(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, January 18, 2015.)
The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities … transhumanism is a way of thinking about the future that is based on the premise that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase.1
Transhumanism appears to have nothing in common with religion, defined as: “the belief in and worship of a god or gods, or any such system of belief and worship…”2 In transhumanism the gods play no role.
Yet the two are not entirely dissimilar. Religious people generally want to overcome the limitations of the body and live forever, just like transhumanists. Arising before transhumanist ideas were conceivable, religions had no other option but to advise their followers to accept death and hope for the best. Religious beliefs provided comfort in the face of death and natural evils before the advent of science and technology. We might think of religion as premature transhumanism. Religion is not the opposite of transhumanism but a seed from which transhumanism can grow.
However today the comfort provided by archaic religious superstitions impedes advancement and therefore should be set aside. We need to grow beyond religion. But must we relinquish religious beliefs now, before science gives us everything we want? Yes. The most important reason to abandon religious belief is religion’s opposition to most forms of progress. For the most part, religion has opposed: the elimination of slavery, the use of birth control, women’s and civil rights, stem cell research, genetic engineering, and science in general. Religion is from our past; it opposes the future.
Can humans function without the old religious narratives? They can, they just need new narratives based on a scientific worldview. Such narratives could be transhumanist, of humans playing their role as links in a chain leading to greater forms of being and consciousness; or perhaps they will focus on the idea that cosmic evolution is the story of the universe becoming self-conscious through conscious beings like ourselves. Whatever shape those narratives take, they must be informed by the belief that humans can evolve into something much more than they are now.
But against this seemingly infinite temporal background, what of the significance of a single, finite human life, and what is the significance of all of cosmic evolution? We are significant if we play our part in advancing evolution if we accept our role as the protagonists of the evolutionary epic. And if we succeed our post-human descendants will understand these ultimate questions, giving our own lives—by then long past—a significance we can now hardly fathom. For the moment we must take solace in the hope that the better world we imagine is indeed possible.
1. This quote is from the Humanity+ website’s FAQ section.
2. From “The Cambridge International Dictionary of English.”