A Christian Response to Transhumanism

Technology has revolutionised the way human beings interact with the world. The invention of the microscope allowed us to learn about the building blocks of life. The discovery of nuclear fission introduced an entirely new energy resource and paved the way for the creation of powerful nuclear warheads. The advent of the internet enabled instant communication with anyone in the world. And yet the vast majority of scientific innovations haven’t altered the genetic makeup of human beings. We’re able to live longer, travel further and communicate more easily than our ancestors could ever imagine. Yet we are still Homo sapiens. But a growing philosophical movement known as ‘Transhumanism’ advocates the modification of human beings, through the application of science and technology, in such fundamental ways that the essence and nature of humanity itself would be radically transformed.

Although it may seem far-fetched, this is not just the stuff of futuristic science fiction.  In Sweden, thousands of people have already had microchips inserted into their hands.[1]  As well as storing personal information, these chips can function as contactless credit cards, key cards and rail cards. Whilst we may be decades away from human beings becoming full-fledged cyborgs (if that ever happens), we may only be years away from being able to radically transform our bodies using technology. So what exactly is ‘Transhumanism’ and how should Christians respond to it?    

  1. Transhumanism

The term ‘Transhumanism’ was first coined by the evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley in 1957 as he imagined a possible future in which the human species could one day ‘transcend’ itself.[2]  The Transhumanist philosopher Max More defines it as a group of philosophies which seek “the acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its present human form by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles.”[3]  The means of ‘evolution’ include, but are not limited to: genetic engineering, stem-cell therapy, artificial intelligence enhancements, and psychopharmacology. The ultimate aim is to slow down the aging process and eventually permit radical life extension.

Transhumanism is currently a small movement, with only around six thousand people worldwide being members of the largest Transhumanist association, Humanity+.[4] Yet its philosophy has become increasingly popular.  Articles on the subject have recently featured in the New York Times, the Telegraph, the Guardian, and New Scientist.[5]  And although the movement has relatively few members, many of its strongest advocates are disproportionately influential.  Transhumanists such as William Sims Bainbridge, Raymond Kurzweil, and Nick Bostrom hold significant positions of influence in institutions such as the National Science Foundation, Google and Oxford University.  So how can Christians respond to what appears to be an increasingly influential and popular idea? We shall examine four key aspects of Transhumanist philosophy, and offer a Biblical response to each of them: (i) the idea of ‘progress’; (ii) the priority of individual autonomy; (iii) the desire to end suffering and death, and; (iv) the relationship between the mind and body.

The Idea of ‘Progress’

Humanity+ states that it is concerned with “fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason.”[6]  As such, Transhumanism is clearly influenced by the values of the eighteenth century secular Enlightenment. Both movements aspire to intellectual ‘progress’, seeking to use reason and science alone to improve human society and the lives of individuals.[7] As an atheistic, naturalistic philosophy, Transhumanism is concerned only with the improvement of human life as it exists in the present world. The onward march to progress is a desirable goal, even a moral obligation, because according to Humanity+, it is simply a “noble thing for humans to do”.[8] This vision of a glorious and noble new existence guides human beings to work towards a technologically enhanced ‘utopian’ future.

A Christian worldview does not require opposition to all technological and scientific developments. Advancements in science, particularly over the last century, have resulted in enormous benefits for society. Christianity values human creativity and ingenuity, and as Christians we must take seriously the command to be stewards of creation and use our gifts wisely (Gen 1:26-27). This reflects the character of our Creator God, who delights in his creation (Genesis 1:31). So we need not condemn all forms of life extension or enhancement.

However, the Transhumanist vision appears to go above and beyond a mere desire for greater quality of life. Instead, the emphasis is on enhancing human beings to have ‘god-like’ capabilities.  Indeed, Dr John Lennox has likened thinkers within the Transhumanist movement to those who attempted to build the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9: “The whole experiment of the Tower of Babel is to build a city and a tower which reaches to heaven. And that idea of reaching up to become a god is a central part of some of the writings on AGI [Artificial General Intelligence].[9]

It is hard to deny the striking parallel between the Babel quest to become ‘god-like’ and the Transhumanist project.  When seen in this light, the desire for ‘progress’ is, in fact, no more than an attempt to become ‘miniature gods.’

The Priority of Individual Autonomy

For many Transhumanists, individual autonomy is a vital component in the pursuit of ‘progress’, particularly the right to extend a person’s mental and physical capacities using technology.  In the 2012 Transhumanist Declaration the authors state: “We favour morphological freedom – the right to modify and enhance one’s body, cognition and emotions. This freedom includes the right to use or not to use techniques and technologies to extend life.”[10]  The philosopher Nick Bostrom claims that Transhumanists are often suspicious of collectively orchestrated change,  and instead argues for the right of individuals to redesign themselves and their own descendants.[11]

Autonomy, to a certain extent, is of course a good thing. However, in contrast to Transhumanism, the Bible speaks of humans as being responsible before their Creator. We have been created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), yet because of a fundamental desire for autonomy have decided to exist in opposition to our God-given design (Genesis 3). Humans were originally created to exist in a perfect relationship with God but are now in need of total transformation because of the sin which separates us from God.  Yet instead of submitting to God’s will, we desire to be our own masters and become responsible to no one but ourselves.  As Isaiah 53:6 puts it, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way.” The Biblical idea of the fallenness of humanity directly opposes [our moral responsibility before God…we must all give an account] the Transhumanist idea of unrestricted human autonomy, in which individuals are responsible only to themselves and their own desires.

The Desire to End Suffering and Death    

The legacy of the Enlightenment idea of ‘progress’ has led Transhumanists to be vocal opponents of the existence of suffering and death. More than that, they are committed to the eradication of both as far as possible.  The Transhumanist philosopher Nick Bostrom depicts this age-old desire to alleviate suffering, and ultimately death, in his parable, ‘The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant.’[12]  In this story death is portrayed as a giant dragon which terrorises the earth by killing ten thousand men and women every day in order to satisfy its insatiable appetite.  Eventually, a team of experts devise a weapon which is able to kill the dragon, and people are finally liberated from the terror of death.  For Transhumanists, the ‘dragon’ of death is the greatest obstacle to human flourishing, and there is a moral obligation to defeat it. According to Humanity+ “the goal is more healthy, happy, productive years. Ideally, everybody should have the right to choose when and how to die – or not to die.” [13] It is this goal which provides purpose and meaning to life, and is therefore essential to the Transhumanist vision of human flourishing.
         In stark contrast to this,  the Bible makes it clear that death is an inescapable fact of life. The desire to defeat death seems noble, but in the end it is only a confirmation of our sinful nature.  This is because it is a desire to defeat death without God’s help.  But death is not merely a physical process, it affects the entire person:  it is both spiritual and physical.  It is the direct result of the “wages of sin” (Romans 6:23), because we have all fallen short of God’s holiness (Romans 3:23). Yet the gospel tells us that Jesus Christ brings about transformation because only he can change death to eternal life (John 5:24).  The only possibility of seeing death as it really is, and finding freedom from it, is to have faith in Christ.  Thus we see two distinct and contrary views of salvation from death.  For Transhumanists, salvation is obtained solely through scientific and technological improvements, whereas for Christians, it is achieved only through Christ’s death and resurrection.

Mind over Matter?   

The focus of Transhumanists on applied reason, human autonomy, and the eradication of suffering and death, leads them towards the view that a physical body is not an essential part of humanity.  It is certainly not a vital part of being transhuman or posthuman.  As Bostrom suggests,  “Some posthumans may find it advantageous to jettison their bodies altogether and live as information patterns on vast super-fast computer networks.”[14] According to this view, the physical body is superfluous to the concept of the human person. For Transhumanists, the essence of humanity is nothing more than the billions of neurons contained within the brain. The body is therefore viewed as an optional component which can be discarded if so desired.  When this idea is combined with the Transhumanist concept of individual autonomy, the result is a view which enables humans to transform their bodies in line with their own personal desires, whatever they may be.

The underlying assumption is that the mind is all that matters, and so the human body is dispensable. Transhumanism in its most radical form maintains that the disposal of the body is the next logical stage in human flourishing and evolution.  Some Transhumanists have even predicted a scenario in which augmented humans will voluntarily upload their minds into machines and yet remain in some sense ‘human’.  For example, Google’s Director of Engineering, Ray Kurzweil, argues that it may become possible to transfer or ‘upload’ the brain into a powerful computer.  Intriguingly, he imagines that these “software-based humans” could live exclusively in virtual reality, projecting their bodies whenever they need or want them.[15] The uploading of ourselves into a virtual reality is a goal for many Transhumanists, since it promises transcendence and even immortality. Kurzveil’s proposal requires that we accept the dubious idea that human intelligence can be disembodied, separated from the brain, and “uploaded” to a digital system. Although this reflects a more radical strand of Transhumanism, it nevertheless reveals the fundamental issue of separation between the body and human personhood.[16] 

How might Christians respond to this? The Bible emphasies that human beings are an organic composite of body, soul, and spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:23). In a Christian worldview, the biological is the human. Indeed, the interconnectedness of the soul and body is highly significant: it is the body which directly connects us with the physical world around us.  And so the possibility that the body could be transcended or separated, according to the Transhumanist vision, would remove a fundamental part of the essence of humanity. Transhumanism promotes a materialist perspective which, according to the biblical paradigm, neglects the created nature of human beings, as well as the idea of ultimately being responsible to God. For Transhumanists, the physical body is seen as humankind’s greatest limitation, because it inevitably breaks down and decays. For Christians, the body is a limitation, but only in the sense that it situates humans as physical beings in contrast to God, as well as distinguishing individual human beings from one another.  As such, the body is to be affirmed and treated with dignity, not hostility.

  1. Ignoring the Problem of Evil

The main difficulty for the Transhumanist worldview, aside from a deficient view of ‘progress’, autonomy and the human body, is a lack of realism concerning the presence of evil. Theft, assault, corruption, murder and a host of other evils dominate the news cycle.  It is clear that the propensity for evil is part of human nature.  And the concept of evil is evident whether one believes in the biblical concept of sin or not.  Yet the Transhumanist worldview has a high degree of naivety concerning human beings’ capacity for sin and evil.

A cautionary tale may be found in the example of computer viruses.  In the 1980s, the first computer virus was invented, and since then thousands of other viruses have been created and transmitted to millions of computers across the world.  Something is at work in the human mind which leads to the development of these destructive viruses, and as Ted Peters says, “No increase in human intelligence or advance in technology will alter this ever-lurking human proclivity.”[17] As artificial intelligence becomes increasingly more sophisticated, it would be incredibly naïve to think that the possibility of viruses, hackers, and data leaks (all with devastating consequences) could be ruled out.  Yet the utopian vision of Transhumanism, founded on the power of applied reason and unlimited human potential, ultimately fails to foresee and mitigate against the presence of human evil, as articulated by the Bible and reflected in the world around us.  

  1. The Christian Worldview: Redemption, Resurrection, and Restoration.

Whilst science and technology are wonderful God-given gifts, it appears that Transhumanism is a deeply flawed philosophy which idolises these gifts. But thankfully there is a better way. The Bible provides us with a much better vision of the future than Transhumanism because it testifies to God’s promise of redemption, resurrection and restoration for all of creation.

The promise of redemption lies at the heart of the Christian message.  Even if we can enhance our bodies and minds, we can never eradicate the sin that is within each one of us.  Try as we might, we cannot fix ourselves.  Mercifully, Jesus has provided the way for us to be redeemed and reconciled with God.  Christ’s death is good news because through it he rescues us from sin and death (Ephesians 1:7, Romans 3:24-26, Hebrews 9:15).  Transhumanism, on the other hand, does not deal with sin because it does not see it as a problem.  But whilst we might be able to remove some of our human limitations for a time, we cannot escape God’s judgment. Our biggest problem is not physical death, but the spiritual death which will never be solved by technological or scientific enhancements (Romans 6:23). This is a reality which the Christian worldview faces up to, and which Transhumanism sadly ignores.

Not only can we receive redemption, but the Bible teaches us that, like Christ, one day we too will be resurrected (1 Corinthians 15:42-49). And this resurrection body will be physical as well as spiritual. According to Philippians 3:20-1, Christ’s resurrection body acts as the pattern for our resurrection body: “Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”

We know that Jesus’ resurrection body was physical, not only spiritual.  This is clear from what he said to his disciples: “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have” (Luke 24:39).  Since Christ’s resurrection is the pattern of our resurrection, we will therefore be raised in a physical body as well.  Instead of relying on technology to provide us with new bodies, we can trust in God’s promise to fully renew and restore us at the last day (1 Cor 15:51-52).

The wonderful news is that this restoration is not only available to human beings, but is a work which God will achieve for the entirety of creation.  Transhumanism offers a bold vision for the future of humanity, but what about the rest of creation? It seems to get left behind.  The Bible, however, speaks of God’s grand salvation plan in which all of creation will one day be renewed.  Paul describes in Romans 8:19-21 that even creation itself will be freed from its “bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”  God’s plan extends to a new heaven and a new earth, in which “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4). This is a much more comprehensive plan of salvation which is deeper, richer and more exciting than the one offered by Transhumanism.

Conclusion
There are some similarities between Transhumanism and Christianity.  Both offer a worldview in which death is defeated and suffering is eventually overcome. Both offer freedom from the decaying nature of our frail human bodies and hope of a better future.  Yet these similarities are overshadowed by the vast differences.  Each have diametrically opposing views on the role and power of human reason, freedom, sin, and the very essence of humanity itself.  Christianity rightly contends that human beings can only flourish when sin is resolved.  The Bible’s message of redemption offers true hope of a better future for humanity, whilst acknowledging that our present condition is fragile and that we are inescapably bound by sin and death. The most far-fetched aspect of Transhumanism is not its vision of a posthuman future.  Technologically enhanced ‘posthumans’ may indeed exist before this century is over.  But it is unrealistic in its quest to defeat death, and totally unable to handle the problem of sin.  In Christ we have a Saviour who has defeated both.  And, because of God’s incredible grace, we have the sure and certain hope of resurrection and restoration through Jesus’ own death and resurrection.


References:

[1] “Bjorn Cyborg” The Economist, 2 August 2018.

[2] J.S. Huxley, In New Bottles for New Wine, (London: Chatto & Windus, 1957) pp. 16-17

[3] Max More, ‘Philosophy of Transhumanism’ in The Transhumanist Reader, p3.

[4] Humanity+ (https://humanityplus.org/about/)

[5] “The Quest for Immortality, Rebooted”, The New York Times, 22 December 2017; “Transhumanists are on a quest to discover eternal life”, The Telegraph, 10 September 2015; “No death and an enhanced life: Is the future transhuman?” The Guardian, 6 May 2018; “Evading death and mind up-loading: The ambition of transhumanism”, New Scientist, 8 May 2018.

[6] Bostrom et al, “The Transhumanist FAQ”, p4.

[7] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “The Enlightenment” (August 2010), https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/enlightenment/. Retreived 14 August 2018.

[8] Bostrom et al, “The Transhumanist FAQ,” p35.

[9] Dr John Lennox, Mind Matters podcast, 15 March 2019 (https://mindmatters.ai/podcast/building-the-tower-of-babel)

[10] Alexander Sasha Chislenko et al, “The Transhumanist Declaration (2012)” in Max More and Natasha Vita-More, The Transhumanist Reader, p55.

[11] Bostrom et al, “The Transhumanist FAQ,” p40.

[12] N. Bostrom, “The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant”, Journal of Medical Ethics, 2005, Vol. 31, No. 5, pp273-77.

[13] Bostrom et al, “The Transhumanist FAQ,” p34.

[14]  Bostrom et al, “The Transhumanist FAQ,” p6.

[15] Ray Kurzweil, …, p235.

[16] T. Peters, “Progress and Provolution: Will Transhumanism Leave Sin Behind?” in Transhumanism and Trasnscendence: Christian Hope in an Age of Technological Enhancement (Georgetown University Press, 2011), p69.

[17] Ibid, p80.

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