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Transhumanism: It’s Not Just Science Fiction



Eugene Gan - published on 05/22/15

Popular culture loves technological advances, but we owe it to ourselves to think through what we are doing

The Bionic Man was just a beginning. We are easily outpacing him and we’ll be better, stronger, and faster. That’s the current attitude in the media, and it’s the anthem of the transhumanist, H+, and posthumanist movement which push for the idea that the human condition can be fundamentally improved through the use of technology.

The public’s fears are tangible, given the comments on a recent Scientific American report: “high time we take charge of our own evolution as it is proving impossible for nature to keep up with the rapidly increasing pace of our technology which could soon produce a viable artificial intelligence. When that happens, if evolution proceeds at the same pace as our technological advancement does, we could soon find ourselves at the mercy of vastly smarter, ethics-free machines”.  

The problem with these ideologies has more to do with its rejection of what is ultimately good for us than the technology itself, and is discussed here. Think this is all esoteric stuff? Think again. The transhumanist, H+, and posthumanist themes permeate the media and come in many forms. You may not have heard of the terms, but it’s very likely that you’ve already been exposed to these ideologies multiple times and subconsciously assimilated them into your own thinking and attitudes. Recognizing it and being able to differentiate the good from the bad is paramount if we’re to form ourselves and our loved ones, and cut through the confusion that is so prevalent in our culture.

As an example, consider the movie Ex Machina which TIME bills as this “year’s most seductive high-IQ drama.” In this latest iteration of titillating-technology-turned-twisted-tryst, an android designed with artificial intelligence is given seductively feminine qualities that it uses to manipulate a young male protagonist. IGN, a popular entertainment site which describe themselves as “a leading online media & services company obsessed with gaming, entertainment and everything guys enjoy,”

Ex Machina: “When Humans Become Gods: If humans can create an authentic artificial intelligence, do we cease to be human? Ex Machina is posing some big questions.” Well, of course we continue to be human, and artificial intelligent machines taking over humanity is in reality, a contradiction in terms, as explained here. But the popular media that we consume feeds us so many fears. It saddens the heart that there is so much confusion.

Is it any wonder that drugs and medication are widespread, and we’re seeking happiness every which way we can? If we can alter the chemicals in the brain, then the transhumanists assert that we can engineer our own state of “continual bliss." Have they watched The Giver, or read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World? (Anecdotally, his brother, Julian Huxley, president of the British eugenics society in the 1950s, is generally credited with the first official use of the term “transhumanism”). Their attitude seems to be that if we can replace our limbs with new ones created by us, then we certainly don’t need fairy tales of a messiah God who heals insipid folks begging their God for favors, healings, and “bliss.” Pride goeth before the fall, all over again. From Asimov’s hive-minds where we merge into one super-intelligent cosmic being to assimilating with technology so fully that we become cyborgs, our dialog with many others who are absorbed with this attitude is going to get a lot more interesting to say the least.

The human genome project – a global drive to determine the complete sequence of the 3 billion letters that make up the human blueprint – has a budget far exceeding the race to the moon. Cracking the genetic code means the ability to, for example, create new organs for transplant patients, and transhumanists hope, eventually create life to
our specifications: take a virus, cut out the parts we don’t want, insert the parts we want, let the virus attach itself to our cells, and let the virus do its thing using the machinery of our cells to multiply and transmit our specified code throughout the body and changing it. It’s nothing new and certainly not science fiction. We already use this procedure in gene therapy, and the UK has recently approved “3-parent”genetically manipulated embryos. If images of the zombie apocalypse comes to mind, I don’t blame you. Fears about what we can do with technology are natural, but to let these fears of what concupiscence can wreak overwhelm and paralyze us is unhealthy too. The answer lies precisely in taking time and effort to use the gift of our intellect, the gifts of science and technology wisely, to reflect humbly on what we should do and where we’re headed, and rooting our tasks in the dignity of the human person and the community it is connected to.

A good question to ask ourselves is: How would this bring us closer to God and neighbor? Striving against concupiscence has never been an easy battle, nor will it ever be. That takes formation, dialog, and participation. 1 Peter 3:15 reminds us to be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope in Jesus: do we choose to read, reflect, think, and pray about these matters amidst our busy schedules? From movies like Transcendence in which the movie wants us to believe that uploading one’s consciousness into a digital cloud is not a cold, hell-like experience to video games that let you exercise technology-enhanced powers, these issues are central to the media we regularly encounter today. Far from esoteric, these subjects arise readily in conversation: are we ready to put in the effort to cut through the confusion? Are we ready to converse and witness to our hope in Jesus or do we shy away from such participation and dialog?

We’ve already successfully transplanted the head of a monkey onto the body of another. This was interpreted by transhumanists as evidence that we can transfer personality and consciousness. Shades of Total Recall, anyone? The implication of this line of thinking is that the soul is transferrable, and that soul, consciousness, and personality are quantifiable properties, not some unique God-given attribute. Thus, given this shady logic, if we are created in the image and likeness of God, doesn’t that reduce God to mere human construct?  But like the monkey which ended up surviving for 7 days before the body rejected the head, we’re on the path to losing our heads with this kind of thinking. For starters, Dr Robert White, the neurosurgeon who performed the head transplant procedure,

that we can only presume one monkey’s consciousness was transferred to the other, yet he immediately went on to assure his listeners that the monkey’s personality was likewise transferred.

In the Amazing Spider-Man movie (and comic books), Dr. Connors develops a serum that allows him to grow back an arm he had lost. It works, but unfortunately, it also changes him into a horrific Lizard creature that in the Lizard’s opinion, is superior to humanity: “Why be human at all when we can be so much more? Faster. Stronger. Smarter.” And as in reality, it begins with seemingly good intentions on Dr. Connor’s part: “I spent my life as a scientist trying to create a world without human weakness, without outcasts.” So, too, in the story of Captain America’s origins. Captain America is injected with a serum that changes his body from frail to supersoldier proportions. The difference is that Captain America retains his strong sense of heroism, courage, sacrifice, and integrity even after the change. The serum in effect transformed him without annihilating who he is. In other words, the change was built on his human nature. A similar way of thinking can be applied to technology. Generally, when technology builds on, not destroys human nature, it can be good. For example, replacing a limb that a soldier lost in battle with an artificial, technologically-based one can be good. This idea can be compared to grace from God. Grace transforms us to be more like Our Loving God, but grace doesn’t destroy our human nature. Far from it, grace builds on human nature.

Keep in mind that the Church sees technology as a marvelous thing. We are called to see technology as an extension of man, not man an extension of technology. St John Paul II reminds us in his apostolic letter The Rapid Development: “Do not be afraid of new technologies! These rank “among the marvelous things” – inter mirifica – which God has placed at our disposal to discover, to use and to make known the truth, also the truth about our dignity and about our destiny as his children, heirs of his eternal Kingdom.”

It is when we obsess about the ends and are only focused solely on earthly goods, paying no attention to what we do to get there that we do ourselves in. C.S. Lewis in his text The Abolition of Man contends: “It is the magician’s bargain: give up our soul; get power in return. But once our souls, that is, our selves have been given up, the power thus conferred will not belong to us. We shall in fact be the slaves and puppets of that to which we have given our souls.”

How is it that as a culture, we’re up in arms about food companies genetically modifying our foods, but at the same time, we’re ok with the idea of genetically designing babies to our specifications? There’s selfishness that motivates these decisions too. Our bodies, as temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19), must be treated with great respect. When we say “temples," we tend to think of churches, as places of prayer and worship, but in the ancient world, to St Paul’s listeners, a temple was a place of sacrifice. You go to a temple to make sacrifice. So when Paul speaks of our bodies as temples, it’s a reminder that we’re to be making sacrifice. Sacrifice and love go hand in hand. If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:23).

Only God, not technology, can restore our souls, which is that part of you that yearns for meaning and life, and ultimately, for God.

Dr Eugene Gan
is faculty associate of the Veritas Center and Professor of Interactive Media, Communications, and Fine Art at Franciscan University of Steubenville in the United States. His book, Infinite Bandwidth: Encountering Christ in the Media is grounded in Scripture and magisterial documents, and is a handbook and practical guide for understanding and engaging media in meaningful and healthy ways in daily life.

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