Enhancing Human Existence: Mercer and Trothen’s Religion and the Technological Future, Des Hewitt

Without intending to be distasteful, let alone insensitive, it seems fitting that the publication of Religion and the Technological Future: An Introduction to Biohacking, Artificial Intelligence, and Transhumanism (2021) by Calvin Mercer and Tracy J. Trothen should take place during this pandemic; although in the foreword to this book, Ron Cole-Turner in quoting Shakespeare, does talk of ‘outrageous fortune’ and how we can never know the twists and turns of politics and world events. I say ‘this’ pandemic deliberately as we seem destined for more (Honigsbaum 2019), and because as Mercer and Trothen state (ix) not only was it in this context that their project was brought to fruition, but it also illustrated to them in the most pressing way possible, the need for us to embrace the ideas of transhumanism that relate directly to the future existence of human beings on this planet. Or even, in space in a symbiotic relationship with computers (Fuller 2019). [1] … [please read below the rest of the article].

Image credit: Palgrave Macmillian

Article Citation:

Hewitt, Des. 2021. “Enhancing Human Existence: Mercer and Trothen’s Religion and the Technological Future.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 10 (8): 48-54. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-65W.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

Calvin Mercer and Tracy J. Trothen
Religion and the Technological Future: An Introduction to Biohacking, Artificial Intelligence, and Transhumanism
Palgrave Macmillian
284 pp.

The Pandemic and the Urgency of the Authors’ Project

Save for the fact this book is divided into three parts and structured in sections in such a way to make key concepts and theories easy to research, with a glossary, this is emphatically not just a textbook for students and researchers as it is described therefore; unless this is a reference book from the future, written by cyborgs for our future selves; our brains ‘enhanced’ with computer chips (2021, 91-115) and divorced from our physical bodies operating by thought alone aided by digitisation. Indeed, who will be master and who will be servant or slave in this future age; indeed, who will have the power to hack our biological selves are questions that remain to be answered. Alas, given the limitations of space in this review, it is not possible to present the entirety of this expansive book. However, I hope in illustrating the concepts underpinning Mercer and Trothen’s expansive, and indeed, excellent presentation of biohacking, I give the reader more than a window into their futuristic vision.

The issues inherent in a development such as this, the ability to fundamentally alter human existence, indeed its condition, perhaps lie at the core of our age-old desire to fly above the clouds. But should we be desiring of this, and venturing into new dimensions of existence, when as Mercer and Trothen themselves begin their book by contextualising their writing in the global emergency; and rather perhaps, be attempting to solve earthly problems, and save lives here first, which the authors themselves played a part in so recently: the tautologous global pandemic?

Biohacking: The New Normal and ‘What We Mean By Radical Human Enhancement’

In their introduction, Mercer and Trothen state that whether for good or evil, biohacking (the ‘chipping’ of our brains, our minds[2]) is coming and we have a moral imperative to understand this for the sake of our children and grandchildren;[3] and moreover, the way that religion engages with this aspect of transhumanism will determine whether it lives or dies. The argument is supported not only by the growing evidence of the precarious state of the planet, but our rapidly developing knowledge and ability in technology, science and medicine which has the capability to enhance (reviewer’s emphasis) the human body, and brain. In other words, through the use of cybernetics we can transcend the human condition.

The idea is also supported by the growing body of literature in recent years, which only the most nonchalant of us would ignore. Indeed, ignore at our peril, or so it seems to be argued in this book. But what really underscores the authors argument is the myriad technologies already in existence and the visible ongoing developments all around us (2021, 9-19), from the internet of things (IOT) to the internet of the body (IOB), which can be seen rapidly developing in the use of smart watches to apps which monitor the every performance of body and brain: ‘Alexa’ will be busier than ever as we ask for feedback from a multitude of sophisticated monitoring and potentially calibrating devices attached to us. Moreover, with the genetic sequencing and engineering through CRISPR (clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats) already in use in medicine in gene therapy to prevent hereditary conditions, we have the technology to create a superhuman (2021, 9-19).

It seems perhaps that the never-ending Enlightenment Project of progression that arguably developed into a modern day cult of self-improvement—the unachievable, and to date failed goal of perfection,[4] is now achievable. It is this historical and philosophical context that this review now proceeds with. So, Mercer and Trothen, who are at the forefront of this intellectual project, movement, suggest we acknowledge, engage and perhaps even, embrace biohacking and the issues, ethical, moral, religious, spiritual, and of course, political that surround this radical but seemingly inevitable development of the human condition.

Briefly for now, and in summarising Chapter Two, “Existing and Possible Technologies: How We Biohack,” Mercer and Trothen discuss many of the technologies, scientific, medical and pharmacological advances they argue already constitute radical human enhancement. These include developments we have lived with daily. For example, bodily enhancement such as prosthetic limbs, which become more advanced seemingly every year; non-bodily enhancements such as the autopilots by which planes fly us round the world and soon into space which arguably are extensions of our brains and bodies; electric cars such as the Tesla which also has an autopilot (a perhaps worrying development discussed below); the Internet-the small hand-held computers we call cell or mobile phones to Ritalin, Modafinil, stimulants and smart drugs—or ‘cognitive enhancers’ (2021, 91–115).

Cognitive and Moral Enhancement?

These are of course all developments, enhancements that have aided our civilisation, however of course, they all have good and bad sides, light and dark to use a theological metaphor; or perhaps the Einstein—Frankenstein dichotomy might be more appropriate. While flying out to the Greek Island of Zakynthos on holiday I found myself thinking about Mercer and Trothen’s book and wondering how much these technological and scientific breakthroughs have enhanced our lives. The plane’s WiFi wouldn’t connect to the internet, ‘no internet access’ read the message on my smart little computer phone.

A thought suddenly struck me. I’d just read in the news how chips implanted into the brain of a paralysed man had allowed him to send text messages.[5] What if a more sophisticated version of the chip implanted one day into a human brain stopped working like the internet on the plane? And who would control the ‘router’? Would one day a brain suspended in silicon and orbiting the earth’s atmosphere like a satellite receive the ‘no internet access’ message?

Who would be controlling this enhancement, repairing it? When the autopilot of a Tesla car takes control from the driver, hits a pedestrian-what then? [6]  And when as the Boeing 737 Max manoeuvring characteristic augmentation system (MCAS),[7] technology designed to assist the pilot, in the same way as an autopilot, malfunctions and crashes the plane do we still trust in science and technology? And might it be a malfunctioning ‘uploaded mind’ (see Chapter Nine, discussed below) encased out of body in a plastic computer case that caused a catastrophe such as this? When we discover the neurotransmitters that the addictive amphetamine methylphenidate fire up in the brain and the dopamine bursts that Modafinil releases[8] have destroyed natural thought patterns and movements, will we regret this enhancement too?

Mercer and Trothen argue in Chapter Six, “Cognitive Enhancement and Moral Bioenhancement: Becoming Smarter and More Moral,” that not only can these drugs make us smarter but they can also make us more moral, which the authors argue we need to do before we embark fully on the biohacking journey to avoid us using artificial intelligence for harmful purposes. Supporting this with research the authors claim the amphetamine, Ritalin, and presumably Adderall, and the cognitive enhancer, Modafinil, are more social, prosocial, in fact. But past evidence on amphetamines of any description tends to show they are highly addictive and cause aggressive behaviour—the opposite of the authors’ argument.[9], [10]

Moreover, cognitive enhancers like Modafinil release dopamine in an apparently similar way to cocaine.[11]  The destructiveness of these drugs is well documented: sociability may be an initial by-product of the gregariousness amphetamines and cocaine induces, but this is quickly replaced by less social personality traits. And so what if that clever little chip implanted in our heads (2021, 91-115) one day sends us a message to terminate our existence or that of someone else if the pharmacological miracle of these drugs turns instead into a nightmare? It wasn’t for nothing that Francis Fukyama described Transhumanism as the world’s most dangerous idea then (Mercer and Trothen, 2021, 207).

In Chapter Nine, “Mind Uploading: Cyber Beings and Immortality,” Mercer and Trothen again discuss the use of drugs, this time with the view to inducing spirituality and intense oneness with God and/or the universe. However, on this occasion Mercer and Trothen focus not on drug taking but how technology could mimic LSD or psilocybin. It is argued “Spirit Tech,” currently used in the guise of feedback for various brain or mind disorders such as ADHD, could induce the same action in the brain as a hallucinogenic. Of course it could be argued that the non-religious are happy without being ‘at one with God’, or experiencing some mystical feeling which brings them closer to heaven, and that it would be unethical to make this par for the course in the future. After all, it is possible to experience the ethereal nature of the world simply by staring up at a clear blue sky to watch a jet plane flying at altitude: a ‘miracle’ made by man alone, no less.

The Ethics of Religion

It does seem as though Mercer and Trothen have most ethical and political questions covered in their book in Chapter Four, Part One (2021, 43-63), “Radical Human Enhancement and Ethics: Questions That Must be Asked.” Here, Mercer and Trothen present clear explanations of virtue ethics, utilitarian ethics, and principalist, or deontological ethics, as well as situationalist ethics, and, of course, teleological ethics which as a principle looking at the consequences of one’s actions might be most useful here.

However, do we really need to keep on attempting to change ourselves and our environment with the aid of artificial intelligence (AI) which the authors acknowledge (especially with regard to algorithms) contain the elements of light and dark? And what about ‘god’, our ‘souls’—whatever that means to religious and secular individuals? Perhaps here deontological ethics is of most relevance. Mercer and Trothen present this ethical approach as closest to theology: for example, do unto others as you would have done to you. The approach is like a moral compass and the authors use the example of the dilemma of amputating a gangrenous leg—the act would deprive a person of a limb but would save their life.

More difficult, as Mercer and Trothen point out in the context of radical human enhancement, is following the theological notion that the human body is ‘God’s’ temple. When moral imperatives and ethics come into conflict with each other there seems, as the authors state, a moral dilemma anew.

‘Theological’ Transhumanism: Squaring the Circle

Again, whilst reading Mercer and Trothen on my ‘pandemic’ holiday along with Honigsbaum’s (2019) book, The Pandemic Century, I was struck by another thought: every pandemic, every medical, scientific and technological advance and enhancement has the potential to open up Pandora’s Box, or to use another religious metaphor, they can be like Adam and Eve’s fateful bite of the apple in the Garden of Eden —a world that Lucifer might have dreamt up for us awaits if we cannot control our indisputable ingenuity as humans. In Chapter Three, “Transhumanism, the Posthuman, and the Religions: Exploring Basic Concepts,” Mercer and Trothen arguably present a justification of Transhumanism and biohacking from a broad theological, technological and political perspectives.

Posthumanism is usually differentiated from Transhumanism not by the belief that we can transcend the human condition as it is but integrate ourselves into the world as part of and equal to nature whilst changing bodily form, a perspective often embraced by environmentalists. This particular perspective would seem a stumbling block for those leaving the planet and redesigning themselves for a life in space. So in concentrating on Mercer and Trothen, who are professors of theology and ethics respectively, the focus here is on how they write about ‘squaring the circle,’ so to speak, between the belief in a monotheist divine creator, or transcendental Karmic realm, and our equation of this spirituality with science, technology, and medicine which we as ‘God’s children’ have created.

In quoting Ron Cole-Turner, More to Dante, and travelling across Karmic transcendentalism to the monotheism of Christianity to Judaism, Feminism, Liberal and Conservative philosophical perspectives to Liberation theology and Black rights perspectives, Mercer and Trothen manage seemingly to convince us that Transhumanism and biohacking are all part of God’s plan.

In fact, Mercer and Trothen present the argument that technological developments such as biohacking are a continuation of evolution and thus God’s work—try squaring the Darwinian circle there if you can. However, the separation of body and soul and the ownership of the latter by humans is seemingly justified, as is Genesis with Darwin, through this philosophical, erudite and perfectly structured piece of writing which only the skeptical would dismiss. But is this positioning, that is, that all is well between the life world of homo sapiens and, homo faber, and the cosmic plane our gods inhabit correct?

Indeed, it could be argued, paradoxically, that it is after all, our insatiable appetite to redesign and expand the world until we no longer recognise it, which has caused the very environmental conditions for pandemics to erupt and destroy the ecology of the planet, just as it is argued above a branch of posthumanism argues, until we have no option but to launch for space in the guise of cyborgs. In fact, some branches of transhumanism advocate a future in which not only cryogenics is usual, being frozen in stasis for reawakening in some new brave world, but in which suicide (Fuller 2019)[12]  is seen as an altruistic gift left to others on an already exhausted planet. Is this what God—our souls tell us is right?[13] A moral dilemma indeed.

In talking of the benefits of biohacking, in whatever shape or form that comes, in the context of marginalisation, discrimination for example, for justice in disability and the transgender community, it should possibly be remembered that biohacking could be available one day only to the rich, the powerful; or, simply cheapened by use as nothing more than a fashion accessory—for the wealthiest. In fact, in this chapter, Mercer and Trothen point to how resources for health services to fight the pandemic have differed according to the nation’s government. Indeed, given the pandemic, and my own experience negotiating governments’ abstruse national health rules, and border control fiasco while holidaying, a global project to “chip us” all for future vaccine and passport purposes might be beneficial —although as an issue pondered on already, this might be subject to abuse.

Enhancement and Perfection

Perhaps in a never ending quest for perfection we will never emulate God or a divine being in a future superhuman incarnation. However, Mercer and Trothen conclude their book in the chapter, “Religion 2.0 and the Enhanced Technological Future,” with the age-old doctrine of sanctification: the idea that it is our progressive mission to become—just that—divine, holy and, special in the eyes of ‘God’—and, perhaps more importantly, in our own eyes; and, as we do this, we strive for excellence and we develop that soul which is (arguably) such an important part of being ‘human.’

But even if we can enhance ourselves, digitally and spiritually, and become like gods, would we, as this review argued in its introduction, be fulfilling the mission of the Enlightenment Project, or of God, whatever that means to us all, or pervert the very idea of what it means to be human—and who would decide the politics of cybernetics anyway? Not perhaps, as Mercer and Trothen state in their conclusion, politics, but big business, big tech, who have a handle on these technological enhancements already. This, of course, again plays into concerns about access: who in which countries will afford these?

This is just one of the many questions that Mercer and Trothen have sought to address in this ground breaking contribution to a multidisciplinary field that itself transcends the stale notion of disciplines; and although this review has made a critical analysis of small sections of Mercer and Trothen’s work here, this book will surely come to be seen as truly prescient, as it is now, it is a true enhancement of our minds.

Author Information:

Desmond Hewitt—deshewitt100@gmail.com—completed his PhD in Sociology at the University of Warwick in 2014. While a doctoral student, he taught at Warwick and also at the University of Aston. His PhD was entitled, ‘Excellence in Critical Condition: the current state of English higher education’. He conducted a critical discourse analysis of successive governments’ reviews into higher education, focusing on ‘excellence’, and what it means to those in higher education who administer the university. Tracing excellence back to Aristotle and the concept of eudaemonia—not simply defined as ‘happiness’ or even ‘flourishing’, but as our desire to fly above the clouds. The thesis argued that the Enlightenment notion of endless development was alive and well in higher education—perhaps ‘transhumanism’ without calling it so. https://www.des.gen.in/

References

Fuller, Steve. 2019. Nietzschean Meditations: Untimely Thoughts at the Dawn of the Transhuman Era. Basel: Schwabe Verlag.

Honigsbaum, Mark. 2019. The Pandemic Century: A History of Global Contagion from the Spanish Flu to Covid-19. London: Penguin.


[1] https://social-epistemology.com/2020/03/31/meditations-on-a-theme-a-review-of-steve-fullers-nietzschean-meditations-des-hewitt/.

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/jul/15/paralyzed-man-brain-waves-sentences-computer-research.

[3] https://analyticsindiamag.com/ai-based-system-can-now-turn-brainwaves-into-text/.

[4] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00131857.2018.1537832.

[5] https://www.webmd.com/brain/news/20210512/mind-reading-technology-allows-paralyzed-man-to-rapidly-text.

[6] https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/cars/2021/04/22/consumer-reports-tesla-autopilot-texas-crash/7334489002/.

[7] https://www.fierceelectronics.com/electronics/boeing-737-max-still-faces-questions-over-mcas-flight-control-update-before-flying.

[8] Methylphenidate usually prescribed as Ritalin is used to treat ADHD in children and adults but is an amphetamine which can be abused and used to aid performance, for example in sport. Modafinil was designed to treat narcolepsy but is abused as a ‘smart’ drug used to enhance intellectual activity.

It works by increasing dopamine release from the brain: the degeneration of dopamine producing cells causes Parkinson’s disease.

[9] https://www.vancejohnsonrecoverycenter.com/ritalin-vs-adderall-side-effects-addiction-and-more/.

[10] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/24251540_Mechanisms_underlying_aggressive_and_hostile_behavior_in_amphetamine_users.

[11] https://www.verywellmind.com/modafinil-promotes-wakefulness-1124154.

[12] https://social-epistemology.com/2020/03/31/meditations-on-a-theme-a-review-of-steve-fullers-nietzschean-meditations-des-hewitt/.

[13] Having been taught by a professor who argued what makes us different from animals is that we possess a soul, irrespective of any belief in God, it seems possible to make autonomous decisions about our form, regardless of our religious beliefs.



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