Becoming a human being

January 24, 2005 | 23 comments
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Here’s some scientifictional thinking: At some point in the future, it is quite likely that doctors will be able to take a stem cell from an adult and use it to grow a replacement organ such as a kidney or heart.

After that, medical science will progress to the point that a finger can be grown and transplanted to replace a missing finger. Shortly thereafter they will be replacing arms and legs that have been severed or damaged.

All that probably sounds pretty good to you. I sounds pretty good to me, too. And those opposing embryonic stem cell research generally don’t have a problem with using adult stem cells to grow body parts. (It’s not a new human life because there was no conception.)

But from there, it is a small step to being able to create all the organs and limbs from the neck down, allowing almost a full body replacement. Does that start making it sound creepy?

And the next step is to build all the body parts except the brain in order to provide a full body transplant into a healthy young body. But what objection can there really be to doing that — it’s the person’s own body, not a new human being. It would allow people to extend their lives quite a bit, but eventually the brain breaks down.

So the final step is when scientists can grow a new body with a new, blank brain, to which the memories and personality can be transferred through some process.

Wait! A complete human body with a brain, blank or not, is a human being. Isn’t it?

Not by the definition used by the pro-life groups fighting against embryonic stem cell research. That body and brain are not the result of conception. If human life begins at conception, and there is no conception, then there is no human life.

It’s also not a human being by Senator Hatch’s pro-embryonic-stem-cell-research standard: “Human life begins in the mother’s womb, not in a petri dish or a refrigerator.” That body and brain have never been in a mother’s womb.

Those who favor abortion rights may be chuckling to themselves at this point, happy to see pro-lifers caught up by their own definitions of when life begins. But the technology that would allow replacement bodies to be grown in laboratory vats would also allow a normal human embryo or fetus at any stage in development to grow until it’s ready to be born. That pushes the point of “viability outside the womb” back to conception. What moral reason is there to kill the fetus with an abortion if it can be safely removed and placed in a vat, where it can continue to develop?

To my knowledge, the Church has not taken a position on such future technology. But it is reasonable to infer that under LDS doctrine, a new human being exists when a body and a spirit are united. (Just when that happens is still open to debate, of course. )

So would that body with a blank brain have a spirit?

I’m glad I don’t have to decide.

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23 Responses to Becoming a human being

  1. Last_lemming on January 24, 2005 at 11:04 am

    From a strictly scientific standpoint, I’m not sure that it is possible to create a “blank brain.” As the nervous system develops, the brain receives feedback from the rest of the body, whether that body is in a uterus or a vat, which it processes the best it can. To me, that implies a (human) spirit.

    From a more theological standpoint, how does a physical body that can be rejuvenated indefinitely and which retains the memories of a mortal existance differ from a ressurected being?

  2. Eric James Stone on January 24, 2005 at 11:48 am

    OK, Last_lemming, simply assume that the brain is grown separately, and therefore cannot receive feedback from the rest of the body. Does that imply a human spirit? Is the brain the “seat” of the spirit?

    If so, what if various parts of the brain are grown separately before being assembled into a brain? At what point during assembly does that imply a human spirit?

    > From a more theological standpoint, how does a physical body that can be rejuvenated
    > indefinitely and which retains the memories of a mortal existance differ from a ressurected being?

    Well, for one thing, a person who can be rejuvenated indefinitely is not immortal. Such a person can still be killed.

  3. Jack on January 24, 2005 at 11:58 am

    This reminds me of the Rama series wherein some of the characters actually do receive new body parts as needed. And though they hadn’t received a new brain yet, they were confident that when the time came for such a transplant that there would be no problems. I remember being stung by my own theology as I read this – wondering how/if the connection between spirit and body might be tampered with. I like how you bring up the question as to whether or not the brain is the “seat” of the spirit. Interesting…

  4. Last_lemming on January 24, 2005 at 12:29 pm

    Is the brain the “seat” of the spirit?

    Somebody will probably make a contrary case that I haven’t thought of, but for now I will proceed as if the answer is ‘yes’.

    assume that the brain is grown separately, and therefore cannot receive feedback from the rest of the body. Does that imply a human spirit?

    We will probably need a neurologist to clarify this, but as I understand the brain, its synapses are determined not just genetically, but in response to feedback it receives. Without the feedback of normal fetal development, only the genetically-determined synapses would exist (or maybe those responding to the feedback provided by the growth medium). Attaching such a brain to a body would result in a profoundly handicapped person, albeit one technically with a spirit.

    If one were to artificially stimulate the developing brain so as to exactly duplicate the synapses present in a previously-born person, then I think you would have effectively cloned the spirit of that person. This is sufficiently far-fetched, however, that I’m not going to lose sleep worrying about Bill Gates or Donald Trump or whoever cloning his own spirit.

  5. lyle on January 24, 2005 at 12:56 pm

    My vote is still for “the spirit” to be located in the DNA.

  6. annebg on January 24, 2005 at 1:02 pm

    I guess God can put a spirit anywhere He wants it, wherever the body is grown. If it’s meant to be, it will be.

    If “it” is alive, it has a spirit. If it has a spirit, it had one. You know, before, when we were all together. That place where I often wished I had been smart enough to stay in. A body is not worth this paregoric.

  7. Glen Henshaw on January 24, 2005 at 1:03 pm

    I rather doubt that the scenario you depict could happen. As Last_lemming mentions, I think that in order for a complete brain to develop, the wiring of the brain is determined by a lot more than genetics. Also, it takes time to develop a brain — remember, unlike a lot of your organs, your brain undergoes massive structural changes as you grow up. I suspect that if you attempted to grow a brain from stem cells, what you would get is the brain of a newborn baby. Of course, your question about whether the brain would have a spirit is still valid, but it’s practical benefits are pretty questionable.

    On the other hand, you could look at the possibility of growing a baby from a stem cell. In that sense it’s no different from cloning — you’ve just created a human with your same genetics. ALthough that opens a lot of morally questionable doors, I don’t see a theological problem with it.

    I think remembering history is probably helpful here. People asked very similar questions about test tube babies — would they have souls or not? Hindsight shows the question was silly. Of course test tube babies have souls. So, IMHO, would cloned people.

  8. Eric James Stone on January 24, 2005 at 1:34 pm

    Yes, a cloned person is essentially an identical twin, and identical twins presumably have two different spirits. But if a cloned person can be created completely in a lab, without a conception, that still wreaks a bit of havok with some people’s positions about when a human life begins.

    When it comes to creating a new brain, don’t get hung up on exactly how it is being done. It is easy enough to come up with technological solutions to overcome just about any objection that has been raised. (Remember Arthur C. Clarke’s law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”)

    For example, nanotechnology could allow molecular assemblers to build a brain very close to the specs of the original brain, but lacking the deletorious effects of Alzheimers’ and other age-related defects.

    Don’t think about why such things are impossible. (Clarke’s other famous law: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”) The purpose of this post is to get you to think about the moral and theological implications of such technology.

  9. a random John on January 24, 2005 at 1:46 pm

    The idea of brain transplant is used as a device for discussing artificial intelligence. I can’t remember who came up with it, so I’ll leave it without attribution, but remember that it certainly isn’t original to me.

    The first idea is that the function of a single neuron is simple enough to model accurately. Imagine now that you could somehow scan and model a particular neuron, and that you could build a replacement artificial neuron. Take this artificial neuron and use it to replace the neuron that it was modeled after. Would the patient notice the difference? No repeat the process one-by-one for the entire brain.

    Alternatively, construct a duplicate brain using a similar process.

    Those who use the arguement to show the possibility of true AI say that the recipient wouldn’t know the difference. Others argue that you would feel that your soul was being slowly ripped away from you.

    Of course this avoids the messy question of stem cells (though you could use them to construct the replacement neurons) but has its own set of questions about the nature of our bodies and our spirits that might be even deeper.

  10. Jim F on January 24, 2005 at 2:32 pm

    Eric James Stone, you’ve committed a fallacy of reasoning: “If human life begins at conception, and there is no conception, then there is no human life.” This isn’t a valid argument. If it were, this would also be one: If I am a millionaire, then I can afford an ice cream cone. I am not a millionaire, so I can’t afford an ice cream cone.

  11. J. Stapley on January 24, 2005 at 2:37 pm

    It seems to me that there is a theological precedent: possession. If it looks human, tastes human, feels, and operates human, then it probably is. So I clone myself. Regardless of whether I clone to the point of a new life, the fact that I could inhabit this new tabernacle, entails that this is not just a new part, but a new whole. As such, if I do take this new body (even though it was made from me), it seems as if I am taking “possession” of a body, not receiving or repairing a body.

    And whether there is the dynamics of possession that would occur (two spirits hanging out together) or not, it makes for great sci-fi.

  12. Glen Henshaw on January 24, 2005 at 3:07 pm

    Eric James Stoen writes:
    “But if a cloned person can be created completely in a lab, without a conception, that still wreaks a bit of havok with some people’s positions about when a human life begins.”

    But this is a limitation on our understanding of when life begins. It doesn’t say anything about the nature of life itself. So, again, I don’t see any theological problem here. The most that would happen is that people would revisit their assumptions about the nature of life, and hopefully those assumptions that were unwarranted would get changed. In science, more data about a subject is always good, and that’s the case here as well.

    “Don’t think about why such things are impossible. (Clarke’s other famous law: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”) The purpose of this post is to get you to think about the moral and theological implications of such technology.”

    Clarke was a very wise guy, and I disagree with him with considerable trepidation. But I do disagree. It is possible, in some cases, to say with some degree of certainty that a thing is impossible. I think creating a blank brain is impossible, because as far as I can tell the wiring of a brain is accomplished through giving the brain experiences, which necessitates it’s not being blank. A more plausible scenario which entails many of the same questions you raise, though, is whether it’s possible to carbon copy an existing brain. I’d say that is within the realm of possibility. Would such a brain have a spirit? I think it probably would, in the sense that I suspect the new brain would react in the same way to stimuli as the old brain. I’d tentatively suggest, on the weight of such a thought experiment, that our idea of what a spirit is is probably inaccurate and based on a fair amount of false conjecture.

  13. Audrey on January 24, 2005 at 3:34 pm

    I agree with Glen Henshaw in that “our idea of what a spirit is is probably inaccurate and based on a fair amount of false conjecture.”

    Is a person who is being kept alive by artificial means and is “brain dead” then spiritually dead? If so, is it possible that a fetus (being kept alive through the umbilical cord) is not yet spiritually alive?

    As I was reading this post and in thinking of the human spirit, I thought of conjoined twins. I grew up in the same Ward with a set of conjoined twins (Hansen), who were joined at the head, and I believe part of the brain, yet they were two distinct people (they were surgically separated as babies). So, then the question would be, in what part of the brain does the spirit reside?

  14. charles on January 24, 2005 at 4:45 pm

    Eric, interesting question. One that I struggled with myself. I am trying to flesh out a story revolving around this. My basic premis would be that each of our spirits is predisposed to a perfect physical body match. By creating a clone of a person, when the original dies the spirit is earthbound again, unable to progress because a body still exists and the natural state is for the spirit to reside with the body until the body dies.

    Not very scientific but an intersting concept.

  15. Eric James Stone on January 24, 2005 at 5:55 pm

    Jim F,

    You’re right that there’s a problem with that statement, but your diagnosis is incorrect. Your syllogism is not analogous to mine. The premise of mine is flawed, not the reasoning from the premise. (Although, to be more precise, I should have worded the syllogism as follows: “If conception defines the difference between a human life and mere human tissue, then if there is no conception, there is no human life.”)

    Some opponents of embryonic stem cell research are using conception as a way to distinguish such research from adult stem cell research. I’m pointing out a potential consequence of such a position.

    J. Stapley,

    > If it looks human, tastes human, feels, and operates human, then it probably is.

    I don’t think I can argue against that.

    Glen Henshaw,

    > But this is a limitation on our understanding of when life begins.

    Exactly. That’s the point of speculations like this; to look at those limitations on our understanding. And so I’d say that it cannot be conception itself that makes a human being, if a human being can be created in another fashion. So I go with the concept of ensoulment (for lack of a better word.)

    > I think creating a blank brain is impossible, because as far as I can tell the wiring of a brain is
    > accomplished through giving the brain experiences, which necessitates it’s not being blank.

    OK, then, let’s call it an unwired brain. In other words it is a mass of brain tissue that will have its neuron wiring imposed on it according to a template created by analyzing another brain. The creation of brain tissue is not impossible; the use of nanotechnology to arrange nerons is theoretically possible.

    The questions raised by the physical duplication of a brain — or even just the thought patterns — while the original remains alive are a different tanker truck full of monkeys. Are you sure you want to release them into this discussion? :)

  16. greenfrog on January 24, 2005 at 6:53 pm

    For an entertaining read along the lines of this post, you might consider Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines, in which he posits that Moore’s Law, extended out fifty years, will yield a computer with the computational capacity of a human brain, creating exactly the situation posited above by a random john — a machine that yields output indistinguishable from the human brain upon which it’s neural circuitry was patterned.

    I wonder if we’d have to find something other than water to baptize them in.

  17. Eric James Stone on January 24, 2005 at 7:46 pm

    > I wonder if we’d have to find something other than water to baptize them in.

    No, you just need a watertight laptop bag — white, of course.

    More seriously, though, I don’t think human-level artificial intelligences should be defined as humans. We should use some other classification, such as sentients, of which humans are a subset. (We may need to expand the definition of “person” to include AI beings, but that’s not much of a stretch, since the law already counts corporations as persons in many contexts.)

    So then we reach the question of whether non-human sentients have spirits in the same sense that we believe humans have spirits — i.e., an intelligence without a physical body, that existed prior to beginning life on this earth. Orson Scott Card envisioned something of that sort in writing about the A.I. being in Xenocide.

  18. Derek on January 25, 2005 at 2:52 am

    Will a de-wired brain dream?

  19. The Only True and Living Nathan on January 25, 2005 at 4:07 pm

    … of electric sheep?

  20. Steve Evans on January 25, 2005 at 4:11 pm

    :) good one, TOTAL Nathan. Any reference to Blade Runner is OK in my book.

  21. CFunk on January 25, 2005 at 7:32 pm

    My idea of what defines life is shaped by complexity, potential and consciousness. I think Jo Smith made a statement about how all matter has intelligence. Intelligences exist one above the other, but we seem to draw a very definitive line between human life (intelligence) and all other life. Every human cell contains the DNA blueprint for an entire human organism, but we don’t try to preserve every living cell of our bodies. I think it was Descartes who said “I think therefore I am”. Well, what is thinking? Is it the ability to conduct a neural pulse? (pain?) At what level of thinking do we become self-aware? I don’t know how we will ever answer the question of “when does life begin?”, but I am more comfortable in trying to determine “what is life?” and “what value do I place on different levels/forms of life?” For me, I have value for an organism that is self-aware, is relatively complex or has the potential to become such (on its own). For me, I wouldn’t place a headless body in the same category as I would place you or me. But I would place high value on such a body, because it has tremendous life-continuing value.

  22. MeliLI on January 26, 2005 at 7:25 pm

    Human life began when we tasted of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil.

    When do we as individual spirits make the decision to come to earth and inhabit our bodies, I don’t know. But I’d say after the blastula stage to be sure. In fact if you look at fetal development, it takes many weeks before we divurge from other forms of life and truly look human.

    How far is science from being able to clone a heart let alone a person as described above. Decades.

    Stem cells, eggs, sperm, embroyos, etc are all life in waiting, in potential. Just like Adam and Eve in the garden. When self-awareness happens, when we eat of the fruit, then a spirit is born and must surely die, no matter how it was “conceived”

    Melinda (PhD student in Molecular Biology)

  23. musa gambo on February 9, 2005 at 8:53 am

    please different humman being and computer

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