Transhumanism Part I: What Is It, and Is It A Good Thing From a Religious Perspective?

Transhumanism (sometimes called “Humanity+” or “h+”) is an international intellectual and cultural movement aimed at transcending human physical and intellectual limitations using technology. Officially it was first conceived in the early part of the 20th century, but its goals–aimed at increasing human lifespans, improving quality of life, and advancing our efficacy and efficiency–have been intrinsic to our humanity for longer than recorded history.

Already, advances in prosthetics, nanotechnology, and genetic engineering have begun to actualize these goals using science (as opposed to magic or other means).

Transhumanism represents an enormous interdisciplinary and diverse intellectual nexus, which cannot be easily summarized or singularly described.

There has been ample criticism from the religious community, some calling it a new form of Manichaeism–or neo Gnosticism–saying it begrudges physical matter, seeing it as a weakness rather than inherently valuable, and consider it an ethical good to work to transform our bodies into comparatively godlike forms with enormous power.

I’m curious what, if any, goods we could identify in the transhuman agenda from a religious perspective.

A most intriguing thought is to imagine what a religiously-motivated successful transhuman participant would look like.

Physically, they would be enormously powerful. They would probably have a suite of cutting edge prosthetics for every appendage, nanotechnologically enhanced muscle fibers and organs that are optimized for performance, and they have found ways of preventing the debilitating effects of free radicals, radiation, and decomposition. This makes them arguably immortal (if the infrastructure for supporting their tech survives, or if they are self sustaining) and able to withstand and wield massively destructive forces.

Mentally, they would be capable of interfacing with supercomputers, expanding their computational abilities, their memory recall, accelerating their decision making, and perhaps able to compensate for innate biases, allowing them to act as impartial agents.

Spiritually, they would be very much the same as we are now, as their alterations are purely physical. Even if they were able to detect and communicate with previously unknown phenomena in the universe, this is still a designate of the material world.

I’d say, we actually are already very familiar with these individuals.

We’re just not used to thinking about them outside of comic books. Or movie theaters.

An exploration into the ethical consequences of a “transhuman” will look very similar to explorations of the modern superhero. The goods we ascribe to the latter should apply to the former as well.

The whole ethos of the superhero is a good person using their exceptional powers to do good for others. Saving people from physical harm, like fires or natural disasters, is one good. Protecting the innocent and vulnerable from thieves and murders might be another.

In effect, they could accomplish things normally impossible for us, and so better preserve human life–at least, so long as they act in the common good.

Entrusting power to a morally upright individual is a cornerstone of the superhero image, one that is rightfully challenged in the anti-hero era of comic books with seminal works by Alan Moore Watchmen and V for Vendetta. The good that comes out of power depends upon someone acting in our best interests. And who’s to say they will necessarily do so?

Who’s also to say their perception of what is good would be the same as ours? What prevents them from playing out moral utilitarian calculus with our lives? This is the villainous quality of Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias in Watchmen–the world’s wealthiest and most intelligent man averts a world war through a complicated and ingenious act of terrorism, killing tens of thousands in a single moment to in all likelihood save the world.

In other words, the presence of increased physical and mental prowess is a neutral element in the moral fiber of the world. It depends totally upon the user as to whether it accomplishes good at all.

Next, we will consider whether it is inherently good to pursue progress and innovation in regards to transhumanism.

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