In the second and third centuries A.D., some Christian leaders felt it necessary to speak out against a movement of thought that had emerged within the early Church. They believed this new movement conflicted with the orthodox view handed down by the apostles and the Old Testament scriptures. The emerging movement, which was heavily influenced by the ideas of Plato, held that the material world was inherently corrupt and debasing, and our physical bodies were a type of prison. Our souls, on the other hand, were pure and eternal. The end goal of this movement was for one’s soul to be released from the bondage of the physical world, and to exist eternally in an ethereal heaven. This movement became known as Gnosticism.
While self-professed Gnostics are rare today, Gnosticism’s core beliefs live on in various forms, one of them being transhumanism. In its most general sense, transhumanism is not necessarily incompatible with Christianity — they share many of the same values — but there is definitely a prominent thread of transhumanist thought that has more in common with Gnosticism than Orthodoxy.
Consider the attitude that both Gnostics and some transhumanists have toward bodily appetites like food and sex. Because Gnostics greatly devalued the material world and our physical bodies as either unimportant or degrading, many of them engaged in ascetic practices. They would, for example, go on long fasts or strict diets, or abstain from sex altogether. At best, Gnostics viewed bodily pleasures as “worldly” distractions from greater pursuits; at worst, they viewed such pleasures as sinful regressions from their true purpose.
Christians also abstain from food and sex at times, but for very different reasons. It is not because they view bodily pleasures as unimportant, degrading, or inherently sinful. On the contrary, Christians recognize the inherent goodness and joy of these pleasures, and consider them important gifts from God. However, they might choose to abstain from them for a time in order to practice balance, to refocus, or to simply give up something they enjoy as an act of worship.
Transhumanists, like Gnostics, tend to place little importance on our bodily appetites, reducing them to the level of distractions — things we must do to survive, but wish we didn’t have to. Take, for example, the new food-replacement drink Soylent, which has become popular among techies, “life-hackers,” and others of the transhumanist persuasion. Soylent, as its advertisements claim, is intended to “free your body” from the chore of preparing and eating traditional food, while still providing all the essential nutrients your cells need through a chemically engineered sludge. Unsurprisingly, some who have tried it complain that Soylent takes the joy out of eating.
As another example, consider the attitude that some transhumanists display toward sex when speculating how human relationships will be affected by digital technologies:
Mammals use sex as a means to generate offspring, to experience pleasure, and for bonding with partners… Erogenous zones and orgasms are simply the product of chemicals firing in the brain. If scientists can replicate that feeling by firing signals from an implanted chip or a brain wave headset, then it might even be the end of sex altogether.
Transhumanists envision a future where all human interactions are digitally simulated, even sex. As they see it, technology will make it unnecessary to even touch your lover’s body; we can experience all the same pleasure and intimacy, they think, through digital simulation.
But it doesn’t stop there. Even music cannot escape the reductionism of the transhumanist view. Consider this article imagining a future in which music is purely telepathic:
[T]he music concert of the future could very well be silent. Dead silent. Just like live music was replaced by vinyl record players and vinyl record players were replaced by Walkmans and Walkmans were replaced by iPods, iPods and other music-playing devices could be replaced by low-cost EEG brainwave-reading headsets. No more wires; no more earphones; [no] more play buttons. Just thoughts — and scans of those thoughts, meandering about your brain.
In all of these examples, we see transhumanists devaluing our bodily experience of the world, just as the Gnostics did.
In the case of food, transhumanists assume that we will not miss anything of importance by changing the way we feed our bodies; what matters most is nutrition and efficiency. Eating solid meals could then become just a “leisure activity” (i.e., non-essential, unnecessary) as Soylent creator Rob Rhinehart has suggested. In the case of sex, transhumanists assume that we will not miss anything of importance by changing the way we bond with our partners or experience sexual pleasure; what matters is simply having the right chemicals firing in the brain. Biological union is unnecessary. And in the case of music, it is not the sound waves produced by an instrument that are important; what matters is how your brain interprets those signals. If we can digitally simulate those same signals in the brain, we can have music without sound.
These assumptions on the part of transhumanists are both highly dubious and based on the Gnostic-like premise that there is little-to-no value in our physical, embodied experience of the world; there is only value in the mental experience of our consciousness (the transhumanist version of the soul). And like the Gnostics, transhumanists hope for a future where their “souls” can be released from the bondage of physical existence by “uploading” their consciousnesses into a computer where they can live virtually, and indefinitely, in the cloud.
C.S. Lewis well described the ultimate hope of transhumanism in his 1945 novel That Hideous Strength. In a telling dialogue, one of the main characters, Professor Filostrato, imagines:
A great race, further advanced than we. A pure race. They have cleaned their world, broken free (almost) from the organic… They do not need to be born and breed and die; only their common people, their canaglia do that. The Masters live on. They retain their intelligence: they can keep it artificially alive after the organic body has been dispensed with — a miracle of applied biochemistry. They do not need organic food. They are almost free of Nature, attached to her only by the thinnest, finest cord.
Even though the transhumanist vision of the future is fueled by technologies that are relatively new, the values and assumptions that inform it are not. Those values were around in Lewis’ time, and they were around in Irenaeus’ time. But what if, in all their excitement to jettison their biological limitations, transhumanists, like the Gnostics before them, have overlooked something essential? What if transhumanist assumptions about the world are horribly mistaken, both on a value level and on a physical level? What if there is something really important, even sacred, about the way we currently feed our bodies? What if the only way to experience the deep oneness of a sexual bond is through biological union — by becoming “one flesh” with another person? What if part of the transcendent beauty of music is due to the material way it is transmitted? What if consciousness is not something that can be digitally simulated? What if we were never meant to be free of Nature? These are all very relevant questions that I do not hear many transhumanists asking. Perhaps they should.
And perhaps, with transhumanist ideas becoming more and more popular, Christians should, in turn, be reminded of the goodness of God’s creation. With the amount of corruption, disease, and injustice in the world, it is easy for many Evangelicals to develop an attitude of negativity toward our terrestrial existence and instead, dream of a “home in the skies” future in which God destroys the universe and our souls escape to heaven, eternally liberated from our physical substrate. But that’s not the future that the biblical writers envisioned. They looked forward to a time when God would redeem the physical universe, not annihilate it; a time when they would live on a renewed Earth in renewed physical bodies. And they looked forward to that future because they believed the past — they believed God’s joyous declaration over the physical world: “It is very good.”
Transhumanism is not really new. It is Gnosticism for the new millenium. Many transhumanists operate on the same values and assumptions as the Gnostics of the second and third centuries. The Christians of that time thought the distinction between Gnosticism and Orthodoxy, however nuanced, was worth pointing out. Perhaps it still is.