Conflict Between Traditional Religion and Transhumanism


Q: Why the assumed conflict between even a vastly increased human longevity and traditional religion?

A: While indefinite life-extension is, initially, the primary goal of transhumanists in the novel, it is not their SOLE pursuit. Transhumanism actually encompasses a lot of other ideas and technologies, elements of which can be viewed as threatening to the religious worldview, particularly by those with an extreme/fundamentalist kind of religiosity.

From the novel:

"The conflict over transhumanism was straightforward. Futurists, technologists, and scientists touted transhuman fields like cryonics, cloning, artificial intelligence, bionics, stem cell therapy, robotics, and genetic engineering as their moral and evolutionary right—and as crucial future drivers of the new economy and an advancing cultural mindset in America. Opponents said transhumanism and its immortality mantra were anti-theistic, immoral, not humanitarian, and steeped in blasphemous egoism. They insisted that significantly altering the human condition and people’s bodies via science and technology was the devil’s work, regardless of how lucrative it might be for the economy. Many opponents said transhumanism was proof the end times was coming. Others labeled it 'the world's most dangerous idea.'" (7-8) 

While there is plenty on the transhumanist wish-list cited above to support a religiously inspired charge of "scientists playing God," it actually may be the effort to dramatically increase life/health-span, once it approaches an extreme level, that intrudes most seriously and fundamentally upon something that was once thought to be the exclusive domain of religion: immortality. 

And to make matters worse, transhumanists are promising PHYSICAL immortality without the need for faith in an afterlife nor the necessity to die. This strikes at the heart of many religions' greatest selling point. If transhumanists can offer the world's people the possibility of immortality without the paradoxical need to die to obtain it, traditional religions will be seen as obsolete by many pragmatically-minded people, which brings us to…The Transhumanist Wager:

“The Wager is the most logical conclusion to arrive at for any sensible human being: We love life and therefore want to live as long as possible—we desire to be immortal. It's impossible to know if we're going to be immortal once we die. To do nothing doesn't help our odds of attaining immortality, since it seems evident that we're going to die someday and possibly cease to exist. To attempt something scientifically constructive towards ensuring immortality beforehand is the most logical solution.” (58-9)

Contrast this with Pascal's Wager:

1. If you erroneously believe in God, you lose nothing (assuming that death is the absolute end).

2. If you correctly believe in God, you gain everything (eternal bliss). 

3. If you correctly disbelieve in God, you gain nothing (death ends all). 

4. If you erroneously disbelieve in God, you lose everything (eternal damnation).

Pascals conclusion is that it's safer to believe in God because there's no downside if you're wrong and there is no God, since you'll just die and suffer no further consequences, but there is an INFINITUDE of upside you're right.

In comparing The Transhumanist Wager with its predecessor, Pascal's Wager, we immediately see that the fulfillment of the transhumanist "prime directive": immortality, destroys a major element of Pascal's logical construction: the inevitability of death as the great universal equalizer for all humans. 

This problem is most strongly felt in the first premise of Pascal's Wager: the assumption that the death of ALL humans is certain. Regardless of whether there is a spiritual afterlife, the consequences of erroneously believing in a god or gods, and basing ones actions on supposed proscriptions therefrom, become greatly amplified if people suddenly become liberated from the threat of a guaranteed death sentence after only a few decades of life. Aside from the issue of being allowed to enter "heaven" as a reward for one's belief in, and adherence to, a god's commandments, if one chooses a very restrictive and rigid fundamentalist belief, the consequences of such a limiting worldview will persist long past a merciful few decades once indefinite lifespans are commonplace.

This realization will begin to filter through the world's population and cannot be a good thing for large and formerly powerful religious organizations interested in maintaing and expanding their population of enthusiastic followers. Even if one still holds onto the hope that an eventual death will lead to a blissful afterlife, that eventuality will be able to be avoided by so many people that the promise of a post-death reward will lose its appeal as an incentive to follow, support and participate in ANY organized religion. 

These are some of the ways that an indefinite lifespan will diminish the importance of, and adherence to, religion and could cause some forceful pushback by the more militant sects. As ALWAYS, it is the extremist factions who present the most danger. The moderate, live-and-let-live religious denominations are not the problem. 

Istvan, has said that he modeled the nature and tone of the religious opposition in the book on present-day religious extremists' paranoiac views on transhumanism. It's quite easy to find hysterically fearful religion-centered anti-transhumanism rants online today while searching for information of a Singularitarian/transhumanist nature. He also said that the escalated fervor of the opposition in the book, relative to the present time, is of a time that he projects to be 5-10 years in the future.

Today, news about The Singularity and transhumanism is increasing but still fairly subdued and sparse. When news of human enhancements of various kinds are reported, they are still somewhat "incremental" or at least not so grand or paradigm-toppling that they cause a huge disturbance in the worldview or self-image of traditional, conservative people.

However, as the breakthroughs begin to pick up in frequency and potential for major disruption on the status quo, tensions will naturally rise in populations that highly value tradition and gradualism. To the extent that science and technological innvations begin to encroach into territory that extremely religious people have always considered to be their ordained and monopolistic domain, the push-back is expected to increase immensely. 

Add to this, the tendency of some transhumanists to openly mock and generally refuse to give deference to gods of ALL persuasions and tensions will rise even more. They also propose that religions are obsolete, harmful, and superfluous in a transhumanist future and should be done away with or at least are predicted to wither away due to irrelevance. This kind of intolerance will not be tolerated by the most rabid religious zealots. 

In the book, there is a heated discussion between the leader of the transhumanists, Jethro Knights, and the leader of the religious opposition, Reverend Belinas:

Belinas declared, “That's so typical of your overman breed, of which you are its chief architect and philosopher. Your problem is that you're not an atheist; you're not even an antitheist. You're an apatheist—one who doesn't care to find out if he should know God.” 

“That's true,” Jethro answered simply. “It's just not an expedient use of my time. I have too much value in my own life for the need to consider, or want, anything else.” 

“You've never been fearful you might be wrong about that? You’ve never been afraid you might miss out on knowing the Creator of the universe?” 

“Nope. Never.” 

Imagine the reactions of some particularly aggressive and ideology-driven future groups of religious extremists as they become more and more aware of the existence and activities of transhumanists who reject their prophets and Gods as nothing but useless bronze-age mythological figures while creating new technologies that muck with God's greatest creation, man, and routinely and "arrogantly" ignore the commandments of no less than "the creator of the universe"!!! These infidels must DIE!

Yes, finding common ground is preferable to waring with each other and peaceful coexistence between transhumanists and religious moderates seems at least possible. It remains to be seen whether this can be done with the most inveterately strident of religious folk, however.

Q: Religion hasn’t mounted a significant challenge to - or even cared all that much about - all the incredible changes due to technology we have ALREADY had. Why would there be such an aggressive response toward the transhumanists?

A: The important difference in this scenario is that the kinds of technological progress that religious people didn't balk at in the past were not so fundamentally paradigm-destroying as far as the nature of what it is to be human and whether we may no longer even be considered "human" by some people as we upload our consciousness into other "processing media"; can merge with other consciousnesses; concepts of a dualistic soul fall by the wayside; gender becomes irrelevant or fluid and can be changed at will; and a slew of even more fanciful projections of future extreme post bio/human possibilities, which people openly speculate about today. If this kind of thing scares many people, there will be no shortage of scary things coming and they are only going to increase in number and intensity.

The author, in interviews, has said however, that he doesn't see this scenario to be a forgone conclusion. Istvan views the scenario portrayed in the book to be a cautionary tale of what COULD happen if we go down one possible path. But, he sees hope in the younger generations who seem to be less bound by ancient religious ideas and are generally more open to technology since it is just a natural thing for them. His view is that the older generations won't be around much longer to raise a fuss and it'll be much smoother sailing with the next generations.

He also acknowledges that this kind of myopic religious view is much worse in America than in many other parts of the world like Scandinavia and other parts of western Europe, parts of Asia, etc., where religion is culturally very marginal.

Q: We’re pretty far from uploading the mind and other radical things of this sort. Doesn't the scenario in the book assume a kind of vertical takeoff or ease of near term technological feasibility that seems unlikely? 

A: Yes, if it turns out to be a vertical or "hard" takeoff, some (a lot of? most?) people would suffer a kind of "techno/cultural shock." But even one or two very impressive and game-changing successes COMBINED with wild speculation and declarations of radical INTENSIONS by some transhumanists about these and upcoming breakthroughs, could inspire some zealots to try to stop these advances BEFORE they could get to even scarier levels. If they believe the more aggressive timelines of Kurzweil, et al, that say that BIG improvements in longevity, human-level AI, and "whole brain emulation" may be only a few decades away, they may feel a greater urgency to act in opposition to these changes.  

It may be possible that even the impending "threat" of these things can set some people off, based on the near apocalyptic and greatly fearful interpretations of transhumanism and The Singularity that can be easily found on the web today. And this, while we're currently at a very embryonic stage of transhumanism.