Some of the world’s predominant religions, such as Christianity and Islam, suggest ways to live forever. In Christian theology, Christ resurrects from the dead in an imperishable body, promising his disciples eternal life. Within such a religious framework, the material world fails to “save” us. We need a transcendent Other who can enter our situation and offer immortality as a gift.
But what about people who reject the transcendent and hold to a fundamentally materialist concept of the universe? Is their religious impulse to seek immortality squelched? Not surprisingly, the opposite appears to be true. The transhumanist movement seeks immortality unbound from religious concepts — if we “merge with machines,” we can upload our consciousness and outlast death. We become the authors of our own transcendence.
Joe Allen, who writes often on transhumanism, seeks to warn the ordinary reader of its coming onslaught. While it may sound crazy to many of us, a growing number of people really do want humanity to throw off its mortality and live forever via artificial intelligence. He writes in a recent Substack article,
Many of our credulous elites, from Wall Street to the World Economic Forum, have been ensnared by a techno-religion. Its unfrocked priests are the scientists and futurists who push radical gene therapies, brain-computer interfaces, and various life-logging gadgets. As the actual technology becomes more and more sophisticated, you can be sure every atheist and his lapsed uncle will fall prey to this cosmic scam. And for those who can’t afford it? Well, you know, there’s only so much room on the lifeboat.Joe Allen, “Synthetic Salvation — On Genomics, Mind Uploads, and the Quest for Immortality” at Singularity Weekly (September 23, 2022)
With wry insight and dark humor, Allen discusses three ways the transhumanists plan to elongate human life: bio longevity, bionic continuity, and digital immortality. Preserving the physical body through gene-editing is a central way futurist scientists and geneticists believe humanity can stick around beyond the 120-year mark. Of course, we’ve already witnessed some of the horrors of gene selection. Iceland claimed that it had eradicated Down syndrome. In fact, they simply detected the babies with Down syndrome in embryo and aborted them all. It’s worth asking who would qualify for genetic modification, and if only a portion of the world’s population could even afford it.
Second, “bionic continuity” entails replacing human organs with mechanical parts. This is the point when the transhumanists start sounding a lot like the writers of a dystopian cyborg novel — but they aren’t kidding. Allen writes,
As we hurtle toward this nightmare in the 21st century, futurists claim it’ll soon be possible to model the entire human brain — down to the last electrochemical thought pattern — using artificial intelligence. The transhumanist guru Ray Kurweil predicts this will be accomplished by 2029. (It’s unclear if that will be early in the year, or just in time for Christmas.)
Following an AI-created digital template, doctors will replace our dying neurons with artificial neurons. Bit by bit, our meat brains will be transformed into a latticework of lightning fast transistors. It’s an upgraded mind-brain that could last forever — so be sure to get a warranty.
Finally, “digital immortality” promises eternal life through union with the Almighty Computer. Transhumanists pine for the day when we will be able to merge consciousness with the online database, and note that we already somewhat do so through the Internet. The average American seems more or less tethered to the iPhone, and it often feels like our online “selves” are more important and real than our embodied ones. Allen puts the issue in religious terms, joking, “Having been baptized in electromagnetic waves, you will become your digital ghost, floating forever among the AI angels.”
I can’t prophesy how the transhumanist movement will unfold, but the impulse to escape mortality is perennial, and isn’t going away any time soon. Some prominent materialists want transhumanism to supplant our religious concepts of immortality, and they appear to be gaining significant traction. The problem is that it won’t work. We long for transcendence because we were born for it, and no amount of genetic or digital intervention can replicate human personhood. We are not mere bodies — we are “embodied souls,” or as philosopher Roger Scruton (1944–2020) was fond of saying, “incarnations.” Allen insightfully remarks,
As the materialist worldview erodes our spiritual consciousness, we’re left with nothing but mortal bodies. When God is dead, technology is exalted as the highest power, holding out the promise of free WiFi and synthetic salvation.
Transhumanism can never truly save us because its proponents don’t understand what being human means. They believe our longings for immortality can be satisfied by merging with the machine, but don’t realize that doing so would compromise our souls, thereby stealing what makes us human.
You may also wish to read: Human exceptionalism is a central theme for novelist Dean Koontz. Bestselling author Dean Koontz talks fiction, human exceptionalism, and transhumanism with Wesley J. Smith in new podcast episode. Koontz talks about human exceptionalism, the problem with animal rights, transhumanism, and why he loves dogs. (Peter Biles)