Sunday, February 01, 2004

Nanotech and Tikkun

In my previous post, I made light of the "human enhancement" portion of the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act (PDF, 56.1 KB), and I'm not the only one who's a bit puzzled by its safeguards against "potential use of nanotechnology in enhancing human intelligence and in developing artificial intelligence which exceeds human capacity."

In all seriousness, I believe it's one of the few passages of the bill that looks far into the future and demands that we begin to think about what exactly it is we're trying to do here. It also presages a debate that is growing in not only environmentalist circles, but in religious ones as well.

Take a look at a few paragraphs from this interview with C. Ben Mitchell, an assistant professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity International University, in the January 2004 issue of Christianity Today magazine.

    The Bible does not address nanotechnology, but does it offer any principles that should guide Christians as they think about it?

    The Bible's message is about redeeming that which has been lost and about caring for those who are in need and those who are suffering. It seems to me that the biblical obligation is to care for those who are the least of these, rather than make an effort to advance our species.

    Does the Bible prohibit enhancements?

    I don't know of a specific prohibition that says we ought not to try to enhance human beings. I find a number of cautions. The tower of Babel story is a powerful cautionary tale against trying to usurp God's authority. It's a warning that at least ought to give us pause.

I'm curious as to where bionanotech scientists believe their limits should be. Ultimately, though, it's not even the scientists who will set those limits. It's those who will fund and commercialize the technologies, the market that demands them and the governments that will decide where to clamp down and say, "no further."

The question is, who is doing the informing, and ultimately what will guide the governments' decisions? These questions will become increasingly important over time, and I'll have more to say on them soon.

I approach these issues, by the way, as one whose belief system is grounded in both science and religion.

There is a concept that is overused these days among believers in my particular faith, yet it brings me to an intellectual and spiritual place where science and religion can be reconciled: In Hebrew it is called "Tikkun Olam," or "repairing the world."

It's a Kabbalistic concept that is often co-opted by individuals and organizations that stretch its meaning to fit their own particular missions.

At its center, though, is the idea that creation has been shattered from its original pristine state, and that it is only through the actions of humankind that the shards, the sparks – the atoms, if you will – that were scattered from this once-perfect universe can regain their perfect order.


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