What Makes Us Human? Part 3
Friday, September 17, 2010By Steven H. VanderLeest
If we could endow a machine with intelligence, would the machine have any unalienable rights? If the machine were self-aware, would it have a soul? I suppose only humans have souls, but I’m not sure I can prove it. Could God choose to endow a self-aware machine with a soul? Do we know for certain that God would not do so? If a machine begged not to be turned off, would it be murder if one did shut it down? Or would it be more like killing an animal, with some ethical connotations, but much less than for a human? Would we still call it “only a machine” if she had a human-like body? If she could interact normally in a social setting, could write music, compose poetry, and make insightful comments about current political events? If she could laugh and love and cry? Would we still call her a machine?
How big is the tent called “humanity”? Where do we draw the line that defines “human”? Is it a matter of biology and genetics? It is a question of intelligence and rationality? Is it a matter of spirit and soul? What about humans with reduced mental capacity? Do they still deserve respect, as creatures created by God – as humans made in the image of God? What about an unborn human still in the womb, so early in development that she is not yet as intelligent as a dog or a dolphin? Or even earlier, when she is just a few cells clinging to the wall of her mother’s uterus? What about a middle-aged man in a coma after an accident, unable to move and unable to communicate? What about an elderly woman with advanced Alzheimer’s disease who hardly remembers her own name and can barely function? Are the embryo, coma patient, and Alzheimer’s sufferer each human even if some non-human animals and machines can out-think them? I believe so and thus I am hesitant to define humanity only in terms of intelligence.
If intelligence is not the key discriminator, is our humanity simply a biological inheritance? Perhaps we are human by virtue of the fact that we are born of a woman. But are test-tube babies human? They are still the result of a biological union of sperm and egg, even if that merging occurs in vitro. Let’s walk a little further down that path – where do we lose our humanity? Would a human clone still be human? What about a genetically modified human? How many genes can we alter before we lose our humanity? Genetic modification is not the only alteration possible. Could we mechanize a human so far that they become machine, not man? What about technological replacement of human parts? It seems obvious that someone with an artificial joint, such as a hip or knee, is still human. Even an artificial heart wouldn’t change their basic humanity. However, what if in the not too distant future we have the medical technology to replace injured brain tissue? If someone has part of their brain replaced with a computer after a severe accident, are they still human? Which parts of the brain, and how much of it, could we replace before we lose our humanity? If futurist Ray Kurzweil eventually gets his wish and downloads his entire brain into a computer (in order, in his words, “to live forever”), would the computer simulation of his brain still be human? Should I call the computer “Ray” and use “him” as the appropriate pronoun? What if we make multiple copies of this particular program? Are they each human? Are they each Ray?
I don’t see a clear way to draw a line between human and non-human. There are too many unusual cases and counter examples that call into question any line I attempt in circumscribing the category called “humankind”. But if I had to choose, I think I would err on the side of generosity, making the tent larger rather than drawing it up more narrowly. I would treat embryos as human earlier rather than later. I would treat machine-enhanced people as human even when heavily enhanced. Even if I mistakenly grant humanity where it is not deserved, at worst I have given a little more respect to another of God’s creatures. And respect for God’s creation in all its aspects is not such a bad thing.