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