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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Transhumanist theology

Lutheran theologian Ted Peters is the author of the sixth and last of the generally hostile articles on transhumanism in the June 2008 issue of The Global Spiral . Despite my own rather anti-religious bias, I actually consider this the best of the six articles. Peters bases many of his claims on theological concepts, but similar claims could have been based on purely secular considerations. He does, however, fall into the usual trap of conflating the transhumanist movement with certain specific ideas that are controversial within the movement, such as proposals for personality uploading and a particular view of inevitable evolutionary and technological progress.

Peters helpfully spells out his general position in a way that is refreshingly clear after the almost-impenetrable style of Jean-Pierre Dupuy's article in the same issue. Here is Peters:

My thesis is this: transhumanist assumptions regarding progress are naive, because they fail to operate with an anthropology that is realistic regarding the human proclivity to turn good into evil. It is my own view that researchers in the relevant fields of genetics and nanotechnology should proceed toward developing new and enhancing technologies, to be sure; but they should maintain constant watchfulness for ways in which these technologies can become perverted and bent toward destructive purposes.

The two long (but, as I said, clear) sentences here merit consideration. The first may well be true of some transhumanists (though, as usual in these articles, it would be helpful if Peters had put it that way rather than in a way that slanders an entire cultural movement). You don't need to think in terms of theological notions of evil and sin to realise that new technologies can be used in dangerous and even malevolent ways, as well as in beneficial one. Most transhumanists are painfully aware of this, but perhaps some do have an overly optimistic view of technology that stands diametrically to opposed to that of contemporary Luddites; i.e. the former are blind to the evils of technology while the latter are blind to the good. While Peters could have been more careful and conciliatory in his wording, the note of caution in this sentence is not itself unwelcome.

What about the second sentence? Peters says: It is my own view that researchers in the relevant fields of genetics and nanotechnology should proceed toward developing new and enhancing technologies, to be sure; but they should maintain constant watchfulness for ways in which these technologies can become perverted and bent toward destructive purposes. It appears to me that this is a perfectly sensible view. It is, indeed, my own view, and I'm sure that most sophisticated transhumanists share it. As I've said so often, with apologies to William Gibson, the street finds its own uses for things. We can't be sure in advance what uses new technologies will put to, and we mustn't proceed on the insouciant assumption that we do know. Pragmatically speaking - not as some kind of law of nature - we are likely to be surprised at how any particular technology ends up being used (of course, doomsayers about new technologies should also keep this in mind before they run off trying to prohibit this and that because it just might be used in such and such a nasty way).

In a sense, that's all that needs saying: the general position advanced by Peters is one that could be advanced within the transhumanist movement, so it can't be a critique of the transhumanist movement.

But there's a little bit more that's worth adding. I can't refrain from commenting on Peters' account of the relationship between transhumanism and theology. He takes transhumanists to task for assuming "that religion will attempt to place roadblocks in their way on the grounds that the religious mind is old fashioned, out of date, Luddite, and dedicated to resisting change." He insists that Christian and "even" Jewish theology are dedicated to the new. "If a theologian would become critical of a transhumanist, it would not be in defense of what has been. Rather, it would be because of a naiveté in thinking that we could accomplish with technology a transformation that can be achieved only by the eschatological act of a gracious and loving God."

With all respect to Peters, with whom I'm in agreement about much, this seems rather disingenuous. It doubtless conveys his own theogical position accurately, and I'm prepared to accept for the sake of the argument that it's even the "correct" position. Obviously, theology is itself a complex discipline within which many views are advanced and contested. However, it's also true that there has been an enormous amount of theologically-based resistance to emerging technologies and their applications, and even the supposedly secular arguments that are so often run (e.g. those of Michael Sandel with his talk about life as a gift) actually make little sense outside of a framework of theological assumptions. To concede, as I do, that some theological positions are compatible with an embrace of emerging technologies does not entail a denial that much of the actual, real-world opposition has been theologically motivated, often motivated by lurking ideas of the sanctity or inviolability of life, the world, or the human genome as "given" to us.

Like Kathryn Hayles, Peters should embrace transhumanism and declare himself an ally rather than an opponent. His actual political position on enhancement technologies is one that a sophisticated and realistic transhumanist could share. He needn't self-identify as a transhumanist, if the t-word word carries too much baggage for him - if it has too many connotations of specific ideas that he really does oppose. But he could certainly adopt a stance in relation to the transhumanist movement as a whole of being a friend - and a friendly critic where he feels he must criticise particular people or ideas.

4 comments:

stuart peace said...

It's a shame that the word transhumanism carries so much baggage. I think the movement needs people like Peters to identify himself as a transhumanist, yet still make vocal criticisms of some aspects. (I'm not saying Peters himself, but if we have vocal critics perhaps we can shed the negativity surrounding the term, and get down to meaningful debate.)

That being said I say we modify everything and let the street do what it will. ;-)

Lincoln Cannon said...

Although some religious persons reject Transhumanism, some also count themselves among Transhumanists, as exemplified by the Mormon Transhumanist Association.

Damien Broderick said...

This has been an admirable, clear, calm, reasoned set of readings, Russell, and I appreciated reading them. It is difficult to respond to most of them with a straight face. Take this citation:

"If a theologian would become critical of a transhumanist... it would be because of a naiveté in thinking that we could accomplish with technology a transformation that can be achieved only by the eschatological act of a gracious and loving God."

Truly, when people accuse me of naiveté and then wave their invisible bogey at me as evidence of where I've gone wrong in my analysis of the world, I just feel an overwhelming urge to reply, "Look, grow up. Get over it. You might as well be telling me about the naiveté of failing to see that a desirable transformation can be achieved only by the eschatological act of a rapacious and edentulous Tooth Fairy." Transhumanism deserves serious critique, as you note, not more mouthing of Stone Age delusions, even if they do have the support of frozen errors embedded as biases in a genome best adapted to the Stone Age.

Damien Broderick said...

Oops. I rather confusingly wrote, above:

This has been an admirable, clear, calm, reasoned set of readings, Russell, and I appreciated reading them. It is difficult to respond to most of them with a straight face.

This could be read as if I'm attacking Russell's commentaries rather than praising them.

Of course, I meant "It is difficult to respond with a straight face to most of the essays you discussed."