Opinion | Theology & Spirituality

Transhumanism and the incarnation

Christmas is a time when we remember that “[t]he Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). The profound truth of the incarnation is that Christ became one of us, fully God yet also fully human. Being human, however, is what some people today would like to move beyond.

Transhumanism is a movement that seeks to enhance humans using technology far beyond the limits of their current physical and intellectual capacities. Transhumanists look to future developments in nano-technology, genetics, biology, computing, robotics and neuroscience to accomplish this. By augmenting and even changing human biology, they look to a day when humans can evolve beyond our current form into something better.

Many transhumanists subscribe to the “Transhumanist Declaration,” which states “that humanity’s potential is still mostly unrealized.” Future humans might enjoy anti-aging techniques, enhanced senses, memory augmentation, amplified intelligence and many other “bio-hacks.”

In a sense, we already use technology to augment human capabilities – think of glasses, for instance, which are a technology meant to correct for poor vision. Pacemakers, artificial limbs and cochlear implants also meld with the human body. The goal of these technologies is to restore normal human capacities that have been lost or damaged due to disease or accidents. Even clothing is a type of human augmentation, designed to help us in our fallen state. Technology is not neutral and the key is to direct it in ways that show love for our neighbour and bring healing and restoration. Various other technologies help us unfold the possibilities in creation: calculators for speed, telescopes to see further and vehicles to travel faster. But these developments are outside of ourselves – they have not changed what it means to be human.

In contrast, the goal of transhumanists is to direct technology towards ourselves. The term “posthuman” has been coined to describe future humans who have gone so far beyond present capacities that they may no longer be considered human. The word “cyborg” refers to organisms who have become part human and part machine.

More than a brain
Some transhumanists even believe that one day we will solve the problem of human mortality. These transhumanists predict a future event called “the Singularity” when computers will become comparable in power to the human brain. At this point, they argue, we will be able to download our brains into a computer and live indefinitely in a virtual paradise, an event that has been coined the “rapture of the geeks.” With the current pace of advances in computing, some believe this will happen by 2045.

I believe such a view assumes a profoundly mistaken notion of what it means to be human. It reduces being human to simulating the interaction of particles in the human brain. In a sense, the very first temptation in the garden was the suggestion that humans could become like God. Psalm 115:8 suggests that all who make and trust in idols will become like them. In the case of the “rapture of the geeks,” the end goal is literally to become like a computer.

St. Irenaeus once suggested that “the glory of God is the human person fully alive.” Christ’s incarnation gives us a picture of the perfect image of God (Heb. 1:3). The way we become what we were meant to be is not primarily through technology, but through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, who makes us more like Christ (2 Cor. 3:18).

As we celebrate Christmas it’s helpful to remember how the incarnation reveals the value God places on our physicality and humanity. We should not be so eager to shed our current humanity. In fact, Jesus did not shed his body after his work on earth was done, but ascended into heaven in human form. One day we too will have new bodies, not through technology or the singularity, but through Christ, “the Word who became flesh” (1 John 3:2).  

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  • Derek C. Schuurman is a Canadian currently living in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he is professor of computer science at Calvin University. Prior to arriving at Calvin he taught for many years at Redeemer University College and was a visiting professor at Dordt University. He currently holds the William Spoelhof Teacher-Scholar-in-Residence chair at Calvin. Besides his technical interests he is interested in faith and technology issues. He is the author of Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology (IVP, 2013).

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