New Year, New You? The Allure of Transhumanism

We’re all used to the New Year’s Narrative. Make some resolutions. Reinvent yourself—or at least fix a part or two. But even the most enthusiastic of us knows not to get too carried away. Some things you can change, but some things never change. Go to the gym? Maybe. Say “thank you” more? Sure. But where’s the line? What doesn’t change?

On one hand, this should be an easy question. We live in a culture that puts more and more in the “changeable” category. Not only do we have increasing abilities to change things about ourselves, but our culture champions the right—even the necessity—to change in order to follow our hearts. So the line isn’t easy to find in our wider culture. And if we’re honest, Christians are losing sight of it as well. We’re not doing it intentionally; it’s happening slowly. We simply imbibe this broader narrative—not just the New Year’s Narrative but the Construct Yourself Story. You can be whatever you want to be. You must be true to yourself.

This self-construction narrative connects to various Enlightenment ideas and sensibilities of the past, but it doesn’t stop there. It also connects to transhumanist visions of the future, visions that claim there should be no limit on “self-improvement”—no matter how you define “self” or “improvement.” That might seem startling at first—how have we jumped all the way to sci-fi visions of disembodied humans and powerful robots? But transhumanism isn’t only about “extreme” versions of the future; it’s about endless possibilities, many of which are on offer right now. And transhumanism isn’t only about uploading our minds into computers and living immortally in a digital world; it’s a vision of what it means to be human in relation to technology. Of course, this vision can lead to various conclusions. In fact, many of us might be surprised by the degree to which we already agree with transhumanists. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get a better understanding of transhumanism.

Transhumanism moves toward posthumanism—that stage when we’ve moved beyond the human.

At root, transhumanism is a commitment to use whatever we can to move to the next stage of human evolution. If humans have the ability to take more control, why shouldn’t we? Why shouldn’t we change in the ways we want to? Transhumanism inevitably moves toward posthumanism—that stage when we’ve moved beyond the human. One way of distinguishing the two is to think of transhumanism as a commitment to a process and posthumanism as a vision of a future. They’re related and inseparable, but still distinguishable.

We can follow transhumanism through three steps. Let’s think of it as progressing (or digressing?) farther and farther away from the human body and closer and closer to those sci-fi scenarios we’re so sure are far off. I’ll briefly explain each move, then answer two questions: (1) How is this an issue today? and (2) Why is it a problem for Christians?

Step 1: Morphological Freedom

The first vital element of transhumanism is morphological freedom. In its most basic sense, this is the freedom to take advantage of any technology to change yourself in any way you desire. We’re not talking basic therapy here: you’re not pursuing transhumanism if you’re wearing eyeglasses or getting reparative surgery to replace a lost tooth. We’re talking enhancement: actions to add to or change what’s within the range of normal human life. (Though take note: some transhumanists refuse to acknowledge any sense of “normative,” thus rendering this distinction impossible and making it harder to distinguish between transhumanist morphological freedom and everyday glasses.)

For transhumanists, morphological freedom is a right, full stop. The logic runs like this: Everyone has both a right to life and also a right to seek happiness. Happiness can only be defined through self-determination and self-construction. Both survival and happiness require a right to freedom. Therefore, the right to modify one’s body logically follows. (For an example of this argument, see Sandberg, 56–60.)

Our immersion in digital technology has given us many more opportunities to indulge this fantasy that we are the makers of ourselves.

How is this an issue today?

The right of self-creation is fundamentally a product of Enlightenment individualism, but our immersion in digital technology has given us many more opportunities to indulge this fantasy that we are the makers of ourselves. An obvious example is virtual reality. Popular versions such as Second Life start by giving you the chance to choose your form: What are you going to look like? Take your pick. On another level, social media work this way, encouraging us to broadcast chosen parts of ourselves in selected ways. It isn’t much of a stretch to think you can modify your physical body in any way you see fit.

Why is it a problem for Christians?

At one level, freedom isn’t a problem at all. Christians believe in a God who freely created us in his image and gave us creaturely freedom for our flourishing and his glory. The problem isn’t the freedom in morphological freedom, but in the total commitment to self-determination. Christians believe that true happiness is found in God, not in self-creation. Any freedom we exercise in relation to our bodies, therefore, should be oriented to that chief aim—to flourish in relationship to God. Morphological freedom is built on a perspective of grasping control rather than obeying the call of God.

Morphological freedom probably doesn’t sound too frightening to you. But as we take the next step in transhumanist logic, things might get a little more shaky.

Step 2: Augmented Reality

The second element is the hybrid or the cyborg. If we have the right to morphological freedom, and we can take advantage of whatever technology we wish to, then what about beginning to merge with technology? This leads to “augmented reality,” in which the technological connection mediates reality to you and changes your reality. We’re used to hearing about augmented reality in connection with Google Glass, Pokemon Go, and other smartphone-based applications, but it’s broader than that.

For transhumanists, augmented reality is a way to pursue life expansion via cybernetics, merging human and machine. It can happen with minimal integration—looking through special glasses or a smartphone—but it expands far beyond. Laura Beloff uses the term “hybronaut” for the person living in augmented reality, with body-embedded and artificially controlled elements enabling different interactions with the environment (85). This state can be achieved in various ways, but the results are similar: The person’s world is changed, and their behavior is, too.

It may seem like we’re just talking about tool use, even if the tools are particularly immersive. Transhumanists themselves note this connection but argue for a difference. Scholars such as Andy Clark emphasize a certain view of the human that compels this vision of augmented reality. According to Clark, humans are essentially open to deep, transformative restructuring, which can be facilitated by augmented reality (113). In other words, what it means to be human is open and changeable. This augmenting of reality isn’t merely something we switch on and off; it’s something that will profoundly change us. According to transhumanists, we have a right to this transformation of our world-and-life view.

Augmented reality could be used to create a reality that excludes some of the neighbors we’re called to love and serve.

Augmented reality includes a wide variety of processes. We’re talking about the interface between the biological and the mechanical, which can obviously take a multitude of forms. For example, scientists are studying the effect on monkeys. They embed chips in their brains that enable them to move a robotic arm with their thoughts. This alters the way they engage with the reality around them, the way they think about themselves, and the way they behave in their world (Clark, 118). The merging of monkey and machine profoundly changes the monkey.

Augmented reality doesn’t just involve what we can do, but also how we see. Some transhumanists are promoting the idea of reality filters. As one puts it:

Reality filters may help you filter all signals coming from the world the way your favorite mail reader filters your messages, based on your stated preferences or advice from your peers. With such filters you may choose to see only the objects that are worthy of your attention, and completely remove useless and annoying sounds and images (such as advertisements) from your view. (141)

In this example, the world a person inhabits radically changes.

How is this an issue today?

Human-machine interfaces that lead to the implanting of chips in brains for controlling robotic arms aren’t part of our everyday lives. That sort of thing seems so far off. But when we consider augmented reality in general—especially the way it changes what we see—its practicality comes into focus. It’s happening today. Wearable technology such as watches and glasses provide a degree of augmented reality, filtering our experiences. And basic wearables interface us with information technology in more immersive ways. Smart glasses immerse us even more deeply, “augmenting” reality with other information and perhaps filtering our experiences. Virtual reality, especially as virtual reality gear becomes more common, provides an even more immersive move. Our experience with virtual reality games will make us more interested in and open to augmented reality in our everyday lives.

Why is it a problem for Christians?

Augmented reality is harmless is some ways, but potentially harmful in others. What happens if our augmented reality “filters” out aspects of our world that we should engage? Some scholars fear that reality filters will be used to avoid individuals, classes of people, or places we’d rather not see. In other words, augmented reality could be used to create a reality that excludes some of the neighbors we’re called to love and serve.

Moreover, augmented reality further promotes this vision of grasping for control and mastery over our worlds, rather than living faithfully before God who is in control and who calls us to serve. Consider the words of secular futurist Yuval Noah Harari:

Devices such as Google Glass and games such as Pokémon Go are designed to erase the distinction between online and offline, merging them into a single augmented reality. On an even deeper level, biometric sensors and direct brain-to-computer interfaces aim to erode the border between electronic machines and organic bodies and to literally get under our skin. Once the tech giants come to terms with the human body, they might end up manipulating our entire bodies in the same way they currently manipulate our eyes, fingers, and credit cards. We may come to miss the good old days when online was separated from offline. (92)

Eroding the distinction between online and offline might promise great possibilities, but it will bring limitations that should concern Christians, especially when it comes to inequality and living humbly as limited beings in service to God.

We’ve shifted now from transhumanism as the right to morphological freedom to one potential use of that freedom: merging with machines. But what about the next step, the sci-fi step, the leaving-the-biological-altogether step?

Step 3: Mind Uploading

This is the (as of now, and perhaps forever) sci-fi scenario of uploading your consciousness into a computer and living immortally in the machine. This scenario is what people often envision when they think about transhumanism. It’s certainly a piece of the potential future that transhumanists point to. It isn’t the first piece or the dominant piece, but it’s still worth considering.

Transhumanists disagree on how mind uploading might be achieved. Some point out the difficulty of moving consciousness to a computer: While we might one day be able to transfer all data from a biological brain to a computer, how would we have more than a copy at that point? How would consciousness transfer and become immortal? Others observe that we’re already putting much of our “brains” online by putting so much on social media. Martine Rothblatt spells out some possibilities:

Information technology (IT) is increasingly capable of replicating and creating its highest levels: emotions and insight. This is called cyberconsciousness. While it is still in its infancy, cyberconsciousness is quickly increasing in sophistication and complexity. Running right alongside that growth is the development of powerful yet accessible software, called mindware, that will activate a digital file of your thoughts, memories, feelings, and opinions—a mindfile—and operate on a technology-powered twin, or mindclone. (3)

For Rothblatt, we’re well on our way to creating beings that exist—digitally but independently—and who deserve rights and other considerations. For her, you’re on your way to creating your mindclone every time you post on social media.

This third step is admittedly different to wrap our minds around. For our purposes we can simply note this idea of moving from the biological to the digital—leaving our bodies behind for a more durable “body,” however it might be achieved.

How is this an issue today?

As noted above, we’re already getting used to putting a lot of ourselves into the digital realm. If Rothblatt is correct, social media use is moving in the direction of digital immortality. All the data we generate is capable of being drawn together in a way that serves as a striking representative of us—striking enough that some would call it a “clone.”

Even if we aren’t volunteering to uploading ourselves into a computer, we’re putting a lot of ourselves into the format through what we share and what we do.

Why is this a problem for Christians?

With this third step, we’re more clearly in a realm where Christians are uncomfortable. As followers of Christ, we worship a God who took on flesh, who became a person in order to redeem humanity. Salvation for Christians isn’t an escape from the biological to the digital, for God has redeemed the biological in Christ.

Salvation for Christians isn’t an escape from the biological to the digital, for God has redeemed the biological in Christ.

Few Christians today would opt in for this aspect of transhumanism. I trust that few in your small group want to create a mindclone or upload their consciousness to a computer. But as we’ve seen in these three steps of transhumanist logic, we’re not as far from this as we might think, given our different degrees of acceptance of morphological freedom and augmented reality. In other words, we may be more on our way toward this vision for existence—due to our acceptance of other practices and ideas—than we care to admit.

Who Are You?

New Year, New You.

But who are you? And how much “new” can you reasonably and faithfully achieve?

As you process your new year and prayerfully consider self-improvement, consider the story you’re a part of.

Are you seeking “progress,” or Christlikeness?