Transhumanism 101 – Eternal Life
Occasionally, I’ll get a song stuck in my head for no reason…it barges into my brain and before I know it, the song decides to crash on the couch. Over and over it plays. Hopefully, it’s not the theme song to Paw Patrol, my son’s favorite morning cartoon, but bad 80’s songs aren’t much better. This week’s brain-guest? The soaring vocals in Alphaville’s “Forever Young” accompanied with the image of Napoleon Dynamite at the school dance, of course.
Forever young, I want to be forever young…do you really want to live forever?
Ugh. No, I really don’t. I don’t want to be forever young. Forever Young sounds like the title of a dystopian novel set in the future when history has been forgotten and no one understands the value of life and death; an age of ignorance and superficiality. Instead, I want to be old and grizzled someday—certainly not forever young. I’m already on my way; my beard has some salt-and-pepper Grizzly Adams look that I’ve spent three years cultivating! Of course, no one sells songs that have these lyrics: “Old and grey, I want to be ollllld and grey…do you really want to take Viagra?”
Being forever young must be one of the all-time enduring pursuits of humanity—from Ponce DeLeon to the bad guy in Indiana Jones 3 to Rod Stewart. Whether its the fear of death or the nostalgia of youth that drives this, I’m not really sure. The strange thing is that now, after thousands of years of technology and civilization, a form of immortality may be within humanity’s reach.
Ta-Dah! Welcome to Transhumanism! For those of you new to the term, it has nothing to do with your race or gender identity, at least not directly. Rather, the term reflects the human desire to transcend its current condition both individually and socially, most notably to rise above the limitations of our physical selves. Transhumanism is a movement of people committed to using technology to further the human race in profound ways. In most iterations, Transhumanism is viewed as the next great step of human evolution. Homo sapiens has evolved into a wholly new species, Homo techniques.
Start here for a terrific primer:
A Transhumanism Primer
Yes, that’s a lot to take in.
One of the central features of the Transhumanist movement (shorthand is H+) is the desire to live a longer and more satisfying life. More specifically, H+ uses now-and-future technologies to fundamentally alter how we think about life and death itself.
Of all the black-and-white topics in the history of history, death has to be near the top of the list. One, we’re either dead or alive, not both (sorry, zombies). Two, no one can effectively cheat death indefinitely. For the first time in human history, both of these statements are no longer axiomatic. The H+ movement is pushing for a human future in which death comes not as a result of our human bodily limitation but, rather, because when we finally will it to be so. Like deciding to quit a video game before heading to bed…you decide when the story of you is over.
How does this drive toward “super-longevity” actually take shape?
Option 1: We get so good at this bio-technology thing that we can do a series of edits, therapies, and transformations to the physical body itself—effectively ridding our cells of the damage that comes with age. This may or may not include actual microchip technology integrated into our bodies to help this process. Goodbye, Gandalf the Grey! Hello, Galadriel!
Option 2: We get so good at this digital technology thing that we transition out of our physical bodies altogether. In this Kurzweilian view, people can literally upload their consciousness onto some form of silicon substrate, existing forever in the digital cloud or downloaded back into a robotic being as a vessel for the human consciousness.
Let’s just assume, for a moment, that these options are viable in the near future and that our society will be making real progress toward the creation of an artificial yet eternal life of sorts. How do we faithfully make sense of this brave new world? Since I have three H+ posts lined up in a row, I’m going to use this time to focus on “super-longevity” exclusively, leaving “super-intelligence” and “super well-being” for next time.
Super-longevity scares the hell out of me. The question is why. Why am I so concerned with a group of people who want to use technology in such a way that prolongs my life? How dare they! Before I pull out my arrows, I better be sure that I have the right target.
The problem is not the desire to extend life. This has to be clear from the get-go. Existence is certainly better than non-existence, as Descartes once argued. To disagree with this point would be utterly hypocritical. If you believed that non-existence was better than existence, you would have killed yourself by now. No, existence is to be cherished, valued, and ultimately preserved. Option 1 above seems to be something worth pursuing at least at first glance, since none of us willingly welcome the ravages of cancer or Alzheimer’s. In fact, many of us would go to great lengths to prevent our children from experiencing these ills, even allowing procedures to be done in utero, if necessary.
Nor is the problem the human desire to push the boundaries of our collective limitation. In a truly physical sense, the Olympic Games come to mind here. Every event is designed to draw out the best of human physical ability over-and-against the physical limitations that are present in all of us. From an intellectual sense, we similarly challenge ourselves to conceive and make manifest a better future–a world with less suffering than our forefathers. I don’t find either of these pursuits to be problematic.
The problem is that H+ wrecks the meaning of life altogether. Super-longevity essentially argues that humanity’s existential problem is one of limit. H+ says we should be people without boundary, without restraint, without end. And, at this exact juncture, I get off the train. Limitation is not the evil that H+ thinks it is, but rather, it’s the very thing that makes community possible.
- In our mutual limitation, we recognize that our will (and power) are not to be unbounded, in any sense.
- In our mutual limitation, we have the capacity for empathy, surprise, and joy.
- In our mutual limitation, we are able to pursue justice rather than pursue our own ends.
- In our mutual limitation, we can take joy in a real Christian community that recognizes and values the weakest among us.
- In our mutual limitation, we are forced to recognize the greatest truth of our time: we are not God.
Life means something because death awaits us. Life means something infinitely greater because life awaits us after death, as well. All life is valuable because each breath is a gift. This is one of the central insights of Scripture: that life is valuable because it is God’s–not ours–and because of that designation, God pursues a course of salvation through Christ from the moment Adam eats the fruit. God chose redemption over his second option, annihilation. So great is the Father’s love for us (and our bodily life, I might add).
When we use gift language, we are less likely to see life as something we can steal, something we can manipulate. Every breath becomes a living expression of God’s gifting; the life we have bears witness to God as Creator and Sustainer and therefore becomes a testimony to the life and act of God. Super-longevity seems to be a complex form of narcissism…where I become the master of my own universe.
For the Christian, escaping death does nothing to prevent the actual problem with human living—sin. For the Christian, the body is essential to who we are as creatures of the Creator. This fact is affirmed in Scripture over and over again, not only in the fact that Jesus came in the flesh (i.e., the Incarnation) but that his resurrection was also in the flesh. To create a life without the body is to necessarily destroy part of that which makes us human!
Oh, yeah…and there’s other things to worry about with a technologically mediated eternal life. Geo-political problems abound. Developing countries are screwed. Permanent caste systems are entirely plausible, if not inevitable. We’ll never get rid of Donald Trump. Could you imagine his next tweet?
Jst uploaded myslf 2 ‘net. H+ now. #nevergonnabefirednow, #inyourcomputer
Ultimately, the super-longevity component of H+ exists as a form of salvation. This makes any internal critique of the H+ movement subject (and rightly so) to intense scrutiny. In other words, futurist and technology guru Ray Kurzweil has dedicated his life to the coming of the technological Singularity and hope that humanity will transcend its finite condition into some form of eternal being. In the absence of any true salvation, this “eternal life” acts as his salvation and, therefore, must be protected and defended at all costs. No moral qualms can convince him to give up the pursuit of eternal life…he’s already totally invested in its success!
But what kind of life are we talking about?
© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2015