Skip to main content

Lecture to address religious roots of technological visions

banner ad for The Transhumanist Imagination Lecture Series
March 17, 2014

Some scholars, inventors and futurists have argued that artificial intelligence, robotics and genetic engineering will soon produce people that will far surpass modern humans in power and intelligence. Will advances in technology lead to extraordinary transhuman beings? And what sort of society do these futurists envision?

Michael Zimmerman, professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder, will discuss religious themes in the ideas of key proponents of these technological innovations in a free public lecture at 3 p.m., March 20, in West Hall, room 135, on ASU’s Tempe campus.

Zimmerman's lecture, “The Technological Singularity: A Crucial Event in God's Self-Actualization,” will examine the extent to which transhumanism draws upon and extends a long-standing theme in Western philosophy and theology, according to which humans are capable of being God or god-like.

Zimmerman asks whether it is possible to retain what is noble about modernity, including the freedoms connected with politics, research and religion, while correcting its shortcomings – among them serious environmental problems and various technologies that seek to alter human evolution. His work on transhumanism seeks to understand the motivations driving those who wish to enter a new posthuman era as fast as possible.

“Some posthumanists crave life extension and even immortality; others see a fortune to be made in medicine; still others envision Nobel prizes for extraordinary scientific breakthroughs,” says Zimmerman. “Another important factor animating posthumanism, however, is a spiritual-religious yearning.”

One of the key figures that Zimmerman will discuss in his lecture is Ray Kurzweil, an inventor and one of the most influential contemporary writers about the future of technology and human evolution.

“Professor Zimmerman has written most insightfully about the deep religious roots of Ray Kurzweil's notion of Singularity,” says Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, professor of history, director of the Center for Jewish Studies and co-director of the project, “The Transhumanist Imagination: Innovation, Secularization and Eschatology.”

“Zimmerman argues that for Kurzweil, technological development represents a secularized ‘divine spirit’ that works through humans to take charge of its own destiny and spiritualize everything in the universe, including matter and energy,” says Tirosh-Samuelson.

“In Kurzweil's vision, the god-like posthuman is a being that has become divine,” says Tirosh-Samuelson. “This is a profound vision, which simultaneously secularizes and displaces traditional religious ideas.”

“Because science and technology are pitted against religion in popular discourse, many people are surprised to learn about the religious roots that animate many of the technological visions that are shaping our future,” says Ben Hurlbut, assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences and co-director with Tirosh-Samuelson of the Transhumanist Imagination project.

“This is one of the reasons it is important to examine the futures that are being imagined by leading technologists and futurists,” says Hurlbut.

“These visions have tremendous implications for public policy and public understanding,” says Hurlbut, “including the investment of public resources.”

This lecture is part of a series supported by the project, “The Transhumanist Imagination: Innovation, Secularization and Eschatology,” led by Hava Tirosh-Samuelson and Ben Hurlbut under the auspices of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict.

The project is made possible by a grant from The Historical Society’s program in Religion and Innovation in Human Affairs, sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation.

For more information, see the event page.

The Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict is an interdisciplinary research unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences that examines the role of religion as a driving force for human affairs.

Carolyn Forbes,
ASU Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict