Tag Archives: Genre: Science and Technology

Can A Christian Accept Macroevolution? – Examining A Number of Common Objections

February 2016 Feature Article

Many Christians today accept macroevolution, but many others reject it. In this article, I shall examine a number of common objections. While I am not fully committed to the theory of evolution, I shall show that there are various ways by which theistic evolutionists can defend the theological acceptability of their case.

Macroevolution refers to the process, involving the mechanisms of genetic variation and natural selection, by which the present diversity of plant and animal life arose from a common ancestor. Thus understood, this process is compatible with the view that God created the universe, fine-tuned its laws, brought about the first life, controlled the mutations of genes which appear to be random and the natural forces such that certain biological traits are selected (perhaps by acting at the quantum level), and (as explained below) specially created the first human in His image. Such a view would imply the possibility of perceiving both the evidences for creation (e.g. intelligent design) and the evidences for macroevolution in biological organisms. Thus, creation and macroevolution are not necessarily mutually exclusive, rather God could have chosen to use the process of macroevolution to bring about various organisms.

Many people think that embracing theistic evolution would mean accepting that we came from monkeys, which is objectionable. Aside from pointing out the scientific misconception—evolutionary theory does not say human bodies evolved from monkeys, but from common ancestors of apes and humans—this objection seems to assume that our physical bodies are all that ‘we’ are, which is false. Theistic evolutionists can say that only the physical aspect of humanity came from the common ancestor. The spiritual aspect, however, was directly created by God (this is one way to understand the phrase ‘breathed into his nostrils the breathe of life’ in Genesis 2:7). Given that God is a spiritual being (John 4:24), the image of God in humanity should not be understood as asserting that our physical body is similar to God. Rather, it should be referring to our spiritual aspect. Based on Scriptural passages such as Genesis 1:26-8, 2 Corinthians 4:4 and Romans 8:29, the properties of (i) having the potential for a unique kind of dominion that could extend to the whole world and over all kinds of creatures, (ii) having the potential for a sense of responsibility for this kind of dominion, and (iii) having the potential to be made to become conformed to Christ would be some of the properties that differentiate humanity from animals which do not have the image of God. It could be the case that these properties were directly and specially created by God on a pre-existing physical body of the hominid species, resulting in a new, originally sinless person (Adam), who would be the first ‘human being’.[1] In this way, human uniqueness compared to animals is affirmed, and whether the physical aspect came via macroevolution or not is of no theological importance. Other scholars have argued that passages such as ‘according to their kinds’ (Genesis 1:11, 20) and Genesis 2:7 can be shown to be consistent with macroevolution.[2]

Many people are troubled by the existence of animal suffering prior to Adam’s disobedience on the theistic-evolutionary view.  In reply, this is not a problem for the theistic-evolutionary view only. It is also a problem for Old Earth progressive creationists (e.g. Hugh Ross) who reject macroevolution.[3] Ross argues that God allows pre-human suffering to occur for His good purposes, and theistic evolutionists can argue similarly. For example, Ross thinks that carnivores are created prior to Adam’s disobedience and argues that ‘carnivores appear to be optimally designed to maximally benefit the health and population levels of the herbivores they prey upon by selectively weeding out the sick and the dying. In fact, carnivores appear to be optimally designed to benefit all life-forms, including human beings.’ [4] In response to whether Genesis 1:30 imply that all animals were vegetarians prior to Adam’s disobedience, it can be replied that Genesis 1:30 may be referring only to creatures in the Garden of Eden rather than creatures on the entire earth.[5] Likewise, the cursing of the ground by God because of Adam’s sin (Genesis 3) can be understood in functional terms, i.e. the ground was cursed with respect to Adam. In other words, after his creation Adam was placed in a divinely protected environment (Eden) which occupied a limited geographical area on earth, and after he sinned the ground on which he lived was cursed in the sense that it no longer had that divine protection [6]

Theistic evolutionists might also point out that Genesis 1-3 is not intended to be a complete record of everything about creation. For example, why was the earth formless and void near the beginning of chapter 1 (Genesis 1:2)? And why was the snake evil? The text of Genesis 1-3 itself does not answer these questions. It is in other Scriptural texts (e.g. Revelation 12:9) in which the snake is identified as Satan and the angelic disobedience mentioned (Jude 1:6; 2 Peter 2:4). Genesis 1:2 hints that something was not right prior to creation of humans. Other Scriptural passages indicate that there have been cosmic battles going on between good and evil angels which can affect the history of the world (e.g. Daniel 10:13), and that Satan is capable of inflicting suffering on God’s creatures (Job 1). While Young Earth creationists regard animal suffering as a result of human sin, theistic evolutionists can likewise regard animal suffering prior to humans as the result of angelic sin. It is noteworthy that Adam and angels are both called ‘son of God’ in the Scripture (Luke 3:38, Job 38:6-7), indicating their special relationships to God. The objection ‘why would God create so many amazing creatures such as dinosaurs and allow them to go extinct before humans could appreciate them?’ neglects the possibility (suggested by the Bible) that parts of creation might have been created for the appreciation by angels; cf. the angels’ shouting for joy at God’s creation in Job 38:6-7. Disobedient angels, however, would be motivated to destroy God’s work rather than appreciate them. On the basis of these Scriptural hints, theistic evolutionists might suggest the possibility that certain blundering mutations were caused by the destructive work of Satan, and that God might have chosen to use an evolutionary process to create—during which He also worked out His purposes for other creatures such as angelic beings—so as to demonstrate that He is able to bring good out of suffering (cf. Romans 8:28). That is, despite the destructions and sufferings, God still brought about many kinds of beautiful and amazing creatures; from this perspective, God saw that it was good (Genesis 1:25).

Some might ask ‘If God created humans to take care of the earth, why create humans after the earth had existed for such a long time?’ In reply, this question is based on fallacious assumptions. God did not need a gardener to help Him take care of the earth; God could have done it Himself if He wanted, or He could have assigned angels to do it. God assigned humans certain roles (Genesis 1:28; 2:15) not because God needed humans to serve Him (Acts 17:25); rather this assignment should be understood as an act of grace that allow humans to express their gratitude, love and worship to Him.

There are many other things which can be said about these and other objections, but I have reached the word-count limit of this article. Those who would like to find out more can check out my book ‘Science and the Christian Faith’. In that book I explain in detail that, even if the physical bodies of human beings were evolved from simpler life forms, that does not contradict the Christian faith, and those life forms must still have ultimately come from an intelligent First Cause (i.e. a Creator) who is the source of all things and the designer of the order within the universe such that it can be described by elegant and intricate mathematics (e.g. E=mc2). While the Bible does not say that the Creator used an evolutionary process to create various living organisms, the Bible also does not say that He did not use an evolutionary process. Hence we must remain open to various possibilities, be charitable to Christians who might want to accept macroevolution, and not let this issue be an unnecessary obstacle to Christian unity nor to seekers coming to Jesus.

 

Dr Andrew Loke


Dr. Andrew Loke
 (PhD, Kings College) is Research Assistant Professor at The University of Hong Kong. A former medical doctor, he is the author of ‘A Kryptic Model of the Incarnation’ (Ashgate, 2014) and ‘Debating the Christian Faith’ (Tien-Dao, 2014). He has published articles in leading academic journals such as Religious Studies. He is also the author of the ETHOS Institute Engagement Series booklet, ‘Science and the Christian Faith‘.

 

Notes:

[1] Andrew Loke, Science and the Christian Faith (Singapore: Ethos Institute of Public Christianity, 2016), chapter 7.

[2] Ibid.

[3] On the age of the universe see ibid, Chapter 6.

[4] http://www.reasons.org/articles/thank-god-for-carnivores

[5] Gavin McGrath, ‘Soteriology: Adam and the Fall,’ Perspective on Science and Christian Faith 49 (1997): 252-263, available at http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1997/PSCF12-97McGrath.html; accessed 18/1/14.

[6] Andrew Loke, ‘Is Evolution compatible with a literal interpretation of relevant Biblical passages?’ Theology and Science (forthcoming).

Is the Universe Absurd?

December 2015 Pulse

In an interesting essay published in 1998, the well-known Australian populariser of science Paul Davies asks a provocative question: ‘Is the Universe Absurd?’

In crafting his answer, Davies begins by pointing out the marvellous things about our universe that scientists have uncovered but could not fully explain. He mentions the rational way in which the universe appears to be ordered, the intelligibility of nature and what he calls the ‘lawfulness’ of the universe that makes it dependable.

The overwhelming evidence of design however does not lead Davies to embrace traditional theism or even to conclude that God exists. ‘Simply declaring that God made the world and selected a judicious set of laws offers no real explanation at all’, he writes. As one would expect, Davies rejects the argument that God had caused the Big Bang, labelling such arguments (quite unfairly) as conjuring the ‘God of the Gaps’.

Yet Davies appears to be totally dissatisfied with attempts of atheists to address the question of the purpose or lack thereof of the universe. ‘Having insisted that everything in the world can be explained in terms of natural laws, when it comes to the origin of the laws themselves a mental backflip is performed: the system of laws must simply be accepted as brute fact, they say. The laws exist reasonlessly’, he writes.

Davies rightly points out that the strategy taken by naturalists would lead to the rather gloomy conclusion that the universe is absurd, a conclusion he rejects. He is adamant that the answer to the question about the purpose of the universe cannot be found in what is to him abstract metaphysical commitments – atheism or theism – but in ‘pursuing our scientific investigations in a spirit of humility and openness’.

Let us be very clear about what Davies is saying here. He is not proposing a form of ‘natural theology’: unlike medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas, Davies is not saying that we could attain to some general knowledge about God through our empirical study of the world.

Davies is rather asserting that it may be possible for science to discover the purpose of the universe by studying its structures and laws. That is, the universe will ‘explain’ its purpose to us if we were to listen attentively and humbly to it.

There are number of interesting moves that Davies makes in his arguments that blatantly reveal his assumptions.

I shall highlight just two. Firstly, despite emphatically eschewing metaphysical commitments such as theism or atheism, Davies is in fact holding to a set of assumptions that can only be described as ‘metaphysical’ in nature.

Secondly, in assuming that science or scientific investigations can help humankind understand the purpose and meaning of the universe, Davies appears to be working with a certain philosophy of science called scientism that is rejected by many philosophers and scientists.

For example, the Roman Catholic theologian John Haught who has worked for decades on the relationship between theology and science writes: ‘Natural science is simply not equipped to respond to such momentous issues as whether there is a point to the universe, or whether it is friendly toward us’.

‘If scientists such as Einstein and Weinberg undertake nevertheless to address such matters’, Haught adds, ‘they must surely realise that their opinions are not a part of science, but conjectures about science’.

Nevertheless, the question that Davies asks is an important one. The question is nicely put by the 17th century German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: ‘The first question which should rightly be asked is, Why is there something rather than nothing?’ It is a question that has plagued ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle.

Unlike Davies, many Christian theologians, philosophers and scientists are quite convinced that science on its own is unable to answer the questions concerning the origin and purpose of the universe. Theologians maintain that the natural sciences can to some extent help us to understand how the world works. But it is unable to tell us why there is a world in the first place.

Nor can the purpose of the universe be gleaned from our observation and study of it. To speak of the purpose of the universe is not only to refer to the reason for its existence but to also suggest directionality and goal, its teleology. To speak of purpose is to appeal to mind and will.

Christian theologians therefore argue that the purpose of the universe is to be found in the mind and will of the Creator who brought it into being out of nothing. Put differently, the answers to the questions why there is a universe and what is the purpose of its existence can only be found in the revelation of God, the Creator.

On the basis of this revelation in Scripture, Christians can say confidently that the wonderful and mysterious universe we inhabit is not absurd because God had lovingly created it. And because God is sovereign, his creation will attain the goal or telos for which he had intended for it.

In this regard, the older atheists like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus were more realistic and perhaps also more honest than Davies in their admission that if there is no God the universe and human life is meaningless. Sartre could speak of the ‘nausea’ of existence, while Camus in his brief novel The Stranger could conclude that universe is indeed absurd if there is no God to give it meaning.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Three Adults and a Baby

September 2015 Pulse

On 3 Feb 2015, the British Parliament voted 382 to 128 in favour of legalising a technique in assisted reproductive technology known as mitochondrial replacement, after much heated debate. The UK is the first country in the world to legalise this treatment that would result in children with three genetic parents.

Speaking in support of this controversial legislation, UK Prime Minister David Cameron asserts: “We are not playing God here, we are just making sure that all parents who want a healthy baby can have one.”

Mitochondrial replacement is a technique that purportedly would allow women with mitochondrial diseases to have healthy children. Dysfunctional mitochondria inside cells – caused by mutations in the mitochondria DNA (mtDNA) – can result in serious health problems such as neurodegenerative disease, blindness, deafness, muscular dystrophy and diabetes, and could even lead to death.

Researchers think that replacing the disease-linked mtDNA with healthy mtDNA would prevent the transmission of the defective mitochondria to the offspring. While there are a few ways of doing this, the technique that is legalised in the UK is called maternal spindle transfer.

This technique requires an egg donor who is free from mitochondrial disease. The cell nucleus (or the spindle of chromosomes) is removed from the unfertilised healthy donor egg and replaced by the cell nucleus of the mother (i.e., the woman suffering from mitochondrial disease). The resulting ‘combi-egg’ with healthy mitochondria is then fertilised in- vitro by the sperm of the father. The advantage of this technique is that the social parents could also be the genetic parents.

While Christian theologians and bioethicists recognise the plight of women with mitochondrial disease, they have serious concerns about this treatment because of the many ethical and social issues it raises.

An important issue associated with this procedure is that the child would have three genetic parents. Some scientists, however, have tried to downplay the significance of ‘third- party’ mitochondria in a person’s genetic make- up. They assert that third-party contribution is inconsequential since the egg donor who provides the healthy mtDNA provides just 0.1 per cent of the genetic make-up of the child.

However, the fact remains that in maternal spindle transfer, the genes of two women are mixed as the nuclear DNA from the mother’s egg and the donor’s mtDNA are housed together. Thus, the embryo in fact carries a paternal DNA code and two partial maternal DNA codes. As François Baylis points out, “while it is undeniably true that the egg provider who contributes the healthy mtDNA provides less than 0.1 per cent of the total genetic make-up of the newborn, this fact is irrelevant to the accuracy of the claim that there are three genetic parents”.

Even if the success rate of mitochondrial replacement technology is reasonably good (and it’s simply too early to offer an assessment at this stage), questions about safety must still be taken seriously. As A. Bredenoord and P. Braude have candidly put it, we simply “do not know … whether a mixture of mtDNA from two different origins is safe”.

Here, safety has to do not only with the child in question but also with future generations. With mitochondrial replacement technology, the mtDNA of a third-party donor will be passed from women to their children. Female children will in turn pass this donor mtDNA to their children, down the female line. The long-term consequences of this are simply not known at this point.

Aside from the risks involved in the procedure, egg donation itself poses some serious ethical issues in addition to that of the commodification and even commercialisation of women’s bodies. Egg donation also raises questions about the relationship between the donor and the child. These questions apply even though only the mtDNA of the donor egg is used, as is the case with maternal spindle transfer.

Philosophical questions like how such procedures alter our perception of the child, often not addressed in the literature, must also be pressed because of their profound social ramifications. In maternal spindle transfer, the child-to-be is put together like a collage, using genetic materials from the eggs of two different sources in a process that is not dissimilar to an assembly line. The end result is the product (and triumph!) of homo faber (Latin for “Man the Creator”).

More is at stake in mitochondrial replacement technology than simply fulfilling the wishes of parents who want to have a healthy baby. As science and technology advance, the ethical issues raised become correspondingly more profound and ramifications more far-reaching. Society must never respond to these difficult challenges with simple clichés and naïve pragmatism.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
This article was originally published in the April 2015 issue of the Methodist Message.

Transhumanism

What is Transhumanism? And how should Christians respond to its philosophy?

The twenty-first century has been described by some as the ‘Age of Bio-technology’. Advances in science and technology, especially in cybernetics and nanotechnology, are so rapid and significant that futuristic techno-utopians or ‘technopians’ are predicting that it would soon be possible for scientists to engineer ‘better’ human beings who are not vulnerable to certain weaknesses and diseases. In fact some have predicted that the future that awaits humankind is ‘trans-human’ in that these new technologies will enable the human race to possess powers beyond our imagination.

The World Transhumanist Association based in the United States defines transhumanism as a ‘sort of humanism plus’. Transhumanists believe that human beings can ‘better themselves socially, physically, and mentally by making use of reason, science and technology’. At the heart of the transhumanist movement, therefore, is the desire to create a utopia by improving ‘humankind and humanity in all their facets’.

In June 2000, the first artificial retinas were implanted in the eyes of three patients in Chicago suffering from retinis pigmentosa, which enabled them to see. The implants, which are 2mm in diameter each, 1/1000 of an inch thick, converts -3500 microphotodiodes that changes light energies into electrical impulses, which in turn stimulate the functioning nerves of the retina. This is the exciting world of ‘cybernetics’, the science which attempts to combine living organisms with machines.

The journal Science published a report in its June 2000 issue that scientists Edwin Jager, Olle Inganas and Ingemar Lundstorm have successfully developed a synthesized micro-robot that can move micrometer-size objects and manipulate single cells and cell-sized particles in an area of 250 x 100 micrometers.

The term ‘nanotechnology’ was brought to public consciousness by Eric Dexler in his book, Engines of Creation, first published in 1986. The term refers to precision machining with the tolerance level of a micrometer or less. Imagine a robot so small that it can be sent into the human body to detect and destroy malignant cells and cancers. Imagine using these micro-robots as immune machines to detect and combat infection. Imagine robots that could repair or replace damaged tissues and non-cellular connective tissue materials such as the extracellular matrix, or remove atherosclerotic plaque in coronary and cerebral arteries.

Although none of these technologies exist presently, scientists believe that these nanorobots will be a reality in the near future, and that their appearance will revolutionize medicine. Inspired by the promises of cybernetics and nanotechnology, transhumanists look forward to a future in which the limitations and the burdens of the present can be overcome by science and technology. Transhumanists therefore could speak of an alternative immortality.

The transhumanist vision can be critiqued from various angles from the Christian perspective. The optimism that transhumanism exudes regarding the future betrays the fact that its ideology is very much influenced by the Enlightenment. Its confidence in science and technology to secure a promising future for (post-) humanity merely shows that it has given scientism a new face. Scientism is the view espoused by some that the natural sciences (and its close cousin, technology) not only has the ability to unlock the mysteries of the universe, but also the ability to solve all the problems we currently face.

Science is here presented as revealer and saviour, the roles which the Christian Faith properly accords to God alone. Its confidence in science and technology, and its very optimistic view of human nature has led transhumanism to boldly present its own secular ‘eschatology’. It envisions a posthuman future in which, according to Katherine Hayles, ‘there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulations, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot technology and human goals’.

Because transhumanism is a secular ideology, it has no conception of the divine, and so no understanding of the radical nature of human sinfulness. Seen from another perspective, however, transhumanism presents itself as something of a religion. Although it is a secular ideology, it is in some ways profoundly religious. It has deified science and technology, and gives them the powers to change human nature itself, and to bring about ‘eschatological’ perfection through the emergence of a posthuman race, the cyborgs.

At its very heart, transhumanism despises the nature that human beings now possess, with all its frailties and limitations. The goal of the transhumanist is to press towards the posthuman future in which homo sapiens become techno sapiens (‘transhuman’ is short for transitional human).  Hence the transhumanist writer Bart Kosko could assert: ‘Biology is not destiny. It was never more than tendency. It was just nature’s first quick and dirty way to compute with meat. Chips are destiny’. In similar vein, Kevin Warwick, another transhumanist writer could declare: ‘I was born human. But this was an accident of fate – a condition merely of time and place. I believe it’s something I have the power to change’.

At every turn, transhumanism presents itself as not just inimical to the teachings of the Bible and the Christian tradition, but as antithetical to them. The Christian Faith teaches that we are fearfully and wonderfully made by our Creator to bear his image. Our nature is not an accident, but a gift from our Creator. The Christian Faith speaks about sin and the fall which affects all that we do – even our science – and from which we must be saved. That salvation comes only from God, who in his love and grace has sent his only begotten Son to die on the cross for sinful humanity. Nothing from human culture, not even the most profound science and the most precise technology, can bring about salvation.

The Christian Faith teaches that God alone will bring about a new creation at the eschaton, a new heavens and a new earth. It speaks about the resurrection, not the ‘borgification’ (from the word ‘cyborg’) of humanity! In the final analysis, transhumanism presents itself as another attempt at constructing a Babel. It is as much a defiant expression of self-reliance as a manifestation of a sinful and perverse titanism of the human spirit.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
This article was published in The Bible Speaks Today, January 2015.

AI and Society

August 2015 Pulse

In the summer of 1956, a group of scientists gathered at the campus of Dartmouth University for a two-month workshop that would launch the modern artificial intelligence (AI) programme. At the end of the workshop, MIT scientists Marvin Minsky, Claude Shannon and Ray Solomonoff together with six other researchers predicted that ‘Every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.’

Since then, research in AI has advanced at a phenomenal pace as computers continue to double their capacity in information-processing power every two years. In 1997, ‘Deep Blue’ amazed the world when it defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov. It is estimated that computers will have capacities equivalent to the human brain in the near future, around the year 2025.

Some scientists even speculate that it would be possible to create computers with advanced AI, which they call superintelligence. Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom defines superintelligence as any intellect that ‘vastly outperforms the best human brains in practically every field, including scientific creativity, general wisdom, and social skills.’

Scientists even think that it would one day be possible for superintelligent computers to engage in moral reasoning. Insofar as ethics is a cognitive pursuit, they argue, a machine with superintelligence should be able to solve ethical problems based on available evidence and logic better than their human counterparts.

To be sure, the possibility of creating such machines has led some scientists to express hope that they will help to eradicate some of the most crippling problems in our world.

As Bostrom confidently predicts, ‘It is hard to think of any problem that a superintelligence could not either solve or a least help us to solve. Disease, poverty, environmental destruction, unnecessary suffering of all kinds: these are things that a superintelligence equipped with advanced nanotechnology would be capable of eliminating.’

Others, however, are not so sanguine. In fact, some have argued the exact opposite: that the creation of superintelligent computers would spell destruction for humankind.

‘Within thirty years,’ writes Vernor Vinge in his 1995 book, The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era, ‘we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended. Can the Singularity be avoided? If not to be avoided, can events be guided so that we may survive? What does survival even mean in a Post-Human Era?’

Both the optimism and fear surrounding AI are, however, misguided.

Superintelligent machines cannot solve the world’s problems like hunger, disease and poverty because these problems are the result of that destructive form of human inwardness called sin. Although superintelligent machines, like most of the science and technology already available can alleviate human suffering, they are unable to eradicate it.

Science and technology, however advanced, cannot bring about a ‘new heavens and a new earth’ – a man-made utopia, where the evils of the world are vanquished and where the deep fractures they inflict are fully healed.

To think that superintelligent machines can do better ethics than humans is to adopt the most naïve and reductionist concept of ethics. Ethics can never be reduced to a puzzle solving exercise.

Ethics has to do with human relationality, with our appropriate and positive response to each other and to the world in which we live. Only the creatures created to be bearers of the divine image are capable of this set of attitudes, judgements and behaviour we call morality or ethics. Ethical discourse and conduct are epiphanies of human transcendence which no machine, however intelligent, can replicate.

The exaggerated fears about superintelligent machines taking over the planet and orchestrating the extinction of the human species are also misplaced. In fact, they can distract us from the real issues surrounding advanced technologies.

These issues are not new. They have been with us since the dawn of modern science and technology. And they have to do not so much with how superintelligent machines can take over the world and destroy their creators. Rather, they have to do with how such technologies can be misused by some to the detriment of others.

As Joanna Bryson and Philip Kime perceptively point out: ‘The real dangers of AI are no different from those of other artifacts in our culture: from factories to advertising, weapons to political systems. The danger of these systems is the potential for misuse, either through carelessness or malevolence, by the people who control them.’

But there is one other aspect of this debate that perhaps is not given the serious attention it warrants. In reflecting on the development of any technology, it is important not only to ask what it can do for us. We must also ask what it can do to us.

As intelligent machines intrude into our lives and take on significant tasks, the way in which they may change how we perceive our own humanity and our relationships simply cannot be ignored.

AI may impact our society in radical and sometimes unwelcomed ways. And we must try to imagine how society should navigate around the changes they bring about by embracing some and by averting others.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Social Egg Freezing

July 2015 Pulse

In October 2014, Apple and Facebook made the headlines by announcing that they would pay the expenses of women employees who wished to freeze their eggs. This unprecedented move has revived debate on the ethical issues surrounding this particular use of assisted reproductive technology, as well as its possible social ramifications and consequences.

Mature oocyte cryopreservation or vitrification (egg freezing) is a technique that has been used for the past decade to preserve the reproductive potential of women. In many countries, including Singapore, this technique is used only for medical reasons. For example, it is used on young women undergoing cancer treatment so that they may have a chance to start a family after their recovery.

The procedure is risky. The fertility medication prescribed to the woman in order to procure enough eggs for freezing can produce nasty side effects like Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome (OHSS). In extreme cases, this condition can cause kidney failure, blood clots and even death.

Although the procedure is risky and the success rate unpredictable, the medical use of this technique raises fewer ethical concerns as long as strict protocols and guidelines are in place and observed.

However, in recent years, a worrying trend is emerging in the West where women take advantage of this technology to delay childbearing so that they may advance their careers. Others see elective egg freezing as a form of self-determination, an exercise of their right to decide when to have children. Still others argue in favour of social egg freezing on grounds that such a policy would narrow the inequalities among women with respect to their reproductive decisions.

Social egg freezing is also attractive for countries with low or declining total fertility rates (TFR), like Singapore. In 2010, births per female in Singapore dropped to an all- time low of 1.15. Fertility of women under 30 years also fell significantly, while that of women above 30 rose slightly, suggesting that women are delaying childbearing.

Many commentators, however, have warned that social egg freezing should not be seen as a panacea that guarantees women the opportunities to have a family later in life because current success rate is dismal. But even if the technique is perfected, serious ethical issues remain.

Among the many issues raised by Christian ethicists in relation to social egg freezing is the use of assisted reproductive technology for non- medical reasons.

Generally speaking, performing risky medical procedures on healthy people is always ethically problematic. The retrieval and freezing of the eggs of healthy and fertile women is a highly questionable practice from the standpoint of Christian ethics.

But social egg freezing also raises broader issues such as the medicalisation and commercialisation of women’s bodies. The business side of this trend has also caused ethicists to worry about what has been described as the expanding “consumerist imperialism in medicine”. This may result in the diversion of talents and energies from the strictly ‘medical’ aspects to the more lucrative ‘consumerist’ interests.

Finally, the attraction to social egg freezing may be symptomatic of certain cultural sensibilities and attitudes that would in fact compromise social flourishing. As some commentators have rightly pointed out, beneath the apparently noble rhetoric that heroically champions the autonomy and rights of the contemporary woman, elective egg freezing can be said to be motivated by the woman’s desire to put her interests above those of her children.

By choosing to have children in their 40s and 50s using this technique, women are not giving their children the healthiest and best start in life. In addition, these children are destined to bear the heavy responsibility of taking care of their geriatric parents when they themselves are just starting their careers and families.

The disturbing social ramifications of the distorted priorities that undergird this trend simply cannot be ignored. Thus, to allow social egg freezing is not simply to endorse the use of a reproductive technology. It is to sanction a mindset, a way of envisioning ourselves in relation to others, especially our children.

As the National Council of Churches of Singapore notes in its January 2013 statement on social egg freezing: “Allowing elective egg freezing will be perceived as signalling our acquiescence to the very trends that should be subjected to serious critique, resisted and challenged.”


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 

 

Brain-Reading?

April 2015 Pulse

Without a doubt, some of the most important and exciting developments in biotechnology today are taking place in the new and vast field of neuroscience. The brain is seen as the organ that has the closest and most profound connections to the personhood of the individual – his character traits and behaviour. This has even led some philosophers and scientists to claim that the self is merely an epiphenomenon of the brain. Concepts like the ‘synaptic self’ and the ‘model self’ advanced by some neuroscientists and philosophers state that human subjectivity is nothing more than the product of the electromechanical and computational processes of the brain.

It is therefore not surprising that the most fascinating development within neuroscience is the technology that enables scientists to study changes in brain states. Neuroimaging in the form of computed tomography (CT), postrion emission tomography (PET), single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and functional computed tomography (fMRI) enables scientists to ‘read the brain’, it is sometimes claimed. According to scientists, the potential of this technology is staggering, as it will not only allow them to study neurological diseases but also predict behaviour.

Much of the knowledge that we currently possess about human consciousness is attained by the use of one or some combination of these technologies. Neuroimagining has also led scientists to change their theory about the immutability of severe injury, leading to exciting opportunities to address the challenges and needs of such patients. Brain imagining has also some applications in the court of law, although their reliability as evidence has been questioned in some countries. For example, in 2007, the British Home Secretary John Reid announced that convicted paedophiles must be subjected to MRI scanning to ascertain the risk of re-offense.

Legal philosopher Henk Greely therefore notes that neuroscience may ‘provide new ways to distinguishing truth from lies or real memories from false ones. This ability to predict behaviour with the help of neuroscience could have important consequences for the judicial system as well as for society as a whole’.

Although brain imaging offers exciting possibilities in brain studies, some scientists and theologians have cautioned against exaggerating what it is in fact able to accomplish. Some have rightly pointed out that neuroimaging raises so many important issues related to reliability and validity that scientists must not be too confident of the results. Others have also alerted the scientific community to the complex problem of interpreting the images obtained from MRI or fMRI.

Still others have raised the issue of causality. For example, studies have shown that there is a connection between lesions in the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain to impulsive and anti-social behaviour. But it is not clear whether the lesions caused the change in behaviour or it is the aberrant behaviour that caused the damage. And is it also not clear whether we should be even thinking in terms of causality or simply of correlation.

The warning that W. J. Winslade and J. W. Rockwell sounded must therefore be taken seriously: ‘Humans are forever prone to make premature and presumptuous claims of new knowledge … One may think that brain imagery will reveal mysteries of the human mind. But it may only help us gradually comprehend organic life, chemical and physiological features of the brain rather than provide the keys to unlock the secrets of human behaviour and motivation’.

Christians should encourage the development and application of brain imaging technology, especially in diagnostics. But Christians should at the same time be weary of the reductionism that is embraced by some neuroscientists, especially with regard to the relationship between the brain and human behaviour.

This reductionism is sometimes articulated by some of the most eminent scientists in the field. For example, in his now famous book, The Astonishing Hypothesis Francis Crick argues that ‘“You”, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules’.

This means, in the final analysis, that human freedom and responsibility are illusions. The freedom that we think we enjoy may itself simply be the product of our brain activity and how this most superior of organs is hard-wired. To think in this way is to submit to a form of determinism that would in the end absolve us from taking responsibility for our actions.

This issue is intensely discussed in the fascinating studies conducted by neuroscientists, philosophers and legal scholars on psychopathology. If one espouses the reductionism and determinism discussed above, psychopaths who commit murder cannot be said to be responsible for their crimes. Such a view would have profound implications to current laws.

Thankfully, many neuroscientists and bioethicists do not accept this naïve causal explanation of the relationship between brain states and human behaviour. Brain dysfunction alone, they argue, does not constitute sufficient reason to excuse people from taking responsibility for their actions. Other factors, like one’s social environment, also influence the way one behaves.

Psychopaths, writes Walter Glannon, ‘do not completely lack the capacity to control their impulses. Moreover, although they act without concern for the needs and interests of others, they have some understanding of what it means to harm someone and that other people can be harmed by their actions’.

An important significance attached to the Christian understanding that the human being is created in the image and likeness of God is that although humans are bodily beings they can never be simply reduced ontologically to their nervous or neurological systems. As bearers of the divine image, humans also have a spiritual aspect that enables them to relate to their Creator.

Genesis portrays the complex nature of the human being: ‘the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being’ (Gen 2:7). Although the human being was formed from the ‘dust of the ground’ human nature can never be understood in purely materialistic or physicalist terms. For it is only when the lump of clay received the breath of life from God that it became ‘a living being’.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Fabricating Life

April 2015 Pulse

According to an article in the May issue of The Scientist, an international team of researchers has successfully synthesised from scratch one of the sixteen chromosomes in the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Despite altering one-sixth of its base pairs, the scientists found that the yeast cells from artificial chromosome SynIII were indistinguishable from the original version. Tom Ellis from Imperial College, London, who is one of the researchers, opined that this discovery is “a landmark in synthetic biology”.

Synthetic biology may be best described as the application of engineering principles to biology, with the view not only of redesigning an existing living system but also creating novel ones. “Synthetic biologists,” writes Markus Schmidt, the founder of Biofaction, “use artificial molecules to reproduce emergent behaviour from the natural biology, with the goal of creating artificial life or seeking interchangeable biological parts to assemble them into devices and systems that function in a manner not found in nature.”

The public face of synthetic biology is geneticist and entrepreneur Craig Venter, the founder of Synthetic Genomics, a private company whose mission is to engineer new forms of life. In 2010, scientists at the Craig Venter Institute created the world’s first synthetic life form at the cost of more than US$40 million in what has been described as “a defining moment in biology”.

Scientists maintain that the promise of synthetic biology is truly staggering.

In the field of biomedicine, scientists could develop complex molecular devices for tissue regeneration, smart drugs and personalised medicine. Scientists could also offer creative solutions to the world’s energy issues by manufacturing custom-made microbes for creating fuels and for performing artificial photosynthesis. Synthetic organisms could be used to detect and remove pollutants from the environment.

Theologians and ethicists have raised a number of grave concerns surrounding this new science.

One of the major concerns has to do with ‘bio-security’ as the new technology could be used to create bacteria or viruses for military or terrorist purposes.

Although some commentators argue that given the complexity and cost of synthetic biology, such abuses are unlikely to occur, the fact remains that with this new technology, the work of ‘bioweaponeers’ has become much easier.

In 2003, the classified US CIA document entitled ‘The Darker Bioweapons Future’ stated that: “Growing understanding of the complex biochemical pathways that underlie life processes has the potential to enable a class of new, more virulent biological agents to be engineered to attack distinct biochemical pathways and elicit specific effects.”

Synthetic biology is accompanied by all the conundrums associated with dual-use technologies: the same science, that may treat some of the worst diseases, could also be used to create some of the most terrible weapons.

Another major concern has to do with safety issues (‘bio-errorism’). There is the risk that the artificial organisms produced in the laboratory may develop unexpected properties that are detrimental to human health.

There is also the risk that these synthetic, self-replicating entities may be accidentally introduced to the natural environment. Moreover, these novel, artificial microbes that enter the environment may evolve, developing properties not found in nature which may cause untold damage to the ecosystem.

One important way to prevent both ‘bioterrorism’ and ‘bio-errorism’ is to achieve the right balance between self-governance within the scientific community and statutory regulations. But, as some commentators have pointed out, given the widespread availability of synthetic biology tools, regulating this new science would prove challenging.

In June 2006, The Guardian announced that one of its journalists was able to purchase a fragment of synthetic DNA of Variola major (the virus that causes smallpox) from a commercial gene synthesis company in the UK without having to undergo any screening process.

According to Richard H. Ebright, a biochemist at Rutgers University, it would now be possible for a person “to produce a full-length 1918 influenza virus or Ebola virus genomes, along with kits containing detailed procedures and other materials for the reconstruction … it is possible to advertise and sell the product”.

Reflecting on the profound risks surrounding this young science, Philip Ball, the consultant editor of Nature, writes: “If ever there were a science guaranteed to cause public alarm and outrage, this is it. Compared with conventional biotechnology and genetic engineering, the risks involved in synthetic biology are far scarier.”


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in the Methodist Message.

Science and Wonders

December 2014 Pulse

At Johns Hopkins University, neurosurgeons and biomedical engineers collaborated to create tiny, biodegradable ‘nanoparticles’ that can transport DNA to brain cancer cells in mice. These scientists hope that one day they will be able to load these particles with ‘death genes’ and insert them in brain cancer patients by neurosurgery to selectively destroy tumour cells without damaging normal brain tissue.

‘We now have evidence’, says Jordan Green, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, ‘that these Trojan horses will … be able to carry genes that selectively induce death in cancer cells, while leaving healthy cells healthy’.

Across the Atlantic, scientists at Cambridge University have succeeded in printing eye cells with a 3-D printer for the first time. Since many blinding eye diseases are caused by the loss of the nerve cells in the retina, the promise of this new technology is truly staggering.

The advancement of science and its close cousin technology that we have witnessed in the span of just one century can be described, without exaggeration, as truly phenomenal.

But it is precisely because of science’s great achievements, nestled in an increasingly secular culture, that some are led to elevate it to a status of omnicompetence that it does not deserve. The spectacular success of science should cause us to be wary of a dangerous triumphalism that borders on idolatry that often accompanies it.

Ominous signs of this tendency are already evident in the last century. In 1941, the evolutionist scientist Conrad Waddington could declare that ‘Science by itself is able to provide mankind with a way of life which is … self-consistent and harmonious’.

And in 1960, Indian politician Pandit Nehru could say that ‘It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people’.

More sophisticated thinkers have recognised the fallacy of this popular but inordinate confidence in science. Although science has indeed contributed greatly to human flourishing, insofar as it remains a human enterprise, it can never be anointed as humankind’s saviour.

Theologians and philosophers have long exposed the myth that says that science holds the answers to the world’s problems.

Observing its imperialistic tendencies, the British philosopher Mary Midley points out that from its birth, modern science ‘was associated with two strangely ambitious claims, infallibility and the formal unity of the whole of thought’.

Both these claims are of course patently false.

The diverse and often competing scientific theories suggest that science is not an infallible source of knowledge. For scientists like Peter Atkins and Richard Dawkins to claim that science is the only way to truth and that it can in principle explain everything is therefore unbelievably naïve. Such claims betray a simplistic view of reality, shaped by the narrow rationalism of the Enlightenment.

The scientific imperialists of our day have failed to recognise (or perhaps refused to acknowledge) what other scientists, philosophers and theologians are able to see so clearly: the limits of science.

The theologian Thomas Torrance argues persuasively that science raises questions that it is incapable of answering. Francis Collins, the Director of the Human Genome Project, rightly observes that ‘Science is powerless to answer questions such as “Why did the universe come into being?” “What is the meaning of human existence?” “What happens after we die?”’

As long as scientists refuse to acknowledge the limits of science, their search for truth will be futile. As the Harvard cell biologist and religious naturalist Ursula Goodenough has tragically admitted, ‘The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless’.

Science requires a larger framework of meaning that only Christianity can supply. In fact, both science and religion have indispensable roles to play in the human quest for truth.

As the late Pope John Paul II has eloquently and perceptively put it: ‘Science can purify religion from error; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish … We need each other to be what we must be, what we are called to be’.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in the Methodist Message.