See Part One of this interview
A new topic in the religion and science dialogue has emerged called “Transhumanism.” The trends and questions evolving out of this aspect of the biological sciences are capturing the attention of ethicists and theologians. In the July/August issue of Covalence, Phil Hefner, senior fellow at the Zygon Center for Religion and Science provided an introduction to Transhumanism from a theologian’s perspective.
Dr. Hefner is an ordained minister in the ELCA and is professor emeritus of systematic theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He directed the Zygon Center from 1988 to 2003 and is former editor-in-chief of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. He has authored numerous books and articles, and is best known for his book, The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion.
What does biology tell us today about what makes us human?
PH: Biology is basic to Transhumanism and the developments we discussed in the first installment. We get a better understanding of TH — and a better vantage point from which to criticize it — if we place it in a certain framework. I’m using the term “biology” in a way that requires some elaboration. The boundaries of biology are very flexible, depending on one’s perspective. Biological research and evolutionary theory form a foundation for an array of fields, such as genetics, neurosciences (which focus on the brain), medical practice, cognitive sciences (which study how the mind works), as well as such engineering fields as biotechnology and synthetic biology. And of course, biochemistry is integral to these fields. Each of these has subfields, such as population genetics and behavioral genetics, neuroanatomy, neuropsychology, and cognitive neuroscience. Most scientific fields today are themselves interdisciplinary. I think of astrobiology, in which astrophysicists and biologists have to work together. Biology also studies the world around us, our environment — ecology, for example, and fields like paleontology and primatology that research other animals who are part of our evolutionary ancestry and also co-citizens of our world today. When I use the term “biology,” I am referring to this huge network of research, theory, and application that is always changing its shape in dynamic ways.
All of these fields explore our bodies and minds and tell us something about what makes us tick. They give several kinds of knowledge about “what makes us human”: (1) The composition of our bodies — the amazing complexity within us — 3 billion nucleotides, billions of synaptic connections in our brains, complex biochemical interactions. (2) Our “natural history” — the stream of life in which we have emerged, our inheritance — from single-celled organisms through the higher primates and pre-historical humans; recently, for example, DNA studies show the role of Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal lines in our inheritance. (3) Our interconnections with the world around us — our ecology. All of this scientific knowledge makes a difference for who we are, as the applications of biotechnology and medical practice make abundantly clear.
Nearly every aspect of human life is touched upon in this vast network of scientific research. These biological fields not only study how our bodies work and how their illness can be treated — they also describe and explain our emotions, our thought-processes, our moral life, our psychological processes, and even our spiritual dimension. The research in these areas goes a long way toward explaining what makes us human. Some people claim that these scientific explanations are all we need — a position that is often described as scientific naturalism or materialism. Others consider such a position to be a reductionism that threatens our basic humanity; they believe that being human is much more than the sciences can know.
There’s a new view of nature opening up here, isn’t there?
PH: Most certainly. This expansive biological framework underscores that we are creatures of nature — fully natural, even in our mental and spiritual life. However, we often overlook how this scientific perspective also expands our idea of nature in amazing ways. The last century of scientific exploration has unfolded a picture of nature — human nature and the larger world — that is mind-bending and inexhaustibly rich. So much so that in spite of the steadily increasing knowledge we gain, it is clear that nature is more than we can comprehend. Nature is a realm of knowledge, control and mystery — all at the same time. This is true for scientists as well as for the rest of us. Mystery is not the same as ignorance; it is a matter of richness and texture. Our knowledge about nature continues to grow exponentially, but the more we know about nature, the greater the richness and the deeper the mystery become. This is especially true of our human nature. As I said before, Tillich was right when he said that each human being is marked by a mystery, depth, and greatness — and it is enhanced by science.
Science, therefore, does not reduce our picture of who we are; rather, it expands it to the point of encompassing us in the richness and mystery of nature. Let me give an example. Cognitive neuroscience traces in detail the brain processes that correlate to such basics as our thinking about specific things (God, for example), our emotions, and our interactions with other people. The detail and complexity of our brain’s activity is awesome. This research forms the surface of the even more awesome work of our brains that science does not explain — how these brain processes bring forth a Beethoven symphony or a Bach chorale, a Shakespearean play or a poem by Emily Dickinson, Darwin’s theory of evolution or Einstein’s theory of relativity, the proposal of Jeffersonian democracy or the Gandhi/King practice of non-violence. In other words, the amazing scientific charting of our brain’s activities exists on the cusp of the richness and mystery of the human spirit. Brain scans do not translate easily into Beethoven’s Ninth or into a marine’s act of heroism in falling on an exploding grenade, thus saving the lives of his comrades, but nevertheless the achievements of human spirit are fully embedded in our biology — science intensifies our sense of this embeddedness. The more we know about it, the more we realize that we do not comprehend it — it is mystery. A Benedictine prayer expresses this — “gift us with true humility that, in knowing how frail and small we are, we may rejoice even more in the magnitude of your love and the wonders of our own giftedness.”
For Christians, this is a picture of how God has created us. The mystery is an invitation to explore what this tells us about God’s intentions for us and how this relates to our traditional beliefs, such as the image of God, sin, and grace.
Is this some form of what is called “religious naturalism”?
PH: I would rather call it a “God-intoxicated view of nature” (with apologies to seventeenth century Baruch Spinoza, whose philosophy has been described thus) — some would call it “theistic naturalism,” a term I don’t like, because historically “theism” has depicted a God who is remote and detached from nature. — a view I reject. Religious naturalism frequently substitutes nature for God. I believe, to the contrary, that nature exists on the surface of transcendence, on the cusp of the holy, if you will. Nature naturally (excuse the pun) opens up to the reality of God. A naturalism that resists this reality is truncated; it short-circuits our experience — including our scientific experience. I call this a full-bodied view of nature.
Is this different than what we would have believed in the past?
PH: The three components that biology contributes to our understanding of who we are — complex composition of our bodies, our evolutionary natural history, and our ecological connectedness — are certainly new for us. The insight that our spiritual nature is embedded in natural processes is also a recent emphasis.
What challenges do these discoveries introduce into society as we look into the future?
PH: Actually, the same challenges face both the church and our larger society — how to integrate the new ideas into our traditional norms and values, so that they are wholesome for our everyday living. We are struggling with this now: How do these new ideas fit into our traditions of law? Of education? Of medical practice and health care? How are they impacting children and youth and families? In the church, we ask how do they square with biblical truth? What do they reveal to us about God? What ethical challenges do they pose (think of the new 2011 ELCA Social Statement on Genetics)? These challenges face our leaders, our politicians, school boards and teachers, parents and children, and every couple who contemplate bringing babies into the world. The controversy over TH is part of our struggle. It raises a particular issue — How do we manage and discipline “the wonders of our own giftedness”? Our technological achievements are reshaping our hospitals and our battlefields, our sexuality and our social networking, for example, but they also demand that we set priorities and norms, and that we exert discipline over our giftedness. TH is right in the thick of the struggle, because it is giving priority to reshaping our bodies and our ideas of life-expectancy. How long can we live? How long should we live? Should we expect every disease and ailment to be cured? What do we learn from the Bible on these questions? What is God’s will? The 2003 ELCA social statement, “Caring for Health: Our Shared Endeavor,” takes a step in dealing with these matters.
What promises do the findings of Transhumanism hold for humanity that can be acknowledged by clergy?
PH: We should acknowledge what TH tells us about our bodies — how they are made up and how they function. We should also welcome the care and healing that is derived from TH research. At the same time, we must recognize that the values and norms that guide our use of TH do not come from the scientific research that undergirds TH and other biological proposals. Values and norms come from our cultural traditions — of which our Christian faith tradition is a major part.
Can you be specific?
PH: TH researchers refer to their work as rejuvenation research and rejuvenation biotechnology, so keep an eye on such terminology. Much of their research is also being carried out by others. They focus on diseases of deterioration and aging, which covers a broad area. Some current projects deal with memory and Alzheimer’s disease, stem cell approaches to macular degeneration, type 2 diabetes, and all forms of cancer. Look for theories of aging, as well, since science finds the whole phenomenon of aging to be interesting in itself, quite apart from healing therapies. The SENS Foundation (http://www.sens.org/) is perhaps the leading international network for such work. Its network includes American scientists from Rice University, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, UC Berkeley, University of Chicago, Arizona State University and others.
Susan Barreto is a journalist who has been following religion and science since 2003 with articles appearing in various newsletters and The Lutheran magazine. She is also a deputy editor of a monthly hedge fund magazine owned by Euromoney Institutional Investor. Susan is a long-time member of Luther Memorial Church in Chicago, where she lives with her husband and two sons.