Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Playing God

A few weeks ago--actually, as it happens, the day after the IIG meeting I wrote about here--my mother called me, and somehow in the conversation the subject of cloning came up. For reasons I can only guess at, my mother attended some kind of seminar about cloning a few years back, and thinks she knows more about the subject than she does. Among other things, she has some sort of bizarre idée fixe that scientists at Caltech figured out how to clone large mammals many years before Dolly but kept the matter a secret because of the ethical issues involved; they didn't want the methods getting out. I don't know whether she misunderstood something at the seminar she attended or whether the speakers there really did advance this astonishing claim, but she refuses to be persuaded that this isn't really plausible.

But that particular belief of hers, I was already aware of. What really took me by surprise in this conversation was when she asserted that part of the potential ethical problem with cloning was that clones might not have souls.

I was speechless. I think "What?" was about all I managed to get out.

Clones might not have souls, she repeated, because they weren't supposed to be created. I don't remember exactly how she worded it, but apparently the idea is that since clones weren't created naturally and weren't part of God's plan, there were no souls allotted for them, so they could come out as soulless monstrosities.

This had me completely dumbfounded. Oh, not that I'd never heard this idea broached before, but I'd only heard it in the context of plots of bad horror movies. To think that someone in the real world would actually believe this--and not just some random fundamentalist, but my own mother--was not something I had really anticipated.

Sensing my disbelief, my mother pressed the issue. This was a real concern, she insisted. She had heard it expressed by church leaders (or maybe by scientists who were members of the church, or something--to be honest, I was still too bewildered at this point to completely register what she was saying). Which may have been a misunderstanding on her part, but at this point I wouldn't really be surprised if it wasn't, and if she really had heard those concerns raised.

A few years ago, my brother stated rather vehemently that he thought the church ought to publicly condemn human cloning. That struck me as a knee-jerk reaction with nothing to back it up; certainly he didn't give any reasons for his contention (though I didn't ask). But I think a simple knee-jerk opposition to cloning without any reasoning to back it up still makes more sense than believing that clones wouldn't have souls.

Okay. First of all, with regards to its not being a natural process it's not clear exactly what makes cloning any different from, say, artificial insemination. I doubt she believes babies produced by artificial insemination lack souls; why would cloning be any more unnatural or any more against God's plans? And it can't be just the genetic identity, since, well, there are identical twins. Is one of every pair of identical twins a soulless monster?

But there's more wrong with this contention than even that. So clones wouldn't have souls because...because God didn't plan for their existence? Wait a minute here. Isn't God supposed to be omniscient? Wouldn't God have known that these clones were going to exist? And if he really doesn't want them to, if they're that much of an aberration against his plans, couldn't he prevent them from existing? The whole thing makes no sense!

This goes well beyond cloning, though; these same issues are involved whenever one talks of "playing God". Okay, there are some hypothetical situations under which I can see "playing God" as being something of a legitimate criticism. Suppose that you had a virtual reality world so advanced that the virtual entities had real sentience, and you were in a position to--well, do with them whatever the heck you wanted. Here, well, okay, given that you'd be tinkering directly with the lives and very existences of sentient beings, and potentially altering their world and surroundings on a large scale, sure, I guess you could call that playing God, and yes, I think there'd be some real ethical issues involved. (And considering how, according to the Biblical account, God has treated his own creations, I think God has done a pretty poor job of playing God himself.)

But popularly the phrase "playing God" is used to describe...well, pretty much any advanced scientific development, especially in the field of biology. Cloning. Genetic modification. Trying to understand the workings of the brain. These are playing God. And they're eeeeevil.

Why? Because man is trying to usurp God's prerogative. He's trying to meddle in God's domain. Sometimes this is assumed to be a conscious goal of the scientists--as the title character says in the 1931 Frankenstein, "Now I know what it feels like to be God!"--but even if it isn't--or especially if it isn't, because then the scientists are just casually disregarding God's affairs--it's still an act of extreme and impious hubris.

Needless to say, for an atheist, that argument doesn't hold a lot of water. (Well, neither does the whole business of "souls", of course, but that's a side issue.)

But really, it didn't make any sense to me back when I still considered myself a believer, either.

The following is an excerpt from something I wrote many years ago, when I still considered myself a faithful Mormon:

I think to claim that mankind has the ability to usurp the powers of God against His will shows far more arrogance and blasphemy than any attempt at cloning or genetic manipulation ever could.

Because really, if man is able to arrogate God's powers to himself against God's will...what does that say about God? In order for these accusations of playing God to make any sense at all, God must be quite a weak and ineffective deity, unable to prevent his own powers from falling into mortals' hands. I'm pretty sure most people who accuse scientists of "playing God" don't think of God that way. So even from a religious perspective, these accusations don't make any sense.

Now, all this isn't to say that there may not be some ethical issues involved with cloning. Does it open the doors to the wealthy and powerful flooding the world with genetic copies of themselves--and if so, is that something that should be prevented? Might cloned children have unfair expectations of living up to the same interests and talents as the people they're cloned from? What about the possibility that as methods are being developed for human cloning, the studies could result in the creation of imperfect or incomplete clones as the methods are being perfected? Is that a problem?

These aren't all necessarily easy questions, and though I personally don't think cloning is inherently unethical, I do recognize that there may be some sticky issues involved.

But "playing God" isn't one of them. If man can take for himself the powers of God against God's will, then God doesn't seem to be much of a god at all.


At 3/09/2007 2:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The phrase "playing God" always arises when people use their acquired knowledge to intervene in the natural world, either to prevent something from happening, or to cause something to happen. But if we have acquired knowledge, and choose not to act, are we not also then "playing God". I'd imagine the first time someone performed an appendectomy, they were accused of playing God. What would someone say about a Doctor who refused to perform one today. Likely the same thing.
The instant we acquire sufficient knowledge to know how to change the outcome of human events, we are trapped into playing God, whetehr we choose to act or not act.

At 3/13/2007 4:45 PM, Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

It amazes me how often religious people create a limited god in their own minds.

At 3/15/2007 1:27 PM, Blogger King Aardvark said...

Great post. I would recommend, though, that you don't try to think too hard about the logical conundrums inherent in religious arguments. It'll make your brain hurt with how out to lunch they can be.

In a certain respect, playing God is what humans do. We're creative, we can control lives to a certain extent, we think about, create, and apply laws. All rather mundane stuff, actually.

Oh, but speaking as someone who has an identical twin brother, I can assure you, he is quite soulless.

At 3/18/2007 1:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

King Aardvark: you made me laugh aloud!
I have a twin brother too, and I'm afraid the same applies...

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