Human nature, health, and human flourishing

The past few days, I have been attending the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity’s 20th annual conference, entitled “Health and Human Flourishing,” and the following ramblings are a result of some good speakers and good conversations with fellow attendees.

Two essential truths: First, there is a “given” or normative human nature, and Jesus Christ is the normative human; second, he is the paradigm for human flourishing. By following him (including into suffering), becoming like him, and taking on the fruits of the Spirit, we become more truly human and discover true satisfaction and human flourishing.

Denying these two essential truths leads directly away from human flourishing. The first truth is that Jesus provides the norm for human nature. But the human enhancement project does not acknowledge a normative human nature, instead seeing it as malleable, thus open to tinkering in attempts to improve it (“take control of our evolution”). This naturally leads to dissatisfaction with our current state because we seek endlessly for the next better thing — a dissatisfaction that is the opposite of flourishing.

The second truth is that Jesus is the paradigm for human flourishing. But in a culture with a materialist world view (i.e., matter is all that is and all that matters), it is natural that “human flourishing” will be identified with “physical health.” Add to this the WHO definition of health as “a complete state of physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity,” and the inevitable result of the pursuit of happiness and human flourishing will be the increasing medicalization of all spheres of life. But while health is an important contributor to human flourishing, it is not the same thing as human flourishing, and flourishing can even exist in its absence. In our culture’s rush to turn every event in life into a medical incident we keep pressing the health button in the hope that human flourishing will come out; but the only thing that comes out is more illness, more technology, more dissatisfaction — and less flourishing.

 

“Watson” vs. Humans

Watson supercomputer on Jeopardy.

Watson supercomputer on Jeopardy.Recently the quiz show “Jeopardy” pitted “Watson,” an IBM supercomputer, against the show’s previous top winners including Ken Jennings, the all time record holder for Jeopardy wins. With fascination, I watched “Watson” demolish the humans in a lopsided win. The event got me thinking. I tend to believe, contrary to futurists such as Ray Kurzweil and Nick Bostrom, that machine intelligence will never surpass human intelligence.

On the other hand, “Watson” “sounded” like a human and processed the information with a speed that surpassed the best human effort. Kurzweil, Bostrom and others believe that it is just a matter of time before technology will transform what it means to be human. The assumption is that human nature is malleable, not static. The hope is that technology can intervene to take humans to a higher level of existence and even immortality.

So my question is, what does this imply for human nature? Should Christians feel threatened by these developments?