"Spiritualities of Human Enhancement and artificial intelligence"

conference Presenters

keynote speakers:

ray kurzweil

Title: Breaking the Shackles of Our Genetic Legacy

Abstract: At the onset of the 21st century, it will be an era in which the very nature of what it means to be human will be both enriched and challenged, as our species breaks the shackles of its genetic legacy, and achieves inconceivable heights of intelligence, material progress, and longevity. While the social and philosophical ramifications of these changes will be profound, and the threats they pose considerable, celebrated futurist Ray Kurzweil presents an inspiring vision of our ultimate destiny in which we will merge with our machines, can live forever, and are a billion times more intelligent...all within the next three to four decades.

Biography: Ray Kurzweil is one of the world’s leading inventors, thinkers, and futurists, with a thirty-year track record of accurate predictions. Called "the restless genius" by The Wall Street Journal and "the ultimate thinking machine" by Forbes magazine, Kurzweil was selected as one of the top entrepreneurs by Inc. magazine, which described him as the "rightful heir to Thomas Edison." PBS selected him as one of the "sixteen revolutionaries who made America."

Kurzweil was the principal inventor of the first CCD flat-bed scanner, the first omni-font optical character recognition, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first text-to-speech synthesizer, the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments, and the first commercially marketed large-vocabulary speech recognition.

Among Kurzweil’s many honors, he received the 2015 Technical Grammy Award for outstanding achievements in the field of music technology; he is the recipient of the National Medal of Technology, was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, holds twenty-one honorary Doctorates, and honors from three U.S. presidents.

Ray has written five national best-selling books, including New York Times best sellers The Singularity Is Near (2005) and How To Create A Mind (2012).  He is Co-Founder and Chancellor of Singularity University and a Director of Engineering at Google heading up a team developing machine intelligence and natural language understanding.

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Prof. Peter Robinson's Photo.jpg

wei lai

Title: God is the Greatest Scientist

Abstract: Mankind’s history has intertwined tightly together with the Creator, God. God is the beginning of wisdom, and the source of creation; since the dawn of time He has been leading us towards enlightenment and immorality. Science and technology are the instrumental levers in His hand to advance and shape mankind’s progress in the river of time.

Biography: Mr. Wei Lai was born in a small town in the southern part of China. He was poor and received little education; he did not even graduate from middle school. Thirty-eight years ago, in a country that had little tolerance for religious dogma, he wrote a book called Science and God. His three predictions in the book were: it is possible for human beings to live forever, the human race will create a new form of life, and that future immortals will be generated from our current generations of the human race.

Mr. Wei Lai believes that it is God’s revelation that enabled him to write the words in his book.

Not only is Mr. Wei Lai the author of the book Science and God, he is also an entrepreneur, and a philanthropist.

In China, he is known to be full of mercy and kindness towards the human race. For his philanthropic work, he was cited in the Forbes Charity List for 2004. Due to his founding of a special charity fund that is dedicated to providing scholarships for hardworking students in need. He is known for giving generously, while leading a simple life himself.


peter Robinson

Title: Fixed Points in a Changing World

Abstract: The importance of emotional expression as part of human communication has been understood since the seventeenth century, and has been explored scientifically since Charles Darwin and others in the nineteenth century.  Recent advances in Psychology have greatly improved our understanding of the role of affect in communication, perception, decision-making, attention and memory.  At the same time, advances in technology mean that it is becoming possible for machines to sense, analyse and express emotions.  We can now consider how these advances relate to each other and how they illuminate human nature.

Biography: Peter Robinson is a Professor of Computer Technology in the Computer Laboratory at the University of Cambridge in England, where he leads the Rainbow Research Group working on computer graphics and interaction.  His research concerns problems at the boundary between people and computers. This involves investigating new technologies to enhance communication between computers and their users, and new applications to exploit these technologies. The main focus for this is human-computer interaction, where he has been leading work for some years on the use of video and paper as part of the user interface. Recent projects have involved the inference of people's mental states from facial expressions, vocal nuances, body posture and gesture, and other physiological signals, and also considered the expression of emotions by robots and cartoon avatars. This has led to a more general reflection on what it means to be human in an age of human-like machines.


Tracy Trothen

Title: Making Us Better? Spirituality and Enhancing Athletes

Abstract: Elite sport is often where we see human enhancement technologies first and most visibly.What enhancements ought to be allowed in sports competitions is debated hotly. Ethicist Tracy J Trothen shows that the four main approaches to the sport enhancement debate fail to consider sport’s spiritual dimension. Trothen makes the case that if sport is one expression of the human quest for the sacred, this insight changes what it means to make athletes “better.” The valuing of spirituality affects which enhancements we choose to embrace and which we may not wish to pursue. Tough questions are raised regarding values and who we desire to be.

Biography: Tracy J. Trothen is a professor of ethics at Queen’s University, jointly appointed to the School of Religion and the School of Rehabilitation Therapy where she teaches in the graduate Aging and Health Program. She is a certified Teaching Supervisor of Clinical Spiritual Health (CASC), and Registered Psychotherapist (CRPO). Trothen’s recent publications include the coedited (with Dr. Calvin Mercer) anthology--Religion and Human Enhancement: Death, Values, and Morality (Palgrave, 2017), 

Winning the Race? Religion, Hope, and Reshaping the Sport Enhancement Debate (Mercer University Press, 2015), and Shattering the Illusion: Child Sexual Abuse Policies and Canadian Religious Institutions (Wilfrid Laurier Press, 2012). Currently, she co-chairs the American Academy of Religion's Human Enhancement and Transhumanism Unit, and the Religion, Sport, Play and Games Unit.

ethics of human enhancement and artificial intelligence session

Fraser Room 1:00 - 2:20 p.m.


Mark Graves (university of notre dame, notre dame)

Title: Shared Moral and Spiritual Development Among Human Persons and Artificially Intelligent Agents

Abstract: Technical advances in artificial intelligence make somewhat likely the possibility of robotic or software agents exhibiting or extending human-level intelligence within a few decades. Theological investigation can help meet significant research goals in artificial intelligence by orienting the development of agent communication and moral reasoning toward a shared moral and spiritual development of human persons and intelligent agents. In particular, Josiah Royce’s Loyalty-to-Loyalty initiates a moral stance within which humans and intelligent agents can develop constructive ethical frameworks and his semiotic philosophy of community can guide the development and functioning of an agent’s interpretive processes and can model shared spiritual formation.

Biography: Mark Graves earned his doctorate in computer science at University of Michigan in the area of artificial intelligence; completed a postdoctoral fellowship in genomics at Baylor College of Medicine as one of the first computer scientists to work on the Human Genome Project; and worked in biotechnology and pharmaceutical research for ten years before studying systematic and philosophical theology at Graduate Theological Union (GTU) and Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. He has scholarly publications in computer science, biology, psychology, and theology--including three books--and taught courses engaging the relationship between science and religion at Santa Clara University; the Graduate Theological Union; University of California, Berkeley; and Fuller Theological Seminary. He is currently Visiting Research Assistant Professor at University of Notre Dame's Center for Theology, Science & Human Flourishing working at the intersection of artificial intelligence, psychology, and moral theology.


Irene Dabrowski (St. John’s University, New York City) &

Anthony Haynor (Seton Hall University, South Orange)

Title: AI and “The Search for a New Man”: Outlines of a Catholic Critique

Abstract: In his pathbreaking 1944 book, The Drama of Atheist Humanism, Henri de Lubac offered a penetrating critique of what he termed, “atheist humanism,” which he characterized as a world-view engaged principally in “the search for a new man.”  By that he meant the utopian pursuit of human perfectibility, both on the civilizational and individual levels. De Lubac examines the seminal contributions of Feuerbach (God as a human projection), Marx (historical materialism), Nietzsche (The Death of God), and Comte (the establishment of the positive philosophy and the religion of humanity) to an emerging atheist humanist philosophy that would free the human species (unfettered by religious mystifications) to control nature, society, and ultimately themselves in the service of its flourishing. 

By jettisoning (or more starkly, “murdering”) the supernatural fiction, it becomes possible to apply our ever-accumulating knowledge of the world in all of its facets in the form of various “technologies” (operating on things, personalities and collectivities) that would guide and direct human history in a way that is more and more progressive.  De Lubac’s critique of atheist humanism and its “search for a new man” rested on a decidedly Catholic Christian anthropology that links the dignity, sacredness, and inherent worth of each and every person to a potential (given to us by our Creator) to make “virtuous” or “sinful” ethical judgments as we live out our lives as individuals and as members of communities. This anthropology is sharply contrasted to an atheist humanist anthropology that sees human beings either as “supermen” (the Feuerbachian, Nietzschean legacy) or as “objects” to be engineered in the service of a higher cause, namely, the establishment of paradise on earth (the Marxian, Comtean legacy).

Fast forward to the 21st century!  The transhumanist movement, of which AI is a central part, continues the pursuit of a new man.  AI, in giving primacy to the development of greatly enhanced and ever-expanding information processing and cognitive capacity for the species, can be seen as embodying in its more extreme forms the spirit of atheist humanism.  To the degree that AI by its very logic seeks to maximize our power and control (the superman motif) over nature, society, and personality in a way that is disconnected from a Providential plan, and to the degree that AI replaces human agency (with its all of its virtuous triumphs and sinful pitfalls) with human perfectibility (the objectivist motif), it is espousing an atheist humanist anthropology. 

In capturing the philosophical anthropology that undergirds AI (its strong program at least) and how it is rooted in an atheist humanist “symbolic universe” (to draw on Berger and Luckmann), we will be drawing on the intellectual and theological resources of the Catholic tradition, and in the process offering it as a compelling counter philosophical anthropology in the 21st century debate on the merits of AI. For at the heart of a Catholic spirituality is the development of the authentic freedom of each and every person.  To be given special attention in this presentation is the degree to which that project is seriously if not irreparably undermined by an AI movement that in its most radical guise has the latent consequence of usurping authentic human freedom, or redefining it in terms of maximal human control and perfectibility.

Irene's Biography: Irene J. Dabrowski, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Sociology at St. John's University.  Her publications in the areas of futurology and interdisciplinary thinking, include  "Valuing the Future" in reating Global Strategies for Humanity's Future (World Future Society, 2006), "Revisioning Social Science for the Singularity: The Transformation of an Educational Discipline" in The ECCSSA Journal (2015), and "A Socio-Religious Tech-Puzzle for the 21st Century Catholic Church in Salve (2015).  Her present research investigates the sociological consequences of artificial intelligence and the conceptual challenges that biotechnology poses for 21st century social science.  She is Co-Coordinator of the New Jersey Chapter of the World Future Society and an advisory board member of the Lifeboat Foundation.

Anthony's Biography: Anthony L. Haynor, Ph.D, is Associate Professor of Sociology at Seton Hall University.  His major publications include “Classical Theory,” Cambridge Handbook of Sociology (2017), “Valuing the Future,” in Creating Global Strategies for Humanity’s Future (World Future Society, 2006), and Social Practice: Philosophy and Method (Kendall/Hunt, 2003). He is Co-Coordinator of the New Jersey Chapter of the World Future Society. Dr. Haynor’s current scholarly interests are the transhumanist revolution, the integration of the human sciences, the integration of the human sciences and Catholic theology, and the forging of a social covenant.

Human Enhancement in Contemporary Society session

Guildford A Room 1:00 - 2:20 p.m.


Marissa Alarcon (University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon)

Title: Marlou to Xander Ford: Religious Perspectives on Human Enhancement

Abstract: Due to humanity’s frequent attempts to improve their physical appearance and attractiveness, or to reduce some hereditary congenital disabilities through cosmetic procedure or surgery, human enhancement is not a new concept. Human enhancement is not only about changing one’s physical appearance, but can also be about improving one’s memory, inserting implants, using prosthetics, or even undergoing gene therapies which could create “trans” humans or “superhumans” (Steward, 2013).

This research will focus on a current case that is prominent in the Philippines. Marlou Arizala, a 20-year-old man, was a member of a Hasht5 (a boy band in the Philippines) who became famous/infamous when their group’s videos went viral on social media. Most comments were derogatory. Marlou was one of the most targeted by the “bashers” and “haters” because of his appearance. As a result, he recently had a cosmetic enhancement procedure that changed his looks as well as his fate. Formerly known as Marlou, he changed his screen name to Xander Ford after the procedure. He went from being bullied by the Filipino media to an instant, popular celebrity.

Employing Marlou’s case as a conversation starter among Canadian respondents and performing a media analyses that take advantage of the author’s Filipino and English-language abilities, this study aims to identify people from different faith traditions’ reactions to and perspectives on human enhancements, specifically cosmetic enhancements

A 5-minute video will be used to introduce Marlou and his transformation into Xander Ford. Interview questions were designed and three people who identify as members of several faith traditions - including Roman Catholicism (West), Ukrainian Catholicism (East), Protestantism (United Church), Islam, Hinduism, and Sikhism – will be interviewed. The research process will take place in the month of October and will be completed before the conference. Interviews will only be recorded for reference purposes and handled with the utmost confidence. Respondents’ religious affiliation will be associated with their responses; however, all responses will be anonymous. The titles and roles of respondents will only be used if needed to prove a point. Results will be grouped and theme-focused analysis of the interview data will be presented, bringing a comparative dimension into this study.

Biography: Marissa Alarcon is currently studying Master of Arts in Religion and Culture at the University of Saskatchewan. She completed her Master of Arts in Education majoring in Curriculum and Instruction at the Ateneo de Naga University with a thesis on Learning Styles and Physics Achievement of the Senior Students of the Ateneo de Naga University High School. She also published a Worktext in Physics: Practical Analysis through the funding of the Ateneo Research Council. Under the Department of Science and Technology-Science Education Institute (DOST-SEI) program, she graduated with a degree in Bachelor of Science in Physics for Teachers at the Philippine Normal University.

Before moving to Canada, she has been a high school Physics teacher in the Philippines. She has been invited as a speaker on topics such as Test Constructions and Science Investigatory Projects. She also conducted reviews in Science for newly graduate secondary/high school teachers preparing to take their licensure examination. Marissa had also worked in an executive role in a multinational company in Dubai. Currently, she is working for the Catholic Health Association in Saskatchewan, a membership-based non-profit organization. Her role is focused on organizing conferences, establishing professional relationships with Catholic healthcare facilities, parishes, other non-profit organizations, and facilitating seminars and educational sessions.

Through dedication and commitment to her work, active involvement in her parish, and her love for nature and traveling, she became a published author of “The Gratitude-Driven Life” with a mission to inspire more people. In addition, she expands her skills and knowledge through fostering her interests in Research, Religion, and Science by engaging in paper or research presentations.


Una Stroda (Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago)

Title: ‘Siri Tell Me a Joke’… or is There Any Laughter in Transhuman Future?

Abstract: Siri, the voice-activated assistant, seems to be having problems with its sense of humor. However, when it does attempt a joke, we feel surprised and delighted that Siri perhaps is more intelligent and somewhat more human than we thought.

Laughter is important for many religious traditions: it is embedded in their creation stories, eschatological visions, and in their understanding of what does it mean to be human. In an ancient Egyptian myth, gods are born out of the laughter of the creator-god. In Buddhism, there are laughing monks and the Laughing Buddha. Psalms imagine Zion as a place of joy where our mouths are “filled with laughter.” Isaac (“he laughs”) is one of the patriarchs of Judaism, as well as the forefather of the Christian faith. The earliest Christian model of atonement portrays Christ as Christus Victor who conquers the powers of death and thus laughs at death. Resurrection was interpreted by early Christians as God playing a joke on the devil by rising up Jesus. Paul, by presenting Christ as the new Isaac in Galatians 4:28, initiated later theological discourses on what it means to be created in imago Dei considering the context of laughing at God, with God, and the laughing of God.

Laughter is a spontaneous and incontrollable physiological response to a physical, psychological or intellectual stimulus. Among the theories that attempt to explain human laughter is the Incongruity theory. According to this theory, laughter results from the perception of disproportion, disharmony, or contrast between expectations and results. Laughter is a reaction to incongruity, paradox, surprise, or a semantic discrepancy created by some dislocation of meaning.

Technologies continue to integrate into the realities of human social functioning, altering the way we think, react and interact. Potentially, our brains can be improved by implants that would enable us to analyze other persons’ thoughts as well as predict their reactions and behaviors. As a result, the unexpected and surprising turns of events will become obsolete. This ability to predict how situations will develop makes it less probable to encounter incongruity, such as the punchline of a joke, and laugh. Transhumanism thus poses a question: once our brain is so enhanced that we no longer are capable to laugh at jokes and incongruities of life, once we are no longer surprised or amazed by our existence, will we still be the spiritual descendants of Isaac, the Laugh? 

Biography: Una Stroda is a musician and a theologian. Native of Latvia, she currently resides in Chicago, IL. She holds degrees in piano performance, in ecumenical studies, in cross-cultural theology, and is a recent PhD graduate from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Her dissertation explores biblical, historical and theological aspects of laughter in relation to the divine: the laughing God, the presence and absence of laughter in scriptures and the Christian tradition, and eschatological perspectives of human laughter.

Technology and the Moral Body session

Green Timbers 2 Room 1:00 - 2:20 p.m.


Alec Arnold (Saint Louis University, St. Louis)

Title: Artificial Ecstasy? Erotic Spirituality and Transhumanist Sexual Enhancement

Abstract: I will explore how the integration of AI and sexual technologies (e.g., sex-bots, masturbatory machines, and “autonomous” avatars) affects the theological analogy between human interpersonal ecstasy in the sex act and spiritual openness to the divine. That such an analogy exists may require some explanation, which I will perform by referencing the thought of Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II. As a philosopher and theologian, Wojtyla supplies postmodern thought with a unique account of personhood that begins “from below,” such that human sexual intimacy (eros) becomes inextricable from the a priori relation existing between Creator and creature, which is itself aimed at realizing the intimacy of agape. In so many words, the “ecstatic body” is an irreducible sign of an ecstatic Creator.

With this foundation established, I go on to consider how the technologization of sex envisioned by transhumanists disrupts the intelligibility of human interpersonal ecstasy altogether, to say nothing (yet) of the human-divine relationship. The “erotic spirituality” described above suggests that, if one’s sexual partner were merely an object of technological accomplishment, however sophisticated, then sexual ecstasy itself—ec-stasis, literally “standing outside oneself,” in communion with another—becomes ontologically impossible. Of course, for many transhumanists—and I will mention Kurzweil alongside Martine Rothblatt and James Hughes—this concern is easily dismissed. For them, sexual pleasure is essentially a mental phenomenon, and our perception of the “other” is flexibly inclusive, which is to say, not exclusively human, but can include the likes of AI equipped robots or mindclones or other kinds of “persons.”

To this I respond: while it may be hypothetically possible for human sexual partners to become perceptually fungible with technological applications at some point, to actually anticipate such a future—indeed, to anticipate it with eagerness—would mean that the transcendent significance of embodied sexual ecstasy has already been declared obsolete, much like the way Pygmalion’s artistry was preceded by his disgust with the flesh-and-blood women around him. It would mean volitionally subordinating sexuality to the logic of pornography, since no perceptible distinction can be said to remain between them.

I will conclude by insisting that “artificial ecstasy” is an oxymoron. To willfully subjugate the body’s natural desire for sexual intimacy so completely to technological mastery is to no longer remain “human,” in any responsible sense. Yet while the form and function of “pleasure” attending this post-human transition is highly contested by all, the spiritual ramifications are incontrovertible.

Biography: Alec Arnold is a doctoral student in Modern Theology at Saint Louis University.  He earned his Master's of Theology from Regent College (Vancouver, BC) where he studied with Hans Boersma, gaining a focal interest in twentieth-century Roman Catholic theology and the nouvelle théologie.  Alec's dissertation expands upon the topic discussed here at the conference, which reflects his longstanding concern with the relationship between technology and personhood.  In the future, he plans to conduct further research at the intersection of theology and health care ethics, thanks to the unique opportunities available for such interdisciplinarity at Saint Louis University.


Michael Caligiuri (St. Paul’s College, Winnipeg)

Title: Cyborg Clergy and Bionic Popes – An Analysis of Technological Human Enhancement from a Roman Catholic Bioethical Perspective

Abstract: Following the direction of presenting an updated analysis of a faith traditions’ reaction to efforts to engineer human enhancement this paper presents Roman Catholicism’s response to enhancing cybernetic and nanotechnological body modifications. As Roman Catholicism has a long history of contribution to the field of modern bioethics and given the significant numbers of adherents world-wide, definitive policies on behalf of the Catholic Church in regards to technological human enhancement cannot not be undervalued.

We first consider definitions of human enhancement and levels of normalcy in connection to cybernetic and nanotechnological bionic implants, and outline a series of criteria to assess a technology’s potential bioethical acceptability: implantability, permanency, power, and public interaction. This is followed by an analysis from a Roman Catholic perspective of the major social issues brought forward by enhancement technologies: commodification, eugenics, vulnerability, and distributive justice. Such issues and any medical-grade enhancements to the human body are judged by a combination of traditional and modern sources to Catholic bioethical issues. Roman Catholic bioethics derives its sources from several levels, including biblical interpretation, contributions of patristic and medieval theologians, contemporary Catholic bioethicists, magisterial pronouncements, and, most recently, appeals to concepts of social justice and human dignity.

The work concludes by assessing specific aspects of technological body modification which fall within acceptable limits of conventional Roman Catholic approaches to bioethics and the areas of cybernetics and nanotechnology that would cause difficulty, if not prohibition. Specific body enhancements concerned with mental and reproductive processes may not qualify as morally acceptable within a Catholic tradition. Through this analysis the basic question of ‘May I be a Catholic cyborg?’ can be clarified.

Biography: An alumnus of the University of Manitoba and the University of Ottawa, Michael Caligiuri earned degrees in both the sciences and humanities, with a PhD in Religious Studies. Joining St. Paul’s College as a Research Fellow and as an instructor in Catholic Studies and Religious Studies, his areas of focus include religious and secular bioethics, issues in body modification technology, cybernetics and nanotechnology, as well as science, ethics and religious systems.

worldviews and artificial intelligence session

Guildford A Room 2:50 - 4:10 p.m.


Christopher Benek (Independent Scholar, Fort Lauderdale)

Title: How Changing Views of AI & Technology Will Change Humanity & the World

Abstract: Many science and tech experts like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have warned of potential dangers of Artificial Intelligence. Musk is wildly afraid of the future implications of AI for humanity.  He has warned leaders from across the United States at the National Governor’s Association Summer Meeting that AI is “biggest risk we face as a civilization.” At MIT in 2014 Musk spoke of AI using religious metaphor saying: “With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon. You know all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water and he’s like, yeah, he’s sure he can control the demon? Doesn’t work out.”

Hawking is so worried about the potential threat of emerging technology like AI that he has stated that humans need to come up with an evacuation plan to leave earth in the next 100-200 years.  One has to wonder if Musk’s preoccupation with colonizing Mars has been accelerated by this fear.  Thus, imitating poor theology, science and tech have turned to philosophies of escapism.

In contrast to such dystopian views of the future is the emergence of progressing interactions and iterations of theology and technology.  AI is forcing theologians to reconsider humanity’s previous concepts of self and humanity’s role in the cosmos.  These considerations are, in turn, forcing technologists to consider the value of religion as it pertains to the development of AI.  As a result of these changes in thought, both parties are now being forced to ponder if theology and technology are bound for convergence via human enhancement.  Such theological and technological considerations, presented in this paper, will radically impact our understanding of the function of technology, our concepts of being, and our notions of human purpose in the world.

Biography: Rev. Dr. Christopher J. Benek is a: PCUSA Pastor & 2018 General Assembly Delegate, Blogger at ChristopherBenek.com, 2018 Moderator of the 41 Churches of The Presbytery of Tropical Florida, Techno-Theologian, futurist, ethicist & speaker, Founding Chair of the Christian Transhumanist Association, CEO of The CoCreators Network, The Christian Post OpEd Writer, Social and religious analyst & commentator, Internationally Recognized Expert on Theology and Emerging Technology, and Ph.D. Student in Theology, University of Durham - focusing on the intersection of technological futurism and eschatology.


Braden Molhoek (Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, Berkeley)

Title: Is Religious Engagement a Consequence of AI and Transhumanism?

Abstract: In this paper I engage the work of Noreen Herzfeld and Marie Jahoda to examine issues raised by AI and transhumanism. AI and the rise of automation will lead to increased levels of unemployment. Jahoda’s latent deprivation model highlights latent functions of employment that people miss when not employed, leading to psychological distress. These include time structure, enforced activity, social contact, a sense of collective purpose, and identity. One of the ways in which these stressors can be minimized is engagement in meaningful social leisure activities, including religion.

Noreen Herzfeld in her book, In Our Image: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Spirit, she relates how theologians understand the image of God to how intelligence is thought of in AI research by means of a three-fold typology. I want to expand her typology into the discussion of transhumanism, using a related three-fold typology to describe the ways in which transhumanists place the emphasis on enhancement. Herzeld’s typology includes substantive, functional, and relational approaches, and I believe that parallels can be made for transhumanism, such as the enhancement of a particular characteristic or trait, or reimagining the function of humans or post-human species.

Finally I return to Jahoda’s model and reflect on how AI, enhanced humans, and post-humans might also be affected by these functions. If intelligence in AI resembles human intelligence, will AI make similar connections between their work and their identity? Will a human with enhanced intelligence be even more susceptible to the distress caused by the loss of these latent functions? The questions and their answers depend in part on where the emphasis is placed. If one takes a functional view of intelligence, per Herzfeld’s typology, then AI may not be affected by a connection or disconnect from a collective purpose, but if intelligence is relational, then social contact may be extremely important. The changes to both individuals and society brought about by AI and transhumanism have far-reaching implications, one of which could be creating a greater emphasis on meaningful leisure activities to improve mental health. Religion could serve as a way to engage with Jahoda’s latent functions and help provide collective purpose and social identities, though it is only one of a variety of possible activities to do so.

Biography: Braden Molhoek has a B.A. in Genetics and Religion from Ohio Wesleyan University, an M.T.S from Boston University School of Theology, a Certificate in Science and Religion (Bioethics Track) from the Boston Theological Institute, and a Ph.D. in Ethics and Social Theory from the Graduate Theological Union. He is currently a Program Associate at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences and an Adjunct Professor of Science and Religion at the Graduate Theological Union. His dissertation entitled “Reinhold Niebuhr’s Theological Anthropology in Light of Evolutionary Biology: Science Shaping Anthropology Shaping Ethics” brought together his interests in human nature, original sin, and the theology and science dialogue. Other research interests include artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, transhumanism, and virtue ethics.

Spirituality, the Brain, and Religious Experience Session

Green Timbers 2 Room 2:50 - 4:10 p.m.


Philip Reed Butler (Claremont School of Theology)

Title: Psychedelics, Implants, and Spiritual Enhancement - An Ethical Proposal for Harnessing BCIs for Spiritual Augmentation

Abstract: This paper will explore the potential role of Brain computer interfaces (BCIs) in augmenting spirituality, as engineering experience through mimicking the biochemical processes of psychedelics. Psychedelics are known for their ability to invoke profound “categorically” spiritual experiences, having a long historical connection to indigeneity. Scientists and contemporary spiritual practitioners alike recognize their chemically altering effects as insightful examples of the neurochemistry underlying spiritual events.

BCIs have the potential to work similarly to Psychedelics through nanobot injection, chip implantation or transcranial current stimulation. These mediums of electrostimulation are meant to trigger electrochemical reactions that alter neurobiology, ultimately impacting mood, actions, personality, etc. Essentially, BCIs hold considerable potential for controlling neurochemistry. As a result, BCIs might prove key for regulating spiritual experience. Regulation in this sense does not include the self-reported experience of one whose biochemistry is being altered. Here, regulation is meant to convey the moderated distribution of electrical impulses at brain centers known to be responsible for the production of neurotransmitters and hormones that elicit spiritual experience—paralleling psychedelic research.

The problem arises when regulatory entities begin deciphering the ethics of brain altering technologies. The technological moderation of spiritual experience via BCIs will most likely be controlled by either corporations, governments, or an individual. In addition, the implementation of a BCI implant is not just a one time procedure. Implantable BCIs remain within the body as a therapeutic tool, which also opens the door for dangerous consequences. So, questions concerning: The ethical use of spiritually augmenting BCIs (SABCIs) and customer information in reference to a company’s bottom line (do companies provide too intense of an experience for profit, or sell consumer’s biological data to the highest bidder?); The overall regulation of SABCIs; The de facto guinea pigs in contrast to targeted first adopters of SABCIs; The preventive measures protecting SABCIs from malicious code or black hats; The longitudinal effects of SABCI use for spiritual augmentation given current knowledge concerning long term use of psilocybin, DMT or LSD. Ultimately, the question becomes how might the complexity of BCIs be taken into consideration so that equity is guaranteed? This paper will begin with an exploration of the neurological impact of psychedelic drugs. It will then look at the possibility of current and emergent BCI technology to mimic psychedelic drugs while attempting to mitigate harmful side effects. It will conclude by outlining parameters for an ethical framework concerning the application of SABCIs.

Biography: Philip Butler is an interdisciplinary scholar in neuroscience, technology, race, and spirituality. His dissertation was entitled, “Black Transhuman Liberation Theology.” His passion for social justice, technological advancement and embodiment fuels his interdisciplinary approach. He serves on Hyperloop Transportation Technologies core ethical team, and is the author of, “Technocratic Automation & Contemplative Overlays in Artificially Intelligent Criminal Sentencing,” which appears in part one of Transdisciplinary Foundations for the Social and Economic Transformation of the Present.


Alan Weissenbacher (Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley)

Title: Neuro-engineering Religion in Willing and Unwilling Subjects: The Ethical and Social Landscape of Current and Up-Coming Technology

Abstract: We are already witnessing the ability to influence religious beliefs electrochemically.  Stanford is working on a high-powered ultrasound that can influence thoughts.  Berkeley neuroscientist Walter Freeman advanced some preliminary ideas on using brain plasticity to alter various religious beliefs.  A UCLA study revealed that transcranial magnetic stimulation can lessen a person’s belief in the divine.    In the past, the soul was deemed the province of religion and outside the purview of science. However, as we discover the neural correlates of religious experience, such allows scientific exploration of not only the biological mechanisms but also their manipulation.  Knowing the neurological correlates of various thoughts, beliefs, behaviors, and feelings opens the possibility of modifying these through the alteration of the physical and chemical substrate of the brain in subjects both willing and unwilling.  What are the ethics regarding certain types of enhancements or interventions?   I advance several areas of reflection and some preliminary suggestions on navigating the political and social landscape before the current nascent technology regarding neuro-engineering religion becomes fully emergent.

Biography: Alan Weissenbacher served many years as a counselor to homeless addicts, removing them from the urban setting and empowering them to run a farm while receiving counseling, spiritual care, and job training.  His work with these clients inspired his doctoral research into neuroscience and spiritual formation, exploring ways to improve religious care and addiction recovery through understanding how the brain works.  Recent publications include the chapter on neuroscience and religion in the textbook, Religious and Science edited by Gary Ferngren and an article exploring the neural correlates of instantaneous and gradual religious change published in Zygon.  He is the book review editor for the academic journal Theology and Science and is a father to two young boys.