In effective altruism (EA), we are concerned with ‘doing the most good’. I argue that (1) there will be situations where Christians are also concerned about ‘doing the most good’, (2) it is important to think about how one defines and measures the ‘good’ in ‘doing the most good’, and (3) Christians – especially Christians in EA – have an important and unique contribution to make in defining ‘good’.
This is the second part of a two-part post examining transhumanism, a movement that advocates the use of technology to enhance human capabilities and improve the human condition. (First part here) There is some overlap with transhumanism and parts of the Effective Altruism movement, especially the longtermist space.
Secular transhumanists generally hold a physicalist worldview where God plays no meaningful part. Consequently, they see the world as a sort of an empty canvas: produced by coincidence, containing no intrinsic meaning or purpose. Humans are faulty biological machines produced by blind evolutionary forces. This leaves humanity and the world free to be modified however people desire and technology permits.
Christians on the other hand see the world as created by God and directed towards God. Creation has a purpose and finds its fulfilment in union with God. Humans are created in the image of God. Creation gives humanity intrinsic value.
Creation also sets limits on what is good for humans. Most Christians would probably at least have questions about using one’s “morphological freedom” to radically alter the human form or mental processes. In a survey of members of the World Transhumanist Association in 2005, 95% of respondents answered “No” when asked, “Do you believe there are clear divinely-set limits on what humans should do?”
I do not mean to say secular transhumanists see no value in humans, or that they would see humans only as machines, like some Christian critiques seem to imply. Transhumanists value life and human beings deeply – why would they otherwise be so insistent on what they see as improving the lives of humans and other beings? Rather the difference is that Christians understand humanity and human potential in relationship to God, whereas secular transhumanists do not. Hence their vision of the good of humanity and how to achieve it looks different from the traditional Christian one.
How transcension is achieved
Christianity agrees with transhumanism that we should transcend the current human condition. Humanity is not as it should be; our lives at the present state are far from realising our true potential. There are similarities with Christian eschatological hopes and transhumanist goals. Christians, too, wish to be freed from ageing and death, disease, and all forms of misery. Christians are told to accept suffering in their lives (“to carry the cross”), but their ultimate goal is the New Creation where all suffering ceases. So despite the encouragement to accept or even embrace disease and other hardships that fall upon us as means of spiritual growth, there is nothing fundamentally wrong from a Christian perspective in desiring eternal life or freedom from suffering.
Where I see a difference between classical Christianity and transhumanism is in how this goal is achieved. Christianity has an eschatological vision in which God brings about a radical transformation of the world. Secular transhumanism seems to make this transformation something humans are capable of achieving by their own power. In the previously mentioned survey, 93% of respondents answered “Yes” to the question “Do you expect human progress to result from human accomplishment rather than divine intervention, grace, or redemption?” (but the remaining 7% is very interesting).
Still, there is a role for human activity in improving things here and now in Christian thought. Most Christians would happily thank God for freeing the world from smallpox and see no contradiction in saying this was achieved through human efforts and ingenuity. A similar pattern can be found already in the Old Testament: God promises deliverance but works it through people. For example, it is God who delivers Israel from Midianite oppression in the book of Judges, but this deliverance comes through Gideon and his fighters. Sometimes there are no obviously miraculous elements involved. The people God raises up to fulfil his plan may not even be Israelites: King Cyrus of Persia is called an anointed one of the Lord in the book of Isaiah due to his role in ending the Babylonian exile. I think it would fit this Biblical pattern to say, for example, that God raised up Viktor Zhdanov to hasten humankind’s deliverance from smallpox. This kind of reasoning makes the picture more nuanced, but I believe a difference remains.
In addition to who can ultimately bring about a change to this condition, there is disagreement about the means to achieve this change. In secular transhumanism, the human predicament is fundamentally conceived as an engineering problem that has a technological solution. For Christians, the root of humanity’s problems is spiritual, and so is the solution. Instead of seeking to overcome human limitations, Christianity aims to overcome sin that separates humans from God.
Interestingly, similar criticism could be raised against EA. From a Christian perspective, most EA work is not addressing the fundamental problem behind the world’s brokenness but treating the symptoms.
What conclusions should be drawn from this exploration? I am not entirely sure. I would imagine most of the causes advocated by transhumanists are not widely embraced by Christians. Striving to achieve immortality via technological means seems especially suspect. However, these are rather marginal causes within EA, so uneasiness regarding them should not be much of a problem in engaging with Effective Altruism. Perhaps this highlights the nature of EA as a broad tent movement.
Secular transhumanism and Christianity have different narrative framings of (some) attempts to do good in the world. In their efforts to do good, Christians are not trying to “immanentize the eschaton”, but rather attempting to put the great commandment of love in practice by using the means God has given us. Different narrative framings probably also have psychological effects. Christians share the hope of a bright future free of current limitations with transhumanists, but have the assurance that ultimately God is in control of the transformation.
This is the first part of a two-part post examining transhumanism, a movement that advocates the use of technology to enhance human capabilities and improve the human condition. There is some overlap with transhumanism and parts of the Effective Altruism movement, especially the longtermist space.
There are many different views inside the transhumanist movement, so I am making many generalisations that may not apply to all transhumanists. I’m focussing on secular transhumanism (themajority of the movement is nonreligious) and not commenting on the views of religioustranshumanists in this posts.
The goal of the transhumanist movement could be loosely defined as overcoming current human limitations to achieve a better future. Transhumanists not only want to improve humans as they currently are but to more radically transcend current humanity. Some think this will ultimately lead to a future populated with beings so vastly different (and, arguably, better) than current humans that they should be called posthumans. Transhumanists are particularly interested in enhancement of human minds, space colonisation, artificial intelligence, and technology to end ageing and enable extensive modification of the human body.
Disease, ageing, and death are obvious limitations of humanity, so transhumanists want to develop means to overcome them – sometimes unconventional and even controversial, like genetic engineering or cryonically preserving human bodies or brains in the hope that they can be resurrected in the future.
Developing new technology to treat illness and injury is something both Christianity and the wider EA movement embrace, but aiming to eradicate death altogether through technological means is hubristic from a Christian perspective – however, this topic deserves a more nuanced treatment than is possible in this post. Within the EA movement there has been some consideration of anti-ageing research, but it is not a popular cause area.
Human biology in general is seen as a limiting factor by transhumanists. Many advocate for what is called morphological freedom: radical freedom to choose your own bodily form, enabled by future technology. Some also think existing as minds simulated in a computer system is preferable to having a physical body, but this is contested and some disavow the possibility entirely. The idea of future beings living in computer simulations has also been discussed in the EA longtermist space.
These desires have interesting similarities to Christian eschatological hopes of resurrection and eternal life. Christians also hope for immortality in a body free of current limitations like ageing and pain. On the other hand, while transhumanists want the ability to radically transcend the human form (for those who so desire) and many of them look forward to a posthuman future populated with beings fundamentally different from current humans, Christians see the resurrection as perfecting the human body and human nature in a glorified form.
Part of this might be semantics. C.S. Lewis remarked that if we met one of the beings Christians hope to eventually become, we might be tempted to worship them because they are so much beyond what humans currently are. They would be included under some definitions of the term posthuman. Still, the resurrected will remain recognizably and essentially human, like Jesus after his resurrection and ascension, so they cannot be properly called posthumans from a theological perspective.
Another difference with some transhumanists is that even though Christianity acknowledges a period of non-bodily existence for humans between death and resurrection, the idea of existing only with a simulated body as a final goal does not fit together with a hope of bodily resurrection. Christianity does not view humanity as something to be left behind but perfected, and the same goes for the human body.
In addition to the human body, transhumanists see the human mind in its current state as severely limited. They believe technology could make humans much smarter than they are now. They also believe human experience could be improved by making us happier, more in control of our mental processes, and perhaps also able to easily experience mental states that are currently hard or impossible to reach. Some have also considered the possibility of enhancing human morality.
In and near the EA movement there is a clear interest in improving human decision making. This usually means providing better information and techniques on an individual and institutional level. Many transhumanists go much further and are interested in modifying human brains genetically and pharmacologically, or going beyond biology by linking human minds with computer augments or AI, perhaps even replacing biological brains altogether. Some people in EA have considered cognitive enhancement as a cause area, but again this is not a very popular cause in the movement.
The transhumanist goals of enhancing the human mind bear some similarities with Christian hopes. Christians want to become more moral and ultimately to live in a state of heavenly bliss. People in the world to come will be more intelligent and wise than humans in their current state. When it comes to this life, however, I would imagine most Christians feel at least some caution towards genetic, neurotechnological or pharmacological interventions to increase human intelligence. On the other hand, very few Christians condemn things like medication for ADHD – or coffee – that can improve concentration. I find it hard to establish where exactly the limits of acceptable enhancement would lie. Regardless, the biggest difference is that the secular transhumanist does not involve God. In any case, things like improving institutional decision-making and individual skills of rational thinking seem to be clearly acceptable and even commendable from a Christian perspective.
Space colonization is also a popular idea within the transhumanist movement, since having humanity limited to one planet in a vast universe seems like a waste of human potential. Here it is hard to make direct comparisons with Christian ideas, but as there will be no population growth in the Christian afterlife (“For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven”, Mark 12:35 ESV), one of the main reasons for colonization is lacking in the eschatological state.
Regardless of the plausibility of the particular technologies transhumanists are interested in, from the perspective of a person living in 1000 BC, we live in a future that transcends many of the limitations faced by humanity at that time, at least to some degree. We live much longer and healthier lives on average. We have drugs that can make us less anxious or help us concentrate. We are more free of the limitations of space and time: we can instantly talk with people on the other side of the world and it is also possible to travel there ourselves. And it seems technological progress will continue to change human lives even further. What I think is distinctive and relevant from a Christian perspective is the transhumanist attitude to technology-caused change in human lives and the goals of the transhumanist ethos, as well as the worldview in which these are embedded. I will explore these themes more in the next post of the series.
Note: this post does not present a stance by Effective Altruism for Christians. This blog publishes posts by multiple authors. The views contained in the posts may sometimes be contradictory and do not necessarily reflect the views of Effective Altruism for Christians.. This text was originally published Nove,ber 14th so parts of it may be outdated.
The Effective Altruism community has been shocked by news about the bankruptcy of cryptocurrency exchange company FTX. Sam Bankman-Fried, the company’s former CEO, had built a $23 billion fortune and dedicated billions worth of funding to EA. He set up the FTX Future Fund that distributed grants to longtermist causes. Now FTX is being accused of engaging in fraudulent practices. The company collapsed last week and Bankman-Fried’s net worth plummeted. Along with FTX and Bankman-Fried’s wealth, billions of funding committed to EA causes is gone. The board of FTX Future Fund, which included William MacAskill among others, resigned on November 10th. Exact details will be known later (if ever), but the allegation is that FTX used customer deposits in a questionable way against its own terms of service.
Longtermism has attracted some attention recently. I contend that a very weak form of longtermism can be compatible with Christianity, but that our concern for present people should override concern for future people—regardless of population size—thus rejecting strong longtermism. In this post I will primarily approach this from a moral duty perspective, rather than focusing on any practical issues with longtermism like cluelessness.
Stewardship, or what we owe the future
Christians do have a commitment to the reality of the future. God, being outside time, has full knowledge of the past and future (Ps. 90:2–4, Isa. 46:9–10), so at least a basic concern for the future might be expected of us. God also foreknows future persons specifically (Ps. 139:16, Rom. 8:29–30, Eph. 1:4), who we humans can’t even be certain will exist. There is some biblical precedent for responsibility towards future people. Proverbs 13:22 says, “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children.” The cultural mandate given to Adam and Eve (and applicable to us) to populate the earth (Gen. 1:28) implied that reproduction and child-rearing would be integral to God’s plans for humans, which further implied that humans would need to steward the earth for the sake of those future people that fill the earth. Later God promises Abraham descendants as a “reward” and makes further promises to his not-yet-existing future descendants (Gen. 15:1–16). While ancestry and offspring are important theological concepts, they are mostly used in the context of family and covenant, instead of any larger point about duty to the future.
For now, humans have dominion over the earth and a responsibility to tend to it, care for its inhabitants, and keep it habitable for later generations. Christians are not additionally asked to maximize total happiness in the world now or in the far future, nor colonize the galaxy so that more people (especially not simulated people) can exist.
Love and justice
Christian longtermism can potentially overcomplicate commands like loving neighbor and acting justly. The majority of biblical instruction is applicable for people in their normal environments and social situations and does not require intelligence or contemplation or calculation, but love (1 Cor. 13:1−3). The New Testament is filled with “one another” commands, instructions about relationships, and exhortations to communal piety (John 13:34–35, Gal. 6:2, James 5:16), which all in practice require present and personal engagement with other people. More than just rule-following, a Christian should most of all cultivate an attitude of love, which is easier in relation to existing people. The theme of justice is also prevalent throughout the Old and New Testaments. Advocacy, justice, and charity for the poor is commanded (Prov. 31:8−9, Matt. 25:31−46, James 2:15−16). This has been called the preferential option for the poor, or can be thought of as a prioritarian ethic. If we assume the trajectory of global living conditions will continue, this ethic would mean our highest priority for charity would be the people that need the most help today.
Jesus’ ministry, and the early church that followed, was primarily concerned with coexisting people (his sacrifice being an exception, affecting past and future believers [Rom. 4, John 3:16]). If Jesus was a longtermist or an effective altruist or even just a utilitarian, he could have introduced countless treatments, technologies, or simple hygiene habits in the first century to save millions of lives over the course of history. Instead he chose to heal the sick supernaturally. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus spends his time preaching and helping the disadvantaged in his direct surroundings rather than seeking political power to ensure more permanent long-term security and welfare for his people (Matt. 4:23−24, John 18:36−37). Jesus’ followers, then and now, might not be able to comprehend the true long-term consequences of his ministry, but his life and actions gave the impression that we should prioritize care for the “least of these” today over the future.
Eschatology, existential risk, and responsibility
Longtermism is concerned with mitigating existential risks which could (with some shockingly high probabilities) cause an extinction or curtail humanity’s potential. Protecting life is objectively good. But a Christian can also reasonably surrender the future to God and not be anxious about it; believers are promised earthly suffering not in the form of existential threat outcomes, but persecution and tribulation (Matt. 6:25−34, Matt. 24). And we know God has eternally executed his perfect plan for humanity and the world, fully aware of anything that would appear to genuinely threaten the human race. What we call existential risks to God may simply be never-actualized possibilities, or the means by which he brings about the eschaton. Still, longtermist efforts are useful. I value AI safety and governance, not because I fear a misaligned superintelligence wiping out humanity with nanotechnology, but because of the potential inequality and other side effects of transformative AI. I value biosecurity, not because I fear an engineered pandemic killing all Homo sapiens, but because I witnessed the devastation caused by COVID-19. Preventing a climate catastrophe is an example of stewarding the earth well, helping present people as well as future people.
Even assured that God would likely not allow the dangers we face to actually become legitimate extinction events, humans still have responsibility. This to me is the greatest tension in considering longtermism. It is wise, and intuitive, to weigh consequences at least a few generations out. It is also natural to discount the effects of actions after a person’s lifetime. A Christian right now with influence or resources can positively affect many existing and future people, and can surely use diverse approaches to do good. Importantly, the burden of bringing about utopia is not laid on humans. I personally think time and resources are best spent supporting policies and interventions that reliably do tangible good in the present, while also having a relatively high chance of being best for the long-term. Subscribing to any form of longtermism stronger than that will necessarily divert attention and charity from pressing issues today.
This is part three of a three part series on the early history of Christian charity. Part I and part II explored the development of Christian philanthropy in the early church and in the era after Constantine when the church gained more access to wealth. This post will draw from the examples discussed to explore the implications this history should have for Christian Effective Altruists.
This is part two of a three-part series on the early history of Christian charity. The first post on the early church discussed the greater cultural context of giving, the church’s early communal care for the poor, and the eventual extension of that care beyond the limits of the church. This post will explore how Christians changed and adapted after their empowerment as the favored religion of Rome.
This is the first post in a three-part series about the history of Christian charity. The series aims to examine the Christian history of giving for ethical and theological insight into some problems that confront us today.
EACH for Christians conducted an annual survey in spring 2022. The goal was to assess whether EA for Christians increased the respondent’s career impact and donations, and the respondent’s overall experience with EACH. The survey also provided information about reasons to engage with EACH and the niche EACH fills in the wider EA ecosystem.
“Shrewd as snakes and innocents as doves” is a Biblical saying that seems instantly relevant to Effective Altruism if shrewdness is understood as a calculating, impact-oriented mindset. Yet in its immediate context, the verse is instruction to the twelve Apostles on how to carry out a mission among hostile people. Is it also applicable in a wider set of circumstances in a way that is relevant to EA?