Nanotechnology advice from philosopher & physicist surprisingly useful

First a confession: I have not, in fact, read the entire article “Living with Uncertainty: Toward the Ongoing Normative Assessment of Nanotechnology” by Jean-Pierre Dupuy and Alexei Grinbaum of the Ecole Polytechnique in France, published in Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology. It is about 10,000 words long and has a great deal of philosophy in it, and as a practical person I have limited time for philosophy. My eyes glaze over at sentences such as “The sheer phrasing of the methodology suggests that it rests on the metaphysics of projected time, of which it reproduces the characteristic loop between past and future” and “Only a radical change in metaphysics can allow us to escape from the ethical aporia.” Yikes.

So when I ran across this article, I skipped right to the conclusions. And despite my enjoyment of previous discussions with one of the authors, my hopes were not high. But first I was encouraged to see the paper questioning the usefulness of the (presumably strong) Precautionary Principle. Then I found some excellent advice which closely matches what we try to do here at Foresight in our efforts to guide the development of nanotechnology in positive directions:

Our methodology is a methodology of ongoing normative assessment. It is a matter of obtaining through research, public deliberation, and all other means, an image of the future sufficiently optimistic to be desirable and sufficiently credible to trigger the actions that will bring about its own realization…Importantly, one must note that these two goals, for an image to be both optimistic and credible, are seen as entering in a contradiction. Yet another contradiction arises from the requirement of anticipating a future state early enough, when its features cannot yet be seen clearly, and not waiting until it is too late, when the future is so close to us that it is unchangeable. Both contradictions hint at a necessary balance between the extremes. It is not credible to be too optimistic about the future, but cognitive paralysis arises when the anticipated future is irreparably catastrophic. It is not credible to announce a prediction too early, but it becomes, not a prediction but a matter of fact, if waited for too long. The methodology of ongoing normative assessment prescribes to live with the uncertain future and to follow a certain procedure in continuously evaluating the state of the analyzed system.

Quite so. Someone has to put forward a picture of the desirable situation we are going to try to bring about. And here at Foresight we accept the risk of stating our projections too early. Better too early than too late — if we state our views early, they will eventually get re-worded by more conservative entities. The method is useful for heading off serious problems as well:

This time, instead of an optimistic but credible image of the future, one should wish to obtain at every moment of time an image of the future sufficiently catastrophic to be repulsive and sufficiently credible to trigger the actions that would block its realization.

The authors make another good point:

The major stumbling block…turns out to be our common conception of the future as unreal…If the future is not real, then it is not something that we can have cognizance of. If the future is not real, then it is not something that projects its shadow onto the present.

This is very true: for the vast majority of people the future does not seem to be real. They don’t even attempt to think about it. This is frustrating for those of us who do.

When I get the time, I will slog through the rest of this paper to see if there are more gems to share. Meanwhile, Nanodot readers, please send any that you find. —Christine

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