Why Elon Musk’s transhumanist dreams are flawed

Neuralink and human nature

September 7, 2020

Elon Musk has become a household name in the last few years. From the rise and popularity of Tesla to the commercialization of space travel through SpaceX, Musk is a man on a mission to revolutionize our society. According to Forbes, Musk is worth over $86.1 billion dollars, making him one of the wealthiest and most recognizable names in the world. A few years ago, I read a fascinating biography of Musk by Ashlee Vance with a fitting subtitle of “Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future.” Vance describes Musk’s pursuit well, but the question of whether his vision of the future is fantastic is heavily debated today.

A couple weeks back, Musk held a press conference with his lesser known startup company called Neuralink, which is an American neurotechnology company founded in July 2016. Neuralink specializes in the development of brain computer interfaces (BCI) that it hopes will be able to help cure neurological diseases such as memory loss, hearing loss, depression, and insomnia—which are noble desires—as well as potentially enhance healthy human beings with abilities ranging from typing with your thoughts, hailing a self-driving car, or even extending your memory.

It’s like “a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires,” Musk said during the product demo which showcased the technology implanted over two months ago in the head of a pig named Gertrude. The Neuralink BCI is a device about the size of a quarter and is connected by thousands of electrodes tied into the brain. This device measures “the electrical signals emitted by neurons” because “the speed and patterns of those signals are ultimately a basis for movement, thoughts, and recall of memories.” Musk and the talented team at Neuralink hope this demo propels the technology to future trials on human beings. The company also announced that the device had received “breakthrough device status” from the FDA, which it hopes will speed up trials on humans. 

Regardless of the future of Neuralink’s BCI, technologists have long sought to push the envelope on innovation mainly focusing on the question of “Can this be done?” rather than “Should it be done?” This lack of deep ethical reflection on technology can be seen throughout our world today with issues ranging from bias to debates over digital privacy. This drive has helped produce some of the most beneficial technologies that we use each day but has also given rise to dangerous abuses and misuses of technology that has led to the dehumanization of our neighbors and, in this particular case, of ourselves.

Transhumanist dreams and human nature

Transhumanism is a concept that has been around for a number of years. Known as the father of transhumanism, Julian Huxley, brother of the famed writer Aldous Huxley, describes this concept in a 1957 essay saying “the human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself—not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way, but in its entirely, as humanity.”

Musk has long sought to upgrade humanity claiming that “to avoid becoming like monkeys, humans must merge with machines.” This argument is based on a materialistic and in some cases an evolutionary worldview that concludes we must improve upon evolution’s current iteration of humanity or be left behind by the rise of sophisticated machines. Musk, along with many other transhumanists, seek to transcend our frail humanity through the use of technological upgrades or even ultimately by the uploading of minds and discarding of the body. 

This is often portrayed in the framework of a mind/body dualism, where the mind is seen as software and the body is seen as hardware. The real you is your mind, thoughts, and emotions, and your body is simply a container that can be altered at will or even discarded as desired. This is a form of Cartesian dualism. In this line of thinking, the mind and body are severed from one another as the mind is elevated above the body in terms of value and worth. Certain streams of transhumanism can aptly be described as a revival of the old Gnostic heresy that denigrates the body due to the belief that it is part of the evil material world and has no lasting value. 

According to this logic, our bodies can and should be upgraded in order to keep from going out of date or commission. In the face of this rising threat to human exceptionalism, Musk said during the press conference that the applications of this BCI technology could one day extend to “some kind of AI symbiosis where you have an AI extension of yourself.” 

A call for Christian ethical reflection

Transhumanist dreams of upgrading or going beyond our humanity reveal a massive assumption in the nature and essence of what it means to be human. Nick Bostrom, a leading transhumanist and author of the influential book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, argues that our human nature is “a work in progress, a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways.” But as author Nancy Pearcey points out, who gets to decide what is desirable, and does that actually align with the truth of who we are as image-bearers of God?

One of the great opportunities for the faith community in this age of innovation is to proclaim a richer and more cohesive worldview and ethical framework that holds high the dignity and respect of every human being, not based on their perceived worth or usefulness in our society but based on the transcendent reality of being created by God in his own likeness.

Outside of the more obvious ethical concerns surrounding this reductionist view of humanity as a disjointed mind and body—where the body is usually dimished—there is a growing concern about what these upgrades may do to our social order when some humans have implants or upgrades and others do not. The potential for inequality and designer humans are enormous. 

This technology would fundamentally change the nature of our relationships with one another because one group would be enhanced beyond typical humanity. We risk devaluing our fellow neighbors as they fail to live up to the ubiquitous ethical frameworks of utilitarianism. In an age fixated on human rights, this should lead to deep reflection in terms of the worth of all people, especially the least of these.

One of the great opportunities for the faith community in this age of innovation is to proclaim a richer and more cohesive worldview and ethical framework that holds high the dignity and respect of every human being, not based on their perceived worth or usefulness in our society but based on the transcendent reality of being created by God in his own likeness. Our status as human beings, as well as our human limitations, mean that our bodies are not something to be disparaged as if they don’t have the abilities that we need to flourish the way we would like in this life. If that were the case, then our embodied Savior was either not fully human (Phil. 2:7), or his resurrection body was incomplete (1 Cor. 15:12-19). And the Bible makes clear that neither are the case. 

The Christian view of human nature is fixed. We are embodied souls who, when belonging to Christ, will get the ultimate upgrade—redemption in the fullness of time by God’s power (1 Cor. 15:20-24). We have no need to keep up with the machines as Musk proclaims, because they will never catch us. We are fundamentally different and nothing, not even our own ingenuity or creations, will be able to change that.

Photo Attribution:

Joshua Lott / Stringer

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as senior fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. In addition to his work at the ERLC, he serves as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College in Louisville Kentucky. He is the author … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24