DEUS EST MACHINA
Stem Cells, Cyber-limbs and Self-Evolution
the belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology.
I read the simple definition above with three sets of eyes.
The Sci-Fi nerd in me gets all warm and tingly at the thought of neural nets and exo-skeletons, A.I., and cyberspace. It’s Blade Runner and Neuromancer, the Diamond Age, Broken Angels, and Deus Ex. It’s all the bright and shiny tech that boldly goes into a future where no one has gone before. It conjures all the cool things that get me to sit up and think and dream.
Next, the person who has dealt with a disability most of his life can’t help but wonder if something like medical nano-machines could repair my spine and allow me to run again. (At least handle a flight of stairs easily.) I imagine bio-tech as this amazing, miraculous breakthrough – a sort of modern, upgraded, super-charged penicillin that triumphs over diseases and genetic defects. It will correct, even reverse traumatic injury and impairments. Picture prosthetics or biologically-optimized organs and limbs that are more responsive, faster, stronger than your OEM parts. Extended lifespan, augmented intellect, light-speed connectivity and communication, whole new realms of human interaction, creative expression, and media… The possibilities are vast and mind-boggling.
Finally as a Christian, I can’t help but see a religion. A thoroughly modern, secular one, sure, but Transhumanism (a.k.a. “H+”) is indeed ‘a particular set of faith statements and worship’. From what I find from various sources online, Transhumanism is a systematic worldview with firm devotion not so much to divinity or a grand meta-narrative, but to science and self-will. Faith is in Technology, the Creed is Human Ingenuity, the Doctrine, Self-Evolution. The hitch in this post’s title is intentional: God IS the machine. Immortality will come, but only to those who upload.
It’s at the intersection of those three perspectives where things get weird for me.
Before I go further, let me say I’m not a Christian who holds Science and Religion to be antithetical. In my mind, they only ‘oppose’ each other in the same sense I have an opposable thumb: both allow me to grasp things. The two disciplines overlap in some areas and certainly inform one another, but one addresses the natural world, the other the spiritual and moral one.
As I see it, the real friction between the two stems from assumptions and conclusions made when trespassing in the other’s field. To my mind, the statement “There is no Heaven because I looked through a telescope and didn’t see it” is just as absurd as “If God had wanted us to fly, he would have given us wings.” I submit that “Directed Panspermia” – the theory aliens deliberately seeded the basics of life on Earth – requires the same leap of faith, if not more, than any chapter in Genesis.
So the issue confronting the modern devout isn’t whether to acknowledge science as ‘a systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world using observation and experiment’. Too late – Science is a thing. And let’s thank God for it. Nor is the proper response of the Pious to retreat into a ‘Luddite Alamo’ and raise bulwarks in the name of ‘Doctrinal Purity’. Church cannot, must not become an anti-intellectual enclave that implicitly disapproves of technology to advance knowledge and improve the human condition. At best, Religious people are considered anachronistic – that kind of reaction is dangerously regressive and deliberately ignorant.
If I camped out there for a second, I apologize. Anti-intellectualism in the name of God is a pet peeve of mine. And I simplified the positions, I know. The scope of this essay doesn’t permit me to dig down or expand the discussion. There isn’t time or space to layout a comprehensive, systematic comparison between a traditional Biblical worldview and secular, scientific, Post-Modern Humanism. At the end of the day I’m just a Christian geek – a believer trying to be faithful and authentic before God who also reads, enjoys, and writes Science Fiction.
But that’s the rub. As a Christian and a writer, Transhumanism challenges my understanding of the very nature of Life: What does it mean to be human? Do we have a soul? Are we indeed nothing more than self-aware meat machines, able to change, upgrade, or replace parts as desired, answerable to no one but ourselves? Or is there a critical spiritual element to existence that is inextricably linked to a transcendent reality?
Christian-wise, that right there is a deeper, more fundamental worldview question than anything Gospel-related. I have to decide if there even IS a God before I can wonder if that Jesus of Nazareth fellow had anything to do with my sin.
In my writing then, Transhumanism is the inevitable Materialistic philosophy that dominates my imagined future. It is the majority counterpoint to Religion, and most of the dramatic tension, conflict, and themes – obvious or oblique – stem from the friction between two perspectives. Any Christianity, religion, or spiritual dynamic has to be organic to the plot and serve the deeper theme without (hopefully) getting ham-fisted and didactic.
One of the impulses that drove my first novel Running Black was the belief that the only thing that restrains man’s inhumanity to man is a principled commitment to a transcendent, spiritual worldview – a perspective that conceives of a world beyond this one and holds life as a sacred gift. That is the fire-break designed to check Mankind’s tendency to exploit and commodify human life. Even with it, we don’t treat our fellow humans properly – what makes us think we won’t abuse clones or androids? Take HBO’s rebooted “Westworld” series as an illustration of what I’m talking about here. Set in the near-future, it’s a live-action, Old West theme park for the wealthy. But we’re light years from Disney World. Westworld is loaded with Deception, Torture, Rape, Theft, Killing… Apparently, technology doesn’t improve human nature so much as reveal it – which is the main issue for me.
Someone will rightly ask about the evil done in the name of traditional religion. From Crusades to Inquisitions, Pogroms to Jihads, Religion is brutally telling as well, no question. The errors are even more glaring because cruelty and ignorance strike at religion’s core principles. I submit those are human flaws, not religious ones. Mankind has a tremendous capacity to cloak prejudice and avarice in whatever’s close at hand, be that a flag, a manifesto, or a holy book.
But now I’m back at the principle conflict in the Judeo-Christian story: Imago Dei versus the Fallen Nature. God, Humanity, Sin, Redemption… In my thinking, a story’s setting and props change but the essential conflict never will: God or No? Deliberate or Accident? Mortal or Immortal? Imago Dei or Smart Meat? A hundred years from now, we might be encased in a cyber-linked, stainless steel body basking in the light of a distant star, it won’t matter. Everything flows from how we answer those questions.
It was William Faulkner who said writers must get back to “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” That quote has come back to me again and again since I started writing six years ago. Fiction is about entertainment and escapism, of course, but a good story is also about expression, exploring, asking questions, pushing boundaries in search of answers. In spec fiction particularly, we’re able, however clumsily, to fashion different worlds, to create another place to stand, from which we just might get another angle on Life and human condition and make some sense of it.
I’ve heard it said ‘Art with an Agenda is Propaganda’ but good art, good fiction, is ‘a lie that tells the truth.’ Now as a Christian, I believe all truth is God’s and that any facet of it, however small or oblique, ultimately points back to Him.
As a Christian who writes speculative fiction, I want to tell good stories. I want to entertain and engage. I also want to be consistent and credible, embracing the facts of modern world while holding fast to eternal truths. ‘Roots and Wings’ like the Chinese proverb says. I don’t have all the answers. My stories certainly don’t. Maybe though, in the midst of my scribbling about clones and corporations and robots and military AI, I can shed some light on those heart conflicts Faulkner mentioned or at least start asking some of the right questions.
I honestly don’t know what the future holds – I hope nano-meds for my spinal cord – but the New Testament Book of Hebrews assures me whatever happens, I don’t have to write my story alone, Jesus promises to be the ‘Author and Finisher of my faith.” I find that profoundly comforting and will do whatever I can to offer that same comfort to anyone who wants it.
FULL FAULKNER SPEECH BELOW: