What Does it Mean to Be Human?

What does it mean to be human? This is a question that apologists must be prepared to answer; and we must be ready to help people live in ways that honor life, in the midst of a culture that is… shall we say, problematic in its understanding of human life. Let’s take a look at some of the issues at hand.

Gilbert Meilaender writes about “transitional humanity” at The New Atlantis, and the possibility of achieving extreme longevity, what transhumanists optimistically call immortality. C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength (which is discussed in the essay) turns out to be quite prophetic. Is our finite life a problem to be fixed, a research topic to be tackled? Meilander sums up a very thoughtful article with these words:

The relentless temporality of human life means that we are always incomplete, always in viatoribus, always on the way. Hope is the virtue that sustains us on the way toward the divine beauty and goodness — protecting us against a presumption which supposes that any of us could here and now become a comprehensor, as if an indefinitely extended earthly life, whether organic or virtual, could quench our longing; protecting us also against despair, against the temptation to make of our vulnerability a virtue. It moves us to desire something more than life’s banquet, sumptuous as it may be, something other than just indefinitely more of the same life, and something more than the achievement of “longevity escape velocity.” It enables us to wait for the strength to run and not be weary, to walk and not faint — a strength no research project can produce and which can only be received as a gift.”

Part of the transhumanist ideal is a future free from death, disease, and disability. What does that look like in practice? Generally it looks like the murder in the womb of those who don’t meet contemporary standards of good-enough. In fact, people with disabilities can be considered the cultural canary in the coal mine.

Disease and disability are just the tip of the iceberg. When children are conceived of, and conceived, as consumer items – what are the consequences? One consequence is the idea that if you have made all the other decisions about a child’s existence, and how it will fit into your life, choosing whether it should live or die is just one more decision point. The New York Times has an article here on the “two-minus-one pregnancy”: women who are bearing twins but choose to abort one of them, generally because it’s just too much hassle to raise twins.

Even with the relentless determination of the article to be “pro-choice” the piece is disturbing. This is an utterly fascinating article in the way that it shines light into some very, very dark places in our culture.

One woman is quoted as saying that ““This is bad, but it’s not anywhere as bad as neglecting your child or not giving everything you can to the children you have,” she told me, referring to the reduction. She and her husband worked out this moral calculation on their own, and they intend to never tell anyone about it. Jenny is certain that no one, not even her closest friends, would understand, and she doesn’t want to be the object of their curiosity or feel the sting of their judgment.”

One might ask: not as bad for whom? One could reasonably argue that killing one’s child is the most profound form of neglect.

It is also interesting to note the effects of a culture of privacy. ‘Jenny’ and her husband hide this act, fearing that they will be the target of disapproval – so if they were not able to retreat into their private community-of-two, but instead had to face the disapproval of friends and family, perhaps that second child might be alive and not dead.

Another woman explains that her choice to abort a healthy boy out of a pair of twins was due to the fact that her husband was deployed and she did not feel able to care for twins without help. (Another failure of community, I might add.)

“Today, her daughter is 2½ years old. Shelby intends to tell her about the reduction someday, to teach her that women have choices, even if they’re sometimes difficult. “I am the mother of a very demanding toddler,” she says. “I can’t imagine this times two, and not ever knowing if I’d have another person here to help me. This is what I can handle. I’m good with this. But that’s all.”

Imagine having your own mother tell you that she chose to kill your twin brother, to make raising you a little easier. Yes, women have choices; will this be a comfort to that young woman? After all, her mother could easily have made a different choice: to have a single boy, instead of a single girl. And that choice would have meant death.

Let me close with my own reflection on being human – a sonnet.

My childhood’s future sent us to the stars,
To unknown worlds, strange and new frontiers,
To empires, strife, and interstellar wars.
Even in space we can’t outrun our fears.
We fell back to the earth, and farther still,
To inner space, where on the nano scale
We now subject our selves to our own will.
But we have seen our technomancy fail
When what we seek is not to shape but know
What kind of thing we are. We cannot chart
The fractal currents of the soul; we go
From dark to dark, and in the hidden heart
We’re searching still. For are we just machines
If worlds we’ll never see still haunt our dreams?

2 responses

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