02 November 2000

The Redoubt of the Soul

Our technology is about to give us the power to change human nature. If we do, then what happens to Natural Law as a basis for public policy? And will we even care?

Modern science and technology are 300 years young, willful adolescents running away on legs of internetworked computers. Because their parents, the philosophers and theologians, have remained largely ignorant of them, they are stumbling without moral guidance into hiding places of the human soul. How they may transform human nature must give us pause.

At the most superficial level, they will transform human knowledge. The internet will soon give nearly everyone instant access to the world’s knowledge. At the same time, computers are shrinking from laptops to palmtops to miniature belt-glove-glasses-and-earphones affairs worn by computer engineering students who call themselves "cyborgs." Access to knowledge is becoming not only instant, but constant, which is changing the very meaning of knowledge. Printing changed knowledge from memorization to remembering where something was written. The web is changing knowledge into knowing how to ask questions — how find out what you want without finding all the stuff you don’t.

To assist in this quest entrepreneurs are now selling "intelligent agents," software robots that roam the web in search of just the relevant bits of information. As computers and programming techniques grow more powerful, librarians and even teachers may be replaced by intelligent agents that guide each child into mastery of its computer enhanced world. The risk is that the "agents" will construct a biased view of human knowledge — biased by software writers, their employers, or their governments — of which the users are unaware. Even if such biases can be managed, and if users can maintain some commonality of worldview despite fragmenting into non-interacting online communities, the existential risk is the despair that comes from having knowledge without meaning.

Imagine being able to know any fact that has been discovered, but having no reason to know anything at all. Remember that Albert Camus in his Myth of Sisyphus proved that life without reference to God is absurd. He found meaning by reveling in absurdity, but that is cold comfort for the mass of humanity. To make the limit of human knowledge accessible to everyone, but without a sense of purpose, of destiny — of anything beyond — is to invite decadence, decline and despair.

Computer networks may also transform human communication. Even now a laptop computer gives voice to the paralyzed physicist Stephen Hawking. If neurologists seeking to "cure" blindness have their way, then computers may transform from wearable to implantable and interact directly with one’s visual cortex. That is, if scientists can ever understand the workings of the brain well enough for them to enable a computer to put images directly into the visual cortex, enabling a person to "see" without eyes, then they will be able to make a computer take images directly from the cortex as well. Add wireless computer-to-computer networking to this capability, and we have the possibility of people being able to transmit their mental imagery directly into each other’s brain. The same might be true for the auditory cortex, and other parts of the brain as well (including, for a doubtless illicit fee, its pleasure centers).

Using implanted computers and wireless networks, each person may someday be able to connect his or her mind directly to all the world’s knowledge and the minds of all the world’s people, even the recorded thoughts of the post-twenty-first century dead. If computer-enhanced people gain the ability to communicate by thought itself, speech as a time series of symbols (words) may disappear. People might communicate by exchanging much richer content, such as daydreams, instead. And if words disappear, so will all the world’s previous literature, including its scriptures.

As if transforming knowledge and communication were not enough, genetic engineering may transform our bodies and minds. People may want their children to be taller, more athletic, or smarter, and humanity may acquire the techniques to make them so. But genes tend to travel in groups, which means altering one gene may have unintended consequences. Just as breeding dogs for large size compromised their longevity, breeding kids for high IQ or some other cognitive ability may compromise them emotionally or spiritually. As a trivial example, suppose humanity decides to give itself the genes to sense one’s orientation and location continuously, like homing pigeons. How would a Christian Fundamentalist witness about being "saved" to those who are incapable of experiencing or imagining being "lost"? How will humanity sense the despair of having knowledge without meaning if it’s brains are genetically engineered to feel just fine?

Finally I must point out a consequence of John Archibald Wheeler’s realization that the Universe is pervaded by a "quantum foam" made up of so-called zero-point (or vacuum) oscillations of space-time itself. These oscillations take place on a scale so tiny that sub-atomic particles like protons and neutrons would seem enormous in comparison. Moreover, the intensity of these tiny oscillations is so great that a proton passing by would seem not only large, but insubstantial, like a vast cloud. Indeed, Wheeler and others have hypothesized that sub-atomic particles may be no more that standing patterns of these space-time oscillations. Now if quantum oscillations of empty space-time can be organized into standing patterns that comprise solid matter, might they not also be organized into other, less detectable, standing patterns that support some aspects of our consciousness? If so, then some future science may enable us to manipulate aspects of our souls.

Whether or not this last possibility is ever realized, one thing is certain: in the coming centuries human nature will be subject to unprecedented forces of change. Arthur C. Clarke’s vision of 3001 may have been too timid — people a millennium hence might seem alien to us if we could meet them, and we might seem subhuman to them. How in the midst of such change are we to preserve our human nature? How are we to affirm that we should do so? How shall we even answer the question, "What is our human nature?"

Scientific naturalism can give only trivial answers to the latter question. Human is what carries the human genome. But will we still be human if we change that genome? Scientific naturalism will only be able to ascertain our ability to breed with unaltered humans, if there are any left. To the questions of whether and how to preserve our human nature, scientific naturalism gives no answer at all. Scientific naturalism, which is no more than unaided reason, gives knowledge without meaning, technique without teleology.

Hence we must turn to faith. We take it on faith that we must preserve and build on our essential human-ness, rather than undermine it. We find that, as in the title of the feminist health manual, Our Bodies, Our Selves, what we collectively do to our material bodies, we do to our spiritual selves. The theological-moral debates over sexuality, fertility control, abortion, euthanasia, and execution are the first skirmishes of the gathering battle for human nature. People of faith, both liberal and conservative, must consider their participation in these debates not only in the context of keeping the commandments so as to build a wall around the scriptures, but of using ethics to build a fortress around human nature, a redoubt for the soul.

The core question in all these debates has been, "Is human life an essential good, or only a contingent good, to be discarded under certain circumstances when unwanted?" The value we place on human life ultimately reflects the value we place on human nature. If we devalue a violent criminal so much that we permit ourselves to execute him or her, will we devalue aggression so much that we engineer away part of our drive for achievement? If we devalue our fetuses so much that we perform abortion until the end of pregnancy, will we devalue childhood dependency so much that we engineer away part of our capacity to love?

In these and other debates, people of faith will steer humanity’s voyage into the 3rd millennium. The more conservative will witness against certain kinds of change by preserving traditional ways of being human. They will become God’s sea-anchor to slow humanity’s (and liberal religion’s) tendency to drift toward an abyss of meaninglessness. The more liberal faithful will witness within the changing culture, and become God’s rudder to guide its transformations. They will translate scripture into whatever form is necessary for it to remain a living cultural reality. The future may yet be bright.

For if our future is fraught with risk, it also brings hope. Consider that if people become enabled to exchange their thoughts and sensations, it may be more difficult to harm one’s neighbor. "I feel your pain," may become transformed from a political platitude to an immediate sensation. Thus, if the Word of God ceases to be written in our books, it may be because it will become written on our hearts.

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