Front Line Reporting from the Conference on Human Nature

Published: March 29, 2012

One of the most important aspects of student life in the School of Divinity is the ability to explore a diverse availability of educational opportunities. Today, as I write this, I have just returned from the first session of a day-long conference put together by the School of Divinity’s Dr. Kevin Jung. One of Dr. Jung’s professed interests is the development of biotechnology and how we ought to treat new issues that will inevitably come about as technology progresses. In organizing the conference, titled, “Engineering Human Nature and the Future of Human Values,” Dr. Jung has gathered together numerous scholars well known for their work in a variety of disciplines. The conference is an arena where biomedical science, neuroscience, theology, philosophy (ethics, metaphysics, etc.) and other fields all come together in discussion of human nature and moral value.

One might be surprised to find that a School of Divinity professor has taken such an interest in biotechnology or that Divinity students would be interest in attending such a conference. However, if one truly considers the future implications of biotechnology, one will find that Christians should have something to say about these issues.

Here are just some small bits of the thorough presentations these scholars gave:

The first speaker, David Oderberg from the University of Reading (UK), presented a paper on the possibility of a “superhuman species.” As I took it, his argument centered around that “being a rational animal simpliciter is the sufficient condition for being humans.” Essentially, he went on to explain that if a parrot, theoretically, were to be rational in the same sense that I am rational, I should treat that parrot as one of us (i.e. as I would treat a human). This was only a part of his presentation, but it does get at the core of what he said.

The second speaker, Patricia Churchland from the University of California, San Diego, is author of the recent book, “Braintrust,” which explains the moral values as the product of specific and identifiable processes in the human brain. In her presentation she explained that our human brains are really more similar than most assume to the brains of other mammals. As such, we can look to other mammals to explain some of our own activity and what we consider to be moral. Specifically, she spoke of oxytocin, a simple peptide, as the “hub” of much of our moral behavior; it is involved in causing pleasure in the brain when we behave socially. The attachment humans feel to offspring and social behavior in general, though moral, are the products of and conditioned by neural processes.

The third speaker, Nancy Murphy from Fuller Theological Seminary, gave a presentation on what some would consider a surprising position for a seminary professor. Murphy, renowned for her work in science as well as religion, is a non-reductive physicalist. This means that she also believes that our neural processes largely explain our behavior. However, whereas Churchland seemed to say neural processes totally determine our behavior, Murphy believes that there is more to the story. Her view does entail that humans do not have souls and she makes her argument from an examination of Scripture as well as neuroscience.

Unfortunately, I had to leave the conference in order to continue on with a very busy day. The conference does go on until around 5pm tonight, with many other distinguished speakers presenting, including Dr. Jung himself.

Despite having to leave, I do have a few reflections on the conference. The reason Christians should care about the development of biotechnology is that the conversation clearly touches issues having to do with Christian belief. At some point, as Christians, we will individually have to decide whether or not we believe in the existence of souls. Likewise, the issue of free will is raised by the study of the human brain. Additionally, Oderberg’s definition of the sufficient condition for humanity as being a “rational animal simpliciter” forces a Christian into a decision. We often like to believe that we are more than rational animals, but there are many who argue that we are not.

Dr. Jung’s conference shows that in the Wake Forest University School of Divinity, we are ready and willing to engage issues that matter across multiple disciplines. In this conference, we Divinity students are able to engage other disciplines in a conversation that should speak to our religious and moral beliefs. There is not room here to explain developing technologies, but there is an increasing possibility of enhancing the human condition. Because this is the case, Christians and non-Christians alike must be willing to define human nature in general and ready to take a stand on moral issues approaching on the horizon.

(On an unrelated side note, Go Cats!)

Perry Dixon
First Year