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John Lennox: Transhumanism Versus Traditional Humans

In the second part of his bonus feature for Science Uprising, Oxford mathematician Lennox compares transhumanism with traditional claims to transcend humanity

In the second part of Oxford mathematician John Lennox’s bonus interview for the Science Uprising series, “John Lennox on the Transhumanist Claim AI Will Turn Humans into Gods” (October 17, 2022), Lennox talks about claims that we will merge with computers (artificial intelligence) to achieve immortality. How plausible is that? Lennox is the author of 2084:: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity (2020).

A partial transcript and notes for the second half follow (the first half is here):

The AI concept of transhumanism? (13:45)

John Lennox: The origin of the word “transhumanism,” interestingly enough, is not secular at all. It wasn’t first used by a scientist but it was used in a translation of one of the books of Dante, his Paradiso. It occurs in a passage where Dante is trying to imagine the resurrection of his own body and he says, I quote, “Words may not tell of that trans-human change.” (14:20)

Dante and Beatrice talking with great intellectual figures in Paradise/Public Domain

Note: Dante Aleghieri (1265–1321) was one of the greatest thinkers of the medieval era. He was a poet as well as a moral and political philosopher. His best-known work, the Divine Comedy, offers a vision of hell, purgatory, and heaven that illustrates his point of view and has provided inspiration to many.

John Lennox: And the political scientist and author of The End of History, Francis Fukuyama, regards transhumanism as the world’s most dangerous idea because it runs the risk of infringing human rights now. (14:39)

Note: Political theorist Fukuyama explains, “Underlying this idea of the equality of rights is the belief that we all possess a human essence that dwarfs manifest differences in skin color, beauty, and even intelligence. This essence, and the view that individuals therefore have inherent value, is at the heart of political liberalism. But modifying that essence is the core of the transhumanist project. If we start transforming ourselves into something superior, what rights will these enhanced creatures claim, and what rights will they possess when compared to those left behind? If some move ahead, can anyone afford not to follow? These questions are troubling enough within rich, developed societies. Add in the implications for citizens of the world’s poorest countries — for whom biotechnology’s marvels likely will be out of reach — and the threat to the idea of equality becomes even more menacing.” – Foreign Policy (October 23, 2009)

John Lennox: I would go further than that. I would say this is where the great danger of AGI and its transhumanist agenda resides. We’re almost in the first generation that is capable, not only of implanting chips in human brains and so on, but actually of altering the fundamental specification of human beings by reconfiguring their germline and therefore determining the kind of beings that will exist in the future. Now, one of the reasons I wrote my book, 2084 was precisely this: That AGI, whose agenda is largely driven by atheists so far as I can see, is raising perhaps the deepest question of all that we face today: What is a human being? What dignity, what value, what rights does a human being have? (15:40)

Many years ago, C.S. Lewis wrote two books that I think are seminal for understanding this: The first one is called The Abolition of Man and the second is a science fiction novel called That Hideous Strength. He talked about the danger of a group of scientists being able one day to alter the very specification of human beings and he points out that what they will make are not human beings but artifacts made under their specification. So he says, their final triumph will be the abolition of man. That is what concerns me because the law of unintended consequences is likely to have huge effects. (16:30)

And there is danger in this world that rogue scientists will start taking human embryos or human beings who exist and experimenting on them and producing a race of freaks that is irreversible. So all of that tells me that we need to think very seriously about human nature and that’s where my Christianity comes in.

I want to bring in the Biblical worldview where we find that humans model Mark 1:1. Humans, like we are, are given an infinite dignity and value because we’re made in the image of God and I believe we need to bring that insight to the table and bring, I think, a bit of reflection on the Biblical worldview into the situation. (17:25)

Are there things humans can do that AI will never be capable of? (17:39)

John Lennox: But I do think that [Roger] Penrose has got an argument that artificial intelligence, by definition, will not be able to do all the things that conscious intelligence can do because — in the way — stands the problem of consciousness. Until somebody tells me what consciousness is, I will remain a very deep skeptic about these possibilities. (18:03)

Now, that is not to say that AI will not solve a lot of problems. It is already. Even narrow AI [is] solving a lot of problems But speculation about the advent of a superintelligence is a different matter. Except for one thing now:

The interesting thing is that physicists like Max Tegmark of Princeton … has set up a whole set of scenarios of what happens if we create a superintelligence. (18:41)

Is that going to be the last invention of humanity because the superintelligence will simply take over. Will it be benevolent or will it keep human beings — a few of them — as pets. Or will it simply regard them as a nuisance and destroy the lot. And there’s a whole range of speculation of what happens when man is turned into a god like that now. (19:09)

I find that interesting. Why? Because the idea of human beings becoming gods is extremely ancient and deeply rooted in almost every culture in the world. It begins on the opening pages of the Bible, where the fundamental attack on humanity comes from the suggestion that if the humans will only disobey God and eat the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil… Please note, not the Tree of Knowledge. God is not against knowledge. But if they eat that forbidden fruit they shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. (19:49)

They did eat it. And they discovered that knowing good and evil is an awful thing to know that infected the whole world. And it misrepresents God so that many people today think that God is their enemy … and that he’s trying to suppress them and not trying to rise to their full potential. (20:20)

Now the interesting thing is this — the transhumanists think that we’re going to use AI and other technologies to raise humanity to the full potential of being gods. We’re going to solve the problem of human death in the sense that, although humans can die, they won’t have to die, of course. That’s going to be only for the very wealthy. But we leave that aside at the moment. And then the hope that we’ll upload our brains and live forever. But these are utterly fascinating things. (20:53)

Now they’re not going to solve the problem of human death by technology. I’ll tell you why. Because no technology — and it’s been tried before — the Soviets tried to create a New Man, and they tried to make utopia. And other utopias have been attempted. They’ve all failed. Why? Because they bypassed the problem of sin and evil that’s endemic to humanity. (21:19)

Note: The New Soviet Man was a concept in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: “The builder of communism was expected to be educated, hard working, collectivistic, patriotic, and unfailingly loyal to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. During the transition to a fully communist society, as predicted by Khrushchev, such vestiges of past culture as religion, corruption, and drunkenness would be eradicated. The thinking associated with the Party Program of 1961 represented the last burst of revolutionary optimism in the Soviet Union. Over time, it became increasingly difficult to ascribe “deviations from socialist morality” to the influence of pre-1917 or pre-1936 social structures. Indeed, testimony from a variety of sources suggested that reliance on connections, exchanges of favors, and bribery (which had by no means disappeared in the Stalin years) were steadily growing in importance during the post-Stalin decades.” – Encyclopedia.com

John Lennox: And here’s the irony of the whole thing: I read Harari and his books, selling millions. He says we’re going to solve the technological problem of death. And I say, you’re too late. The problem of death has already been solved 20 centuries ago.

Jesus Christ rose from the dead. And, not only that, he promises that, if we face the endemic problem of human evil and sin and repent of the mess we’ve made of our lives and the lives of others, then he will give us new life that will transform transcend death. It’ll even transcend Covid-19. So the solution to death is already there for the believer in Christ. And then, when it comes to the uploading — and here it’s very ironical that they’re hoping that by technology we’re going to upload brains onto silicon… Well you don’t need to do that because Christ promised those that trust him that he will return for them and upload them into heaven. (22:27)

Now when I compare the two kinds of uploading, the transhumanist one and the Biblical one, I will choose the Biblical one because there’s far more evidence for its truth now. That’s a subject, of course, for another time. But the point is that this whole program is a parody of what the Bible teaches. And that’s why it’s very interesting that the Biblical worldview contains the fact that, all through history, human beings will make the attempt to build their way to heaven. (23:05)

The Tower of Babel/Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1563, Public Domain

The Tower of Babel was a famous example. Many of the ancient emperors claimed divine honors. The Caesars claimed divine honors and even in recent times … the Soviets tried to build a new man. Who knows what we’re going to try to do? And perhaps the chilling thing is, the Bible indicates that, in the future, there will be a man who will claim to be God and will do all kinds of apparently supernatural things to get the whole world into his power. Economically now, that sounds exactly like one of Tegmark’s scenarios. (23:53)

And my plea is very simple: If people today are going to take Tegmark’s scenarios and the scenarios of other people, 1984 and so on, seriously, then I would just invite them to have a look at the Biblical scenario. Compare it with the others and see how much sense it makes. Because I think it makes tremendous sense. And because of that, there has been enormous interest in the book that I’ve written, which risks going into these areas of Christianity that aren’t often talked about in the public domain. (24:32)

Here’s Part One: Oxford’s John Lennox busts the “computer takeover” myth. AI is here to stay, he says, but in addition to doing a great deal of good, it raises vast problems we must address. Addressing questions like transhumanism and conscious AI, Lennox reminds us of the sort of limitations posed by, for example, Gödel’s Theorem.

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John Lennox: Transhumanism Versus Traditional Humans