Human Enhancement and the Quest for Perfection

By: Fr. John Schroedel

I spoke recently with a Greek Orthodox innovator in the field of space travel. He expressed respect for his church, but also spoke of a deep disconnect he feels between church life and the technological realities he deals with every day. He wasn’t sure how the two worlds fit together. His main impression of Orthodoxy was that it was against things such as stem cell research and in vitro fertilization. He felt that if the Church was interested in science at all, it was mostly concerned with obstructing progress.

We are living in a time of incredible possibility. Humans have always used technologies as an aid in achieving goals, but there is a characteristic difference between what was possible in the past and a breed of technologies that is now becoming available. We are no longer talking about standard engineering problems, business systems, or traditional forms of psychiatry and medicine. The power of our emerging technologies is such that they touch our lives is a much deeper, more inward way. They promise and deliver powerful new ways of enhancing and transforming human life.

Technologies for Improving Human Performance

In 2001, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Commerce sponsored a workshop entitled, “Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance,” in order to focus on the ways in which advances in nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science (abbreviated NBIC) could be brought together to create powerful new civilian and military applications. (The report is available online at the Converging Technologies site.)

With a fervor akin to that of an arms race, workshop participants called for “a national research and development priority area on converging technologies focused on enhancing human performance.” The report’s overview gives an idea of some of the outcomes envisioned:

Examples of payoffs will include improving work efficiency and learning, enhancing individual sensory and cognitive capabilities, fundamentally new manufacturing processes and improved products, revolutionary changes in healthcare, improving both individual and group efficiency, highly effective communication techniques including brain-to-brain interaction, perfecting human-machine interfaces including neuromorphic engineering for industrial and personal use, enhancing human capabilities for defense purposes, reaching sustainable development using NBIC tools, and ameliorating the physical and cognitive decline that is common to the aging mind.

This may seem like an ambitious agenda, but it’s worth noting that the workshop specifically focused on results that seemed feasible within the next 10–20 years. Many of these technologies have been on the horizon for a long time. For example, more than thirty years ago, in his 1972 book Man into Superman, Robert Ettinger wrote, "It is clear that genetic engineering will produce radical alterations in a very few centuries at most. Change will not be gradual, but explosive; we are on the verge of a sharp discontinuity in history." We are much further along than we may think!

The desire to improve human nature has been around since ancient times, but now—with new and more effective means—we experience it as something almost within our grasp. With these means at our disposal, questions such as, “How do we choose which enhancement technologies to adopt?” or “Should we try to change human nature, and to what end?” become particularly urgent.

It is true that the Church often gives guidance by setting down “fences,” making contrary statements when clear lines have been crossed. But it is important that we not stop there. We need to offer a compelling and robust vision of human flourishing that can capture peoples’ hearts, minds, and imaginations.

My purpose here is not so much to address particular issues, but to begin to articulate a vision within which the evaluation of these technologies becomes possible. My approach is not philosophical so much as a meditation on the central revealed kernel of the Christian faith. A careful reading of the Bible and the Orthodox Tradition reveals that the answers are often there, lurking just beneath the surface.

Death and Transcendence

For many years I’ve been following a movement known as "transhumanism." It has matured from its more sci-fi beginnings, and now, through the World Transhumanist Association, brings together a wide variety of respected scientists, industry leaders, and academics. A central purpose of this movement is to work towards “redesigning the human condition, including such parameters as the inevitability of aging” (from the Transhumanist Declaration, 1998).

Transhumanists are enthusiastic about the potential for technology to overcome not only the difficulties of human life, but also and most especially the problem of human mortality. They talk about freezing our bodies now (cryogenics) in order to have them thawed out in the future, when medical science is able to cure whatever ails us; or replacing the body with a different “material substrate”—scanning brains and uploading human consciousness onto a chip—in order to extend mental “life” indefinitely.

Anyone who has experienced Pascha can certainly relate to this enthusiasm for the defeat of death, which we understand to be “the last enemy that will be destroyed” (1 Corinthians 15:26). We all want to live forever, but, if we listen closely to what transhumanists are saying, it soon becomes clear that traditional Christians and transhumanists have two very different perspectives.

Increasing our powers of performance, our mental and physical abilities, may be nice, but it still does not solve the most pressing of all issues: death lurks just around the corner for each one of us. St. Gregory of Nyssa expresses this well in On the Soul and the Resurrection:

We see before us the whole course of human life aiming at one thing—how we may continue in this life; indeed it is for this that houses have been invented by us to live in; in order that our bodies may not be weakened in their environment by cold or heat. . . . In fact all thought about how we are to go on living is occasioned by the fear of dying. Why is medicine so honored amongst men? Because it is thought to carry on the combat with death to a certain extent by its methods.

St. Augustine of Hippo also touches on this in his City of God:

But even the righteous man himself will not live the life he wishes unless he reaches that state where he is wholly exempt of death, deception, and distress, and has the assurance that he will forever be exempt. This is what our nature craves, and it will never be fully and finally happy unless it attains what it craves.

One of the most puzzling arguments for the transhumanists is the defense of mortality, or “finitude,” offered by many Christian and other conservative bioethicists. This defense was made famous by Leon Kass, the former chairman of the President’s Bioethics Council, who once wrote, “To argue that human life would be better without death is to argue that human life would be better without being human. . . . The finitude of human life is a blessing for every individual whether he knows it or not.”

From an Orthodox perspective, the issue is not so much that human nature is something static, needing to be defended or protected from any change—St. Gregory of Nyssa’s dictum, “Perfection for a creature is progress,” can be endorsed by both transhumanists and Christians. But for us, finitude is connected to a whole range of understandings about the human person and the character of God. Only in light of these understandings does a defense of finitude make sense.

From the earliest chapters of the Bible, humanity is faced with two fundamental options: Do we answer the serpent’s call to become god without God, or do we, through obedience, eat from the Tree of Life and live forever in the Garden? Leon Kass, in his commentary on the Book of Genesis, finds a similar distinction in the biblical encounter between Israel and Egypt. He writes:

Egypt, via divination, magic, technology, and sophisticated administration, does not so much defer to nature as it seeks to control her—seeks to master change and time. Whether one looks at the change-denying practice of shaving the face and head, or at the dust-to-dust-denying practice of embalming and mummification of the dead, or at the practices of divination and magic practiced by Pharaoh’s wise men, one finds abundant evidence of the Egyptian efforts to smoke out and outsmart the ways of nature.

The ancient historian Herodotus mentions the Egyptians’ legendary zeal for medicine (“The whole land is full of doctors . . . each doctor is a doctor for one disease and no more”), and many of the biblical authors are aware of this too. Jeremiah 46:11 turns this zeal on its head in a dire prophecy addressed to the “daughter of Egypt”: “In vain you will use many medicines; / You shall not be cured.”

The problem with the Egypt depicted here is not the use of medicine to heal and assist human life, but a culture  being so zealous for transformation by means of technology and medicine that it forgets the deeper, spiritual dimensions of health. Kass writes:

In its highly successful efforts to make the world safe and comfortable for human life, Egypt places its trust in technology and administration; it pays scant attention to ruling the unruly hearts and minds of men. Accordingly, it produces a fake Eden, a lush and prosperous garden with no knowledge of God and with human relations that conduce not to human self-rule under law but, rather, to despotism and slavery, with one man promoted as a god above all the others. In Egypt, man is not just an image of God; man—or at least one man—is capable of crossing the line and becoming altogether a god.

Israelite law, with its principles for communion with God, shows us another way. Moses pronounces, “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil” (Deuteronomy 30:15). For Israel, life and death are defined in spiritual terms. Communion with God, who is Himself the source of life, brings life and good things, while evil and death result from His absence.

For Christians, too, death is more of a spiritual problem than a physical one. It is only after Adam’s transgression that humanity falls into a spiritual death, where sickness and mortality are as inevitable as labor pains and vexing work. The depth of the Fall is manifest most fully in the light of redemption, after Christ has come to bring eternal life, ushering in a new age that will not be fully manifest until the Judgment.

Within this framework of salvation history, death becomes the privileged locus of our transfiguration. According to St. Maximus the Confessor:

Christ converted the meaning of death for us . . . the baptized acquires the use of death to condemn sin, which in turn mystically leads that person to divine and unending life. . . . For if sin maintains death as a weapon to destroy human nature in those who, with Adam, keep sin active, how much more will human nature boast death as a weapon to destroy sin in those who realize righteousness through faith in Christ!

For those who weep in this world over our personal and communal separation from God, an immortality in this life would be a kind of undead existence. As St. Augustine wrote in City of God: “If a man passes through a more extended period of time on this road to death, his progress is no slower; he merely has a longer journey.” For this reason, God summoned the angel to bar the way to the Tree of Life after Adam and Eve had eaten from the other tree—lest they eat of it and become immortal in the state of sin and death (Genesis 3:22–24).

We don’t deny the horror of death, but, for Christians, the sting of the first death is radically qualified by the real possibility of the second. Death is the horizon before which our lives in this world are played out. It is not the end, but a eginning. In light of eternity, physical mortality is a small issue in contrast to a life of separation from God. We ache for eternal life defined and shaped by our relationship to our Creator. John of the Cross expressed this beautifully in his “Stanzas of the soul that suffers with longing to see God”:

I no longer live within myself
and I cannot live without God,
for having neither him nor myself
what will life be?
It will be a thousand deaths,
longing for my true life
and dying because I do not die.

The Resurrection of the Body

The icons in our churches depicting transfigured saints give us a glimpse of the perfection we seek—a perfection that includes the body. Christians “look for the resurrection of the dead” (Nicene Creed). Traditional practices such as burial, the veneration of relics, and the involvement of the body in prayer bear witness to this. As creatures made in the image of God, we understand our bodies to be good, even if they have become corrupt after the Fall, disfigured by disordered passions. The physical frailty and deformity we now endure underscore our dependence on Christ, but they also point us forward to the time when everything lacking will be restored, and the original perfection destined for humanity will once again be ours.

Our body is a gift from God, something given and entrusted to us. It is not our own; we are not our own, but belong to God. When our flesh returns to the dust, we can say with Job, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, / And naked shall I return there. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; / Blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21).

This attitude is at odds with a radical project of human re-engineering, in which the body tends to be viewed as a mere machine, composed of inanimate and unenchanted matter—something to be engineered and improved on in order to increase performance, reliability, and longevity. Some technology enthusiasts, many transhumanists among them, view the body with disdain and talk eagerly about the potential for a new, better “material substrate” to take its place.

Just as with our embrace of death, so also with the resurrection of the body, we risk appearing as crazy as our beloved “fools for Christ” to those who mistake our vision of transcendence for conservatism.

Looking Ahead

Technological progress is not spiritual progress. One answer to the space enthusiast I mentioned earlier is that the Church is happy to see advances in technology as long as the means and goal are moral and do not impair our communion with God. Even as Christians enjoy the fruits of new technologies, we understand that the real journey of transcendence is not outer, material, or technological but inner, spiritual, grounded in obedience and communion.

Whether a particular treatment or application is appropriate will depend a great deal on where it takes us—whether it helps draw us closer to God or drives us away from Him—and what means are used to get there. It is not always or often wrong to pursue the goals of health and wealth, longevity and well-being. The truth is much more subtle than that.

The vision of death and resurrection outlined here doesn’t so easily yield concrete principles for evaluating particular technologies, but it does give us an idea about the kinds of questions to ask:. Does a particular technology, and our use of it, aid us in our endeavor or create new obstacles to our salvation? Does it respect the integrity of the human person, made in the image of God, who has a unique vocation and a horizon of immortality? Does it treat the body as God’s temple or merely as something to be despised and left behind?

As we look ahead to a "brave new world," with all its promises and perils, we can expect the moral issues surrounding these emerging technologies to become more complex as we become increasingly immersed in them. Ready-made answers will almost certainly be insufficient for the majority of decisions we will face. And yet, with a solid theological understanding of who we are, where we come from, and where we are going, our questions will have the power to illuminate the path ahead.

Rev. John Schroedel is a Research Fellow at the American Orthodox Institute. He assists at Christ the Savior Church (OCA) in downtown Chicago. He also serves as the Orthodox campus chaplain at the University of Chicago, where he is working on his Ph.D. in Religious Ethics.

This article originally appeared in AGAIN Vol. 29 No. 3, Fall 2007. Visit AGAIN online at Conciliar Press.