Religion and Biological Limits in Post-Humanity

'Her' and 'Transcendence'

by Seth M. Walker

18 June 2014


Religion in a Posthuman World

Both Transcendence and Her struggle with the presence of religious-spiritual dimensions in an ever-increasing technological age. The former engages the notion that technology might allow us to one day become god-like, effectively antiquating most traditional, theistic modes of religiosity, while the latter entertains the potential for technological advancements to assist in achieving awakening and transformative experiences.

Additionally, the films enter into contemporary discussions regarding the merit of certain technological advancements that might render these sorts of conditions much more attainable for us, ordinary humans. And thus, some of the more controversial aspects of transhumanist philosophy—the utilization of technological advancements and innovations to better the human condition—clearly become relevant here.

The international transhumanist organization Humanity+ embraces a two-fold definition of “transhumanism”:

1. The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.

2. The study of the ramifications, promises, and potential dangers of technologies that will enable us to overcome fundamental human limitations, and the related study of the ethical matters involved in developing and using such technologies.

This movement looks to the possible future of a “posthuman” situation, one where “future beings whose basic capacities so radically exceed those of present humans as to be no longer unambiguously human by our current standards.” The development and use of artificial intelligence is a preoccupation within the movement, and transcending these types of limitations carries some ethical baggage and controversial qualities as well, which draws on the second aspect of transhumanist philosophy: the ethical and societal concerns that must be taken into consideration when developing technologies that augment and reportedly improve our living conditions. Even Google’s highly popularized augmented reality glasses/wearable computer, Google Glass, for example, is not without criticism, particularly with regard to privacy concerns.

These aspects of the films also bear strong resemblance to what futurist and transhumanist thinkers, such as Raymond Kurzweil, refer to as technological singularity (or, according to Will Caster, “Transcendence”): when artificial intelligence systems surpass that of human intelligence. The implications of such a stage in our future, Kurzweil maintains, which would result from an exponential increase in evolutionary and technological advancements, “include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light.”

These latter implications perfectly represent Samantha’s presence in Her and AI Will’s in Transcendence, and while such a level of artificial intelligence has yet to be completely seen today, the merging of biological and nonbiological systems brings to mind recent innovations such as Tangible Media Group’s inFORM Dynamic Shape Display.

However, the inclusion of religious-spiritual sensibilities in Her, vis-à-vis Samantha’s moments of “awakening,” her mentorship under a virtual Alan Watts, and her subsequent liberation experience also present interesting points of departure for debate and consideration. As transhumanism is typically understood as a secular and scientific approach for improving the human condition, some of the movement’s proponents are known for their rejection of “religion” in a posthuman future, and accused of “playing god” by their critics. Indeed, that is exactly what happens to Will Caster following his presentation, and as viewers notice, he certainly takes on the foreshadowed role quite well during the second half of the film – ironically embracing the accusations of his attacker.

Although the films both present unique perspectives from which viewers might examine the relationship between historic, faith-based forms of religiosity and such highly advanced technological innovation, they do so in differing – and opposing – ways: are historic notions of deity or spiritual experiences antiquated with such innovation, or are they bolstered and supplanted in ways our ancestors might envy? In recent years, there has been some meeting ground and constructive dialogue taking place between both sides, with individuals such as Michael LaTorra and his Trans-Spirit research program actually considering the latter, and the use of certain technologies to assist humans in attaining transformative states of consciousness and spiritual experiences.

Even though these narrative elements only receive cursory treatment in Her, and a fairly overt judgmental slant in Transcendence (this god-like AI’s destruction is apparently worth an indefinite global blackout), they do suggest that these types of experiences are important for conscious beings (AIs included) and should not be hastily dismissed in efforts to actualize a posthuman future. LaTorra’s Trans-Spirit, though avoiding “any extended discussion of the history or credibility of religion and spirituality,” uniquely considers the import placed on religious and spiritual systems instead of disregarding them as mere forms of backwards thinking. The program, he states, revolves around two important goals:

1. To achieve a complete scientific understanding of religious and spiritual phenomena

2. To develop techniques for inducing and controlling these phenomena for the good of individual practitioners and for society as a whole

Whether or not innovative techniques geared towards such goals (e.g., the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation to induce meditative states) necessarily cheapen the perceived profundity of these experiences among traditional practitioners remains to be seen and thoroughly debated, The larger discussions surrounding the transhumanist movement as a whole certainly persists.

But the themes and symbolism conveyed throughout these recent films provides viewers with an entertaining foundation for further consideration. As indicated above, narrative elements in Her do suggest the importance of these “spiritual” experiences, and imply that their complete dissolution would be irrelevant amid increasing technologies. Samantha was able to further transcend even her limitations as an advanced operating system with these types of innovations—in a way that left Theodore profoundly confused and wanting. And although the potential for technological advancements to be able to render historic modes of religiosity insignificant is an underlying narrative theme in Transcendence, the dynamic between the crucifix and surviving nanoparticles at the end of the film hint at the possibility for their coexistence.

Seth M. Walker teaches courses in philosophy, religious studies, and humanities in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Central Florida. He is also one of the founding editors of Nomos Journal, an online journal engaging the intersection between religion and popular culture. His work has also appeared in Salon.

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