November 3, 2015 Length: 8:51
Wesley discusses "transhumanism"—what is quickly becoming the world's newest religion, offering adherents the kind of hope once within the exclusive province of faith and without the humbling concept of an omnipotent God to whom one owes prayer and thanksgiving.
Hello, and welcome to Human Exceptionalism. The West, we are told constantly, has entered the secular age. Religious faith is irreversibly shriveling, opening space, supposedly, for a society based in rational non-belief and governed solely by reason. Traditional religion may well fade, but we will never see an end to belief. Humans are hard-wired to be subjective beings, driven by moral concepts and the creation of ideologies and creeds. Thus, even if Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and every other major world religion were reduced to mere vestiges, their influence would merely be replaced by different faith systems.
Nothing illustrates this phenomenon better than the recent rise of a futuristic social movement known as transhumanism, which offers temporal transcendence through faith in technology. Why consider ourselves made in the likeness and image of God, the movement argues, when we can recreate ourselves in our own individually designed, post-human image? Why worry about heaven, hell, or the karmic conditions in which we will be reincarnated when we can instead enjoy radical life extension, perhaps even immortality? Indeed, transhumanist prophets, eschatologically assure believers, to paraphrase Revelation, that science will soon wipe away every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more death nor sorrow nor crying nor pain, for through technology, the former things will be passed away.
Transhumanism is becoming the world’s newest religion, offering adherents the kind of hope once within the exclusive province of faith, and without the humbling concept of an omnipotent God to whom one owes prayer and thanksgiving. No sacraments, no need for divine forgiveness, no need to believe in any reality beyond the strictly material universe.
Inventor extraordinaire Ray Kurzweil, who created the first flat-bed scanner among other technological achievements and is now Google’s head of engineering, is probably the most famous proponent of transhumanism. Kurzweil predicts that the singularity, a forthcoming tipping point of exponential technological acceleration, will unleash an unstoppable cascade of scientific advances that leads to an inevitable overcoming of physical death. Human immortality, Kurzweil predicts, will be here by 2045, achieved through the means of uploading our minds into computers. We will have non-biological bodies, he has prophesied, allowing us to live in a virtual reality in which the “virtual reality will be as realistic as the actual reality.” Shades of the movie The Matrix. Other transhumanist projects include genetic engineering of embryos to produce enhanced children, living in a group consciousness, and radical body-altering to better express hyper-individuality.
Transhumanism is a very serious part of many people’s lives, with countless books, articles, blogs, associations, and university courses devoted to exploring the technology, ethics, and prospects for achieving a transhuman future. While the attention paid to concepts once primarily within the domain of science fiction, a big part of the appeal, I think, is a yearning to become extraordinary, without having to actually work for it. Why spend years honing one’s musical talent, for example, if it can be technologically engineered into the package?
Transhumanism even holds out the promise that the dead will be raised—a core principle of Christian faith. For example, if he doesn’t live long enough to become immortal, Oxford professor Nick Bostrom, perhaps the leading intellectual light in transhumanism, plans to have his head cryogenically frozen. Once the singularity kicks in and the resulting technology enables his reanimation, Bostrom plans to have his mind uploaded into a computer and thereby live forever.
Meanwhile, Kurzweil is presuming his own version of resurrecting the dead by planning to construct a technological version of his long-dead father. “You can certainly argue that philosophically that is not your father,” Kurzweil said to ABC News, “that it is a replica, but I can actually make a strong case that it would be more like my father than my father would be, were he to live.” Eventually, according to Princeton biologist Lee Silver, in his transhumanist manifesto, Remaking Eden—get the title?—humans will become immortal mental beings.
It is difficult to find words to describe the enhanced attributes of these special people. “Intelligence” does not do justice to their cognitive abilities. “Knowledge” does not explain the depth of their understanding of both the universe and their own consciousnesses. “Power” is not strong enough to describe the control they have over technologies that can be used to shape the universe in which they live.
It is telling that transhumanists revere intelligence in much the same way that Christians extol love. But that’s a subject for another podcast. St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews states that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. That seems to me to be a pretty good definition for the transhumanist belief that man will live forever by recreating himself in his own image. If that isn’t religion, I don’t know what is.
Alas for transhumanists, technology is a very hard pillow. The fantasy of uploading one’s mind into a robot might be fun to contemplate at academic symposia and in boardrooms of high-tech companies overflowing with investment capital. And I certainly understand why living longer is preferable to the alternative of permanent material non-being, but such temporary detours and—let’s face it—highly unlikely scenarios will never supply true meaning to yearning souls—if transhumanists will pardon the term—only a diversion.
In the end, transhumanism is a wail of despair in the night, spitting vainly into the howling existential winds of what most true materialists see as a meaningless void.