What is Human Wisdom?: An Interrogation of Posthuman Futures in Transhuman Evolutionary Discourse

What is Human Wisdom?: An Interrogation of Posthuman Futures in Transhuman Evolutionary Discourse

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Maria1. Transhumanism as counterfoil to wisdom

Transhumanism is the view that humans should be permitted to use technology in order to re-make human nature, offered as the next stage in human evolution. It differs from posthumanism in as much as posthumanity is largely concerned with an ideal future where such transitions have already happened. Christian engagement with transhuman discourse has more often than not been situated in the context of ethical debates about the legitimacy of particular technologies championed by transhumanists in their goals to achieve a form of humanity that is not just freed from those mortal ills that weigh down ordinary human lives, but also aims towards additional ‘supra-human’ qualities deemed desirable to attain. Many see transhumanity as an intermediate stage on the way to a full-blown posthumanity, and as such, it draws on the scientific technologies currently available in order to justify its position. The posthumanity argued for within transhumanism is distinct in certain respects from the posthuman discourse within the humanities, such as that represented by the feminist theorist Donna Haraway, that is aligned with postmodern, rather than modern or Enlightenment philosophy that forms the backbone of most transhumanist positions, though the two areas of posthuman discourse overlap in certain respects as well. While such discussion is interesting, it is not the concern of the present paper. Transhumanism also assumes significantly that intelligence is the mark of what makes us human. A range of scientific means is used in order to affect this supposed evolutionary process, including smart drugs, nanotechnology, prosthetics, computer-assisted communication and genetic modification, humanity become superhumanity. Such technology promises to create a new species that is beyond Homo sapiens.

Not all transhuman writers are unsophisticated or simply working at the level of popular culture. Nick Bostrom, writing from the Philosophy department at Oxford University, is arguably one of the founders of transhuman philosophy. For him, the future of human evolution lies in technology. His argument in a nutshell is as follows. He suggests that the apparent ‘progress’ in evolution towards increasing complexity, consciousness and so on is not one that can be guaranteed, indeed it seems highly likely that it will not achieve desirable progress for the human species as we know it. He also considers a future society where computerised modules have replaced human beings, even though he eschews the loss of consciousness. He has to engage in mental gymnastics in order to argue the case for the social engineering of conditions such that what he terms ‘eudaemonic’ types are preserved. A singleton is in control, defined as:

‘democratic world government, a benevolent and overwhelmingly powerful superintelligent machine, a world dictatorship, a stable alliance of leading powers, or even something as abstract as a generally diffused moral code that included provisions for ensuring its own stability and enforcement’.1 While there may be no guarantee that human evolution according to natural biological processes will enable the survival of the human race, the vision that Bostrom presents is one that is ultimately dehumanising, for it is based on a pre-conceived understanding of the good according to a particular narrowly defined transhuman utopian model that is then tied into a manipulative political structure.

Nick Bostom and Anders Sandberg also believe that the starting point for interventions is one that reflects the ‘wisdom of nature’ by posing what they term is the evolutionary optimality challenge, namely, if the proposed intervention would lead to an enhancement, why have humans not evolved in this way?2 Bostrom and Sandberg believe that it is permissible to go beyond the fundamental limitations of evolution, caused either by physical incapability, such as diamond teeth, or by being ‘locked in’ through genetic processes such as heterozygote alleles giving an advantage to a homozygote lethal condition. In such cases, the human engineer has a specific aim in view, hence, working backwards in order to propose possible enhancements. This process of human engineering takes account of the evolutionary knowledge already gained, but is also able to override ignorance in that they believe that there may be some justification in making interventions where the evolutionary function is unknown. In the final analysis it seems that the goal towards transhuman evolution is simply made more palatable by the rhetorical use of the evolutionary and wisdom heuristic.

2. The evolution of human wisdom

Evolutionary biologists presume the capacity for wisdom has survival value, either directly or indirectly through other accompanying traits. In other words, human wisdom, according to the view of evolutionary psychology, would necessarily have adaptive value for the species. 3 One approach assumes that ideas that have survival value are ‘memes’ that are selected and transmitted across generations, regardless of whether the originators have biologically related offspring or not. The difficulty with meme theory is that it proposes a dualistic form of inheritance, memes seemingly in detachment from genetic trends. The difficulty with an alternative strong evolutionary theory, on the other hand, that claims that all traits are grounded in genetics, is that it does not account adequately for many examples of complex human behaviour, including, for example, celibacy, and, arguably, complex traits such as wisdom. Neither option debated among evolutionary psychologists seems satisfactory, given the complex and varied expression of the meaning of wisdom in different cultures, which explains why theologians, social scientists and others have argued that evolutionary science cannot give an adequate account, and might even give a false account of what wisdom is like. More mediating approaches that try to find common ground between religious views and biological explanations still have to face the uncomfortable truth that the underlying anthropology for most evolutionary psychologists is one of self-interest, even if disguised (such as debates in altruism, for example), while religious approaches stress moving away from strictly egotistic approaches. 4 Curiously, perhaps, if we apply the dual inheritance concept of genes and memes strictly to science, then even ideas arising out of science may eventually prove less helpful and so be discarded.

Wisdom as a cognitive process deals with what are generally perceived to be overarching universal truths, though both ancient and modern scholars disagree about what this might mean. Wisdom as cognition implies a way of integrating different interpretations, rather than simply accumulating more and more information. More contemporary psychological studies indicate that a wise person has a general competence in both intelligence and technical ability, pragmatic knowledge based on experience, as well as reflective and evaluative skills. In this sense it is a different skill to that advocated in transhuman projects, that seem to focus on intelligence, with social capacities added on almost as an afterthought. Wisdom in psychological terms has some parallels with what is known as optimal adult psychological development, which includes the ability to assume contrary viewpoints, recognition of interrelatedness and an integrative approach to thinking. Significantly, classical psychology such as that found in Aristotle also names wisdom as a public virtue, or a socially valued habitual pattern of behaviour.

Human wisdom is also about relational knowing that seeks to incorporate scientific knowing as one dimension in an overall picture of the whole, so on this basis a psychological interpretation of wisdom cannot be exhaustive. Nicholas Lash believes that scientific thinking about human knowledge has followed in the tradition of the seventeenth century scientist Francis Bacon, who argued that history flows from memory, poetry from imagination, and science/philosophy from reason.5 Such a scheme dissociates memory from argument, experience from reason, and imagination becomes relegated to the poetic way of thinking. He suggests that this reduces the significance of story telling, of parable and paradoxical ways of thinking. The scientific project becomes a way of homogenising other forms of knowledge, history becomes simply a receiving of facts that are passed on to the next generation. Transhuman discourse shows both a commitment to the Enlightenment project alongside apparent ignorance of transhumanism’s socially limited appeal.

3. Human wisdom and virtue ethics

In the Hebrew Scriptures the wisdom literature focuses on daily life and instructions for living.6 The wisdom writers assumed that wisdom was a quality of life that humans could learn, either by experience in a family or through education. While the Torah, or law, spelt out specific instructions for how to live, wisdom writing was more open to different interpretations becoming possible in different circumstances. Human wisdom, for the Hebrew writers, was about character formation. However, it was also about human responsibility, moral integrity and accountability to God and to others, rather than individualistic intellectual experiences named above as the goal of the transhuman future. Wisdom presupposed faith, for the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1.7, 2.5, 9.10). The characters that illustrated what wisdom is like were highly diverse, from the lonely journey through despair for Qoheleth in the book of Ecclesiastes, through to the argumentative Job, challenging his innocent suffering and the advice of conventional wisdom. Both books dealt with the dangers of conventional wisdom, in Job the idea that suffering was the result of sin, and in Ecclesiastes the dangers implicit in the obsessive search for meaning even within the search for wisdom, the psychological danger of grandiosity becomes a striving after wind. Wisdom is ‘intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, incisive, unsullied, lucid, invulnerable, benevolent, shrewd, irresistible, beneficent, friendly to human beings, steadfast, dependable, unperturbed, almighty, all-surveying, penetrating all intelligent, pure and most subtle spirits’ (Wisdom 7. 22-23). While this passage refers almost certainly to those qualities of wisdom that are divine, one can assume that those filled with the Spirit of wisdom would acquire some of these characteristics, for it is set in the context of the story about Solomon’s own search for wisdom.

The wisdom literature is also replete with poetical and metaphorical language alongside story, close observation of nature, and aesthetic appreciation. The wisdom writings in the Hebrew Bible are an invitation to join in a story, a narrative of a particular people in their struggle to make sense of their daily lives. Wisdom literature encourages a meta-reflection on experience in a way that values that experience and respects the elderly, while not being confined to the oldest members of the community. The Psalms present some of the most enduring examples of humanity’s struggle to make sense of human experiences of celebration, community and family life, but also loss, suffering and death. Yet outside the wisdom literature there are good examples of the identification of wisdom with the Holy Spirit, in particular, that endowed on individuals for a particular task. Exodus 28.3, for example, describes those who are making the priest’s garments as having the Spirit of wisdom, and the same applies to those building the tabernacle in Exodus 31.3 and Exodus 35.31. Rulers also exercise their authority in good governance through wisdom, the rule of Joseph over Egypt is successful because he is given the Spirit of wisdom (Genesis 41.38-40), and Joshua leads his people because he is full of the Spirit of wisdom (Deuteronomy 34.9; Numbers 27.18). In the New Testament wisdom and the Spirit are associated with certain functions, so that in Corinthians 12.8 the Spirit gives the gift of preaching and wisdom. Christ is also the one who endows the disciples with wisdom, as Luke 21.15 attests. The real function of wisdom seems to be to guide humanity so that it acts in accordance with God’s will. But wisdom as the Spirit is also capable of transforming human intentions so that they become more aligned with such intention. In the New Testament wisdom as virtue becomes radicalised still further through the notion of wisdom as inclusive of suffering and even martyrdom, the wisdom of the cross. Such wisdom implies more than simply entering a narrative, rather it is about a dramatic encounter with the divine, mirrored in the life and passion of Christ. As such it is sharply counter to the culture of self-interest prescribed by transhuman philosophy and evolutionary psychology. Convoluted explanations that still work on this model in order to discuss what wisdom means seem less than satisfactory. 7

Thomas Aquinas takes up and develops the idea of wisdom as a practical basis for ethics, combining insights from the bible, tradition, and philosophy, especially that of Aristotle. For Aquinas wisdom is one of the three intellectual virtues of speculative reason, the others being scientia and understanding. Scientia is the comprehension of the causes of things and the relationship between them, while understanding is grasping first principles. Wisdom, however, looks beyond these faculties, as it is the understanding of the fundamental causes of everything and their relationship to everything else, including God. It is, therefore, a holistic capability of human comprehension, but one that is deliberately inclusive of a religious dimension. The claim of evolutionary psychology that religion is an evolved capacity, alongside the capacity for wisdom is too simplistic, for it fails to explain what that wisdom might mean and how it is to be understood. While the capacity for meta-cultural interpretation takes us some way, it is not entirely clear whether wisdom is always linked with the ‘way things are’, in the manner suggested by Jeff Schloss.8 Without such richness of interpretation, the idea of wisdom becomes almost meaningless, apart from reflecting very general capacities that have evolved in highly intelligent social animals. It is rather like saying that knowing that my brain allows me to think is equivalent to the content of that thinking. Hence, evolutionary explanations are more about the capacity for development of such wisdom, rather than what wisdom might entail, and it is the latter, arguably, that distils the nature of human wisdom.

Aquinas followed Aristotle in suggesting that wisdom was the greatest of the intellectual virtues, but for him its ultimate authority came from its consideration of God. Yet because Aquinas believed that complete knowledge of God is impossible, so too wisdom is always beyond human grasp. Yet even this limited form of knowledge is preferable to other forms of knowing. He believed that wisdom judges both the premises of the sciences, and the conclusions that are reached by science. 9 Yet, wisdom for Aquinas was not just about giving knowledge about God in detached philosophical reasoning, but also about giving a direction to human life according to divine norms. These norms are equivalent to the divine law found in the Ten Commandments. In other words, wisdom is practically rooted as well. Aquinas thus echoes the Hebrew concept that wisdom as an intellectual virtue could be learned, but is also a gift of God.

As gift, Aquinas believed that wisdom reaches beyond the natural human capacity given in reasoning ability; it is a supernatural work of divine grace. For Aquinas the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit included scientia and understanding, as well as wisdom and counsel. How might a concept of grace-laden wisdom find contemporary resonance? I suggest that wisdom is a gift of God’s grace in as much as human consciousness is open to the possibility of the transcendent, ready to receive a spiritual dimension that is not only hidden, but also an integral part of the way the world is. In other words, it is not so much an intrusion of God in the world, but a discovery of God immanently present in all things. Such presence points to transcendence, but such transcendence is never known fully by human reasoning, instead we need to develop a religious and imaginative sense that is more analogous to the human experience of wonder. In other words, while it is fair to say that the presence of God is in all things, this is not equivalent to God, for the discontinuity between God and creation remains, with Nicholas Lash we can claim that God is not an object like other objects, and in this sense cannot be discovered in a way analogous to the practice of science, at least as that science is normally considered practiced.10

In this way, while one aspect of wisdom contemplates God and the nature of being in a metaphysical sense, another aspect is orientated towards action according to divine norms, for it is a participation in the divine nature by way of grace. 11 Wisdom also required the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity in order to be effective in achieving its goal. For Aquinas, wisdom is the gift of the Holy Spirit that corresponds with charity, for given the sinful nature of the human condition conflicts are bound to arise. Love has the capacity to unite, so that wisdom is fulfilled through loving action. It is through the gifts of God’s grace in faith, hope and charity that humanity becomes deified, participating in the life of God. Yet Aquinas was also keenly aware of the limitations of human knowing, God’s essence is ultimately unknowable, and human minds, as created, could not know everything there is to know. In other words, humanity is capable of goodness, wisdom, and charity in so far as it participates in the goodness, wisdom and charity of God. 12

In Aquinas, wisdom as intellectual virtue of speculative reason is linked with prudence and art, which are virtues of practical reason. Prudence, or practical wisdom, is one of the three cardinal virtues, the others being justice, temperance and fortitude. Today prudence has connotations of political expediency in order to achieve particular goals. However, the classical concept of prudence was much richer than this. Aquinas suggests that wisdom teaches all four cardinal virtues, but at the same time he spoke about prudence as the servant of wisdom. Prudence and wisdom are therefore closely intermeshed as virtues. It is through prudence that humanity gains more specific guidance about how to behave ethically. The goal of all the virtues is goodness, and prudence is broadly speaking the means to reach this goal. Prudence is an act of reasoning judgement, including the steps of taking counsel, judging and then acting in a particular way. Prudence is the means through which we can decide what other virtues might mean, for example, what it means to show courage, what it means to act justly and so on. Where the goodness being aimed at is the good of the individual, then this is individual prudence, but goodness also has a social and corporate dimension, with associated concepts of familial prudence and political prudence. How might we take counsel? This includes bearing in mind experience from the past, expressed in memory, as well as the particular circumstances of the present, and insights as to what the outcome of any decision might be. It also includes openness to being taught, understanding and reasoning. Scientific insights are therefore one facet of what it means to be prudent. Caution and foresight are also integral aspects of what it means to be prudent, but caution is not such that indecision follows, rather prudence knows when it is appropriate to take action. Prudence avoids both the danger of too hasty an action, the provision of fools in the Biblical accounts, and an exaggerated timorous sense of precaution. Such multifaceted capacity may seem complex, but prudence is just such a capacity for complex relational thinking. Prudence, as a virtue, can become a particular habit of mind. Perhaps in the light of neurological science we can suggest that habitual use of our brain in this way will literally lead to a transformation of our minds. (Ephesians 4.23).

4. Encountering Christ and growing in wisdom

Aquinas believed that prior to the attainment of wisdom it was necessary to develop the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. Yet that faith is one that is rooted in an identity that connects with the person of Christ and his portrayal of the image of God. In other words, the pattern of wisdom that is exemplified in the Christian tradition through the virtues is spelt out in a more explicit way in the narrative of Jesus. I am not suggesting that Christology that is based on Jesus as moral exemplar is sufficient, but rather, closer reflection on his identity as sage can give insights into what human wisdom might be like. As we probe the identity of Jesus more fully it becomes clear that his life was characterised most of all by Spirit-filled obedience to his perceived will of the Father and his humble self-offering of himself in love. Hans Frei reminds us of the character of Jesus that slowly emerges in the Gospel accounts, most poignantly in the Passion narrative. Here we find that his love for humanity was not his only or most predominant quality, or wisdom for that matter, rather, it is obedience to God that included within it love for all.13 Obedience to the will of God, then, seems to be the ‘hallmark’ that allows us to glimpse something of the pattern from intention through to action found in the person of Jesus, spelt out most graphically in the Garden of Gethsemane. Moreover, as we reach the climax of the Passion narratives, the powerlessness of Jesus on the cross mysteriously becomes the means of salvation for others. It is one reason why the wisdom of the cross becomes identified in the mind of Paul with the wisdom of God. It is only at the resurrection that the identity of Jesus becomes fully manifest, but is it not as a mythological figure, but the human Jesus, and ‘regarded as an unsubstitutable individual in his own right’, and in this sense is ‘most fully historical’. 14 In other words, the identity of the risen Jesus allows the possibility of identity in others. Such an account shows that the self-giving and self-emptying of Jesus for others in obedience to God is a pattern for human wisdom. It brings us full circle to the contemporary story of transhumanity, for the humanity of Christ shows the pattern for Christian eschatology and human becoming in a way that shows up transhumanity even more clearly as folly wrought from a total lack of human wisdom. For while wisdom understood Christologically speaks of patient obedience, crafted prudence that spends time in deliberation and judgement, with goodness as a goal; transhumanity is individualistic in its aims, is impatient in its intention, and resists all forms of obedience, apart from hedonistic desire. Its eschatology speaks of a thin form of humanity that is barely recognisable as such, one that echoes the ancient Gnostic tradition, where humanity is shorn from its material embeddedness. Wisdom understood theologically, by contrast, hopes for a future that is inclusive of others, remains grounded in the material struggles of existence, including solidarity with the poor, and is inclusive of a poetic way of thinking and living, while seeking to remain humble about what might be achieved.




1 Nick Bostrom, ‘The Future of Human Evolution’ in Charles Tandy (ed.), Death and Anti-Death: Two Hundred Years After Kant, Fifty Years After Turing (Palo Alto: Ria University Press, 2004), pp. 339-371, accessed on http://www.nickbostrom.com/fut/evolution.html , 19th March 2008. Future of Evolution, p. 17

2 N. Bostrom and A. Sandberg, ‘The Wisdom of Nature: An Evolutionary Heuristic for Human Enhancement’, forthcoming in Julian Savulescu and Nick Bostrom, eds., Enhancing Humans (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008), accessed on http://www.nickbostrom.com, 19th March 2008.

3 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Kevin Rathunde, ‘The Psychology of Wisdom: An Evolutionary Interpretation’, in Robert J. Sternberg (ed.), Wisdom: Its Nature, Origin and Development (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1990). See also Warren Brown, Understanding Wisdom: Sources, Science and Society (West Conshohocken: Templeton Foundation Press, 2000).

4 Detailed discussion of these debates is outside the scope of this book. For more detail and an overview of different positions, see Philip Clayton and Jeffrey Schloss (eds.), Evolution and Ethics: Human Morality in Biological and Religious Perspective (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2004).

5 Lash, ‘Recovering Contingency’, p. 204.

6 R. E. Murphy, The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature, 2nd Edn (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans, 1996).

7 Jeffrey Schloss is aware of this difficulty as it applies to practices such as celibacy. See, for example, his ‘Introduction: Evolutionary Ethics and Christian Morality: Surveying the Issues’ in P. Clayton and J. Schloss (eds.), Evolution and Ethics: Human Morality in Biological and Religious Perspective (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 1-26.

8 I am referring here to J. Schloss ‘Wisdom Traditions as Mechanisms for Organised Integration: Evolutionary Perspectives on Homeostatic “Laws of Life”’, in Warren S. Brown (ed.), Understanding Wisdom (Philadephia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2000), pp. 153-192. Trying to find proof of such a link would be virtually impossible, given the variety of expression and interpretation of wisdom. Although I find Schloss’s suggestion extremely appealing in many respects, it fails to do justice to (a) the variety of forms of wisdom (b) wisdom’s links with a religious sense in many cultures, and (c) precisely how such a meta-cultural capacity could have evolved.

9 Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Volume 23, Virtue, translated by W. D. Hughes (London: Blackfriars, 1969), 1a2ae, Qu. 57.

10 For all the merits of Lash’s stinging critique of much of the naivety of the science and religion debate, it seems to me that he has missed an important aspect, namely that the very imagination that he seeks to reclaim is also found bubbling up in science practice, and this, and not the mechanical application of scientific method, is what brings scientists close to God. See N. Lash, Lash, Nicholas Holiness, Speech and Silence: Reflections on the Question of God (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004). His criticisms do apply, however, to the transhuman project in as much as it is bent on its target, though even here I tend to see a distorted imagination, rather than a lack of imaginative thinking.

11 Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Volume 33, Hope, 2a2ae, translated by W. J. Hill (London: Blackfriars, 1966), Qu. 19.7.

12 Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Volume 34, Charity, 2a2ae, translated by R. J. Batten (London; Blackfriars, 1975), Qu. 23.2.

13Hans Frei, H. Frei, The Identity of Jesus Christ: The Hermeneutical Bases of Dogmatic Theology (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1997) pp. 145-6.

14 H. Frei, ‘Theological Reflections on the Account of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection’ essay included with The Identity of Jesus Christ, p. 33.