Tuesday, February 25, 2014

What on Earth is a Human Being?

 Since the dawn of modern science, we have been made uneasy by the prospect of using technology to change or enhance the human mind and body. Such an endeavor forces us to wonder what really defines us. Suppose we took a child and gave her a robotic leg. She would still be human. But what if we enlarged the scope of her robotics? What if she had a human head and a robot body? What if she had a human body with a robot head, or robotic enhancements to her brain? Sci-fi tale after tale has attempted to explore some permutation of this question (indeed, perhaps even Frankenstein fits among those volumes).

We have asked ourselves, “What separates us from machines?” Our answer has focused on the mind. The body does not much matter, we say. Instead, what makes us human are the thoughts, feelings, and desires that flow from the human brain (such a division may prove to be scientifically premature, considering recent discoveries that indicate how integrated our feelings and bodies are—for example, the tie between the bacteria in our guts and the feelings in our heads). Yet our delegation of the body to a lower shelf has contributed to a tremendous change in our culture’s understanding of fundamental aspects of being human: sex, gender, and the purpose of human life. We have come to the point where our physical body need no longer inform our identity, and where humans are considered perfectly sane although they attempt to exchange one healthy physical body for a preferred type of physical body, such a male body for a female one (we still consider Body Integrity Identity Disorder, in which sufferers feel that some part or whole of one of their limbs does not belong to themselves, and desire to have it amputated, to be an illness)

The implications of our new approach to humanity are difficult to understand because they are still so unthinkable and outside of our own experience. In, “The Brave New World of Same-Sex Marriage: A decisive moment in the triumph of technology over humanity,” Michael Hanby paints a fascinating picture of some of these implications. 

“Advocates of same-sex marriage feel themselves to be riding the cresting wave of history, and justly so. The force with which an idea has taken hold that is unprecedented in human history and unthinkable until yesterday, the speed at which it is sweeping aside customary norms, legal precedent, and the remnants of traditional morality is nothing short of breathtaking. That it should have achieved this feat thanks largely to sentiment, fashion, and the brute power of a ubiquitous global media, with so little real thought about its profound effect upon human self-understanding or its far-reaching practical implications, is more astonishing still. Though its power seems inexorable, we would do well nevertheless to exercise perhaps the last reserve of real freedom still available to us—the freedom to think about the true meaning of things—lest we be deceived about what this moment portends or caught unawares as it washes over us. For beneath the surface of this rising tide of ‘freedom and equality’ lies something very close to the brave new world of Aldous Huxley’s dystopian imagination.”


“Underlying the technological conquest of human biology, whether in its gay or feminist form, is a dualism which bi-furcates the person into a meaningless mechanical body made of malleable ‘stuff’ and the affective or technological will that presides over it. The person as an integrated whole falls through the chasm. This is the foundation of the now orthodox distinction between ‘sex’ which is ‘merely biological’ and ‘gender’ which is socially constructed, as well as the increasingly pervasive (and relentlessly promoted) idea that freedom means our self-creation of both. Technological dominance over procreation imposes this bi-furcated anthropology upon parents and children alike, and codifying it implicitly makes this anthropology the law of the land.”

What is a man? What is a woman? Ultimately, what is a human being? Perhaps this question is merely the fuller flowering of the great change in our thinking that occurred during the Nineteenth Century, when Darwinism offered an intellectually sustainable way to view the world without recourse to Deity (yes, theories of evolution existed before, but they did not become pillars of culture and thought). If God created man in his image, mankind (with the exception of disabilities and ailments that reflect the troubles caused by sin) is essentially a finished product. If humans are part of a long evolutionary chain, it only makes sense for us to continue to transform into brave new creatures. 


  1. Thought-provoking. The doctrine of creation has significant implications which counter these gnostic tendencies. The irony, of course, is this gnosticism has permeated a huge portion of evangelical Christianity (at least in the US). What percentage of the US Christian population would declare their great hope in the face of death is their own bodily resurrection?

    1. You're right about Gnosticism. I remember an Evangelical speaker making a big point of saying, "The body you're looking at isn't me. This is just my earth-suit." I suppose a lot of those people don't really think about the implications of the fact that Christ took on, and still has, a human body. Perhaps now that modern cultural confusion is showing where such beliefs lead, American Christians will re-evaluate.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...