A sermon given August 14, 2005 at the Unitarian Universalist Society East in Manchester Connecticut.

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Transhumanism and
Unitarian Universalism:
Beginning the Dialogue

James Hughes

Sometimes when I’m asked how the coming technological transformation of humanity could be consistent with spirituality I think about people in the “locked-in” state. One of our oldest nightmares is of being buried alive, being totally conscious, and yet thought dead. That’s what being locked-in is. It is a state of total paralysis, usually the result of a long, slow degeneration of nerve and muscle control, until you can’t even blink or puff to communicate, even though you can still hear and see, and are fully conscious. People with conditions leading to locked-in state, like Lou Gehrig’s disease, were often advised to make advanced directives to have their feeding tubes removed if they didn’t want to spend a decade or more in this state.

But last year a company began putting computer chips in the motor cortices of locked in people, chips which pick up their thoughts about moving arms or fingers, and send them as radio signals to an external computer. The recipients can type out emails, surf the web, control wheelchairs and eventually move prosthetic limbs and exoskeletons. Now people facing the breakdown of their bodies can anticipate that they will still have some measure of control over their lives, some ability to communicate. These micro-neural prostheses also now allow the deaf to hear, the blind to see, they are giving those without arms and legs control of powerful new limbs, and are being used to suppress epilepsy and depression.

What a profound affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of every person, an affirmation that we can provide because of the miracle of human reason, applied to nature, manifested as science and technology. It is the celebration of this miracle of human intelligence that is the core of our humanist creed, that is the common root between the two belief systems of transhumanism and Unitarian Universalism.

Those chips are also an apt symbol for this dialogue between ideological cousins because those locked-in cyborgs are the test pilots for the nano-neural interfaces that our children will take for granted, interfaces which will allow us all to access the Internet at the speed of thought, to remember all the events and thoughts in our lives with perfect fidelity, to share and communicate with one another in currently unimaginable intimacy, and to explore the spiritual potential of the brain. Those chips are John the Baptist to the coming of a dramatic change in human experience, a change in which we use reason and science to fully transcend the limitations of the human condition.

In that shift I believe we UUs have a special calling to help infuse that change with our values and to be a shelter for refugees from more rigid faiths shaken by these changes. We have a unique gift because of our uniquely humanist understanding, whether theist or non-theist, that humanity is called to be co-Creator of our own future. We UUs do not see a bright shining line drawn by God around our genitals, our genomes, or our governments, that proscribes the limits of our creativity. We are, as the humanist Julian Huxley said when he first coined the term transhumanism in the 1920s, a species that can transcend itself.

This desire to transcend the human condition is one of the most fundamental spiritual drives we know. We are hard-wired to seek out dances and chants, sweat lodges and fasts, fermented berries and bitter mushrooms, that scramble our routine modes of perception. Since the invention of symbolic culture we have been praying, making offerings, going on pilgrimages, in search of healing, eternal youth, transcendent knowledge, the power of flight and transformation.  The oldest surviving written text, the Gilgamesh saga from ancient Sumeria, is about a man searching for a way to stay young forever. Our religious traditions are full of visions of better worlds to come, sometimes heavens, and sometimes a better world here, a New Zion where people are perfected, ennobled, long-lived and blessed.

The Buddhist tradition predicts that, repulsed by the horrors of apocalyptic war, we will build a utopian civilization in the time before the coming of the next Buddha, in which Earth will be thickly populated with billions of happy, healthy people who live for thousands of years in harmony with one another and nature. The average age at marriage will be five hundred years. The climate will always be good, neither too hot nor too cold. Wishing trees in the public squares will provide anything you need, and the government will dissolve as people turn to spiritual pursuits. And we do all that before the next Buddha gets here.

These are our ancient hopes and dreams, the Yin waiting for the Yang of modernity and the European Enlightenment for fulfillment. Both transhumanism and UUism were born from the marriage of spiritual aspiration with reason, humanism, science and democracy. The European Enlightenment gave the world a systematic understanding of the natural and social world, a means to achieve our dreams. It gave us the idea that social relations should be based on justice and deliberation, and a vision of individual liberty free of natural law and divine authority.  The European Enlightenment gave us the free and responsible search for truth and meaning, the right of conscience, and a tradition of iconoclastic science, willing to cut open bodies to see how they work, to experiment and theorize in ways the Church thought ungodly.

I’m not saying that rationalist humanism, scientific exploration, democracy and free thought can’t be found in other cultures. But it was in the European Enlightenment that our aspirations to be liberated from the human condition turned from spiritual means, to self-liberation through science and reason. In the 17th century Francis Bacon proposes a radical utopian society, a “New Atlantis,” which will use reason and science to improve human beings and master nature. Robert Hooke turns from his microscope to suggest that one day we might improve eyes by embedding them with telescopes and microscopes. In the 18th century the French revolutionary Marquis de Condorcet and the British anarchist William Godwin both predict that, through scientific progress, we will eventually have unlimited lifespans and free ourselves from work. 

The same historical rivers that were converging to create religious liberalism in the 19th and 20th centuries generated the utopian projects of Owen, Fourier, Saint Simon and Oneida, all seeking human betterment by replacing faith with reason. As Darwinism and genetics entered the public consciousness, biblical literalism was shattered, and Unitarians and Universalists began to drift from their Christian roots towards secular humanism, and ideas of human improvement turned to biology.

When British genetics pioneer and Marxist agitator JBS Haldane championed extra-uterine gestation and genetic engineering in 1923, he inspired fellow biologist and humanist Julian Huxley to coin the term transhumanism for the notion that human beings could and should throw off the shackles of dogma and use cultural and biological means to evolve further. Julian wrote “Human life …could be transcended by a state of existence based on the illumination of knowledge and comprehension.....The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself…in its entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself.”

But Haldane’s projections inspired horror in Julian’s brother Aldous, who wrote Brave New World in response. As Stalinism and fascism unfolded utopian visions of the future were met with increasingly dystopian visions. After World War II the atom bomb and Nazi eugenics, the growing awareness of ecological damage and the genocides of European colonialism, of thalidomide and traffic deaths, all contributed to a new suspicion of technology among progressives and humanists. How could technologies born of big profit-driven corporations, administered by a male medical profession, commissioned by a military-industrial complex, and born of White man’s alienated fantasies of mastery ever be used to build a better world?  Better to return to compost toilets and bicycles, garden-grown food and homeopathy.

Nonetheless techno-utopianism continued to percolate. The space program suggested that we might soon colonize other planets. The condom, pill and penicillin ushered in a sexual revolution, and the counterculture discovered better living through chemistry. Around the corner were certain cures for cancer and a computer in every house. Leftists generally anticipated that automation would lead to a 30 hour work week and feminists anticipated that artificial wombs would help liberate women from patriarchy.

In 1972, in Man into Superman, Robert Ettinger, the founder of the cryonics movement which freezes people for reanimation, proposed that we would have easy gender re-assignment, redesigned digestive tracts, bodies adapted to extreme climates, and a transition to what he termed “transhumanity.”

In the 1980s these technoutopian trends coalesce in Southern California, especially in Silicon Valley in the technolibertarian culture that birthed the Internet. The “extropians” and transhumanists of the early 1990s net culture began to argue that there would soon emerge a greater than human intelligence, an event they called the Singularity, which would be cataclysmic. Once computers that can perform as many calculations as a human brain are on all our desks, which will happen in about fifteen years, they believe the emergence of self-aware intelligence is inevitable. To avoid the Terminator scenario, and ensure a good TechnoRapture, human beings need to become as intelligent as our machines, with genes, drugs and nanoneural implants. Transhuman apotheosis is the only way to avoid being swept aside by our robotic children. We simply don’t have time to wait for the FDA or social reform, we need brain jacks now!

At that point, the links between humanists and progressives, on the one hand, and these techno-utopians on the other had grown pretty distant. But not all transhumanists shared the often self-involved and anti-spiritual ethos of Southern California libertarianism. European transhumanists tended to be much more interested in questions of regulated risks and social justice, and in 1996 the World Transhumanist Association, the organization I now run, was founded in London in an effort to define a broader base for transhumanism, affirming the core idea of transcending the human condition, but broadening the parameters to include progressive concerns. The founder and chair of the WTA is the Swedish philosopher, now Oxford professor, Nick Bostrom. In 2001 I became the Secretary, and in 2004 the Executive Director. We now have about two dozen chapters around the world, from Toronto, Montreal, NYC, San Francisco, London, Berlin, and Moscow to Kampala, Nairobi, and Calcutta.

Of course, transhumanist ideas are meeting with stiff resistance, and the critics are now often addressing transhumanism by name. On the one hand are the religious conservatives who see transhuman ambitions as hubris, “playing god.” The Christian Right is pouring millions into conservative bioethics organizations to counter what they see - correctly - as creeping transhumanism in liberal bioethics. The Vatican newspaper attacked transhumanism twice this Spring, and transhumanism has joined secular humanism and the gay agenda on the fundamentalist hit parade.

In 2001 President Bush appeased anxious religious conservatives by appointing a staunch opponent of human enhancement, Leon Kass, to chair the President’s Council on Bioethics. Kass in turn has loaded the PCB with other opponents of stem cell cloning, reproductive technology, psychiatric drugs and genetic engineering, such as Francis Fukuyama, author of Our Posthuman Future, who last year proclaimed transhumanism the most dangerous ideology in the world. In 2003 the PCB issued its report calling for strict regulation and limitation of access to human enhancement and reproductive technologies.

There is also a left-wing bioconservative movement growing out of anti-technology deep ecologists, feminist opponents of reproductive medicine, leftist critics of corporate control of biotech and radical disability rights activists. These left bioconservatives are reaching out to build alliances with the religious right to promote bans on surrogate motherhood, genetically modified food, stem cell cloning and human genetic enhancement.

Clearly there are and will be Unitarian Universalists on both sides of the transhumanist/bioconservative dialogue.  Many UUs feel an initial sympathy with the bioconservative critique because of our concerns with equity, safety and the commodification of the body. But I believe that as these biopolitical issues emerge with increasing frequency, from Terri Schiavo to stem cells to drug law reform, UUs will increasingly see that we side more with technological self-determination, with the free and responsible use of these technologies in a free society, and not with knee-jerk yuck factor bans based on sacred or natural boundaries. That’s why we embrace gays and transgender folks, instead of agreeing that that just isn’t the way folks are supposed to do it.

UUs, seeking the inherent worth of all beings in the interdependent web, are also unlikely to affirm the central dogma of the bioconservatives, a dogma I call “human- racism” – that the only form of intelligence that is of value is homo-sapien, and that all homo-sapiens are full citizens from conception to heart death. Like white supremacists before them, bioconservatives believe social solidarity is founded on biological similarity, and that it will be impossible for humans and posthumans to live together in mutual respect. They believe that acknowledging our continuity with animals and giving them rights degrades respect for human beings. Rather, transhumanists and UUs look for the value of life in the capacity for thought and feeling. Focusing on the subjective being in each us, we may then recognize it looking back at us from the eyes of great apes, posthumans and even machines minds.

While I think UUs will have more in common with transhumanists, UUs also will bring welcome concerns to biopolitics, concerns about equal access to the benefits of technology, and to their effects on the lives of the people who use them. I expect UUs to be critical transhumanists, pushing technoutopians to remember the current needs of the world’s poor, for clean water, adequate shelter and decent wages.

I also expect UUs to engage with and be critical of the embarrassingly religious dimensions of the transhumanist idea – at least embarrassing for the largely secular transhumanists – with its promises of immortality, magical abilities, a coming  TechnoRapture. These are themes to which we UUs are uniquely tuned to respond, as they are wrapped this time in science and reason, but also to respond to critically because we see millennialism in its pancultural context, and we understand the excesses to which it has led in other faiths.

In order to promote this transhumanist-UU dialogue, and the broader conversation about the application of brain science to spirituality, we have created the Transhumanist UU Network and the Trans-Spirit discussion groups on the web, and you are welcome to join the conversation.

In closing, think again about the people trapped in locked-in state, and the liberation becoming cyborgs has offered them. In the future, as our vistas are broadened by bio- and nanotechnologies, by longer, richer lives, I think we will all look back in awe at the locked-in states we are all in now, just as we are awestruck by the hardships of our ancestors.  

In 1928 H.G. Wells wrote:

Not one of us is yet as clear and free and happy within himself as most men will some day be….A graver humanity, stronger, more lovely, longer lived, will learn and develop the ever enlarging possibilities of its destiny. For the first time, the full beauty of this world will be revealed to its unhurried eyes. Its thoughts will be to our thoughts as the thoughts of a man to the troubled mental experimenting of a child….

How far can we anticipate the habitations and ways, the usages and adventures, the mighty employments, the ever increasing knowledge and power of the days to come? No more than a child with its scribbling paper and its box of bricks can picture or model the undertakings of its adult years. Our battle is with cruelties and frustrations, stupid, heavy and hateful things from which we shall escape at last, less like victors conquering a world than like sleepers awaking from a nightmare in the dawn….The light of day thrusts between our eyelids, and the multitudinous sounds of morning clamour in our ears. A time will come when men will sit with history before them or with some old newspaper before them and ask incredulously, “Was there ever such a world?”