Toward a Transhumanist Theology
Transhumanism lends itself to being understood as irreligious, both in terms of its negative attitude toward supernaturalism and its positive attitude toward the value and independence of human action. Current transhumanists are, by and large, atheists, materialists, naturalists, somewhat scientistic, and they see little value in specifically religious beliefs, which they tend to view as obsolete, or even dangerous, holdovers from a pre-scientific culture. Even while holding these attitudes, however, transhumanists nonetheless pursue ends that have typically been associated with religion—including enlightenment, immortality, bliss, transcendence, disembodiment, and perfection. Though they pursue these ends through technology, the parallels to religious aims are clearly visible.1
It is not surprising then that many religious believers tend to see a disturbing mixture of religious ideals and irreligious conviction in transhumanism. The movement can be seen as metaphysically irreligious—allied with materialism, atheism, and naturalism. It can also be seen as morally irreligious; the goal of the movement often seems to be the magnification of human power, motivated by pride, arrogance, and a desire for control over nature and ourselves. With its aims of transcendence and immortality, transhumanism does not seem just another form of secular humanism. It preaches the virtue of the ends of religion but focuses on human ingenuity and technology as the means toward those ends. This makes transhumanism an odd mixture in the eyes of religious believers—a chimera of irreligion, false religion, and quasi-religion.
However, I want to argue that it is possible to look at transhumanism as a truly religious endeavor. I am not using the term “religious” here in an abstract way that refers merely to any motivating sense of ultimate commitment, a passionate adherence to a cultural movement, the belief in some general organizing principle of life, a spiritual reverence for being, or the possession of any deeply-held globally orienting worldview. I am using the term in a simpler, more popular, and more traditional sense of believing in the superhuman agency of a God and desiring to connect with and conform to that God. However, the kind of God that I am thinking of will differ in significant and even audacious ways from the object of traditional and popular devotion.
My argument has three parts: First, I want to make a rough distinction among differing approaches within transhumanism that will help clarify the way in which the movement can be seen as pursuing more grandiose religious goals. Second, I want to draw on some specific religious thinkers and their views to connect transhumanism with existing theological movements and thought. Third, I want to examine a concept of God that is foreshadowed in these movements but that transhumanism and a general expansive understanding of the power of technology can claim as their own.
Low Transhumanism and High Transhumanism
It is useful to make a rough distinction between what I call Low Transhumanism and High Transhumanism to bring into relief a certain type of religious impulse present in transhumanism. Both of these versions (and this is certainly not a sharp and discrete distinction) may be thought of as sharing certain goals with religion, but they differ with regard to how much they focus on the “trans” part of “transhumanism”—the element of transcendence. Both versions of the movement are motivated by the belief that human beings are currently trapped in a specific and largely undesirable situation from which they need to be freed, and thus, in a general sense, they both have a soteriology—a doctrine of the need for salvation. The human condition for both Low and High is that humans suffer and are limited. The suffering part is a common element of religious belief; humans experience pain, anxiety, dissatisfaction, and disconnection. The limitation element, however, is somewhat less common; humans desire knowledge and experience that their given biological natures (morphological and cognitive) prevent them from achieving. Salvation from the human condition comes in the form of escaping our biological limitations, but since being human is so strongly connected with our specific species and individual biologies, salvation will require transforming or even abandoning those limitations to such an extent that we move past the category of the human.
The difference between low and high transhumanism comes not so much in the situation from which we want to be saved, but in the necessarily human ideals of what counts as the saved condition. Transhumanism is a human ideology, invented and believed in by humans, so transhumanist ideals are necessarily human ones after all. Those human ideals differ to the extent that they variously imagine transcending the human condition.
Low transhumanism focuses on pursuing changes to human biology that immediately address the dismay we feel in ordinary life—in the place of death, immortality, in the place of sickness, invulnerability, in the place of weakness, strength, in the place of pain, pleasure, in the place of shame, pride, etc. But the changes here tend to be viewed not so much as transcending the human body entirely but rather in magnifying and fortifying the human body. Images of cyborgs, superheroes, and supervillains crop up here—demigods with shiny, hard, invulnerable bodies full of strength and confidence that possess the ability to resist any danger and impose their will on the world. This ideal is easily viewed, however, as relatively unimaginative, striving for ordinary and unsophisticated goals of power, dominance, and security. In this sense, low transhumanism is at best shallowly religious, merely taking human anxieties about mundane experience and salving them with dreams of superhuman abilities (though certainly some religions do little more than this). In fact, one might think of this goal not as true transhumanism at all (since there is very little “trans” here), but merely superhumanism—much like anthropomorphic polytheism.
High transhumanism, on the other hand—though it also focuses on changing human biology, and certainly requires that death, sickness, weakness, and pain be eliminated—takes a more expansive and high-minded approach. While power and security is necessary for escaping the human condition, these are not goals in themselves but are tools to pursue the ends of knowledge, joy, enlightenment, contentment, and even moral perfection. Though less clear than the goals of low transhumanism, it is largely the indistinct character of high transhumanism’s goals that make it “high.” It is at the limit of current human cognitive capability to know what enlightenment and moral perfection might be. It is the exploration, journey, and illumination of these goals that high transhumanists seek. As such, high transhumanism is more imaginative, speculative, and perfectionist.
Working with this distinction, we can interpret transhumanism through a religious framework. Low and high transhumanism both seek salvation from the human condition. Low involves pursuing a transformation that could easily be understood as a limited kind of apotheosis—becoming a kind of god. The kind of god it pursues, however, is the kind we might associate with an anthropomorphic Greek pantheon—superhuman bodies but recognizably human emotions and goals. High also pursues transformation, but a transformation aimed at a more abstract moral perfection and experiential enlightenment (for the individual and all sentients) and, concomitantly, a kind of material perfection of the world itself.
Feuerbach, Whitehead, and Teilhard de Chardin: Towards a Theology of Transhumanism
Given this distinction, and focusing on the lofty goals of transcendence in high transhumanism, goals with complex religious parallels, is there a way to stake out a genuine theology for (high) transhumanism? A theology that begins with naturalistic commitments but captures the essence of these abstract goals in literal theological terms? As a starting point for answering this question, I have found it useful to work with concepts crafted by Feuerbach, Whitehead, and Teilhard. de Chardin.
Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872)
It is particularly rich to begin with Feuerbach since he is an atheist. Of course, he is not an uncomplicated atheist. He claimed that the only true atheist was one who maintained that even the divine predicates, such as love, wisdom, and justice do not exist. 2 But he did claim that God, as a supernatural person, was an illusion. As such, he is precisely the kind of atheist who is friendly to high transhumanism. Feuerbach, after all, does not say that God is nothing, that God is simply primitive superstition, or that God is a random meme. He says that God is the projection of human ideals. While he is critical of the effects of believing in a God given that humans often empty themselves out in a kind of paroxysm of self-denigration in the face of the God idea, he recognizes that the qualities attributed to God are in fact the limitless and highest ideals of human moral and psychological character. In describing the kinds of qualities that humans ascribe to God, he writes:
“You believe in love as a divine attribute because you yourself love; you believe that God is a wise, benevolent being, because you know nothing better in yourself than benevolence and wisdom…”3
But, in describing the reason why humans believe in a God in the first place and why they project very specific kinds of characteristics onto that God, Feuerbach writes:
“The yearning of man after something above himself is nothing else than the longing after the perfect type of his nature, the yearning to be free from himself, that is from the limits and defects of his individuality.” 4
Is this longing not similar to the transhumanist longing to be free of the limits of the human body? For Feuerbach, this longing is dealt with by projecting the ideals of limitlessness and perfection onto a being external to ourselves. And although many religious people hope that this external perfect being will protect them and eventually grant them a share of its immortality and wisdom, the being is always an Other (although an Other that is merely the projection of humanity’s own idealized self). For transhumanists, this same longing is also a motivating conceptual force, though instead of projecting their hopes of limitlessness and perfection onto a supernatural being, they project these hopes onto a future self modified by technology. The idealized self that becomes the divine Other in Feuerbach can become the actual new self for transhumanists. Feuerbach himself was aware that science and technology were in some ways motivated by the same longing for escaping human limitations as religion but did not think that they would be capable of achieving much. He writes:
“…culture and civilization always come short of the wishes of religion, for it cannot destroy those limits of man which have their foundation in his Nature. Thus culture succeeds for instance in improving the science of prolonging life… but it never attains to immortality. This as a boundless wish which cannot be realized is left to religion.” 5
For transhumanists though, this boundless wish can be realized and does not have to be left to religion. Their idealized freedom from human limitations can manifest in material form, not just in psychological projection. Thus transhumanists can move toward a literal realization of the Feuerbachian God.
So then, what we can take from Feuerbach for positioning transhumanism and theology is that God is not a silly, childish superstition but is a high expression of human moral and physical ideals instead, motivating in its psychology and noble in its content. While God does not exist for Feuerbach and many transhumanists, God does not have to be derided but can instead be a motivating ideal—and, as we shall see, an ideal that is less fantastic and unrealizable than Feuerbach surmised.
Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947)
For the next stage of thinking about transhumanism and theology, I draw from Alfred North Whitehead. For Whitehead, and various versions of process theology influenced by his work, the universe is an ongoing process of creation that can move toward completion or perfection. Part of that movement includes participation by the sentient beings who inhabit the universe, beings who are both created (in part) and are creators, who make choices that can contribute to the undetermined, developing actualization of possibility. Although there are different ways to understand process theology, and differences among both Whitehead scholars and later process theologians, part of what is consistent with the naturalism and materialism of at least the initial transhumanist movement is that for Whitehead, God only exists in the initial stages of the universe as a primordial urge, lure, or perhaps even basic phenomenon of complex development. God is not conscious, not a person, not a supernatural entity. There is another side to God, however: the consequent God whose content and shape develops as the universe develops, based on eventual decisions made by thinking beings. The consequent God is therefore developmental rather than eternal. Concerning the consequent God, there is some issue as to whether an actual divine consciousness arises.6
For my purposes, however, it is less important conceptually whether the God that urges the universe on in a particular way is a conscious person than it is that God is not eternal, not unchanging, not some fixed entity or lower level ground of existence. In process thought, God is partly the result of the universe, the result of choices that are made, actions that are taken, and values that are pursued. This idea can be an important one for high transhumanism, because it frees the old idea of God from its problematic associations with an existing eternal person cogitating an eternal fixed design. Difficult to believe in, always demanding a theodicy, and always subject to the god of the gaps problem, this sort of God rings hollow with a movement that sees more explanatory power in the existence of random events, natural selection, and the choices of evolved sentient beings than in the mysterious and cryptic machinations of a perfect being (that for some paradoxical reason still needs to create and act). It is precisely the lack of classical perfection and eternality in the process god that is applicable to high transhumanist goals. Thinking of God as a being that is in part a result of the universe rather than the unchanging cause of the universe means that God can serve as a motivating goal, not just in the psychological sense of our wanting to approach a moral ideal, but in the more literal sense of being a final product of our choices, values, and actions. That God can be a conscious being (though at a evel of complexity that makes our current understanding of consciousness primitive) that both acts as a final product of ideal universal development and, as it develops a push and persuasion toward that final end. As the final end, God is the perfection and preservation of all that is good, what Whitehead calls “the apotheosis of the world.” 7
High transhumanism, given as it is to the technological and social modification of the world aiming to move toward higher and more complex forms of experience and consciousness, may be seen as part of a process by which the perfection of the world may be accomplished…and in an even more radical sense, it may be a way in which God is the result of that process rather than its instigator. The end of the developed and consequent (in some sense “emergent” god) is the realized perfection of transhumanist values—knowledge, morality, nobility, contentment—maximized and made everlasting.
So then, what we can take from Whitehead for positioning transhumanism and theology is that God does not have to be seen as a preexistent or eternal perfection that we must struggle to understand or serve, but rather a being that develops and grows alongside us, a being whose actualization our actions and technologies can participate in, a being that is the culmination and the preservation of the world.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955)
The final thinker I find useful for framing a transhumanist theology is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Though certainly in some ways sympathetic to and consistent with process thinking, Teilhard offers a way of looking at the theogenic process which more directly and less abstractly involves the kinds of technological activities which attract transhumanists.
For Teilhard, the universe has a built-in, progressive force that automatically drives toward greater complexity, connection, and development of consciousness. Evolution and its mechanisms, he thinks, are all geared toward an “ascent toward consciousness,”8 and, as expected with such a resolutely progressivist thinker, evolution “should culminate forwards in some sort of supreme consciousness.” 9 In a process called noogenesis, or the continued creation of a greater thinking portion of the universe, we eventually reach the “Omega Point” in which all consciousness adds itself together to become Hyper-Personal consciousness. 10
While numerous elements of Teilhard’s approach could relate to transhumanist theology (and numerous unlikely parts, too, given his commitment to certain Christian doctrines), what is most relevant here is that Teilhard claims more explicitly than Whitehead that some of the noogenic choices humans make leading toward the Omega Point are technological. Whitehead and some process thinkers place a sense of importance on particular ecological states and development, so that everything, not just sentient and sapient being is valued. However, consciousness is most important for Teilhard–experience, contemplation, thinking, communication, self-reflection. For him, it is important that we not think of the human contribution to the development of final consciousness as limited to some sort of ecology. Instead, the evolutionary development of sentient and sapient beings who modify the world is crucial in moving toward the Omega Point. For example, Teilhard writes concerning the development of the Omega Point:
…in all probability, between our modern earth and the ultimate earth, there stretches an immense period, characterized not by a slowing-down but a speeding up and by the definitive florescence of the forces of evolution along the line of the human shoot. Assuming success… under what form and along what lines can we imagine progress developing during this period? In the first place, in a collective and spiritual form. We have noticed that, since man’s advent, there has been a certain slowing down of the passive and somatic transformations of the organism in favour of the conscious and active metamorphoses of the individual absorbed in society: We find the artificial carrying on the work of the natural… 11
Teilhard seems to suggest that, once consciousness has arrived in a free and acting form in the evolutionary development of the world, the typical elements of natural selection become far reduced in their effective power. From then on, artificial selection becomes more powerful and effective. The artificiality of the development of future consciousness is precisely the proper and ironically “natural” means by which Omega is approached. Teilhard goes on to say that we do not appreciate right now what science means to us. We tend to think of it as a new means of providing the same old things, whereas in reality, science is a fundamental activity for humans – the result of our natural creative energy liberated by mechanization.12 He says that, when humanity realizes that our first function is to penetrate and control the energies around us, we will know no upper limit to our desire and power for invention. 13 More specifically, he says that we have let our species develop at random for too long, and we have given too little thought to how we should replace the “crude” forces of natural selection with a noble form of eugenics—a science that is “indispensable.” In general then, Teilhard has an attitude about the valuation of the givenness of the world that is very amenable to transhumanist thought. He writes:
It would be more convenient, and we would incline to think it safe, to leave the contours of that great body made of all our bodies to take shape on their own, influenced only by the automatic play of individual urges and whims. ‘Better not interfere with the forces of the world!’ Once more we are up against the mirage of instinct, the so-called infallibility of nature. But is it not precisely the world itself which, culminating in thought, expects us to think out again the instinctive impulses of nature so as to perfect them? 14
The technological modification of the world and ourselves. The conviction that nature is not infallible as it is but can be greatly improved. The taking of responsibility for literally, directly, expansively, making the world a better place. That is remarkable. For although Teilhard thinks that there is a progressivism to the world that will inevitably lead to Omega Point—a collection of all consciousnesses into Hyper-Personal consciousness—he does not think that we are passive responders in this development. Our desire and drive and ability to modify nature to pursue perfection is one of the important ingredients in the ultimate noogenesis.
So then, what we can take from Teilhard for our positioning of transhumanism and religion is that we can be part of the creation of the ultimate consciousness through technology and design, and although he thinks of this as noogenesis given his other religious commitments, we can also think of it as a kind of theogenesis. We can move toward the creation of God.
A transhumanist theology is possible. And, by this term, I do not simply mean a given theological tradition that dwells on some transhumanist thought, nor a psychological version of religion that ascribes the essence of religion to an ultimate concern or attitude toward self and universe. I mean something that is both more radical—more indigenous to transhumanism itself, and something more traditional—something that ascribes the essence of religion to a relationship with a superhuman consciousness.
The radical part of this transhumanist theology is the idea that, through more and more extensive technological manipulation of ourselves and the world, we can eventually create a being, or perhaps even something that merits terminology less limiting than “being,” that is expansive enough, grand enough, good enough, and permanent enough to be considered God. Not an idol, not a giant machine before which we bow down, but something genuinely divine, though without the unnecessary supernatural trappings of much traditional religion. Following Feuerbach, this final end can be ideally powerful, noble, good, and permanent. Following Whitehead, this final end can be the consequent process of a growing, choosing, changing universe—maximally omniscient, maximally omnipotent, maximally loving. Following Teilhard, this final end can be the ultimate coalescence and amplification of all the bits of consciousness that have come into existence—the Self that is composed of and yet is greater than any of our selves.
The traditional part of that transhumanist theology is the idea that the God that is created, or manifested, or emerges is not abstract or metaphorical or some sort of nonconscious principle. It is a conscious person. A person who desires to save and redeem the universe, to eliminate evil, to preserve individual consciousnesses, and to make goodness and joy a permanent state. Greater by far than anything we can currently understand given our biological limitations but nonetheless a thinking being of the type that is characterized by traditional monotheisms.
Though just beginning to be explored, there are places where this sort of transhumanist spin on theology has appeared. For instance, in Ray Kurzweil’s book, The Singularity Is Near, he argues that intelligence and complexity have naturally increased throughout the history of the universe and will continue to do so until humans become smart enough to merge themselves with technology, after which there will be a continuous and exponential expansion of intelligence until intelligence itself begins to saturate matter and energy, providing an optimal level of computati—the ultimate destiny of the singularity and the universe. This ultimate destiny culminates in a universe that essentially wakes up. He writes:
Evolution moves toward greater complexity, greater elegance, greater knowledge, greater intelligence, greater beauty, greater creativity, and greater levels of subtle attributes such as love. In every monotheistic tradition God is likewise described as all of these qualities, only without any limitation: infinite [in all these respects]. Of course, even the accelerating growth of evolution never achieves an infinite level, but as it explodes exponentially it certainly moves rapidly in that direction. So evolution moves inexorably toward this conception of God, although never quite reaching this ideal…The universe is not conscious—yet. But it will be.15
The parallels to Feuerbach, Whitehead, and Teilhard are fairly obvious here. But by making these parallels, I do not mean to imply that a potential transhumanist theology has to simply be some amalgam of these thinkers, nor that Kurzweil’s brief comments on God are particularly guiding. Such a theology, if there is such a thing, will have its own insights and commitments and dangers.
For example, unlike Feuerbach, transhumanist theology may argue that humanity is not necessarily psychologically inhibited by the projection of our best selves into a God ideal, but we can be motivated by it to greater and greater accomplishment. Unlike Whitehead, transhumanist theology does not need to think that all being is somehow good and that all being must be preserved. It takes the stance that much of what has occurred in nature is horrible and should be excised or redacted—more a view of a future where the lion will lie down with the lamb than one in which the specific actualization of the lion will be preserved. Perhaps this will provide the most successful theodicy that has ever been conceived; after all, evil exists in the universe because at first there was no God, but as God develops, evil can be eliminated. Unlike Teilhard (and Kurzweil too), a transhumanist does not have to believe in a progressivist view of evolution (a temptation in interpreting evolution that has been around since Darwin but is more romantic than scientifically validated). Instead a transhumanist can think that the Singularity, or Omega Point, will be the contingent production of our choices here rather than building infallibly into the nature of reality.
Whatever its specific development, I only want to argue the opening point here that a transhumanist theology is possible, it is not wildly novel but has been foreshadowed in theological thinkers before, and it can be consistent with a completely naturalistic and initially atheistic view of the world. How fascinating, how disturbing, and how motivating! A religious view of the world that begins with the claim that there is no God and yet is driven by the hope that there can be—really, literally, can be. As odd and unsettling to some as this might be, it too has been foreshadowed by Feuerbach, who once wrote: “Thus do things change. What yesterday was still religion is no longer such today; and what today is atheism, tomorrow will be religion.”16
2 Feuerbach, Ludwig. The Essence of Christianity. Amherst, NY: Prometheus books, (1841) 1989, p. 21.
3 Ibid, p. 18.
4 Ibid, p. 281.
5 Feuerbach, Ludwig. The Essence of Religion. Amherst, NY: Prometheus books, (1851) 2004, p. 36.
6 Expositors John Cobb and David Griffin say of process theology that: “If the word ‘God’ is tightly bound to any particular mode of devotion or view of reality then…it will become clear that God does not exist. But this is not a damaging point if ‘God’ is understood more open-endedly…” Cobb, J. B and Griffin, D. R.. Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition. Philadelphia PA: The Westminster Press, 1976, p. 42.
7 Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. New York: Free Press, (1929) 1978, p. 348.
8 De Chardin, Teilhard. The Phenomenon of Man. New York: Harper and Row, 1959, p. 258.
9 Ibid, 258.
9 Ibid, 258.
10 Ibid, 260.
11 Ibid, 277.
12 Ibid, 279.
13 Ibid, 280.
14 Ibid, 283.
15 Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity is Near. New York: Viking, 2005, p. 389-390.
16 Feuerbach, Ludwig. The Essence of Christianity. Amherst, NY: Prometheus books, (1841) 1989, p. 32.