James “J.” Hughes identifies as a Buddhist, socialist and transhumanist atheist.080916_hughes_interfaithpreview

Hughes is also a sociologist and bioethicist who is the executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, a not-for-profit think tank organization that strives to establish ethical policies behind technological progress, especially regarding human enhancement.

At 2 p.m. Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy, Hughes will give a lecture on the history of transhumanism and how the ideology behind human enhancement can be perceived from a religious perspective.

“If God gave us reason, he probably gave us a reason for reason,” Hughes said. “Very few Christians believe that science and technology as a whole are actually anti-God. They don’t think that God intended us never to invent medicines to cure diseases.”

Hughes said he believes human enhancement and genetic modification can be framed in a similar way: “as an attempt to improve on God’s work.”

Hughes grew up interested in both futurism and Buddhism, and in college he became passionate about the relationship between leftist politics and Buddhist studies. He later began working for a Buddhist development organization in Sri Lanka called Sarvodaya, and lived as an ordained Buddhist monk.

But it was later while living in Japan that Hughes became interested in bioethical policies. Japan was in the process of adopting the American-pioneered policy that it’s ethical to remove the organs of a medically brain-dead individual. Hughes connected that to the Theravada Buddhist concept of “self” and how difficult it is to define.

“That seems to crystallize the connection between that kind of philosophical aspect of Buddhism about personhood and what personhood meant, and a public policy question in a really interesting way for me,” Hughes said. “So that was really the genesis of my interest in bioethics.”

While in graduate school, Hughes followed that new passion for politics and bioethics work, and established a more “techno-optimist orientation” that led him to transhumanism.

Hughes went on to work as the executive director of the largest global transhumanist organization: a non-profit named Humanity+, which was at that time called the World Transhumanist Association. But the organization’s large size caused it to attract people with a variety of political, religious and ideological orientations, many with which Hughes does not agree.

Rather than following bioconservative or libertarian philosophies, Hughes believes in “democratic transhumanism,” an ideology that stresses the importance that post-human technology is safe, available to everyone and respectful of individuals’ rights to their own bodies.

Hughes said infighting within Humanity+ led to staunch disagreements on transhumanism policies, which prompted him and other employees to create IEET.

“A group of us decided to start an organization that … will attempt to make a public policy intervention around those issues, and where we all agree there should be universal healthcare access [and] there should be Food and Drug Administration regulatory authority over these kinds of technologies,” Hughes said. “And as we began to think about the issues that we wanted to address, it expanded beyond just human enhancement.”

Hughes said IEET also addresses policies concerning topics such as global climate change, geo-engineering prospects and global catastrophic risk of asteroids and robots. The organization has also led conferences discussing the rights of non-human animals.

Hughes said infighting within Humanity+ led to staunch disagreements on transhumanism policies, which prompted him and other employees to create IEET.

“A group of us decided to start an organization that … will attempt to make a public policy intervention around those issues, and where we all agree there should be universal healthcare access [and] there should be Food and Drug Administration regulatory authority over these kinds of technologies,” Hughes said. “And as we began to think about the issues that we wanted to address, it expanded beyond just human enhancement.”

Hughes said IEET also addresses policies concerning topics such as global climate change, geo-engineering prospects and global catastrophic risk of asteroids and robots. The organization has also led conferences discussing the rights of non-human animals.

An essential question that governs many of those discussions is actually Chautauqua Institution’s theme for this summer: “What Does It Mean To Be Human?”

“This understanding of what we’re trying to protect weaves together a variety of bioethical issues and is really kind of central to how people react to the emerging prospects of our technology,” Hughes said.

Many transhumanists try to deconstruct the concept of a “human” and argue that what defines humanity is a “humane self-awareness.” Hughes believes self-awareness could have existed in early forms of homo sapiens, and does not exist in embryos or the brain-dead.

This opinion contradicts that of bioconservatists and many people of traditional Christian faith, who believe there is a concrete element that makes someone human. For a religious individual, that may be a “soul,” and for a scientist it may be a shared genetic heritage of all humanity.

Transhumanism is perceived by some religious traditions as sacrilegious, but Hughes believes the ultimate goals of many faiths conceptually align with human enhancement.

Religious practitioners use tools such as prayer, fasting and rituals to create better fates for themselves. Hughes said as science began to mature, people started to use technological advancement to achieve those same means of better health and greater wisdom.

“That’s basically transhumanism: the promise of technology providing us the kind of transcendence that religion has always promised,” Hughes said. “Therefore, many religious people see it as in conflict with religion, but in fact, some also see it as a fulfillment of religious promise.”

Hughes said although people of many faiths support human enhancement technology, he finds the ideology is more compatible with Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. He said Abrahamic traditions tend to imagine human beings only as they are now, and believe they have a destiny with God in this form.

But Hughes’ experience as a Buddhist monk taught him an Eastern religious philosophy that supports human transformation. He said Buddhist philosophy is not far off from radical human enhancement such as transhumanism.

“In the Hindu-Buddhist world, human beings are constantly evolving both up and down and turning into animals and demons and gods and all kinds of things,” Hughes said. “The goal of Buddhist tradition as a human being is to use technologies such as they are to transform into something more than human, so clearly some Buddhists would consider the prospect of using technology as we know it to do that kind of thing.”

But Hughes’ interest in Buddhism today is more about its philosophies rather than concrete practice. He doesn’t believe in reincarnation, and actually identifies as an atheist.

What Hughes does believe in, however, is a life mission to wake up every morning with a clear understanding of how what he is doing will contribute to the better minds of humanity.

“[We all] need to figure out how to help people, and that [goal] animates me politically, religiously and in terms of my work on the future of the human race,” Hughes said. “What more important questions can we ask than: How healthy, happy, long-lived and full of ability and prospects can our future generations be?”