Limitless?

March 21st, 2016

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Peter Thiel, the Paypal co-founder who happens to be a Christian, knows how to monetize the Internet. But he doesn’t appreciate the moral implications of technologies.

Thiel is a billionaire technologist who made the first outside investment in Facebook. He co-founded Paypal as well as the private data analytics firm, Palantir. Thiel is also a Christian—but an all-too-common one. Like many believers, he doesn’t seem to appreciate the moral and theological implications of technologies.

This was evident last summer in San Francisco. Thiel shared the stage with N.T. Wright, an Anglican priest. Over 700 members of the Silicon Valley tech scene attended a fireside chat hosted by The Veritas Forum. Technology was the topic, including Thiel’s recent project: trying to extend human life indefinitely. “Why,” he asks, “must we die?”

Thiel believes technology can stop and even reverse aging. So does much of the Silicon Valley glitterati. Google has committed up to $600 million for anti-aging research. Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin have funded “Breakthrough Prizes” for discoveries that extend human life. Its $3 million annual payouts? dwarf similar awards, including the Nobel Prizes.

Thiel himself has invested multiple millions in enterprises like the Methuselah Foundation, whose goal is to make “90-year-olds as healthy as 50-year-olds—by 2030.” He believes big data can solve biological problems. “Many biological processes appear to be irreversible, but… if it is possible to understand biological systems in informational terms, could we then reverse these biological processes, including ageing?”1

And therein lies the problem. Biological systems cannot be understood mainly in tech terms. There are moral implications. Thiel doesn’t seem to see them. He thinks the promise of technologies such as reversing aging is limitless. “It seems that in every particular instance the only moral answer is to be in favor of it.”

N.T. Wright challenged Thiel’s assumptions. God could have allowed Adam and Eve to eat of the tree of life after they rebelled and they would have lived forever. But that wouldn’t have defeated death, as death is more than biological. It’s spiritual separation from God. It’s alienation from one another. Technologies won’t defeat this.

Wright also noted how our sin nature gets worse as we age. It is not static. We don’t become more angelic as we grow older. Wright asked whether the project of life extension really is all that good. “If [I] say, okay I’ll live to be 150. I’ll still be a sinner. I’ll still be conflicted. I’ll still have wrong emotions. Do I really want to go on having all that stuff that much longer? Will that be helpful to the world if I do?”

Thiel fails to see the connection between techne and telos. Techne is Greek for “skill or craft.” Telos is “ends or purpose.” In scripture, techne is craftsmanship, equivalent to work and worship. It’s moral. Technology’s telos—purpose—is human flourishing. Flourishing narrows our options. The issue is not can it be done but should it be done.

Take online learning. Nicholas Carr has accumulated considerable research indicating online learning “shallows” neural pathways, making it harder to see the big picture. It shrinks attention span. How many Christians in the tech space are wrestling this? In his provocative book Amusing Ourselves to Death, media analyst Neil Postman suggested that technologies change the way people perceive God, human nature, the church, and community. How many technologists who are Christians wrestle with this tension?

It doesn’t appear that Peter Thiel does. Postman warned that we’re no longer in a technological age but rather a technopoly. Technology monopolizes our thinking. We only ask whether a technology works—not if it is wise. Technologists know how to monetize the Internet but few appreciate the moral implications.

Max Anderson, a Forbes reporter, said he came away from the fireside chat with a new respect for religion but “more convinced that there is a dangerous lack of moral philosophy and theological reflection” about technologies. He notes that Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking worry about technology’s “existential threat to the human race” but isn’t sure “how many pastors are aware that these questions are on the horizon.”

I share his uncertainty. “Science rebukes certain thoughts by calling them morbid,” G.K. Chesterton wrote in 1908. “The new scientific society definitely discourages men from thinking about death.”2 True. In the film Limitless, Bradley Cooper plays Edward Morra, an author struggling with writer’s block. He discovers the brain-boosting power of the mysterious drug NZT-48. He doesn’t however recognize the deadly limits.

Christians in the tech space might benefit from reading Atul Gawande’s thoughtful book, Being Mortal. Gawande is a surgeon and writer who practices general and endocrine surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. “The simple view is that medicine exists to fight death and disease, and that is, of course, its most basic task. Death is the enemy. But the enemy has superior forces. Eventually, it wins.” Gawande understands technology’s limits. Do you?

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

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1 Max Anderson, “Peter Thiel, N.T. Wright On Technology, Hope, And The End Of Death,” Forbes/Tech, June 24, 2015.
2 G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1908. 1995 reprint), p. 26.

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7 Responses to “Limitless?”

  1. Mark Brown says:

    This was one of your most useful posts in a while, it was very pertinent and exposed the rampant lack of correlation and real biblical thinking that is so prevalent today. Thank you.

  2. Linda says:

    Intriguing and thought-provoking.
    Thank you!

  3. David Greusel says:

    Excellent post. I’ve been wrestling with the implications of technology for some time (see for example, this: https://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/2197/what-hath-lenoir-wrought/ and am more convinced than ever that we’re not doing a very good job of thinking through all the moral implications of the technologies we keep inventing with such startling rapidity. Which, I gather, is kind of your point. Well done.

  4. John Chaffin says:

    Interesting thoughts as we approach Resurrection Sunday.

  5. Jerry Bowyer says:

    I watched the same video discussion b/w Thiel and Wright. I did not see any confirmation of many of the points you put into his mouth. I certainly know for a fact that he is quite aware of the techne/telos distinction since we discussed that topic in some depth in my Forbes interview with him several years ago. To suggest that Thiel doesn’t appreciate the moral implications of technology is quite an overreach. I know few people who’ve given remotely the amount of thought into those questions. If you want to disagree with him, that’s your right, but to deny he has knowledge of topics which he has publicly discussed, is just not accurate. There’s plenty of techno-uptopians out there to take a shot that you could debate with that would not require the straw man treatment.

  6. Jerry Bowyer says:

    Might I add that to use Gawande as a club against Thiel without pointing out Gawande’s own very pronounced philosophical and ideological agenda is likewise a problem. Gawande is deeply entrenched in left politics, a reliable medical advisor to pro-abortion Dem politicians. I’m not sure that he is the man to lecture us on the subject of the morality of life and death.

  7. Jerry Bowyer says:

    Here’s Gawande defending partial birth abortion when pro-life forces were pushing for a ban in the late 90s:

    http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/1998/01/partial_truths_in_the_partialbirthabortion_debate.html

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