- Since time immemorial, human beings have sought to improve the human condition by technologies which changed the world around us, but we did not attempt to change ourselves. But across a range of scientific disciplines, discoveries and developments now make the idea of significantly modifying the human body no longer mere science fiction. ‘Human enhancement’ is about trying to make changes to minds and bodies - characteristics, abilities, emotions and capacities - beyond what we regard today as normal. Much of this is far future. Nearly all the claims are speculative and exaggerated. Much may never be feasible. But sufficient is realistic for the enhanced human performance to become a topic of serious debate. It raises deep theological and ethical issues about our humanity, our societies and our human destiny, which churches and societies need to debate, for which we offer this report.
- We are not primarily discussing future medical advances, but changes in five areas:
- chemicals for physical enhancement
- chemicals to enhance performance, mood or cognition,
- functional implants within the body, like computer chips integrated in the brain,
- changes to body cells and systems, and (less feasibly) to human genes,
- extending human lifespan, which is often included but is a special case.
- Such changes might be small, a bit faster or smarter perhaps, but they could be quite radical. Apart from cosmetic surgery, sport, and recreational drugs, humans have so far remained within our biological limits. To enhance our capabilities, we created external tools, like spectacles. But why remain limited by biology, some are now arguing? Why not modify our eyes to increase our vision, and even have infrared vision to help us drive at night more safely? But would we use the enhanced sight to drive faster instead of driving more safely? This example illustrates that many claimed enhancements are ambiguous, as to whether they would make us ‘better’ humans. Can we also be both subject and object of our own design? If, as we believe, God has shaped humans through the evolutionary processes, we have serious doubts that we know with enough certainty how to improve on God’s ‘design’ of ourselves? Can humans understand the complexity of body and mind to be sure that any ‘enhancement’ would be for the better, seen as a whole?
- A small but vociferous movement, known as transhumanism2, promotes human enhancement in the belief that humans must take our evolution into our own hands to go far beyond our current biological limitations. This technological transformation of humanity has a quasireligious character, and as such we regard it as erroneous and misleading. The expression ‘playing God’, perhaps has a real meaning here. We agree with a human aspiration to better ourselves, but technology cannot provide salvation from the deeper moral, spiritual and social problems of human nature. Moreover enhancement is not an inevitable course that humanity is embarked on, like an unstoppable juggernaut. Faced with the technical possibilities, the question facing us is to decide what course to take, what to explore and what not to pursue.
- But if we had humbler aspirations than making superhumans, what might God expect humans to do with God-given creativity and inventiveness? Should we leave well alone; or are some things permissible? With so few realistic examples, a definitive answer would be premature, and we do not rule it out. But as we weigh possibilities against Christian wider ethical values, most of us are sceptical, but a few are more optimistic.
- We have serious doubts that we know enough to design ourselves better. In retrospect, would we say it really made us better, or worse, or little different, or maybe it made one thing better but something else worse? There are also major risks in radical interventions in the human body. We make a first order distinction between improvements for medical reasons and human enhancements unrelated to any medical condition. In medical interventions, a risk may be offset by hope of relieving suffering, like treating a serious illness; enhancement has no comparable ethical ‘good’ to balance its risks. There are ‘grey areas’ of course which must be examined on their merits. There is also a risk in proceeding faster than we understand, impelled by the hubris of some scientists, or from commercial, political or military pressures.
- The concept of human enhancement is individualistic and seems to be inherently unjust in an already divided and unjust world. It might have a stronger case if it was directed towards improving the lot of the have not’s of the world, but its rhetoric rather points the opposite way. Enhancements should be the subject of societal decisions, in the first instance. The implications are too serious to be treated just as matters of personal preference, for example, in unintended social engineering from the use of chemical cognitive performance enhancers.
- The discourse about enhancement moreover seems misplaced because it misses the point about what needs changing in our humanity. Our Christian view is that the human being is an indivisible unity of body, mind and spirit. Whilst we affirm the importance of the body, our deepest problems are less in any physical limitations we may have, than in our moral, relational or spiritual failings. What is wrong with the human condition is not a lack of strength, longevity, intelligence, beauty, athleticism, art, science or even education, but in the moral and spiritual shortcomings of humanity, individually and collectively, as the world’s ongoing conflicts show. Our humanity is not to be defined merely by how well or badly our bodies or minds function. It is more to do with making good things from what we are3, than with aspiring to be something else. From the view of Christian anthropology, no matter how much we enhanced ourselves, inherent human failings would remain because they lie beyond technical fixes, but require solutions of a different sort entirely.
- We consider what impulses might lead us to make enhancements to ourselves. It might be nice to think more quickly, or not to get tired so easily, but would we be more satisfied, compared with not having been enhanced? We had achieved a goal, or beat our rival in an exam or sports competition, but only with the aid of an added ‘something’, did we really achieve it? Perhaps the most compelling satisfactions would be something like the sense of making a finer work of art or craft, just for the sake of it, or for the sake of helping someone else. Ironically, these are the least to do with enhancing myself, the most to do with loving my neighbour or loving God.
- Enhancement seems a misleading hope, because it can never be fulfilled. The internal logic of enhancement is its own undoing, because one would have no reason to be satisfied. No matter what enhancements one made to oneself, there would always be more. It becomes a treadmill which has no place to stop, and thus no satisfaction. Our Christian theology teaches us that we are created by God for relationship with God, and can never ultimately be satisfied with merely created things, even with ourselves. Good as these may be in many ways, they still leave us wanting what only God can meet.
- Introduction: Modified Humans?
- What do we mean by enhancement?
- How do we know what is an enhancement, starting from ourselves?
- Theological Reflections
- Ethical Implications References
Footnote 1: Any comments I might have on this paper are covered by those on the one that cited it. See "Jones (D. Gareth) - A Christian Perspective on Human Enhancement".
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)