Technology and the Human Person   /   Fall 2002   /    Articles

Twilight of the Prosthetic Gods: Medical Technology and Trust

Jonathan B. Imber

It was Sigmund Freud's lamentation about happiness in Civilization and Its Discontents that introduced the idea of a prosthetic God:

Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times. Nevertheless, he is entitled to console himself with the thought that this development will not come to an end precisely with the year 1930 A.D. Future ages will bring with them new and probably unimaginably great advances in this field of civilization and will increase man’s likeness to God still more. But in the interests of our investigations, we will not forget that present-day man does not feel happy in his Godlike character.11xSigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XXI (1927–1931) (London: Hogarth, 1961) 90–1.

The unhappiness to which Freud refers may be about mortality itself, but it may also be about how extensively the “Godlike character” of human beings, and the technology that makes it possible, is associated with what is meant by happiness.

For the past half century, the material progress of medicine has given rise to two types of debates about technology and the human person: one has to do with the limits of such progress, the other with the autonomy of those who are subject to it. In this essay I will argue that these two debates are, in reality, reflections of one enduring problem about the nature of trust in persons and, in particular, “corporate” persons, that is, professionals. The significance of technology in relation to this problem of trust arises not so much in the nature of technology itself but in its application to problems that arise as a result of confrontations with disease and death.

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