Monday, January 23, 2012

Nanotheology

Belatedly, here’s my final column for the Saturday Guardian. It’s final because, in a reshuffle to ‘consolidate’ the paper (i.e. save space because they’re losing so much money), the back page and its contents have been chopped. It was kind of fun while it lasted, though I intend shortly to post a few thoughts on being exposed to (and encouraged to engage with) the Comment is Free feedback. This piece was particularly revealing in that respect, eliciting as it did a fair bit of outrage from the transhumanists. Who’d have thought there were so many people desperately and credulously hanging out for the Singularity?
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What does God think of nanotechnology? The glib answer is that, like the rest of us, he’s only just heard of it. If you think it’s 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 that encompasses a host of diverse efforts to manipulate matter on the very small scales of atoms and cells. There’s no single objective. Some nanotechnologists are exploring new approaches to medicine, others want to make computer circuits or new materials.

Of the rather few explicitly religious commentaries on nanotech so far, some have focused on issues that could equally be raised by secular voices: sensible concerns about safety, commercial control and accountability, and responsible application. (None seems too bothered about the strong military interest.)

Yet much of the discussion has headed down the blind alley of transhumanism. Nanotech scientists have long sought to rescue their discipline’s public image from the vocal but fringe spokespersons such as Eric Drexler and billionaire inventor Ray Kurzweil, who have painted a fantastic picture of tiny robots patching up our cells and perhaps hugely extending our longevity. Kurzweil has suggested that nanotech will play a big role in guiding us to a moment he calls the Singularity: a convergence of exponentially growing computer power and medical capability that will transform us into disembodied immortals. He has even set up a Singularity University, based on NASA’s research park in Silicon Valley, to prepare the way.

Needless to say, immortality – or its pursuit – isn’t acceptable to most religious observers of any creed, since it entails a hubristic attempt to transcend the divinely decreed limitations of the human body, and relieves us from saving our souls. But the transhumanism question isn’t unique to nanotech – it’s part of a wider debate about the ethics of human enhancement and modification.

In any case, as far as nanotech is concerned 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: all 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 dilemmas of Muslims faced with bacon that is chemically identical to the real thing but assembled by nanotechnology rather than pigs. He wasn’t entirely serious, but some liberal Muslim scholars have debated whether the Qu’ran places any constraints on the permitted rearrangements of matter. Given that chemistry was pioneered by Muslims between the eighth and twelfth centuries, this seems unlikely. Jewish scholars, meanwhile, 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’d impinge on the views of, say, your average Southern Baptist, hinting tactfully at what we might suspect anyway: both sensible people and bigots adapt their religion to their temperament and prejudices rather than vice versa.

One British study of attitudes to nanotech 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 therefore take the lead in communicating public perceptions. I’m not so sure. Articulacy is useful, but it’s more important that you first understand the science. And just because you can couch your views eloquently in terms of souls and afterlives doesn’t make them more valid.