Christian Transhumanism and the Defeat of Death

By Ian Barclay ’24 M.A.R.

Human history can be seen as a catalogue of our technological pushback against nature. Our earliest technologies—including fire and clothing—enabled us to endure relentlessly harsh climates, and subsequent eras saw our creativity give birth to anesthetics, electricity, antibiotics, and vaccines. 

Our waiting on God to initiate the next stage of things does not have to be a waiting in technological silence. We can await instead with a technological symphony that echoes throughout creation. 

With all these we saw fit to adopt a healthy spirit of rebellion against our perennial condition—notably the plight of gratuitous suffering—on behalf of human flourishing and well-being. Combating diseases, severe weather, and the complexities of sharing a planet of finite surface area seizes our energies. Future ages will face natural elements of vastly greater intensities, such as extinction-threatening asteroids and a sun whose eventual death will beget a need to leave the solar system. The challenges attending these hurdles—present and future—are immense.

Enter Artificial Intelligence. AI represents a technological wave of unfathomable power. Under the aegis of AI’s amplifying capacities, biomedical research—one of the most anticipated domains of its implementation—might very well expunge the whole umbrella of disease from the human story, and far sooner than we ever thought possible. Physics might decipher the veiled assemblage of laws that allows for the feasibility of interstellar travel. Such tantalizing possibilities are what AI’s proponents envision it plausibly achieving.

Death a Disease to Overcome?

My framework here, then, is an assumption of AI’s unmitigated success. Suppose we succeed in navigating the inherent body of existential and economic risks that AI poses and harness it for the sake of enhancing the human experience. What kind of world would that usher in? What would our moral calculus and ecosystem be like in a world completely rid of disease? These questions reveal a seamless point of linkage between AI and transhumanism, a movement that embraces the prospect of indefinite life extension with continued good health (indefinite healthspan extension, for short) and regards the biological process of dying as itself a disease.[1]

There is much interest today around arguments urging the recategorization of aging as a disease that can be medically treated.[2] In view of this debate, a transhumanist argument goes as follows: biological death is simply what happens when enough bodily components irreversibly break down. A breakdown on such a scale can reasonably be interpreted as a disorder, a disease. Therefore, it warrants indefinite technological pushback should an individual wish it, just as we justify fighting the litany of already-familiar diseases.

These are the kinds of aspirations AI’s radical success in the biomedical realm would unleash, transforming our world drastically. Are they valid? Is a world speckled through with the transhumanist option of avoiding biological death a desirable one? Could there be such a thing as Christian transhumanism? I believe there can.

Therapies vs. Enhancements

One way to enter into this conversation is by better organizing the moral intuitions underlying the permissibility or impermissibility of applying a given technology to the human experience. A fruitful distinction is sometimes made in the ethics of technology between therapy and enhancement. Therapy (replacing a damaged cochlea with an electronic hearing device, taking Tylenol when battling a fever) is aimed at curing disease, or more broadly at alleviating suffering, whereas enhancements (attention-boosting drugs, education) are aimed at improving an individual “above natural baseline” with respect to a given skill, trait, or attribute.

Virtually no moral fault is ever found in the expansion of therapeutic capacities, owing to the pervasive moral intuition that diseases and concrete sufferings should be maximally combatted. But much contentious ink gets spilled, and ire aroused, over the matter of how far to take the sphere of enhancement, especially exotic possibilities like genetic and cybernetic modification that conjure extreme scenarios of someday uploading individual flickers of human consciousness into a perfect computer simulation.

Extending the Expiration Date

However, I believe the therapy/enhancement distinction is not as unbridgeable as it first suggests. It is made porous with a simple realization: therapy is aimed at suffering, suffering has an indelibly subjective component, and that subjective component is often rooted in a disjunction that people experience between who they are and who they feel they ought to be. Take a concrete example: if a person dead-set on getting into medical school feels that entry is practically barred without cognitive enhancements such as Adderall (for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), particularly given that much of her competition is already taking them, and supposing also that she began life from a place of acute material disadvantage, wouldn’t neuroenhancements alleviate her suffering to the degree that they would bridge the gap between where she is and where she wants to be, and thereby constitute a form of therapy?  

Applying that logic to the ultimate matter of defying and even defeating biological death, I might ask: if I simply had more time and health to realize my dreams and goals via indefinite healthspan extension, wouldn’t the enabling technologies be a legitimate form of therapy for me? It is difficult to see why not. Isn’t a straightforward, paralyzing fear of death reason enough to seek a therapeutic solution? The secular poet Philip Larkin gives this fear of utter extinction for all eternity a vivid, haunting life in his masterpiece “Aubade,” where he sets forth his shattering dread that life and consciousness will cease at death. “Most things may never happen: this one will …” Even a person who doesn’t share Larkin’s bleak conviction can still harbor a dread rooted in the possibility of such cessation.

Pushback Against a Mortal Timeline

If an individual wishes it, and if the requisite healthspan technologies are available, why shouldn’t she alleviate her suffering by holding off that momentous reckoning for as long as possible? Why slavishly acquiesce to the decline of internal biological mechanisms if tireless pushback against them is already accessible via research-backed nutritional regimens, exercise plans, and dietary supplements? How does anyone have the moral right to tell us that we should accept our deeply personal confrontation with that terminal moment of mortality in accordance with the timeframe they deem appropriate? If such technologies are indeed therapies that enable an individual’s flourishing in harmony with the deepest sense of meaning for her life, then we have a strong prima facie reason to embrace healthspan technologies that suggest a transhumanist bent—even a Christian transhumanist motivation.

The anti-transhumanist could object to this by securing an ethical anchor under the following rock: whether dying is a disease or not, whether it occasions suffering or not, human beings are not immortal. They must eventually die, either through external means or internal biological means. It is immoralperhaps even a dereliction of religious dutyto believe otherwise. 

This is a strong normative claim, based on well-known ethical and religious arguments. Thus one could say that (1) living in this world with a sense of forever would eventually rob us of the ability to feel proper gratitude and the capacity to love; (2) people insistent on living into the indefinite future would create environmental catastrophe by taking up the physical space and resources that our descendants deserve; (3) a society suffused with cheap and available healthspan technologies would give rise to a population prone to postponing their goals indefinitely and losing all motivation to do anything;  (4) the Christian tradition says or implies that we should accept our bodily death as a necessary step to the next stage of being and ultimately to the eschaton.

Humility, Not Hubris

But complexities around these points abound and spiral. In the spirit of (4), one might contend that the creedal phrase “there is only eternal life through Christ” is a non-negotiable anti-transhumanist theme in the New Testament, heaping shame on the sort of desperate Tower-of-Babel-style clambering towards godhood that indefinite healthspan extension would embody. Yet Christian transhumanists could reply that they are not desiring eternal life in this world but rather maximally long life: a forever life here on earth would be a preposterous fantasy, since our entire physical universe or multiverse is likely on track to dissolve one day via entropic heat death, rendering eternal life in this world all but impossible without God’s intervention. They may further reply that humility rather than hubris flowers out of the fact that only God, at the eschaton, can bring about the greatest possible elevation of the human experience, no matter how much technological progress is achieved in this world before then. Acknowledging this never deprived our species from more than doubling the average worldwide life expectancy over the past two centuries, and it need not deprive us of the prospect of indefinite healthspan extension going forward.

An anti-transhumanist Christian could argue that the transhumanist focus on physical transformation will, at some point, come at the expense of a proper Christian focus on spiritual transformation. Indeed, we see certain technology uses or abuses confirming this point already (e.g., various internet addictions). A Christian, one might suppose, should primarily care about spiritual transformation and perhaps only care about such transformation. It is easy to imagine a Christian of this mold rejecting the use of risky technologies and accepting biological death in order to keep the focus of her life squarely and maximally on spiritual transformation. Be that as it may, many feel an ethical duty to help equip humanity to battle against physical diseases, and doing so bolsters their spirits. Not least, attaining a more optimal physical state often makes it easier to effect mental, ethical, or spiritual change in one’s life—a physical state that can come about through simple therapies like exercise, nutrition, and ample sleep. Body and spirit are not causally separate. The powerful technological enhancements of the future may very well make certain key spiritual practices easier. They need not impede spiritual development.  

A Symphony of Possibilities

The Christian transhumanist position phrased holistically, then, is this: Christians may well continue to embrace the idea that human beings will always have the capacity for sin within the matrix of life before the eschaton, and hold that God alone can bring about the eschaton and the ultimate transfiguration of the human experience, and also hold that physical death in this universe is unavoidable without God’s intervention, and recognize too that the primary transformative impulse should be spiritual and moral rather than bodily. And yet … they can also delightedly pursue the use of enhancement technologies for bettering our material condition, including indefinite healthspan extension. Our waiting on God to initiate the next stage of things does not have to be a waiting in technological silence. We can await instead with a technological symphony that echoes throughout creation. And we should hold space for the possibility that that is precisely what God wants us to do, in a spirit of love and responsibility, through the imprint of power and creativity we bear from the Imago Dei.

Wherever our intuitions happen to land at the moment within this panoply of ethical and spiritual complexity, what I hope is clear is the emergence of a new imperative: in addition to preparing for the risks of AI, we should be preparing for its success. 

Ian Barclay ’24 M.A.R., with a concentration in philosophy of religion, will graduate in the Spring. He earned a B.A. in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University, an M.S. in mathematics and an M.S. in medical biology from Mississippi College, and has taught math and physics at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science. He plans to do Ph.D. work in the philosophy of religion inside the framework of an M.D./Ph.D. program.

1. Transhumanism is an intellectual movement that ardently desires to use biotechnology to “surpass” humanity as it currently is, specifically to use enhancement technologies on human beings in order to give people control of their physical fate (or directing that fate maximally, even if not ultimately), instead of deferring strictly to the evolutionary and physical processes that have guided and confined our species thus far. In addition to healthspan, transhumanism is eager to enhance the physical, intellectual, and emotional capabilities of human beings to an extraordinary degree (e.g., an ability to hold hundreds of thoughts simultaneously). Not all transhumanists endorse everything that is claimed under the transhumanism banner.

2. See, for instance, Sarah Sloat, “The debate over whether aging is a disease rages on,” MIT Technology Review, Oct. 19, 2022. See also C. Sabarito and P. García-Barranquero, “Is Aging a Disease? The Theoretical Definition of Aging in Light of the Philosophy of Medicine,” The Journal of Medicine & Philosophy, vol. 47, issue 6, December 2022. Also S. Butlerijs, R.S. Hull, V.C. Björk, A.G. Roy, “It is time to classify biological aging as a disease,” National Library of Medicine, June 18, 2015.