What kinds of things constitute biotechnological enhancement? What’s the difference between correcting disease and enhancing traits? How does the concept of our resurrection body help us understand where we draw lines and limits on these technologies? Join Scott as we tackle these questions and more with our guest Dr. John McClean, author, theologian and Vice Principal of Christ College, Sydney Australia.


John McClean is Vice Principal of Christ College and teaches in the areas of Christian Thought focussing on Systematic Theology and Ethics. He is the convenor of the Gospel, Society and Culture Committee of the Presbyterian Church of New South Wales and he writes a regular ethics column in the Pulse, the Presbyterian Church of New South Wales magazine.



Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: What kinds of things constitute biotechnological enhancements? What's the difference between correcting disease and enhancing otherwise normal traits? How does the concept of our resurrection body help us understand where we draw lines and limits on these technologies? We'll tackle these questions in a few more with our guest talk, Dr. John McClean, author and theologian, vice principal of Christ College in Sydney, Australia. I'm your host, Scott Rae, and this is Think Biblically, a podcast from Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. Welcome, John. So happy to have you with us, one of my dear friends from down under, I'm glad to have you on this with us.

John McClean: Thanks, Scott. Great to be here.

Scott Rae: Tell me, first of all, for our listeners who might not be aware of this whole field in general, what do you mean by the term human enhancement? And what are some examples of the kinds of things that you're referring to?

John McClean: Yeah, sure. Human enhancement has got to do with how we might be able to, or we are already starting to change the way the human body functions in a way that makes it more than a normal function. There's been all sorts of developments in biotechnology in the last 30 or 40 years, and there's a heap more to come, no doubt, some of which we can't even begin to imagine. And some of those open up the possibility of changing the way the body itself functions. Some simple examples of some of the pharmaceutical interventions already, people perhaps a little bit in the black market would be taking something like Ritalin, which is developed to treat attention deficit disorder, those kind of things. But if someone who is already, say a successful student, takes Ritalin, it seems to be able to increase their concentration beyond what they'd normally be able to. So that'd be a very simple example. But further down the track, there's the real prospect of having wearable digital equipment that interfaces directly with the brain. There's already some developments around that. And you can imagine genetic manipulation that could take place, again, that could give you all sorts of abilities or capacities that aren't normally available to the human body.

Scott Rae: Okay. Now, John, we've been doing lots of enhancement kinds of things for some time. I exercise to enhance my muscle growth and my cardiac ability. I paid lord only knows how much for music lessons for my kids. And in the US we have Kaplan courses to prepare for college entrance exams. We do all those things to enhance our otherwise normal traits to make them better than they are. So how is what you're referring to different than the kinds of things we've been doing? And I don't think anybody really has a huge problem with those things, but how is what you're referring to different than those?

John McClean: Yeah. Obviously, there is a continuity. Both, we've been developing our bodies and we've been using technology to enable us to do all sorts of things. The fact that you and I are talking to each other in different cities is not a capacity that's naturally given to our bodies without the technology. So of course there's things we've done there. But what human enhancement technology is proposing or starting to do is to change the body through a technological or a scientific intervention. And I think most people do have a sense that this is a new frontier and raises some different ethical questions. They're not entirely different to what we've thought about before. But because we are thinking about changing the body, and when we talk about genetic interventions, changing the germline so it becomes something that's inherited, that raises a bunch of different questions.

Scott Rae: Okay. Yeah. Our listeners may not be aware of that term, germline therapy. Those are genetic corrections or interventions that have the possibility at least to be passed down to succeeding generations. And so there's a question there about, who knows exactly what we're unleashing on future generations? You talked about digital devices, implants, things like that, that interact directly with the brain. Think way outside the box. What kinds of enhancement therapies, enhancement technology do you think we might see 30 years from now?

John McClean: It's so hard to tell. Listen, and it does feel like the world of science fiction. But you could imagine in 30 years time neuroprosthetics, so devices that are digital using AI, artificial intelligence, that are actually embedded in people's brains and interface with them. And so might massively increase your computing power, the speed with which you can make decisions. You could imagine that there could either be central adjustments or perhaps adjustments to your eyes themselves, so you can see with greater acuity. And you can imagine all sorts of combinations of those.

Scott Rae: Yeah, I've heard there's actually a genetic enhancement that's being considered that would reduce the need for the average night's sleep to somewhere around three to four hours a night. Which would you-

John McClean: Right. Other areas would be extension of life. There may, again, genetic or pharmaceutical interventions that would allow us to at least really slow down the speed of senescence in the human body. And so expand the life expectancy to well over 100 years, and perhaps 200 or 300 years. A lot of this is in the science fiction realm at present, but the rate of change of biotechnology means what seems science fiction now may not be in 10 or 15 years.

Scott Rae: Well, yeah, the things we're doing today did seem like science fiction 30 years ago. And nobody envisioned that we'd have the possibility of designer children like we have today. [inaudible 00:06:59]-

John McClean: And Scott, that's why I think we need to do some thinking about this now. Because even though I certainly don't feel like I can predict exactly what form this will take, I'm pretty confident it will be a growing issue for us as Christians and in our churches in the next 10 and 15 years.

Scott Rae: John, help our listeners. Another foundational question for this, help our listeners understand how you distinguish between treating disease and enhancing traits. Because as you know, the line be between those two often gets a little blurry. At the extremes, it's not hard to see the difference, but in the middle there's quite a bit more ambiguity. Where do you draw the line on that?

John McClean: Probably in each case it's a case by case question. But the main point I want to make is even though it does get blurry sometimes, it's still an important distinction to make. And for this reason, from a Christian point of view, the teaching in the Bible and the example of Jesus give us a mandate to heal. The early church worked for healing and offered miraculous healing. The Bible prays for healing. Although we need to be careful about the way in which we treat people in medical treatment, the idea that we are trying to correct things that have gone wrong in the human body is relatively straightforward. But it's a different question when we are saying, let's move the body to something that it hasn't been in the past. I don't think it means we can't think about that, but it will be a different set of questions. An example of the blurriness that's a pretty contemporary one is vaccination, of course. Because in one sense what the vaccination is doing is helping your immune system to respond to disease faster than it would have usually, and more effectively than it would have usually.

Scott Rae: That's right. It's not treating any disease.

John McClean: That's right. And yet, that's why vaccination's a good example because it is responding to a disease.

Scott Rae: True.

John McClean: Although the treatment itself [inaudible 00:09:26]-

Scott Rae: Proactively.

John McClean: Exactly. Yeah.

Scott Rae: Okay, that's helpful. I've heard some suggest that our theological categories actually provide some resources that a simply secular view of this does not. With the notion of, things that are the result of the general entrance of sin into the world could be candidates for treatment and things that are not the result of the general entrance of sin would be some of the givens of life that we're just called to accept as part of our humanity. What do you think of that?

John McClean: Certainly, the first part I agree with thoroughly. I think that the pattern of creation and fall helps us to understand there's a way in which human life should be, even if we can't describe it exactly. It's not as if we can say exactly what the average IQ of all human beings should be, or anything like that. But we can understand there was a way that humans were made to be, and sin and the fall has meant that we are not like that. As Paul says, we live with frustration. I certainly agree with that first part. The second part, I think we can at least contemplate enhancement, but we're going to have to think about that even more carefully than we would about a treatment. And it probably, it will have stricter ethical limitations on it.

Scott Rae: Okay, that's helpful. One of the things I appreciate about your work on this is how you bring really solid theological categories to bear on really complex ethical issues, and you combine ethics and theology really nicely. And in this particular area, how does the notion of our resurrection body impact your view of enhancement technologies?

John McClean: Yeah. I've been thinking about enhancement, or at least realizing I needed to think or I wanted to think about enhancement for a while. And then at some point in the last year or so, as I was contemplating it, it dawned on me that Christian theology tells a story about what has happened to our bodies and what will happen to our bodies. And that just thinking about that might offer some light, and some shed some light on what science fiction-y, hypothetical, hard yet to imagine scenarios. A few things that I'd say from thinking about the resurrection, and especially the glorified body. One is, I think we were made and humanity was made, created by God, set in Eden before the fall with the prospect of glory. So that the Edenic state wasn't the finished state for humanity. There was an expectation of moving towards glory, and being brought to glory as a gift from God. Now, I think that helps to explain why humans do have this longing for enhancement, and it's not necessarily an anti-human or an anti-God longing. Of course, all these things, they can be pursued incorrectly. But just the longing to be more and better and stronger than we are is actually something God's put into us.

Scott Rae: So it's part of our constitution.

John McClean: Yeah. Now, there's plenty of desires that we have that we pursue incorrectly. So just because we have the desire that's justify everything we might want to do about it. On the other side, the promise of glory is that we will be changed to be like Christ when he returns, through his power, as we see God face to face and live in his presence perfectly. And we are never going to reach that through any technical developments. I think that does remind us that a lot of writing about human enhancement has a pseudo eschatology about it. It's as if this is the answer for the real future of humanity. And Christians can't agree with that. Christians are going to say, no, the real glory comes in the return of Christ when he gathers all those who are his to himself. Whatever we do technically, it's not that.

Scott Rae: I appreciate that perspective on that. In secular circles they talk about a thing, the phenomena known as the singularity, when we will finally have transcended the body once and for all. And you're right, there does have that, basically, an end times eschatological feel to that, that we will usher in a secular view of God's kingdom once we reach the ability to completely transcend our embodied state, or the limits of our embodied state. But here, what I've wondered about this is, we have a lot of things in this earthly life that I would call kingdom for tastes. They're just little samples that we get to experience here on earth that by God's grace that are just glimpses of what life will be in much more of its fullness when the kingdom comes in its consummation. And I'm wondering, would it be possible to see some enhancement technologies in the way you've described this longing for more that's built into us as a kingdom for taste? What do you think of that idea?

John McClean: Yeah. It's not a way that I particularly formulated it before. I guess I'd been thinking more about, would we think this was valid or allowable? But if we do conclude that there are some enhancements that are worth pursuing and allowing, then just as an experience of healing, whether that's through medical processes or immediately through God's miraculous intervention, we'd certainly see those as being a for taste of the fullness of the kingdom. Yeah, I think we could imagine human enhancement being the same. As something that's in prospect, I guess at present I'm feeling like the main thing we need to say is don't think it's the fullness of the kingdom.

Scott Rae: Right. Right. Clearly. And it's just, I'd call it a small sliver of kingdom for taste. Let me pursue this on the resurrection body here for just a moment, because I think there's an important theological point to be made here. In our resurrection bodies, are all of our diseases and infirmities healed?

John McClean: Yes, they are.

Scott Rae: That's not a gotcha question, I promise.

John McClean: No, no, I know. But of course we have to recognize, we don't always fully understand what really are diseases and infirmities.

Scott Rae: Okay.

John McClean: I was talking to a friend about this the other day. The obvious way to think about, is to think about appearance. And cosmetic changes, I guess we might call it. There might be all sorts of things about our bodies that we think surely in glory it'll be different to this. But we might find that actually God's completely satisfied with some aspect of our bodies that we currently aren't. And so, that may turn out to be some things that we already would call disabilities or that we tend to call disabilities or infirmities or diseases. It might turn out that they aren't. But I think those things that are, that aren't according to the way God has intended our bodies to be, they will certainly be healed.

Scott Rae: That's a really helpful nuanced answer to that. The reason I'm asking, is I recall I had a conversation several years ago with a very prominent theologian who, my colleague who was with me around the tables has a son who's a down syndrome child. And this very prominent theologian insisted that his child will still have down syndrome in the eternal state, otherwise he would be a different person altogether. What do you make of that claim?

John McClean: My answer is, I don't know. 1 John 3:2 where John writes, "We do not yet know what we'll be like, but we will be like him, but we shall see him as he is," at least reminds us of the limitations of our knowledge of what our eschatological state will be. And so some of those questions, especially about disability, I want to say things that God knows what are genuinely disabilities and what are part of the variety of the world he's made. And he will retain our identity.

Scott Rae: Yes.

John McClean: In preparing for this, I read a really interesting article arguing quite strongly that Jesus is raised and glorified. And this article's arguing, we should translate the word as he has scars, not wounds. And that scars are what remains of the wounds, but they're not wounds themselves. The wounds have been healed, and yet the marks that they left remain because they're a sign of his identity, but of course in Christ for his work for us. And so perhaps there's some parallel with that, with some things that we think of as diseases and disabilities, that there'll be some element of them left and yet they'll be transformed.

Scott Rae: That's a helpful distinction to make. And I think an important point to make is that we maintain our person... We are the same person through whatever time and change we experience. Because I wanted to say to my theologian friend, on what basis then is our identity grounded? Because if we don't have something that's not material, not bodily, that grounds our personal identity through time and change, then every biological change makes us a different person, not just this one.

John McClean: Yeah. And I think that's one of the things that I've found helpful in thinking about the glorification of the body, is the continuity of the body seems to be very much about maintaining identity. That the me who dies is the me who will be raised in Christ. And yet there'll be such a thorough transformation of my body in that glorification. And so we've got this extreme example of continuity of identity through continuation of a body, but with transformation.

Scott Rae: Now, John, you maintain in your work here that we can use enhancement technologies to enhance our embodiedness, but not to transcend it. Explain a little bit more what you mean by that.

John McClean: Right. I'm certainly arguing for that, and try to imagine that out of the resurrection body that what God does is he promises he will raise us. And so 1 Corinthians 15, of course Paul talks about natural bodies and spiritual bodies, but he doesn't mean they're material bodies versus immaterial bodies. The spiritual body is the body that is filled with and transformed by and led by the Spirit, the Holy Spirit. But it's still very much a physical body. And so the expectation of glory is that we will be embodied. And that just underlines what we know some from so many other parts of scripture that who we are is intimately tied in with our bodies. And human life is lived in an embodied way. And so an enhancement, or to put it the other way, to reduce our embodiedness would not be an enhancement of human life. And so there are versions of talk about enhancement, talk about whole brain emulation, or brain uploading so that the information from someone's brain is transferred onto some digital network. And maybe with some physical avatar or a virtual avatar that's provided to accompany that, but it's no longer our body. And it seems to be that vision, which is often called transhumanism, is not something that Christians are going to want to support at all as any type of enhancement. But if there are versions of enhancement that actually improve some of the functions of our body while leaving us very much clearly embodied, then that might be something that least we can think about.

Scott Rae: Okay. Give me just a couple more questions here to be clear on this. Give me a couple of examples of enhancement technologies that you think would be morally acceptable and consistent theologically.

John McClean: Yeah. I guess it's especially the consistent theologically that I'm thinking about at this stage. Because each technology and each application of technology will need its own consideration ethically. And there might be other reasons why you wouldn't want to do some of these things, but at least consistently with a theological vision. I think to extend human life, to extend life expectancy, of course depending on how that's done, I think we could certainly contemplate that. To increase human strength and sensory acuity, I think there's cases for that. Perhaps some moral enhancements. I talked earlier about Ritalin increasing focus, but it does seem to increase empathy as well. So there might be some pharmaceutical or neuro prosthetic interventions that help us to relate to one another better. I think they could be contemplated. I'm certainly not at this stage arguing [inaudible 00:25:07]-

Scott Rae: Yeah. No, that's helpful. Although on that last one, I want to make sure that they still need people like you and me to teach ethics from time to time. Okay, good. That's helpful. Now, one final question. John, given the way autonomy runs amuck in many of our cultures, both I think in the US and in Australia, how optimistic are you about a secular culture's inclination to put moral limits on these enhancement technologies?

John McClean: Yeah. Hard to make a call on that. I guess I would say the more that we leave these decisions in the hands of those who are developing the technologies and profiting from the technologies, the more pessimistic I would be about the outcomes.

Scott Rae: Okay.

John McClean: Just as we've seen with biotechnology already, there's all sorts of things that have happened that I think there's been terrible costs of experiments on human fetuses and all sorts of things that I wouldn't want [inaudible 00:26:22] at all. Terrible evils. There's the prospect for that. But at least we need an educated citizenship. Citizenry. It can't just be the technocrats that are making these decisions. People need to be informed about what is happening or what might happen. And the church is going to have at least some role in thinking about these things, not only in terms of discipleship for Christians, but also some public witness as much as we've got that opportunity.

Scott Rae: Well, John, in my view these questions about biotechnological enhancement are the trickiest, most challenging ethical questions that our culture faces today. These are the most challenging. I think they require the most solid, sound, theological and moral thinking. And I think what you've done here is a really significant contribution to this, because I love the way you ground this so solidly theologically, and then reason from there. I so appreciate your approach as a theologian, but who also has a huge interest in ethics too, to then put shoe leather on it in the way that you do. I want to encourage our listeners to keep your antenna up for things that you see and read in the news about this. And I think we're going to have some other podcasts on this in the future, because I think this is the most challenging stuff coming down the pike for a long time to come. John, thanks so much for being with us. Delighted to have you.

John McClean: Thanks, Scott.

Scott Rae: Appreciate your insight and theological acumen on this. Just been a delight to talk to you.

John McClean: Good. It's been fun.

Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. Offering programs in Southern California and online, including our master's in Christian Apologetics, now offered fully online. Visit biola.edu/talbot in order to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation with our friend Dr. John McClean, 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.