Monday, September 25, 2006

Religious voices would enhance nanoethics debate

Congratulations to Patrick Lin and his Nanoethics Group, which was just awarded a three-year, $250,000 National Science Foundation grant to study the ethics of human enhancement and nanotechnology.

Patrick, in a news release, says:

"The ethics of human enhancement technologies is widely held to be the single most important debate in science and society and will define the 21st century. Today, human enhancement may mean steroids or Viagra or cosmetic surgeries. But with the accelerating pace of technology, some of the more fantastic scenarios may arrive sooner than people think – such as advanced cybernetic body parts and computers imbedded in our brains – which magnify the ethical issues involved."

I've been saying for years that this issue is going to become more and more politically divisive -- ever since a warning against enhancement popped up in the nanotech bill in Congress back in December 2003. I hope the Nanoethics Group's study goes a long way toward getting some data involved in the debate rather than pure emotion.

I also hope the group allows more than token religious voices in the study. While some opposition to enhancement comes from the far left (don't mess with Mother Nature), a great deal of the political opposition will come from the religious point of view -- and I do not mean only the religious right.

This is no criticism of Patrick's group, but I have noticed a shortage of the voice of religion within ethical debates over nanotechnology. This is due to many factors, but primarily the traditional antagonism between scientists and the religious.

The result, I believe, is often scientists being "out of their depth" when it comes to discussions about the implications of their own work. At worst, this exclusion means that the concerns of millions of people in the world are laughingly dismissed out of hand. Many scientists have simplistic, or grade-school-level, ideas of religion and the role it plays in the public at large and base their debates on science and ethics on these simplistic assumptions.

To exclude the role of religion in ethical debates over nanotechnology would be the equivalent of a group of religious leaders who have a passing interest in physics getting together to determine the merits of string theory vs. loop quantum gravity, and think it ridiculous to let physicists participate in the debate.

Backgrounder
Rational science for an irrational world
Converging ideologies against human performance
You say you want an evolution ...
Better, faster, stronger?
Congress is thinking about thinking
Evangelicals and Nano-Gnosticism
Nano superhero is, appropriately, a golem

2 comments:

The Nanoethics Group said...

Hi Howard - Thanks for the post! As a participant in this NSF-sponsored project, I can tell you that we are very interested in viewpoints from all sides of this complex debate.

Where others have dismissed religious voices, we feel that we could not achieve a balanced investigation without it, given how religion (and in some places, the lack of religion) is interwoven into the fabric of society.

In fact, we previously rejected reviewer comments to our nanoethics anthology (to be published by Wiley, 2007) that including a religious voice would be sensationalist or pandering to certain groups and hype. In that forthcoming volume, we will be publishing a very thoughtful paper from Ted Peters, Ph.D. (a highly-regarded theologian - see http://www.plts.edu/people/peters.html) on whether we're playing God with nanotechnology.

In any event, I hope to open up this 3-year project at some point - time and budget permitting - to perhaps have the public weigh in as well. So stay tuned for that!

- Pat

Richard Jones said...

Howard, I agree with you on the importance of including the religious point of view in these debates. In the UK, though, I don't think this voice has been excluded. Donald Bruce, who directs the Church of Scotland's Science, Technology and Religion project, has in particular been very active, contributing to a variety of government committees and directly participating in a couple of major EU research projects in nanobiotechnology.