5 September 2022
Transhumanists view human nature as a work-in-progress, a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remould in desirable ways. Current humanity need not be the endpoint of evolution. Transhumanists hope that by responsible use of technology, and other rational means we shall eventually become post human, beings with vastly greater capacities that present human beings have.
These words were penned by Nick Bostrom, a professor at the University of Oxford and arguably the most philosophically sophisticated advocate of a movement called transhumanism. They clearly delineate the transhumanist vision of the human future, and how that future might be realized.
Far from being an eccentric fixation of some fringe thinkers, transhumanism is fast capturing the imagination of many mainstream philosophers, futurists and scientists.
In 1998, Nick Bostrom founded a highly successful and influential non-profit organization called the World Transhumanist Association – now Humanity+ –with the aim of promoting transhumanism in politics and academia. This organisation launched the Journal of Transhumanism in 1998, which was renamed the Journal of Evolution and Technology in 2004.
A number of research centres and institutions have appeared in the past couple of decades or so which promote the transhumanist worldview and its hopes for the future.
For example, in 2002, the American lawyer and entrepreneur Martin Rothblatt founded the Terasem Movement with the aim of educating the public on how nanotechnology and ‘cyber consciousness’ could extend human lives indefinitely.
In 2000, Aubrey De Grey and David Gobel founded the non-profit organisation called the Methuselah Foundation. In the Hebrew Bible, Methuselah, the son of Enoch and the grandfather of Noah, who died when he was 969 years old, has the longest lifespan. Thus, the foundation announces that its mission ‘is to make 90 the new 50 by 2030’.
Nine years later, De Grey created another foundation, the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) Research Foundation, located in Mountain View, California. The foundation’s website announces that its aim is to ‘develop, promote, and ensure widespread access to therapies that cure and prevent the diseases and disabilities of ageing by comprehensively repairing the damage that builds up in our bodies over time’.
There are many more outfits and institutions that pursue research inspired broadly by the transhumanist worldview and aspiration other than the ones I have highlighted. They include the Entropy Institute, the Foresight Institute, the Centre for Responsible Nanotechnology, the Singularity University, the Acceleration Studies Foundation, the Ascender Alliance, Transtopia, Biocurious & Co., Order of Cosmic Engineers – and many more.
WORLDVIEW AND ASSUMPTIONS
No single individual can claim to be the founder of transhumanism. Many transhumanist authors, however, have rightly argued that the intellectual inspiration behind the movement can be traced at least to the 17th century European Enlightenment.
This momentous movement in the history of the Western world, with its emphasis on human reason and freedom, brought about radical changes to the way in which truth, reality and morality are understood with its emphasis on human reason and freedom. Transhumanists embraced these core Enlightenment distinctives of human reason and freedom which serve as the basis for their attempt not only to evaluate the world and the human condition, but also to change them.
Accompanying this is the Darwinian theory of evolution, which is commandeered by transhumanists in their quest not only to perfect the human species, but to transcend it altogether. In this sense, transhumanists are also profoundly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche, especially in his concept of the ‘superman’ (German: Übermensch), which anointed human beings with the power to create their own meaning and purpose.
The exponential rise of modern science – and its cousin, technology – gave transhumanists the tools with which to accomplish their vision of super humanity and even immortality.
The biochemist Fazale Rana defines transhumanism as constituting ‘a broadly defined intellectual and cultural movement that seeks to transform the human condition through science and technology.’ He describes the transhumanist utopia thus:
Transhumanists hope and expect that the near future will see a technologically advanced utopian state where humans stand transformed in kind – with the change extending holistically to the entire being: mind, emotion and body.
According to the Italian philosopher of mind Roberto Manzocco, the ‘pillars of transhumanism’ include: life extension, cryonics, human enhancement, nanotechnologies and mind-uploading. These developing biotechnologies, transhumanists believe, will eventually enable human beings to accelerate the evolutionary process and overcome the limitations of the bodies that nature has given to them.
Transhumanists therefore work with several assumptions about the human potential and the capacity of the developing sciences and technologies to enable them to achieve that potential. They believe that the human being and human nature are not static, but malleable and that it is imperative that they should engineer their enhancements and transformations.
This philosophical anthropology is wedded to a bullish view of what science and technology can accomplish. In fact, transhumanism operates on the assumptions of scientism which insist that all true knowledge can only be supplied by science, and that science alone will one day eradicate the world’s ills.
Transhumanism therefore emerges from and is nourished by the soil of materialism or naturalism, that worldview which maintains that the natural and physical universe is the only reality. According to this worldview, human beings were formed by the natural and unguided process of evolution.
A purely naturalistic worldview, however, would willy-nilly lead to despair. This sentiment is eloquently expressed by Bertrand Russell:
Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way: for Man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day …
Transhumanists, however, would have none of this fatalism and despair! Although they believe that all is matter, they also appear to think that human beings are made of a different kind of matter – the kind that can change the course of history and determine their own future.
But in rejecting God, transhumanists have styled themselves as gods by attributing to themselves a kind of omnipotence – aided, that is, by their omnicompetent science and technology.
One of the many problems with the transhumanist project is that its promoters have failed to appreciate or refused to accept their own finitude as creatures in a fallen world. This has fuelled their futile attempt to ‘Play God’, to be their own creators and to chart the course of their own futures.
Commentators such as Jeremy Rifkin have long tried to expose the hubris that undergirds the entire humanist project, that defiant ‘colossalism’ of the human spirit which the Christian faith calls sin.
Rifkin also warns of the dangers and unpredictable outcomes of the kind of genetic manipulation that transhumanists intend to use to actualise their imagined future. As early as 1983, the essayist and economist warned, in his book Algeny: A New World, that reckless genetic engineering – which he calls algeny, analogous to alchemy – would prove catastrophic for the human species.
The desire of transhumanists to surmount current limitations and challenges and open up new possibilities point to their quest to ‘re-create’ themselves.
This attempt to better themselves through the instrumentality of science and technology, indeed to be more than human signals the banalisation of human nature and existence.
But, as some commentators have pointed out, victory over current challenges does not guarantee that there will be no future obstacles and setbacks. As Manzocco has argued:
… it must be said that the radical strengthening and extension of life would hardly represent the end of every problem and every challenge: it is probable that, in the eventuality that the Transhumanist projects become reality, our descendants will find themselves facing new – and perhaps even interesting – challenges, which we cannot imagine at the moment.
Some commentators have asserted that the transhumanist future may be worse, not better, than the present. If the transhumanist vision is achieved, it would not be difficult to imagine how it will create a world that is even more unequal and divided than it is today.
There will be people – usually the rich and powerful – who will be able take advantage of the technologies of enhancement. They will attain a superior intellect, a synthetic body that is not susceptible to the weaknesses of the biological body, and super longevity.
But there will be the masses for whom these technologies are beyond reach. This scenario is depicted in Andrew Nichol’s 1997 movie, Gattaca, which portrays a society where there is a divide between the enhanced and unenhanced.
An even more sinister dystopic future that the transhumanist project could created is what some commentators have described as the dawn of the Fourth Reich. In ways reminiscent of the Third Reich, this new reality brought about by the transhumanist project will create a superior race that will subjugate the inferior race.
Transhumanists have protested against this suggestion by stressing that this has never been and will never be their objective, and denounced any affiliation with socialism and insisting that it is a libertarian movement, Transhumanists assert they will never embrace the socialist agenda.
However, there are some writers, such as B.J. Murphy, who believe that if transhumanism is to achieve the future it envisions where current problems such as scarcity are eradicated, then it needs to be guided by socialism.
The problem with transhumanism is not just ethical; it is fundamentally theological. Transhumanists are writing their own ‘eschatologies’ that are premised on a secular worldview and totally dependent on human inventiveness and will.
The basic issue with the transhumanist vision of the future is captured well by theologian Ted Peters. ‘What transhumanists are hoping for is adventus,’ he writes, ‘but they have only futurum to work with.’ He adds:
What is important to the theologian is God’s promise that some of what appears in the transhumanist vision will come to pass. But the transformation of the human heart so that it exudes benevolence and justice will require more than futurum to deliver. It will require divine grace, what only adventus can accomplish. The advent of the new creation will require much more than what our evolutionary history by itself can deliver. It will require God’s transforming power. Increased human intelligence cannot on its own accomplish what it will take divine grace to make happen.