Wednesday, April 13, 2011
This article, by Roddie Rankin, is an extract from the Communications Committee report to the forthcoming General Assembly. The article appears in full in the report.
“Transhumanism” is not a word you will hear every day. However, if you try putting it into Google, you’ll get many more returns than for “Free Church of Scotland”. This shows, if nothing else, that there are bigger worlds than our own of which we may know nothing.
Transhumanism concerns the future: what will it be like in technological terms? A few decades can radically alter the technology available and our relationship to it. Could Logie Baird or Graham Bell have imagined our world with its iPhones and SatNav? Where might our relationship with technology take us in the future? Science Fiction has been guessing this for more than a century. While some visions are bizarrely far-fetched, we remember that the future world is one about which we know as little as our grandparents knew about ours.
The rate at which technology develops is dazzling. The only certainty is change. In some scenarios, this progress will increase exponentially. Breakthroughs associated with artificial intelligence may take the human race to unthought of levels. This is the realm of the Transhumanist. He sees technology increasingly modifying what it means to be human. We are now in charge of our evolution, he says, and we can redesign our bodies and minds to escape from the limitations of our present condition. The goal then becomes what he calls a “posthuman” state, where we play on a higher level.
Consider the following scenario:
Eve is a nine-year-old living in Inverness. ‘She’ will live forever.
Her father owns a Model T Ford, which he lovingly maintains long past its original life expectancy. When Eve is fifteen, she will wonder why she can’t live forever, like the Ford. This seed thought will mature during her studies in Life Extension Technologies at the Google Multiversity and will lead her into research. She will pioneer, by auto-experiment, the implantation of computer chips, which monitor vital signs and organ function. This data will enable tailored real-time drug therapy, which will optimise her health and cognition.
In 2040, she will receive gene replacement therapy, which will entirely remove any genetic predisposition to illness or ageing.
In 2067, she will develop cancer. While it is treated, she will receive, by transplant, a vastly superior set of synthetic major organs. To eliminate further disease, repair-nanobots will also be injected into her bloodstream.
A life threatening injury in 2090 will necessitate the transplanting of her brain into a machine body, with capabilities hugely superior to her former biological body. In her new, exhilarating cyborg existence, she will now interface with multiple sensory and super-consciousness devices, and participate in the over-class, served by unmodified humans.
In 2147, her brain wiring will be uploaded to a newly developed deep-space craft. She - that is her cloned intellect and self-awareness - will become the craft. Her computer brain will vastly augment her intelligence. The cyborg will be ‘taken out of service’. The craft will depart from earth on a millennia-long trajectory to populate another part of the galaxy, manufacturing lifeforms using her onboard molecular assembler. She will narrowly miss the wholesale destruction of earth by a malevolent artificial super-intelligence. Eve will survive to create life in her own image.
This is a typical transhuman conjecture. For sure, it relies on a continued process of development being possible and the avoidance of technological apocalypse. If you look in the right places, you will see scientists, futurists and philosophers discussing just such scenarios. Try these websites: http://www.hplusmagazine.com, http://www.ieet.org, http://www.kurzweilai.net, http://www.nickbostrom.com. Heady stuff. Maybe plain nonsense. But it is mightily influential and appealing to those who are working in many areas of technology, and in turn, to those advising governments on policy.
Is there adequate debate about the desirability of ‘transhuman’ technologies? Probably not. Prof. Nigel Cameron writes: “From where I sit, I see nothing so significant as the rapid development of these technologies, and nothing so troubling as the near absence of healthy public engagement with their social and ethical implications”.
When we think about technologies that may achieve transhuman goals, we are not talking, in the first place, about speculative possibilities. The technologies are already with us, at least in basic form. They are sometimes lumped under the rubric NBIC: nano, bio, info, cogno, and include cryonics, virtual reality, genetic modification, neuropharmaceuticals, nanotechnology, robotics, bionics and information technology.
Transhumanism exerts a beguiling influence on its proponents. It dovetails well with the present consumerist, materialistic, individualistic and evolutionist ethos of our times. They view the body like a commodity, which they hope to trade in for a better model. Technology provides the means to realise dreams, whether these concern longevity, enhanced intellect, deliverance from suffering or uninterrupted pleasure. Put like this, it is a means of achieving salvation through human endeavour; of engineering humanity to ameliorate the effects of the Fall.
Unsurprisingly, most transhumanists are agnostic, if not atheist. Their ideology sits snugly with the New Atheism. The future is humankind’s to conquer. A naive optimism concerning man’s moral nature, coupled with an ethical imperative to pursue perfection, gives transhumanism a pragmatic, compelling feel. What man wants, man shall have. Technology will yield contentment.
Most commentators remain to be convinced that technology can usher in the utopia the transhumanist longs for. They dismiss the vision on the grounds that it is escapist, unrealistic, dehumanising, dystopian and dangerous. Far from birthing a Golden Age, the Brave New World that technology enables may be a nightmare. A few may benefit at the expense of the many, or the creations of science may usurp humanity entirely.
Christians have concerns of their own. But before expressing these, we must remember that we are not Amish or Luddites, standing on a neutral sideline. I’m not chiselling this article onto a tablet of stone, nor will it be laboriously copied by hand and deposited in a monastic library. Who knows - it may even go viral on the web and spark a revolution in China! Whatever, it will enter the Matrix and become lodged among the heaving mass of 1s and 0s, which entirely govern our mode of living and melt the plastic of our brains.
Yes, we participate as much as any other citizen of the 21st Century in the rapidly changing technoscape. We cannot assess technological trends from an outside standpoint. It is not like we are railing against immorality from a high place of purity. Christians, like everyone else, are both blessed and besmirched by the gadgets and possibilities of the present age.
We do, however, believe in the sanctity of human life; the uniqueness and nobility conferred upon us as creatures made in God’s image. We acknowledge the wisdom of our Creator seen in the ‘very goodness’ of Mankind. But, with sadness, we recognise that our nature has been corrupted by sin, so that there are flaws in every human endeavour. Therefore, we cannot believe that our own ingenuity can raise us to the pristine level of Edenic bliss or higher still. Instead, we believe we must receive God’s fix for our flaws - salvation through Jesus Christ. This salvation purifies our nature and delivers unimaginable powers to our human bodies through the resurrection. Most importantly, it brings us back into joyful fellowship with the Heavenly Father and allows us to develop in the age to come according to His perfect plan.
With this in mind, we must surely declare the following convictions in relation to technology and transhumanism:
The wonder and glory of all of God’s creation, including homo sapiens.
Our use of technology, like the rest of our activity, is something we do under the lordship of Jesus Christ.
We affirm science, engineering and the development of technologies as God-given enterprises.
Christians can bring realism to society’s view of technology.
Human nature will frequently handle technology inappropriately.
We reject the idea that technology should develop in an unbridled, unregulated manner, like a garden left to itself.
Legislative control of technological development is essential.
The motive for seeking a technology should be examined.
The priority for applied technology is to increase equality, not to raise up a technological elite.
The image of God in man must retain its integrity.
Destructive experimentation on human life should be avoided and ways to achieve research goals which do not require this should be found.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the only ‘technology’ which can guarantee a sympathetic and life-enhancing transformation of human nature.
Societies are becoming increasingly dependent on technology. Devices and data are the cement that holds everything together. We are being changed and our humanity is being redefined by the products of technology. This presents specific challenges to Christians, who seek to live their lives in fellowship with Jesus Christ. Pastor Vermon Pierre echoes many when he calls for Christians, in recognition of the subtle dangers of technology, to major on the importance of:
being physically present (e.g. in fellowship), when technology tends to us being only virtually present;
self-forgetfulness, when technology fosters self-centredness;
sustained, undivided attention to God and people. He encourages us to employ “techno-fasts”;
words, especially God’s words. Technology gears us to the medium of images;
gaining wisdom and understanding. Technology has exponentially grown our access to information in every category. Possessing this information is not the same as achieving good character.
The church must find ways to relate to technology which harmonise humanity with the rest of Creation and with God. It is the tendency of transhumanism to corrupt our relationship with God, ourselves and the Creation, which presents its greatest challenge. May God help us to love His creation and our humanity as He does, and to serve Him with a view to the glorious consummation of that humanity. Then, when God’s purpose is complete, His people shall be
“before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.
Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd;
he will lead them to springs of living water.
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Revelation 7v15-17
For Further Reading:
How to be a Christian in a Brave New World, Joni Eareckson Tada and Nigel M. de S. Cameron, Zondervan
The Emerging Brave New World, Thomas A. Glessner, Highway
Matters of Life and Death, John Wyatt, IVP
Designers of the Future, D. Gareth Jones, Monarch
Responsible Technology, Stephen V. Monsma, William B. Eerdmans
The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis, Zondervan