Last Friday, I heard an excellent talk by Dr Michael Burdett of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, on the subject of bio-enhancement and transhumanism. Bio-enhancement is the use of technology – typically medical – to move someone beyond health to ‘superior’ performance (including, for example, athletes using performance-enhancing drugs). Because such technologies are typically used to gain a competitive advantage over others, they are generally deemed to be unethical. Transhumanism takes this desire to be ‘better than good’ even further, and seeks to direct human evolution through the use of technology. This might include incorporating technology, such as a microchip, into the human person, but it also includes seeking to transcend human mortality by finding ways of transferring human consciousness into a robotic or computer home.
That may sound very sci-fi and far-fetched, but these are things that people are working towards today. The web site whatistranshumanism.org explains the goals of transhumanism as, “developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.” It goes on to say, “We can also use technological means that will eventually enable us to move beyond what some would think of as ‘human’.” In other words, transhumanists are seeking immortality and a ‘perfected’ humanity.”
The transhumanists are not alone in this. In September of this year, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife announced that they were donating $3 billion to research intended to eliminate all human disease. On the face of it, that sounds like a very laudable goal. We all want to see an end to suffering, childhood deaths and debilitating old age. But is it, in fact, a very sensible thing to do? Is it the right thing to do?
Is it the right thing to do? That probably sounds like a strange question to ask. How could it not be the right thing to do? As I write this, I am struggling with a cold. Would I be happier if I didn’t have a cold? Yes, but, in truth, it’s only a minor inconvenience. It isn’t life-threatening, and it isn’t incapacitating. There’s even the chance that having a cold does me some good. It puts my immune system to work and reminds it what it’s supposed to do. As anyone who has ever had a minor ailment will know, it’s a clear reminder that we’re not superhuman; we have to look after and take care of ourselves. Perhaps more controversially, dealing with adversity – including non-life-threatening illnesses – helps to shape who we are and how we face the world. Being ill enough to have to depend on someone else to take care of us can help us learn how graciously and with dignity to accept help from others. It also helps us develop empathy for the suffering of others, whether from illness or another cause, if we know what it means to experience some level of suffering ourselves.
So does this mean we should never aim to reduce or end suffering; not bother trying to find cures for illness and disease at all? Of course not. But I would suggest that we not try to overreach ourselves. A cure for the common cold would surely be popular, but that doesn’t make it necessary. There are diseases that can be prevented through healthy life-style choices. Creating a medical cure or preventative for these might discourage people from making healthier choices and engaging in healthy activities that might also benefit them in other ways. In that case, is the medical cure the best option? I have no doubt that Mark Zuckerberg and his wife have motives that are truly altruistic and aimed at making the world a better place. But I am forced to wonder if underlying that is our society’s growing inability to accept death as a natural part of life. Even now, in an attempt to push back mortality, researchers are developing drugs to slow or even stop the aging process in humans.
It is this refusal to accept the inevitability of death that drives transhumanism as well. Those who seek to grant humanity immortality often promote their vision as utopian – creating the perfect world. But in a world of finite and limited resources, and where those resources are not distributed equally and fairly, what kind of a world would really be created if we eliminated disease and halted the aging process? For the transhumanists, this isn’t a problem, because they don’t envision human beings living forever in a biological body. But if our existence can be reduced to a collection of electrical activity that can be moved from our brains into a computer, what kind of life would that be? Most of the things that give us joy are related to our physicality – the beauty of a sunrise or a painting, listening to music or to bird song, evocative smells, the feeling of walking or dancing, enjoying a good meal, seeing a loved-one smile. All of that would be lost. At best, it might be simulated, but there’s no guarantee the simulation would be as good as the real thing. What’s the point of immortality if it has no joy?
Religion is sometimes accused of being just another way people seek to escape the reality of death, because most of the world’s religions include belief in an afterlife. I would argue, however, that this is an unfair judgement on religion and religious believers. Religion does not deny the reality of death. Christianity certainly doesn’t. Only through death can we move from this life into the next. Eternal life is not the same thing as seeking immortality in this life. True, Christian doctrine does teach that there will be a physical resurrection and that eternal life includes a physical existence without suffering and death. But it is not the same as this existence. Christians believe that we are able to experience a life without death only after we have passed through death. Life here must end in order for life hereafter to begin. From a Christian perspective, those who wish to cling forever to this life would do so at the expense of something greater.