Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Transhumanism: staring into the abyss (updated July 2015)


Never in the history of humanity have we needed so much to be in touch with the divine, with the Holy source of creation from outside of space-time. Never has this been so crucial to human destiny.

By copying and adapting the mind boggling designs, schemes and systems of God’s natural order we are, it would appear, within sight of being able to alter, for good or evil, the body and brain of a person, before or after birth. As a layman who follows popular science stories it appears to me that dramatic reductions in the cost of sequencing a genome, growing knowledge of epigenetics, rapid progress in genetic technology (mainly mimicking nature) and quantum computing, could conceivably allow us to

  • Achieve life spans of hundreds of years
  • Impart immunity to many diseases
  • Enhance mental abilities
  • Increase physical strength
  • Alter the body’s appearance

Some of these are already beginning to happen and no doubt there will be mistakes and unforeseen consequences. We are tampering with a miraculous work of heavenly engineering having the God-given property of life. Hubris and its consequences are inevitable, especially if we ignore  factors such as the transmission of learned information and environmental influences from generation to generation via the epigenetic mechanisms and meta-mechanisms which govern the switching on and off of genes as well as the function, shape, size and folding characteristics of the proteins which are encoded by some genes. These factors have only recently been discovered and are barely understood. It is also a sobering, if not terrifying, thought that resistance to antibiotics is growing yearly and we may soon be faced with horrific diseases that medicine can do nothing about.

The human body-brain system is orders of magnitude more labyrinthine and multi-layered , complementary and competitive in function and mysteriously diverse in the way it relates to the environment than was thought only a decade or so ago. In fact, with the discovery of quantum entanglement and recent findings on the molecular scale of undreamed of hierarchies of complexity in a person it is becoming apparent that not only does the body-brain system interact with the present world around it but, quite likely, with both past and future and potentially all parts of the universe (this follows from quantum entanglement). We have not adjusted to this idea let alone thought about its implications.

And what is life? We have absolutely no idea and much of the time are not even aware that we don’t know. It is more of a mystery than in the early days of homo sapiens sapiens. All we can say is that some all pervading agency holds the continuously changing flux of living systems in being, so that atoms, molecules and cells are continuously arranged, rearranged, repaired and replaced to result in functioning organisms which jointly give rise to a biosphere which has remained benevolent even as the sun’s luminosity has increased by 25- 30% over 4 billion years, mass extinctions by asteroid impacts have occurred repeatedly and cosmic rays have bombarded the whole planet (albeit mitigated by the Earth’s apparently unique magnetic shield).

Not only is the nature of life unknown. Its extent in the universe is also totally unknown. Even on our own planet we are finding viruses and bacteria miles below the surface not only of the ocean but of the surface soil. 

‘Functioning organisms’ includes homo sapiens sapiens (the extra ‘sapiens’ is needed because the latest paleoanthropic findings indicate more than one species of homo sapiens) made in the image of God, the Imago Dei. These organisms question their own existence, explore the nature of the world and the universe, construct theories of science and philosophy, deduce the limits of their own knowledge, invent, make and distribute ever-better technology, create art, poetry and music, set up civilisations, have concepts of divinity, experience love, truth, justice and beauty and seek out the Creator and sustainer of the universe. A supernatural universe because it emerged from a higher realm outside space-time itself.  Everything from quarks to abstract ideas and works of art are, ultimately, from outside of our universe, from a dimension not susceptible to scientific investigation.

So in practice what do we do with the burgeoning knowledge of the human brain-body system? Copy it or improve it? Given that certain human beings suffer because of a bodily dysfunction there does not seem to me to be any reason why we should not use any means possible to restore function. But when it comes to improving a brain-body system we hit a problem.

What constitutes an improvement? Every time a system is altered it immediately impinges on other systems in the body-brain complex, potentially on the whole organism and even by some amount, not necessarily minute, on the biosphere or even beyond. How do we know the overall result is an improvement?

An analogy might be to consider a chimpanzee which does not understand the working of an automobile (along with many human drivers) except that bad fumes come out of the exhaust pipe. So he improves this state of affairs by sticking a banana up the exhaust pipe, not realising that this will not only reduce emissions but completely stop the whole engine functioning, possibly killing driver and passengers in the process.

Suppose, for example, we have the ability to prolong life to 300 years (an incidental theme in my novel, 2077:Knights of Peace). This would have a Noah’s’ ark full of ramifications:

  1. Individuals full of evil (e.g. Hitler types) would be able to do much more evil in their lifetime; conversely, those filled with goodness would have more time to do good. E.g. people harbouring grudges for 300 years could do a lot of damage, while those doing charity work could do a lot of good. Would good win over evil in this scenario? Or vice versa?

  1. Family structure and rules of marriage would have to change. Ways of bringing children to maturity would have to change. The education system would need completely restructuring and morality would need to be given more emphasis.

  1. Travel to and from distant planets within our own solar system would become possible in a human lifetime even without a quantum jump in propulsion technology.

  1. Some individuals may become wiser than any hitherto, causing knowledge and technology to grow even faster than it has done since the Renaissance. New biotechnology could cause life spans to be further increased. Conversely, the long lived individuals may become stagnant and resistant to new concepts. Progress could be brought to a halt by intellectual stagnation. Some long lived people may become bored and question the point of life.

  1. New strains of virus and bacteria could appear to attack the long lived members of the race and these variants might be so powerful that they would find those not having had life extension treatment (probably the majority of people) easy targets.  
  2. Individuals with the ability to earn high incomes might be able to amass more wealth in their extended lifetimes, making their relative wealth even higher. A steep wealth hierarchy could emerge. Those not able to have life extension (e.g. because they can’t afford it) may be regarded as inferior and expendable. New socio-economic and political systems could evolve.
Immortality will never be achieved within the confines of a natural universe bound by the laws of thermodynamics. The universe itself is destined to heat death and this applies to everything in it, including machines and robots, even quantum computers.
Moreover, the concept of absolute goodness becomes relativistic. Somebody has to define what is good and there is no human able to do this. 

I am sure there are many more possible implications of longer life spans. The point of drawing up this list is to show that ramifications and consequences will abound and rebound from any attempt to ‘improve’ humans. Given that increased life span is likely to occur in conjunction with intended or unintended changes in other factors such as personal appearance, intelligence and physical attractiveness together with new technologies for creation, destruction, communication, education, subjugation and exploitation, the scope for unintended consequences is multiplied.

The above assumes that all the longevity techniques actually work without unforeseen and undesirable side effects at the biological level. Given that the human body incorporates not only trillions of body and brain cells working together in unknown ways and in unison with bacteria and viruses more numerous by orders of magnitude, and this meta-system varies continually with the environment in which the organism finds itself and that no mortal being knows the nature of consciousness, this seems more than likely.

In addition to the potential for Transhumanism there is now the real prospect of technology driving us into the colonisation of the solar system and the possible terraforming into benign environments of some of the extra-terrestrial environments we encounter. This could lead to new nations on different planets. If each nation decided to use transhumanistic  technology in different ways there could be totally different descendents of the race. Is this meant to happen? In a sense it would be a repeat of Genesis chapter 11’s early verses which portray the scattering of humanity over the Earth after building the Tower of Babel  after the Flood (probably tens of thousands of years ago) , when the survivors were concentrated  in one place and spoke only one language. God made them all speak different languages to prevent them advancing too much too quickly. Perhaps this time the break up of humankind, English speaking and homogenized in western ways, into different cultures on different terraformed planets will slow down progress to a rate we can deal with spiritually. Just a thought.

So we need to maintain humility and move slowly and carefully in a spiritual way, with humanity and divinity united in our being. God manifest Himself as Jesus Christ, to sanctify humanity, conquer spiritual death and take us forward to a New Heaven and a New Earth. Most Christians believe this and if they are right nobody can ignore the consequences – every single particle or quantum of energy or living being is affected.

Science on its own can’t answer the questions we face.

So look into the abyss, empty yourself of pride and pray for guidance.


Monday, 27 July 2015

Living planet: the cosmic connection

Terrestrial life appears to have begun with single celled organisms some 3.8 billion years ago. It is now a labyrinth of vegetation, microbes, insects, worms, reptiles, fish, birds and mammals interacting through hierarchies and networks in ways  only now beginning to be apparent. It is all happening on scales ranging from the sub-atomic  to the global and it is no longer heresy to say that the processes of organization and self improvement  throughout are far from random. Intelligence and purpose are revealed to an extent which the 19th century biologist could never have imagined.

Equally revolutionary is our growing perception of how this ecosystem is influenced by extraterrestrial factors:

  • Sun and Moon affect tides, which affect  marine life ranging from viruses to blue whales.  Tidal effects probably extend down into the crust which is also home to bacteria and viruses. The cyclic motions and eclipses of celestial objects, together with the Earth’s magnetic field, have allowed birds and mammals to migrate over large distances.
  • Sunlight is the energy source which through photosynthesis powers all microbes and plants, except that a few that get their energy from  reactions between inorganic chemicals of stellar origin.
    • Solar energy, mostly ultra-violet (UV) , brings heat into the atmosphere and ocean, so that ice can be melted, water evaporated and a life friendly warm environment sustained. Although the Sun’s output has grown by 20-30% over the 4.3 billion year history of the Earth the surface temperature has remained life friendly.
    • Cosmic rays from supernovae, gamma ray bursts and supermassive black holes non-randomly induce mutations in viruses, bacteria and the cells working within living organisms.  This has permitted speciation in insects and microbes (and possibly worms) and microevolution in some higher life forms (e.g.  Darwin’s finches).
    • Supernovae (very hot stars in their death throes) manufacture iron and heavier elements used in life and civilization, either directly in the composition of soil, plants and animals, or indirectly by providing the radioactive heat sources (uranium and thorium isotopes) deep down in the Earth  which drive plate tectonics and volcanism, both crucial to the biosphere’s evolution (e.g. the water cycle would be impossible without it).
    • Stars have produced  elements (notably carbon -12),  simple compounds and organic complexes with up to 10 atoms, either internally or in circumstellar space, which are all part of the living systems here on Earth. Precursors of RNA and DNA together with some 200 other organic compounds have been produced in astronomical  environs.
    •  Comets consisting largely of ice are thought to have replenished atmospheric water loss as they hit the Earth over the aeons. The water loss is due to due to cosmic ray bombardment driving water molecules into space. 

    •  Asteroid motion has been orchestrated by Jupiter, Saturn and Venus to result in mass extinctions as the asteroids hit the Earth over hundreds of millions of years. A rapid spurt of new life forms are created after every extinction event. 

    •  Cosmic fine tuning (e.g to 100 decimal places in the case of the gravitational constant) was needed to allow all the processes of life and individual living organisms to occur.

    • Dark matter may be playing a role in these events, e.g. in guiding the motions of planets over billions of years or in affecting heat processes in the Earth’s core. Research on this is only just starting and given that exotic dark matter forms most of the universe its role in the biosphere could be fundamental.
    The above relationships are fairly easy to check in a google search and far from exhaustive. They are the result of peer reviewed academic research. Holding in one's mind all these connections between life and the universe adds an extra dimension to the experience of witnessing nature and, for me, testifies to the intricacies  of God's creation.

    John Sears

    Author, 2077: Knights of Peace

    See also

     Our Precious Planet

    Deep mystery of existence

    Posts by subject

    Friday, 15 May 2015

    Our precious planet. Part 4. Timing of civilization

    1. Introduction

    This post tries  to explain how the genesis and evolution of human civilization depended on our planet having first gone through an orchestrated sequence of astronomical, geological and biological processes. This is over and above the cosmic fine tuning needed to allow pre-human life to exist. (Some of Part 4 overlaps with Part 3 but re-presents the material from a different perspective.)

    2. Defining civilization

    Civilization I am defining as a way of living which, depending on the values and beliefs adopted confers  benefits on its people through improving technology, communications and transport, increasing security against internal or foreign attacks on life and property,  growing agricultural efficiency, development of medicine and continually evolving knowledge of the world and how humanity relates to the Creator.

    3. Origin

    It appears to have started over 5000 years ago with the Sumerians in the fertile, periodically flooded plains between the Euphrates and the Tigris known as Mesopotamia, roughly coinciding with southern Iraq, Kuwait and parts of western Iran.

    4. Cosmic time window

    The universe started 13.73 billion years ago, expanding steadily after the first fraction of a second (the Big Bang). After 7 billion years it started to accelerate and appears set to continue this acceleration indefinitely. Before the stars were as far apart as they are now an observer anywhere in the universe would be blinded by a perpetually bright sky, unable to observe or deduce the nature of the cosmos, even if the atmosphere was clear. Only very recently in cosmic terms have the stars been sufficiently far apart to permit peering back to the moment of creation.

    Conversely, in future the expansion will be so fast that observers would see only relatively nearby objects, and again would be unable to witness the Big Bang creation event.

    Therefore we appear to be in a time window of a few million years when it is possible to deduce the history and nature of our universe.

    5. Solar time window

    The Sun, a yellow dwarf star with a lifetime of about  10 billion years, emitted radiation at a subdued level as it  entered into a relatively stable period of solar flare activity, beginning 50,000 years ago and likely to continue for another 50,000. This is based on the assumption that it will follow the pattern of similar stars observed at different stages of evolution  over billions of years i.e. by monitoring a given type of star at different distances, you can see what that type of star was doing at different times in the past.

    Even with the Sun in a relatively calm phase it still emits lethal streams of particles. At the same time our planet is irradiated with life destroying cosmic rays from supernovae, gamma-ray bursts  and the supermassive black hole at the centre of  our galaxy. Providentially, at this stage of galactic evolution and in our present position in the galaxy, such irradiation is well below normal. Nevertheless  it would still have prevented human life without the magnetic shield which surrounds our planet and which was in place in time to protect humans when they first appeared, as it does now.

    UV rays from the  Sun also would have prevented human life had it not been for the ozone layer, around 25 km high, the triatomic oxygen molecules of which absorb much of the incoming ultraviolet, rendering it benevolent, e.g. by stimulating the production of vitamin D, rather than doing harm to the body.

    6. Clear skies and celestial order

    By the time human beings (homo sapiens sapiens) appeared the Earth’s rotation period had slowed down from just a few hours to the 24 hours we know today. It is still gradually slowing down because of the Moon’s influence and at some time in the far future it will be too slow for habitability because of the effect on climate. Even another half hour or so would cause too much difference between day and night temperature.

    Initially the sky was opaque. Then by the time human beings appeared it had cleared over much of the globe to permit a good view of the Sun,  Moon, planets, stars and comets. The Moon and  Sun in particular would have excited the curiosity of early man by their cyclic order, phases and eclipses, as well as by the way their movements are related to tides and seasons.  The stars, Milky Way and planets would also have been sources of wonder. The ordered behaviour of the heavens and the correlation of this to the seasons  would have led many to believe in a hidden order throughout the living world.

    7. Preparation for agriculture and its consequences

    Cultivation of land for crops was necessary for the generation of food surpluses which allowed  resources to be spent on discovery, music, art, literature, drama, public buildings, a civil service , a judiciary, a religious order and  armies for protection, conquest and subjugation.

    The first civilization, the Sumerians in Mesopotamia, was made possible by the large areas of very fertile soil deposited when the Euphrates and Tigris flooded. This soil had been formed over millions of years by the weathering, erosion and crushing of rocks coupled with the action of bacteria. The rocks had a composition beneficial to farming because of the minerals brought to the surface of the earth by tectonic activity, itself a consequence of the heat from radioactive U and Th generated in supernovae and somehow transported into the vicinity of the Earth as it formed, 4.4 billion years ago.

    The fertility of soil greatly depends on the fixation of nitrogen from the atmosphere,  a process which depends on  lightning for energy  and on the presence of bacteria or blue green algae.  Again, the possibility of civilization depends on the most unlikely of causes. No lightning and  bacteria would mean no Sistine Chapel.

    8. Preparation for construction and technology

    Wood, metallic ores and clay were essential to allow the construction of houses, public buildings, bridges, roads, temples, ploughs, carts , ships and, within a short span of  geological time, aircraft, spaceships, engines, computers, communication technology and much  else. The wood obviously came from forests,  the clay was another form of soil (see above) while the metallic ores were made available through plate tectonic activity which prevented heavy metals like iron sinking through the magma towards the centre of the planet. Certain metals, e.g. gold and titanium, were also delivered by meteorites.

    Apart from its use in cooking, keeping warm and providing light, fire was essential  for smelting, refining and  materials processing, all necessary for the development of a civilization.  Fire depended very much on the atmosphere having the right amount of oxygen for controllable combustion and appears to have been the result of sophisticated biochemical 1feedback over billions of years.

    9. Preparation for water transport and motive power

    Apart from the provision of fish etc. for food the rivers, lakes and oceans which cross and connect the continents were and still are  needed  for  the transport of heavy loads up to very long distances, making trade and industrial specialization possible on a global scale
    Fast flowing rivers were also used for pumps and mills. Even today they are used for hydroelectric schemes .  All expanses of water were used for recreation right from the earliest civilizations.

    10. Animals

    Certain domesticated animals were crucial to early societies for motive power, transport, farming, hunting, hygiene by scavenging in human settlements, sport and companionship. These included, and still include: oxen, sheep, goats, horses, donkeys,  elephants, birds of prey and dogs. Such animals had a genetic structure lending itself to varying degrees of selective breeding.  Parts of the world where they had been hunted to extinction (e.g. parts of the Americas)  or were not present initially, were not able to progress beyond the Neolithic stage.

    Birds of prey must have inspired the concept of humans being able to fly, a vision which ultimately led to balloons, aircraft and spaceships. In fact without birds it is difficult to imagine how anyone would even have dreamed of flying.

    11. A precious planet indeed

     So overall it looks as though civilization was made possible by a unique set of circumstances and that the Earth is indeed a precious planet.

    Whether we are the  only conscious beings in the created order and ones having a sense of love, truth, justice and beauty as well as relentless curiosity and the power of reason we are unlikely ever to know. If there were no creator, i.e. if all the above is a product of blind chance, the probability of sentient beings elsewhere is, for all practical and rational purposes, zero.

    Conversely, if there is a God (and all rational and reasonable argument points in that direction) no being in his or her mortal state can define God’s ultimate purpose, one which could include sentient beings on another precious planet. Personally, it would not bother me if the humans are the only sentient life in the universe. It need not make us feel lonely- just alone with God.


    These posts in the Our Precious Planet series were inspired largely by Hugh Ross’s Why the universe is the way it is. Other sources include  Paul Davies’s The Goldilocks enigma,  Peter Douglas Ward’s Rare earth,  and Rodney Holder’s Big Bang Big God. I also made use of Wikipedia and popular science sources.

    John Sears
    Author, 2077:Knights of Peace

    Links to all 4 parts of Our Precious Planet and some related links are given here.