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Transhumanism and Posthumanism: Lifting Man Up or Pulling Him Down? | Amanda C. R. Clark | Ignatius Insight | March 12, 2010

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We have all heard it said at one time or other that we live in a "post-Christian age," but recently we have been hearing that we live in (or are rapidly approaching) a "post-human age." But what is "posthumanism"? The topic is little known or understood, and is frequently relegated to the realm of science fiction. With the distribution of Pope Benedict's 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate and his earlier writing, Faith and the Future (Ignatius Press, 2009; originally published 1970), it seems timely to examine the nature of "transhumanism" and "posthumanism" and to consider some of the moral implications of these ideas.

Posthumanism as an idea has been a popular since the 1950s, and, yes, especially among the science-fiction-minded. For example, when the film Run Lola Run was released in 1998, New York Times film critic Janet Maslin praised it as "hot, fast and post-human"—a comment that drew its own acclaim and notoriety. The term quickly entered the American lexicon, cropping up in the unlikeliest of places; it was, for example, a fashionable topic among graduate students in my library science program. These future librarians were dead serious about the promotion and hoped-for realization of "post-humanity."

"Post" indicates that something has ended—but what on earth does post-human possibly mean? Part of the answer is found in the in-between stage, known as "transhuman." The transhumanist movement took flight in the 1980s after a thirty-year gestation, when American futurists like Alvin Toffler and Stephen Hawking popularized early definitions of a hoped-for post-human or transhuman society. Nick Bostrom, professor of philosophy at Oxford University, (personal webpage, http://www.nickbostrom.com/), writes authoritatively and abundantly on the topic. Bostrom's 2005 publication, "A History of Transhumanist Thought," first published in Journal of Evolution and Technology (April, 2005), offers a concise history of transhumanism, describing the transhumanist's goal of "broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, [and] involuntary suffering." By overcoming these "limitations" humans will then have an explosion of "choices." These choices, the appendix states, include "life extension therapies; reproductive choice technologies; cryonics procedures; and many other possible human modification and enhancement technologies." It is an ideology based upon a fundamental dissatisfaction with "mere" humanity.

The clever and splashy magazine h+ (www.hplusmagazine.com) is a trendsetter in the ever-developing world of transhumanism. The title itself supports its more-than-human trajectory, and the editors define the magazine's mission as reporting on "developments in areas like NBIC (nano-bio-info-cog), longevity, performance enhancement and self-modification, virtual reality, "The Singularity," and other areas that both promise and threaten to radically alter our lives and our view of the world and ourselves. In an article titled "Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno: Paradigm for the Future"(February 12, 2010), Surfdaddy Orca writes:
Just as we battle over the right to life today, it's almost a given that we will battle in the future over the right to personal enhancement. New and radical choices will be available to parents who want certain characteristics for their unborn children — for example, augmentation of intelligence or corrective genetic procedures. Improvement and human performance enhancing drugs and neurotechnological devices are already entering the global marketplace.
Transhumanism thus seeks to improve upon man's natural human abilities. This basic desire to improve natural abilities is not necessarily an evil—who hasn't used a calculator, glasses, or a hearing aid and been grateful for its invention to assist us in our daily life? Where transhuman philosophy begins to go astray is in its perspective on the weaknesses and limits of the human condition. Suffering, pain, aging and death are, for transhumanist faithful, to be resisted and avoided at all cost. Technology then presents itself as an answer to the natural "disability" shared by everyone in being human: aging, suffering, dying.

While the Catholic Church teaches that death is a result of sin and "the devil's envy" (Wis. 2:24), it also holds that death, suffering, and pain will not be overcome this side of heaven. Since the Fall, death has been a part of man's sojourn on earth, a fact that man must accept as he makes free choices about his life. Death can only be overcome through the work and person of Jesus Christ, who alone offers authentic hope. But the transhumanist has the misdirected hope that further developments and advances of technology will eventually allow humans to free themselves from the present limits of human existence, allowing them to enhance human ability and ultimately become "posthuman."

Some might say, at this point, "Enough of this science-fiction stuff..." But as the science becomes less fiction and more fact, the challenges posed by the reality—or altered reality—of posthumanism become increasingly apparent. Within reproductive science, for example, we are not far from ascertaining if fetal DNA is prone to "defects" that might be considered too expensive by the State to allow birth. Computer-chip implants are used in pets and wild animals in order to keep track of medical data and migration patterns. Is it really that outlandish to imagine the promotion of similar technologies to be used on certain groups of humans? It's not that it is unfeasible, rather, it's that it is unimaginable. Or is it?

Pope Benedict XVI addresses the ideology, already prevalent, that moves steadily towards an unbridled embrace of such technology. While some have applauded the economic message in the encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, the sections regarding technology should not be overlooked. Technology, in fact, figures prominently near the conclusion of that document. "All of humanity is alienated," Benedict writes, "when too much trust is placed in merely human projects, ideologies and false utopias" (par. 53).

Posthumanism is one such false utopia. Belief that an eradication of suffering and death will bring true human happiness and success begs the central question: What is the point of human life? For Christians, a longer life isn't necessarily a better life; the goal is the perfection of the soul for eternal beatitude, not the quantity of days in this temporal world. Some of the greatest and most inspiring saints—St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Maria Goretti come to mind—have lived relatively short lives on earth. Nor, in Catholic belief, does the length of our life on earth tell us something about our eternal destiny. Benedict states that man's worth is established "by placing himself in relation with others and with God" (par. 53). In this reading of the meaning of life, key emphasis is placed on our relationships with men and God. In this light, suffering and illness can be seen as opportunities: they do not define us, rather, we define them. Being truly human is the point, not the limitation.

"Technologically advanced societies," Benedict explains, "must not confuse their own technological development with a presumed cultural superiority, but must rather rediscover within themselves the oft-forgotten virtues which made it possible for them to flourish throughout their history" (par. 59). The concept of natural virtue is built upon the reality of a natural law—the idea of seeking to better the soul, to seek and promote "the good"—and thus it takes as a priori that there is an immutable moral truth. We as humans should then seek to adhere ourselves to that which is true and good and avoid that which is false and evil.

Society must therefore reclaim the virtues is has forgotten or ignored (prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, and charity, to name a few). Technology must be subservient to virtue, and must not dictate a neo-virtue wherein all that is technologically progressive is naturally desirable. Of course, technologies that can help prevent or alleviate disease are desirable, but they must be guided by authentically moral goals and aspirations. As the Holy Father reminds us, the ends do not justify the means, and "man needs to look inside himself in order to recognize the fundamental norms of the natural moral law which God has written on our hearts" (par. 68).

The challenging problem regarding the concept of trans- or posthumanism is knowing when man has crossed that line. How do we determine when we are using technology as an improvement or as an enhancement? Where do I draw the line between making myself a better human, and making myself better than human. Again, Benedict's warning is apropos: "A person's development is compromised, if he claims to be solely responsible for producing what he becomes" (italics original, par. 68). Being "solely responsible for producing what he becomes" succinctly sums up the transhumanist position: that we should create ourselves, not unlike a marketable product, to become more than simply human.

As genetic science advances further toward longer, if not hoped-for indefinite, life spans, we must ask ourselves as Catholics where we fit into the greater cultural picture. Christ has already conquered death; we neither seek to avoid it nor conquer it again. As the Eastertide hymn in the Eastern Liturgy so beautifully proclaims, "By death He conquered death, and to those in the graves, He granted life." But for the transhumanist, death and decay are the final frontiers; they remain obstacles to human and social perfection.

Benedict, in his encyclical on charity in truth, gives particular attention to the field of bioethics, where, akin to the transhumanist's interests, human development is of central concern (par. 74). In terms of technological advance, "reason without faith is doomed to flounder in an illusion of its own omnipotence " (article 74). While some transhumanists desire computerized memory storage devices in our brains, growing our own replacement organs, solar protected skin, and immortality (in addition to a myriad of other "improvements"), Benedict reminds us that this creates a conflict between transcendence and immanence (par. 74). If we have enhanced ourselves to "perfection," we have forgotten that we must transcend this world. We are to be in the world but not of the world.

What is lost in the transhumanist view is the recognition of human dignity present in each individual regardless of imperfection, illness, suffering, disability, or desirability. Benedict offers a glimpse of our potential future while discussing economy and justice, writing, "While the poor of the world continue knocking on the doors of the rich, the world of affluence runs the risk of no longer hearing those knocks, on account of a conscience that can no longer distinguish what is human" (par. 75). This phrase—"on account of a conscience that can no longer distinguish what is human"—can be applied to far more than economics. When we tamper with the fabric of our humanity, with all its faults and flaws, we risk damaging and destroying the very essence of humanity. If, as Benedict says, our relationship between others and with God is at the center of our earthly lives, then what is our fate when we are socially isolated and unable to distinguish what is truly human? In an effort to improve the material–our living bodies–we are losing sight of that which isn't material–spiritual interiority, the "human soul's ontological depths" (par. 76).

In a July 29, 2009 New York Times article, "You: The Updated Owner's Manual", William Saletan wrote on the topic of "decoding, replicating and transforming the human body." Biotechnology could allow through replaceable grown and harvested organs that our "Bad habits will no longer have permanent consequences." For those who find this distasteful he reassures the reader that, "a century from now, they'll seem as normal as pacemakers, hip replacements and in vitro fertilization have become today. Our descendants, like us, won't just be technology's judges. They'll be its products, too." His vision is a dismal prophesy: children not only born of technology, but human-like products, manufactured like merchandise.

At its core, the transhumanist position is a lonely, desperate one. Pope Benedict writes: "Without God man neither knows which way to go, nor even understands who he is" (par. 78). In our urged rush toward answering the many "How" questions that technology both asks and "answers," we have lost sight of God, finding our wayward selves even more desperate for man-made solutions. As a society we risk being "oblivious to the Creator and at risk of becoming equally oblivious to human values" (par. 78), values that are rooted in the intangible, the soul, the will.

"Men in a totally planned world," wrote then-Fr. Ratzinger in the early 1970s, "will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty" (Faith and the Future, p. 118). This is a spiritual poverty, a loss of self. Isolation results in an emotional poverty and suffering, the remedy for which is not transhumanism or posthumanism, but Christ. Ratzinger anticipated that for those who recognize the "horror of their poverty," "they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret."

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Amanda C. R. Clark holds master's degrees from both the University of Oregon and the University of Alabama; she currently lives in the Inland Northwest.

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