Ghost in the Cloud
Transhumanism’s simulation theology
“I do plan to bring back my father,” Ray Kurzweil says. He is standing in the anemic light of a storage unit, his frame dwarfed by towers of cardboard boxes and oblong plastic bins. He wears tinted eyeglasses. He is in his early sixties, but something about the light or his posture, his paunch protruding over his beltline, makes him seem older. Kurzweil is now a director of engineering at Google, but this documentary was filmed in 2009, back when it was still possible to regard him as a lone visionary with eccentric ideas about the future. The boxes in the storage unit contain the remnants of his father’s life: photographs, letters, newspaper clippings, and financial documents. For decades, he has been compiling these artifacts and storing them in this sepulcher he maintains near his house in Newton, Massachusetts. He takes out a notebook filled with his father’s handwriting and shows it to the camera. His father passed away in 1970, but Kurzweil believes that, one day, artificial intelligence will be able to use the memorabilia, along with DNA samples, to resurrect him. “People do live on in our memories, and in the creative works they leave behind,” he muses, “so we can gather up all those vibrations and bring them back, I believe.”
Technology, Kurzweil has conceded, is still a long way from bringing back the dead. His only hope of seeing his father resurrected is to live to see the Singularity — the moment when computing power reaches an “intelligence explosion.” At this point, according to transhumanists such as Kurzweil, people who are merged with this technology will undergo a radical transformation. They will become posthuman: immortal, limitless, changed beyond recognition. Kurzweil predicts this will happen by the year 2045. Unlike his father, he, along with those of us who are lucky enough to survive into the middle of this century, will achieve immortality without ever tasting death.
But perhaps the Apostle Paul put it more poetically: “We will not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.”
I first read Kurzweil’s 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, in 2006, a few years after I dropped out of Bible school and stopped believing in God. I was living alone in Chicago’s southern industrial sector and working nights as a cocktail waitress. I was not well. Beyond the people I worked with, I spoke to almost no one. I clocked out at three each morning, went to after-hours bars, and came home on the first train of the morning, my head pressed against the window so as to avoid the specter of my reflection appearing and disappearing in the blackened glass. When I was not working, or drinking, time slipped away from me. The hours before my shifts were a wash of benzo breakfasts and listless afternoons spent at the kitchen window, watching seagulls circle the landfill and men hustling dollys up and down the docks of an electrical plant.
At Bible school, I had studied a branch of dispensational theology that divided all of history into successive stages by which God revealed his truth: the Dispensation of Innocence, the Dispensation of Conscience, the Dispensation of Government . . . We were told we were living in the Dispensation of Grace, the penultimate era, which precedes that glorious culmination, the Millennial Kingdom, when the clouds part and Christ returns and life is altered beyond comprehension. But I no longer believed in this future. More than the death of God, I was mourning the dissolution of this teleological narrative, which envisioned all of history as an arc bending assuredly toward a moment of final redemption. It was a loss that had fractured even my subjective experience of time. My hours had become non-hours. Days seemed to unravel and circle back on themselves.
The Kurzweil book belonged to a bartender at the jazz club where I worked. He was a physics student who whistled Steely Dan songs while counting his register and constantly jotted equations on the backs of cocktail napkins. He lent me the book a couple of weeks after I’d seen him reading it and asked — more out of boredom than genuine curiosity — what it was about. (“Computers,” he’d replied, after an unnaturally long pause.) I read the first pages on the train home from work, in the gray and spectral hours before dawn. “The twenty-first century will be different,” Kurzweil wrote. “The human species, along with the computational technology it created, will be able to solve age-old problems . . . and will be in a position to change the nature of mortality in a postbiological future.”
Kurzweil had his own historical narrative. He divided all of evolution into successive epochs: the Epoch of Physics and Chemistry, the Epoch of Biology, the Epoch of Brains. We were living in the fifth epoch, when human intelligence begins to merge with technology. Soon we would reach the Singularity, the point at which we would be transformed into what Kurzweil called Spiritual Machines. We would transfer or “resurrect” our minds onto supercomputers, allowing us to live forever. Our bodies would become incorruptible, immune to disease and decay, and we would acquire knowledge by uploading it to our brains. Nanotechnology would allow us to remake Earth into a terrestrial paradise, and then we would migrate to space, terraforming other planets. Our powers, in short, would be limitless.
It’s difficult to account for the totemic power I ascribed to the book. Its cover was made from some kind of metallic material that shimmered with unexpected colors when it caught the light. I carried it with me everywhere, tucked in the recesses of my backpack, though I was paranoid about being seen with it in public. It seemed to me a work of alchemy or a secret gospel. It’s strange, in retrospect, that I was not more skeptical of these promises. I’d grown up in the kind of millenarian sect of Christianity where pastors were always throwing out new dates for the Rapture. But Kurzweil’s prophecies seemed different because they were bolstered by science. Moore’s Law held that computer processing power doubled every two years, meaning that technology was developing at an exponential rate. Thirty years ago, a computer chip contained 3,500 transistors. Today it has more than one billion. By 2045, the technology would be inside our bodies and the arc of progress would curve into a vertical line.
Many transhumanists like Kurzweil contend that they are carrying on the legacy of the Enlightenment — that theirs is a philosophy grounded in reason and empiricism, even if they do lapse occasionally into metaphysical language about “transcendence” and “eternal life.” As I read more about the movement, I learned that most transhumanists are atheists who, if they engage at all with monotheistic faith, defer to the familiar antagonisms between science and religion. Many regard Christianity in particular with hostility and argue that Christians are the greatest obstacle to the implementation of their ideas. In his novel, The Transhumanist Wager (2013), Zoltan Istvan, the founder of the Transhumanist political party, imagines Christians will be the ones to oppose the coming cybernetic revolution. Few Christians have shown much interest in transhumanism (or even awareness of it), but the religious right’s record of opposing stem-cell research and genetic engineering suggests it would resist technological modifications to the body. “The greatest threat to humanity’s continuing evolution,” writes transhumanist Simon Young, “is theistic opposition to Superbiology in the name of a belief system based on blind faith in the absence of evidence.”
Though few transhumanists would likely admit it, their theories about the future are a secular outgrowth of Christian eschatology. The word transhuman first appeared not in a work of science or technology but in Henry Francis Carey’s 1814 translation of Dante’s Paradiso, the final book of the Divine Comedy. Dante has completed his journey through Paradise and is ascending into the spheres of heaven when his human flesh is suddenly transformed. He is vague about the nature of his new body. In fact, the metamorphosis leaves the poet, who has hardly paused for breath over the span of some sixty cantos, speechless. “Words may not tell of that transhuman change.”
Dante, in this passage, is dramatizing the resurrection, the moment when, according to Christian prophecies, the dead will rise from their graves and the living will be granted immortal flesh. There is a common misunderstanding today that the Christian’s soul is supposed to fly up to heaven after death, but the resurrection described in the New Testament is a mass, onetime eschatological event. For centuries, Christians believed that everyone who had ever died was being held in their graves in a state of suspended animation, waiting to be resuscitated on the Day of Resurrection. The apostle Paul — who believed he would live to see the day — describes it as the moment when God “will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” Much later, Augustine meditated on the “universal knowledge” that would be available to resurrected man: “Think how great, how beautiful, how certain, how unerring, how easily acquired this knowledge then will be.” According to the prophecies, Earth itself would be “resurrected,” returned to its prelapsarian state. The curses of the fall — death and degeneration — would be reversed and all would be permitted to eat from the tree of life, granting immortality.
The vast majority of Christians throughout the ages have believed these prophecies would happen supernaturally. God would bring them about, when the time came. But since the medieval period, there has also persisted a tradition of Christians who believed that humanity could enact the resurrection through material means: namely, through science and technology. The first efforts of this sort were taken up by alchemists. Roger Bacon, a 13th-century friar who is often considered the first Western scientist, tried to develop an elixir of life that would mimic the effects of the resurrection as described in Paul’s epistles. The potion would make humans “immortal” and “uncorrupted,” granting them the four dowries that would infuse the resurrected body: claritas (luminosity), agilitas (travel at the speed of thought), subtilitas (the ability to pass through physical matter), and impassibilitas (strength and freedom from suffering).
The Enlightenment failed to eradicate projects of this sort. If anything, modern science provided more varied and creative ways for Christians to envision these prophecies. In the late 19th century, a Russian Orthodox ascetic named Nikolai Fedorov was inspired by Darwinism to argue that humans could direct their own evolution to bring about the resurrection. Up to this point, natural selection had been a random phenomenon, but now, thanks to technology, humans could intervene in this process. “Our body,” as he put it, “will be our business.” He suggested that the central task of humanity should be resurrecting everyone who had ever died. Calling on biblical prophecies, he wrote: “This day will be divine, awesome, but not miraculous, for resurrection will be a task not of miracle but of knowledge and common labor.” He speculated that technology could be harnessed to return Earth to its Edenic state. Space travel was also necessary, since as Earth became more and more populated by the resurrected dead, we would have to inhabit other planets.
Fedorov had ideas about how science could enact the resurrection, but the details were opaque. The universe, he mused, was full of “dust” that had been left behind by our ancestors, and one day scientists would be able to gather up this dust to reconstruct the departed. Another option he floated was hereditary resurrection: sons and daughters could use their bodies to resurrect their parents, and the parents, once reborn, could bring back their own parents. Despite the archaic wording, it’s difficult to ignore the prescience underlying these ideas. Ancestral “dust” anticipates the discovery of DNA. Hereditary resurrection prefigures genetic cloning.
This theory was carried into the 20th century by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit priest and paleontologist who, like Fedorov, believed that evolution would lead to the Kingdom of God. In 1949, Teilhard proposed that in the future all machines would be linked to a vast global network that would allow human minds to merge. Over time, this unification of consciousness would lead to an intelligence explosion — the Omega Point — enabling humanity to “break through the material framework of Time and Space” and merge seamlessly with the divine. The Omega Point is an obvious precursor to Kurzweil’s Singularity, but in Teilhard’s mind, it was how the biblical resurrection would take place. Christ was guiding evolution toward a state of glorification so that humanity could finally merge with God in eternal perfection. By this point, humans would no longer be human. Perhaps the priest had Dante in mind when he described these beings as “some sort of Trans-Human at the ultimate heart of things.”
Transhumanists have acknowledged Teilhard and Fedorov as forerunners of their movement, but the religious context of their ideas is rarely mentioned. Most histories of the movement attribute the first use of the term transhumanism to Julian Huxley, the British eugenicist and close friend of Teilhard’s who, in the 1950s, expanded on many of the priest’s ideas in his own writings — with one key exception. Huxley, a secular humanist, believed that Teilhard’s visions need not be grounded in any larger religious narrative. In 1951, he gave a lecture that proposed a nonreligious version of the priest’s ideas. “Such a broad philosophy,” he wrote, “might perhaps be called, not Humanism, because that has certain unsatisfactory connotations, but Transhumanism. It is the idea of humanity attempting to overcome its limitations and to arrive at fuller fruition.”
The contemporary iteration of the movement arose in San Francisco in the late 1980s among a band of tech-industry people with a libertarian streak. They initially called themselves Extropians and communicated through newsletters and at annual conferences. Kurzweil was one of the first major thinkers to bring these ideas into the mainstream and legitimize them for a wider audience. His ascent in 2012 to a director of engineering position at Google, heralded, for many, a symbolic merger between transhumanist philosophy and the clout of major technological enterprise. Transhumanists today wield enormous power in Silicon Valley — entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk and Peter Thiel identify as believers — where they have founded think tanks like Singularity University and the Future of Humanity Institute. The ideas proposed by the pioneers of the movement are no longer abstract theoretical musings but are being embedded into emerging technologies at places like Google, Apple, Tesla, and SpaceX.
Losing faith in God in the 21st century is an anachronistic experience. You end up contending with the kinds of things the West dealt with more than a hundred years ago: materialism, the end of history, the death of the soul. During the early years of my faithlessness, I read a lot of existentialist novels, filling their margins with empathetic exclamation points. “It seems to me sometimes that I do not really exist, but I merely imagine I exist,” muses the protagonist of André Gide’s The Counterfeiters. “The thing that I have the greatest difficulty in believing in, is my own reality.” When I think back on that period of my life, what I recall most viscerally is an unnamable sense of dread — an anxiety that would appear without warning and expressed itself most frequently on the landscape of my body. There were days I woke in a panic, certain that I’d lost some essential part of myself in the fume of a blackout, and would work my fingers across my nose, my lips, my eyebrows, and my ears until I assured myself that everything was intact. My body had become strange to me; it seemed insubstantial. I went out of my way to avoid subway grates because I believed I could slip through them. One morning, on the train home from work, I became convinced that my flesh was melting into the seat.
At the time, I would have insisted that my rituals of self-abuse — drinking, pills, the impulse to put my body in danger in ways I now know were deliberate — were merely efforts to escape; that I was contending, however clumsily, with the overwhelming despair at the absence of God. But at least one piece of that despair came from the knowledge that my body was no longer a sacred vessel; that it was not a temple of the holy spirit, formed in the image of God and intended to carry me into eternity; that my body was matter, and any harm I did to it was only aiding the unstoppable process of entropy for which it was destined. To confront this reality after believing otherwise is to experience perhaps the deepest sense of loss we are capable of as humans. It’s not just about coming to terms with the fact that you will die. It has something to do with suspecting there is no difference between your human flesh and the plastic seat of the train. It has to do with the inability to watch your reflection appear and vanish in a window without coming to believe you are identical with it.
What makes the transhumanist movement so seductive is that it promises to restore, through science, the transcendent hopes that science itself obliterated. Transhumanists do not believe in the existence of a soul, but they are not strict materialists, either. Kurzweil claims he is a “patternist,” characterizing consciousness as the result of biological processes, “a pattern of matter and energy that persists over time.” These patterns, which contain what we tend to think of as our identity, are currently running on physical hardware — the body — that will one day give out. But they can, at least in theory, be transferred onto nonbiological substrata: supercomputers, robotic surrogates, or human clones. A pattern, transhumanists would insist, is not the same as a soul. But it’s not difficult to see how it satisfies the same longing. At the very least, a pattern suggests that there is, embedded in the meat of our bodies, some spark that remains unspoiled even as our body ages; that there is some essential core of our being that will survive and perhaps transcend the inevitable degradation of flesh.
Of course, mind uploading has spurred all kinds of philosophical anxieties. If the pattern of your consciousness is transferred onto a computer, is the pattern “you” or a simulation of your mind? Another camp of transhumanists have argued that Kurzweil’s theories are essentially dualistic, and that the mind cannot be separated from the body. You are not “you” without your fingernails and your gut bacteria. Transhumanists of this faction insist that resurrection can happen only if it is bodily resurrection. They tend to favor cryonics and bionics, which promise to resurrect the entire body or else supplement the living form with technologies to indefinitely extend life.
It is perhaps not coincidental that an ideology that grew out of Christian eschatology would come to inherit its philosophical problems. The question of whether the resurrection would be corporeal or merely spiritual was an obsessive point of debate among early Christians. One faction, which included the Gnostic sects, argued that only the soul would survive death; another insisted that the resurrection was not a true resurrection unless it revived the body. For these latter believers — whose view would ultimately become orthodox — Christ served as the model. Jesus had been brought back in the flesh, which suggested that the body was a psychosomatic unit. In contrast to Hellenistic philosophy, which believed the afterlife would be purely spiritual, Christians came to believe that the soul was inseparable from the body. In one of the most famous treatises on the resurrection, the theologian Tertullian of Carthage wrote: “If God raises not men entire, He raises not the dead. . . . Thus our flesh shall remain even after the resurrection.”
Transhumanists, in their eagerness to preempt charges of dualism, tend to sound an awful lot like these early church fathers. Eric Steinhart, a “digitalist” philosopher at William Paterson University, is among the transhumanists who insist the resurrection must be physical. “Uploading does not aim to leave the flesh behind,” he writes; “on the contrary, it aims at the intensification of the flesh.” The irony is that transhumanists are arguing these questions as though they were the first to consider them. Their discussions give no indication that these debates belong to a theological tradition that stretches back to the earliest centuries of the Common Era.
While the effects of my deconversion were often felt physically, the root causes were mostly cerebral. My doubts began in earnest during my second year at Bible school, after I read The Brothers Karamazov and entertained, for the first time, the implications of the classic theodicies — the problem of hell, how evil could exist in a world created by a benevolent God. In our weekly dormitory prayer groups, my classmates would assure me that all Christians struggled with these questions, but the stakes in my case were higher because I was planning to join the mission field after graduation. I nodded deferentially as my friends supplied the familiar apologetics, but afterward, in the silence of my dorm room, I imagined myself evangelizing a citizen of some remote country and crumbling at the moment she pointed out those theological contradictions I myself could not abide or explain.
Still, mine was a glacial severance from the faith. I knew other people who had left the church, and was amazed at how effortlessly they had seemed to cast off their former beliefs, immersing themselves instead in the pleasures of epicureanism or the rigors of humanitarian work. Perhaps I clung to the faith because, despite my doubts, I found — and still find — the fundamental promises of Christianity beautiful, particularly the notion that human existence ultimately resolves into harmony. What I could not reconcile was the idea that an omnipotent and benevolent God could allow for so much suffering. I agreed with Ivan Karamazov that even the final moment of glorification could never cancel out the pain and anguish it was meant to redeem.
Transhumanism offered a vision of redemption without the thorny problems of divine justice. It was an evolutionary approach to eschatology, one in which humanity took it upon itself to bring about the final glorification of the body and could not be blamed if the path to redemption was messy or inefficient. Within months of encountering Kurzweil, I became totally immersed in transhumanist philosophy. By this point, it was early December and the days had grown dark. The city was besieged by a series of early winter storms, and snow piled up on the windowsills, silencing the noise outside. I increasingly spent my afternoons at the public library, researching things like nanotechnology and brain-computer interfaces.
Once, after following link after link, I came across a paper called “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” It was written by the Oxford philosopher and transhumanist Nick Bostrom, who used mathematical probability to argue that it’s “likely” that we currently reside in a Matrix-like simulation of the past created by our posthuman descendants. Most of the paper consisted of esoteric calculations, but I became rapt when Bostrom started talking about the potential for an afterlife. If we are essentially software, he noted, then after we die we might be “resurrected” in another simulation. Or we could be “promoted” by the programmers and brought to life in base reality. The theory was totally naturalistic — all of it was possible without any appeals to the supernatural — but it was essentially an argument for intelligent design. “In some ways,” Bostrom conceded, “the posthumans running a simulation are like gods in relation to the people inhabiting the simulation.”
It began as an abstract theological preoccupation. I didn’t think it was likely we were living in a simulation, but I couldn’t help musing about how the classic theodicies I’d struggled with in Bible school would play out in a simulated cosmology. I thought I’d put these problems to rest, but that winter they burbled back to the surface. It would happen unexpectedly. One moment I’d be waiting for the bus or doodling on a green guest-check pad during the slow hours of my shift; the next, I’d be rehashing Pascal, Leibniz, and Augustine, inserting into their arguments the term programmers instead of God. I wondered: Could the programmers be said to be omniscient? Omnipotent? Benevolent? Computers got bugs that eluded even their creators. What if evil was nothing more than a glitch in the Matrix? Christian theology relied on a premise of divine perfection; God himself was said to be perfect, and he was capable, in theory, of creating a perfect universe. But what if our creator was just a guy in a lab running an experiment? The novelist John Barth, I recalled, had once jokingly mused that the universe was a doctoral candidate’s dissertation, one that would earn its author a B−.
One afternoon, deep in the bowels of an online forum, I discovered a link to a cache of “simulation theology” — articles written by fans of Bostrom’s theory. According to the “Argument for Virtuous Engineers,” it was reasonable to assume that our creators were benevolent because the capacity to build sophisticated technologies required “long-term stability” and “rational purposefulness.” These qualities could not be cultivated without social harmony, and social harmony could be achieved only by virtuous beings. The articles were written by software engineers, programmers, and the occasional philosopher. Some appeared on personal blogs. Others had been published in obscure, allegedly peer-reviewed journals whose interests lay at the intersection of philosophy, technology, and metaphysics.
I also found articles proposing how one should live in order to maximize the chances of resurrection. Try to be as interesting as possible, one argued. Stay close to celebrities, or become a celebrity yourself. The more fascinating you are, the more likely the programmers will hang on to your software and resurrect it. This was sensible advice, but it presumed the programmer was a kind of deist’s God who set the universe in motion and then sat back to watch and be entertained. Was it not just as probable that the programmer had a distinct moral agenda, and that he punished or rewarded his simulated humans based on their adherence to this code? Or that he might even intervene in the simulation? The deeper I got into the articles, the more unhinged my thinking became. One day, it occurred to me: perhaps God was the designer and Christ his digital avatar, and the incarnation his way of entering the simulation to share tips about our collective survival as a species. Or maybe the creation of our world was a competition, a kind of video game in which each participating programmer invented one of the world religions, sent down his own prophet-avatar, and received points for every new convert.
By this point I’d passed beyond idle speculation. A new, more pernicious thought had come to dominate my mind: transhumanist ideas were not merely similar to theological concepts but could in fact be the events described in the Bible. It was only a short time before my obsession reached its culmination. I got out my old study Bible and began to scan the prophetic literature for signs of the cybernetic revolution. I began to wonder whether I could pray to beings outside the simulation. I had initially been drawn to transhumanism because it was grounded in science. In the end, I became consumed with the kind of referential mania and blind longing that animates all religious belief.
I’ve since had to distance myself from prolonged meditation on these topics. People who once believed, I’ve been told, are prone to recidivism. Over the past decade, as transhumanism has become the premise of Hollywood blockbusters and a passable topic of small talk among people under 40, I’ve had to excuse myself from conversations, knowing that any mention of simulation theory or the noosphere can send me spiraling down the gullet of that techno-theological rabbit hole.
This is not to say that I have outgrown those elemental desires that drew me to transhumanism — just that they express themselves in more conventional ways. Over the intervening years, I have given up alcohol, drugs, sugar, and bread. On any given week, my Google search history is a compendium of cleanse recipes, HIIT workouts, and the glycemic index of various exotic fruits. I spend my evenings in the concrete and cavernous halls of a university athletic center, rowing across virtual rivers and cycling up virtual hills, guided by the voice of my virtual trainer, Jessica, who came with an app that I bought. It’s easy enough to justify these rituals of health optimization as more than mere vanity, especially when we’re so frequently told that physical health determines our mental and emotional well-being. But if I’m honest with myself, these pursuits have less to do with achieving a static state of well-being than with the thrill of possibility that lies at the root of all self-improvement: the delusion that you are climbing an endless ladder of upgrades and solutions. The fact that I am aware of this delusion has not weakened its power over me. Even as I understand the futility of the pursuit, I persist in an almost mystical belief that I can, through concerted effort, feel better each year than the last, as though the trajectory of my life led toward not the abyss but some pinnacle of total achievement and solution, at which point I will dissolve into pure energy. Still, maintaining this delusion requires a kind of willful vigilance that can be exhausting.
I was in such a mood last spring when a friend of mine from Bible school, a fellow apostate, sent me an email with the title “robot evangelism.” “I seem to recall you being into this stuff,” he said. There was a link to an episode of The Daily Show that had aired a year ago. The video was a satiric report by the correspondent Jordan Klepper called “Future Christ.” The gist was that a Florida pastor, Christopher Benek, believed that in the future AI could be evangelized and brought to salvation just like humans.
“How does a robot become Christian?” Klepper asked.
“We’re not talking about a Roomba or your iPhone,” Benek replied. “We’re talking about something that’s exponentially more intelligent than we are.” He was young for a pastor — late thirties, maybe even younger. He wore a navy blazer and was sweating liberally beneath the studio lights.
“You’re saying that robots, given the ability to have higher thought, they will choose Christianity.”
“Yeah,” Benek replied. “I think it’s a reasoned argument.”
The segment ended with Klepper taking a telepresence robot around to different places of worship — a mosque, a synagogue, a Scientology booth — to see which religion it would choose. The interview had been heavily edited, and it wasn’t really clear what Benek believed, except that robots might one day be capable of spiritual life, an idea that failed to strike me as intrinsically absurd. Pope Francis had recently declared his willingness to baptize aliens. These were strange times to be a man of the cloth, but at least people were thinking ahead.
I googled Benek. He had an MDiv from Princeton. He described himself in his bio as a “techno-theologian, futurist, ethicist, Christian Transhumanist, public speaker and writer.” He also chaired the board of something called the Christian Transhumanism Association. I followed a link to the organization’s website, which was professional looking but sparse. It included that peculiar quote from Dante: “Words cannot tell of that transhuman change.” All this seemed unlikely. Was it possible there were now Christian Transhumanists? Actual believers who thought the Kingdom of God would come about through the Singularity? All this time I had thought I was alone in drawing these parallels between transhumanism and biblical prophecy, but the convergences seemed to have gained legitimacy from the pulpit. How long would it be before everyone noticed the symmetry of these two ideologies — before Kurzweil began quoting the Gospel of John and Bostrom was read alongside the minor prophets?
I met with Benek at a café across the street from his church in Fort Lauderdale. In my email to him, I’d presented my curiosity as journalistic, unable to admit — even to myself — what lay behind my desire to meet. My grandparents live not too far from his church, so it was easy to pass it off as a casual excursion while visiting family, rather than the point of the trip itself.
He arrived in the same navy blazer he’d worn in The Daily Show interview and appeared just as nervous. Throughout the first half hour of our conversation, he seemed reluctant to divulge the full scope of his ideas, as though he was aware that he’d stumbled into an intellectual obsession that was bad for his career. The Daily Show had been a disaster, he told me. He had spoken with them for an hour about the finer points of his theology, but the interview had been cut down to his two-minute spiel on robots — something he insisted he wasn’t even interested in, it was just a thought experiment he’d been goaded into. “It’s not like I spend my days speculating on how to evangelize robots,” he said.
The music in the café was not as loud as I would have liked. Several people nearby were flipping aimlessly at their phones in the manner of eavesdroppers trying to appear inconspicuous. I explained that I wanted to know whether transhumanist ideas were compatible with Christian eschatology. Was it possible that technology would be the avenue by which humanity achieved the resurrection and immortality?
I worried that the question sounded a little deranged, but Benek appeared suddenly energized. It turned out he was writing a dissertation on precisely this subject. The title was “The Eschaton Is Technological.”
“Technology has a role in the process of redemption,” he said. Christians today assume the prophecies about bodily perfection and eternal life are going to be realized in heaven. But the disciples understood those prophecies as referring to things that were going to take place here on Earth. Jesus had spoken of the Kingdom of God as a terrestrial domain, albeit one in which the imperfections of earthly existence were done away with. This idea, he assured me, was not unorthodox; it was just old.
I asked Benek about humility. Wasn’t it all about the fallen nature of the flesh and our tragic limitations as humans?
“Sure,” he said. He paused a moment, as though debating whether to say more. Finally, he leaned in and rested his elbows on the table, his demeanor markedly pastoral, and began speaking about the Transfiguration. This event, described in several of the Gospels, portrays Jesus climbing to the top of a mountain with three of his disciples. Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appear out of thin air, their bodies encircled with holy light. Then Jesus’s appearance is changed. His disciples notice that he “was transfigured before them; his face shining as the sun, and his garments became white as the light.” Theologians have identified this as a moment when the temporal and the eternal overlapped, with Christ standing as the bridge between heaven and Earth.
It was a curious passage, Benek said. “Jesus is human, but he’s also something else.” Christ, he reminded me, was characterized by the hypostatic union: he was both fully human and fully God. What was interesting, he said, was that science had actually verified the potential for matter to have two distinct natures. Superposition, a principle in quantum theory, suggests that an object can be in two places at one time. A photon could be a particle, and it could also be a wave. It could have two natures. “When Jesus tells us that if we have faith nothing will be impossible for us, I think he means that literally.”
By this point, I had stopped taking notes. It was late afternoon, and the café was washed in amber light. Perhaps I was a little dehydrated, but Benek’s ideas began to make perfect sense. This was, after all, the promise implicit in the incarnation: that the body could be both human and divine, that the human form could walk on water. “Very truly I tell you,” Christ had said to his disciples, “whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these.” His earliest followers had taken this promise literally. Perhaps these prophecies had pointed to the future achievements of humanity all along, our ability to harness technology to become transhuman. Christ had spoken mostly in parables — no doubt for good reason. If a superior being had indeed come to Earth to prophesy the future to 1st-century humans, he would not have wasted time trying to explain modern computing or sketching the trajectory of Moore’s Law on a scrap of papyrus. He would have said, “You will have a new body,” and “All things will be changed beyond recognition,” and “On Earth as it is in heaven.” Perhaps only now that technologies were emerging to make such prophecies a reality could we begin to understand what Christ meant about the fate of our species.
I could sense my reason becoming loosened by the lure of these familiar conspiracies. Somewhere, in the pit of my stomach, it was amassing: the fevered, elemental hope that the tumult of the world was authored and intentional, that our profound confusion would one day click into clarity and the broken body would be restored. Part of me was still helpless against the pull of these ideas.
It was late. The café had emptied and a barista was sweeping near our table. As we stood to go, I couldn’t help feeling that our conversation was unresolved. I suppose I’d been hoping that Benek would hand me some final hermeneutic, or even offer a portal back to the faith, one paved by the certitude of modern science. But if anything had become clear to me, it was my own desperation, my willingness to spring at this largely speculative ideology that offered a vestige of that first religious promise. I had disavowed Christianity, and yet I’d spent the past ten years hopelessly trying to re-create its visions by dreaming about our postbiological future or fixating on the optimization of my own body — a modern pantomime of redemption. What else could lie behind these impulses but the ghost of that first hope?
Outside, the heat of the afternoon had cooled to a balmy warmth. I decided to walk for an hour along the streets of the shopping district, a palm-lined neighborhood along the canals of the Intracoastal from where you could glimpse the masts of the marina and, beyond them, the deep Prussian blue of the Atlantic. Fort Lauderdale is a hub for spring breakers, but it was only January and the city was still populated by the moneyed winter set. Argentineans and Chileans and French Canadians spent all day at the beach and now, in these temperate hours before dusk, took to the streets in expensive-looking spandex. People jogged along the gauntlet of beachside boutiques and unfurled polyethylene mats beneath banyan canopies for yoga in the park. A flock of speed-bikers swooped along the shoulder and disappeared, leaving in their wake a faint gust of sweat.
I was thinking of the scene from Hannah and Her Sisters where Woody Allen’s character, who spends the course of the film searching for the right religion, is in a morbid mood, walking along the footpaths of Central Park. “Look at all these people jogging,” he scoffs, “trying to stave off the inevitable decay of the body.” I have often felt this way myself when watching people exercise en masse, as though the specter of all those bodies in motion summed up the futility of the whole human project — or perhaps offered an unflattering reflection of my own pathetic striving. But on this particular evening, in the last light of day, there was something mesmerizing in the dance of all these bodies in space. There were old bodies and young bodies, men and women, their limbs tanned and lambent with perspiration. They were stretching and lunging with arms outstretched in a posture of veneration, all of them animated by the same eternal choreography, driven by the echo of that ancient hope. Perhaps it was, in the end, a hope that was rooted in delusion. But was it more virtuous to concede to the cold realities of materialism — to believe, as Solomon did, that we are sediment blowing aimlessly in the wind, dust that will return to dust?
The joggers swept past me on either side of the sidewalk and wove through the crowd, like particles dispersing in a vacuum. All of them were heading in the same direction, up the bridge that crossed the marina and ended at the spread of the ocean. I watched as they receded into the distance and disappeared, one by one.