He made his presentation in the first meeting of the congregation’s tenth annual “Mind and Spirit” weekend. Before he spoke, Loma Linda University microbiologist and Dean of the Graduate Faculty Anthony Zuccarelli gave an overview of recent scientific developments and their prospects.
Going a very long ways beyond genetic therapy and typically discussed possibilities in genetic enhancement, transhumanism advocates the use of genetic and other biological and non-biological innovations to create a “post-human” species capable of living on this planet and throughout the universe more successfully than Homo Sapiens. Peters used it as an extreme illustration of the sort of thing some scientists now envision, albeit usually in much less outlandish ways.
Peters quoted a portion of the “Transhumanism Declaration.” Taken from the H+ web site [www.humanityplus.org], here is the whole of it:
1. Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by science and technology in the future. We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth.
2. We believe that humanity’s potential is still mostly unrealized. There are possible scenarios that lead to wonderful and exceedingly worthwhile enhanced human conditions.
3. We recognize that humanity faces serious risks, especially from the misuse of new technologies. There are possible realistic scenarios that lead to the loss of most, or even all, of what we hold valuable. Some of these scenarios are drastic, others are subtle. Although all progress is change, not all change is progress.
4. Research effort needs to be invested into understanding these prospects. We need to carefully deliberate how best to reduce risks and expedite beneficial applications. We also need forums where people can constructively discuss what should be done and a social order where responsible decisions can be implemented.
5. Reduction of existential risks and development of means for the preservation of life and health, the alleviation of grave suffering, and the improvement of human foresight and wisdom should be pursued as urgent priorities, and heavily funded.
6. Policy making ought to be guided by responsible and inclusive moral vision, taking seriously both opportunities and risks, respecting autonomy and individual rights, and showing solidarity with and concern for the interests and dignity of all people around the globe. We must also consider our moral responsibilities towards generations that will exist in the future.
7. We advocate the well-being of all sentience, including humans, non-human animals, and any future artificial intellects, modified life forms, or other intelligences to which technological and scientific advance may give rise.
8. We favour allowing individuals wide personal choice over how they enable their lives. This includes use of techniques that may be developed to assist memory, concentration, and mental energy; life extension therapies; reproductive choice technologies; cryonics procedures; and many other possible human modification and enhancement technologies.
This declaration was formulated by a group of futuristic thinkers in 1998 and it has been modified over the years. The H+ Board adopted it in 2009.
Peters’ assessment of transhumanism and less startling genetic possibilities rests upon his distinction between “archonic” and “epigenetic” accounts of Imago Dei, the doctrine of the Image of God in human life.
Archonic interpretations look more to the past, often to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, for indications of what being created in God’s means. They emphasize enduring human traits such as rationality, freedom and the ability to worship and love. “Epigenetic” accounts are more likely to find what it means to be created in the Image of God in subsequent events, particularly in Paul’s depictions of Jesus Christ as the Second Adam. In my words, archonic expositions of the image of God are more retrospective and epigenetic ones are more prospective.
Peters respectfully reviewed Roman Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist and other archonic interpretations and gave them credit for championing human dignity and equality. Yet his own interpretation was more epigenetic; i.e., for him the image of God is primarily about what humans can become. In addition to Paul’s discussion of the Second Adam in Romans, he cited Paul’s descriptions of the “Fruits of the Spirit” in Galatians. Peters found additional support for his epigenetic leanings in the Greek Orthodox doctrine of theosis. Among contemporary theologians, Philip Hefner’s writings about human beings as “created co-creators” and Wolfhart Pannenberg’s discussions of “human exocentricity,” which has to do with the capacity of human beings to be “open to the new.” When Peters asked, “Do we find the Image of God in the past or future?” his own answer was closer to the the second.
Given his understanding of the Image of God as openness to that which is new, it would seem that at least in principle Peters would not necessarily oppose genetic therapy and mild genetic enhancement even though as a matter of fact he might have reservations about how they are implemented in specific cases. That he was more critical of transhumanism than either of them buttresses this inference.
I understood Peters to have at least three reservations about transhumanism that also apply less intensely to genetic therapy and genetic enhancement. One of these is the danger of human hubris. Citing Jewish commentators, he reminded the audience that at the very least the idea that humans are created in God’s image means that they are not God. A second concern was that over time these interventions could result in the highly stratified societies that ancients as different as Confucius and Aristotle took for granted and made normative without sufficient attention to the dignity and equality of all humans. A third was the need to be realistic about such measures. He cited Reinhold Niebuhr and used the term “realism” as Niebuhr did as the reminder that each innovation increases the human capacity to do both good and evil. Put the other way around, Peter agreed with Niebuhr that it is “unrealistic” to think that in and of themselves human innovations can eradicate human sin and suffering.
Moving from the practical to the theoretical, I offer three observations. The first of these is that I wish that Peters had emphasized the societal imprudence of investing much income from taxes in genetic therapy, genetic enhancement and transhumanism. At the very best, when successful these interventions help a small number of people when public funds should be used to benefit as many people as possible at the least cost. This utilitarian consideration is not the only morally relevant factor; however, it is an important one.
A second is that I would have preferred a more integrative exposition of the archonic and epigenetic interpretations of the Image of God. Other theologians over the centuries have dealt with the differences between the First and Second Adams in Scripture by depicting the first as the formal Image of God and the second as the material. In others words, they have said that it is human-like to have the capacity to become Christ-like. I think that this way of putting it is more helpful.
My third response is that I would not go as far as it seemed to me that Peters went in discounting discussions of the human traits that might comprise the Image of God. He cited a recent doctoral dissertation that reviewed centuries of these discussions of the Image of God and found them all wanting because the human traits they pinpointed—freedom, rationality, the abilities to love and worship--are exhibited to greater and lesser degrees in the lives of nonhuman animals.
It seems to me that ""only those who have been affected, or infected, by the severest expressions of Cartesian dualism or something like it, would deny this human-nonhuman continuity. What’s more, Peters’ report that the doctoral dissertation grounds the human Image of God in the sheer command of God slices a deep and wide cleavage between nature and grace. To cite something that I think Karl Barth wrote in a different context, it is as if God wants rocks and stones as we know them to be bearers of the image of God, all that would be necessary is for God to command that it be so.
A more plausible account to my way of thinking is that God would first have to transform the dead rocks and stones into living beings with the traits that normal and healthy human beings embody. In other words, there is an organic unity between what God creates and what God commands. It is precisely this organic unity that much Protestant theology in the second half of the twentieth century found so difficult to affirm. I’m surprised that it surfaced in Peters’ presentation. Perhaps he was not agreeing with the doctoral dissertation as I thought. I certainly hope that this is the case!
Other speakers on Sabbath, January 21, will include Gerald Winslow (Sabbath School), John Brunt (both church services) and Richard Rice (Sabbath afternoon). Bernard Taylor, Scholar-in-Residence at the Loma Linda University Church, organized this weekend as he has the previous nine. Live “broadcasts” will be available on the Internet at www.lluc.org. Videos will be presented on television from the Loma Linda Broadcasting Network.