A Vision Worth Believing In: Transhumanism, Driven By Spiritual and Ethical Progress

If our prehistoric ancestors were to board a tour bus and visit the present day, what would they think?

They might delight at the feeling of air-conditioned buildings, marvel at mundane inventions such as doorknobs, be amazed that people walk around unafraid of sudden attacks from wild beasts, and gawk at lawns and manicured gardens.

They might believe, in short, that they’ve arrived in some sort of paradise.

However, they might also find cause for dismay. Say they witnessed employees stuffed away in beige cubicles, trash lining the beaches and gathering in landfills, the Barrier Reef dying from heat, the bustle of freeways with fatal traffic accidents, and modern warfare with its bombshells and automatic gunfire — enough of this, and they might wish to go back home.

If they did decide to return home, would you join them? Personally, I’d fear that within weeks of arriving in the prehistoric past, I’d get something like appendicitis and die without hospital care. Plus, gathering food all day and warring with neighboring tribes isn’t really my gig.

For me, this thought experiment illustrates that while we’ve evolved tremendously since our beginning, we still have a lot of work ahead to right the wrongs that currently plague the world and move more fully toward a genuine paradise.

Leaping Toward Paradise
If we take a bird’s eye view of human history, we can see that however much we've stumbled, we’ve been evolving in the direction of paradise since we first arrived on the scene. As the writer Ken Wilber outlines in his book Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, evolution seems to be consistently unfolding toward greater consciousness, toward a sort of paradise on earth.

I believe that we now have the potential to take a sudden and dramatic leap toward this paradise, primarily due to technological and scientific progress.

Such a belief is known as transhumanism, a belief that humanity might transcend our current limitations so much that we become an almost godlike, superhuman species — a species that finally creates the paradise we’ve been evolving toward all along.

What I know for sure is that if we want such a future, we must deliberately envision it, plan for it, and work to make it a reality.

That’s why I believe in transhumanism.

Of course, to truly evolve toward paradise, we can't focus on raw technological progress alone. Instead, we must also focus on spiritual progress and ethical progress. Anything less than this won’t do.

Let’s look at why that is, starting with spiritual progress.

1. Spiritual Progress
At its core, spiritual progress is about nurturing what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called “peak experiences,” transcendent moments of deep peace and fulfillment.

These experiences can happen to anyone, regardless of religious belief or disbelief. The point is that peak experiences help us become more compassionate and realize how deeply connected we are with each other and with the world around us, as shown by psychologists such as William James, anthropologists such as T.M. Luhrmann, and biologists such as Alister Hardy.

Shinzen Young, a nationally renowned meditation teacher with a scientific bent, shares this view that peak experiences make us profoundly more compassionate and bring lasting peace. Young’s hope, which he outlines in his book The Science of Enlightenment, is that humanity will develop a technology that will connect to the brain and induce enlightenment experiences in human beings. Because of this hope, he is working with neuroscientists and engineers to learn more about the brain and figure out ways to create such experiences.

On the surface, Shinzen Young's idea might sound insane. But think of the story of Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist who experienced a transcendent experience during a stroke, wherein she felt total unity with the universe and afterward embodied powerful feelings of compassion for all of humanity. If Shinzen Young and his team can achieve their goal, they will have created a way for people to taste the experience of enlightenment and reap the benefits such experiences bring.

I share Young’s excitement for such a possibility, as well as his realization that in the meantime we must nurture such experiences via more traditional means such as meditation. These experiences are critical because they help us all more fully internalize the fact that to hurt another living being is to only hurt ourself. This is the seed of ethical progress.

2. Ethical Progress
Of course, it’s not enough for each individual to just experience personal enlightenment. We must also figure out the best ways to help each other reach better living conditions in the real world.

In his book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari claims that we’re entering an era ruled by dataism, an era where algorithms will be able to show us the most effective methods for achieving widespread well-being.

Want to know the best foods to eat today so you can stay healthy? Your embedded body scanner will crunch millions of data points and tell you. Want to know the best charities to give to? An app that tracks each transaction at every charity and maps it to millions of data points about how those transactions improve well-being will tell you. Want to know what world problems deserve our most urgent attention? A global network will crunch the data to give you a range of best options given your circumstances and location.

On measures of health, psychology, and standards of living, dataism might be able to guide us.

That said, it’s easy to think of ways dataism could go terribly wrong. What if a large corporation messes with the data? What if governments censor the data because it doesn’t match their narrative? What if people are too distracted by mindless entertainment to care about what’s best for the long-term interest of themselves and the planet?

We have the possibility with new technology to create a more ethical future, one that considers the needs of the least fortunate in its algorithms. But it won't happen naturally. We must deliberately demand ethical guidelines and work to bring them into existence. After all, what good is achieving superintelligence via dataism if we lose our humanity in the process?

A Vision Worth Believing In
It’s viable, as Ray Kurtzweil outlines in his classic The Singularity Is Near, that we will soon see wonders few of us could have ever dreamed of. Embeddable supercomputers, commonplace genetic enhancements, regular space travel, dramatic extensions in lifespans, and so on. As long as we don’t find a way to blow ourselves up, the chances are high that it’s all coming.

And what will we do with such innovations? If we haven’t built on a solid foundation of spirituality and ethics, these innovations might be used to oppress the poor and the weak to a degree we’ve never previously witnessed. If that happens, we will become worse, not better, than human. Who wants to extend lifespans if life consists of endless psychoses, narcissism, and power grabs?

We must therefore proceed wisely, keeping our primary attention on the heart of the human experience. If we do this, we will join the long line of pioneers who have worked over the centuries to make this vision a reality. We will create a paradise that every one of our ancestors would have clamored to join, a paradise for generations to come.


Jon Ogden is the author of When Mormons Doubt: A Way to Save Relationships and Seek a Quality Life, available via Amazon.