Trans, Ultra or Just Human? Who Do We Want To Become?

Resistance is futile.– The Borg Collective

In the summer of 2011, I went to a lecture by a theologian some friends had recommended. Ilia Delio is a senior fellow in science and religion at Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University. The lecture was an introduction to her book, The Emergent Christ: Exploring the Meaning of Catholic in an Evolutionary Universe.

I didn’t fully understand nor agree with everything that Ilia spoke about, but one thing she gave me, on which I want to comment here, is an introduction to the “transhuman movement,” also known simply as “H+.” Inklings of this movement had made their way into my life recently, but I had not pursued them. For example, there was the Time Magazine article in February that I never got around to reading, headlined as “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal.”

Being a Star Trek fan, and familiar with the story line there of “The Borg” – cyber-modified creatures bent on assimilating everyone else in our galaxy – I had a sense where this was going. I did not have any sense that the movement is as large and as controversial as it is.

As I understand it – and again, I have not had time to study the concepts well –  the proponents of the movement suggest that we are close to being able to develop technologies to enhance the human body – or even replace it – thus extending “life” forever.  Eventually, some believe, we will develop the technology that will allow us to  take the essence of who we are, now located in our brains, and download it all onto a computer chip, again and again, creating endless technological reproductions of ourselves.  Essentially, this combined use of technology will mean we will never wear out or “die.”

In her lecture, Ilia raised some of the main ethical concerns with the movement. As you can imagine, those who oppose the movement have come up with many concerns. I immediately went to the question of resources. If we already have maxed out the capacity of Earth to supply us with the resources we need to keep our technologies afloat, where will we find the resources to build enough machines to house the intellects of every human being on the planet? What would be the long-term impact on the rest of Earth’s eco-system? Will it become a place not worth living in forever?

My related concern is this: if there are not enough resources for everyone, will it not be every human being who can access this technology,  but only those who can afford it, or who someone else decides will have the option of living forever? Who will decide who decides?

Those questions are joined by others, of course, that have to do with determining exactly what the essence of being human is. Will the technologically modified human being be capable of such human actions as forgiveness, compassion, love?   Will I still be able to look closely at the soft, spiraling, enfolding pink layers of a single rose and feel awe? And what about anger or other negative aspects of what it now means to be human? Will we be – as with The Borg – completely emotionless but still driven by our ego to control others?

Lastly, what about our brain? The 1990’s were declared the “decade of the brain” because we learned so much about its functioning through new technology. But, our learnings are still far from complete. It seems to me the transhumanist movement views our brains as simple storage units. What about Gerald Hüther’s notion in The Compassionate Brain that our brains are really social organs, capable of growth and development through our interactions with others and our environment (2006, p. 13). Will a computer chip be able to do that?

In her presentation, Ilia expounded a bit on a point made briefly in her book that the opposite idea to transhumanism is “ultrahumanism.” By this, she means an approach that “furthers the truth, beauty, and goodness of earthly human life” (p. 1).

I have to say my initial, unstudied reaction to all of this is skepticism on both sides. Perhaps it is because I seem to have an inherent opposition to labels, but I also prefer at the moment to think that I would like to hang onto my DNA and its long story of evolution into what I now am. I don’t think I want to mess with that process (never mind worry about running out of replacement parts). For me, the adventure of finding out what it fully means to be human is enough to keep me interested for as much time as I have left with my DNA, and after that, who knows, maybe there is something more fun awaiting us than immortal life as a machine. I also don’t need to think about becoming “ultra.” I have enough trouble at the moment just trying to be attentive in the moment to just being me.

Hüther. G. (2006) The compassionate brain. Boston, MA: Trumpeter/Shambala.

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