For ancient philosophers, the dignity of contemplation lay in its fulfillment of our longing for truth. The architects of modern thought championed analysis for the sake of ever-greater power and security. The utopian island of Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis features a massive research facility for natural sciences, dedicated to “the relief of man’s estate.” Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning Two New Sciences, the foundational text of modern physics, begins with an inquiry into the building of strong but buoyant warships, and ends with an analysis of the parabolic motion of projectiles, which allows for highly accurate artillery fire.
For the greatest salesman of this utilitarian view of reason, Descartes, the goal of rigorous thought is to “render ourselves the masters and possessors of nature.” Thus empowered, we shall invent an “infinity of applications” which will not only enable us to enjoy the goods of the earth without effort, but also will free us from “an infinitude of maladies both of body and mind,” thus securing “the preservation of health, which is without doubt the chief blessing and the foundation of all other blessings in this life.” He envisions these medical “applications” ultimately allowing us to transcend the previous limits of our nature, freeing us from “the infirmities of age,” and even “rendering men wiser and cleverer than they have hitherto been.”
Today, the most ambitious Cartesian dreams of life extension and enhancement set the agenda for “transhumanism.” Although it styles itself a philosophy, transhumanism is really a religious movement with a twenty-first-century marketing campaign (under the brand “H+”). Like their prophet Descartes, transhumanists think of the human being as a consciousness hosted in a body, and of the body as a machine that the will can manipulate by means of reason. Transhumanism adds a new technological claim: Computing advances are on the verge of bringing about the “singularity,” a convergence of artificial, computer-based intelligence and human, brain-based intelligence. This convergence will allow us to transfer ourselves out of the “wetware” of the brain and into super-sophisticated hardware, thus enhancing our powers and possibly securing a kind of immortality. We are on the brink of transcending the bodily limits that have previously constrained humanity, thereby becoming transhuman.
It’s easy to write transhumanism off as a fringe phenomenon of science fantasy. But this is a mistake, for elements of it are already engulfing us. A growing number of Americans now spend much of their time on the Internet, living partly through machines and interacting with other disembodied persons. Transgender therapies are increasingly common and have widespread social and regulatory acceptance. Alongside its various research initiatives to develop gadgets like self-driving cars, Google has funded Calico, a research institute devoted to finding a cure for aging, possibly through gene editing. Our technological pioneers are already seeking and selling various ways to transcend the limitations of our embodied humanity.
Among today’s prophets of transhumanism, none has more mainstream clout than Steve Fuller. He holds a chair at the University of Warwick fittingly named for Auguste Comte, the father of sociology and proponent of the “religion of man.” Scholarly and articulate, engaged and engaging, Fuller is the author of twenty-two books (several of them lauded by mainstream periodicals), and a member of the UK Academy of Social Sciences and the European Academy of Sciences and Arts. He is probably the most effective spokesman and advocate for practical policies that favor transhumanist research goals, and has coined the catchiest label for the enhanced humanoids such a research agenda aspires to produce: Humanity 2.0.
According to Fuller, this agenda is driven by the same inspiration that is the source of all religion. This is the human capacity for self-transcendence, which he identifies as the foundation of our human dignity. Science enables us to know dimensions of reality we will never experience with our bodily senses, from the hidden world of cells to distant black holes. It provides “an infinity of applications” that extend our powers beyond the limits of the biologically given bodies of old-fashioned Humanity 1.0. Science is thus the highest fulfillment of what makes us human.
This vision of human dignity as technological self-enhancement justifies the policy regime advocated in Fuller’s recent book, coauthored with Veronika Lipinska, The Proactionary Imperative. Max More coined the term “proactionary principle” in opposition to the work of Leon Kass at the President’s Council on Bioethics, which argued for a “precautionary principle” to prudently restrain experimentation with the human genome. Fuller and Lipinska take up More’s coinage and argue that innovation is necessary if we are to realize our distinctive human capacity for self-transcendence; excessive caution does injustice to our highest longings. We need to promote risk for the sake of important advances in medical and other technologies that will benefit us all, and compensate for their service those willing to take the risks.
There is a compelling logic to Fuller’s argument, if one accepts his premise about what constitutes human dignity. He supports that premise, arguing that in fact we generally do accept it, with a broad narrative of Western intellectual-spiritual history. With provocative honesty, Fuller insists that the core of this history is theological: Our zeal for scientific self-transcendence is shaped by a widely shared modern vision of the human relationship to the divine and to nature.
His story gets a lot right, which is why it can seem so compelling. What it gets wrong, however, helps us to see why his premise about self-transcendence is untrue.
Drawing on some of the best work of theologian John Milbank and his friends, Fuller identifies the Franciscan Duns Scotus as a pivotal figure in the history of man’s self-image in the West. Scotus’s importance hinges on a question of how we talk about God. While the question seems highly technical, its cultural ramifications have been immense.
In the generation before Scotus, Thomas Aquinas argued that, although we have to use the same language to talk about both creation and its Creator, the things we say can only be true analogously in the two cases. When we say that God “knows” something, “knowledge” cannot mean the same thing as it does when we speak of human knowing, because the created order works within parameters given by the Creator—parameters within which the Creator cannot be confined. At the same time, the two meanings of “knowing” cannot be wholly unrelated, because the creation is in some sense a reflection and manifestation of God, its source. Our affirmations about God and created things, then, are neither “equivocal” (using the same words very differently for things in no way alike) nor “univocal” (using a word in the same sense in both cases). The affirmation that God has goodness, wisdom, mercy, justice, and even being can only be true by analogy, which combines likeness and unlikeness.
Scotus insists, on the contrary, that our affirmations are univocal. God and humans have being in the same sense of the word. The difference is that the being of humans (or any created thing) is finite, whereas God is the infinite being. Fuller draws out the implications: “Divine attributes differ from human ones only by degree not kind . . . . This in turn allowed for direct comparisons between human and divine conditions of being, and hence a trajectory of progress.” God possesses in infinite degree all the excellences we possess in finite degree. This provides later thinkers with the point of reference for our progressive self-transcendence. We are aiming toward an ever-greater approximation to God’s infinite perfection.
Though there are many links in the chain, the theology of Scotus eventually leads to Feuerbach’s progressive history of religion, according to which our successive ideas of the divine are simply projections of human possibilities of perfection onto a large screen that we call God. In early stages, humanity conceived of human perfections as objects of worship and aspiration, preparing the way for moderns like us to make them real in our own lives, or at least to aspire to do so. This is the stream of theology to which Comte, Nietzsche, and Mormon transhumanist Lincoln Cannon belong: We become more godlike through our own efforts of self-transcendence, rather than through humble prayer and petition and self-giving love.
As Fuller notes, Scotus also gave a new sense to the notion of “possibility.” In the older tradition, the possible is what may happen within the order of creation, an order that reflects God’s goodness. For Scotus, the world is the way it is only because that is how God willed it to be. God could have willed to order creation in an infinite number of other ways, since God’s will is unbounded and arbitrary. The possible, then, includes all the things that might be or might have been. The field of the possible is not only wider than anything this particular created order permits, but wider than anything we can even conceive.
This view of possibility gives freedom an entirely different meaning. For the older tradition, to be free is to be unimpeded from choosing the good, and all created goods are participations in God’s goodness. Thus, love of what is truly good is both liberating and fulfilling. It brings humans into participation (analogously) in God’s own goodness. After Scotus, the freedom of the will is its capacity to attach itself to any object whatsoever, and to decide on an attachment is to limit freedom. Freedom is willfulness (“voluntarism”). In this notion one can see the first stirrings of the existentialist philosophy according to which humans have no given nature, but define themselves by their decisions and commitments.
The theology of Scotus exercised an enormous influence on the nominalist theology and philosophy that swept through the universities of the late Middle Ages. Nominalists share with Scotus the voluntarist understanding of divine and human will, the unboundedness of possibility, the view of creation as an order imposed by God’s arbitrary will, and the rejection of the doctrine of analogy. The nominalists concluded that our speech about God could only be equivocal: As finite beings, we can have no concepts that capture the infinite being of the infinitely transcendent God.
This conclusion seems like humility in the face of God’s immensity. In fact, however, its supposition that knowing means capturing things in concepts provides the basis for the modern view of knowledge as power. For the older tradition, knowing is participating receptively in the intelligibility of things, an intelligibility that issues from the divine intellect that ordered them and gave them their being and natures. If possibility is unbounded, however, then knowing means organizing experience by imposing orderly limits. Knowing the world means organizing our concepts about it into a theoretical model that somehow captures our experience. The ordered intelligibility of things is constructed by us, not received from God through the medium of his creation. This model-building approach underlies the view that the scientific method is the only reliable way of knowing.
This can all seem abstract and remote, but it shapes our cultural assumptions in profound ways. It is remarkable how frequently, beginning in the sixteenth century, we encounter in philosophical and literary works the puzzle of how we can know we are awake and not dreaming. Descartes expresses it with theological imagination: How do we know that our conscious experience really reflects anything external to it, rather than mere images produced in our mind by an omnipotent deceiver? This deceiver is none other than the nominalist God, whose goodness is no longer manifested to us by created beings, whose will is arbitrary, and who confines our minds within one order out of the infinite range of the possible. The same question of deception haunts popular culture in Twilight Zone episodes and (with a typical substitution of omnipotent A.I. for God) in The Matrix.
The training we receive in the scientific method and model construction habituates us to making certain assumptions about who we are and how we relate to nature. We are minds-producing-concepts for the purpose of bringing the limitless possibilities of being into some order. These assumptions, which have their origins in a theologically motivated rejection of a classical understanding of God and creation, lead by an easy path to the view that human beings fully realize themselves by producing concepts that give us mastery over limitless possibilities—first mastery over nature, then over ourselves.
Since modern thought develops within the nominalist frame, sculpted by Ockham’s razor, it can only look upon the older tradition as a form of inferior speculation that has been chastened and surpassed by more methodical and rigorous thought. Fuller is supremely uncritical of this perspective. He never pauses to consider how one might adjudicate the controversy between Aquinas’s doctrine of analogy and Scotist univocity. In this he is in good company. Even such a brilliant and subtle study as The Theological Origins of Modernity, by Michael Gillespie, simply assumes that nominalism attained victory over the older tradition because of an intrinsic superiority. This presumption flatters the complacency of the modern mind, and prevents us from seeing the poverty of our current assumptions about reason, nature, and human fulfillment.
The other great failure of Fuller’s account (also shared by Gillespie) is his interpretation of the Christian tradition in terms of the dualism of body and soul. Such dualism is the opposite of Christianity, a trick of perspective fabricated during the Enlightenment, perfected by Nietzsche, and generally widespread among educated Westerners today, many of them Christian.
In Fuller’s interpretation, the Judeo-Christian doctrine that we are made in the image of God means that we have as-yet unrealized, godlike possibilities, and original sin denotes the weakness and drag of our non-godlike bodies. On this reading, Christianity mandates rebellion against our finitude through efforts to rise spiritually above the failures of the body.
This, in fact, is not Christian orthodoxy at all, but rather Gnosticism, one of the great heresies. Augustine explicitly rejected Gnosticism in the Manichean form he knew intimately. He understood original sin as the disordered will to self-exaltation. Far from being a source of sin, our embodied condition is pronounced good in the first chapter of Genesis.
Like Marcion, a Christian heretic excommunicated in the second century, the Gnostics repudiated the depiction of God in the Hebrew Scriptures, beginning with the affirmation in Genesis 1 that the whole creation of earth and the heavens is good. According to Gnosticism, only pure spirit is good; the body and the material world are evil and the source of all evil. Gnostics wanted to purify and detach their spirits from material existence by ascetic disciplines, including abstention from sex and procreation. It was the culture of death calling itself Christianity.
The dualism we find in Descartes encourages a modern form of Gnosticism. The world is not an order of beings manifesting God’s goodness; it is rather an order of inert matter in motion, available for the human will and intellect to master and manipulate. Ancient Gnosticism sought deliverance from evil by severing the spirit’s ties to the material world. Modern Gnosticism appears at first to take a much more optimistic view of creation. Its hopes, however, are not placed in nature as created, but rather in the mind’s capacity to construct models that will unlock the powers trapped within the given order of beings, so as to release their infinite possibilities and make them subservient to our needs and aspirations. It hopes to escape evil not by fleeing the world, but by stepping away in distrust, securing the independent power of the mind through the scientific method, and then turning against the world with a vengeance and transforming it to suit the human will.
This Gnostic attitude manifests itself in the economic realm. The Lockean-Marxist doctrine of human labor holds that our work imparts value to a natural world that is in itself mere raw material for the will, worthless except insofar as it harbors productive potential to be unleashed and exploited. Though he misnames it Christianity, Fuller recognizes this Gnostic vision at the heart of his own techno-libertarian stance. According to him, transhumanism looks upon the natural human body as raw material, a platform from which we can launch our possible selves. Securing solidarity and cooperation for this agenda, however, requires extending reason’s mastery and control over social relations of distribution as well, so as to ensure that the possibilities of self-transcendence are widely shared by “humanity.”
Fuller’s advocacy of transhumanism has cultural resonance because he articulates and celebrates the theological principles that structure and orient modern thought. While his account is often sloppy, he is nevertheless right that the transhumanist agenda is a logical consequence of Gnosticism (which he and many others mistake for Christianity), and that this Gnosticism, which has theological roots in the Scotist-nominalist revolution in metaphysics, ever more exclusively shapes the modern cultural imagination and our understanding of what it is to be human. His failure to interpret correctly the philosophical and theological traditions that precede this revolution shows how difficult it is to think outside the nominalist and Gnostic horizon once we’re inside it, especially when our technologically mediated relationship to the natural world and our own bodies reinforces its hold on us.
Fortunately, this constricted modern horizon is a cave from which it is still possible to escape. One way we can start is by recognizing that Fuller’s arithmetic is faulty. Humanity already experienced decisive enhancements well before the fourteenth century, expansions beyond the horizons within which it had previously been confined. What Fuller is celebrating is not Humanity 2.0, but rather Humanity 4.5.
In order to see the history of humanity in the West more clearly, we need to turn on its head a characteristic, self-congratulating modern description of the philosophical achievement that Descartes is thought to have accomplished. He is often said to have inaugurated the “subjective turn”—credited with recognizing that we have to start from an analysis of consciousness and treat all the “objects” of our knowledge as shaped, distorted, conditioned by our “subjective” filters. By correcting for the filter, we render knowledge more “objective.”
Much of modern thought is devoted to rigorous methods of objectivity, accompanied by ever-increasing critique of the ways in which our subjectivity (individual and social) renders that objectivity difficult, if not impossible. The scientific method is supposed to filter out the subjective biases of the individual observer. Meanwhile, the “masters of suspicion”—Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and their followers—expose and deconstruct the distorting ideologies, fantasies, and power-seeking strategies to which we are inescapably prone.
Actual reflection on the older tradition, however, makes clear that examination of the human being as a knowing, doing, experiencing, and imagining subject has never been missing, only differently pursued. The horizons of meaning within which humans experience, reflect, question, imagine, and act have certainly changed in different times and places, and thus the understanding of what it means to be a “subject” has changed. But it makes no sense to ask whether or not a particular historical era presents us as subjects. The more revealing question is what we think we are subjects of.
Humanity 1.0. The pre-philosophic pagan human being is the subject of powers, and also subjected to powers. The polytheistic or animist world is one swarming with conflicting powers, which occasionally bundle together into unities that are never quite stable. The Babylonian god Marduk violently imposing order on the monstrous brood of Tiamat (chaos) provides one of the great symbols of Humanity 1.0. The pagan subject is a temporary unity, able to channel and placate and enlist the powers of this world for a time, until he eventually dissolves back into the all. In Greece, the myth of Zeus overcoming his monstrous father Kronos by means of intelligence and instituting the new order of the beautiful Olympian gods encapsulates a particularly potent vision of pagan subjectivity. The Sophists, who claimed to know how to make reason the instrument of the concentration and command of power, exploited this vision.
Humanity 2.0. This first expansion of the horizon of the human comes about partly in response to the Sophists. Starting with Socrates, ancient philosophers in the Platonic-Aristotelian tradition contended that the human being is best understood as the subject of wonder. Awakened by wonder, rational inquiry opens us to a truth not ultimately grounded in power, but in the Good. The subject of wonder is not simply a meeting point of accumulated powers gathered at a center of control. On the contrary, he is a subject that is always also oriented toward a center outside itself. The wondering being is an “ecstatic” subject, from Greek ekstasis, standing outside oneself.
For Plato, we are preeminently erotic beings, in love with the attractive beauty of goods and truths not of our own making. We are penetrated and called forth by the intimate effects of beauty and truth, drawn outside ourselves into the world and into contemplation. To recognize that the world is a home for our contemplative understanding and that this ecstatic existence fulfills our nature is to recognize the goodness of the world. The world invites us to be transformed by its truth, which satisfies our love.
As Fuller’s persistent misreading of this tradition indicates, the impoverished modern horizon cannot recognize or even understand that goodness is a principle of being. Rather than an expansion of the human, the modern “subjective turn” represents a refusal of ecstatic existence. It reinterprets our erotic nature in individualist terms. In Walt Whitman’s image, the modern subject is a solitary spider on a promontory, throwing forth “filament, filament, filament, out of itself” in order to “explore the vacant, vast surrounding.” Freud was able to introduce the erotic back into a scientific discourse that had ceased to reflect upon it, making the centrality of eros to human existence seem like a novel insight in the early twentieth century. Yet he remained squarely within the modern horizon, recasting the meaning of eros in terms of the modern isolated subject.
Humanity 3.0. Biblical culture opens a new horizon, proposing that the human being is best understood as the subject of prayer. This, too, is an ecstatic manner of being, summed up in Augustine’s Christian re-articulation of Platonic eros: “Our heart is restless until it rests in Thee.” But as Augustine indicates, the center in which we are re-centered outside ourselves is the Creator whom we address as a person. In fact, this Christian ecstatic mode of being brings with it the discovery of personhood. The personhood of the Creator is manifested in his radically free relationship to the created world, the radical freedom of agape, the love that gives being. The pagan gods are not persons, but merely participants in the ongoing contest of powers; Marduk does not peacefully speak order into being, but violently imposes it on the disorder that already exists. The god of the philosophers sustains the orderliness of the world, but does not give it being in a free act of love, and thus is not personal.
The Latin word persona (which translates the Greek prosopon) means a mask one wears, hence a role one plays, either theatrically or legally; it is not originally a kind of being that one is. “Person” first becomes a category of being when applied to God in early attempts to speak with some clarity about the mystery of the Trinity; only thereafter is the human being in the image of God also considered a person. The ground of this human personhood is the possibility of communion with the person of the Creator by way of covenant and sacrament, a possibility enacted and cultivated through prayer.
Because the world is given the gift of being, it is fundamentally good, as God saw when he created it. God as Creator is other than the world, not a part of it, but he is also fully and everywhere intimately present to it and manifested by it. In communion of personhood with the Creator, the Christian, raised and liberated by God’s grace, transcends the world without ceasing to be part of it, still gratefully embedded within the goodness of its created order of beings.
Humanity 3.5. The tradition of Christian humanism, by joining together the dynamisms of the previous two great expansions, arguably opens the maximal horizon of human possibility. The biblical subject of prayer expands and fulfills the classical philosophical subject of wonder. An ecstatic existence in God allows for the amplification and clarification of an ecstatic existence in the Good made possible by Humanity 2.0. This is the horizon in which Aquinas, Dante, Thomas More, C. S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, and the later Dostoyevsky explored the richness of human existence.
Humanity 4.0.The modern subject is perhaps best understood as the being who tries to maintain the status of personhood and transcend the world, but without relying upon ecstatic communion with the person of God. The options come down to rejecting God entirely or reducing God to a useful projection of human possibilities. In either case, the human is no longer an ecstatic subject who receives the gift of being and the grace that fructifies our nature, but is himself the primary source of transcendence.
Since this transcendence no longer grounds itself ecstatically in the Creator of the world, it has to be attained by negation of the world. So the “subjective turn” is a refusal of ecstatic existence, a stepping back from the world, in preparation for its domination by a now alien will and mind. The modern subject is thus the subject of projects.
The subject of projects gives modernity its Gnostic character. This world is not an inherently good creation. A better alternative world remains to be made by us, in the future. This alienated, negative, transformative stance toward the world actively and habitually rejects the identification of being and goodness. Thus the horizon of modernity can be strictly defined as the horizon within which the goodness of being is no longer intelligible. This is the horizon within which Fuller’s intellectual history is confined, from within which he champions modern science and technological innovation as the great collective project of modernity. Transcendence is defined as the reappropriation of the world from the standpoint of the human capacity to be the subject of projects.
Humanity 4.5. The distinctly transhumanist horizon comes about when our project of mastery turns its attention to our own bodies. They come to be treated as raw material, resources available to satisfy our free individual preferences. Our will to transcend nature through projects of mastery mounts a rebellion against the natural constraints of the organic human body, harnessing the power of technological innovations to render it the instrument of our arbitrary will. Why should we tolerate bondage to our frail flesh when we can split atoms and destroy cities?
From the low-tech mania for tattooing and piercing, through the medium-tech tools of abortion, hormonal birth control, and transgendering, to the high-tech visions and explorations of genetic engineering and cyborgism, this rebellion seems to be gathering steam. An aggressive assertion of bodily self-ownership is becoming the new normal, with the status of a fundamental right.
Politically speaking, the assertion of individual self-ownership is a central feature of libertarianism. The transhumanism of Humanity 4.5 is thus an extreme expression of the libertarianism that is spreading through American society, increasingly bankrolling and driving the agenda of both major political parties. Its animating principles are far from a fringe phenomenon, however far-fetched its bio-technological fantasies may sound.
Transhumanists, like other libertarians, make the mistake of thinking that the high-spirited few, who are enamored of ascetic self-overcoming and relentless power-accumulating work, will be welcomed as the model and standard for the security-oriented many, who prefer to live according to their appetites, and whose escape fantasy is giant cruise ships rather than silicone bodies. To the extent that it has not shed the heritage of Christian humanism, libertarianism imagines itself as a redemptive project of liberation for all humanity, not just the zealous few. But there is nothing egalitarian about a moral vision that flows from understanding human dignity in terms of transcendence-seeking projects; and libertarians, under the brutalizing influence of Ayn Rand, seem to have become increasingly honest about the inegalitarian consequences of their agenda.
Fuller resists this tendency. He advances proposals for sharing the technological fruits of the proactionary principle in a socialist manner. But they have no basis in his understanding of what it is to be human and are thus likely to fall away as unsupported by the logic of Humanity 4.5. His Promethean agenda employs the same salesmanship so often used by Humanity 4.0. Francis Bacon appropriated the word “charity” to brand his vision of techno-mastery. Fuller likes to tell the story of “humanity” marching through history and destined to prevail. This mythical protagonist masks the reality that the powers we accumulate are always the powers of some and not of others. A more realistic portrayal of the future of Humanity 4.5 would star the relative few who are going to use the enormous wealth accumulated by the globalist bourgeois empire to fund their own Promethean futures, self-cast in the role of “early adopters” whose job is to keep the cutting edge of progress sharp. Meanwhile, the supporting cast of millions will remain in pecuniary thrall, hoping for a better role in the promised but not yet budgeted sequel.
There is no shortage of contemporary mythmaking seeking to prop up confidence in the idol of progress. The more the empire of economic, political, and scientific mastery shows signs of imminent collapse (at least in the West), the more the anxiety of control increases, generating an increasingly desperate need to convince ourselves that progress is still the ultimate truth about reality.
The current wave of dystopian young adult fiction, for example, serves the same kind of public liturgical function for progressive individualism as the New Year liturgy of Marduk’s victory over Tiamat once did for a strong Babylonian kingship. In these stories, disasters resulting from technological or political threats generate a social order that fails to deliver liberation of the individual. The adolescent heroes inevitably find their true identities as they lead a political revolution to put social progress back on track. Surely, the problem must be bad technocrats trying to concentrate all the power and benefits in their own hands! The solution, of course, lies in putting a more beneficent management in place to spread the benefits equitably. The fantasy of political revolution thus serves as therapy: It maintains faith in the order of the universe under the reign of progress.
Fuller’s proposals for risk management play the same reassuring, therapeutic, and religious role, and are equally fantastical. He rightly accuses the “precautionary principle” of lacking “faith in human power and intelligence,” thereby revealing the true object of his own religious faith. His “God” provides assurance that, in the harmony of the final reckoning, all the harms done along the historical trajectory of self-transcendence will be overbalanced by the enhancements. It should come as no surprise that in his adolescence, Fuller was educated by Jesuits in the heyday of their enthusiasm for the cosmic evolutionism of Teilhard de Chardin. Nor should it be surprising if many find his facile justification of the ways of God attractive. In the idolatry of progress, the only sin is the refusal of optimism.
A sense of urgency animates the proactionary imperative, and it engenders the most ludicrous aspect of the transhumanist faith’s mythmaking. If progress is inevitable, if we continue to make discoveries that deliver enhancement and contribute to our self-overcoming, why do transhumanists feel an almost desperate need to speed the pace of discovery? From the vantage point of Humanity 3.5, the insistence on faster solutions to human limitations seems a lot like an inability to come to a mature reckoning with finitude and death. The translation of the fantasies of transhumanists into policy proposals looks like provision for a race of hysterical adolescents striking heroic poses as they cling ever more tightly to their idols.
Fortunately, it is still possible, despite the march of humanity through history, to see the human person from the vantage point of Humanity 3.5. The transcendent dignity of the human person in communion with the Creator is still capable of speaking to our depths—the more so to the extent that the fantastical mythology of “H+” is exposed as fraudulent and cleared out of the way, allowing us to notice that we have depths to speak to. This possibility seems to account for a significant but seldom noted social phenomenon. As techno-liberation has become more aggressive, and the cultural swindle of its humanistic façade more apparent, the American genius of voluntary association has produced a response. The steady growth of classical academies and classical Christian homeschooling seems to testify to a growing realization that the classical Christian humanism of Humanity 3.5 is the real liberation of humanity and cultivation of human dignity.
A spontaneous renewal of humane culture will, of course, face considerable opposition as the idolaters of progress recognize the full scope of its nonconformity. We need to protect the growth of these precious seeds in a number of ways. First and foremost are legal safeguards for the right to educate. Second, biblically inspired institutions of higher education need increasing self-awareness that the vision of humanity, nature, and God that provides their identity has to be defended in its integrity. Third, in both classical schooling and higher education, a self-conscious recovery of a biblical and philosophical understanding of created nature and the practical and spiritual relationship to it that fosters the human good must have a place in the curriculum. Metaphysical reflection and the cultivation of wonder provide the indispensable foundation for a critique of and response to the Gnostic culture that dominates our lives.
The machinery we have constructed to exercise control has a way of exercising control over us. The image of the “singularity,” the point at which artificial and human intelligence merge, haunts our cultural imagination. The real threat, however, is that our new possibilities become new needs, and our enhancements define a new normal that we can’t bear to fall short of. The idol of progress is as fertile in the demand for human sacrifices as any Baal of the past, whether in the form of self-mutilations, throwing our children into the fire of competitive frenzy to become productive functionaries of the exploitative machinery of power, or the insidious spread of the despairing and sometimes suicidal sense that we are mere spiders wearied by throwing out filaments that never attach to anything solid. Only recovering ampler horizons of truth about God, humanity, and the goodness of creation can set us free and renew a culture of life and love.
Mark Shiffman is associate professor of classical studies at Villanova University.