Rise of the Planet of the Transhumans

Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts a future in which “the very nature of what it means to be human will be both enriched and challenged as our species breaks the shackles of its genetic legacy…” (from The Singularity is Near website).  Why would humans plot such a scheme?  They do it because transhumanists see the human body, in its current form, as limited and defective.  In his book From Human to Posthuman, Brent Waters observes that what unites the proponents of transhumanism is an “unwavering belief that the current state of the human condition is deplorable, and the only effective way to remedy this plight is for humans to use various technologies to radically enhance and transcend their innate and latent capabilities.”  Science journalist Brian Alexander concurs, “Transhumans regard our bodies as sadly inadequate… which restricts our brain power, our strength and, worst of all, our life span.”  Kurzweil believes that to accomplish the goals of transhumanism and overcome our imperfections, humans need to become “less biological” and more technologically enhanced, more “God-like.”  The emergence of transhumans is referred to as a ‘technological singularity,” a time when humans achieve “inconceivable heights of intelligence, material progress, and longevity.”  Indeed, in the mind of many futurists, this can be accomplished sooner than we think, perhaps as soon as 2030.

One basic presupposition of transhumanism is the view that human nature is not fixed but is malleable.  Waters observes that for transhumanists, “There are no given features, such as finitude and mortality, which define the quality and character of human life and lives.  Personal, social and political identities are subjected to continuous deconstruction and reconstruction.  In this respect, medicine (and I would add ‘technology’) can be used to deconstruct and reconstruct human bodies.”  Transhumanists think that the true essence of human nature is information, information that be downloaded onto something more durable such as a computer or a robot.  Theoretically the information could be backed up indefinitely resulting in a type of virtual immortality.  In the end, as described by Joel Garreau in Radical Evolution, we may have a world where there is a distinction between the “Naturals” and the “Enhanced.”  In this world, “Naturals,” i.e., those who have not received genetic enhancements, may be viewed as if they disabled because they simply cannot keep up with those who are genetically superior.  Others describe the next possible step – the Singularity – when machines begin to outperform the intelligence of humans to such an extent that they become “ultra-intelligent” and begin to replicate themselves.

Christians agree that the human body is defective and limited.  The doctrine of depravity, which includes the effects of sin on the human body, is one of the core doctrines of the Christian faith.  And in response to the question of whether human nature is fixed or malleable, one possible rejoinder is both.  In other words, could it be that some psychological and experiential features of human nature are subject to change while personal identity is kept intact?  Ted Peters writes, “…changes in the body, even if resulting in changes in the mind, do not risk a loss of identity.  Beyond the therapy and even beyond the enhancement, our transformed self will still be our self.”  The common sense understanding of human identity, the view that best fits human experience and Scripture, is one that posits the continuity of an individual’s identity i.e., an individual remains the same individual throughout his or her existence.  This continuity cannot be explained by simply reducing human nature to mere information.  In addition, a strong case could be made that the continuity of identity can only be explained by putting forward a robust description of human nature, one that accounts for the common experiences of self-awareness, memory, the ability to identify people, places, etc. and the capacity to engage in self-reflection.  Moreover, the psychological powers to think, be aware of, choose, reflect, experience (pleasure and pain, emotions), and the like, are consistent with the view that a personal agent, and not simply information, is involved.   If human nature consists merely of information, then how are we to account for these common experiences?  Actually, it is more natural and intuitive to make reference to “you” acting in such and such a way, rather than to suggest that information is responsible for your actions.  In sum, the view that human nature is merely information leaves too many phenomena unexplained

Then there is the matter of consciousness.  John Searle (Professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley) is noted for having a deep appreciation for the complexities of consciousness.  He questions how “consciousness can be reduced to zeroes and ones, that there is not some deep mystery behind it.”  Indeed, human consciousness itself is difficult to explain if humans are reduced to transferable data.

For Christians, the human is more than a list of psychological functions.  J.P. Moreland reminds us that Scripture consistently presents humans as individuals who are the same and remain the same throughout their existence.  For example, in Psalm 139, David assumes the continuity of his identity when he reflects on God’s hand on his existence before his birth.  The reason that David could write about his early existence was because he was the same person before birth and in his present state of existence.

Concerning the question of whether humans are mere information and whether there is a distinction between humans and machines, the Christian response is rooted in the doctrine of the imago Dei, and, in my opinion, the notion of substance dualism.  Genesis 1:27 teaches that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (NIV).”  Humans are not mere products of evolution that can be reduced to information.  On the contrary, humans are persons created by God in his image.

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Joseph Gibes

Gary,

Reductionism extreme: just as “To a person with a hammer everything is a nail,” so “To a person with a computer everything is data” — including the human mind, consciousness, etc.

Joe