Transhumanism: Fulfilling or Forsaking the Call of Christ?
Four theological challenges to a transhumanist utopia
“Young people today can expect to live forever, but AI will run the world.” At least, that is the dream of a group of people promoting the philosophy of transhumanism.
What would you say to Dave who says that he looks forward to living for 200 years because medical science will be able to replace his organs and slow the ageing of his brain? It costs a lot, but Dave can afford it. And, after all, he says, we all have a right to do what we like with our bodies.
What would you say to Carol who plans, with her husband Roger, to have a baby boy called Ocean for Christmas next year? Next month, they are going create 20 test-tube embryos. Then they will do preimplantation genetic screening on the male embryos to select the one that is likely to be the most intelligent. Then, in March next year Ocean will be implanted in Carol.
Further into the realms of science fiction are transhumanist hopes that one day we will be able to map and download all the information stored in a human brain. As you age and your limbs get creaky, how would you feel about all your brain being downloaded to the hard drive of an android: a robot body with your brain running the show? Proponents argue that if the essence of a human being is the information contained in the brain, and if the body can be separated from that information, then the information that makes you you could be downloaded to a hard drive. And then, surely, it could be uploaded to the iCloud. So, you would be there, stored somewhere in cyberspace.
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For the transhumanist, as well as being faster, stronger, sexier, more intelligent, the holy grail is the dream of everlasting life.
These are the dreams of techno-optimists who think that biology has brought us so far, but it is time we hurried the process using the best of science and technology. In a move that takes us from therapy to enhancement, they say that we don’t just want to be well; we want to be better than well.
To quote one of the transhumanist gurus, “We’re going to get more neocortex, we’re going to be funnier, we’re going to be better at music. We’re going to be sexier. We’re really going to exemplify all the things that we value in humans to a greater degree.”
How should Christians respond to the hopes of transhumanism?
This blending of humans and machines is not new and it is not all bad. In fact, a committed Christian man, Graeme Clark from Melbourne, created one of the world’s first successful bionic devices. The bionic ear is the first recreation of a human sense.
Yes, God has given us the calling and often the means to restore people to what we might loosely call normal human functioning. But the ideology of transhumanism goes further.
For the transhumanist, normal human functioning is not enough because transhumanism is a movement promoting the use of technology to enhance human physical and mental capacities beyond normal human functioning. It is about prolonging and “improving” human life. For the transhumanist, as well as being faster, stronger, sexier, more intelligent, the holy grail is the dream of everlasting life.
We already have the basics of the technology necessary to continuously repair the body. Just last year researchers used the CRISPR technique to remove a gene that caused cells to stop reproducing. Meanwhile, 3D printers are already used to build up tissues layer by layer. Who knows how long it will be before you can order a 3D-printed kidney made to your own biological specifications?
One extreme view is that we should genetically engineer future human beings to remove any psychopathic tendencies or ideologically extreme views. We have heard rumours that the COVID virus escaped or was released from a laboratory. Whatever the truth of that, it is clear that we are increasingly at the mercy of individuals who are capable of inflicting great harm on society and the planet. By genetically modifying future humans we can reduce the risk that people will engage in acts of “ultimate harm”.
If there is no absolute moral framework, then we are only subject to our own wills and desires and natural impulses.
However, we might ask, who will make such decisions in a context where there is no agreed moral framework?
I am reminded of C. S. Lewis’s profound book, The Abolition of Man. It paints a dystopian picture of a time when a technologically powerful society is no longer constrained by an agreed set of moral principles. If there is no absolute moral framework, then we are only subject to our own wills and desires and natural impulses. Going down the road of taking control of our own evolution will, says Lewis, eliminate what makes us most essentially human. It will result in the abolition of humanity.
“If any age attains the power to make its descendants what it pleases, all people who live after it are the patients of that power. The final stage is when humanity, by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, has obtained full control over itself. But the power of humanity to make itself what it pleases means the power of some people to make other people what they please. At the moment of humanity’s victory over nature, we find the whole human race subjected to some individuals, and those individuals subjected to that in themselves which is purely ‘natural’ – to their irrational impulses. Humanity’s conquest of Nature turns out to be Nature’s conquest of humanity. Either we are rational spirit obliged forever to obey absolute values or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who have no motives but their own ‘natural’ impulses. Humanity’s final conquest would prove to be the abolition of humanity.”
To think that science could purify the human race, is, from a Christian point of view, just absurd.
For Christians, there are at least four theological challenges to transhumanist visions of a humanly created utopia.
Firstly: What is our theology of sin? For Christians, sin runs much deeper than the things that an Oxford philosopher might want to weed out of the human genome. Sin, for Christians, is an illness that only God, in his healing work in Jesus Christ, is able to minister to and ultimately heal. To think that science could purify the human race, is, from a Christian point of view, just absurd.
This leads to the second question for Christians: What is our theology of redemption? For transhumanism, redemption is within this material non-transcendent world. Christians, however, wait for God to transform all things, to bring in the new heavens and the new earth (Revelation 21). Christians wait for the redemption of all creation (Romans 8). We do not live under the delusion that we can save ourselves. Our hope is in the saving work of Jesus Christ to deliver us from the consequences of sin and the brokenness in our earthly lives. Our hope is not in genetics to reverse the story of Genesis chapter 3.
A third question: What is our theology of the body? When it comes to the body, Christian hope is found in the resurrection of the body. We do not believe that humans are essentially X terabytes of information loaded up to a physical body. I Corinthians 15 is very clear, along with the Gospel testimony of the resurrection, that human bodies are very much part of who we are. “The Word became flesh and dwelled among us” (John 1) is the ultimate affirmation of our physical, bodily personhood, created in God’s image, but created with a body. Christians cannot go along with a view that says our essential self could be saved as data on a hard disk.
We need to ask ourselves: What is our theology of life everlasting?
Finally, in contrast to transhumanist aspirations, we need to ask ourselves: What is our theology of life everlasting? Christians await the new heavens and the new earth, inaugurated by God in his time and not in ours. We embrace the responsibility to be creative, to prevent suffering, to restore normal human functioning, even to prolong life. But we do not prolong life at all costs. And we do not prolong life in the interests of fleeing from death and our ultimate encounter with God face to face.
So, where does that leave us? Perhaps it leads us to affirm with transhumanist idealists that things could be better, that there are things wrong with the world and humanity. Perhaps transhumanism is not so wicked, as it is misguided. But the Christian looks forward to enhanced bodies and minds, beyond normal human functioning, that result from the work of God alone.
This is a summary of one of 25 talks to be presented at the ISCAST Conference on Science and Christianity on 25-26 November at Ridley College and online. The conference, which is open to all, will include awarding $7000 to students for science and faith project proposals. Details are at www.cosac.iscast.org.
Rev. Dr Chris Mulherin is Executive Director of ISCAST – Christians in Science and Technology. He is the author of Science and Christianity, available from Koorong.