Micah Redding is founder and executive director of the Christian Transhumanist Association, where he hosts public conversations on the future of religion and technology with leading thinkers such as Kevin Kelly, Aubrey de Grey, David Deutsch, and NT Wright. His work has been featured in places such as Christianity Today, BBC World Radio, and Vice Motherboard. His background is in software development, and he is currently pursuing an MSc in Philosophy, Science and Religion from the University of Edinburgh.
Thank you to our Founding Member Dr. Ted Peters for arranging this interview and posing questions to Mr. Redding!
Q. What is the relationship between Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Transhumanist (H+) movement? Why are these two forces so important to global society?
A: Both AI and H+ challenge our conception of the boundaries of human nature, the first from the outside, and the second from within. As such, they each exert a profound, and often unseen, influence.
As AI progresses, it will create moments of significant public discussion, such as with GPT-3 coming online. But more significantly, as it spreads, it will reshape huge parts of our world in largely unnoticed, implicit, unconscious ways. We may only become aware of many of these effects years later.
H+, similarly, has moments of public focus, such as when Elon Musk advocates brain-computer interfaces, or discusses the Simulation Argument. But more significantly, H+ is upstream from many of the choices impacting our future. As a philosophical community, it formulates the visions and ethical principles that drive many of our society’s most powerful individuals and institutions. There is a relative vacuum in the world of serious, visionary, ethical-technological thought. H+ accessibly addresses that need, and as a result it has a disproportionate impact on our society and our future.
Q. As a devout evangelical Christian, Micah, what is it about transhumanism that attracts you? What is the positive connection between the H+ vision of the future and the Christian promise?
A: Transhumanism is one of the few movements that unabashedly holds out hope for a positive, participatory, eschatological future. As such, it joins Christian writers like CS Lewis and GK Chesterton in critiquing our society for its failure to dream on a grand enough scale.
“We are often too weak to desire that undying vigour. We believe that you can have too much of a good thing—a blasphemous belief, which at one blow wrecks all the heavens that men have hoped for.” — GK Chesterton
Christianity, in its fullest and truest form, is the source of many of our most profound positive images for the future. It is these images that have historically drawn people in. But in our society, those images are often swallowed up by cynicism and superficial pragmatism, and ignored.
In contrast, transhumanism is often ready and eager to take those visions as marching orders. Although I may disagree with many of their applications and interpretations, it’s hard to find other modern movements which will take Christian images such as ‘the lion laying down with the lamb’ seriously as visions for our future.
When people are eager to make a positive difference, and are open to exploring the visions and images that should guide our future—that’s who I want to be working with, talking with, learning with.
Q. The purpose of the Christian Transhumanist Association is extremely ambitious: “Participating with God in the redemption, reconciliation, and renewal of the world.” How do you believe that advancing technology could contribute to redemption of the world?
A: Christians have always employed technology in our efforts, from the agricultural products involved in the Communion or Eucharist, to the construction of hospitals to care for the sick, to the printing press as an aid in the propagation of scripture.
So the use of technology is a constant in Christianity. What’s at stake is whether we acknowledge it, and affirm it as part of our work and calling as image-bearers within God’s good creation.
A common viewpoint may see technology as simply a consumer product, to be used however it suits us. A truly Christian viewpoint recognizes and acknowledges technology as an outgrowth of being made in the image of a Creator.
As such, technology, just like every other aspect of our being, is part of God’s story of redemption.
Q. What is human nature? One of the indefatigable leaders in the field of Theology and Science has been Philip Hefner. According to Hefner, we human beings are God’s created co-creators. This means, among other things, our pursuit of technological advance gives expression to the imago Dei (the image of God). Would you formulate your theological anthropology similarly or differently?
A: Yes, I think that’s exactly right. The emphasis of Genesis 1 is on God as Creator, and on the formation of humans to reflect precisely that image.
The language I like to use for this is “creative and relational”, because it’s not just about our ability, but also our responsibility and role to reflect God’s own mission within the created order.
Thinkers from St. Gregory of Nyssa to Sir Francis Bacon have emphasized that science and technology are part of the ways we bless the created order, and thus continue the work of God modeled for us in Genesis 1. From a secular perspective, I frequently point out that we are the only species on the planet who can deflect killer asteroids. From a Christian perspective, I think that’s exactly the kind of thing Genesis 1 says we are placed here to do.
Q. Is there anything about AI development and the future projected by H+ that worries you? Do you have any criticisms or warnings?
A: One of my biggest concerns is the way in which (often legitimate) skepticism about future scenarios leads to disengagement from the discussions and decisions that are currently happening. Just like we’ve seen with the internet, many of the significant decisions are made before most people become aware of what these decisions actually mean. People who let early discussions of an “Intergalactic Network” keep them from taking it seriously, simply had no opportunity to offer input.
My second biggest concern is that the people who do anticipate where these things are going, often operate and strategize from fear. Nick Bostrom, of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford, focuses on all the ways super-intelligent AI could go bad. Eliezer Yudkowsky takes a similar approach, as does Elon Musk. For many people influenced by these perspectives, the answer is to perfect tools of torture and psychological enslavement, to be used to control our AI.
Such a strategy will certainly backfire. Either it will be used on actual AGI, which will learn these techniques from us, and then turn the tables; or it will be developed and used by some humans against others. In any case, the end result is the same nightmarish dystopia we were purportedly setting out to avoid.
Christianity offers a better answer here. “Do unto others as you would have a super-intelligent AI do unto you”, is a half-joking paraphrase I like to use. Nearly everything we do is a data-set for some future AI. We should make sure it is learning something positive and good.
Q. The Transhumanism Handbook (Springer 2019) is perhaps the most comprehensive work on the H+ movement, including religious assessments and evaluations. How satisfied are you with this volume? Do you have plans for any future such publications?
A: One of the great things about the Transhumanism Handbook is the way in which it was able to reflect angles on the transhumanist movement not usually explored. The religious angle is more significant than most people realize, not just from transhumanism’s external engagement with religious thought, but also from the ways in which the religious impulse is intrinsic to what transhumanism is.
As part of that exploration, I’m looking forward to contributing to “Religious Transhumanism and Its Critics”, with Ted Peters, Brian Patrick Green, and Arvin Gouw, later this year.
I’ve also been doing research on the history and precursors of secular transhumanism. Secular transhumanism very explicitly draws on religious influences and sources in the 20th century, but its visions and aims are a much greater aspect of the 17th century scientific revolution than is typically realized. For example, both Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle contemplate life extension as a key aspect of their scientific and religious work. I hope to eventually publish on the ways in which the scientific revolution can be seen as a transhumanist revolution, inspired by the ongoing reformations in religion itself.
Editor’s Note: Thank you, Micah!
You can find interviews and talks, and connect with the ecumenical and adventurous Christian Transhumanist community, on social media and through www.ChristianTranshumanism.org.
You can find out more about Micah Redding at www.MicahRedding.com.