Wired: We Have The Technology

Share/Bookmark James O’Hearn Feb 18, 2015

Wired

Surely the warmest spots “Down Below” are being saved for the plague of transhumanism, recently landed upon the as-of-yet unsuspecting Christian community. What is transhumanism, you ask incredulously, perhaps wondering to yourself why you’re talking to a magazine. It sounds dangerous! It sounds new-fangled, and not old-fangled at all! Probably, you narrate, the devil’s work.

Transhumanism is defined by that fount of knowledge we call Wikipedia as something rather complex having quite a lot to do with technology and the future. What, you ask in utter confusion, does that actually mean? In simpler terms, it’s the idea that what we think of as the traditional human body can and should be changed for the better.

To which it should be added that it has a great deal to do with the aforementioned technologies, and quite a bit more to do with that age old question of what it actually means to be human. The overarching question, then, becomes whether or not the physical parts of a human affect the non-physical. To what extent does the body affect the soul? Does the term “genetic manipulation” fill your mind with images of genetically engineered crops, which—as the news media clearly show—are 100 percent guaranteed to give you cancer upon eating them?

Does the word “cybernetics” make you think of Darth Vader and the Terminator instead of the Six Million Dollar Man and Robocop?

Does “nanotechnology” rustle your jimmies?

Well, they certainly do to some. Raised in the 21st century they may be, but they were born in the 20th, and these technological leaps and bounds befuddle quite a few brains!

The vocabulary freezes as surely as cryogenics: nanobot, android, cyborg, terabyte, floppy disk…

It’s past time that someone took a bold stance and said what everyone is thinking—typewriters were a step in the wrong direction. If some kind soul is under an obligation to write, then they can use a fountain pen and inkwell like God intended.

Imagine the sinfulness, how tapping out text on a computer screen is not entirely unlike worshipping a little wooden idol, hunched over before it! No, a true Christian would never let a glorified adding machine dictate so much of their lives, nor frequent any establishment which uses such things.

But it is on occasion stated that God is a merciful and loving God, and so perhaps before we pass judgment we may inspect a closer definition of one of these terms of transhumanism.

Let us say, cybernetics.

It turns out that most people, when they talk about cybernetics, don’t actually mean a transdisciplinary approach to exploring regulatory systems. This is partly because most people don’t speak in dictionary definitions, and partly because science fiction has done a splendid job of defining cybernetics as the integration of technology, such as prosthetic limbs, with the human body. It is, therefore, the definition that we’re all comfortable with, and will continue to use from here on out.

What should a Christian think about the whole thing, though?

Throughout the dark and somewhat dank corridors of the web, various Christian sites pop their heads up to yap like a rearing Yorkie, eager to prove themselves as stalwart guardians of the light. Transhumanism, claims website Face Like the Sun, inherently contains “a sinister and rather arrogant reproach of the religious, especially Christians.”

Another, blog Mary Meets Dolly, makes the claim that it is the transhumanist’s wish to live forever which makes it so obviously something detestable to God’s sight. In response to transhumanism’s goal of curing sickness and disease, the author says scornfully, “The transhumanist cannot ensure those traits will be available to everyone. Really, how could that be?”

Finally, Logos Apologia claims, it is the means of transhumanism that makes it antithetical to Christianity. Extended life should not be pursued for its own sake, as death is a natural part of this world God has put us in. Dying to oneself is an integral part of the Christian’s life, after all!

Well, so far we can see no reason to support anything of this transhumanist sort! Replacing God’s perfect handiwork with manmade devices? What rubbish! Yet somehow, I suspect that among the 1.9 million amputees registered by the Amputee Coalition in the U.S. by 2005, at least some of those use prosthetics — which is to say, use a manmade device in place of what our society terms a “normal person’s” limb.

And keep in mind that these 1.9 million are amputees only, saying nothing of those who have missed a limb since birth due to congenital defects.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with adjunct journalism professor Anna Sinclair, born a congenital amputee, about her experiences with prosthetics.

Her first prosthetic she received at 18 months old, a small rounded piece called the Crawler (no relation to Spider-Man villain of the same name). A basic body-powered prosthetic followed, coming before a myoelectric arm that used electric signals from the muscles under the base to manipulate the artificial limb in its desired direction.

Myoelectric prosthetics have advanced since then, reaching the point of manipulating wrists and even digits as the user wishes.

Due to physical discomfort she eventually decided to forgo using the arm, but remains happy with her choice. For Sinclair a “perfect prosthetic,” some future flawless replica of the human arm, would carry importance only insofar as it was comfortable. Wearing the less ideal versions found in the present is something she avoids to ensure she isn’t defined by her disability. As Sinclair said in an earlier interview with the Point, “I didn’t want it to define me.”

Despite this, she remains unworried that technology will somehow change her. “I think my faith in God and that background confidence helped remind me,” she says with a smile. “I’m sure of who I am.”

Karianne Chung, an electrical engineering major at Biola interning with a doctor who regularly works with prosthetics, seems to agree.

“By enhancing ourselves with prosthetics and orthotics, we’re enhancing God’s creation, not degrading it at all,” she says. “The body’s an outer shell. If you lose an arm, or have an artificial heart, so what?”

Chung expressed doubt that humanity will ever reach anything like some of the more extreme goals of transhumanism, such as full consciousness download and practical immortality. However, she believes that there is nothing intrinsically morally wrong with such technologies.

“Technology’s good or bad depending on how you use it,” she states with a serious nod. “If we can spread the Word while we’re all robots, then that’s just as theologically sound as spreading it with cars.”

The more we discuss this tricky issue of cybernetics, and how it fits into the ideas of transhumanism, the further we fly into what seems the Real Question: Is there a physical part of a human that makes them a human?

If there is, then perhaps it is irresponsible and arrogant in the extreme to even think of modifying it so heavily for selfish purposes, whether the methods be by way of machine or genetics. But perhaps it is alright to modify it to a lesser extent, for surely no one would claim that someone without a limb had lost an integral part of their sentient self. It is in this lesser extent that we find the distinction between gene therapy and transhuman genetics, which Biola biology professor Jason Tresser was adamant about distinguishing between.

“Both are modifying the human body, but one of them is trying to restore us to our state before the Fall, cure diseased alleles—that aspect of transgenic science is medicine at its finest.”

Transhumanism, however, isn’t just about fixing the damaged aspects of the human body—its goal is improvement. Give humans new genes, new abilities that they haven’t had before. Tresser, while not averse to this in principle, advises that we should probably be thinking more deeply about the responsibilities these new technologies come with.

“If we could give humans the ability to do something else they couldn’t naturally do, like see into the U.V. range … It’s just a technology, so does that change who we are or is it just an added feature? In my mind, it’s not going to change the fundamental parts of what it means to be human. If I lose my finger, I haven’t become less human. If I lose an arm, I haven’t become less human. My grandfather had an artificial pig valve in his heart; did he become some kind of weird human-pig hybrid?”

Shaking his head and grinning, Tresser admitted that technically the description was accurate—insofar as strict definitions go. He added a reminder, though, that we humans tend to swap parts a lot. We give each other blood transfusions, organ donations, and all manner of scientific hijinks that result in saved lives. If all our parts are replaced over time anyway, what’s so special about this physical form?

In an interview with Richard Park, a professor of philosophy here at Biola, the idea of the famous Ship of Theseus was brought up.

Theseus, merrily sailing along without a care in the world, bumps face-first into a storm—a random event that results in a broken mast. Shrugging, he orders his crew to make a new mast and continues on.

Over time, Theseus and his poor ship get so battered and broken that every single part has been replaced at one point or another. The question, then, is simply: is it still the Ship of Theseus?

“My view,” Park says, “is that the person remains the same through innumerable part replacement because the person is more than the body—the person is the soul. What’s the soul? Something like the mind, or what the Hebrews would call the heart. Is that circular? A bit; the person is the soul and the soul is the person.”

He continues to extrapolate on how human enhancement is hardly a new thing, giving examples of minute modifications like spectacles to see better, or even Tylenol to help with a headache. Having an extreme hardline stance on human modification, he explains, takes away from the tremendous possible utility that it has in terms of disease treatment such as cancer research and the like. Utility isn’t the only thing that is important, he adds, but it is important.

“Traditionally Christian virtue ethics has been more about what kind of person we become as a result of what we do. With the whole cybernetics thing you have to ask, is there a part we can replace after which we no longer are who we are? I would say that there is no physical part of our being in which our soul consists. In this present age, it’s fair to say that our soul is functionally dependent on our body - but it’s not equivalent to our body.”

In much the same way, it could be argued that a car remains a car no matter how many odd modifications it undergoes - for instance, adding rockets to the back of it merely makes it a better and faster car, not some new machine entirely.

While it’s important to keep sight of the responsibilities that our many new technologies bring, it also brings a strong sense of wonder at imagining the myriad ways the human body will change in the future. Will we have an uploaded series of brains, racing along the Internet’s highway somewhat more literally than before? Or perhaps gene augmentation will be the way of the future—and not the dark eugenics programs that our science fiction has brought to mind, but something brighter and purer, better able to deal with the problems that inevitably accompany human beings.

Regardless of which way it is, there is one aspect that will remain unchanged—the soul. It is, after all, hard to change the spiritual with the physical. And it is, perhaps, oddly comforting to know that trying is futile. No matter what odd iterations humanity goes through, we have a core provided to us. A blueprint, so to speak.

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