In this episode, Kurt speaks with Dr. Fuz Rana of Reasons to Believe on the growing interest in transhumanism.
Listen to “Episode 102: Transhumanism” on Spreaker.
Kurt: Good day to you and thanks for joining us here on another episode of Veracity Hill where we are striving for truth on faith, politics, and society. This week I am joined in studio by none other than my friend Fuz Rana from Reasons To Believe and we are going to be having a conversation today about transhumanism and the new movement, if you will, about where transhumanism is headed and you might be asking yourself, “What is transhumanism?” We’ll jump right into the conversation. Fuz. Maybe you could tell us. When you say that word transhumanism, what does that mean?
Fuz: In short, it’s a movement that’s kind of a blend of some science and philosophy, maybe even a little bit of theology, in which the goal is to use technology to enhance human beings in a way to overcome or transcend our biological limits and many transhumanists actually see transhumanism as a pathway to a utopian future where we will eliminate a lot of human pain and suffering through these kinds of technological advances, and in fact, maybe we can even extend human life expectancy indefinitely so there’s an element of trying to attain immortality through science and technology.
Kurt: So when you’re talking about transhumanism, you are specifically referring to when humans want to try to better their own physical body for a number of different reasons and so would you say, when I think of this I also maybe associate sort of like transspeciesism, like there are some humans that want to become cats, so they have plastic surgery on their ears, or there’s the people that want to look like dragons. That’s not quite what you’re focusing on here. What you have here is specifically the improvements to the human body itself. I could think here of an article I read of a gal who wanted to amputate her leg. She had one leg amputated and she had a robotic leg and she believes that it helps her run faster. Now she’s come to the belief that she wants to amputate her perfectly good and healthy other leg so that she can run faster. This is the sort of person you have in mind here when you’re talking about transhumanism.
Fuz: Yeah. With transhumanism, there’s kind of a degradation of the way people think about that idea. This person you’re describing who’s an athlete who sees human enhancements through technology as a way to improve athletic performance would be kind of a stepping stone towards the transhumanist vision and the interesting thing is we are developing technologies that are allowing for that type of thing to become a reality, so for example, people are developing what are called computer-brain interface technologies where you can interface an electronic device, in particular areas of the brain, and train the patient to control with their thoughts, external devices.
Kurt: You think Stephen Hawking. You think those are disabled where this technology is put to great use. Unfortunately, though, it seems that there is a bad use for the technology.
Fuz: Let’s take the example that you brought up of this young woman who was an amputee and had a robotic leg in place. That’s a wonderful therapeutic use of the technology and so it’s a stepping stone towards thinking about why not amputate the other leg because now I can become a better athlete? The question is is that really wrong? Is there anything other than, because we use technology all the time.
Kurt: Why should she not be able to do that?
Fuz: Yeah. We use technology all the time to help us go beyond our biological limits. Where transhumanism and human enhancement become a little concerning is that we’re making modifications to the human body and it’s one thing to do that for therapeutic purposes, but then we’re talking about doing it for human enhancement purposes, and so transhumanism is actually an idea that is birthed out of the Enlightenment itself. The goal of the Enlightenment was to use science to design technology that would improve the human condition. Really, transhumanism is an extension of that idea. The first person to articulate a transhumanist ideal would be J.B.S. Haldane. He was a British geneticist. For people that are familiar with the origin of life, Oparin-Haldane hypothesis, same guy, and he wrote a book called Daedalus where he presented kind of a transhumanist vision that once we begin to understand genetics, we’re going to be able to alter our genes to create human beings. We’ll be able to produce artificial wombs where we can cultivate humans in these artificial wombs. Huxley’s Brave New World was essentially based off of J.B.S. Haldane’s idea. Haldane was writing a scientific treatise, kind of anticipating where technology would go and you see transhumanism emerging in the 1960’s, but everybody regards it up until recently as a fringe idea. Of course, there’s all kinds of science-fiction movies that people can immediately point to where this idea of transhumanism is played out in science-fiction terms, but we’re now seeing advances in bio-technology, in bio-engineering, that are giving life to transhumanism and moving it into the mainstream, so now if you read journals in science and technology or you read philosophers, particular materialistic philosophers, there’s a lot of discussion about transhumanism becoming a credible mainstream idea, so this is something that as Christians we’re going to have to engage.
Kurt: In the 20th century, at least over in Europe, there was the eugenics debate and even here in America there was a eugenics debate with Margaret Sanger, for instance, who’s the founder of Planned Parenthood, and if she had her way, she wanted to help the human race. I know C.S. Lewis participated. You mentioned Haldane, and I haven’t read his works, but that name clicked, where did I read that? In C.S. Lewis’s writings. He talks about Haldane. There already was that debate, but it seems like here in the 21st century, roughly 100 years later, they envisioned that technology and here we are and now we have the technology, we have these capabilities, and it seems like the 21st century is really going to be poised for a round two of the eugenics debate.
Fuz: Yes, and this is where gene editing raises some very real concerns about eugenics. The thing is that we are on the slippery slope towards eugenics, towards again this transhumanist vision, because the technology can be used for really good things, but then it’s just one or two steps away from beginning to use gene editing, not to just treat genetic disorders, but develop designer babies, or maybe even perform genetic enhancements, and so at that point it’s getting into a very high-tech or very subtle form of eugenics. Even the idea of let’s use gene editing to eliminate a genetic disorder from the gene pool. It’s a form of eugenics where you are…
Kurt: You’re manipulating the code….
Fuz: To get rid of people with genetic disorders, and so you’re saying that if somebody has an illness, a genetic-based illness, they somehow are not valuable in the same way that somebody is who’s genetically pristine or if you now think about enhancements, you now could say if somebody hasn’t been genetically enhanced to be stronger or more intelligent, then people that are just genetically natural are not going to be viewed as being vulnerable. It’s a very subtle pathway towards a eugenics future, that is masquerading behind this idea of let’s get rid of genetic disorders from the human gene pool. That’s a great idea. Who’s opposed to that? Right?
Kurt: So it seems.
Fuz: Yeah. People don’t suffer from genetic diseases, but the pathway to it is as you’re pointing out eugenics in nature.
Kurt: So again, in the 20th century there were social Darwinist experiments and while creating a superior Aryan race may have taken generations, this would be in a different way be a similar path toward that same goal and for many of us like you said, who wouldn’t want to manipulate the genes that would cause sickness and suffering. I kid you not, it was two weekends ago, I was having a discussion with some folks about this very topic and one person had posed the question, “Would you if you could get rid of Down Syndrome for example or a cancer causing gene or something?” At first it seems like maybe we should….And this fellow asked, “Take it a step further. Would you create humans with perfect eyesight? Would you create no males under 5’7″ or something like that?” So all of a sudden you have these traits, and I responded and I said, “Actually, I wouldn’t do any.” This is my position. I’ll have to think more about why it’s my position. Maybe you can help me out, but there are still benefits I think in talking about the problem of evil and suffering, one form of theodicy is the soul-making theodicy that we live in this world where there’s evil and suffering and it helps to build our character, it builds our soul. Whether we immediately suffer from genetic defects, it can still be very beneficial for the sake of eternity, so that’s at least one way of approaching it.
Fuz: Yeah. What you’re bringing up is really interesting because you have to appreciate the fact that when you think of transhumanism now as a philosophilcal framework, it’s almost a worldview flowing out of the Enlightenment and the idea that we can put our faith appropriately in technology to solve our problems. What you’re looking at is transhumanism is a form of a theodicy. Right? Where we’re using technology to improve the human condition, to alleviate pain and suffering, but transhumanism is also in a sense, a materialistic eschatology, where many people that are embracing transhumanism are atheists or materialists and so transhumanism essentially is the eschatological hope that transhumanists have and so for them the theodicy is technology the way to alleviate pain and suffering whereas as Christians we would say that, yes, we want to do what we can to alleviate pain and suffering in people, we want to display compassion and do what we can, but we also recognize that there’s actually a place for pain and suffering in our worldview where it’s not viewed as a negative thing but something that God can use as you’re pointing out to transform our character. Christianity I think is distinct among worldviews in having a robust theology that helps us to create a space for pain and suffering where we see it as being beneficial though nobody wants to experience it, so there’s kind of that tension between alleviating pain and suffering or helping people to walk through that pain and suffering and encouraging them through that process.
Kurt: It can be so tricky though. In the Gospels we see Jesus healing the sick, right? It seems like with this transhumanism philosophy, shouldn’t we also heal the sick and isn’t this one of the ways to do that?
Fuz: Right. To me, let’s go back to this gene-editing example. There’s probably easily approaching ten thousand different genetic disorders that involve a mutation in a single gene. If we could just go in and replace that defective gene with a healthy gene, you could alleviate a lot of human pain and suffering. To me, where gene editing is probably most appropriate to use, would be for adults. They refer to this as somatic cell gene editing, where you’re doing gene editing in body cells. Let’s say somebody has cystic fibrosis and it’s due to a defect in a single gene that codes for a chloride transporter. If you could target the gene-editing package to lung cells, you wouldn’t even have to do a full transformation of that patient genetically, but just target the lung cells, and you could replace that defective gene with a healthy gene, you could treat that patient. It wouldn’t be permanent because the lung cells are turning over so you’d have to do repeated gene therapy throughout their lives, but that would be a wonderful way to use that technology to alleviate pain and suffering in the same way that you would use a drug treatment or any other kind of medical treatment to kind of help that patient manage that disorder, but if you’re trying to, then you go one step further, if we know that parents are carriers for that defective gene, let’s now do in vitro fertilization and screening to try to prevent them from having children with the risk of cystic fibrosis. Now you’re moving away from an appropriate medical application of the technology to something that is really very disconcerting under the guise of, “Hey. Let’s get rid of this genetic disorder once and for all.” Right?
Kurt: This is going to go maybe deeper under the philosophical issues. You’re right. There’s something about manipulating the gene ahead of time. Something seems not right, but how do we pinpoint that moral intuition. Is it just an intuition or do we have good reasons for thinking we shouldn’t be doing that?
Fuz: From my perspective and I’m not a philosopher and not an ethicist, but when it comes to ethical deliberations that I see today for these kind of technologies, those deliberations are primarily based on secular ethics, consequentialism and utilitarianism. Those really are not very robust ethical systems. I think an ethical system built around the Christian worldview has a lot to contribute to society at large as we deliberate on these things because in Christianity, there’s a strong motivation for doing science and technology for developing medical advances, but there’s also this capacity of Christian theology to put barriers or boundaries around what we should or shouldn’t do, so we want to promote human flourishing, but we never want to do anything that’s going to exploit humanity or undermine human identity and this is all centered around the concept of the image of God. I think we’ve got this wonderful ethical system that flows out of Christian theology that gives us that appropriate balance. There’s still going to be where places where good people are going to disagree, but at least the eye is towards, there are going to be limits to what we do here and very hard limits if there’s any danger of exploiting another human being, but we also want to do what we can to be able to promote human flourishing.
Kurt: There’s still that good use like you mentioned for the adult who’s receiving the gene therapy.
Kurt: So there are the good uses, but then there are those bad uses. As we continue to have conversations in the realm of bioethics, there will be those debates even among Christians. Where is that line? But it seems like, well, as far as manipulating genes ahead of time, it seems like maybe we’re trying to play God just a little too much.
Fuz: This whole idea of playing God is really the question that summarizes I think the discomfort that we all feel as Christians when we engage in this. I actually take the position that as human beings, we have no choice but to play God. The reason why I say that is because we’re made in God’s image. Right?
Kurt: So there are bad ways to play God and good ways to play God.
Fuz: To me, it’s not trying to play God that’s the issue. It’s are we trying to take God’s place? I think again, Christianity gives us a framework to ask that question about what is really our motivation here and are we crossing lines that we perhaps shouldn’t cross? I think this is one way that Christianity can really contribute to our culture, because to me, with transhumanism, there’s so much anxiety that’s associated with it and that the gut level reaction of many people, not just Christians, is to say, “This is dangerous. We’re playing God. We shouldn’t do this. Let’s condemn it.” My view is let’s actually work hard to delineate what really are the potential ethical issues and let’s engage those issues with some measure of sophistication and if we can show people the power of the Christian worldview to organize our ethical thinking, then actually, it’s a defense of the Christian faith, and it actually allows us to use transhumanism as a way to introduce people to Christianity so there’s an evangelism that can happen and an apologetics that can happen if we are willing to engage our culture in an effective way and recently I’ve seen a beautiful example of how Christians have done that with regard to embryonic stem cell research. Christians, in the early days when this was being, again, advocated and being advanced, Christians stood up against embryonic stem cell research because of the concern of compromising the concern of human life through the destruction of embryos, but Christians were very sophisticated and general about engaging this by saying what about alternative technology like adult stem cells? That pressure that Christians put on the scientific community forced the discovery of what are called induced pluripotent stem cells, which are stem cells that are derived from skin cells but they believe just like a stem cell, but no embryos are created and destroyed. There’s still a long way to go to get these alternative technologies into a clinical setting, but they’re showing some promise, but here’s the beautiful example of how Christians had engaged our culture in a positive way and have shaped how science proceeds. I think we can do the same thing with human enhancement technologies and again doing so showing the power of the Christian worldview.
Kurt: I hadn’t even considered that. It can serve as an opportunity, these conversations can serve as an opportunity. It’s because this area of thinking, this area of science. It’s not just science. We have assumptions when we come and want to do research or we think about the application, and so we bring in our theological, our philosophical, our ethical, our worldview, into how we do science and so if we work it the right way, it can serve as a good opportunity to share the gospel. That’s something I hadn’t even thought of.
Fuz: Working at Reasons to Believe is how I’m trained to think. When we look at science, how do we engage science in such a way that we’re using to build a bridge to the gospel. The thing that’s very interesting to me about transhumanism is it’s really exposing a fundamental need that all human beings have, that the gospel itself answers. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to live forever because that’s suggesting that you have the sense that death isn’t natural, that death is an enemy of sorts, right? And that as human beings we have a destiny. We have an overarching purpose that we want to cling to by having eternal life or immortality. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to live in a utopian world.
Kurt: We’re striving for that.
Fuz: We’re working towards that. Or how can we appropriately alleviate pain and suffering. What you see being exposed with transhumanists is a need that we have for something that is the transcendent in a sense and, of course, the gospel offers that as that’s what the gospel’s offering, that capacity to attain a utopian world, we call it the new heavens and the new earth where we are an intimate relationship with our creator and with other Christians, and yet there’s not pain and suffering and…
Kurt: But how we get there is really important.
Fuz: Are we getting there through technology or are we going to try to get there through essentially the gospel itself?
Kurt: Nice. Whenever I think of these discussions where we’re talking about proper use of technology or whatnot. I’ve got this quote up here from Jurassic Park, I believe it’s the original. Dr. Ian Malcolm who’s played by Jeff Goldblum. He says, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could. They didn’t stop to think if they should.” I thought how great that is. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. For some people, they think if we can do something, well, we should do it. That can be really dangerous.
Fuz: Yeah. A lot of times, I love that quote too and that quote is really the heart of this conversation in many respects. The thing is for scientists, it’s not so much hubris as it is this driving curiosity. I think I can do this. It’s a curiosity that drives them to try things that maybe they shouldn’t where they’re not getting appropriate ethical deliberation. A lot of times scientists will say, “Look. I’m just a scientist. I just want to see what’s possible. I’m not an ethicist. That’s a conversation for somebody else,” but the problem is…
Kurt: You can’t avoid it.
Fuz: You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. Once you discover that you can do something, that knowledge and capability is out there. While scientists may never intend that discovery to be used in inappropriate ways, somebody else may very well take advantage of that. This is really part of the whole problem with using technology as the hope for our salvation, is that there’s always unintended consequences with technology and the history of technology is ripe with those kinds of examples. Right? The more powerful the technology, the more potentially devastating the unintended consequences are and so invariably they’re going to be unintended consequences that we probably can’t even imagine today with hooking people up to cybernetic systems or doing gene editing or utilizing stem cells and implanting them into human beings or trying to increase our intelligence or our physical strength. We very well may have unintended consequences. One of them that’s really provocative is we may even be responsible for our own extinction as a species because if we alter ourselves to such a degree, we may lose our identity as human beings. In fact, part of transhumanism is we’re going to create these post-human species that are going to be more suitable for a futuristic world because we’re going to be able to transcend our biological limits. We’re going to free ourselves from the shackles of our biology. This is the language that you see used, but the problem is while we may save ourselves, it’s not going to be ourselves who we save. This is actually called the salvation paradox for transhumanism, but the point is is that what if we end up doing something like that and there’s no return and what we realize is that we’ve created a dystopian future, not a utopian future, and this is not what anybody would have signed up for, but there’s no going back, and these could represent again unintended consequences that nobody really imagined. This is a limitation of technofaith if you will.
Kurt: Yeah. Technofaith. It’s like Terminator prophecied where it’s coming. We’re going to form a certain subset of humans to become robots. Kind of the equivalent of Skynet and then you’ve got the real humans fighting the machines for the survival of the human race, literally, for the survival.
Fuz: Yes, and this is the thing is that there’s so many examples of science fiction movies and books that are dealing with this topic and suddenly, science fiction is becoming reality.
Kurt: It’s no longer fiction.
Fuz: And so, in a sense we haven’t intended to do this, but we actually have equipped ourselves very well through science fiction and these kinds of explorations to begin to engage these topics and my hope is that again, Christians become through these experiences, become very sophisticated about engaging our culture in this area because again, there’s a golden opportunity for the gospel. So often, I see people trying to use science as a way to erect a barrier to keep them shielded from the gospel and with transhumanism, science is being used to actually not only pull down that barrier, but expose the need that we all have for the gospel and so we’re gonna have to learn as Christians how to argue well along the lines that technofaith or turning to transhumanism is really a false gospel. In a sense…
Kurt: There’s still that desire for salvation. There’s a recognition of evil and suffering in the world. Where do they get that sense from on their frameworks? It really speaks a lot about their views and like you said, it tears down that wall because they want to have these conversations. They’re intrigued by transhumanism and they may not use the term themselves, but they might find it appealing, “Well why shouldn’t we manipulate?” It helps to have those conversations more easily than they otherwise would.
Fuz: Because now you have people as this idea becomes more and more prevalent in our culture and it will, people are begging you to share the gospel with them, because in the sense, they are casting their own form of a gospel, but if we’re not willing or don’t see this as an opportunity to present the gospel, then what you have is really a competitor to the gospel in the transhumanist vision and so we need to be aware of that, but the parallels are astounding. Of course, one thing that transhumanists don’t take into account is human sin. Right? Of course, unintended consequences get horrifically amplified when you start to complicate them with our capacity to do evil and the more powerful the technology, the more evil that we can perpetrate so there’s a lot of things at stake here, but I think this is a golden opportunity for the Christian faith.
Kurt: Yeah. Wow. That’s awesome. You’re currently working on a book on this topic. Tell me more about that.
Fuz: The book is almost written. I’m collaborating with my friend Ken Samples who’s a philosopher and a theologian. I’m approaching this from a scientific perspective. The goal of our book is really to get Christians aware of transhumanism, get them beginning to think about this, and then helping them to realize how they can engage transhumanism and so part of the book is explaining what is the primary science that is kind of enlivening the transhumanism vision today, the science and technology that are going to serve as stepping stones to human enhancements and to ultimately the transhumanist vision. I think it’s very important that Christians understand the science as much as they can because that’s going to allow us to more effectively engage these ideas and people are taking for granted, for example, that gene editing is just going to happen, and it’s going to work really well and there’s a number of technical issues that may keep it actually from really being a part of fulfilling the transhumanist vision, but I think it’s important that we are even able to point out what the technical issues are, what the limitations are, but part of the book is just to give Christians a background in the science and then there’s a part of the book that’s going to be dealing with the ethical issues surrounding this and how do we engage those issues well? Finally, how do we connect transhumanism to the gospel? I hope it’s a fun book and a provocative book, but the goal is to really again, equip Christians to begin to have these conversations and the hope is not to tell Christians how to think about this, but to give them the tools and the encouragement to think about this on their own, to teach them to think about, so that they can become effective at engaging it. I see this as the beginning of the conversation, not the end of the conversation.
Kurt: Yeah, right. Hopefully, it will again, prepare those Christians for this upcoming debate, or even just the conversations that they’re having with their friends who might be thinking about the benefits here. I think it’s certainly something that’s going to become more common as the technology becomes even more public. Some of the things are already happening and we don’t even know it. We’ve got to be prepared. Ten, twenty years, this stuff, we might be having politicians saying, “Let’s give more money to transhumanism research.” We’re going to be having these debates so it’s important to be ready.
Fuz: Yes. The debates are going to intensify most certainly, but again, what a golden opportunity to engage our culture in a way that really illustrates the power of the Christian worldview.
Kurt: That’s great. Fuz. Thank you so much for coming on today’s program and for enlightening us on this little known topic, but very important topic nonetheless as it begins to gain in popularity and becomes part of the marketplace of ideas out there. It’s gaining a bigger stall in the marketplace.
Fuz: It sure is.
Kurt: Fuz. Thank you so much.
Fuz: Kurt. Thanks for having me. It’s always fun.
Kurt: Great. Great. That does it on today’s program. I am grateful for the continued support of our patrons. Those are folks that just chip in a few bucks a month and if you want to learn how to become a patron and support our program, you can go to our website veracityhill.com. I’m also grateful for the sponsorships that we have with Defenders Media, Consult Kevin, The Sky Floor, Rethinking Hell, The Illinois Family Institute, Fox Restoration, and Non-Profit Megaphone. I want to thank our in-studio guest, Fuz Rana, for coming in today. Last but not least, I want to thank you for listening in and for striving for truth on faith, politics, and society.
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