I have always been fascinated by the future. The study of developing possible and probable predictions for the future is called futurology. One of the most popular concepts in modern futurology is the idea of transhumanism.
Transhumanism is the view that it is desirable and possible for science to improve human nature. It is a belief that technological progress will allow for the enhancement of human life expectancy and intellectual capacity, as well as improvements in human physical and emotional capabilities. In its strongest form it is a utopian view that sees the eventual future of our race as veritable supermen, freed from death by science to become the masters of the universe. As such it is a view very similar to religion. A view beyond clear evidence anchored in the faith of its believers. Believers who themselves are waiting for a scientific ‘heaven.’ Religious figures have condemned transhumanism as a violation of the sacred human form. Efforts to achieve scientific autonomy from nature are seen as an insult to the original work of the creator. Religious opponents of transhumanism would also suggest the considerable danger of arming sinful humanity with such incredible destructive capacity.
Transhumanistic ideals are generally anchored in the theory of an approaching technological singularity. This theory suggests that at a point in the medium term future human technological growth will accelerate its growth rapidly and remarkably. Proponents of the theory cite the rapid escalation in technological growth through human history. From the Paleolithic era to the year 10,000BC the world economy doubled approximately every 250,000 years. From this point world economy output was doubling every 900 years or so. Amazingly, by the time of the industrial revolution, economic output was doubling every fifteen years. A continuation of this trend into the next century would see remarkable economic growth, perhaps eventually doubling weekly. Economic growth is of course linked reasonably closely with technological advancement. The drivers of this great surge in growth would be four developing technologies, robotics, genetics, information technology and nanotechnology. Some futurists suggest that the great trigger of the singularity would be the intellectual ascension of artificial intelligence. Stephen Hawking explains this belief, “But it seems to me that if very complicated chemical molecules can operate in humans to make them intelligent then equally complicated electronic circuits can also make computers act in an intelligent way. And if they are intelligent they can presumably design computers that have even greater complexity and intelligence”. Escalating superhuman intelligences would theoretically drive progress at unprecendented rates. Such a discovery may be the last advancement humanity ever has to make.
Transhumanists argue that a technological singularity would convey incredible changes on society, our world, and perhaps even on human nature itself. Advanced biotechnology and nanotechnology could prolong human life to incredible lengths. Technology could halt the progress of cellular decay and cure all possible diseases. Mind uploading further in the future could potentially allow humans almost limitless existence. Artificial intelligence would pass the Turing test, and eventually move far beyond biological human thinking. At this point humanity would be able to synthesise with machines in order to boost memory, knowledge, health, the physical senses and intelligence. This would allow the creation of post-humans, beings so advanced as to be almost a different species to current biological humans. Such cybernetic-biological combinations may become common. Communication between humans could happen at the speed of light and merely through thought, across countries or even planets. A bridge would effectively have been created between man and matter, and huge debate would occur about human nature and the idea of a human soul. Some transhumanists go even further with their predictions. They hope to attain a future of the human race in which we are post-human, God-like entities. Cybernetic creatures of complete knowledge able to move between physical bodies of any type at will. Eventually artificial intelligence would reach a minimisation limit, and more and more computer space would be required for growth in intelligence to continue. They see a future where entire galaxies are reduced to computers of incredible efficiency. The entire universe would be ‘alive’ with humanity.
Some religious thinkers have been offended by the claims of transhumanists. A survey of religious attitudes to transhumanism was conducted at the 2003 Transvision conference and at classes at religious colleges and a secular university. The survey found that people with religious (primarily Christian) convictions were far less likely to agree with the theoretical use of transhuman technology such as cloning, mind uploading, brain scanning and cryonic suspension. One problem that many respondents held with such technology was that it violated God’s plan for us as ‘natural’ human beings. Comments were made such as, “When God gives you a time to die it is your time,” and “Other planets are not made for humans to live on. If God wanted us to live on those planets he would have put us there.” I do not agree that this specific conflict exists between the Christian bible and transhumanism. The Christian bible suggests that God is in control of all things, predestined from the beginning of time. Advanced technology does not overthrow the Christian God’s alleged control over life, or invalidate his eternal plan. Such a God would not be surprised or overwhelmed by such human advancements. Since God is in control of all things in all times, by definition it is impossible for humanity to escape God’s plan and control. Similarly it is a logical fallacy to assume that God forbids interstellar travel merely on the evidence that the human race was created on Earth. The Christian God did not originally provide the human race with electricity, or automobiles, or the wheel, or even basic tools. It would be wrong to imply that he thus intends for his creation to forever live a hunter gatherer existence. Similarly it would be wrong for us to imply that we must forever live wholly biological and Earth bound existences merely because Adam and Eve were not originally provided with rocket ships. Israel demonstrates technological progress throughout the bible, evolving as a people over thousands of years. Technological progress in and of itself is not condemned in the bible.
Religious people have stated that our race is at risk of losing its unique human dignity through such science. Some would suggest that the opening verses of Genesis convey a special spirit on humanity. We are created from God’s breath and from dirt and as such have a unique ‘soul’ as well as a physical body. People argue that the effect on our souls could be disastrous if we replace our God-given souls with man-made machines. American philosopher, author and presidential advisor Yoshihiro Fukuyama argues that transhumanism is in fact the world’s most dangerous idea, capable of changing human nature. Transhumanists respond that such a view is, “an argument that humans lose dignity from efforts to endow them with greater health, longevity, intelligence, happiness or liberty”. It is important to note that self-improvement is not necessarily a criticism of God, “Improving the human condition is not a criticism of a Creator’s work left undone; it is rather using His free will, and His gifts of the intellect, in fulfillment of our destiny”. Common understandings of what it is to be human are also invariably limited by our experiences. Our definitions are established as we look at the history of humanity and as we look at our own contexts. But I believe that the average human has developed a limited concept of what is a ‘natural life.’ It is conceivable that an intelligent goldfish would consider life outside of water as unnatural and wrong. It would be beyond the goldfish’s understanding and as such, may present a very unsettling idea. Similarly humanity exhibits this fear of the unknown as we proclaim cybernetic enhancement or mind uploading as deeply unnatural by our definitions of natural life. It is worth considering though how much the concept of ‘a natural human life’ has changed throughout history. It is not a stationary concept, but an evolutionary process. Again, it is conceivable that the average human from the stone age would dismiss modern life upon observance as a complete distortion of natural humanity. Humanity has slowly adjusted its definitions in order to allow a detachment from nature, a retraction from communal life and an adoption of the machine. I think it will also eventually manage to accommodate enhancement of intelligence, prolongement of life and the conquest of space. Since the bible gives little direction about the evils of such advancements, and since I hold that much of human nature is historically fluid, I see the above objection as incoherent.
Other religious figures object to the way that transhumanism seems to provide a scientific religious alternative. The post-human world of the transhumanists is effectively a secular alternative to a religious ‘heaven’. It is a place of immortality, improved physical existence, great intellectual power and perhaps even perfect morality. It is a place of heaven where humanity plays the role of God’s. And rather than expecting a God to provide this new plateau of existence for us, transhumanists expect humanity to create this heaven through logic and endeavour. Transhumanist philosopher Mark Walker argues that, “If God is an ideal parent His mission must be to allow us to develop to become type identical with Him”. Surely the loving God of the bible would want us to fight against the evils of sickness, ageing and limited existence? But such an argument is an oversimplification of the Christian God’s love. The Christian God has a strong love of humanity that is matched by a strong hatred of sin. In the Garden of Eden story, humanity wishing to become like God is clearly a sin, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil”. Similarly the destruction of the Tower of Babel shows that there are limits to the human independence and arrogance that the Christian God will allow, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth”. At this point it is important to remember (as discussed) that technological progress in and of itself is not discouraged by the bible. The Christian God seems to have a particular issue more with self-importance, human autonomy and Godless ambition. As is commonly seen in the Christian bible, attitude and motivation are as important as actions and end results. As such it is important to consider the biblical position on transhumanism on a careful case by case, technology by technology, attitude by attitude basis. Self improvement is not necessarily evil by biblical definitions. But the desire for Godless autonomy clearly is.
The great danger of transhumanism lies in giving great power to what the religious would call ‘sinful men.’ Four decades ago John F. Kennedy made his famous remark, “Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind”. At the time the world faced the man-made peril of possible nuclear holocaust. History tells us that humanity was spared the effects of a nuclear war between America and Russia. Yet Kennedy’s comment remains pertinent today. The technological singularity would likely bring incredible advances in the destructive capacity of mankind. Experts such as Bill Joy, founder of Sun Microsystems, suggests that this technology could easily end up being applied to destroy the human race. Bill Joy portrays a future of extreme empowerment where every household computer and nano-constructor would have the capability to construct continent destroying weapons, “robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology – pose a different threat than the technologies that have come before. Specifically, robots, engineered organisms, and nanobots share a dangerous amplifying factor: They can self-replicate. A bomb is blown up only once – but one bot can become many, and quickly get out of control.” Such destruction may not even be caused by intentional human malevolence. Transhumanists predict a world where computers have vastly more intelligence than humanity. As Joy states it seems no great leap to suggest that these intelligences may no longer require human existence, “Biological species almost never survive encounters with superior competitors.” British Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees suggests that because of the evolution of technology amongst other dangers, humanity is only a 50% chance of surviving the 21st century. Christianity describes humanity as inherently sinful. As Jewish-Hungarian author Arthur Koestler once famously stated, “The most persistent sound which reverberates through men’s history is the beating of war drums”. Arming such a species with such powerful destructive capacity may spell the end of the human race. Other critics suggest that transhumanist technology allied to current capitalist values would produce a radical increase in human inequality. Such technology would likely only be available to those of sufficient wealth, creating a clear divide between advanced humans and poorer biological humans. It is clear that transhumanist technology presents enormous risk to equality and the survival of the human race.
Transhumanism seems from a distance to be a great shining light of hope. The culmination of humanities’ wonderful technological evolution through history. Unfortunately transhumanism is also a theory of incredible danger. The human mind seems to long for the perfection of an eternal heaven. For many this is expressed in religious convictions and a messianic hope. Transhumanism represents a secular alternative to the religious concept of heaven. It is a heresy reminiscent of the human mistakes that the bible describes in the garden of Eden and the tower of Babel. I see many religious objections to transhumanism to be based on prejudice and complacency. But others strike a powerful resonance and deserve deep thought. Transhumanist advancement could lead to the marginalisation of God. Furthermore, the empowerment of our race, an obviously flawed species, with such incredible destructive power could be the last great technological advancement humanity ever makes.
Some other relevant posts from other blogs:
- Christianity and Transhumanism
- Transhumanism and the God-Shaped Hole
- The Religion of Transhumanism
- The Heart of Transhumanism in James Cameron’s Avatar
- James Cameron’s Avatar is about Transhumanism
- Transhumanism the pseudo religious Utopian paradigm to come
- Is a Transhumanist Future Occuring Right now?
- Nanotech for Eternal Life?