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The Path of Least Resistance: Tracing a Path to Religious Reconciliation with Posthumanism
Yshua   Mar 1, 2014   Ethical Technology  

We are here because we recognize the frailty of human existence and the vastness of our limitations. We are here because we acknowledge that we live in a harsh world which can draw out the very worst of our already-flawed nature. We are here because we believe, in spite of overwhelming challenges, that something better is possible. We believe the path to a higher state of existence demands devotion and sacrifice.

We think that a great moment of reckoning will eventually come which will transform our entire world and way of existence, requiring all of us to make a choice about where we stand. We believe the rewards of success may be nothing less than path to paradise and perfection. We believe the consequences of failure would be irrevocably dire and horrific beyond imagination. We are diverse, with many backgrounds and many stories, but we are united in our shared longing to transcend all our limitations, to find answers to all our questions, to reach out from the meager confines of flesh and blood and touch infinity.

Who are “we”? To many of those reading this, the answer might seem obvious- “we” are the Posthuman movement. However- every one of the above statements is one which could also be used to characterize most forms of religious belief and mythology on the planet- and the implications of that bear serious consideration; for all of us.

What will follow is first an accounting of the events and reasoning that spurred me to this conclusion, and then five suggestions for how we as Posthumanists might embrace and utilize these similarities- in order to realize a vision of the Singularity that strives to include all humanity, and thereby enrich and benefit us all, in place of the apocalyptic conflict that many people on both sides seem to think we are predestined to wage.

My catalyst in this undertaking was a challenge posed in an editorial by Zolton Istvan, the author of the recently released and very successful novel, The Transhumanist Wager, which envisions a future of relentless conflict between anyone who would embrace the promise of the Singularity, and anyone who subscribes to any form of religious belief.

Although I am not religious in the least, this struck me as both a faulty syllogism- on which Istvan presented the corollary to in his article titled “I’m an Atheist, Therefore I’m a Transhumanist”, in which he made the argument that it would be logically incoherent for anyone who does not believe in an afterlife or a supernatural authority not to want to live forever through the application of technology and empirical science (for Istvan- the sole focus and virtue of the Singularity is the promise of super-longevity, which I believe is far too narrow a vision or goal by itself, but that’s a debate for another time).

Again, while I too favor the pursuit of life-extending science to its fullest end, I do not see anything logically inconsistent in the positions taken by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and some other great atheist thinkers that part of what gives our existence value and meaning is the fact that it is finite, and that the prospect of eternal life promised by religion is not only untrue but would in fact be undesirable. Thankfully, the argument over whether or not immortality is an intrinsically good thing is one which we need not trouble us much- so long as we can all agree on the basic principle that everyone should be free and empowered to make their own decisions about how to live (or not to) through the application of science and technology.

I wrote to Istvan, expressing these objections and the concern I had that it might breed unnecessary division within and between people who might be otherwise generally understanding of and sympathetic to the movement, whether they agree with our goals in full measure or not. Mr.Istvan was open-minded and gracious enough to swiftly send me a courteous, thoughtful and very honest response, in which he explained that what compels him to take such an aggressive position is the fear that Post/Transhumanists will be vastly outnumbered by hostile luddites and, consequently, a frustration at atheists who have not embraced or recognized the Singularity- driven by the fact that he sees them (secularists and non-believers), in large part, as our only potential allies- and that’s the part that really got me thinking…

Could it be the case, not merely that it is possible to be both religious and Posthuman, but that in fact if anything we should have an easier time convincing them to join us than we might with a hardened, secular-humanist skeptic? After all, most of the world’s faithful already believe that eternal life and non-corporeal consciousness are both possible and desirable. It is the near-universal longing for, and promise of these possibilities which have sustained and attracted new adherence for thousands of years… a longing that we are all just as well familiar with.

The only difference is that we believe it is possible to achieve those dreams in the here and now, through natural, tangible, empirical means, rather than through supernatural wish fulfillment. Is this really such a large gulf to bridge- we want all the same things. We simply disagree about how to achieve them. We need only convince the faithful that these dreams are possible in the here-and-now, and then further, that if one truly believes that these things are already promised to them by supernatural benevolence in the “next life”, then logically they should feel in no way threatened or diminished by the natural effort to achieve those same goals in this life. This is not to suggest that such an undertaking will always be simple or easy by any means, but what do we possibly have to lose by making the effort?

Every time we were to fail at such an appeal, it would surely leave us in no worse a position than we are now, and with minimal cost. By contrast, every success would make the path to the future just a little easier to tread, together, and the prospect of conflict and cataclysm just a little more remote.

With that end in mind, I wish to offer specific, practical, constructive suggestions for how to make such a compatabilist appeal between Posthumanism and supernatural belief, focusing on five key points of similarity in our shared vision of an ideal existence: the desire to be connected to a higher, all-encompassing consciousness; the belief that humanity’s current condition is fundamentally broken and flawed; the preference for an engineered and designed world/universe to a chaotic and arbitrary one; the desire to see our identity expand beyond the narrow confines of flesh and blood; and lastly and most obviously, the desire to overcome frailty, weakness, and ultimately Death itself.

1. Deus Ex Machina, or Machina Ex Deus?

“If a God did not exist, then it would be necessary to invent one.”
Voltaire, 1768

Literally meaning “God from the Machine”- for Euripides and the other ancient playwrights, this could easily mean an actual Olympian stepping into the picture to remedy some calamity that humanity has sewn beyond its own ability to remedy, however, the term refers to any occurrence in which out of seeming chaos and confusion and desperation, there emerges the perfect means to set everything right again. As an artistic device, it has inspired debate since lo unto its antediluvian origins; many contending that it is a crutch employed by lazy or unimaginative writers who cannot devise a more elegant or subtle means of resolving a conflict.

It might not be surprising that Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the loudest of these critical voices. Even as he argued for the “Death” of God, he implicated the Deus Ex as the decline of drama, imploring of Euripides’ ghost: “Now, once tragedy had lost the genius of music, tragedy in the strictest sense was dead: for where was that metaphysical consolation now to be found?” The “music” he refers to are the intricate and wondrous patterns that can only emerge from pain and horror and hardship- like jazz or the blues; emergent patterns and new forms that can only be borne out of chaos and bedlam.

The Deus Ex Machina, by contrast, is therefore seen as pop music- simple and repetitive drivel that serves to distract and appease us with shallow and false consolation. One doesn’t have to reach very far to see the parallel between this aesthetic issue, and the position taken by Nietzsche, Marx, and many of their contemporaries towards religion- that it is also a false consolation which serves only to numb us rather than to experience in full measure the fear and ignorance and anguish- the “music” of life which could ultimately lead us to real beauty or transcendence.

Plato, by contrast, is a philosopher whose work is often embraced and endorsed by religious scholars and theologians, but he was possessed of an even more militant inclination, contending that all art was a contrivance which could only serve to draw people away from what is real and therefore was inherently evil, begging the question: is it ever possible for a falsehood to bring us closer to the truth? Does wishing for something to be true necessarily stand at odds with acting to make a thing true?

For those of you with an earnest belief in most of the world’s major religions though, there is no higher truth. You have always believed it would be necessary for a higher power to reach into our world and reshape it- for something beyond us to become a part of our lives and allow us to reach our fullest potential- both on an individual level and a species. You pass down stories and traditions that incorporate the ultimate conception of the “Deus Ex”, not out of laziness or simplicity or a lack of creativity, but out of the very earnest, sincere, and not at all irrational assumption that there are some problems endemic to our nature and the nature of the world we live in which cannot be solved by human means alone.

This is an assessment which is shared by many secularists and transhumanists- we only disagree about the form and origins of the powers that will be necessary to save us. Where we see the emergent intelligence of “God from the Machine”, you, the faithful, may just as rightly look on it as Machina Ex Deus- “Machine from God”.

When Charles Darwin laid the foundations of modern biology through natural selection, many accused him of blasphemy- of trying to usurp the power/role/knowledge of God. But now, a great majority of religious people no longer regard this empirical understanding of evolution as any kind of threat to their desire to believe in a benevolent creator at work in the universe. I would humbly urge you simply to approach the promise of the Singularity with the same tact- simply a means to an end. Whether you believe our salvation necessitates our suffering as part of divine providence, or you believe that our suffering necessitates our salvation in the struggle to overcome contingency…. Deus Ex Machina or Machina Ex Deus… should not stop us from working together to make this the shared ending of our very real story- not a lazy, self-gratified flight of fancy, but a solemn promise to ourselves and to each other of a world and a people transformed by our unity with a power greater than ourselves.

Together, regardless of our metaphysical beliefs, we have chosen to embrace the vision of an ending to our shared story that some cynics (secular and religious alike) regard as too good to be true… so rather than fight with each other over the origins of our salvation, let us work together to pursue its fulfillment through our good works. We need not and cannot await permission to do so- for the divine consciousness that one would seek such permission from is waiting to be born, or else waiting to be discovered- and either way, the answer rests within each of us- and surely any benevolent creator we have would want us to reach out and grasp for it, when we’re ready.

“Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our own image, to be like us.”
Genesis 1

2. Original Sin & Fallibility

“It really is of importance, not only what people do, but also what manner of people they are that do it. Among all the works of man, which human life is rightly employed in perfecting and beautifying, the first in importance surely is humanity itself.”
J.S. Mill, On Liberty, 1859

Far from being merely a point of contention among atheists and secular humanists, the concept of Original Sin has been a source of discord and division even within faith communities, the most obvious historical example being the role it played in the Christian schism of the Protestant Reformation, with Calvin and others contending that humanity had been so fundamentally broken and damaged as to render us effectively defunct of our own moral agency or free will. It is an idea which is closely intertwined with the Deus Ex Machina- that not only does the nature of the world around us challenge us beyond our human limits in trying to live an existence that is just, and moral, and good, and fulfilling, but moreover that our nature itself is so fundamentally corrupted and maladapted to these challenges that we could not help but fall short of our best standards and goals even in the most ideal of material circumstances.

Much of the religious divide has to do with whether humanity’s faulty nature is the product of our creator’s volition, and if not, then how could that creator be regarded as all-powerful? For non-believers, the objection, again, is more of a practical one- that to believe we are inexorably flawed to our core is a self-defeating mentality which only serves to excuse and allow us to do even more harm to each other, in the belief either that we cannot help ourselves or that there there is a supernatural power that will sort out our wrongdoing later. Again, the question must be asked, if we agree on the fundamental state of our existence, how much time should we spend being divided over disagreements about why it is so?

Pope Francis recently made waves by asking believers and nonbelievers to set aside disagreements about why and how we exist in order to find common cause in improving that condition. Again, the faithful and the non-believer alike must realize that we are approaching a place where we can stop asking “is this so?” or “how and why is this so?”, and start asking what we can do to reshape our reality- our very nature. If we agree that we are in some way “fallen”, for reasons either natural or supernatural, for reasons due to our own choosing, or the choices of others, or forces far beyond our control… should hold no bearing on what we can do now to lift ourselves up.

For those vast majority of all faith perspectives who do accept, to a large extent, the empirical realities of biology and evolutionary science, it is becoming easier and easier to understand the how of our oft destructive and vicious nature (or the seeds of nobility that exist within), even if we still differ on the why. Our species evolved in the brutal climate of sub saharan Africa, where every resource was scarce, competition was fierce, and anything which was unfamiliar was best regarded as a threat.

Not only were food and fresh water ever-precious, but there were no shortage of other lifeforms which were stronger, faster, or possessed any number of other myriad biological adaptation and advantages which our ancient kin lacked. What we had was a superior frontal cortex- the ability to remember, to reason, to communicate and network… and through these adaptations plied to these most extreme imperatives of survival were born, in unison, the greatest strengths and weaknesses of our character as a species- our original sin.

We learned to communicate and coordinate with each other in elaborate ways to deal with common threats- but we also learned to lie and deceive. We learned to craft tools and implements to grant ourselves new abilities which nature had not yet afforded us- but we also learned to withhold that knowledge to the detriment of the species in pursuit of individual glory. We learned to record and pass on our lives and our history, to keep the knowledge of Life and Death… but in so doing we learned vanity and pride.

Beneath all the greatness, and the aspiration, and the analytic power that has allowed us to transcend our physical limitations, there remains that same ancient operating system, written and encoded in the wastelands a hundred thousand years ago, telling us to be afraid, not to trust, to withhold knowledge and resources, to recoil from the shadow of the unknown and slink away into the primordial jungle of the past- to what is known to us, however horrid it may be.

We cannot wait countless more millennia for biological processes or divine intervention to cleanse us of these failings. We do not have the luxury of remaining the same frightful, infantile species we have been if we hope to survive the challenges ahead, let alone to prosper and become something better than we are and have been thus far. Again, by working together in good faith, we can utilize the promise of the Singularity to undo these ancient failings of the human spirit- and far from the contention made by some that refining our synthesis with technology will make us less human, open yourself to the idea that if anything it can make us more so.

From the first writing and language, to the printing press, to computers, to the internet, to your smartphone… we have continued to refine that singular ability which has distinguished us and allowed us to rise above all physical limits to the dominant form of life on Earth- that most fundamentally human trait to learn, to grow, and to become a part of something larger than one’s self. What we discuss now is only the continuance of that effort towards its full culmination which could finally free us from the trap of our “original” failings once and for all- if we’re ready for it. Whether you believe we step forth from the crib with the guidance of a divine parent or as orphans of chance- the time nonetheless comes for us to climb off our knees on our own, totter to our feet, and take our first true steps to wisdom, growth, and righteousness.

“The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted creating human beings on the earth, and was deeply troubled.”
Genesis 6

3. Intelligent Design

“I say that all things are in God and move in God… The eternal wisdom of God has shown itself forth in all things, but chiefly in the human mind… I make this chief distinction between religion and superstition- that the latter is founded on ignorance, the former on knowledge.”
Benedictus de Spinoza, Letter 21, 1675

It is arguable that in all probability religion began in earnest when our early kin first asked the question “Why are we here?” There is no faith on the planet that does not begin with some version of a creation myth, and while many of these stories have both similar and disparate elements, the one thing they all share is the assumption that we do not exist by chance- but rather that we and the world we live in are the work of a conscious agency of some kind or another.

That this was considered a foregone conclusion for most of our history across the planet, despite the total absence of any supporting evidence, is indicative of how strongly we prefer to believe that the world and our lives are as they are because somewhere, someone or something made a choice for it to be so. Even if the picture before us is desperately bleak- we still derive comfort from the belief that those grim lines and curves of probability were penned by a guiding hand, rather than splattered haphazardly onto the canvass by the arbitrary caprice of chance and contingency.

Many secular thinkers have been quick to dismiss this desire as self-loathing and constraining of our potential. Likewise in turn, the religious claim that if our origins and the origins of our universe rest only in chance, then no meaning could ever be derived from any of our pursuits- hence the strong prevalence of religious compatibilists who accept the empirical findings of cosmology and biology, but frame them never the less as the finely tuned and constructed machinery of an original “prime mover” at work, allowing It’s greater intentions to unfold mechanistically rather than through the daily fiat of divine intervention. And since most strict creationists subscribe to some form of pre-determination anyway, they should not be all concerned by the progress of technology one way or another.

For everyone else, it would again behoove all of us to reconsider these reactionary impulses and reframe the question of “Are we here for a reason?” Just because non-believers regard mythological answers to these questions as wish-fulfillment, does it then follow that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater and discount the desire or impulse behind it? Likewise for the religious, it does not follow to assume that simply because one believes that our origins may lie in chance and chaos, that they must regard it as either impossible and/or undesirable to create meaning and purpose for existence- one need not precede the other any more than the chicken does the egg.

If you believe that an all-powerful and all-knowing being created humanity “in the image of God”, then surely fulfilling our potential through technology is a part of that grand design- even as we now attempt to create new forms of life in our image. And for those of us who do not believe there is any grand design or premeditated intent in the happenings of this universe- all the more motivation that should be to try and create purpose and design through our choices and our ever-expanding ability to manipulate and reshape the world around us.

Contrary to what some religious critics will say, this is not to suggest that we think ourselves infallible. It is only to suggest that whatever harm is done in the process of our growth and maturation, it is surely preferable to the harms inflicted by chance and contingency every day- that whatever challenges arise, we can face them together with the shared comfort that comes in believing all our trials and tribulations are part of a greater design which could ultimately bring untold good to the world. We must not be constrained by the knowledge that we will make mistakes, because we all know (as discussed above) that no design will ever be perfect, just as we know part of maturation is making mistakes and accepting account of the consequences that come with them, that we might ultimately learn enough to become something more.

“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.” First Corinthians, 13

4. Mind-Body Dualism & “The Soul”

“But what then am I? A thinking thing. And what is that? Something that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, wills, refuses, and also senses…”
Renati Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, Part II

Whether it’s called a “spirit”, a “soul”, a “Cartesian ego”, or any number of other names- the idea of some intrinsic, immutable identity or “self” that exists within us but apart from the physical universe is called Mind-Body dualism is another essential tenet of most of the world’s religions, and indeed, beyond. The number of people who claim this belief in public surveys is commonly greater than the total number of people who describe themselves as religious in any way. Just as dire in our collective psyche as our knowledge and fear of our own impending mortality is the fear that our sense of identity or “self” is even more fleeting than life itself is- subject to cause and effect and ever-changing just like everything else in the natural world. We desperately want to believe that whatever environment we’re in, whatever events we experience or physical changes we undergo, there is an intrinsic “me” that will remain immutable, unaffected and enduring.

Yet again, new developments necessitate that we abandon the ancient arguments about whether this is true and instead ask whether it should be, as we find ourselves advancing closer and closer to a point where we could make it true. The digital Singularity offers us the promise of being able to record, replicate, and preserve indefinitely all of our thoughts, experiences, memories, and subjective states at any given point in time. Yet many seem to react to this idea as if it is a threat to the idea of “soul” rather than the deliverance thereof.

Perhaps this is not surprising. There are still religions that prohibit certain medical procedures and issue edicts against the use of psychoactive substances, presumably out of the same kind of revulsion- the fear and insecurity at being confronted with the idea that our personalities are the product of and are constantly reshaped by the same physical forces and causations as everything else in the world. Accompanying this is the vain urge to believe that we are unique, which fuels animosity towards the ideas of genetic or neural cloning- believing that “you” would somehow be less “you” without the property of being unique.

But given we now know that we are all 99.6% genetically identical to each other, perhaps it would behoove us to relinquish this flattering idea that we are all special snowflakes, and embrace how much of a common experience we all share; and realize the paradox that in order to gain greater control over the trajectory of our existence, we must begin by acknowledging how little control we have, learning to reach out and beginning influencing and manipulating the natural forces that shape us every day.

Some religious visions involve general resurrections and the promise of being able to exist in the form you know now, with others you care about, preserved for all eternity as you are. Other beliefs involve the immaterial self leaving the physical world completely after Death, to exist in some other kind of reality. Others purport that this essence will make its way back to this world, inhabiting a different body, growing and learning by existing in an infinite myriad of different states. There are some contrarians (myself included) who hold that it is actually a desirable thing that we exist in a constant state of change; that nothing of our sense of “self” is written in stone any more than we should will it to be so at any given moment.

But again, we need not even waste our energies arguing about which of these possibilities might be the most preferable when the Singularity offers the prospect of making all of them possible, tangibly, in the here and now. Those who wish to preserve their current consciousness, exactly as it is at any moment, will be free to do so. Those who wish to selectively modify or alter their state of consciousness will be free to do so with a degree of latitude and precision that we cannot even presently fathom. Those who wish to occupy a non-corporeal state will be just as free to do so as those who wish to exist in any myriad of different physical states. And those who do not wish to intervene in the current order of natural events (for whatever reasons, religious or otherwise) will be free to refrain, and ergo should not be threatened in any way by the choices others wish to make- unless they are in truth projecting doubt about their own beliefs.

“But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel…”
First Corinthians, 15

5. Immortality

“The blazing evidence of immortality is our dissatisfaction with any other solution.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journal, 1855

The desire to escape Death is as old as our perception of its inevitability. It is no surprise that for lack of any apparent alternative, most of our species for most of its history has sought this assurance through supernatural means. On some fundamental level, we are not just fearful but disgusted with the seeming inequity that all our knowledge and experiences, everything we achieve, everything we are, can in a single instant be completely obliterated and forever lost to the world. Likewise we balk with similar revulsion at the ignominy of disease and injury and illness- at the idea that even while we live, we might be hindered and hobbled in our potential at any given moment by any of a thousand factors largely or entirely beyond our control. It doesn’t seem fair- and the shadow of apprehension and resentment cast by this most fundamental and ultimate inequity hangs over us always- motivating some to good, others to ill, and most of us to both in due course.

Again, the discourse remains locked in a faulty syllogism between those who insist that only way to transcend Death is an appeal to supernatural authority, and those who insist that any effort to this end, even one grounded in empirical science, must inherently be a flight of fancy or delusion. Again, there are sound arguments to be made for how the knowledge that our existence is finite might influence our behavior in positive ways, and likewise there are arguments to be made that being freed from physical frailty and mortal fear would make it far easier for us to lead upstanding lives.

Our purpose here is not to litigate whether people should ever die, but again, simply to come to terms with the implications of the fact that what was once only conceivable through myth and fantasy is now on the verge of the possible- to preserve and extend ourselves beyond the frail and feeble limitations of flesh and blood. There is ample room for all manner of debate as to what this will mean and how it should inform our moral conduct as individuals and as a species.

But the one position we should feel comfortable and secure in dismissing all together from this deliberation is the gallingly fatuous, insincere, incoherent, and absurd assertion that the desire to overcome Death is valid and permissible only if it is undertaken through supernatural means. If someone believes that they are pursuing eternal life by regularly ingesting crackers that have undergone a certain metaphysical transubstantiation, or by pronouncing a certain incantation while facing a certain geographic direction every day, then they have absolutely no grounds in either practical or ethical terms to claim any kind of superiority or high ground over someone who expresses interest in achieving the same end through physical, empirical means.

If the tone of this section sounds far less conciliatory than the preceding ones, it is only because here the thinking and desires of Trans/Posthumanists and most religious believers are so obviously and completely in line with each other that any claim of a substantive ethical distinction between the two can only be regarded as a preposterous, self-serving farce on its face.

Again, it has already been demonstrated through the common embrace of countless medical breakthroughs over the past century that the majority of religious people do not perceive any inherent conflict between using our knowledge and technology to extend and enhance this life, and the promise of whatever other kind of life they may believe awaits them thereafter. The religious leaders who make grand pronouncements to the contrary must be exposed for what they are- charlatans who have been empowered by promising people an intangible, invisible path to escape suffering and Death if they are respected and obeyed, who now feel their power and livelihood threatened by the idea that science is now approaching a way to make that same promise materially manifest in the here and now.

To suggest that there is an appropriate role for Death in human existence is a perfectly cogent and reasonable position that could be taken from secular and religious ontologies alike, but the suggestion that pursuing the same end is the height of humility when conducted through mysticism, but the height of megalomaniacal arrogance when conducted through science is a preposterous assertion that must be laid bare for what it is: a fig leaf of a pretense so thin that it cannot begin to mask the naked intent of petty minds seeking to preserve their own temporal power and authority at the expense of the species. They are nothing but the cynical manifestation of every negative image they would in turn seek to project onto the posthuman movement, and on this issue more than any other their self-interested hypocrisy is so bare that it should foster every confidence that the majority of sound-minded, even-tempered believers can be persuaded and severed from their yolk.

“They that have an ear, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To they who overcome, will I grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God.’
Revelations 2

In closing, it is worth the time to state the obvious- that this brief list of suggestions is by no means a complete or comprehensive path toward bridging the cultural and intellectual divides between faith-communities and the H+ movement. Nor, of course, will there ever be any argument which will convince everyone- for as much as I would seek to admonish those who seem resigned to a future of strife and division, it would likewise be just as heedless to believe we can engineer a future which is completely free of conflict and suffering.

It is my hope only that the broad suggestions I outline here might serve in any small way to guide or prompt others towards finding new paths to cooperation and outreach. It is both a moral imperative and a practical necessity that we make every reasonable effort to include as many people as possible in the promise of the Singularity, not only that we might avoid doing harm, but that we might all be all the more mutually enhanced and transformed through the diversity of each other’s knowledge and experiences, toward a shared greatness we cannot yet begin to fully imagine. 

Yshua Learn is currently studying intellectual-property law and previously studied Political Science with a concentration in meta-theory and Philosophy with a concentration in ethics & public policy, and an independent, elective focus on issues of consciousness and personal identity. Yshua will be writing and blogging at sceneinrepose.com.



COMMENTS

An excellent, well crafted and thought provoking argument..

The importance of which is only made more visible and given greater weight by the lack of interest shown even here at IEET? Of course, it goes without saying that IEET activists/organisers have spent much time and great efforts to reconcile the differences and animosity between theism and atheism - yet it is encouraging to see these positive attitudes resurface once again - changing minds and memes is, after all, what any progressive philosophy should be aiming for - and humanity has more hope for survival in promoting philosophy of unity rather than in supporting and antagonising ideological divisions?

Just imagine the proverbial penny clashing and reverberating through swathes of diverse religious followers as “groupthink” turns a technological(?) corner, and it is increasingly deemed that prosthetics, genetic tweaking and longevity research is in fact no danger to enlightenment or spiritual salvation? Just imagine as osmosis floods the minds previously closed to blinkered antiquity, and gradually, inertia builds a mass momentum whereby theists pursue and demand change of their interpretations of religious text and tenet?

Thank you! - For this enlightening and positive article.


These are some of my favourite excerpts..


“.. and far from the contention made by some that refining our synthesis with technology will make us less human, open yourself to the idea that if anything it can make us more so.”

“Likewise for the religious, it does not follow to assume that simply because one believes that our origins may lie in chance and chaos, that they must regard it as either impossible and/or undesirable to create meaning and purpose for existence- one need not precede the other any more than the chicken does the egg.”

“If you believe that an all-powerful and all-knowing being created humanity “in the image of God”, then surely fulfilling our potential through technology is a part of that grand design- even as we now attempt to create new forms of life in our image. And for those of us who do not believe there is any grand design or premeditated intent in the happenings of this universe- all the more motivation that should be to try and create purpose and design through our choices and our ever-expanding ability to manipulate and reshape the world around us.”

“Again, it has already been demonstrated through the common embrace of countless medical breakthroughs over the past century that the majority of religious people do not perceive any inherent conflict between using our knowledge and technology to extend and enhance this life, and the promise of whatever other kind of life they may believe awaits them thereafter. The religious leaders who make grand pronouncements to the contrary must be exposed for what they are- charlatans who have been empowered by promising people an intangible, invisible path to escape suffering and Death if they are respected and obeyed, who now feel their power and livelihood threatened by the idea that science is now approaching a way to make that same promise materially manifest in the here and now.”

Renaissance thinking!


Noble is the Jesuit, promoting equanimity and compassion. Yet can he overcome his stoic tendencies to embrace the true potential of Humanity to pursue and aspire to the “ideals” of God and the final decimation of pride and prejudice? Can any Rabbi?

The contemplation of No Self , (Anatta), “assists” with humility, enlightenment, unity, and the mitigation of pride and egotism, (even for the Trans-Human ego)? Examining the components/parts and motivations/volition helps to re-evaluate the sum and greater potential of the individual and the whole - free from pride?

Regardless and crucially, Cogito ergo sum (“I think therefore I am” or “I am, I exist”) is no less real nor redundant, and worthy of continuation of existence/transcendence, and is thus also the prime mover for the contemplation for both individual and collective potential. This “Self-interest” in survival is therefore no less rational.

An excellent analysis of the compatibility of theism and transhumanism.

Personally I am of the opinion that as life extension and other transhumanist technologies come into regular use, any sort of religious opposition to them will fade away, until only pockets of ultra-conservative hold-outs are left.
For the most part, even those with faith in an eternal blissful afterlife seek to make their earthly existences longer and more pleasant.
And people in general are amazingly good at rationalizing something when it is in their self-interest.
There are of course exceptions, like particularly radical Christian Scientists who oppose crucial medical care, but they are arguably quite exceptional.

However, there is the possible scenario in which early transhumanist technologies are only available to the elites for quite some time. If that is the case, then populist opposition/envy could find voice in religious doctrine, which could make religion a true opponent of transhumanism.

It’s pretty clear to me that there is no fundamental incompatibility between theism and transhumanism. Why would there be? Apart from anything else, how could there then be such a thing as the Mormon Tramshumanist Association? The Mormon Transhumanists are a long way from being regular Mormons, but neither are they atheists.

I agree with CygnusX1 that this is an enlightening and positive article, and it is not my intention to quibble with it. I think it’s a helpful step in ensuring that the conflictual scenarios imagined by Zoltan and others do not come to pass, or at least that they do so to a lesser extent than might otherwise be the case.

My only note of caution, for now at least, is that the fact that theism and transhumanism are in principle compatible neither makes theism desirable, nor makes a peaceful between theism (or indeed religion in general) and transhumanism inevitable. Once again I think this article is a good step in the right direction, but we have more work to do to avoid dangerously conflictual scenarios.

A wider issue that you’re touching on there is legacy. I certainly agree that the children/grandchildren thing gives people a sense of immortality that other forms of legacy-generation may struggle to replace, though even that is a fragile one. I suspect that the “spiritual attachment” to grandchildren that you refer to is what happens when the instinctive sense of fulfilment from descendants is decoupled from parental responsibility and occurs towards the end of one’s own life.

Whether this is really an omission from the article is perhaps more doubtful. It is another aspect to our quest for immortality, and obviously religion is very closely involved in our strategies for dealing with the whole sex/children/grandchildren thing, but I’m not really convinced that it would fit into the narrative of the article. My concern is rather that we might draw from it the conclusion that since there is no fundamental incompatibility between theism and transhumanism there is no longer an issue with religion, so that Valerie Tarico, for example, can stop writing her articles. I don’t think she should: they’re important.

“Which was the concern… that something important might be left out of the sort of narrative.”

Indeed, but then again one can’t include everything that might be “important” or relevant in a single IEET article.

Basically, I don’t really have any issue whatsoever with this article. I think it is, as CygnusX1 put it, “positive and enlightening”. It’s the conclusions that some of us might draw from it that concern me. There is a tendency among some of us to emphasise the need to bring about “reconciliation” between religion and transhumanism and to react angrily whenever anyone says anything critical about the former. That’s basically what I was cautioning against. I certainly agree that many people strive for a kind of immortality via their descendants.

“What I despise is the religious invoking their First Amendment rights while reacting angrily (as you correctly state) when outsiders do the same.”

My default explanation these days when people do that is that they are afraid of becoming aware of the lack of evidence in support of their own beliefs. It’s the fear of knowledge thing. They may or may not think that God appointed them stewards, though I agree they often do. Then again, to an extent don’t we all?

In my view the starting point for our participation in discussions such as the ones we have here should be (i) that we do have more-or-less clear views and preferences regarding ethics, technology and the future (otherwise why are we bothering to comment? and (ii) our beliefs may be wrong, the preferences of others are as legitimate as ours, and all participants deserve respect to the extent that they show it to others. Exactly what constitutes “respect” can itself be a matter of debate, of course, but IEET’s putative BRS policy still provides some useful guidance.

So when it comes to religion, one’s religion is likely to provide quite a solid basis for (i), in that it tends to be associated with beliefs and preferences about ethics and the future. So in principle religious people should have a useful contribution to make to these discussions. By contrast, religion is of far more dubious value when it comes to (ii), since those beliefs and preferences often tend to come hand-in-hand with a belief that one’s preferences are actually God’s preferences, and that considering that one may be wrong is a weakness (even perhaps a son) rather than a strength. And this can make it very difficult for religious people to participate correctly in these discussions. Either you become like Henry and keep repeating the same points over and over, or you’ll probably just stay away in order to avoid cognitive dissonance.

In any case, let us keep in mind that religion is by no means the only source of hypocrisy…

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