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Humanism, Posthumanism, and Transhumanism: Issues for the Human Future

Posted on: November 22, 2020

Category: Theology

Humanism, Posthumanism, and Transhumanism: Issues for the Human Future

Some rising questions in theology involve humanism, posthumanism, and transhumanism. I will try to define each of these words and highlight how theology may think about issues of the human future.

Humanism, in its modern sense, arose in the seventeenth century and consists of placing value on autonomy, reason, and science.

Humanism is not anti-religion, but it is portrayed this way because, when compared to traditional religious beliefs, it appears radically atheist. Autonomy means that human beings are responsible for their own actions. No god has placed us in our station for a purpose. Life is an individual gift, and what we make of it is the action of our autonomy.

Reason is the guide for life. In humanism, a good life is a life that corresponds to the best judgements possible about the real world, and this judgement rests on the use of reason. Reason makes education a humanist value.

Science is the method of humanism. Reason cannot flourish if its content holds little or no corresponding truth. Corresponding truth means that a truth claim holds a consistent relationship to reality, and the vehicle of such a relationship is evidence. The age of science is the age of evidence-based reason.

Since God is not a conclusion of evidence-based reason, and since evidence-based reason is a humanist value, it is often concluded that humanism is atheism. This, however, is not true. Humanism can appreciate mystery and can value mysticism. Mystery and mysticism in humanism, though, are not religious confessions; rather, they identify the edges of human knowledge and open up the religious experience of wonder.

Posthumanism relies on the tradition of humanism and on humanist values like evidence-based reason, the importance of education, and the autonomy of the individual. Posthumanism, though, seeks to break the boundary that traditional humanism assumes between the human and natural worlds. Humanism, in its classic expression, casts nature, through the use of science, as an object of human manipulation. Posthumanism blurs the boundaries between human beings and nature. This makes evolution a value in posthumanism because to affirm evolution means to affirm that human beings are a natural process of the earth. The fundamentalist religious reaction to posthumanism is creationism. Not only is creationism bad science, it is also a reading of posthumanism as a threat.

Transhumanism seeks to transport, through integrative technology, the present posthuman understanding to a new level of human reality. In other words, transhumanism is a commitment to a particular kind of posthumanism. Transhumanism is the integration of technology with the natural human experience, and this integration raises questions about the posthuman future. What is the nature of our collective posthuman future coming at us whether we like it or not? Secondly, should we like it, or should we resist? The second question is about the human relationship with the world that involves deep technology. Questions about relationships with the world are inevitably, and maybe even primarily, theological questions.

The “cyborg” is part of the transhumanist image, and it is familiar to us from the now decades old TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the series, the “Borg” were cyborgs (humans completely integrated with technology). Their humanity and their “mechanity” (to create a word for machine-ness) were indistinguishable. The Borg could be viewed as machines, but they could also be viewed as a community of beings, a very efficient and a very machine-integrated community but a community none the less. The Star Trek figure “Seven of Nine” was a former Borg who escaped her transhuman cyborg condition of posthumanism to recapture her humanity, her humanism, among the crew of the starship Enterprise.

Even though the TV series aired from 1987 to 1994, like the original Star Trek series from the 1960s, Star Trek: The Next Generation raised fascinating and disturbing questions about the human future. The show also exemplified what transhumanism means: the question about the integration of technology with humans on a path to a posthuman future. The character Data, a machine who wanted to be a human, was also an element of the series.

The theological concern with transhumanism as a path to a new posthumanism takes the form of the Psalmist’s great question from centuries ago, “what are humans” (Psalm 8:4)? The Psalmist’s question is not about an individual but about the human family. It is a question about God’s creation as a whole and the human place in the whole. From antiquity, the Psalmist poses a question about futurity. To what extent ought human beings to manipulate the image of God, which is who they are? Like any person who faces this question, a theologian will hold hesitancy, be unsure, fear, but also hope. Is our collective posthuman future something to celebrate or something to worry about?

The “image of God” as a metaphor offers some guidance. In traditional Christian philosophy, the “image” is the purpose (the aim of the form) of human creatures. Remember, a “form,” from Plato, is the perfect image of a material thing. Everything that exists in the world is imperfect, but everything that exists, that is seen, participates in its form, its unseen perfection. In Christian philosophy, traditionally stated, the image of God is the form God created for human beings. The image of God is what we are meant to be perfectly in our everyday imperfections.

In the Bible, of course, the philosophical understanding of the image is not present. For biblical writers, the image of God is more active than passive. It is the way God forms human beings. It is the life or breath that God gave human beings to make them human. All human beings are brothers and sisters because all alike are the image of God, the life of God’s creative act. All human beings, we could say, are divine soul-bearers or energy-bearers, according to the Bible.

The image of God, understood philosophically or biblically, is important to theology and to the question of transhumanism because it asks to what extent does the human experience with technology alter the image of God in human beings? There is no single answer to this question. Insofar as technology enhances life, then it enhances the “image of God,” which, biblically speaking, is the energy of life. But if technology destroys life, then it destroys the “image of God” in life. When we think of it this way, we are delivered back to the classical humanist value of autonomy: to what extent are human being responsible for their own future?

Theology places the “image of God” into the question of futurity. Theology says that the transhumanist effort to form a posthuman future must be a communal question because the “image of God” is a question about the value of the human family. It is not a question about the value of technology.

©By David Galston


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