The Six Million Dollar Man was one of my favourite shows as a kid. (What does that says about me?). The premise of the show is that Steve Austin, a test pilot, has a catastrophic crash leaving him severely wounded. But, as the voice over announced in the opening sequence each week: “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better…stronger…faster.” He received a bionic left eye with a 20:1 zoom and infrared night vision; legs which could run at 150 km/h; and a new right arm with the strength of a bulldozer. Austin was a cyborg, and one of my early exposures to the idea of human enhancement. (Apparently there is a revival movie in production, though the release date has been delayed several times).
The Six Million Dollar Man taps into the technological confidence of “the space age”. Since the end of World War I, the ways we travel, communicate, manufacture and process information have been revolutionised. Successful lunar missions may be the most dramatic result, but the most remarkable achievements are probably those that directly impact human bodies. Our ability to understand our bodies and minds, to treat disease and to control pain have advanced incomprehensibly. We have a stunning range of techniques and technologies which allow us to analyse our physical condition: we can image internal organs, map genes and test a huge range of functions. While we can’t control as effectively as we investigate, we have significant influence on how our bodies work. Almost all of us in Australia benefit regularly from modern medical technology.
Most commentators consider that we are now in the midst of a series of even more profound developments in our power to change human biology. Bio-technological advances include pharmaceutical developments (drugs), mechanical/ technical developments (e.g. artificial organs and invitro fertilisation), genetic manipulation and digital augmentation. These areas are converging to open up new possibilities which move from therapy to human enhancement. Students and others are using “nootropics” (Ritalin and Modafinil), which were designed to treat identified medical problems, to enhance focus. The use of drugs in sport is infamous (and probably endemic).
These are just the beginning of the possibilities of enhancement. This year the US military is sought proposals for an exoskeleton which would give soldiers “superhuman” abilities. Nanotechnologies, which are about the scale of molecules, promise the capacity to return aging bodies to health and to augment human intelligence, memory and awareness as well as physical strength. On the far horizon may lay the ability to upload a human mind to a computer, so an individual would remain conscious beyond biological death. The Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman may be not that from reality (though they will cost far more than six million dollars).
There is an urgent need for careful ethical thought about these bio-technological advances. Already science and medicine offer ways to adapt human existence which stretch accepted moral frameworks as well as legislation. One author, reflecting on the fusion of physical, digital and biological technologies on human existence, claims that “the grid of values, on which we relied for our moral development as individuals and collectively, stands dusty next to the shiny cyber-physical systems of the fourth revolution”. Vincent Menuz, Johann Roduit, Daniel Roiz, Alexandre Erler, Natalia Stepanova (2017). Eds. Future-Human.Life. (Geneva: neohumanitas.org).
In this field Christian thought has to seek hard for resources. There is little material in the Bible or the Christian tradition which is directly engages with the questions. So, we need to develop Christian wisdom in this new field. We have to understand the current and prospective scientific developments and identify the relevant biblical and theological principles, and have a careful conversation in the Christian community about how the two connect. Here I offer a sketch of what that may look like. But first it is important to clarify a few terms and concepts.
Therapy v enhancement
The Six Million Dollar Man is a good example of the distinction between therapy and enhancement (as well as being reminder that the difference is not hard and fast). Therapy seeks to restore a function which a person has not had or has lost; enhancement aims to provide a function which is more powerful than a person would usually have. Presumably, in the world of the TV series, Steve Austin could have been rebuilt with components which returned his body to its previous function. In the real world there are range of impressive developments for bionic limb though “they are not yet able to fully replicate the complexity, range of movement and functionality of a normal human limb”. https://www.science.org.au/curious/people-medicine/bionic-limbs Vaccination is a good example of a technology which could be viewed as therapy (it stops disease) or enhancement (it enables the immune system to be more effective).
The infographic from the Australian Academy of Science makes the case for a simple development from therapy to enhancement. In terms of the technology that is the case, but the intent and significance of enhancement is, generally, distinguishable from therapy and the distinction is worth preserving.See Lin, P. & Allhoff, F. “Untangling the Debate: The Ethics of Human Enhancement” Nanoethics 2 (2008): 251. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11569-008-0046-7
Transhumanism and Posthumanism
Transhumanism is a movement which proposes to use genetic enhancement, nanotechnology, cybernetics and computer technologies to move ‘human’ existence into new modes.For a useful overview of thinking in the area see R. Wilson, “Avenues of Concern in the Rise of Enhancement Technology: Is a Transhumanist and Posthumanist Future Really Better?”, Religious Studies Review, 43/ 2 (June 2017): 109-15. In this view, biology is not destiny, and bodily human nature needs to be overcome.See C. C. Hook, “Transhumanism and Posthumanism”, 2517-2518 in The Encyclopedia of Bioethics edited by S. G. Post,(New York: Macmillan Reference, 2004, 3rd ed.). The Transhumanist Declaration (revised 2009) states that “humanity’s potential is still mostly unrealized” that “there are possible scenarios that lead to wonderful and exceedingly worthwhile enhanced human conditions”. https://hpluspedia.org/wiki/Transhumanist_Declaration#Proposed_alternative_versions and see the webiste of humanity+ (https://humanityplus.org/about/mission/). Transhumanism and posthumanism are not identical, posthumanism is not usually as technologically radical as transhumanism, and there are other versions of posthumaism which are not transhumanistic. See, Emil Višňovský, “Homo Biotechnologicus.” Human Affairs 25.2 (04, 2015): 235. In this discussion, I will use the two terms interchangeably to denote radical proponents of enhancement who foresee a moment when it will be possible to transcend (trans) or go beyond (post) the current human condition.
Two visions of the future
We can start to think about this challenge by recognising two very different religious visions of the future for humans.
Transhumanism is reminiscent of the ancient religious movement of Manichaeism. The Manichees taught that humans are made by the Evil Principle (a Satanic figure) as a microcosm consisting of dark (material body) and light (immaterial soul). The Father of Good sent Jesus from the light realm to reveal divine knowledge by which humans could be saved. There are several versions of Jesus in Manichaeism, but it was clear that the orthodox Christian Jesus was a fraud. Their Jesus has some human form but was not born of Mary and did have a real body and so only appeared to suffer and rise again.
Salvation for Manichaeism was based in knowledge. Humans are trapped in ignorance about ourselves and our condition because we are a mix of dark and light. Jesus reveals that our souls in fact share in God. To know this truth is to be enlightened and enlightened souls will be released from their bodily prisons. In the meantime, serious Manichees followed an ascetic lifestyle with a strict vegetarian diet and frequent prayer and fasting. Christians early on named Manichaeism a heresy, partly because of the way it despised the body.
The parallels between Manichaeism and transhumanism are startling. For both, the body is a limitation, not a blessing, and full human potential is only possible with an escape from the current physical confines. Technological utopianism shares with Manichaeism a disdain for bodily limitations and the desire to rescue human life from these constraints.
Christians very early recognized that Manichaeism is a false teaching, partly because of its rejection of the body. Christians knew that salvation required that Jesus was fully human: born of Mary, suffered under Pilate, crucified, rose and ascended bodily; and that he would return bodily. Salvation cannot involve a rejection of the body Christian spirituality calls for a discipline of the body, but not its rejection (Col 2:20-23; 1 Tim 4:1-5).
Christian eschatology offers a very different vision of the human future. According to Scripture, Christ will return to redeem the creation and raise his people, physically. He will transform our bodies “so that they will be like his glorious body” (Phil 3:21). Resurrection bodies will be imperishable, glorious, powerful and spiritual — that is penetrated by the Spirit (1Cor. 15:42). The people of God will share fully in Christ’s resurrection so that they will not die. We will know God so deeply that Paul can say that we will know him as he knows us (1 Cor. 11:12), and in knowing God we will grasp the truth of his world in ways that we cannot now imagine. We will be “not able to sin” — to use the words of Augustine (Eph. 4: 13; 1Co 1:8; 1Th 5:23; Heb. 12: 23). With the resurrection and glorification of believers “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” (Rom 8:21). This is a vision of the transformation of human existence in the most wonderful way. It is not merely restoration to a created state, but conformation into the image of the glorified Christ. Yet, in glory there is no denial of created, bodily human existence. We will be transformed physically, morally and cognitively — we will share in the glory of God’s Spirit in body, mind and will — and that will make us more human, fully human. We will be conformed to the image of the One who is the image of God (Col 1:15).
Christian eschatology offers the promise of a human future enhanced beyond any dream of posthumanism — but unlike posthumanism it looks to a genuinely human existence. God restores and glorifies his creation, he doesn’t eradicate it. He unites it to himself, without overwhelming or denying it. It is this hope, not the Manichean one, that should guide Christian thought about enhancement.
The biblical hope of glory offers important insights which help us think about enhancement.
First, it shows that the desire to elevate the human condition is rooted in God’s purposes for us. It’s no surprise that we want not only healing, but enhancement. We are made for union with God, which will bring moral perfection, bodily glory and a new level of knowledge. The desire is human, and valid; but the technological path will not deliver. Almost every disturbing philosophy is a distortion of a valid insight, and post-humanism is the same. It is a desire for glory apart from God.
Second, the biblical vision shows us the real source and timing of human transformation. We will be changed “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet” (1 Cor 15:52). This is not something humans will achieve, but will be the final culminating gift of grace in Christ. Ted Peters summarises this aspect of Christian eschatology and the hope of the second ‘advent’ of Christ.
“It is an eschatological future that can be expected or hoped for, but it cannot be planned for. Whereas futurum provides an image of the future that can result from present trends, adventus provides a vision of a future that only God can make happen.”T. Peters “Progress and Provolution: Will Transhumanism Leave Sin Behind?” in Transhumanism and Transcendence: Christian Hope in an Age of Technological Enhancement, R. Cole-Turner, ed (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2011), 74.
The change for which humans long is not something we will create, but one we will receive. Whatever we achieve now, it won’t be glory.
Third, this warns that purported enhancements which end up losing significant aspects of human existence are not, in fact, enhancements. Most radically, human consciousness transferred to a dis-embodied digital existence is akin to a dystopian Manichaean future, rather than the glorious freedom of the children of God. Less radical enhancement can also result in deficits in human flourishing. For example, anabolic steroids, used for performance enhancement in sport, can lead to infertility in both men and women. There are proposals that it may be possible to improve human morality through digital implants. Leaving aside the obvious risks of manipulation, this may also circumvent instruction and experience as the proper ‘human’ ways of developing moral insight.
Fourth, while warning against dehumanising enhancement, the Christian vision seems to authorise the cautious use of enhancement. God has given humanity charge of the world, not only to keep it but also to develop it. We have abused this role by exploiting the creation, but that does not terminate the call to develop creation responsibly, including developing our own condition. Indeed, human culture is very much about improving our abilities. Throughout history education, training and technology have changed the way humans live for the better; some enhancements may be considered a continuation of this theme in human culture.This is in contrast to the report of President’s Council on Bioethics which argues that improvement should remain primarily a matter of human education and effort and that any enhancement is dehumanising, see Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness A Report of The President’s Council on Bioethics (Washington, D.C. 2003), see www.bioethics.gov
There is no place of a naïve confidence that bio-enhancement is always good. A focus on enhancement can easily feed human hubris which is spiritually and morally risky. When we imagine that we can bring about our own glorification, then we further lose touch with our need for God and can easily abuse the weak as we pursue glory. The Christian doctrine of sin offers a clear warning that powerful technology is likely to be misused.
Nevertheless, the risks do not, in themselves, rule out all enhancement. There is a place for careful, cautious explorations of pharmaceutical, digital, mechanical and even genetic enhancement. Enhancement is the continuation of the long history of human technical development. This seems to be, almost, inevitable — and always brings threats along with benefits. As in the development of medical therapies, enhancement needs to be regulated by a careful oversight which is not entrusted to the enthusiastic developers who are likely to profit from it.
There are further immediate reasons to be cautious about bio-enhancement. The most obvious is that it is potentially so powerful and may be, in effect, irreversible. There are also major questions about the fair distribution of enhancement. Bio-technology will probably be available to the wealthy and educated in the West, long before it is accessible to the rest of the human population. As with other technologies, that is an issue which needs to be addressed, rather than a reason to impose a total ban on enhancements. Enhancement can also risk significant social disruption, and again this is a reason to approach it with caution. Christians will also be wary that enhancement may promote a moral vision which denies the great virtue of caring for the weak and disabled and the character forming value of suffering.
Despite all the reasons for caution, my argument is that we can welcome certain forms of enhancement, where we are confident that they are genuinely humanising and not Manichaean. At the same time, we have to resist the exchange of enhancement for eschatology. There is no technological path to glory, and humans are made for glory. C.S. Lewis famously wrote “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” We might reword his thought: “Since I find in myself desires which nothing in this world will ever satisfy, the only logical response is to continue to long for another world, and not settle for a pseudo-paradise of my own creation”.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Vincent Menuz, Johann Roduit, Daniel Roiz, Alexandre Erler, Natalia Stepanova (2017). Eds. Future-Human.Life. (Geneva: neohumanitas.org).|
|3.||↑||See Lin, P. & Allhoff, F. “Untangling the Debate: The Ethics of Human Enhancement” Nanoethics 2 (2008): 251. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11569-008-0046-7|
|4.||↑||For a useful overview of thinking in the area see R. Wilson, “Avenues of Concern in the Rise of Enhancement Technology: Is a Transhumanist and Posthumanist Future Really Better?”, Religious Studies Review, 43/ 2 (June 2017): 109-15.|
|5.||↑||See C. C. Hook, “Transhumanism and Posthumanism”, 2517-2518 in The Encyclopedia of Bioethics edited by S. G. Post,(New York: Macmillan Reference, 2004, 3rd ed.).|
|6.||↑||https://hpluspedia.org/wiki/Transhumanist_Declaration#Proposed_alternative_versions and see the webiste of humanity+ (https://humanityplus.org/about/mission/).|
|7.||↑||See, Emil Višňovský, “Homo Biotechnologicus.” Human Affairs 25.2 (04, 2015): 235.|
|8.||↑||T. Peters “Progress and Provolution: Will Transhumanism Leave Sin Behind?” in Transhumanism and Transcendence: Christian Hope in an Age of Technological Enhancement, R. Cole-Turner, ed (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2011), 74.|
|9.||↑||This is in contrast to the report of President’s Council on Bioethics which argues that improvement should remain primarily a matter of human education and effort and that any enhancement is dehumanising, see Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness A Report of The President’s Council on Bioethics (Washington, D.C. 2003), see www.bioethics.gov|