Nanobots Dancing: Science Fiction and Faith
by Steven Lynn
Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in a series on the topic of nanotechnology published in Covalence. These previously unpublished articles were gathered by Chris Toumey, University of South Carolina NanoCenter, and are published here with permission. Lynn here offers up a journey into the scientific imagination from a perspective of faith.
Angel physics has until now mainly employed theological methods, but as this paper shows, modern information physics, quantum gravity and relativity theory provide powerful tools for exploring the dynamics and statics of angels.
- from Anders Sandberg’s “Quantum Gravity Treatment of the Angel Density Problem”
As our scientific imagination and understanding have grown from the time of the Enlightenment, we find ourselves inhabiting a universe that is much larger, older and stranger than previously imagined.
The outer boundaries of what may be knowable have been pushed back in time and space to the point of origin and perhaps even beyond. This expansion has posed daunting challenges for religious faith of almost any kind because it arguably diminishes or dispenses with the explanatory need for God. Recently those who have insisted upon a fundamental antagonism between science and religion – Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins for example – have in various ways maintained and depended upon an inherent incompatibility: the rationality of science exposes the malignant delusion of religious thinking. They repeatedly assert that religion deals with the imaginary, driven by feelings and wishes.
On the other hand, a holy host of others – Paul Davies, Richard Swinburne, Francis Collins, John Polkinghorne, Owen Gingerich for instance – have suggested in various ways that science is compatible with religion, and indeed actually reveals how the universe seems to be astonishingly fine-tuned for our existence, thus supporting religious faith, or at least a profound sense of wonder, an open-mindedness to that which transcends nature.
There are of course many ways to think about the relationship of religion and science. I offer here a brief meditation from a rhetorical and a literary perspective. Specifically, I want to consider how this relationship has been portrayed in science fiction, and especially in science fiction that features nanotechnology. Why science fiction? Although its roots go back much further, science fiction began in and was made possible by the Enlightenment, and it has been one of the most visible and influential places (if not one of the most respected) for thinking through the cultural implications of scientific and technological advances. The thought experiments conducted in science fiction highlight our current situation by extrapolation, by shifting space and time.
Although there were many precursors, the first work of science fiction, by a general consensus, is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), which explores the disastrous consequences of scientific hubris. Victor Frankenstein recklessly and arrogantly fashions a sentient life, combining and animating salvaged body parts, and his creation escapes his control and threatens all of humanity. Fortunately, Victor refuses to provide the Creature with a mate – the first of many barely-averted science fiction disasters for humanity, which seems chronically to be under the threat of being overrun by its own creations or hostile aliens. While Shelley’s story obviously serves as a cautionary tale, warning us of the grave dangers of science, especially in the hands of mad scientists, it also dramatically conveys the mind-boggling power of science.
Frankenstein did a poor job of playing God: repulsed by his own creation, he irresponsibly releases a dangerous force into the world – but Shelley’s tale also encourages her readers to imagine the God-like powers that humankind might attain through the exploitation of science.
The wonders of science and technology certainly are an appealing aspect of science fiction for many readers and viewers. Warp drives, transporter beams, and cloaking devices are all so familiar within the genre that their invention seems almost inevitable. We already know what it will look like when a ship “goes to warp.” Science fiction’s marvels are not only inspired by scientific developments, but science fiction can also inspire innovations. Humans went to the moon, cloned living creatures, and created talking computers in the imaginative worlds of science fiction long before these events occurred in the real world.
In the case of nanotechnology, for instance, the origins of that field are often traced back to Richard Feynman’s famous talk in 1959, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” which imagines the feasibility and power of manipulating matter on the molecular scale (Feynman 1960). But Feynman’s speculation was substantially anticipated three years earlier by Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “The Next Tenants,” which described the use of very tiny machines, “micromanipulators,” able to dissect individual cells and create new materials.
Much earlier, in 1942, Robert Heinlein in “Waldo” had described a device, a waldo, in which gloved hands control a smaller pair of artificial hands, which construct and control a smaller pair, which make and control a smaller pair, and so on (Heinlein 1942). Arthur Clarke famously observed that “any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.” The point of science fiction is that these kinds of miracles are not magic (if they were, then we are reading fantasy, not science fiction), but science. So what does the ability to create our own miracles, indistinguishable from magic to the less advanced, suggest about the status of religious faith?
Science fiction has moved far beyond Mary Shelley’s imagining how a scientist might usurp God’s life-giving function, and has in fact often explored the boundary at which “God” becomes a necessary and inexplicable force. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the genre will have encountered stories in which humans or aliens impersonate deities or the Deity. Stories about the origin of Adam and Eve – they were actually aliens, or the offspring of aliens, or the result of genetic manipulation by aliens are – are so common that they form their own subgenre usually called “shaggy God stories.” Perhaps the classical pagans were worshipping alien super-beings, or perhaps Jesus was an extraterrestrial, or perhaps he was given miraculous powers by aliens. While such stories may not necessarily deny God’s existence, they do question our understanding of God’s nature.
In Arthur C. Clark’s “The Star” (1955), deep-space explorers find the remains of the supernova that was the star of Bethlehem, which illuminated the birth of Jesus, and also destroyed a marvelous civilization. Does the discovery confirm the miraculous nativity of Jesus, or was this timing merely coincidence? For the priest who is one of the explorers, the implications of either answer are horrifying. In Greg Bear’s Eternity (1989), the ultimate intelligence is in fact out to get us, and in Lester Del Ray’s “For I Am a Jealous People” (1954), God has apparently made a new covenant with alien invaders, naming them as his chosen people. Ted Reynolds’ The Tides of God (1989) expresses a similar sentiment: humankind ultimately is threatened by the entity known as “God,” and we better prepare to defend ourselves.
Such stories bring “God” or God-like beings or God-pretenders into the natural world, into the world of science, creating a character (or characters) within time and space, operating within the laws of nature as we know them, or as we might come to know them. For Richard Dawkins, the question of God’s existence is properly a scientific question, and in those terms Dawkins is confident that there is no credible scientific evidence in the affirmative (see Dawkins’ interview in Time magazine, November 6, 2006).
John Worrall is typical of those who agree: there is simply “no way in which you can be both properly scientifically minded and a true religious believer,” Worrall asserts (2003:60). Well, there is one way, Worrall admits – if we were to find some proof of God’s existence in the same sense that we have found proof of the existence of electrons. But such proof would actually not constitute a religious and a scientific mindset at the same time, but would rather simply involve being scientific about religion. And as science fiction helps us to see, such proof does not seem likely or even possible.
Here’s why: Science deals with a closed system, with the natural universe and what we can know about it. Religion deals with what is by definition an open system, the natural universe and the supernatural power that created and controls it, which we can of necessity only glimpse indirectly, in a limited fashion. In other words, religion can accommodate and validate science (although it doesn’t have to – think Galileo, the Scopes trial), but how can religion fit into science other than as a cultural phenomenon? From one perspective, Worrall’s claim seems silly: What about the many great scientists who have declared their religious faith – Newton, Boyle, Copernicus, Kepler, Faraday, and Mendel, to mention a few? Were they not “properly” scientific and “true” believers?
According to multiple surveys, about forty percent of the world’s scientists classify themselves as religious believers. Francis Collins, the director of the Human Genome Project, director of the NIH, devout Christian, does exist. Recently, sociologist Elaine H. Ecklund has reported that forty-eight percent of scientists at elite American research universities have religious affiliations (Ecklund 2007).
But from another perspective, starting from the naturalist assumption that the physical universe is all there is, the problem of God’s existence is in a sense a geographical or spatial problem. Where is God? If we place God in heaven, where is that? Science, to the great delight and use of science fiction, has allowed us to see distant galaxies, and allowed us to theorize other dimensions and unseen dark matter and dark energy. Even in the multiverse, the plurality of all the universes, there is something troubling about imagining where God exists. A fairly entertaining exploration of this idea drives Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, a film in which it appears that the Enterprise has been miraculously led to the literal location of heaven and God, crossing over beyond “the Great Barrier.” Of course, as Captain James T. Kirk recognizes, there is something fishy about a God who occupies a particular planet and seems to be interested in hijacking a starship. The miracles Kirk and crew have experienced have been part of an elaborate ruse by an astonishingly powerful entity attempting to escape from his planetary prison.
From a religious stance, science is a tool for understanding, sort of like lenses that enhance our vision and allow us to see things more clearly, but reveal only part of the spectrum. There will always be the transcendent, the supernatural, the divine that is outside our direct observation, which we can know perhaps, but not in any scientific way. From a scientific stance, however, limiting our vision to the physical world (which is from this perspective all that there is), would it even be possible, in theory, for God to reveal His existence in an entirely convincing way? What if every living human suddenly heard a voice, speaking in his or her native tongue, say “I exist”? Surely this event would constitute a miracle. But when we consider how such a miracle occurred, it would seem that the omni-present voice must have appeared in all our heads by means of some process.
Presumably God had to enter into the natural world and manipulate sound waves, or stimulate our auditory nerves, or directly adjust our brain cells, or something. Once we identify the event as something taking place in the natural world at some point, then we have to wonder whether the miraculous and inexplicable intervention by God, acting on the natural world, actually makes more sense than some other explanation within nature. As David Hume’s famous essay “On Miracles” argued centuries ago, a natural explanation will always be more likely than one which violates the laws of nature (Hume 1902). Introducing God requires a supernatural element in the explanation, adding a layer that remains entirely unexplained. As an explanation, it is a deferral, invoking magic in a sense.
To be sure, our hunger for transcendence is such that a woman in South Carolina (my not-entirely-enlightened home state) recently saw a miraculous picture of Jesus burned into her toast. But it is at least plausible that some device has been invented that created the voice, or that some alien super-intelligence has manipulated our intelligence, or even that the experience is entirely delusional (I only thought everyone heard this voice, but it never really happened—I just made it up).
William Dembski, the philosopher and mathematician who has offered one of the more sophisticated and nuanced defenses of intelligent design, imagines in The End of Christianity (2009) one proof of God’s existence that might seem at first glance to satisfy the electron-level of proof. Dembski’s thought experiment, “The Incredible Talking Pulsar,” imagines that a rotating neutron star is discovered to be emitting short and long bursts that we realize are Morse Code. Instructed to place questions every hour in an ark on Mount Zion, we receive answers in ten minutes that allow us to cure AIDS, cancer, unify the forces of nature, find lost civilizations, and more. Surely this event would allow us to declare that God undeniably, definitively, exists, would it not?
Interestingly, in his analysis of what the Talking Pulsar would mean, Dembski asserts that this demonstration would not have to violate special relativity, exceeding the speed of light, because the answers could in fact arrive ten minutes after the questions if they were already sent very, very long ago. Why does Dembski offer this odd reassurance, that God in declaring emphatically His existence, could work within the laws of physics? Dembski, as an intelligent design guy, is eager to show that God fits within the world of science and is consistent with scientific understanding (there is proof for Him, just as there is proof for electrons): God can work miracles without violating the laws of physics, even though what would be required to send answers without violating the laws of nature certainly seems at the outer boundaries of the imaginable – namely, control of a pulsar, the ability to look far into the future, not to mention the answers to all our questions. By suggesting how God might work within the boundaries of space and time, Dembski reveals the problem with his proof, which is the same problem that elicits the humor of Anders Sandberg’s “Quantum Gravity Treatment of the Angel Density Problem,” quoted in my epigraph.
Sandberg brings modern physics to bear on the famous question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. This question, although perhaps based on some speculations of Aquinas and others, seems itself to have become popular not as a widely-debated issue but as a satirical illustration of medieval dialectics. Still, the speculation depends upon this key idea – that the angels exist within nature. Such naturalistic assumptions undergird speculations about where the soul resides (it’s the pineal gland, of course): Descartes is serious in his suggestion, but the fictional Martinus Scriblerus (the work of Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and others) is the object of satire.
If we concede that angels, the soul, and God must exist within the natural world, if they exist, then alternative explanations readily begin to present themselves. Although the debate would be lively (at least), all reasonable people, and especially those who are fans of science fiction, would not be compelled to conclude that God was speaking through this pulsar. Again, it is certainly possible to imagine a super-intelligence capable of developing science and technology that would create this illusion. If time travel is at least possible, as a surprising number of theoretical physicists now believe, and if engineering on the scale of a pulsar is possible, then the demonstration need not be an illusion. And it would be difficult to rule out the possibility of insanity or a hoax. Did that really happen? Perhaps reality itself is just an illusion, and we are all simulations within a computer matrix: that might be easier to pull off than a talking pulsar. At any rate, perhaps the least plausible aspect of this counter-explanation is the question of why a super-intelligence would go to such trouble.
What is a Divine Being to do? Is it impossible to say irrefutably “I AM”? Dembski also employs the “Incredible Talking Pulsar” scenario in another essay entitled “The Incompleteness of Scientific Naturalism,” and he adds a hypothesis designed to show more conclusively how this pulsar might demonstrate God’s existence –or, as he puts it, how the pulsar might “instantiate” “a supernatural intelligence, i.e., an intelligence surpassing anything that physical processes are capable of offering,” exceeding “anything that humans or finite rational agents in the universe are capable of even in principle” (4).
Dembski is constructing a test, in other words, that only God could pass. “There are,” he says, “problems in computer science that can be proven mathematically to require more computational resources for their solution than are available in the universe,” and he goes on to explain in a general way how some problems exceed this limit. We can set up problems so complex, Dembski says, that to solve them “every available elementary particle in the universe would have to serve as an elementary storage device (= memory bit) capable of switching at 1045 hertz over a period of a billion billion years” (7). If the Talking Pulsar were to solve such a problem, we would know, Dembski concludes, that it had relied upon resources that exceed the universe.
In this intriguing idea Dembski is responding no doubt to the kind of materialism or naturalism articulated by George Gaylord Simpson, who axiomatically states, “There is neither need nor excuse for postulation of nonmaterial intervention in the origin of life, the rise of man, or any other part of the long history of the material cosmos” (1951:135).
Dembski acknowledges that the talking pulsar is “an exercise in overkill,” but he asserts that his piece of “science fiction,” as he terms it, leaves the “door … wide open to a scientifically defensible account of intelligent design.” But is the door open? (Can we glimpse the angels dancing through it?) I don’t think so. For one thing, I’m not sure that we know how many elementary particles there are in a universe that appears to be composed of as much as 95% dark matter and dark energy, about which we know next to nothing. If we cannot see or verify at this point 95% of the universe we inhabit, it seems premature to determine what is possible using all the universe’s resources. I also wonder whether Dembski is downplaying the possibility of dramatic breakthroughs in computer programming.
When Moore’s Law has passed its billionth generation, will the same kinds of limits make any sense at all? How many times in human history has the impossible become ordinary? But most telling perhaps, we would have no idea whether the answer given is the correct one, whether a super-intelligence is pulling our collective pineal glands, or something else is actually happening. Science fiction, I would argue, has encouraged us to think alternatively about even the most dramatic evidences of God’s existence.
If science seems to have no room for God, and science fiction proceeds from and tends to popularize this naturalistic view, then science fiction featuring nanotechnology offers an especially powerful challenge to religious faith. In the real world, nanotechnology, which is engineering on the molecular scale, promises to be a transformative advance. According to Nobel Laureate and nanoscientist Richard Smalley, we will gain unprecedented control over ourselves and our environment, with “computers the size of molecules,” “complete diagnostic laboratories smaller than your thumbnail,” medical treatments that can “painlessly cook cancer cells to death,” and “buildings that stay up despite storms, earthquakes, and attacks,” for instance (see Milburn 2008:34).
The changes brought about by the creation of structures and systems that measure in the billionths of a meter are expected to be so fundamental that many futurists believe that we are approaching a “singularity,” a point of change so dramatic that it is impossible to imagine what lies on the other side. As Ray Kurzweil explains, the term “singularity” comes from mathematics and astrophysics, and it indicates the point in an equation when a function assumes an infinite value, or the point at which space-time collapses inside a black hole. Kurzweil’s 2005 book, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, discusses how advances in nanotechnology, genetics, and robotics will fundamentally alter humanity, merging man and machine, Kurzweil says, as tiny devices inside our bodies maintain our health and expand our capabilities until we can dispense with flesh altogether.
Self-replicating nanobots, famously imagined by Eric Drexler (1986) in Engines of Creation, a controversial but profoundly influential book that is either visionary engineering or science fiction (or both), have been common in science fiction for decades. But nanobots are also becoming increasingly more imaginable in reality. As Colin Milburn has argued in Nanovision: Engineering the Future, the line between science and science fiction has been “blurred, made porous, and effaced” by the development of nanotechnology (2008:49).
For instance, writing in the scientific journal Trends in Biotechnology (21 : 325-28), Ryan Drum and Richard Gordon (2003:325-328) explain their new method for replicating molecules by comparing it to the replicators in the Star Trek series (specifically, their process turns silicon oxide into magnesium oxide while preserving the original 3-D shape). In the American Scientist (85 : 324-37], Boris Yakobson and Richard Smalley emphasize the massive potential of carbon nanotubes by saying that they may well make possible the kind of space elevator imagined by Arthur C. Clark in Fountains of Paradise in 1978 – an idea that is now being actively pursued by NASA, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and others. By 1992, Kim Stanley Robinson had already used carbon nanotubes to build a space elevator on Mars—in Red Mars, the first novel in his Mars trilogy. Indeed, nano-materials are so pervasive in science fiction that creators of any future society without them are usually compelled to explain their absence, as Gardner Dazois and Jack Dann have noted in the introduction to their Nanotech anthology (1998).
The use of nanotechnology is at the heart of Neal Stephenson’s remarkable novel, The Diamond Age, or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer (1995). Nano-engineering makes possible the interactive book that provides an astonishing education for Stephenson’s heroine; it drives the Matter Compilers that provide food, water, blankets, clothes, everything; it allows a suspect to be tortured horribly without experiencing any physical damage whatsoever; and much else. Like Greg Bear’s Queen of Angels (1990), or David Marusek’s “We Were Out of Our Minds with Joy” (1995), to take only two of many examples, Stephenson’s book richly imagines a society shaped by the instrumental use of nanotechnology. We see worlds that are suffused with miracles, except that they are the result of science. Why do we need a supernatural sphere?
In other words, the exploration of inner space, manipulating matter on the atomic scale, mostly in imagination but increasingly in reality, inevitably drains more mystery out of the world. It is possible to imagine how science might not only accomplish Frankenstein’s resurrective feat, but also how our bodies might be maintained indefinitely. Indeed, the maintenance of good health is about the least imaginative of the benefits of an enormous number of nanobots dancing within our bodies. We might manipulate the nature of our bodies and our intelligence (Do you want gills? More hands? Wings? A second heart? Instant fluency in Portuguese? Access to encyclopedic knowledge?).
Consider the implications for faith of what is generally recognized to be the first fictional work to employ what would be recognized as nanotechnology. Greg Bear’s “Blood Music” was first published in 1983, three years prior to Erik Drexler’s Engines of Creation, before the term “nanotechnology” and the concepts of molecular engineering and self-replicating nano-assemblers had been popularized by Drexler. Drexler’s vision of nanotechnology’s dramatic effects was largely utopian, but he also assessed the dangers of such machines, including the possibility that they might malfunction and run out of control, even perhaps (in a worst-case scenario) converting everything into what Drexler famously called a “grey goo.” A substantial number of science fiction stories in fact employ this device: in Stephen Baxter’s Moonseed (1998) for instance, a substance accidentally imported from the moon engulfs the earth in a grey-gooish substance; in Walter Jon Williams’ Aristoi (1992), the earth has been destroyed by “Metaglap Nano,” and an entire social structure has been developed to manage nanotechnology and avoid such disasters in the future; in Daniel Keys Moran’s “On Sequoia Time” (1996) the only thing on earth to survive a grey goo mishap is one giant Sequoia tree.
Such stories of a mindless ecophagic nanotechnology can quite effectively dramatize human negligence, arrogance, or malevolence. Ostensibly such stories are about nanoscience, urging caution and vigilance by extrapolating where our current efforts might lead. But even if a gooey world seems quite implausible, these stories also point toward a God-like power, paradoxically suggesting restraint even as the astonishing potential is held out before us.
In “Blood Music,” Bear’s renegade scientist injects himself with “nucleoprotein computers,” programmed to replicate and evolve, which develop (as any fan of horror science fiction might have predicted) awareness and boundless ambition and run amok. But Bear’s celebrated story, which won science fiction’s most prestigious awards, the Nebula and Hugo, has an interesting twist at the end, as the noocytes transform humanity and our environment not into inert goo, but into some super-powerful, super-intelligent, harmoniously unified state. The Frankenstein scenario is not averted, and the narrator realizes that soon “every square inch of the planet will teem with thought.” New creatures will evolve, and “The immensity of their capacity for thought will be inconceivable” (31). At the end of the story, the narrator understands why we have not heard from any advanced extraterrestrial civilizations: having achieved control of the universe at the bottom end of the spatial scale, they had no reason to go anywhere: “They had found universes in grains of sand.” They had become God-like beings with no need to demonstrate their existence.
Chris Toumey (2009) has noted a series of surveys which indicate people with more secular values are likely to have a positive view of nanotechnology, and that those with religious values will have a more critical stance. Religious organizations and religious thinkers, who have substantially engaged with cloning, stem-cell research, genetically-modified crops, global warming, and other technological issues, have not given much thought yet to nanotechnology, as Toumey notes.
And, from a religious perspective, it is perhaps especially difficult to know what to think about a technology with such an apparently limitless potential, capable of making us indistinguishable in some ways from deities. Why can’t we eventually have personal immortality through constant maintenance and back-up digital copies of ourselves, not to mention the ability to shape our environment, terra-form other worlds, engineering on the cosmic scale? Nanotechnology, in science and science fiction, arguably poses unprecedented problems for religious faith, positing the conversion of the supernatural into the natural. Consider Bear’s response to a question about his own faith:
My religious beliefs are hardly settled. I do believe in God, but leave wide open his (or its) character. I will say that the relationship is not one so much of master or lord to servant, but of friends – but who knows if that will change under the influence of some tragedy! A peaceful life does not give complete insight into God's nature. I do believe that the scientific quest, seeking explanation for things without invoking God's intervention, is enormously fruitful for now. Whether this technique or discipline will explain all is not knowable at present, of course (Bear 2005).
Bear’s fascinating statement here declares a belief in God, but what does it mean to believe in a God whose character is “wide open,” with whom we are “friends”, and who is not invoked in any explanation? As Bear recognizes, science’s “enormously fruitful” quest has proceeded by assuming no explanatory place for God’s intervention, and as the power of science expands – most profoundly with the emerging vision of nanotechnology – God apparently continues to be an unnecessary term, or at least one with no (or wide open) character.
So why does Bear say he believes? As Hume says at the ending of his essay on miracles, “Mere reason is insufficient to convince us” of the veracity of the Christian religion and miracles, “And whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience” (131).
Hume’s conclusion is usually taken as closing the door on religious faith, but I would argue that what Hume has accomplished is only a purification of faith: We can believe if we want to, but such belief will not be the result of any scientific logic or proof. Miracles might get our attention, but they have never been sufficient to compel belief. And the fine-tuning argument is at best only suggestive: perhaps we are simply lucky to inhabit a universe with these parameters, or perhaps in infinite time many prior universes had other parameters, or perhaps the physical constants in the universe are not subject to different settings, or perhaps in infinite space there are other dimensions with universes that are tuned differently. What science fiction – especially science fiction featuring nanotechnology – clarifies for us is simply where we are, where we always have been. To have faith, we require a miracle, not in the physical world around us, but within ourselves, in the transcendent existence that we can imagine.
Steven Lynn (University of South Carolina) is Dean of the South Carolina Honors College and Louise Fry Scudder Professor in the English Department. His administrative experience has included chairing the Department of English, the Department of Religious Studies, and serving as Senior Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. His teaching and publishing interests include eighteenth-century literature (especially Samuel Johnson), rhetoric and composition (especially pedagogy), and science fiction (especially nanotechnology and ethics). He may be reached at Lynns@sc.edu.
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Covalence, May 2012