Thursday, February 21, 2008

Immoral Technology (Or: Another Reason to Embrace Natrualism)

According to a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, 66% of Americans think that nanotechnology is "morally unacceptable." Nanotechnology, of course, is the (very broad) field of science dedicated to manipulating matter at very small scales--we're talking machines that can build molecules like assembly line robots build cars, repair organic cells from the inside, and generally do all sorts of things that, as Arthur C. Clarke might have predicted, seem to border on magical. The fact that more than half of all Americans think that this technology is unacceptable on moral grounds troubles me, and should probably trouble you too; the approval rate in Europe is much higher, with 71% of French respondents agreeing that nanotechnology research is just fine. The authors of the study conjecture that one plausible explanation for this cognitive gap between the United States and nations with similar education and technology levels is (surprise) the strong role that religion plays in the lives of most Americans; it seems that the problem isn't that Americans don't understand nanotechnology, but that they reject it on purely religious grounds.

We've seen the rather unfortunate results that religious based decision making can play (2000 and 2004 elections, anyone?), but this seems to be a new low, even for the United States. It seems that most respondents who called nanotech "morally unacceptable" did so because "In short, researchers are viewed as "playing God" when they create materials that do not occur in nature, especially where nanotechnology and biotechnology intertwine."

Only a worldview fundamentally based in irrationality and superstition could look at a promising technology like this, a technology with the potential to cure countless diseases, create incredibly fast computers, build materials with the strength of carbon steel and the weight of aluminum, and generally benefit the human condition immensely and say "Nah, I think we'll pass." Just add one more reason to the list of why we need a major paradigm shift in this country, or we're going to be technologically left behind.

4 comments:

IrishFarmer said...

I don't think that Christians are going to prevent this technology from going forward. As a Christian, I don't have any fundamental objections to nanotechnology in general.

Fact is, medical doctors have been "interrupting the natural order" for thousands of years. I'd like to think that the respondants to the survey were simply misinformed.

However, we don't really need a paradigm shift, lest we fall behind in technology. I guarantee you that the people developing this technology couldn't give two figs about this poll or any other. They're going to continue on with the work, and based on historical decisions, I can't even see a Republican (gasp!) president or congress putting an end to nano technology.

Jon said...

I disagree. While there are certainly Christians who are willing to embrace this technology, the fact that more than half of citizens in the United States find it morally reprehensible is troubling, and will almost certainly hold back research. Consider stem cell research, which likely would be years ahead of its current state were it not for debates about whether or not it is ethical. Technologies, in and of themselves, are neither moral nor immoral--only applications of technologies can be either of those things. I'm not saying that we should eliminate things like bioethics panels and discussions of how these new technologies ought to be used--we shouldn't. I am saying, though, that we need a major shift in the way that technology is viewed in this country--we need to stop seeing technological advances as something evil or unnatural, or we will be left behind.

EricTetz said...

It's hard to read anything meaningful from that report, because it contains no details about how the study was conducted. Who did they ask? How much did the respondents know about nanotechnology? How were the questions phrased? In what context were they asked?

Clearly a lot of Americans are poorly educated and indoctrinated with religious bullshit. But I think people trust science despite themselves, because they are surrounded by overwhelming evidence of it's effectiveness. They can rationalize about the morality of "playing God" all they want, but when they get a pain in their chest, they go to a doctor not a clergyman.

So I don't agree that "the problem isn't that Americans don't understand nanotechnology, but that they reject it on purely religious grounds". I think it's good old fashioned ignorance, fear of the unknown. After all, we already have genetic technologies that are "playing God" far more than nanotechnology. I think the fearful reaction is merely justified religiously. That's assuming, of course, that the 'moral objection' is not just an artifact of poor phrasing in the survey.

In a society like ours -- comfortable with personality altering drugs, plastic surgery, etc. -- you'd have a hard time justifying a strong rejection of nanotechnology on the grounds that "messing with nature is ungodly". I think the stem cell issue is a bit of special case, because it involves BABIES. It's easy to drum up an emotional reaction (an art the Republicans, playing to their indoctrinated constituency, have mastered). I don't think that ban is an indication of a coming Dark Age.

"I am saying, though, that we need a major shift in the way that technology is viewed in this country--we need to stop seeing technological advances as something evil or unnatural, or we will be left behind.

Yeah, it is a bit scary. Given how technology is transforming humanity, scientific literacy is required to lead effectively, yet our broken political system gives us leaders whose only real qualification is "confident swagger". But I don't think anybody is going to turn us into a witch-burning theocracy, because we also happen to be capitalists, and science makes money.

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