Religious riddle of nanotechnology

What does God think of nanotechnology? The glib answer is that, like the rest of us, He has only just heard of it. If you think it is a silly question anyway, consider that a 2009 study claimed “religiosity is the dominant predictor of moral acceptance of nanotechnology”. Science anthropologist Chris Toumey has recently surveyed this moral landscape.

Nanotechnology is a catch-all term for a host of diverse efforts to manipulate matter on the scale of atoms and cells. There is no single objective.

Some nanotechnologists are exploring new kinds of medicine, others want to make computer circuits or new materials.

Of the rather few explicitly religious commentaries on nanotechnology so far, some have focused on issues that could have been raised by secular voices: safety, commercial control, accountability and responsible application.

Yet much discussion has headed down the blind alley of transhumanism. Nanotech scientists have long sought to rescue their discipline’s public image from vocal but fringe spokespersons such as Eric Drexler and Ray Kurzweil, who have painted a fantastic picture of tiny robots patching up our cells and extending our longevity. Kurzweil has suggested that nanotech will help to guide us to a moment he calls the singularity: a convergence of growing computer power and medical capability that will transform us into disembodied immortals. He has even set up a Singularity University, based on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Research Park in Silicon Valley, to prepare the way.

Needless to say, immortality or its pursuit is not acceptable to most religious observers of any creed, because it entails a hubristic attempt to transcend the divinely decreed limits of the human body and relieves us from saving our souls. But the transhumanism question is not unique to nanotech; it is part of a wider debate about the ethics of human enhancement.

In any case, the theologians can relax.

Transhumanism and Kurzweil’s singularity are just delirious dreams and on no serious scientist’s agenda. One Christian writer admitted to being shocked by what he heard at a transhumanist conference. Quite right, too: these folks, determined to freeze their heads or download their consciousness into computers, are living in an infantile fantasy.

So, are there any ethical issues in nanotech that really do have a religious dimension? Science-fiction writer Charles Stross has imagined the dilemma of Muslims faced with bacon that is chemically identical to the real thing but assembled by nanotechnology rather than pigs.

He was not entirely serious, but some liberal Muslim scholars have debated whether the Qur’an places any constraints on the permitted rearrangements of matter. Jewish scholars have used the legend of the golem to think about the ethics of making life from inanimate matter, partly in reference to nanotech and artificial intelligence. In the 1960s, the pre-eminent expert on the golem legends, Gershom Scholem, was sanguine about the idea, asking only that our digital golems “develop peacefully and don’t destroy the world”.

These academic discussions have so far been rather considered and tolerant. Toumey wonders whether they would impinge on the views of, say, your average Southern Baptist, hinting at what we might suspect anyway: both sensible people and bigots adapt their religion to their temperament and prejudices, rather than vice versa.

A British study made the point that religious groups were better able than secular ones to articulate their ethical concerns because they possessed a vocabulary and conceptual framework for them. The researchers suggested that religious groups might take the lead in communicating public perception. I am not so sure. Articulacy is useful, but it is more important that you first understand the science. And just because you can couch your views eloquently in terms of souls and afterlives does not make them more valid. —

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