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Why Elon Musk’s transhumanist dreams are flawed

Neuralink and human nature

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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 chair of research in technology ethics and creative director at ERLC. In his role as creative director, he oversees the communications team, including all creative design projects.  His book, The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity, released March 2020 with Zondervan. He is a graduate … Read More