Can I Stick a Chip In Your Brain? The Ethics of Biological and Technological Integration.

Do you know what one of the most annoying things about having a cell phone is? Having to remember where I put it. It’s so obnoxious: One day it’s in my laundry, the next it’s in the office. I just can’t keep track of it. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could just integrate the phone into my brain, and bingo! No more losing it.

This simple argument is pushing many towards the idea that we can combine our biological parts with technological parts, not simply for the sake of empowering those who are crippled, but also to expand a person’s abilities beyond their capabilities.

This just screams “trouble”, as seen in films like Surrogates or the Youtube series H+. After all, if man and machine are combined, there’s a whole lot of trouble that’ll be coming down: Overriding the human will, turning men into “brains in jars”. It’s horrendous!

There are actually people who want this to happen. Known as “transhumanists,” this group defines themselves by their desire to use technology to “evolve” man into his next stage. There are many methods for doing this, from cybernetic augmentation to transferring human consciousness into a digital source. The most popular theory is Ray Kurzweil’s “cybernetic singularity,” which predicts that the capabilities of the human brain and computers will eventually meet and resemble one another.

But whatever theory of Transhumanism a person holds to, there is still the big question: Can the biological and technological coexist?

There are many who say no. Ethicists like Brent Waters claim that transhumanism, as a view of the world, has detrimental consequences for Christian theology. Other thinkers, like political analyst Francis Fukuyama, see transhumanism as a danger to humanity, for it neglects the value of human life.

Others argue that transhumanism can both co-exist and empower Christians in their task. H+ writer Guillermo Santamaria believes that Christianity and transhumanism can integrate, and that they can work together towards similar goals. For example, Santamaria notes that Christians and transhumanists both want people to keep on living:

It is natural for living things to wish to continue living. The rule in nature, animal and human is survival. This is why we eat every day.  This is why we avoid oncoming trucks, etc. So it should not surprise us that Jesus espoused this same principles.

Death according to the Bible is not a natural condition of humanity. It is an aberration. When man was created he was not created to die, but to live indefinitely. In fact according to the Bible as all Christians know, “just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.” Romans 5:12. So Adam and Eve were not created to die. Now some might say that transhumanism seeks to deny the influence of sin on humanity or to try to circumvent the decree of God. But this is not true. All transhumanism tries to do is extend life.

Santamaria has a point here. Christians, as beholders of the Imago Dei and the inherent value of Man, should want to help men live longer, healthier lives. And if that involves technology and implants, we should heartily support it. These things are transhumanist in nature, for they help us surpass our human flaws.

But transhumanists do hold a lot of incorrect views of the human body (it’s non-essential), the soul (it’s transferable), and humanity’s end-goal (transcending organic/original nature).

So, transhumanists are a group whom we should be careful around, lest we make a mistake. But that doesn’t mean we must necessarily fear the technology used by transhumanists. In many circumstances, we can improve and enhance the human experience with many simple technologies and enhancements without necessarily changing the essence of man (if that’s even possible). For example, the creation of a digital eye allows many people to see, even if they are more cyborg-y than before. However, other device developments — such as a phone placed directly into the biological brain — are less necessary, and may cause more harm than good. But it’s difficult to know that for sure without actual studies.

But as our digital capabilities develop more and more, so does our need to discern through the technological capabilities, opportunities, and dangers as thinking Christians, lest we turn too much towards technology, or neglect the potential of such items.

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • John Evans

    Certainly the interplay and relationship between man and his tools is long and storied as the two have grown and changed alongside each other. The questions you discuss here – what makes a man, how thin can we (or should we) make the threshold between ourselves and our tools – have been matters of deep debate for a long, long time. Below I’m listing a bunch of questions I’ve thought about, just for conversations sake. I do not expect you to have answers. I certainly don’t.

    Some artists may consider their tools to be a barrier that limits their ability to get ideas from their minds eye into the real world. What if a brush could move and feel as well as the fingers that hold it?

    What if we could expand our senses to the point where we could detect threats currently invisible to us? See ionizing radiation? Smell odourless poisons? How many die from inhaling carbon monoxide every year?

    You worry about the risk of technology being used to control people’s thoughts. I contest that it already is. Most internet search engines filter results based on what their math calculates that you want to see. People cut themselves (and sometimes their relatives) off from TV broadcasts and other media that holds dissenting opinions. If you control the information a person receives, you can in essence control their thoughts. The debate here should be on the practice of controlling thoughts, not the technology employed to do so.

    You mention you are of the opinion that the body is essential. Is it? How much of it? Is a quadruple amputee less of a person? Am I, who you only experience as text on a screen, less of a person? At what point of bodily reduction is the trait essential to personhood lost?

    On the flip side, at what point of bodily augmentation is the essentialness of personhood lost? Two extra arms? Four? The ability to hear radio waves?

    None of these are at all easy questions. Not least because, as I understand it, to a large extent the diversity of thoughts we are able to think depends on the experiences we have. If we start giving ourselves new senses, new limbs, we are likely to find ourselves thinking thoughts no-one has ever thought before. This has happened with every technological innovation, but I’m not sure if the scale is comparable. What art will we create? How will future-humanity even define ‘person’? How can we even speculate when our experiences are limited to the senses we have now?

  • Christopher Hutton

    Oh, John Evans. Why’d you have to ask some many grand questions? I love everything you wrote there. I agree, all of these questions are hard to answer. I’m of the mind that technology could truthfully make us better. But it won’t be completely positive. Just as the video format allows us to see and know things from the past in a way we never could before, so it is that the system causes us to perceive and engage with text in a way that is less effective and less “discerning”.

    There are always consequences to our choices, that I’m sure you can agree with. Any technological advancement we make will add something to us, that’s not a doubt. But it may also take something away. for example, the use of a “additional limb” may cause us to neglect our original limb.

    What I fear is not that adding or removing things will make us less human (which you’re right, is an observiation which is surrounded by debate in itself), but that we will adopt the paradigms below these advancements, that the world is just atoms, and that we can use material technologies to interact with the human body, despite the human soul’s immaterial (read: Incompatible) nature.

  • John Evans

    To your last paragraph, Christopher, I have this to say:

    (Full disclosure, I am not convinced of the existence of an immaterial soul, myself)

    We already use material technologies to interact with the human body. Mood-altering or -regulating pharmaceuticals, deep-brain electrical stimulation, trans-cranial magnetic stimulation and other technologies can already influence how and what we experience. Prosthetic limbs that can convey the tactile senses of pressure, texture and temperature directly to the nervous system are already in development. The nervous system IS the brain, for all practical purposes. The body, and the brain itself, is very much a machine. One of meat and bone to be sure, but a machine fundamentally. If the soul you propose is not incompatible with the brain and body – including the brains and bodies of people with artificial organs or prosthetic limbs who exist today – why should it become incompatible in the future? Again, we’re back to the ‘how much is human enough?’ question.

  • Christopher Hutton

    Well, that idea of whether there’s an immaterial soul is obviously where we divide. I’m not saying that we can’t make objects which integrate with the human body. But it’s when we get to certain degrees of thought, such as the idea of “transferring” the human mind/soul into another body. That’s messing with what makes us truly human.

  • John Evans

    Christopher you have clearly pointed out where my concern on this issue lies. What constitutes ‘a new body’? If I replace everything below my chin with new parts, is that a new body? What if I replace everything but my brain and the main senses in my head (eyes, eardrums, tongue, and the chemical scent receptors in my nose? What if I only preserve my brain? Where is the line that, if I cross it, my mind can’t follow? Where is the line you would say the soul you are convinced exists can’t follow? Why can’t it? Why, if this soul is immaterial and immortal, does the flesh matter anyway?

    Similarly, if I have debilitating schizophrenia, and a simple pacemaker-like implant could regulate my brain activity to the point where I can be a functioning, productive member of society – a radical change of personality – have I ‘destroyed’ my mind? Am I cut off from this soul thing? Or also, is me-30-years-ago a different person than me-today, because our personalities are different?

    I’m trying to understand the definition of ‘fully human’, mind and soul you are working with.

  • Mitch Eisenstein

    Since it is going to be very hard to prevent the development of integration between man and machine, Christians should endeavor to steer its development toward ethical directions, such as altruistically remembering its purpose is to lead man out of suffering, and in equality, promoting virtue, and goodness. Although christian based trans-humanism will be only one form of it, Christians will be able to have a viable choice. The battle over technology is not winnable. but it is choose able. Through natural selection, the most viable forms of trans-humanism will be the most popular. Trans-humanism is an opportunity for christianity to showcase it next incarnation of progression toward redemption and service.