Transhumanism is Definitely Coming

In 1958, following the launch of Sputnik in the space race, Sir Arthur C. Clark wrote in his book Profiles of the Future “Anything that is theoretically possible will be achieved in practice, no matter what the technical difficulties, if it is desired greatly enough.”

He continued, “Even things that are undoubtedly impossible with existing and foreseeable techniques may prove to be easy as a result of new scientific breakthroughs.”  Clark, thinking entirely outside of Christian assumptions helped set a course for western civilizations' understanding of technology.  His 1958 formulation of the technological future has become a mantra of our age (in fact, THE mantra of our age).  Nothing is technologically impossible for us if we want it badly enough.  All obstacles or goals will be overcome in time.

Fast forward from 1958 to 1996. 

The cloning of Dolly the sheep has just taken place in a laboratory in Scotland.  While it caused some discussion and concern at the time, the experiment is not much talked about today.  Nevertheless, Dolly marked a rupture in the history of life on earth.  For the first time, a mammal had been created from the single cells of a donor parent, circumventing the usual reproductive process involving a male and a female.  A cloned mammal was desired greatly enough and it was achieved.  Clark was right.

An even more startling event than Dolly took place only eleven years ago in 2007, 50-years after Clark’s assertion.  Biologists at J. Craig Venter Institute announced the creation of the first synthetic life form.  Venter’s team created DNA from chemical components in their laboratory, inserted the DNA into the cell wall of another bacteria that had its DNA removed.  The newly created life form divided, and kept dividing.  Concerns about the growing power of biotechnology were not eased, when one of Venter’s associates Patrick Mooney, stated—in a fashion consistent with the spirit of our age—"For the first time, God has competition.”  Venter’s new form of life received remarkably little coverage in the news media.

A couple years ago, I read that 150 human/animal hybrids have been grown in UK laboratories.  These embryos were produced secretly for the last three years by researchers looking for the cure for diseases.  Professor Baldwin of this laboratory said  “The possibility of humanized apes should now be taken seriously.”  A few years ago, Nobel prize winner James Watson scoffed at the concerns by saying there is “nothing intrinsically wrong with scientists playing God by modifying the genetic essence of life.  In all honesty, if scientists don’t play God, who will?”

Such stories suggest that Clark’s prediction that nothing will be impossible for us is becoming a common reality.  Biotechnology, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and robotics will soon confront us with the philosophical question “What does it mean to be human?”  Where do we draw lines limiting technology’s intrusions into the basic structure of life itself?  This is a pivotal moment in history.

When we have the technological capacity to alter human nature itself, what does it mean to contend for the Everlasting Gospel and its correct view of humanity?  We are faced with the temptation of unimaginable power, similar to the temptation faced in the Garden of Eden. 

We now have in our hands the very technologies that CS Lewis warned us about in “The Abolition of Man.”  Some are arguing that we should seize the moment and alter ourselves into a post-human species.  The cosmos can be ours and we can be as God.  In the absence of a Creator, this is the direction that the human mind takes.  What better candidate for emergent divinity, than ourselves?  Technology can assist evolution.

Transhumanism

For the last five years, I have been following a movement known as Transhumanism.  It is sometimes called the human-enhancement movement.  My interest in this phenomenon increased three years ago when I was called to a local Air Force Base to quote spray foam insulation for the Human Performance Wing.  I learned that this building was deep into transhumanism for military purposes.  More about that later.

What originally struck me as a kind of techno-fringe futurist organization, overdosed on science fiction, now appears to me to be the beginnings of a new religion.  Monistic thinking and powerful cultural narratives have played a critical role in this development.  I believe we are witnessing the rise of a powerful new spiritual movement with the potential for vast public appeal.  Its object of veneration is the new humanity; its method of salvation is human enhancement technology, and its principal rival is the Church of Jesus Christ.

“What if you could live forever?” was the title of a June 2016 New York Post article, and this is the prevailing question behind these deep forays into transhumanism—a glimpse into the post-human future.

Scientists such as Watson, Venter, and Ray Kurzweil are challenging the basic foundations of a Christian worldview and casting a vision of our post–human future.

In this particular battle Christians are portrayed as opponents of technological progress—the original sin of our new age.  Kurzweil projects that by 2020 machines will be smarter than humans, that they will be conscious of their own existence, and they will demand legal protection and civil rights.  They are already at work on this, by the way...

Computers and robots will have acquired what Kurzweil considers a spiritual component.  They will be self-aware and have the ability to reflect on their own purposes and value.  Eventually we will merge with our machine – losing our biology but not our humanity. 

No longer are such voices limited to the fringe elements of science, influential voices in the high tech industry now regularly advance spiritual claims about what it means to be a person, about immortality etc.  As interest rises in younger people about the apparently limitless technology, a range of essentially religious claims are going to have to be addressed by the Church.  To this point, the Church (Adventist and otherwise) has largely ignored this phenomena.

A Racing Change

Technology is in the process of changing our culture in many ways that we cannot now anticipate.  In the worlds of artificial intelligence, robotics, medicine and genomics, new technologies are coming online almost daily that would have been unimaginable a decade or two ago.  Information stored at the level of atoms, intelligent and autonomous robots, and replicating bacteria bearing synthetic DNA have all been in the news in the last five years.  The world’s fastest computer in 2012 was 176,000 times faster than the world’s fastest computer in 1993.  There is no apparent end in sight, and this leads Kurzweil to say “Though God may not now exist, perhaps He will in the future.”  (Righteousness by technology.....never heard of that one.)

For several reasons, holding to a biblical worldview is not going to be easy in the coming decades.  For instance, robotics researchers around the world led by companies such as Honda, Google and Bosch are producing lifelike robots with the capacity to imitate human emotion, thought and behavior.  Robots are being programmed to imitate human interaction, including speech patterns.  It is ironic to me that having created the intelligent humanoid robot, we are simultaneously experiencing a cultural shift in our understanding of human beings and sexuality.  Under the direction of monist thinking we are being led to understand ourselves as basically information and the mind as merely a computer.  This leads to the suggestion that we ought to merge with our machines.  By blending the two, we can take on qualities that belong only to God—such as omniscience and immortality.  We are no longer God’s image bearers—but His rivals. 

To quote one writer, we are already more post-human than we care to admit.  Our interaction with machines has led to an over-dependence on machines—giving way to a blending of our own capacities with those of the machine.”  Our phones now talk with us (at least mine does).  Something external is now becoming internal as our devices slowly but surely become part of us.

Our relationship with our machines could become the most ontological pressing crisis facing us in the next 30-years.  At this point however, the church seems hardly to have noticed.

Life Extension is another area where great questions will face us.  Scientists report that by tweaking our DNA we could soon survive for hundreds of years.  Dr. Walter Longo believes that an 800-year lifespan isn’t just possible, it is inevitable.  His work at University of Southern California led to the creation of a strain of yeast fungus that lived for ten weeks or more instead of dying at the normal maximum age of one week.

Transhumanism Growing Rapidly

The first transhumanist conference took place in Hong Kong in 2012.  It was built around the theme, living forever, touting new breakthroughs in cell longevity.  Their advertisement:  We will complement this with non-scientific approaches of the mind.  The non-scientific approaches include meditation, yoga and spiritual formation, illustrating how spirituality is being integrated into the public understanding of technological developments.  The conference announcement went on to say “Attention will also be given to recent research on methods for creating new minds with artificial intelligence.”  This is brain/computer interfacing.  A leading robotics researcher for Ford (Professor Asada) said recently, we need to rethink the concept of God’s almightiness, and robots are the tool for doing this.”  Professor Asada was given a two million dollar grant last year by the Governor of Massachusetts to develop a “Teach-Bot” capable of teaching people.  Asada is convinced that his work has spiritual implications—in fact theological implications.  He believes that robotic technology provides a superior means of understanding divinity.  His divinity is an autodeveloped one, not the God of the Bible.

Several powerful companies have formed a research group to upload human minds into a computer.  As this information is integrated into robots, the expectation is that at some point they will displace human beings.  To quote Hans Moravec, Austrian robotics researcher,

“In the next few decades, robots will achieve human levels of intelligence and eventually displace human beings.”  He asserts that by 2030 robots will exceed human levels of intelligence; humans will merge with robots, and humanoid robots will begin to evolve on their own.  These highly intelligent cyborgs will become the dominant species on earth and will achieve omniscience, omnipotence and immortality.  Already we are near the time when no essential human function, physical or mental will lack an artificial component.  We are becoming cyborgs and will eventually merge entirely with our machines.”

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Almost every research lab around the world is hard at work on the next generation of robots.  By all accounts we can expect an increasingly robotic future, including technological enhancements to the body and the mind.  Different social classes will develop around the presence or lack thereof of such technologies.

Back to the Air Force Base.  The military is currently using artificial intelligence technology to implant chips into the brains of soldiers to combat (pardon the pun) PTSD, alter moods, regulate brain health and reduce fatigue.  Even though the chip can't force a person to comply with orders, it can nudge them towards feeling more positive and enthusiastic about a situation than they might normally.  The $26 million project to develop the brain implant at UC San Francisco (UCSF) was first unveiled in February 2014. 

Another DARPA-sponsored project is looking at developing implants injected into soldiers' bodies that can speed up recovery of physical injuries.

The tiny devices would use electric impulses to monitor the health of a person's organs.  When an organ is wounded, the devices would stimulate the relevant nerves to speed up the healing process.  In theory, it would make for stronger and more resilient service men.

Tranhumanist leader James Hughes has written “Even if it takes us another decade or two, to make hardware as flexible as neurons and software as robust as human consciousness, we will create superior artificial human intelligence before the middle of this century.  Current evidence suggests that it will be possible to build gods.”  This is not an unusual statement in transhumanist circles. 

“Human intelligence is a half-baked completion, awaiting the inevitable expansion of post-human capacities.”  Post-humans will represent a profound advance over our present condition, living longer healthier lives with enhanced memories.  This new species will assist us in solving perennial human problems.”  This is the path to eternal life in the new techno spiritual order of things.  I ask, what could possibly go wrong?

The old messy Darwinian progress of tooth and claw is passing away.  We will soon direct our own evolution and technology will provide us the key to our eternal destiny.  This is about control over our own lives friends.  It is the orginal sin refined in laboratory developments—righteousness by technological breakthrough. 

But, moving society in this pseudo upward direction will not occur without a conflict—and that conflict will be with traditional biblical Christianity.  James Hughes laments “we must overcome the intrusion of democratic tyrannies that inhibit research and progress toward post humanity.”  In other words, this is a reference to voters with moral inhibitions about such projects—a democratic tyranny.  He predicts that “the human race’s use of genetic engineering to evolve beyond human will be a central political issue of the next century.” 

Backers of this transhumanist research include Google, Steelcase, Nokia, Elon Musk, and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.  But money alone is insufficient to bring about this massive societal transformation of the human race.  This technological Singularity will require a persuasive narrative to win public support.

The New Narrative

Robert Tercek is one of the world's most prolific creators of interactive content.  The Los Angeles native has created breakthrough entertainment experiences for every digital platform and served in key positions in the digital divisions of The Oprah Winfrey Network and Sony Entertainment.  He has spoken fervently about the need for transhumanist technology to take their message to the public through stories.  He argues that the technological language of the transhumanist movement will not be persuasive to the average person.  He urges the release of more transhumanist movies such as the Matrix, Transcendence, Avatar and Chappie. 

Another transhumanist spokesman suggested that biblical narratives might be coopted to gain acceptance for transhumanist ideas, while at the same time gaining an aura of transcendence for the movement.  Hence the movie, Transcendence.  According to her, Jesus’ transfiguration is a drama that could be taken as a metaphor for a sudden post-human transformation.  Promotion is not the only role of narrative for the transhumanist movement; objections from Christians will also be muted by persuasive narratives that establish audience rapport by combining emotional energy with the transhumanist ideas.”

In transhumanism, three powerful modern narratives combine: Progress, Evolution and the Superman.  These stories comprise the metanarrative of contemporary western scientific culture.  Transhumanism presents itself as THE story of science’s final triumph, by integrating spiritualism with science to cause humanity’s technology-enabled spiritual transformation.

Evolution

Evolution shows up as the prevailing narrative of origins, presenting current humanity as a mere stepping stone to post-humanity.  Deified evolution has a goal in mind, and WE are not that goal.  Something better is coming.  Clever isn’t it, for evolution to have first produced us so that we might assist it in achieving its goals.  We are now taking over the ‘family business’, using our evolved intelligence to achieve ultimate intelligence. 

Progress

Each report of a miraculous development in medical or computer science contributes to our belief in inevitable progress.  In the world of progress, it is within human power to create a world of shining beauty and transcendent glory.  The defining conviction of western civilization over the past 300 years is that technological and social progress are inevitable, and the increasing stores of knowledge will lead to unlimited innovation.  There is no conceivable end to this progress.  All problems including spiritual problems will be solved in the technological future.  Small wonder that Ohio Adventism—in 2005 to 2013—blended spiritual experimentation with progressive innovation in Raj Attiken’s Innovation Conference.  Liberalism on steroids.

The Superman Narrative

In earlier times, Supermen, or avatars, were merely manifestations of God.  All the manufactured super heroes of comics, fiction books and movies represent variations of the post-human idea, products of evolution and technology rather than the spiritual descent outlined in 2 Timothy 3.  The superman narrative confuses the human and the divine, the Creator and the created in a progressive monistic fashion reminiscent of Romans 1.  The superman is a god in progress, a being arising out of naturalism on a trajectory to divinity.  I didn’t realize how much these narratives sounded like sermons until I was reading about them two years ago.

Historically the profound moral error of creating a superhuman future has led to the oppression of groups seen as not possessing the superman potential.   Star-bellied Sneetches trump the plain-bellied creatures, as the key ingredients of salvation (Humility and Truth) are left lying on the sand.  This can only culminate in a concluding eschatological techno-inquisition.

Transhumanist fervor blends these three powerful monistic narratives.  As a logical endpoint of all three, human enhancement takes on an apocalyptic quality—a spiritual force for compulsive change.  Only one force is more powerful in the public imagination than science.  That force is religion.  Transhumanism is now transforming itself into scientific religion.

To quote James Hughes, new technology will change how we work, how we travel, how we communicate, and how we worship.  A future oriented techno-religion will be all but irresistible to a young technology-savvy generation of millennial seekers who are already volunteer warriors in the social-justice army — ready to worship creation over the Creator, and the false narrative of auto-developed justice, shorn of God’s truth.

We are facing today a growing spiritual crisis developing around belief in evolution as cosmic agency, progress as historical destiny, and post humanity as human deification.

Summary

I need to sum this up.  Here goes.

While the Creator points us towards Himself in the Cross of Christ, we seek deity in our own genetic structures.  The first time around, the ideas that we could attain divinity got us in a lot of trouble (Genesis 3).  How are we going to avoid making that same mistake twice?  It was a profound error to begin thinking that we emerged out of the natural system, an error that led us to believe that we were under our own direction.  It was error to conclude that we could do whatever we wished with our bodies and minds, and finally conclude that we ought to worship ourselves and the system that produced us.  This is the essence of the desecration of human worship described so accurately in Romans 1.

"Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?  For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God's" (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

Human beings alone receive God’s Holy Spirit, not machines or robots.  Being created in God’s image marks our existence as human beings, having the Holy Spirit marks our redemption as God’s children.  

The machines are all going to melt eventually, including Sputnik.

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