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Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies





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Christianity and Transhumanism Are Much Closer Than You Think

Giulio Prisco


Turing Church


http://turingchurch.com/2016/04/04/christianity-and-transhumanism-are-much-closer-than-you-think/

April 10, 2016

I have long been persuaded that there are strong parallels between transhumanism and religion, not only “new” religions but the traditional religions of our grandfathers as well. There are, of course, differences, but I prefer to emphasize the parallels. After some deep reading and thinking, I realize that Christianity and Transhumanism are closer than I thought, and much closer than you probably think.

The Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA) is the most successful transhumanist group within a mainstream Church. In fact, Mormon Transhumanists find it easy to reconcile their transhumanist ideas with their religion.  Mormonism has a concept of boundless elevation and exaltation of Man, through all means including science and technology, until he becomes like God. Conversely, God was once like Man before attaining an exalted status.

“[Mormonism] allows for humans to ascend to a higher, more godlike level,” reads the introduction to “The Transhumanist Reader” written by Max More, “rather than sharply dividing God from Man.” Mormon transhumanists are persuaded that we will become like God – through science and technology – in a progression without end, and this seems a more faithful interpretation of the teachings of Joseph Smith and a return to the roots of the Mormon religion.

The passage above is adapted from my 2013 article “Meet the smi2ling New Believers.” In the same article I said that many Christians are open to Transhumanist ideas, but no Christian Transhumanist Association existed at that time.

Now there is a formally established Christian Transhumanist Association (CTA) with a website, a mailing list, a Facebook page, an active Facebook group, and a first humanitarian project. Christian Transhumanism is promoted by a group of pioneers such as Christopher BenekDorothy DeasyJames McLean Ledford, who runs an independent Christian Transhumanism Facebook group, and, especially, Micah Redding, who has been the main CTA driving force.

I have enthusiastically participated in the initial brainstorming and discussions on the CTA mailing list and social spaces since the beginning. However, while my personal interpretations of Christianity and Transhumanism are related, I wasn’t able to find strong parallels with official Christianity, not as strong as the parallels with Mormonism.

In passing, Mormonism is less than two centuries old, but mainstream Christianity is more than two millennia old.  What Joseph Smith said is well documented, but our knowledge of what Jesus of Nazareth said is mostly based on hearsay and guesswork. There must have been power struggles between different Christian factions after the death of Jesus, and – as it always happens – the winners got to write history. I recommend Marianne Fredriksson‘s novel “According to Mary Magdalene” for a fictional but believable history.

I was born in a Christian culture but my family was only nominally Christian, we didn’t go to Church, and I didn’t take religion seriously as a kid. I “discovered” religion, sort of, as an adult, and developed my own belief system which, while compatible with Christianity (that’s what I want to show here), is independent of revelation and official doctrine. Faith is a gift that I haven’t received – I asked for it, but it appears that God wants me to stay on my path.

However, what billions of good people all over the planet believe is important and has practical consequences. Therefore, in the following section I will take Christian scriptures and doctrine as a given and try to show that Christianity is essentially compatible with my interpretation (which is also unconventional) of Transhumanism.

Transhumanism for Christians

Two caveats: first, Christianity is really a galaxy with a myriad of different stars, and the wars that have been fought over contrasting interpretations of Christianity show that, to say the least, Christians don’t agree on everything. Therefore, I will try to stay close to widely accepted doctrine. Second, I am only interested in “cosmology” – or “eschatology” – and therefore I will focus on Christian eschatology (as opposed to what I call “geography” and “zoning norms”).

In “Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church,” N. T. Wright, a leading Christian scholar, retired Anglican bishop, and “one of the most formidable figures in the world of Christian thought” according to Time Magazine, shows that Christian concept of life after death is not a disembodied afterlife – we are not “embodied souls” but “animated bodies” – but resurrection in a new body and a new world created by God.

The new body, immortal and incorruptible like the resurrected body of Jesus, will be a gift of God’s grace and love. The resurrection of Jesus, and the promise that God will similarly resurrect us in the new world, are the central concepts of Christianity.

“As John Polkinghorne and others have urged, what we are talking about is a great act of new creation,” says Wright.

“God will download our software onto his hardware until the time when he gives us new hardware to run the software again.”

John Polkinghorne is a renowned theoretical physicist, theologian, and Anglican priest. In “The God of Hope and the End of the World,” Polkinghorne argues that the Christian hope of a destiny beyond death resides not in the presumed immortality of a spiritual soul, but in resurrection after death by grace of God. “Death is a real end. However, it need not be an ultimate end… It is a perfectly coherent hope that the pattern that is a human being could be held in the divine memory after that person’s death.”

“The souls awaiting the final resurrection are held in the mind of God.”

“Much traditional Christian thinking about an intermediate state between death and resurrection has been in terms of ‘soul sleep’, a kind of suspended animation awaiting the restoration of full humanity,” notes Polkinghorne. “Our idea of the information-bearing patterns of souls being held in the mind of God has some obvious kinship with this picture.”

The new body and the new world are likely to be deeply different from the present body and the present world. “From the start within early Christianity it was built in as part of the belief in resurrection that the new body, though it will certainly be a body in the sense of a physical object occupying space and time, will be a transformed body, a body whose material, created from the old material, will have new properties,” says Wright. “If we are even to glimpse this new world, let alone enter it, we will need a different kind of knowing.”

“According to the early Christians, the purpose of this new body will be to rule wisely over God’s new world,” says Wright in Surprised by Hope. “Forget those images about lounging around playing harps. There will be work to do and we shall relish doing it.”

“It’s more exciting than hanging around listening to nice music,” added Wright in a Time Magazine interview. “In Revelation and Paul’s letters we are told that God’s people will actually be running the new world on God’s behalf. The idea of our participation in the new creation goes back to Genesis, when humans are supposed to be running the Garden and looking after the animals.”

So, humans were running the Garden, and humans will be running the new world. Similarly, God wants humans to run the present world. “This stewardship cannot be something to be postponed for the ultimate future,” says Wright. “It must begin here and now.”

We are, in fact, part of God’s plan for the world, and part of God’s works to create the new world. “When God saves people in this life… such people are not just to be a sign and foretaste of that ultimate salvation,” says Wright.

“They are to be part of the means by which God makes this happen in both the present and the future.”

God intervenes in the world by means of events – miracles – that are often thought of as violations of physical laws. But while no Christian would deny God’s ability to do so, miracles don’t need to violate physical laws. In his article “The Concept of Miracle,” Wolfhart Pannenberg, widely regarded as a leading theologian, notes that Augustine thought of miracles simply as unusual events that contradict our understanding of nature, but not nature itself.

“The phenomenon of miracles expresses God’s creative freedom within the already existent world order,” says Pannenberg in his monumental “Systematic Theology” treatise. “Miracle is what is unusual and seems to be contrary to the nature of things.”

“As Augustine stressed, however, the unusual events we call miracles are not really contrary to the nature of things but merely contrary to our limited knowledge of the course of nature.”

God doesn’t need to violate physical laws, because God can and does work through nature. Pannenberg concludes “The Concept of Miracle” by noting that “we do not know everything about how the processes of nature work, and some “[unusual events] could be understood better in the future.” Perhaps God stores Polkinghorne’s human information patterns in the physical world, and perhaps the ultimate miracles – the resurrection of the dead and the creation of the new world – are no more “miraculous” than the blooming of new flowers in the spring.

Summing up:

  • We will be resurrected in a new body and a new world created by God, deeply different from the present body and the present world.
  • The pattern that is a human being could be held in the divine memory after that person’s death, awaiting for resurrection.
  • Resurrected humans will run the new world according to God’s plan.
  • Similarly, God wants humans to run the present world.
  • We are part of God’s plan for the world, and part of God’s works to create the new world.
  • Miracles don’t violate physical laws. On the contrary, God can and does work through nature.

This is perfectly consistent with the following eschatological vision inspired by Transhumanism:

The information patterns that are human beings are stored in the fabric of space-time by unknown physical processes. These information patterns will be retrieved by future humans, and used to bring the dead back to life by “copying them to the future.” Resurrected humans will join future humans in a radically changed world, wearing radically changed immortal bodies.

In this short Transhumanist eschatological vision I haven’t mentioned God and Jesus, which of course are central to Christianity and the works of the theologians quoted above. In fact, most Transhumanists prefer to leave God out of the picture.

However,  since we are part of God’s plan for the world, and part of God’s works to create the new world, Christians can consider Transhumanist eschatology as a part of Christian eschatology, focused on our participation in God’s plan. Since miracles don’t require violating physical laws, we can perform miracles on God’s behalf. We are doing that already, for example we are healing the sick with medicine, and future science will enable us to perform more ambitious miracle, such as resurrecting the dead. Therefore, Christians can embrace Transhumanism as part of Christian beliefs.

It’s important to note that Wright, Polkinghorne, and Pannenberg, aren’t “fringe” thinkers but widely respected Christian theologians. Actually, all three have been described as “conservative” members of the theology establishment.

Trasumanar

Dante was the first to use the term “transhumanism.” In “Divine Comedy – Paradiso,” Dante coined the Italian verb “Trasumanar,” which can be translated as “to transcend humanity.”

“Claiming that his ascent from the Terrestrial Paradise to the celestial realm of the blessed cannot be expressed adequately in words, Dante invents the word trasumanar (‘to transhumanize, to pass beyond the human’),” notes Guy Raffa in “The Complete Danteworlds: A Reader’s Guide to the Divine Comedy.” Dante’s original reads:

“Trasumanar significar per verba
non si porìa; però l’essemplo basti
a cui esperienza grazia serba.”
– Dante Alighieri, Paradiso (1)

My translation:

“Transcending humanity cannot be expressed with words
but let the example [given previously] be sufficient
to those who will experience [transcendence] by grace [of God].”

God and Resurrection for Transhumanists

I have tried to build a bridge from Christianity to Transhumanism. Now I wish to try and build another bridge from Transhumanism to Christianity. As I noted above, most Transhumanists prefer to leave God out of the picture. Some Transhumanists are passionate “militant atheists” and have negative knee-jerk reactions at the first mention of anything that sounds like religion. I don’t hope to “convert” militant atheists, but I do hope to show other Transhumanists that there is a bridge.

Most transhumanists are persuaded that the material world of particles and fields, regulated by physical laws, is all that exists, and deny the existence of a separate “spiritual” or “supernatural” reality. I tend to agree, with the caveat that, following Pannenberg and Augustine, I think there is much more to the material universe than we presently know or imagine. Or, following Shakespeare, “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.”

Many transhumanists would agree with the Christian view of humans as “animated bodies” (as opposed to “embodied souls”), which don’t possess an immortal soul. Without an immortal soul, the dead can only be brought back to life by grace of God. But most transhumanists don’t want to hear about God.

However, there are at least two mental models for God inspired by Transhumanist eschatology:

A natural God emerging from intelligent life

One is the concept of a natural God emerging from intelligent life in the physical universe and gradually acquiring God-like properties including complete mastery of space and time, or, in other words, omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. Even Richard Dawkins, probably the best known atheist thinker in the world, doesn’t rule out the possibility of a natural God.

“It’s highly plausible that in the universe there are God-like creatures,” said Dawkins in a New York Times interview. In his book “The God Delusion,” Dawkins says:

“There are very probably alien civilizations that are superhuman, to the point of being god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine.”

The objection, raised by Dawkins, that a natural god is not the infinite God, can be countered by observing that, while infinite entities have a place in pure mathematics, in practical engineering “infinite” means just “very big” (much bigger than all other relevant entities). If a natural God is God-like in any sense that we can conceive and can do everything that we imagine God can do, why not just call such a being God?

It’s conceivable that a natural God could emerge from humans in the far future. Frank J. Tipler expects that future humans will become masters of space and time as described in his book “The Physics of Immortality,” and steer the entire universe toward a final “Omega Point” singularity. “As we approach the final singularity, the laws of physics also dictate that our knowledge and computing capacity is expanding without limits,” says Tipler. “Eventually it will become possible to emulate, to make a perfect copy of, every previous state of the entire universe.”

“We will be brought back into the future, brought back into existence as computer emulations in the far future.”

Tipler tries to prove his conclusions on the basis of known physics, which opens his ideas to criticism. I suspect Tipler is wrong in thinking that we already know enough physics to describe the ultimate fate of the universe. There could be, in fact, many and perhaps infinitely many “more things” (Shakespeare) in the physical universe. But I think Tipler’s core idea – that intelligent life in the universe will become God-like – is valuable.

“Tipler conceives the Omega Point as all-knowing and all-powerful and therefore considers it to be factually identical with the Creator God of religion,” said Pannenberg in a review of Tipler’s book. “Tipler’s exposition of a future resurrection of the dead is particularly worthy of note in a time when the Christian expectations concerning the future are most often judged to be irreconcilable with the modern scientific worldview.”

It’s worth noting that the Hebrew original usually translated as “I Am That I Am” can be also translated as “I Shall Be That I Shall Be.” In a lecture given at a conference on Tipler’s ideas, Pannenberg used this translation and hinted at a God that comes to full being in the future. “He is the God of the coming kingdom,” said Pannenberg.

“In hidden ways he is already now the Lord of the universe which is his creation…”

A God that comes into existence in the far future, if endowed with sufficient mastery of space and time, could watch and subtly influence events anywhere, anytime, including here and now. In other words, God – omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent – can do miracles, bring about the new world, and resurrect the dead by copying them from the past. We don’t know enough science to understand how God operates, but future scientists might know more. The weird quantum reality and strange time physics that contemporary scientists are beginning to imagine are promising indications.

A ‘sysop’ God in a higher reality

Another mental model for God inspired by Transhumanist eschatology is the reality-as-a-simulation model, which treats our reality as a simulation computed by intelligent entities in a higher level of reality. You, and I, and everything around us, are but information bits that live and move in a supercomputer beyond space and time, operated by a God-like creator.

“Science-fiction authors… have even suggested (and I cannot think how to disprove it) that we live in a computer simulation, set up by some vastly superior civilization,” said Dawkins in “The God Delusion.” Dawkins is open to the reality-as-a-simulation concept, but doesn’t think of the simulators as God. “But the simulators themselves would have to come from somewhere,” he adds. “They probably owe their existence to a (perhaps unfamiliar) version of Darwinian evolution.”

However, the sysop God has all the properties of the Christian God, and the reality-as-a-simulation concept is totally indistinguishable from religion. God is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, wrote the laws of our physics, and can choose to violate them in case of need. Or, in the formulation of Augustine and Pannenberg, God can subtly influence our reality without needing to violate its laws. In particular, God can copy people from our world before death and run the copies again in a better new world.

Conclusions

I have tried to build a two-way bridge between Christianity and Transhumanism, and show that Christians can embrace Transhumanism, and Transhumanists can embrace Christianity, without abandoning their existing convictions.

I don’t hope that many Christian or Transhumanist readers will do so, but I do hope that this essay can make a small constructive contribution to promoting the dialogue between religion and science.

Notes

4/5/2016 – EDITED to amend a misleading statement.

Image from Evgeny Mironov via the PikiWiki – Israel free image collection project – and Wikimedia Commons.

Miniatures from medieval editions of Dante’s Comedy – Paradise, via Pinterest.

Christian Transhumanist Association logo, from CTA website.

Thanks to Micah Redding for recommending N. T. Wright’s “Surprised by Hope.”


Giulio Prisco is a writer, technology expert, futurist and transhumanist. A former manager in European science and technology centers, he writes and speaks on a wide range of topics, including science, information technology, emerging technologies, virtual worlds, space exploration and future studies. He serves as President of the Italian Transhumanist Association.

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