The good, the bad, and the (possibly and probably) ugly humans of the future | how to respond to transhumanism spiritually.
At the turn of the century, futurist Ray Kurzweil released a book called, The Age of Spiritual Machines. Kurzweil, a notable transhumanist and a current employee at Google, is a big believer in a technological singularity and the potential of life extension technology. He was called “Edison's rightful heir” by Inc in 2013.
I haven’t read The Age of Spiritual Machines, but I find the title intriguing for the simple fact that, the more I explore the topic of transhumanism, the more I find spiritual connotations and correlations emerging from many of the movement’s atheistic or agnostics proponents.
One of the best essays I’ve read on the topic that really brings it all together is God in the machine: my strange journey into transhumanism by Meghan O'Gieblyn. O’Gieblyn, once a Christian but an agnostic in 2017 (a look at her website suggests there might be a change) traces how, after giving up on belief in God, transhumanism gave her hope—but for the same reasons Christianity gave her hope. She then notes how so many transhumanist ideas are simply Christian ideas with a twist, the big one being that the Kingdom of God (re-named but essentially with similar ideas of flourishing for all and, ultimately, immortality) can be achieved through technology.
In my previous post on this topic, I spoke about how the transhuman story is actually the story undergirding a lot of our fears as a society right now, even though most people are probably not consciously aware of it. But make no mistake, transhumanism—the belief or theory that the human race can [or will] evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology (Oxford Dictionary)—is where things are going, and if we leave the cowboys of Silicon Valley or the “elite” crazies at the World Economic Forum, or the politicians of our world, alone to shape it, we’re in for a very bad time.
I’d like to suggest you check out Paul Kingsnorth’s excellent free and short book called The Vaccine Moment which you can download here. (Thank you Mike Stuart for sending me to Paul’s substack!) Paul is trying to get to the root of what’s happening in the covidian era— “I am trying to understand the stories we are telling ourselves about it all, and especially to emphasise how those stories are means in themselves of exerting control over our future direction of travel,” he says. Regardless of your view of vaccines, it’s worth reading and thinking about as Paul makes a lot of reference to the merging of Man and Machine, and the trouble this will cause.
In my previous post, I ended off with talking about the questions transhumanism asks—or the questions it leads us to ask—and saying these are, at their core, spiritual questions. As noted above, many transhumanists are quite aware of this. One of the big questions are, of course, what makes us human. The other big question is: where is it all going? Or more expansively, what is the ultimate end of mankind, and how do we get there?
The question of the future answers the question of identity
Firstly, what makes us human? Our identity is a big deal, especially these days in the light of secular existentialism that encourages us to create meaning for ourselves. (Or rather, leaves us no choice, as there is simply no other meaning under that scheme.) For the purely secular mind, the question of where we are going is what answers the question of who we are—of what makes us human—because the purely secular mind’s “origin” or “creation” story, even if interesting to some scientifically, has been stripped of what Charles Taylor calls “enchantment”.
I’m perhaps not using his definition in its fullest sense, but essentially I’m just noting that, in a purely and strictly “secular” and “materialist” view, there is no “higher purpose” to mankind’s existence—no objective, given meaning—except one we make for ourselves rather subjectively (even if collectively).
This is not to say that atheists or agnostics don’t have meaning in their lives (or, if they do, they’re only fooling themselves), only that this is something they have to discover for themselves, and they can’t glean it from a “meta-narrative” so much as a personal narrative. As Christopher Hitchens once said, “It could be that all existence is a pointless joke, but it is not in fact possible to live one’s everyday life as if this were so.”
In contrast, for the spiritual mind there is a great deal of “enchantment” and “mystery” to the human being and our existence in this little corner of the cosmos. This may often be subjective, but the mere idea of ‘spirituality’ does point to objective meaning, even if this meaning is hidden. (The fact that it may be hidden adds to the enchantment.)
Of course, there’s a lot that can be said here in terms of how this is worked out in different religions and spiritual beliefs.
However, transhumanism does offer some kind of meta-narrative to secular materialism / humanism—a sort of ‘destiny’ to the human race. It is the ultimate ‘aim’ of evolution, as if evolution possesses a mystical will and is taking us somewhere; or, it is finally humanity gaining power over evolution and directing its own progress. (One could muse about how we overcame God through our atheism, and now we’ll overcome evolution and become gods over it. However, in the process, we might adopt polytheism and come full circle!) Either way, the concepts begin to inject some enchantment back into secular thinking, which captures the imagination and stirs up some of our old human desires—the ability to captain our own destiny entirely.
Even more, what I find interesting about transhumanist thought it is often mirrors the Christian belief that humankind is to, and will, become more than what it is right now. Micah Redding is the right guy to read along these lines. He is the Executive Director of the Christian Transhumanist Association who define transhumanism as: “the ethical use of technology to transform the human condition.” (Twitter.)
Putting all this together, I think that no matter how you look at it, we’re entering a new “spiritual” age where even secularism and atheism are about to evolve. Interestingly, transhumanism actually opens up some opportunities for Christian apologetics.
Remember when the resurrection was apparently unscientific? Well, no longer. Because if you can build an entire being through a single strand of DNA, the resurrection doesn’t seem so far-fetched after all.
Remember when invisible, angelic beings were improbable and implausible? Inter-dimensionality is finding new life in the idea that life is a simulation. In this scheme, it would be easy for the ultra-intelligent beings running the simulation (like, say, Jesus, for example) to visit the simulation or even become “one of us”.
Remember when it was impossible and logically incoherent to think that Jesus is completely divine and completely human at the same time? Well, quantum superposition challenges that, saying that matter can potentially have two distinct natures at the same time. The simulation argument can also bolster the claim. It could also explain supernatural healing, etc.
All this doesn’t discredit the Bible and faith but can simply credit it as knowing the truth all along! (I don’t buy the simulation idea, but you get the point.) All the classic ideas about how God interacts with us are simply showing their head in the Science world under different language and schemes. The Bible may have simply been well ahead of its time. The “goat-herders” of the Bible might not have been able to articulate their experiences in a way we understand in our time and place, but their experiences are looking less and less impossible.
This all offers some unique opportunities and some guiding principles in how we can / should respond to the emerging transhumanism of our time.
Given my background and faith, and all the above, what I’d like to do now is just offer brief Christian-based thoughts to how we could approach transhumanism and direct things in a healthy way.
Creation, reformation and eschatology
Unlike a purely secular worldview which really only looks forward, the Christian worldview looks back in order to know what future to build.
This is why I believe Christianity is a reformation movement and always will be. I’m not referring to being Reformed (capital “R”) but I’m referring to the spirit of reforming, which in history we, of course, see in the Reformation but also see in Christianity’s very roots.
After all, Christianity claimed (and always has claimed) to be the continuing, right revelation of God first given to the Hebrews. To make this claim it goes back to the Hebrew scriptures and makes claims of God’s original intention highlighted in those scriptures. Prophecies that might have meant one thing are interpreted, in hindsight, to actually be pointing to Christ. This many-layered, allegorical interpretation of scripture is how the early Christians frequently approached the Old Testament and is how most Christians usually do it today. We don’t just do it with the Old Testament, we tend to do it with the New Testament ‘prophetically’ and we do it with other cultures as well (we look for things in a culture which can point to Christ.)
This is a reformation way of looking at things—uncover the original intention and then go forward once you know that. To reform is different to transform. Reformation means to (1) look at the past, the original intention, and (2) use that to understand what the future should look like, and (3) therefore know what to do now.
In Genesis 1 - 3, we see that God made mankind—both male and female—in the image of God.1 Mankind is placed in the paradise of Eden and is charged to ‘tend and keep’ the garden, while at the same time to multiply and take dominion of the earth (1:28; 2:15).
Without this core understanding of mankind’s inherent value and beauty, a lot of transhumanism will go wrong. Evolution on its own implies that mankind did not start beautiful but has had to make itself beautiful (Progress) and, in any case, what is Beauty under this scheme anyway? Taking from that, what will be built into a lot of transhuman philosophy is that people who are further back on the line of Progress (less evolved; less transhuman) are somewhat “less than”. Sure, a prejudiced attitude doesn’t exist in everyone and a lot of people will guard against it, or they will hope in the political system (which I believe is a useless hope) but nevertheless, it would be incredibly naïve to think that a new form of hyper-prejudice would not form.
(It would also be naïve to think there wouldn’t be significant push-back either, a call back to nature and a prejudice against those ‘evolving’. And so a fresh new conflict arises. X-Men predicted this all.)
Prejudice is alive and well. This even plays itself out when we look at the “Developed” versus “Developing” world. We saw this first-hand as South Africans when we experienced prejudice in the wake of the Omicron wave. Westerners can shout about their liberalism and political solutions all they want, but when push comes to shove, their prejudice was plain. There’s very little reason to think that transhumanism won’t create massive complications to human and geo-political relations going forward.
Mankind’s own glory
Christianity says we started beautiful and good but harmed ourselves and lost a great deal of what we were intended to be. Mankind falls from the original intention in Genesis 3 when the Woman and the Man were tempted to be “like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5). This ‘knowing’ in the original Hebrew implies the idea of ‘discerning’. So mankind eats from the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” and now knows good and evil but, as the story shows us, is unable to do anything about it—is unable to be truly good.
Since then, the story of the Bible shows us how mankind has tried to be ‘like God’ in being good, but we’re constantly failing at that, so we look to justify ourselves by being ‘like God’ and deciding for ourselves what good and evil actually is. There are obvious lessons here with transhumanism. The story of mankind has always been the story of mankind’s own glory, encapsulated brilliantly by Martin Luther in his Heidelberg Disputation as he uncovers a ‘theology of glory’ (a theology that seeks to elevate mankind and push mankind to bettering itself morally, even with God’s ‘help’, through ‘works’ and other means) versus a ‘theology of the cross’ (a theology where we realise we have to die with Jesus on the cross to become ‘new creations’). For Luther, the Church had represented a ‘theology of glory’ through its integration with philosophy and Pelagian theology and the like, so that God Himself was no longer seen as a life-giving Spirit but an ‘assistance’ to becoming virtuous, righteous beings. (We often make the same theological mistake today.)
But of note, here, is that classical Christian theology also makes the claim that we’re not actually trying to get back to the original Garden but are moving forward despite this setback. This is important to note. As a friend of mine, Alan Jones, once pointed out—the Bible starts in a Garden but doesn’t end in one. Rather, it ends in a City. God’s intention was always to take us from a Garden to a City, and it’s not that this has changed—it’s just that the route to get there has gotten rather complicated, to say the least.
The key take-aways from Genesis 1 - 3 in light of our subject, then, is that the human form and make-up is perfect in its original design and this must be kept and conserved; and that creation itself must be conserved; while at the same time we are to move forward to a City and ‘take dominion’. That implies progress, technological and otherwise.
This means that, like with all technology, there are aspects of transhumanism that very much line up to Christian ideals, especially when it comes to medicine and human flourishing. However, there are aspects to it that don’t line up to these ideals either, when it comes to subjects such as Beauty, inherent value, and sinfulness. People often ask why did God not allow human beings to eat from the tree of life and become immortal (Genesis 3:21-24) but rather kick Adam end Eve out of the garden? Some cynics and sceptics have said it’s because God was scared of what we might become. However, the reality is, can you imagine being prone to sinfulness and evil; hurt and broken; and living forever? That sounds like hell. In mercy, God doesn’t allow them to do that, not until they have died and enter into a new creation life in His Spirit, which is the New Testament reality.
Detail of Thomas Cole, "Expulsion from the Garden of Eden" (1828). Photo taken by Hrag Vartanian.
Genesis 6 - the Sons of God
This didn’t stop mankind, however, from trying to achieve immortality in its own way. The story of Genesis 6 is one of the most strangest parts of the Bible, spawning theories around ancient astronauts to aliens to all types of demonology.
The text reads as such:
1 When humankind began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of humankind were beautiful. Thus they took wives for themselves from any they chose. 3 So the Lord said, “My Spirit will not remain in humankind indefinitely, since they are mortal. They will remain for 120 more years.”
4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days (and also after this) when the sons of God would sleep with the daughters of humankind, who gave birth to their children. They were the mighty heroes of old, the famous men.
5 But the Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind had become great on the earth. Every inclination of the thoughts of their minds was only evil all the time. 6 The Lord regretted that he had made humankind on the earth, and he was highly offended.
There’s a lot of weirdness here that we can’t really understand. Traditional interpretations of this text pretty much take it at face value—that fallen angels were somehow able to have babies with human women, and the result was a race that seemed to become rather evil and (presumably) possessed an infinite lifespan, and needed to be wiped out later when Israel took its promised land.
Interpretations usually try and understand the historical event, and a huge amount of speculation revolves around that. I’m more interested in the allegorical interpretation of this verse—the meaning we can extract from it for our time and place. This is a rather classical Christian way of interpreting this text anyway. And what we take from it is simple: humanity wanted to be immortal and something other than merely human. This was not only something God didn’t like but it was something that created tremendous problems down the line—it created more evil and injustice, not less.
Therefore, any attempts at being anything other than human will only present tremendous problems. In fact, one could go so far as to say its downright demonic. The book of Revelation, a highly allegorical book itself, seems to indicate the same thing by referencing the “anti-Christ”, ‘666’, as “man’s number”. Bear in mind that Christ called himself “the Son of Man”, a reference to him being the “second Adam” (Romans 5), the representation of mankind to God. (The phrase ‘Son of Man’ is one theologians also say is mysterious and no one really knows exactly what He was saying). In other words, Jesus represents mankind in its Beauty and goodness, while the anti-Christ is mankind in its ugliness and strife for its own glory, perfection, and to be something more than human—something god-like.
What I take from all this is the idea of being anything other than human is always ‘anti-Christ’ and always creates “beast” systems that oppress others. (These are pictures in the book of Revelation.) From a theological point of view, the ‘theology of glory’—the idea that through our own efforts we can become holy, good, acceptable, and righteous in ourselves before God, possessing our own ‘god-like qualities’ (being ‘like god’ in Genesis 3)—is ‘anti-Christ’. Ultimately, we see historically that this oppresses people under religious systems. Politics waits in the wings. In the historical context of Revelation, Caesar was also seen to be divine and have divine rights—to be ‘more than’ the average human person. The mix of politics and religion caused massive persecution of Christians and terrible classist systems. (Yes, the Romans also did give us democracy and other things, but you get the idea).
Transhumanism, for all its good points, always will possess the negative possibility that we can make ‘gods’ of ourselves. That is ‘anti-Christ’ and will not end well.
The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Hieronymus Bosch. Image is Public Domain.
The final take-away
Coming down to earth for a moment, what we can take away from this, in my understanding, is firstly that classical materialism is on its way out, and I reckon what will replace it will be a spiritual materialism. In practice, this might actually look a lot like neo-paganism with animistic ideas. Materialism will come full circle. This means that people will be asking spiritual questions more than ever.
Secondly, it seems to me that transhumanism shouldn’t be rejected outright, just like not all technology should. Transhumanism possesses, inherently, some Christian “Kingdom” ideals around human flourishing. We can’t reject the possible healing that genetic therapies, nano-technology, or even cyborg technology or possibly even microchips into human brains could bring (as uncomfortable as that last one makes me feel).
However, we should also always remember that the human form is sacred and beautiful (our physical form matters); that the human spirit is precious but cannot be healed through technology; that the human mind is capable of a great deal of good but can also imagine a great deal of evil; and that we are all equal in value and should never create situations where that is no longer the case.
Thirdly, theological and philosophical reaction and approach to transhumanism must be reformation, not transformation. We are human, not gods, and even if the trajectory of the Bible is that we will ‘judge angels’ (1 Corinthians 6:3) we will always be human. The reaction should also not be fear and outright rejection—we’re not all called to be Amish, we’re called to actively work in this world and shape it, as best we can, and not withdraw from it, despite technology and its trappings (which we are called to reform and shape).
Lastly, I believe that, in the absence of most Christian-minded people with the above worldview walking the halls of power, our best response is not so much political but, like with everything else, through the Church (community) and the Arts. These are subversive cultural changers that we neglect far too often as we choose the ‘top-down’ political, even activist approach, that comes with noise and even violence. Jesus often hinted that the subversive approach is better, noting that the Son of Man came to serve and not be served (Matthew 20:28) and that the Kingdom is like yeast, working through the whole dough (Matthew 13:33); and even coming into the world as a small baby, born in a small town where no one expected. While politics and activism has some value, I do think that a focus on Church and Arts brings longer-lasting results. But this would be for another post.
I hope this was valuable. Feel free to share this with others and comment!
There is some theological debate on the meaning of the word ‘God’ (Hebrew Elohim) in these chapters, where it can refer to either a monotheistic God, or the Trinity, or to a counsel of ‘gods’ who are ruled by Yahweh, the Hebrew god or, as Christians would think of Him, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I don’t want to necessarily get sidetracked into that discussion here, although it is important theologically when we also look at Genesis 6 and so on.