Like river systems, world-shaping ideas tend to follow a natural course. They spring up in academia or in the work of cultural leaders: artists, writers, philosophers, scientists. From there, they trickle down into pop culture, education and the media. In due time, they gain momentum and flow freely through the channels of the public mind.

Oftentimes these big ideas are manifestly good: the earth is not flat; nature is worth studying; slavery is wrong; all people are created equal. Such concepts not only ring with the truth, they also aid in human flourishing.

Enhancing humans via breeding and tech upgrades

But some game-changing notions are neither realistic nor helpful. Witness transhumanism, a cluster of theories that seeks to enhance human life via selective breeding, cybernetics and software upgrades to the brain.

Concepts such as these are not confined to science fiction – although truth be told, that’s their most natural habitat. They’re being championed by influential voices within the fields of information technology, evolutionary biology and bioethics, among other disciplines.

The core assumption underlying transhumanism is that human life is nothing sacred or special. People are merely biological machines, and faulty ones at that. As such, they can be modified and improved. If they should prove obsolete, they can be discarded and replaced by a new form of biomechanical life.

The concept of the Singularity

This trajectory is considered not only desirable, but inevitable. Transhumanists believe in a concept they call the Singularity, a decisive moment in the not-so-distant future when Everything Will Change. Machines will achieve true artificial intelligence and either merge with humanity to take the next step in evolution, or else destroy humanity altogether.

In the meantime, transhumanism advocates a number of ways to “help evolution along,” as it were: controlled breeding for desirable genetic traits; replacing otherwise healthy body parts with cybernetic implants; injecting nanites (microscopic robots) into the bloodstream to fix whatever ails us, including aging; downloading software into the brain to increase intelligence and moral acuity; and uploading the mind into a computer as a means to extend life, perhaps indefinitely.

What comes after the Singularity? Transhumanists are unable to say. If the Singularity is a secular version of the eschaton, then whatever follows must be a materialist version of the New Creation, in which the present rules of science, history, and even existence itself will no longer apply.

One thing is certain (well, sort of): human life as we know it will cease to be, replaced by some form of human-technological hybrid, living on forever in mechanical bodies, doing who knows what.

Secular religion devoid of realistic science

If all of this sounds like a bizarre secular religion, that’s indeed a most fitting description. The mystery is why anyone would be devoted to it, although many otherwise intelligent people clearly are. As a vision of the future, transhumanism is starkly devoid of any hope or joy, to say nothing of scientific logic.

To begin with, the proposed means for ushering in the Singularity are unrealistic to the point of being pure fantasy. They’re reminiscent of the technobabble used on science fiction TV shows, where a character will spout a bunch of technical-sounding but meaningless jargon to explain away a problem in the story.

Humanity is imperfect? Just toss in some advanced computer tech, and it will miraculously cure everything from cancer to aging, boost intelligence and produce morally evolved biomechanical beings who will live forever.

But from start to finish, the process grossly underestimates both the complexity of human life and the limits of technology. What’s more, it gets the two precisely backwards; it assumes that machines can become intelligent life, while dismissing humans as nothing but biological machines.

To be sure, computer science has advanced by leaps and bounds in the past few decades, but there are limits. No matter how fast or efficient they become, computers can only analyze and reproduce patterns. They’re incapable of abstract thought, creativity, intuition, emotions or moral choices.

By contrast, those very faculties of the human mind cannot be reduced to simple patterns of brain chemistry. And even if they could, the complex neuroscience of the brain makes it virtually impossible to reproduce in machine form. The result of such an attempt would never preserve the original person in any true sense. At best, it might be a rough copy of a few generalized traits, without life, without a soul.

Eternal life without God

What, then, is the appeal of transhumanism? Perhaps that’s the wrong question to ask. It’s not so much a matter of appeal as of desperation.

Nobody wants to die. Atheists often claim to have made peace with the prospect of non-existence. But in truth, there’s a deep sense of revulsion within all people against death, and a fear of what may come after. It’s no wonder that the Bible calls death the final enemy.

However, secularism has rejected the Bible, along with its God and its assessment of human beings as God’s special image-bearers. Consequently, all that remains is to grasp at some materialist paradigm for survival – for eternal life without God.

Despite its scientific pretensions, the central concern of transhumanism is to fill that existential void.

Transhumanist ideas in popular culture

Transhumanist ideas have long since begun their trickle-down into popular culture. In recent years, there has been a spate of movies exploring transhumanist themes. Transcendence, Limitless, Lucy and Ex Machina come to mind, joining earlier efforts such as Gattaca, The Matrix and Blade Runner. Some of these are bleak, disturbing films, while others ask thought-provoking questions about what it means to be human.

In any event, that’s where transhumanism works best, as material for speculative fiction. It’s when influential thinkers start to take it seriously – lobbying for genetic manipulation to produce stronger, smarter, prettier people, for instance – that transhumanism assumes a much darker cast. It becomes an ominous reminder of the eugenics projects born out of social Darwinism a century ago.

All of that said, there’s a far better alternative. Christians have their own vision of the Singularity. It’s known as the Second Coming of Christ. Instead of a marriage between man and machine, it anticipates the wedding feast of the Lamb. At that time, those who trust in Jesus will receive perfect, glorified bodies in which they’ll enjoy intimate, endless union with their Lord in the New Heaven and New Earth.

That’s an infinitely preferable prospect to transhumanism, one worth hoping and living for.

Sources and further reading

There is a variety of informative material on transhumanism at The Conversation; Evolution News and Science Today; MercatorNet; and Mind Matters. Interested readers are encouraged to search those websites for articles on the subject.

Note 1: Focus on the Family Canada does not necessarily endorse any or all of the content available through the above links. They are presented for information purposes only.

Note 2: This article does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family Canada of any of the films mentioned herein. Consult reviews at Plugged In to help you determine whether these films are appropriate for you or your family.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2016 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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