Nanotechnology and the God of Small Things

With apologies to Arundhati Roi for “borrowing” the title of her moving book, what—if anything—has nanotechnology got to do with religion?

Barnaby Feder of the New York Times takes on this issue in his latest posting to the Bits blog:

“There may not be a lot of agreement among the world’s religions on exactly what constitutes humans “playing God,” but you never hear a preacher or rabbi suggesting such behavior is wise or laudable. So you would think they might have a lot to say about nanotechnology. After all, nanotech involves rearranging not just DNA and the other building blocks of life — already a source of controversy in biotechnology — but the very atoms and molecules that make up all matter. If that is not messing around in God’s closet, what is?”

The big issue it seems is transhumanism—the use of existing and emerging technologies, including nanotechnology, to extend and change what it means to be human.  Will nanotechnology give us the ability to do what only God should?  Can we somehow thwart God’s plans, and take control of our own destiny?  Or is there nano-knowledge that should be forbidden?

Looking far into the nanotechnology future, it is not hard to imagine that nanotechnology will provide the ability to profoundly change how long we live, and the quality of that life.  Many of the breakthroughs will come through fusing nanotech know-how with other fields of advance, especially biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science.

But as Chris Toumey points out in the January edition of Nature Nanotechnology, there are more interesting—and probably more relevant—questions to discuss.  In what he calls an “unnecessarily troublesome way to view nanotechnology,” Toumey warns against overlooking short-term nanotech developments that may do great good:

“if religious writers think about nanotechnology only in terms of enhancement and immortality, they fall into a trap and become systematically hostile to a very broad technology. This is both a strategic blunder and a regrettable approach to knowledge. Nanotechnology in the present, the near-future, and indeed the far-future is much more interesting than the question of enhancement and immortality alone.”

As nanotechnologies become increasingly sophisticated, they will raise increasingly challenging questions that differentiate between what we can do, and what we should do.  So far, we have had to deal with relatively crude nanotechnologies—first generation nanotechnologies that are based on passive and simple structures.  But more complex nanotechnologies are on the way—multifunctional nanodevices; integrated nanotech-biotech system; new tools for transforming synthetic biology from a dream to reality; possibly even nanodevices that mimic biology.

Looking at where nanotechnology could be heading, I find it hard to pinpoint where the nano-religion debate will eventually find a home.  I suspect it is only when nanotechnology begins to challenge fundamental beliefs such as the existence of the human soul, or strays into what some might consider the exclusive realms of the divine, that the debate will begin to heat up.  What I find more interesting—and relevant—is the question of nanotechnology and ethics.

Many religions are somewhat ambivalent on the subject of developing “forbidden knowledge”, and throughout history religious conviction and scientific curiosity have often gone hand in hand.  But religions have plenty to say on how our hard-earned knowledge should be used.

So perhaps the religious debate should not be about whether nanotechnology challenges God’s existence and authority, but rather how our new-found nano-knowledge can be used ethically.  These decisions will naturally encompass the implications of future nanotechnologies, but they also apply to the nanotechnologies that are here already. As we develop the latest, greatest nano-product, how much are we thinking about doing good, doing no harm, ensuring autonomy and justice, and protecting privacy?

Despite a slow start, I suspect that issues surrounding nanotechnology and religion will be debated with increasing fervour over the coming years. So whether your “God of Small Things” is a deity or humanity, perhaps it is time to start thinking about how you will account for your actions—or your inactions!


This post first appeared on the SAFENANO blog in January 2008

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