God in the machine: my strange journey into transhumanism
The long read: After losing her faith, a former evangelical Christian felt adrift in the world. She then found solace in a radical technological philosophy but its promises of immortality and spiritual transcendence soon seemed unsettlingly familiar
I first read Ray Kurzweils book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, in 2006, a few years after I dropped out of Bible school and stopped believing in God. I was living alone in Chicagos southern industrial sector and working nights as a cocktail waitress. I was not well. Beyond the people I worked with, I spoke to almost no one. I clocked out at three each morning, went to after-hours bars, and came home on the first train of the morning, my head pressed against the window so as to avoid the spectre of my reflection appearing and disappearing in the blackened glass.
At Bible school, I had studied a branch of theology that divided all of history into successive stages by which God revealed his truth. We were told we were living in the Dispensation of Grace, the penultimate era, which precedes that glorious culmination, the Millennial Kingdom, when the clouds part and Christ returns and life is altered beyond comprehension. But I no longer believed in this future. More than the death of God, I was mourning the dissolution of this narrative, which envisioned all of history as an arc bending towards a moment of final redemption. It was a loss that had fractured even my experience of time. My hours had become non-hours. Days seemed to unravel and circle back on themselves.
The Kurzweil book belonged to a bartender at the jazz club where I worked. He lent it to me a couple of weeks after Id seen him reading it and asked him more out of boredom than genuine curiosity what it was about. I read the first pages on the train home from work, in the grey and ghostly hours before dawn.
The 21st century will be different, Kurzweil wrote. The human species, along with the computational technology it created, will be able to solve age-old problems and will be in a position to change the nature of mortality in a postbiological future.
Like the theologians at my Bible school, Kurzweil, who is now a director of engineering at Google and a leading proponent of a philosophy called transhumanism, had his own historical narrative. He divided all of evolution into successive epochs. We were living in the fifth epoch, when human intelligence begins to merge with technology. Soon we would reach the Singularity, the point at which we would be transformed into what Kurzweil called Spiritual Machines. We would transfer or resurrect our minds onto supercomputers, allowing us to live forever. Our bodies would become incorruptible, immune to disease and decay, and we would acquire knowledge by uploading it to our brains. Nanotechnology would allow us to remake Earth into a terrestrial paradise, and then we would migrate to space, terraforming other planets. Our powers, in short, would be limitless.
Its difficult to account for the totemic power I ascribed to the book. I carried it with me everywhere, tucked in the recesses of my backpack, though I was paranoid about being seen with it in public. It seemed to me a work of alchemy or a secret gospel. It is strange, in retrospect, that I was not more sceptical of these promises. Id grown up in the kind of millenarian sect of Christianity where pastors were always throwing out new dates for the Rapture. But Kurzweils prophecies seemed different because they were bolstered by science. Moores law held that computer processing power doubled every two years, meaning that technology was developing at an exponential rate. Thirty years ago, a computer chip contained 3,500 transistors. Today it has more than 1bn. By 2045, Kurzweil predicted, the technology would be inside our bodies. At that moment, the arc of progress would curve into a vertical line.
Many transhumanists such as Kurzweilcontend that they are carrying on the legacy of the Enlightenment that theirs is a philosophy grounded in reason and empiricism, even if they do lapse occasionally into metaphysical language about transcendence and eternal life. As I read more about the movement, I learned that most transhumanists are atheists who, if they engage at all with monotheistic faith, defer to the familiar antagonisms between science and religion. The greatest threat to humanitys continuing evolution, writes the transhumanist Simon Young, is theistic opposition to Superbiology in the name of a belief system based on blind faith in the absence of evidence.
Yet although few transhumanists would likely admit it, their theories about the future are a secular outgrowth of Christian eschatology. The word transhuman first appeared not in a work of science or technology but in Henry Francis Careys 1814 translation of Dantes Paradiso, the final book of the Divine Comedy. Dante has completed his journey through paradise and is ascending into the spheres of heaven when his human flesh is suddenly transformed. He is vague about the nature of his new body. Words may not tell of that transhuman change, he writes.
Dante, in this passage, is dramatising the resurrection, the moment when, according to Christian prophecies, the dead will rise from their graves and the living will be granted immortal flesh. The vast majority of Christians throughout the ages have believed that these prophecies would happen supernaturally God would bring them about, when the time came. But since the medieval period, there has also persisted a tradition of Christians who believed that humanity could enact the resurrection through science and technology. The first efforts of this sort were taken up by alchemists. Roger Bacon, a 13th-century friar who is often considered the first western scientist, tried to develop an elixir of life that would mimic the effects of the resurrection as described in Pauls epistles.
The Enlightenment failed to eradicate projects of this sort. If anything, modern science provided more varied and creative ways for Christians to envision these prophecies. In the late 19th century, a Russian Orthodox ascetic named Nikolai Fedorov was inspired by Darwinism to argue that humans could direct their own evolution to bring about the resurrection. Up to this point, natural selection had been a random phenomenon, but now, thanks to technology, humans could intervene in this process. Calling on biblical prophecies, he wrote: This day will be divine, awesome, but not miraculous, for resurrection will be a task not of miracle but of knowledge and common labour.
This theory was carried into the 20th century by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit priest and palaeontologist who, like Fedorov, believed that evolution would lead to the Kingdom of God. In 1949, Teilhard proposed that in the future all machines would be linked to a vast global network that would allow human minds to merge. Over time, this unification of consciousness would lead to an intelligence explosion the Omega Point enabling humanity to break through the material framework of Time and Space and merge seamlessly with the divine. The Omega Point is an obvious precursor to Kurzweils Singularity, but in Teilhards mind, it was how the biblical resurrection would take place. Christ was guiding evolution toward a state of glorification so that humanity could finally merge with God in eternal perfection.
Transhumanists have acknowledged Teilhard and Fedorov as forerunners of their movement, but the religious context of their ideas is rarely mentioned. Most histories of the movement attribute the first use of the term transhumanism to Julian Huxley, the British eugenicist and close friend of Teilhards who, in the 1950s, expanded on many of the priests ideas in his own writings with one key exception. Huxley, a secular humanist, believed that Teilhards visions need not be grounded in any larger religious narrative. In 1951, he gave a lecture that proposed a non-religious version of the priests ideas. Such a broad philosophy, he wrote, might perhaps be called, not Humanism, because that has certain unsatisfactory connotations, but Transhumanism. It is the idea of humanity attempting to overcome its limitations and to arrive at fuller fruition.
The contemporary iteration of the movement arose in San Francisco in the late 1980s among a band of tech-industry people with a libertarian streak. They initially called themselves Extropians and communicated through newsletters and at annual conferences. Kurzweil was one of the first major thinkers to bring these ideas into the mainstream and legitimise them for a wider audience. His ascent in 2012 to a director of engineering position at Google, heralded, for many, a symbolic merger between transhumanist philosophy and the clout of major technological enterprise.
Transhumanists today wield enormous power in Silicon Valley entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk and Peter Thiel identify as believers where they have founded thinktanks such as the Singularity University and the Future of Humanity Institute. The ideas proposed by the pioneers of the movement are no longer abstract theoretical musings but are being embedded into emerging technologies at organisations such as Google, Apple, Tesla and SpaceX.
Losing faith in God in the 21st century is an anachronistic experience. You end up contending with the kinds of things the west dealt with more than a hundred years ago: materialism, the end of history, the death of the soul. When I think back on that period of my life, what I recall most viscerally is an unnamable sense of dread. There were days I woke in a panic, certain that Id lost some essential part of myself in the fume of a blackout, and would work my fingers across my nose, my lips, my eyebrows, and my ears until I assured myself that everything was intact. My body had become strange to me; it seemed insubstantial. I went out of my way to avoid subway grates because I believed I could slip through them. One morning, on the train home from work, I became convinced that my flesh was melting into the seat.
At the time, I would have insisted that my rituals of self-abuse drinking, pills, the impulse to put my body in danger in ways I now know were deliberate were merely efforts to escape; that I was contending, however clumsily, with the overwhelming despair at the absence of God. But at least one piece of that despair came from the knowledge that my body was no longer a sacred vessel; that it was not a temple of the holy spirit, formed in the image of God and intended to carry me into eternity; that my body was matter, and any harm I did to it was only aiding the unstoppable process of entropy for which it was destined.
To confront this reality after believing otherwise is to experience perhaps the deepest sense of loss we are capable of as humans. Its not just about coming to terms with the fact that you will die. It has something to do with suspecting that there is no difference between your human flesh and the plastic seat of the train. It has to do with the inability to watch your reflection appear and vanish in a window without coming to believe you are identical to it.
What makes the transhumanist movement so seductive is that it promises to restore, through science, the transcendent hopes that science itself has obliterated. Transhumanists do not believe in the existence of a soul, but they are not strict materialists, either. Kurzweil claims he is a patternist, characterising consciousness as the result of biological processes, a pattern of matter and energy that persists over time. These patterns, which contain what we tend to think of as our identity, are currently running on physical hardware the body that will one day give out. But they can, at least in theory, be transferred onto supercomputers, robotic surrogates or human clones. A pattern, transhumanists would insist, is not the same as a soul. But its not difficult to see how it satisfies the same longing. At the very least, a pattern suggests that there is some essential core of our being that will survive and perhaps transcend the inevitable degradation of flesh.
Of course, mind uploading has spurred all kinds of philosophical anxieties. If the pattern of your consciousness is transferred onto a computer, is the pattern you or a simulation of your mind? One camp of transhumanists have argued that true resurrection can happen only if it is bodily resurrection. They tend to favour cryonics and bionics, which promise to resurrect the entire body or else supplement the living form with technologies to indefinitely extend life.
It is perhaps not coincidental that an ideology that grew out of Christian eschatology would come to inherit its philosophical problems. The question of whether the resurrection would be corporeal or merely spiritual was an obsessive point of debate among early Christians. One faction, which included the Gnostic sects, argued that only the soul would survive death; another insisted that the resurrection was not a true resurrection unless it revived the body.