There are optimists and pessimists among us, but surely the small but vocal group who consider themselves “transhumanists” are among the most positive-thinking folks ever to ponder that half-full glass. While the term transhumanism was coined as long ago as 1957, by Julian Huxley, today’s visionaries advance various scenarios about the future of humanity, some more fantastic than others, and demand support for specific research and technological innovation. According to their thinking, new technology is going to lead us toward a post-human phase in the evolution of the human species. Thanks to advances in nanotechnology, biotechnology, robotics and genetic engineering we will live longer, possess new physical and cognitive abilities, and be liberated from the pain and suffering of aging and disease. In the post-human age, the transhumanists contend, humans will control nature.
The immediate roots of this movement can be traced to the work in the 1920s and 1930s of J.B.S. Haldane, J.D. Bernal and Aldous Huxley—although their imagining of a new and better world through a centrally imposed vision was invalidated by the horrors of WW II. In the 1960s, however, more optimistic futuristic scenarios were articulated by science fiction writers such as Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Stalislaw Lem, and later Bruce Sterling, Greg Egan, and Vernor Vinge. In the 1960s the futurist Fereidoun M. Esfandiary, (who later changed his name to FM 2030—the date of his 100th birthday) began to identify “transhumans” as persons who work toward the posthuman future. In the late 1980s, philosopher Max More formalized a transhumanist doctrine, advocating the “Principles of Extropy.” At that time life extension, cryonics, space colonization, and other scenarios came into vogue while biotechnology, neuroscience, and nanotechnology made great advances. Eventually Marvin Minsky, an eminent artificial intelligence researcher, joined by other famous scientific visionaries such as Ray Kurtzweil, Eric Drexler, Frank Tipler, and Hans Moravec, articulated many of the themes of the transhumanist vision.
In the late 1990s a group of transhumanist activists authored the “Transhumanist Declaration,” an ethical manifesto. In 1998 the 4000-member World Transhumanist Association was founded by philosophers Nick Bostrom and David Pearce. Other contemporary organizations include the Extropy Institute, the Foresight Institute, the Immortality Institute, the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, and the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence. The communication revolution has been key in the growth of this movement; the internet is not just a means to disseminate transhumanist ideas, but part and parcel of the transhumanist eschatological vision. In short, transhumanism is the ideology that attempts to give coherence to a range of disparate ideas based on the technological advancements in the second half of the twentieth century.
Religious Engagement with Transhumanism: The Case of Judaism
Utopian visions, or fantasies, are not necessarily the province of theologians, but in this case the fact that these visions concern real-world science and innovation means that religious thinkers and ethicists must engage transhumanism rather than dismissing it as science-fiction. As the work of theologians like Brent Waters, Philip Hefner, and Ronald Cole-Turner reminds us, technology is not merely a collection of things, but a powerful cultural process that raises profound questions about the meaning of being human and the relationship between humans, God, and the natural world. After all, what is “science fiction” in one generation often becomes reality in subsequent eras.
As a Jew by birth and by choice who devotes her academic career to the study of Judaism, I engage transhumanism from a Jewish perspective. The Jewish vantage point is particularly significant here because the tradition has been remarkably supportive of contemporary biotechnology. Whereas many Christians have expressed deep anxieties about stem-cell research, assisted reproductive technologies, and human cloning (whether therapeutic or reproductive), Jews across the religious spectrum have embraced innovation in the life sciences.
Three principles guide the Jewish approach toward biotechnology: first, the notion that humans are created in the image of God; second, the view that the body belongs to God rather than to us (so we have an obligation to take care of the human body so as to preserve life); and, third, the belief that we act as God’s partners and are obligated to improve the world that God has created. The notion that humans are created in the divine image (Genesis 1:26) has often been interpreted to support an activist stance toward the world. In the same way, the Jewish tradition sees the physician as agent and partner of God in the ongoing act of healing. Precisely because the human body is God’s property, humans have a duty to God to develop and use any therapies that can aid in taking care of our bodies, which ultimately belong to God. But at the same time, since God is the owner of the human body, God can and does impose conditions on human use of the body and among those requirements is that we seek to preserve human life and health (piquach nefesh).
But how should humans go about the task of improving the world? The Jewish answer to the question is that Jewish law itself, which Jews believed to be divinely revealed, consists of the values and norms that guide human actions. In our modern secular world science is the arbiter of truth about the natural, material world. From a Jewish perspective, science, and especially its application in technology, can be used to solve legal problems and alleviate legal restrictions, and science and technology should be used to heal and alleviate human suffering. But science does not provide us with the values and norms necessary to guide our actions. Any medical procedure or proposed therapy has to be evaluated in light of moral principles.
Although Judaism sees humans as created in the image of God who act as partners of God, it also reminds us that we are not God. Because we are not all-knowing we must take care not harm ourselves, other humans, and the rest of the world in the very effort to improve the world. Most Jewish legal thinkers, theologians, and ethicists welcome scientific research as potentially fruitful and hold that contemporary interpretation of Jewish law must be informed by science and technology. But they also maintain that scientific means and ends have to be evaluated by religious values; science does not replace religion nor does it function as a substitute for religion. With this in mind, I would like to engage two aspects of transhumanism—radical life extension and cyber-immortality—from a Jewish perspective.
Two Main Features of Transhumanism: A Critique
Transhumanism encompasses several strands and agendas, but two features capture its core vision of the human as a design project by human engineers: radical life extension and cyber immortality. These agendas are quite different in their approach to human embodiment: whereas the former is concerned with longevity—postponement of death of a discrete, human individual—the latter is based on developments in artificial intelligence and robotics, and sees the individual as disembodied ‘information’ that can exist forever.
I argue that despite their differences, both projects share a deep disdain for human embodiment and a passion to engineer humanity out of its embodied existence. Both of the projects are profoundly secular, although they harbor spiritual dimensions, and both have no use for the notion of creation, let alone creation in the image of God. Let me look more carefully at each of these agendas and explain what I find problematic in them from a Jewish perspective.
Radical Life Extension:
One of the leading proponents of radical life extension is Aubrey de Grey, whose work I will focus on here. In his book Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs that Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Life Time (2007) he refers to aging as “humanitarian crisis” and “a deadly pandemic disease.” De Grey refers to himself as an “anti-aging engineer” and predicts that breakthroughs will come from biomedical gerontological research which he conducts under the title of Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS).
For de Grey the problem of aging is all in the cells, which he believes can be modified in order to reduce age-related mutation. He describes several avenues of research, all focused on protecting cells (from mitochondrial mutation, or bombardment from free radicals), or preventing them from accumulating where they are not wanted (like joints, for example).
De Grey proposes to use immune therapies to tailor our immune system to destroy cells as they become senescent and thus prevent any related problem Further research into the biochemistry of “junk material” that accumulates outside the cells will facilitate immune therapies (vaccines). De Grey and other scientists, including John Schloendron of ASU, also envision searching for suitable non-toxic microbial enzymes in soil bacteria that could be safely introduced into human cells.
What is problematic in De Grey’s vision from a Jewish perspective? First, it is important to note that although de Grey defines aging as a disease and considers it a humanitarian crisis, he approaches the problem as an engineer, not a doctor. Not coincidentally, the dominant metaphor of de Grey’s program is the vintage car: as much as it can continue to run many years beyond the initial design of the car, provided it undergoes periodic, expensive maintenance, so can the human being postpone death indefinitely by undergoing periodic regenerations. The car metaphor indicates that for de Grey and other transhumanists humans are no more than a sum of their physiological processes, which are entirely mechanistic, knowable, and controllable. Beyond the troubling analogy between humans and vintage cars, I find de Grey’s vision problematic for the following reasons. To begin, I am not convinced that aging per-se should be viewed as a disease that kills us, even though it is true that as we age we become more susceptible to diseases. Since the human is an organism rather than a mechanical device, human beings undergo the cycle of birth, maturation, aging, and death that exemplifies the rhythm of creation and the gift of life. All organisms experience aging and death precisely because they are alive and the gift of life is not less precious because it is finite but more so. Moreover, the aging process confers the wisdom that comes with needing to confront difficulty. Life is lived more deeply and richly if we are aware of our mortality and finitude; we make decisions differently and we live less wantonly and superficially with the awareness of death than without it.
But more poignantly, it is not clear to me what exactly will be the purpose of indefinite postponement of death. What will people live for, if they live indefinitely? What is human life going to be about for the extended duration of 150 or 500 years? Will human life consist of more consumerist activities, more entertainment, more “fun,” more wars, more destruction of the natural environment, and more boredom? I wonder. Needless to say, to the extent that longevity research promotes ways to alleviate the suffering caused by debilitating diseases such as Altzheimer and Parkinson, they are all very beneficial. However, I also believe that all programs about extension of human life cannot be divorced from the deeper reflection about the purpose of human life. Such reflection seems to be missing from the transhumanist literature.
One could object and say that human life should not have a purpose, since mere living is itself a blessing that does not require further justification. This point is well taken, but I would suggest that it is precisely because so many people today (especially in Western, post-industrialized nations) live without a sense of purpose or commitment to a task that can ennoble life as a whole, that so many experience boredom, emptiness, and meaninglessness which generate destructive behavior to self and others. The specter of perpetuating the current anomie indefinitely through periodic genetic engineering seems to be very undesirable outcome for humanity.
From the vantage point of Judaism, at least, the ideal of indefinite postponement of death is the highest form of human hubris, yet another example of human rebellion against God, who created humans as finite beings whose life narrative has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Instead of extending our physical life forever, we should make sure that our life stories have meaning. These life stories include emotional, social, aesthetic and spiritual dimensions that prove we are more than “resilient machines.” It is this elusive and ineffable “more” that we must honor and dignify—not because it belongs to a disembodied substance called “soul” but because this “more” is inseparable from our being created as finite, embodied beings. It is this embodiment which transhumanism seeks to transcend in its most radical program, that of cyber-immortality.
The most radical scenario that transhumanism offers is the one in which humans can transport the content of their brains, their minds, to a non-biological entity and thereby achieve immortality. Ray Kurzweil‘s book, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (Viking, 2005), articulates the transhumanist vision of cyberimmortality most forcefully when it imagines a “brain-porting scenario” that will involve “scanning a human brain capturing all of the salient details.” This will entail reinstantiating the brain’s state in a different—most likely much more powerful—computational substrate. According to Kurzweil this will happen mostly likely around the late 2030s. In this scenario “we will continue to have human bodies, but they will become morphable projections of our intelligence.” Such “software-based humans,” he predicts, “will be vastly extended beyond the severe limitations of humans as we know them today. They will live out on the Web, projecting bodies whenever they need or want them, including virtual bodies in diverse realms of virtual reality, holographically projected bodies, foglet-projected bodies, and physical bodies comprising nanobot swarms and other forms of nanotechnology.”
For Kurzweil and other transhumanists herein lies the meaning of transcendence, which Kurzweil takes literally to mean “to go beyond,” that is, “to go beyond the ordinary powers of the material world through the power of patterns.” Yes, the body, the hardware of the human computer will die, but the software of our life, our personal “mind-file” will continue to live ‘online’. For Kurzweil uploading ourselves to a human-made machine is spiritual, because it will exhibit complexity, elegance, knowledge, intelligence, beauty, creativity and levels of subtle attributes such as love. While Kurzweil is reluctant to talk about his own personal belief in God, he does assert that “evolution moves inexorably toward this conception of God, although never quite reaching this ideal”.
So what is problematic in Kurzweil’s vision? The association of immortality with the content of the intellect was in fact entertained by Jewish thinkers in the Middle Ages, among them Maimonides. Following Aristotle’s conception of God as a mind that thinks itself eternally, Maimonides understood God as a thought that thinks itself eternally and envisioned that very developed human minds might reach such perfect knowledge and experience the bliss of immortality, an infinite intellectual activity unencumbered by the corporeal body.
Was Maimonides was the first transhumanist? Not really. Maimonides indeed believed that it is possible for some humans to be outstanding in knowledge and understanding of the structure of reality, and he clearly believed that the Prophet Moses was such an individual. However, Maimonides did not think that Moses was God nor did he identify Moses with the Separate Intellects, the philosophic version of the traditional beliefs in angels. Moses was in a class of his own among humans, but he was neither an angel nor God; Moses remains human and was able to translate his profound understanding into laws that guide human action. In other words, even in regards to Moses, Maimonides was clear not to erase the boundaries between the human and the divine, and to acknowledge the humanity of Moses. But it is precisely the boundary between the human and the divine which transhumanism in its hubris seeks to erase as it imagine the fusion between human and intelligent machines.
From a Jewish perspective, Kurtzweil’s vision is problematic precisely because he sees humans as “software-based” entities, information-processing machines. Leading researchers in Artificial Intelligence (e.g., Kurtzweil, Marvin Mirsky, and Hans Moravec) who are at the forefront of the transhumanist movement believe that the age of the human is drawing to a close and envision a non-biological future in which the body itself will be viewed as information. The triumph of information over biological materiality is problematic not only because it challenges the religious understanding of human createdness and the blessing of life itself, but because it treats humans in terms of general patterns.
When we reduce humans to information that can be coded on a silicate substrate, we commit a dual sin: we erase the particular features that make an individual person unique, and we forget that much of our concrete Otherness is rooted in our peculiar biological features, namely, our distinctive embodiment as manifested by this body that is unlike any other.
A third element of my critique is directed against the implicit notion of perfection that underlies the vision of cyber-immortality. The vision of cyber-immortality, I contend, harbors deep disdain toward biological embodiment and its metabolic foundation, replacing it with the presumably superior intelligent machine that transcends the limits of biological, mistakes-prone human body. It is this disdain toward biological materiality and its inherent imperfection that I find ethically unacceptable. We have come to the point when the adage “to err is human” receives a new meaning.
It is the error, the guff, and the awkward that manifest our freedom which makes us unpredictable, inefficient, and unique, while enabling us to feel compassion and empathy with other persons who are imperfect like us. Yes, the chess player Gary Kasparov was defeated by the super-computer Deep Blue, but Kasparov is a unique human being, who makes ethical, political, and emotional choices that matter to other human beings. The richness and uniqueness of human personhood (captured symbolically in the human face) is alas beyond the capacity of Deep Blue; after all, it cannot even recognize the face of Gary Kasparov.
From a Jewish perspective, the critique of disembodied existence was voiced first during the debate about Maimonides in the 13th century when the critics of Maimonides noted that what matters in Jewish life is not only what we think but also what we do and how we relate to others. Both acting in the world and relating to others require a body and it is the activities of the ensouled body that are rewarded by God. Yes, we are imperfect and flawed, but therein lies the particularity of our life narrative and the preciousness of our numerous decisions and preferences. The obsession with perfection and the simplistic understanding of perfection in mathematical and cognitive terms is at the heart of the transhumanist cybernetic, utopian vision.
Finally, I find troubling the notion that humans can actually achieve the eschatological ideal. Here again I speak as a Jew who is committed to the pursuit of the ideal rather than to its realization. Judaism articulated the utopian impulse, but Judaism also gave rise to thinkers who challenged utopian thinking and understood its danger. The pursuit of the ideal endows life with meaning and gives life direction, but when the prescription is taken a description of a state of affairs, disasters lurk. The description of the eschatological end as envisioned by transhumanism fills me not with beauty and elegance but with horror and disgust. Perhaps this reaction indicates a failure of the imagination, but it can also be that my reluctance to endorse the transhumanist future is based on a historical awareness of the destructive powers of utopian thinking.
I focus on two features of transhumanism—radical life extension and cyber immortality—to suggest that modern technology has indeed transformed and will continue to transform our lives. We should not categorically reject these advances because many of them do and will alleviate human suffering and misery. However, we should not let scientists alone determine our technological future. Rather, we must involve theologians, philosophers, ethicists, historians, sociologists and political scientists in the conversation about technology and not be afraid of robust debate.
The transhumanist project seems to me to be misguided because of its mechanistic engineering-driven approach to being human, its obsession with perfection understood in terms of performance and accomplishments rather than moral integrity, and its disrespect for the unknown future. Instead of the transhumanist fixation on either postponing death or transcending death, I think it is more appropriate for humans to accept the reality of death as part of human life and to dignify how we live, how we age, and how we die.
To live well we need to strengthen our failing social fabric and enable human beings to have dignified family lives, dignified work, and dignified public space. We need to do whatever necessary to put an end to exploitation, poverty, violence, and corruption, and revive human creativity that has been often numbed by technology. We need to ensure that our children and youth grow to behave with respect toward others—be they parents, siblings, peers, relatives, co-workers, strangers, or even enemies.
As for aging with dignity, I for one believe that we should not put our efforts into re-engineering cell biology so as to postpone aging indefinitely, but that we should recognize the beauty of life processes and the cycle of birth, maturation, aging, and death. If we focus on aging with dignity we will pay attention not merely to weight control, physical exercise, and supplements, but also to the arts, wisdom traditions, and religions that provide us with insights about the purpose of human life and its inherent value. If we make aging with dignity our goal we will not allow our healthcare to be driven solely by the financial considerations of insurance companies and we will create caring facilities in which the full person is taken into consideration, and not just the material body.
Finally, since death is part of the cycle of life, we will need to concern ourselves with dignified death, a process that the Bible describes as “being gathered into one’s kin.” Yes, dying is not pretty, but the dying process need not be humiliating or dehumanizing. If done properly, as the hospice movement has shown to us, the dying process itself can be dignified.
Contemporary science and technology have indeed changed our ethical situation forever, challenging human dignity. With further deliberations about transhumanism we will articulate new insights about the meaning of being human in the twenty-first century.