May 2021 Pulse
On 6 and 7 July 2019, TransVision held a major conference in London on the theme ‘Humanity+’. A quick scrutiny of the topics that this conference, and its twenty-two distinguished speakers, will immediately make clear the fundamental concern of transhumanism, namely, the future of Homo sapiens and their world.
Transhumanism is the vision of the future where Homo sapiens will be transformed into something far more superior than what is currently deemed possible. Human beings will not only transcend the current limitations prescribed by their nature; they may possibly also morph into a different creature altogether – they will become post-human.
Transhumanists believe that for this to take place, human beings must use the science and technology at their disposal to speed up the process of evolution. Even a cursory look at our world today, filled as it is with violence, crime and diseases, would lead us to conclude that despite attempting for thousands of years to improve it – through education, government and religion – Homo sapiens have failed rather miserably.
In addition, despite thousands of years of evolution, the human body, fashioned and nurtured by Mother Nature, continues to be fragile and weak, racked with diseases, anxieties, depression and all manners of psychosis. For transhumanists, it appears that Mother Nature is either under-performing or she is just taking far too long to get the job done!
Transhumanists believe that with the scientific knowledge and technological tools that we now possess, we are in the position to step up and take over Mother Nature’s remit in transforming humankind and the world.
Thus, the Transhumanist FAQ composed by one of the movement’s most renowned spokesperson, Nick Bostrom of Oxford University, describes transhumanism as:
[the] intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.
Bob Doede of Trinity Western University has offered this witty but insightful description of transhumanism:
Transhumanism may be justly described as an interdisciplinary and international movement whose project is to transform human nature through technological interventions so radically that Homo sapiens will transition in the relatively near future into a superior successor post-human species, one that transcends the fragilities and failures of our fleshly finitude.
It would be a mistake to think that transhumanism is a fantasy concocted by some eccentrics at the fringes of society. Many of them are established scholars and scientists such as Marvin Minsky, Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT and Kevin Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading.
As an interdisciplinary and international movement, transhumanism has spread its ideas through international conferences, seminars, workshops and publications in many peer-reviewed journals and by international academic presses.
As I have already alluded to, transhumanists have a buoyant and optimistic view of science and technology and their ability not only to make the world a better place but to radically transform it. This includes humans and their possible future embodiments and modes of being.
Applying Moore’s Law to technology, they believe that our current technological prowess will grow exponentially and that it will eventually dissolve what Natasha Vita-More has described as ‘[t]he bonds that tie us to nature’s biological ancient, accidental design’. Technology will enable us to mature out of our evolutionary adolescence, so to speak, and give us full control of our own evolutionary future.
Transhumanists like Bostrom argue that technology will enhance the human condition in at least three areas: healthspan, cognition and emotion. Enhancement in these three areas, Bostrom believes, would produce capacities that would surpass ‘the maximum attainable by any current human being without recourse to new technological means.’
In the first area – healthspan – Bostrom envisions that technology will one day enhance human beings such that they will be endowed with ‘the capacity to remain fully healthy, active, and productive, both mentally and physically’. At first blush, this may sound quite prosaic and unremarkable. But a closer study of the aspirations of the transhumanists will immediately reveal just how radical the vision really is.
For transhumanists, current record of extreme longevity such as that of Jeanne Calment, the longest living human being in recorded history, who lived for 122 years and 164 days, would fall far short of their aspirations!
In fact, transhumanists eschew contemporary culture’s easy ‘surrender’ to sickness, ageing and death, describing it as a ‘deathist’ attitude that must be strenuously rejected. They maintain that we must commander everything at our disposal to vanquish the ‘last enemy’, so to speak.
The renown transhumanist, Ray Kurzweil – inventor of numerous AI technologies, member of the US Patent Office’s National Inventors Hall of Fame, and author of numerous books such as The Age of Intelligent Machines (MIT) – takes what has been described as his ‘immortality cocktail’ of 150 supplements to ‘conquer’ death. These include anti-inflammatories such as Curcumin, blood-thinners such as Lumbrokinase, and Brain Health supplements such as Phosphatidylcholine (administered intravenously).
The second area is enhancements in human cognition. According to Bostrom, such improvements would involve:
general intellectual capacities, such as memory, deductive and analogical reasoning, and attention, as well as special faculties such as the capacity to understand and appreciate music, humour, eroticism, narration, spirituality, mathematics, etc.
Transhumanists hope that this could be achieved not only through technology (such a brain-computer interfaces) and pharmaceuticals (such as more advanced versions of Adderall and Ritalin), but also through genetic modification.
To be absolutely clear, when transhumanists speak of cognitive enhancements, they do not consider genuiuses like Einstein to be their goal. Rather, they have in mind superintelligence, that is, enhancements that will enable the human brain to have the capacity equivalent to that of the most powerful computers (perhaps 100 Einsteins put together!).
The final area is human emotive functioning. For Bostrom, this refers to ‘the capacity to enjoy life and to respond with appropriate effect to life situations and other people’. Again, transhumanists turn to genetics to make this fantasy a reality.
A Christian reflection on transhumanism must return to basic questions such as what does it mean to be human. It must examine these transhumanist ambitions against the biblical story of creation, for it is only there that we can find the purpose and goal of human life as the Creator had intended.
But a Christian response to transhumanism must also be based on an understanding of the nature and purpose science and technology. While science and technology are indeed God’s gifts to human beings, and should not be shunned, in the hands of sinners they can be used in ways that signal their rebellion against the Giver rather than their gratitude towards him.
Nearly twenty years ago, theologian Donald Bloesch made this distinction between hubris and sin:
Whereas hubris signifies the attempt to transcend the limitations appointed by fate, sin refers to an unwillingness to break out of our narrow limitations in obedience to the vision of faith. While hubris connotes immoderation, sin consists in misplaced allegiance. Hubris is trying to be superhuman; sin is becoming inhuman. Hubris means rising to the level of the gods; sin means trying to displace God or living as if there were no God.
While this description is helpful to some extent, the careful reader will notice that the line that distinguishes hubris from sin is precariously thin, the divide dangerously porous. Many kinds of sin begin life as hubris, and many kinds of hubris look very much like sin!
The transhumanist vision of the future may be inspired by an arrogance that can be described as a kind of rebellion against creaturely finitude and dependence which the Bible describes as sin. Its intoxicating desire for human beings to evolve into what Friedrich Nietzsche has called the Übermensch (‘Beyond-Man’, ‘Hyperhuman’, ‘Superman’) is a hubris that reeks of precisely this sort of sinful rebellion.
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.