The Singularity

Historians now generally regard the 1900's as "the American Century." What do you suppose they will call the twenty-first century? Possibly "the Biotech Century," as new scientific discoveries enable the radical re-engineering of the human body.[1]

Some futurists hail the coming of a technological utopia, or what Richard Oliver called "technopia."[2] Among other future developments, Oliver predicted the predetermination of the attributes of children, genetically derived therapies for most cancers and other diseases, the repair of damaged brain cells, the invention of biosynthetic body parts, human cloning, and the creation of life in a laboratory. Some are also predicting a robotic future, as human bodies are enhanced by biological and mechanical technologies. Current examples include pacemakers, artificial organs, hearing devices, and synthetic limbs. Could it be that in the future every part of the human body—including the brain—will be replaceable with superior artificial substitutes? Will homo sapiens become robo sapiens?

Ray Kurzweil went so far as to say that we are rapidly approaching a new level of humanity, a level which will transcend our biology. In 2005 Kurzweil defined this singularity as "a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed."[3]  He described the human body evolving into version 2.0, which will be self-repairing, and then version 3.0, which the mind will be able to alter at will. Kurzweil also foresaw human intelligence expanding by a factor of trillions as it merges with computers and other non-biological technologies. This will all happen, he said, as soon as 2045, when the fusion of technology and biology, of human and artificial intelligence, will result in "the singularity."

Kurzweil (now a leading engineer at Google) and others remain fascinated by the possibilities of new technologies—and yet they are insufficiently aware of what fundamentally constitutes human personhood. They believe that at some point we will be so altered and improved that we will evolve into a new level of being altogether. But this perspective fails to recognize human nature as it is given by God.

The technological enhancements we already see—like artificial organs, for example—do change the human body. However, they do not change the human person. I am reminded of the famous "Ship of Theseus" and the way it puzzled the ancient Greek philosophers. The Athenian ship was so old that none of its original timbers remained, or so it was said. Gradually, over the years, every single part of the original craft had been replaced. This made the philosophers wonder: Was it still the same ship? How could it be, if nothing from the original remained? It was indeed the same ship. For reasons a good philosopher could explain, even when all its constituent parts were replaced, the ship's identity remained unchanged.

This is all the more true for human persons, whose fundamental identity is not changed by additions or alterations to the body, but is established by our relationship to God—our creation in His image, the fall of our nature into sin, and our potential for salvation by grace. The Bible says that "when God created man, he made him in the likeness of God" (Gen. 5:1). Our unique humanity does not depend on what we are able to do—however "enhanced" our bodies become—but on our likeness to God in mind, heart, and will—the spiritual qualities of the soul. Furthermore, as far as our bodies are concerned, we are still made of dust, and to the dust we will return (see Gen. 3:19). It will take more than hardwiring us to a computer to reverse the curse of death that God has decreed against our sin.

Ray Kurzweil was right about one thing, though: a radical change is coming to the body and the soul, an alteration that completely transforms us outside and in, elevating us to a new and immortal dimension of human existence. Although it is something a scientist couldn't yet explain, or replicate, theologians call this change "glorification."

The change began with the resurrection from the dead of the Son of God. Jesus Christ was the first to receive a supernatural and immortal body, by the power of God the Holy Spirit. After His resurrection, Jesus had a living body that could be seen and touched, but His body also had miraculous properties—a body capable of shining with radiant splendor.

Although Jesus was the first to receive this glorious body, He is not the last. A transformation is coming—the resurrection of the dead. Gloriously and simultaneously, we will be raised to immortal splendor. "We shall all be changed," the Scripture says. In a single moment, in the twinkling of an eye, "the dead will be raised imperishable," as our mortal bodies put on immortality (1 Cor. 15:51-53).

This "singularity" will coincide with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. It is when Jesus appears that "we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2). The singularity is indeed near; Jesus Himself has told us that He is coming soon (Rev. 22:20).

[1] Information for this article comes from C. Ben Mitchell, "Why the Biotech Future Needs the Church," Covenant (Fall, 2006), pp. 16-21; Frank Wilson, "The future body: Very unlike ours," The Philadelphia Inquirer (October 10, 2005), E1, E10. See also: Jeremy Rifkin, The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World (New York: Putnam, 1998). For a more recent take on developents in "transhumanism," check out the following articles from Wired (Sorry, Y'All—Humanity's Nearing an Upgrade to Irrelevance) and truthXchange (The New Trans Challenge).
[2] The Coming Biotech Age: The Business of Bio-Materials (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000).
[3] See: The Singularity Is Near (New York: Viking, 2005).

Philip Ryken (PhD, Oxford) is the Bible teacher on Every Last Word, a weekly radio broadcast from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Dr. Ryken also serves as president of Wheaton College. He and his wife Lisa have five children: Josh, Kirsten, Jack, Kathryn, and Karoline. He is the author and editor of numerous books, including Art for God's Sake and Grace Transforming. When he is not preaching or playing with his children, Dr. Ryken likes to play basketball and ponder the relationship between Christianity and American culture.

This article was originally published on reformation21 in January 2007. 

Philip Ryken