Explainer
Culture
6 min read

Challenging transhumanism’s quest to optimise our future

Instead of separating the human from the hardware, Oliver Dürr recommends rediscovering other ways of self-formation and improvement.

Oliver Dürr is a theologian who explores the impact of technology on humanity and the contours of a hopeful vision for the future. He is an author, speaker, podcaster and features in several documentary films.

A plastic sheet strewn with biology-related instruments.
A biohacking kit for a biology workshop.
Xavier Coadic, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Welcome to the age of transhumanism. In this world, the goal is to overcome all limitations and restrictions that hold human beings back. Science, technology, and medicine should allow us to live longer, healthier, and better lives. So runs the promise. But is there a peril that goes along with it? To answer that question, we need to take a closer look at the phenomenon of transhumanism, particularly the view of human beings that lies behind the glittery promises of an “optimised” future.  

Improving humans, however possible 

Transhumanism is a global movement that seeks to use all available technological means to “enhance” human beings. From curing illnesses and overcoming physical limitations to expanding mental abilities, the movement aims to overcome all obstacles to the current human condition. 

More precisely, it seeks to overcome all obstacles to the individual’s freedom to live the life he or she wants to live. In the attempt to enhance life, transhumanism veers beyond traditional forms of curing impairments (like compensating for bad sight with a pair of glasses) and ventures into more experimental fields (like manipulating the human eye to see ultraviolet or infrared light). Emotional or cognitive deficits (such as lack of concentration) are supposed to be overcome by “smart drugs” (like Methylphenidate / Ritalin) and even genetic modifications, and prostheses are considered to expand human capabilities.  

The goal is to create “superhuman” abilities. The holy grail of this movement is drastically extending the human lifespan (if it is in a state of health and vigour). Ultimately, transhumanists want to “overcome” death.  

There are two paths within the transhumanist movement on which they hope to arrive at this sacred goal: a biological and a post-biological way.  

Biological transhumanism 

Let’s have a look at “biological transhumanism” first: The focus here is on our current, carbon and water-based bodies. Weak and fragile as they are, biological transhumanists must make do with them to achieve the greater things they envision. Human beings must be treated with drugs, and a host of prefixed technologies: bio-, gene-, and nano-. 

Aubrey de Grey’s project of postponing death by achieving a “longevity escape velocity” is a good illustration of the movement. De Grey is convinced that novel biomedical technologies can achieve a limitless extension of the human life span: “If we can make rejuvenation therapies work well enough to give us time to make them work better,” he writes, “that will give us additional time to make them work better still” and so on. The time gained with a particular innovation must only be greater than the time needed to achieve another such advancement. Therefore, he argues, the effective death of people alive today can be staved off indefinitely.  

De Grey is not alone in transhumanist circles to predict such outcomes. Google’s Ray Kurzweil has a similar view: “We have the means right now to live long enough to live forever”.  

Such optimistic prognoses bank on a view of human beings as being essentially a body-machine that can be controlled and improved at will. The key to unlocking its potential is information theory.  

Think of human beings as an algorithm, and, in principle, all their problems can be solved by engineering. Cultural critic Evgeny Morozov poignantly called this approach “technological solutionism”. From a ‘solutionist’ perspective, humanity is increasingly seen as the problem that needs solving. Thus, not only must we develop new technologies to guarantee human life and freedom, but humanity needs to adapt. Those necessary “transformations” of the “human” are what inform the first dimension of the term “trans-humanism”. 

If human beings want a seat at the table in the digital future, they must find a way to merge with and dissolve into the digital sphere—or so the transhumanist narrative goes. 

Post-biological transhumanism 

The second path is “post-biological transhumanism”, which takes a more radical approach. Here, the focus is on leaving behind our current bodily form altogether and radically transcending the limitations of what it means to be human today. Those alterations, such transhumanists argue, will be so radical that calling the result “human” will no longer be adequate. The preferred means to achieve the future state are taken from the digital sphere: algorithms and information processes.  

The view of “the human as a machine” becomes more specifically “the human as a computer”. Mind, spirit and consciousness are understood to be the software within the hardware of the body. Human beings are perceived to be biological computers and thus in direct competition with digital computers. And those are becoming increasingly powerful by the hour. If human beings want a seat at the table in the digital future, they must find a way to merge with and dissolve into the digital sphere—or so the transhumanist narrative goes.  

Immortality in the Cloud? 

For post-biological transhumanists, the ultimate goal is called “mind-uploading”. The idea is that we can upload our minds (selves) to the internet and achieve immortality—at least if all we are is the sum of information processes in the brain and as long as the internet infrastructure is still available. Mind uploading requires leaving behind our current biological form of life altogether and dissolving into virtuality.  

This vision of virtual immortality is why post-biological transhumanists tend to place their hopes in information technologies, software algorithms, robotics and artificial intelligence research. They aim to overcome and entirely leave behind the “human” as it is. This move to “transcend” informs the second dimension of the term “trans-humanism”. 

In classical humanism, at least from the Renaissance to the 1970s, “human improvement” meant education, moral, intellectual, and practical formation and refinement towards a concrete ideal of humanity and the shaping of a society that enables such formative processes. 

Is there a solution? 

But can those transhumanistic approaches really deliver on their promises? 

Human beings have always tried to improve themselves—not least through technology. What is new today is how transhumanists define “better” and some means of realising those perceived benefits. With its solutionist approach to life, transhumanism discards large swaths of traditional techniques to “improve” human beings and their lives. In classical humanism, at least from the Renaissance to the 1970s, “human improvement” meant education, moral, intellectual, and practical formation and refinement towards a concrete ideal of humanity and the shaping of a society that enables such formative processes.  

But in the age of transhumanism, there is a tendency to believe that we can delegate such hard work of the self to a new technocracy and their algorithmic tools—who, to put it mildly, may not always have our best interests at heart.  

Freedom is best conceived, not as a mere “choice” to do what we please, but the liberty to live a truly fulfilling life, which almost always includes others .

The main problem, however, is that ultimately, we cannot delegate our future to machines because, after all, we aren’t machines. Instead, we must learn to live with ourselves, our limitations, and our finitude, or we will never be free. Freedom only ever begins once we learn to let go of ourselves and start living for and with others.  

The reason for this is that freedom is best conceived, not as a mere “choice” to do what we please, but the liberty to live a truly fulfilling life, which almost always includes others. Many of the things that make a future worth wanting in the first place are shared goods, relational, communitarian, cultural values and practices that needn’t be optimised or automated at all—at least not technologically.  

When building a sandcastle with my toddlers, that process needn’t be optimised (which realistically would mean excluding the toddlers from the process altogether). Rather, the process of doing it together is the point. Political decision-making processes, to take another example, also don’t have to be automated or made more efficient through algorithms. Struggle in deliberating how our society should look is the point. Without such moral deliberation, our public life is diminished. In many cases, the slowness, strenuousness and inefficiency of such processes is a feature, not a bug.  

A tech future beyond transhumanism 

Having this in mind changes the questions we pose in light of novel technologies: How (if at all) can they be integrated into our lives in such a way that they open up the world in its complexity, allowing us to experience the fullness of life and enabling us to shape the future we really want? 

It is time to rediscover and bring back religious and humanistic traditions of self-formation into our public debates about the future. Far from being relics of the past, soon to be discarded, they can provide us with tried and true values, practices and virtues around which we can organise our societies in the digital future. They provide us with the tools to unlock the sources of care and the will to create a better social framework in which human beings and technology find their place. The future need not be transhuman to be better; being fully human is quite enough.  

Article
Culture
General Election 24
Politics
4 min read

Ultra-processed politics fails to satisfy

No-hope manifestos, full of ugly policies, leave us craving something better.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

Three piles of ready-meals sit on a shelf. One stack is blue, the next yellow and the third red.
Party food.
Nick Jones/Midjourney.ai

There are now less than two weeks to go before polling day, and the nation appears to have simultaneously reached the highest fever pitch of emotion and the absolute nadir of political scruple. The Tory campaign has been comically, awfully inept - announcements in the rain, D-Day, gambling fraud. The Labour campaign has been an odd blend of quasi-Confucian aphorisms (‘Stability is Change’…what is that!?) and a blank refusal to give much detail on any future plans and actions - almost offensive from a party that seems guaranteed to win a majority that would give it little resistance. The Lib Dem campaign has resembled a Centre Parks holiday, and I’m here for it!  

The recent Question Time of political leaders perfectly encapsulated the grim reality of this election campaign. The anger towards Rishi Sunak was palpable, and his pathological inability to not be defensive and snippy shone through. A total lack of any emotion was shown towards Kier Starmer (a void that again was filled with more anger towards Rishi Sunak), and his militantly practiced refusal to actually say anything of substance. Ed Davey was quite charming actually; but not enough to make the whole viewing process anything but depressing. 

Yet… 

This is our situation, and we must deal with it. This is OUR election, and WE MUST engage with it. Alastair Campbell - one half of the most listened to political podcast in the UK - regularly calls for compulsory voting. The ad campaign reminding people (especially young people) to register to vote has been incessant. Even the Archbishop of York has written an open letter in the Sunday Express encouraging everyone to register and to exercise their democratic duty. Why? What for? I find the entire cadre unappealing to the point of being odious. Reading the manifestos I was struck by two realisations: the space between so many of the policies was miniscule, and they were so bloody ‘ugly’.  

I don’t mean ugly like the loveless, jingoistic, cruel ramblings of Reform. The two main parties have produced manifestos that inspire no hope. They equate the fullness and completeness of the human social condition to the subtle movements of financial resources from one area to another. They are each proposing a almost identical economic foundation, with a few nods to the fact that ‘society’ and ‘human relations’ exist, like a Potemkin village designed to impress the visiting dignitary, ‘the voter’. Not only do they read like they were written by someone who cannot think five, maybe ten, years ahead; they read like they were written by someone who has a cold indifference to the transcendental concepts of ‘TRUTH’, ‘BEAUTY’, ‘GOOD’. The whole tenor of our political culture and conversation is the same three riffs on post-modern liberalism, played with dexterity and enthusiasm of a corpse. 

If you feel passionately about your community, and you know the issues, and you have a candidate you believe in, vote. If none of this applies, don’t worry, and don’t let anyone shame you. 

And yet I MUST vote? What for? Why must I be shamed into preforming the perfunctory routine of soul-destroying civic duty? Why must I be bullied into giving the correct sacrifice to the great and terrible God of ‘DEMOCRACY’ in the vain hope that this vicious, nihilistic titan of bureaucratic ineptitude might yet again bless the polis with five more years of alienation and sublimated resentment. 

The Christian message, the Gospel, is not antithetical to politics. The Gospel of Christ is about one’s whole life - body, spirit, soul, relationships, friends, family, enemies, strangers, work, play, sickness, death - and so it cannot be divorced from politics, because as people who live in a society we must encounter the ‘political’ every day. However, the Kingdom of God is a Kingdom and not a Republic. Jesus does not answer the devious questions of the Pharisees with a markedly uninformative screed on updating tax legislation, he says to ‘Render therefore unto Cæsar the things which are Cæsar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.’ He speaks to the people about radical charity, freedom from worry and stress about today, about a community of absolute loving relationship where everyone is a mother, and sister, and brother to everyone else.  

I am called - just like I believe all people, as beloved creatures who’s end is being united with God in all eternity - to keep my eyes on the horizon of the absolute, the beautiful and peaceful Kingdom of Christ which is not for this world. This does not mean apathy towards politics or even to the current election. It does, however, mean that I cannot and will not be persuaded that finding this pathetic display of ineptitude, silence, exaggeration, and unpleasant divisiveness which we call a campaign, anything other than a waste of my time and energy. If you feel passionately about your community, and you know the issues, and you have a candidate you believe in, vote. If none of this applies, don’t worry, and don’t let anyone shame you. The Kingdom of God will not be built by the winner of the General Election. It will be built by Christ working through the love and relationships that form a community of charity and service…and you can’t legislate for that.