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Machines vs. Souls

What does it mean to be a human being, especially one with faith in Jesus Christ? How we answer this question greatly impacts our response to the critical issues currently under debate in our culture, especially in regards to our bodies in birth, life, and death.

For Christians, the belief in God as creator leads to an understanding of our bodies as gifts, something given by grace that we do not own and is not our property. But according to Dr. R.J. Snell, a philosopher with the Witherspoon Institute, many people believe their body is property and something they can manage, control, and even dominate. This belief, according to Dr. Snell, can adversely affect our culture, and he shares the dangers of this belief on this week’s episode of the Family Policy Matters radio show and podcast.

The mindset of human beings as machines that one can control leads to everything from abortion to euthanasia. For if an unborn child is a machine, and “if you have an unborn child who is inconvenient,” says Dr. Snell, “it’s just an inconvenient machine that one can dispose of. But if it’s a person, there’s nothing more valuable than a person, no matter how small.”

The same goes for the aging and sick, Dr. Snell continues. “If we think of ourselves as machines or if we think of our bodies as our property as opposed to gifts, well you can dispose of property when it’s broken. As opposed to thinking of their bodies and their selves as gifts from God to deal with and to grow in,” where imperfections now become occasions for growth.

Click below to hear more from Dr. R.J. Snell about the conflict between our bodies as gifted souls versus disposable machines.

RJ Snell discusses what it means to be human and have a soul

Family Policy Matters
Transcript: Machines vs. Souls

TRACI GRIGGS: Thank you for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. As Christians, it’s important for us to spend some time thinking about new technologies and how our faith applies to those. Without that, we are in danger of not being salt and light in our culture regarding these issues and stumbling into big ethical blunders. Well, this is especially true in the field of medicine and biology.

Dr. R.J. Snell spends his days thinking through these deeper ethical questions in his work at the Witherspoon Institute, and as a prolific author and longtime professor of ethics, natural law theory, and more. We’re going to talk today about this very fundamental issue of what it means to be a human being, and how this can affect where we land on some very important issues. Dr. Snell, welcome to Family Policy Matters.

RJ SNELL: Thank you so much Traci. Wonderful to be with you!

TRACI GRIGGS: Let’s start off by talking about philosophy in general. So why, in our busy lives—with social media, people, family, everybody beckoning at us every minute—why is that important for us to take time to reflect on some of these underlying issues?

RJ SNELL: I think a lot of people imagined philosophy to be an arcane study of sort of false and obscure problems. Whereas I tend to think of philosophy as reflection about how to live well; how to seek wisdom and to bring wisdom into our own life. We all want to live well. We all wanted to have a happy life, a life that we can admire and respect. And I think it’s pretty difficult for us to do that without soberly considering the things that we value and how we act and the things that we love. And in the end, philosophy is mainly about learning to live and act well, which I think we all want to do.

TRACI GRIGGS: Yes, we do. So, let’s talk about how we view the human person and the human body, and how this has changed in our current culture.

RJ SNELL: Yes, so for someone like myself who believes in God and believes that God created the world, there’s a deep commitment to imagining my body and my very identity as a gift. Something that has been given to me by grace, and which I don’t own and is not merely my property. Whereas for a good many people now who don’t necessarily believe in God or don’t believe that God is a creator, there’s a sense that the body is property and that the body is a product. That it’s something that one can manage and control, and even dominate to seek our own ends. And that’s a pretty significant change. If I think that I have a responsibility for a gift that has been given to me as opposed to something which is my property and even a product of a machine, or a product of a technology, that’s a pretty significant difference.

TRACI GRIGGS: What kind of issues is this affecting then, in our culture?

RJ SNELL: Well, everything from life to death and everything in between. We can think about how increasingly children are thought of as products to be grown or made in the laboratory, to the way that increasingly we’re thinking of death. I read a wonderful piece recently of how people in Silicon Valley think of death as optional. Just a glitch in the hardware and like any glitch, there’s a solution to it. So death at that point becomes something that is optional for us, something that we can control, something that we can even reject. And that changes the meaning of life, the meaning of suffering, the meaning of love, the meaning of children. It seems to me almost everything is at stake.

TRACI GRIGGS: Well, let’s unpack some of these things, but before we do, let’s talk a little bit more about what you see as the greatest challenge to preserving a positive—and in our view of course—accurate view of the human person today.

RJ SNELL: I don’t have any problem with technology per se. I think the human being is endowed by God with creative capacities and work. So technology per se is not necessarily the problem. But, a view that human reality is a product that can be controlled and dominated by what some philosophers call the “technological viewpoint,” which is just a fancy word for thinking that every aspect of our life can be controlled. The newest, fastest growing religion in the world is the religion of Silicon Valley. It has an account of original sin—which is that human limits and human death are a problem to be overcome—and it has an account of salvation really—which is that human enterprise and human genius gives us control over everything, over life and death. And I think that’s a fundamental challenge to those of us like myself, who believe that God has given us our reality and that what it means in part to live a good life is to live in deep keeping and responsibility for the structure and order that God has given.

TRACI GRIGGS: Wow. I would have to say that I’m surprised to hear you say that. I don’t think that I realized that there was a concerted effort to go in that direction.

RJ SNELL: Well, some of these people are clearly geniuses in their technological fields, but they’re also thinking pretty deeply and writing about the meaning of life and the meaning of death. So someone like Peter Thiel—who many people will be familiar with as a venture capitalist and I think he’s founder of PayPal and others too—spends a lot of time reading and thinking about philosophy and about human freedom and so on. He’s a very thoughtful man. But some of the claims coming from that world are claims that I find quite problematic in their visions of the meaning of the human life.

TRACI GRIGGS: But just to dig deeper, so people who aren’t like say Peter Thiel—who reads philosophy all the time—can still get caught up in this thinking right? Without maybe even realizing that we’re being influenced by it?

RJ SNELL: The data, for instance just on depression, especially among teenage girls since the advent or the ubiquity of the iPhone is pretty startling. If you look at the charts of teenage depression and suicidal ideation, it’s fairly steady through about 2008-2009, and then it goes almost straight up in the charts. Well, why is that? I would imagine that most young teenagers aren’t sort of thinking philosophically about the meaning of technology, and yet they’re bombarded every day with Instagram and Snapchat, which give pictures of a curated life. A life without imperfections; a life in which everyone’s teeth are straight and white and everyone is beautiful. But of course, reality isn’t like that; reality has suffering and loneliness and death. And so there’s a disjunction between the appearance of reality in a technological world and the ongoing experience we have as humans—which hasn’t really changed fundamentally—of sadness, loneliness, death. Those are still human realities, including the idea that some have that if all of reality is open to technological control, then those sorts of traumas are somebody’s fault. They shouldn’t have happened. There’s a sense that whenever tragedy occurs, it’s not fate; it’s not an act of God; it’s not providence. It’s not just the human condition, but it’s a problem which should be solved, and the fact that it isn’t solved means that it’s somebody’s fault.

There’s a good deal of anxiety that people have about experiencing trauma. Not just the normal anxiety of dealing with trauma, dealing with sadness, but the anxiety that it happened at all when everything should be open to control.

TRACI GRIGGS: So let’s talk about this religion of Silicon Valley and this philosophy, and how it affects some more specific things that you mentioned earlier. Let’s talk about life. How does it affect that?

RJ SNELL: I think the fundamental principle of ethics is what John Paul II called the “Personalist Principle,” the notion that all action to preserve and protect an act for the good of persons. If we consider persons to be embodied souls, then of course the unborn child at every stage of her development is a person. From the other hand, if we think of persons just as machines—machines which are incapable of certain actions like walking, talking, having life’s projects, having a sense of their own identity—then they’re still not persons. They’re machines that one can fix, dispose of, bring into being at one’s own whim. So the mindset of abortion is in my mind, pretty clearly linked to this notion of the world as machine and the world is product for our use. When you have an unborn child who’s convenient, it’s convenient. If you have an unborn child who is inconvenient, it’s just an inconvenient machine that one can dispose of. But if it’s a person, well there’s nothing more valuable than a person, no matter how small.

TRACI GRIGGS: So let’s go to the opposite end of that spectrum, or the spectrum of life, and talk about death. So how are we seeing this affect our views of death?

RJ SNELL: The prevalence of euthanasia or assisted suicide in Europe and Canada is now fairly well documented. And while in the United States we’re not as far along down that path, it seems to me it won’t be very long before we are. And in many ways it’s the same problem: if we think of ourselves as machines or if we think of our bodies as our property as opposed to gifts, well you can dispose of property when it’s broken. Whereas a gift from another—if my life is a gift from God, it’s not mine to dispose of, it’s mine to care for. If my body is mine, it’s just a tool. Well, broken tools get disposed.

TRACI GRIGGS: What about other repercussions? Does this result in conditions like anorexia, self-harm, sexual confusion, those kinds of issues that we face seemingly every day.

RJ SNELL: The body is somewhat resistant. We imagine our body as something we can manipulate and shape to its own effects. And then we still suffer with it, or it still ages, or it’s still not as attractive as the neighbor’s body is. People suffer enormously as a result. As opposed to thinking of their bodies and their selves as opportunities and gifts from God to deal with and to grow in, where the imperfections and limits of my body now become—if it’s given to me by God—the occasion for my self-control and self-mastery and growth and virtue. I have to imagine there are all sorts of mental struggles which come with the vision of imagining my body as a recalcitrant tool that I’d like to be better.

TRACI GRIGGS: So is it too much of a reach to think that this type of philosophy about our humanness has implications on issues like immigration?

RJ SNELL: Yeah, so for much of the immigration debate, you see people on either side of that issue—those supporting more open borders, those supporting more closed borders. We see people on both sides of that debate thinking of and referring to immigrants and their bodies as either tools or resources or plagues, as opposed to persons. Now that doesn’t solve the immigration debates, right? That doesn’t tell us whether we should have more open or more closed borders. But it does fundamentally change the nature of how we imagine and think of immigrants if we think of them as persons and not just as bodies which we can use in our orchards, or as bodies which get in the way of our labor and our enjoyment of goods. So whatever the proper answer is to immigration, it matters a whole lot how we imagine the identity of the other person there.

TRACI GRIGGS: Well, this has been a fascinating conversation. So before we go though, could you give our listeners somewhere that they could go to explore this topic a little bit more?

RJ SNELL: I’m a big fan of the thinker—he’s a medical doctor and researcher—Leon Kass. Much of his work is about the meaning of the body and its limits. He is sometimes referred to as a “bio-conservative,” meaning someone who has a sense that the body and its nature need to be preserved. So any of Leon Kass’s work is good. I’d also suggest the work of my colleague here at Princeton, Robbie George. There’s a book that he and Chris Tollefsen co-authored called Embryo. It is not only about the moral status of the embryo, but explains in pretty good detail, but very accessible, this notion of dualism in the mind as it relates to the body and personal identity. Either of those sources would be very good.

TRACI GRIGGS: Thank you Dr. R.J. Snell with the Witherspoon Institute, for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.

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