Since the beginning of history, people have used technology to overcome various challenges. Bifocals, cars, artificial knees, smartphones: the history of humanity is littered with technologies designed to address the many limitations we face in our everyday lives. The last few decades have given us many new, amazing technologies, ranging from personal computers to improved prosthetics for the disabled. Because of these remarkable advancements, a growing number of thinkers are beginning to wonder how new technologies can help us not only overcome but even transcend our physical limitations. “Transhumanists,” Ian Curran states, “believe that developments in science and technology will soon make possible the radical transcendence of human biological, cognitive, and emotional limitations and the evolution of a posthuman race, even the attainment of immortality.”
Whether or not future technologies will live up to the dreams of these transhumanists, the fact that we are increasingly looking to technology to solve humanity’s troubles—and perhaps even deliver us from mortality—warrants a thoughtful examination of the transhumanist movement, its underlying assumptions, and the possible consequences of new medical and cybernetic technologies emerging in the coming decades.
Over the last few centuries, many Western thinkers have preached an optimistic view of scientific progress. The French Enlightenment philosopher Nicholas de Condorcet, in his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, expressed such confidence in humanity’s capacity for “unlimited progress” that he wondered if “the duration of the average interval between birth and wearing out” would one day have “no time limit whatsoever.”  Within the last few decades, the emergence of computers, along with major advances in the fields of human biology and medicine, have opened new horizons upon which optimists could cast their visions for the future of humanity. These advances afforded new possibilities not only for the alleviation of human suffering, but also the enhancement of humanity. For example, recent innovations in prosthetics have stimulated conversation about the prospect of one day replacing functional human limbs with enhanced bionic prostheses.
Furthermore, as computers have become increasingly complex, it has become conceivable, even imminent, that computers could soon exceed the human brain in terms of speed and capacity. For transhumanists, the “singularity”(the term used to describe this proposed historic inevitability) will make it possible for humans to escape from their mortal bodies. As tech innovator, philanthropist, and leading proponent of transhumanism Ray Kurzweil notes:
“[T]here won’t be mortality by the end of the twenty-first century…Up until now, our mortality was tied to the longevity of our hardware. When the hardware crashed, that was it. For many of our forebears, the hardware gradually deteriorated before it disintegrated…As we cross the divide to instantiate ourselves into our computational technology, our identity will be based on our evolving mind file. We will be software, not hardware.”
According to Kurzweil and others, de Condorcet’s dream of immortality will be fulfilled once humans cease to be confined to bodily limitations and opt for a “post-biological” existence.
Transhumanists also propose that post-biological existence will offer more than immortality. As people get rid of biological limitations and integrate themselves with advanced technologies, they will also gain a whole set of abilities, pleasures, and experiences that transcend those of bodily existence. Kurzweil, with obvious zeal, writes, “[T]he road we’re going down is a road paved with gold. It’s full of benefits that we’re never going to resist—continued growth in economic prosperity, better health, more intense communication, more effective education, more engaging entertainment, better sex.” Even spiritual experiences, Kurzweil proclaims, will be capable of enhancement in this “posthuman” age. As scientists discover “the neurological correlates of the variety of spiritual experiences”, Kurzweil is certain that these experiences, too, will be heightened as human beings achieve ever-increasing technological complexity.
Despite the far-reaching scope of transhumanism’s vision for human evolution, however, some transhumanists are also genuinely concerned about the potentially negative consequences of these technologies. The most recent draft of “The Transhumanist Declaration” acknowledges “that humanity faces serious risks, especially from the misuse of new technologies” and calls for research in order “to carefully deliberate how best to reduce risks and expedite beneficial applications.” Still, it is worth noting some of the potential ethical objections to the transhumanists vision for the future.
The two strongest objections to be made against this vision both concern the limited availability of future technologies. Unless significant changes are made to the world’s economy, it is almost certain that a transition into a “posthuman” existence will be expensive, and a large portion of humankind simply will not have access to post-biological technologies. As a result, a small portion of super-advanced “posthumans” could conceivably exist alongside a larger population of normal, unenhanced persons. In this scenario, posthumans could potentially become intolerant of those who are unenhanced. In Beyond Humanity?, Allen Buchanan notes that, despite there being no logical reason for enhanced persons to see themselves as superior to the unenhanced, they nevertheless “might think themselves so superior that they would treat (mere) persons as if they had a lower moral status than they have.” Likewise, Kurzweil warns that “the more powerful technology—the technologically more sophisticated civilization—always wins.” Given humanity’s history of violence against its fellow neighbor, it’s possible that the emergence of a posthuman race would be dangerous to those who, either by necessity or by choice, remain unenhanced.
Even if “posthumans” did resist bigotry, they might reshape society at large in order to suit their increased ability and efficiency. Whilst such a “super-society” might prove remarkably sophisticated, Buchanan notes that posthumans could engineer it in such a way that “the unenhanced in effect become disabled: they are unable to participate, or unable to participate in a minimally competent way, in core economic and political processes.” Since our modern society already has trouble incorporating those who are physically and cognitively disabled, one wonders what place there will be for unenhanced persons living in a society tailored to posthumans.
Beyond these ethical considerations, the transhumanist project assumes certain givens that Christians must address. One fatal assumption amongst nearly all transhumanists, observed by ethicist and theologian Gilbert Meilander, is “a thoroughgoing commitment to materialistic reductionism.” Even for spiritually mindful thinkers such as Kurzweil, spirituality is tied merely to human consciousness. For the transhumanist, Hayles notes, the sum of human consciousness is “finally reducible to brain activity.” Because of this, Hayles writes, the “informational patterns” of one’s brain take precedence over their “material instantiation” within the brain itself. Rather than seeing the body as a key part of being human, transhumanism joins the rest of modernity in preferring the mind over matter.
Christianity, however, has a far more positive conception of the body. Humans were created by God as spiritual creatures endowed with both body and soul (Gen. 2:7, 21-22). Furthermore, the body is accorded great dignity because Christ, in the fullness of time, “became flesh and dwelt among us.” (Jn. 1:14). It was his human body that was glorified at the Transfiguration (Mt. 17:1-13). It was in a human body that the Son of God endured suffering, died, and was raised for the salvation of humanity (Mt. 16:21-28; Mk. 8:31-33; Lk. 9:22-27; Jn. 2:19-22; Acts 2:36; 1Tim. 1:15). It was Christ who, in his human body, ascended to the Father’s right hand in glory, where he now intercedes on behalf of his creation (Lk. 24:50-53; Acts 1:9-11; Heb. 7:25). For centuries, faithful Christians have longed and hoped for a bodily resurrection (Rom. 6:5; 1Cor.15:12ff; 1Thess. 4:13-18; Rev. 21:1-22:5). The body, despite its faults and limitations in this life, is integral to the Christian understanding of both personhood and salvation. For the transhumanist, however, the body is just another obstacle that humanity must overcome.
Transhumanism’s greatest pitfall, though, is its equivocation of freedom with autonomy—the capacity for individuals to govern themselves without limits. At the heart of transhumanism’s quest for bodily transcendence lies a greater desire: the freedom to be in complete control of one’s own destiny. As C.S. Lewis writes in That Hideous Strength, “Dreams of the far future destiny of man were dragging up from its shallow and unquiet grave the old dream of Man as God.” Despite the many positive ends to which transhumanism strives(the improvement of quality of life, the mitigation of suffering, etc.), the Christian conception of being is not narrowly defined as sheer, autonomous will. Rather, as William Cavanaugh articulates, “all being participates in God, the source of being.” For the Christian, true freedom is found in the service of worthwhile ends—ends which find their fulfillment in God alone.
Despite this impasse between Christianity and transhumanism, believers can appreciate certain emphases within the movement. For instance, transhumanists are concerned for those experiencing bodily suffering. Although Christians trust that suffering is not meaningless because of Christ’s own suffering for humanity’s sake, they are still called to care for their suffering neighbor. Many technologies that transhumanism proposes could help do just that.
Still, the ways in which Christianity and transhumanism approach the issue of suffering differ. Samuel Wells, in his discussion of human cloning, notes how modern medicine “attempts to perfect individual bodies and make them sufficient for themselves” and, in so doing, “bypasses the need for human care by substituting technological intervention.” Because of this, modern medicine has become increasingly negligent of “the pattern of care and relationships that make life sustainable in the face of suffering and death.” Christians, however, are called to focus their attention on providing care and community for those suffering in the here and now. Sadly, it is a call that many Christians neglect.
Like transhumanists, Christians also look forward to humanity’s future. Our hope, however, does not rest in a theoretical, technological “evolution.” Rather, as C.S. Lewis notes in Mere Christianity, “the Next Step has already appeared. And it is really new. It is not a change from brainy men to brainer men: it is a change that goes off in a totally different direction—a change from being creatures of God to being sons of God.” In Christ, the Word made flesh, the next “step” in humanity has already come, and we, as Christians, trust that he will one day come again. Just as our Lord Jesus died, was buried, and rose again in glory, we trust that we, too, will one day be raised in body and soul. Transcendence, for the Christian, is more than a life of eternal consciousness. It is a visceral, bodily eternity, where men and women live in a glorified earth with glorified bodies (Rev. 21). Whereas transhumanism dreams of a disembodied, mechanical immortality for humanity, we Christians—trusting in the sure promises and work of our Lord Jesus Christ—look forward to a glorious, heavenly city, where we shall live and rejoice eternally in the presence of our God.
Rev. Deacon Christopher Brown (B.A. University of North Carolina School of the Arts; M. Div. Beeson Divinity School) serves at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Madison, MS. He currently teaches Humanities and Latin at Jackson Classical Homeschool Program in Brandon, MS. He and his wife Lydia live in Ridgeland, MS along with their mischievous shepherd mix, Charlie. His interests include jazz, church history, world cultures and languages, B-monster movies, and all manner of science fiction.
|↑1||Ian Curran, “Becoming Godlike? The Incarnation and the Challenge of Transhumanism,” The Christian Century, Nov. 22, 2017, p. 23.|
|↑2||Nicolas de Condorcet, The Future Progress of the Human Mind, www.fordham.edu; cited in Gilbert Meilaender, Should We Live Forever? The Ethical Ambiguities of Aging (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013), 35.|
|↑4||Mark Honigsbaum, “The future of robotics: in a transhuman world, the disabled will be the ones without prosthetic limbs…”, The Guardian, June 15, 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/jun/16/future-robotics-bionic-limbs-disabled.|
|↑5||Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (New York: Penguin Books, 2000), 20-25, 102-105.|
|↑6||Kurzweil, 104-105. It should be noted that since 2000, computer technologies have experienced a plateau both in “maximum clock speed and thermal design power.” For computer engineers, however, this is seen as just another small barrier that human ingenuity will soon overcome. See Mark Patrick, “Is Moore’s Law still the law?”, Electronics Weekly, www.electronisweekly.com, September 22, 2017.|
|↑7||Kurzweil, 129. Italics Original.|
|↑10||“The Transhumanist Declaration” (2009), Humanity+, www.humanityplus.org, accessed December 2, 2017.|
|↑11||Allen Buchanan, in the last chapter of Beyond Humanity?, does propose an “institutional solution” to this unequal distribution of technology. In it, he constructs The Global Institute for Justice in Innovation (GIJI), an organization dedicated to promoting “the diffusion of existing justice-impacting innovations through a multistep process.” Among these steps would be the encouragement of innovation through incentives, publicly denouncing “firms that restricted access to their products,” and having a “standing compulsory licensing option for intellectual property rights whose owners were not sufficiently promoting diffusion to disadvantaged people.” See Allen Buchanan, Beyond Humanity? The Ethics of Biomedical Enhancement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 274-75.|
|↑12||Buchanan, 225. Italics Original.|
|↑14||Buchanan argues that such bigotry on the part of enhanced beings is by no means a certainty. “Much,” he says, “would depend upon whether the enhanced were merely stronger and smarter or also were morally enhanced, with greater capacity for empathy, a clearer understanding of the real basis of moral status, and more impressive powers than we possess for resisting the temptation to exploit others.” See Buchanan, 226-27.|
|↑18||N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 2-3; cited in Meilaender, 24.|
|↑21||C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 2nd ed. (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1979), 203.|
|↑22||William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 8.|
|↑23||Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004), 199.|
|↑25||C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 172.|