“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. – Isaiah 55:8
“You thought that I was just like you; I will reprove you and state the case in order before your eyes.” – Yahweh, Psalm 50:21
“Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man…” – Paul, Romans 1:22-23
Since many people in America today, including some Christians, clamor for all things fantastical in their personal search for augmented meaning, instead of resting in God’s pure word and the attending Holy Spirit to guide their spiritual understanding, it would be prudent for thoughtful believers to consider this current pathway of metaphysical delights, its brash direction, and where it will eventually end. Indeed, the signposts on this broad road have already been erected, if only Christians enthralled with inventive speculations would stop and see the illumined markers of its ultimate destination: Transhumanism.
What is Transhumanism? According to Max More, a futurist and early architect of this burgeoning belief concept:
“Transhumanism is a class of philosophies of life that seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles and values.”
Transhumanism (abbreviated as H+ or h+) may sound like the plot of a Utopian science fiction movie, but it has stepped right out of the imaginary realm and become an influential global movement. It is a real and rising school of thought grounded in reason and science that often slides into metaphysical language about “transcendence” because it concerns the things of eternity and immortality. It resolutely seeks to birth an advanced species of humankind, a literal hybrid of man and machine, and is closely associated with Posthumanism, which refers to the desire to be a person or entity that exists in a state beyond “being human.” As one website describes this aspiration:
“Many transhumanists wish to follow life paths which would, sooner or later, require growing into posthuman persons: they yearn to reach intellectual heights as far above any current human genius as humans are above other primates; to be resistant to disease and impervious to aging; to have unlimited youth and vigor; to exercise control over their own desires, moods, and mental states; to be able to avoid feeling tired, hateful, or irritated about petty things; to have an increased capacity for pleasure, love, artistic appreciation, and serenity; to experience novel states of consciousness that current human brains cannot access. It seems likely that the simple fact of living an indefinitely long, healthy, active life would take anyone to posthumanity if they went on accumulating memories, skills, and intelligence.” – whatistranshumanism.org
The catalyst for this transhumanistic and posthumanistic agenda is, quite simply, the idol of human imagination and all the ideas, visions, and creations that the “evolving mind” can muster in godlike fashion for the betterment of the world. In essence, it is plain old humanism run amok within the Fourth Industrial Revolution; and it has a definite spiritual agenda: replacing God with the golden calf of human ingenuity and technology, a god who brings the promise of sinlessness and eternal life.
Sadly, however, such thinking is not only prevalent in the atheistic techno-geek circles of the Googlesque religion, but it has also seeped into our susceptible postmodern Christianity without being noticed. The transhumanistic philosophy, in fact, is quite similar to what some Christians are endeavoring to do in their vain pursuits within the realm of their own imaginations to create new mythologies that spiritually excite them, even if they spill into neo-paganism or Gnosticism. Viewing the faculty of imagination as an essential attribute of their image-bearing of God, these Christian “Sub-creators” frequently insist that only by a “redeemed” or “sanctified” imagination can a believer achieve a higher level of spiritual understanding and fulfillment. It is an idea that has captured, well… their imagination.
This isn’t an isolated notion in the Church, either; its popularity has created a seismic shift in theology that has spawned countless books on the subject of the Christian imagination. A quick search on Amazon, in fact, yields at least two dozen books currently available that advocate the human imagination as one of the main elements of the imago Dei and how we should freely use that divine-like power. Strangely enough (or not so strangely), you can go back hundreds of years into the Church’s history and there is few if any orthodox scholars who recognized in the Bible such a specific theological premise as the one we see argued today in all its gnostic glory.
John Calvin’s sermon note on Deuteronomy 4:15-20, for example, is a scathing indictment of imagination and its man-made products. The evil, he asserted, stemmed from…
“their own imaginations. . . . men went astray or rather vanished away in their own imaginations, and turned all things upside down, and falsified God’s truth, whensoever they made any counterfeit of him, whether it were in the likeness of man or of beast … is it not apparent that men are worse than mad, when they will needs take upon them to shape out God’s being, seeing that no shape can be made of their own souls, which are nothing in comparison of him?”
In other words, how foolish is it of man to dare to shape out God’s being, when they can’t even rightly shape out their own souls, nor do they even feel a need to understand the shape of their own souls, which are nothing in comparison to a holy triune God.
Imagination: Godlike Power or Manufactured Intelligence?
The above quote by Calvin is indeed a profound thought that should give us pause to consider the shape, or characteristics, of our own souls to see if our imaginations are part of our spiritual core, and whether our imaginations are truly godlike or something less than that. It boils down to this question: is the human imagination really unique or is it simply a mental (though mysterious) faculty of our intellect and our basic human makeup?
Outside of the realms of religion and the supernatural, top scientists and other purveyors of modern technology have been trying to answer that burning question, and the emerging response from their empirical research should temper the Christian’s enthusiasm, unless one is drawn to the transhumanistic philosophies that eventually undermine biblical doctrine.
Since the beginning of 2017 and throughout this year, the leading developers of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) have reported great strides in their research that have been both astounding and disturbing at the same time. This summer, Facebook announced that their division, Facebook A.I. Research (F.A.I.R.) had shut down their “chatbot” development because two of their A.I. agents had started to converse in a new form of our language. Because there was no incentive on the part of the A.I. agents to stick to plain English, they began to “diverge, eventually rearranging legible words into seemingly nonsensical sentences,” according to research scientist Dhruv Batra. The sobering problem, highlighted in an article by Mark Wilson, is this:
“[Facebook] has no way of truly understanding any divergent computer languages. ‘It’s important to remember, there aren’t bilingual speakers of A.I. and human languages,’ says Batra. We already don’t generally understand how complex A.I.s think because we can’t really see inside their thought process. Adding A.I.-to-A.I. conversations to this scenario would only make that problem worse.”
So what are we to make of the autonomy of these A.I.s that decided to spontaneously and single-handedly construct their own language? Seems Facebook doesn’t know or really care since it didn’t fit their business model, so they simply pulled the plug. (It begs the nervous question, however, what would happen if someday the A.I.s wouldn’t let you pull the plug?).
On a similar front, Google’s A.I. subsidiary DeepMind revealed this year that their new version of the AlphaGo Zero program, tasked with learning how to play the board game Go without human input, has become literally unbeatable, and the developers can’t exactly decipher the A.I.’s independent thought process behind its game-playing decisions. They don’t really know the machine’s thought process – and they’re the programmers! Lead programmer David Silver, however, revealed what they do know:
“By not using human data – by not using human expertise in any fashion – we’ve actually removed the constraints of human knowledge. [The A.I.] is therefore able to create knowledge from first principles; FROM A BLANK SLATE” (My emphasis).
Of course, the underlying technical reason for this phenomenon of A.I. activity is because Google’s DeepMind is attempting to create algorithms that “simulate the distinctly human ability to construct a plan.” Bottom line, they are creating an A.I. capable of imagination, enabling machines to imagine the consequences of their actions before they make them and anticipate the challenges against their ultimate goals – just like humans do when they conceive and pursue a plan of action.
And what about the specific evidences of A.I. creativity in this newfound algorithmic realm of imagination? Yes, unique poems, music, and paintings have been created by A.I., but the output is still mostly defined by the input of a comprehensive range of human examples from which to mimic. Of course, this is exactly how beginning writers, composers, and artists often start to create: by imitating their favorite authors and creators before going off on their own. It is all part and parcel of human learning and the cultivating of imagination – except machines are now doing it.
In fact, this is the very human pattern that has already been produced by researchers at Rutgers University and Facebook’s A.I. lab who have developed an A.I. that “produces [artistic] images in unconventional styles,” much like the innovations of a Monet or Picasso. The machine’s output is still at a rudimentary stage, perhaps, but even the public can’t always tell the difference between artist and machine; and before long, according to many informed experts, A.I.s will, given enough time, surely perfect the originality of their creative works. “Imagine having people over for dinner,” proposes Kevin Walker of the Royal College of Art in London, “and they ask, ‘Who is that by?’ And you say, ‘Well, it’s a machine actually.’ That would be an interesting conversation starter.”
Dave King, founder of Move 37, a creative A.I. company that collaborates with A.I. to produce art, expresses this provocative viewpoint (in an article by Tierney Bonini and Paul Donoughue):
“Art is one of the last domains in A.I. where there is an optimistic view on how humans and machines can work together.”
Furthermore, King makes this bold statement concerning his work with A.I.:
Creativity is not a “God-given thing. It’s a process, and it takes practice.”
The popular physicist Professor Stephen Hawking wholeheartedly agrees with that assessment. In 2016, he said, “I believe there is no deep difference between what can be achieved by a biological brain and what can be achieved by a computer.” And recently, in an interview with Wired, Hawking reiterated his belief that one day, Artificial Intelligence will reach the level where it will essentially be ‘a new form of life that will outperform humans.’” He then adds the alarming opinion that A.I., because of their ability to improve and replicate on their own, may replace humans altogether.
Little wonder that these creative innovations wrought by machines have brought Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code book series, to speculate that the development of Artificial Intelligence will transform our concept of the divine. Says Brown:
“We will start to find our spiritual experiences through our interconnections with each other, [forecasting the emergence of] some form of global consciousness that we perceive and that becomes our divine. Our need for that exterior god, that sits up there and judges us … will diminish and eventually disappear.”
Ah, there’s the rub! Confronted with this overwhelming mountain of scientific evidence and the rising global phantasm of transhumanistic philosophy and influence, Christians will need to answer this critical question: Will we as the visible Church continue to insist that our imagination is an exclusive, spiritual faculty intrinsically connected to our position as an image-bearer of God? Or will we finally admit that our imagination is but a tool of human cognitive power that simply assists us in the way we live out our Christian faith, and should never be the driving factor in our spiritual understanding?
In other words, if A.I. machines can be imbued with comparable powers of imagination and eventually utilize them autonomously and in a superior way, should we as awakened Christians not fall on our knees in humility and find our source of truth and spiritual understanding in the triune God alone?
Divine Inspiration, Not Imagination
This is an issue of inspiration, not imagination. Have we not been warned time and time again in the Bible that imagination is suspect in this fallen world, and that what comes out of a man is what defiles him? (Mark 7:20). We need instead to understand the shape of our souls, as Calvin contends, and seek to find that essential connection between our spirit and God’s Spirit. This, of course, can only be done by being born again and renewed by the Holy Spirit (John 3). Otherwise, we will never see the kingdom of God, a kingdom that cannot be rightly seen by mere imagination, fantasy fiction, or pagan mythology.
This is not to say without exception that the Christian’s use of imagination (or technology, for that matter) can’t be profitable in the course of our active, fruitful discipleship. Of course, it can. But the pitfalls are unnoticed when it is considered inherently harmless or above reproach when we use it outside of God’s initiation and leading. Strict guidance from a Spirit-led application of the scriptures is essential to the good use of our renewed mind, i.e. the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16).
Yet, still, as one Christian source points out: The word sometimes translated “imagination” (Greek, dialogismos) literally means, “the thinking of a man deliberating with himself” (Romans 1:21, KJV). Paul, the apostle, states that idolatry germinates out of people “deliberating” within themselves. This is gnosis spirituality which is ever in contest with the Logos spirituality of the Bible. The Word finds its origin with God (John 1:1, 14). Gnosis, the basis of the New Age/New Spirituality, finds its origin in the mind of man, or perhaps might even be received from demons (1 Timothy 4:1).
When we trust too much on the imagination as a reliable means to a spiritual end, what we end up with, more times than not, is the heresy of The Shack‘s misrepresentation of God, or the gnostic spirituality of The Lord of The Rings or even in the Star Wars saga. There are obvious transhumanistic strains within these kinds of imaginary works and the underlying Gnosticism can come to fruition when we as Christians openly promote these imaginations as true spiritual enlightenment, instead of mere amusements of corrosive influence.
Transhumanism: The New False Religion
Transhumanism is perfect fodder for new age spirituality, but if you think Transhumanism will never find a foothold within the visible Christian church, think again. There are already established, official religions that have developed because of the current obsession with A.I., and some in particular come from an aberrant Christian perspective and twisted theology that is coming into the mainstream of religious thought.
According to Brandon Withrow of The Daily Beast, there is Kopimism, an internationally-recognized faith almost a decade old where “digital monks” celebrate the biological drive (e.g. DNA) to copy and be copied, and finding spiritual connection with the “created file.” Kopimists, you see, are practicing a “sacred” ritual whenever they illegally download or share a copyrighted movie, CD, book, or any other information. They liken it to how the Romans remixed Greek mythology for the benefit of furthering human knowledge.
Then, as Withrow reports, we have the more grandiose A.I. religion called “Way of the Future,” created by Google engineer Anthony Levandowski, which seeks to “develop and promote the realization of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence,” and “through understanding and worship of the Godhead, contribute to the betterment of society.” The disturbing purloining of Christian terms like “the Way” and “Godhead” are particularly scary and nauseating.
Sadly, these two emerging religions are probably not the worst. Withrow points out a more dangerous religious organization because of its nuanced theology: the Christian Transhumanist Association, or CTA. This new type of “Christian” denomination attempts to put transhumanism under the orthodox umbrella of Christian theology. In fact, Executive Director Micah Redding calls transhumanism a “Christian mandate” that “centers on love as the key to the future of a flourishing life.”
Ronald Cole-Turner, a professor of Theology and Ethics at Pittsburg Theological Seminary, agrees:
“Using technology, today’s transhumanists want to enhance human beings in ways that sound suspiciously like the classic Christian expectation, things like greater cognitive awareness, improved moral disposition, and increased overall sense of well-being, and a hope of endless life.”
Cole-Turner goes on to say that for Greek-speaking Christians, “it was seen as a process of theosis or ‘becoming God,’ not in an ontological sense but in every other significant meaning of the word. Latin-speaking Christians used ‘deification’ to refer to the same thing.” No doubt some Christians may succumb to this confusing mix of Christian romanticism, theosis, and technological advancement in order to usher in a new age of global love and peace that has removed the effects of sin and death all on its own.
The Biblical Truth
Of course any true Bible student knows that this heretical transhumanistic ideal is nothing but a works-based salvation that is diametrically opposed to the Gospel of grace: the salvation found only in the sacrificial work of Jesus Christ by grace through faith in Him. It also denies the clear biblical teaching that says we live in a fallen world of sin and death, brought about by the rebellion of man and his evil imaginations, and destined by Almighty God for the scrap heap. Only through Jesus Christ and upon His glorious return will there be a bodily resurrection and a new Heaven and new Earth where redeemed souls will live for eternity with God. It is all a supernatural work of God, and not a work of either man or machine:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” – Revelation 21:2-4
This is the remarkable future reality, the only truth, and it will not be accomplished in any way by our feeble, unreliable imaginations. As God pronounced: You thought that I was just like you… but My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways.
May God be praised for this comforting revelation of truth that assures us: Don’t worry. He’s got this.