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Reflections on James Hughes’ Problems of Transhumanism (Part 2)

“The dominant trajectory of Enlightenment thought over the last three hundred years has been towards atheism. Most transhumanists are atheists. But some transhumanists, like many of the original Enlightenment thinkers, are attempting to reconcile naturalism and their religious traditions. Some transhumanists even believe that the transcendent potentials of intelligence argue for a new form of scientific theology.” (James Hughes, 2010)

Part 2: Deism, Atheism and Natural Theology

The Enlightenment was the age of the triumph of science (Newton, Leibniz, Bacon) and of philosophy (Descartes, Locke, Spinoza, Kant, Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu). Unlike the Renaissance philosophers, the Enlightenment thinkers ceased the search for validation in the texts of the Greco-Roman philosophers, but were predicated more solidly on rationalism and empiricism. Religious tolerance and skepticism about superstition and Biblical literalism was also a central theme of the Enlightenment. Most of the Enlightenment philosophers of the 17th century through the 19th century, however, were theists of some sort who, in general, were attempting to reconcile belief in God with rational skepticism and naturalism. There were, of course, atheists among them as well as devout Christians, but if there was a common theological stance and belief about the divine among Enlightenment philosophers, it was probably Deism, a worldview consisting in the rejection of blind faith and organized religion, an advocacy for the discovery of religious truth through reason and direct empirical observation, and a belief that divine intervention in human affairs stopped with the creation of the world.

Deism, as James Hughes accounts, declined in the nineteenth century, gradually replaced by atheist materialism. Nonetheless, the engagement with Enlightenment values continued in liberal strains of Christianity such as Unitarianism and Universalism, united today among some communities as Unitarian Universalism (UU), and hosting congregations with individuals of varying beliefs that range widely to include atheism, agnosticism, pantheism, deism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Neopaganism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Humanism, and many more.

Hughes himself grew up in the Unitarian-Universalist (UU) church, a movement whose attempt, he says, “to run spirituality through the rationalist Enlightenment sieve removed God seventy years ago, leaving mostly vague affirmations.” Despite some failings of UU over the decades, Hughes speaks of his belief that we need to “take more seriously the effort of Enlightenment theologians to argue for a naturalist theology.” In contemporary times, we see this effort persevere in the pursuit of such thought-systems as Natural Theology, Theology of Nature, Process Philosophy/Theology, Religious Naturalism, Spiritual Naturalism, Scientific/Naturalistic Pantheism, and the likes.

Modern transhumanism is clearly argued for by some schools as representing an unfolding in the atheist-humanist continuum building up from the Enlightenment. Nevertheless, a number of nuances command attention. Referencing a survey conducted in 2007 of members of the World Transhumanist Association (Humanity+, 2008), Hughes presents the polls wherein “93% answered ‘yes’ to the statement ‘Do you expect human progress to result from human accomplishment rather than divine intervention, grace, or redemption?’ Ninety percent denied ‘clear divinely-set limits on what humans should do,’ and ninety percent affirmed that their ‘concept of ‘the meaning of life’ derived from human responsibility and opportunity, not than [sic] from divine revelation.” When those transhumanists were asked for religious affiliations, Hughes continues, “two-thirds identified as atheist, agnostic, secular humanist, or non-theist.” It is thus the case that self-identified transhumanists today are mostly secular and atheist. However, the survey had a quarter of respondents self-identifying as “religious of some sort, including Christian (8%), spiritual (5%), Buddhist (4%), religious humanist (2%), as well as pagans, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and other faiths.” Furthermore, and in agreement with the argument of Steven Goldberg (2009) that transhumanism is itself a religious point of view, “about 1% of transhumanists listed transhumanism as their religion”, perhaps a new, postmodern religion as some have labeled it.

Therefore, as Hughes would surmise, “while transhumanism reflects the atheist trajectory of the Enlightenment for most of its adherents, for up to fifteen percent or so some concept of God” (or religious orientation) is “compatible with their transhumanism.” Hence, though secular transhumanism could, to a reasonable extent, be claimed as the most popular brand today of transhumanism, instances still exist of a blend of even some more or less mainstream religious traditions with transhumanist thought as exemplified by Christian Transhumanism, Mormon Transhumanism, Buddhist Transhumanism, etc.

And then again about naturalist theology, Hughes continues with a proposition that although previous efforts to affirm some form of deity through the rational, scientific investigation of nature may have failed, this theological system may finally have found “solid Enlightenment footing in modern transhumanist speculations about the transcendent powers of superintelligent beings.” John Gray (2018), for example, characterizes a subset of science-based atheists as the “transhumanists,” who believe that we are destined to become gods, what Yuval Noah Harari calls “Homo Deus”. This narrative has been around for a while, e.g. in the 20th century, the prolific scientist J.D. Bernal imagined humans becoming creatures of pure light, and Arthur C. Clarke foresaw a similar “end” for humanity in Childhood’s End, his 1953 novel. Moving on, the most confident exponent of transhumanism today, Ray Kurzweil, expresses certainty that, by genetically enhancing ourselves and merging our minds with machines, we will eventually produce a qualitatively new version of Homo sapiens, perhaps in the 21st century. Some see this “superintelligent being” manifesting in the form of a godlike AI, others in a human-AI synthesis that would together act out the “Transcension Hypothesis”, and yet some speak already of Syntheism, humans creating God(s).

Several versions of pantheist cosmotheologies are moreover subscribed to by a number of transhumanists, as 1% of respondents of the survey referred to by Hughes offered “pantheist” or “scientific pantheist” as either a religious or secular philosophy to which they held. Also, a more minimalist version of cosmotheology with some following among transhumanists is found in Nick Bostrom’s (2003) “simulation hypothesis,” in which Bostrom proposes that if the universe “generates vast superintelligences with billions of years to amuse themselves, one of their activities might be the creation of simulated civilizations.” (Hughes, 2010) The simulation argument goes on to submit that we are probably already living in a simulation. This hypothesis, in Hughes’ evaluation: “working from naturalistic assumptions to naturalistic conclusions, ends up as an argument for a kind of naturalistic God that may perform miracles, reward and punish behavior, and grant an afterlife or reincarnation.”

Yet another version of transhumanist cosmotheism is found in the “Order of Cosmic Engineers” (OCE). The OCE, Hughes explains, “describes itself as a transhumanist spiritual movement that foresees a future in which intelligence engineers the universe and becomes godlike. They distinguish between belief in a “supernatural” god, and belief in inevitable natural superintelligent, superpowerful gods.” The Turing Church and the Church of Perpetual Life are similar transhumanist groups which pursue the fusion of spirituality with technology, science-fiction with engineering, and quite importantly, building upon a naturalistic approach towards the vision of a transformation of humans into beings with superpowerful capabilities.

But is this naturalistic trans-spirituality compatible with “new atheism” which to some represents the progression of Enlightenment thinking today? Hughes, as Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), points out that while the Institute, like the transhumanist movement, tilts towards atheism, and some of the Institute’s prominent members “argue passionately that advocating for atheism is a central responsibility for partisans of Enlightenment values today”, nonetheless, the group also embodies some of those contradictory tendencies found in and inherited from the Enlightenment. Former IEET Chair (now Director of the Future of Humanity Institute) Nick Bostrom was the transhumanist philosopher who articulated the simulation hypothesis, whereas IEET Fellow and current Humanity+ Chair Ben Goertzel is a self-identified panpsychist. Some transhumanists at IEET (and elsewhere) identify with and speak for the Order of Cosmic Engineers and the Turing Church, while Hughes himself and a couple of other frontline figures at IEET are atheist Buddhists, pursuing their “Cyborg Buddha” project of trying to, in Hughes’ words, “integrate neurotechnologies with a spirituality grounded in naturalism, an effort we share with New Atheist Sam Harris.”

From a critical perspective, the representation of a compromise betraying the core Enlightenment commitment to scientific naturalism, and perhaps even a “backsliding towards irrationalism”, is an impression likely to be deduced from some of these above-cited positions. Hughes, however, disagrees with this notion, at least in principle. “Naturalist predicates and arguments”, he affirms, coupled with some receptiveness towards transhumanist conclusions, are “leading to new scientific theologies and spiritualities.” There is, therefore, no cause for intellectual angst. This tension, Hughes reminds us, as it were between the atheist, anti-spiritualist wing on the one hand, and the natural theology wing on the other (existing more so within the transhumanist body today) – one that was bequeathed from the Enlightenment – is itself an already three-centuries-old problem. As such, we may as well be realistically braced not to expect any resolution any time soon.

Ojochogwu Abdul is a researcher, writer, speaker, and lecturer in Philosophy at Kogi State University, Anyigba, Kogi State, Nigeria. As philosopher and transhumanist, he is co-founder of the philosophy club Thinkers Pub Abuja, founder of the Transhumanist Enlightenment Café (TEC), co-founder of the Enlightenment Transhumanist Forum of Nigeria (H+ Nigeria), and currently serves as the United States Transhumanist Party’s Foreign Ambassador in Nigeria. His hobbies include listening to music, jogging, and enjoying creative conversations.

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