Tag Archive #Religion

Is bioengineering killing God?

There is a famous philosophical experiment that goes like this: you take two identical cars. Then you swap one part of each car with the identical one from the other. You keep swapping, piece by piece, until no part has been untouched. At what point has one car become the other?

Like most philosophical questions, it is annoyingly difficult to answer at first glance. Then you realise something – the very concept of a car is just that – an idea that we humans have developed as a convenient whole “thing” – one that in technical terms doesn’t actually exist independent of its parts.  The same goes for countries, banks and the stock exchange.  These are all just convenient concepts we use (then forget we created) to refer to complex systems with lots of parts.

Now, if you take your grandma and you give her a hip replacement, does she suddenly stop being your grandma? What if, after that she needs a heart bypass to deal with her blocked artery? Then she has a degenerative eye disease and you learn that – amazingly – she can actually have new ones grown from her own cells and implanted – good as new! Over time, your Grandma has more and more operations to keep her going. At what point is your Grandma no more?

For eons, we also used to think of humans as a single indivisible thing – an in-dividual (something that can’t be broken into pieces). This was natural, since breaking people into pieces – even replacing faulty bits – does indeed harm them without the tools of modern medicine! It was in this historical context that we came up with the notion that humans had a ‘soul’. But bio-engineering is giving us the ability to cut and replace more and more part of humans, while other scientific discoveries about the human brain are challenging the notion that human personalities are a single thing at all.

Bioengineering is a field where engineering principles are applied to the fields of biology and healthcare. It used to be a pretty limited area – mainly because most of the materials we had available to put into humans didn’t interact that well with the body. Not surprisingly, the very immune system designed to protect us from bad bugs also tended to make our bodies reject various implants, recognising them (rightly) as foreign but (wrongly) as hostile… 

All that changed when we started learning how to build parts of humans out of our own cells. In November 2018, Tel Aviv University announced that it had created the first fully personalised tissue implant, engineered from a biopsy of a patient’s own cells. Other scientists are working on ways to make cartilage from a patient’s own cells – something that would be a huge step forward for reducing arthritis.

In both of the ground-breaking discoveries above, scientists effectively enabled a single person to be alive in two places at once (the living, breathing person and the cells harvested from them and turned into an implant).

This is huge both for the field of bio-engineering and for all living things. In particular, it means that one day we should be able to replace any living part of an animal’s body with an bio-engineered one. It also means that, for the first time, we don’t have to wait for evolution to improve our bodies – we can do it ourselves. 

Our ability to re-engineer ourselves will likely turn humans (slowly) into Gods; probably more the powerful, immortal, flawed ones like the Greek and Roman ones than the all knowing and always good variety. If it sound implausible that we’ll be able to this, consider that things like having heart surgery or hip replacements seemed ridiculous in the not to distance past, yet are commonplace and even relatively low-risk procedures today.

The amount of suffering we will help avoid with this new technology is so vast that it is almost unfathomable. If you have an ageing relative or one with a currently incurable disease or condition, you’ll know just how terrible it is to have to sit back and watch their ability to function in life gradually erode. We now have a way forward to stop this.

What are the eggs we’re cracking to make this life-giving omelette?

It turns out that we’re cracking one of the most holy eggs of almost all religions – the very concept of a human soul. The idea behind a soul was that there was something unique about each human that would endure even after death. Most religions haven’t been very sure about whether other animals had souls – but we sure hoped not because that would be mighty inconvenient for our plans to farm, kill and eat them!

So, we gave ourselves the benefit of the doubt and said only humans have this soul thing and we take it with us to heaven when we pop our clogs. Few people thought to ask whether, when we get a plastic hip implant, whether the old hip – which gets incinerated before we die – goes up to heaven and waits for us to arrive. Awkward if we end up being particularly bad after our hip operation and find our hip in heaven and the rest of us in hell!

You can see where I’m going with this. The very concept of a human soul was a shorthand we originally used to talk about the ‘essence’ or ‘whole’ of all those parts that make us human. But what if, actually, there is no real ‘whole’ human or human soul – only the illusion that our conscious brain creates for us because it is convenient to think of us as a whole rather than lots of parts?  There is even evidence now that our personalities are nothing more than a set of individual and socialised tendencies to act in certain ways – so you won’t find a soul driving that either. 

If there is no soul, then a core reason we have for all religions disappears. There is no soul for God to judge one way or another – just lots of bits of us to replace when they get old, or when we want to function better for a certain environment. This kind of puts God out of a job, even if you do decide to ignore available evidence and believe s/he created the universe.

This all sounds very philosophical, but there are some important practical implications. First, no need to worry about going to hell…yay! Or heaven…boo! So, we need to agree ways of agreeing what behaviour we consider to be acceptable based on common agreement, rather than by believing in a deity that tells us via an ancient text. That’s not actually so hard – it’s actually what our laws do already.

Second, we should worry about how quickly we can upgrade our various parts. Why? Because the longer we take, the more people suffer with the crappy older model of a body. As part of this, we should be spending time studying how bodies work and how to improve them, rather than praying to an unresponsive God to save a soul that mounting evidence suggest simply doesn’t exist.

Do you agree with my conclusion that there is no such thing as a soul?  Do you agree that this means humans should be spending less time in a church and more in the lab, finding new ways to improve the human condition and that of other animals?  If you find this topic interesting and want to know more, go along to 15minutefutures.org and check out Episode 3 on bio-engineering 🙂