Blog post from Roy Jackson
During the Covid-19 pandemic, both Apple and Google collaborated in the development of a contact tracing app. It was believed that as people left their homes and intermingled with others, the app can track your movement and notify you if you have been in close contact with the virus. The success of the app has been somewhat mixed, relying on people to download the app, but what was never really questioned was that virtually everybody has a smartphone in the first place, and God forbid they would walk out of their house without it! We now have a symbiotic relationship with our smartphones: they help us to get from A to B, they store our contacts so we don’t have to remember them, they tell us what we have planned for the day, they monitor our health, and, basically, can answer any question we ask. Within the next few years, we can expect to see smartglasses more readily available, and so will literally see the world around us in an enhanced and augmented way.
A company called Open Bionics has the tagline on the website ‘turning disabilities into superpowers.’ It makes the Hero Arm, a 3-D printed bionic arm which looks pretty cool (children can opt for Star Wars BB-8, Marvel Iron Man, or Disney Frozen arm) and is blatantly ‘bionic’ as opposed the more traditional models that use flesh tones to make them as ‘human’ in looks as possible. In other words, more and more people are embracing the cyborg look; they are transcending the human.
Transhumanism is a school of thought that is increasing in terms of scholarly research and importance, and gets to the roots of what it means to be human. There is no one ‘church’ of transhumamisn, as it covers an extremely broad spectrum of disciplines. Historically, it was a term used in the context of a spiritual, cultural transformation, but when we talk of smartphones, smart glasses, cyborg arms, medical and enhancement implants, etc., its current incarnation emphasizes human transformation through the use of technology. This modern notion of transhumanism is a relatively new phenomenon and still very speculative with an episteme that is evolving and open to many disciplines and ideas, although there are various forces that are striving to limit transhumanism within certain, largely secular, boundaries.
Yet we are still at the stage of what may be called ‘low’ transhumanism: the less radical, more immediate ‘cyborg’ which is more of a hybrid of the human body and the non-human, thus maintaining a biological connection with the human. The cyborg is essentially a more enhanced human. The technology is certainly impressive and confronts us with many ethical and religious questions, but I want to look much further than that: to ‘high’ transhumanism, or what we may call ‘posthumanism’.
The technology of the future will result in greater ‘displacement’ of the human condition; a much more radical stage in evolution from one species of the genus homo to a whole new species altogether. It may well be that one day our ‘minds’ (whatever that may be!) could be ‘uploaded’ to a machine or another bodily form. The radicalism of posthumanism is that it breaks away from the four-billion-year process of natural selection and puts evolution into the hands of scientists: we are talking about animals becoming gods as a result of our own intelligent design.
I want you to imagine sitting at a roundtable discussion about posthumanism. They are brought together to discuss, not so much its technological possibilities, for many of the participants at the table will not have much expertise in that area, but rather to consider the impact of posthumanism: What does this reveal about out human nature? What are the moral and ethical considerations? Would the postman still be ‘human’ and, if not, why not? Around the table we would have people representing the scientific world, the arts, and so on, and also various religious traditions including, I would envisage, Islam.
The rich tradition of Islam - not just its textual sources, but also its philosophy, its literature, its poetry, its scientists - have much to contribute in exploring the question of what it means to be human, and what we can be or become, and I think what it reveals is the ‘mystery’ of the human, and that any evolution also comes with a warning of what it would mean for us to lose our humanity.
Roy Jackson is Associate Professor of Philosophy of Religion at the University of Gloucestershire, UK. He is the author of Muslim and Supermuslim: The Quest for the Perfect Being and Beyond (Palgrave), as well as numerous other works, including Nietzsche and Islam (Routledge, 2007), The God of Philosophy (Acumen, 2011), Mawdudi and Political Islam (Routledge, 2011), and What is Islamic Philosophy? (Routledge 2014).