Transhumanism and the Image of God

Late last year, I found out that my good friend Jacob Shatzer has a forthcoming book called Transhumanism and the Image of God: Today’s Technology and the Future of Christian Discipleship. It’s scheduled to publish in April, but I asked Jacob if he’d let me read an advance copy of the book since it intersects with my interests and, you know, we’re buddies. Plus, it’s the least he could do after beating me twice in our longstanding fantasy football league this fall.

Ever the good friend, Jacob agreed to send me the manuscript, which I finished reading just after Christmas. It is a thought-provoking, critical analysis of transhumanism and how Christians can and should engage with it—and with the various forms of technology that influence who we are and how we live, for better or for worse.

Jacob  penetrates beneath the claims and goals of transhumanism to identify its underlying values, exploring both the forces shaping those values and the degree to which they are consistent with Christianity. The book is generally critical of transhumanism, concluding that its aims are largely at odds with the Christian faith, especially with regard to what it means to be human.

Jacob describes transhumanism as a worldview that “pushes for the continued evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form—and thus beyond human limitations—by means of science and technology, which are guided by life-promoting principles and values” (p. 40). Another way to put it is this: transhumanism is a vision of humankind beginning to direct its own evolution, taking charge of a process that until now has been governed largely by environment and survival.

Jacob focuses much of the book on what exactly are the “life-promoting principles and values” of transhumanism, asking whether they are in fact life-promoting, how we can know, and who says so. Regarding the use of technology, he rightly recognizes that tools are not just tools; they shape the people who use them. (For example, if I use a hammer enough times, my hand-eye coordination and muscle memory are changed to make me a better swinger of hammers and driver of nails.) This goes for tools such as computers computers and smart phones as well. We must recognize that these tools are not neutral, and we must be responsible enough to ask how using them shapes us, and whether or not this is a good thing. Jacob’s conclusion is that today’s technology encodes within us values that are consistent with transhumanism. In other words, our use of technology forms us in such a way that we value and desire the very things that transhumanism promises to give us through that same technology. This insight drives the exploration and evaluation of transhumanism that unfold in Jacob’s book.

The values Jacob identifies within the transhumanist worldview include moral autonomy, especially as expressed in an individual’s conscience; progress, the notion that society is nearly always moving forward; longevity of human life; self-direction; rational thinking; open society; and a positive outlook toward technology. He defines and discusses all of these values within the book, and indicates a bit about how today’s technology promotes these values.

Jacob then explores 3 key areas of transhumanism with those values in mind: morphological freedom, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence. Morphological freedom refers to the ability to change our bodies in some way by means of technology, whether in response to an injury or perceived disadvantage or simply out of a desire to be a certain way. The technology involved would include, among other things, gene editing, prosthetics, and radical extension of human life. Changes to humans and their bodies would include, among other things, increased strength, endurance, and intellect, eradication or prevention of disease, more “cosmetic” things such as height, hair, or eye color. There’s substantial overlap between this category and much modern medicine.

 Augmented reality refers to an interface between the digital and the biological that alters our perception of and interaction with the world around us. It includes social media and other interactions mediated by digital devices, as well as virtual reality and explicitly labeled augmented reality (AR) that overlays digital information on top of our perceptions of the world. (The popular game Pokemon Go is an instance of AR, allowing people to capture digital creatures at specific, real-world locations.)

Artificial intelligence is just what it sounds like—the creation of computers that are just as intelligent as humans or more so, or even the ability of a person to upload one’s mind to a computer, thereby extending or even multiplying one’s “life.” It would also include the expansion of human mental capacity by artificial means, such as linking a brain with a computer to increase memory or thinking (or both). If morphological freedom, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence represent a continuum of human interaction with technology, artificial intelligence stands at the far end of the spectrum. It is a thorough blending off the biological and the digital and the near-total removal of the distinction between them.

After describing and analyzing these technological factors and their implicit underlying values in the first half of the book, Jacob explores the changing facets of human life due to technology in specific instances. Through the second half of the book, he critically engages the promises of transhumanism and offers biblical themes, Christian practices, or other theological images and ideas to help Christians approach these changing landscapes faithfully. Amid changing notions of experience, Jacob lifts up the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation and the art of storytelling as ways to orient us toward a life-giving view of reality. Amid changing notions of place, he calls us to see the value of “placemaking practices” such as gardening and homemaking that root us in a particular location, reminding us of our connection to a specific environment rather than striving to disconnect us from it. Amid changing notions of relationships, he lifts up real friendship and the Eucharist as ways of shaping our interactions and commitments to others. And amid changing notions of the self, he draws us back to the Christian promise of a new self, pointing toward salvation and our eschatological hope of becoming a new person in Christ Jesus.

Jacob’s key insights that tools shape us, and that many of our technological tools are shaping us to value precisely what technology promises, are an important contribution to the discussion of how Christians should respond to developing technology and to a transhumanist worldview that often uncritically accepts and promotes this technology. He takes some good initial steps toward a response by identifying various theological themes and ideas, though one senses that this discussion is just beginning and that more can and should be said in each of these areas.

One topic on which I wish he’d written more is vocation, and the particular shape that God’s calling takes in our individual lives. Jacob hints that a worldview in which we are called by God to be a certain way stands in tension with a worldview in which we have the means and freedom to be any way we choose. This seems to me to be a critical point, the resolution of which might enable Christians to engage more fruitfully with transhumanism. What is the role of human agency in responding to God’s call in our lives? How specific and direct is God’s call for an individual, and what freedom does the person have in how he or she fulfills this divine calling?

The religious transhumanist would answer, I think rightly, that God gives us considerable freedom in responding to the divine call, and that technology offers various tools at our disposal to do so. In other words, part of God’s call is for us to develop useful tools and discern how to use them well. However, assigning too great a role to human agency removes any sense of responsibility and accountability to Another, and our sense of God’s call becomes little more than what seems right in our own eyes. Articulating the balance between the role of God’s authority and initiation on the one hand with human freedom and agency on the other hand will clarify the common ground between transhumanism and the Christian worldview, both of which hold a vision of humankind that is uplifted beyond its present limitations.

I offer those last two paragraphs not as a criticism, but as a way of continuing the conversation. I appreciate Jacob’s willingness to explore underlying values rather than remain content with a surface-level analysis of technology and attitudes toward it. I also appreciate Jacob’s desire to respond to the various questions technology raises from a firm grounding within the Christian tradition. More hard work like this needs to be done if Christians are to address technology in a way that’s both relevant and fruitful. I hope Jacob and I get to continue the conversation, either in writing or in person. Preferably both.

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