding biotech to try to jump-start societal realignment is besides the point if one suspects, as I do, that most of the research in the transhumanist bucket is flagrantly unjust. [N.B. until I did an edit-through, this read “fragrantly unjust.” Perhaps it might be that too…]
Now, the oldest question in politics is how to prevent one person from ruining everything for everyone else. One partial solution to this is democracy, a system in which individuals’ distinct political power to ruin everything for everyone is constrained by the checks and balances of the political power of others. However, there are some sources of power which remain difficult for a political body to contain. A prime example is the power that comes from what we’ve just been discussing: scientific advancement. No one knows in advance what power new inventions will unleash, so it’s hard for there to be deliberation about it. There was no vote on whether to have the internet or Facebook happen and yet it is now difficult for many to function without them. These days a unilateral decision by one actor in the realm of science and technology can have far greater ramifications than unilateral political decisions.
Incidentally, one of the earliest diagnosers of the dangers of political innovation was Francis Bacon himself. In his essay on the myth of Daedalus, he writes of those pushing technological innovation that “there is no class of men more troubled with envy, and that of the bitterest and most implacable character.” And yet, because they give people things that seem to make their life better, they will always be popular and draw power to themselves. Furthermore, they have do not have to be as loyal to their own country because they don’t have to fear losing everything if they so piss off their home country that they are exiled: “it is the prerogative of famous workmen to be acceptable all over the world.”
Thiel, in fact, has demonstrated this Daedelus description; since some of the experimental research he wishes to have done is forbidden in the United States, he has simply started funding labs in the Caribbean where research rules are laxer and where governments are more than happy to benefit from the business he’s bringing. (Leading the experiments by Thiel’s lab in St. Kitts was a Southern Illinois University professor who knew he was dying of cancer so didn’t care about the professional consequences of his doing unregulated human trials).
What does Bacon say can stop the rogue inventor? Good laws, for one. However in America that currently doesn’t look likely. Not only has Trump not even named a bioethics council to be in charge of overseeing such shenanigans, but it’s well-known that Thiel himself is has the ear of POTUS 45. In any case, Bacon admits that “If the truth must be told, [unlawful arts] are not so easily bridled by law as convicted by their proper vanity.” He gives the example of Icarus, who was stopped not by some outside force but by his own hubris: “For the most part [evil scientists] fail to perform their promises, fall out of estimation, as Icarus from the sky, and come into contempt, and through the very excess of ostentation perish.” So maybe Thiel, like Icarus, or like those now-comical medieval alchemists, will be stopped by his own hubris, having wasted billions on research that doesn’t accomplish what he says it might.
But then again, maybe he won’t. Waiting around for him to underdeliver on transhumanist technology isn’t exactly a comforting modus operandi for the rest of us who will have to live with the consequences of whatever his illegal and unjust trials do produce. Yet what can be done, if our country’s laws or the laws of nature or his Straussian pals don’t step in and remind him he is up to no good? Probably writing blog posts isn’t the best way to stop a billionaire, but if you have better ideas, I’m all ears!
Thanks for reading,