The time to think about transhumanism is now

Recently Max Anderson listened to a conversation between legendary tech investor Peter Thiel and legendary New Testament scholar NT Wright about death. Or more precisely a conversation about the possibility of overcoming death.

After listening to them both in public and private, Mr Anderson was convinced or should I say disturbed;

I also grew more convinced that there is a dangerous lack of moral philosophy and theological reflection about the rapidly emerging technologies that are forever changing our understanding of death and of life itself.

The modern church has, ironically, never been particularly good at prophecy. It’s not especially competent at seeing what is coming and getting ready for it. We wage war on abortion rights or same-sex marriage long after the prevailing culture (or at the very least the media) has made its mind up. The same will, likely, be true for transgenderism. I am willing to bet a hit sit-com will soon do for transgenderism what Modern Family (which is funny) has done for same-sex marriage – make it seem ‘normal’.

When it comes to grappling with issues of technology most churches are limited to railing about the dangers of social media and internet pornography (and with some good reason). Yet while we make a fuss about Facebook something far more serious is coming down the technological pipeline.

We’re already in the age of the self-driving car (1.7 million miles, 11 minor accidents & all of them caused by humans) and we’re already working out how to install morality into robots.

Yet the challenge that Christians will face, in the not too distant future, will not be working out a doctrine of robotics but instead wrestling with the doctrine of humanity. It’s not Google’s self-driving cars but Google’s labs to stop ageing that will be of most interest.

There is a growing social movement & philosophy called transhumanism and is essentially a quest for human 2.0, the next evolutionary step of homo sapiens. As Wesley Smith describes it in First Things,

Transhumanism is the utopian social movement and philosophy that looks toward a revolutionary future breakthrough in technological prowess—termed “the singularity”—which will allow transhumanists to “seize control of human evolution” and create a “post human species” of near immortals. Transhumanists take these hopes very seriously. Indeed, they proselytize for their ageless post-human future with the kind of fervor materialists usually disdain in traditional religionists.

Transhumanism is developing from broadly two very different but not mutually exlusive motivations. The first motivation is exploring the possibilities of technology and the second is overcoming death.

Let’s start with that second motivation. Most religions have, in some form or other, offered life or existence post-death yet for the athiests and secularists of today, convinced of the finality of death are as it turns out unhappy about that. Death needs to be undone.

There are various attempts at this sort of thing. As researchers begin to study our brains at the point of death and near-death experiences they hope to find clues to an ongoing mystery – human consciousness. Once consciousness can be understood, it can be mapped and then it can be transferred to another body (coming soon to a cinema near you).

But as Douglas Rushkoff points out, there are some problems with the materialists assumptions.

Science’s unearned commitment to materialism has led us into convoluted assumptions about the origins of spacetime, in which time itself simply must be accepted as a by-product of the Big Bang, and consciousness (if it even exists) as a by-product of matter. Such narratives follow information on its continuing evolution toward complexity, the Singularity, and robot consciousness — a saga no less apocalyptic than the most literal interpretations of biblical prophecy.

One of the main arguments that biologists such as Richard Dawkins has for evolution over Christianity is that he believes it has greater explanatory power in its simplicity, whereas the whole idea of a God is much more complex and ultimately the truth should lie in the simple answer. This has led to a simple a priori assumption that there is no God.

Rushkoff argues that this has led them down the garden path to complexity and perhaps the idea of God is actually more simple after all.

It’s entirely more rational — and less steeped in storybook logic — to work with the possibility that time predates matter and that consciousness is less the consequence of a physical cause-and-effect reality than a precursor. By starting with Godlessness as a foundational principle of scientific reasoning, we make ourselves unnecessarily resistant to the novelty of human consciousness, its potential continuity over time, and the possibility that it has purpose.

Yet transferring consciousness and overcoming death are thoughts only made possible by some of the dizzying advances of technology. Zoltan Istvan, a leading transhumanist, says the movement embraces many lesser known fields of science:

Transhumanism includes the fields of radical life extension, Singularitarianism, robotics, artificial intelligence, cryonics, genetic engineering, biohacking, cyborgism, and many other lesser known fields of science.

At this point you’d be forgiven for wondering how anyone could take such nonsense seriously driven as it must be by men who watched Weird Science a few too many times as a teenager. But you’d be wrong, those kinds of people rarely get articles in the FT.

As this BBC article on Swedish bio-hackers points out,

Increasingly the lines between human and machine are blurring. People with missing limbs are routinely fitted with bionic ones, which are getting ever more sophisticated. People think nothing of getting an artificial hip or laser surgery to correct vision problems.

A proponent makes the claim that vaccinations are a form of bio-hacking so why should implants of technology into the brain or skin be any different? I would happily wear these contact lenses but where’s the line between that and a chip being implanted into my brain to make me smarter? Peter Thiel gets it right when he explains how this decision making process is likely to evolve:

It’s not like one day you’ll wake up and be offered a pill that makes you immortal.” What will happen instead is a gradual and increasingly fast march of scientific discovery and progress. Scientists will discover a cure for Alzheimer’s and will say, “Do you want that?” Of course our answer will be “Yes!” They will find a cure for cancer and say, “Do you want that?” And again, of course, our answer will be “Yes!” What seems foreign and frightening in the abstract will likely seem obvious and wonderful in the specific. “It seems that in every particular instance the only moral answer is to be in favor of it.

And as Mr Sjoblad says, “It opens up interesting discussions about what it means to be human.”

Humans designing new sorts of humans, given the mess we make of things now, doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence in this bright new future. Yuval Harari, lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, alludes to this when he says,

As we ourselves are likely to be the most important target of intelligent design, the first question facing us is: “What do we want to become?” But given that designing ourselves would probably include designing our very wants and desires, the real question is: “What do we want to want?” Those who are not spooked by this question probably haven’t given it enough thought.

What is interesting is the near religious dimension of these zealots for humanity. Harari, for one, isn’t holding back on the rhetoric:

We humans are in the process of upgrading ourselves into semi-divine entities, and acquiring for ourselves unprecedented abilities of creation by design. This is not merely the greatest revolution in thousands of years of history, but also the greatest revolution in billions of years of biology.

Zoltan Istvan takes it further still,

The transhumanist hero is the person who constantly eyes improving their health, lifestyle, and longevity with science and technology. They are not okay with the past age of feeling guilty for aspiring to be different or better than they were born — or for wanting the power to become godlike themselves. They have no sin to erase; they have no reason to search for something outside of the material universe…They are not naysayers or outcasts of a dominantly religious world, but rather the pioneers that will determine where the human species is heading. They are the new guard that will carry the human race to all its coming brilliance.

Fortunately there are some Christian thinkers alert to the issue and beginning to put some thought to these issues. In a helpful post, Extending human ability through technology, Ian Paul takes a look at the differences and similarities between a Christian and a transhuman understanding of what it means to be human and concludes:

Christians believe a true human being, what a human ought to be and is becoming, is only possible in relation to God in Christ. No amount of enhancements will be able to contend with the reality of sin that has destroyed and marred the human—only Christ can redeem and bring to fruition the ‘real human.’

Wesley Smith is more sceptical,

The fantasy of uploading one’s mind into a robot might be fun to contemplate at academic symposia and in boardrooms of high-tech companies overflowing with investment capital. And I certainly understand why living longer is preferable to the alternative of permanent nonbeing. But such temporary detours and—let’s face it—highly unlikely scenarios will never supply true meaning to yearning souls (if transhumanists will pardon the term), only a diversion. In the end, transhumanism is a wail of despair in the night, spitting vainly into the howling existential winds of what most true materialists see as a meaningless void.

Most pastors have more pressing issues to think about – the sermon on Sunday, the youth group of Friday, marriage counselling on Tuesday and then one day we visit the hospital and pray with someone who is dying or talk to a suffering family who have been offered hope by some new technology and they ask you what should they do? That’s when we need to know what it means to be human, what it means to die and what it means to have hope in Christ.

Photo by HeyWayne

Leave a Reply