The Coming Ethical Conundrums of Transhumanism

transhumanism

The following is a reprint from Volume 4, Issue 7 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “For the Humans and Transhumans Among Us.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.

Imagine the year is 2041. Smart phones and computers are hard-wired into the brain and screens are holographically projected. Eye movement, hand gestures, or merely thinking replace keyboards, mice, or other peripherals. Basic information can be uploaded or downloaded to the brain. Your primary care physician utilizes a smell test to diagnose some early stage pancreatic cancer and quickly injects Merck’s cancer-eating Nano robots into your blood stream. Two weeks pass, and your dashboard tells you 27 more days remain before the Nano robots have eaten all of the cancerous cells and completed the metastasis sweep. Everything is looking good. But the next morning, news headlines read: Russian Hackers Crack Merck’s Encryption Protocols on Cancer Nano Robotics and Upload Malware. Cyber warfare has been the new Cold War, but an encryption breach never crossed your mind when you agreed to the treatment, and now your white blood cells and brain matter are in danger. You are one of 1.7 million people in the USA and 18.2 million globally with Merck’s robots inside of you. Russia is utilizing this malware as political leverage for the annexation of a resource rich former Soviet state. Panic sets in as you realize the implications.

Because both general and special revelation flow from God, we have the stewardship to cultivate these scientific advances in a manner consistent with our image bearing.

Does that sound far-fetched? The truth is, science fiction is becoming science reality, and it raises plenty of questions. If we could upload information to our brains (Matrix style), should we? If we could download our brain into a supercomputer for perpetual storage, should we? If we could have our DNA modified to delete “bad” sections of code, should we? Scientists are currently working on creating technology with these specific applications in mind. The 21st century will bring significant scientific and technological challenges to what it means to be human, embodied, and a moral agent.

I grew up with a lot of Isaac Asimov on the bookshelf. Our family subscribed to Popular Mechanics and Popular Science. My grandfather was a power engineer, my father one of the earliest computer programmers in the country, and my brother a material science engineer. We are nerds. Science is in our blood.

I broke the mold, jettisoning a degree in statistics in favor of one of those “worthless” liberal arts degrees (“religious studies”). I never lost the love for science, however. At Reformed Theological Seminary, I did all my electives in the Christian Thought program, devoting a lot of time to the intersection of science and faith. One of the more memorable books was Ian Barbour’s When Science Meets Religion. Barbour outlines four different relationships that science can have with faith: conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration. Because I believed in both the importance and the interplay of general and special revelation, but also acknowledged the many rifts and spats between faith and science, dialogue was my favored relationship.

There was an inscription on our Chemistry Lab building at my alma mater that read, “Enter to think God’s thoughts after Him. Go forth to apply His thoughts in service.” The author of that quote is Townes Randolph Leigh, who was the first dean of the College of Pharmacy at the University of Florida. Leigh understood the relationship between general and specific revelation and that facts and values are intrinsically related. In the spirit of Leigh, recent scientific advancements warrant a dialogue between Christian ethics and the growing field of transhumanism.

What Is Transhumanism?

Broadly speaking, transhumanism is an umbrella term for the emerging technologies that further merge man with machine. The point of the movement is to advance humanity into its next stage of evolution by making improvements to our strength, intelligence, and psyche. The field encompasses a whole range of narratives we have seen in pop culture: robotic exoskeletons (Iron Man and Robocop), genetic engineering (Spider-Man, Deadpool, or Pinky and the Brain), Nano robotics (Innerspace, Crichton’s Prey, Ludlum’s The Lazarus Vendetta, or Deus Ex), mind uploading (Asimov’s The Last Question, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Avatar, or Transcendence), virtual reality (The Matrix, the Star Trek holodeck, Tron, or eXistenZ), artificial intelligence (Skynet from the Terminator series; Ultron from Marvel’s Avengers; I, Robot; Cortana from Halo; R2-D2 and C-3P0 from Star Wars) and cybernetics (Borg from Star Trek or Ghost in the Shell).

In addition to the pure science, there are emerging philosophies (even a political party). The movement is large enough to develop schisms and entrenched camps.

What Are the Roots of Transhumanism?

I think there are at least three discernible roots to transhumanism:

Root 1: Gnosticism. One might balk at the first root, Gnosticism, as it seems to be a very spirit-less vein of thinking, and I would say that you are largely correct. The part of transhumanism that is quite gnostic is the rejection of humanity as it stands presently and corporeally. The underlying assumption is that our present human bodies are deficient and obsolete—in need of a 2.0 upgrade. Hence, we pursue technology as a kind of spiritual savior to the not-evolving-fast-enough humanity 1.0. This leads to the second influence.

Root 2: Nietzsche. Nietzsche was a bold and powerful thinker who wasn’t afraid to philosophize with a sledgehammer. He spoke of humanity’s need to progress to the next level of evolution, the ubermensch. The ubermensch is to humanity what humanity is to apes. To get there, humanity would have to embrace what he called master morality, a morality marked by a dominating, cruel, and oppressive nature and a rejection of the slave morality of meekness, humility, and compassion (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount). Nietzsche believed that master morality is the need of the hour for humanity. Mankind has killed God by our apathy and the void must be filled by the higher evolution of man through the “will to power.” Central in all life is the struggle for power, and only those who invoke the master morality through their exercise of power will move toward humanity’s higher evolution: the ubermensch (or overman).

The overman is humanity’s next evolutionary state wherein man exercises power and authority over all others. Nietzsche describes man as being on a tightrope walk over a large chasm. On the one side is present-day humanity and the other, the overman. Man must move on with vigor and power across the tightrope. There is an inherent nihilism Nietzsche seeks to rescue through the myth of eternal return, which is the idea that you will live a particular moment eternally over and over again—a Nietzschean Groundhog Day, if you will. While most transhumanists aren’t bent on “making humanity great again” through the tyrannical wielding of power, there is certainly a rejection of the status quo of humanity. This rejection of where humanity presently lies is greater than just advocating for advances in medicine, economics, education, governance, philosophy, and ethics. The rejection implies a deficiency that can only be remedied through scientific advances that begin to morph man and machine.

Root 3: Scientism. Scientism is the application of the scientific method so that it becomes a worldview in and of itself. It is the logical extension of scientific rationalism to nearly religious levels. I had an atheist professor in college who said, “The only thing worse than a dogmatic Christian is a dogmatic atheist.” Transhumanism seems to religiously overestimate how far science can reverse the curse from the Fall. There is an assumption that if my brain can be uploaded, then I will be immortal. There is an assumption that longevity, intelligence, and logic can cure our fallen ills.

The roots of transhumanism are feeding the forthcoming paradigm shifts in technology. As evidenced previously, we make books, television shows, video games, and films based upon our speculations. Some are cautionary tales. Some are utopian. Some are dystopian and apocalyptic. But these reflect what is reality today and what could be tomorrow.

Today, transhumanism has delivered major advances in many of these scientific fields. Advances in gene therapy have produced promising results fighting many forms of cancer and inactivating mutated or malicious DNA. Mind uploading is a more distant future potentiality but not without key advances in mind-modeling algorithms, mind-simulation, and transcranial direct-current stimulation. Virtual reality has provided advances in software, digital recording, augmented reality, and hardware. In cybernetics, amputee Les Baugh controls his robotic prosthesis with his mind.

The lines between man and machine are starting to blur, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to parse out what constitutes man, machine, moral agency, and moral freedom. And this is why we are presented with such a complex ethical dilemma.

Defining the Problem

The core problem is that technologies are advancing geometrically while our ethical and legal understandings of them are advancing linearly. This means we must be examining their ethical implications before they are deployed in the real world. Further, it isn’t enough to understand the initial ethical implications of the new technology; we must have an ethical understanding of less probable yet logically possible uses and abuses. Cancer-eating Nano robots sound miraculous prima facie, but if your health could then be collateral damage in U.S. foreign policy, or you could be victim to a digital terror attack, it is more problematic.

Other problems arise as well. If a duplicated mind or a digitally augmented mind commits a crime, can a human be convicted? If a consortium of U.S. military agencies and private defense contractors create weaponized drones that kill via algorithm with no human operator or human intelligence and those result in the death on innocent non-combatants, who is responsible? Will we develop new laws to create a kind of “death penalty” for crimes committed by duplicated minds, where punishment is the erasing of the mind or being taken off-line? And where there was demonstrable participation in crimes using digital augmentation, can the human be convicted of the crime, and if so, to what extent? Would this be equivalent to a kind of “insanity defense,” with the penalty being a digital separation (and reduced prison time)? In the case of the algorithmic weaponized drone, who is responsible for the death of the innocent non-combatants—do we convict programmers for weaknesses in their algorithm? Do we convict the various military officials who commissioned such weapons? The ethical troubles mount with each technological advance.

What Is the Why Behind the What?

In sorting out the ethical dilemma, I’ve painted a rather bleak picture of transhumanism and technological advances. I don’t mean to be anti-intellectual or anti-science. There are many good and profitable advances that should be made through science in medicine, epidemiology, genetics, mathematical modeling, computing, media, the internet, and information transfer.

My question is: What is the why behind the what?

What are our desired outcomes, and what do those desires say about us? Can technology provide the answers to our desires? Will we find satisfaction at the end of all scientific advances?

The advances we want aren’t all bad, but the advances themselves cannot fully provide what our hearts are seeking. Knowing what our hearts desire is crucial; without that knowledge, we will be a slave to the advances; the advances will become an idol.

At their best, idols are asymptotic. That is to say, whatever the idol is promising, you can only get so close, but never grasp it. In this way, all idols over-promise and under-deliver. Imagine if you asked people in 1900 if they would be truly satisfied if their lifespan could be doubled (the average male lifespan was 46.3, 48.3 for females). I think a high number of respondents would say yes. Imagine polling people today, who actually live to that age, to ask if they were truly satisfied. How many would say yes? I think there would be a significant gap between the 1900 poll and the 2016 poll. The point is that doubled lifespan would likely fail to deliver on the expected level of satisfaction. Much of the excitement driving transhumanism is the extension of embodied (physical) or disembodied (digital) lifespan. Will extending our lifespan in a broken world provide a level of satisfaction commensurate to the hope and faith we place in the technology?

What shall we say then? If advances deliver, in time—as they did 100-plus years from the year 1900—these ethical dilemmas will be in our future. What options do we have today, knowing the future will one day be here? Shall we be Luddites? Shall we kill our TVs? Shall we shut down all the good in fear of the bad? Shall we embrace it all, come what may? There is a pretty wide highway between the technological iconoclasm of the Luddites and the technological idealism of the transhumanists. On a wide highway, you have plenty of road between the median (transhumanism) and the ditch (Neo-Luddism). But how do we parse out where we stand on a given technology?

Tightrope walkers often employ a long pole for balance. The pole distributes weight further from the center of mass and this reduces the impact that other forces have on the tightrope walker. As we walk in these new technologies, we would be wise to carry such a pole.

Every moral situation involves three important dynamics: the circumstance, the agent, and the Word of God. Each of these perspectives requires asking important and often overlapping questions. As it pertains to the Word of God, the text itself remains constant but we must practice sound hermeneutics for the same principles to be applied to new circumstances. As it pertains to the agent, we will have a lot of questions as to who and what is an agent and who is responsible for the agency. We are often left with more questions than answers:

What is a human?

What is human agency?

What does it mean to be made in the image of God?

How far can we have augmented reality, cognition, or health without assailing our image bearing?

The more we look down the tunnel of time, the more complicated the questions become. The coming ethical conundrums of transhumanism raise some really good questions. Are we trying to rebuild the Tower of Babel, or are we using general revelation in prudent ways? The need of the hour is a forward thinking and measured application of the biblical worldview. These elements can function as the balancing pole as we walk from one side of the chasm to the other.

God was sovereign when our lifespans were half what they are today. God was sovereign before computers or the internet. The sky is not falling because God is good and is in control. God is sovereign in the end of all things, meaning His final rule, reign, and authority is secure. God is also sovereign in the means by which He accomplishes those ends. One of the means by which God accomplishes His ends is utilizing His people. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to bring sharper focus and clarity to the issues surrounding transhumanism and advanced technologies. Because both general and special revelation flow from God, we have the stewardship to cultivate these advances in a manner consistent with our image bearing. These inspiring and life-giving advances in technology should spur us to think more of God and not less. A future like that, full of higher thoughts about the God who is above all, is one we can move toward with confidence as we stay balanced by truth.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.


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1 Comment

  1. Mike Withers says:

    Transhumanism…hmmm.
    Was it not transhumanistic to pick up a rock and extend the reach of the first hunters? Or to weave a basket to multiply the grasp of the first gatherers? Did the first warrior to apply face paint not magnify his natural social abilities through outside means?
    We use transhumanism in principle daily without even knowing it. Perhaps one day I could mentally transmit a message to you, but I’m doing that right now only one step removed. (adding typing into the mix) I think our “normal” ethical standards will do quite well for the majority of future humanistic applications.
    But… there are some areas that might need some more thought. “Supernatural healing” ala nanobots might seem outrageous, but it is just surgery at one remove-and poisoning is hardly a new concept. But genetic manipulation, that might be something different. (although I agree that the false promises are the most problematic issue) I ask this: in “normal” situations, is it wrong to try to get others (and ourselves) closer to an Edenic ideal? That is: long-lived, beautiful, intelligent, healthy, etc. Not, in and of itself… only if it comes before or instead of God.
    “Who needs God when I can regrow a lost limb?” vs. “Boy, I’m glad Steve is able to play the piano again, twenty years ago that hand would have been lost forever.”
    Or, let me put it another way: we try to negate or reverse corruption when we find it, and generally hold that to be a moral and ethical thing to do. If we can extend that into the corruption of genes, then what makes that a suspect choice? Don’t get me wrong, abuse of that tool, or being mistaken about what is a corruption are a problem we’ll have to face. After all the eugenics programs of the last century were simply genetic manipulation writ large. Let’s say I’m genetically prone to thyroid issues… well, I take this activated virus, and two weeks later: I’m not. Not a big deal, unless it is heart disease, certain cancers, … skin tone… sexual preference… eye color ???? It is a tool, nothing more, it can be used to help, or to try to shape other people into our own ideas. But… so was that first rock. I can bask Abel over the head, or I can knock a coconut off a tree…

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