Should I marry ‘for love’ or follow my family’s wishes? Should I stay in the secure, boring job or throw myself into a risky, exciting adventure? Should we try to start a family now or enjoy a few more years of freedom?
All of us know what it is like to experience inner conflict. It is often said that the way to resolve such a conflict is to ‘be true to yourself’. When this procedure is employed, the usual result is to choose the individualistic option, such as marrying for love or taking the dream job, unless, of course, your ‘true self’ values family loyalties above everything else.
While Christian voices have always murmured against this ethic, contemporary biology appears to be catching up—at least, if the claims of Yuval Noah Harari, in his recent book Homo Deus, are correct. As Harari points out, the idea of being ‘true to yourself’ assumes that in the case of conflicting desires, one desire can be singled out as belonging to the ‘authentic self’, while the others are mere noise. The trouble is: how can I tell which is which?
Harari’s refreshing and provocative answer is, ‘You can’t!’ Drawing on biological science, which views all desires simply as mental and bodily states produced by our genetic programming in response to our external circumstances, he argues that no desire deserves to be privileged as belonging to the ‘true self’:
If I look really deep within myself, the seeming unity that I take for granted dissolves into a cacophony of conflicting voices, none of which is ‘my true self’.
To complicate matters further, future scientific advances may well make it possible to modify our desires. Pointing out that drugs are already available to influence the biochemical systems from which our desires emerge (e.g. stimulants such as Ritalin), Harari assumes that such technology will become more and more sophisticated until it is possible to have designer desires. Imagine: tormented by a conflict between my desire for the security provided by my boring job, and the excitement promised by a risky career path, I could submit to medical desire modification so that excitement will hold no appeal and I will love the boring job! But then, why not instead ask the doctors to erase my love of security, and embrace the exciting pathway? Without an authentic inner self to arbitrate, by what principle should I decide?
Harari has painted for us a future in which the ‘self’ is completely adrift on a biochemical sea, while paradoxically able to control its currents! Even if his projections seem fanciful at present, they ask probing questions. In what circumstances would ethicists and policy makers draw the line and say that medical desire modification was ‘cheating’ (say in sport or education)? When should an individual be prevented from choosing the desires they want? This requires a conception of what a human should be.
Since the authentic inner self cannot help us, the only option is to look outside oneself. This, of course, is precisely what the Christian gospel invites us to do. For the Christian believer, to be like Jesus Christ becomes the object of our desires. Christians are to ‘put on Christ’ (Rom 13:14), to have ‘Christ formed in you’ (Gal 4:19), and to be transformed into his image (2 Cor 3:18). Jesus Christ is the authentic human being into whose image we seek to be shaped.
 Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (Vintage, 2017)
 Ibid., p338
 Ibid., pp424-25. ‘Designer desires’ is my phrase.
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