The Compatibility of Religious and Transhumanist Views of Metaphysics, Suffering, Virtue and Transcendence in an Enhanced Future

The Compatibility of Religious and Transhumanist Views of Metaphysics, Suffering, Virtue and Transcendence in an Enhanced Future

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There are at least two ways to define a belief system, doctrinally and empirically. Doctrinally one might say that a Christian is someone who professes the catechism and creed of their church, or who has been saved through a personal relationship with Christ. A doctrinal approach is complicated by the fact that there are no core doctrines that have been professed by all Christian sects, even the divinity of Christ. Empirically the matter is even messier. Most Christians cannot explicate their denominational distinctives, profess many folk beliefs which are not doctrinal as if they were, and have a wide variety of interpretation of what constitutes being a Christian. As the pollster George Barna frequently laments, most American Christians do not understand core doctrines such as that salvation does not come from good works (Barna, 2003, 2007).

Similarly transhumanism – the proposition that human beings should use technology to transcend the limitations of the body and brain  –  is being defined doctrinally by a number of different contemporary groups, and has been appropriated in an even more diverse way by millions of people around the world. Drawing on the Transhumanist Declaration (Appendix One), the World Transhumanist Association’s Frequently Asked Questions document (WTA FAQ), and other creedal documents, Wikipedia currently defines transhumanism as:

… an international intellectual and cultural movement supporting the use of new sciences and technologies to enhance human mental and physical abilities and aptitudes, and ameliorate what it regards as undesirable and unnecessary aspects of the human condition, such as stupidity, suffering, disease, ageing and involuntary death. Transhumanist thinkers study the possibilities and consequences of developing and using human enhancement techniques and other emerging technologies for these purposes. Possible dangers, as well as benefits, of powerful new technologies that might radically change the conditions of human life are also of concern to the transhumanist movement. (Wikipedia, 2007)

Bostrom’s (2002) attempt to deductively derive the core transhumanist values is another effort to identify a core transhumanist doctrine and its corollaries:

Core Value:  Having the opportunity to explore the transhuman and posthuman realms

Basic Conditions

– Global security

– Technological progress

– Wide access

Derivative Values

– Nothing wrong about “tampering with nature”; the idea of hubris rejected

– Individual choice in use of enhancement technologies; morphological freedom

– Peace, international cooperation, anti-proliferation of WMDs

– Improving understanding (encouraging research and public debate; critical thinking; open-mindedness, scientific inquiry; open discussion of the future)

– Getting smarter (individually; collectively; and develop machine intelligence)

– Philosophical fallibilism; willingness to re-examine assumptions as we go along

– Pragmatism; engineering- and entrepreneur-spirit; science

– Diversity (species, races, religious creeds, sexual orientations, life styles, etc.)

– Caring about the well-being of all sentience

– Saving lives (life-extension, anti-aging research, and cryonics)

Note that while the Declaration and WTA FAQ mention that transhumanists share many of the values of classical humanism, neither religious belief nor supernaturalism are precluded in the Transhumanist Declaration, the definition quoted above, nor in Bostrom’s derivation of transhumanist values.

In 2004 and 2005 the World Transhumanist Association surveyed its membership asking questions about agreement with a variety of statements, and about their professed religious beliefs (WTA, 2006). More than 1100 members responded to these surveys, roughly reflecting the global membership of 45% US residents, and 55% from around the world. One goal of the study was to identify ten statements that could be used as a self-diagnostic to determine whether one was a transhumanist or not. The top ten most consensual statements are in Table 1.1 below.

Table 1.1. Top Ten Attitudes on which Transhumanists Agree (2005)







Do you believe that people have a right to use technology to extend their mental and physical (including reproductive) capacities and to improve their control over their own lives?



Do you think that by being generally open and embracing of new technology we have a better chance of turning it to our advantage than if we try to ban or prohibit it?



Do you expect human progress to result from human accomplishment rather than divine intervention, grace, or redemption?



Do you think it would be a good thing if people could become many times more intelligent than they currently are?



Is your concept of “the meaning of life” derived from human responsibility and opportunity rather than divine revelation?



Do you believe women should have the right to terminate their pregnancies?




Does your ethical code advocate the well-being of all sentient beings, whether in artificial intellects, humans, posthumans, or non- human animals?




Do you think it would be a good thing if people could live for hundreds of years or longer?



Would you consider having your mind uploaded to computers if it was the only way you could continue as a conscious person?




Should parents be able to have children through cloning once the technology is safe?




If we use agreement with half of these statements as a self-diagnostic for whether someone is probably a transhumanist, this would include 96% of all the transhumanists in the survey. The ten statements shown in Table 1.1 above can then be parsed into five core value commitments:

  • The Desirability of Human-Enhancement – attitudes about life extension, intelligence augmentation, cryonics and uploading
  • Humanism – attitudes about human self-reliance and whether there are divine limits on human reason
  • Technological-Optimism – attitudes about embracing or banning new technologies, such as nanotechnology, genetic engineering and human enhancement technologies
  • Personhood Ethics – attitudes about valuing the well-being of all sentient, intelligent beings, including rights for great apes and robots, and conversely not endorsing rights of lower animals, feti or the brain dead
  • Reproductive rights – liberal attitudes about abortion, human cloning and the genetic enhancement of children

There have been vigorous discussions within the WTA about whether all these value commitments are equally important, in particular in regards humanism. Since transhumanists see themselves as a part of the Enlightenment humanist tradition, and since most are in fact atheist, many feel that one cannot be a theist transhumanist. Conversely, since some self-described transhumanists agree with all of the propositions above except the two humanist propositions, or agree with all these propositions including the humanist propositions and yet subscribe to a religion or spirituality, doesn’t that argue for the possibility of a religious transhumanism?

Empirically, many transhumanists do not feel transhumanism precludes spirituality. The WTA membership survey found that one quarter of the respondents were religious in some sense, identifying with all the major world religious traditions from Buddhism and Hinduism to Christianity, Judaism and Islam, as well to terms such as “spiritual” and “religious humanist.”

Table 1.2. Which of these best describes your religious or spiritual views?


Secular, atheist





Secular humanist


Other non-theistic philosophy




Religious or spiritual








Religious humanist


Pagan or animist






Other religion












None of the above


Don’t know

Bainbridge’s (2005) pilot survey research on 430 respondents, including one hundred or so transhumanists, asking about approval of a number of transhumanist interventions, found that the religious supported transhumanist ideas less often than the secular, but that the differences were not dramatic. While a third of the agnostics and atheists supported the idea of mind-scanning and uploading, 10-20% of the firm believers in God also supported the idea (Bainbridge, 2005).  Clearly some religious can embrace transhumanist projects, there are already people who consider themselves religious and transhumanist, and there are beginning signs of religious-transhumanist syncretism both within and outside of the major faiths.

Even if doctrinally some transhumanist tenets are incompatible with core tenets of some of these faith traditions, pursuing a future world community that makes safe human enhancement universally accessible requires a broad, diverse coalition including both secular transhumanists and people of faith sympathetic with transhumanism. As a consequence the World Transhumanist Association sponsored a conference on transhumanism and religion at the University of Toronto in the summer of 2004, which resulted in a special issue of the Journal of Evolution and Technology. That conference spawned the Trans-Spirit project and email list, an effort to discuss emerging neurotheological research and possible neurotechnological adjuncts to spiritual ends; this is also the agenda of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies’ new Cyborg Buddha Project (IEET, 2007).  In 2004 Unitarian-Universalists formed the Transhumanist UU Network (Hughes, 2005) and in 2006 the Mormon Transhumanist Association incorporated in Utah (MTA, 2007).

In this essay I build on these efforts to explore the compatibility of the transhumanist project with the metaphysics, soteriologies and eschatologies of the major world faiths (Hopkins, 2005).  I argue that elements of transhumanism are compatible with interpretations of all the world’s faiths, and that these compatibilities are being and will be built upon to create new, syncretic “trans-spiritualities” in which enhancement technologies are selectively incorporated by groups in all the religious traditions. The religious landscape of the future will range from the current prevailing bioconservative resistance to an enthusiastic embrace of transhuman possibilities.


Metaphysics of the Body and Spirit

One of the chief obstacles to reconciliation of transhumanism with most religious systems is the metaphysics of the spirit-body relationship. Transhumanists are nearly unanimous in believing that there is no supernatural spirit, that the mind is a product of the brain, and that machines with self-aware intelligence are possible.  Transhumanists also overwhelmingly embrace the idea of mind uploading, and endorse the moral standing of all sentient life “whether in artificial intellects, humans, posthumans, or non- human animals.” Transhumanist thinking on “non-anthropocentric personhood theory” draws on the intrinsic logic of liberal democratic thought, which insists that all suffering and self-aware beings have equivalent moral standing regardless of irrelevant biological differences such as gender, race or species. This theory is crystallized in the contemporary liberal bioethics of “personhood,” informing debates around abortion, brain death and the status of non-human creatures. Conversely, the chief critics of personhood ethics are religionists who argue that value or moral standing comes from qualities particular to human beings, such as the possession of a soul, and that these qualities could not be created in, or transferred to, machines or animals.

The belief that humans are uniquely ensouled and that the soul cannot transfer to other creatures is specific to the Abrahamic faiths, and is a hurdle for transhumanists within these faith traditions.  However, theologian Ted Peters has reviewed the many Christian soul theories in terms of their relative compatibility with transhumanism, from purely supernatural “substance dualism” to “theological materialism” (Peters, 2005), and concludes that the common folk Christian belief that humans are endowed with unique, eternal, supernatural souls is unscriptural and noncreedal.

Even though substance dualism has garnered some theological credibility in the past, the idea that the soul is a spiritual substance is widely rejected in today’s Christian circles as unscriptural and incoherent. Recognizing this makes confronting trans-humanism and cybernetic immortality a bit more difficult, because the theological perspective simply does not match the emerging scientific and technological perspective. (Peters, 2005: 386)

Peters points out that in Genesis God forms man from breath and dirt, implying that ensoulment is a natural process guided by a supernatural hand. Similarly Saint Paul says that the soul “perishes,” while the Resurrection will be of the body, not the soul. Some scholars argue that the concept of an eternal soul was incorporated into Christianity and Islam from Greek ideas of anima and eternal Platonic types. Jewish and Islamic eschatology also includes bodily resurrection, with Islam sharing belief in a soul, while Judaism does not have a concept of a supernatural soul.

Christians do not, and perhaps cannot consistently, identify the soul with just the memories, personality and rational self-awareness of the brain, the personhood that transhumanists acknowledge and want to perpetuate. The catechism of the Catholic Church for instance defines the soul as “the innermost aspect of man, that which is of greatest value in him, that by which he is most especially in God’s image: ‘soul’ signifies the spiritual principle in man.” But Peters argues that Christians can maintain a broader spiritual understanding of the soul, emphasizing the relationship of the person to the divine, and still embrace a metaphysics more consistent with the evidence of science. Peters labels the more doctrinally-grounded Christian soul theories “emergent dualism,” “non-reductive physicalism,” and “theological materialism.”  Emergent dualists see the soul as a supernatural thing that emerges from the brain. Non-reductive physicalists see the soul as a property of the mind, which cannot be reduced to the functioning of neurons, hormones and genes, but which is not supernatural. Christian theological materialists see the soul as synonymous with the workings of the body and brain, and the death of the body as the end of the soul. For these soul theories the soul is more of a relational concept (Davis, 2002), a dynamic expression of the relation of the individual with the divine.

Peters argues that each of these more plausible interpretations of a scripturally-grounded and creedal concept of the soul include more than just reasoning, and rejects what he perceives as the transhumanist assumption that reasoning is all that is important about the preservation of personal identity. Other Christian critics of machine intelligence argue that the non-cognitive aspects of God reflected in Man in Imago Dei can never be fully replicated in a machine (Tongen, 2003). Fortunately, this assumption about the narrowness of transhumanist conceptions of the person is wrong, or it is true only in the sense that while there are some transhumanists who are only concerned with preserving and enhancing rationality and intelligence, transhumanist philosophers – such as Nick Bostrom, Ray Kurzweil, Mark Walker and myself  –  have given considerable attention to the importance of embodiment, desires, beauty, awe, personal identity and other features of a richer model of the person.  In “Transhumanist Values” for instance Bostrom observes “Preservation of personal identity, especially if this notion is given a narrow construal, is not everything.”  Insofar as Christians adopt one of the three interpretations of ensoulment which Peters argues for, these would also all be potentially consistent with a non-caricatured transhumanist project.

In other words, even if a Christian believes the soul to be a supernatural substance emerging from brains, one could also believe such a soul might emerge from a similar mind instantiated in a different media, such as an enhanced animal or a machine. Insofar as the soul is about the relationship of self-aware minds to the divine then Christians would be interested in the capacity of non-human minds for shame, awe and a personal connection to the divine.

The theologian Anne Foerst (1998, 2004) argues that a relational, rather than supernatural, understanding of the soul is very close to the transhumanist/bioethical idea of personhood, and that machine minds would then be moral subjects for Christians (2000). Even our non-self-aware humanoid robots today require relational respect:

Personhood simply means playing a role, if only a passive one, in that mutual narrative process. Like babies, or Alzheimer’s patients, humanoid robots don’t tell their own stories, but they play a role in our lives so we include them in our narrative structures. This suggests that perhaps we ought to think about treating robots right…Thinking about humanoid robots can possibly help us learn to tell inclusive stories, narratives that are unprejudiced. (Foerst quoted in Glenn, 2005)

In fact, even the most conservative Abrahamists posit the existence of non-humans with moral standing: angels. Conversely religious cosmologies also usually include evil supernatural beings, and transhumanism is sometimes being interpreted as portending the creation of these mythical demons. Some on the Christian Right, for instance, have proposed that transhumanist experimentation with robots, chimerae and cyborgs are intended to create demonic nephilim or “human-angel hybrids” (Palmgren, 2006) prophecied to “immanetize the Eschaton” (Collins, 2006). Again, the theology of why transhumanist projects would necessarily create beings without souls, or whose souls were evil, is a little obscure. Presumably Christian transhumanists will argue either that posthuman beings have the same souls as humans, or even more sublime souls, and presumably then also greater spiritual obligations as angelic superheroes.

In addition to their mistaken understandings of Christian metaphysics of the soul many Christians, and theists of other faiths, reject the transhumanist project on the grounds that it is a form of Promethean hubris, an insult to God and an attempt to usurp his powers and prerogatives.  Rev. Peters has again argued that there is no scriptural basis for an injunction against “playing God,” and that like Prometheus, this injunction is inherited from the Greco-Roman tradition. Unlike the Olympians, the God of Abraham is not in a zero-sum balance of power with humanity, where God loses when we become greater. The God of Abraham enjoins human beings to be “created co-creators” (1997). Humanity was endowed with reason with the expectation that we would exercise it in expanding our stewardship and cultivation of the gifts of Creation, including our own biological natures and our capacities for health, freedom and virtue. Although co-creator theology and theology of freedom (Polkinghorne, 2000) is still rare in the pulpit, mosque and synagogue it creates a bridge for Christian, Jewish and Muslim transhumanists.

Outside of the Abrahamic traditions we see even more openness to the transhumanist project and metaphysics.  Shinto and animist traditions, which see spirit in even inanimate objects, have had little problem with the idea of human or animal enhancement, and should have less prob em with the idea of s