Human Futures: Or, How Not to Be Apocalyptic

Human Futures: Or, How Not to Be Apocalyptic May 24, 2019

In Transhumanism and the Image of God, Jacob Shatzer argues that technology is forming us for a transhuman and, ultimately, posthuman future. Much like Jacques Ellul, Shatzer sees the force of technology as a demonic-like agency that overwhelms our own—“sneaking its values into us at almost every turn” (11).

In theology, there is an old error of confusing the creation with the Creator. Few theologians would disagree with claims that the creation reflects and therefore reveals something about its Creator, but many believe it is important not to reduce God to the created order. An analogous error happens, I think, when we confuse our creations with ourselves—especially our technologies.

Making makers and users of technologies to be more like them is a central concern of Re-Engineering Humanity by Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger. If we are not careful, they argue, our technological creations may make us passive, decrease our agency and sense of responsibility, increase our ignorance, and make us too much like our artifacts (cf. 29ff.). When this happens, our goals and ends are constrained by technological designs and ends.

For Frischmann and Selinger, technologies remain entirely human creations and we are wholly responsible for them—as well as our agentic responses to them. It is we who construct technologies and their eschatologies. For Shatzer, the creators behind the technologies remain hidden behind a technological teleology; our only option seems to be resistance (cf. 177).

Shatzer, like the authors of the Southern Baptist Convention’s statement on artificial intelligence, asserts a static definition or ideal of human nature that closes off discussions that transhuman and posthuman narratives seek to engage—discussions about what a human is (in terms of a given ontology) and how flexible our understanding of human nature is (in terms of more constructed ontologies). Is the notion of a human being a stable category? Is there even such a thing as human nature?

For Christian, Genesis 1-2 is a foundational text for a theological interpretation of human nature. Evolutionary biology complicates a literal reading of this text, but many theologians such as John Haught productively bring scientific and theological interpretations of human origins together. These interpretations open up not just the history of the human but also our future.

Theologically, as the first epistle of John states, “what we will be has not yet been revealed.” Biologically, natural selection is still forming us. But even more significant now is human-driven cultural selection, which has always shaped our development as a species and will continue to do so—especially through new and emerging biological and information technologies.

Cyberman Costume from Doctor Who (Museum of Pop Culture, Seattle, 2019)
Cyberman Costume from Doctor Who (Museum of Pop Culture, Seattle, 2019)

Becoming Apocalyptic

Biologically and psychologically, humans forcefully project themselves into the future. The biological imperative for survival results in an automatic form of endurance. Human cultural development, however, concerns not just a survivable future but a thriving one. Haught argues that this resulted in the emergence of anticipatory religion a few thousand years ago, which involves being shaped by faith in the future: the present is “grasped by ‘that which is to come’ … the ‘future’ that comes to meet us, takes hold of us, and makes us new” (God after Darwin, 97; cf. The New Cosmic Story, 20ff.).

From the cognitive revolution (some 50,000 years ago), through the religious revolution (within the last 5,000 years) and into our current information revolution (especially within the last 50 years), an open receptiveness to the future—often in fear, but sometimes with hope—increasingly seems to be (in)formative for us as a species. And, a little over 2,000 years ago, our eschatologies became apocalyptic.

In The Second Coming, Franco “Bifo” Berardi says the “theological concept of the apocalypse is the best metaphor to describe the world in which we are already living.” For Berardi, the turmoil of the present clears the way for the second coming of communism. Setting aside his particular political project, where Berardi sees chaos and fear (the negative side of apocalyptic thinking) one may also see the revelation of order and hope: this is the truly transformative power of the apocalyptic imagination.

Berardi, like Shatzer, fears the ascendency of artificial automation of cognition and agency. While we should be concerned about “the decomposition of the critical mind” (The Second Coming, 96) and be asking, “What kind of humans we are making?” (Transhumanism and the Image of God, 178), we should also be looking for apocalyptic insight: “the moment in which a hidden possibility comes to be revealed” (The Second Coming, 121).

We seem to be the unique species in which natural, human, and divine agency intersect. Human creation emerges out of natural creation, which opens up to divine creation and then new creation.

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  • When we consider human futures, one of the reasons that many like myself have left the church and organized religion in general, is the the growing implausibilty that human nature and ‘divine agency intersect’. I say this not to question the idea or potential for G-d, but to remind oursleves that Christology is a wholly human intellectual construct of theology. Scriptural texts may exist, religious claims exist, but what has b een frevealed when all is ‘interpretation? One cannot look at the growing number of exitential crises confronting man and the earth itself and not wonder, where is the divine wisdom and how can we know it? And when “the moment in which a hidden possibility comes to be revealed”, will that second coming be to confirm any existing tradition or to expose error and offer correction to those who can percieve the folly of mans attempt to correctly comprehend the mind of G-d. I have already opted for the latter.

  • Michael Paulus

    Many argue that religions emerged out of desires for a better world—confronting what’s wrong, seeking what’s right, and discovering that something greater than us is at work in the world and transforming it. Christology, in particular, is an interpretation of the incarnation—the life of Jesus, the Spirit of Christ and the experiences of his followers, and their texts and traditions. What is revealed, more and more through faith, is the telos that is transforming us.

  • “What is revealed, more and more through faith, is the telos that is transforming us.”
    While I too expect that process to begin ‘“the moment in which a hidden possibility comes to be revealed” to presme it has already started before it has been revealed is no more than wishful thinking. For that divine insight was the very purpose of the first Incarnation and true religion, but was lost through disobedience by both Jew and Gentile. As should be obvious from history, human nature, a prisoner to its evolutionary root, is limited in both human moral and spiritual potential to aspiration with nowhere to go. It is without telos. And when that second coming happens, humanity will have to confront itself and just how far reasoned ingorance, called theology, can take us from both G-d and His Kindgdom.

  • If we are not careful, they argue, our technological creations may make us passive, decrease our agency and sense of responsibility, increase our ignorance, and make us too much like our artifacts (cf. 29ff.).

    Surely this has largely happened already. From Christopher Lasch:

    The mobilization of consumer demand, together with the recruitment of a labor force, required a far-reaching series of cultural changes. People had to be discouraged from providing for their own wants and resocialized as consumers. Industrialism by its very nature tends to discourage home production and to make people dependent on the market, but a vast effort of reeducation, starting in the 1920s, had to be undertaken before Americans accepted consumption as a way of life. As Emma Rothschild has shown in her study of the automobile industry, Alfred Sloan’s innovations in marketing—the annual model change, constant upgrading of the product, efforts to associate it with social status, the deliberate inculcation of boundless appetite for change—constituted the necessary counterpart of Henry Ford’s innovations in production. Modern industry came to rest on the twin pillars of Fordism and Sloanism. Both tended to discourage enterprise and independent thinking and to make the individual distrust his own judgment, even in matters of taste. His own untutored preferences, it appeared, might lag behind current fashion; they too needed to be periodically upgraded. (The Minimal Self, 29)

    Jacques Ellul:

        This autonomy [of politics] has yet another source. Let us recall the state’s claim that it solves all problems and the concomitant, inveterate belief on the part of most citizens that it is indeed the state’s function to solve all problems. This attitude of man toward the state is even more apparent if one considers that man’s intentions and desires have changed.[3] He is much less sensitive and receptive to the many problems (over which he could try to exercise some influence); rather he demands the total and complete guarantee of his private existence. He demands assured income and assured consumption. He insists on an existence of complete security, refusing to take any responsibility for himself. But all this, as he well knows, can be assured only by the state organization. As a result, whatever a citizen’s “political” opinion may be, his appeals to the state spring from sources much more profound than ideology; they spring from his very participation and place in society. It is no longer true that the better part of all questions facing a society is not political. And even if a question is in no way political it becomes political and looks to the state for an answer. It is wrong to say that politics is everything, but it is a fact that in our society everything has become political, and that the decision, for example, to plant one crop intend of another has become a political matter (see Nikita Khrushchev’s speech of December 23, 1961). (The Political Illusion, 78)

    Charles Taylor:

        The worry has been repeatedly expressed that the individual lost something important along with the larger social and cosmic horizons of action. Some have written of this as the loss of a heroic dimension to life. People no longer have a sense of a higher purpose, of something worth dying for. Alexis de Tocqueville sometimes talked like this in the last century, referring to the “petits et vulgaires plaisirs” that people tend to seek in the democratic age.[1] In another articulation, we suffer from a lack of passion. Kierkegaard saw “the present age” in these terms. And Nietzsche’s “last men” are at the final nadir of this decline; they have no aspiration left in life but to a “pitiable comfort.”[2]    This loss of purpose was linked to a narrowing. People lost the broader vision because they focussed on their individual lives. Democratic equality, says Tocqueville, draws the individual towards himself, “et menace de la renfermer enfin tout entier dans la solitude de son propre coeur.”[3] In other words, the dark side of individualism is a centring on the self, which both flattens and narrows our lives, makes them poorer in meaning, and less concerned with others or society. (The Malaise of Modernity, 3–4)

  • When we consider human futures, one of the reasons that many like myself have left the church and organized religion in general, is the the growing implausibilty that human nature and ‘divine agency intersect’.

    What is it you were looking for, that you did not find? I’m guessing that you had some idea of what it’d look like for divine agency to show up; I’d be interested in knowing about that—however rough it is.

    One cannot look at the growing number of exitential crises confronting man and the earth itself and not wonder, where is the divine wisdom and how can we know it?

    But in the OT, humans repeatedly told YHWH to go take a hike. Either the OT is unrealistic, or humans really do that thing. Looking at the ridiculousness of so many humans today, I’m heavily inclined to believe the latter—over against many Pollyannish views of human nature. Now this leads to the question of why God doesn’t seem to be doing the James 1:5–8 thing—answering requests for wisdom. One option, of course, is that God doesn’t exist. Is that the most likely option?

    One possibility is that we humans—especially those in the West—believe a pile of falsehoods which are massively more deluding than what “religion” does to people, when one weights by influence. Robin Fox talks of how research and granting bias us toward pretty views of human nature (see what scientists and intellectuals were saying in the decades leading up to 1914), and uses H.G. Wells as an indicator:

         1901 The First Men in the Moon
         1913 The World Set Free
         1945 Mind at the End of Its Tether

    Fox quotes from the last: “Homo sapiens, as he has been pleased to call himself, is in his present form played out.” (The Search for Society, 3) However, we are now far enough from WWII that we seem to be reinvigorated for another push, with Steven Pinker being one of the standards-bearers with Enlightenment Now. That seems to me like believing that Elon Musk will solve a single social problem. Maybe we have a lot of unlearning to do before we’re ready for God to say anything more than what is available in the Bible and from humans before and since?

    P.S. Any reason you went with klatu instead of klaatu?