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Christianity and Human Enhancement

Monday, 25 February, 2008

I touched on these issues in my Darwin Day blog entry, but Michael Anissimov at Accelerating Future has recently asked some questions on the issue on his blog, and I would like to have a go at answering them.

Although I am an atheist (perhaps more accurately a nontheist), I do think there is a point in answering these questions. Although religion isn’t technically supposed to influence public policy in secular nations, in a democracy public opinion carries a lot of weight and is still driven by religious ideology. A word of warning though that I am not able to comment as a Christian, but just able to summarise my anecdotal experience when arguing the issue with other Christians.

To answer these questions in a way that relates to this blog, I will answer them in reverse order (because the first question is the best) and won’t answer question five (because it doesn’t relate). So, here goes.

4) Say that humans develop a technology to bring someone “back to life” a few hours after brain activity ceases. Could this be used to research possible visions of Heaven, such as those in “light at the end of the tunnel” and other near-death experience accounts? How would we distinguish between genuine visions of Heaven and hallucinations caused by neurological trauma?

I’d like to think the answer is that near-death experiences will become less associated with religious ideas as science pushes out the”God of the gaps”, but I don’t really think it is likely. I think that religion will coexist with science in this area, claiming that just because we can find a mental correlate for these experiences, it doesn’t mean they are not divinely inspired. After all, that appears to be the current path taken with religious experiences from temporal lobe seizures, brain activity during prayer and various other parts of neurotheology. The feeling is that both the religious experience and the brain equivalent are caused by God. Hence, maybe a Christian could say that God was working through the scientists giving somebody a near-death experience.

3) Say that a brain chip is invented that makes its user more morally sophisticated and theologically insightful. Would this contradict the notion that good comes from God, and show that the “soul” is actually rooted in the biochemistry of the brain? Or would this signify the brain implant is somehow better tapping into the power of God? How would we tell the difference?

I doubt this sort of thing would show that the soul is routed in biochemistry, because neuroscientists have already uncovered much of the biological basis for feelings that are considered the domain of the soul, such as guilt, fear and happiness. But just as I said for question four, a Christian can simply believe that the soul is the cause of the biochemical and cellular processes that result with pleasure and pain. As for the morality issue, people often receive moral assistance (help doing what they know is right) from laws of the country, laws of other religions and other people. But I believe that most Christians think that acting moral for those reasons isn’t enough to save a person, one has to act moral because one is ‘born again’ and being led by Christ. Perhaps I should quote a Biblical passage for this:

Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him; Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats? And he said, That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man. (Mark 7:18-20 – KJV)

So, if one follows what Jesus is saying here, that external agents cannot defile a person, perhaps it is true that external agents (save God) cannot save a man. That is, a brain implant for morality will not be considered to save a man – that must be done by oneself. Christians believe that good comes from God in origins, but only if it comes from God in ourselves each day will it save our souls.

2) Would it be a sin to extend someone’s lifespan indefinitely using anti-aging therapies, because that would forever prevent them from getting into Heaven? Or would indefinite life extension merely be God’s will, because if he wanted us to die anyway, he could easily make it happen at any time?

Considering that the universe is going to suffer a heat death eventually, and that accident is likely to still exist, I doubt that a person would be prevented from getting to heaven eventually. The prophecies for a New Earth mentioned in Revelation 21:1 can be compatible with the incineration of the planet when our sun (Sol) becomes a red giant in 5 or so billion years. So we should be able to last at least that long. By then, Christianity will either be gone, or changed enough for any further musings to be futile.

1) If man was created in God’s image, would it be blasphemous for people to radically alter their body and brain as it becomes technologically possible, through genetic engineering or nanotechnology? (See “What I want to be when I grow up, is a cloud” by J. Storrs Hall.)

This is a massive question, and I doubt there will a Christian consensus on the issue. There are those Christians who will say things like “Jesus never enhanced, only healed” and quote Ecclesiastes 7:13 until the day their physically-unchanged bodies wither and die. Then there will be those oft-quoted ones that consider human enhancement to be part of some divine co-creation scheme with their Creator. Most Christians will probably fall somewhere in the middle, probably closer to the former. They will likely be very cautious towards any technologies, but eventually may accept them. It really depends whether some activists campaign hard to attack the science and how much the people want the technology themselves. It’s possible that the science even be condemned so much that gene enhancement clinics are bombed and cyborgs suffer hate crimes, or it’s possible that the science is integrated into religious themes (wasn’t Samson a superhuman, with some ‘divine’ strength enhancement in his hair?).

Such questions are good to consider, but any answers we get from particular Christians are never going to reflect what will happen to society as a whole. Personally, because religion can’t directly influence public policy, I think we should worry about the secular objections to human enhancement for now. Faith responds better to hard evidence, whereas the secular objections may be tackled with rational speculation. I don’t mean to ignore the religious objections, just that I feel they are over-emphasised in the debate.

Thanks to Michael Anissimov for the excuse to write another blog entry today!

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