Yet another weird SF fan

I'm a mathematician, a libertarian, and a science-fiction fan. Common sense? What's that?

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Yet another weird SF fan

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Judaism, Magic, and Larry Niven's Science Fiction

In Deuteronomy 18:9–11, there's a mysterious set of injunctions:

When thou art come into the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not learn to do after the abominations of those nations.
There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch.
Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer.
This brings up two questions: 1) What do they mean by “magic”? 2) Why are they associating it with human sacrifice?

It's a well-known principle that any sufficiently-advanced form of technology is indistinguishable from magic. We should instead examine the question: Under what circumstances should sufficiently-advanced technologies be prohibited? The Deuteronomy quote clearly means that technologies that require human sacrifice should be prohibited. (I recently blogged about a pre-technological example of the same phenomenon.) In particular, organ transplants that require somebody to be killed (instead of dying naturally) are out.

Larry Niven wrote numerous stories and novels in a society in which condemned criminals are used as a source of transplant organs (e.g., “The Jigsaw Man” in the collection Tales of Known Space, the novel A Gift from Earth, and the collection Flatlander). That might not sound like such a bad idea … except that the slippery slope produced a society in which exceeding the speed limit became a capital crime or organs could be taken from someone who hadn't been convicted yet.

Embryonic stem cell research is another example of this. The restrictions on publicly-funded stem-cell research authorized by the current Administration is an attempt to ensure that no fetus is aborted for the purpose of providing stem cells.

Another example of banning “magic” technology

There's a well-known Biblical passage (Exodus 22:18) usually translated as: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” It can also be translated as: “Thou shalt not suffer a poisoner to live.” Apparently, it bans a type of poisoning that most people would not classify as murder because otherwise the law would be unneeded. Selling abortifacients fits.


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