New developments in biotechnology promise breakthroughs that could improve people’s lives, but also threaten to enhance human beings and alter human nature. Biochemist Fazale (Fuz) Rana opens a window to the new world of human enhancement technologies and the movement of transhumanism (transcending human nature) in this stimulating conversation.
More About Our Guest
Biochemist Dr. Fazale (Fuz) Rana writes and speaks extensively about evidence for creation emerging from biochemistry, genetics, human origins, and synthetic biology. As vice president of research and apologetics at Reasons to Believe (RTB), he is dedicated to communicating to skeptics and believers alike the powerful scientific case for God's existence and the Bible's reliability.
Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith & Culture. I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics at Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University.
Sean McDowell: And I'm your cohost Sean McDowell, professor of Christian apologetics at Talbot School of Theology Biola University.
Scott Rae: We're here with our special guest today, Dr. Fazale Rana nicknamed Fuz. So we'll refer to him as Dr. Fuz during this. His background is in biochemistry so don't let that scare you off because what he's really good at is taking pretty complex scientific things and making them intelligible to people like Sean and me who don't have much scientific background. He is the Vice President of Research & Apologetics at the apologetics organization called Reasons to Believe. It's a great parachurch organization that's just doing terrific work in apologetics around the world Today. Fuz has written a new book entitled Humans 2.0 subtitled Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Perspectives on Transhumanism. So there's a lot to talk about here. This is fascinating stuff. So first, thank you for being with us and for answering some questions and making it a really complex subject understandable to our audience today.
Fuz Rana: Well, Sean and Scott, thank you so much. It's just an incredible honor to hang out with you. So thank you for having me.
Scott Rae: So let's start, what do you mean by the term Humans 2.0?
Fuz Rana: Well when you think about something that's the 2.0 version of anything, whether it's software or a computer game, you think of an upgrade, something that's new and improved. And we have developed technologies in the last few years designed really in a biomedical context to treat diseases and debilitating injuries that actually can be also used to enhance human beings to extend our capabilities beyond our natural biological limits, making us stronger, smarter, more psychologically, well adjusted. And so people are now looking at the prospects of applying these technologies to alter humanity to try to create a new and improved version of human beings. And with an eye towards ultimately ushering what they would call a post-human future where maybe we can even modify ourselves with technology to such a degree that what we wind up creating would be something that would not be recognizable to us today as being a human being.
Scott Rae: Okay. So let's be a little bit more specific on this. What are some examples of these enhancement technologies that are designed to create an upgraded version of human beings?
Fuz Rana: Yeah, probably the two biggies would be one, gene editing and the other would be what are called computer brain interface technologies. And again, both of these are being explored for biomedical purposes, but for example, gene editing, which could be used to alter the genetic makeup of an organism, including human beings, could be used to treat genetic disorders that people suffer from. But we could also use that same technology to create designer human beings where we could augment our genetic makeup in such a way that maybe we would be physically stronger or again enhance our memory or our cognitive capacities. Likewise, computer brain interfaces are designed to help people that are struggling with things like Locked-in syndrome where they suffer a brain injury or a stroke and are unable to communicate or people that are quadriplegics or paraplegics or amputees that could use this technology to control computer hardware and software with their thoughts.
And that technology could be used to treat again, a number of just horrific conditions that people suffer from, but at the same time could be used to create scenarios where human beings would be modified with machine systems to create kind of like a cyborg, like a human machine hybrid. That again could be an enhanced version of a human being. So these ideas seem a lot like science fiction to many people, but they really are going to be a reality that is at our doorstep and be incumbent upon. It's incumbent upon us, I think, to engage these ideas because this is going to become part of our world sooner rather than later.
Sean McDowell: One of the things that enamored me to your book is that you start each chapter with a superhero illustration and in particular Iron Man. Why did you choose that character and what are some of the ethical and technological questions that we can see raised in the comics and the movie and in that character in particular?
Fuz Rana: Yeah. Well, I'm a bit of a comic book nerd and there's just a fascination in our culture today with comic books superheroes, and that is a whole entire program as to why that's the case. But I thought it would be fun to try to make the topic more accessible by bringing in kind of that superhero element. But to me, Iron Man is really the quintessential transhumanist, a superhero. He's the quintessential superhero that relies really on technology to make him a superhero. Tony Stark is a brilliant engineer, but in a sense he's no different than any of us. He's a normal human being who attained superhero status through technology that enhances him and so many of the themes that are explored in the Iron Man comics are themes that are relevant to how we need to think about enhancement technologies and should we use them or if we should use them, how should we use them?
So there's the comic book, Iron Man comic books have been a great laboratory where people have explored the implications of enhancement technology. And so it's a great nonthreatening, hopefully accessible way to begin to introduce some of the things that we need to think about as we delve into the reality of human enhancement technology that's in front of us.
Scott Rae: First, let's talk a little bit about the ethics of some of these enhancement technologies that you describe in your book. You distinguish as most people do, who've thought about this a bit distinguished between using medical technology to treat disease, which is generally morally acceptable and using technology to enhance otherwise normal traits in human beings, which you described as questionable. Are there some enhancement technologies that you would hold are morally permissible? I mean, after all, if you think about it, we actually do a lot of things that we try to do to enhance otherwise normal traits to increase our life expectancy. I exercise and take Statens and I do all kinds of things to increase my life expectancy, those are enhancing otherwise normal traits. So what's the difference between treating disease and enhancing traits and are there some enhancement technologies that are okay?
Fuz Rana: Yeah. You ask an incredibly good question and I sure hope I can give a reasonably good answer because this is something that I personally am still wrestling through even after having written the book. Because there's a lot of complexity when it gets to the ethics of developing and deploying this technology. And Scott, as you rightly point out, as human beings, we are technological creatures. We have a very important relationship with technology where every technology we develop is in some respect augmenting ourselves, our capabilities beyond our natural biological limits, whether it's an automobile, an airplane, glasses that we use for reading. And the list just goes on and on. And so there's nothing inherently wrong with using technology I think to augment or extend our capabilities. What I think is interesting and different about enhancement technologies is that we're actually looking at fundamentally altering our makeup as human beings.
Whether it's through gene editing or interfacing our biological makeup with a machine makeup, we're looking at something that is really going beyond what we typically would think of technology being used for. And there are instances where I could easily see legitimate uses for enhancement technology. So, for example, if you are a construction worker and you have to lift very heavy things as part of your job, could in interfacing yourself with an exoskeleton and making use of a computer brain interface, be something that would be a legitimate application where that would allow you to maybe be more efficient in terms of doing construction work? Whereas you with current technology it's much more cumbersome and maybe less efficient. So that could be an application for example, that could be completely legitimate but, and so the line as to where does the ethical issue arise when you're looking at using enhancements isn't clear cut.
And it could very well differ from person to person quite frankly, and good people could really disagree on it. But I think intuitively we would all recognize that there seems to be a line that we can cross where we suddenly are probably in an ethical gray zone where that enhancement may go one step too far. For example, you have people like Michio Kaku, the physicist, and Elon Musk the entrepreneur who are looking at something called the brain net. And in fact Elon Musk has just formed a company called Neuralink where the idea is that instead of using computer brain interfaces to control exoskeletons or robotic prosthetic limbs, could we use computer brain interfaces to actually tether our brains together where we could actually tether our brains with a number of different people that are in remote locations around the world.
And now we begin to see scenarios where you wonder, are we actually losing our identity as a human being? We'll begin to kind of meld our brains into a larger collective where maybe we would lose control of our capacity to think where somebody else could influence our actions through their thoughts. So this is where things start to get really kind of weird in science fictiony like, but where were you begin to I think, develop some ethical adjuncts about whether this is a technology we should pursue.
Scott Rae: So let me follow up on that just for a moment. It sounds like you're making a distinction between certain types of technologies that it sounds like essentially changes the hard wiring of who we are as human beings. So like gene editing, changing our genetic code or the human brain interfaces like this. Because I mean there are lots of medical technologies that we use that have these dual uses like you described for example some of the drugs today that are being used to treat Alzheimer's are being used with people just to over the age of 60 for example, who just suffer some of that normal memory loss that comes with aging. Drugs that are used today, for example, to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
Mainly they were designed for use with people in the military who were coming back from these horrible things that they've seen in combat. But now those are being used to help people just sort of smooth out their memories to where their memories don't provide the same kind of trauma valleys that they might otherwise do without that, what you're describing those sounds like its something really different than those kinds of technologies. Did I hear that, right?
Fuz Rana: Yeah, that's right. And as I point out we are looking at a very complex set of questions from an ethical standpoint. In fact, people that work in some areas of bioethics, particularly with a secular perspective on bioethics or even lamenting the fact that we don't really have appropriate categories to even begin to deliberate on the ethics of these technologies and are really calling out for a new system of ethics in a sense to try to help us process the decision making regarding this technology. And one of the things that Ken Samples and I do in the book is to argue that actually the Christian worldview produces an ethical system that isn't remarkably robust, that actually can serve us really well. Engaging the use of these technologies. It's all that much more remarkable because that ethical system has really birthed 2000 years ago. But yet it's so robust that it could actually guide our decision making when it comes to taking on the use of technologies that were unimaginable 2000 years ago.
Scott Rae: All right, so give our listeners some examples of how a Christian worldview can help sort this out.
Fuz Rana: The Christian worldview and when it comes to ethics, I think the concept to me that is really important, maybe centrally important is the idea that as human beings we bear God's image. And when it comes to the technology in its application, that cashes out in two ways. One is because every human being is an image bearer we have inherent worth and value, which means that as Christians, we want to do anything we can to help mitigate pain and suffering. We want to do what we can to promote human flourishing, but we also want to be careful about ever exploiting another human being or sacrificing a human life for the benefit of another person. With that person being sacrificed, having no voice in whether they willingly will give up their life for another person. We're concerned about justice and the equitable use of technology, so everybody has access to it.
And then also another idea that is important that flows out of the image of God is that we have dominion over the creation, which means that this is a motivation to develop science and to develop technology and that we should use science and technology in fulfillment of the mandate to do what we can to promote human flourishing and minimize human suffering. And those combination of ideas means that we really do want to be aggressive about developing biomedical technologies, recognizing the good it can do, but we also want to be vigilant about the use of those technologies in such a way that it compromises human life that undermines human dignity or is used in a way that would be considered unjust. And that's pretty remarkable when you think about it that the Christian worldview could really guide important decision making in this way.
Sean McDowell: When you talk about what the Christian worldview brings to the table, like the image of God, for example, it seems to me that a piece of this might be that we do have a fixed nature that God has made us and it's only flexible so far, and I think previous revolutions, whether it was Marxism or the transgender revolution, deny certain things are fixed and ironically, people end up getting hurt because of this denial. How does that help with transhumanism? What's your sense from both the science and from your Christian worldview, how far this can go? Or is it just kind of a gray area where we don't know?
Fuz Rana: Yeah, and again, what a great question and I wish I could give just a definitive answer in the point I'm making by being somewhat ambiguous with both the question of the ethics and even the image of God question is that this is really an area that I think Christian thinkers need to engage and engage well and engage aggressively because there's a lot of areas where again, I think there's a lot of work to be done, but to me, I mean the image of God is part of our immaterial makeup, but I don't view human beings as just simply being a ghost in the machine. So there's an interplay between our spiritual makeup and our physical makeup, at least this is my understanding of human nature from a Christian worldview perspective, which says to me that you could probably do rather extensive modifications to human beings and really not lose that immaterial aspect of our nature.
But there does seem to be a point where you could alter our nature in such a way that really what results is something that is not pleasing to God is not desirable from a Christian worldview perspective. And so yeah, I mean you really are operating in shades of gray I think as to how far can you extend our modification of our physical makeup and still not compromise that which is really important about us as human beings, which is again the image of God. But when you start talking about computer brain interface technology and particularly this idea of creating a brain net or something like that. Now I think you really are in an arena where I think you could actually, it could actually have implications for how we think about human beings and or the image of God nature that we all possess.
But again, we're really looking at unknown territory in many respects. And I think these kinds of advances in computer brain interfaces are going to really press on the mind brain problem in an interesting way that I think again, Christian scholars need to engage. So I wish I could do a better job, Sean frankly of answering the question in a more definitive way, but this is, I think the interesting aspect about these advances, the frightening aspect about these advances. But also I think it does create hopefully some sense of hope and in recognition that we could use these technologies in good ways if we are just able to influence the use of these technologies from our worldview perspective as Christians.
Sean McDowell: Well I think that's an honest answer. We really don't know how far some of these technologies are going, so some of this will be played out as we continue with the research and science and ethical reflection. Now you give some examples of like technologies that are clearly dehumanized and even though there's a gray area in the middle, we don't know. There's some that are clearly helpful and some that are clearly dehumanizing. Now when it comes to where this technology is going, you would say artificial intelligence in terms of robots becoming self-conscious. That's an example where you say that is out because that's a naturalistic perspective of what it means to be human or conscience. Is that right?
Fuz Rana: Yeah, that's exactly right. And it's interesting because there are a number of transhumanist thinkers who argue that transhumanism in the post-human future that awaits us where we have machines that are 'sentient' and stuff, is going to put an end to human exceptionalism once and for all. And that it's just going to undermine this notion that we are image bearers and that really the best way to think about human beings is we're just on a waste station right now on an evolutionary journey. And why not take control and evolve ourselves into something of our own making in our future. And so that is really something that I think strips human beings of inherent worth and value. And so I think we do need to be able to defend the notion of human exceptionalism and the idea that we are image bearers and we need to be able to do it from a scientific perspective.
And to me, one of the grand ironies is with transhumanism and the idea that it could somehow undermine this idea of human exceptionalism is that to me in many respects, transhumanism is the best evidence I think we could point to, or one of the best pieces of evidence that human beings are exceptional. Because I know of no other creature that exists today or that has ever existed, including creatures like Neanderthals that could contemplate developing technology that could alter our fundamental biological makeup, at least in principle, that suggests that human beings really are exceptional. And part of the transhumanist movement is this idea that death is unnatural, right? That there's something wrong with the way the world is, that we need to try to use technology to create a utopian future that we need to try to conquer the ultimate limitation that we all face as human beings, which is our mortality.
We want to conquer death. And that there's a sense that there is some kind of destiny and hope and purpose that each individual has and that we have as a human species. And again, that is highlighting our exceptional nature that even transhumanists who want to undermine the notion of human exceptionalism are acknowledging that there's something inherently valuable about us to invest this level of technology to somehow create a hope or a purpose and a destiny for individuals and for our human species. And where does that sense come from? Because they're not advocating that we do this for dogs or for cats. So to me, I think if we recognize what transhumanism is about, it's very easy I think to turn transhumanism on its head and actually point out that this is actually an argument for a biblical concept of human beings.
Scott Rae: So say a little bit more about this idea of human exceptionalism. You make an argument in the book that science actually demonstrates that sort of apart from our theological notions of human beings being made in the image of God, the actual hard science demonstrates that. How so?
Fuz Rana: Yeah. Well, much of the study of human origins is entrenched in an evolutionary worldview and that worldview is shaped by Darwin's idea that we're just really only different in degree, not kind from other creatures. That there's nothing really special about us as human beings and this viewpoint has shaped anthropology, physical anthropology for gosh, 150 years. And what's intriguing to me is that in the last decade or so, there's a growing minority of anthropologists and primatologists who are arguing actually the data is showing that human beings really are exceptional. That we differ fundamentally from every other creature that exists. And kind of in a nutshell what they've identified as what distinguishes us from other creatures is our capacity for symbolism. That we can represent the world with symbols and we can communicate those symbols to one another through language and music and art.
That we have what's called open-ended generative capacity that is we can manipulate those symbols to create these scenarios, these hypotheses, these alternate scenarios. And this allows us to anticipate the future, to dissect and process the past. It allows us to do sophisticated problem solving. And then they also argue that we have theory of mind where we recognize that there are minds in other human beings like in us, and that we desire to connect those minds together through complex social structures. And so this combination of properties, it seems to distinguish human beings from other creatures.
And I would argue that these are just simply scientific descriptors of what we would understand as Christians, the image of God. So we can actually turn to anthropology in some of the most recent work and actually build a case that humans are exceptional in a way that is compatible with the image of God concept from scripture. And hence that justifies now us viewing human beings as image bearers, which means that we can legitimately advance an ethical system based on the image of God concept. But it also means that as human beings, we do have some kind of value that is inherent to our nature that must be protected as we look to develop these new technologies.
Sean McDowell: That is really, really helpful to see the kind of intersection between the theological commitment to humans made in the image of God and the value that comes from it and what we can see in science. That was one of my favorite chapters of the book. Well, let me ask you this. How is transhumanism an opportunity for the gospel?
Fuz Rana: Yeah. The reason I wrote the book with Ken Samples, Humans 2.0 is, first of all, I just wanted people to be aware of what was happening and so that we can begin to engage transhumanism well as Christians. But I also wanted people to recognize that there's a real opportunity for the gospel to be relevant in a surprising, in a fresh way, in a future where people are contemplating transhumanism. Because when you think about what transhumanism is about, it's really using technology to try to augment human beings and with an eye towards creating some kind of practical immortality with a hope towards creating the utopian future. And what's happening is that transhumanists are in a sense constructing a gospel where the mode of salvation is technology and science. And this is going to be a very attractive alternative to the gospel, to the Christian gospel as we live in a world that's increasingly secular and is increasingly influenced by science and technology.
But what I find interesting is that what is happening with transhumanism is the need that every human being has for what the gospel offers is being laid there. Reasons to believe we see so many people who use science as a barrier to protect themselves from the gospel message where they raise scientific objections to the Christian worldview. Well, with transhumanism, the opposite is happening where science is actually laying bare the need that we have for the gospel. And so if we can, as Christians articulate the gospel and show the connecting points between what transhumanists desire and what the gospel offers, this is an incredible opportunity, I think to present the gospel in a surprising way to a culture that I think may be more open to the gospel in decades to come than it actually is today. And part of that of course, is having, being able to effectively show that science and technology is never going to ever deliver ultimately the salvation that we all crave as human beings. It's only the person of Christ.
Scott Rae: Well that is such a helpful way to end this on focusing on the right place on the gospel message. And I think this is an encouragement to our listeners to be more attuned to some of these developments in science and technology because I think you're absolutely right and your book does a great job of demonstrating this. It does turn transhumanism on its head because it lays wide open that human desire for transcendence that the transhumanists are actually appealing to. And that the gospel is really what provides the answer to that, not transhumanist science. So this has been such an insightful discussion. I want to commend to our listeners your book written with Dr. Ken Samples, Humans 2.0 Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Perspectives on Transhumanism. For our listeners, if you get the book, the scientific section at the beginning is a little bit rough sledding.
Don't be discouraged by that because the rest of it, the ethical and the social implications of what you're describing scientifically are so good and so helpful, especially as you compare and contrast the Christian worldview with a naturalistic worldview. So Sean and I give you kudos to you and Ken for writing the book and we want to commend it to our listeners. So Fuz, thanks so much for being with us on this time today.
Fuz Rana: Oh it's a real honor and it means the world to me that you guys would have me on your program.
Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith & Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Dr. Fuz Rana and the book Humans 2.0 and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/think biblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.