Religious Transhumanism 11: What about the body?

Religious Transhumanism 11: What about the body? May 28, 2022

What about the body? Let’s ask a Lutheran about Cybernetic Immortality & Disembodied Intelligence

Of the many promises to enhance human existence through technology made by our transhumanist friends, one stands out as particularly fantastic and thought provoking. That is cybernetic immortality. Cybernetic immortality prolongs human intelligence in a disembodied or post-biological form. After the body is discarded, our mental processes will continue in the computer cloud. So goes the H+ promise.

Cybernetic immortality looks a lot like the immortal soul of Cartesian or premodern religious belief. Is this what attracts the religious transhumanist? Can we achieve through technology what religion promised but failed to deliver? Might Christians find in transhumanism a shortcut to immortality and salvation?

Not on your life! At least according to Lutheran theologian Jamie Fowler. Jamie believes that God became incarnate in Jesus Christ. To become incarnate means to enter the flesh. What has been redeemed by God is the human person in the flesh, in the body. God promises a resurrection of the body, not an escape from the body either as an immortal soul or as a postbiological intelligence. We compared and contrasted “Radical Life Extension, Cybernetic Immortality, or Resurrection of the Body” in a previous Patheos post. In this post, we take up resurrection of the body with more detail.

Jamie Fowler with family at an Oakland As’ baseball game.

If we ask Jamie Fowler…and we will interview Jamie below…whether she plans to become a religious transhumanist, we can predict her answer. No way!

Our transhumanist friends tantalize our imaginations with visions of human transformation. “These processes require critical thinking and visionary accounts to assess how technology is altering human nature and what it means to be human in an uncertain world”   (Vita-More, 2019, p. 49). Here in Patheos we will take the advice of Natasha Vita-More and engage in “critical thinking”. We will ask Jamie Fowler to help us think about the human body in God’s gracious plan of redemption and resurrection.

This post is one in a series on religious transhumanism and its critics. We’ve interviewed Micha Redding on evangelical Christian transhumanism, Lincoln Cannon on Mormon transhumanism, Michael LaTorra on Buddhist transhumanism, and James Hughes on UU transhumanism. We’ve also interviewed Hava Tirosch-Samuelson who vehemently repudiated H+ based on Jewish theology. In this series of Patheos entries I would like to explore theological reasons for embracing or jettisoning the H+ vision of a transformed humanity. Here we pit against each other cybernetic immortality and resurrection of the body.

What is postbiological intelligence? What is Cybernetic immortality? What  is Whole Brain Emulation?

Transhumanists believe in transforming humanity through technological enhancement. Here is Ray Kurzweil.

“My views are certainly consistent with the Trans-humanist movement. My only hesitation is that I don’t like the term Transhumanism because it implies that we will transcend our humanity. The way I articulate this is that we will remain human but transcend our biological limitations. To transcend limitations is precisely what being human is all about.”

One form of transcending our biological limits is shooting for postbiological existence, called either cybernetic immortality or whole brain emulation (WBE).

We start by postulating that our present mind is a pattern. Allegedly, our mind is an information pattern attached to a biological substrate. Once we have captured the pattern, we can remove the mind from our brain and upload the it onto a silicon substrate. Then, perhaps even into the cloud. Once in the cloud, no longer will the vicissitudes of the body drag the mind toward discomfort, pain, suffering, or death.

Cybernetic immortality is achieved through whole brain emulation. “The basic idea is to take a particular brain, scan its structure in detail, and construct a software model of it that is so faithful to the original that, when run on appropriate hardware, it will behave in essentially the same way as the original brain.” The once biological brain becomes substrate independent. In short, a disembodied mind.

“Uploading a human brain means scanning all of its salient details and then reinstantiating those details into a suitably powerful computational substrate,” Ray Kurzweil tells us. “This process would capture a person’s entire personality, memory, skills, and history” (Kurzweil, 2005, pp. 198-199). Postbiological intelligence will live on in disembodied form.  At least as long as no one pulls the plug on our lap top. Nothing short of disembodied cybernetic immortality will have been achieved.

What great news! Cybernetic immortality, brags Donald Braxton, “will be able to continue a non-biological life in a virtual reality for as long as the simulation can run. Thus, the transmigration of the soul will no longer be a matter of faith, but a scientific fact” (Braxton, 2021, p. 8).

Theologians puzzle and ponder whole brain emulation. What are its implications? “Modern transhumanism is a statement of disappointment. Transhumanists regard or bodies as sadly inadequate, limited by our physiognomy, which restricts our brain power, our strength and, worst of all, or life span. Transcendence will not be found in the murky afterlife of the usual religions, but in technological and biological improvement” (Alexander, 2003, p. 51). Would Brian Alexander prefer to keep his body replete with restrictions on his brain power and life span? Why not trade this dying bag of bones for the ecstasy of thinking in disembodied form among the stars?

Meet Jamie Fowler

Jamie Fowler is a systematic theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is currently pursuing a doctorate at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. As a laboratory genetics researchers, she gives special attention to Theology and Science.

Jamie Fowler

An Interview with Jamie Fowler

TP. Jamie, in your research for your doctoral dissertation, you are investigating the work of divine grace in, with, and under what is physical. What do you believe to be the decisive theological point here?

JF. I believe the decisive theological point that unites divine grace and our physical existence is the Incarnation! In the incarnation, Christian faith claims the presence of God’s Word in our world. God’s Word is particularly located in this universe, on this planet, in Israel. God’s Word lives in history as the human person Jesus of Nazareth. Because Jesus is fully God and fully human, from a biological perspective, the Incarnation instates the physical existence of God’s Word as a living organism. But wait, there’s more: through Jesus God connects all the dimensions of our existence – the physical, the social, the spiritual dimensions and so on – into the very life of God. In his death and resurrection Jesus retains his multidimensional linkage to us.

This multidimensional linkage is the pathway by which grace travels to those who have faith in the salvific power of Christ’s death and resurrection. Because Christ was a physical being, he transmits his grace to us through a multitude of interconnected dimensions. Consequently, we receive grace multidimensionally. Take the Eucharist, for example. When we eat the Eucharist, we utilize our physical and biological dimensions. We take grace which is really present When we believe in Christ’s presence in the Eucharist as we eat, we open our spiritual dimension. For the Christian, and more specifically the Lutheran, this pathway of grace is not possible without the physical connection between God and creation. Thus, the Incarnation is the decisive theological point from which divine grace works in, with, and under our physical existence.

TP. When it comes to embodiment, why would transhumanism pose a problem for a Lutheran? 

JF. Hopefully my answer above illustrates the fact that, for a Lutheran, physical existence, or embodiment, is paramount to faith and salvation.

Yet, physical existence does not play a central role in Transhumanist philosophy. In fact, for transhumanists our physical existence, characterized by aging and eventually death, is a problem to be overcome. Transhumanists envisage a day when postbiological human beings will be free from all corporeal restraints.

For example, Ray Kurzweil, futurist, inventor, and transhumanist, anticipates that, around the year 2030, biotechnology will enable a union between humans and genuinely intelligent computers and/or AI systems. The resulting human mind/computer would be free to roam a universe of its own making, uploading itself at will on to any “suitably powerful computational substrate.”

Thus, when it comes to embodiment, the problem transhumanism poses for a Lutheran is the former’s radical rejection of the human body. For a Lutheran, discarding bodily existence is nothing short of a rejection of God as both Creator and Redeemer.

TP. If a Lutheran must choose between (1) Radical Life Extension, (2) cybernetic immortality, or (3) resurrection of the body, which will it be? Which do you believe to be most authentically Christian?

JF. Both Radical Life Extension and Cybernetic Immortality are Transhumanist ideals that grapple with “the problem of aging/death.” Radical Life Extension (RLE) intends to overcome aging – and death to some extent – by genetically altering the human body. Cybernetic Immortality (CI) aims to shed the human body by transferring one’s self-consciousness from that individual’s biological body to a suitable, intelligent substrate. Even though RLE and CI have different methods, they both, albeit to different degrees, reject the natural human body.

Icon of the Easter Jesus drawing Adam and Eve out of their tombs. Rumanian Orthodox Church, Chambessy, Switzerland.

A Lutheran would not choose either of these options in the face of aging and death. Instead, the Lutheran hopes for eternal relationship with the Creator, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit in addition to the entire body of Christ in God’s Kingdom. The Lutheran yearns to be resurrected at the appointed hour. In the resurrection, God fulfills and perfects human beings with new, immortal bodies that are blessedly free from the threats of aging and death. Thereby, Lutherans like Roman Catholics wait in faith for their resurrected bodies. Such bodies cannot be manufactured. Resurrection is the work of God alone.

Furthermore, the Resurrection of the body is the only authentic Christian choice when compared to RLE and CI. The New Testament of the Bible, the central Christian text, tells of Jesus Christ’s death and Resurrection and then the resurrection of the dead.

“So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” (1 Corr 15: 42-44 NIV)

As we can see, Christian salvation is marked by the resurrection of the body. When God assumed a natural body, God gathered our physical bodies, our entire existence, in all dimensions into God’s life. Without the Incarnation, the general resurrection of natural bodies to spiritual bodies is not possible.

TP. Any final words?

JF. As I have observed above, Transhumanist philosophy and technology holds the human mind in the highest esteem. Yet, Transhumanism regards the body as merely a husk in which individual subjectivity resides. This perspective is Cartesian and dualistic because it clearly relegates mind and matter into two, separate existential realities.

However, according to the biologists and neuroscientists, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, authors of the Santiago Theory of Cognition. The Santiago Theory claims that living systems are by definition cognitive systems. Living is itself a process of cognition. And this applies to all organisms, with or without nervous systems. In short, body and mind are inseparable.

“Jesus” by Guido Reni, 1636.

To put it another way, the structure (matter) and organization (mind) of any organisms are two aspects of a single self-making process. In other words, mind and matter are two sides of the same coin. And that coin is Life. According to this theory, the mind cannot be extracted from the physical body. The human mind does not exist apart from the biological body.

Thus, uploading our minds onto a suitable AI substrate as Kurzweil would have us do, is simply not possible. We might successfully transfer a shadowy imprint of our thoughts, emotions, memories, habits, and behaviors onto the substrate. However, this Transhumanist eschatological hope will never be achieved because the human mind cannot be extracted from the human body.

In conclusion, let us acknowledge and celebrate — especially in this highly technological age — that we ARE our bodies! Our individual bodies contribute to our individual identities. As a Lutheran, I believe that all bodies matter. When God assumed existence in Jesus, God did not fail to assume a body! To that end, Christ was resurrected to new life with God, a new Life that still included a BODY.

Post-Interview Comments

TP. Lutherans are not alone among Christians in looking forward to what St. Paul promised in 1 Corinthians 15:42-44. In the eschatological resurrection, Paul anticipates a spiritualized body, a soma pneumaticon. This vision of the resurrected body looks nothing like the disembodied cybernetic mind in the transhumanist vision. Here is Carmen Laberge of Reconnect Radio. “The body is part of God’s good creation, described as the temple of the Holy Spirit for those who are redeemed, and Jesus’ bodily incarnation, resurrection and ascension demonstrate the value God places on the physical human body. So then, should we. And yet, it is not the body that is to be worshipped nor is this flesh-suit eternal” (LaBerge, 2019, p. 774). Yet, it is the bodily creation that God redeems in the Easter resurrection of Jesus and your and my promised resurrection into the eternal kingdom of God.

In sum, there is no consonance between the transhumanist vision of cybernetic immortality and the Christian vision of an eschatological resurrection of the dead.

Ted Peters directs traffic at the intersection of science, religion, and ethics. Peters is an emeritus professor at the Graduate Theological Union, where he co-edits the journal, Theology and Science, on behalf of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, in Berkeley, California, USA. He authored Playing God? Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom? (Routledge, 2nd ed., 2002) as well as Science, Theology, and Ethics (Ashgate 2003). He is editor of AI and IA: Utopia or Extinction? (ATF 2019). Along with Arvin Gouw and Brian Patrick Green, he co-edited the new book, Religious Transhumanism and Its Critics hot off the press (Roman and Littlefield/Lexington, 2022). Soon he will publish The Voice of Christian Public Theology (ATF 2022). See his website: TedsTimelyTake.com.

 

This fictional spy thriller, Cyrus Twelve, follows the twists and turns of a transhumanist plot.

 

References

Alexander, B. (2003). Rapture: How Biotech Became the New Religion. New York: Basic Books.

Braxton, D. (2021). Religion Promises but Science Delivers. The Fourth R: Westar Institute 34:3, 3-9.

Kurzweil, R. (2005). The Singularity if Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. New York: Penguin.

LaBerge, C. F. (2019). Christian? Transhumanist? A Christian Primer for Engaging Transhumanism. In e. Newton Lee, The Transhumanism Handbook (pp. 771-776). Switzerland: Springer.

Marturana, Humberto R., and Francisco J. Valero, 1980. Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. Dordrecht: Reidel.

Peters, T. (2019). Artificial Intelligence, Transhumanism, and Rival Salvations. Covalence, https://luthscitech.org/artificial-intelligence-transhumanism-and-rival-salvations/.

Peters, T. (2019). Boarding the Transhumanist Train: How Far Should the Christian Ride? In e. Newton Lee, The Transhumanist Handbook (pp. 795-804). Switzerland: Springer.

Peters, T. (2019). The Ebullient Transhumanist and the Sober Theologian. Sciencia et Fides 7:2, 97-117.

Vita-More, N. (2019). History of Transhumanism. In N. Lee, The Transhumanism Handbook (pp. 49-62). Switzerland: Springer.

World Transhumanist Association. (2015). Transhumanist Declaration. http://humanityplus.org/philosophy/transhumanist-declaration/.

 

 

 

About Ted Peters
Ted Peters directs traffic at the intersection of science, religion, and ethics. Peters is an emeritus professor at the Graduate Theological Union, where he co-edits the journal, Theology and Science, on behalf of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, in Berkeley, California, USA. He authored Playing God? Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom? (Routledge, 2nd ed., 2002) as well as Science, Theology, and Ethics (Ashgate 2003). He is editor of AI and IA: Utopia or Extinction? (ATF 2019). Along with Arvin Gouw and Brian Patrick Green, he co-edited the new book, Religious Transhumanism and Its Critics hot off the press (Roman and Littlefield/Lexington, 2022). Soon he will publish The Voice of Christian Public Theology (ATF 2022). See his website: TedsTimelyTake.com. You can read more about the author here.

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