The 2018 Netflix series, Altered Carbon, depicts a future society where people hope to live forever by digitizing their consciousness and storing it in a “cortical stack.” This technological marvel is then inserted into any number of interchangeable bodies when the old “sleve” dies. But what you and I may watch for entertainment is for many scientists, philosophers, and theologians a life’s mission. This dream of life without end through technology is called transhumanism.
Transhumanism (Humanity+ or hereafter H+) is a 20th– century endeavor grounded in rational humanism that trusts technological advances to answer two key questions of human existence: “What does it mean to be human?” and “What is the future of humanity?”
For the transhumanist, these two questions can be answered by technology. There is, on that view, singularity and immortality. The idea of immorality — life without end — makes intuitive sense. Ironically, however, the concept of singularity has no singular definition.
The movie Altered Carbon offers one possible singularity through digitizing consciousness, for others, it is the moment in time when humans achieve immortality through advances such as CRISPR, therapeutic human cloning, stem cell therapies, synthetic human organs, or nanotechnology.
Still for some, the singularity is becoming one with the cosmos itself. Despite these differences, singularity is, broadly speaking, the search for a unity with technology that takes humanity beyond its current state of evolution. But this vision of reinventing humanity through technology has some serious potential for harm. After all, if humans have the power to redefine what it means to be human then what’s to keep us from eliminating the weak, the sick, ethnic minorities, or simply anyone opposed to this grand vision?
Turning back to the Netflix series Altered Carbon, we see the potential for great harm to those who don’t embrace immortality and singularity. In this H+ utopia, Roman Catholics are one group who refuse to have their consciousness uploaded into a stack and re-sleeved after death. This makes them soft targets for criminals who murder Catholics without fear that they will be re-sleeved. After all, a dead victim can tell no tales.
In H+, the value of the individual person is tied to perceived utility. Rights are concepts tied primarily to the survival of the collective and — at best a second — to the individual capable of advancing humanity. This ethical framework allows the transhumanist to accept suffering for the individual if that suffering can advance the evolution of the species toward immortality and singularity.
Let me illustrate the collectivist nature of H+ with one example. Scholar James Maxwell Milne argues1 that H+ is a program that will end suffering and increase happiness. Milne writes: “Transhumanists and other proponents of genetic manipulation represent a new attempt to reduce physical pain, to avoid existential suffering, and to impose a paradigm of happiness upon humanity.” While this sounds appealing, Milne fails to capture the moral nuance other transhumanists take toward suffering. In addition, reducing suffering and increasing the collective happiness of humanity is not the same as preserving the rights of the individual.
Ultimately, the Nietzschean vision of the new Ubermensch does not eliminate suffering itself but justifies the use of techniques that may cause suffering in the individual for the benefit of humanity. Consequently, the H+ ethic fails to provide an objective basis for preserving the life of the individual in service of the collective good.
So let’s turn back to those opening questions, “What does it mean to be human?” and “What is the future of humanity?” For H+, the definition of what it means to be human must evolve with technology. With no fixed definition of human, H+ portends the evolution of human rights so that society can “protect” the new humanity from the old human. So, does the problem of H+ mean that the use of technology to help humans is inherently evil? No. There is a valid distinction between technology used to maximize the human condition and technology used to deny the inherent beauty of our common humanity.
Eradication of suffering, biological defects, and infirmities are values that welcome the use of technological advance, but this goal cannot be achieved by sacrificing the rights of the individual person on the altar of the collective good.
1 James Maxwell Milne, “Nietzsche, Transhumanism, and the Value of Suffering,”Journal of Theta Alpha Kappa 34, no. 1 (Spr 2010): 48.
You may also wish to read: Peters, Ted. “Progress and Provolution: Will Transhumanism Leave Sin Behind?”. Chap. 5 In Transhumanism and Transcendence: Christian Hope in an Age of Technological Enhancement, edited by Ronald Cole-Turner, 63–86. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2011.
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)