April 28, 2020 / Issue Volume 31, Number 1, Spring 2020 / Leading Ideas

Abandoning Earth: Personhood and the Techno-Fiction of Transhumanism

By Jens Zimmermann

Jens Zimmermann

Jens Zimmerman is the Canada Research Professor for Interpretation, Religion, and Culture at Trinity Western University and Visiting Professor for Philosophy, Literature, and Theology at Regent College, where he will join full-time faculty as J.I. Packer Chair of Theology in September 2020. In addition, he is the Project Director of Human Flourishing in a Technological World and Visiting Fellow of the British Academy at the University of Oxford. His most recent book is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christian Humanism.

An Incarnational Theology Must Shape the Stories We Tell about Our Future

One of the most important contemporary issues is our relation to technology. To be sure, technology is nothing new but has always been integral to human evolution; never before, however, has technology suffused every area of life or shaped human self-understanding to the extent it does today.

Consequently, debates about the benefits and possible drawbacks of technology currently dominate all crucial, formative arenas of human existence: work, education, healthcare, social development, and even religion. Critical voices are not lacking in these discussions but, on the whole, we increasingly place our future hopes for society in technological enhancements.

Transhumanism, in its pursuit of a humanly engineered evolution that will eventually leave the body behind by uploading our digitized brains to computing platforms, a vision that includes merging human with artificial machine intelligence, is merely the extreme edge of a techno-reasoning that increasingly forms our collective social imaginary.

How is one to assess this development? I suggest that the most effective assessment of techno-reasoning is to probe the range of its imagination. After all, how we perceive the world, others, and ourselves is principally a matter of the imagination. As the well-known Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye put it in The Educated Imagination:

we use our imagination all the time: it comes into all our conversation and practical life: it even produces dreams when we are asleep. Consequently we only have the choice between a badly trained imagination and a well trained one, whether we ever read a poem or not.[1]

Frye’s reference to poetry indicates his view that literature best exemplifies the language of the imagination, of how we perceive the world in all its semantic complexity: our use of metaphors and choice of words in everyday speech reveals the vision of society, and indeed of reality that underlies our thoughts and actions. Equally important, “the fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life, then, is to produce out of the society we have to live in, a society we want to live in.”[2] We need fiction to envision reality differently.

We often use the word fiction to refer to what is untrue or false, but the word actually means creative invention and describes our capacity for understanding and shaping reality meaningfully through narrative. Hence reimagining society differently depends in turn on the sources that train our imagination to produce narratives for our self-understanding.

What should concern us is that transhumanism’s imagination runs only along engineering and computational lines. Transhumanists like to call themselves “critical rationalists,”[3] but the fact is that this “critical” aspect is limited to a techno-reasoning that produces a narrative of techno-fiction. When we examine the current techno-reasoning of transhumanism, we will find a strongly diminished view of human identity that reduces consciousness to the activity of neuronal networks we can detach from the body and transfer to a computing platform.[4]

Transhumanism's Ignorance of Human Cognition

It is generally known that transhumanism denigrates the human body as a rather primitive biological form of existence that requires perfection through nano- and computing technologies. Ultimately, as Ray Kurzweil argued in his book How to Build a Human Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed(2012), the brain is a complex biological machine in which human ideas, feelings, and intentions are ultimately tied to neuronal functions of the brain.

Kurzweil imagines that the imminent completion of mapping this biological machine anatomically will allow us to digitize its functions and thus transpose human thinking into computational format, permitting in turn the uploading of one’s mind (of consciousness, self, or personality) to a data cloud storage. This transhumanist vision indicates a breathtaking ignorance of human cognition and its dependence on biology for a human consciousness. For one, aside from being technologically unfeasible, the computational model of the brain and its possible detachment from the body is flatly contradicted by recent neuroscience and its insistence on embodied cognition.

For example, the well-known neuroscientist Antonio-Damasio breaks with the traditional cognitivist view of “human beings as rational minds inhabiting insentient bodies.”[5]In his book The Self Comes to Mind (2010), Damasio reintroduces the body as essential for structuring the brain, albeit still based on a representational view of cognition:

Because of this curious arrangement, the representation of the world external to the body can come into the brain only via the body itself, namely via its surface. The body and the surrounding environment interact with each other, and the changes caused in the body by that interaction are mapped in the brain. It is certainly true that the mind learns of the world outside via the brain, but it is equally true that the brain can be informed only via the body.[6]

You may not consider this concession very great, but eight years later, Damasio rejects the Cartesian mind-body dualism behind traditional neuroscience, arguing that “a new, biologically integrated position is now required.”[7]

This new position leaves behind a computational model of the mind, rejecting “the dried-up mathematical description of the activity of the neurons” because it disengaged “neurons from the thermodynamics of life.”[8] New brain science acknowledges, according to Damasio, that the body as organism, for example through our nervous and immune systems, possesses a kind of perception conveyed through feelings that are registered in turn as “complex mental experiences” that help us navigate life.

Damasio concludes that “neural and non-neural structures and processes are not just contiguous [i.e. adjacent, sharing a common border] but continuous partners, interactively. They are not aloof entities, signaling each other like chips in a cell phone. In plain talk, brains and bodies are in the same mind-enabling soup.”[9] On the basis of this new insight (new to brain scientists at any rate), Damasio rejects the reductive, but sweepingly common notion in “the worlds of artificial intelligence, biology, and even neuroscience,” that “natural organisms would somehow be reducible to algorithms.”[10]

Transhumanism’s Lack of Historical Self-Reflection

Damasio’s “new insights” from neuroscience are a welcome antidote to the severely stunted imagination of the transhumanists. Even so, neuroscience in general, and transhumanism in particular, suffer from a striking lack of philosophical reflection on the historical origins of the naturalist and functionalist view of organic life that still forms the imaginative framework of cognitive science.

Natural scientists, along with all those who pursue their research into human perception in the investigative mode of the natural sciences, still have a hard time admitting that metaphysics is always at play when imagining what it means to be human. How many scientists (and indeed philosophers) are fully conscious of the historical developments that made possible a purely materialist view of reality?

The philosopher Hans Jonas offers a superb philosophical analysis of this development and its effects on the study of human nature in The Phenomenon of Life: Approaches to a Biological Philosophy (1994). He describes how the duality of mind and spirit of the ancient world was reified into a mind-body dualism by Descartes’s division of reality into the two spheres of timeless mental ideas on the one hand, and spatio-temporal mechanisms of material stuff on the other hand. Leaving the side of mental ideas to religion and philosophy, Descartes reduced nature (including animals and the human body) to an inert machine running on functional, mathematical principles, wholly explorable through quantifiable data. The legacy of Cartesian dualism was the modern conception of nature “without soul or spirit.”[11]

Encouraged by the enormous success of the scientific method, it was only a matter of time until a secularist science, eager to do away with Descartes’s God, also claimed the mental sphere for its mechanistic understanding of reality.

This mechanistic monism was further aided by Darwin’s theory of evolution. Naturalistic evolution exploded Cartesian dualism or a separate mental realm by integrating human beings into a general developmental process. Jonas argues that even though evolution raised once again the problem of how the transcendent freedom and intentionality of consciousness could arise from such a process, the functionalist bias of naturalism closed the door to any arguments that may have led out of the reductionist dead-end of materialist monism. Early evolutionary theory dogmatically adhered to a mechanistic view of causality that tried to explain organic life analogously to complex machines, declaring consciousness to be an epiphenomenon, a random side-effect of an essentially material process.

This view, argues Jonas, inverts how organic life forms, and in particular human beings, actually function. Human thought and action originate from an intentional center and exercise volitional freedom in their striving to accomplish goals. While we are certainly able to automate strategies for accomplishing goals, this ability does not warrant reducing our humanity to the workings of a complex machine.

Jonas’s work has helped inspire profound changes in evolutionary theory, including the growing conviction among evolutionary psychology that an embodied intentionality or consciousness is intrinsic to organic life itself. The phenomenon of organic life is impossible to describe, let alone understand, without recognizing that a minimal form of intentionality, individuation, and indeed freedom is evident in even the most primitive living organism’s striving to survive.

Neither transhumanism, however, nor the AI research that fuels transhumanists hopes for melding human and machine intelligence, have followed this trend of evolutionary biology. Instead, the transhumanists and AI researchers remain beholden to the basic premise of cybernetics that human life and thought boil down to mechanisms controlled by the exchange of information and are therefore amenable to transposition into algorithms so that the essence of human thought and emotion can be digitized and replicated on computational platforms.

This brief historical sketch shows us that transhumanism’s abandoning of the earth by leaving behind the body constitutes not a neutral fact based on scientific progress but is indeed a historically conditioned choice. This choice takes one particular aspect of human perception, namely our ability to abstract material from the rich flow of experience to objectify and quantify it for better understanding, and then re-imagines all of reality in these terms. This reductionist ontology ignores the organic and especially the personal aspects characteristic of human life.

Abandoning the Earth: Not a Necessity but a Historically Conditioned Choice

Without these essential dimensions, however, this choice is untrue to the reality of life itself, not least because functionalism overlooks the essential interdependence of body and mind. The basic machine analogy for the human brain and action simply has no explanatory purchase on the instinct for self-preservation that founds the varying degrees of intentionality in animals and also the human desire for meaning.

Indeed, in reducing human society to communication networks for the sole purpose of transmitting, collecting, and exchanging information, the functionalist premise discourages the very quest for meaning. As Jonas points out, “a more empty conception of human society has never been proposed. It has nothing to say about the content of information and why it should matter having it. In fact, the [cybernetic] schema has no room for even posing such a question.”[12]

It is worth reiterating that the materialist, functionalist premise of transhumanism (and much AI research) is neither empirically convincing nor in any way morally neutral. From a historical point of view, it is actually astonishing how beholden the field of techno-science still is to scientistic attitudes originating in the scientific revolution and the European Enlightenment. For example, the well-known AI researcher Marvin Minsky (d. 2016), equated belief in consciousness with the kind of religious “mumbo jumbo” science is supposed to combat.[13]

For Minsky, “there is no such thing as consciousness, there is no such thing as understanding.”[14] Those who believe in such “silly superstitions” ignorantly hold to “this religious idea that there is magic understanding: there is a magic substance that is responsible for understanding and for consciousness, and that there is a deep secret here.”[15] For Minsky, the problem of consciousness and understanding with regard to AI simply doesn’t exist because he has a thoroughly mechanical, functionalist view of the human mind. For this reason, he looks to Freud as “an important figure because he’s the first one to consider that the mind is a big complicated kludge of different types of machinery which are specialized for different functions.”[16]

While most of psychology and other sciences have moved on from Freud’s naïve mechanical view of the psyche, transhumanism and much popular opinion has not.

Why Transhumanism Matters

One cannot blame transhumanists for wanting to improve human life, but a sober, historical-philosophical analysis of transhumanism exposes it as delusive and naïve. The whole idea of engineering a post-human existence by abandoning the organic body is based on an untenable materialist metaphysics. As Hans Jonas perceptively put it, “materialistic biology (its armory recently strengthened by cybernetics) is the attempt to understand life by eliminating what actually enables this attempt in the first place: the authentic nature of consciousness and purpose.”[17]

Only because they suppress the basic structure of organic life and reduce consciousness to an epiphenomenon of materialist functions can transhumanists propose their futuristic vision. Only because they have already reduced life to a machine, however complex, can they imagine a post-humanist future of immortality through technology.

The transhumanist imagination concerning our humanity is deceived by the strange proclivity of human reason to “interpret human functions by the categories of the artifacts created to replace them, and to interpret artifacts by the categories of the human mind that created them.”[18]

Given that transhumanism is driven by this historically conditioned reductionist view of human life, I am less worried about the question whether transhumanism functions as Ersatzreligion, though the growing number of Christian transhumanists is somewhat alarming. Their belief in technology as providential means for procuring god-likeness and immortality makes one wonder about the efficacy of the incarnation.

Why did God bother to become a human being rather than a cyborg? Only an imagination already hooked on techno-fiction could suggest that the divine transformation of biological matter is inferior to, or even akin to a man-made metamorphosis through technology.

From a traditional Christian perspective at least, techno-fiction that deems the body to be optional ranks among gnostic heresies. As the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained, from an incarnational point of view, we don’t have bodies but “we are our bodies,” and are thus rooted in the earth. Abandoning the earth, he declared, therefore means also to lose touch with our fellow human beings and with God who created us as embodied souls. Bonhoeffer concluded that:

the man who would leave the earth, who would depart from the present distress, loses the power which still holds him by eternal, mysterious forces. The earth remains our mother, just as God remains our Father, and our mother will only lay in the Father’s arms him who remains true to her.[19]

However, what is of greater concern than grouping transhumanism among gnostic heresies is that the movement perpetuates the pervasive techno-reasoning in our culture by glorifying the functionalist image of human existence that continues to enthral the public social imaginary by means of social media and AI research. Transhumanism is just one example, perhaps the most glamorous one, of our current cultural delusion that the human mind, human language, and human relations boil down to functions that computers will eventually master in far better ways.

We would do well to listen to critical voices of those well familiar with the computing industry like Jaron Lanier. Lanier, credited with inventing virtual reality, exposes the false and dangerous presuppositions of techno-fictions. For example, he debunks the delusion that AI has anything to do with computers gaining intelligence, let alone sentience.

“AI,” Lanier reminds us, “is nothing but a story we tell about our code.”[20] This story, he confesses, was originally invented by tech engineers to procure funding from government agencies. AI, in short, does not exist if one implies that machines actually think or feel with even the lowest form of consciousness we know from organic life.

Lanier warns that current techno-fiction and our use of technology are deeply dehumanizing. Social media apps are designed to manipulate users into addiction to exploit their consumer habits. Moreover, the whole gamut of computing technology erodes our self-understanding of what it means to be truly human.

Lanier worries that “if you design a society to suppress belief in consciousness and experience—to reject any exceptional nature to personhood—then maybe people can become like machines.” The greatest danger, he concludes, is the loss of what sets us apart from all other entities, the loss of our personhood.

Lanier’s warning echoes the prophetic voices of other critics like the former software coder Steve Talbott, or the late philosopher Hubert Dreyfus, who also worried that instead of adapting technology to human intelligence we slowly conform human consciousness to the functional logic of machines.

These thinkers show us that one does not have to be a luddite or religious zealot to reject transhumanism or entertain a critical attitude towards the naïve embracing of current technologies. What is at stake in the discussion about technology and transhumanism is nothing less than our true humanity.

Now, it is certainly the case, in my view, that the more holistic approach to human existence offered by religions, and in particular the Christian teaching that God became a human being, provide better anthropological frameworks for approaching technology than secularist or naturalist approaches; however, the time may be ripe for all those concerned about losing our true humanity to come together in exposing the dehumanizing misconceptions put forward by transhumanists, no matter how much these are presented in the radiant, Luciferian promises of divinity. Eritis sicut dii (you shall be as gods). . . .

Looking for another robust read from a Regent theologian? Check out Ross Hastings's theological reflection on participating bodies, "Three Bodies United in One: A Holistic Theology of the Body."

[1] 134–135.

[2] 140.

[3] Max More, “The Philosophy of Transhumanism” in Transhumanist Reader (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013, 1-17), 6.

[4] Martin Rothblatt, “Mind is Deeper than Matter,” in Transhumanist Reader, (317-326).

[5] Economist John Grey’s endorsement of Damasio’s recent book The Strange Order of Things (2018).

[6] The Self Comes to Mind, 97.

[7] The Strange Order of Things, 240.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 200. Damasion recognizes that “the worlds of artificial intelligence, biology, and even neuroscience are inebriated with this notion. It is acceptable to say, without qualification, that organisms are algorithms and that bodies and brains are algorithms. This is part of an alleged singularity enabled by the fact that we can write algorithms artificially and connect them with the natural variety, and mix them, so to speak. In this telling, the singularity is not just near: it is here.” For Damasio, these common notions are “not scientifically sound” because they discount the essential role of the biological, organic substrate from which feelings arise through “the multidimensional and interactive imaging of our life operations with their chemical and visceral components” (201).

[11] Jonas, Phenomenon of Life, 140.

[12] Das Prinzip Leben, 219.

[13] “Why Freud was the First good AI Theorist” in Transhumanist Reader, 169.

[14] Ibid., 172

[15] Ibid., 170.

[16] Ibid., 169.

[17] Das Prinzip Leben, 230.

[18] Ibid., 199.

[19] Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works English, 10, 244-45.

[20] Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts right Now, 135.

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