Faith and Technology

In August of this year, Elon Musk unveiled a pig called Gertrude with a coin-sized computer chip in her brain to demonstrate his ambitious plan to create a working brain–machine interface. His startup company, which is called Neuralink, applied to launch human trials last year. They’ve not been approved yet. This interface could allow people with neurologic conditions to control phones or computers with their mind. Mr. Musk argues that such such chips could eventually be used to help cure conditions such as dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and spinal cord injuries.

The ability to enhance the physical and mental nature of man is known as transhumanism, defined as a social, philosophical, and scientific movement directed to promoting the research and the development of robust human enhancement technologies. Such technologies would augment or increased human sensory perception, motive ability, or cognitive capacity, as well as radically improve human health and extend human lifespans. Such modifications, resulting from the addition of biologic or physical technologies, would be more or less permanent, and be integrated into the human body. Highly religious Americans, however, view these enhancements with some concern.

In a recent study, the Pew polling organization divided Americans into three groups of religious commitment: high, medium, and low commitment. Criteria for inclusion in a group depended on whether respondents said they believe in God, attend church pray, talk about faith, etc. Those in the low commitment group were much more interested in technological advancements than those in the high commitment group. They were asked if gene editing would be appropriate to give a baby a much reduced incidence of certain kinds of disease risk. Among those high in religious commitment, only 34% agreed. 48% of those with medium religious agreed. But of the low commitment group, 63% agreed.

When asked the same question about implanting a brain chip to improve cognitive ability, 24% of the highly committed, 30% of the medium committed, and 44% of the low committed agreed. And when asked a third question about whether synthetic blood should be given to improve physical abilities, 26% of those with higher commitments thought, 34% with medium commitment, and 43% with low commitment agreed.

In sum, most Americans who are religious are wary of transhumanism—of the prospect of implanting computer chips into the brain to improve mental status, of genetic editing, and of adding synthetic blood to make them stronger and faster. They had similar responses to questions about whether patients would want themselves to be enhanced in other ways as well.

Not only are highly religious Americans less open to healthy people using these potential technologies, but they’re more likely to cite a moral opposition to them and even connect them directly to religious themes. Here are some of the responses:

  • I don’t think we should mess with God’s creation. It’s unacceptable.
  • I consider this to be the mark of the beast as foretold in Revelation.
  • Planting a chip in a human begins the slippery slope of machine versus human.
  • Certain things should just not be tampered with, especially the brain. It’s the core of a person and it’s society’s way of controlling behavior.
  • I believe that this would be a form of mind control, and used by the powerful to control the masses. George Orwell’s fears coming to fruition.
  • I think this could be abused, and it’s us who controls the device and the monitors at us. This is just totally unnecessary.
  • The beauty of human beings as a race is that we are all different and imperfect.
  • We’re becoming lazy and trying to find ways to alter our natural state for no reason.
  • It will fracture society. Because of the haves and the have nots.
  • It will create unintended biases and disadvantage for a normal person in society.

Transhumanism—this interest in enhancing one’s physical and mental status—seems to be as old as the human race. It was, after all, a tranhumanistic invitation that tempted Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Increased eye perception—augmented vision—was the promise: “Your eyes,” the serpent said in Genesis 3, “will be open, and you will be like God.” All evil, it might be argued rests on the hope of transhumanism. At Babel we again see the desire for transhumanism, the use of technology in Genesis 11, where the bricks are burned and not simply dried, where bitumen and not just clay is used for mortar, in order to reach to the heavens to penetrate space and the mind of God.

This has a startling ring of the transhumanism of today—different technology, of course. But the truth is, we already live in a transhumanistic world. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, machines, engines, power devices of all kinds, have allowed mankind to press well beyond the limitations of our muscular and skeletal system, and our brain as well. The cell phone gives you a nearly limitless extension of your brain. In medicine, we give vaccinations to prevent disease. We give medicine for the treatment of disease. We perform surgery and insert prostheses. We desire to lengthen and enhance life. This is something we all cherish.

What are the limits to transhumanism? And what actually is too far? In plastic surgery, we alter your body for improvement of both function as well as cosmetics. Your nose is too big? We can make it smaller. Your chin is too prominent? We can make it less prominent. Your breasts are not large enough? We can make them larger. Your breasts are too large? We can make them smaller. We don’t seem to object much to these cosmetic changes. But what about a face? Ahmed is a world class plastic surgeon who was part of the team that did the second face transplant at the Cleveland Clinic. It’s one thing to inject some silicone into something that you want to be augmented in part of the body, but to actually take my face and give it to you… This is transhumanism. Is it gone astray? Is it gone too far?

But then what about other transplantation, taking my organs and giving them to you? Many religious people and some religious groups have objection to that. Although no religion explicitly bans transplantation, the transplantation of dead organs is prohibited in some cultures. It is a variation of the previous objection: “That’s not how God made us. It’s interfering with his plans”. An organ is one thing, because it’s inside and you can’t see it, but a face? That seems to be something else. That’s really who I am, it defines what I am.

And what about transplanting a gene? A gene that can treat a very serious disease? Is that okay? What about a gene that makes you taller or makes you thinner? Or makes you more athletic or more musical, or more artistic? What about that? Is that a step too far? Will God step in, as he did in Babel, and arrest our progress in transhumanism? There have always been religious adherents skeptical of modern medical technology. Many of the anti-vaxers are so on religious grounds and claim religious reasons for not doing vaccinations. Some people have objection to using animal products within the body. When an elderly relative—this was years ago—needed a heart valve and we were thinking about putting in a pig heart valve, his wife was horrified at the thought: Number one, pigs are unclean; but just the thought of having a pig valve in her husband was an anathema to her.

Not long ago we had a Muslim man in the burn unit who was severely in need of some kind of skin coverage and we wanted to use pig skin to cover his burns. He objected to it on religious and moral grounds. Has modern technology gone too far? Too much? Where does the image of God begin? And where does it end? Have we marred it so much that we can no longer see the image of God in our transhumanism? Can artificial intelligence exhibit faith? Can a cyborg yearn for God? Is it possible that it is actually faith that really does make us human? Is that a reason why Jesus may have said that faith, justice, and mercy are the weightier matters of the law, because those characteristics are what define us as human? Is technology the opposite of faith? Can transhumanistic individuals exhibit faith?

Religious emotion, we know from work done with functional MRI, comes from a specific part of the brain called the parietal lobe—the same area of the brain that gives rise to the euphoria of drug effect and sexual arousal. Could we implant a faith chip in everyone’s brain? Could we make an artificial “God spot”—a chip that makes us yearn for God? Given the similarities with drug euphoria and sexual arousal, would it be risky to try to put something there? Why does faith and sexual arousal come from the same spot anyway?

We’ve been talking about faith in the last few weeks in the context of culture, and specifically technological culture. We’re talking today about transhumanism and faith. As humans, we apparently seek transhumanism for all of its worth. We have to, it seems. And we have from the very beginning, as the story of Eve shows. We as humans live for the upgrade. We want the enhancement, we demand the improvement. Where is the faith in this expansive need for something better? Have we gone too far? Can we go too far? And what are the limits of what we can expect from technology and our faith?

Ahmed: This is a very interesting topic. For me, it underscores and emphasizes a very important fact: That God has endowed human beings with this remarkable ability to invent and to create and innovate. I think this endowment is also part of the test, part of the trial that we are supposed to handle in this life. It comes with a responsibility towards the environment and towards ourselves and towards our fellow human beings.

Going forward, I think technological advances will continue to startle us and improve and get to horizons we never imagined. This is a fact. If you look at the history of atomic radiation since its discovery, you can see that at the beginning it was used for medicine, to cure disease; but eventually it became a very dangerous weapon that unfortunately was used, resulting in an enormous tragedy. And it also shows that in certain situations, like the Chernobyl accident, it can become uncontrollable. So it will continue.

Human beings will continue to innovate and achieve more advancement. There is no limit to the abilities God has given us. And herein lies the importance of faith and understanding why we have this gift, and why it’s important to handle it with responsibility towards our environment and towards our fellow human beings. We are able to transplant faces. The movie Face Off was a work of fiction but it’s a clinical reality nowadays.

But despite all these advancements, the human race has stood helpless against a genetic particle, a virus, that is invisible, practically weightless, yet has taken the lives of so many people. It just goes to show that despite all our advancements, God sends us a message that we’re still under his control and It’s not so easy.

David: I think what’s important to remember is that the transhuman or the cyborg or whatever succeeds us is also God’s creation and will have imposed upon it the same obligations and responsibilities that Ahmed just talked about. They won’t go away. It will also, I think, inevitably have the same fundamental questions that we all continue to ask; the existential questions, in particular: Where did I come from? Where did it all start?

Transhumans may be so much smarter than us that their science will go beyond the Big Bang, and maybe prove string theory to be correct. But even if they do, they will have to confront the question: What created the strings? And what came before that? There will always be this one existential question, no matter how advanced we and technology become. No matter what form transhumanity takes, as long as transhumans are sentient, they will still be God’s creatures.

Don: Are you suggesting that AI can be God’s creature?

David: I believe that AI will eventually become sentient and have its own consciousness, its own morality, its own sense of God, its own sense of purpose, its own spirit, its own soul.

Anonymous: But God did not create them. Man did.

David: But God created us.

Anonymous: Yes, he did.

Donald: Are we striving to be like God? That question is very jarring, it seems to me. However, for many years medical care has improved and we take pills like it has always been a very common thing to do. That’s modifying who we are, and who we would be if we didn’t have that medication. And we’re okay with it. We’re almost at the point where we’re going to go beyond questions such as when is a child born because we can figure out when life begins. And now we’re having a hard time figuring out when life ends. Is your life really over when your brain is alive but it doesn’t function properly? I’m speaking as a lay person here.

It seems to me that striving to be like God is a very dangerous thing. But I completely agree that part of the spirit of being human is to invent, create, and innovate, as Ahmed said, and part of that then becomes our responsibility to use the tools that God blessed us with. Certainly we can say that technology can do things for us. But if we humanize that technology, will we ever bury it? Will it die? Will it extend beyond human beings? Would we ever go to a grave side and bury it?

Robin: I think it is absolutely wonderful when physicians and surgeons can improve the quality of one’s life. Unfortunately, human beings (you can see this in politics) want to usurp power, and they will not have good intentions. And then we have another Tower of Babel where God is going to have to intervene, and he won’t be happy.

In my former life as a medical transcriptionist, it was my job to transcribe what the doctor would dictate. However, there were rules: I could change the sentence structure to make it grammatically correct, but what I could not do is change the meaning of the sentence. This is where the waters get muddy. And it’s that mud that scares me when it comes to AI.

Kiran: If you use transhumanism for improving the quality of life, it’s okay. But if you use it to give someone an advantage over the rest of the people, it’s not okay. For example, it’s okay to give blood to somebody who is anemic and losing blood and on the verge of death during surgery, or something like that. But in Silicon Valley and in Hollywood, old rich people take young people’s blood regularly, every three months, to try to make themselves look younger. That’s not okay. But they have money so they can do it.

This kind of problem didn’t come just now. It came when Eve ate the fruit. It’s supposed to make you know good and evil. Prior to that, we only knew good. So no matter what we may think about it, we will use it for good and evil. That’s not today’s problem. It’s not the future’s problem. Think about the animals: We spend tons of money taking care of a pet dog or cat, while we put a cow or a bull into the slaughterhouse and eat it. So why is it okay here and not okay there? Why are cultures that eat dogs repulsive but cultures that eat cows and chicken not?

Good and evil came from eating the fruit and we can’t avoid it, no matter what technology comes. It’s what we do. Last year we were looking at developing an artificial kidney. There have been patents taken out on artificial kidneys since the 1920s and now Dr. Roy at UC San Francisco actually has a workable artificial kidney which he’s putting it into pigs for testing before eventually putting it into humans. For those who have lost a kidney, that’s not a problem at all. You would not regard that person as a machine. But if you put it into an athlete for performance enhancement, then we think it is bad.

The question of the morality of using technologies has been with us for a long time. No matter whether you try to stop it or not, you cannot stop the advancement of technology because God created us in his own image. He’s a creator, so he created us as creators. Unfortunately, we jumped the gun, and tried to learn about evil before it was time. AI is inevitable. You could actually make a silicone body with a metal skeleton and an AI brain. It could look like a human, it could touch you and talk to you and make you feel like a much better human being. For example, if it were an AI pastor, you would never get a long sermon from it, or a boring sermon. You would always get a good sermon.

AI can actually counsel you much better about your problems. Maybe they might not have the experiential knowledge that human beings have. But that’s okay because sometimes I want somebody to give me an objective analysis of what I’m thinking. I’m going to tell them my problem. They just have to state what the Bible says, and then I can think about what I want to do. In the end, the judgment is mine. So if AI can do that, I’m happy with it. But what I don’t want it to do is mislead me, or tell me what I have to do. I think that’s where we all get the fear of it.

David: We are more likely to have human beings mislead us. Early and simplistic forms of AI, such as the autopilots in airplanes, are capable of flying airplanes all the way from takeoff to landing and indeed are known to be safer. The chances of an airplane crashing under autopilot control are less than the chances if it’s being manually flown by a human pilot. If you extend that reliability out to tomorrow’s most sophisticated artificial pastor, the advice that you’re likely to get is probably going to be inherently safer, more objective, and better advice than you could ever get from a human pastor.

Don: I see that in a teacher as well. Everybody has a different learning style, everybody learns at a different rate, everybody learns in a different way. Everybody needs to learn different things. And when you have one teacher in a classroom, and you have 30 kids, it’s a problem. But if you have your own bot as your teacher, it’s perfect. It teaches just what you need and responds to your questions and your needs in a very individual way. Do we need the human element? Is human touch overrated? Is it possible that this is some kind of crutch that we’ve been stuck on, but in fact, we don’t need it—we leave it behind and we soar to the heights with transhumanism

Robin: Can you be human if you are transformed into pure logic, and there’s no more emotion? I would say no. But then I’m an emotional thinker. I wish I had more logic. 🙂

Donald: The whole thing is about risk and limits. In trying to be like God, we don’t know where our limits are. We landed on the moon and that was quite a momentous moment for most human beings, to think that would God allow that. Yet we did it. Now it’s normal to have a space station and rockets going back and forth. So where is the limit? It seems like things get extended, and then we accept it. We all highly value what our phones—which are not really just phones, they are computers—can do for us personally, but we know that as a result we’re losing our privacy. Some people say: “I don’t care what they know, there’s nothing important about me that I lose.”

What is privacy? It’s back to the human. And we’re giving that away to technology is really what we’re saying. And we’re willing to do it on the basis of convenience and the wonderful things that these tools can do for us. So where is the limit, if we’re trying to be like God? Can we ultimately be like, God? I think it’s real risky.

Reinhard: This is a crucial topic for us as we face these advancements in technology with AI. Take this verse:

I have seen a limit to all perfection; Your commandment is exceedingly broad. (Psalm 119:96)

It says there are limits to our perfection but not to God’s commands. The central idea of technological advancement seems to be to make our life easier, although there are many other implications, of course. The computer keeps advancing, unabated. Is this going to be dangerous in certain ways? Government needs to set ethical and moral limits, I think that’s the key, because in the future, we can maybe predict what’s going to happen in every area, from medicine and science all the way to outer space. I think there’s going to be a lot of things happen that we cannot imagine right now. If we have the motive for good purpose, I think it’s going to be be okay.

No matter how advanced our inventions, as long as we believe in God, we’re not going to overstep our bounds. The law of God, moral values, will not change. Our faith will remain the same. Our relationship with God will not change, despite all this advancement. Maybe in some ways it will even help our faith. So to me, this is not something we have to worry about as long as we retain faith in God.

Of course, all, there are evil people who will take advantage, like hackers getting voting machines to alter votes. There’s always evil intention in certain people that want to take advantage. But our faith can remain the same.

IBM’s Deep Blue, the first computer to beat a chess grandmaster, was a milestone on the machine’s journey to start to overtake human intelligence over 20 years ago. It’s predictable that the technology is going to get more amazing. But the key is, if we remain in God’s word, we’ll be able to handle whatever come up.

Anonymous: I’m angry, because human beings don’t seem to get it. No matter how intelligent they are, no matter their good intentions, they’re still missing the point. They don’t see God in the right light when they shift their confidence to a force or power other than God, such as science. That’s the problem. We’re shifting away from God.

It’s not that God doesn’t have all the solutions human beings are looking for through science. He has it. He has the solution for everything. He can be a teacher to every and each human being, according to his or her mind and ability. God can be everything to us. He can be a teacher, an advisor, a light for the way. Every good solution comes from him.

However, human beings refuse to believe. And unfortunately God would not even deal with people who don’t have faith in him, who think God is not good enough, not great enough, not intelligent enough, not able enough. And they turn to their own trials and ways to create and to fill the gap that they have in their hearts because of lack of faith.

Now, God is so merciful, God is so patient, God can wait and wait and wait and wait indefinitely until human beings get back to their right mind and see the truth. But what we see here is that human beings are going wilder and wilder. They’re not even considering that there is God. It’s not that he cannot help. But he has a prerequisite: We have to have faith in him first, before he can be anything and everything to us. We have to have faith. That’s why it’s a “weightier” matter of the law.

We’re trying to create things, to take the credit, to give ourselves the glory, without even considering that with one breath God can eliminate everything, destroy everything—our minds, our works. I’m angry every time I read about this.

It’s amazing how it’s interesting yet at the same time it provokes anger in me. It’s interesting to know how bad the world is becoming, which I hadn’t known before. But it’s provoking anger. Because we, as a group of believers, are still compromising. We’re still discussing these things, as if they are true. They are reality in our time, however, they [garbled] that truth, with a capital T.

It’s sad. It’s so sad. I can see the destruction of the world according to the Bible, according to God’s words. These people will destroy the world, themselves and every type of life on it. It will be self destruction. It’s not that God hates us. It’s not that God doesn’t want to help us. It’s that we don’t want him in the picture. We want to put him aside and do our own business and trust in the works of our hands rather than him.

Don: This raises an important point: The intersection between faith and technology. Is there room for both, or is it a zero sum game? Must one go up and the other go down? Is there any reconciliation between the two? Is it even possible that faith and technology are in a sense opposite entities?

Kiran: Look at the people of Israel in the Bible. For the first 400 years after they came to the promised land, they kept going bad. There was no technology, to speak of, at that time. God told them to worship him and not make any idols but they kept going to worship Ba’al and other pagan gods. This propensity for human beings to forget God and do whatever they want has been there from the beginning. So whether technology is opposite to that, or enhances that, is a different question.

But even with our technology, some of us are wheat and some of us are tares, and they don’t go anywhere. The technology’s not going to make tares disappear or make wheat enhanced. I don’t look at technology as anti-God. Take two scientists who look at the Hubble telescope pictures: One praises God for the beauty of the universe, the other thinks this is a human invention. That could happen even with an artificial kidney.

Mike: If we left the human element behind, can we soar to new heights? I guess, from a Christian worldview, the question is what are the new heights that we’re trying to hit? When you look at most technologies, they’re designed in such a way to get us more, whether it’s more things in the earthly realm—more life, more wellness, more health, more power, or more money. But when we look at Jesus’s ministry, he tells us to forsake all those things and take up our cross and follow him.

So for me, certainly technology can be used to enhance our ability to preach the gospel, to hold meetings like this, but I don’t think that technology is needed. If you look at Jesus’s ministry, it was the opposite of what the purpose of technology is today. The purpose of technology today is to extend life. But Jesus’ purpose was to actually shorten life on this planet. He could have extended his life past the cross, but he didn’t. He could have had more wealth, but he chose not to—he said: “Hey, give it all up, and go backwards from technology, back away from all of the pleasures and comforts of this world, give it up and follow me.”

I think that technology is a beautiful benefit—obviously, as a computer scientist, I love technology and the things it can do and provide on this planet. But I don’t necessarily think that it’s necessary. I guess it can enhance our faith, but it’s not needed at the end of the day for faith.

Is it dangerous to try to play the role of God, to try to mimic his actions of being a creator and creating things? I don’t have an answer for that. It’s just an interesting point. We try to mimic God all the time. Our job, our role as Christians is to mimic God’s character. It’s interesting that we think it dangerous to mimic his actions.

Ahmed: I would say that science and advancement are a reality of human existence. They will just continue to evolve. That’s the reality. But at the same time, they underscore and emphasize the need and importance of having a moral benchmark, an ethical metric to limit the use of these marvelous innovations to the benefit of human beings and the environment.

Don: You were involved in a team that did a face transplant. Was there a discussion about the ethics or the ethical boundaries that were being pushed against? Was there any discussion about the implications of giving someone another one’s persona?

Ahmed: This is a very important and interesting question, and it was a topic of many articles in the plastic surgery literature before the introduction of face transplant as a modality of treatment. Like everything in medicine, any form of treatment has its downsides and its adverse effects. The ethical question comes into play in establishing a balance between the benefits that you can give to the patient versus the risks of the procedure and the lifelong immuno-suppression.

Remember that solid organ transplants are justified from a moral and ethical standpoint because they are life saving, and this has been shown in many published reports. But face transplantation is a matter of quality of life.

Before I had this experience of being part of a face transplant team and writing up the literature about that particular case, I myself had a lot of questions and reservations regarding the transplantation of tissue from one human to another. But really, if you take a look at all the patients with face transplants to date, the vast majority had so much facial disfigurement and mutilation, it was beyond our abilities in terms of traditional techniques to restore any semblance of normality. For the vast majority of these patients, transplant was the only option that we had for them to live a relatively normal life.

We tend to view the face as just another part of our body; but it is extremely essential from a moral, a personal, and a psychological perspective. These patients have practically no social life, even their family life is disrupted because of their disfigurement. It’s one of the areas in medicine where you feel helpless. But remember, at the same time, I must say, face transplantation to date still is considered experimental.

Janelin: When you’re talking about quality of life—disfigurement and so on—that’s what makes us human: It’s the emotion, it’s how we feel when we look at ourselves. That’s how God created us. What makes quality of life, what makes mental health, how we process our emotions, and how we interact with others in the social realm is what makes us human. That’s the core of us. How we live our life, how we put our foot forward in life, has to do with how we feel. That’s what makes us human.

Donald: The emotions of love, anger, and so on are human. I’m not sure that what we’re talking about could ever become angry, or love.

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