The week of December 14, 2014

Transhumanism and the search for digital immortality

By Greg Stevens

With enough scientific research, we could potentially become immortal.

Rapid advances in medical and cognitive technology, ranging from artificial skulls to mind-controlled prosthetic limbs, point to a time in the not-too-distant future when we may be able to replace our entire bodies with artificial, manufactured parts. After all, the human mind is nothing but software running on the “machine” of the brain—software that could potentially run on hardware made of chips and wires instead of neurons and blood vessels.

Sound intriguing? Welcome to the endless wormhole of biology and futurology that is transhumanism.

Science has been nipping at the heels of religion for millennia. As science has advanced, it has forced religious theories about the material world to evolve. Many Judeo-Christian theologians and religious groups, including the Central Conference of American Rabbis and Popes John Paul II and Francis, all accept that the universe started with a “big bang,” that the Earth is billions of years old, and that humans evolved from other things. These beliefs haven’t exactly rocked the theological world. Although some fundamentalists put up a fuss, most religious scholars don’t consider scientific theories about evolution or the Big Bang to be any kind of threat to the basic tenets of religion.

Transhumanism is different. Its theories have established a brand-new battlefield for the clash between science and religion. It’s one thing for science to pressure religion into reinterpreting beliefs about the distance past or the far-off cosmos. But this science is getting personal. If human beings are able to upload their minds into computers, what implications does that have for the soul? What does it mean for free will? What does it mean for morality?

Welcome to the endless wormhole of biology and futurology that is transhumanism.

It doesn’t help that one of the most vocal advocates of transhumanism, Ray Kurzweil, is almost evangelical in the way he talks about technological advancement. He predicts human immortality and “nearly God-like powers” arising through technology in the not-too-distant future. As you can imagine, talk about God-like powers grates on many religious people. To make matters worse, most transhumanists identify as either secular or atheists, and some transhumanists are even vocally anti-religion, publishing articles like “Should It Be Illegal to Indoctrinate Kids With Religion?

For at least some within the transhumanist community, the realization of a fully artificial human body would be the ultimate vindication of atheism, and the ultimate debunking of religious mysticism. After all, if human consciousness can be run on a machine, like software, doesn’t that imply that there is no such thing as a “soul”? Doesn’t it basically prove that “free will” and “choice” are nothing more than illusions and mysticism? You can almost see the atheists high-fiving one another across the high-tech, futuristic operating table.

Many religious people agree that transhumanism and religion are incompatible, and therefore conclude that the project of transhumanism is destined to fail. As Mike Adams wrote passionately in his article “Transhumanism debunked: Why drinking the Kurzweil Kool-Aid will only make you dead, not immortal,” it is absolutely impossible for a human consciousness to exist in, or be transferred into, a machine body. His logic is straightforward: Everyone knows machines have no free will and no soul. Since people do have souls and free will, it is impossible for humans to have machine bodies. Therefore anyone who tries to transfer his consciousness into an artificial body, Adams warns, will simply die.

Adams’s argument is not theologically sophisticated, but it is important because it’s common. The average American considers himself to be a member of one of the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, or Islam) but is not a religious scholar. He does not think about the nature of the soul very often; when he does, the idea that comes to mind is an immortal, non-material thing that is somehow uniquely tied to a person’s identity. It is some kind of spirit-thing, made of spirit-stuff that is different from the material world that makes up our bodies. This view of the soul is what philosophers and theologians call “substance dualism”—the idea that there is some kind of “spiritual substance” that makes up souls, just as regular matter makes up bodies.

If this is how you think of the soul, it is no wonder that transhumanism freaks you out. The basic assumption behind transhumanism is that your mind, identity, and consciousness are nothing more than software running on the hardware of your body. How can that possibly make sense if you think that a soul is an eternal, indestructible thing that is made of spirit-stuff?

If human beings are able to upload their minds into computers, what implications does that have for the soul? What does it mean for morality?

Pastor and professor of systematic theology and ethics Ted Peters, however, warns that transhumanist technological advances will not be the paradigm-shaking events that people like Kurzweil and Adams seem to be anticipating. In his article “The Soul of Transhumanism,” Peters points out that today’s common folk view of “the soul” is not, strictly speaking, scriptural. It has been around a long time but appears nowhere in the Bible. It’s similar to the old view that the sun revolves around the Earth, or that the Earth is only a few thousand years old. These are things that many religious people have believed for a long time, and they are in some sense consistent with scripture—but they do not actually appear anywhere in holy religious texts themselves.

If the transhumanist vision of the future is realized, and we succeed in creating completely artificial bodies to house our minds, will religions be able to adapt? Of course they will.

Peters points out that there are actually a number of different ways one can interpret the religious concept of the “soul” in Christian scripture. His own preference is to understand the soul as a manifestation of an individual’s personal relationship with God, rather than some kind of spirit-substance thing. James Hughes, executive director at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, has also written extensively on the compatibility between transhumanist philosophy and various religions and has come to the same conclusion: If technology shows us something new about how the world works, religions will find creative ways to adapt, just as they always have in the past.

According to Gregory Stevens (no relation), an associate pastor at Mission Hills Christian Church in Los Angeles, the process of adapting and evolving is an intrinsic part of the scholarship of religion. “Essentially, transhumanism doesn’t create problems, but complexity,” Stevens told me. “Complexity can be understood in a positive way rather than a negative way. When things are further complicated in the scholarship of religion, we religious people get excited because novel ideas are about to burst forth. Much like science, religion thrives in this tension: Scientists are looking to prove each other wrong so they can further the field. The same is true of religion. New ideas, new methods, [and] new scientific discoveries further complicate all fields of study, and we can embrace this rather than run from it.”

We will have to wait until that big aha! moment when science actually succeeds in the final technological breakthrough—transporting a human mind into a fully artificial body—to see how religious leaders and institutions actually react. No doubt it will lead to conflicts and controversies. But there are plenty of options available, many of which have already been explored by philosophers and even sci-fi writers.

Science has been nipping at the heels of religion for millennia.

Douglas Hofstadter pointed out in his book Metamagical Themas that the notion of free will doesn’t mean that people’s behaviors cannot be predicted. He explains that even if we believe the basic tenet of free will—“I can do whatever I want”—we can still predict someone’s behavior if we can predict what that person wants. This is consistent with the discussion of free will by Christian philosopher C.S. Lewis. Lewis held that people actually misunderstand what free will really means. Saying that we have free will does not actually require that the future be uncertain or undetermined. According to Lewis, “will” is just another form of causation: It is your spirit or soul causing you to do one thing or another.

Science-fiction author Rudy Rucker, whose work always contains mystical and philosophical overtones, presents a strong case for a spiritual view of computer programs themselves in his novel Software and its sequels, Wetware and Freeware. Rucker essentially frames the question of the soul in the following way: What is software? Like a soul, a computer program is not a material thing. A computer program is just an abstraction. Like a soul, a computer program cannot be created or destroyed. It is either running on some machine somewhere or it is not. But even when the computer program is not running, it still exists as a mathematical abstraction. It is eternal, it is unique, and it defines the behavior of whatever machine it is running on. How is that not essentially the same concept as a soul?

From this perspective, there is nothing atheistic about viewing the mind as a program. Quite the opposite: If your mind is software, it proves that you have a soul, because computer programs have all of the characteristics of what it means to be a soul.

To think that religious ideas about the soul cannot reinvent themselves in light of new knowledge is to have a basic misunderstanding of what religion is, and how it works. As Pastor Stevens explains, religion and science are not all that different in this regard. They both change in light of new discoveries, and in light of each other. To some extent, they always have.

“Religion, like science, evolves,” says Stevens. “It sits at the boundless unfolding of knowledge, not in some timeless universal land of thought. Amen! How exciting, for all fields of thought, that they’d get to transform in light of such epic discoveries.”

Illustration by J. Longo