And You Shall Be as Gods
The Fantasy of Mastery and the Reality of Mystery
Tim Weldon, Ph.D.
Revaluation of all values: that is my formula for an act of ultimate self-examination by mankind in which he has become flesh and genius.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo (1908) Pt.1, 1
As cheating is currently defined, so much of it goes on in paid sport that you can't get your arms around it. In the just finished Tour de France, the third place cyclist from Lithuania is a fugitive from French authorities who arrested his wife, who says her bagful of testosterone, corticoids and growth hormone was for her "ailing mother."
Daniel Henninger, "75 Home Runs? How About 100? Robo-Sport Is Here: Professional Athletes Have Long Ceased Being Normal Humans," Wall Street Journal, August 16, 2002
The anecdote immediately above reflects the contemporary desire for mastery of life and the activities of life. Far grander in scheme than any voyage imagined by Juan Ponce de Leon or any experiment by Francis Galton, our contemporary situation is the Nietzschean formula writ large: we have revalued life and living only to find its imperfections, including death, intolerable.
Mastery of human nature has become the Holy Grail of the twenty-first century. "The impulse to master human nature out of simple ambition or on the basis of ideological assumptions about the way people ought to be is all too common," writes Francis Fukuyama in Our Posthuman Future.1
In so much of contemporary life, we are making the ideal the enemy of the goodâ€”the enemy of the morally good. The recent, ongoing BALCO (Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative) performance-enhancement scandal in sports merely reveals our insatiability for speed and strength and score. The will to dominate has encroached upon gamesmanship and fair play because an inclination towards mastery has supplanted play, fair or otherwise.
Self-Control and Self-Destruction
When it comes to aesthetic perception and self-image, the situation is no different. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, more than 6.2 million reconstructive plastic surgery procedures were performed in 2003.2 With this figure it is small wonder that such disorders as anorexia and body-dysmorphic disorder affect so many women and men. Add to this confusion the universal loom of cloning, stem cell research, sex selection, and we have grounds for serious concern about the future of humanity.
A May 6, 2004, article from Britain's Daily Mail reported an increase in the number of abortions of Down's syndrome babies in the U.K.3 In fact, abortions for chromosomal abnormalities rose 17 percent from 2001 to 2002 in the U.K. (the latest information available).4 Abortions for conditions such as cleft lip, cleft lip and palate, and deformed feet added to the overall abortion increase of 8 percent between 2001 and 2002.5 "These statistics are horrifying and show the highly consumerist attitude which is now pervading human relationships," said Church of England curate Joanna Jepson.6 London Metropolitan University ethicist Jacqueline Laing responded to the statistics with the following: "These figures are symptomatic of a eugenic trend of the consumerist society hell-bent on obliterating deformityâ€”and at what cost to its own humanity?"7
Hell-bent indeed. Even the most cursory study of history, replete with its lessons on the importance of self-understanding, reveals that what we truly learn is that we do not truly learn. One such lost lesson is found in Genesis 3:1-24, the fall of man. In the Garden of Eden, the serpent, symbol of false promises, coaxes a weak-willed Eve into believing "you will be as gods" if she eats from the forbidden tree. And so it went: surrender to the illusion of self-deification caused Adam and Eve's downfall. In the most infamous example of lack of self-control, they cheated themselvesâ€”and the rest of usâ€”out of an Edenic existence with God. One has to believe, with a sense of dread, that the current examples of our attempts to control, perfect, and master come at further expense to our relationship with God.
Prima facie, such an argument against change may appear to be anti-intellectual, and perhaps the prelude to stifling scientific advancement, the "natural" course of curiosity, or the path of progress. But in a world where advances in biotechnology continue to surpass our education in moral wisdom, such confusion is to be expected. Biotechnology itself is not necessarily the culprit. However, when it is used apart from the amelioration of human suffering, and against preserving the totality of the human person (understood as body and soul), our fears are legitimized and our outcry is warranted.
Wisdom from Gabriel Marcel
Almost fifty years ago, Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973), the philosopher and convert to Catholicism, said, "I have said that man is at the mercy of his technics. This must be understood to mean that he is increasingly incapable of controlling his technics, or rather of controlling his own control."8 By "technics," Marcel meant our technological capacity. Marcel argued that the contemporary orientation towards mastery of human nature through technology is derived from, and sustained by, the proportionate neglect of the mystery of being: the more we strive for mastery, the greater our dismissal of mystery.
Marcel sought to preserve the unity of the human person in his philosophy. He understood the human person as both body and soul. He said that the totality of human experience includes the mystery of divine love and our love for others. From the empirical, physical evidence of our measurable, operable body, and from the metaphysical reality of our spiritual soul, Marcel arrived at the profound conclusion that "the union of body and soul" exists "as a mystery."9
This mysterious union extends to our relationship with others and with God; the mystery of committed solidarity that forms family and community; and the mystery of God's gift of life and promise of eternal life. Reflecting upon this, Marcel proclaimed: "Reality as mystery, intelligible solely as mystery."10 Herein, the human person, as a participant in the mystery of being, finds the source of his dignity.
In his October 22, 1996, Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope John Paul II affirmed that:
It is recalled that man is "the only creature on earth that God wanted for its own sake." In other terms, the human individual cannot be subordinated as a pure means or a pure instrument, either to the species or to society; he has value per se. He is a person. With his intellect and his will, he is capable of forming a relationship of communion, solidarity, and self-giving with peers.â€¦ It is by virtue of his spiritual soul that the whole person possesses such dignity even in his body.11
But in a mastery-oriented world, where is there cultural corroboration for the pontiff's statement?
Philosophical inquiry and sustained discussion about the soul and the immortality of the soul are egregiously absent from the public forum and, more often than not, excluded from conversation about scientific research and application. With Nietzsche's 1882 proclamation that "God is dead," it follows that the "death" of the soul is the next casualty of mastery. Alone, left with "flesh and genius" to master our own end, we cannot but conspire in a tragedy of our own making.
Reverence for the Mystery of Being
We have welcomed the specter of Ponce de Leon into our classrooms and laboratories. The latter's preoccupation with being forever youngâ€”or with life in this world foreverâ€”has challenged our traditional meditation upon eternal life with God. Contemporary opinion defines the pursuit of "longevity" as a virtuous activity. It is considered both as the desideratum and as a means to dominate.
If one falls short of eternal youth, does one's striving towards mastery mean a future where, in the words of Fukuyama, "the median person is living well into his or her second century, sitting in a nursing home hoping for an unattainable death"?12 Fukuyama's example, though unlikely, exposes the core understanding of the philosophy of mastery: life on earth is everything
because it is the only thing. It also reveals another casualty of the whimsical incompleteness of mastery: life devoid of eternity.
At present, we should remain grateful and humbled for the advances of biotechnology, and remember to trust in both reason and faith. In the words of British theologian Keith Ward, "There is no conflict between reason, the deepest understanding of the cosmos, and faith, the trusting response to the mystery of divine love."13
At the same time, we have to be ever mindful of our striving. A fuller understanding of human nature, its dignity and end, must attend advances in biotechnology, as should a sober check on ambition and a profound reverence for the mystery of being.
Tim Weldon, Ph.D.
Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Theology University of St. Francis
1Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), 94.
2American Society of Plastic Surgeons, "More Than 6.2 Million Reconstructive Plastic Surgery Procedures in 2003," press release, March 8, 2004.
3"Abortion Soars in Quest for Perfect Babies," Daily Mail (U.K.), May 6, 2002.
8Gabriel Marcel, The Philosophy of Existentialism (New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1977), trans. Manya Harari, 31.
10Gabriel Marcel, Being and Having (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 21.
11John Paul II, Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences: On Evolution (October 22, 1996), n. 5.