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An Epistle on H+ to the Italian Catholics
J. Hughes   Sep 10, 2009   Humanity+  

This essay will be translated and made part of the materials at this meeting of Italian Catholics considering radical life extension and human enhancement.

Radical Life Extension, Transhumanism and Catholicism

James Hughes, PhD
Secretary, Humanity+
Executive Director, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology

Greetings from Humanity+, the global transhumanist association.

I would like to make several suggestions for your consideration during your week of reflection on life extension, transhumanism and Christianity. These are based on five years of dialogue between transhumanists, Christian theologians, and lay people who consider themselves both Christians and transhumanists.

1) Although transhumanism is part of the family of secular Enlightenment philosophies, many of its elements are compatible with Christianity.

The transhumanist movement is largely secular. About two thirds of self-identified transhumanists are atheists or agnostics. But among the other third one can find members of all the world’s faiths, including Roman Catholicism. Empirically, Christian transhumanists do not find transhumanism, life extension and human enhancement incompatible with their faith even if many on both sides believe they should.

There are specific areas of incompatibility, however, such as around the Church’s “theology of the body.” Many transhumanists embrace reproductive technologies which the Church would forbid. Transhumanists endorse a consciousness-based personhood rather than the Church’s human-only ensoulment-based personhood.  That difference of opinion poses problems for the treatment of the embryo and brain dead, as well as for the moral status of great apes, human-animal hybrids, and copies of human personalities in a machine (“uploads”). On the other hand, there is much common ground with Christians who adopt a more grounded, relational or “emergent” view of the soul.

On the specific issue of radical life extension there are, I believe, far fewer theological conflicts. Life is a divine blessing which we are obliged to make as rich and long as possible. The Church embraces the healing arts as not only acceptable but a moral obligation for a compassionate society. There is no Biblical indication of a maximum acceptable life span, and there are Biblical figures who lived for hundreds of years.

2) Although some aspects of the transhumanist movement may resemble classical heresies, these are marginal similarities. Transhumanism is not trying to be a life philosophy or religion.

Some Christian critics of transhumanism have argued that transhumanists are modern “Gnostics,” seeing the body as a trap from which the spirit needs to escape into silicon immortality. Conversely, other Christian critics have argued that transhumanists vainly worship the body because we want indefinite health and life. However most people interested in transhumanism or life extension are not at these extremes of body-worship or body-hatred.

Furthermore transhumanism and the human enhancement movement are not heresies because they offer no competing understanding of life’s meaning and purpose. Most enthusiasts for human enhancement are all too aware that they will always be limited, faulty, and in need of greater meaning and purpose. Most transhumanists simply adopt the spiritual posture of Reinhold Neibuhr’s “serenity prayer:”

Give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

The problem is not that the transhumanists have too little serenity with the things that cannot be changed, but that too many Christian critics of human enhancement have too little courage to change what can be changed.

We would like to be as healthy as we can be for as long as possible, and translate our minds to non-biological platforms if that becomes possible. In the meantime we all need to find meaning and purpose in life, and some peace in the face of inevitable losses and regrets. Transhumanists must find those answers in philosophy or faith.

3) Transhumanists are not really interested in “immortality,” but only in reducing unnecessary death.

Many Christians see “immortality” as a heretical or hubristic goal. But transhumanists only want people to be able to live as long as they want to live, and not be limited by premature illness and disability.

Some critics have argued that transhumanism is hubristic, attempting to make Man “godlike.” But, as Ted Peters argues, this suggests a non-doctrinal, Greco-Roman theology. No matter how enhanced human beings become they can never challenge the authority of the omnipotent, omniscient God of Abraham.  No matter how long humans attempt to live they cannot escape divine judgment or live longer than was divinely planned.

Some Christian critics also argue that radical life extension is selfish, because of the social and ecological consequences of longer lives. We believe that Christians should be more critical of these misanthropic, neo-Malthusian arguments, and that it will be possible to create a sustainable world and flourishing societies with long healthy life spans.

4) Human enhancement technologies, especially neurotechnologies, can support moral behavior and spiritual self-understanding.

The growing understanding of the brain and the biological basis of behavior gives humanity a growing number of tools to treat personality disorders such as inability to concentrate, drug dependence, sexual compulsion, aggression, and neurotic self-absorption. These give suffering people support in avoiding vices and developing their virtues. As we come to understand and control the biological bases of compassion, temperance, equanimity, courage and steadfastness many faithful will apply these technologies to self-perfection. As the sources of religious experience are identified in the brain we will be able to use neurotechnology as a complement and aid in spiritual life.


The Church accepts many medical and psychiatric technologies today that it once viewed with suspicion. We believe that the same will hold true for human enhancement and radical life extension over time. We look forward to continuing the dialogue between the transhumanist movement and the Church in order to understand how to use these new powers to support a flourishing, spiritually fulfilling human future.


These issues are explored more fully in my essay “The Compatibility of Religious and Transhumanist Views of Metaphysics, Suffering, Virtue and Transcendence in an Enhanced Future”

Also see Max More’s contribution to the Italian conference, “Why Catholics Should Support the Transhumanist Goal of Extended Life.”

 

James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)



COMMENTS

If I may Mr. Hughes.  While it is nice to see the transhumanist community reaching out to demographics that historically have not supported us is it really necessary to pander to the Church by saying things like, “No matter how long humans attempt to live they cannot escape divine judgment or live longer than was divinely planned.”  I count myself as one of the two-thirds of transhumanist that identify as an atheist and find this statement a little strange.

Also, as far as your statement that transhumanism offers “no competing understanding of life’s meaning and purpose,” you are aware that some transhumanists believe exactly that.  Simon Young comes to mind.  I’m not saying they’re a majority in the community but they do exist.

James, I admire and value your efforts at communication and mutual understanding with religious persons.

@ Matt

I’m a Buddho-Unitarian atheist and a sociologist. I am a partisan of the Enlightenment. But when engaging in a dialogue with theists I try to argue from within their own worldview. I understand that some of my transhumanist atheist friends are made uncomfortable by my not punctuating every sentence with “and of course I don’t believe this, and you are stupid if you do.” Although I have some sympathies with the New Atheists, in my role as a spokesperson for transhumanism it is far more important in the short term to defuse religious opposition to human enhancement than to promote atheism.

As to whether transhumanists believe transhumanism is a replacement for religion we have asked that, and you can read the results here:

http://transhumanism.org/resources/WTASurvey2007.pdf

Only 5% believed transhumanism was a replacement for religion. of course there are many different definitions of transhumanism, and others may define it in a way that includes answers to life purpose, meaning, and morality. But like most transhumanists, including Nick Bostrom in “Transhumanist Values” for instance, I define transhumanism more narrowly as the proposition that human beings should be given the opportunity to explore the posthuman possibility space. As Nick has argued, there are some normative sequelae from that proposition, but it doesn’t tell you whether you should adopt utilitarian or deontological ethics, or Sharia for that matter. It doesn’t tell you whether to work towards Nirvana or Godhead in your limitless posthuman possibility space. (There is a larger discussion to be had about the gap between IS and OUGHT that Enlightenment skepticism opens, which is what led me to Buddhist psychology and ethics, but I’ll leave it at that.)

@ Lincoln

Thanks. As you know, those of us who engage in this kind of dialogue face a lot of skepticism and hostility from both the atheist transhumanist and the religious camps. So thanks for the work you are doing in your faith community.

@James
By no means am I suggesting the IEET, yourself or the transhumanist movement should be promoting atheism or calling theists “stupid.”  Arguing from within a theists worldview is an effective tactic but I hope you understand why I (and I can speak only for myself) am uncomfortable with the fact that the part of their worldview you chose to reach out to them with (divine judgment) is the part that states that most of the world’s population, including two thirds of transhumanists, will burn in hell for all eternity.

As to the transhumanism as religion question, I must admit that I had not seen that data.  I stand corrected.

@ Matt

I’m as uncomfortable with Christians believing we heathens will be judged at the end of time as you are, principally because that belief gives them moral warrant to impose faith and morality by force if necessary in order to save our souls.

But I cut the average believer some slack since few of them are doctrinally consistent. As the Xian pollster George Barna frequently laments most Xians believe that non-Xians can “earn” their way into heaven through good works even if we aren’t “saved.”

http://tinyurl.com/ckqa68

Granted the Catholic bishop in charge of this meeting in Italy is likely to have a much stricter interpretation of Judgment and Hell. But I think even a lot of priests don’t believe in all that.

James, I get the impression that Buddhists don’t hold gods, if they exist, in such awe because they view gods as victims of dukkha, just like unenlightened humans. I recall reading about one ancient Buddhist text which called the Buddha a term that could translate into English as “super-god,” because by becoming enlightened, the Buddha had attained a state that had thwarted the powers even of the gods.

So, should transhumanists who’ve incorporated Buddhist beliefs express compassion towards the Christian god, if it exists?

Mark, original Pali or Theravadan Buddhism did indeed see gods as simply sentient beings that had were using up some good karma scored in previous lives as humans or animals, and who were destined to fall back in to the human, animal or hell realms in their cycle through samsara. Buddhists do not believe in a creator God or in that gods are morally superior to human beings. Rather the gods themselves recognize that they are morally and magically inferior to human beings working on transcendence such as the Buddha and enlightened monks and nuns.

Like most Western Buddhists I don’t believe in either the God of Abraham or the more limited Greco-Roman Olympians or samsarically-bound supernaturals. I see the purpose of Buddhist cosmogony as both political and heuristic. The politics was that Buddhist monarchs found it very easy to unify local gods under Buddhist rule because Buddhism incorporated the local cults and said those gods recognized the Buddha’s superiority. The heuristic point was that Buddhist laity and monks were allowed to do rituals to propitiate local gods for health, luck or whatever, and then instructed that the real spiritual work had nothing to do with that but was found in moral behavior and meditative self-exploration.

So I wouldn’t say that we Buddhists and Buddhist transhumanists have compassion for “God” but rather for believers in God, who we are trying to develop skillful means to communicate with.

James,

All the answers to ultimate questions can be found in my ontology matrix : no need for religion 😉 

According to my ontology, most memes are just ‘social signaling’ mechanisms, used to signal membership in sociological groupings.  i.e. I think politics and religion are closely tied to ‘social identity’ : they are a way of marking out ones social identity (also see Hanson’s excellent ideas on social signaling, this probably matches what he’s saying).  So any attack on someone’s politics or religion is likely to be perceived as an attack on their identity.

I don’t think most people take the actual metaphysical ideology of political/religious memes seriously : if the above signaling theory is correct it serves mainly a social role for coordinating social groups (i.e. a social support networks and identity markers).  This suggests any attempt at understanding religious/political memes should examine the social/cultural underpinnings.  By the way, I’m not so sure that ‘transhumanism’ is really any different (it could be argued that transhumanism mainly functions as an ‘identity marker’ for high-IQ/prestigious intellectualism). 

Also, my ontology does actually suggest philosophical answers; here are a couple of examples of ‘surprising’ positions I hold:

(a)  Analogical reasoning is the real foundation of rationality, not Bayes (I think Bayes is just a special case of analogy). 

(b)  Values are ultimately rooted in aesthetics i.e. the creation of beauty is the foundational basis for all ‘meanings of life’ (I think utilitarianism is not fully correct, it is simply a special case of Kantian aesthetics).

(suggesting that transhumanism can be defined to supply answers to life purpose etc.)

My understanding of hell from a Christian perspective is a “place” where the doors are locked from the inside and a person becomes increasingly less and less human. It is denying that we are made in the image of our ultimate creator. It is our humanity breaking down infinitely.  Transhumanism seems to me to fit the bill. The image of burning eternally in a physical sense seems metaphorical because there would be nothing to burn.  I’m interested to hear feedback about this.  I am admittedly uneducated and not very articulate, but don’t hold it against me!  After all, these ideas are sort of at the limits of language, no?

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