Union University
Union University Dept of Language


Enhanced Thinking About Idolatry

Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship

June 30, 2009 - John Harris, a UK Professor of Bioethics (Manchester), believes that a better cognitive future is within our grasp. He is among a growing number who advocate the use of pharmacological means to enhance our native powers of cognition. He supports the use of cognitive enhancing drugs (e.g., Ritilan, Adderall, Modafinil) among the healthy so as to enable us to think more efficiently (i.e., process more information faster). Society, says Harris, “ought to want [enhancement] . . . it is not rational to be against human enhancement.”

Taken at face value, Harris’s position seems eminently reasonable. Who, in their right mind, would oppose the relief of man’s estate? Who doesn’t want a world in which our bodies are healthier and our minds are sharper? Moreover, what Harris advocates is, from at least one perspective, clearly a form of ‘enhancement.’ After all, if, apart from cognitive enhancing drugs, I can read 200 words per minute, but 500 words per minute when using cognitive enhancing drugs, then clearly my cognitive capacities associated with reading have been ‘enhanced.’

But Harris’s argument is not about enhancement simpliciter. He claims that we should favor human enhancement. And it is questionable, to say the least, whether the use of cognitive enhancing drugs among the healthy constitutes a genuinely human enhancement.

Whether it does, depends on one’s understanding of human nature. For the Christian, anthropology is rooted in theology. Human beings are made in the image of God. Thus, to understand human nature properly, one must understand the nature of the Creator in Whose image human beings are made.

Advocates of cognitive enhancing drugs (e.g., Harris) have distorted this point in dramatic fashion. For they are reflecting on human nature neither through the lens of Creator nor even of creature. Rather, they would have humans become like those created things that we have made (i.e., machines).

To the extent that we have become more like the things that we have made (e.g., computers), we have not ‘enhanced’ human nature. True, we might be able to work tirelessly, to calculate rapidly, to consume information effortlessly, but have we thereby become more like the Maker in Whose image we are made? Or have we simply made ourselves after the fashion of those things that are of our own making?

It is likely that Harris and his cohorts will win the day. In the not too distant future, we will have the opportunity to avail ourselves of various resources, pharmacological and technological, to ‘enhance’ our cognitive capacities. Whether Christians do this will speak volumes about the God they profess to worship. Let us hope that when we are heard, it is not the “noise of war in the camp” – of idolators singing the praises of their latest golden calf.

Related Web Resource: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/viewarticle.php?selectedarticle=2009.03.31.001.pdart