Transhumanism’s time seems to have come. The movement’s goals and most prominent personalities are ubiquitously boosted with laudatory stories in the media, its scientific-research projects bounteously funded by the hyper-rich of Silicon Valley, and its potentiality (and consequences) increasingly prominent as Hollywood plotlines. Indeed, the movement is receiving so much positive attention these days that one would think its utopian goals are really achievable.
For those few readers who may still be unaware of this futuristic social movement, transhumanists seek to “seize control of human evolution” by harnessing the naked power of biotech, cyber tech, and computer tech, to engineer into themselves the powers of movie super-heroes and, eventually, achieve life without end. When transhumanism first emerged from the high academy such as Oxford and Yale, the focus was on radical individual redesign. Transhumanists believed that they could genetically alter themselves to increase their intelligence exponentially or, say, harness hawk genes to radically improve their eyesight. Society would, they believed, soon be divided between what Princeton biologist Lee Silver called “naturals” — e.g., the unenhanced — and the superior “gen-rich” post-humans.
Over time, transhumanism’s goals grew even more ambitious and grandiose. No longer satisfied with merely attaining extraordinary capabilities, the movement shifted its primary focus to fulfilling the age-old dream of immortality in the material world, giving a new meaning to Saint Paul’s triumphant declaration, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
Transhumanists believe that as technology grows increasingly sophisticated, particularly research into artificial intelligence (AI), a moment— “the Singularity” — will come in which the cascade of technological advances will become self-generating, unstoppable, and uncontrollable. This crescendo of scientific leaps forward will culminate in everlasting life via the ability to upload our minds into computers. Once safely in cyberspace, transhumans can live indefinitely, perhaps melding their cyber-minds with others, being downloaded into a cyborg, their own cryogenically frozen heads attached to new bodies, or perhaps into their own clones. The details can become a bit murky, but Google’s Ray Kurzweil believes that software heaven will be with us by the 2040s.
And this is where transhumanists’ desperation becomes most clearly visible. You see, transhumanism is overwhelmingly a materialist’s obsession. Polls show that most of the movement’s adherents are atheists, with a scattering of agnostics and apostate religionists thrown in. In any event, the focus of their movement is materialistic. Most of them believe or fear that nothing of them will survive their own dying.
That kind of thinking leads to nihilism or, at the very least, a temptation to despair. Something must be done! Enter transhumanism. As movement proselytizer Zoltan Istvan, who ran for president in 2016 on the Transhumanist Party ticket and is now a Libertarian candidate for California governor, wrote in “I’m an Atheist, Therefore I’m a Transhumanist”:
The challenging idea that everyone in the 21st Century must decide how far they are willing to go to use technology and science to improve their lives is loudly calling. And the faithless will answer it. It’s inevitable that hundreds of millions will soon come to call themselves transhumanists, if not in name, then in spirit. Many will end up supporting indefinite life extension and technologies that strip away our humanness and promote our transhumanness. Further into the future, many more will begin to discard the human body in favor of embracing synthetic forms of being.
So there you have it. Transhumanism offers adherents the comforts and promises of traditional faith — without the humility that comes from being a created creature, and with the further benefit of eschewing all worry about the eternal consequences of sin, the laws of karma, or a future reincarnation in which our condition is based directly on how we live our present life. In short, transhumanism’s primary purpose is to substitute religious belief with a nonjudgmental and ironic technological echo of Christian eschatology. Consider:
• Christ’s second coming and the Singularity are both expected to occur at a specific moment in time.
• Both lead to death’s final defeat: For Christians, in the “New Jerusalem,” and for transhumanists, in their embracr of a corporeal post-humanity.
• For Christian believers, life in the hereafter will mean an end to all suffering. Likewise the Singularity, for transhumanists. Indeed, eliminating suffering in fleshly living is one of transhumanism’s major aims.
• Christians expect to live in glorified bodies that are both real and immortal. Kurzweil’s promise of what he calls “non-biological bodies” appears to be a similar concept.
• Transhumanism even predicts that the already dead will be raised, an offshoot of a core principle of Christian faith. For example, Kurzweil is planning to construct a technological version of his long-dead father. He told ABC News, “You can certainly argue that, philosophically, that [replica of your father] is not your father, . . . but I can actually make a strong case that it would be more like my father than my father would be, were he to live.”
But here’s an intractable problem for transhumanists. Whatever would be created by the supposed transhumanist-mind upload, it wouldn’t be the same thing as being truly alive. Real life requires a living body. We don’t just think in the way a computer calls up programs. We also feel. Our emotions change our bodies. Our bodies affect our emotions. Both impact our thinking, and the whole fleshly mix affects our life’s course. Then there’s that pesky subconscious. So, at best, your mind uploaded into a computer would be a pale substitute for the real McCoy, perhaps mimicking your attitudes, but not being really you. As Duke University neurologist Miguel Nicolelis told the BBC when discussing this subject:
You cannot code intuition; you cannot code aesthetic beauty; you cannot code love or hate. There is no way you will ever see a human brain reduced to a digital medium. It’s simply impossible to reduce that complexity to the kind of algorithmic process that you will have to have to do that.
So why go through the pretense that you in a computer would be real? The answer is as human as life gets: We all need hope — and that includes atheists, agnostics, and other assorted materialists. Or, as Bob Dylan sang, you gotta serve somebody — and for transhumanists lacking a belief in the transcendent, that means they have to serve themselves.
But let’s see the transhumanism philosophy for what it really is, a wail of despair in the night, a desperate yearning to escape what most true transhumanists bemoan as an all too brief and maddeningly restricted existence, that will be utterly obliterated once their heart stops beating. That’s depressing! As Istvan writes, embracing transhumanism offers the prospect that he and other atheists will “become godlike” transhumans. No wonder transhumanists are such true believers. Transhumanism offers them purpose — and the comfort that their salvation is simply a technological detail away.