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7 March 2022

The quest for immortality or eternal life has been a part of human civilisation since time immemorial. It is the quintessential feature of many of the world’s religions.

For example, an ancient Hindu prayer addressed to Shiva, the God of Destruction, known as the Mahamrityunjaya Mantra, is in essence a petition to be liberated from death and to be granted immortality: ‘We worship the three-eyed One (Lord Shiva) who is fragrant and who nourishes all beings; may he liberate me from death, for the sake of immortality, even as the cucumber is severed from its bondage to the creeper.’

This quest for everlasting life has not disappeared from human consciousness in our so-called scientific age. On the contrary, the desire for immortality has intensified in our time, and many believe that it is science and its close cousin technology that will help humankind attain this goal which has hitherto eluded our predecessors.

Forgoing what they consider to be the myths of the pre-scientific age, which place immortality in the hands of the gods, the modern questers for everlasting life have embraced a new one. It is an equally powerful myth which says that human beings are able to achieve immortality for themselves by their own ingenuity and inventiveness, with the aid of science and technology.

This is the secular religion of the transhumanists (or post-humanists), whose faith in omni-competent science has led them to envision a ‘scientific eschatology’ and a secular utopia.

What is Transhumanism?

Before we turn to some of the post-human futures imagined by transhumanists, we must clarify what this ‘movement’ is all about. Why does this group of people call themselves transhumanists? What does this term mean, what does it signify?

One of the most influential writers on the topic of transhumanism is the Swedish-born philosopher at Oxford University, Nick Bostrom. In a paper entitled ‘In Defense of Posthuman Dignity’ Bostrom describes transhumanism as

… a loosely defined movement that has developed gradually over the past two decades, and can be viewed as an outgrowth of secular humanism and the Enlightenment. It holds that current human nature is improvable through use of applied science and other rational methods, which may make it possible to increase human health-span, extend our intellectual and physical capacities, and give us increased control over our mental states and moods.

Several important features of transhumanism can be gleaned from this description. The first is that it is a form of secular humanism which is nourished by the ideals of the Enlightenment, especially its rationalism and scientism.

Secondly, transhumanists believe in the evolution of the human species into something more superior than what it presently is. And thirdly, they believe that human beings can accelerate this process through the use of science and technology (which will become more advanced even as the human intellect evolves).

The confidence that transhumanists have in science and technology to speed up the evolutionary process is clearly underscored by Bostrom when he writes, in an article entitled ‘Transhuman Values’, that:

Transhumanists view human nature as a work-in-progress, a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways. Current humanity need not be the endpoint of evolution. Transhumanists hope that by responsible use of science, technology, and other rational means we shall eventually manage to become posthuman, beings with vastly greater capacities than present human beings have.

A careful reading of the paragraph just quoted would show that the goal of transhumanists is not just to achieve a more evolved state but to transcend human nature itself.

In a word, transhumanists envisioned a post-human future for our species, transcending the limits of human nature, and perhaps even becoming a different, more superior, species altogether.

The technologies that transhumanists hope will enable humankind to bring this vision to realisation include genetic engineering (especially inheritable genome editing), regenerative medicine, cell therapy and bionics. Transhumanists also believe that cognitive neuroscience, computer science and nanotechnology can help human beings to surmount the limits of their nature.

Consistent with their secular worldview, transhumanists believe that the world in which we live is without a purpose. As a prominent transhumanist, James Hughes, put it in an essay entitled ‘The Compatibility of Religious and Transhumanist Views’, ‘The most common transhumanist cosmology is that the universe is impersonal and purposeless. The emergence of intelligence is a chance occurrence, with no inevitability or pre-ordained end.’

But this means that we can inject meaning into the world which in itself has no purpose beyond what we give it. In according purpose to this otherwise meaningless world, human beings assume the role that properly belongs to the gods.

Hughes can thus speak about the apotheosis of the human being, that is, the technologically-enabled deification of man as an essential part of the transhumanist vision. Human beings can become the gods they once believed existed and revered.

So materialist humanism can, through certain logical steps, come full circle to the idea that we live in a created universe, perhaps a natural universe infused with the quantum mind of God, perhaps because we are a simulation being run in the mind of gods, or a resurrection of ourselves at the End of Time. None of these materialist ideas of a created or intelligent universe necessarily argue that God is unitary, benevolent or even aware of our existence … [W]e may be intended to evolve towards a posthuman apotheosis, or we may choose to become gods ourselves in order to challenge the Creator(s) for dominion.

Mind Uploading

One of the ways in which transhumanists hope to achieve immortality is by transferring minds (or some digital version of it) from their natural earthly bodies to superior artificial bodies. This form of digital immortality is known as mind uploading.

Mind uploading presupposes a certain anthropology, which is premised upon a particular understanding of the relationship between the mind and the body.

Transhumanists like Bostrom believe in the distinction between the mind and the body. The human person, they would postulate, is a mind that has a body. Thus, in one sense they may be described as dualists.

However, although they acknowledge the distinction between the mind and the body, they want to also establish the closest possible relationship between the two. Thus, transhumanists can be said to prefer some versions of patternism or hylomorphism (other terms include structuralism and functionalism) to Platonism.

Eric Steinhart has made effective use of the analogy of a ball to explain the hylomorphic view of the mind-body relationship. The mind is to the body much like the shape of the ball is to the ball. This way of understanding the mind-body relationship has the following implications:

  • Just as the shape of the ball is not identical with the ball itself, so the mind is not identical with the body. Transhumanists therefore reject any form of physicalist anthropology which postulates mind-body identity.
  • However, just as the shape of the ball is realised by the ball and therefore in this sense is not independent of it, so the mind is realised by the body. Transhumanists therefore reject Platonic dualism which postulates that the mind can be totally independent of the body. Instead, they maintain that the mind must be embodied.
  • This notwithstanding, transhumanists argue that since the shape of the ball can be determined by another ball, so the mind of one body can be realised in another body.

Thus, although transhumanists maintain that the mind must be embodied, they maintain that the mind is also at the same time substrate-independent. Steinhart explains:

Minds are forms rather than things — and the same form can be transferred from one physical medium to another. Since the mind is the information-processing structure of the body, it can be extracted from one body and stored in a digital mind-file. Your mind-file can be moved from your original natural body to an artificial software or robotic body.

Nick Bostrom describes the process of mind transfer in some detail in his book, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies.

The first step is to do a thorough scan of the brain, which would make the reconstruction of the three-dimensional neural network of the brain possible. With the use of models of neural functions, this network information is then placed in a powerful computer which provides an active digital simulation of the scanned brain. In other words, we scan the structure of the brain and construct a software model of it that would function and behave in the same way as the scanned brain.

In case the reader is tempted to think that this is purely science fiction, experimental work has already begun on smaller animal brains.

Bostrom believes that whole brain emulation will eventually be possible, although he recognises that more advanced technology is needed to achieve it. He writes:

The whole emulation path does not require that we figure out how human cognition works or how to program an artificial intelligence. It requires only that we understand the low-level functional characteristics of the basic computational elements of the brain. No fundamental conceptual or theoretical breakthrough is needed for whole brain emulation to succeed.

Mind uploading or whole brain emulation has also been compared to mindcloning, which is the creation of the digital version of a person’s mind. Transhumanists envision the development of a ‘mindfile’ of an individual, a digital repository of his memories, feelings and thoughts which can be activated by a ‘mindware’ software.

Many transhumanists also believe that while whole brain emulation begins as a replica of someone’s mind, it can gradually evolve and develop its own identity as it interacts with new environments and gain new experiences.

Some Theological Responses

Mind uploading raises so many complex theological issues for the Christian that it is impossible to address all of them adequately in the remaining space of this article. I will therefore attempt to only touch very briefly some of these issues.

The first question that this vision of the continued survival of the individual raises is the relationship between the biological body and the mind. Working on the basis of the information and computational paradigm, transhumanists see the mind as patterns of information that are not tied to specific bodies.

That is why I said earlier that although transhumanists have largely rejected Platonic dualism, they must still be regarded as dualists in some respect. The modified hylomorphism that have been commandeered to support their theory of the mind-body relationship differs in significant ways from the Aristotelian model.

While Aristotle postulates that creatures have souls that are specific to their natures and bodily or physical compositions, transhumanists seem to think that human souls (minds) can be transferred from their natural bodies to mechanical or robotic ones.

For them, all that matters is that minds must be housed in bodies. The type of body in which they are encased is not quite as important. We recall Steinhart’s analogy that the shape of the ball can be determined by another ball.

This implies that transhumanists privilege minds over bodies because the former is deemed to be far more important than the latter. It is in the mind that human personhood and identity resides. Thus, it is the mind that will ensure the continuity of the individual beyond his present bodily existence – his ‘immortality’.

This view of the human person is antithetical to the teachings of Scripture and the Christian tradition. According to the Christian faith, the human being is a composite of body and soul, a psychosomatic unity. Human personhood and identity therefore are just as grounded in the body as they are in the soul.

That is why Christians believe in the bodily resurrection of the dead and not just in the immortality of the soul. The Christian faith also rejects the idea of reincarnation which postulates that a human ‘I’ can be re-enfleshed (re-incarnated) in the body of another animal or another human being.

The second issue pertains to the identity of the individual whose mind is digitally transferred into another ‘body’. Even if the digital emulation of the whole brain is possible, the question remains whether this silicon version is able to preserve the identity of the individual. Put differently, is the copy of the brain – however perfect – identical to the original?

Some authors have argued that the copied brain (mind) cannot possibly be identical to the original because it is not the same numerically identical thing to it. It is just a copy. This is known as the ‘duplication objection’.

Calvin Mercer has attempted to state the objection in this way:

Logic guides us here, on the principle that two things, different from one another, cannot be identical to the same thing. Logic also seems to confirm intuition. If technology achieves a silicon copy of your brain, will you be comfortable that the copy is you, even if the copy contains the information or information patterns that give rise to your memory, beliefs, ambitions, intentions, and personality? Put more grossly, imagine you are suffering from an incurable and painful disease and your doctor produces a copy of your brain and says she is ready to give the original you a lethal injection, because your memories, beliefs and character traits are in the digital substrate ready to continue living. Will you ask for the needle?

The force of this argument becomes more pronounced when several copies of the original are made. If ten copies of the brain (mind) of an individual are made, could we justifiably conclude that there are now ten individuals that are identical to the original?

Finally, and very briefly, this vision of the technological future of humanity should not be properly described as an ‘eschatology’, at least not in the way in which the Christian tradition understands the term.

It is at best a futurology: it imagines a future that could be actualised by a potential that is already present. It is what Ted Peters, following Jürgen Moltmann, has called futurum – the ‘assumption that the future will be the result of causative forces coming from the past.’

Eschatology, in contrast, has to do with adventus, the appearance of something that is absolutely new, and which only God can bring about. It has to do with the resurrection of the dead, the transfiguration of this fallen creation into the new heaven and the new earth and the consummation of the kingdom of God that is already inaugurated by the incarnate Son.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.