Should humans embrace the challenge of “playing God”?

Simon Smart's review and reflection of Playing God, a book on the place of religion in the transhumanistic movement, for ABC Religion & Ethics.

In 2000, just as the International Human Genome Project had completed the world’s first sequencing of the human genome, US President Bill Clinton declared this from the White House:

Today, we are learning the language in which God created life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, the wonder of God’s most divine and sacred gift.

It was appropriate that Clinton should wax lyrical at such a stunning feat that revealed even more mind-bending detail of the intricacy of human existence — and it was no less fitting that he should reach for language that pointed to transcendence. Ironically, this was not a time for scientific precision when trying to describe immense scientific achievement.

Eighteen years later, Chinese biophysicist He Jiankui announced that he had genetically modified the embryos of twin girls so that they, and any subsequent offspring they might have, would be resistant to a particular strain of HIV. A storm of controversy followed — Jiankui was spurned by his fellow scientists for what was considered a reckless stunt, and he was sent to prison by Chinese authorities.

The ability to edit human genes undoubtedly raises fascinating and exciting possibilities in health care and disease prevention, but alongside these a range of serious ethical questions — questions that science itself is ill-equipped to answer. This quandary is the starting point of Nick Spencer and Hannah Waite’s new book, Playing God: Science, Religion and the Future of Humanity.

Spencer and Waite are both associated with Theos, a London-based Christian think tank that focuses on the intersection of religion, politics, and society. As such, most readers would expect the book to issue a warning against human creatures scientifically overstepping their mark by usurping the prerogative of the Creator. In fact, Spencer and Waite argue the opposite: they claim that humans are a “God-playing” species and have a responsibility to play that role — and play it well.

Spencer and Waite have no interest in weighing in on the tired old debates about evolution, miracles, or the “Big Bang”. Of far greater concern to them are the scientific quest for immortality, the dreams and dangers of artificial intelligence (AI), the pitfalls and promise of genetic engineering, and the search for alien life.

Can the body be left behind?

Take, for instance, the technological attempts to prolong human life — perhaps even indefinitely. The longings of Silicon Valley billionaires for immortality have funded a series of experiments: ranging from cryogenics through to the transhumanist aspiration to upload human consciousness to a virtual space. While there is an obvious overlap here with the religious sense of death being the great enemy in the human experience, along with the corresponding promise of eternal life, there is also a vital difference.

The Christian vision is one of bodily resurrection, not some ephemeral spiritual existence. Furthermore, as Spencer and Waite point out, the Christian understanding of resurrection is bound up with the notion of community — a people coming together to live rightly in a renewed reality. Which is to say, it’s all about transformation. Spencer and Waite remind us that the kind of immortality that Christianity envisions is of a body empowered by God’s love within a community unburdened from our failures and faults we currently endure. They invite us to consider whether eternal life without some kind of transformation might in fact be a “dismal and terrifying prospect”.

Just as embodiment looms large in the discussion of scientific attempts to achieve immortality, it finds a voice in a consideration of whether AI has the potential to become anything like a human. Spencer and Waite argue that there are two diametrically opposed views: there are those who say AI will surpass humans by their intelligence (by which they mean information processing), and there are those who say AI can never be human because it doesn’t have a soul. For Spencer and Waite, both positions fail because they disregard the body. Humans are more than thinking machines or biological organisms. We are spiritual beings as well.

Significantly, however, we are bodies that exist within webs of relationships. Our embodiment gives us a fragility, temporality, and dependence — all of which shapes the way we see the world and our place within it. Something qualitatively unique accompanies the designation “human”, and, as the authors write, “no single picture of the human will exhaust the true depth of ourselves”.

Humans as linguistic creatures

In an interview with Nick Spencer, he told me that each of the issues discussed in Playing God drove him and his co-author back to the question of the place, status, and purpose of the human person. That question, he insists, is the seat of the liveliest, most fruitful, and most urgent interactions between science and faith. This is brought to life provocatively in their discussion of whether some animals should be accorded “personhood status”, as some advocates for animal rights contend. Scientific discoveries of recent decades have, after all, revealed the incredible capacities animals possess that make it harder to sustain the idea of absolute discontinuity between human and non-human animals.

But if Spencer and Waite are correct, there is an important religious perspective to be taken into account. If we are to adopt a purely “capacity” argument — grounding personhood in intelligence or rationality or the ability to exhibit empathy — there may well be a case for regarding animals as “persons”. But if we prioritise the designation of the “person” as existing in a world enabled by language, we begin to see something profoundly different. Humans as users of language — which they specify as intersubjective language that goes beyond the basic signalling communication we find among non-human animals — live in a different realm from non-linguistic creatures. Language users, according to the perspective of faith, are those made in the image of the God who “speaks” life into existence. They have access to distinctions between truth and falsehood, between past, present, and future, between possible, actual, and necessary. They live in a world of agency, morality, conscience, abstraction, and imagination. Spencer and Waite see these qualities as highly instructive:

[L]anguage does not divorce human beings from the animal Kingdom in which they so evidently belong, and with which they share so much. Rather, it permits them, as animals, to create and enter a new world of shared understanding, of meaning, of selfhood, of existential reflection, of moral obligation and ultimately of love. This is the world that makes possible the relationships from which personhood emerges.

“I’m a person because I’m spoken to, I’m attended to, and loved into actual existence.” Persons exist in the relationships made possible by the word.

Those who accept that vision of the human person will feel they have powerful reasons to hold on to it.

How (not) to play God

Playing God offers a substantial, sober, and utterly engaging treatment of vital questions emerging from the disorienting pace of technological change. Spencer and Waite make a compelling case for the relevance of a religious perspective as we collectively try to navigate the brave new world emerging from rapid advances in science and technology. And yet they are also extremely careful not to overreach when it comes to what contributions such a religious perspective might make.

Instead, they insist we need a plurality of perspectives from different disciplines in order to identify the safest path to tread. The way they approach topics such as disability, sex-selective abortion, genetic editing, and the treatment of mental health — all topics where science and religion have a great deal to say to each other — reveals both the courage and the sensitivity that ought to be the hallmarks of a fully developed religious outlook on the complexity of the modern world.

Ultimately, Spencer and Waite make the case for the need for humans to “play God” by reflecting the love of the God seen most acutely in the self-giving love of Jesus:

If Christianity has a succinct answer to the question of what humans are for, it is to love God and their neighbours, practically, expansively, expensively.

Willingness to sacrifice for the good of the other is the test whereby we judge all our actions — particularly when we are called to exercise responsible stewardship over nature, technology, and, ultimately, the human future.

Simon Smart is the Executive Director of the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared in the ABC Religion & Ethics.

Topics & People in this post


ChatGPT and the apocalypse

Simon Smart ponders what humanity gains – and loses – from advances in artificial intelligence such as ChatGPT.