No shock or dismay greeted even the most aggressive claims made for technology at an interdisciplinary Conference on Human Engineering and the Future of Man. The conference drew 140 evangelical scholars and leaders to Wheaton College late in July. Their obvious aim was not to discredit but rather to motivate science, and to assess Christian duty at the frontiers of technology.
Evangelicals listened dispassionately to radical naturalists, confident that biblical faith was not being imperiled. They even welcomed the constructive aspects of human engineering. Long before the final day, when a paper by Senator Mark Hatfield underlined the importance of image in an age of mass communications, it was clear that modern evangelicals are not hostile to free inquiry and liberal education. As Dr. Robert Herrmann of Boston University School of Medicine helped remind the conferees, the Christian Church should oppose research only when it infringes upon biblical principles or is unworthy.
If anyone thought these positions were achieved by forfeiting basic evangelical loyalties, no one said so. In fact, participants insisted that science has indispensable (if often unacknowledged) theistic supports. Many of the scientists met daily for pre-breakfast prayer. No evangelicals veiled their faith in a miracle-working God. If any of the secular scientists questioned whether evangelical scholars can be earnestly dedicated to science, the caliber of the audience kept them from saying it.
Science often forgets, noted Dr. Herrmann, that “a biblical perspective forged its beginnings,” while Dr. Donald M. MacKay reminded everyone that the prestigious early modern scientists were overwhelmingly devout evangelicals. Emphasis fell on the Christian view of man and the crucial importance of the divine image in the human person.
Dr. Mackay, of the University of Keele, England, was the leading evangelical among the scientists who presented major papers. He is an internationally known specialist in analogue computing and brain psychology.
The conference procedure was to hear technological concerns presented by prestigious and for the most part non-evangelical scholars, then to hear broadly biblical comments by evangelical respondents, and then to divide into nine sections for group discussion.
Evangelical participants represented nine co-sponsoring organizations openly committed to biblical supernaturalism: American Scientific Affiliation, Center for the Study of the Future, Christian Association for Psychological Studies, Christian College Consortium, Christian Legal Society, Christian Medical Society, Evangelical Theological Society, Institute for Advanced Christian Studies, and Institute for Christian Studies (Toronto).
The main addresses were by Dr. Daniel Callahan, former editor of Commonweal and now director of the Institute of Society, Ethics and Life Sciences, who spoke from a Roman Catholic perspective; Dr. MacKay, who recently delivered the Edington Lectures at Cambridge; Dr. Robert S. Sinsheimer, chairman of the division of biology at California Institute of Technology; Dr. Elliot Valenstein, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Michigan; Dr. Perry London, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Southern California, and (represented by legislative aid Lon Fendall) Senator Hatfield.
Callahan’s verdict was that traditional Judeo-Christian values “still serve us quite adequately” but that we are driven to cope strenuously with new developments.
Sinsheimer’s paper was boldly naturalistic, viewing man as “half a creature of culture” who originated through blind and uncompassionate “laws of chance.” Advances in gene and cell technology, he said, will make it possible to control the sex of fetuses, overcome genetic disease and the birth of genetically defective children, and sooner or later, bring about cloning. Should we invite, he asked, the strains upon “our already troubled social order” that might follow from scientific intervention in the sex of fetuses and from cloning?
Sensheimer’s counsel was: “Go slowly and … reversibly; preserve human individuality; augment general qualities rather than specific talents.” But, he added, if we do not prevent genetic misfortunes “there will be a cancer upon our conscience.” Under questioning Sinsheimer did not clarify how conscience can be an objective moral imperative in a universe ultimately unstructured by personal values.
Dr. Valenstein deplored exaggerations about behavioral control by brain science. “Undoubtedly new drugs will combat depression and anxiety, elevate mood, increase mental alertness and perhaps memory,” he said, “but that is very different than controlling the specific content of thought processes or predicting how these changes in mood or thought processes will be expressed in behavior.” He rejected the idea that brain operations can control the violence as a social problem; for the foreseeable future, he stressed, we should increase rather than decrease “attempts to find social solutions for what are primarily social problems.”
Dr. Paul Feinburg of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School remarked that if we must turn persons into vegetables in order to eliminate evil behavior, then the production of a programmed robot over against God’s establishment of free agency involves an “improvement” we cannot justify. Dr. William P. Wilson of Duke University Medical School expressed doubt that “we’ll have useful private or public uses for brain control” and emphasized, instead, its deteriorating effects. “But,” he allowed, “we may intervene in mental processes of the radically insane if our experiments do no harm and can only hope to restore them.”
Dr. Perry London declared that “ethical and value problems [are] tails wagging the dogs of progress … What one should do with the technology of behavior … is finally a question of values.” The most important non-coercive control technology, he said, is conditioning through education; it is the one least obviously coercive, but most pervasive and least reversible. “The value issues of behavior control which require external legislation and regulation are those in which technology gives some people power over others whether or not for the benefit of those on whom it is exercised,” he said.
The question of what social deviation is permissible is therefore crucial. The West today is threatened by unprecedented ranges and expressions of individual freedom, but control technology, said London, makes it possible to engineer consent and conformity and eliminate personal license while preserving the feeling that one is free. This might simply “trade off one misery for another,” noted London, so that we are left with the question of how much power a good society can exert over its members. The future, like the present, he added, depends upon the values of society, not upon the potential of technology. London noted that a majority of American children “are now being raised by less or more than two parents, one or more of whom did not sire them.”
As indirect social effects of behavior control by psychotherapy and drugs, London foresaw a “shifting of individual morals and more increasingly in the direction of hedonistic goals” and a move from external morality to yoga and transcendental meditation at the expense of Judeo-Christian ethics. He noted that “practitioners in most private offices and out-patient clinics are liberal in their own moral judgments of sexual freedom, if not in their own private activities.”
Dr. Paul Clement of Fuller Graduate School of Psychology observed that London’s remarks were primarily descriptive and non-prescriptive. Dr. Allen Verhey of Calvin Seminary criticized London’s neglect of a straightforward analysis of justice. According to Verhey, the technology that once furthered the democratic ethos through literacy and the development of new tools available to multitudes now threatened that same ethos by promoting both illiteracy—in the sense of a gap between technological and unpopular understanding—and mystification, which makes controllers an elite cadre, set apart from the masses.
Conference planners scheduled no formal theological confrontation of the major papers, no full-scale exposition of the Christian world-life view in its implications and Christian ethicists who took part were invited for only fifteen-minute comments on major addresses.
Evangelical conferees clearly disowned situation ethics. At the same time the Bible was to be not a “casuistic book of rules”; it was said to give norms and goals, principles “that tug in different directions” and require reliance on the Spirit in correlation with the written Word. This would presumably achieve what Dr. Richard Spencer of Fuller Seminary described as a continual conformation of the Christian mind through revision of values in the light of new knowledge by exposure to changeless truth. The conference was at its weakest in its failure to define clearly how the Bible resolves pressing social dilemma.
Jesus Christ was frequently referred to as the explication of God’s purpose in the universe. A suggestion that cloning in Jesus’ image might be welcomed was countered with the thrust that physical image is not decisive and that virtue involves personal decision. Yet Clement spoke of a Christian use of behavioral psychology to produce the fruits of the Spirit.
Callahan asserted that “our generation is perhaps faced with the most critical decision human beings have had to make,” the decision about man’s own nature. This evoked no reference to John 3:3–5. However, Dr. David Allen of the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health stressed that what one believed about man influences research, solutions, and the principles governing human community—whether, for example, to treat others as oneself and irrespective of status (color, class, and so on).
Dr. V. Elving Anderson of Dight Institute, University of Minnesota, pointed out that genetic diversity and human equality are not alternatives. To give full scope to both factors, he said, we must protect the freedom and responsibility of individuals in decisions, make the means of desirable genetic control available to all, explore equal opportunity for those with different genetic potential, define the criteria for judging equality, and respect individual worth despite genetic handicaps.
The large number of lay participants in the sectional groups somewhat diluted the conference’s more technical interests. Moreover, debate over theological warrants for arriving at particular judgments and lack of consensus on specific issues hindered intellectual productivity.
Agreement was on broad issues: that, for example, the Church should be the critical champion of science; that human engineering be viewed as potentially useful but also potentially hurtful: that behavoral modification is unacceptable if it oversteps limits that safeguard the image of God in man and man’s capacity to respond to God; that the danger of technology is not intrinsic but lies rather in ideological exploitation and political misuse; that correlation of faith and learning remains an academic imperative; and that Christians should challenge dehumanizing materialistic, mechanistic, and naturalistic theories, particularly the atheistic evoltionary view of man.
MacKay emphasized that the Christian way is that of “humility,” but this, he quickly added, is not synonymous with inertia. “God is the giver of new knowledge, and we are responsible for its use.” Callahan spoke of the duty not simply to avoid harm but to do good, however limited by human finiteness and sin; some scientific research he considered permissible but not obligatory.
To those who declared that technology has become for some persons the utopian religion of our age, Allen pointed out that its ethic is nonetheless utilitarian; emphasizing “the greatest good for the greatest number,” it tends to swallow up the individual in large aggregates and easily sacrifices the abnormal and powerless.
MacKay stressed the glorification of God and service of one’s fellow man as the top priority and the proper goal. While he spoke of biblical criteria, he warned that “the sanctity” and “the worth” of human life can easily become slogans by which one prejudges issues. Acknowledging that Scripture has little to say that can be considered a direct requirement of human engineering as such, he said that “we must consistently seek the positive good that can come out of technology” and went on to speak of “legitimate” human engineering for the glory of God.
The conference recognized the need for legislation in a fallen world. It noted Senator Hatfield’s exhortation that Christians involve themselves more fully and intelligently in public issues. Hatfield noted the moral rootlessness of our times, which enabled, among other things, brilliant twentieth-century scientists interested in a master race to promote forced sterilization of citizens and even the extermination of hundreds of thousands.
Said Dr. John Scanzoni of Indiana University: “Evangelicals have done too little to take the lead for humane practices in research, and they ought not to leave such concerns to non-Christian humanists.” They should cooperate, he added, with all in the public sphere who have humane objectives. Christians have a role in sensitizing the conscience of the nation, observed Carl Henry, but the Church must be the Church in a corporate way, and must witness by lifestyle and not only by lobbies.
Advance publicity envisioned an “international conference” issuing governmental guidelines; conference achievements were rather less. But the gathering was nonetheless profitable. It provided a forum for disseminating expert opinion. And it served as an arena for wrestling with enormously complex and urgent issues in a preliminary way, even if many participants remained unsure how to choose between particular options on biblical premises.
Conference director Craig W. Ellison, a psychologist at Westmont College, who had efficiently engineered the fifteen-hour-a-day program, prodded the twenty members of the conference commission—experts in genetic control, behavior control, brain control, and public policy—to draft a collective post-conference statement giving an evangelical perspective on theological concerns.
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