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March 1, 2016

March 2016
Walt Hearn

In the early 19th century, weavers and other manual workers in England saw their livelihoods threatened by the industrial revolution, which was a wholesale rush to disruptive technologies. Some broke into textile mills and other factories to smash steam-powered machines capable of producing more goods with less “labour.” Such industrial saboteurs became known as Luddites. In the 21st century, people with strong anti-technology tendencies are sometimes labeled neo-Luddites.

I don't think of myself as a Luddite. I know how much I've benefited from that first industrial revolution, though it came at great cost to many and to the natural environment. Its 20th century counterpart has brought us the internal combustion engine and an ubiquity of electronics but also many potentially hazardous things, from nuclear weapons to drones, fracking, e-cigarettes, and soon, driverless cars. We have to chose which of these things to use. Limited resources make such choices even more critical. Pure science doesn't come cheap anymore, so taxpayers must be continually reassured that science will eventually produce greater national security, “better lives,” and enormous economic rewards. Is curiosity enough to justify billion-dollar research projects? Nailing down that ultimate particle or preparing to send explorers to other planets may not be the most important investments we could make.

An endless supply of science fiction feeds public fears of technology running amok, a concern that goes back a long way. Forty or fifty years ago I read a cautionary tale in an article published in The American Scientist. The story told of scientists building a super-computer with a humongous amount of “artificial intelligence.” They begin feeding it very complex problems, and they keep adding to its capacities. Eventually the computer says it will tell them anything they want to know, but first they must destroy all programs, circuit diagrams, etc., that would enable them to build a duplicate machine. Some of its designers are reluctant to give up such knowledge, but the lure of finally obtaining answers to life's deepest questions wins out. The scientists gather around the computer and one of them asks it, “Is there a God?” The computer whirs a few seconds and then says, “There is, now.” 

In the garden of Eden (Genesis 2:9), the serpent probably said something like, “Here, have a bite of fruit from this lovely “knowledge of everything” tree. It's only a little snack. How could that hurt anyone?” The Bible is big on questions of good and evil but only in passing does it refer to the various technologies of its day (textiles, metalwork, chariots, parchment, and the like). In our day, to communicate the gospel, evangelists and the rest of us have many tools at our disposal, like language translation programs, CD players powered by solar panels, e-books, Power Point presentations, websites, etc. Can we be “wise as serpents” and still be “innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16)? 


Walt Hearn is a retired professor of biochemistry (Iowa State) and of Christianity and science (New College Berkeley). The author of Being a Christian in Science (IVP, 1997), he now writes a column called “Beyond Science” for God and Nature, a magazine published online by the American Scientific Affiliation ( This post is excerpted from his Fall 2015 column in an issue on “Technology and the Church.” 




Posted on March 1, 2016 at 1:26 PM

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