Editor’s note: This is the first article in a series on the topic of nanotechnology, which is the study of manipulating matter on an atomic and molecular scale. These unpublished articles were gathered by Chris Toumey, University of South Carolina NanoCenter, who published a study earlier this year that looks at the various ways religious communities may consider nanotechnology.
Accompanying nanotechnology is a companion enterprise called SEIN: an acronym crafted by the US National Science Foundation to represent “societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology”. Some in the SEIN community are scientists and engineers, but most are scholars in the humanities and social sciences. From this community come hundreds of studies, position papers, and commentaries about what is right and wrong in nanotechnology, and what will be right and wrong in the future when the tangible applications of nanotech change our material culture.
Almost all of this knowledge and opinion is expressed in secular voices, that is, the languages of philosophers, professional ethicists, scientists, and engineers. Very little comes from religious persons or religious organizations in ways that would reflect theological, sectarian or denominational influences (Toumey 2011). If it is true that there are important issues of right and wrong in nanotechnology, and that religious people care about right and wrong, then why have religious people invested so little attention in nanotech?
This question is important because three surveys indicate that religious beliefs will strongly shape public attitudes about nanotechnology, and that scientific knowledge about it will not. George Gaskell, a professor of Social Psychology
at the London School of Economics and Political Science
, and colleagues discovered that, in the US, Canada and the EU, many people trusted scientific experts to lead us through science and technology policy. But trust declined as levels of educational achievement declined.
What then replaced that sense of trust? “In the United States, religious beliefs were strongly related to critical attitudes to science and technology” (Gaskell et al. 2005). Another survey found that, in the US, the “strength of religious beliefs is negatively related to support for funding of nanotechnology”. Religious apprehensions that developed earlier in response to biotechnology served as a template for reactions against nanotechnology. People for whom religion was not very important were more supportive of funding for nanotech. Knowledge of nanotechnology had little influence (Brossard et al. 2009).
The third survey comprised the US and twelve EU nations. All had comparable levels of science and technology, and each had a rating on a scale from religious to secular, based on earlier comparative research. The more secular nations found nanotechnology more morally acceptable; the more religious nations found it less acceptable. “Religiosity is the dominant predictor of moral acceptance of nanotechnology”, wrote Dietram Scheufele of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University and his colleagues. “Public attitudes toward issues such as nanotechnology are increasingly driven by personal values and beliefs” (Scheufele et al. 2009). Scientific knowledge about nanotechnology was distinctly less influential than religious belief. The US ranked as the most religious of the thirteen nations.
And so if religious beliefs will shape public attitudes about nanotech, but religious persons and religious organizations have paid little attention to nanotech, then what?
Here a brief primer. Nanotechnology is a family of science and technologies for observing and controlling matter at the level of atoms and molecules. It gets its name from the nanometer, that is, a billionth of a meter (nm, or 10-9
m, in scientific notation). The diameter of a hydrogen atom, for example, is one-tenth of a nanometer, and the water molecule, H2
O, is approximately a third of a nanometer. The DNA molecule is about two nanometers across, and the smallest viruses are roughly fifteen nanometers. There is a well-accepted, three-part definition of nanotechnology: it deals with matter that is 100 nanometers or less in at least one dimension; it takes advantage of forces like catalysis, magnetism or conductivity whose effects are different at the nanoscale than at larger scales; and it generates material applications, which is a way of saying that it is not
merely an exercise in scientific curiosity.
It is attractive to some people to wrap nanotechnology in a simple logic: everything is made of atoms and molecules (which is true); nanotechnology is the observation and control of matter at the scale of atoms and molecules (which is also true); from this we conclude that nanotechnology is the philosopher’s stone that will give us unlimited control over matter (which is not likely, because matter at the nanoscale must obey certain laws of nature that we cannot violate or repeal).
Unfortunately, nanotechnology contains great potential to frustrate non-scientists who want to understand it. There are three reasons, embedded in the science and technology, for this problem. First, this scientific area is not neatly defined as a single discipline or subdiscipline. On the contrary, it is a broad multidisciplinary enterprise which includes all disciplines and subdisciplines that observe or control at the scale of atoms and molecules: catalytic chemistry, synthetic chemistry, quantum physics, molecular biology, chemical engineering, materials science, microelectronics, and more.
A second and related problem is that nanotechnology is an emerging technology. While the science is very good today, most of the tangible applications are located in the years ahead or the decades ahead. There are some debates about what nanotechnology does now, but many more about what nanotech will do at a later date. To some people, nanotechnology will be an uncontrollable force, having no heart and no soul, which will amount to the end of humanity. To others, it will be a key component of a new age in which our humanity benefits when debilitating disease is banished from our lives. Some say that nanotech will lead to environmental disaster. Others say it will give us valuable new tools for environmental remediation.
The third problem is that this is a generalized technology platform. Nanotech is not restricted to a small number of new products like better cell phones or a single process like polymerase chain reaction. It is more like the assembly line or commercially available electricity. The ability to manufacture matter at the level of atoms and molecules, even within the limits of the laws of nature at that scale, will lead to an enormous range of real-world applications.
And so we see an interesting form of technology which is: (a) broadly defined by scale
, thereby generating a body of science and a set of expectations about science which embrace an enormous range of possibilities for controlling matter at the nanoscale; (b) an emerging technology
, limited not to what it does now, but rather evoking multiple visions of what it could or should do at a later date; and (c) a generalized technology platform
, which also opens up many more possibilities than it closes.
Each of these three conditions is an invitation for anybody to project their hopes and fears onto nanotechnology. It looks different to different people. Will this new technology de-humanize us by robbing us of our freedom to choose the material conditions of our lives, and thus also rob us of the responsibility to choose wisely? Will this technology enhance our humanity by delivering us from debilitating diseases? When values and concerns differ from one group to another; when people adamantly disagree about what this technology could do; when they disagree about what it should do; if reactions to nanotech are anchored more in pre-existing ideologies than in scientific information about both possibilities and limits: then nanotech is a formula for disagreement, controversy, and even accusations that one party understands and the other does not.
Considering that: (1) nanotechnology embodies these obstacles to a clear and simple understanding of its nature; and that (2) the three obstacles invite us to argue about our values and concerns; and that (3) religious beliefs will be especially powerful in shaping the ways we frame our values and concerns: then it is worthwhile to know how faith interacts with questions of virtue and vice in nanotechnology. The papers that follow this one are arranged in a simple two-part parallelism. First we see a synoptic view of the ethical issues at hand, and then we consider a very specific ethical issue. Following that, we read a synoptic view of the value of religious thought about nanotech, and then we consider a specific way of bringing religion into stories about nanotech. Chris Toumey is a cultural anthropologist (Ph.D. from Univ. of North Carolina – Chapel Hill) who works in the anthropology of science and the anthropology of religion. He is currently working on the topic of religious reactions to nanotechnology, including a major paper published in NanoEthics in December 2011. He may be contacted at: Toumey@mailbox.sc.edu.References
BROSSARD, D., SCHEUFELE, D., KIM, E. & LEWENSTEIN, B.V.
2009 Religiosity as a Perceptual Filter: Examining Processes of Opinion Formation about Nanotechnology. Public Understanding of Science
GASKELL, G., EINSIEDEL, E., HALLMAN, W., PRIEST, S.H., JACKSON, J. & OLSTHOORN, J.
2005 Social Values and the Governance of Science.Science
, 23 December 2005, 310:1908-09.
1980 Learning to Live with Robots.The Christian Century
, 21 May 1980, 97(19):574-578.
NERLICH, B., ELLIOTT, R. & LARSON, B.
2009 Communicating Biological Sciences: An Introduction. in Nerlich, B. et al. (eds), Communicating Biological Sciences: Ethical and metaphorical dimensions
. Aldershot: Ashgate, pp. 1-24.
SCHEUFELE, D., CORLEY, E., SHIH, T-J., DALRYMPLE, K. & HO, S.
2009 Religious Beliefs and Public Attitudes Toward Nanotechnology in Europe and the United States. Nature Nanotechnology
2011 Seven Religious Reactions to Nanotechnology.
, December 2011, 5(3): Advance Online Publication: http://www.springerlink.com/content/vuq65w2v3r430671/fulltext.pdf
Covalence, April 2012