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FROM MILIEU MEMBER: CARL TEICHRIB
Much to the chagrin of scientific intellectuals, technocrats, techno-elites, and transhumanists, the idea of trusting the experts is met with scorn by a sizeable percentage of the populace. Lately, the response to this disparagement has been to attach a label on those who question their narratives: you are anti-science.
While social media has demonstrated the power of scientifically misinformed memes, the accusation of anti-science is generally inaccurate. Criticism is not aimed at the scientific method, a standard and valuable tool of inquiry, nor is it directed at science and engineering as vital fields of human endeavor. Civilization has been tremendously blessed by the beneficial results of science and the dedication of engineers and innovators, from both the private and public sectors.
Much of the antagonism, however, rests on the ideological grandstanding of some within the scientific community, accompanied by a culture of political and economic interlock.
The dance goes something like this: Intellectual visionaries—armed with predictive models—make new claims, requiring (or demanding) public attention, along with funding and policy changes. A lobbying campaign kicks into motion. At the United Nations, action groups and academia give counsel and solidify the narrative at the global level. National governments, responding to the new pressures, invite stakeholders and experts to assist in formulating public policy. Politicians showboat on cut-and-paste proclamations and social management solutions. Budget lines are added and grants doled out; economic incentives create allegiances to the political-scientific consensus. Industries and corporations and trade associations line up with products and proposals; financial institutions monetize contracts, coordinate flow, and create markets; multilateral banking groups channel international commitments. The model has become much too big to fail. Therefore, scientific counterclaims and criticisms are downplayed while the invested narrative is continually reinforced. Globe-trotting celebrities, Leonardo DiCaprio or Al Gore or Bill Gates or Bono, pompously parade the cause; trust the experts is shouted from the red carpet to the podium and back to the safety of private jets and yachts. Meanwhile, new winners and losers in the marketplace are determined by edict and bureaucratic compulsion; regulations and restrictions and taxes are foisted on the public.
Trust fades to contempt.
By inserting Gore and DiCaprio, superstar eco-grifters, I have tipped my hand to the fact that I am describing the climate-change narrative. Unfortunately, the above description can be overlaid on other scientific and technical fields. Has science been ideologically weaponized for political gain, or politically weaponized for ideological revolution, or manipulated for mammon and monopoly? Aspects of science, ideology, politics, and economics are ostensibly indivisible. Will transhumanism follow suit? Garbed in a dogmatic faith-in-science and armed with loftily tantalizing promises of human perfection, the transhuman agenda cannot but find itself becoming intractably wrapped in a similar complex.
Political control of science and, conversely, the scientific validation of political agendas are nothing new. Segments of today’s populace, however, are especially apprehensive of such interlock. And rightly so, for this complex has had profound repercussions in the public square and in personal lives.
Interestingly, the post-war decades of prosperity and protest—the 1950s to the early 1970s—revealed a techno-cultural tension that corresponds to our era of transhumanism. Human nature, it was argued in 1951, was on the threshold of being reconstituted due to scientific advancements and changing mental attitudes.[i] In those decades, optimism was placed in the transformative power of technology; the days of horse and buggy were still fresh in generational memory, yet transcontinental jetliners traversed the skies; satellites, spaceflights, and moon landings were in the public eye; new understandings in psychology and the discovery of double-helix DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) rewrote professions; widespread use of telephones and televisions magically bridged distances; and the industrial employment of computers and automation reshaped manufacturing. Scientists and engineers were in high demand.[ii] Rising living standards foretold greater betterment.
“Will man direct his own evolution?” asked Albert Rosenfeld, Life magazine’s science editor in 1965. That year, Life published a series of articles on the theme “control of life.” The September 10 cover splashed: “Audacious experiments promise decades of added life, superbabies with improved minds and bodies, and even a kind of immortality.” Later in the serial, Rosenfeld wrote:
As scientists daily edge closer to the solution of some of nature’s deepest mysteries, no idea seems too wild to contemplate. Would you like education by injection? A larger, more efficient brain? A cure for old age? Parentless babies? Body size and skin color to order? Name it, and somebody is seriously proposing it.… Scientists tend to agree that some of the most exciting future developments will come out of insights and discoveries yet to be made, with implications we cannot now foresee or imagine. So we live in an era where not only anything that we can imagine seems possible, but where the possibilities range beyond what we can imagine.[iii]
Reviewing the potential to tinker with DNA coding and possibly create a New Man, Rosenfeld asked: “Who is that we will appoint to play God for us?”[iv] A few years later, he wrote the book, The Second Genesis, exploring what are essentially transhuman subjects.[v]
Uneasy about how technological advancements reposition human values, historian and educator John G. Burke penned the following in 1966: “As the tempo of change intensifies, one finds it increasingly difficult to maintain traditional modes of life and patterns of thought. Change itself, it appears, is sought as a way of life.”[vi]
Others, too, were expressing concern. Jacques Ellul argued that technique would become the guiding force in shaping the technological society, producing the “mass man.”[vii] C. P. Snow warned of specialization and politics, and that “trace of the obsessional” necessary in technical problem solving but problematic when applied to guiding civilization.[viii] Former president of the University of Chicago, Robert M. Hutchins, critiqued the narrow scope of science and its attitudinal claim of having the corner on rational thought.[ix]
Hutchins noted that specialization tends to assume its own importance and can misinterpret its place in the broader context. The forest is not missed because of the trees; it is missed because of the focus on a single branch.
Surveying the historical and modern interplay between technology and society, including themes of utopian futures and perfectibility, humanist Herbert J. Muller penned: “The real challenge remains that we do possess the technical means of doing almost anything we have a mind to, short of making angels of men.”[x]
But could men be controlled?
A 1965 experiment suggested humanity could be manipulated. Yale professor José Delgado gave an impressive display of prowess over the mind when, standing inside a Spanish bullring, he demonstrated cyborg control over an aggressive animal. With a receiver wired into a bull’s brain, the professor waited until the beast was in full charge and then, using his remote transmitter, sent a signal that abruptly stopped and turned the attacking animal. It was a startling display of biological management via an implant.
From the 1950s until the early 1970s, Delgado experimented with cerebral implants in cats, monkeys, rats, cattle, and humans. His work revealed that not only could physical movement be commanded by remote control, but so could moods and even feelings of euphoria. The implications were staggering. Could the mind be wired for better social integration? Do we now have the tools to shape human behavior? Are we willing to trade the illusions of personal privacy and individuality for a secure and managed existence? Have we reached the point of constructing a “psycho-civilized society”?
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The Yale professor pontificated on such questions in his 1969 volume, Physical Control of the Mind:
Even if we agree that individual freedom should in general bow to community welfare, we enter into a new dimension when considering the social implications of the new technology which can influence personal structure and behavioral expression by surgical, chemical, and electrical manipulation of the brain. We may tolerate the practicality of being inoculated with yellow fever when visiting Asiatic countries, but shall we accept the theoretical future possibility of being forced to take a pill or submit to an electric shock for the socially protective purpose of making us more docile, infertile, better workers, or happier? How can we decide the limits of social impositions on individual rights?[xi]
“To outline a formula for the future ideal man is not easy,” he wrote.[xii]
The social implications of his experimental work remind me of a presentation I heard during the 9th Colloquium on the Law of the Futuristic Persons, held in late 2013 at Terasem Island.[xiii] To be fair, it was a projection of myself that attended. I interacted through an avatar, a presence of my personality in virtual reality (VR). Terasem Island itself is a cyberspace location, a digital land parcel with a conference theater, exhibits, meeting areas, and other constructions. As a user of virtual environments since 2009, primarily through the Second Life platform, I have frequented university lectures, church services, temples and sacred spaces, festivals at BURN2—the official Burning Man parcel—and transhumanist conferences. A transhuman event in VR makes perfect sense, as virtual reality is one of the most important technologies underscoring the posthuman ideal.
During the colloquium, one of the lecturers expounded on the ethical aspects of BCI—brain-computer interfaces—a proven technology that connects a person’s brain to a computer system, prefigured in part by Delgado’s work. With advancing BCI, it was explained, humanity finds itself in need of a trans-ethics, a new set of values to guide “networked individuals.” Questions of individual freedom, security challenges, and the use of such devices for social control need to be considered. Could a wireless BCI application include directly linking the mind to a global network, and more than that, the creation of a brain-based personal identification mark to enable access as planetary citizens? Is this farfetched? Maybe, but current BCI innovation is moving from bulky gear to streamlined headsets to wireless capabilities, with the dream—wished by some, feared by others—of higher bandwidth, nanotechnology, and deep artificial intelligence integrating minds and machines in a cybernetic collective. Knowing that synthetic telepathy is already being tested, what are the ethical implications of BCI-enabled, brain-to-brain and brain-to-machine connections? “Mind reading” is becoming science fact.
“Do we need government intervention toward transhumanism?” our presenter asked, noting that some kind of global “skynet” will be required to manage the system: “We need global governance…this is so dangerous.”[xiv]
We have come a long way.
Since the 1990s, critical evaluations have been added to the discussion of science and society. The dangers of what Neil Postman called being a technophile, those who “gaze on technology as a lover does his beloved, seeing it as without blemish and entertaining no apprehension for the future.”[xv] The warnings given by Douglas Groothuis in his still relevant book, The Soul in Cyber-Space, that we will mistake “connectivity for community, data for wisdom, and efficiency for excellence”[xvi]—and that the truth of God will be substituted for the ever-changing nature of our digital idols. The father of virtual reality, Jaron Lanier, has also made a powerful case for caution, arguing that individual meaning is being degraded in the visions of cybernetic totalism.[xvii]
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Lanier comments on the cultural elevation of information:
But if you want to make the transition from the old religion, where you hope God will give you an afterlife, to the new religion, where you hope to become immortal by getting uploaded into a computer, then you have to believe that information is real and alive. So for you, it will be important to redesign human institutions like art, the economy, and the law to reinforce the perception that information is alive. You demand that the rest of us live in your narrow conception of a state religion. You need us to deify information to reinforce your faith.[xviii]
Important debates on technology and society are happening within the transhumanist movement. More internal criticism, however, is needed.
Tech enterprises are likewise wrestling with ethical dilemmas, and governments will soon find themselves debating difficult boundaries. A few Christian ministries and institutions have also been discussing implications, but more review is necessary. Awareness within the Christian community is generally lacking; churches need to be informed and equipped to understand the worldviews behind the movement, bringing sober realism and wisdom to the conversation. Seminaries and apologetics ministries ought to formulate biblical responses to the hope-in-technology and search for opportunities to speak into the subject. Moreover, such an approach would be internally helpful as Christians navigate the maze of concerns and changing issues.
We are on the back of galloping technology…
As innovation pushes us closer to posthuman promises, which way will the moral compass swing? When pragmatism clashes with ethical barriers, will transhuman goals be willingly tabled? How might the self-proclaimed “evolutionary imperative” configure in the posthuman worldview? Will transhumanists claim a position of Darwinian authority: that evolution demands the strongest survive, damning those incapable of enhancement? Is the vision of techno-humanity sacrosanct? If so, then Comte’s Positivism and Darwinian pragmatism will be the guiding principles—science is all that matters, and evolutionary succession is the only measure of victory.
If it can be done, or perceived so, will it be—no matter the cost? David Gelernter thinks so: “Everything is up for grabs. Everything will change. The Orwell law of the future: Any new technology that can be tried will be.”[xix]
In our attempt to be a new species, will we act less than human?
For Christians and conservative individuals, other questions need be asked: Will we shun technologies that are medically beneficial or otherwise valuable because of associations with transhumanism? I hope not. Augmentation itself is not wrong; it could be argued that eyeglasses and heart pacemakers are technological enhancements. BCI can be helpful to individuals who are physically immobilized; VR platforms are useful in communication and education; computers and Internet connectivity are important tools for business and personal use. We daily use technologies linked to transhuman visions. Discernment is required to know the difference between the techno-faith that seeks to fundamentally transform mankind into an unknown quality and the helpful uses of innovation for present-day humanity. Will we use innovation and technology in ways that are good and advantageous? We have in the past and I trust we will continue doing so, even being trailblazers in scientific discovery and innovative development.
Transhumanism is far more than a zeal for science and technology, a fascination with digital tools and manageable matter; it is a social pressure cooker, a container heated by the intellectual forces of modernity.
It is also an attitude of religion.
NEXT: Sacred Secularism and Mystical Materialism
[i] Lawrence K. Frank, Nature and Human Nature: Man’s New Image of Himself (Rutgers University Press, 1951). Frank was on the General Education Board of the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Resources Planning Board.
[ii] “The scientific and technological ‘explosion’ is transforming society.… But the big question remains: will there be enough scientists and engineers to achieve the possibilities already within technical reach?”—Ronald Schiller, “Help Wanted: Engineers and Scientists,” The Reader’s Digest, February 1967 (Canadian Edition), p. 47. For an annotative list of technical and general publications outlining scientific and engineering personnel concerns from 1965 to 1969, including workplace shortages and future industrial needs, see Frank Witham, Scientists and Engineers in the Federal Government (Civil Service Commission, Washington, DC, Personnel Bibliography Series Number 30, January 1970).
[iii] Albert Rosenfeld, “The New Man: What Will He Be Like?” Life, Volume 59, Number 14, October 1, 1965, p. 96.
[iv] Ibid., p.100. The sentence is worded awkwardly, but it makes the point.
[v] Albert Rosenfeld, The Second Genesis: The Coming Control of Life (Prentice-Hall, 1969). Another book on accelerating technology and human change written in the same era is The Biological Time Bomb by Gordon Rattray Taylor (New American Library, 1968).
[vi] John G. Burke, “Preface,” The New Technology and Human Values (Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1966/1968, edited by John G. Burke), p. iii.
[vii] Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (Vintage Books, 1964).
[viii] C. P. Snow, Science and Government (Harvard University Press, 1961). Snow was involved in selecting technicians and scientific personnel to assist in England’s military response to Nazi Germany.
[ix] Robert M. Hutchins, “Science, Scientists, and Politics,” The New Technology and Human Values (Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1966/1968, edited by John G. Burke), pp.40–43.
[x] Herbert J. Muller, The Children of Frankenstein: A Primer on Modern Technology and Human Values (Indiana University Press, 1970), p. 370.
[xi] Delgado, Physical Control of the Mind, pp. 221–222.
[xii] Ibid., p. 253.
[xiii] 9th Colloquium on the Law of the Futuristic Persons, December 10, 2013, Terasem Island, Second Life.
[xiv] Heikki Laakko, “Transhumanism Today and Tomorrow: Ethical Aspects and Laws Shaping Our Future,” presentation at the 9th Colloquium on the Law of the Futuristic Persons, December 10, 2013, Terasem Island, Second Life. As taken from my notes of the event: Quotes are directly attributed to Laakko, while the questions are deduced from his talk. Laakko is a BCI specialist.
[xv] Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (Vintage Books, 1992/1993), p. 5.
[xvi] Douglas Groothuis, The Soul in Cyber-Space (BakerBooks, 1997), p. 143.
[xvii] Jaron Lanier, You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).
[xviii] Ibid., p. 29.
[xix] Gelernter, “The Second Coming—A Manifesto,” Science at the Edge, p. 239, italics in original.
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