Transhumanism and Posthumanism
Biopiracy, xenotransplantation, body hacking and techno-immortality may sound like lingo from the latest science fiction, but they may soon be ethical and theological dilemmas.
Over the long history of the Christian church there have been numerous challenges to the faith. The doctrines which have most often been under assault are those relating to God, to Christ, to creation, to salvation and even to eschatology. One area of belief that has been left relatively uncontroversial is anthropology or the doctrine of man. While issues such as slavery and racial difference have certainly been debated among Christians and their opponents, and even among themselves, nevertheless our basic humanity has always been a given. A given, that is, until now.
Two related but competing intellectual movements have recently begun to emerge. Though still largely unknown to the general populace, they have been gaining significant attention in academic and scientific circles. Known as posthumanism and transhumanism, these movements seek not only to redefine our basic understanding of what we mean by humanity, but even to alter or “overcome” our humanity altogether.
Posthumanism, a movement that is less than fifteen years old, has become one of the fastest growing fields of study in the academy, especially in the citadels of critical theory such as Paris, Utrecht, the American Ivies, Berkeley and the University of Toronto. Within the past three years alone there has been a veritable explosion of international conferences, symposia, articles and books dedicated to the topic. While its emergence has been sudden, it was built on a number of important philosophical developments that have been taking place since the end of World War II, including feminism, postcolonialism, queer theory and environmental and race studies.
At its core, posthumanism is a rejection of the humanist tradition in the west of human exceptionalism (the notion that humans are unique in the world) and human instrumentalism (that humans have the right to control and dominate the natural world). Much of this has its origins in the academic liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s, especially feminism, postcolonialism and queer theory which first began to challenge traditional western male understandings of what constitutes humanity. Posthumanism takes the next step and treats the human as no different from any other life or “non-life” form and calls for a more inclusive definition of “humanity” and even life itself. As such, a central concern of posthumanism is the diffusion of “human” rights to non-human subjects such as animals, ecosystems and even inorganic entities such as machines, computer code and geological formations.
Beyond this “rights” agenda, there is a more fundamental component of posthumanism which seeks to place humans in a much closer networked relation with both machines and nature. This is to be achieved through technological means, such as “wiring” human brains directly to computer systems or grafting body parts from other animal species onto human bodies, a process called xenotransplantation.
While sounding bizarre, even grotesque to many, the possibility of blurring the boundaries of humanity has been enthusiastically advocated for a few decades now. A key foundational text of the movement is Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto of 1985. The feminist Haraway saw the cyborg of science fiction as a metaphor and a justification for the dismantling of traditional dualisms and boundaries, such as between male and female, human and nonhuman, organism and machine the physical and the nonphysical and even between technology and the self. The Cyborg was a picture of what the future would hold for humanity.
Yet for Haraway and others to even entertain such possibilities required a seismic shift in the foundational understanding of matter and reality. Working on ideas first proposed by the philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632‒1677), posthumanists have argued that distinctions and dualities, such as between mind and matter, spirit and body, God and the world, are illusions and that the universe consists of one unified substance. Life in this context is simply “smart matter.”
Some posthumanist thinkers such as David Skrbina have picked up on this smart matter idea, calling it panpsychisminstead. According to Skrbina, panpsychism is the view that all things in the universe have a mind or a mind-like quality. As the Cyberpunk novelist Rudy Rucker puts it, mind is “a universally distributed quality” and “each object has a mind. Stars, hills, chairs, rocks, scraps of paper, flakes of skin, molecules—each of them possess the same inner glow as a human, each of them has singular inner experiences and sensations.”
When stated so nakedly, this view can seem daft or even alarming. Yet one place where we have been encountering these ideas with a level of comfort and even acceptance is in our entertainment. Alongside academic developments, Hollywood has already begun accustoming us to posthuman concepts and agendas, most often through the cinema of science fiction. Movies such as the Alienseries depict the merging of the human with the alien. In the first two movies of the franchise humans are used to “birth” alien creatures; in the third the main character of Ripley literally becomes the mother of an alien and in the fourth Ripley is “resurrected” biomechanically, but with her genes completely fused with that of the alien creature. More pleasantly there are the Star Wars movies, which show a universe in which humans are depicted as living in harmony with animal-like aliens and mechanical beings with likable personalities (droids). In perhaps the most comprehensive cinematic representation of posthumanism, James Cameron’s Avatar, we see the depiction of a new humanity, digitally mediated into a post species form. A crippled human (Jake Sully) is wired to a machine which allows him to find a new existence as an alien with an animal-like appearance, and which can directly link with other animal species, demonstrating the interrelatedness of all life, whether human or nonhuman.
This monism or pantheism as formulated by Spinoza and Haraway and propagated by Hollywood is nothing new. It is as ancient as Hinduism and many other eastern religious traditions, which claimed unity between the divine and the cosmos. That it is now being used to redefine our humanity is what is new and something for which Christians appear to be deeply unprepared to deal.
Transhumanist advocate and presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan has a pretty good idea that the movement of which he is a self-appointed leader is not going to be popular with everyone. “Unfortunately,” he writes, “everything transhumanists are trying to accomplish—from conquering death with science, to merging with machines, to becoming as powerful as possible via technology—conflict somewhat with biblical scripture and conservatism.” A little simplistically, he argues that “[r]eligious people dislike any type of technology that brings up questions of Revelations in the Bible, or the Mark of the Beast.” Aside from categorizing Dispensationalists as all “religious people” he is aware that what he is endorsing is provocative. That he also compares himself to the Freedom Riders “arriving in Alabama in buses to challenge Jim Crow segregation practices” is a bit rich, but it does point to the passionate, almost evangelistic, nature of many people who endorse transhumanism.
Transhumanism, which is often compared or even confused with posthumanism, has some academic origins, but has found much greater life and advocacy outside of the academy, by entrepreneurs, “visionaries” such as Istvan and some scientists and religious groups. While many people think of posthumanism and transhumanism as synonyms, they are in many ways competing schools of thought.
Like posthumanism, transhumanism explores the line between humanity and technology; but while posthumanism looks to technology as an aspect of revelation (of recognizing our oneness with all life and matter), transhumanism sees technology as a means of extension. Instead of eliminating the human, it advances it beyond its natural boundaries or limitations.
While posthumanism rejects humanism and its claims of the centrality and importance of man, transhumanism accepts the major premises of humanism that the individual is autonomous and reason is the marker of personhood and identity. In some ways it is an intensification of humanism, arguing that perceived limitations (such as biology itself) can be overcome by technical means, resulting in an advanced human form with greater intelligence, greater longevity and greater wellbeing. It is techno-deterministic, keenly progressivist and argues that technological and biological modifications can enhance the human in its present healthy state. At its heart, the transhumanist movement has as its goal the achievement of immortality by entirely human means.
Perhaps even moreso than in posthumanism, the religious ambitions of transhumanism are nakedly apparent. Transhumanist proponents regularly invoke transcendent language, talking of immortality, the spiritual capacities of technology, and humans becoming “god-like.” Istvan speaks enthusiastically of the day when we all become immortal cyborgs.
Transhumanism spirituality is also of a decidedly different stripe from that of posthumanism. Much of the transhumanist project is geared towards developing technologies that could eventually lead to substituting flesh with biomechanical material, or of downloading the human mind into computers, or integrating human minds with one another via network hook-up. If posthumanism is a new and sophisticated form of pantheism, then transhumanism is a cutting-edge and technologically savvy Gnosticism, where the body is seen as repugnant, disposable, something to be overcome, and the mind or intellect is that which is ethereal and needs to be preserved or shifted to ever higher planes of existence.
It is not surprising then that many within the movement are deliberately forging transhumanism into a legitimate religion. Though most transhumanists still shun the word religion, they nevertheless are beginning to speak of it as a religion-eclipsing philosophy. The World Transhumanist Association, which recently rebranded itself as Humanity Plus (H+), describes transhumanism on its website as “a class of philosophies of life that seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles and values.”
While most transhumanists come from the fields of science and engineering and could largely be described as atheistic, not all of them are. Some religious groups have also attempted to jump on the bandwagon. Already there are some “Christian Transhumanists,” but the movement seems to be particularly potent among Mormons. The Mormon Transhumanist Association, while not officially endorsed by the Latter-Day Saints church, meets across the street from Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Certain tenets of Mormon theology, particularly the concept of theosis, the process of humans evolving into gods, are particularly compatible with the transhumanist vision.
In one of his most significant works, The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis foresees a future where “mankind [is] to be cut out into some fresh shape at the will…of some few lucky people in one lucky generation which has learned how to do it.” Lewis feared the advancements he saw science producing all around him in his day would be applied to the human with disastrous consequences in the future. He modestly suggests that science must be exercised with restraint and guided by older and wiser human traditions. That many transhumanists would hear these as fightin’ words should be no surprise, and we can certainly see the possibility of near future political battles over the employment of certain technologies such as cloning, implants and cross-species bioengineering. Yet what seems to have been even beyond Lewis’s predictive abilities was the redefinition of humanity out of existence altogether. That posthumanism makes this its central agenda is of paramount concern for not only Christians, but to anyone who holds onto any semblance of humanism.
Put simply, these new challenges require not merely a resistance to irresponsible tampering with nature, but a deeper and more faithful consideration of what it means to be human.