A mother in a developing country can keep her premature baby warm when facilities are lacking. And by doing so, she shares common ground with a branch of knowledge popularly associated with cyborgs, virtual reality and radical life extension.
The Embrace Warmer looks like a baby-sized sleeping bag and has been used at clinics in India. The product garnered financial support from the Christian Transhumanist Association.
Micah Redding, founder of the association, says supporting the product demonstrates the goals of the association.
“We decided as one of our first real actions as an organization, we would pair with the Embrace Project to send infant incubators to Afghanistan,” Redding said. The move shows “the use of technology for good purposes, the care for and significance of life, and the desire to take those things and reach out farther than we’ve currently gone.”
Aiming for a far-reaching effect is characterized of transhumanism, a concept which has a relatively short history. The word itself may have first been used by Julian Huxley in the 1920s. Nick Bostrom in his A History of Transhumanist Thought, quotes Huxley from the 1927 Religion Without Revelation:
“The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself — not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way — but in its entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.”
Bostrom notes earlier examples of the philosophy: Gilgamesh trying to achieve immortality with a natural herb, Prometheus stealing fire, medieval alchemy, and even Benjamin Franklin longing for suspended animation in order to see the United States a hundred years after his time.
In film, everything from consciousness uploaded in Transcendence to mind-enhancing drugs in Limitless could fall under the scope of transhumanism.
For those who think about it more generally, humans have pretty much been transhumanists since they started using sticks to productively poke things. It was primitive technology but technology nonetheless.
“I think transhumanism is at root a pretty simple idea,” Redding says. “We can and should use science and technology to improve and change and progress human life. How that gets extrapolated and how we think about where that should go — those are huge questions, but it starts with that basic idea.”
James Hughes, who heads the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, a transhumanist think tank, notes there are different facets of transhumanism in which people take interest. Some are interested in abandoning the body for pure mind. Some want to make the body endure as long as possible. Some want to augment the body. And some are interested in artificial intelligence.
“The places where we have debated the most was around about 2000 when the President’s Council on Bioethics … made the argument against transhumanism one of their central items,” Hughes says.
Political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who was a member of that council, argued in his book Our Posthuman Future that transhumanism should be avoided. The council itself produced a report called “Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness” which states:
“There are reasons to wonder whether life will really be better if we turn to biotechnology to fulfill our deepest human desires. There is an old expression: to a man armed with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a society armed with biotechnology, the activities of human life may seem more amenable to improvement than they really are.”
Hughes refers to advocates of that critiques as “bioLuddites” in his book Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future.
That conflict reflects a tension between the material and spiritual dimension of human nature.
On the surface, the two might seem at odds, a realm of science and matter colliding with a realm of spirituality and the soul. For many, though, the dichotomy doesn’t hold up. Sociologist Rodney Stark argues that belief in a monotheistic God has advanced scientific progress and theologian-physicist John Polkinghorne has pushed for the unity of all knowledge.
Transhumanism also shares space with religion.
The philosophy of technology in particular seems to overlap religion’s promises, Hughes says.
“I think the overarching issue is that transhumanism is promising things that religion has always promised.”
He noted parallels in how transhumanism offers a version of eternal life by being long-lived. (It isn’t purely eternal, since everything will perish in the heat death of the universe.) Transhumanism also promises profound wisdom through enhanced cognitive capacity, and bliss through modification of the senses.
There is even a sort of an apocalyptic, rapture-like thinking.
Futurist Ray Kurzweil wrote a book entitled, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, in which he describes a point of exponential growth of technology, perhaps around 2045, when the pace will be so tremendous that people will be unable to grasp it. Artificial intelligence would become more powerful than humans, and technology will reshape the universe.
As for Hughes, he was raised Unitarian, became Buddhist as a teenager, and then developed an interest in futurism while studying bioethics.
He once attended an interfaith dialogue in East Texas.
“I was shaking in my boots,” before it began, he says, but “it was one of the nicest events I had ever attended.”
Hughes noted that there are certain theological views that share ground with transhumanism, but overall, transhumanism is “a more human focused tradition. It doesn’t require belief in an external deity.”
Calvin Mercer, a religion professor at East Carolina University, has written extensively about religion and technology.
Mercer notes that transhumanism touches on a fundamental religious question: the meaning of humanity.
“Transhumanists are a big community, and they have their disagreements,” Mercer said in an audio interview. “You might identify what a human being is, what is their memory and personality, and if you identify that and can map it, then you can perhaps download it into some sort of computer format. Other transhumanists are not interested in that more radical scenario, and they simply want to maintain the same structure of the body or humanity that we have, and enhance it. This gets into a religious question, too — what is a human being?”
Redding, meanwhile, says that Christianity itself has theological underpinnings that make transhumanism not only desirable, but necessary.
God is a creator, naming and categorizing the cosmos and cultivating life.
“That’s the biblical vision of what humans do,” Redding says. “They are engaging in this creative process because they’re made in the image of the creator. … I would say science and technology are just concrete expressions of our God-given impulse to create, discover and explore.”
Redding draws the distinction between a Christian transhumanist and a Christian using technology for good. The latter takes technology as it comes, but the Christian transhumanist proactively finds ways to push technology to do good.
“Most don’t find transhumanism by itself to be enough,” Redding says. “It doesn’t really tell you what the meaning of life is.”
Instead, it is often paired with other philosophies and religions, he adds.
Academic papers have been published on the relationship between religion and transhumanism. In one, called “The Transhuman Heresy” by William Sims Bainbridge for the Journal of Evolution and Technology, religious people surveyed were more hostile toward transhumanism. The abstract reads:
“Historical and theoretical considerations suggest that the power of traditional religions is directly threatened by transhumanism, so the sacred monopolies can be predicted to try to suppress it. The questionnaire data provide initial support for this hypothesis, because highly religious respondents show less favorable reactions to a variety of modes of technological transcendence.”
In another article in the same journal, Mark Walker writes about a dialogue between transhumanism and faith and says:
“One common reaction here is that using technology to re-create humanity is tantamount to humanity ‘playing god.’ Also, some transhumanists are quite dismissive of religion. For example, on occasion it is claimed by some that transhumanism is a secular philosophy and that transhumanists ought to be ever vigilant that it is not confused with religious ideas or interpretations. These views create a hostile polarization between religious and transhumanist visions of humanity’s existence and future.”
Redding says Christians and secular transhumanists often rely on the same argument against each other: gnosticism.
Gnosticism was an early philosophy which held that the created world, including the body, is inferior to the spiritual or thought world.
Some authors, such as David Pauls with the Center for Bioethics and Culture network, says transhumanists want to move past human limitations and eventually abandon the body. He thus sees a “Gnostic strain” within transhumanism.
Redding says Christians should approach technology differently than the culture. Much of the world tends to view technology as scary and bad, or it approaches it with a consumerist approach.
Instead, Christianity should include a proactive view toward technology for doing good.
“Christianity is not simply about your spirit going off to heaven when you die,” Redding says. “We can look at the resurrection of Jesus. … It’s him bodily coming back from the dead. And what that means is God is not just concerned about our spirit in isolation from the rest of the world.”