Fr. Rogério Gomes comments on the Theological and Moral aspects of Modern Technology

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Exploring the border between humanity and technology – this is the title of a recent interview with Fr. Gomes published on the website of the Theological Institute of Sao Paulo (ITESP), in Brazil. 

The interview came out in the context of information that Noland Arbaugh, 29, a quadriplegic after a diving accident in the water, received a brain implant that allows him to control a computer mouse on his own. The introduction of technologies like this challenges us to reflect on the nature of humanity, human dignity, and the ethical limits of technological intervention in the human body.

Father Rogério Gomes specialized in bioethics at the Alphonsian Academy in Rome and, despite his numerous responsibilities as Superior General, keeps up to date on the development of scientific reflection in response to the new challenges of technological progress.

We publish an interview below. 

(courtesy: https://www.itespteologia.com.br )

Exploring the boundary between humanity and technology: ITESP alumnus Prof Dr. Rogério Gomes’ perspective on Neuralink’s progress

ITESP: From an ethical and theological point of view, how do you evaluate the potential impact of the brain chip implant, developed by Neuralink, on the understanding of human nature and the relationship between technology and spirituality?

Rogério Gomes: I consider this type of technology as a process of human evolution itself. Ever since humans appeared on Earth, their relationship with technology has been evident. The myth of Prometheus explains it well. When he stole fire from the gods, he was punished. Fire, the technology of the gods, cannot be given to humans because it empowers them, hence the punishment. In essence, technology arises from the fragile condition of human beings who, using their intelligence, create mechanisms to overcome it, transform the environment in which they live and use it for their own needs.

At first glance, we could say that technology was born as an extension and potential of the human body, as an apparatus to satisfy needs such as sight, speed, strength, etc. The problem begins to arise regarding the use of fire stolen from the gods, which shifts the reflection from the instrumental dimension to the ethical one and its implications. And here the whole discussion of the so-called scientific neutrality and of technology itself collapses. Technology is not just a set of techniques used by a society, but a cultural message.

Even the hypothesis of foreign bodies in the human body is not entirely unknown. For example, xenotransplantations are techniques for transplanting animal organs, tissues, and cells into another organism to replace diseased parts, without necessarily needing a human donor. This is already a reality, but there is still a long way to go. Another reality is the so-called biohacking (bios+hacker), which seeks to reprogram human nature from consolidated techniques to those of implanting chips in the human body, with the aim of enhancing the human body and extending human longevity.

The use of chips is already common for pets and on farms specializing in breeding and breeding animals and birds. In humans, they can be used to store personal identity and clinical data, replace credit cards, keys and badges, access computers, provide surveillance, etc. Every technology is born with the promise of revolutionizing something. In the case of Elon Musk’s technology, one of the uses is to benefit people with traumatic injuries. And it doesn’t end there: there is definitely a desire to enhance the human brain to store information, create superbrains, etc. Between the marketing game, scientific research, product feasibility and legislation, there is still a long way to go.

The relationship between technology and spirituality can be seen from three aspects: man continues exploiting God’s creation through the intelligence given to him and transforming reality to live a dignified life; as an abandonment of God, as man asserts himself in his ability to create in order to subjugate nature and destroy it and dominate other peoples (autonomy, narcissism, selfishness, authoritarianism). Finally, as an opportunity for Christian theology and spirituality itself to rethink some creationist concepts that no longer hold up today and must be reinterpreted in the light of new times.

ITESP: Considering the moral aspects, what ethical concerns emerge when contemplating the possibility of a fusion between the human mind and artificial intelligence? How can the traditional ethical principles of bioethics be applied to this scenario?

Rogério Gomes: I don’t see the possibility of a fusion between the human mind and artificial intelligence in the short term. We need to see what the reality is and what the market strategy is. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but the engineering of the human brain is very complex, and despite the great progress already made, it is an ever-new world full of mysteries to be revealed. Artificial intelligence is still an evolving field; It looks promising, but it’s still in its infancy, because we don’t yet know its true size. The merging of these two realities will require a great deal of research and technical and scientific advances.

Faced with the possibility of a fusion between the human mind and artificial intelligence, we could consider the traditional principles of bioethics, such as autonomy, non-maleficence, beneficence, and justice in these very elementary terms because the question requires much more reflection.

First of all, it is necessary to clarify the risks and benefits of this possibility. The people involved must be informed of the impact on human nature itself and give their free consent. Regarding autonomy, it is necessary to consider which aspects compromise the person so that he can choose and make rational decisions and moral choices in accordance with his own freedom; as regards non-maleficence, if this type of technology and the techniques used for its functionality will not subsequently cause suffering to the person; regarding charity, obtain the greatest benefits and minimize the risks for the person.

In terms of justice, will people who choose to undergo this type of procedure be considered equal or superior to others? Who benefits from this type of technology? Will it exclude people? If, at some point, professionals involved in this field realize that this technology is being used for certain purposes, do they have the right to conscientious objection? How are governments prepared for the impacts of this technology, for example, in the world of work, on social relations? In terms of digital security, how will privacy be established? How can these technologies be used to control people? As can be seen, this opens up a vast discussion in the field of justice and law enforcement. In addition to what has already been mentioned, in this field of reflection and possibilities, a rereading of the principle of responsibility must be considered, no longer in the categories of Hans Jonas, but updated.

ITESP: Faced with the technological advances proposed by Neuralink, what would be, from a theological point of view, the role of the Church and religious institutions in the ethical and moral guidance of the faithful in the face of this new frontier of mind-machine interaction?

Rogério Gomes: The first element is knowing the technology and how to use it. It is not possible for the Church and religious institutions to guide their faithful if they do not know the reality. And here it is essential to overcome prejudices both in the ecclesiastical and scientific fields. Otherwise, we will fall back into the well-known disputes of the past and have a deaf narcissistic dialogue. Today interdisciplinary dialogue is an opportunity for mutual enrichment.

Once we fully understand what we are talking about, the second step is to educate people and help them discern. This is why it is increasingly important for religious leaders to study and train themselves to have the know-how necessary to form consciences. Without this, we will fall into a discourse of “you can” and “you can’t” which does not lead human beings to reflect on their actions and the consequences for themselves, for others and for future generations, considering the principle of responsibility (Hans Jonas).

Finally, helping people demystify certain conspiracy theories of beings from another world controlling us, as well as science fiction, but helps people understand that the use of technology without any ethics can be a tool of control used by governments, companies, and private individuals for control and who can protect themselves from lighting.

ITESP: Considering the role of theology in moral formation, how can religious leaders guide the faithful to discern the ethical and moral limits in adopting technologies that directly interfere with the human mind, such as the Neuralink brain chip?

Rogério Gomes: Vatican II urges us to read the signs of the times. It is also important to consider the timing of the signs. This is why I insist on the fact that religious leaders must continually train and update themselves if they want to do good service to their groups. Theological research can provide tools for reflecting on topics such as creation, evolution, the concept of nature, natural law, human behaviour, responsibility, and social justice, to name a few. This requires theology to be increasingly engaged in dialogue with other areas of knowledge: philosophy, sociology, psychology, education, law, economics, ecology, ethics, bioethics, and morality.

The concept of interference must be considered as part of this reflection. It is still too early to talk about possible interference. The implantation of a chip is already an interference, as it is a foreign body inserted into the human body. An interference that de-characterizes man? Mechanisms that allow the human mind to be externally controlled, causing the individual to lose their freedom and autonomy? This is why it is important to have a theology that sets out, without losing its identity, but which accompanies the human evolutionary process and helps to discern the best path to take.

Finally, it is important to consider that these new developments in the techno-scientific world will increasingly influence politics, economics, social relations, the concept of human nature and the perception of life itself as an existence, and reality to be manipulated.

In short, the discussion about technological advances and their ethical and theological implications is crucial not only for Academy, but also for society as a whole. Especially in the field of theology, where reflections on human nature, ethics and the relationship with technology are fundamental, it is essential to raise issues such as mind-machine fusion and the impact of innovations on the understanding of spirituality. Furthermore, considering that Prof. Dr. Rogério Gomes is a former student of ITESP, it is important to address these issues within the academic community itself, connecting the training received at the institute with the contemporary challenges facing society.

By: Arison Lopes, ITESP Institutional Communication

(free translation into English; the complete original text in Portuguese is published on the ITESP website https://www.itespteologia.com.br )