“You may have killed God beneath the weight of all that you have said; but don’t imagine that with all that you are saying, you will make a man that will live longer than he.”-Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse of Language
Biopiracy, xenotransplantation, body hacking and techno-immortality may sound like lingo from the latest science fiction, but they may soon be ethical and theological dilemmas.
Over the long history of the Christian church there have been numerous challenges to the faith. The doctrines which have most often been under assault are those relating to God, to Christ, to creation, to salvation and even to eschatology. One area of belief that has been left relatively uncontroversial is anthropology or the doctrine of man. While issues such as slavery and racial difference have certainly been debated among Christians and their opponents, and even among themselves, nevertheless our basic humanity has always been a given. A given, that is, until now.
Two related but competing intellectual movements have recently begun to emerge. Though still largely unknown to the general populace, they have been gaining significant attention in academic and scientific circles. Known as posthumanism and transhumanism, these movements seek not only to redefine our basic understanding of what we mean by humanity, but even to alter or “overcome” our humanity altogether.
In this first of two articles I intend to briefly sketch out the academic discipline known as posthumanism. In the second I will examine the concept and movement called transhumanism. More specifically I intend to show the ancient religious roots of these “cutting edge” disciplines and suggest possible directions we as Christians need to look in order to find a response to these developments.
Posthumanism, a movement that is less than fifteen years old, has become one of the fastest growing fields of study in the academy, especially in the citadels of critical theory such as Paris, Utrecht, the American Ivies, Berkeley and the University of Toronto. Within the past three years alone there has been a veritable explosion of international conferences, symposia, articles and books dedicated to the topic. While its emergence has been sudden, it was built on a number of important philosophical developments that have been taking place since the end of World War II, including feminism, postcolonialism, queer theory and environmental and race studies.
At its core, posthumanism is a rejection of the humanist tradition in the west of human exceptionalism (the notion that humans are unique in the world) and human instrumentalism (that humans have the right to control and dominate the natural world). Much of this has its origins in the academic liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s, especially feminism, postcolonialism and queer theory which first began to challenge traditional western male understandings of what constitutes humanity. Posthumanism takes the next step and treats the human as no different from any other life or “non-life” form and calls for a more inclusive definition of “humanity” and even life itself. As such, a central concern of posthumanism is the diffusion of “human” rights to non-human subjects such as animals, ecosystems and even inorganic entities such as machines, computer code and geological formations.
Beyond this “rights” agenda, there is a more fundamental component of posthumanism which seeks to place humans in a much closer networked relation with both machines and nature. This is to be achieved through technological means, such as “wiring” human brains directly to computer systems or grafting body parts from other animal species onto human bodies, a process called xenotransplantation.
While sounding bizarre, even grotesque to many, the possibility of blurring the boundaries of humanity has been enthusiastically advocated for a few decades now. A key foundational text of the movement is Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto of 1985.1 The feminist Haraway saw the cyborg of science fiction as a metaphor and a justification for the dismantling of traditional dualisms and boundaries, such as between male and female, human and nonhuman, organism and machine the physical and the nonphysical and even between technology and the self. The Cyborg was a picture of what the future would hold for humanity.
Yet for Haraway and others to even entertain such possibilities required a seismic shift in the foundational understanding of matter and reality. Working on ideas first proposed by the philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632‒1677), posthumanists have argued that distinctions and dualities, such as between mind and matter, spirit and body, God and the world, are illusions and that the universe consists of one unified substance. Life in this context is simply “smart matter.”
Some posthumanist thinkers such as David Skrbina have picked up on this smart matter idea, calling it panpsychism instead.2 According to Skrbina, panpsychism is the view that all things in the universe have a mind or a mind-like quality. As the Cyberpunk novelist Rudy Rucker puts it, mind is “a universally distributed quality” and “each object has a mind. Stars, hills, chairs, rocks, scraps of paper, flakes of skin, molecules—each of them possess the same inner glow as a human, each of them has singular inner experiences and sensations.”3
When stated so nakedly, this view can seem daft or even alarming. Yet one place where we have been encountering these ideas with a level of comfort and even acceptance is in our entertainment. Alongside academic developments, Hollywood has already begun accustoming us to posthuman concepts and agendas, most often through the cinema of science fiction. Movies such as the Alien series depict the merging of the human with the alien. In the first two movies of the franchise humans are used to “birth” alien creatures; in the third the main character of Ripley literally becomes the mother of an alien and in the fourth Ripley is “resurrected” biomechanically, but with her genes completely fused with that of the alien creature. More pleasantly there are the Star Wars movies, which show a universe in which humans are depicted as living in harmony with animal-like aliens and mechanical beings with likable personalities (droids). In perhaps the most comprehensive cinematic representation of posthumanism, James Cameron’s Avatar, we see the depiction of a new humanity, digitally mediated into a post species form. A crippled human (Jake Sully) is wired to a machine which allows him to find a new existence as an alien with an animal-like appearance, and which can directly link with other animal species, demonstrating the interrelatedness of all life, whether human or nonhuman.
This monism or pantheism as formulated by Spinoza and Haraway and propagated by Hollywood is nothing new. It is as ancient as Hinduism and many other eastern religious traditions, which claimed unity between the divine and the cosmos. That it is now being used to redefine our humanity is what is new and something for which Christians appear to be deeply unprepared to deal.
In the second article I will outline the movement known as transhumanism and present suggestions for a Christian response to both posthumanism and transhumanism.
Donna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the 1980s,” in The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader, eds. Gill Kirkup, Linda Janes, Kath Woodward, and Fiona Hovenden (New York: Routledge, 2000): 50‒57. ↩
David Skrbina, Panpsychism in the West (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005). ↩