The End of Miracles?

There is one topic written about extensively during the pandemic and that is technology, particularly information technology. How as a church we keep in touch, evangelise, worship and mission has become very dependent on the technology we use.

However there is another branch of technology which has come to the fore and that is the technology which allows us to identify the genome of the virus, and produce vaccines in record time and on a vast scale, but the church has often had on uneasy relationship with medical science and technology.

The achievements of technology for the enhancement of human life are rich in promise, pointing to a glorious future of health and happiness.

New gene-editing tools, nanotechnology advances in health care and continuing progress in neuroscience raise hopes of healing hitherto incurable defects or diseases.

To borrow an enthusiastic line from The New Scientist on technological progress in restoring eyesight: “Scientists have accomplished what previously was saved for miracle workers.”

I don’t think that the church would want to demonise the gift of alleviating suffering should science make the blind see and the lame walk through genetic engineering, brain implants or robotic prostheses.

We should not overlook, however, that our increasing focus on technology for alleviating human suffering is sustained by a worldview that alters our self-perception. We should not allow our immersion in technology to go hand in hand with the disappearance of the person.

Of course, to note the disappearance of something is to imply that we know what is missing. What exactly a person is, however, remains difficult to say. The Dictionary of Sociology defines a person as follows:

“A person is a conscious, reflexive, embodied, self-transcending center of subjective experience, durable identity, moral commitment, and social communication who — as the efficient cause of his or her own responsible actions and interactions — exercises complex capacities for agency and intersubjectivity in order to develop and sustain his or her own incommunicable self in loving relationships with other personal selves and with the nonpersonal world.”

Three features of the person in this definition are especially important. First, a person has a body. The spirit or essence of a human person exists only in bodily form.

Second, a person is a moral agent. Unlike other animals, human beings as persons can step outside their immediate environment and evaluate the world, themselves and others according to abstract ideals. This ability is the basis of the particular human quality of reasoning that makes possible art, literature, science and religion.

The third notable feature of the definition is the most crucial, because it takes us beyond the notion that human beings are merely rational animals. The human person is an “incommunicable self.”

That is to say, a person is not something exhausted by its definition — not merely the sum of certain characteristics. Or, said another way, a person is not like an onion, made up simply of layers of qualities, so that when we peel back the last layer, we hold nothing in our hands. A human being is more than just the sum of their characteristics and achievements.

The only word that comes close to describing the presence of the person is “love,” defined as the will to promote another. Perhaps the best image to describe this love is the parent-child relationship. Ideally, from the first moment, a parent wills their child to flourish and ultimately become independent of her as another free, happy individual. Each of us has been deeply shaped in our way of engaging the world by others.

Jean-Pierre Dupuy recounts a story of a man and his wife, Holocaust survivors, who were reunited after their release from separate concentration camps. Six months later, the wife died from an illness contracted while in camp, throwing the husband into the deepest despair, seemingly incapable of continuing with life.

In therapy, the famous psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, himself a Holocaust survivor, asked the man, If God granted me the power to create an exact replica of your wife — including her memories and demeanor, so you could not distinguish her from the wife you lost — would you want me to do it?

After a long silence, the man stood up and said, “No thank you, doctor,” and left to start a new life.

What happened? The man realized that even the most perfect simulation still cannot capture the incommunicable self, the essence of unique love for another that makes us persons.

Yet this understanding of the person has disappeared in our present cultural obsession with technological solutions. Ray Kurzweil, who developed Optical Character Recognition (OCR) allowing computers to ‘read’, has predicted that by 2045 we will be able to upload our minds to computing platforms like the cloud.

Will the day come when we upload our minds? I want to convince you that it will not, because mind uploading is built on a fundamental misunderstanding of the human person.

It is important to note that by “mind” Kurzweil means our personality profile, a replica of our actual selves. His dilemma is touchingly similar to that of the Holocaust survivor, Kurzweil misses his late father and wants to bring him back by creating a computer replica of his personality by feeding into a computer all the data he has collected about his father: voice recordings, pictures, letters, musical compositions — hundreds of boxes of stuff.

Of course, even if this process worked, you would end up, not with a real person, but with a replica. Kurzweil’s answer is that this doesn’t matter, because even in living human beings, personal identity is really nothing but input and output patterns of information. And the brain is essentially a pattern recording and recognition machine, much like a computer.

Once you have reduced cognition to the brain and the brain to a biological machine, it is easy to imagine that you can reverse-engineer the brain and digitally remaster all its functions, that we can upload our unique self-identity to digital memory devices and then either enjoy a disembodied future or download ourselves into any kind of cool synthetic body that technology can provide.

Now, I don’t think we should lose any sleep over the possibility that the futuristic visions of transhumanism will become reality. No, the real issue is a battle for our imagination. The more people like Kurzweil tell us our human identity is like the profile stored on our smartphones, the more we might actually believe this to be true. The problem with Kurzweil’s concept of the person is that the human self, our personal identity, cannot be reduced to patterns of information exchange. We do not view the human person based on a computational, disembodied and individualistic view of consciousness but by our loving relationships with others and most importantly by our relation ship with our Heavenly Father.

Human beings made in God’s image and in a ever growing sacred relationship with Him.

God bless,

Alan

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