Transhumanism and Religion
by John G. Messerly
Transhumanism is: The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities transhumanism is a way of thinking about the future that is based on the premise that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase.1
Transhumanism appears to have nothing in common with religion, defined as: the belief in and worship of a god or gods, or any such system of belief and worship2 In transhumanism the gods play no role. [[No. When understood as simply the current form of ancient Gnosticism transhumanism indeed incorporates polytheism. -- DNI]
Yet the two are not entirely dissimilar. Religious people generally want to overcome the limitations of the body and live forever, just like transhumanists. Arising before transhumanist ideas were conceivable, religions had no other option but to advise their followers to accept death and hope for the best. Religious beliefs provided comfort in the face of death and natural evils before the advent of science and technology. We might think of religion as premature transhumanism. Religion is not the opposite of transhumanism but a seed from which transhumanism can grow.
However today the comfort provided by archaic religious superstitions impedes advancement and therefore should be set aside. We need to grow beyond religion. But must we relinquish religious beliefs now, before science gives us everything we want? Yes. The most important reason to abandon religious belief is religion's opposition to most forms of progress. For the most part religion has opposed: the elimination of slavery, the use of birth control, women's and civil rights, stem cell research, genetic engineering, and science in general. Religion is from our past; it opposes the future.
Can humans function without the old religious narratives? They can, they just need new narratives based on a scientific worldview. Such narratives could be transhumanist, of humans playing their role as links in a chain leading to greater forms of being and consciousness; or perhaps they will focus on the idea that cosmic evolution is the story of the universe becoming self-conscious through conscious beings like ourselves. Whatever shape those narratives take, they must be informed by the belief that humans can evolve into something much more than they are now.
But against this seemingly infinite temporal background, what of the significance of a single, finite human life, and what is the significance of all of cosmic evolution? We are significant if we play our part in advancing evolution, if we accept our role as the protagonists of the evolutionary epic. And if we succeed our post-human descendants will understand these ultimate questions, giving our own lives by then long past a significance we can now hardly fathom. For the moment we must take solace in the hope that the better world we imagine is indeed possible.
Having introduced transhumanists ideas to university students over the years, I am familiar with typical objections to transhumanist philosophy: if we don't die the world will become overpopulated; not having a body would be yucky; this is all science fiction; lots of things can go wrong; technology is bad; death makes life meaningful; immortality would be boring; etc.
So I was surprised after yesterday's post to receive hostile responses of the 'we shouldn't play god', or 'we should let nature take its course' variety. You can find similar critiques at links like : The Catholic Church Declares War on Transhumanism [http://hplusmagazine.com/2013/10/04/the-catholic-church-has-declared-war-on-transhumanism/] and Transhumanism: Mankind's Greatest Threat. [[not found, from personhoodus.com -- DNI]]
Here is a statement from the latter: Various organizations desire to use emerging technology to create a human species so enhanced that they cease to be humans. They will be post-humans with the potential of living forever. If these sciences are not closely monitored and regulated, transhumanists' arrogant quest to create a post-human species will become a direct assault on human dignity and an attack on God's sovereignty as Creator. We must decide on an unmovable line now, one that upholds human dignity based on Biblical Truth.
It is no longer enough to be pro-life; we have now entered a time when we must be pro-human. Education about the full implications of these emerging sciences is a key to be able to directly confront these assaults on humanity.
If one truly believes that humans should accept their fate, that they were specially designed and created by the gods, and that the divine plans includes evil and death, then the condemnations of transhumanism are justified. But will this opposition succeed? I doubt it. Most do not desire to go back to the middle ages, when believers prayed sincerely and then died miserably.
Today some still consult faith healers, but the intelligent go to their physicians. Everything about technology plays god, and letting nature takes its course means that half the people reading this article would have died in childbirth or from childhood diseases before the advent of modern medicine.
Still there are good reasons to be cautious about designing and using future technologies, as Bill Joy outlined more than a decade ago in Why The Future Doesn't Need Us. [ http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy.html] (Here is my published criticism [Takes you to his book: http://reasonandmeaning.com/wp-login.php?redirect_to=http%3A%2F%2Freasonandmeaning.com%2Fwp-admin%2Fpost.php%3Fpost%3D258%26action%3Dedit%26message%3D1&reauth=1] of Joy's argument.) Yes, we should be cautious about the future, but we should not stand still.
Do we really want to turn the clock back 100 years before computers and modern medicine? Do we really want to freeze technology at its current level? Look before we leap, certainly, but leap we must. If we do nothing, eventually we will go extinct: asteroids will hit the planet, the climate will change irrevocably, bacteria will evolve uncontrollably, and in the far future the sun will burn out. Only advanced technologies give us a chance against such forces.
If we do nothing we will die; if we gain more knowledge and the power that accompanies it, we have a chance. With no risk-free way to proceed, we should be brave and bold, unafraid to guide our own destiny.
Perhaps the best way to illuminate the choice is to consider a previous choice human beings faced in their history. What should they do about disease? Should they pray to the gods and have faith that the gods will cure them, or should they use science and technology to find the cures themselves? In hindsight the answer is clear. Praying to the gods makes no difference, whereas using modern medicine has limited death and disease, and nearly doubled the human lifespan in the last century.
When medieval Europeans contracted the plague they prayed hard and then died miserably. Other examples also easily come to mind. What is the best way to predict weather, harness energy, capture sound, achieve flight, communicate over great distances, or fly to far off planets? In none of these cases is doing nothing and hoping for the best a good bet. All of the above were achieved through the use of science and technology.
These examples highlight another advantage to making the transhumanist wager the incremental benefits that accrue as we live longer and better lives as we approach the holy grail of a blissful immortality. Such benefits provide assurance that we are on the right path, which should increase our confidence that we are making the correct wager. In fact, the benefits already bestowed upon us by science and technology in the past confirm that it is the best path toward a better future. (Half the readers of this essay would have died from a childhood disease just a century ago.) As these benefits accumulate, and as we become aware of them, our existence will become increasingly indistinguishable from the most enchanting descriptions of any afterlife.
So we should throw off archaic superstitions and use our technology? Yes Will we do this? Yes. I can say with confidence that when an effective pill that stops or reverses aging becomes available at your local pharmacy. it will be popular. Or if, as you approach death, you are offered the opportunity to have your intact consciousness transferred to your younger cloned body, a genetically engineered body, a robotic body, or a virtual reality, most will use such technologies when they have been shown to be effective. By then almost everyone will prefer the real thing to a leap of faith. At that point there will be no need to make a transhumanist wager. The transhumanist will already have won the bet.
However at the moment the above is science fiction and subject to trillions of variables. Contingent factors beyond our imagination will lead to some unimaginable future, or no future at all. Thus evolutionary progress is not inevitable, and in no way do our views entail technological optimism technology can be used for good or ill.
But even if our technology can lead to a glorious future, it could be halted by terrestrial or celestial disasters, or by dogmatists, zealots, religious fanatics, and others who oppose progress. The opponents may have legitimate fears about the repercussions of future technologies, but they may also be guided by ignorance and irrationality.
They may long for a past paradise, fear what they don't understand, believe they possess a monopoly on the truth, or think humans subservient to super beings. But for whatever reasons they oppose change, preferring stasis and stagnation to dynamic, progressive evolutionism. They prefer to prevent the groundswell of initiative, creativity, inventiveness, perseverance, and hope that drive evolution forward. They are fearful that the new world will render them and their beliefs, anachronistic. They are the enemies of the future.
But if the surge of cosmic longing presses forward, then higher forms of being and consciousness will emerge, and the universe will become increasingly self-consciousness. This is the story of cosmic evolution, of a universe becoming self-conscious through the creation of conscious beings. Humans are not an end, but a beginning. They need not fear imaginary gods, but need instead to have the courage to create minds more powerful than the gods. Let the dark ages not again descend upon us let our most fantastic longings be realized. Let us have faith in the future.
1. This quote is from the Humanity+ website FAQ section.
2. From The Cambridge International Dictionary of English.
John G. Messerly is an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET. He received his PhD in philosophy from St. Louis University in 1992. His most recent book is The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives. He blogs daily on issues of philosophy, evolution, futurism and the meaning of life at his website: reasonandmeaning.com.
Note: In their own words; includes enemies of the future such as religions and prolife. Given that BIOethics founder Art Caplan is on the Board of Trustees of the IEET (which is quite overtly transhumanist/futurist/posthumanist/technoprogressive), look for the following quests articulated by Messerly to be ethically justified. BIOethics, like all utilitarian ethics, justifies something as 'ethical' if it is for the greater good for the greatest number in society (which automatically leaves minorities out); for them the ends justify the means used to reach those ends. But the ends do NOT justify the means used in other ethics theories (e.g., empirically grounded philosophical natural law ethics theory). See analysis and evaluation of Art Caplan's brand of BIOethics (as in the 1978 Belmont Report) in Irving, -- "What is 'bioethics'?" (June 3, 2000), UFL Proceedings of the Conference 2000, in Joseph W. Koterski (ed.), Life and Learning X: Proceedings of the Tenth University Faculty For Life Conference (Washington, D.C.: University Faculty For Life, 2002), pp. 1-84, at: http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/irv/irv_36whatisbioethics01.html. See mini-version of that article in Irving, "The bioethics mess", Crisis Magazine, Vol. 19, No. 5, May 2001, at: http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/irv/irv_37bioethicsmess.html.
See also earlier Irving articles evaluating this BIOethics (also referred to historically as 'Federal Ethics', 'The Georgetown Mantra', etc.): To understand how and why current transhumanist/futurist/posthumanist/technoprogressive 'isms' are simply the current renditions of ancient Gnosticism (which was polytheistic, pantheistic, and paganistic), see article by international expert in Gnosticism, Hans Jonas in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, in Irving, "GNOSTICISM, the Heretical Gnostic Writings, and 'Judas'" (April 9, 2006), at: http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/irv/irv_121gnosticism1.html
The article first appeared here. -- DNI]