Saint Paul highlights in his Letter to the Romans one of the universal truths of the human condition when he says, “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do” (7:19). This inability to do what we know is right leads by fits and starts to abuse, deception, murder, wars, famine and every other misery that weighs down humanity. For those of us who face this situation honestly, it is painfully clear that there is something in the very core of our being that is in need of redemption. We are in need of radical transformation.
This recognition of our human limitations goes beyond the spiritual, a reality of which our slowly atrophying bodies serve to remind us. For Christians, the hope of overcoming these limitations, both spiritual and physical, rests in Christ, who will one day “transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Phil 3:21). Until then, we soldier on in hope for as St. Paul states, “While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh . . . we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life” (2 Cor 5:4).
This Christian typology of a fleeting and frail earthly body that will be transformed into a new glory has a striking parallel in the modern transhumanism movement. Like St. Paul, transhumanists are acutely aware of the limitations of our “dying bodies,” but like the Russian Cosmists of the nineteenth century they offer a radically different solution to the problem. The transhumanists argue that technological fixes will transform our bodies into something new and glorious, entities that are no longer susceptible to decay, death, or suffering. The transhumanists envision that we ourselves can produce that glorified body, a new body that can swallow up the one we currently inhabit. That, at least, is the promise.
While transhumanists and Christians start from the same premise, they propose radically different trajectories and therefore arrive at diametrically opposed endpoints. In the Christian case, there is a recognition of our limitations, limitations we cannot overcome on our own. Rather, we must rely on Christ to do the heavy lifting. He and he alone is the means by which we traverse the gulf from death into glory, a glory that, through his life and Resurrection, is of Christ’s making. In the transhumanist case, it is up to us to do the work ourselves. We and we alone must transform humanity into something of our own choosing. In the words of transhumanist Mark O’Connell, author of To Be a Machine, transhumanists wish to remake “ourselves, finally, in the image of our own higher ideals.”
But what exactly are these higher ideals? Is one of them physical beauty? Is one of them possession of a scholarly intellect? Is one of them athletic prowess? While such questions inevitably arise when the topic of transhumanism is broached, the fundamental goal of the transhumanist project transcends such questions. Increasing a person’s intellectual or athletic prowess would not fundamentally transform the person into something beyond human, which is the ultimate goal of the transhumanist project. The enhancements to one’s intellect or athleticism would merely make one a more intellectually or athletically adept human.
Pursuing the transhumanist project does not simply mean grappling with the ethics and morality of genetic or neural enhancement. It goes deeper than that as the project involves something more radical, altering humanity into something fundamentally different. As such, addressing transhumanism requires a clear understanding of what makes us human, in order to identify what, if anything, can come next.
While there are many approaches one can take in addressing the question of what man is, there is something simple yet enduring in the “definition,” often attributed to Aristotle but hard to explicitly find in his texts, that man is a rational animal. The rational part captures the unique mental life of man, his conceptual thought and language, while the animal portion captures his mortality and earthly ecology. As animals, we are embedded within myriad complex ecological relationships. From the bacteria that colonize our gut to the plants that oxygenate our air, we are deeply embedded within and dependent upon the natural world. Our mortality is an inherent part of this and it is related to our utter dependence on the physical world for survival, a world which, along with everything in it—humans included, is subject to death and decay.
The transhumanist project looks to erase the inevitability of death and decay via a technological fix. But is this even possible given the transient nature of all that is physical? For all the advancements of modern medicine and technology, there seems to be no immediate danger of overcoming our mortality. If, as it does seem possible, we could extend our lives for decades via genetic modifications or switching out decaying organs, the structuring of human societies would most certainly be altered. But it is far from clear that it would fundamentally change the nature of what it means to be human for it would merely delay the inevitable. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Richard II, death, no matter how distant, will still have his day.
In fact, it seems that no matter the technological advance, no matter the transhumanist proposal, death will always be at the door. This is true of even the most radical proposals, ones that envision being able to download ourselves (our minds presumably) onto computer chips and thereby escaping the demise of our bodies. We, or at least our disembodied minds, could achieve immortality in silico. While there is no evidence that our minds are even the type of things that can be stored on computer chips, even if it were possible to do such a thing, it is important to realize that computer chips inhabit this same fleeting physical world as we do.
Even computer chips decay and are subject to destruction. Regardless of whatever physical form such a “mind” would take, it would have to be periodically transferred faithfully from one physical substrate to another, a process which is dependent upon new physical substrates being produced and physical entities faithfully doing the transferring. All of these processes and entities are subject to disruption, damage, and destruction as anyone who has stored computer files knows. So long as we exist in this material world, death and destruction seem to be necessary parts of our reality. There is no transhumanist solution to our reliance on a transitory material world that, in the words of scripture, is “passing away” (1 John 2:17).
But what of that other aspect of humanity, that of our rationality? As Aquinas argued, it is the fact that we possess rational souls that places man apart from the other animals. Humans are, even if they lack the capacity to fully exercise it (or choose not to fully exercise it), the type of entity that has the capacity for reason. Transhumanists are not short on promising numerous alterations to enhance our rational capacity including everything from pharmacological interventions, to mind-brain interfaces, to genetic modifications. Yet improving one’s mental capacity does not necessarily transform man’s nature. Aquinas, for all his rational brilliance, was no more human than an illiterate child. To go beyond human, to truly be transhumanistic, one would need to alter our nature to go beyond reason, to transcend it. Yet, it is not clear what this actually entails, and it is less clear whether any of the technological fixes the transhumanists propose are capable of such a feat.
What is beyond reason besides that entity that is pure reason? While enhancing our rational capacity seems quite possible, it is far from clear that there is anything we can achieve beyond that. Couple this with the fact that there is good reason to believe our capacity for reason cannot be reduced to the purely physical and there is little to suggest that physical modifications alone cannot transform our human reason into something distinctly different. It makes one skeptical that the transhumanism project has any real destination.
The transhumanist pursuit of transcendence through human efforts is reminiscent of an ancient story about a garden. In a commentary on the Genesis account of the Fall, Pope Benedict aptly describes the issue with the current transhumanist project:
Man himself wants to obtain from the tree of knowledge the power to shape the world, to make himself a god, raising himself to God’s level, and to overcome death and darkness with his own efforts.
Just as our forebearers in the Garden, the transhumanists are animated by a distinct disdain for the life that God has freely given us. To the transhumanists, it is a life disfigured by death, disorder, and disease that must be radically altered. But the desire to modify the gift can only disfigure it. In fact, the genetic modifications and advanced computer-brain interfaces proposed by transhumanists can only be achieved by reducing humans to experimental subjects to be offered up at the altar of “progress.”
In our efforts to pursue genetic enhancement, we seek to disrupt a genome that has been assembled via millions of years of primate evolution, not to mention the hundreds of millions of years of metazoan evolution. While the process is not optimal, it has selected for a robust physical form, one that was capable of colonizing nearly the entire globe and constructing civilizations as rich and diverse as the Mayans and Romans. To go about altering this, without complete knowledge of the consequences, which is impossible a priori, is to turn humans into laboratory experiments. It is to instrumentalize humans such that their worth would flow merely from their usefulness in advancing the transhumanistic project.
Certain genetic modifications may enhance specific functions, but they are also likely to simultaneously cause complications and disorders. For example, a modification of the myostatin gene in mice is known to lead to an increase in muscle mass. Would it have the same beneficial effect in humans, or would it have negative consequences as it does cattle, which experience muscle damage after mild exercise when these genetic changes occur? The only way to answer this question would be to perform these experimental alterations on human embryos and see how they develop. Yet, these experiments would be done without the consent of the embryo, without any clear and obvious benefit to the embryo, and with the significant risk of unintended adverse side effects.
Such unintended side-effects would be even more prevalent in the case of modifying genes that affect mental abilities. The sheer complexity and interconnectedness of the brain coupled with our lack of knowledge regarding how genetic alterations would affect this wiring make any potential genetic modification of neural-related genes even more problematic and risky than the myostatin alterations discussed above. The only way to attempt such a project is to sacrifice a mountain of human subjects, in a futile attempt to identify a technological/scientific fix for the spiritual defects that affect the human condition.
The death, sickness and destruction we experience are the consequences of sin, which no scientific breakthrough can overcome. Yet, we have no patience for this reality, even though it is a reality of our own making. It is a reality that humans have either denied or rebelled against down through the ages. As Cardinal Sarah pointed out in his book The Day is Now Far Spent, this rebellion is nothing new: “Judas wanted to make the Kingdom of God come to earth right away, by human means and according to his personal plan.” We desire redemption on our own terms, and as such, we are all too often willing to sacrifice our shared human dignity to achieve it.
While we have an obligation to use our scientific knowledge and technology to help address the problems of hunger, sickness, and poverty that exist in our world, technology alone cannot overcome them. Technology cannot eradicate our human frailties, because technology cannot change the human heart. As Christ told his followers, it is the things that come from within that defile us. As such, it is a spiritual fix that we need, a fix the transhumanists, for all their good intentions, cannot deliver. It is only through Christ that any real “transhumanism” can occur, for it is only through him that we can truly be transformed, both body and soul, in this world and the next.
EDITORIAL NOTE: Don't miss our Science and Religion Initiative's Steno Lecture, "The Impact of Asteroids" today (2/24/21): Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ, Vatican Observatory Foundation // Wednesday, February 24, 2021 - 1:30 p.m. EST - 10:30 a.m. PST // FREE Registration here.