The future of humans

I, along with most Christians, believe in the resurrection of the body. I also believe that this resurrected body will be similar but not the same as the physical body I have now. It will be better.

For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. – 1 Corinthians 15:53

To believe this lies close to the heart of the Christian hope. Death will be undone, decay will be reversed and the problems of this world will be gone forever. As Christians we believe in a glorious future.

We’re not the only ones.

There is an increasingly visible and powerful group of people (people like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk for example) who also believe in a glorious future where death is unnecessary and ageing is irrelevant and the problems of this world have all been solved. They are transhumanists.

I’ve written before that we need Christian thinkers engaging with this issue now and I hold to that as technological developments continue to challenge our notions of what it means to be human.

We’re already comfortable with notions of technology enhancing or enabling us to overcome our physical limitations. I wear glasses and contact lenses, my mother has artificial knee joints and my father has hearing aids. Others I know have pacemakers to help their heart beat, and we’re OK with technology giving people artificial limbs, or computers helping people talk, move and if born premature simply survive. We have no problems with this. We’re OK with technology as devices and tools.

As Christopher Benek says

Moreover, I think it’s important to caution folks not to get too far down the “transhumanism is all bad” road. I say this because holding an overly dogmatic position in a quickly developing technological movement is likely to leave one looking hypocritical in the long run. Case in point: If scientists figure out a way to affordably use CRISPR technology to edit the human genome to eliminate the possibility of getting cancer – no-one is reasonably going to reject that technological advancement.

But it won’t stop there, it never does.

As Yuval Noah Harari says

There are two main ways to upgrade humans. Either you change something in their biological structure by changing their DNA. Or, the more radical way, you combine organic and inorganic parts – perhaps directly connecting brains and computers.

There are entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley working on drugs that will unlock the potential of your brain promising “users the ability to learn faster, work smarter, and even relax harder.” That avenue seems less likely to take off than editing our DNA which promises hope to those suffering from genetic disorders.

We need Christians engaged in asking the questions, ‘is it safe’, ‘will it work’ and ‘can it be developed by ethical means’?

Other medical advances are also fraught with unintended consequences. The development of an artificial womb offers hope to children born premature and perhaps even to make abortion unnecessary. But as Alistair Roberts points out (in this typically long essay) there are plenty of dangers to going down the road of ectogenesis.

We’re already living in a world where technology can enhance or prolong human life, where DNA editing is possible and Harari is right, we are already seeing early attempts at embedding technology into the human body.

The big one though is death. It comes to us all. There’s still a lot of scepticism about this – not everyone is convinced that technology can overcome this one but that’s  not stopping people from trying. The Guardian put it bluntly

There is absolutely no reason to suppose that the present technology allows brains to be frozen and rethawed without being reduced to a unworkable state. To hope that this will be changed by some future breakthroughs is an act of faith at least as remarkable as supposing that Jesus rose from the dead.

But not everyone is convinced that it would be a good idea for humans to succeed.

Harari again,

The rich – through purchasing such biological enhancements – could become, literally, better than the rest; more intelligent, healthier and with far greater life-spans. At that point, it will make sense to cede power to this “enhanced” class.

Think about it like this. In the past, the nobility tried to convince the masses that they were superior to everyone else and so should hold power. In the future I am describing, they really will be superior to the masses. And because they will be better than us, it will make sense to cede power and decision-making to them.

Sanjana Varghese in the New Statesman agrees

If those who form society in the age of transhumanism are men like Musk and Thiel, it’s probable that this society will have few social safety nets. There will be an uneven rate of technological progress globally; even a post-human society can replicate the unequal global wealth distribution which we see today. In some cities and countries, inhabitants may live forever, while in others the residents die of malnutrition. If people don’t die off, the environmental consequences – from widespread natural resource devastation to unsustainable energy demands – would be widespread.

Most transhumanists are also atheists who see Christians an obstacles to human progress.

The greatest threat to humanity’s continuing evolution,” writes transhumanist Simon Young, “is theistic opposition to Superbiology in the name of a belief system based on blind faith in the absence of evidence.

But as Meghan O’Gieblyn points out in her sad but insightful essay Ghost in the Cloud they are often unaware of their theological predecessors. It’s time we all became acquainted with the works of Teilhard de Chardin for example.

Not all Christians are opposed to technology being the means to the future. Benek again

Christians have the opportunity to radically influence the direction that transhumanism takes in the future. Morally guided, community discerned, Christian Transhumanism offers a legitimate alternative to utilitarian, atheistic transhumanism.

Most Christians (and mostly I include myself here) continue to think that the promises Paul envisages in 1 Corinthians are supernatural and certainly Paul links them to the return of Christ but there are some intriguing options left open.

As Meghan O’Gieblyn says

Christ had spoken mostly in parablesno doubt for good reason. If a superior being had indeed come to Earth to prophesy the future to 1st-century humans, he would not have wasted time trying to explain modern computing or sketching the trajectory of Moore’s Law on a scrap of papyrus. He would have said, “You will have a new body,” and “All things will be changed beyond recognition,” and “On Earth as it is in heaven.” Perhaps only now that technologies were emerging to make such prophecies a reality could we begin to understand what Christ meant about the fate of our species.

Or to quote Paul again (1 Cor 15:51)

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.

The question remains how much can we be the agents of that change and in doing so will we make things worse or better? Will technology usher in the kingdom of God for the elect and chosen few or could it bring heaven to earth for the impoverished many. Or will it be the supernatural event that Christians have always tended to assume.

What we see is a human longing to defeat death, overcome sickness, live forever but to do it without Christ. Ultimately I believe that is a futile path but we shouldn’t be closed to the idea that there is technology in heaven.

Leave a Reply