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Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, detail, 1507

The Immortality Machine

Transhumanism and the race to beat death

Michael Plato

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  • Matthew Earl

    I definitely think that Christians must forsake anti-aging and immortality technologies and virtual-reality technologies. I do not delight in the thought of anyone’s death, nor do I wish an early death for anyone. But in Genesis 6:3 I believe that God was placing a restriction he desired for us to have for our lifespan. Science will push past this limit on longevity, and they will eventually achieve immortality. As a pro-life nonviolent Christian, I desire the death of no one… but I do not see how transhumanism and biological immortality can be compatible with a literal interpretation of the following statements of Jesus: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:25). “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). William Hurlbut, MD, a member of the now defunct President's Council on Bioethics, once said: “What if life's meaning really does relate to working out your salvation with fear and trembling as it says in the Bible? What if it does relate to something beyond physical existence? And many many people who have lived very rich physical lives are joyful at the face of their death because they feel like those lives were about something even more full and rich. What if it does? What if the very nature of life is such that an infinite number of recreational trips, an infinite number of books, an infinite number of this or that does not lead to any richer happiness? But that in fact being part of a drama of frailty and finitude where we actually give to one another of our very substance and sometimes even die doing it - What if that's what it's about? I mean, to me the scenario that is painted by infinite immortality of the physical type at least in the mode that I know the world doesn’t have nearly the crispness of drama and the power of significance that the story of those who've sacrificed themselves for others does have." I do not think it is possible to follow Jesus literally and at the same time desire physical immortality. Jesus wants us to be like the altruistic firefighters who rushed into the twin towers on 9/11, not the narcissistic man who uses cryonics to freeze his body or nanorobotics to stop aging. I do think that someday the tranhumanists will achieve everything they are dreaming of, and Christianity will be considered a myth by the majority because science will have solved the problems of aging and death... but that is precisely when I think Jesus will come back, and surprise us all.

  • Lincoln Cannon

    There are, in this article, many mischaracterizations of the relation between Christianity and Transhumanism. And there are also some conveniently narrow interpretations of Christianity that are assumed. Dear reader, please do yourself a favor and read, directly, the writings of Christian Transhumanists. If you do that with an open mind and charitable heart, you will find that we are quite Christian, whether or not you agree with us.

Of the many ideologies and isms to emerge in recent years, transhumanism, which promotes striving for immortality through technology, has to be one of the quirkiest. But its advocates are dead serious. Silicon Valley tech magnates Peter Thiel, Larry Ellison, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Bill Maris have already poured hundreds of millions of dollars into research dedicated to slowing or even stopping the aging process. And the Trans­humanist Party’s presidential candidate, Zoltan Istvan, who recently crisscrossed the nation in a coffin-shaped RV called the Immortality Bus, claims that death itself can be eradicated in “eight to twelve years, with enough funding.”

Beyond Silicon Valley, transhumanism is extending its reach into intellectual and spiritual realms. Though still largely rejected by the mainstream academy, transhumanism has found support in surprising places, for example at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute. Transhumanism’s movers and shakers, made up predominantly of tech entrepreneurs and independent “visionaries,” have held conferences, published widely, and funded research, much of it via a think tank called Humanity Plus.

The transhumanist movement seeks to improve human intelligence, physical strength, and the five senses by technological means. Transhumanists are often also interested in the idea of “technological singularity,” a hypothesized moment in the development of computing power when a true artificial intelligence emerges. This would, its adherents believe, spark an explosion of technological growth, leading to unimaginable, but positive, changes in human society. In certain versions of this scenario, humans and computers would merge, and humanity as a whole would be brought to a new stage of development that would transcend biology.

Above all, transhumanists seek to extend life, even to the point of eliminating death altogether. This latter possibility has led to the emergence of one of transhumanism’s strangest fads: cryopreservation facilities. These businesses will, for a price, freeze the bodies (or heads) of those who believe that technological resurrection will be possible someday, that a cure for a fatal disease will be discovered, or that it will be possible to upload one’s mind into a computer, or even into a new body. It is this aspect of transhumanism that most closely links it to religious faith.

Is transhumanism fundamentally incompatible with Christian faith? Already there are “Christian Transhumanists,” who have their own association, complete with website and conferences. The term, they note, has roots in Christian thought: it originates with Dante and appears in the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. According to the Christian Transhumanist Association, “the intentional use of technology, coupled with following Christ, will empower us to become more human.” But what if the goal is now clearly to become more than human? As such, transhumanism has had a particularly strong appeal to Mormons. The Mormon Transhumanist Association, while not officially endorsed by the LDS Church, meets regularly in Salt Lake City, and seeks to link aspects of Mormon theology, such as the doctrine that states that humans will evolve into gods, to transhumanist goals, particularly self-attained immortality.

Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, detail, 1507

Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, detail, 1507 Image from WikiArt (public domain)

Transhumanism has not been without its articulate detractors. Rosi Braidotti, a prominent leftist European philosopher, dismisses transhumanism as having “contempt for the flesh” and being a “fantasy of escape from the finite materiality of the enfleshed self.” Neoconservative political scientist Francis Fukuyama calls transhumanism “the most dangerous idea in the world.” In his book Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, he argues that all the technological means of self-advancement proposed by transhumanism would “come at a frightful moral cost” and lead to a nightmarish dystopian future.

To believe that some of the proposed technologies are even possible takes no small leap of faith. As journalist Anna Wiener recently noted in the New Republic, transhumanism may be based more on wishful thinking than realistic expectations of technological development. She notes, regarding cryonic freezing, that “to date, science has not suggested that reanimation will ever be possible.” The dream of uploading one’s mind to a computer, or to a new body, she writes, “remains just that: a dream.” Mark O’Connell, in To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death, argues that while transhumanists have begun to pop up around the world, the idea is still very much a child of California culture, linked as it is to that state’s history of self-improvement fads and crazes rather than to substantial scientific developments.

Over the last few years a number of science fiction films have explored transhumanist ideas and expectations. Johnny Depp appeared in Transcendence (2014) as a scientist whose mind is uploaded into a computer system, while Ghost in the Shell (2017), starring Scarlett Johansson, imagined a world where human brains could be transferred to superior robot bodies. The Justin Timberlake vehicle In Time (2011) forecast a future in which technology allows people to remain young and beautiful for decades or even centuries. In Time points out another aspect of this transhumanist dream often missing from the narrative of its real-world advocates: namely, that if such technology becomes possible, it would likely be available only to the superrich. It’s a point that Christine Emba raised in a 2016 piece for the Washington Post: the benefits of trans­humanism will, she warns, “accrue only to the upper classes,” and “inequality will be entrenched in ways deeper than just wealth, fundamentally challenging our egalitarian ideals.”

Yet advocates insist that the technologies of transhumanism, whatever they may be, would merely be extensions of assistive technologies we already have. After all, what are eyeglasses, pacemakers, organ transplants, and artificial limbs? These technologies enhance and even extend life. And while the rich may have first dibs, as these technologies develop they become accessible to the middle and lower classes, as has been the case with other technological developments.

Despite its flavor of billionaire self-empower­­ment, New Age enthusiasm, and science fiction fantasy, transhumanism nevertheless addresses a fundamental hope that Christians can affirm: death is an enemy that must someday be defeated and ultimately transcended. The apostle Paul writes, “[Christ] must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:25–26). That so many atheist transhumanists look at death with hosti­lity and hunger for immortality should be, at a very basic level, encouraging for Christians.

After all, Christians believe death has already been defeated in the death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because of what God has done in Christ, Christians are never without hope of their own future resurrection. For many transhumanists, this business of awaiting future glory may seem pallid, but by comparison, how much more feeble is it to await a desperately hoped-for awakening from cryo-freeze?

“By trying to be like God, we reject our dependence on God as our creator, choosing instead to try to live as though we are our own creators.”

That Christians place their ultimate hope in Christ’s final victory over death does not mean they can’t fight against things that threaten life and happiness here and now. They ought to welcome technologies that result in improved human wellness – those eyeglasses, pace­makers, artificial limbs, and organ transplants – as long as these technologies are restorative. Even if these technologies happen to enhance our natural abilities (for example, people with artificial legs are winning races), such technologies are still in accord with our human nature; they do not seek to transform us into something else entirely.

Transhumanism sharply diverges from Christianity in its rejection of the idea that our human bodies are good as is because they are created by a good God. That Christ himself has a human body and possesses a human nature affirms the goodness and completeness of the human. In this, transhumanism is more akin to the Gnosticism of centuries past, which treated the body as malleable or even outright repugnant and disposable. Transhumanism is likewise connected with other movements of our time, such as transgenderism, which rejects the idea that gender is given by God and not ours to choose.

Christians believe that humanity was created in the image of God. That image, while not understood physically, is not autonomous and self-determined but is utterly dependent upon the God whom it reflects. This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer means when he distinguishes between seeking to live as an image of God on the one hand, and giving in to the serpent’s temptation to seek “to be like God” on the other. By trying “to be like God,” we reject our dependence on God as our creator, choosing instead to try to live as though we are our own creators.

For the transhumanist, overcoming humanity’s limitations is fundamentally grounded in the values of individual freedom and choice. Death is just another unacceptable limitation on human freedom. Theologian Brent Waters puts it bluntly when he states that, for the transhumanist, “it is only when mortality has been vanquished that we can be truly free.” In its self-centered search for infinite autonomy and freedom, transhumanism promises an immortality that is a grotesque mimicry of God-given immortality. It hijacks the Christian promise of life everlasting. Immortality becomes a commodity, one that each person seeks for himself. A vision of this godless immortality and its banality and emptiness can be found in Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “The Immortal”:

There is nothing very remarkable about being immortal; with the exception of mankind, all creatures are immortal, for they know nothing of death. What is divine, terrible, and incomprehensible is to know oneself immortal.

It is indeed a horrific prospect to be left trapped in our own unredeemed selves for eternity. There is a word, after all, for such an eternity: we call it hell. Merely extending our lives is not the kind of immortality we are yearning for. The Christians’ hope, instead, is in eternal life as a result of entrance into the kingdom of God. Yes, we expect a real, physical resurrection, but it is a resurrection that comes as an undeserved gift of a loving God. That is a promise that no technology could even pretend to try to keep.

woodcut of snake with an apple on his head

Image from iStock/ xochicalco

Contributed By Michael Plato Michael Plato

Michael Plato is assistant professor of intellectual history and Christian thought at Colorado Christian University.

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