Darwin vs. Christianity and Transhumanism?

So my class on technology is beginning to consider skeptical views of the transformative possibilities of biotechnology. One comes from those who say that the evolutionary understanding of nature explains everything about who we are.


Maybe the most intelligent and certainly the most erudite defender of the “Darwin explains it all” proposition is Larry Arnhart. (Check out his amazingly comprehensive and thoughtful blog.)  Larry calls himself a Darwinian conservative. For one thing, Larry puts himself more in the “generationist” than the “innovationist” camp. He says that social desires have been given to us social animals by nature. And we’re happy when we act according to those desires. So we deny who we are when we innovate in such a way as to undermine who we are as generative animals, which we are no less than the other mammals. Transhumanism, for Larry, is both undesirable and impossible.

Larry is fond of saying that nature is our home. So all of our experiences of alienation from nature are based on illusions. We aren’t, as existentialist philosophers such as Heidegger seem to say, aliens thrown into this world from God knows where. It’s the techno-project to liberate us from nature that makes us think of ourselves as more homeless than we need be. That techno-project is a secularization of what Larry believes to be the Christian fantasy that to be a person is not to be defined by biological limitations,  to be somehow more than a merely natural being. The Christians and the transhumanists both make the mistake of imagining that we truly long to be more than biological beings, that we long for a world where no longer constrained by the natural imperatives of biological birth and biological death.

Heaven is the world Christians believe we will inhabit after natural death as the result of the grace of our personal Creator. There we will somehow remain whole persons with bodies—including our generative equipment—but we will no longer be married or have sexual lives. Because nobody will die, they’ll be no need for birth. And our love will be perfected by being free from the limitations of sinful bodily separateness we now experience. We will see other persons in love just as they are.

Larry, of course, readily finds all kinds of contradictions in that imagined existence. Being whole social animals has to mean being the sexual and generative beings that nature intends us to be. And the idea of “pure love” that somehow transcends altogether the natural imperatives of reproductive coupling and the raising of young is ridiculous. “Personal love” is the attachment of social animals to each other—ultimately in the interest of the biological perpetuation of the species. Just as Larry finds “political life” among the other primates, he would surely find “personal love” among the dolphin. He says that “love of God” has to be explained as a tool for social bonding and nothing more.

The transhumanists, of course, make the mistake of imagining that somehow personal consciousness can be detached from physical embodiment, just as they make the mistake of believing that our erotic desires can remain what they are if detached from generation.  There’s no way we could ever become conscious machines or conscious software. And conscious, disembodied existence would, in fact, be detached from the desires that make life desirable. It would be the misery of “pure possibility,” of the empty experience of “not not-being.” The techno-mode of imagining freedom to be freedom from nature ends up with  freedom being just another word for nothing left to lose.

From the point of view of Darwinian conservatism, the various techno-visions of heaven on earth that we create through our own efforts are probably more ridiculous than the Christian vision of otherworldly heaven. The first of these visions we find in Marx: We completely conquer nature and so eradicate natural scarcity. God and the state wither away, and we live completely unobsessive lives, doing what we please whenever we please. We will be free from the various forms of necessity that have historically distorted human lives—or kept me from being wholly me. They include natural necessity, the necessity of being a cog in a scheme of division of labor not of my devising, and, apparently, the necessity of love. There are no children in Marx’s vision of communism! (It’s hard to know what’s “communist” or communal about it.) There are no “can’t helps,” beginning with can’t help falling in love. (Marx says, in effect, that capitalism killed love, and what capitalism truthfully kills doesn’t come back.)

Now the easy existentialist criticism of Marx is that even under communism people will continue to die. His vision of the conquest of nature really doesn’t have a biotechnological dimension. How is it possible to be self-conscious and mortal and not somewhat alienated and obsessive? The transhumanists promise to solve that problem by detaching self-consciousness from mortality. The real conquest of nature depends on the biotechnological separation of “the self” from the body. For Larry, the transhumanist correction of Marxism in the name of consistency produces the impossible (thank evolution or nature) hell of a wholly unnatural existence.

So here’s the good news Larry gives us about our biotechnological future: “If we keep in mind the adaptive complexity of human nature, we can foresee that biotechnology will be naturally limited both in its technological means and its moral ends.”

Given that adaptive complexity, “precise technological manipulation of human nature to enhance desirable traits while avoiding undesirable side effects will be very difficult if not impossible.” There may be two pieces of bad news lurking there: We might have to learn some tough lessons about “undesirable side effects.” And “very difficult” isn’t the same thing as “impossible”: Larry isn’t absolutely sure about nature’s capacity to resist our conscious and volitional efforts at manipulation to transform ourselves into more or other than natural beings. He’s not absolutely sure that Darwin explains it all.

Biotechnology, Larry claims, will be morally limited by the fact that “the motivation for biotechnological manipulations will come from the same natural desires that have always characterize human nature.”  Technological means will serve natural ends; techno-liberation won’t become an end in itself.

But, as I will explain more later, Larry doesn’t really sell the “natural desire as invincible limitation on human technology” position. He admits, for example, that parents, out of love, might want to free their children from suffering and death. And he doesn’t really give a Darwinian explanation for why only members of our species alone “dream of physical and mental perfection” or what Leon Kass calls “ageless bodies, happy souls.”

About that dream, Larry’s real response is “How likely is that?” His response, in other words, is technical, not moral. And so Larry can’t really explain why we might really screw ourselves up in pursuit of that mission impossible, in, for example, trying and maybe succeeding in clamping down on our “naturally adaptive” emotions such as fear and anxiety. It’s true that “being utterly unresponsive to stress would be unhealthy,” but that doesn’t mean Marx didn't move lots of us with that dream of overcoming obsession.

The quotations in this post are from Larry’s fine essay “The Bible and Biotechnology” in Biotechnology, ed. S. Sutton (SUNY Press).

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence
to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.


Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like
violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students
do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones,
speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment
to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on
controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.

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