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      CommentAuthorJoe Paoli
    • CommentTimeFeb 22nd 2008 edited
     (1138.1)
    I was really startled this week to stumble across some pieces outlining certain Christian thinkers coming out as being against Nanotechnology being used as the basis for Transhumanism. That is, using microscopic machines to change our bodies, minds, intelligence, what have you.

    I've seen this kind of thing in SF, some portion of humanity being against modifying or enhancing the base model. I guess I'm a little surprised to see it leaking into reality at this stage of the game already.
    '
    Don't know why. The stance seems to be that since the bible says we're already created in God's Image, enhancing ourselves is taking us further from Him.

    It began with the news that a mere 29.5 percent of Americans think nanotechnology is morally acceptable. Then I found an ironically older article on transhumanism from 2004 in Christianity Today Online. It's not hysterical, but it's definitely not thrilled with the prospect of bioengineering of humans.

    Transhumanism is in some ways a new incarnation of gnosticism. It sees the body as simply the first prosthesis we all learn to manipulate. As Christians, we have long rejected the gnostic claims that the human body is evil. Embodiment is fundamental to our identity, designed by God, and sanctified by the Incarnation and bodily resurrection of our Lord. Unlike gnostics, transhumanists reject the notion of the soul and substitute for it the idea of an information pattern.


    The author actually asks some great moral questions about the implication of the technology. The same kind of questions a good ethicist - or writer - would strive to answer.
    There are several key questions that our churches and theologians will have to address. Is it appropriate for members of the Body of Christ to engage in alterations that go beyond therapy and are irreversible? Is it just to do so in a world already deeply marked by inequities? What does it mean that our Lord healed and restored in his ministry—never enhanced? Is it significant that the gifts of the Holy Spirit—wisdom, love, patience, kindness—cannot be manufactured by technology? How would the transformation from homo sapiens to techno sapiens affect our identity as bearers of the image of God? If Christians should conclude that such enhancements are not appropriate for them to receive, should they oppose their use by others?


    This debate will be interesting to watch unfold in the coming years. Read the articles, then watch the video of Dean Kamen's robotic 'Luke Arm' prothesis. Not quite nanotech, but when people are walking around with robot arms replacing real ones, isn't that the first step down that slippery slope?
    • CommentAuthorTim Murr
    • CommentTimeFeb 22nd 2008
     (1138.2)
    Limbs lost in wars or accidents and replaced with robotics certainly wouldn't be anything any Christian would oppose. They would see the technology as a gift from God and a person maimed and crippled being able to live a normal healthy life testimony to God's abundant love for us. I don't see this being a major issue for Christians in general. Science is certainly not the enemy of Christianity and if body manipulation was a hot button topic, and something we saw as the downfall of society we'd have people blocking the doors of plastic surgeons' offices. Any technology that improves the quality of life for a person is a good thing, as long as moral boundaries don't have to be crossed to do so (ie; animal testing). It seems to me that it becomes a problem when it is simple vanity or a toy for the rich that doesn't do anything for the common good. Expensive toys.
    If nanotechnology could cure autism or cancer then yay little robots! But if it's all about living out some Johnny Mnemonic fantasy then I've got to call bullshit on that. But I won't tell someone how to live because God doesn't compel us to believe in him so, following his example, neither can I.
    • CommentAuthorJayzor
    • CommentTimeFeb 22nd 2008
     (1138.3)
    This is a meaty issue. The way I see it, which is based on less actual reading and stuff than I'd like, transhumanism has two main (related) goals: to overcome the inherent weaknesses and flaws of the human form, and to remake one's body the way that one wants it to be. I think it's the second part that most people take issue with; most people wouldn't have a problem with the things mentioned early in the Christianity Today article you linked to, like bioengineered blood cells, because they have therapeutic uses. In the second part you quote his first question only concerns alterations that go "beyond therapy".

    Somewhere there's a line that's currently ill-defined. The author of that article points out that we enhance ourselves already, but he says it's in ways that don't "transcend our species' normal capabilities. They are accepted because they merely optimize performance within the natural constraints of homo sapiens." But what does that mean? He seems ambivalent about technology like LASIK, but it's undeniable that seeing with 20/20 vision is within our species normal capabilities, so this would seem to be a clear-cut case of therapeutic tech.

    Still, there's some warning bell that even the relatively innocuous LASIK sets off. People are uncomfortable with the idea that the human body is not necessarily an end product. I guess I see how religion plays into this, since in Christianity in particular, the human body is more or less the end product of creation. But ever since we started using tools we declared our dissatisfaction with what the body has to offer. HORSE the Band (who are great, by the way) have a song containing the line "I limped when I was wounded/ so I replaced my parts," and I think that sentiment drives a lot of this part of transhumanism. (Especially giving yourself a robot arm, heh.) When you get back pains because the spine wasn't really made for upright walking, it's hard not to think that maybe the human body was a little bit of a raw deal.

    Oh man, this is long already, and it's my first real post (outside of the intro thread), so I'll stop before I make myself a nuisance. And I haven't even talked about extreme body modification yet. Or the great ethical questions you brought up. Later, though.
  1.  (1138.4)
    The key question seems to be is it enhancement or restoration? The latter would seem to sit well, since it is akin to most modern medicine, trying to keep the body in a healthy state, fixing damage and curing disease. When you get into the area of enhancing the body it becomes more gray, gray goo even. If someone has their cancer cured via nanotech destroying the tumors and enhancing their immune system, it's hard to argue. If someone wants to become, say a cloudlet like the guy in Transmetropolitan, I think that's definately going to raise hackles. Actually, that was the first issue of Transmet I read, and it hooked me, in large part because of the reaction his girlfriend had. wonder how far of we are from an almost "uncanny valley" moment with fellow humans? Already seeing some of the...things that Warren posts from BME make me think that soon we will see artist scientist changing themself beyond recognition. Some are going to be in wonder at what we can do, but alot of people are going to be seriously freaked.

    I think people are going to look to religion for solace and comfort as transhumanism ramps up. The notion of personhood is changing, and that shakes people pretty hard.

    Really interesting piece Joe. I'm the product of a Catholic education (from kindergarten through grad school) and I find this kind of moral/ethical gymnastics fun.
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      CommentAuthorAdam
    • CommentTimeFeb 22nd 2008
     (1138.5)
    Second that.

    However, I'm a little less convinced that even the non-enhancement applications will be so easily received by all sectors of the church. We've seen plenty of cases of god-botherers sticking to their dogmatic guns anyway over issues that have overwhelming public support. Like the "gay-camps" where homosexuals can be sent to have this "disease" cured from them...
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      CommentAuthorjohnjones
    • CommentTimeFeb 23rd 2008
     (1138.6)
    I wonder how discrimination and prejudice will alter once this technology becomes more widely available (assuming it does). Will gay rights stall out because gays can "take the treatment" and become straight? What about blacks, hispanics or other minorities? Why bother punishing discrimination when the afflicated minorities can shift their body template to match that of the majority? Why look at our minds and souls when it's much easier to simply conform with our bodies? And figure there'll be a new kind of discrimination Naturals (people who fits a certain majority racial/sexual type by birth) and Altered (who used technology to become that type).

    For that matter, assuming that the technology is too expensive/illegal to be widely available, what happens when those rich/connected enough to afford for themselves and their progeny adapt it? Now the wealthy won't just think they're "better" than the average person, they truly will have a qualitative advantage. They'll be stronger, faster, prettier and smarter than their socio-economic inferiors.
    •  
      CommentAuthorJoe Paoli
    • CommentTimeFeb 23rd 2008
     (1138.7)
    @Tim Murr
    Limbs lost in wars or accidents and replaced with robotics certainly wouldn't be anything any Christian would oppose. They would see the technology as a gift from God and a person maimed and crippled being able to live a normal healthy life testimony to God's abundant love for us.
    A lot of your post sentiment is discussed in the Christianity Today article, Tim. And I agree that anyone who'd deny an amputee a prosthetic would be very fundamentally unChristian.

    But the point I was trying to make was more along these lines: as the technology we're building into prosthetics and developing as they advance takes the wearer beyond the base capabilities of a normal human, we hit the area of transhumanism that the Christian (and I'm sure other additional types of) ethicists fundamentally object to.

    When an artificial eye can see in infrared, and zoom like a video camera, and have an informational overlay like a computer screen, so that the blind person can see better than TV's bionic man, does that become a problem? When the robotic artificial arm is stronger and lighter that the arm someone's born with, does that?

    There are prosthetic legs that allow people to compete, if not flat out beat, world class runners. I believe an amputee that uses them or something like them just lost his bid to compete in the normal Olympics. They're lousy for normal walking, but they are great for sprinting. The inventor ten years ago said that if he fit them on a post accident world record holder, he was confident the patient would run faster than he ever did. They're not robotic or use nanotech, just 'space age' designed and non-human looking. What happens when any amputee can have one of these for the same price as molded plastic one?
  2.  (1138.8)
    @Joe Paoli:

    Interesting conundrum, whatever your faith... but the bit you quoted that amused me was;
    As Christians, we have long rejected the gnostic claims that the human body is evil.


    Er, perhaps they should worry about letting the majority of Xtians who do think the body is evil know this first?
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      CommentAuthorjohnjones
    • CommentTimeFeb 23rd 2008
     (1138.9)
    Er, perhaps they should worry about letting the majority of Xtians who do think the body is evil know this first?


    You're confusing your irrational claims. The "majority" you speak of really only focus on sex and their belief that it is somehow "dirty and unnatural." Mostly this comes from a misunderstanding of Puritan beliefs combined with a holdover from Victorian moralism. In truth, the Puritans were fine with sex - as long as it occurred within the sanctity of marriage. It's why there were a lot of large families. Without Internet, television and other trappings of modern life, Puritans spouses fucked like bunnies.

    The Gnostics, on the other hand, were a whole 'nother level of strangeness. They believed that all matter was inherently evil and that only the spirit was good. Therefore, they tried to cut themselves off from the world as much as possible. They viewed charity and compassion toward their fellow beings as a waste of time (why feed a beggar when that only keeps him confined within the world of evil?) and preferred to spend their time seeking after the secret spiritual knowledge or Gnosis that would allow them to free themselves from the material world and ultimately become one with God outside the reality of matter.
  3.  (1138.10)
    Fuck 'em. Post-Singularity, we terraform Mars and leave the Earth to the fleshies--fundamentalists, neophobes, Luddites. Enjoy the dirt, guys.

    Come back in a thousand years when their numbers have dwindled to reasonably small handfuls, then renovate Earth as an untouchable nature preserve.

    After that, I'm thinking, ice cream and cake for everybody.
  4.  (1138.11)
    @johnjones
    preferred to spend their time seeking after the secret spiritual knowledge or Gnosis that would allow them to free themselves from the material world and ultimately become one with God outside the reality of matter.


    I find this so beautiful but isn't that in the same sense what the Buddhist did? To take out, I think, what they felt was the, which was Desire, and how it hurt you? How did Gnostic or the Puritans get it so wrong, or better how did it becomes this horror now? I ask, only because I don't know

    As for the main event:
    I think one of the things that may happen, is that the gradual use of Body Modifications may come so slowly over time, that when we're all gray and shitting ourselves, the young will look at it as something as natural as TIVO or Text Messenging.
    As for the ethical/religious/Christian slant: really, to what degree do you take the Bible to letter? And if you see it as wrong, can you enforce that belief on others? Will the Christian Right 2099 be as bad as the one now?
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      CommentAuthorJoe Paoli
    • CommentTimeFeb 23rd 2008
     (1138.12)
    @JuanNavarro
    As for the ethical/religious/Christian slant: really, to what degree do you take the Bible to letter? And if you see it as wrong, can you enforce that belief on others?
    I think it ultimately depends on how much modification happens and how widespread it becomes. If society as a whole accepts it, churches must find a way to work it in or they risk losing their place in society. Example: The Amish and some Mennonites shun most technology. They've become somewhat isolated societies, living in enclaves, strictly due to their adherence to their doctrine.

    It could also turn out to be more like birth control, where the official position of the church is against it, but most people ignore that edict with minimal guilt, and nobody gets excommunicated over it.

    Or it could turn out that it divides society right down the middle, creating a separate race of transhumans, forever ostracized by those who reject bioengineering, and both sides war forever for domination of Earth and the Cosmos.

    Or I could be thinking of a book I read.
  5.  (1138.13)
    I wonder how discrimination and prejudice will alter once this technology becomes more widely available (assuming it does). Will gay rights stall out because gays can "take the treatment" and become straight? What about blacks, hispanics or other minorities? Why bother punishing discrimination when the afflicated minorities can shift their body template to match that of the majority? Why look at our minds and souls when it's much easier to simply conform with our bodies?


    Doesn't the transhumanist ideal run more in the direction of non-conformity, though? Viewing the body as open source, adaptable for whatever purpose. I might want that subdermal Bluetooth mobile and gills, but someone else might be running around on bionically enhanced legs and not worrying about being able to checking his e-mail on his arm whilst walking around underwater. The transhuman/enhancile potential of nanotech is enormous, and I've enough social optimism to believe it won't be used to enforce conformity.

    I'd worry about the moral objections of Christians, but I'm deeply suspicious of objections raised by people who believe in omniscient sky pixies.
    • CommentAuthorTim Murr
    • CommentTimeFeb 23rd 2008
     (1138.14)
    <blockquote>As for the ethical/religious/Christian slant: really, to what degree do you take the Bible to letter? And if you see it as wrong, can you enforce that belief on others? Will the Christian Right 2099 be as bad as the one now?</blockquote>
    As a believer I take the Bible word for word (I won't get into my belief about Genesis, but it's different than you'd assume) and knowing what the Bible tells us, enforcing my beliefs on you or anyone would be against scripture. You guys seriously do not have to worry about Christians when it comes to the future of technology. What you have to worry about is scientists with unlimited access to this technology going unchecked, developing a God complex and going all Dr. Doom on the world. Science and technology is not bad and does not cause friction when ran up against Christianity. And to put everyone's mind at ease, because I think no one has noticed yet...There is no Christain right anymore. The contemporary Christian movement pretty much steam rolled that. Jerry Falwell is in the ground, and unlike Jesus he ain't coming back.
    Now where's my wrist PDA and xray vision?
    • CommentAuthorJayzor
    • CommentTimeFeb 23rd 2008
     (1138.15)
    I agree with Old Moon Face that the transhumanist ideal moves more towards non-conformity than the opposite. I suppose that there would be some pressure to keep up with the Joneses, though, especially in certain specialized endeavors. Look at professional athletics. Even ignoring the use of drugs and hormones to actively alter one's body and limitations, there are other enhancements which have a tendency of becoming standard if successful. For example, going back to LASIK (I didn't realize I had so much to say about the topic), Slate did an article a while back about how athletes with only barely substandard vision get LASIK in the hopes of having vision afterwards that was better than 20/20, or use special contact lenses to achieve the same effect. The edge that enhanced eyesight gives in this environment is too important to pass up if you can get it.

    Personally, I think the only real objection to the transhumanist program is that its benefits may not be shared equally, as several people have already brought up. The rest seem to be your basic fear of the future, fear of technology, or fear of the different. The attitude that you're not supposed to do that with your body is an old one; the attitude that we'll lose control of technology or overstep our bounds with it is an old one. And now that I think about it, religion has motivated these attitudes in the past as well. I imagine we'll see the percentage of people who find nanotech morally acceptable increase as it leads to new medicine and better living. Ultimately pragmatism tends to win out.
    •  
      CommentAuthorJon Wake
    • CommentTimeFeb 23rd 2008
     (1138.16)
    The Christians aren't the only ones that worry about human enhancement technology. Francis Fukuyama, one of the first wave of neoconservatives (he's since distanced himself from them) had strong misgivings about posthumanism or transhumanism that were based on distribution of wealth and opportunity, not on religion.

    His worries are fair: if a wealthy person can enhance themselves to be simply better than a poor person, the notion of economic freedom becomes much harder to justify. In a nightmare scenario, the wealthy become near godlike and force the poor into hovels. So like today, but more.

    On the other hand, there's always going to be somebody, some group somewhere that's willing to push the boundaries of human ability. A robust and healthy society should embrace these people as willing testbeds for more widely distributed modification. Tattoos are nearly ubiquitous in my generation, but twenty years ago all but denied you entry into 'polite society'. Body jewelery is the same way. Attempting to limit a person's choice to modify their own body is not only doomed to failure, but more likely to create that angry underclass Fukuyama fretted over than permissiveness. The rich can always bribe their way around restriction, and our history of criminalizing personal modification have created an entire prison industry to support it.

    Ethical, medical, and mental health standards have to be re-thought. We could probably all agree that a person who has subdermal implants and extensive tattoos is sane, and that the person who chops their own hand or cock off is at the very least dismorphic and possibly delusional. What about the person who has a wifi connection implanted in their abdomen so they can read wiki during their college midterms? Or the soldier who installs automated adrenaline/morphine/anti-trauma dipfeeds into their pericardium?

    Our current language seems not to be able to distinguish amidst these motivations, and that lack of framework makes debate very difficult.

    Oh, and the Gnostics really weren't that strange. They still had churches and charity and were the largest minority in Southern France until (after 50 years of debate and failed conversions) Simon de Montfort attacked them in 1210. Even then, most Catholic towns refused to give up their Cathar brothers until the massacre of Beziers. Even the traveling Dominicon priests the Catholics sent ahead to convert the wayward Gnostics were impressed by their asceticism and compassion. The whole Gnostics were weird thing is largely an invention of much later thinkers. Sorry, off my nitpick.
    • CommentAuthorzacharius
    • CommentTimeFeb 24th 2008
     (1138.17)
    Well, they may complain about it, but the thrust of history has shown that religion has had to ultimately modify itself to keep up with science and other forms of progress, not the other way around. christianity has had to eject or downplay all the various racist, sexist, slavery-sympathetic and anti-democratic impulses within itself to stay relevant. they certainly wouldn't have done this under their own impetus. they had to, in order to avoid being left on the ashpile of history. granted there are still backwards pockets in there, but the fact that they are clearly isolated pockets is proof that they are blips and not much else. it's too bad for folks who get ground up in the wake of these regressive tendancies, but there's not much doubt about what the ultimate outcome is going to be.

    certainly the 20th century had been quite extraordinary in it's regression into reactionary politics and religion, but the 20th century is over now : )
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      CommentAuthornigredo
    • CommentTimeFeb 24th 2008
     (1138.18)
    @johnjones
    The Gnostics, on the other hand, were a whole 'nother level of strangeness. They believed that all matter was inherently evil and that only the spirit was good. Therefore, they tried to cut themselves off from the world as much as possible. They viewed charity and compassion toward their fellow beings as a waste of time (why feed a beggar when that only keeps him confined within the world of evil?) and preferred to spend their time seeking after the secret spiritual knowledge or Gnosis that would allow them to free themselves from the material world and ultimately become one with God outside the reality of matter.


    nothing strange about that.


    @Jon Wake
    Oh, and the Gnostics really weren't that strange. They still had churches and charity and were the largest minority in Southern France until (after 50 years of debate and failed conversions) Simon de Montfort attacked them in 1210. Even then, most Catholic towns refused to give up their Cathar brothers until the massacre of Beziers. Even the traveling Dominicon priests the Catholics sent ahead to convert the wayward Gnostics were impressed by their asceticism and compassion. The whole Gnostics were weird thing is largely an invention of much later thinkers. Sorry, off my nitpick.


    the cathars were one of the numerous sects that rebelled against the church then and they actually appeared in the 11th century. they shared some gnostic beliefs, like a lot christian sects, but were not properly gnostics. gnosticism (if one can speak of gnosticism as a unified worldview) developed enturies earlier.
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      CommentAuthorstsparky
    • CommentTimeMar 1st 2008
     (1138.19)
    This was a subtopic on Science Friday last night. I adore scientists who don't give a toss about Christianity. They're heroes.
  6.  (1138.20)
    For that matter, assuming that the technology is too expensive/illegal to be widely available, what happens when those rich/connected enough to afford for themselves and their progeny adapt it? Now the wealthy won't just think they're "better" than the average person, they truly will have a qualitative advantage. They'll be stronger, faster, prettier and smarter than their socio-economic inferiors.


    It's always been that way - the rich have advantages that money buys, vs poor people who have, on average, poorer health (can't afford health insurance, doctors, or treatment), the poor can't afford the same quality of food, nor do they get the same access to education. With nano-tech, all you're doing is widening the gap that already exists.


    I'm with the judge on the Simpsons....
    "As for science vs. religion I'm issuing a restraining order. Science should stay 500 yards from religion at all times.


    Science, like religion, is neither good nor evil. It's how, and what you use for it that matters.