Philosophy of Technology

Class Blog

“Not magic, science”

 

Dr. Sun Qiang from the Institute of Neuroscience at the Chinese Academy of Sciences recently visited NYU Shanghai and shared how he used somatic cell nuclear transfer to clone a monkey. Not only is this, in my opinion, terrifying, but also somewhat magical. While scientists have already cloned animals in the past like Dolly the sheep, a monkey is certainly far more unsettling and impressive than a sheep due to the fact that monkeys are so close to humans. During the presentation Dr. Qiang offered many technical details of the process and even included videos of some cloned monkeys that had irregular behavior. While this was quite spooky, Dr. Qiang had a definite answer for each step of the process based on his scientific findings. This experiment was in no way simple or easy to understand, but nevertheless humans have now found a way to clone a monkey and the process is documented with empirical evidence. But is this not magical? How would people hundreds of years ago rationalize this phenomenon? What does this mean in terms of religion, magic, or technology?

 

In class we discussed the key characteristics of these three catachreses, as Jeremy Stolow would refer to them, and my personal conclusion is that each catachresis is a point on a spectrum. Before modern technology and developed scientific theories, people used religion or superstition to make sense of the world. For example, the origin of human life was explained by the concept that God created the world and natural disasters symbolized a ruler losing the mandate of heaven. Magic, while it can be broadly interpreted, is somewhat in between religion and technology in that it combines faith in the supernatural with concrete knowledge of natural substances and techniques. Technology is the final step and offers definite answers and explanations to phenomenon that used to be misunderstood and therefore regarded as miracle or mystery.   

 

In the introduction of Deus in Machina, James Stolow writes in detail about the distinctions between religion in technology. To start, Stolow points out that, “the locution religion and technology thus operates alongside a series of analogous binaries, including faith and reason, fantasy and reality, enchantment and disenchantment, magic and science, and fabrication and fact” which supports the notion that religion and technology do in fact represent two ends of a spectrum (2). He goes into more detail and writes that “religious actors…can tell stories about the sources of inspiration that led to their creation; they can develop their own vocabularies to describe how and why they work” while “technology refers to an order of things existing outside of and independent from all such dispositions, uses, and frameworks of meaning” (2). In other words, religious actors can say and believe whatever they want, but it’s technology that actually points to specific facts and order without having to rely on faith. Moreover, Stolow mentions that “magic is the ancestor (or illegitimate cousin) of what we moderns call technology” in that it was “superseded by a more sober reliance upon techniques and instruments that ‘actually do their jobs’ and by the advancement of scientific reasoning that ‘properly’ frames knowledge about such work” (9).

 

The fact that a man was able to clone a monkey shows that a capability that would have previously been regarded only as the result of divine intervention or witchcraft can actually be rationalized and interpreted using exact scientific and technological evidence that goes beyond religion and magic. In the new box office hit Black Panther, the fictional world of Wakanda uses the powerful metal vibranium for myriad advanced technological purposes. After a procedure in a Wakandan lab, the American CIA agent claims that he was healed by magic to which the young scientist Shuri responds, “not magic, science.”

 

Sources:

Jeremy Stolow (Ed), Deus in Machina: Religion, Technology, and the Things in Between, Fordham University Press, New York, 2013, Introduction, pp. 1–22. [PDF]

 

Related:

Stein, Rob. “Chinese Scientists Clone Monkeys Using Method That Created Dolly The Sheep.” NPR, NPR, 24 Jan. 2018, www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/01/24/579925801/chinese-scientists-clone-monkeys-using-method-that-created-dolly-the-sheep.

Framke, Caroline. “Why Shuri, Black Panther’s Teen Girl Genius, Is Marvel’s Most Promising Character in Ages.” Vox, Vox, 20 Feb. 2018, www.vox.com/culture/2018/2/20/17030266/black-panther-shuri-letitia-wright-best.

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Philosophy of Technology at NYU Shanghai, a course by Anna Greenspan and Brad Weslake.