Wednesday, 30 April 2014

It's a matter of faith!

Priya Kurian & Debashish Munshi

Faith has often been seen as a point of divide between religion and science. While those with religious affiliations or affinities are guided by their faith in a spiritual being or beings to resolve social, cultural, economic, and even political issues, those on the side of science insist on proofs rather than mere conviction.

What then about faith in science and technology to solve every conceivable problem? Dubbed ‘the arrogance of humanism’ by Rutgers University professor of ecology David Ehrenfeld in an influential book by that title, such a humanistic faith in science, technology and reason is seen to underpin the ecological crisis the planet faces today. Humanism, according to Ehrenfeld, is “our irrational faith in the limitless power of human reason – its ability to confront and solve the many problems that humans face, its ability to rearrange both the world of Nature and the affairs of men and women so that human life will prosper.”

Transhumanism takes that faith to a new level. Indeed, it is the extreme faith in technological solutions and the ability of science to lead the planet to eternal bliss that defines transhumanism. Inspired no doubt by science fiction, transhumanists have long espoused the need to technologically deal with the challenges of life such as death, decay, and disease. They stand steadfastly in their faith in biotechnology, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, or any new technology capable of facilitating human enhancement.

Yet, the faith transhumanists subscribe to is not the only kind of faith in science. In a forthcoming article in PublicUnderstanding of Science, John H. Evans of the University of California, San Diego, identifies at least three kinds of faith in science that people hold and goes on to discuss the implications of these types of faith on transhumanism. The data for Evans’ research comes from public opinion surveys conducted in 12 countries.

The three levels of faith Evans talks about are the faith in science to “provide meaning for society”; to “effectively solve any problem”; and “to solve problems in the physical world with technology”. These levels of faith differ across a number of variables such as age, education, financial status, education, and religious affiliation.

The exploration of the complex relationship between religion and transhumanism is an interesting feature of this article. At one level, religious people and transhumanists can be seen as living at two ends of a pole. But what unifies them somewhat is their faith. What Evans’ research shows is that religious people are least likely to adopt transhumanist beliefs but that “is primarily true if [transhumanism] is based upon a faith in science producing meaning”. 

However, if transhumanism were to become “a concrete solution to a consensual physical problem like human health”, its beliefs could attract the support of the religious.

A lot of the debate on the religion-science debate hinges on whether the belief system they represent are defined “doctrinally or empirically”, says James Hughes in his Metanexus blog. Hughes argues that transhumanism can be “compatible” with most world religions, and in fact, “the religious landscape of the future will range from the current prevailing bioconservative resistance to an enthusiastic embrace of transhuman possibilities.” 

A religious transhumanism then although seemingly a contradiction in terms is perhaps not surprising bringing together as it does a human capacity for faith—in religion, science or both.