Human thought is a development in the long timeline of the universe, not an intrusion apart from “nature” that must be expunged (David Sankey via Bing Image Creator).


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In The Revolt against Humanity, Adam Kirsch observes that as long as humans are around, life on earth is in trouble. In view of rapid anthropogenic climate change and other threats humans have posed to plants and other animals, Kirsch wonders whether our species can any longer justify its presence on our planet. He does not answer the question himself, but his readable survey of recent antihumanist environmentalism and adventurous transhumanism gives rise to an uncomfortable thought: perhaps now is the right time to let humanity perish from the earth for the sake of the rest of life.

How, I want to ask here, may contemporary Christian thought respond to such a proposal? Christians have previously been taught that humanity is not just one species of life among others. We are uniquely created in God’s image, called to be stewards of creation, but endowed with freedom to do wrong as well as right. To save life on earth, including human life, we need to pull away from our wasteful abuse and follow our true calling to care for the nonhuman natural world. We need to get rid of our sins, not ourselves.

Kirsch’s book provokes us to think anew about humanity’s place in nature. In addition to contemplating the antihumanist solution, the author considers another way of “revolting” against humanity: contemporary transhumanism. Current scientific developments in the fields of biochemistry, robotics, nanotechnology, information science, artificial intelligence, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience seem to promise unprecedented new offshoots of humanity. Perhaps we don’t need to get rid of human beings; perhaps it is enough to transform them into more durable and portable vessels of rationality, the kind of creatures who do not depend on a planet we may have damaged beyond repair.


First, though, let’s consider the antihumanists. As a Christian theologian with a long interest in science and theology, what strikes me most about the antihumanist recommendations is their avoidance of a cosmological point of view. Their ideas are narrowly earth-centered, biological, and geological. After Einstein, scientifically educated people must acknowledge that the journey of life on earth is part of a much longer epic, that of a whole universe coming into being. The four-billion-year-long journey of life and the much shorter period of human existence are part of an immensely long, and still unfinished, cosmic drama. The universe is an epic of awakening whose massive spatial and temporal dimensions we began to learn about only in the past century. After Einstein, I suggest, the antihumanists should reexamine their schemes by taking a more panoramic, cosmic point of view. What would they see?

The new scientific story of cosmic awakening tells us that after ten billion years, matter became complex enough that what we call life began to stir on at least one planet in our average-sized galaxy. With the arrival of life, the universe—at least on earth—began playing host to something unprecedented: the interior experience of organisms striving and struggling. Starting around 541 million years ago the embers of life on earth billowed into increasingly more complex organisms, some of them eventually endowed with sentience, subjectivity, and ever wider patterns of awareness. With each new advance in life’s complexity, the element of striving and struggling intensified. So did the prospect of failure and tragedy. The universe had become dramatic.

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Then, with the more recent arrival of humans, the universe gave birth to “thought.” A conscious and self-reflective species came into cosmic history (starting around three hundred thousand years ago on earth) and began hunting large animals and taking over local environments—all in what Charles Darwin called the struggle for existence. Endowed with the capacity to see, understand, seek truth, and aspire to goodness and beauty, this thinking species has also damaged, wasted, and destroyed life along the way.

So yes, our human presence here has been problematic. By welcoming the extinction of our species, however, antihumanists are not simply offering a strange new solution to ecological calamity. They are also severing thought from the long cosmic drama of awakening life, a remarkable story to which their own ethical sensibility is also contributing. In the phenomenon of thought and moral aspiration, something of undeniable value has come into the universe. The discovery of deep time—in which we learn that evolution’s most precious outcomes take millions and even billions of years—is one of the great achievements of scientific thought. But for many thoughtful people today, including Kirsch’s antihumanists, deep time is a vast emptiness. For them, the improbable arrival of self-conscious minds in cosmic history is a lonely blossoming in a desert, soon to be blown away. The universe does not really need to carry the disruptive burden of thought any longer. Let it go, and everything may improve.

The antihumanist intuition that life and the universe will be better off without us is not entirely new. It can claim the backing of ancient and modern myths according to which our most distinctive traits—self-awareness and the capacity to reason—have never fully belonged to the cosmos anyway. It may be seen as no great loss to the universe, then, if the thinking species just vanishes for good.

To rid the universe of thought, or even to welcome its elimination, is to tolerate violence on a cosmic scale.

But what if the phenomenon of thought is essential to the very definition of nature? The intuition that nature and mind are somehow inseparable still lacks the support of conventional science, but clearly the cosmos is not just a meaningless gathering of stuff. It has given rise naturally to self-awareness and the capacity for ethical reflection. Even though our minds often stray from truth and goodness, thought is a wondrous instance of cosmic beauty no less deserving of preservation than any other expression of life. To revolt against humanity, then, is to revolt against the universe itself.

How so? While Albert Einstein was developing his theory of general relativity (first published in 1916), he was not yet aware that the cosmos was still undergoing a long birth-process in time and that the seeds of thought may always have been present in nature. Like so many other modern scientific thinkers, he had assumed that the universe was eternal, impersonal, and standing still. Consequently, he was uncomfortable, at least for a while, with the revisions made to his theory of gravity by several physicists and mathematicians who found in relativity’s equations something we had never seen before. Supported by new discoveries in astronomy, they uncovered the trail of a universe that has been on an immensely long journey in deep time. Their science made it possible for us to think about thought—the human capacity to experience, understand, judge, and decide—as a momentous new stage in the story of the universe rather than as an intrusion from outside.

After festering quietly for billions of years, as the story goes, the phenomenon of thought finally began to break out into the open here on earth (and possibly elsewhere, for all we know). In the appearance of thought on our tiny planet over the past three hundred thousand years, something of incontestable worth and exquisite beauty has established itself as a whole new chapter in a cosmic epic. The fact that organisms capable of self-reflective consciousness have also caused immense damage needs to be acknowledged. But the antihumanist welcoming of the extinction of human beings, even if it seems right ecologically, needs to consider what such an abrupt and dramatic termination of thought would mean for the universe.

As we now know from astrophysics, consciousness has been in the cosmic works ever since the first micro-seconds of our 13.8-billion-year-old universe. The relatively recent appearance of a reflectively conscious living species is not a terrestrial fluke, but a signal of what sort of reality the universe is and always has been. To rid the universe of thought, or even to welcome its elimination, is to tolerate violence on a cosmic scale.

Antihumanism, I believe, depends for its appeal on the modern intellectual fallacy that understanding the universe objectively requires our subtracting from it any traces of subjectivity, especially intelligent subjectivity. There is something perverse about antihumanism’s reliance on the power of thought to welcome the extinguishing of thought. And there is also something morally amiss about placing misanthropy in the service of biophilia. Such intellectual contortions did not drop out of the blue. They are rooted in the ancient suspicion that humans have never really belonged to nature anyway. A strain of deep dissatisfaction with the physical world has been present in religious mythology for centuries, and it has only intensified in modern secular thought. The root of what Kirsch calls the revolt against humanity is this sense of our species’s cosmic homelessness, a bias that has shaped both traditional piety and modern scientific naturalism. If anything has proved to be ecologically noxious it is not our presence here, but the sense that we humans—beings with minds—do not belong to nature in the first place.

Instead of subscribing to antihumanism, then, humans need to learn the harder lesson of feeling fully at home in the universe. Unfortunately, the alienation of human minds from nature still affects not only religions but also the sort of deep ecology promoted by the antihumanists. The philosopher Thomas Nagel has rightly reminded us in his provocative book Mind and Cosmos that the thinking species has yet to locate an intelligible place in the natural world for the phenomenon of thought—and hence, in effect, for human beings. Mind has yet to be embraced as integral to nature. I worry that antihumanists are taking advantage of this unsettled status of human consciousness to kick it out of the cosmos altogether. But if the phenomenon of thought is so worthless that we may now allow it to just vanish, one may ask why the antihumanists expect us to value their own thoughts as exceptionally trustworthy.


Where does that leave transhumanism, a reader may ask? The drama of cosmic awakening, for all we know, allows for countless future epochs of surprising new creation stretching far beyond the range of what we humans can now foresee. Meanwhile, understanding nature as a long awakening invites new thoughts about what it means to be faithful “stewards” of creation. If the cosmos is still coming into being, then our caring for creation would entail not only the preservation of nature’s treasures but also the vigilant preparation of new pathways for adventures of life and thought in the future of our still-developing universe. 

We may wonder, therefore, whether a Christian vision of creation and divine incarnation allows for—and may even foster—a morally chastened implementation of transhumanist dreams. New scientific ideas and techniques are now opening up the possibility that we could one day change not only what it means to be human, but also what it means to be part of nature. So, here again, I think we need to reflect on what transhumanism might mean not just for our species and our planet, but also for the cosmic future.

Here I will limit myself to two brief comments. First, instead of asking with Kirsch whether the earth could benefit from a transhumanist “revolt against humanity,” let us ask with Teilhard de Chardin whether the universe may be ennobled and enhanced by the arrival on earth of a new, ecologically sensitive ultra-human chapter in the drama of its ongoing creation.

It seems fitting for Christians to take up this line of theological inquiry. For centuries, biblical faith has been looking forward to a new and transformative ultra-human epoch of creation. Such anticipation is present in the prophetic tradition’s prayers for the coming of the Kingdom of God and the spiritual renewal of the face of the earth, as well as in the Christian hope that the whole of creation may be transformed into the extended body of Christ. Such hopes are best understood not as the private longing of souls to be transferred from time to eternity, but as a longing arising from deep inside the whole creation for opportunities to become more as time moves irreversibly from past to future.

My second comment is that the coming of an ultra-human stage in the drama of cosmic awakening does not require the replacement of humanity. Nor, in order to be consequential on a cosmic scale, would an ultra-human stage of new creation necessarily entail a radical reconfiguration of the human organism. Any such tinkering, as Teilhard wisely pointed out, would in any case be tangential to the real drama of a universe becoming new by virtue of a plurality of conscious beings gathering themselves around “a great hope held in common.” The prospect of human bodies, hearts, and minds being drawn to a new and higher center of attraction—one that offers forgiveness, freedom, and a new future—would be a momentous development in the drama of cosmic awakening. In the promise of a new future for the whole of creation, expectation of the coming of God should be enough to incentivize ecological responsibility without having to eliminate a whole species beforehand.


This piece was published as part of a symposium about The Revolt Against Humanity. For more of the symposium, read:

  • Gilbert Meilaender on birth, the expression of hope that defies posthuman ideologies
  • Nolen Gertz on how both anti- and transhumanism are ways to evade political and moral responsibility
  • Frank Pasquale on deflating the image of AI that underlies transhumanist fantasies

To see the full collection, click here. To listen to an interview with Adam Kirsch on the Commonweal Podcast, click here.

John F. Haught is professor of theology emeritus at Georgetown University and author, most recently, of God After Einstein (Yale University Press).

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Published in the November 2023 issue: View Contents
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