When animals and robots become people (2) …

Human to Posthuman

“What does it mean to be human?” is perhaps the most significant question of the 21st century.  Or, asked a bit differently in anticipation of what we might anticipate in what’s called the biotech century, “What is the future of the human species?”

 

The campaigns to establish rights for animals and smart machines—rights similar to human rights—are not the only developments that undermine the unique status of the human species.  The transhumanist movement is increasingly prominent and powerful in the arenas of technological innovation, politics, academics, and popular culture.

 

Transhumanists hold that humans, as we now know ourselves, are transitional beings.  They argue that we now have many of the biotechnologies needed to “seize control or our own evolution.”  This we should do, they contend, and use our new powers to design better humans.

 

In an article entitled “The Future of the Human Species,” theologian and bioethicist Brent Waters surveys the vision of those who would create these “better humans,” the posthumans.

 

The goal of this project is nothing less than the perfection of the human species. Specifically, human performance will be enhanced and longevity extended through anticipated advances in pharmacology, biotechnology, and bionics. Drugs, for example, can lessen the need for sleep, genetic engineering will slow the aging process, artificial limbs will enhance strength and agility, and brain implants will enhance the speed of interacting with computers. The cyborg becomes the next stage of human evolution.  Some visionaries foresee a day when with the aid of artificial intelligence and robotics endless lives might be achieved. The underlying binary information constituting one’s personality would be uploaded into a computer and then downloaded into robotic bodies or virtual reality programs. With sufficient and reliable memory storage the process could, in principle, be repeated indefinitely, thereby achieving virtual immortality.  In the posthuman future humans become self-perfected artifacts by blurring, if not eliminating, the line separating the natural from the artificial.

 

The promise of the posthuman project is the creation of beings that live healthy, productive, and happy lives, and most importantly beings that live for very long time, perhaps forever. The ultimate promise is immortality. The accompanying peril, however, is that the cost is exorbitant. The price of perfecting humankind is its destruction, for in becoming posthuman humans cease being human. The peril of the posthuman project, in short, is that its optimism disguises an underlying death-wish for the human species.

 

A common reaction to the posthuman project is that it is either utter foolishness or, at best, science fiction.  But there are good reasons for not being so reactionary.

 

First, even in the absence of the technical advances and breakthroughs that would be required, we nonetheless must come to terms with the extent to which technology is shaping the character and trajectories of contemporary life. … To ponder the prospect of becoming posthuman requires that we also ask the question of what it means to be human, and any answer we offer cannot avoid the question of technology.

 

Second, even if most, if not all, of the more immodest expectations—such as immortality—never come true, posthuman discourse is nevertheless shaping a vision of the future, and thereby derivatively our moral imagination. … In this respect, N. Katherine Hayles is correct in asserting that “People become posthuman because they think they are posthuman.”  Such posthuman thinking should, at the very least, prompt some deliberation on its good or ill effects in forming our moral imagination, particularly in light of growing technological power and potential for further development. …

 

Dr. Waters uses two of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories, The Birthmark and Rappaccini’s Daughter, to clarify the religious nature of the posthuman project.

 

Hawthorne’s stories—written in the early nineteenth century—help to expose the posthuman project for what it really is, namely, a religious movement, and not a new or original one at that. The central posthuman precept may be summarized as follows: finitude and mortality represent the dire plight of the human condition. It is irrational and unfair that humans suffer, grow old, and die. In response, posthumanists offer the salvation of human transformation and perfection, culminating in virtual immortality.

 

Hawthorne reminds us that this is an old complaint. Few, if any, of our ancestors warmly embraced their mortal limits. There is also nothing novel about the proffered solution. Hawthorne’s plants and potions are simply exchanged for genetic engineering, miniaturization, silicon chips, and binary code. Consequently, it should not be surprising if Christians hear some familiar notes in this posthuman tune, for they have encountered similar themes before in what they identified as false religious beliefs. In more formal terms, posthuman discourse is based largely on philosophical or theological precepts about nature, human nature, and human destiny that are derived from what may be described as heretical doctrines. …

 

Nihilism, Pelagianism, and Manicheism are three of the “heretical doctrines” that undergird the perilous posthuman project for redesigning humanity.  Consequently, “there are good reasons why Christians should not only be skeptical but should also oppose it.”

 

There are, to be sure, rich resources within their theological tradition they may draw upon in making their case against the underlying false and heretical beliefs. But it is not enough to be against something; simply opposing the posthuman project will not do. A constructive proposal regarding what Christians affirm must also be offered. If Christians are to help shape contemporary culture—particularly in a setting in which I fear the posthuman message will prove attractive, if not seductive—then they must offer an alternative and compelling vision; a counter theological discourse so to speak.

 

Dr. Waters’ isn’t content to describe and oppose the posthuman agenda.  He explains how three essential Christian doctrines provide a compelling alternative—an alternative equally sufficient for countering the robot and animal rights agendas discussed in the previous post.

 

First: the Incarnation. The centerpiece of the gospel is the extraordinary claim that in Jesus Christ God became a human being. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth. We may say, then, that in the Incarnation the necessity of finitude and mortality, of human limitations more broadly, are affirmed rather than eliminated. …

 

[Second: the Resurrection.]  The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead vindicates Jesus’ life and ministry. Moreover, since God is incarnate in human life, the vindication extends to all of creation. Because humans were not “allowed to uncreate what God created,” there is a created order to be discerned because it has been vindicated by its Creator. The resurrection of Jesus Christ, in short, entails the resurrection of humankind and with it the renewal of creation. …

 

[Third, a Created Order.] [The vindication and renewal of creation discloses] a created order which provides an objective standard and teleological order against which human desires are both judged and conformed. This objectivity is seen in … the “natural ethic.” Contrary to the posthuman project, the moral life is not a constructed artifact that is designed to enable the will to power and perfection. Rather, Christ’s resurrection discloses in greater clarity that human life and lives should be oriented toward certain moral structures and relationships that are inherent to the order of creation. …

 

“The Future of the Human Species” concludes with this wise counsel.

 

As we take our first, tentative steps toward a posthuman future, it is not enough for Christians to be critics only. They must also embody and bear witness to an alternative future, a perfect future which in Christ is already in the present. In this respect, they must insist that technology generally should be developed and used in iconic ways which reveal the ways of the Creator who is the source of all that is good, true, and beautiful. In particular, Christians must strive to recover and preserve medicine as a healing art that discloses Jesus Christ as the true nature and destiny of the human species.

 

 

Sources and Resources:

 

Dr. Brent Water’s essay, “The Future of the Human Species,” is available here.  Although called Part 2, this page contains the entire essay.

 

Brent Waters’ books are available online:  This Mortal Flesh: Incarnation and Bioethics can be found hereFrom Human to Posthuman: Christian Theology and Technology in a Postmodern World is available here.

 

 

 

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