It’s a brave new world. Or is it? Artificial intelligence, transhumanism, the genetic engineering of the human species—what was once the domain of speculation and science fiction is drawing ever closer to the realms of possibility. For some this is exciting, but for others there are serious moral questions to be addressed in our quest for scientific progress.
According to Rev Dr Christopher Mulherin, Executive Director of ISCAST (Christians in Science and Technology), the very meaning of our humanity is central to many of the ethical dilemmas we face today. What does it mean to be a human person? What does it mean to be alive, to suffer, to die, to experience the limitations of mortality? Whether the issue is one of science, politics or human identity, if we don’t flesh out our answers to these questions, we might find ourselves coming to some very problematic conclusions.
As well as being an advocate for the conversation between science and Christian faith, Dr Mulherin is a part-time lecturer at Catholic Theological College (CTC) and coordinator of its regular Engaging Your Faith online lecture series. With a background in engineering, philosophy and theology, he is well placed to explore the trickier aspects of these issues.
Dr Mulherin is offering two lectures in the upcoming Engaging Your Faith sessions this month: ‘Can a Scientist Believe in God?’ and ‘An Introduction to AI and Transhumanism for Christians’. All of the sessions are conducted online and are open to the public.
An important question for Christians and non-Christians alike is whether science and Christianity can happily coexist. Indeed, for many people today, how they answer this question is the difference between having faith and having no faith.
In his first lecture, ‘Can a Scientist Believe in God?’, Mulherin addresses the pervasive assumption that there are fundamental incompatibilities between a scientific approach to the world and a Christian one.
‘That’s a view that is unfortunately pretty popular in the street,’ he says, ‘but it’s an erroneous view and one that Christians need to be on the ball about.’
The Australian conversation around this issue differs from that in the United States, he thinks, where it has long been highly polarised and influenced by a particular approach to Christianity that reads the opening chapters of Genesis ‘literalistically’ instead of how the authors intended. While less overt, that approach nevertheless has a following here, according to Mulherin, so we need to work hard at clarifying areas of misunderstanding, including by pointing out the many ways in which science and faith complement and enrich each other.
An Anglican minister, Mulherin acknowledges that the Catholic Church has a much more comfortable relationship with science than some Protestant traditions do. ‘The Catholic Church traditionally has had very little, or much less, debate about science and faith,’ he says. ‘There’s a Vatican Observatory, and there’s a whole history of the Catholic Church being very positive about science, which hasn’t been quite the same in some Protestant traditions.’
Whether it’s the notion of an old earth or an extended evolutionary process, a glance at history shows that Catholicism has remained mostly unperturbed by these ideas.
Culturally, we might see the Galileo affair—when 17th-century astronomer Galileo Galilei was put on trial by the Church when he argued that the earth revolves around the sun—as the hallmark of the Catholic Church’s approach. According to Mulherin, though, ‘the whole thing is totally misunderstood.’ Referring to the arguments of Peter Harrison from the University of Queensland, someone he describes as ‘one of the most eminent living authorities in the world today’ on religion and the scientific revolution, he contends that the Galileo affair was more a ‘science–science’ debate than a ‘science–faith’ debate.
At the time, most of the available evidence supported the view (based on the ideas of Aristotle and Ptolemy) that the earth remained motionless at the centre of the universe, making Galileo look like a bit of an oddball, though in time he would be proven right. Throw into the mix a whole load of politics, a falling out between Galileo and the pope, questions of biblical interpretation, and Galileo’s reputed belligerence, and you have a very complicated situation. The affair certainly shouldn’t be ‘used and abused’ in the way it has been, Mulherin says, as though it were emblematic of the Church’s approach to science as a whole.
On the contrary, he says, the scientific method as we know it was born from within a Christian worldview:
Some say that science needed a Christian cradle, because it was a Christian worldview that said the world is ordered but it is contingent. So you can’t work out what that order is from your armchair. You have to get out there and investigate.
In fact, there is a whole tradition of biblical interpretation, embodied by St Augustine of Hippo in the fourth century and continuing to this day, that essentially says, ‘Genesis is not science, and if you read Genesis as science and start to tell people that it is making scientific statements, you will look very foolish,’ Mulherin explains.
Science and faith, then, are different but complementary ways of seeing the same world. Christians can gain a greater appreciation of the wonders of the natural world from the discoveries of science, and may benefit from many of the technologies that these discoveries make possible, just as Christianity offers valuable perspectives on the meaning and moral implications of many of the things that science investigates, including human life. Many scientific advancements of recent years, for instance, raise ethical concerns that go to the very heart of what it means to be human, and therefore to the very heart of Christian thought and understanding.
Take, for example, the emergence of transhumanism, something Mulherin will explore in his second lecture. Transhumanism, in essence, wants not just to cure and prevent diseases but to actually ‘build people better than they were before,’ he says.
The pursuit of this ambition can range from fairly extreme approaches to more realistic ones. One extreme example he gives is the notion that one day we might be able to download our brains onto computers and upload them elsewhere:
You want to go to Paris? No worries. Your whole brain information gets uploaded into this cyborg in Paris, and why not visit London at the same time? You could probably multiply copies of your brain.
This example is science fiction, he says, and it’s also rooted in ‘a very particular view of the human being … [as] essentially information in the brain that could hypothetically be downloaded.’
Yet, given recent discoveries in genetics, such as the ability to ‘cut and paste’ genetic codes (the coded information that makes us physically what we are), some parts of the transhumanist vision are a lot closer to realisation than we might think. If we were able to identify parts of our genetic code that are responsible, for example, for attitudes and physical makeup, ‘we could manipulate it so that we have more athletic children, more intelligent children, more creative children, or children who are taller and slimmer or whatever it happens to be’—in other words, genetic engineering.
If this sounds far-fetched, it shouldn’t. In April 2022, Australia’s federal government passed Maeve’s Law, permitting the use of IVF-based technology to eradicate mitochondrial disease. What this law permits is the removal of DNA that contains faulty mitochondria—which can result in life-shortening disease—from the nucleus of a patient’s egg, replacing the original DNA with healthy DNA. So far this process hasn’t been used in Australia, but effectively it involves the genetic engineering of children, and would create children with three genetic parents.
What this all comes back to, Mulherin says, is how we think about being human, and how we think about suffering and the inexorable problems of human life. For the transhumanist, the question is: why wouldn’t we genetically modify people if we could do it so they were better people—and not just physically, but in terms of personality too?
‘Some people ask if it isn’t time to genetically manipulate human beings for altruistic personalities rather than narcissistic personalities,’ he explains. ‘And, they say, wouldn’t that morally be the right thing to do?’
‘However, Christians won’t have the same sorts of attitudes as other people,’ he says, and bioethicists have been wrestling with these kinds of questions for some time now. Some of the important questions we need to ask are:
What is the human being? What are the limits of appropriate human intervention? When we say we’re a human being, what does that mean about the human body? What is our attitude towards suffering, disability, those things that, at first glance, we think we would want to avoid?
In a sense, the attempt to move beyond these challenges is an attempt to avoid the problems that being human actually raises, and Christian theology has a long history of tackling these problems head-on.
The development of artificial intelligence raises similar questions. Even contemplating the famous question of when a machine might be regarded as capable of ‘thinking’ forces us to wrestle with what it means for us to think, and whether a computer system could ever truly replicate what is uniquely human.
These are just some of the important topics the Engaging Your Faith lectures will tackle. Not only are they a ‘fascinating series of windows into the sorts of things that we deal with at CTC,’ Mulherin says, ‘but they’re windows that are designed for the public rather than for a heavy-duty academic audience.’
From spirituality and meditation to science and religion, and from biblical studies to the history of the Church, Engaging Your Faith offers opportunities in many areas for people to dive into the big questions, interact with other people and enter into the conversation.
You can sign-up for CTC’s Engaging Your Faith lectures here. If you’re a teacher, these sessions also come with professional learning accreditation.
Find out more about ISCAST—Christians in Science and Technology here.
Chris Mulherin’s book Science and Christianity: Understanding the Conflict Myth offers an accessible and engaging introduction for those interested in further exploring the relationship between science and Christian faith.
VMCH11 December 2023
Melbourne Catholic08 December 2023