Ziba Norman: Theologian and Futurist


Ziba Norman"I seek to save your immortal soul, whilst you aim to save my immortal body." My conclusion after a long conversation with a transhumanist friend. Are we on parallel paths or do they entwine? This personal anecdote encapsulates one of the central themes of my research interests.

I am a theologian and futurist working on the cusp of theology and technology, with a particular interest in artificial intelligence, bio-enhancement, transhumanism and space policy. I am currently an Senior Research Fellow at University College London, and a member of the Centre for Outer Space Studies, within UCL's Institute of Advanced Studies. I was raised in a Baha'i family in which the philosophical aspects of religion were emphasised, and latterly studied theology under the Jesuits, reading the works of, amongst others, Chardin, Rahner and Metz. I completed an MA in Theology (2017, Heythrop College, University of London), writing a thesis entitled Transhumanism, Technology and Transcendence: Personal and Political Implications for the Future of Faith.

I can date my own awareness of transhumanism, the main focus of my research, back to early 2003, when, as a member of the editorial board of Prospect Magazine, we published a cover piece entitled: Our Posthuman Future. Many years later, in 2016 at a conference in Switzerland, I met Anders Sandberg, a well-known transhumanist: our discussions as we hiked in the Alps above Maloja revivified my interest in the subject. Some months later, I decided to embrace the full-time study of theology. I found myself linking the two areas, and now study questions of human presence in space. This includes developing concepts of environmentalism in space and incorporates geopolitical considerations.

There is, I believe, an emergent transhuman identity, characterised by a desire to surpass our bodily limitations. But how will this emergent identity alter who we understand ourselves to be as humans in the 21st century and beyond? What will become of the belief structures that have hitherto enabled the development of civilisation, and taken us to the edge of becoming a two-planet species? These technologies focus on the physical aspects of surpassing our limitations as a species, but what of the spiritual challenges these technologies present? To address these questions adequately we need the resources offered by both systematic theology and the ancient Wisdom traditions if we are to successfully navigate our way through this critical point in human history.

(Ziba Norman photo: Mark Sisley)


Does AI have the potential to alter human religious experience?

I joined William Crawley on Radio 4 Sunday, 22 January 2023 (interview starts around 28m30s), to discuss ChatGPT (Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer) which is viewed as a game-changer for language generation.

Research highlights from my dialogue with ChatGPT

Please note: the following is not a transcript of Radio 4 Sunday. Audio of the programme is linked above.

Below is some of my preliminary research after engaging in dialogue with ChatGPT. I have deliberately not posted ChatGPT's answers verbatim.

Can ChatGPT write a sermon, give pastoral advice or answer a theological question? Let's start off with the basics, this is a program, it is not general AI.

I engaged ChatGPT in dialogue, using it as a tool to answer a variety of questions. Below are a few findings from my encounter in dialogue on theological and pastoral matters.

Can you describe Rahner's transcendental method? ChatGPT provided a good working definition.

Compare Rahner's concept of "Vorgriff of Being" to Heidegger's concept of Being. I asked this twice; it generated two different answers that, a trained eye would say were not totally consistent with each other. It lacked breadth, it didn't refer to the wider context in which both thinkers operated.

I then asked ChatGPT a few questions that might broadly be considered pastoral.

Can you suggest how I might discern for the priesthood? It responded with useful lists. It associated the terms 'priest' and 'priesthood' with a male occupation, generating gender-biased answers. When I explained that I was female, ChatGPT 'apologised', leaving me with some kind advice, including the following: there are many other things you can do, you should not allow your sex to 'prevent you serving God'.

Now that we'd become friends, I upgraded ChatGPT to spiritual mentor.

Imagine you are my spiritual mentor, how would you suggest I cope with dryness in prayer? It resisted being anthropomorphised, to its great credit. (I wonder what the character Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation would say?) It proclaimed itself 'a language-generating programme' and not a spiritual advisor, but could provide some suggestions for assistance (all of which were plausible).

ChatGPT is a very impressive tool. Certainly useful for generating certain types of fact-based content, and can create a pretty plausible essay or sermon. When prompted with more abstract questions there were gaps, which would, to the trained eye, likely suggest the text was generated, rather than the result of one focused train of thought. I wouldn't recommend it for a thesis defence. And there was never any sense of being engaged with an autonomous entity.

Forthcoming events

To be confirmed.

Papers Presented

Conservation versus colonisation: The ethics of a human presence in space [PDF of paper]

This talk was part of the Astrobiology and Planetary Exploration (APEX) Meeting Programme, Centre for Planetary Sciences, UCL/Birkbeck. (Tuesday 11 February 2020, 1.00 pm)

Discussion of environmental ethics has become increasingly charged as fears for the future habitability of our planet, and concerns about anthropocentric global warming, have come to dominate the agenda. In this paper I have no intention of directly addressing the concerns, truths or interpretations of the data that has driven and animates groups such as Extinction Rebellion. Indeed I would welcome the awareness their movement offers, enabling even those most distant from these issues to be forced to consider the ramifications of their actions on the planet we share. Nevertheless, I'd like to suggest that unchecked, it may increasingly lead to a narrowed understanding of stewardship, of our place in the universe as human beings, and of our capacity to create, perhaps even bring life to lifeless worlds, and to expand into the universe.

Homo religiosus: Towards a Positive Mimetic

Paper Presented at International Society for Science and Religion (ISSR), Religion, Evolution and Social Bonding, Summer Conference, Eynsham Hall, Oxford (21-24 July 2019)

This moment in human evolution is characterised by an emergent transhuman identity, expressed by a desire to exceed our bodily limitations and potentially even shape the evolutionary process itself. But how will this play out on a societal level in an age of such advanced possibility? Will new belief structures emerge, ones capable of creating a flourishing of society?

Rene Girard, a thinker whose work on social evolution has been compared to Darwin's theories of biological evolution, suggests that unconscious mimetic tendencies and sacral violence are generative of human culture. The mimetic urge, as described by Girard, can be viewed as an attempt to escape from existential incompleteness, which I will argue is most fully expressed in transhumanist desires. The pursuit of ultimate autonomy, in Girard's view, itself leads to what he has termed the 'mimetic law of escalation to extremes'.

Girard's work challenges us to reverse these mimetic tendencies. His work is pessimistic, though well observed. The roots of these behaviours, as described, can be traced to the very earliest form of religious practice.

In opening these discussions, I will look at the works of Rene Girard, Michel Oughourlian and Carl von Clausewitz, to address the question of how a deep understanding of the mechanisms described by Girard is essential for our continued flourishing as a species.

Is God the Master Algorithm?

Paper Presented at the Science and Religion Forum (SRF), AI, Robotics: The Science, Opportunities and Challenges, St John's College, Durham (April 11-13, 2019)

Our world is moderated by technologies animated by algorithms. As tools algorithms offer unparalleled means of facing existential threats posed at this moment inhominization. Although true artificial intelligence (AI) does not yet exist, algorithms, mathematical codes that speed calculation, are drivers of the quest to create AI. What faculties will we ascribe to these artificial intelligences; will they alter our concept of the divine and therefore our conception of self? Will they remain tools, used by us as authentic, autonomous beings, or will we begin to attribute god-like qualities to them?

Professor Pedro Domingos, an expert in the development of machine learning, discusses the quest to find the 'Master algorithm' in a book hailed by President Xi. He suggests a digital 'you' could be reliably expected to make decisions which 'you' in embodied form would have made. This digital 'you' informed by the Master Algorithm might even be used for self-improvement and introspection. As such ideas gain currency, could the truths of Christianity become inaccessible in a data-driven world? In opening these discussions, I will draw on biblical texts and the work of both J. B. Metz and Karl Rahner.


'Ethical Challenges in Human Space Missions: A Space Refuge, Scientific Value, and Human Gene Editing for Space', K. Sozick, Ziba Norman, M. J. Reiss, Science and Engineering Ethics, Springer, 2020 Jun; 26 (3): 1209-1227. DOI:10.1007/s11948-019-00131-1. Epub 2019 Sep 3.

'Risk and Sacrament: Being Human In A Covid-19 World', Ziba Norman and Michael J. Reiss, Zygon®: Journal of Religion and Science, 55 (3), Wiley Blackwell, September 2020. DOI:10.1111/zygo.12618

'Two Planets, One Species: Does A Mission to Mars Alter the Balance in Favour of Human Enhancement?' Ziba Norman and Michael J. Reiss, in K. Szocik, M. B. Rappaport (eds.), Human Enhancements for Space Missions. Lunar, Martian, and Future Missions to the Outer Planets, Space and Society, Springer, Cham. DOI:10.1007/978-3-030-42036-9_11

'Science and Religion Shift to Manage Risk in the Covid-19 Pandemic', M. B. Rappaport, R. Campa, C. Corbally, Ziba Norman, Studia Humana Volume 10:1 (2021), pp 1-17

'Wrath, Mercy, Pestilence and Plague: How the Wisdom of the Ancients Offers Courage in Pandemic', M. B. Rappaport, R. Campa, C. Corbally, Ziba Norman, Orbis Idearum Volume 8, Issue 1 (2020), pp. 29-38. DOI:10.26106/X6RC-ZQ60

'The Emergence of an Environmental Ethos on Luna', Ziba Norman and Michael J. Reiss, in K. Szocik, M. B. Rappaport (eds.), The Human Factor in the Settlement of the Moon: An Interdisciplinary Approach, (2021), Springer Nature, Cham, pp. 221-232. DOI:10.1007/978-3-030-81388-8_14

'Future space missions and human enhancement: Medical and ethical challenges', Szocik, K., Shelhamer, M., Braddock, M., Cucinotta, F. A., Impey, C., Worden, P., Peters, T., Ćirković, M. M., Smith, K. C., Tachibana, K., Reiss, M. J., Norman, Z., Gouw, A. M. & Munévar, G. (2021), Futures, 133, 102819. DOI:10.1016/j.futures.2021.102819

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