Feb 1 2013

Inhabiting the “Early Phase”

“Real people, real possibilities, real world,” our slogan declares. Come to the Candler School of Theology and discover real commitment, real change, and a real story. Some may find all this talk of “real” cheesy. But make no mistake—the human capacity for self-deception is infinite. Very often do we mistake our own inauthentic existence for real being. The question of what is real, we insist here at Candler, must be held ever before us. Only a relentless commitment to rigorous self-examination and to critical engagement with those around us can keep such deceit in check. The same is true in our classrooms, in our pews, and in our offices.

Perhaps now more than ever is critical reflection on what is real so urgently needed. The world is changing rapidly. New technologies are presenting unprecedented ethical and existential dilemmas. The not-too-distant arrival of molecular nanotechnology, super-intelligence, cryonics, genetic engineering, and uploading[1] will soon put our understanding of what constitutes a real human being to the test. We are slowly but steadily merging with our technology; some are already predicting that by the time our children are in college they will know people who are hybrids of the organic and inorganic. In these uncertain times it will grow progressively more difficult to look to the past for guidance in the future. It will be tough (but not impossible) to see how Paul, Augustine, Luther, or Barth can help us chart a faithful and responsible course. But this is not to say we are doomed to drift rudderless into a dystopian future.[2] There is still time to prepare. Enter MTS600T: Transhumanism/Posthumanism, a course devoted to identifying and dissecting some of the challenges that await us.

What is transhumanism/posthumanism? According to Humanity Plus, a leading transhumanist group, transhumanism is “a way of thinking about the future that is based on the premise that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase.” Those of us inhabiting this “early phase,” they reason, are in dire need of improvement. The telos of all transhumanist thinking is to overcome or transcend fundamental human limitations, including susceptibility to disease, limited intelligence, physical weakness, and even death itself. Now, before you dismiss these people to the lunatic fringe, know that great progress is being made on each of these fronts.[3] What is being accomplished in laboratories today borders on the miraculous. Scientists, computer programmers, and theorists of great repute are among the transhumanist ranks. It is now only a matter of time before people of all faiths will have to come to grips with a technological existence unlike anything we have ever known.

David RanzolinThe religious implications of such technological advances are obviously enormous. What or where is the imago dei in this future? Does this technology represent a fundamental breach in the created order? Or perhaps its fulfillment? If we become fundamentally different beings than those originally addressed in Scripture, how do we appropriate and embody it? Again, crafting a faithful and intelligent response to such awesome technological power will be every seminarian’s duty. To that end, MTS600T: Transhumanism/Posthumanism is giving us a head start. Rest assured that there are astute, capable, and real people already thinking about these matters at the Candler School of Theology.      

- David Ranzolin

David is a second year MTS student from California and a Student Ambassador.


[1] For a more optimistic overview of these technologies see http://humanityplus.org/philosophy/transhumanist-faq/

[2] Theorists are divided on whether the advent of these technologies will usher in an eschatological utopia or cataclysmic dystopia. Based on what little I know, I side with the latter.

[3] For an informative overview of the current pace of technology see the documentary Transcendent Man: The Life and Ideas of Ray Kurzweil.