Faith in science and technology
Books | Believers in transhumanism seek salvation through the efforts of man
by Fazale R. Rana & Kenneth R. Samples
Posted 5/30/20, 07:04 am
Should we put our faith in human enhancement? We all hope for breakthroughs against debilitating diseases, but biotechnology has become an alternative faith for some: Imagine there’s no heaven, and instead let’s design babies, extend our lives past 120 years, and meld humans and machines to gain superhero abilities.
Books for evangelicals abound on how to talk with Muslims, Latter-day Saints, and atheists, but Christians need to learn how to reason with believers in transhumanism, the ultimate techno-faith, and one that “plays an eschatological role for people who embrace an atheistic, materialistic worldview [and] stands as a competitor to the gospel.”
That statement is from Humans 2.0: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Perspectives on Transhumanism. Authors Fazale R. Rana and Kenneth R. Samples give us a good start by laying out the parameters of topics like neuroprosthetics, brain-computer interfaces, a cyerbernetics future, human enhancement, transhumanism, and artificial intelligence. Here’s their introduction courtesy of Reasons to Believe.
Humans 2.0 made WORLD’s short list for 2019 Book of the Year in the Science category. —Marvin Olasky
Introduction: In Search of Salvation
In 1938, Germany’s aggressive rearmament program, persecution of Jews, annexation of Austria, and tensions with Czechoslovakia set a trajectory that would lead to the beginning of World War II a year later. As the United States struggled to recover from the Great Depression, the Fair Labor Standards Act was adopted amid labor unrest, establishing minimum wage (at 25 cents an hour) and defining the maximum length of a work week (at 44 hours). To the delight of much of the world, American Joe Louis knocked out Germany’s Max Schmeling in the first round to win the boxing heavyweight title. And on October 30 of that year, Orson Welles broadcast a dramatization of H.G. Wells’s book The War of the Worlds over the radio airwaves, unintentionally setting off a panic on the eastern seaboard of the United States as people believed that a Martian invasion was underway.
Origin of the Superhero
In the context of this angst-ridden milieu, Action Comics published the first-ever superhero story. Written by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (two Jewish men just out of high school), Superman made his debut in the June 1938 edition of Action Comics. Superman was an unexpected and immediate success. With an origin story paralleling that of Moses, he functioned as a savior-type figure. Tapping into the concerns of the American public, this comic series offered a sense of hope and a cathartic release. The Superman comics’ earliest story lines often reflected the anxieties Americans experienced because of World War II and socioeconomic struggles. Many of the first villains to square off with Superman secretly worked with the Axis powers or were corrupt factory owners and slumlords.
The popularity of the Superman comic inspired other writers and artists to follow suit, creating a bewildering array of superheroes who made their first appearance in the 1930s and 1940s. This trend has continued over the 80 years since Superman first appeared in print. With the introduction of Superman, DC Comics launched a new genre of comic books that continues to influence pop culture today.
In his work The Myth of the Superhero, Italian scholar Marco Arnaudo explains this proliferation of superhero comics and why they originated in America. According to Arnaudo, though popular throughout the world, superhero comics are an American phenomenon. Superhero narratives uniquely reflect the ethos of the American spirit. Specifically, Arnaudo identifies three features of superhero comics that manifest ideals deeply rooted in American culture:
- Optimism, or faith in the practical possibility of improving conditions for oneself and others;
- Pragmatism, which involves identifying the necessary steps for obtaining goals and finding the best way of following these steps; and
- Individualism, not understood as a synonym of “egotism” but as the defense of the irreducible value of the individual personality, in a state of openness in which each individual works for the collective in his or her own way and according to his or her own beliefs and abilities.
In his book Do the Gods Wear Capes?, literary scholar Ben Saunders echoes Arnaudo’s point. Saunders maintains that “the superhero fantasy has become a self-reflexive allegory about the frustrations of human desire, with some obvious spiritual overtones.” In other words, though presenting the reader with escapist adventures and thrills, beneath the surface superhero comics reflect our anxieties, desires, hopes, and values, and our approaches for resolving problems confronting society. For many comic book readers, these works are a genuine literary form that provides a vehicle to explore political, social, philosophical, and theological issues.
Why We Need Superheroes
Many reasons exist for the popularity of superhero comic books and movies. As Arnaudo (and others) point out, superheroes function in the same way as the ancient Greco-Roman and Norse gods—larger-than-life titans who embody our ideals and champion our causes, while at the same time teaching us valuable moral lessons. In short, superhero comics assume the role of myth in our society. So, while superheroes entertain us, satisfying our need for excitement and adventure, they connect with a deep-seated need in all of us for meaning, certainty, and hope.
But perhaps there is another, more fundamental appeal to superhero comics. “Good” squares off against “evil”—with good triumphing more often than not. Saunders argues that superhero comics serve as a theodicy—a solution to the problem of evil. He writes: “Superhero comics [are] fantastic, speculative, and distinctly modern expressions of a perhaps perennial human wish: the wish that things were otherwise. … The superhero genre is an obvious fantasy-response to the distressing mismatch between our expectations of the world and the way the world actually appears to be.”
In other words, superhero comics are asking and wrestling with one of the most fundamental questions we could ever ask as human beings: Why are things so wrong with this world? And through this unique literary genre, we imagine a resolution to the problem of evil by dreaming about what it would be like if our bodies were free from biological limits, allowing us to perform impossible feats—even escaping death. If we could only possess these powers, we might accomplish untold good by making wrongs right and rectifying injustices.
A Brave New World?
As we write this book, some interesting parallels exist between America in 1938 and 2019. The threat of war looms. Uneasy tensions exist between the US and North Korea and the US and Iran over the nuclear capabilities of these countries. And despite a recovery from the Financial Crisis of 2008, fears remain. It is an economic recovery unlike any we have seen, with jobs from many sectors permanently disappearing. Nearly everyone is anxious about where and when the next financial bubble will burst.
In addition to these concerns, 2019 brings a unique set of anxieties never experienced by human beings. These stresses arise as people worry about the unintended consequences of exciting developments in bioengineering, biotechnology, and biomedicine—advances that hold promise to treat diseases, disorders, and injuries for which, historically, no effective, lasting treatments have existed. However, these technologies provide stepping-stones to others that could enhance human capabilities beyond our biological limits—and people fear how these biotechnologies could be misused. For example, CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology may soon provide the means to eradicate certain types of genetic disorders from the human gene pool. And once we gain better understanding about the relationships between genotype and phenotype, gene editing could be used to produce designer babies with a preselected set of genes and, hence, preselected physical and intellectual capacities. In fact, CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology could conceivably be used to genetically enhance human beings—imparting biological capabilities that extend beyond our natural endowments.
The prospect of this kind of future creates anxiety. Emerging biotechnologies raise numerous ethical concerns, including the loss of human dignity and human rights, the potential for human exploitation, and the ownership and equitable access to these powerful technologies. But they also evoke a deeper sense of uneasiness that can best be described as existential in nature. Once scientists and engineers begin to enhance human beings through biotechnology and bioengineering, that upgrade could send humanity down a path to a posthuman future, with the real possibility of human extinction. Through application of these new biotechnologies and bioengineering capabilities, human beings can take control of our own “evolution” by transforming us into an entirely new type of species—one of our own making; a species made in our own image.
The ethical, philosophical, and theological concerns can be summed up with a single question: Should we play God?
Aware of these concerns, many scientists and technologists try to assure the public that their motivation for developing such biotechnologies is strictly for biomedical applications, and nothing more. Their interest is therapy, not enhancement, and for the most part this appears to be true. Yet, in contrast to this conservative approach to emerging biotechnologies, a growing number of futurists—called transhumanists—maintain that we have an obligation to use advances in biotechnology and bioengineering to enhance our physical, intellectual and psychological capabilities to extend our life expectancy, perhaps, even indefinitely.
Bioethicist and sociologist James Hughes, a futurist, describes the transhumanist vision in his book Citizen Cyborg:
In the twenty-first century the convergence of artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and genetic engineering will allow human beings to achieve things previously imagined only in science fiction. Life spans will extend well beyond a century. Our senses and cognition will be enhanced. We will gain control over our emotions and memory. We will merge with machines, and machines will become more like humans. These technologies will allow us to evolve into varieties of “posthumans” and usher us into a “transhuman” era and society. … Transhuman technologies, technologies that push the boundaries of humanness, can radically improve our quality of life … we have a fundamental right to use them to control our bodies and minds. But to ensure these benefits we need to democratically regulate these technologies and make them equally available in free societies.
We explore the transhumanism movement in more detail in chapter 8.
Emergence of Techno-Faith
In some respects, transhumanism is the culmination of the vision of the Enlightenment, a philosophical movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In its more secular expression, this philosophical system regards reason as the only legitimate authority. Influenced by the Scientific Revolution, thinkers of the Enlightenment argued that reason and science were the vehicles to drive human progress and alleviate human misery. The great Enlightenment thinker René Descartes states in Discourse on Method:
For they made me see that it is possible to achieve knowledge which would be very useful for life and that, in place of the speculative philosophy that is taught in the Schools, it is possible to find a practical philosophy by which, knowing the force and actions of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens and all the other bodies that surround us, as distinctly as we know the various crafts of our artisans, we would be able to use them in the same way for all the applications for which they are appropriate, and thereby make ourselves, as it were, the lords and masters of nature. This is desirable not only for the discovery of an infinite number of devices that would enable us to enjoy, without any effort, the fruits of the earth and all the goods we find there, but also, especially, for the preservation of health which is undoubtedly the foremost good and the foundation for all the other goods of this life.
In fulfillment of this vision, most would agree that the last several hundred years of scientific advance and technology development have elevated the standard of living and improved the quality of life for people all over the world. We have become “lords and masters of nature.” But for a growing number of people, our capacity to understand the world and to bring it under our control (at least, in part) has gone from the means to attain progress to the means to attain salvation for humanity.
Prompted by successes in science and technology, many people adopt a form of techno-faith, putting their hope and trust in technology to solve the world’s problems and bring about the end of pain and suffering. In this scheme, scientific and technological achievements become a theodicy (defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil), of sorts. As Ben Saunders describes it, techno-faith is “a fundamental belief in the power of the human will to transform the world to reflect human desires, through the agency of technology.” And one human desire is to end human misery. Hence, reason and knowledge gained through science and applied through technology will solve the problem of evil.
In many respects medicine has become a techno-faith unto itself. Over the last few hundred years, scientists have gained increasing understanding about the human body. We have used this understanding to develop progressively sophisticated medical technology. Without a doubt, these biomedical advances have alleviated much human suffering and prompted many to put their hope in medical advances to make their lives longer and better. For these people, medicine has become an expression of techno-faith.
As emerging biotechnologies and developments in bioengineering rapidly advance, the medical arts are poised to transition from a means for therapy to a means for enhancement. These new biotechnologies and bioengineering capabilities will allow us to become “lords and masters” not only of nature but also of the human body and mind.
From Humans 2.0: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Perspectives on Transhumanism by Fazale R. Rana with Kenneth R. Samples. © 2019 by Reasons to Believe. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
. Marco Arnaudo, The Myth of the Superhero, trans. Jamie Richards (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 64.
. Ben Saunders, Do the Gods Wear Capes? Spirituality, Fantasy, and Superheroes (New York, Bloomsbury Academic, 2011), 2.
. Arnaudo, The Myth of the Superhero, 11–62.
. Saunders, Do the Gods Wear Capes?, 3–8.
. Saunders, 3–5.
. James Hughes, Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future (Cambridge, MA: Westview, 2004), xii.
. René Descartes, Discourse on Method and Related Writings (London: Penguin, 1992).
. Saunders, Do the Gods Wear Capes?, 106.
Fazale R. Rana
Fazale is vice president of research and apologetics at Reasons to Believe.
Kenneth R. Samples
Kenneth is senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe.