Religious Transhumanism: is it scientific?
H+ 14 / 2024. Theologians Testing Transhumanism
“You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22). That’s what St. Paul says. Is there a technological shortcut to renewing the spirit of our minds?
Theologians testing transhumanism should ask whether H+ passes the scientific test. And whether H+ passes the religious test. Hybrid scientist and theologian Arvin Gouw exacts both tests.
The Transhumanist Manifesto of 2008 lifts up a jaw-dropping vision of utopia wrought by science and technology.
The transhuman is a biological-technological organism, a transformation of the human species that continues to evolve with technology. This evolution is understood within the fields of paleontology, archaeology, evolutionary biology, and anthropology. It is further studied and understood in philosophical discourse and social and cultural studies. It is made aware and realized through advances in technology that bring about human-computer interaction, wearable devices, and computerized communication infrastructures. It is evidenced in medical science and scientific breakthroughs that identify genetic mutation and target disease as well as research and development of gene therapies that aim to reverse and restore cellular damage of biological system. On an environmental level, it is experienced in spaceflight by astronauts adapting to environments beyond earth. On an interactive level, it is experienced in the personalized avatar and character usage of virtual reality, augmented reality, video games, and other artificial environments. [Natasha Vita-More]
The theologian testing transhumanism notices the following: H+ soteriology replaces God with science in order to save humanity.
Religious Transhumanism and Its Critics
Along with Arvin Gouw and Brian Patrick Green, I have greeted with enthusiasm the March 18, 2022 publication of Religious Transhumanism and Its Critics. It’s published by Roman and Littlefield/Lexington. We’ve been climbing this mountain for a half dozen years. This publication marks the final ascent.
Here in this Patheos series on public theology, we are constructing a scientifically informed vision of humanity’s future in light of God’s eschatological promises for ultimate transformation and renewal. In H+ 1, we asked whether AI could provide a shortcut to virtue or holiness? In H+ 2, we parsed the transhuman, the posthuman, and the truly human. In H+ 3, we distinguished Radical Life Extension, Cybernetic Immortality, and Resurrection of the Body. We asked Micah Redding about Evangelical Transhumanism in H+ 4; and we asked Lincoln Cannon about Mormon Transhumanism in H+ 5. This led to H+ 7, where we asked Michael LaTorra about Buddhist transhumanism, and in H+ 8 James Hughes about UU Transhumanism. Alan Weissenbacher, Managing Editor of Theology and Science, deciphered Methodist Transhumanism. Then, in H+ 12 we extended the discussion by asking co-editor Brian Patrick Green to the double mind of a Roman Catholic transhumanist. Now, we ask Arvin Gouw to assess the credibility of the science that the transhumanist movement claims to rely on. How does H+ measure up scientifically?
Meet Arvin Gouw
Arvin Gouw is a multi-faceted scientist and theologian. Arvin is currently a Research Associate at Harvard Divinity School, Fellow at Stanford University School of Medicine, Visiting Scholar at University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard’s Forsyth Institute, and Adjunct Faculty at San Francisco State University. His main interest is in the intersection between science and religion. In addition to his Ph.D. in pathology from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, he received an M.Phil. in philosophy from University of Pennsylvania, M.A. in theology from the Ecumenical Institute of Theology of St. Mary’s Seminary & University, M.A. in endocrinology and B.A. in molecular & cell biology both from UC Berkeley. Arvin manages our website, Theologians Testing Transhumanism.
An Interview with Arvin Gouw
TP. Arvin, what is TTT, or “Theologians Testing Transhumanism”?
TP. Are you a public theologian? I believe public theology is conceived in the church, honed critically in the academy, and meshed with the wider culture for the sake of the common good. Might you consider yourself a public theologian in this sense?
Can we say religious transhumanism passes the scientific smell test?
TP. Your chapter in Religious Transhumanism and Its Critics has this title, “Transhumanism: Good Science? Bad Science? Pseudo-Science?” Well, Arvin, which is it?
AG. Transhumanism can incorporate good science, bad science, and pseudoscience. The lines between these three are indeed fuzzy, and one can easily slip from one to the other. But there are general guidelines by which we can ascertain if something is good science. Good science is very specific, detailed, with clear hypotheses, data , results, and conclusions. Most of all, good science is falsifiable. The moment transhumanism stretches the findings of good science into futuristic scenarios that are untestable and unfalsifiable, then that’s no longer good science. In other words, the feasibility of the science within transhumanism becomes a key indication whether it’s pseudoscience. Bad science is simply when one misinterprets scientific findings to fit one’s own narrative, whether it’s a utopian narrative or a transhuman one.
TP. What responsibility do you assign to the public theologian and Christian ethicist as we approach the frontier of scientific and technological development?
Religious Transhumanism: Conclusions
The H+ vision of a transformed humanity is as inspiring as it is fantastic. Transhumanists operate with the best of intentions. Religious devotees are understandably attracted to this energetic and dynamic movement in our society. It is understandable that variants of religious transhumanism would arise.
Yet, the public theologian must be discerning. Some transhumanist assumptions are like flat tires that spin helplessly when trying to get unstuck from humanity in its present state. For one, the assumption that human intelligence is an information pattern analogous to that of computer software is at best naïve, at worst misleading. Second, the assumption that increased information access will miraculously leap into increased intelligence has not been empirically demonstrated. Third, the assumption that enhanced intelligence could solve all the basic problems of the human race fails to acknowledge one empirical truth, namely, human sin threatens to derail every technological advance. There is no salvation in technological progress. We are stuck in sin and, tragically, frustrated with unattainable visions of release.
Despite this spinning flat tire, it is understandable that the religious heart would beat in sync with the transhumanist mind.
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.