Is Transhumanism A Religion?

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(This post was reprinted in Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, May 22, 2018)

Transhumanism is an intellectual movement that aims to transform and improve the human condition by developing and making available sophisticated technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physiological, and moral functioning. Transhumanists argue that humanity in its current form represents an early phase of its evolutionary development. A common transhumanist thesis is that humans may eventually transform themselves into beings with such greatly expanded abilities that they will have become godlike or posthuman. Notably, this includes defeating the limitation imposed by death.

Now many claim that transhumanism is just another religion. But is this true?

While transhumanists want some of the same things that religious believers do such as infinite being, infinite consciousness, and infinite bliss, religion and transhumanism are dissimilar in important ways. Whereas religious beliefs are often superstitious and implausible, both an affront to the intellect and an insult of our best scientific knowledge, transhumanists want to replace the delusions of popular religions and use science and technology to transform reality.

There is little similarity between imaging there is a mansion in the sky populated by angels and gods on the one hand and creating a heaven on earth and minds as powerful as gods on the other. In other words, there is a great difference between saying that unicorns exist and using biotechnology to create them. The first is fantasy, the second an engineering project. (Although transhumanism may be more compatible with some form of process theology or other more sophisticated versions of religion.)

Others object to transhumanism because they worry about the risks associated with the project. But there is no risk-free way to proceed into the future and if we are to survive and flourish we must augment our moral and intellectual faculties. We either evolve, or we will all die. And no help will come from the gods. They are either imaginary or just don’t care, as an honest evaluation of history readily reveals.

7 thoughts on “Is Transhumanism A Religion?

  1. In Professor Bostrom’s article, he was imagining the potential capabilities of future AI systems, leading to his definition of “superintelligence”. Throughout his article, he was talking about superintelligence as a developed entity distinct from and serving humanity, not merged with or augmenting individual humans. Thus, I don’t think he was talking about Transhumanism, per se.

    There is certainly nothing wrong with being a futurist, because imagining possible future scenarios is important for identifying potential benefits and threats of technology to humanity. But not every imagined future will be realized. Most will not. Even for technologies that initially seem to be practical, the developmental and technical challenges are usually far greater than originally conceived.

    Consider nuclear fusion and its application to providing unlimited, cheap, clean energy through implementation in fusion power reactors. Some of your readers may be surprised to learn that we are still nowhere near realizing this dream. Although being a simple concept, it is notoriously difficult to implement in a practical and cost-effective manner. Early in the 20th century, futurists imagined working fusion power plants by the 1940s. After WWII, scientists and engineers aimed to develop working fusion power plants in the 1950s or 1960s. In the early 1980s, when I attended a fusion power conference, the estimate at the time was that there would be a working fusion power plant in “20 years”. But by that time, the “20 year” estimate had become something of an inside joke, since it had been “20 years” every year for the previous 20 years! I recently asked a friend who works in laser fusion research what the current estimate is for a working fusion power plant and he laughed and said “20 years”. The Wikipedia article on fusion power puts it “by 2050”, which is about 30 years away. Maybe “30” is the new “20”. So the original estimates to develop this “simple” concept were at least 100 years wrong.

    The point of that diversion is that fusion power is a far simpler and better defined technology to develop than superintelligence, as defined in the article by Professor Bostrom. If the “simple” concept is developmentally delayed by at least 100 years, what about such a vague and grandiose concept as superintelligence? So my quibble with Prof. Bostrom’s article is not with the concept of superintelligence, but the statement “but there seems currently to be no good ground for assigning a negligible probability to the hypothesis that superintelligence will be created within the lifespan of some people alive today”. As a scientist/engineer, I would argue that there are many good grounds. But non-scientists will latch onto his statement and, through wishful thinking, conflate it to think it means that superintelligence will be developed in their lifetimes.

    Will humans develop highly advanced AI systems for both good (e.g., miniaturized robotic surgeons) and evil (e.g., killer robots)? Yes. I have no doubt. But will humans ever develop a god-like superintelligence that can solve all of humanity’s problems and extend our lifetimes indefinitely? No. That is just a fantasy. Such a fantasy is as implausible as any traditional religious belief that a deity will solve all our problems and take us to live forever in heaven. This plausibility comparison is what led to my original “silly” comment, for which I apologize since it obviously caused some angst.

  2. Jim – I really appreciate your thoughtful, detailed reply. Your points about the failure of many future technologies is noted, with a caveat that many technologies we never imagined transformed our lives (like the internet.) However, I am just too influenced by Kurzweil, Kaku, Bostrom, and all the rest. With oceans of time for future innovation, almost anything is possible. Of course we might not have much time at all.

  3. I find something ludicrous in the notion of making vastly superior humans. The basic member of that species is a Pleistocene hunter-gatherer, genetically instilled with xenophobia, a brain that can make fast decisions in a Pleistocene environment, but is hopelessly inadequate to cope with the challenges of civilized existence. As I have written before, humans are just faking it as civilized creatures, and not doing a very good job at that.

    We have reached the point where the average citizen doesn’t even come close to grasping the operation of the civilization we have created. Until the last few decades, a kind of aristocracy — elected representatives — was able to handle problems competently. But of late, the problems have reached a degree of subtlety that the citizens are unable to elect representatives who can cope.

    The judicial system is the last bastion of rationalism; here in America, we have been calling on it to resolve disputes that we cannot resolve legislatively. It has been forced to squeeze the existing body of law for any droplets of guidance; when it issues judgements on such stretched foundations, it loses the confidence of the citizenry. The entire justice system — lawyers, prosecutors, and courts — is now under assault. It can probably resist the pitchfork-waving anti-rational mob for a while yet. But the end result is inevitable: the Pleistocene hunter-gatherer inside each of us will become so frustrated with the confusion of modern civilization that it will lash out irrationally, destroying the foundations of modern civilization.

    And somebody thinks that they can transform this barbarian into a super-human?

  4. Really thoughtful reply. I agree with everything you say here and thus propose the only radical solution I can think of — using technology for human enhancement. I don’t think low tech methods like education have been very effective—although they have been somewhat so. Even then our problems are so pressing that we need to do something much more radical and as quickly as possible. Thus I want to rebuild or rewire humans so as to bypass, to the extent it is possible, all the evolutionary wiring, especially by intellectual and moral enhancement.

  5. I’m not quite as pessimistic about the current state of affairs as Mr. Crawford is, although he raises valid points. And I agree that the extreme transhumanist goal of a “godlike” being is implausible. However, in the short run, I find it entirely plausible that human evolution can be accelerated somewhat by applying genetic engineering techniques to improve physical and mental functioning. Some of those techniques are currently restrained only by ethical concerns over creating “designer humans”. As incremental, less-controversial benefits (such as gene replacement therapy) become realized, societal prohibitions against the more controversial aspects may change over time.

    But the real difficulty is how to improve moral functioning in both individuals and in society as a whole to keep pace with any improvement in physical and mental functioning. We are pretty smart creatures now and yet our moral functioning is not so great, as aptly described by Mr. Crawford. Despite its limitation, the “low tech” approach of better education is the only method I can envision. And as to the meaning of it all, we need more philosophical forums such as this one to help foster discussion and debate.

  6. I like your thoughtful comments, they really help me think this through. And thanks for the kind words about the website.

  7. Very interesting additional comments. I agree with John that we need something radical, and that education has proven inadequate to the challenge. Yet the essence of conservatism is opposition to change; the ever-increasing need for radical change will only trigger ever more strident resistance to change. The more desperate our situation becomes, the louder they will scream that we must revert to ancient practices. As civilization goes down the toilet, it will spin faster and faster around the drain.

    And you have a NICE day! 😉

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