Last Monday night I attended a session of the Zygon Center’s Advanced Seminar in Religion and Science. I try to attend as often as I can, but my teaching schedule unfortunately limits it to a seminar here and there (which, thankfully, they oblige).

The Advanced Seminar is designed as a research seminar for faculty, students, and others, and is usually an outstanding group that has a wonderful discussion. There are various experts in philosophy, psychology, theology, biology, and neuroscience, and we discuss and argue on an area that is related to them all. I say we, but it’s usually them as I tend to spend my time just listening. As I always joke, it’s fun to be the dumbest one in the room every now and again and I routinely feel like that, even though the rest of the group doesn’t think or act like I should. There are several authors who have written multiple, fascinating books and routinely think of these issues at the Ph.D. level… and I’m a guy who gets paid to teach Microbiology.

The focus for this semester is Perspectives on Humanity: Evolution, Enhancement, Biotechnology, and Theology and last Monday’s discussion, led by Dr. Philip Hefner, was on transhumanism, enhancement, and human creativity. Readers of this blog are likely aware of his influence in making science and religion a viable academic “discipline” and I’m “currently” (in quotes because there’s been a bit of a hiatus) blogging through his book, The Human Factor (see here for the most recent post). At the seminar, Phil shared his thoughts for an hour or so and then a discussion was had, primarily in the form of question and answer with Phil. He is a great teacher, who has a wonderful gift in getting you to hear something again for the first time. This is the interdisciplinarian and educator in him.

Phil focused on the spiritual side of the discussion, and what transhumanism, enhancement, and human creativity says about human nature and the God who created us. Transhumanism is a loaded term, so Phil prefers enhancement. Either way, their definitions are imprecise and activities related to them range from reducing the effects of aging and improving the human condition, to merging humans with technology and becoming immortal. Phil sees transhumanism/enhancement as an offshoot of our creativity as the “created co-creator.” This is not to say he is in favor of or against it. One gathers that even if he was against it, he realizes that it’s too late anyway because we are already traveling down the rabbit trail. He’s a theologian and philosopher so Phil chooses to reflect upon it, not prescribe or proscribe it. It was a great discussion.

To the reader: what are your thoughts on transhumanism? Are you for it? Against it? Inspired by it or afraid of it? Do you agree with Phil that it’s a primarily an outpouring of our creativity?

I’m not sure where I sit on this matter, but I can’t help but mention how much enhancement and creativity is exhibited in the other great determinant of human nature, culture. Stories of “Tiger moms” are the extreme example, but parents go to great lengths to “improve” or enhance their children using all kinds of products, styles, and mechanisms. Even though we’re composed of and limited, in part, by our genes and their interactions, surely we all admit that these other structures have a not inconsequential role in determining human nature. This doesn’t go so far as to be considered as transhumanism, in its strictest definition, because it’s modification “extra-genetically.” But is it really all that different?

There are many reasons to be an opponent of transhumanism, and no doubt the previous paragraph provides even more. I am still in the questioning and reflecting stage. The questions I wrestle with include: if we do so much to enhance using cultural methods, why wouldn’t we do the same with genetic methods? Wouldn’t we take it too far? If I didn’t genetically enhance my child, would they be “behind” the others who had been? And who is going to serve as moderator, judge, and jury of this technology? The scientists who are devising the technology? Ethicists? Philosophers? The current “discussion” on the scientific basis of morality should concern us dearly. As we see a struggle for “ownership” in that domain, shouldn’t we expect the same in transhumanism?

These are all fascinating questions that should both excite and scare us. I know that I went through both emotions simultaneously during the discussion. There is also a sense of awe and dread as I look to what the future has in store for us and that was certainly the position espoused by Hefner. I would counter that the precedent has already been set with cultural enhancement and that transhumanism and genetic enhancement is certainty a step up, quantitatively. Qualitatively? I’m not so sure.