I’m a big fan of science fiction, because it can spotlight the possibilities and liabilities of technology. There is a comfort in Sci-Fi, of course: it’s fiction. Not so in the case of transhumanism: Humanity+ and other transhumanist organizations seek real transformation of the human condition through technology.
The transhumanists of Silicon Valley tend towards a materialist, ontologically reductionist view of human life summarized by others. For them, human flourishing is inherently limited by humanity’s physical limitations, which can be remedied by what Ted Peters has called “techno-can-doism.” Augmented reality, pharmacological enhancement, nanotechnology, lifespan extension, and reanimation of cryogenically frozen patients are all part of the transhumanist agenda, as is morphological freedom: a fundamental human right of individuals to change their bodies in any way they choose. As Yuval Noah Harari has it, “organisms are algorithms” and they will soon be ripe for an upgrade: “Homo sapiens as we know it has run its historical course . . . we should therefore use technology in order to create Homo deus – a much superior model.” Ray Kurzweil suggests that eventually we will achieve the “singularity,” a time when our consciousness can be uploaded to a supercomputer to usher in a new era.
It is easy to lampoon some versions of transhumanism. As a biologist, to me they seem naïve. Take the notion that tweaking the human genome will lead to better humans. The advent of genome editing makes it conceivable that tweaking will be possible, but devilishly difficult. While a few traits can be traced to the activity of single genes, most traits, such as intelligence, are polygenic. Intelligence involves thousands of genetic elements spread across the genome, and only explains a fraction of the variability among those studied. “Better living through chemistry” is similarly challenging. The movie “Limitless” envisions a single “personality pill” as the secret to unlocking untapped potential in the human brain, but the reality is that pharmaceutical “adjustment” always involves tradeoffs, as D. Gareth Jones has pointed out.
And yet, as agnostic philosopher Michael Sandel said in The Case Against Perfection, “There is something appealing, even intoxicating, about a vision of human freedom unfettered by the given.” Indeed. I think there are at least two ways in which the siren song of transhumanism can be useful in helping the imago Dei speak to this gravitational pull.
Transhumanism As a Set of Conceptual Guardrails
First, transhumanism can serve as a via negativa (with apologies to Dionysius the Areopagite and Nicholas of Cusa), helping us to say “no, it’s certainly not that” as we ponder the telos of humanity. We could quote the Westminster Shorter Catechism at this point about the “chief end” of human beings and stop there. We could do much worse. But transhumanism can spur a more proactive response from Christian orthodoxy. Much as National Socialism acted as a foil for the Confessing Church in the Barmen Declaration, it can help us to say “instead it’s something like this.” This should be true whether we construe the imago as one or more of the standard “three Rs” (rationality, relationship, or regency), or a combination thereof.
“Do-it-yourself eschaton” vs. gifted glorification
Denis Alexander has likened transhumanism’s vision to a “DIY eschaton.” Contrast this with the biblical vision of glorious gift: “His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness” so that we might “become partakers of divine nature” (2 Pet 1:3–4). Secular thinkers resonate with this notion. Michael Sandel says, “Appreciating the gifted quality of life constrains the Promethean project and conduces to a certain humility. It is in part a religious sensibility . . . eugenics and genetic engineering . . . represent the one-sided triumph of willfulness over giftedness, of dominion over reverence, of molding over beholding.” Instead of a bald assertion of morphological freedom, Christians assert that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17), and that Christ’s likeness is the ultimate human pattern: “we all . . . beholding the glory of the Lord are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18). Christians should declare that this is the only transformation that matters.
Digital gnosticism vs. embodied souls
The Kurzweilian version of transhumanism envisions a future of disembodied intelligences stored in a vast super-cloud of immense proportions. This gnosticism for the digital age is clearly at odds with the Christian vision. Even in the age to come, we will each have a “spiritual body” (σῶμα πνευματικόν; 1 Cor 15:44). The details are mostly inexpressible, but “we shall all be changed” (1 Cor 15:51). Whatever else we may say about glorified bodies, such as Jesus’ with its continuity with the old (Luke 24:39–40, 42–43) and remarkable new abilities (Luke 24:31; John 20:19), they are most definitely bodies. The Christian telos is always an embodied one. There is good work to be done in envisioning better what role our bodies will play in the New Creation.
Rationalistic naïveté vs. biblical realism
Transhumanism seems naïve in another way: it fails to reckon with the propensities of post-Fall humans. Transhumanists are “confirmed children of the Enlightenment” (Ian Curran). They have indefatigable confidence in human reason to “do the right thing” with technology. This Star Trek notion of technology as savior is interesting but misguided. The biblical picture is more realistic. Before the tragic misuse of knowledge in Genesis 3, human knowledge was already limited (Gen 2:17). The transhumanist vision would, in Ted Peters’s words, “give corruption an everlasting license.”Ted Peters, “Imago Dei , DNA, and the Transhuman Way,” Theology and Science 16.3 (June 2018): 1–10. It is a Promethean future of enhanced people bearing much more resemblance to the fallible residents of Mt. Olympus than to the biblical notion of redeemed and ultimately glorified people in a genuine eschaton. We fallen creatures should have deep wariness of technological salvation.
Our own image vs. the eikon of Christ
In 1 Corinthians 15:49, Paul makes another point: “As we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.” We can’t understand the glorified endpoint of the imago Dei apart from its prototype in Christ. As Helmut Thielicke noted, attempts to do otherwise fail because “what these all have in common is that they construct their image . . . not from what man was intended to be, but from what he presently is; they take fallen man as their model and idealize him.”Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), 613. We need, in Paul Tillich’s words, “a transcendent [vs. trans!] humanism, a humanism which says that Christ is the fulfillment . . . of the Adamic nature.”Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 45. Italics mine.
Self-deification vs. theosis
How could the technological self-aggrandizement of Harari’s Homo deus drive us to reconsider a divinely instituted sort of “non-self”-deification? The notions of theosis in the East or divinization in the West are not topics evangelicals tend to discuss (we like sanctification more), but the early Fathers grappled deeply with how the Incarnation proleptically enables those in Christ to ultimately become like him. Athanasius, riffing on Irenaeus, famously said that “Christ was made man that we might be made God.” This Christian vision is diametrically opposed to self-centered, Silicon Valley transhumanism and its pretentions to autonomy. Christians are to be united with Christ who was the self-emptying one (Phil 2:5-8). Christians need to advocate for this better, more human, vision.
Transhumanism As a Warning
In addition to serving as a foil, transhumanism also serves as a warning. How might we in the church be imperceptibly exchanging a biblically grounded vision of the human for transhumanism’s technological one? We affirm that “salvation can be found in no one else” but Jesus (Acts 4:12), but we need to ask in what ways we have drifted into a mindset of salvation by self-improvement, mastery, or unfettering of limitation.
The deformative effects of technology
As Jacob Shatzer has pointed out, technology alters humans deeply and ineluctably. Contemplating the less-than-palatable transhumanist endpoint may be useful for assessing the deformative effects of technology in the present. How might we be subtly embracing a “Humanity+-light” view of human persons by trusting in chemical or, one day, nanotechnological treatments that lead us away from the biblical notion of the human? These are important practical questions.
Therapy vs. enhancement
Another difficult issue is the line between legitimate therapy and enhancement. Take genome editing. Current discussion, such as by the U.S. National Academies of Science and Medicine, surrounds correcting devastating genetic diseases caused by mutations in single genes. But there will be great temptations to move beyond therapy to enhancements great and small. For MIT Molecular biologist George Church it is all too natural to move from repairing defective genes to little genetic “fixer upper” projects. Christians have an opportunity to provide a winsome, wise counterpoint in these discussions.
These are deep and important questions regarding the imago Dei in an era of biotechnology. My hope is that as we in the church wrestle with them we will be the salt and light the world needs.