Here at Christ and Pop Culture we’ve had a running dialogue on transhumanism — the growing philosophical movement that seeks to improve humanity through the merger of human biology with advanced technologies (think Cyborg meets Transcendence). Last year, we devoted an entire issue of our magazine to this topic. And as in any good dialogue, there are differences of opinion.
For instance, while I don’t think transhumanism, in its most general sense, is necessarily incompatible with Christianity, I do think there is a prominent thread of transhumanist thought that has more in common with Gnosticism than with Christian orthodoxy.
On the other hand, Micah Redding — a writer, software engineer, and Executive Director of the Christian Transhumanist Association — disagrees with me. In an essay he contributed to last year’s magazine issue, he argues that by seeking the improvement of the physical world, transhumanism is the opposite of Gnosticism, and is therefore more in line with Christian orthodoxy than much of American evangelicalism.My hope is to encourage more dialogue between Christians who might normally avoid, or talk past each other, in complex issues such as transhumanism.
I was disappointed that Micah — whom I consider a friendly acquaintance and ally — did not actually engage any of the arguments I gave previously for the gnostic aspects of transhumanism. Rather than simply repeat those, however, I would like to respond here by outlining what I see as the three biggest points of theological and ethical tension between Christian orthodoxy and transhumanism, and offer some suggestions for how Christians can move forward in greater unity.
Changing Human Nature
First, transhumanism seeks not just to improve the human condition, but to actually change human nature. This should be no secret — it is implied in the very word transhuman, which essentially means “beyond human.” Many transhumanists speak openly about their desire to transform and redefine humanity through the use of technology. And some actually prefer the term posthuman.
For many Christians, however, the idea of changing human nature immediately raises ethical and theological concerns. Professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas in Austin, J. Budziszewski, put the concern well, when he wrote, “To abolish and remake human nature is to play God. The chief objection to playing God is that someone else is God already.” (What We Can’t Not Know, 2003) Most Christians are, in principle, firmly against supporting anything that they perceive as “playing God.” So changing human nature is one area where many Christians would draw the line with transhumanism.
But what if changing human nature isn’t really playing God after all? What if human nature is something malleable that God intended for us to improve, just as he called Adam and Eve (and by extension all of humanity) to take the raw materials of the universe and cultivate them into something better? I reached out to Micah and asked if he would clarify his views on this. Here’s what he had to say:
“It depends on how you define ‘human’. If you define it as a biological category (10 fingers, 10 toes, etc), then you exclude certain people who don’t fit those criteria. If instead you define it as a moral category (‘the image of God’), then you include all those people and many more… Within the moral definition of humanity, no amount of positive transformation would make you post-human. If we are becoming more relational, more compassionate, more creative—then we are becoming more human, living out the image of God in richer and richer ways.”
Micah himself prefers the moral definition. The implication of this view is that if human nature consists purely in our non-physical (“moral”) qualities — i.e. our creativity, compassion, etc. — then we are free to transform ourselves physically without worrying that we are changing our nature or playing God. And as long as we are growing in our God-given capacities for compassion, creativity, relationships, etc., then we are actually becoming more human, not less, no matter how artificially transfigured our bodies become. As attractive as this view may sound to some, however, it has at least one major theological problem: it appears to be based on gnostic assumptions.
How do we know, for instance, that the moral-relational qualities of human beings even can be separated from our current physical-biological qualities? To suggest it can appears to devalue our physical embodiment in typical gnostic fashion, because it assumes our physical qualities are secondary or unimportant and can be artificially reconstructed (by us) without losing anything crucial to our humanity.
To suggest, for example, that we could retain our human capacities for empathy and love while continuing to alter our bodies in fundamental ways, assumes that human love and empathy have no essential component or foundation in our current biological structures. But some research suggests that the similarity in biological structure that exists between two people — namely, the fact that they are both biologically human — is precisely one of the things that allows them to empathize with each other.
In a fascinating New York Times article, psychologist Barbara Fredrickson describes the biological events that occur during a human interaction:
“When you share a smile or laugh with someone face to face, a discernible synchrony emerges between you, as your gestures and biochemistries, even your respective neural firings, come to mirror each other. It’s micro-moments like these, in which a wave of good feeling rolls through two brains and bodies at once, that build your capacity to empathize as well as to improve your health.”
Why think that such empathy-building interactions could continue or improve, even when one or both parties have transformed themselves into something no longer biologically human?
How the Change Is Decided
The second point of tension that I see between Christianity and transhumanism is an ethical one: the decision to change human nature (and change it to what) will almost certainly not be democratically chosen. Rather, the change(s) will most likely be decided by a small and powerful group of people — scientists, technocrats, and private corporations. In other words, if changing human nature is “playing God,” then deciding to go ahead with the change(s) means some people will play God to other people — which is a morally dubious situation, to say the least.
Again, Budziszewski is instructive here:
“You say you want man to be to himself what God has been to man. But what God has been to man is man’s absolute superior, and man cannot be his own superior. A thing can be equal to itself, but it cannot be greater than itself. So [what you really mean is] you want some men to be to other men what God has been to man. You want some men to be the absolute superiors of others. I assume that you want to be in the former group and not in the latter… you say you want to change the human design. But in that case there must be two groups: those who caused the change, and those who result from it. And the former hold all the cards.” (What We Can’t Not Know, pp.56,135)
Someone may object that changing one’s nature will be optional — individuals will choose for themselves whether or not to undergo radical modifications to their body. So no one is playing God to other people, just playing God to themselves, by their own choice. But this objection ignores the difficulties of equitable access. Typically, those who get first access to new technologies are people who can afford it — in other words, the people with the most wealth and power already. If those people then choose to modify themselves to be even more powerful, what are the chances it will lead to a more equitable society?
Moreover, the objection fails to recognize the fact that our individual choices affect others around us, for good or for ill. It is naive to think that a few individuals could modify themselves to something beyond human — effectively creating a new artificial species — and it not cause ripples of upheaval in social structures. What are the chances that those upheavals would be good and just? One’s answer depends largely on where they stand on the next issue.
The Extent of Sin
The third point of tension between transhumanism and Christian orthodoxy is both theological and ethical: transhumanism generally underemphasizes, or denies completely, the doctrine of original sin. While Christians have historically debated the extent that sin affects human beings (Are we totally depraved? Not totally depraved?) and debated how sin is transferred (Is sin transferred through reproduction? Through culture?), Christians have at least agreed that humans needed to be saved from our sin — that’s what the story of the Bible is basically about. Our situation was such that we needed God to come down and save us; we could not save ourselves.
Given that general agreement, how much confidence should we place, then, in the efforts of sinful people (as we all are) to change human nature for the better? And is it ethically responsible to do so? Furthermore, is it theologically wise to believe that humans even could change their nature for the better? Can a sinful creature save himself? These questions are not meant to be dismissive or pessimistic. They are, in my estimation, serious points of discussion for moving forward.
In fact, that’s what I think is most desperately needed to build greater unity on these issues: discussion. If Christians want to be a faithful presence within our rapidly advancing technological culture — and specifically within the transhumanist movement (and I think they should) — then deep, interdisciplinary dialogue is urgently needed. Christians — both those supportive of transhumanism and those skeptical of it — need to challenge each other, listen to each other, and learn from each other, with the goal of coming to as much theological and ethical agreement as they can, as soon as they can, because technology is advancing faster than ethicists can even ask questions.
So, to help in this effort, here is a short list of questions that I think require deeper discussion:
- What is the most theologically, philosophically, and scientifically robust definition of “human” that we can give?
- What exactly does it mean to be made in the “image of God”?
- To what extent, if any, is our current biological structure essential to our God-given capacities for love, forgiveness, creativity, morality, and worship? And how plausible is it to change those structures without detriment to our capacities?
- Judging from scripture, is it even possible or ethical to try to change our own nature?
- To what extent, and under what conditions, can scripture correct science, and vice versa?
- What laws and regulations would strike the closest balance between freedom of technological innovation and protection of human dignity?
Of course, there are many more questions that need to be (and are being) discussed. But it is my hope that this can help encourage more dialogue between Christians who might normally avoid, or talk past each other. If anything, it can help identify where important theological and ethical lines need to be drawn in how we Christians approach technological issues together. Christian agreement on where those lines are will help all of us to be a faithful presence for good in a culture that is advancing faster than the human conscience is.