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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