Jacques Ellul and the idols of transhumanism

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EXCERPTS: The Transhumanist Declaration, the work of a variety of international authors and “modified” repeatedly since its publication in 1998, states that

"Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by science and technology in the future. We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth."

The transhumanist movement represents the ultimate temptation for man to play God and refashion himself as an immortal being free of pain. As Calvin warned, the human mind is a forge of idols.

This visionary agenda is not primarily crafted in the academic ivory towers but in an interplay between technological industries, culture makers, and consumers. Many of its key players or supporters are known to the wider world and work in significant institutions, such as futurist Ray Kurzweil (director of engineering at Google), inventor Elon Musk (Tesla, SpaceX, Neural Link, and more), and philosopher Nick Bostrom (The Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford). Some are not as well known but just as important to the project, for example gerontologist Aubrey de Grey and philosopher-futurist Max Moore.

[...] Transhumanists advocate a blurring of the boundaries between the biological and the technological, the natural and the artificial, and that we should be free to reconstruct “humanity” as we like. This so-called morphological freedom is the freedom to change body and mental makeup by means of technology in any way one wishes. As various enhancement technologies become more generally available, they will change the common perception and future concrete practice of, for instance, medical science so that the distinction between medical treatment of illnesses and medical enhancement will be less clear cut, and one day obsolete. Here we should mention de Grey and Moore again, who in different ways have taken concrete measures to obliterate or postpone their own deaths.

And what’s a revolutionary movement without reactionaries? Anyone who resists this pendulum swing will be branded “bio-conservative” or even “bio-Luddite” by the transhumanists, who argue that leaving “old” biology behind will not be a great loss, because we are not limited to our biological and evolutionary origins by any kind of determinism—divine or materialistic. In fact, our current state as homo sapiens is merely a brief phase in evolutionary history. We are, in other words, facing the possibility of being superseded by a future posthuman species. (Thus the label “transhumanism” is sometimes used to denote the efforts to bring about the intermediary life form between humans as we know them and posthumans.)

[...] Objections to transhumanism comes in various forms... While I think there are ways to defend coherently at least some of the bio-conservative arguments on theological as well as philosophical grounds (e.g., by looking at the metaphysics of persons), that is not exactly what I shall do here. Instead, I will briefly try to say something about the transhumanist vision in an exchange with one of the most energetic critics of modern technology in the 20th century: the French sociologist and lay Protestant theologian Jacques Ellul (1912–1994).

[...] Transhumanists welcome a society saturated with and built on technologies, because they believe it will be composed of true “individuals”—be they humans or something beyond human. They will be wholly free to choose their own makeup (physically, mentally, emotionally) and will be liberated from death, boredom, and suffering. Ellul objects that such a vision is not only naive but also fundamentally misguided, since more technique will not make for more or genuine freedom. In a technological society, humans and their successors are not acting subjects anymore but objects of technique. Therefore, they are liable to all kinds of necessities and control, because technique implies that, in the name of rational efficiency, everything becomes a means of impersonal, technical development.

[...] according to Ellul’s analysis, those very big tech elites are equally determined by the technology they produce. In fact, in a technological society, there is no longer a controlling elite, because politicians, journalists, technicians, and philosophers (which is to say, government, media, big tech, and the academy) are also defined by—and perhaps in the end replaced by—the perfection of technique: the machine.

By extension, then, even the individual or corporate choice to enter a transhumanist existence is not a free choice. Even less free are the individual and corporate choices involved in such an existence. With the emergence of the Janus-faced artificial human intelligence, at some point morphing into superintelligence, the rendering of what constitutes “individuality” will be determined by a superior technological power whose goals we may not be able to predict or understand. It has been suggested that perhaps the goal for a Superintelligence is to produce an infinite number of random objects, like paper clips. Then everything will serve that arbitrary end-as-means, humans included...

[...] In the last chapter of The Technological Society, Ellul cites some proto-transhumanist futurists. One of them enthusiastically claims that humanity will be able to have “emotions, desires and thoughts” modified, and so produce “a conviction or impression of happiness.”

Interestingly, Ellul’s response bears striking similarities to Robert Nozick’s famous thought experiment, “The Experience Machine” (1973), directed against the unlimited hedonism of utilitarianism (“pleasure is good”). Imagine that a machine can manipulate a human being so that she experiences a simulated reality that feels perfectly real and can produce unlimited positive emotional input. What reality would you choose to live in?

This absurd example was supposed to be a reductio against utilitarian hedonism, since Nozick assumed that rational people would choose to live outside the machine, despite being liable to boredom and suffering. However, this kind of objection is not particularly effective against the transhumanist intuition that already accepts, ideologically, the idea of technological absolutism.

To many transhumanists, a simulated reality is just as much a reality as what we ordinarily call reality. Thus, there is no significant distinction between living in or outside of the Matrix, since intelligences or persons are fundamentally nothing more than patterns in an information flow that can exist biologically (wetware) or on a silicon substrate (hardware).

Indeed, the idea that we live in a machine already (created by technologically superior intellects in a distant past) is something that Nick Bostrom et cohortes argues is more likely than not. Here we hit the bedrock of competing intuitions about reality. However, on Ellul’s analysis, this is to be expected in a technological society where the values of techniques have become so deeply engrained that reality is essentially a technological simulacrum.

[...] Although there are some religiously inclined transhumanists, like aforementioned Ray Kurzweil or sociologist James J. Hughes, transhumanism is basically a secular movement. Yet it has been characterized—and I think fairly—as a form of “secularist faith,” since it promotes a vision of the “good life” and “pious” practices similar to those taught by traditional religions, although with radical differences.

I believe that transhumanism, in soteriological terms, is essentially “Pelagian,” since “salvation,” a new kind of “eternal life,” is strictly in the hands of human beings. Technology is the “divine” power that will deliver the goods, and humans are responsible for bringing about the technological heaven on earth. However, when technology is given such authority, it both leads to human domination over creation and puts an enormous weight on the ability of humans to shape their own and the world’s destiny. As theologian Norman Wirzba points out in The Paradise of God: Technique (Techne) in the antique was the human way of working with the inherent order and reason (Logos), whereas the modern combination of the two—technology—is the exaltation of human intelligence as the order of things. Ellul teases out the spiritual consequences:

"The individual who lives in the technical milieu knows very well that there is nothing spiritual anywhere. But man cannot live without the sacred. He therefore transfers his sense of the sacred to the very thing which has destroyed its former object: to technique itself. In the world in which we live, technique has become the essential mystery."

This is nothing short of idolatry in theological terms. It is surprising, however, that Ellul did not write that the sacred is eradicated... (MORE - missing details)

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