A new topic in the religion and science dialogue has emerged called “Transhumanism.” The trends and questions evolving out of this aspect of the biological sciences are capturing the attention of ethicists and theologians. This month, and next, Phil Hefner, senior fellow at the Zygon Center for Religion and Science provides an introduction to Transhumanism from a theologian’s perspective.

Dr. Hefner is an ordained minister in the ELCA and is professor emeritus of systematic theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He directed the Zygon Center from 1988 to 2003 and is former editor-in-chief of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. He has authored numerous books and articles, but is best known for his book, The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, Religion.

Transhumanism: a Q&A with Dr. Phil Hefner, part oneWhat is Transhumanism?

PH: Definition is important. Wikipedia uses this definition: “Transhumanism (TH) is an international intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.” We may interpret this definition in the most extreme form, as the attempt to employ science to extend human life indefinitely and eliminate all the ills that beset us, as well as achieving “perfect” bodies. This form of TH is easily rejected as arrogant, preposterous, and a materialistic distortion of the human condition we all experience. This brand of TH is also most likely impossible to attain. I prefer to focus on the “TH mentality” which permeates our society. This mentality often called “healing” or “enhancement” appears to be moderate and reasonable, and it includes much that is desirable and helpful. We need to acknowledge that in fact it is a version of TH. TH is pictured by some critics as thoroughly bad — it is not; it includes much good; in other words, TH is ambiguous.

What encompasses the “TH” mentality?

PH: It includes several elements that are widely accepted in our society today — in fact they have become basic assumptions of our worldview. First, it is found in the perennial American veneration of youthful appearance and a demeaning of aging that blends into fear and denial of death. Preserving our youthful condition is the positive goal; discriminating against age is the negative.

Second, an attitude that will not settle for the body we receive at birth. We seem to believe that it is both our right and our possibility to alter our birth nature. We want to eliminate as far as possible those elements of our nature that we deem “undesirable” or “unnecessary.” We want to re-create ourselves as persons without these elements. The most vivid example of this effort for me is the statistic that in 2008, in the United States, $12 Billion was spent for 10.2 million cosmetic surgical and non-surgical procedures. One-fourth of those procedures were Botox. Cosmetic surgery is a hands-on sculpting of our bodies; it may be less dramatic than some other efforts at enhancement — through use of pharmaceutical products and medical interventions for (1) manipulating the process of reproduction — including “designer genes” — (2) curing ailments, (3) compensating for disabilities — orthotics and implants of all kinds, (4) prolonging human longevity, and (5) eliminating disease. On occasion this might blend into a quest for “perfect” babies, perfect adult bodies and psyches.

Third, it is the confidence that all diseases can be cured. The research now going on under the Transhumanist banner will in fact turn out to be a resource in our current massive efforts to cure diseases. We have great confidence that any disease can be conquered if only enough scientific research is brought to bear.

What are some recent developments worth noting?

PH: Discoveries related to aging: telomeres (a cell feature governing aging of genes), advances in genetic engineering and therapies; nanomedicine, molecular medicine and synthetic biology — you can Google these terms for more information. These new fields have been given high priority in government and university funding. They are especially important for cancer research and treatment. These fields work at the nano-level — a nanometer is one billionth of a meter, roughly the width of three or four atoms. The average human hair is about 25,000 nanometers wide. Nanotechnology deals with entities that are up to 100 nanometers in one dimension. Examples: Nano-sized delivery systems of drugs that can target specific cancer cells; nano-sized imaging systems that also target specific cells.

Add to these developments amazing progress in surgical techniques, including the use of robots. Also under new discoveries comes extraordinarily innovative orthotic technology — artificial limbs that are computerized, as well as advances in linking those limbs to mental processes, so that they are driven by “thinking.”

How do these developments relate to people in the pews?

PH: Since these developments are becoming basic elements of medical practice, we may encounter them every time we go to a doctor or enter a hospital. More and more hospitals, for example, advertise that they “treat cancer at the molecular level” — which means they use the nanotechnology described above.

What does theology have to say in relation to these new developments?

PH: These are genuine advances — both theoretical and practical. The basic scientific knowledge [we are gaining] of the molecular, genetic, and neurobiological functioning of our bodies is mind-blowing; the complex technology that accompanies this knowledge is equally awesome. (See links below). Our faith and theology acknowledge these marvelous and mysterious aspects of how God has created us. This science and technology gives us a deeper understanding of Psalm 139: 13–15:

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,

I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together.

We are also aware of the omnipresence of finitude, arrogance, greed, and other aspects of sin. Our accomplishments are marvelous, but we are not infallible, and we are inevitably manipulative. God has created us with the curiosity and the capability of “pushing the envelope” to expand our vistas of what it means to be human, and we must pursue our possibilities — God wants us to do this. But we can also desecrate our gifts in our quest for power, profit, and prestige. Christian theology wants to balance these two insights: encouraging the use of our gifts, and also criticizing our sinful distortions. Denial of either is a theological sin.

When we do push the envelope, moving in some sense into a “trans” human situation, it is inevitably uncomfortable for us. We like to think of human nature as something solid, reliable, and even unchanging. We can be the enemy of what Paul Tillich called the “mystery, depth, and greatness” of our human nature — each one of those words is important — mystery, depth, and greatness — and each can be frightening, as well. Many Christian critics of Transhumanism seem to be caught up in hostility to the mystery and the awesome potential that God has given us. At the same time, we must not deny that we are also finite and sinful. The human journey walks this line between greatness and degradation. There is no easy, clear-cut path on our journey — the Transhumanist possibility exemplifies the ambiguity and possibility of being human.

Some useful links

In the next installment, Hefner discusses Christian theological and ethical perspectives on Transhumanism.

Susan Barreto is a journalist who has been following religion and science since 2003 with articles appearing in various newsletters and The Lutheran magazine. She is also a deputy editor of a monthly hedge fund magazine owned by Euromoney Institutional Investor. Susan is a long-time member of Luther Memorial Church in Chicago, where she lives with her husband and two sons.

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