Transhumanism and the Image of God by Jacob Shatzer, Associate Professor of Theological Studies at Union University, is a book published in 2019 by IVP Academic. It’s a book that appeals to a variety of readers, from philosophers and theologians to those working in the field of technology. The vision of transhumanism is one that has captured the imagination of many in areas like artificial intelligence, robotics, and medical technology. I found this book to be a thoughtful and helpful reminder of what it means to be human and how certain technologies can unwittingly change our notions of place, self, and relationships. I’m delighted that Jacob was kind enough to take a little time to talk about the transhumanist movement and how we can better discern the proper place for technology.
DCS: Your book opens by describing the “Jetson’s Fallacy.” Can you explain this fallacy and how it relates to the nature of technology?
JS: I first came across the Jetsons Fallacy in the work of Michael Bess. In the animated sitcom The Jetsons, people enjoy futuristic technology (like cleaning robots and flying cars), but everything else about being human remains the same. The fallacy is assuming that as we interact with technology, it won’t really impact us very much.
DCS: Can you briefly sketch the main ideas behind the transhumanist movement?
JS: Transhumanism builds on the assumptions of human evolution and argues that we have the chance—or perhaps the responsibility—to take control of our species’ evolution, using everything at our disposal, including technology, to overcome whatever we decide to define as a problem. This way of thinking also works primarily on the level of individual self-interest and the right of the person to do whatever they want to modify themselves in whatever way they see fit for whatever goal or good they want to pursue.
DCS: As you know, there is a Christian Transhumanist Association. What are your thoughts on the compatibility of transhumanism and the Christian faith?
JS: On one hand, they’re very compatible. Christians have long understood our work in the world to be part of proclaiming the coming kingdom of God. We work to alleviate suffering because we worship a king who rules a kingdom where there will be none. Transhumanism, with its emphasis on overcoming suffering, can fit with that, and I think that is one of the primary emphases of Christian Transhumanists. On the other hand, transhumanism began as a purely secular movement. It is connected so closely with an atheistic, “pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps” worldview that it can be tough to pick and choose which pieces to align with as Christians. Christian Transhumanists think that work is promising and worth doing. I’m not convinced, because I think transhumanism tends more and more toward a deficient worldview with no room for a personal God, a worldview that places its hope in human ingenuity rather than a crucified and risen Savior.
DCS: In your book you make the point that technologies are already shaping us in certain ways. What are some examples of current technologies that may alter the way we relate and think about reality?
JS: Smartphones are the low-hanging fruit here. Do you remember when we used to enjoy experiences without having this pull to take a photo and post it? I think many of us now experience our lives on multiple levels, both “inside” ourselves and “outside” ourselves as we think about capturing, curating, and displaying our experiences. This pull isn’t entirely new, but the ubiquity of smartphones takes it to a more intense level than before, and it really does shift the way we experience reality.
DCS: In your book you introduce the importance of counterpractices. Can you share some examples of practices that can help Christians counteract the liturgies of technology in our lives?
JS: One that I end with is the simple act of gathering together and eating food that took some human work to prepare. Obviously, even that act is bound up with technologies—we’d probably sit at a table, and those cooking likely used knives, pots, pans, and electricity. But the slower pace, the conversations that such a pace makes possible, and the sacrifice involved in serving others, all work to counter some of the negative ways that our always-on, constantly upgrading, distracting technologies are shaping us when we’re not paying attention.
DCS: Do you have any advice for Christian engineers and computer scientists who are helping to design and develop new technologies?
JS: Be willing to question truisms, even in small ways! For instance, take efficiency. Now, efficiency is a good thing, if you’re going toward the right goal. But often we’re tempted to assume that efficiency in and of itself is a good, and I’m not convinced that’s true. In fact, sometimes when we over-prioritize efficiency, we actually deplete or ignore genuine human goods. To be even more specific, think about academic advising. We’ve got great software to facilitate efficient academic advising. That can tempt me to spend less time getting to know my students, because I can meet their most immediate need—a schedule for next semester—and get them going on their way. But there is more to advising than that; efficiency isn’t the only value (though I’m thankful for efficient software solutions). As we navigate our increasingly technological world, we’ll be confronted more and more with the need to define the human good and go against the grain when necessary.
DCS: Thank you for taking time to share these insights—and for your book. People in computer science and engineering need social scientists, philosophers, theologians and others to help us discern how to shape our tools to promote genuine human goods. Thanks!