Stay Human, My Friends
In recent years and months it has become undeniable that the foremost social issues pervading our culture involve personhood and identity. The transgender debate is the most obvious manifestation of this. But the broader, or perhaps underlying, debate of how personhood is to be defined is rapidly expanding beyond gender neutral bathrooms at Target. Indeed, even rivers are being declared ‘persons’. And it is becoming evident that technology will be interwoven into these questions, or perhaps hijack them completely, as it becomes more inseparable from human existence.
Masters of Our Fate
The most recent issue of National Geographic boldly proclaimed that humans are taking evolution into their own hands in this new age of rapid technological innovation. Our natural genes and biological features can now be altered to fit our perceived needs and preferences, or easily replaced by technological substitutes. “Unlike our forebears,” the article states, “we may soon not need to wait for evolution to fix the problem.”1
“In our world now, the primary mover for reproductive success—and thus evolutionary change—is culture, and its weaponized cousin, technology.”2 Stating that in comparison to other species, humans adapt to their environment too slowly; the article continues:
“Given genetic evolution’s cumbersome protocols, it’s no surprise technology has superseded it. Technology now does much of the same work and does it far faster, bolstering our physical skills, deepening our intellectual range, and allowing us to expand into new and more challenging environments.”3
Giving a lecture in 2014, Russell Moore predicted that “the effects of technology on ethics” is going to blindside people in the near future. He added that “By the time technology becomes useful to most people it has become normalized to most people.” People are then unprepared for the implications of the technology in question. Because of this dynamic, the ethics pertaining to technology often lag far behind. Moore cited the rise of internet pornography as an example of this lag, and predicted that technology will more and more influence the way we see what it means to be human. For instance, at present, Christians enjoy the luxury of tersely stating that we “stand for life.” But with the coming technological advancements, the more relevant moral question will be, “what is life?” Will we be ready to answer the question?
Captains of Our Souls
Currently, though many innovations are artificially improving upon or replacing human traits, our superior intelligence remains unmatched. But this primacy may too be short-lived.
In the documentary The Transcendent Man, futurist Raymond Kurzweil predicts a coming technological singularity. He postulates that machine intelligence will eventually be infinitely more powerful than all human intelligence combined. The invention of artificial superintelligence will trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization. Humans will need to take drastic measures to adapt. “Our bodies, our brains, and the machines around us may all one day merge, as Kurzweil predicts, into a single massive communal intelligence.”4 We will allegedly transcend biology, and instead of conquering technology we will integrate it into ourselves, vastly expanding our potential.
In the same vein, Elon Musk (CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors), has stated that he believes humans need to become cyborgs in order to stay relevant (he fears AI and robots will make humans useless or take over, Skynet-style). This fear motivated Musk to invest in DeepMind, now owned by Google, and then found Neuralink, to connect the human brain with a machine interface so that humans can engage in telepathy, thereby circumventing the “incredibly low data rate called speech or typing”.5
Others are turning to embryo selection to streamline human evolution. Via in vitro fertilization, researchers believe they can rapidly increase infant IQ. DNA tampering through technologies like the CRISPR procedure is another route. Some fear that editing of babies’ genes will become mandatory in an effort to eradicate certain diseases, birth defects, or even pain itself. People already justify abortion on these grounds regarding Down syndrome. Invoking the common good is always a convenient and malleable but effective strategy.
The Future is Now
As Moore noted in his lecture (quoted earlier), technology (and related practice) is accepted by people because, by the time it makes it into our living rooms it has already been normalized. He also suggested that once technology is fully integrated into the person (in the singularity scenario), it will become terribly lonely to exist outside of that “connection.” This will obviously hold relational and communal implications and will create great pressure for conformity. This becomes even more complicated as technology begins to totally replace the human subject of another person’s interactions. The movie Ex Machina provides a somewhat caricatured, but thought-provoking, example of this. This pressure and attachment already exists between millennials and their smartphones. Many teenagers would literally rather break a bone than break their smartphones because the phone and their access to social media is foundational to their social lives.
I do not pretend to have a comprehensive read on the coming issues, nor adequate ethical analysis, nor potential solutions. But I do think that Christians must start preparing themselves for these types of issues before they are neck deep in them, in order to embody Russell Moore’s idea of a “prophetic minority” as guardians of the truth entrusted to us (2 Tim. 1:14). The National Geographic article ends with an insightful quotation that cannot be improved upon and that demands reflection on how we live life in the present:
“Our cars are our feet, our calculators are our minds, and Google is our memory. Our lives now are only partly biological, with no clear split between the organic and the technological, the carbon and the silicon. We may not know yet where we’re going, but we’ve already left where we’ve been.”6
Will we really be justified in having reservations on human genome modification, extended use of IVF, or cyborg-like additions to essential parts of the human body when we currently consent to living like the world does in terms of technological integration into the human experience (e.g. smartphones, internet pornography, etc.)? Will we even have a voice when our communication, church services, and community interaction is identical to that of secular society? Maybe the bigger question for the present, given our willing consent in these areas, is not whether we will be justified in protestation but whether we will even want to.
I fear our future will mimic that of Huxley’s vision rather than Orwell’s. We will be controlled not by suppression, but by pleasure and comfort. As the National Review noted in reviewing Dave Egger’s dystopian thriller, The Circle, “If an authoritarian element is to insinuate itself into American life, it will do so not externally, with scowling generals and tanks on Maplewood Drive, but internally, invisibly, and to a large extent voluntarily.”7
The same applies to our spiritual lives. It will not be suffering that destroys us, but our own desires as we buy into the sinful fiction of utopia and immortality. We will embody the very thing that confounded Pascal. He wondered why kings, who seemingly had all the desires and possibilities of life within their grasp, wasted their time being entertained by jesters. He concluded that the man who has everything still has one thing to worry about—death. So the king calls for the fool, who distracts him from that reality. Will technology be our jester? Augustine lamented, when refugees from Rome arrived in North Africa, fleeing the Visigoths, that no one came to the church to pray but instead drowned themselves in the sensual pleasures of the theater and the arena. Will entertainment and incessant information be our theater and arena?
As a tool, technology is good and can lead to great things, especially in the medical field. But when the tools control the user a problem of imbalance occurs. Francis Maier, special adviser to Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia, recently commented that the loss of this balance between use and control has contributed to the hostile political environment we are now witnessing. Maintenance of democracy requires great thought and deliberation, but our technology drives us toward instantaneous action, thoughtless efficiency, and convenience. Since most of our political problems cannot be solved instantaneously, contra our expectations, we become frustrated and lose patience for the democratic process, namely debate and deliberation in the public square.
Human flourishing, exploration, and innovation are an intricate part of our purpose and ability that God implanted in us. However, it only reaches its greatest potential when it operates in line with God’s providence and revelation. Therein lies our true common good.That being said, there is also something very different between innovation that makes the human existence better and innovation that fundamentally changes what that existence entails.
In beginning to contemplate what it means to be human, and how we are to respond to the issues mentioned above, a good place to start is with the Incarnation.There must at least be some significance to the fact that God, in his sovereignty, chose to send Christ to earth to take on human flesh when he did. There is significance beyond purely historical or geopolitical conditions that enabled fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. And there is significance in terms of what Jesus’ humanity would be like; how it would manifest itself, and how he would identify with Adam to take on the sin of the world. We must always orient ourselves to Christ.
Another thing we must bring to the forefront of our mind and conversations is what it means to serve God. What is our purpose? The Westminster Larger Catechism says that our “chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.”8 Can we fulfill said purpose if we begin farming out certain aspects of the human experience? Can we make glorifying him our chief end if we parcel off our thought life, streamline and then relinquish control of our information intake, minimize our human interactions?
Our purpose as part of creation also encompasses our cultural mandate: “And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28). Francis Maier also noted that post-Fall man is geared toward mastery rather than stewardship, and more so in our technological age. Stewardship involves everything from the economy and political culture to nature itself. Our instantaneous expectations are tendencies we must keep in check. Stewardship and veneration for God’s creation, especially the imago Dei in man, are values to be nourished, not overcome. In the spirit of this nourishment, it behooves us to be intentional with preparing the next generation by passing on these truths. Our churches and families need to relearn the essence of biblical community and relationships, so that both our children and ourselves have a place to turn when the rest of the world is engrossed in an alternate, manufactured reality.
We must also ask ourselves what the purpose of innovation and knowledge is, and if learning (not just knowing and analyzing) for its own sake is a worthy endeavor. Anthony Esolen would say that the purpose of pursuing knowledge is to “behold truth and love it for its beauty.” Truth is not always found within an amalgamation of information.
“[T]o respect only the canny marshaling of pieces of purported evidence is not to teach them to think…The trick is to raise people sagacious enough to distinguish between a falsehood even if propped up by sophistication, and a truth even if naively or poorly expressed.”9
Is this kind of knowledge, the love for truth, possible within the ‘brave new world’ on the horizon where our standard for the human mind is machine-like efficiency? What would such innovation mean for our studying scripture and theology, for our thought lives?
Spurgeon often reminded his congregation that understanding Scripture requires meditation, not superficial knowledge, and that the difficulty in attempting to discover the true meaning was often the greatest benefit:
“Many of the veils which are cast over Scripture are not meant to hide the meaning from the diligent but to compel the mind to be active, for oftentimes the diligence of the heart in seeking to know the divine mind does the heart more good than the knowledge itself.”10
Process must remain important to us. The modern, utilitarian public education model—which treats all educational institutions like trade schools—has already eroded this, but I digress. If our minds are turned into mere information receptacles, atrophying from lack of real exercise, can we truly embody the ultimate proof of Christian growth that Augustine set for us, that of faith seeking understanding?
Finally, we must preach to ourselves that we are accountable to a creator God (Rom 1) and must define reality according to his standards. As in all things, the preparation for cultural issues must begin in the word proclaimed by our pulpits. God’s word is timeless and infinitely deep. It has all power and authority to guide Christ’s Church through any issue of the day. We must avail ourselves of its wisdom.
(1) Max, D.T. “How Humans Are Shaping Our Own Evolution,” National Geographic, April 2017, http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/04/evolution-genetics-medicine-brain-technology-cyborg/.
(5) Albeit, there is much skepticism surrounding this proposal. See: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/604254/with-neuralink-elon-musk-promises-human-to-human-telepathy-dont-believe-it/.
(6) National Geographic.
(7) Smith, Kyle, “Dave Eggar’s Prescient Vision of Progressive Dictatorship, National Review, April 12, 2017, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/446665/dave-eggers-the-circle-progressive-fascism-prescient-novel.
(8) Scripture proofs: 1 Cor. 10:31; Psa. 73:25-26.
(9) Esolen, Anthony, “Read Literature to Learn and Love the Truth, Crisis Magazine, April 9, 2014, http://www.crisismagazine.com/2014/read-literature-to-learn-and-love-the-truth.
(10) Spurgeon, Charles, “How to Read the Bible,” in Thy Word is Still Truth, ed. Peter A. Lillback and Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Seminary Press, 2013), 786.