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On Tech and Dignity: How We Can Stay Human (Part II)

The only way to avoid a posthuman future is by affirming the goodness of being human in both our personal choices and social and legal institutions. Most importantly, we should recommit to the virtue of religion: giving God His due. Religion teaches us to value the ontological goodness of our creatureliness, exhorts us to take steps to preserve it, and gives us the confidence to do so. When we’re steeped in a religious mode of being, we’re content just to be human; we have no need or desire to grasp for more.

As I noted in Part I, modern technology is propelling us toward a posthuman future, most poignantly exemplified by the transgender movement. Beyond transgenderism, there are basically two posthuman destinations; our posthuman future will probably be a mixture of both. One is a world in which those of means endeavor to enhance their bodies beyond recognition; the other is one in which people decide to shed their bodies altogether. The only way to preserve our humanity, I argue, is to recover the foundational truth that being human is good, ensure that society enshrine this claim in its laws, and embrace our humanity in all its dimensions in day-to-day life, particularly by taking up a religious mode of being.

Transhumanism’s Two Paths

In the first scenario, the elites will become real-life Nietzschean übermenschen—superhumans. We can see the beginnings of this outcome in the use of CRISPR-Cas9, a gene-editing tool. In 2018, Chinese biophysicist He Jiankui shocked the world when he announced that his research team had altered the genomes of twin girls to make their “cells resistant to infection by HIV” and “in a way that [would] pass the modification on to future generations.” In 2019, Jiankui was sentenced by a Chinese court to three years in prison for “illegal medical practice,” and it’s unclear whether his experiment was successful.

But those speed bumps aside, in principle we possess the technological capacity (and the will, given some time) to render people immune from various consequences of nature. The military applications are obvious. How long can we resist the siren song of biotechnologically enhanced “super soldiers,” or in civilian life, smarter, more beautiful children? Being superhuman means that the laws of nature don’t apply to one’s bodily constitution—which is exactly what gene editing enables. This kind of biotechnological experimentation cuts deeper than mere therapeutics, which are aimed at restoring natural function, or protecting and preserving the human being as presently constituted from the ravages of disease, not changing the human being himself by tinkering at a deep, genetic level. Genetically manipulated HIV resistance, while certainly not comic-book-level flashy, would certainly be an example of superhumanism, and as far as I can tell, the only real limit on what we can and will do is our imagination.

The other possible future is a largely virtual one: a borderless, techno-spiritual imitation of the real world inhabited by disembodied, Cartesian minds. In the popular imagination, this is described as “uploading one’s consciousness into the Singularity”—a kind of digital utopia that promises immortality. That sounds far-fetched, but again, the intellectual building blocks, technological prowess, funding, and raw desire are all there to make it happen. If nothing else, ever since the first lockdowns were instituted in California in March 2020, our response to COVID-19 has shown that it’s possible to live nearly entirely in a Zoom-and-Netflix-powered pseudo-reality—just so long as Uber Eats drivers deliver our food on time. And not just possible but preferable, for some, like the author of this Atlantic article: “I’m Not Scared to Reenter Society. I’m Just Not Sure I Want To.”

Witness also Facebook’s transformation into “Meta,” representing Mark Zuckerberg’s new venture, a pivot to the “metaverse.” The precise meaning of “metaverse” is fairly elusive, though USA Today made a fair attempt to define it: “It’s a combination of multiple elements of technology, including virtual reality, augmented reality and video where users ‘live’ within a digital universe.” In a sense, the metaverse is exactly what it sounds like: a virtual world that, if its architects have their way, will be where increasingly more of us spend increasingly more of our waking hours—at the expense of spending our time and energy in this world, of course. Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff concurs: Meta’s metaverse is a “new virtual world of worlds where we are supposed to do our working, playing and socializing forever more.”

In a recent letter, Zuckerberg described the metaverse in glowing terms, as “an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it.” For Zuckerberg, the metaverse “isn’t about spending more time on screens; it’s about making the time we already spend better.” Who could be opposed to that?

But Rushkoff cuts through the soulless corporate lingo and starkly lays out what’s at stake: “to get through the portal” to the metaverse, “we must leave our humanity behind.” He’s right. A necessary part of being human is to be embodied; our bodies are not an optional feature, like a character skin in a video game. To inhabit a world in which our bodies aren’t relevant to the project of existing is necessarily to inhabit a world that is not human.

Affirming Human Goodness

So, how do we preserve our humanity? How can we possibly stand against this technological tidal wave that threatens to wash away who and what we are?

C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man provides a helpful starting point for resisting this imminent technological revolution. This text is a complex work, but Lewis’s main concern is with “the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.” We reason from these objective values; they are starting points, not things to be further interrogated. As Lewis writes, “if we are to have values at all we must accept the ultimate platitudes of Practical Reason as having absolute validity: that any attempt, having become sceptical about these, to reintroduce value lower down on some supposedly more ‘realistic’ basis, is doomed.” In other words, “It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles.”

I submit that one of those foundational truths is being human is good. There simply is no profitable argument to be had over that statement. All we know is being human; there is no getting “outside” of that. If their crusade is successful, posthumans will have wiped out the ground of their capacity to value things at all; their project is akin to sawing off the branch on which they are sitting. Lewis described the posthuman endeavor as “the magician’s bargain”: when we “give up our soul, [we] get power in return. But once our souls, that is, ourselves, have been given up, the power thus conferred will not belong to us. We shall in fact be the slaves and puppets of that to which we have given our souls.”

 

Rejecting Transhumanism in the Law

Because being human is good is a foundational moral fact, how do we make sure we stay human?

For starters, we should not be afraid to enshrine our axioms into law when and where possible—in this context, that would mean enacting laws that ban so-called gender transitions for minors and other posthuman experimentation. As Lewis teaches us, axioms are fixed pillars that cannot be moved, whose immovability is itself a defense against absurdity. Or as Fr. Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist. has observed, when “an objective natural order of purposes, goals, and goods has been abandoned, we have no reason to choose one thing rather than another. All that remains is arbitrary will based on subjective feelings.” The enemies of humanity and the natural order in which we exist are radicals. The burden of proof is properly placed on them, not those who defend humanity, the natural order, and the metaphysical reality on which they rest, to make their case for the repeal of reality-based laws. We can’t cede that basic position in the conflict without ceding the conflict itself to the anti-human extremists.

But laws can only go so far. As a descriptive, sociological matter, laws derive their force and vitality from a populace that recognizes the goodness and justice of voluntarily obeying them. So, unless we believe in the law’s teaching and live according to it, eventually those laws will fall. Remember Obergefell?

 

Living Embodied Lives

Therefore, we have to take every available opportunity to affirm the goodness of being human. That means refusing to be assimilated into a posthuman mode of being by unashamedly doing human things: living in communion with other people as much as possible in the flesh, not mediated by screens; pursuing the truth together in friendship; pushing your body physically and employing it as an integral part of worshiping the Almighty; starting families and committing to growing them; consuming media that valorize those things.

On that last point, the final scene of Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino (2008) comes to mind. Eastwood’s character, Walt Kowalski, wills his 1972 Ford Gran Torino to his young friend, Thao Vang Lor. True to form, Walt’s will is peppered with slurs, which I won’t repeat, but the long and short of it is that Thao is not to “choptop the roof,” “paint any idiotic flames on it,” or “put a . . . spoiler on the rear-end.” If he can “refrain from doing any of that,” then the car is his. Importantly, if Thao decides to disobey Walt’s wishes, Walt won’t be able to stop him; he’s dead. And yet, Thao accepts the gift as it is because even though it’s now his car, it was once his dear friend’s car—a friend who gave up his life so that Thao and his family might live in peace—and he respects that. Is this not precisely our task?

The Religious Imperative

The best way to avoid the posthumanist fate, though, is to recommit to the virtue of religion: giving God His due. Religion teaches us to value the ontological goodness of our creatureliness, exhorts us to take steps to preserve it, and gives us the confidence to do so. If we can accept nature—especially our own—as a gift from God, we can embrace our own role as its stewards. When we’re steeped in a religious mode of being, we’re content just to be human; we have neither the need nor the desire to grasp for more.

God made us, and He invites us to rejoice in the gift of our humanity, which of course includes inventing therapeutic technology aimed at restoring our natural functions and protecting us from disease. But we ought not create technology that strikes at and undermines nature itself. Technology should assist us in traversing this “vale of tears,” not undo and disfigure what God declared very good at the foundation of the cosmos and what He sent His only Son to redeem and glorify. We preserve our humanity by entering a religious mode of being: continually returning to, pondering, and living out that foundational truth about ourselves and our world. We are fully human when we celebrate and embrace the reality that “[i]n Him we live and move and have our being.”

 

Courtesy of Machiavelli, the secular world’s effectual truth is that there is no such thing as objective truth. Secularism can only grasp materiality and expediency; it has no concept of or use for deeper, spiritual truths and universally binding moral norms. In such a world, the strong, intelligent, wealthy, and well-connected rule by technological force, for their own self-interest—which is yet more power for themselves. As Lewis put it, “A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.” Only in and through Christ can we escape His observation: “the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.”

If I’m right, the way to prevent the arrival of the grim future that awaits us—subhumanism for the masses, posthumanism for the privileged—is to repent of our worship of the idol that is the technological gaze, and turn back to God, even now, with all our heart. Jesus Christ, the Word of God, emptied Himself, took on flesh, and became a Man, for the salvation of all men and women. God Himself became a human being, so it’s clear that our humanity is not a curse but a great blessing. To receive the tremendous gift that’s freely offered to each of us—nothing less than participation in the very Triune life of God Himself for all eternity—we need only embrace our humanity in humility and trust in His Providence.

God became a Man that Man might become like God. Surely that’s more than enough.

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