Imago Anthropos: The Transhumanist Temptation
Just about everything is up for grabs these days. Belief in God, as is well known, is not assumed. Most Traditional views are contested, including views on sexuality, gender, human flourishing, family, and marriage. When it comes to science, we are told that it delivers to us a vast and indifferent universe. The appearance of humans is nothing special. The cosmic dice rolled, and we got lucky. Through a vast calculus of improbabilities, minds appeared late and local on this one tiny corner of the ever-expanding universe. Humans occupy a tiny segment on the genetic great chain of being. Within this chain we are perhaps a single link, tracing back to single-celled organisms and proceeding through the flora and fauna of our geological past. We are on our way to some glorious and unknown future.
Now that minds have arrived, something new is in the air. Given recent advances in science and technology, humans now have the ability, we are told, to take hold of the evolutionary future. The genetic great chain of being is now in our hands; man can begin the promethean task of creating better selves—transhumans—and someday, a new, superior species—posthumans—that will overcome our greatest enemy: death.
Many find the trans- and posthumanist vision alluring. It posits the non-existence of both God and ultimate purpose, yet purports its own rendition of hope. Says transhumanism, “If there is no natural order to things, then why not jump on our bus and see where things go?” The problem however, is found in the conditional nature of the last sentence: if there is no natural order to things, then anything goes. The antecedent in this conditional is false. In other words, there is a natural order to things. An order rooted, ultimately, in the divine mind. Thus transhumanism, like many fashionable ideas we find today, is best understood as part of the culture’s collective rage against the given. In this post, I want to help us identify and understand what is going on beneath the transhumanist impulse. I shall first define transhumanism and then offer moral, theological, and philosophical objections to it. I conclude with a brief sketch of the Biblical perspective on humanity.
What is Transhumanism?
According to one of the movements thought leaders, Nick Bostrom, professor of philosophy at Oxford University, the transhumanist understands human nature as a “work-in progress, a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways.” And the transhumanist vision, according to Bostrom, is eternity itself, although on man’s terms: “Transhumanists hope that by responsible use of science, technology, and other rational means we shall eventually manage to become posthumans, beings with vastly greater capacities than present human beings have.” We will achieve this utopian vision through physical and intellectual enhancements and the uniting of biological thinking and existence with technology. Bostrom again, summarizes the Transhumanist Vision: “The vision, in broad strokes, is to create the opportunity to live much longer and healthier lives, to enhance our memory and other intellectual faculties, to refine our emotional experiences and increase our subjective sense of well-being, and generally to achieve a greater degree of control over our own lives.” Eventually, life will not only be extended, but extended indefinitely, as our minds are downloaded into computers or avatars.
Problems with Transhumansim
How should we, as Christians, think about transhumanism (and by extension, posthumanism)? The theologian Kevin Vanhoozer, in an essay about cognitive enhancement technology, argues that those technologies prompt a “trial in Christian wisdom.” I think the same is true about the transhumanist vision in general—it is a trial of Christian wisdom. If wisdom is the ability to live life well according to the natural order of things, then, ultimately, the transhumanist vision leads to folly. I organize my worries with transhumanism into three areas: moral, philosophical, and theological problems.
The first problem with transhumanism is moral. It is, as Joel Thompson puts it, the rage against the given. As Vanhoozer colorfully describes the moral vision of transhumanism, it is no longer “survival of the fittest” but “survival of the best fitted;” and the goal of the transhumanist vision has moved beyond repairing to rewiring nature—a shift from making humans better to “make creatures that are better than humans.” In other words, the posture of the transhumanist vision is a “boundless bid for mastery and domination.” But this posture is morally problematic, since it fails to cultivate, according to Harvard political philosopher Michael J. Sandel, an “ethic of giftedness.” Such an ethic encourages humility, reverence, and gratitude. The transhumanist ethic, with its boundless drive toward perfection and mastery, constitutes an attempt to become God. It is the temptation to be like God that was with humanity at the beginning and led to the Fall in Genesis 3:5. Stated more pointedly, the transhumanist vision is grounded in idolatry and an idolatrous way of living.
Philosophically, the transhumanist vision only works if there are no human natures, and if minds are somehow reducible or identical to brains. The problem is that there are good reasons, philosophically, to think there are such things as human natures and, moreover, it is not endlessly malleable. Regarding minds, they are not, again arguably, reducible or identical to brains. So it is just not possible to “download” one’s mind/brain to a computer and upload it to some avatar. Things just are not that simple or linear. Granted, metaphysics in general, and the philosophy of mind in particular, represent huge areas of debate. But it is not an overstatement to say that the prospect of a thoroughly materialist and reductionistic metaphysic of human nature and the human mind are significantly diminished today given their problems.
Theologically, Joel Thompson has persuasively argued that the fact that humans are created in the image of God carries with it certain features that entail limits. He argues three specific points. First, the dignity of human persons and the sanctity of life both flow from the fact that man is created in God’s image. So, any technology that violates human dignity (e.g., mind uploading that arguably would alter human nature such that humans cease being human) or the sanctity of life (such as destroying embryos) are prohibited. Second, humans are finite and created and thus distinct from God. An important implication to man’s createdness and finitude is that we are called by God to steward creation, not master it. Finally, God is the giver of life and thus “the given is not ours to do with as we please.” There is a givenness to creation and we are to respect that givenness. As Thompson insightfully notes, the Tower of Babel incident in Genesis 11 emphasizes that not every human innovation is acceptable. Human hubris and pride in the posture of mastering nature disfigures our relationship with others and our relationship with God.
A Biblical Perspective on Humanity
According to the Hebrew Scriptures, God made man “and crowned him with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5, CSB). As divine image bearers, man is unique among all living organisms (Genesis 1:26). Man is created like God and represents God on earth. The honor and glory of man manifests itself in the human ability for language, art, and morality. The Christian doctrine of creation tells us that God created everything according to a plan and for a place; humans are to be stewards of the created order, not autonomous authors of our lives or futures. As image-bearers, we are not originals. We image another. We image God and we flourish when we live life as God intended.
Watch the Truth Matters episode on Human Value and the Image of God.
As Vanhoozer describes man’s place in a divinely created world, “God’s purpose in creating the world was to form persons with whom he can have fellowship and share his life—person in his image, fully human (but not transhuman) persons who, like Jesus, know how to love God and others.”
What is the end of man? Communion with God through union with Christ—this is what man is created for. This is our highest good and proper end.
As Vanhoozer colorfully puts it, the aim of main is to participate fittingly in what God is doing in Christ to renew all things. That is our purpose, that is our end—not eternal life on man’s terms, but human flourishing as God intended.
1 | Nick Bostrom, “Transhumanist Values,” Ethical Issues for the Twenty-First Century (2005): 4.
2 | Ibid.
3 | Ibid.
4 | Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Pictures at a Theological Exhibition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2016), 255.
5 | Joel Thompson, “Transhumanism: How Far is Too Far?” The New Bioethics 23:2 (2017): 169–171.
6 | Vanhoozer, Pictures at a Theological Exhibition, 258.
7 | Ibid.
8 | Thompson, “Transhumanism: How Far is Too Far?”, 169.
9 | Michael J. Sandel, The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007); cited in Thompson, “Transhumanism: How Far is Too Far?”, 169.
10 | Thompson, “Transhumanism: How Far is Too Far?”, 172.
11 | See for example, the resurgence of neo-Aristotelianism in metaphysics (and a return to teleology and human natures) in books such as Tuomas E. Tahko, ed., Contemporary Aristotelian Metaphysics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012) and William M. R. Simpson, Robert C. Koons, and Nicholas J. Teh, eds., Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives on Contemporary Science (New York: Routledge, 2018) and the resurgence of non-materialistic accounts of the mind in Robert C. Koons and George Bealer, eds., The Waning of Materialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). In the introduction to The Waning of Materialism, Koons and Bealer note the surprising fact that over the last sixty years or so, even as materialism is remains the dominant theory of mind, “a majority, or something approaching a majority [of leading philosophers] either rejected materialism or had serious and specific doubts about its ultimate viability” [Ibid., ix].
12 | Joel Thompson, “Transhumanism: How Far is Too Far?”, 172–73. The above paragraph summarizes Thompson’s discussion.
13 | Ibid., 172
14 | Ibid.
15 | Vanhoozer, Pictures at a Theological Exhibition, 277.
16 | This is one of the central themes of his excellent book Pictures at a Theological Exhibition.
Paul M. Gould teaches philosophy and apologetics at Oklahoma Baptist University, serves as the associate director of RC Prof, and is the founder and president of the Two Tasks Institute. He is the author or editor of ten books including the forthcoming Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World (Zondervan, March 2019). He is married to Ethel and has four kids and lives in Fort Worth, Texas. You can find out more about Paul at www.paul-gould.com.
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