What Does It Mean to Be (Trans)Human?

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Many of our universities are currently stuck in an internal debate about online course offerings, attempting to determine whether the potential gains of Internet-based instruction outweigh the costs. On one side of the ledger, the online student is afforded new levels of individualized education that no longer restricts them to the institution-centric forms of physical, in-class environments. On the other side, many educators caution whether this technologically-mediated methodology undercuts the nature of the learning enterprise, treating students as disembodied entities rather than as physical men and women. The center of the proverbial storm is the body. Does physical presence matter—not just in the university environment—but as a touchstone to understand community more broadly? Or, put more succinctly, is physical embodiment a necessary feature of the 21st century person?

The contemporary world is in the throes of a digital revolution, precipitated by the invention of the microprocessor and every bit as transformational as the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Futurists tells us that, due to exponential pace in which computers are processing commands, we will soon be entering into an era of human-computer parity, perhaps ushering in an age in which technological change outpaces the human ability to understand their world. Yet this technological expansion is not accomplished in a vacuum; men and women (at least until machines have the capacity themselves) drive the progress. Humanity yearns to explore, to discover, to drive past the speed limits laid forth by a finite natural world and its own finite condition within it. Just as the Gagarin and Shepard once broke through the boundaries of Earth’s gravitational pull, humanity consistently seeks other venues by which to challenge its inherent limitations.

Today, the human body looks to be ripe for conquest for those who would seek a world without physical boundary. This two-part essay explores the tension between the reality of the human condition as a function of its bodily limitation and the current drive toward the technological Singularity, where some believe that in the very transcending of physical limitation lies a type of salvific eternal life.

The term “Singularity” was originally coined by John von Neumann in 1958 to describe a future condition in which computers exceed human intelligence and thus bring about a change in society so dramatic, so total, that predicting future conditions of life becomes essentially impossible.

More recently, author/futurists, such as Ray Kurzweil, have, to varying degrees, lauded the coming of the Singularity by suggesting that technological advancements will afford humanity the opportunity to eradicate formerly unsolvable problems, such as famine and disease. This optimistic view of the human-machine relationship is often called “The Theory of Abundance.”

The resulting effect of these theoretical advances culminates in transhumanism, a state-of-being that promises three particular ways of human flourishing: Super-longevity, Super-intelligence, and Super-wellbeing. In short, super-longevity seeks to transform the way humanity thinks about physical death, from an inevitable natural process to an individual decision. The goal of super-intelligence is to provide each human brain immediate internal access to the world’s repository of information at the speed of thought. Or, alternately conceived, super-intelligence refers to a state in which computers exceed the intelligence of the combined intellectual force of humanity, leading people into a golden age of knowledge. Finally, super-wellbeing refers to the transhumanist promise that, by “editing our genes,” we can eliminate human suffering (and the suffering of other sentient beings) altogether.

Philosopher David Pearce calls this the “hedonistic imperative,” the moral obligation we have as humans to eliminate all forms of suffering and accentuate, via drugs and/or gene therapy, all forms of pleasure.

My particular interest in the Singularity and the transhumanist movement has less to do with predicting the nature of society or technology-human interactions than it does exploring one of the characteristics of futurist thinking on the matter: The body contributes quite little to what makes humans, human. In one sense, this conclusion might be somewhat unsettling; conceiving oneself without the body becomes a challenging feat, indeed! The body acts as the initial point of contact when a person has a face-to-face conversation. It is the control center for the information gathering of the senses, and often shapes the identity of the person and his/her vocation. The athlete, for example, is known as such only when his/her body contains a certain amount of natural athletic skill.

In another sense, however, we intuitively recognize the body’s waning influence in matters of social interaction. The ubiquity of online social networks has demonstrated the ease in which the contemporary person feels connected to their contacts without necessarily associating their physicality with such connection. Apart from using actual fingers to punch keystrokes, the body is no longer necessary for one’s participation in social settings.

Community, as a term, is under similar pressures, as each wave of social technologies seems to be promising greater levels of social bonding. Whether you consider the body’s dwindling role in identity-formation as a cause for anxiety, or if you believe this turn to be of neutral or even positive value, one must be willing to probe the meanings of “humanity” and “community” before offering a position of substance.

One particularly influential view of “what it means to be human” emerged in Enlightenment thought: man was analogous to a machine.

If one simply breaks down the human form to small enough parts, it could be reduced, quantified, and understood as an intricate, yet predictable, mechanical device. Some modern scholars have suggested that the machine-like-ness of the body uniquely positions the human to be a “natural-born cyborg,” in the language of Andy Clark.  If the body is machine, then it is no stretch to see how thoughts and consciousness itself can be conceived as a series of inputs, outputs, zeroes and ones.

Ray Kurzweil, perhaps the most recognizable of the current futurists, openly acknowledges his eager anticipation of the Singularity, for it will open the door for humans to “upload” their consciousness into an eternal “human cloud.” The body dies, but Ray the person may live on for an indefinite amount of time. In this case, the human “machine” has actually melded with machines.

The salvific undertones of Kurzweil’s work are unmistakable. Since human existence is limited by its body, technology offers a particular brand of transcendence—it is a way to jettison that which is flesh so that the mind, or perhaps, soul,  might experience a dramatic ascent into everlasting life. Or, at least, a delay of death until the person wills it to be. Each of the above prongs of transhumanist study (i.e., super-longevity, super-intelligence, and super-well-being) seeks to overcome a physical limitation inherent in the physiological system, whether it’s the size of human brains or the cellular breakdown that comes with age. Consider how transhumanist terminology echoes classic religious thought about the afterlife: a place that is eternal, where one understands all things, and sadness is no more.

Standing in stark contrast to the technophile position of unlimited human potential is the theological legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer’s work is a product of the times, set deep within the struggles of World War II Germany, both from within and without.

Externally, Bonhoeffer recognized with stunning clarity that the doctrines of Nazism run directly against the principles of grace, hospitality, and community which were sourced in Christian scriptures. Internally, he (along with other theological giants such as Karl Barth and Hermann Sasse) struggled mightily against the German Church and their willingness to implicitly endorse a great portion of Nazi ideology. The primacy of the Gospel message where God’s relationship with humanity is restored through Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection was replaced by the Nazi nationalist mantra, “blood and soil.”

In hindsight, and with this particular historical context in mind, one can understand Bonhoeffer’s resistance to National Socialist Party; its racist ideologies embodied a principle of unbridled power. The weakest of society could be used for any function the strong deemed necessary. Much to the ongoing shame of the German people, these efforts included barbaric physical and social experimentation on human subjects, eugenics, and other crimes perpetrated directly upon the body.

Bonhoeffer sat at this juncture. In several of his writings he captured the biblical notion of creatureliness; that is, each man and woman is first identified as God’s own creature, made by his divine will with the inherent dignity of being his craftsmanship. Yet creatureliness also implies limitation. While limitation is certainly not an easy attribute to endure, Bonhoeffer nonetheless views it as a positive component of human identity and existence. In Creation and Fall he notes how the neighbor acts as a limit on the individual’s desire to exert unbounded power.

The physicality of the neighbor both serves as a bodily limit and reinforces God’s pronouncement of limitation on humanity: Man is not to be unbounded, in any sense.

This language of limitation also reveals how Bonhoeffer conceives of the notion of sin. Rather than sin being viewed in terms of deficiency, such as “a shortcoming” or “failing to do,” Bonhoeffer regularly speaks of sin as the unbounded exertion of power over another person. Sin emerged from a person’s rebellion against his own creaturely limitations, driving outward to dominate the neighbor in a failed attempt to be his own god. Bonhoeffer’s seminal masterwork, Ethics, outlines how rape, in particular, demonstrates sin as a violation of limitation. Such an act demonstrates an unbounded physical imposition by one person upon another, obliterating the creaturely, bodily integrity of the victim.

Conversely, the physical limitation of the individual is cause for considerable joy. For Bonhoeffer, our bodies not only bear the confession of the central Christian claim that Jesus died and rose to life as the propitiation for human sin (2 Cor 4:7-12); they also serve as focal points of communal longing. Physical presence (again, impossible in an online social setting) alone has the capacity to meet the deepest needs of human sociality; that is, the desire to be fully known and yet fully loved in spite of that knowledge.

The definitions of “humanity” and “community,” then, are for Bonhoeffer expressions of our fundamental creaturely limitation. Physical embodiment is neither an accidental characteristic nor is it reduced to being a receptacle for the person’s true self. To be human is to be communal; to be human is to be embodied.

According to Bonhoeffer, the weakest members of society (whether by status, wealth or physical capability) are absolutely essential to the functioning of the Gemeinshaft, the church-community, the koinonia, of Christian men and women. He writes in Life Together that “Every Christian community must realize that not only do the weak need the strong, but also that the strong cannot exist without the weak. The elimination of the weak is the death of fellowship.”

In light of this interpretation of human limitation, the uploaded consciousness made available by the Singularity and fervently prophesied by technophiles is terribly problematic. Absent a body, such a “person” would reject his/her creatureliness, and thus, would reject the limitations that allow—indeed, create—communities of authentic and empathetic men and women. That is, unless uploaded persons were forced to contend with one another in cyberspace, creating a wholly divergent understanding of social life well beyond my intellectual reach.

One challenge of the modern university is to hold a tension in place. On one side, an educator encourages a student to push through to the boundaries of their respective fields—to discover, to challenge, to test the frontiers of knowledge. On the other side, however, is a keen awareness that humanity must protect the integrity of its own inherent boundaries.

To view the body merely as receptacle for a disembodied consciousness invites the terrific temptation to treat the physical form as machinery, as disposable parts, as quantifiable pieces. Perhaps the insights of Bonhoeffer can steer us toward a view of the person that recognizes physicality not as the next conquest of science, but as the very quality that enables the best of life together: empathy, service, hospitality, and justice.

Joel Oesch is Associate Professor of Theology at Concordia University Irvine