The Future of the Human Species (Part 1)

Part II

If a number of pundits are correct, we have already taken some initial steps toward creating a posthuman future.[1] The goal of this project is nothing less than the perfection of the human species. Specifically, human performance will be enhanced and longevity extended through anticipated advances in pharmacology, biotechnology, and bionics. Drugs, for example, can lessen the need for sleep; genetic engineering will slow the aging process; artificial limbs will enhance strength and agility; and brain implants will enhance the speed of interacting with computers. The cyborg becomes the next stage of human evolution.[2] Some visionaries foresee a day when, with the aid of artificial intelligence and robotics, endless lives might be achieved. The underlying binary information constituting one’s personality would be uploaded into a computer and then downloaded into robotic bodies or virtual reality programs. With sufficient and reliable memory storage, the process could, in principle, be repeated indefinitely, thereby achieving virtual immortality.[3] In the posthuman future, humans become self-perfected artifacts by blurring, if not eliminating, the line separating the natural from the artificial.[4]

The promise of the posthuman project is the creation of beings that live healthy, productive, and happy lives, and most importantly beings that live for very long time—perhaps forever. The ultimate promise is immortality. The accompanying peril, however, is that the cost is exorbitant. The price of perfecting humankind is its destruction, for in becoming posthuman humans cease being human. The peril of the posthuman project, in short, is that its optimism disguises an underlying death-wish for the human species.

One might be tempted to object that any worry about this peril is misplaced. The peril presupposes a promise that is far from certain. Few, if any, of the requisite technological advances have yet been achieved, and the likelihood of dramatic breakthroughs any time soon is slim at best. A so-called posthuman future is based on science fiction, not science. Consequently, time should not be wasted worrying about a peril that might, but probably will never present itself.

There are two reasons why this temptation should be resisted. First, even in the absence of the technical advances and breakthroughs that would be required, we nonetheless must come to terms with the extent to which technology is shaping the character and trajectories of contemporary life. As Martin Heidegger and others have observed, technology has become the ontology of our age; our mode of being in the world by mastering and reshaping it in an image of what we want the world to become.[5] In large part, humans now live, and move, and have their being within fabricated environments that have become their natural habitats. It is through technology that they increasingly express who they are and what they aspire to become. This is not a mere acknowledgement of the ubiquitous presence of machines and gadgets within the fabric of daily life, but that in increasingly turning to medicine to control their behavior, regulate their biological processes, and repair and sculpt their bodies humans are literally coming to embody a technological age. Focusing on the prospect of a posthuman future, which is admittedly far from certain, helps us to come to terms with the fact that, to invoke George Grant’s phrase, “in each lived moment of our waking and sleeping, we are technological civilisation.”[6] To ponder the prospect of becoming posthuman requires that we also ask the question of what it means to be human, and any answer we offer cannot avoid the question of technology.

Second, even if most, if not all, of the more immodest expectations—such as immortality—never come true, posthuman discourse is nevertheless shaping a vision of the future, and thereby derivatively our moral imagination. Like it or not, how we envision the future informs our moral convictions and conduct in the present, and it does not matter how improbable, strange, or fantastic such a vision might appear to be in exerting such influence. Whether, for example, I believe that I will either live a long and sickly life or a short but robust one, goes a long way in shaping how I spend my time and money in the meantime. Whether or not either scenario is likely is largely irrelevant, for I become a certain kind of person in reaction to what I believe the future entails; if I believe that my life will be short and sweet, I become a free-spending bohemian. In a similar vein, if we believe, either implicitly or explicitly, that we can and should exert greater mastery over nature and human nature, that belief goes a long way in shaping what we do and how we treat each other in the present. In this respect, N. Katherine Hayles is correct in asserting that “People become posthuman because they think they are posthuman.”[7] Such posthuman thinking should, at the very least, prompt some deliberation on its good or ill effects in forming our moral imagination, particularly in light of growing technological power and potential for further development.

If I have persuaded the reader that the peril of the posthuman project is, after all, worthy of some scrutiny, how might we best proceed? A promising avenue is suggested by the early work of the President’s Council on Bioethics in which its members discussed Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, The Birthmark.[8] Although the exercise was derided by many reporters and bioethicists as a waste of time, it reflected the insight of its chairman, Leon Kass, that fiction is often quite perceptive in revealing fundamental convictions, hopes, and aspirations, offering a fruitful starting point for moral deliberation and discernment.

The Birthmark is a tale about a brilliant scientist who marries a stunningly beautiful woman. Her appearance is perfect in every regard except for a tiny birthmark on her cheek. The scientist becomes obsessed with this tiny, barely imperceptible flaw, and he concocts various potions to remove it. Over time his efforts succeed. The birthmark disappears, but only at the moment that his wife dies. In Hawthorne’s words: “As the last crimson tint of the birthmark—that sole token of human imperfection—faded from her cheek, the parting breath of the now perfect woman passed into the atmosphere…”

Hawthorne offers a sobering warning: the quest for perfection leads to a deadly destination. The cost of removing the flaw is a corpse. The applicability of this story to the posthuman project is obvious: humans must first be killed in order to perfect them. The extinction of the human species is certainly one possible consequence that should give some pause in assessing the prospect of a posthuman future, but I do not think it is the most likely outcome. Rather, technological reconstruction may eventually produce a new species that is deemed to be superior, but to what extent these new beings can be said to be perfect is question begging: by what standard of perfection is this judgment made, and what are the costs of attaining this perfect state? In other words, the underlying and unacknowledged death-wish driving the posthuman project is not an overt desire to exterminate humankind, but an ill-advised attempt to strip away the vulnerability and imperfections that enable humans to be human and humane. It is not the death of humankind but its humanity that is at stake. We can begin to unfold this more subtle endeavor by taking a look at another short story by Hawthorne.

In Rappaccini’s Daughter we encounter the highly acclaimed physician, Dr. Rappaccini, his lovely daughter, Beatrice, and a young medical student, Giovanni, who is living in the guest room. One of the chief features of the villa is a large garden that is filled with exotic plants, each one of them highly poisonous. The slightest contact is lethal, and even a quick sniff of their aroma causes illness. To stroll through this garden, one must keep his distance. Yet Beatrice is seen embracing the plants and breathing deeply of their fragrance. As the story unfolds we learn that since her birth her father has been slowly giving her increased dosages of the poisons he has been extracting from the garden. The effect has been to make her immune and invulnerable to any disease.

Giovanni and Beatrice fall in love. Yet through their courtship they never embrace, kiss, or hold hands for, as with the plants from the garden, Beatrice is lethal to the touch. We also learn that Dr. Rappaccini has been administering the same procedure to Giovanni without his knowledge. The father wants to create an intimate companion for his lonely daughter. When Giovanni learns that he too is being made invulnerable by becoming poisonous, he is appalled. A rival of Dr. Rappaccini on the medical faculty gives Giovanni an antidote that purportedly will make both he and Beatrice normal again. The couple makes a pact, but Beatrice insists that she take antidote first, and she dies.

This sad tale offers three lessons that may guide an assessment of the posthuman project: First, the cost of invulnerability is high. Dr. Rappaccini has purportedly achieved his goal of preventing his daughter, Beatrice, from contracting any deadly disease. She will be spared needless pain and suffering, and given a power and invincibility that few enjoy in confronting a cruel world. But it will also be an isolated life, devoid of any physical contact. She can neither touch nor be touched by others, for she is literally poisonous to anyone other than herself. Her life will also be devoid of any intimate and lasting relationships, a crushing fate as her father recognizes in his desperate attempt to transform Giovanni into a suitable, and equally poisonous, companion. Beatrice’s invulnerability has made her something less than human. May we not say, then, that in attempting to transform humankind into a superior species we run the risk of the death of our humanity?

Second, there is no going back. When Beatrice finally finds someone with whom she can purportedly share her life with fully, Giovanni is appalled by what he is becoming. Out of her love she agrees to forsake her invulnerability and return with her lover to a natural state where together they may risk a vulnerable embrace. The attempt, however, proves futile and deadly, for her transformation had been complete and irreversible. In Hawthorne’s haunting words: “To Beatrice—so powerfully had her earthly part been wrought upon by Rappaccini’s skill—as poison had been life, so the powerful antidote was death.”[9] May we not say, then, that once we travel very far down the posthuman path, it may prove difficult, if not impossible, to turn back?

Third, even if the promise is achieved, the consequences are ambiguous and uncertain. Because of Beatrice’s death we never know how the life of a poisonous couple might unfold. Would they be able to fully embrace, or would their respective lives prove too toxic to interlock in any meaningful sense? Moreover, is there a significant difference between the embrace of two invulnerable beings as opposed to vulnerable creatures? Would they be able to have offspring? If so, would their children share with them a life of poison, or would they be unable to touch what they have begotten until Rappaccini’s skill worked its transformation once again? May we not say, then, that even if the posthuman promise of a superior species is achieved, we do not know what will become of the human spirit and soul, and thereby whether or not these new beings will prove to be truly superior?

Hawthorne’s stories—written in the early nineteenth century—help to expose the posthuman project for what it really is, namely, a religious movement, and not a new or original one at that. The central posthuman precept may be summarized as follows: finitude and mortality represent the dire plight of the human condition. It is irrational and unfair that humans suffer, grow old, and die. In response, posthumanists offer the salvation of human transformation and perfection, culminating in virtual immortality.

Hawthorne reminds us that this is an old complaint. Few, if any, of our ancestors warmly embraced their mortal limits. There is also nothing novel about the proffered solution. Hawthorne’s plants and potions are simply exchanged for genetic engineering, miniaturization, silicon chips, and binary code. Consequently, it should not be surprising if Christians hear some familiar notes in this posthuman tune, for they have encountered similar themes before in what they identified as false religious beliefs. In more formal terms, posthuman discourse is based largely on philosophical or theological precepts about nature, human nature, and human destiny that are derived from what may be described as heretical doctrines. There are three prominent strands that we may focus upon for the purpose of this essay.

We may conveniently call the first strand nihilism. Nihilism is a modern philosophical orientation which posits that the world is devoid of any purpose or meaning. Consequently, there are no objective moral standards, only a subjective will to power. We assert this will over inanimate objects such as stones and cars, animate things such as plants or animals, or other people such as children and students. As late moderns, technology is the principal means that is used to assert this power. We transform minerals into steel to build cars; we use genetic engineering to produce better plants and animals; and we use drugs and psychological techniques to control the behavior of children and students. The world, our lives, and the lives of others are artifacts that we construct, and the future is largely what we make of it and will it to be.

Friedrich Nietzsche has become closely associated with this philosophical orientation. It should be noted, however, that although he accurately describes the nihilism of late modernity in all its lurid details, he does not commend it. Indeed, he is alarmed by its destructive potential. Nihilists can too easily conclude that in a world where there is nothing noble to will, it is better to will nothing at all—a despair leading to unspeakable violence. This is why he places his hope in the Űbermensch or Overman, a superior being that will rise above the fray and provide some meaning and purpose in a meaningless and purposeless world. Perhaps Nietzsche’s hope can be become real in the transformation of the human into the posthuman. Why not direct the otherwise directionless will to power toward the constructive goal of creating and perfecting a superior species?

This leads to the second strand that we may call Pelagianism. Pelagianism is a theological doctrine that is derived from that arch heretic Pelagius who caught the wrath of St. Augustine. The central tenet is that Adam’s fall did not corrupt human nature. Subsequent generations are not infected by original sin. They possess an innate ability to know the difference between right and wrong, and may choose the former without God’s assistance. Salvation resides within each human heart, and does not depend upon the initiative of a divine redeemer. It is ultimately human action, not God’s that counts. Consequently, humans can will themselves to be good; they can even will themselves to be perfect. And they can use their technological ingenuity to help accomplish this perfection.

In their more sober moments, nihilists and Pelagians recognize, however, that there are severe constraints that must be overcome in asserting the will to power and the will to perfection. This leads us to the third strand, which we may call Manicheism. Manicheism is a dualistic teaching that draws a sharp divide between the physical body and what may be variously described as an immaterial spirit, soul, or will. It is this immaterial essence which defines who we are and what we aspire to be. Unfortunately, this essence is trapped within a weak and fragile body that constrains the will to power and perfection. No matter how much in my youth I may have willed myself to be a major league pitcher, I did not have the body which would enable me to perfect a blazing fastball and killer curve. No matter how much we may will ourselves to live, eventually our bodies fail us and we die. What Manicheans in every age long for is to be rescued, to be saved from their bodies. The promise of virtual immortality, a life free of embodied limitations, then, is also the promise of salvation.

Given these formative strands, Christians are rightfully skeptical of the posthuman project, for it represents a corruption of their faith. Christians may, in good faith, concede that the patterns and trajectories of human life are to a large extent a matter of the will, and such willing certainly entails gaining and asserting various kinds of power. In the absence of such willful power civil communities, for instance, could not exist. What Christians do not affirm is that power itself is a proper object to be willed; rather, power is a means of achieving that which is willed.

What is the highest or greatest good that humans should will? The short answer is, of course, God. If we direct our will toward any lesser goods, our subsequent desires and lives become misdirected, disordered, or, to use a word that is falling out of favor, sinful. And the consequences of sin are grave. When the will is misaligned, for example, our attempts to fulfill the great command to love God and neighbor ends up as love of self, which we expect God and our neighbors to honor and support. The will to power, in short, is little more than a thin justification for narcissistic self-indulgence. The great moral task of any generation is not the triumph of the self-oriented will, but to align what we will in obedience to God’s will.

Knowing God’s will—much less aligning ourselves to it in faithful obedience—is, admittedly, no easy task. The ways of God are inscrutable and unsearchable. Contrary to Pelagius and his latter-day disciples, we do not have it within us to know the mind and will of God, and therefore we cannot know how to will and perfect the good. The great danger of Pelagianism is its underlying arrogance that if we just keep trying harder we will somehow achieve perfection, but the endeavor itself is a fantasy. In his book, The Perfectibility of Man, John Passmore examines the unhappy legacy of Pelagius within the history of Western civilization.[10] One of the more prominent problems is that the ideal perfection to be achieved is a moving target, subject to changing social, cultural, and political circumstances. At various times contemplation, virtue, reason, politics, revolution, and eugenic purification have been lifted up as models of the perfect life that should be pursued. As Passmore notes, all of these projects failed miserably, and he adds the grim observation that whenever the idea of perfection—whatever it may happen to be—has seized public attention, there is increased intolerance directed against those judged to be incapable or unwilling to attain the proffered goal.

What Pelagians of any age fail to recognize is that what little we know about what perfection might mean is not a result of our will to power, but is a gift of grace. We cannot will ourselves to be perfect; we can only admit that in our imperfection we have been embraced and upheld by God in Christ. Receiving this gift of grace should not only inspire a response of gratitude, but should also make us mindful of the limits which are inherent to us as finite creatures that are in great need of this gift. Consequently, humans are not called to live lives in which they are constantly trying harder to obtain a perfection that cannot be obtained, but to live grace-filled lives of confession, repentance, and amendment of life. Or in other words, to live lives as creatures of God who accept their finitude and mortality as a blessing rather than curse.

It is in respect to bodily limitations that humans encounter with great intensity the inherent limitations of their creaturely status. Humans are not only creatures; they are embodied creatures. As such they are also finite and temporal beings, and therefore subject to bodily limitations. Humans cannot do everything they want, and they cannot live forever since their bodies are unable to withstand the ravages of time and natural necessity. Posthumanists can only respond to these limits with a Manichean disgust and disdain for the body, because it is the chief obstacle preventing them from successfully achieving the will to power and perfection.

This means, however, that the posthuman project is predicated upon a fundamental contradiction: in order for humans to achieve their full potential they must destroy their bodies, but in doing so they destroy the very thing which makes them human. Despite all their rhetoric about enhancing the performance of bodily functions, the posthuman project is nevertheless driven by a hatred and loathing of the body. Extending longevity and improving physical and mental functions is merely an interim strategy until such time that virtual immortality is achieved, liberating humans from their weak and fragile bodies. Yet is not this high-tech Manichean dream tantamount, as Paul Ramsey once observed, to a suicidal death-wish for the human species?[11]

It is embodiment which decisively separates posthumanists and Christians, for their assessments of what it means to be human leads to differing beliefs about salvation. Unlike posthumanists, Christians have never believed that humans are creatures who unfortunately happen to have bodies. Rather, to invoke Ramsey’s imagery again, humans are inextricably embodied souls and ensouled bodies.[12] Consequently, humans are not saved from their bodies, but it as embodied creatures that they are claimed, redeemed, and renewed by God. This is why Christians are not driven by a death-wish, for as St. Paul reminds them, death remains the final enemy that is not to be fraternized with, much less warmly embraced.[13] But humans consent to their mortal and finite limits because they are creatures who have been created in the image and likeness of God; it is as embodied creatures that they love, serve, and are in fellowship with God. The finite and temporal limits which posthumanists loathe and hate are received by Christians as a blessing, for these limits enable them to be the creatures that God intends us to be. To despise the constraints and fragility of embodiment is to also despise the work of the Creator.

If my portrayal of the posthuman project as a religious movement incorporating the formative strands of nihilism, Pelagianism, and Manicheism is at all correct, then there are good reasons why Christians should not only be skeptical but should also oppose it. There are, to be sure, rich resources within their theological tradition they may draw upon in making their case against the underlying false and heretical beliefs. But it is not enough to be against something; simply opposing the posthuman project will not do. A constructive proposal regarding what Christians affirm must also be offered. If Christians are to help shape contemporary culture—particularly in a setting in which I fear the posthuman message will prove attractive, if not seductive—then they must offer an alternative and compelling vision; a counter theological discourse so to speak. In the remainder of this essay I want to sketch-out what some of the contours of this theological discourse might entail by focusing on two anthropological questions: What does it mean to be human? and What is the destiny of the human species?[14]

In addressing these questions, Christians begin with the simple affirmation that anthropology is Christology. What this admittedly inelegant phrase is meant to convey is that “Jesus Christ” is the short answer to both questions. One turns to Christ to learn what being human means and to catch a glimpse of our destiny as a species. In making this anthropological claim, it is important to keep in mind that in fixing our gaze on Christ, we are also encountering the triune God. The God who is in Christ the redeemer is the same God who is the Creator and sustainer—the God who is also Father and Holy Spirit. Being attentive to Christ is also attending to God in his fullness, the eternal One who is the origin and end of creation and thereby the One who gives creation and its creatures their direction and purpose. It is only in this respect that Christ’s otherwise immodest claim that he is the Alpha and Omega is explicable and illuminating.[15]

What might we find by fixing our gaze on Jesus Christ? An exhaustive answer is beyond the scope of a single paper, or the career of any single theologian for that matter. More modestly, allow me to suggest three things to look for.

First: the Incarnation. The centerpiece of the gospel is the extraordinary claim that in Jesus Christ God became a human being. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth.[16] We may say, then, that in the Incarnation the necessity of finitude and mortality, of human limitations more broadly, are affirmed rather than eliminated. It is important to stress, however, that in emptying himself and taking-on human likeness, Christ also shares the human condition, complete with its suffering, pain, and death.[17] In his life and ministry Jesus does not avoid or escape the constraints of finitude, but embraces them, and in doing so reconfirms a divine blessing. The life and lives of God’s creatures, however vulnerable, fragile, and imperfect they might be, are nonetheless good precisely because they have been created and blessed by God, a doxology that is sung, in a manner of speaking, in the Incarnation. Most importantly, Jesus does not cheat death. Again, it is important to stress that Jesus dies on the cross; the events of Good Friday produce a corpse that is placed in a tomb. How could it be otherwise if indeed the Word had become mortal flesh?

But death is not the final word, which leads to the second item to look for in Jesus Christ: the resurrection. Drawing upon the work of Oliver O’Donovan,[18] the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead vindicates Jesus’ life and ministry. Moreover, since God is incarnate in human life, the vindication extends to all of creation. Because humans were not “allowed to uncreate what God created,”[19] there is a created order to be discerned because it has been vindicated by its Creator. The resurrection of Jesus Christ, in short, entails the resurrection of humankind and with it the renewal of creation.

What exactly does this vindication and renewal of creation entail? First and foremost, it discloses a created order which provides an objective standard and teleological order against which human desires are both judged and conformed. This objectivity is seen in what O’Donovan describes as the “natural ethic.”[20] Contrary to the posthuman project, the moral life is not a constructed artifact that is designed to enable the will to power and perfection. Rather, Christ’s resurrection discloses in greater clarity that human life and lives should be oriented toward certain moral structures and relationships that are inherent to the order of creation. Women and men, for instance, are drawn to each other not merely to reproduce in perpetuating the species, but to also form bonds of affection between themselves and with their offspring. The generations are literally linked together through a natural chain of mutual and sacrificial love.

The teleological order of creation can be seen in social structures which order and promote these bonds of love and affection. Marriage, for example, is oriented not only toward enriching love, affection, and mutuality between spouses, but also promoting mutual and self-sacrificial bonds between parents and children. It is through one generation surrendering itself to the following one that human life and lives flourish over time. What is especially noteworthy is that the embodied character of human life is absolutely crucial in obtaining these goods of marriage and family, for it is only as embodied creatures that humans can interact and love one another in any meaningful sense.[21] The physical, finite, and temporal limitations which posthumanists decry are the very features which provide the rich texture of human life beyond the bare minimum of natural necessity. It is the creaturely finitude and mortality which are affirmed in the Incarnation and vindicated in the resurrection that the posthuman project wishes to annihilate.

A vindicated and renewed creation is also genuinely liberating, because it provides the foundation of obedient freedom.[22] Through Christ’s resurrection we simultaneously look back to the origin of creation in Christ and to its destiny in Christ. This Janus-like vision leads to the third and final theological feature, namely, eschatology or the destiny of the human species.

In the absence of this dual orientation, humans become enslaved to a false perception of nature in which any inkling of a natural moral order is perceived as a threat. Consequently, finitude and mortality are inimical to their survival and flourishing; they are threats to human welfare which must be vanquished. Hence, the posthuman project of transforming humans into an invulnerable and immortal species. The project, however, is based on the false assumption that freedom is expanded by overcoming all finite and temporal limits. Only the invulnerable and immortal being is purportedly free.

But the posthuman project is actually enslaving, for it leads to an inability to be obedient, and as such disabled beings, humans disfigure their proper dominion over and stewardship of creation into a domination and mastery of nature and human nature. By looking to creation’s destiny in Christ, however, these so-called “threats” are revealed as given and necessary limits that define and order human life and lives; humans are free to love their fate, because it has already been taken up into the eternal life and fellowship of their Creator and redeemer. In this respect, true freedom is a gift of the Spirit that frees us to be obedient to the definitive limits which shape our lives as finite and mortal creatures. In short, we are free only by being limited. To return to the previous example, we are only free to be married when we limit our intimacy exclusively to one other person; we are only free to be parents when we constrain our self-interests for the benefit of our descendants.

More broadly, Christ’s resurrection from the dead discloses the destiny of creation and its creatures. There is a future trajectory revealed in the resurrection of the incarnate One, signifying its destiny in the exalted Christ. Such a future orientation inspires an ordering of human life that is teleological rather than perfectionist. Creation and its creatures will be transformed in the fullness of time, and humans will contribute to this transformation. Posthumanists are correct in this regard, but they have been seized by a half-truth which in its incompleteness proves destructive and dangerous. For our transformation is shaped by Christ, and not our attempts to overcome the finite and mortal limits of a created order. The Creator who has vindicated creation will also redeem it fully in the fullness of time. In this respect, a life of obedient freedom is also a life of preparation for eternal and timeless fellowship with God instead of a quest for immortality and endless time, a consenting to God’s will being done on earth rather than the triumph of our will to power and perfection. In this respect humans look forward to this completion, this divine perfection, when even the created and natural goods of marriage and family, for instance, are no longer necessary, for the roles of wife, husband, parent, and child are transformed into the eternal fellowship of sisterhood and brotherhood in Christ.

If the preceding analysis is at all correct, then we are offered sharply contrasting options regarding the future of the human species. On the one hand, the posthuman project, with its will to power and perfection, and hatred of the body, offers the construction of a superior and immortal species. On the other hand, there is the Christian offer of eternal fellowship with God through a life of obedient conformity to God’s will, but it is not a future that offers any escape from finitude, suffering, and death. We must be careful about which destiny we choose, taking precautions that our choice is not the result of inattention or naivety. The practical decisions that are made today in regard to research and development in such areas as medicine, biotechnology, nanotechnology, bionics and the like, will not be inconsequential for the future. We must choose wisely, for contrary to the spirit of our age the future is not something we construct; rather, we are enveloped and enfolded into the particular destiny that we choose.

In his essay, “Thinking about Technology,” George Grant provides an insightful meditation on this question of destiny.[23] He contends that we perceive technology as a collection of neutral instruments that we use in ways that we choose. Like any other technology, we use a computer, for instance, to read an e-book, keep a ledger, or surf the Internet. The computer simply does not impose upon its user the ways it should be used.[24]

Grant believes that this reassuring image of technological neutrality is misleading. Of course the computer, like any technology, imposes the ways it should be used upon its users; otherwise it could not be used for the purposes for which it was designed. Reading an e-book, for instance, is not the same as reading a printed book. More broadly, we cannot easily pick and choose how technologies are used because they incorporate certain values and purposes which cannot be separated. Any project of technological development enfolds and shapes its users in its accompanying logic and destiny. As Grant has observed: “To put the matter crudely: when we represent technology to ourselves through its own common sense we think of ourselves as picking and choosing in a supermarket, rather than within the analogy of the package deal. We have bought a package deal of far more fundamental novelness than simply a set of instruments under our control. It is a destiny which enfolds us in its own conceptions of instrumentality, neutrality and purposiveness.”[25] Technological development inevitably transforms, for good or ill, those who are undertaking the project in the first place; it transforms who they think we are, and what they aspire to become.

If Grant is right then we should be wary of the posthuman project, for once we initiate a process of transforming the human species, we become enveloped in a destiny that takes-on a life of its own, one that is not subject to our control. And like any destiny it imposes itself, and its imposition has stark and unavoidable moral consequences. Again in Grant’s trenchant words: “The coming to be of technology has required changes in what we think is good, what we think good is, how we conceive sanity and madness, justice and injustice, rationality and irrationality, beauty and ugliness.”[26]

Although Grant overstates his case for technological determinism, he nonetheless offers salient and sobering advice in regard to the posthuman project, that once we start down the road of transforming ourselves it will be difficult to slow the momentum, much less change or reverse course. The danger is that such momentum might carry humankind toward a destiny whose consequences are both unforeseen and unwanted. Yet we become locked into a new set of circumstances that we can neither change nor control, for there is no going back. To return to the computer as an example, when the Internet was introduced with the great promise of easy and instant access to abundant information, who foresaw that it would also become a cesspool of pornography, child predators, and financial theft and fraud? Yet are there any serious proposals for tearing-up or even staying-off the information highway?

To a large extent, Grant reinforces the messages of Hawthorne’s stories: be careful how you go about creating beautiful, invulnerable, and perfect people, for the projects may enfold you in a deadly destiny. This is an especially poignant warning, for it reminds us that the evil we commit is more often than not the result of a myopic moral vision than a wicked heart. Dr. Rappaccini loved his daughter, but he cared, in Hawthorne’s words “infinitely more for science than for mankind,” and as the brilliant scientist looked upon his now perfectly beautiful but dead wife, Hawthorne notes “he failed to look beyond the shadowy scope of time, and, living once for all in eternity, to find the perfect future in the present.”

Is not finding the perfect future in the present the moral and religious challenge that confronts us in the prospect of a posthuman future? And is this not a particularly difficult challenge in a late modern world which has largely forgotten how and where to look? This difficulty stems largely, I think, from a prevalent cultural conceit regarding creativity. We have come to believe that we are a creative people who have the power to create our world, ourselves, and our future. We are a creative people who are masters of our own fate, so why bother to look in the present when our gaze is fixed permanently toward the future?

Yet arguably as creatures we create nothing, for that is a task that is reserved exclusively by and for the Creator. We make things, but that does not make us creative. Art best exemplifies the difference between making and creating. Artists make such things as paintings and sculptures. Skilled artists make beautiful objects, but they do not create beauty. Rather, their art reveals the beautiful, drawing the beholder into a realm that is beyond either the work of art or the artist. In this respect, art at its best is iconic, for it points beyond itself to the Creator of beauty. When we encounter good art we look in and through it to the source of its beauty. Art is, in short, revelatory of something greater than itself, and is debased when it serves only to glorify and immortalize the so-called creativity of the artist.

In a similar manner, may we not say that the posthuman project is the attempt to create a superior species as the triumph of the will to power over nature and human nature, and thereby draws attention to its own ingenuity and creativity? And in re-creating ourselves as self-made artifacts of the will to perfection, are not posthumanists trying to glorify and immortalize their own skill and creativity? Yet the end result will not so much be a superior and perfected species, but a debased humanity that has forgotten that they are creatures and not creators. In short, posthumans can point to nothing greater than themselves: beings that have drunk deeply from the poisonous wells of Manicheism, Pelagianism, and nihilism.

As we take our first, tentative steps toward a posthuman future, it is not enough for Christians to be critics only. They must also embody and bear witness to an alternative future, a perfect future which in Christ is already in the present. In this respect, they must insist that technology generally should be developed and used in iconic ways which reveal the ways of the Creator who is the source of all that is good, true, and beautiful. In particular, Christians must strive to recover and preserve medicine as a healing art that discloses Jesus Christ as the true nature and destiny of the human species.

Endnotes

 


[1] See, e.g. Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2002).

[2] See, e.g. Philip Hefner, Technology and Human Becoming (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003).

[3] See, e.g. Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (New York: Penguin Books, 2000), and The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (New York: Penguin Books, 2005); see also Hans Moravec, Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988) and Hans Moravec, Robot: Mere Machines to Transcendent Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[4] I examine the emergence of a posthuman world in much greater detail in my book, From Human to Posthuman: Christian Theology and Technology in a Postmodern World (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006).

[5] See Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and other Essays (New Yor: Harper and Row, 1977); see also Michael E. Zimmerman, Heidegger’s Confrontation with Modernity: Technology, Politics, Art (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990).

[6] George Parkin Grant, Technology and Justice (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1986), p. 11 (emphasis added).

[7] M. Katherine Hayles, How we became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 7.

[8] See “Meeting Transcript,” January 17, 2002, http://www.bioethics.gov/transcripts/jan02/jan17full.html#2

[9] Emphasis added.

[10] See John Passmore, The Perfectibility of Man (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970).

[11] See Paul Ramsey, Fabricated Man: The Ethics of Genetic Control (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1970), pp. 151-152.

[12] See ibid., pp. 87-88.

[13] See 1 Corinthians 15.26.

[14] For a more detailed explication see Waters, From Human to Posthuman, pp. 95-150.

[15] See Revelation 1.8.

[16] See John 1.14.

[17] See Philippians 2.6-8.

[18] See Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986).

[19] Ibid., p. 14.

[20] See ibid., pp. 16-21.

[21] See Robert Spaemann, Persons: The Difference between ‘Someone’ and ‘Something’ (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 78-80.

[22] See O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, pp. 22-27.

[23] See George Parkin Grant, Technology and Justice (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1986), pp. 11-34.

[24] See ibid., pp. 19-21.

[25] Ibid., p. 32.

[26] Ibid.

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Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from a lecture given at the conference, Bioethics Nexus: The Future of Healthcare, Science, and Humanity, held at Trinity International University, Deerfield, Illinois, 14 July 2007. The article originally appeared in Ethics & Medicine: An International Journal of Bioethics Issue 25 Volume 3, Fall 2009 and is used by permission.

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