Transhumanism: No More Death

“Unreal City, Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, A crowd flowed over London […]

David Peterson / 5.10.17
“Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.”
 – T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland.

In an excellent essay for n+1, Meghan O’Gieblyn connects transhumanism’s striving take on human perfectibility with Christian eschatology. “Ghost in the Cloud: Transhumanism’s Simulation Theology” draws on the writer’s personal history to provide a well-considered take on what an increasing reverence for technology might mean for our spirituality.

O’Gieblyn describes her first encounter with Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines after a co-worker lent her a copy. Kurzweil, currently Google’s Director of Engineering, believes that, thanks to technology, people “will become posthuman: immortal, limitless, changed beyond recognition. Kurzweil predicts this will happen by the year 2045. Unlike his father, he, along with those of us who are lucky enough to survive into the middle of this century, will achieve immortality without ever tasting death.” O’Gieblyn came to Kurzweil’s book at a time of personal crisis and found it electrifying. The eschatological language of Christianity that she had found so hard to connect to real life suddenly took on tactile significance. She dove into the literature of transhumanism and obsessively re-worked her theological frameworks. After reading Nick Bostrom’s essay, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?”, for example, she toyed with what Singularity would mean in daily life.

“One moment I’d be waiting for the bus or doodling on a green guest-check pad during the slow hours of my shift; the next, I’d be rehashing Pascal, Leibniz, and Augustine, inserting into their arguments the term programmers instead of God. I wondered: Could the programmers be said to be omniscient? Omnipotent? Benevolent? Computers got bugs that eluded even their creators. What if evil was nothing more than a glitch in the Matrix? Christian theology relied on a premise of divine perfection; God himself was said to be perfect, and he was capable, in theory, of creating a perfect universe. But what if our creator was just a guy in a lab running an experiment? The novelist John Barth, I recalled, had once jokingly mused that the universe was a doctoral candidate’s dissertation, one that would earn its author a B−.”

Julian Huxley, a British eugenicist who helped shape the transhumanist movement into its current ideological form, defined transhumanism as the “idea of humanity attempting to overcome its limitations and to arrive at fuller fruition.” O’Gieblyn is quick to point out the etymological roots of the term and carefully alerts the reader to the godless sect’s deeply religious thought patterns.

“Though few transhumanists would likely admit it, their theories about the future are a secular outgrowth of Christian eschatology. The word transhuman first appeared not in a work of science or technology but in Henry Francis Carey’s 1814 translation of Dante’s Paradiso, the final book of the Divine Comedy. Dante has completed his journey through Paradise and is ascending into the spheres of heaven when his human flesh is suddenly transformed. He is vague about the nature of his new body. In fact, the metamorphosis leaves the poet, who has hardly paused for breath over the span of some sixty cantos, speechless. ‘Words may not tell of that transhuman change.’

Dante, in this passage, is dramatizing the resurrection, the moment when, according to Christian prophecies, the dead will rise from their graves and the living will be granted immortal flesh. There is a common misunderstanding today that the Christian’s soul is supposed to fly up to heaven after death, but the resurrection described in the New Testament is a mass, onetime eschatological event.”

O’Gieblyn then gets into an interesting discussion of resurrection. She mentions that, “Since the medieval period, there has also persisted a tradition of Christians who believed that humanity could enact the resurrection through material means: namely, through science and technology.” These Christians’ view of the gospel departs from the crucified body of Christ. But the glorification of science and technology they espouse has become ubiquitous today, to the point of crowding out religious faith in favor of the certainties those disciplines claim. While theology may feel like a dead end, we still have conquerable goals in scientific fields: cancer prevention, environmental sustainability (immortality, even). In other words, goals toward which we can direct our existential energies.

However, the transhumanist argument over what shape their technological salvation will take mirrors the theological squabbling of early Christians.

“Transhumanists, in their eagerness to preempt charges of dualism, tend to sound an awful lot like these early church fathers. Eric Steinhart, a ‘digitalist’ philosopher at William Paterson University, is among the transhumanists who insist the resurrection must be physical. ‘Uploading does not aim to leave the flesh behind,’ he writes; ‘on the contrary, it aims at the intensification of the flesh.’ The irony is that transhumanists are arguing these questions as though they were the first to consider them. Their discussions give no indication that these debates belong to a theological tradition that stretches back to the earliest centuries of the Common Era.”

O’Gieblyn also touches on the impulse to do that connects the Silicon Valley transhumanists like Elon Musk and Peter Thiel with Christians who insist that good works will provide assurance of salvation. A recent New York Times Magazine interview with Mark Zuckerberg revealed his apparent conviction that by the virtue of his position and intellect, he can better the world. Although he’s not an avowed transhumanist, it’s not a leap to connect his mission to that of Musk or Thiel. Zuckerberg says:

“’We’re getting to a point where the biggest opportunities I think in the world … problems like preventing pandemics from spreading or ending terrorism, all these things, they require a level of coordination and connection that I don’t think can only be solved by the current systems that we have,’” Zuckerberg told me. What’s needed, he argues, is some global superstructure to advance humanity.

This is not an especially controversial idea; Zuckerberg is arguing for a kind of digital-era version of the global institution-building that the Western world engaged in after World War II. But because he is a chief executive and not an elected president, there is something frightening about his project. He is positioning Facebook — and, considering that he commands absolute voting control of the company, he is positioning himself — as a critical enabler of the next generation of human society. A minor problem with his mission is that it drips with megalomania, albeit of a particularly sincere sort. With his wife, Priscilla Chan, Zuckerberg has pledged to give away nearly all of his wealth to a variety of charitable causes, including a long-term medical-research project to cure all disease. His desire to take on global social problems through digital connectivity, and specifically through Facebook, feels like part of the same impulse.”

The Times writer does well to point out the serious risks of Zuckerberg positioning himself “as a critical enabler of the next generation of human society,” a position he shares with many transhumanists of Silicon Valley – Ray Kurzweil, for example – who think that by their own efforts, humanity will progress and, potentially, save itself. History shows that this hasn’t been a fruitful frame of mind.

In a piercing section of O’Gieblyn’s essay, she describes tracking down and eventually meeting up with the chair of the board of the Christian Transhumanism Association, Christopher Benek, who had appeared in an unflattering light on The Daily Show. They met at a cafe in Fort Lauderdale, and the conversation was awkward at first. He opened up when she asked him whether it was “possible that technology would be the avenue by which humanity achieved the resurrection and immortality.” They chatted for a long time, delving into some of the theories that O’Gieblyn had immersed herself in.

“As we stood to go, I couldn’t help feeling that our conversation was unresolved. I suppose I’d been hoping that Benek would hand me some final hermeneutic, or even offer a portal back to the faith, one paved by the certitude of modern science. But if anything had become clear to me, it was my own desperation, my willingness to spring at this largely speculative ideology that offered a vestige of that first religious promise. I had disavowed Christianity, and yet I’d spent the past ten years hopelessly trying to re-create its visions by dreaming about our postbiological future or fixating on the optimization of my own bodya modern pantomime of redemption. What else could lie behind these impulses but the ghost of that first hope?”

She touches so poignantly on that human urge to seek out and cling to a lightbulb moment of spiritual insight. We long for a fresh framework that could trigger a change in our hearts, zap our anxieties and clean out our souls. I search for a final hermeneutic every day, and, when it’s up to me, I can find some pretty good ones, living aphorism to aphorism. But that’s not the redemption Jesus offers. The part that gets so hard for transhumanists to parse (and this is because it carries all the left-handed power of Christ) is that no interpretations stick on Him, no hermeneutics will bring about salvation. In the transhumanist model, the underlying hope that O’Gieblyn detects and cannot ultimately connect with, is the desire to defeat death. She closes her essay in reaction to this transhumanist impulse with a beautifully wrought section on human transience:

“I was thinking of the scene from Hannah and Her Sisters where Woody Allen’s character, who spends the course of the film searching for the right religion, is in a morbid mood, walking along the footpaths of Central Park. ‘Look at all these people jogging,’ he scoffs, ‘trying to stave off the inevitable decay of the body.’ I have often felt this way myself when watching people exercise en masse, as though the specter of all those bodies in motion summed up the futility of the whole human projector perhaps offered an unflattering reflection of my own pathetic striving. But on this particular evening, in the last light of day, there was something mesmerizing in the dance of all these bodies in space. There were old bodies and young bodies, men and women, their limbs tanned and lambent with perspiration. They were stretching and lunging with arms outstretched in a posture of veneration, all of them animated by the same eternal choreography, driven by the echo of that ancient hope. Perhaps it was, in the end, a hope that was rooted in delusion. But was it more virtuous to concede to the cold realities of materialismto believe, as Solomon did, that we are sediment blowing aimlessly in the wind, dust that will return to dust?”

I opened this post with a snippet from The Wasteland, and it resonates here, in her final paragraph:
“The joggers swept past me on either side of the sidewalk and wove through the crowd, like particles dispersing in a vacuum. All of them were heading in the same direction, up the bridge that crossed the marina and ended at the spread of the ocean. I watched as they receded into the distance and disappeared, one by one.”