Where-to and Why: Discernment in the 21st Century

Where-to and Why: Discernment in the 21st Century

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Where are we, and what is our starting point?  We are tiny creatures on a small planet some 10 billion-plus years along the way in what we sometimes call “cosmic evolution,” inhabiting a planet where life is seen in Darwinian terms, fluid and pliable, diverse and inventive, living at a time when we see our own culture in similarly Darwinian terms, with ideas and technologies emerging unpredictably.

And we want to ask, where it will all lead?  It is relatively easy to foresee at least some of the short-term future developments in the arenas of scientific and technological transformation.  These include

  • Genetic modification of living beings
  • The engineering of minimal life forms, with minimal genomes, and quite possibly with it insight into the origin of life on earth and the likelihood that the universe is everywhere life-generating
  • The ability to watch the brain, to predict it, and increasingly to manipulate it
  • Nanotechnology, engineering at the level of small molecules, and with it new insight into the possibilities of matter at the molecular level
  • The convergence, already witnessed, between nanotech and biotech
  • Information technology, with Moore’s Law still in effect, and the likelihood of smaller, more powerful, more ubiquitous digital connectivity
  • And with that, the emergence of digital processing on the scale of complexity to rival and perhaps exceed the human brain, and with the engineering of analogies to the self, some new insight into the nature of consciousness and freedom, not just as thought experiments but as encounters between real live machines and their seemingly personal human companions
  • And then the prospective of convergence, not just of genetics and medicine or of genetics and nanotech or medicine and IT but of all these in integrated systems of unprecedented power and yet simplicity.

Along the way, alarmists will raise their cries, probably about things like reproductive cloning, the use of which will likely be minimal.   More attention should be give to Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis-the technique of testing the genes of the in vitro human embryo.  This may in fact turn out to be a pathway to human germline modification.

Alarmists aside, we are on our way to a pervasively-engineered world in which even the engineers are engineered.  So there’s anxiety, to put it mildly, about the future and our capacity to guide the technology that will shape it.  It’s as if we are all in a room with one television but each of us with a remote control, all pressing buttons so wildly that the TV goes where it wants, with everyone and therefore no one controlling it anymore.  So obvious are our problems that it has become relatively easy for us to describe our predicament: we are engulfed by rapid cultural transition, a techno-cultural revolution, and at times we feel overwhelmed by a sense of accelerated yet unguided change.  And so we wonder, are there any mechanisms for the control of the future?  Do we live in a situation that still allows for control, or is it now out of control?

At the very least, control is diffused or decentralized, even as the centers of technological development are decentralized.  Economic markets provide the brokerage of exchange, through free transactions between the developers and owners of technology and their willing, often eager, sometimes desperate consumers.

Even if we wanted it-even if we thought it were good or necessary-it is hard to see where coherent guidance or control might come from.  Witness the recent United Nations vote on cloning, in which the position of the United States, to ban all use of human nuclear transfer, failed by one vote, reflecting on the global scale the impasse of internal US politics.

In the U.S., so much traditional religion is defined as anti-science and or anti-technology, seen as offering a refuge against modernity or a safe-haven against change.  As a result religion is intellectually marginalized, with the growing perception by friend and foe alike that its role vis-a-vis technology is to stop things or at least to stall them through perpetual rear-guard action. We speak of the benefits of the engagement of science and religion, but we do so uncritically, as if every encounter between them is good.  Of course, we want religion engaged with science, but first we have to ask, whose religion or which religion?  Too often, traditional religion engages science and technology, but in a way that is unproductive.  This is especially true today, as many people, anxious about the future, embrace religion not out of conviction so much as fear, as deliverance from a hellish future they fear at the hands of technology.

We must reverse this.  We need a different kind of religion, one that functions differently in relation to science and technology.  How should religion function?  Not as authoritative system that directs technology or controls research but as a decentralized, nonauthorititative practice that inspires, motivates, and fires the imagination.  We need, as it were, a brave new religion.  I believe that the religion we need is characterized by a new set of virtues and beliefs.

Among its virtues, the religion we need is:

1. Eager to learn from other faith traditions: everything is open to enrichment from all the other paths, the other ways.

2. Eager to learn from science: everything is on the table, everything is revisable.

3. Open to recognize that as an individual, I am a small part of a whole, not only learning from but serving a larger whole, and of doing so by imagining and creating and designing as an act of dedication to others but most of all of devotion or praise to that which is holy and greater than us all.

4. Committed to the discipline of self-limited consumption.  We desire too many calories, too much oil, too much clutter, and unconstrained desire doesn’t bode well for the future. We need seriously to cultivate the virtues of self-limitation and abstaining, of turning things off, so that technological development is not primarily consumption driven but service driven.

5. Dedicated to the cultivation of a consciousness of the spiritual, not as a realm separate from nature or the physical but as its highest potentiality, together with a consciousness of all our engineering in service of creation’s spiritual potential.

And the religion we need holds to beliefs like these:

1. There may be a God, but there is no goal or destiny.  In particular, human culture, including the increasingly wild ride of our techno-cultural transformations, has no pre-set outcome, no ideal goal, and no divinely established end.

2. There is no fixed human nature and no “pinnacle of creation,” for instance in human beings.  In fact we have almost no inkling what creation can do or what God hopes it will do.

3. God is not in control.  God shares being God; or God is decentralized, or more precisely, creativity is decentralized.  This is a “revolution in the concept of God,” to borrow a phrase a leading contemporary Protestant theologian, Jürgen Moltmann.

4. God is very eager to find out what happens next.