Recently, Elon Musk announced progress toward clinical trials of a brain implant which he believes will allow paralyzed people to control technology with their thoughts. For those who call themselves transhumanists, this potential breakthrough is more than a tool to help the disabled. For transhumanists, Musk’s technology offers hope that someday humanity will evolve beyond the limits of our frail bodies and become Human+. Two decades ago, Kevin Warwick expressed his dream of transcending humanity this way:
I WAS BORN human.
This was merely due to the hand of fate acting at a particular place and time. But while fate made me human, it also gave me the power to do something about it. The ability to change myself, to upgrade my human form, with the aid of technology. To become cyborg—part human, part machine. This is the extraordinary story of my adventure as the first human entering into a Cyber World; a world which will, most likely, become the next evolutionary step for humankind.Kevin Warwick, I, Cyborg, 1st Illinois pbk. ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 1.
But will this dream of Human+ end in nightmare? If we accept neo-Darwinian biology as the unimpeachable starting point for defining human personhood, transhumanists like Warwick are committed to some form of the following argument:
Premise 1: Evolving biological systems are the natural explanation for human personhood
Premise 2: Evolving biological systems are indeterminate
Premise 3: All emergent properties (mind, consciousness, soul, etc.…) are contingent on the evolving biological system
Premise 4: Any emergent property that is contingent on an indeterminate biological system is itself indeterminate
Premise 5: Human personhood is a contingent property of the human body
Conclusion: Therefore, human personhood is indeterminate
In premises 1 through 5, human personhood is taken as a contingent property tied to the process of evolution. If these premises are sound, then the definition of “human person” can freely evolve with each new phase in the transhumanist program of self-enhancement.
The moral implications are significant. Without a fixed and final definition of human personhood, there is no foundation for a fixed and final ethic of “human” rights. After all, writes Michael Tennison, “arguments for the moral impermissibility of enhancement fail when morality itself is the capacity to be enhanced.”1 Tennison’s admission may be jarring, but transhumanists consider the evolution of morality as a strength — not a limitation — of their mission.
Given the transhumanist argument that morality is contingent on evolutionary progress, it is easy to see how the Hippocratic Oath taken by doctors to “do no harm” becomes nothing more than a positive spin on death. Why should doctors try to save every human or limit experiments on people who will die anyway? If the greater good of immortality is the goal, then isn’t it better if society takes advantage of the sick and disabled so that the rest of us can transcend the limits of our humanity?
Transhumanist advocate John Harris is aware of — and unmoved by — the potential for abuse. For Harris, society should not make a “fetish of a particular evolutionary stage” of human development.2 The anti-transhumanist ethic that limits experiments, argues Harris, is nothing more than a distraction from the higher moral obligation of society to rise above this current iteration of humanity. Therefore, the risk that a few people may be harmed, suffer, or die during human trials is outweighed by the transhumanist perception of a greater social good that advances the species.
The indeterminate nature of human personhood embraced by transhumanists underscores the need for a stable trans-cultural and trans-political ethic that protects the inalienable rights and sacred worth of the most vulnerable among us.
Consider this: What if humanness is not contingent on the natural process of evolution? What if premise 3 is wrong and humanness is contingent on the unchanging nature of the God who designed us? If human personhood itself transcends nature, then the foundation for protecting the rights endowed by our Creator remain outside societal standards and outside nature. No longer is Human+ the greater good; rather, the preservation of each human person becomes the highest immutable good. That said, the moral imperative to protect every life — regardless of disability, genetic differences, or social distinctions such as race — is not a barrier to exploring new biotechnologies that might help the disabled, But it does change our methods and our goal. If human personhood is contingent on God, then the pursuit of new technology is not for making us Human+, but to help us experience the fullness of the humanness that already exists within.
1 Michael N. Tennison, “Moral Transhumanism: The Next Step,” The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, no. 4 (2012): 410.
2 John Harris, Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 16.
Harris, John. Enhancing Evolution : The Ethical Case for Making Better People. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.
Tennison, Michael N. “Moral Transhumanism: The Next Step.” The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, no. 4 (2012): 405.
Warwick, Kevin. I, Cyborg 1st Illinois pbk. ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.
Here are all five short essays in the series by J. R. Miller:
With transhumanism, what happens to human rights? The transhumanist accepts suffering for the individual if suffering can advance the evolution of the species toward immortality and singularity. If humans can redefine what it means to be human, what prevents us from eliminating anyone opposed to this grand vision? (January 1, 2022)
Eugenics, transhumanism, and artificial intelligence If we were to succeed at creating an ethical decision-making AI, whose ethics would it abide by? The utilitarian goal of a “sustainable future” must be guided by a higher ethic in order to avoid grave mistakes of the past. (January 13, 2022)
The deadly dream of Human+ Look at the price tag… Some are prepared to sacrifice actual humans now for the hope of future immortality. Without a fixed and final definition of human personhood, there is no foundation for a fixed and final ethic of “human” rights. (January 20, 2022)
Can Christian ethics save transhumanism? J. R. Miller looks at the idea that the mission to self-evolve through technology is “the definitive Christian commitment.” In Miller’s view, Christian transhumanists do not provide a stable and persistent definition of human personhood, thus cannot ground human rights. (February 27, 2022)
Why the imago Dei (Image of God) shuts the door on transhumanism. As the belief that technology promises us a glorious post-human future advances among scholar who profess Christianity, we must ask some hard questions. The mission to self-evolve beyond humanity begs the question, how is humanity “saved” through technological advancement designed to eliminate humanity? (March 20, 2022)