Made in Our Image?: Straight (Theological) Talk About Transhumanism

Prior to my arrival at Hillsdale College this fall, I had designed and offered several times a new course on a trendy topic: transhumanism. It was something of a devil’s bargain. While I had come to believe that all young men and women ought to know something about this movement, I was also looking to design a topical course that would be popular. For mainstream higher education in an era of declining enrollments, student satisfaction is everything. Transhumanism seemed just the topic to enable me to continue to teach my discipline, theology, in a new curriculum that had turned away from the liberal arts to embrace in its place the task of preparing students to become social justice activists. 

At first glance, transhumanism does raise a series of what seem like straightforward social justice questions, mostly about equity and access. Looking more closely, however, one finds that the underlying issues are fundamentally philosophical and theological. It is difficult to get today’s typical undergraduates to think about such issues. On the other hand, the science fiction-ish notion that high tech will transform humankind into something, well, not exactly human, is provocative, interesting. Transhumanism combines the gee-whiz glam of cutting edge tech with the quintessentially modern longing for control over our lives. It offers a potentially limitless future determined only by our own sovereign choices. Even more, the transhuman future, or so its proponents claim, is “where history is going,” which is what most young people are supposed to be all about these days, right? Wouldn’t students be fascinated by that? With just a little finesse, I thought, I could meet them in their world and maybe, just maybe, stir them from the lethargy induced by mainlining the Zeitgeist through the always-on mass media. 

Somewhat quixotically, I also thought I might strike a blow against the rank utilitarianism at the heart of what Reinhard Huetter has called “Polytechnic Utiliversity,” the post-truth university, that is, in which the search for veritas has been displaced by the quest for power. Teaching this course for several semesters, however, I also found my interest in learning and teaching about transhumanism piqued. I wanted to know more. Teaching transhumanism has now become one of my abiding side interests, and I hope to transplant this course to Hillsdale College. 

In this brief essay I want show some of the reasons why. I first offer an explanation of the transhumanist program, calling attention to the ways it promotes both personal liberty and, ironically, a tech-totalitarianism that mitigates against it. I then offer a four-point theological reflection on some religious themes ironically prominent in transhumanism. I will try to show that the right response to transhumanism requires both sympathetic understanding and determined resistance. A caveat: Everything in this essay is complex and controversial. I introduce the problem of transhumanism here in broad terms in order to suggest a theological framework within which people of good will might begin to understand and respond to it.

What is Transhumanism?

First, let’s backtrack a bit to define terms. Transhumanism denotes a concerted effort to transform our species into what comes next: the posthuman. As a self-conscious movement, transhumanism is being promoted by a host of prominent figures, including nearly all the major players in big tech as well as some noted scholars. It also, and not coincidentally, breathes new life into some old eugenicist ideas. The eugenicist Julian Huxley, for example, was writing about transhumanism as early as 1957. Most importantly, however, transhumanism somehow epitomizes the internal logic of what some have called the “modern project,” i.e., the effort to master nature and so to become the masters of our own fate. Heady stuff, to be sure, but suffice it for present purposes to say that transhumanism has already been baked into the cake of our modern world.

Transhumanism denotes a concerted effort to transform our species into what comes next: the posthuman.

The story transhumanists typically tell goes something like this. Humankind stands at a crossroads. At some point in our long-ago evolutionary history, we human beings became self-aware. We then gradually learned to subdue our world with tools of our own making, from the flint arrow head to the personal computer. The time has now come, they believe, for us to turn our high tech tools on our selves. We must intervene in the presumably undirected natural processes that produced our species in order to make us stronger, better, faster. If the modern project has ever been about the conquest of nature, it is emphatically so in transhumanism. One finds little reverence here for the wonder of the human creature. Instead the human is viewed through a technological lens. Intervening decisively in the development of our species (body mods, genetic alterations), we will wrest ourselves free from the vicissitudes of natural evolution to become the masters of our own fate. We, or at least some of our descendants, will be “posthuman.”

The posthuman is thus the end goal of transhumanism. What does that look like? Transhumanists foresee a time in the not too distant future in which the human condition itself will have been overcome. Being “after the human,” our posthuman ancestors will not actually be human, or at least not what we have known as human, so the wisdom of the past will be irrelevant. In order to make that happen, we have to accelerate our own otherwise painfully slow evolution. Modern technology will enable the rapid transformation transhumanists foresee. If that sounds worrisome, suffice it to say that they know a lot will go wrong on the way to the posthuman future. Mistakes will be made. They urge us on nevertheless with the promise of radically expanded human powers. A godlike future awaits, they say. Given the rapid pace at which our technology is developing, a posthuman future is inevitable. Resistance, should you have that in mind, is futile.

Nevertheless, the architects of our proposed posthuman future are determined to help us see just how good things can one day be, how much we will be changed for the better, how much happier and with it we will feel. Facebook’s preposterous claims about the joys of living a virtual life via your avatar(s) in the “Meta(™)-verse” brought to you in the solitude of your own home, for example, barely hint at the shockingly wide scope of the ongoing transhumanist attempt to redefine what it means to live a good human life. The near-term agenda includes not only the above-mentioned body modifications and genetic interventions. Transhumanists also expect to develop the technology to reverse engineer our minds and upload the algorithms of our consciousness to, well, somewhere else, and so to “free” us from the mortal body. Prognosticators anticipate average human life spans will be radically extended as well. Oxford’s Nick Bostrom, for example, anticipates future life spans of ca. 500 years (sic). Something called “moral bio-enhancement” (better people through chemistry!) is on the horizon, too, as are brain implants (live better, smarter), and much, much more. 

There is an important irony in the above. On one hand transhumanism is characterized by a libertarian impulse. This reflects in part what is sometimes called “cultural capitalism,” an economy conceived as driven by consumer desires determined by the sovereign choices of individual. Transhumanists see technology as enhancing this kind of freedom for all of us. Expanded powers such as those mentioned above will help us live richer lives by enabling new experiences of all kinds. As we move into the transhuman age, they argue, personal autonomy should include a right to freedom regarding one’s “own” body. Indeed, bodily self-ownership seems more or less a pillar of transhumanist thought. The body, in this line of thinking, should be seen as a platform for self-definition, self-projection, self-performance. I am whatever I can make of me. 

This line of thinking dovetails interestingly with some currents in radical feminist and transgender thought. Both refuse to recognize the biological order given in the body as normative in any way. The concept of nature itself, they argue, is an oppressive social construct. Gender is not a given, but instead a means of self definition that one performs as and to the extent one wills. Likewise for transhumanism, the body in its present evolved form is not normative. Instead it is a kind of raw material awaiting the individual’s sovereign choices to see how it may be altered and improved. Self-creation is thus the order of the day. Perhaps the theorists of the transgender movement did not begin as transhumanists, or vice versa. Surely, however, their movements now converge in the shared conviction that people should be able to do as they wish with their “own” body.

The libertarian line sits rather uncomfortably alongside a second transhumanist impulse: to control human behavior and so to make the world safe. Think of it this way. In the future transhumanists are working to bring about, our posthuman descendants will no longer strain at the limits of their outmoded biological frame. Their average lifespan will be indefinitely longer because their hardware is more durable. They will think better and faster than we do because their minds have been augmented through brain implants. They will also be morally good, right? If not, how much harm might any one of them do? Will we need special prisons to restrain technologically enhanced humans, as foreseen in the Star Trek character Khan Noonien Singh? Questions such as these lead in some versions of transhumanist thought to a place where the libertarian impulse is eclipsed by the desire for control: the safety impulse. Some futurists, for example, envision a day when our antisocial desires—revenge, jealousy, violence, and the like—have been placed under strict control by universally administered pharmaceuticals. Ever feel like punching your neighbor? There’s a pill for that. Moral agency? Who needs it? Free choice? Whatever happened to that? Seriously, some transhumanist ethicists claim to find a moral obligation for all of us to “morally enhanced,” against our will if need be. Their possible future, apparently, is not quite the new era of radical freedom envisioned by other transhumanists. Instead, it will be a time of soft totalitarianism of the sort envisioned long ago in Aldous Huxley’s celebrated novel Brave New World.

The tension between the libertarian and the safety lines in transhumanist thought should put us in mind of an important problem with modern technology itself. It makes us too powerful. Clearly, advanced technology brings with it new and urgent risks. With this in mind, the German sociologist Ulrich Beck has developed the concept of the “risk society.”  The logic runs something like this: Modern post-industrial societies are ever at risk of falling prey to the very technologies on which they rely. Thermonuclear war and environmental degradation are two obvious instances of this risk, but the list of risk factors is long, and it extends all the way down to the individual. Briefly, it can be shown that modern technologies empower each of us to do more good, but, ironically, to do even greater harm.

The tension between the libertarian and the safety lines in transhumanist thought should put us in mind of an important problem with modern technology itself. It makes us too powerful.

Consider, for example, the case of the lone man in an SUV who plowed through an unsuspecting crowd at a community Christmas parade in Waukesha, WI in 2020. Six people were killed and sixty-two injured. Could the driver have done that much harm without that SUV? For transhumanists living in our post-modern risk society, such stories prove that we urgently need to take steps to curtail the risks associated with technological power in order to render empowered individuals less likely, and even less able, to do harm. Self-driving vehicles, for example, would seem to mitigate the risk of terror attack by SUV. Anti-aggression drugs administered through the water supply? Perhaps even more so. If all this seems just a touch too futuristic and dystopian, well, let’s hope so, right? 

A Framework for a Theological Response to Transhumanism

1. Apotheosis, Transhumanist Style

Readers at this point may be thinking that transhumanism is radically secular. That is true. Prominent transhumanist thinkers frequently affirm atheism, and most seem to embrace some version of materialism. Nevertheless, the movement also seems to offer a community and sense of belonging, and a story that gives people meaning and purpose. Transhumanism seems as well to provide its follower a telos, a sense, that is, of where it’s all headed. Even a version of eternal life is offered, in the shadow form of an indefinitely long this-worldly existence. As Wheaton College’s Christina Bieber Lake notes regarding the man who is perhaps transhumanism’s leading prophet, “Ray Kurzweil is afraid to die.” Finding victory over death? Once again, a very old religious question. Thus, in a wide-ranging consideration of transhumanist thought Hava Tirosh-Samuelson has recently made a compelling case for recognizing it as a religious movement, indeed a “secular faith.” Why? Because its themes and goals parallel in more than coincidental ways the hopes and aspirations traditionally expressed in religion. 

The prolific Kurzweil, for example, envisions a coming age of “spiritual machines” in which enhanced humans will have made themselves limitlessly powerful (a shadow version of divine omnipotence) and able to know all there is to know in a moment (the shadow of God’s omniscience). To get an idea what Kurzweil means, think of an advanced technological civilization in which any problem that may arise will be solved almost instantaneously, and where information—a “feed,” if you will—is constantly uploaded to linked minds so that everyone knows everything anyone knows. Perhaps that won’t strike some, certainly not the present writer, as a proper notion of heavenly bliss, but it does make clear the religious character of transhumanism. In our scientistic moment, where God is not an option, perhaps that is the best one can do. The transhumanist hope, therefore, is that the posthuman “spiritual machine” will be a transcendent being. This “god” beckons from the far end of the transhumanist story as the apotheosis of our own plucky species. Salvation will come not from above or outside us, but from we ourselves.

Misguided as one might consider such a secular faith to be, it should also remind us of the common ground we all share with transhumanists. We—and by that I mean all of us—struggle to come to grips with a modern world that is now shaped decisively by what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls “exclusive humanism,” a vision of the good life that excludes the vertical. Though our private lives may include a vertical dimension, our public reality is flat. “No hell below us; above us only sky.” For those whose religious imagination is confined to the secular frame, there is no God who can answer either our longing for love or our fear of death. But the longing for something like God is ineradicable. If God is not given, then beatitude, if it is to be found at all, must be a thing of our own creation.

The longing for something like God is ineradicable. If God is not given, then beatitude, if it is to be found at all, must be a thing of our own creation.

Now, by my lights this is not good religion. Indeed, it is idolatry, and, even worse, an idolatry of the self. But traditional religious believers of all kinds should probably pause at this moment to acknowledge that the transhumanist quest for meaning shows just how inescapable the human religious impulse really is. To be sure, transhumanists of the Kurzweilian variety don’t believe in God. But like traditional religious believers they are on the hunt for meaning and purpose. Transhumanists long, if not for God, then at least for some taste of the transcendent.

2. Self-Assertion in Place of Surrender

The transhumanist vision, taken in religious terms, differs markedly from that of Christian theism. It does not begin with an act of surrender to the divine, to the God who knows me better than I know myself. Instead, it begins with an act of self-assertion. We don’t so much find as create ourselves. This transhumanist version of mastery over the self differs fundamentally from the ethic of long Christian-Aristotelian tradition, in which one through ingrained habit and a finely-honed sense of the good develops a real even if fallible self-mastery in conformity to the Good. Instead, it is the faux self-mastery CS Lewis attacked in his famous essay, “The Abolition of Man.” Lewis well knew that his way of thinking the human differed fundamentally from the modern version that in the mid-twentieth century was at last beginning to gain the upper hand. Here there are no gods—capitalized or not—to give us rules. Self-mastery of this sort, as Lewis saw the matter, is an illusion. Absent either a natural law embedded within the creation or a moral law announced from above it (for Lewis, “the Tao”), we have only our own subjective impulses and desires to consult when we ask the question “what shall we make of the human being?” In his That Hideous Strength Lewis powerfully lampooned the modern project just where it began to step out into the void of existence outside the natural law. The antagonists in his story are the empty shells of what had been human beings, men and women who have denied the moral law within and set out on a path toward being undone. In a conclusion that echoes the story of the tower of Babel, the gift of language is not confused but withdrawn altogether. Lewis thus warns us that the road to a future in which we define for ourselves what it means to be human or, for that matter, posthuman, treads a path that may lead to the loss of our humanity altogether.

3. Sin and History, Humility and Love

As we have seen, transhumanists believe that the human is, or should be, whatever modern science and technology can make of it. On the other hand, theologians and religious people more generally have long been saying two things that are particularly relevant to the question of transhumanism. The first has something to do with what the Greeks called hubris, and the second what the chosen people in Israel came to call sin. “Pride cometh,” someone has said, “before a fall,” and the truth we find in the story of our human fall from grace powerfully overshadows us still today. The human condition that transhumanists want to escape is not only about limits and death. It is also about sin, the mysteriously contagious disorder that causes even our best efforts somehow, and too often, to run tragically awry.

This is not to say that we can do no good at all, nor even that the transhumanists don’t have some good intentions. Sin, nevertheless, is the right word to emphasize in this putatively transhuman moment. Indeed, it is a word our present impoverished public discourse desperately needs to recover. Why? Because sin carries with it the weight of history. One doesn’t even need to search for stories that illustrate what we mean by sin. It’s the burden of the past, our past. It’s the debt we—each of us—owe but can never pay. It’s the weight of guilt for wrongs committed and goods omitted, personally and collectively. Yes, we know all too well what it is. Sin, in fact, has gathered ever greater meaning over the long centuries of our cumulative human experience. Reflecting on our sin stories, we are reminded of what we already well know: our disorder somehow colors all that we do. The upshot, if we attend carefully to these stories, is that we should expect even our best laid plans to go wrong in ways that are somehow both unforeseen and all too predictable. To find the wisdom we need to address present and future problems we must first of all attend to those stories and thus cultivate humility. Literary works such as the Faust legend and the story of Prometheus can be helpful as well. We should pursue the wisdom of humility as the pearl of great price. In the present case a knowledge of ancient history might also prompt one to reply to the technocrats, “Beware of scientists bearing gifts!”

A second thing we religious people have long been saying is that power and control are perhaps good, but any this-worldly schemes that depend on the adoration of gods of our own making, even, no especially, if they are we ourselves, is wrong. Freedom of choice with power and control can be good, but only if our human freedom itself is in thrall to something truly greater, truly transcendent. Can moral bio-enhancement heal the desperate human heart? In Christian faith, since at least the time of John’s first letter in the New Testament, the something more we are all looking for can be named. Love. Love is greater than power. Grace and freedom are far more precious than control. Offspring of the Creator God, our fallen race has been made for this very love. A transcendent telos anchors both our human beginnings and our ends, first in the work of the good Creator and then in the promised rewards of the one and same God of love, who is strong to save.

4. The Human. Whence and Whither?

Clearly, the transhumanist program raises with unmistakable urgency the question of the human. What is a human being? The chance offspring of a purposeless cosmos? A blank canvas on which each of us should be free to write as we will? Here one does well to recall a classic biblical/poetic locus for the question of the human. In Psalm 8 we read: “What is man that thou art mindful of him? You have made him a little lower than the angels…” 

To put the Psalmist’s words just a bit differently. Wow! What a wonder is the human being, this baffling amalgam of matter and mind. Heaven and earth meet, so the ancient traditions say, precisely in the human. And what a meeting it is! As mind and spirit we ascend like the angels, reading the heavens and wondering at their order. As embodied creatures, on the other hand, we bend graciously low like the giraffe, pondering the mystery of being as found in both the inanimate matter and the living creatures of our world. This world is our true home; the heavens even more so. What kind of creature are we? Transhumanism prompts us to pause and reflect on the deepest wellsprings of our own humanity. Quiet reflection is a particularly important task in a world lately, but hardly for the first time, gone mad.

What a wonder is the human being, this baffling amalgam of matter and mind. Heaven and earth meet, so the ancient traditions say, precisely in the human.

A Postscript

I am convinced that the four theological responses sketched out above provide good first steps toward a critically sympathetic engagement with transhumanism on the basis of theology and Scripture, natural law, common sense, and, indeed, every artifact of our humanity (history, literature, etc.). But the transhumanists are right when they say that no one can prevent the upcoming challenges to our very humanity that will be posed by our burgeoning technological powers in the years to come. There will be justice issues, too, if we mean by that a determination, best we can, to render to each person his or her due. We are, however, in what has been called a progress trap, a situation, that is, where there seems no way to stop moving forward technologically without causing great pain and suffering. This train makes no stops. A realistic assessment of the situation of humankind as we careen forward in the twenty-first century will suggest to some of us, traditional religious believers in particular, that we must adopt certain practices in order to avoid the deleterious impact technology has and will have on our families, churches, and homes. I will leave to readers’ imaginations what forms effective strategies of critical resistance might take. My own sense is that critical engagement with society and culture is the better answer in this situation than a general adoption of the “Benedict option.” Technological society is inescapable. Therefore, we must work to discipline it so that the machine doesn’t become the measure of the human.

Dr. Mickey L. Mattox holds the Flack Family Foundation Chair and is a professor of theology at Hillsdale College.

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