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Human Dignity and Bioethics: Essays Commissioned by the President's Council on Bioethics

The President's Council on Bioethics
Washington, D.C.
March 2008

Part 1: Dignity and Modern Science

Chapter 4: Human Dignity and the Mystery of the Human Soul

Robert P. Kraynak

Biotechnology and the life sciences have astonished the world in recent years, but they have also disoriented people by raising a whole new set of ethical issues. In response, a new branch of moral philosophy has emerged-bioethics-whose task is to grapple with the ethical challenges of cloning, stem cell research, genetic engineering, in vitro fertilization, drug therapy, new techniques for arresting the aging process, and aspirations to conquer death itself. While the policy debates about these issues are complex, they usually revolve around a few moral principles that might be summed up in three terms-utility, the advancement of knowledge, and human dignity.

The first term, utility, is broadly understood to mean promoting the greatest happiness of mankind by relieving human suffering and improving the human condition. This is often the first principle people cite when they argue that advances in biotechnology are needed in order to cure genetic diseases or to help infertile couples have children. The second principle, the advancement of knowledge, is usually combined with the first under the rubric of "progress": the biotechnical revolution is part of the inevitable development of modern science which not only has practical benefits but also intrinsic value in advancing our understanding of the universe and man.

While these two principles are cited to expand research, a third principle is often raised to slow down or prohibit scientific experimentation on the grounds that it "violates human dignity." This expression refers to the powerful moral intuition that certain practices are wrong because they treat people as sub-humans or even as non-humans, for example, when human beings are treated like "guinea pigs" for experimentation without proper consent, or when human beings are used as disposable objects for research and destruction.

While all three moral principles are important for bioethics, this paper will focus on human dignity-the definition and grounding of human dignity as well as the practical question of whether it provides a workable guideline for decisions about biotechnology. The position I will take is that human dignity is a viable moral concept for bioethics, but one that needs clarification. To clarify the concept, I will compare three models of man-the model of scientific materialism, according to which man is a complex machine; the model of classical philosophy which views man as a rational soul united to a body; and the Biblical view of man as a creature made in the image of God. My argument is that human dignity implies a special moral status for human beings and that this special status ultimately requires a belief in the human soul. Scientific materialism denies the soul and thereby undermines human dignity, but most materialists find they cannot do without the soul and restore it by various strategies. Classical philosophy is more sensible in claiming that human beings have rational souls united to physical bodies, but the theoretical underpinnings of this doctrine are highly speculative. Surprisingly, the Bible and Christian theology may make the strongest case for human dignity because they recognize that human dignity is a mystery: the special status of man cannot be reduced to any set of essential attributes but rests on the mysterious "election" of man as the only creature in the universe made in the image of God. I will conclude by showing why human dignity, grounded in the mystery of the soul, should make scientists think twice about experiments aimed primarily at advancing earthly happiness and scientific knowledge.

Scientific Materialism: Man as Complex Machine and as Master of the Machine

When we speak about "human dignity" or "the dignity of man," we usually mean the special moral status of human beings in the natural universe as well as the respect due to individual humans because of their essential humanity.1 The central point of human dignity is that membership in the human species is somehow special and therefore a matter of moral significance that includes duties and rights which most cultures recognize and which reason can justify as objectively good. Interestingly, the most common objection to respecting human dignity is not moral relativism but the alleged "truth" of scientific materialism that man is a complex machine without soul or special moral status and we should simply "get over it" for our own good. The argument I will make is that most scientific materialists ultimately find this view untenable and restore the soul in some fashion to account for morality and their own scientific activities.

This pattern can be seen in the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, one of the original spokesmen for scientific materialism.2 Hobbes argued that the universe is nothing more than "bodies in motion" and that everything happens by one body touching another body without action-at-a-distance by immaterial causes, such as the spirits and ghosts of popular religion or the intangible substances of medieval Scholasticism or the forms and essences of Aristotle. Following the logic of materialism, Hobbes sought to explain all of man's behavior by a stimulus-response model of "appetites and aversions" in which the senses receive motions from external bodies, the signals are passed to the heart and brain, an image is formed that triggers a response, and the body moves accordingly. In this view, the mind is just a processor of sense images, and complex human emotions are reduced to selfish passions-especially the irrational desire for power and the rational fear of death. Hobbes denied that human beings have souls and said the will is not free to choose but is merely "the last appetite in deliberation." He even used the metaphor of an "engine" driven by springs and wheels to describe man at the beginning of Leviathan in order to emphasize his mechanical conception of human behavior.

In addition, Hobbes explicitly rejected Descartes's view that the universe is made of two distinct substances, material bodies and immaterial minds. Hobbes was a strict materialist in asserting that thinking or consciousness is simply a motion in the brain and that language is a motion of the tongue (he denied, in other words, that mental states of inner awareness existed in addition to brain waves). He opposed the dualism of matter and mind as both unnecessary and as politically dangerous insofar as it led to beliefs in souls and spirits that could be exploited by religious leaders for rebellion against political authority. Hobbes also denied the essential difference of humans and animals and therefore rejected any notion of human dignity based on a hierarchy of beings in the universe as a dangerous illusion that led to vainglorious claims of superiority and wars of religion. He asserted that all human beings are equal in their vulnerability to being killed and that mankind would be better off if everyone accepted their status as mortal machines without inherent dignity. For Hobbes, this was the whole truth about man-the low but solid ground on which to build an enlightened, secular civilization that could avoid the anarchy of the state of nature and establish lasting civil peace.

Despite his determined effort to be a thorough-going materialist, Hobbes seemed to admit that the human mind could not simply fit the model of a machine. He recognized that the activity of science itself, especially political science, stood outside the determinism of nature because the mind could construct an artificial world of speech based on free choices of the will in defining words-the very words needed for the social contracts of politics and the method of exact science. As Hobbes claimed, "we know only what we make," by which he meant that the mind could construct systems of knowledge outside the world of mechanical causality, and that these logical constructs were the only certain knowledge. Hobbes therefore contradicted himself by assuming something like an immaterial mind or soul which distinguished human beings from animals and enabled them to overcome nature. In the last analysis, then, Hobbes acknowledged that the whole truth about man included body and soul.

It would be an oversimplification to say that all scientific materialists have been Hobbesians, but Hobbes provided the model of mechanical man for later materialists to refine and develop. His daring conception became a prototype for behavioral psychology and its offshoots-for the physical-chemical model of mental and emotional states as well as for robotics and artificial intelligence. Indeed, if we jump ahead a few centuries, we can see that B. F. Skinner's "behaviorism" is a development of Hobbes's scientific materialism and suffers from many of the same problems.

Like Hobbes, Skinner is critical of those who bemoan the loss of man's lofty place in the universe and worry about the human soul. In Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1972), he responds to C. S. Lewis's fears about "the abolition of man" by saying that the only thing "being abolished is autonomous man-the inner man.defended by the literatures of freedom and dignity; his abolition is long overdue."3 Commenting as well on fears that he lowers humans to the level of animals, Skinner says: "'animal' is a pejorative term only because 'man' has been made spuriously honorific.whereas the traditional view supports Hamlet's exclamation, 'How like a god!' Pavlov, the behavioral scientist, emphasized, 'How like a dog!' But that was a step forward."4 Of course, Skinner adds, "man is much more than a dog, but like a dog he is within range of scientific analysis." In his campaign to deflate human dignity, Skinner cites as progress the impact of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud in diminishing the special status of humanity. But why is this progress?

Like Hobbes, Skinner favors scientific materialism because it gives a realistic, naturalistic view of man and is more conducive to the survival and material welfare of the human species than earlier conceptions. Skinner develops Hobbes, however, by adding the theory of "behavior modification" through the reinforcement of values in a controlled environment like his notorious "Skinner box"-an invention influenced by Rousseau's ideas about highly controlled social environments and Darwin's ideas about evolutionary change in response to natural environments.i While recognizing the role of genetic inheritance, behavioral scientists like Skinner believe human nature is more malleable than Hobbes thought, and they consciously seek to modify man in new ways for the benefit of the human species.

The difficulty for Skinner is that the use of science to get outside of nature leads to a major contradiction in his scientific materialism: man is not only a complex machine but also the master of "the machine" who is free to modify "the machine" according to a new vision of man. The implication is that Skinner has his own version of freedom and dignity which presupposes an essential difference between humans and animals and which even exaggerates man's dignity by loosening all limits: man is now seen as the sovereign master of nature-the being who creates himself and invents his own moral law. While Skinner understands the term "good" as the survival of the species as well as pleasure and non-aggression, he also suggests that "good" and "bad" are malleable according to the conditioning of behavioral engineers. Thus, human dignity still resides in something unique to man, but that unique capacity is not the "inner agent" of the rational soul obeying a higher moral law. Rather, it lies in man's freedom to experiment on man for whatever purposes might be posited by the "conditioners" and "reinforcers."5 It is remarkable to read in Skinner's work the wild oscillation between the exaggerated debasement of man (how like a dog!) which implies robotic behavior and the exaggerated glorification of man (how like the master of the universe!) which implies a "super-soul" capable of autonomous self-creation.

A similar pattern can be found in Daniel Dennett, who is famous for promoting modern science over religion by using the popular metaphor of "cranes" and "skyhooks": cranes are explanations that use scientific materialism, while skyhooks resort to miracles or nonmaterial causes to explain things. In Darwin's Dangerous Idea , Dennett claims that the greatest "crane" of all is Darwinian evolution, which can be used to explain everything-the origins of the universe, the origins of life from non-life, the evolution of living species from prior species, and the evolution of man, including man's genetic makeup and cultural life (the "genes and memes" of humanity). Darwin's central idea, according to Dennett, is that the well-designed universe we inhabit actually arose from the opposite of design-from the mindless, purposeless, directionless forces of evolution, which provides "a scheme for creating Design out of Chaos without the aide of Mind."6

Darwin's scheme, of course, is natural selection, which Dennett explains in mathematical terms as an "algorithm"-a system for sorting out options using a simple mechanical rule repeated an indefinite number of times until a single option is left. Unlike other algorithms which sort by logic or merit, natural selection creates winners by allowing random variations to survive, a process which adds up to a pattern or design over a long period of time. Dennett's ambition is to apply the Darwinian algorithm to everything-e.g., our universe and its laws arose from a myriad of accidental tries with other combinations that did not survive.7 This enables him to argue that the universe and man are accidental products of evolutionary forces, but they still have meaning and purpose once they are "frozen" in place. Thus, scientific materialism can be vindicated while avoiding moral relativism and affirming a culture based on modern liberalism, democracy, and respect for the dignity of persons.

If we look at Dennett's argument with critical distance, however, we can see that it follows the typical contradictory pattern of scientific materialism: it combines dogmatic materialism in describing a universe that is indifferent to man (it's all just "frozen accidents") with idealistic moral principles that presuppose the unique status of man and an ultimate purpose to human existence. Dennett is so insistent on man's special dignity that he even criticizes the sociobiologist E. O. Wilson and the behavioralist B. F. Skinner for mistakenly reducing human goals to those of other animals (survival, procreation, and pleasure/pain). Dennett repeatedly asserts that "we are not like other animals; our minds set us off from them";8 and "what makes us special is that we, alone among species, can rise above the imperatives of our genes."9 Dennett sees man aiming at higher purposes than passing on genes and dismisses the idea of "survival of the fittest" as an "odious misapplication of Darwinian thinking" by the Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer.10 In contrast to Spencer, Dennett strongly condemns oppression, slavery, and child abuse as "beyond the pale of civilized life."11 Yet, all of this is supposedly consistent with the accidental nature of the universe: "the world is sacred," even though "it just happened to happen" and human reason is just "a by-product of mindless purposeless forces."12

In response to Dennett, I would say that he has contradicted himself by reintroducing "skyhooks" in his understanding of man. He claims the universe has no purpose, but man still has a moral purpose-to be decent, humane, and just, and to pursue scientific knowledge. He assumes, in other words, that a ground exists for a higher moral law in the nature and dignity of man, even though there is nothing wrong, from a Darwinian perspective, with the strong dominating the weak or the "survival of the fittest." What is missing in Dennett is the humility to acknowledge that he assumes an essential difference between humans and animals based on something like a rational soul, even though he reduces man to accidental evolutionary forces. When the materialist conception makes morality impossible, he turns to notions of dignity that are unsupported by his cosmology and says, "there is a huge difference between our minds and the minds of other species, enough even to make a moral difference."13 Thus, he implicitly embraces a dualism of substances (matter vs. mind or nature vs. freedom) that divides humanity into two orders of causality which cannot interact except by external mastery. This actually exaggerates human dignity by making man the master of the universe, possessing a "super-soul" with creative will and infinite worth. The narrowness of materialism and the incoherence of dualism should lead us to rethink the problem with greater intellectual humility.

Classical Greek Philosophy: Man as an Embodied Rational Soul

Scientific materialism is untenable, I have argued, because it tries to banish the soul as a basis for human dignity but smuggles it back in by various strategies. Materialists also deny a hierarchy of being in the universe, but they finally admit that man is "higher" than other animals because of human reason and embrace a higher moral law directed to an objective human good. These contradictions should awaken an interest in classical Greek philosophy and its view that man is a living being with a rational soul united to a body who finds dignity in perfecting his reason-elevating man to the top of a natural hierarchy but not quite equal to the highest substance in the universe.

To understand this perspective, we might begin with the observation that much of classical philosophy is a kind of "glorified" common sense. Common sense tells us that human beings are neither a single substance like matter, nor two separate substances, but a combination of body and soul, which are not entirely distinct from each other because they interact on a regular basis. The body clearly exists as a substance because it differentiates one individual human being from another. But the body's shape is more than the sum of its parts because it moves together on its own power as an integral whole, requiring a form united with matter. This is the first meaning of "soul": the self-moving power of a body with form that functions as a unified whole.

In this sense, all animals are a union of body and soul because they move on their own power as integral wholes; and this is precisely Aristotle's point in his classic work, On the Soul .14 His thesis is that "the soul is the first principle of animal life"-meaning, the soul is the cause of life in living beings. For Aristotle, life is a kind of mystery because living beings have bodies that move on their own and this implies the intangible power of "soul" ( anima in Latin; psyche in Greek). The puzzle is that the soul is not the same as the body, yet it is also not separate from the body: "the soul does not exist without a body and yet is not itself a kind of body." Aristotle uses a variety of expressions to capture this relation: "the soul is the actuality of the body" and "the soul exists in a body" and "the product of the two is an ensouled thing." Aristotle's expressions are attempts to describe the unity of matter and form in a being whose body seems lifeless without an immaterial cause that gives it motion and function. In this view, the soul actualizes the potential of the body to do its proper work.

What surprises the reader of Aristotle is the claim that all living beings have "souls"-there are plant souls, animal souls, and human souls. While shocking at first, Aristotle's idea follows common sense in distinguishing living beings by three different capacities: (1) self-motion, (2) sense perception, and (3) thinking. All living things are distinguished from non-living things by the power of self-motion- either by growing (including feeding and reproducing) or by moving from place to place (local motion). Plants are self-moving in the sense of feeding, growing, and reproducing; hence, they have "plant souls." Animals have self-motion and sense perception, and even some capacity for desiring and wishing that seems to involve "imagination," if not intellectual activity. Hence, they have "animal souls." Human beings have "human souls" because their souls include all three powers-self-motion, sense perception, and thinking. Aristotle, of course, spends a lot of time trying to explain how the human soul thinks or uses the intellect. And he comes up with his puzzling lines that in sense perception "the soul receives the form [of the object] without the matter," like an imprint in wax; but in thinking, "the intellect becomes each thing"-that is, the mind somehow fuses with the object of knowledge. Hence, "the soul in a way is all existing things."

We do not have to clarify the meaning of these difficult lines in order to understand what Aristotle is saying about man and his dignity in the natural universe. It is a sophisticated version of common sense: the natural universe is divided into species or kinds that display an ordered hierarchy of being-with non-living beings at the bottom, followed in ascending order by living beings with souls, such as plants (beings with self-motion), animals (beings with self-motion and sense perception), and humans (beings with self-motion, sense perception, and abstract thinking). Man is therefore a rational animal at the top of a hierarchy of living beings, who possesses a lofty dignity but not the infinite worth of an absolutely unique being. As a living being, man shares characteristics with other animals while also being essentially different; he is neither a beast nor a god but an "embodied rational soul." Accordingly, Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics , "Man is not the best thing in the universe," because the heavenly bodies are more perfect; they move in eternal circular motion which man can contemplate and admire but cannot emulate. In this reckoning, human dignity is comparative rather than absolute-man is a living reflection of the divine intelligence that orders the cosmos, but man is not the highest substance in the universe.

Overall, I would argue that Aristotle's view of man as an embodied rational soul makes more sense than either materialism or dualism. It puts man back together, so to speak, into a unified whole of body and soul, and it recognizes man's proper place in the natural hierarchy as a rational animal above the beasts but below the "gods" (understood loosely as the heavenly bodies and the eternal laws of the rational universe). The problem with classical philosophy is that, even though it is supported by common sense, it rests on theoretical premises that are highly speculative. To really establish it, two points must be demonstrated: (1) that the mind is more than the brain yet is somehow still in the brain, like a rational soul in a body; and (2) that the order of the universe is not an accident but a necessary rational order with intelligent beings at the top. I believe these two points can be plausibly defended using the insights of modern philosophers such as John Searle and Paul Davies, but they remain speculative and are at best probable truths.

John Searle supports Aristotle by showing that the mind's relation to the brain is like an embodied rational soul. In his recent book, Mind , he argues that the debates about mind and body have reached an impasse because "neither dualism nor materialism is acceptable, yet they are presented as the only possibilities." Materialism is inadequate because it dishonestly denies the real existence of conscious states by trying to reduce them to motions of the brain. Yet, consciousness is just as real as the physical particles of a table because all it claims to be is a mental state of inner awareness that is capable of causing bodily actions (e.g., when I tell my arm to go up, it goes up). Searle also rejects dualism because the mind is not a different substance from the brain and can be explained by neurological processes, a view he endorses under the label "biological naturalism."15

Searle's primary argument is that mental states arise from the neurons and synapses of the brain but operate on a different level. This is a distinction of "levels" not of substances, like the different states of molecules in a table which are in motion at the micro level while being "solid" at the macro level in their lattice structures. By analogy, the brain cells that fire across synapses at the physical-chemical level are the same cells that produce conscious states at the mental level- which means that conscious states are "features" of the brain (like the table's solidity) that are more than just motions of the brain. Despite this clever analogy, Searle has to admit that the precise causal relation of consciousness to neurological processes is "largely unknown"16 and "we really do not know how free will exists in the brain."17 If he were a bit more humble, Searle might also admit that calling the mind a "feature" of the brain is really what Aristotle meant by a rational soul united to a human body or an embodied rational soul.

We may still ask, however, why the rational soul confers a special moral status on man and is worthy of dignity and respect. It would deserve respect only if the natural universe exists as a rational order with intelligent beings at the top for some necessary reason-a view that can be derived from a remarkable essay by Paul Davies entitled, "The Intelligibility of Nature."18 Davies's thesis is that we live in a universe that is highly intelligible-indeed, it is written in a "cosmic code" with mathematical precision-and that such a universe could not have emerged by accident. Accidents are random processes, and they are not sufficient to explain the universe's evolution from its original simplicity to the highly organized and complex structures of today, including life and consciousness. Random processes are structurally arbitrary (why should a boundary be here or there?) and statistical odds weigh heavily against the chance creation of order in a finite amount of time: it assumes "an unreasonable ability for matter and energy to achieve complex organizational states." A more plausible inference is that the universe's features emerged by a different type of causality-"self-organizing complexity," meaning formal causes of some kind that organize matter and energy into ordered wholes, like galaxies, living cells, and human minds.

While "self-organizing complexity" hearkens back to Aristotle's formal causality, Davies finds it not in an eternal order of the universe but in the expanding and evolving universe of modern cosmology: "The universe began in an essentially featureless state, consisting of a uniform gas of elementary particles, or possibly even just expanding empty space; and the rich variety of physical forms and systems that we see in the universe today has emerged since the big bang as a result of a long and complicated sequence of self-organizing physical processes.. Consciousness should be viewed as an emergent product in a sequence of self-organizing processes that form part of a general advance of complexity occurring throughout the universe." Davies's bold conclusion is that "the emergence of mind is in some sense inevitable" and that it is unscientific to regard intelligent life as "either a miracle or a stupendously improbable accident"; for "the laws of nature encourage.the emergence of intelligent organisms with the ability to understand nature at the theoretical level." In other words, nature is directed toward intelligent life and even seems to aim at conscious understanding of itself as its natural end.

Davies is cautious enough to say that this does not necessarily imply the guiding hand of an intelligent God, but he does say "we may legitimately talk about 'cosmic purpose.' " He hedges a bit by referring to his view as "teleology without teleology" because the laws of nature, once given, operate with both determinism and openness-implying that "re-running the cosmic movie" would produce intelligent, rational beings in an intelligible universe but not necessarily the human species as we know it. Nevertheless, a universe evolving toward a hierarchy of being with rational beings at the top is a necessary and inevitable development of nature's self-organizing complexity. It even leads to the prediction "that life and consciousness should be widespread in the universe, and not restricted to Earth." Indeed, Davies argues in Are We Alone? that intelligent life should exist in other realms of the universe and its discovery would vindicate "the dignity of man" as a rational creature.19 It would refute the false model of an indifferent universe driven by blind mechanical causes by showing how favorable the universe really is to intelligent beings.

The Bible and Christian Faith: Man as a Rational Creature Made in the Image of God

While the classical theory of human dignity is more plausible than materialism or dualism, it is not entirely satisfying either. It accords with common sense in viewing humans as rational animals that are higher than plants and other animals, but it rests on theoretical premises that are speculative (such as the causal relation of the mind to the brain and self-organizing complexity). One could reply that reason cannot do any better than use elements of classical philosophy and modern science to give a plausible account of man's dignity as an embodied rational soul at the top of a natural hierarchy. Yet reason could do better if it acknowledged that most of these things are genuine mysteries- questions that will never be fully answered by reason or science, such as how and why the universe began (creation), why reason is such an integral feature of the universe (rational order), how the mind or rational soul can be united to a physical body (the unity of soul and body), whether the soul can be separated from the body after death (the immortality of the soul), and what ultimate purpose reason is meant to serve (the final end). When such mysteries are acknowledged, reason's limits are exposed; and the mind may be opened to faith in revealed truths, such as those of the Bible and Christian faith.

The principal claim of the Bible and Christian faith is that the universe was created by a miracle of an all-powerful God whose will is mysterious but benevolent. Although the beginning of the universe is shrouded in mystery, the Bible indicates that God gave the universe a certain rational order: it is divided into heavens and earth, and the earth is filled with plants and animals that reproduce "after their kinds" like biological species, and the creation is an ordered hierarchy with a special status for human beings as the only creatures made in the image and likeness of God. The claim that humans are made in the image of God-the Imago Dei -is the Biblical and Christian charter of human dignity which gives them an exalted rank above the plants and animals but a little lower than the angels or God. One of the challenges of the Bible is to figure out what constitutes the divine image in man: is it reason, language, free will, a physical trait (such as upright posture), immortality, capacities for love, holiness, and justice? For Christian theologians like St. Augustine, who was influenced by Plato and classical philosophy, it seemed obvious that the divine image in man referred to reason. Hence, Augustine wrote in his commentaries on Genesis that "it is especially by reason of the mind that we are to understand that man was made in the image and likeness of God"; even the erect form of the body testifies to this view, since it enables man to look up and contemplate the heavens.20

Yet, if one actually examines the Bible, one is struck by how difficult it is to make such inferences. There are only a few references to the Imago Dei in both the Old and New Testaments, and they are ambiguous about what precisely constitutes the divine image in man, from which I draw the conclusion that the Bible avoids equating human dignity with any particular traits in order to teach people that it is not a set of attributes that confers human dignity. Rather, human dignity and the duties implied by it (such as the command to "love one another") are ultimately grounded in God's mysterious love for man above all the creatures of the universe, giving every human being an inherent dignity independent of their physical and mental traits. In short, the Bible grounds human dignity in God's "mysterious election" rather than in essential attributes. This broadens the meaning of humanity and extends the concept of the soul beyond rational consciousness to include the mysterious divine image, while still acknowledging reason as a secondary feature of humanity that permits natural and social hierarchies according to the perfections of reason in certain areas of life.

To clarify this point, I will examine briefly some passages referring to the Imago Dei , starting with the most famous passage in Genesis : "Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth..' So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them" ( Genesis 1:26-27). A second passage draws a parallel between God and Adam: "When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them man ( adam ).. When Adam had lived a hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth" ( Genesis 5:1-3). A third passage occurs in the story of the Flood when God blesses Noah's family: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth.. For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning.. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image" ( Genesis 9:5-7).

These are the only references in Genesis (and in the entire Hebrew Bible) to the Imago Dei . They show that God created the natural world as a hierarchy with the human species at the top, possessing a special right of dominion over the lower species. In the first grant of dominion, man is commanded to subdue the birds, fish, and cattle, but his food is restricted to plants ( Genesis 1:29-30). When Adam and Eve are created in the Garden, they are further restricted by the prohibition not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, lest they shall die. After they disobey, whatever dignity they previously possessed is henceforth combined with depravity and mortality; but their dignity is not entirely lost. In fact, in the story of Noah, the grant of dominion is renewed and the image of God reaffirmed. According to the second grant, the primitive vegetarianism is expanded to include animal flesh as food; but the blood must be drained ( Genesis 9:4). In addition, man is elevated by the respect that must be shown to human life. This almost resembles a right to life, except that it includes the death penalty for taking a life, which seems to imply, as the scholar Umberto Cassuto notes, that a "murderer has.erased the divine likeness from himself by his act of murder."21

We may thus infer that the divine image is a sign of special favor from God-a comparative rank entitling man to limited dominion over creatures that is a mirror of God's total dominion over all creation. Yet, the divine image can be partially lost, either by the whole human species, as in the Fall, or by individuals, as a result of committing murder. In addition to stressing dominion, the passages from Genesis emphasize procreation, as if procreation were an image of God's power of creation-which would explain the reference to male-female sexual differentiation as part of the divine image and the command to "be fruitful and multiply." Although procreation enables people to make children in their image-just as God made Adam in God's image, so Adam makes Seth in his image-one cannot be sure if this is the basis of human dignity. For the lower animals also procreate "according to their kinds" and are commanded to "be fruitful and multiply" ( Genesis 1:22). Perhaps the Bible is saying that procreation with the conscious intention of passing on personal identity and subduing the earth is the divine image in man.

The challenge of Genesis is that it offers a glimpse into human dignity by referring to the divine image without precisely defining it. Dignity includes man's superior rank in the created hierarchy; and it confers special worth to human life and procreation, although the lifeblood and procreation of other animals also receive certain blessings (as if they too shared in the divine image to some extent). If this is true, however, what remains of the special dignity of man? The only answer that makes sense to me is that the lifeblood and procreation which man shares with other animals have a deeper meaning for the human species: they are pale reflections of something man alone possessed before the Fall, namely, immortal life. The implication is that immortality is the lost image of God in man-a suggestion supported by the account of the Fall, which is primarily about the loss of immortality, as well as by the longevity of Adam and the early patriarchs, who lived up to 900 years, as a kind of afterglow of immortality that God finally ended by setting a limit to human life at 120 years ( Genesis 6:3). As compensation for the limited life span of mortals, the surrogate immortality that Adam gained through his son Seth continues through the procreation of families and tribes that endure for generations. Man's dignity, in the sense of original immortality or surrogate immortality (through children and long life) is therefore a comparative notion since it is the highest degree of perfection in the created hierarchy.

After these passages in Genesis , the only other books in the Old Testament that directly address human dignity are Psalms , Wisdom , and Ecclesiasticus . Psalm 8 does not include the phrase "image of God," but it uses the unmistakable language of Genesis to describe man's lofty place in the universe. The psalmist expresses his wonder that God created the vast heavens and yet cares above all for the human creature: "What is man that thou art mindful of him?.. Yet thou hast made him a little less than God [or a little less than the angels or divine beings] and dost crown him with glory and honor. Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands". ( Psalms 8:4-8) These lines are a classic example of Biblical minimalism: Man's dignity and glory are expressed with loving wonder, and man's dominion over the lower animals is asserted. But no reason is given for God's favor. The selection of the human species for special care is comparable in its mystery to the special election of Israel from among the myriad tribes and nations, a reflection of the inscrutable will of YHWH Who Is What He Is without giving reasons.

By contrast, the books of Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus (included in most Christian Bibles but not in the Hebrew Bible) supply reasons for man's dignity, possibly reflecting Greek philosophical influences. Wisdom 2:23-24 says, "For God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil's envy, death entered the world." This is the most explicit identification of the image of God in man with the attribute of immortality or divine eternity. The passage in Ecclesiasticus 17:1-12 also follows the pattern of defining the image of God in terms of attributes: "The Lord created man out of earth, and turned him back to it again. He gave to men few days.but granted them authority over things upon the earth. He endowed them with strength like his own, and made them in his own image. He placed the fear of them in all living beings and granted them dominion over beasts.. He gave them ears and a mind for thinking. He filled them with knowledge and understanding and showed them good and evil.. [He] allotted to them the law of life.[and an] eternal covenant." In this passage, the echoes of Genesis are evident in the references to human dominion; but the emphasis on attributes such as God-like strength (a puzzling notion) and reason or understanding through the senses and language gives a more precise meaning to the Imago Dei .

Yet, it is unclear if any of these attributes is as important as the simple fact of God's election of man for special care and the election of Israel for an eternal covenant. In this sense, the Imago Dei -as God's mysterious election of certain beings for divine favor-is the premise of the entire Old Testament, which may explain why it appears prominently in Genesis up to the first covenant (with Noah) and then drops out of sight.

It is not until the New Testament that the original language of Genesis about the Imago Dei reappears in the Bible. Here, we find a dozen references to the image, likeness, and figure of God as well as other references to the children of God and to partakers of the divine nature. Some of these terms are reserved for Jesus Christ, who is called "the image ( eikon ) of the invisible God" ( Colossians 1:15). These descriptions seem to connect the Imago Dei of Genesis with the central article of the Christian faith, the Incarnation, in which the invisible God becomes a visible man in Jesus Christ. As Paul says, "though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men" ( Philippians 2:5-7). The point of using the language of image and likeness from Genesis to explain the birth of Christ may be inferred from Paul's theology: while God originally created man in the divine image, that image has been partially lost and needs to be restored by Christ, who is the real image of God. Unlike the foolish pagans, who "exchange the glory of the immortal God for images of mortal men or animals" ( Romans 1:20-23), Christians see the real image of God in the immortal man, Jesus Christ. Christ combines in his person the image of God (immortality) and the likeness of fallen men (mortality) and therefore is able to restore the lost image of God to man (to restore lost immortality).

The lesson of the Bible seems to be that the Imago Dei includes the rational soul or intellect of man but does not equate human dignity with it. The Bible even uses the image of God to avoid designating a set of qualities as the essential attributes of man, thereby precluding a Christian theory of human nature in the strict sense. Instead of focusing on attributes, the Bible presents man in terms of his relations to God: originally man was close to the image of God, then he fell away, and eventually the lost image of God was restored through the redemptive sacrifice of Christ. The Bible, in other words, is more interested in the theory of salvation (soteriology) than in the theory of man (anthropology), even though it permits speculation about the essential attributes of man in certain books. In sum, human dignity based on the Imago Dei refers primarily to mysterious election while still mentioning reason and lost immortality, which gives man a special moral status because he is a rational but fallen creature made in the image of the eternal God.

Guidelines for Bioethics: Utility, Knowledge, and Dignity

Bioethics can benefit from these meditations because it needs more than utility and the advancement of knowledge as guiding principles; it needs a principle like respect for human dignity based on the special moral status of human beings as creatures with rational souls mysteriously tied to bodies but even more mysteriously elected by God as creatures with immortal souls that are an image of eternity. Perhaps this is what people mean when they say that man is body, soul, and spirit-physical body, rational mind, and immortal spirit. Perhaps it is the "human person" whose unique and irreplaceable personality is partly known to reason but fully known only to God, who gives everyone on earth a personal calling or mysterious personal destiny. In other words, science tells us about the body and especially the physical-chemical reactions of the brain; philosophy tells us about the rational soul united to the body; but religion takes us into the mysterious realm of the divine image of eternal destiny in each human being. If this is the whole truth about man, what are the implications for biotechnology?

While analyzing specific policies is highly technical (and beyond the scope of this essay), I would like to conclude by sketching some of the implications of human dignity for limiting utility and the quest for theoretical knowledge. Let me state briefly five lessons:

(1) First and foremost, the mystery of the human soul as the basis of human dignity implies a certain reverence and awe before the unknown and unknowable causes of human existence in the partly rational but mysterious universe. This suggests caution about scientific experimentation on human beings for the sake of relieving suffering or advancing knowledge. The pride of science should be tempered by the recognition that science and reason will never be able to understand fully the most important things about the universe and man- for example, why we get old and die or why our body cells wear out or why cell replacement diminishes; these are biological questions in one sense and in other sense spiritual questions about why our bodies are mortal and finite. Because science can deal only with one dimension of this issue, we should moderate the ambitions of science and accept the fact that it will not be able to produce the "miracle" of unending life or the knowledge of aging and death that it promises.

(2) Second, genetic engineering in particular will not be able to succeed in changing or perfecting human nature. Genetic engineering is part of the utopian dream of the modern scientific and political project to remake man according to blueprints of perfect rationality and perfect justice. This project assumes the dualism of man as a machine for mastery and as master of the machine; but this is a false dualism. Scientists may learn how to connect certain genes with certain traits like diseases or abnormal aggression. But they will never develop an exact science that connects genes with all the traits that make up a human being. The basis of the personality is the human soul, and the soul cannot be reduced to the body or the brain because the soul will always be mysterious. We may find links between genes and aspects of traits like depression, aggression, sexual identity, and self-esteem. But what about talents like musical ability, higher intellectual pursuits, artistic creativity, spiritual awareness of mortality and immortality? The notion that these are explicable in terms of genes and traits is a false pretense of scientific materialism. The mysteries of the human soul will never be reducible to the 30,000 genes or the 3 billion nucleotides of the human genome.

(3) Third, since human dignity is based on the mystery of the human soul, we do not have to fear human cloning as much as some critics suggest,22 even though it is a bad idea, because it will probably produce nothing more than unnecessary suffering in its defective human products. Even if we could clone Charles De Gaulle and put him in a general's uniform, he still would not be Charles De Gaulle-whose personality and character are partly a product of his genes but are also a product of his rational and divine soul, not to mention his historical times and national culture. The cloned version

of Charles De Gaulle created in the year 2007 and put in a general's uniform may look like De Gaulle, but he will not have De Gaulle's soul and may just as well be content flipping hamburgers in uniform rather than acting as the heroic savior of France.

(4) Fourth, cloning is still a violation of human dignity because it violates the God-given natural methods of procreation through male-female reproduction, which is part of the teaching of Genesis about human beings made in the image and likeness of God. Sexual reproduction is partly a natural biological process, but it is also a divine mystery because the human species could have been made to reproduce by asexual reproduction or by way of three sexes rather than male-female procreation. Biotechnology threatens the natural order of things because it seems to imply that everything can be reinvented by science and the human will-by man as master of the machine. But the uncertainty of tampering with God's creation should be reinforced by a cautionary sense of awe before the mystery of life and procreation.

(5) Fifth, the techniques of the biotechnical revolution that are the most justifiable are those that most modestly follow the course of nature and respect the mysterious unity of man as body and soul. Thus, the procedures of in vitro fertilization that essentially replicate the natural processes in couples who cannot conceive on their own are the most defensible in terms of respecting human dignity. Specifically, fertilizing the egg and sperm of married couples outside the womb and then replacing the embryo in the mother's womb are corrections of defects in accordance with nature's ways, not a willful effort to conquer and remake nature. Likewise, drug therapies that respect the limitations of knowledge regarding the physiology of moods and behavior are justifiable if they do not willfully assume, for example, that depression or aggression are merely physical and chemical rather than possibly spiritual maladies. Healing the body and mind by healing the soul has always been practiced, more or less successfully, and it can offer limited hopes in relieving a certain amount of human suffering without expecting science to master the human mind. In sum, we can accept certain features of the biotechnical revolution that acknowledge the partial truths of modern science, but they must be tempered by the awareness of the whole truth about man as the mysterious unity of body, rational soul, and an image of the divine eternity.



i. The Skinner box is an idea that Skinner may have developed from Rousseau's Emile (1762), a work that features the role of a tutor as the invisible manipulator of the child's environment; see Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity , pp. 89, 124.



1. See Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002), p. 160.

2. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Edwin Curley (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett, 1994 [1651]).

3. B. F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (New York: Knopf, 1972), p. 200.

4. Ibid., p. 201.

5. Ibid., pp. 104-107.

6. Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), p. 50.

7. Ibid., p. 185.

8. Ibid., p. 370.

9. Ibid., p. 365.

10. Ibid., pp. 389-393.

11. Ibid., pp. 516-517.

12. Ibid., p. 520.

13. Ibid., p. 371.

14. Aristotle, On the Soul , in A New Aristotle Reader , ed. J. L. Ackrill (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1987).

15. John R. Searle, Mind: A Brief Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 113.

16. Ibid., p. 133.

17. Ibid., p. 234.

18. Paul Davies, "The Intelligibility of Nature," in Quantum Cosmology and The Laws of Nature: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action , ed. Robert J. Russell, Nancy Murphy, and Christopher J. Isham (Vatican City: Vatican Observatory, and Berkeley, California: Center for Theology and Natural Sciences, 1993), pp. 145-161.

19. Paul Davies, Are We Alone? Philosophical Implications of the Discovery of Extrater restrial Life (New York: Basic Books, 1995), p. 129.

20. St. Augustine, On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis , in The Fathers of the Church, vol. 84, trans. Roland J. Teske, S. J. (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1991).

21. Umberto Cassuto, Commentary on the Book of Genesis , 2 vols., trans. Israel Abra hams (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1984).

22. The President's Council on Bioethics, Human Cloning and Human Dignity: An Ethical Inquiry (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2002).

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