More Human than Human

By Jeff Mallinson

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These are strange times for folks interested in bio-ethics. On the one hand, technology has allowed us to extend life. On the other hand, scientists and thinkers are increasingly arguing about super-longevity and the radical transcendence of death through modern technology. In the one case, Christians often insist that the vocation of medical professionals is to heal and support life, even in the midst of diminished life quality, cognitive impairment, and cost. In the other case, Christians often insist that to extend life beyond its “natural” limits is a dangerous act of “playing God”. In other words, we instinctually assume that to end life by withholding medical intervention might be allowing a physician to play God, but simultaneously worry that if this same physician is too successful at prolonging life, or at least consciousness—perhaps for a few centuries—would be to once again play God in a dangerous manner. The movement at hand is called Transhumanism or H+. This video is the best way to get a basic understanding of what Transhumanists are after. This is the topic for this week’s Virtue in the Wasteland podcast, in which we interview Dr. Joel Oesch, whose blog Fishing for Leviathan, is currently addressing H+.

The ethical dilemmas that Transhumanism poses for society are precisely the sort of things that virtue theory is best at addressing. We can’t look to simple rules here. We need to understand what a true human existence is all about. We need to determine the kind of people and society we want to cultivate. This is a crucial task as we face the unintended consequences of exponential technological development.

But perhaps the most important immediate concern for Christians is the way in which they are and will be increasingly singled out as obstacles to progress. Think about this situation from the atheist’s point of view for a moment. If they operate with the myth of the secular, then the idea that the more advanced our culture becomes, the less it will need the superstitions of religion. We’ve advanced, as the secular narrative goes, from animism, to polytheism, to henotheism, to monotheism, to deism, and finally to atheism. We’re grown up now, and need to seek more concrete answers to our existential questions. Our biggest question is how we might overcome death. If in fact there is a chance that we can live incredibly long lives, with brains tied into the Internet, and pain and depression eliminated by medicine and genetic engineering, we have an appealing secular eschatology. We have—in a sense—a tangible promise of a kind of salvation. When a person gets the scent of immortality (or something close to it), panic sets in. Will I live long enough to enjoy the advances of technology? Will anyone thwart the effort?

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Ah, that’s the rub! Who will hinder secular salvation? Religious people, it seems. Christians in particular tend to oppose embryonic stem cell research, and often meddle in secular science education, particularly as it relates to the science of origins. So, the argument goes: if science is our salvation, and Christians obstruct science, then Christians must be neutralized in this path to immortality.

At this point in the conversation, it seems premature to argue that faithful people should oppose all transhumanist research. After all, in our various vocations, we are called to act as the face of God for the world. Thus, it is possible that a Christian, as a scientist, might well pursue technology that will help people live longer, happier lives. Nonetheless, we have an opportunity here. Instead of trying to put social cats back into the bag, we have a chance to keep evil cats from getting out of the bag in the first place. Even secular thinkers recognize the potential dangers of Transhumanism. Many recent movies have explored this theme and almost always reflect a fear that humanity as we know it might not be advanced, but rather destroyed by technology run amok.

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The moment is urgent, whether we recognize it or not. But we have a bit of lead time. We need to support and encourage young scholars to pursue research in the sciences and in ethics. We need to support those who are exploring ways to anticipate and oppose ways in which our desire to evolve ourselves might accidentally result in dystopian devolution or annihilation. So press on thoughtful friends, and keep your wits about you as we stare into the abyss known as the cybernetic future. And choose this day whom you will serve, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, or someone like Darth Vader, more machine than man.

—The Wayfaring Stranger

Composed sipping white Mezcal, between chapters of Michael Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible.

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