Establishing The Definitions
I suppose you can’t have a proper discussion unless you lay out exactly what you’re talking about. Since we’re discussing transhumanism the movement, we’ll use its definition of what is a “transhuman.”
That is (according to the World Transhumanist Association):
In its contemporary usage, “transhuman” refers to an intermediary form between the human and the posthuman [...].
Posthumans could be completely synthetic artificial intelligences, or they could be enhanced uploads [...], or they could be the result of making many smaller but cumulatively profound augmentations to a biological human.
And, finally, transhumanism:
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. We formally define it as follows:
(1) 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.
(2) The study of the ramifications, promises, and potential dangers of technologies that will enable us to overcome fundamental human limitations, and the related study of the ethical matters involved in developing and using such technologies.
There are other ideas on what constitutes as a transhuman. The FAQ cited even suggests that we may currently be in a state of transhumanism, due to simple augmentations we undertake, like wearing glasses. I think that’s stretching it and I believe identity politics plays into this, which I’ll discuss in a later post.
So, with our definitions established, I’m going to move on to discussing a topic that’s been doing circles in my head for some time.
Religion and Transhumanism: Life Extension
I wasn’t raised in a religious household, to speak of. Through my teen years, I “experimented” with religion – reading about the world religions, the old pagan religions and the Gnostics. Ultimately, I’ve arrived at and settled on being agnostic, although my moral beliefs have been heavily influenced by my Catholic mother and my father’s Lutheran roots. Ever so often, I attend a Presbyterian church that focuses on social gospel.
My very Christian-oriented roots have always had a stream of ‘naturalism’ to take from. The idea that you should do as little ‘augmenting’ to your body as possible has been a constant theme. As far as functionally augmenting, I just wear glasses. I shy away from pain killers and other medication if at all possible. Aesthetically? I have tattoos. So, admittedly, I’m not a purist nor do I advocate puritanism. But, on the whole, I feel comfortable with things that I can personally identify as natural and human. (That’s not to say I know any better than anyone what is natural or human.)
During my years of studying other religions and philosophies, I spent quite a lot of time with atheists and agnostics. They tended to be very science-oriented, and some folks were into futurism. Inevitably, the topic of transhumanism came up, and it was always spoken of in an irreligious context. In fact, most self-identified transhumanists are irreligious. If I really thought about it, I wouldn’t have been able to mesh the two together.
Some of my trepidation with transhumanism is that it seems to me, by its very nature, to deny humanism. To my mind, religion is a very human thing. It is a personal connection with the natural — whether it’s god(s) and/or goddess(es) or something more ethereal — that would be lost in total unnatural augmentation, such as is the quest in being posthuman and trying to “overcome” human limitations.
On the flip side, Guillermo Santamaria from H+ Magazine argues otherwise, on the subject of life extension:
Death according to the Bible is not a natural condition of humanity. It is an aberration. When man was created he was not created to die, but to live indefinitely. In fact according to the Bible as all Christians know, “just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.” Romans 5:12. So Adam and Eve were not created to die. Now some might say that transhumanism seeks to deny the influence of sin on humanity or to try to circumvent the decree of God. But this is not true. All transhumanism tries to do is extend life. Even when and if a human consciousness is implanted in a machine, this is still an extension of life. If one opposes this extension of life, then one would need to consistently resist all attempts at life extension, including all the efforts of physicians, and medical treatments. Did Jesus endorse this view by his actions and words? Certainly not. What do the Christian Scriptures tell us, “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.” Matthew 4:23.
I have to take issue with the underlying premise, though. Death is, according to the Bible, the natural condition of humans due to sin. Only immortality can come as a gift from God through salvation via Christ.
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. John 3:36
Since transhumanism is a human construct, mostly propagated by atheists and agnostics, and not handed down as an instrument of salvation by Jesus Christ, then I’m unsure how life extension, per transhumanism, is compatible with Christian doctrine.
It seems that this one aspect of transhumanism runs afoul with a couple of major religions, at least. Hinduism, for example, doesn’t see death as a mortifying event, but a naturally occurring event that recycles the soul into a new life. Buddhism accepts that death happens and considers it a kind of re-awakening of the human soul.
Beyond this one aspect of transhumanism, I couldn’t find a convincing argument for the meshing of religion and transhumanism. This probably will not upset most transhumanists, but for some people who are of spiritual mind, it doesn’t fit, really in the doctrines of any of the major religions nor does it, to me, feel like they can coalesce well. Going back to the World Transhumanists Association’s FAQ:
Transhumanism is a naturalistic outlook. At the moment, there is no hard evidence for supernatural forces or irreducible spiritual phenomena, and transhumanists prefer to derive their understanding of the world from rational modes of inquiry, especially the scientific method. Although science forms the basis for much of the transhumanist worldview, transhumanists recognize that science has its own fallibilities and imperfections, and that critical ethical thinking is essential for guiding our conduct and for selecting worthwhile aims to work towards.
Religious fanaticism, superstition, and intolerance are not acceptable among transhumanists. In many cases, these weaknesses can be overcome through a scientific and humanistic education, training in critical thinking, and interaction with people from different cultures. Certain other forms of religiosity, however, may well be compatible with transhumanism.
To be fair, transhumanists, like all humans, have different minds and beliefs about different subjects. Even within this post, we saw one transhumanist try to argue for the compatability of Christianity and H+, and then have a worldwide transhumanist club say that, rather bluntly, transhumanism is not compatible with the world’s current spiritual outlooks.
For my part, I remain unconvinced that religion has a role or is compatible with transhumanism. I would like to hear your perspective, though. You can get us on twitter @RobotCentral, or you can comment on our Facebook page here.