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Transhumanist theology

Lutheran theologian Ted Peters is the author of the sixth and last of the generally hostile articles on transhumanism in the June 2008 issue of The Global Spiral .

Despite my own rather anti-religious bias, I actually consider this the best of the six articles. Peters bases many of his claims on theological concepts, but similar claims could have been based on purely secular considerations. He does, however, fall into the usual trap of conflating the transhumanist movement with certain specific ideas that are controversial within the movement, such as proposals for personality uploading and a particular view of inevitable evolutionary and technological progress.

Peters helpfully spells out his general position in a way that is refreshingly clear after the almost-impenetrable style of Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s article in the same issue. Here is Peters:

My thesis is this: transhumanist assumptions regarding progress are naive, because they fail to operate with an anthropology that is realistic regarding the human proclivity to turn good into evil. It is my own view that researchers in the relevant fields of genetics and nanotechnology should proceed toward developing new and enhancing technologies, to be sure; but they should maintain constant watchfulness for ways in which these technologies can become perverted and bent toward destructive purposes.

The two long (but, as I said, clear) sentences here merit consideration. The first may well be true of some transhumanists (though, as usual in these articles, it would be helpful if Peters had put it that way rather than in a way that slanders an entire cultural movement). You don’t need to think in terms of theological notions of evil and sin to realise that new technologies can be used in dangerous and even malevolent ways, as well as in beneficial one. Most transhumanists are painfully aware of this, but perhaps some do have an overly optimistic view of technology that stands diametrically to opposed to that of contemporary Luddites; i.e. the former are blind to the evils of technology while the latter are blind to the good. While Peters could have been more careful and conciliatory in his wording, the note of caution in this sentence is not itself unwelcome.

What about the second sentence? Peters says: It is my own view that researchers in the relevant fields of genetics and nanotechnology should proceed toward developing new and enhancing technologies, to be sure; but they should maintain constant watchfulness for ways in which these technologies can become perverted and bent toward destructive purposes. It appears to me that this is a perfectly sensible view. It is, indeed, my own view, and I’m sure that most sophisticated transhumanists share it. As I’ve said so often, with apologies to William Gibson, the street finds its own uses for things. We can’t be sure in advance what uses new technologies will put to, and we mustn’t proceed on the insouciant assumption that we do know. Pragmatically speaking - not as some kind of law of nature - we are likely to be surprised at how any particular technology ends up being used (of course, doomsayers about new technologies should also keep this in mind before they run off trying to prohibit this and that because it just might be used in such and such a nasty way).

In a sense, that’s all that needs saying: the general position advanced by Peters is one that could be advanced within the transhumanist movement, so it can’t be a critique of the transhumanist movement.

But there’s a little bit more that’s worth adding. I can’t refrain from commenting on Peters’ account of the relationship between transhumanism and theology. He takes transhumanists to task for assuming “that religion will attempt to place roadblocks in their way on the grounds that the religious mind is old fashioned, out of date, Luddite, and dedicated to resisting change.” He insists that Christian and “even” Jewish theology are dedicated to the new. “If a theologian would become critical of a transhumanist, it would not be in defense of what has been. Rather, it would be because of a naiveté in thinking that we could accomplish with technology a transformation that can be achieved only by the eschatological act of a gracious and loving God.”

With all respect to Peters, with whom I’m in agreement about much, this seems rather disingenuous. It doubtless conveys his own theogical position accurately, and I’m prepared to accept for the sake of the argument that it’s even the “correct” position. Obviously, theology is itself a complex discipline within which many views are advanced and contested. However, it’s also true that there has been an enormous amount of theologically-based resistance to emerging technologies and their applications, and even the supposedly secular arguments that are so often run (e.g. those of Michael Sandel with his talk about life as a gift) actually make little sense outside of a framework of theological assumptions. To concede, as I do, that some theological positions are compatible with an embrace of emerging technologies does not entail a denial that much of the actual, real-world opposition has been theologically motivated, often motivated by lurking ideas of the sanctity or inviolability of life, the world, or the human genome as “given” to us.

Like Kathryn Hayles, Peters should embrace transhumanism and declare himself an ally rather than an opponent. His actual political position on enhancement technologies is one that a sophisticated and realistic transhumanist could share. He needn’t self-identify as a transhumanist, if the t-word word carries too much baggage for him - if it has too many connotations of specific ideas that he really does oppose. But he could certainly adopt a stance in relation to the transhumanist movement as a whole of being a friend - and a friendly critic where he feels he must criticise particular people or ideas.

Russell Blackford Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, an attorney, science fiction author and critic, philosopher, and public intellectual. Dr. Blackford serves as editor-in-chief of the IEET's Journal of Evolution and Technology. He lives in Newcastle, Australia, where he is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle.



COMMENTS

I am relaatively new to even the idea of transhumanism, and although i don’t practise any religion, i can say that the majority would take my comment as a theological one. And it may be, who knows? I believe fully that my ancestors were never apes, gorillas, chimpanzees, or any other primate form. I do, however, believe that however, that who or what ever created us meant for us to learn, and to go beyond the stigmata that is religion. I also believe that application of that knowledge wa in the cards also, for lack of a better analogy. The scientific community at large believes that any applicatation of faith in any progress is detrimental, although it’s evident that it would ease passages for many fields. As i said, i don’t follow a religion, yet I am a person who believes in right and wrong, good and evil, I teach those things to my own children, and while that may seem irrelevant, i am , for one, glad that the hurdle is brought up as often as it is. You don’t need to believe in anything to have a moral opinion, and again there, i believe that the scientific community at large ignore even their own beliefs, which , again, creates complications where none need exist. It can be presented in such a way as to pacifyy pretty much everyone, and it’s a Completely glorious thing. Just a hint, ya know?

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