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Forever Young? Understanding Transhumanism

In the Orwellian year of 1984, the German synth-pop group Alphaville released the single “Forever Young.” The song’s video expressed the deep frustration of younger generations and their longing for a life lived to the fullest, threatened at the time by two superpowers locked in a nuclear arms race. Technology became for this generation—sometimes branded as “lost”—a blessing and a curse, potent enough to eradicate their future hopes but also giving them the postmodern comforts of synth music, all-night discos, Walkman, and MTV.

Fast-forwarding to our new century after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Cold War, new tensions have arisen in the world. The points of contention have taken on new forms: terrorism, “fake news,” and how (not) to defeat a global pandemic. However, a common denominator then and now is the place of technology in the making or breaking of our present and future lives together. It is still safe to say technology is a mixed blessing, but due to the impressive advancement in various emerging technologies—individually as well as taken collectively—there is renewed optimism about technology’s power to change our lives for the better.

Among these emerging technologies, artificial intelligence (AI) holds a key position. In 1984, the hope of creating intelligent machines had been rejected by most experts in the field and primarily continued as a dream in sci-fi movies and books. That was the age of the so-called AI winter. Since the late 1990s, impressive advances in this technology has made AI a serious field of study for academics, and perhaps even more also for private companies like Google and Tesla. [1] Some take AI and other technological advances as promises of the dawn of a new era when technology will change everything around us and ourselves as well for the better.

What Is Transhumanism?

Since a few decades ago, this optimism about beneficial use of powerful technologies has been summed up in the term “transhumanism.” One of the founding fathers of transhumanism, Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, describes transhumanists as

a loosely defined movement . . . [that] represents an interdisciplinary approach to understanding and evaluating the ethical, social and strategic issues raised by present and anticipated future technologies. [2]

That might not sound too controversial to modern people, at least as far as it seems to go. After all, we would not have major qualms about the use of artificial implants to help common medical conditions such as heart failure, loss of hearing, or Parkinson’s. Technology can already, quite literally, appear to give life to the dead, healing to the sick, and sight to the blind.

But the transhumanists take these thoughts to the extreme. They are not content with merely using technology in curing common illnesses that plague our frail human constitution. They also want to make us immune to them; make us better, faster, and smarter in every (in)conceivable way. Transhumanists will thus include in these “future technologies” technological enhancement of our cognitive, emotional, and psychical faculties. [3] Aubrey de Grey, a transhumanist medical researcher, has declared war on aging and death, arguing that we should work toward radically extended longevity and perhaps everlasting life. [4] Behind such an optimism lies an anthropology that takes our biological body to be a kind of starter kit that can be fixed, modified, and one day perhaps replaced. An artificial heart is perhaps not so controversial to our sensibilities today. But why stop there, the transhumanist asks, gazing into the future. Why not replace even more parts of our body with much more resilient cybernetic body parts? Why not replace the whole of it? The biological and mental base with which Mother Nature endowed us should not determine what form we might want to take on in the future. Bostrom’s colleague Anders Sandberg calls this freedom to change our bodies through technologies “morphological freedom,” which he argues is something of a natural right. [5]

Clearly, such claims are highly controversial from a scientific and technological perspective. But consider what science has made possible only in the last hundred years and project the exponential growth in technology and the claims are no longer as implausible. That does not mean society should adopt a sort of “anything-goes” attitude toward technological advances. Just because something is technologically possible does not make it right. Ethical issues concerning emerging technologies are being researched and talked about in many places now, and churches and theologians have started to pitch in. However, it is hard to stand strong against a rising cultural tide with rational arguments. (We shall soon look at transhumanism as a shaper of culture.) Those who do question the goodness and rationality of transhumanist aspirations—be it on rational or emotional grounds—will be called “bioconservatists,” since they are said to slavishly hang on to an outdated idea of biological supremacy.

Transhumanists are a kind of prophet; they attempt to see far into the future based on present and past trajectories of scientific results and technological advances. It therefore makes sense to use the term “transhumanism” to refer to a secular homo viator, a human wayfarer on the way to a blessed state of perfection—or, in their own words, an “intermediary form” between the human past and present and the post-human future. [6] In a post-human future, there might still be some “humans” around as we know them today, but—the transhumanist thinks—the evolution of our species will be dominated by future, highly developed relatives (on par with the difference between primitive single-cell life forms at the beginning of evolution and us today).

One of the key transhumanist assumptions is that intelligence is not limited to humans (as we know them). Due to breakthroughs in AI, the category of intelligent life must be expanded. A growing number of professionals in AI research think we are at the cusp of creating a general AI, a kind of machine intelligence that will match human-level intelligence. Moreover, since a general AI is not limited by a body and will have enormous processing power, it has the potential to self-direct its own improvements and grow far beyond human-level intelligence into the status of an AI superintelligence. [7] Our time in evolutionary history is therefore highly crucial, they say, since it provides (what would be) transhumans with the possibility to join the intelligence revolution.

Transhumanism as a Shaper of Culture

I hope these remarks on transhumanism have alerted the reader to some of the core tenets of transhumanism. A critical question, then, is how as Christians we begin to understand these high claims. One way is to look at transhumanism as a shaper of culture. Although transhumanism is not a centralized or highly organized movement, it is indeed held together by a common pool of commitments about the use of present and future technologies, some of which have been mentioned so far. More than that, the impact of transhumanist ideas and values in society far exceeds the number of card-carrying transhumanists. Many of them hold strategic positions. Inventor and futurist Ray Kutzweil, to pick one example, has for decades written about the radical transformation of life in the universe through technologies. [8] He has famously predicted that a general AI will emerge in 2029 and a superintelligence in 2045. The prediction is based on conjectures about, for instance, the evolutionary history of intelligent life in the cosmos, the rise of new technologies like machine learning, and the exponential growth in the processing power of computer hardware (the so-called Moore’s Law). I mentioned that transhumanists are placed in strategic places: Ray Kurzweil has been the chief engineer at Google since 2012.

Bostrom notes that transhumanism “is entering the mainstream culture today, as increasing numbers of scientists, scientifically literate philosophers, and social thinkers are beginning to take seriously the range of possibilities that transhumanism encompasses.” [9] Theologian Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, a critic of transhumanism, rightly considers

transhumanism to be culturally significant because today transhumanism is not a mere speculation on the fringe of mainstream culture, but a presence that shapes contemporary culture as transhumanist themes, vocabulary, values, and style frame contemporary film, science fiction, horror genre, video games, performance art, new media art, literature, and cyberpunk. Today all aspects of being human—embodiment, sexuality, subjectivity, emotionality, and sociality—have been thoroughly transformed by the hybridization of the organic and the mechanical, artificial intelligence, new digital and virtualizing media, cyberspace, online gaming, digital collectivities, networked information, and new media arts. If we want to make sense of our contemporary culture, we cannot ignore the transhumanist themes that pervade it. [10]

These “transhumanist themes” make up what Charles Taylor calls our “cultural imaginaries,” common features of our collective “world making.” One might make the items on this list of transhumanist cultural imaginary a bit more concrete. Consider, for example, the common acceptance of IVF, birth control, LBGTQ+ rights and practices, Viagra, and pacemakers. Some of these are obviously considered controversial by some people in our societies, whereas others are acceptable. My point here is that whatever our moral judgment is on each of these phenomena, they belong to the same spectrum of a kind of low-level transhumanism. In this spectrum, we find explicitly technological phenomena that make up our world, like smart technologies in our homes and hands, Pokémon Go, and VR games. All these disparate phenomena tacitly support the transhumanist ideal of “morphological freedom,” since they suggest that our bodies, minds, and identities are malleable, possible to transcend and enhance at will.

Understanding the Spiritual Roots of Transhumanism

Transhumanism wants to transcend humanity as we know it. At the same time, it identifies with historic forms of “humanism” in its focus on the dignity and right to self-expression of the individual. It is therefore rather unsurprising that transhumanists generally regard themselves as a nonreligious movement in the traditional senses of “religion.” However, although some transhumanists like to call themselves atheist, not all do. A majority want to think of themselves as spiritual and in an extended sense even religious. Just as the traditional way of being human must be updated, so must religion.

The religious trajectory is demonstrated in their battle against aging and death, which we have mentioned already. For Kurzweil, this is a spiritual quest. He advocates that humans should keep as healthy as possible, since the Singularity is so near a techno-apocalyptic event that will be able to solve the problem of aging and death. He speaks expectantly of a resurrection of the dead. Max More has taken the battle against death to another extreme that also has a religious ring to it. More is the CEO of Alcor, a company that offers to preserve your body in cryonics (or only your head if you do not have enough money), so that when the technological chronos arrives, you are promised to literally be resurrected from the dead. [11]

We need to understand that ideas of a resurrection from or survival of biological death (in whatever form) is grounded in what we might call a radically mathematical worldview. The whole universe is conceived of as grand mathematical construct, not as a grid but as its ultimate reality. It follows from this view that the identity of things in this universe—an atom, a tree, DNA, or a human being—are basically informational patterns or algorithmic strings. The “I” that is Stefan is therefore essentially a complex informational pattern in the web of our mathematical matrix. One of the attractive features of this mathematical worldview is that it supports the “survivalism” of More, Kurzweil, and other transhumanists. My deepest identity is not dependent on the particulars of place, matter, time, and history. Since I am an information pattern, I can—with the assistance of some future sophisticated technology—transcend the contingent predicament of my frail biological body and continue to live in another more reliable substrate, say the available version of the Internet in 2050 or a fully cybernetic body like Robocop. [12]

Although this might sound futuristic, the basic idea is far from novel. The mathematical worldview bears a deep resemblance to the ancient Pythagoreans, a religious mystico-philosophical movement that predated and influenced Socrates and Plato. To the Pythagoreans, all of reality was numerical or mathematical, and they had a religiously oriented devotion for mathematical harmony between things that resonates deeply with transhumanist spirituality. [13]

Another transhumanist idea brings out the religious dimension clearly and demonstrates further the parallelism with the Pythagoreans. The transhumanists assume that if everything that exists is information patterns, then everything is also to some degree endowed with intelligence. And while we are at it, why not say that everything also has a level of consciousness or subjective awareness? This is nothing less than a techno-mystical version panpsychism (everything is intelligent/conscious), a claim the transhumanists share with the Pythagoreans. In good company with their ancient forbears—as well as later thinkers such as Spinoza and Hegel—the transhumanists can draw the ultimate conclusion: The whole universe is, or is in the process of, waking up as an intelligent and conscious being, which yields a technological version of pan(en)theism (“everything-is-god-ism”). Kurzweil points out that as the universe is constantly in the business of self-transcendence, it takes on the traditional attributes of divinity, or the “numinous.” In a spirit of religious “ecumenism,” he then identifies the spiritual quest of traditional religions (JHWH, Dao, Buddha, Allah, Logos, and so on) with the advent of the Singularity.

Engaging Transhumanism Theologically

It seems, then, that transhumanism is not nonreligious. It has been characterized—and I think fairly—as a form of “secularist faith,” since it shares motives and practices with traditional religions. For instance, when transhumanists talk about the use of technology, they are presenting us with a secular version of eschatological millennialism—the idea that we bring about the kingdom of God by our own hands. The new thing under the sun is not that we are trying to bring the kingdom of God about with our own hands; that is old and bad news. The new thing is the mode—the essence of the “modern” way—through technology. French sociologist Jacques Ellul captured the spiritual dynamics of the modern view of technology already in the 1960s:

Techne in the antique was a way of working with the inherent order and reason, Logos, whereas the modern combination of the two, technology, is the exaltation of human intelligence as the order of things.

Ellul then draws out the spiritual consequences:

The individual who lives in the technical milieu knows very well that there is nothing spiritual anywhere. But man cannot live without the sacred. He therefore transfers his sense of the sacred to the very thing which has destroyed its former object: to technique itself. In the world in which
we live, technique has become the essential mystery. [14]

Technology has replaced religion. Put in a different way, the holy has migrated from God and creation to man and technology.

A more explicitly theological register (which I think follows from Ellul’s analysis) would be to consider transhumanism as a technological version of Pelagianism. The fifth-century pastor of Rome, Pelagius, thought we had a free will in all matters, including our salvation. He was distressed by some of the rather hopeless things the bishop of Hippo, Augustine, had written about free will and grace. [15] In a sort of patristic, self-help fashion, Pelagius advised struggling Christians: You can do it! Just try a little harder! First heard, this sounds great: I have salvation in my own control; I am the master of my fate. But that is a slippery notion. Soon it will become clear that we are not in control, that salvation just is out of our hands, that we are led away to spiritual darkness, flight, doubt, or an outright rejection of God.

Augustine had a much more nuanced view of the human heart. He knew that even when we intend to do good, there is a parasitical element of evil involved (evil, understood as the absence of goodness or wholeness). Trying a little harder for all its intents and purposes will not do to help us out of our predicament. What we need is the mysterious yet real intervention of God’s grace in our lives. In fact, what we in our current state call freedom—the freedom to choose what we want—will prove not to be freedom at all, for we often choose things “freely” that are not good for us and that bind us. It is at best freedom in the negative sense, of not being interfered with, a “freedom from.” But as miserable sinners, we have little to offer beyond that, a “freedom to.” This is what Augustine sought and found in God. Or better, a grace that found him in that garden when he first heard the call of God, which he recounts in Confessions VIII.

Transhumanists are like the Pelagians when they blame evolution for its limiting predicament and trust technology to save us from its grips. We must only try a little harder to bring the kingdom about. In contrast, Christians think that sin is not evolutionary bad luck but a moral category (perhaps partly revealed in the mechanisms of evolution but not identical to it). They trust God’s grace to free them—not as an excuse for a moral status quo and an acceptance of evil and suffering, but a certain kind of waiting for God and acceptance of the messiness in life.

We might make yet another connection with Augustine’s theological concerns. Before he became a Christian, he was part of a gnostic sect, the Manicheans, who supposed that material creation is corrupt and that we should seek spiritual illumination through detachment from it. The gnostic religions were fundamentally concerned with the liberation of the soul from the material, and therefore corrupt, universe. So is transhumanism. Although it takes its cue from the Darwinian story of evolution of the species, it also proposes that we are entering a new post-Darwinian phase. Darwinian evolution is considered as corrupt and wasteful because it was based on randomness, blind chance, and has caused lots of suffering in the natural history of the world. Luckily, a spark of intelligence was lit in that blind evolutionary pit and rose above the tide of the incessant limitations of death and entropy. Through the use of technology, the transhumanists stand up as heralds—or Nietzschean lunatics!—of a new age beyond these “creational” limitations. Make no mistake about the seriousness of this vision. Transcending the present world order is not an option among others. It is the spiritual destiny of the transhuman to be liberated from entropy and reach a state of extropy, their technological version of celestial, ever-expanding joy and glory. [16]

Although Augustine struggled under similar constraints, in Christ he was able to see the value of material creation and creational goods. [17] Indeed, material creation is precious, but it presents us with a certain kind of resistance and challenge. A Christian such as Augustine could not identify, as he had done when a Manichean, natural limitations with sin. Sin was, for Augustine, a parasite on the good, a destructive force. The Genesis creation narrative declares that the created order is good and that the creation of man and woman in God’s own image is very good. That does not, of course, mean that creation was created complete or without the potential to be corrupted. Christian versions of redemption have in various ways tried to discern how God is at work to liberate his creation from evil, but it is a perennial heresy to say that we will be delivered from creation. Corruption and evil are not inherent in creation but somehow extrinsic and parasitic upon the good that God creates and declares thus.

A Christian cannot agree with the Pelagianism and Gnosticism of transhumanism, but he may, if only to a limited extent, agree with lamentation over the human predicament and its cure. There is indeed much to lament, and we must work hard to ease the suffering of the world. But Christian work takes on a radically different mode. In the processes of redemption, God has invited humans to be his coworkers by extending grace to whomever we can, wherever we are, to alleviate suffering, to prevent death, and to care for the earth. Coworking with God means imitating his wisdom—not merely some thin idea of “smartness” or “intelligence”!—and increasingly important in our age, a responsible use of technology. What all this, perhaps, boils down to is that the major difference between transhumanist and Christian faith is not merely in the right use of technology, but between “a theology of glory” and “a theology of the cross.” The former, a sort of realized eschatology looking for divinity at the high places, beyond sin and suffering; the latter in the low places, in the suffering of creation and in caring for it.

Stefan Lindholm is an ordained Lutheran minister and lecturer in systematic theology and philosophy of religion at Johannelund School of Theology in Uppsala, Sweden. He and his wife, Lois (a doctoral student in theological ethics), worked for ten years at L’Abri Fellowship in England and in his native country, Sweden. His interests include Reformed Scholasticism, Christology, anthropology, and bioethics.