Skip to main content

If and Then: A Critique of Speculative NanoEthics


Most known technology serves to ingeniously adapt the world to the physical and mental limitations of human beings. Humankind has acquired awesome power with its rather limited means. Nanotechnological capabilities further this power. On some accounts, however, nanotechnological research will contribute to a rather different kind of technological development, namely one that changes human beings so as to remove or reduce their physical and mental limitations. The prospect of this technological development has inspired a fair amount of ethical debate. Here, proponents and opponents of such visions of human enhancement are criticized alike for engaging in speculative ethics. This critique exposes a general pattern that extends to other nano-, bio-, or neuroethical debates. While it does not apply to all discussions of “enhancement technologies” it does apply to all ethical discourse that constructs and validates an incredible future which it only then proceeds to endorse or critique. This discourse violates conditions of intelligibility, squanders the scarce and valuable resource of ethical concern, and misleads by casting remote possibilities or philosophical thought-experiments as foresight about likely technical developments. In effect, it deflects consideration from the transformative technologies of the present.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. Grunwald [13] pays close attention to the linguistic difference between a “constative” and a “conditional” nanotechnological future. Nordmann [28] offers a general critique of nanotechnology as a technology-of-the-future but emphasizes instead that nanotechnologies claim a new territory for technical agency, that they unfold in space rather than (historical) time, and that therefore they should be viewed in the context of globalization rather than progress or transcendence.

  2. It should be clear from this that – contrary to some participants in these debates – I dispute that the creation of enhanced human beings is simply the next continuous step beyond the familiar practice of producing enhancement effects on non-enhanced human beings. For further arguments see the critique of the claims by Arthur Caplan and John Harris below.

  3. This if-and-then is at work in the following passage. “Like any extremely powerful new technology, nanotechnology will bring with it social and ethical issues. [...] consider the claim that nanobiology will enable people to live longer, healthier lives. Longer average lifetimes will mean more people on Earth. But how many more people can the Earth sustain?” [1, p. 8] Note the “reification of a possible future” (Arie Rip, in conversation), the transition from a merely claimed possible future to the issues that undoubtedly will arise.

  4. This possibility was raised in a highly qualified hypothetical manner by Moor and Weckert [26, 306]: “... theoretically with nanotechnology and wireless transmission a person’s brain functioning could be unknowingly tapped and information about it transmitted. Reading someone else’s thoughts might be difficult, but capturing information that would be indicative of a particular mental state, such as anger or sexual arousal, might be rather easy.” In a far less qualified manner, a November 10, 2006 conference of legal and data protection experts discussed this foreshortened conditional: If the most extravagant neuroscientific claims were proven true and thoughts were materialized in the brain, images of the brain call for privacy protection since they capture an individual’s state of mind (“Die Gedanken sind frei ... – Hirnforschung und Persönlichkeitsrechte,” organized by the Landesbeauftragte für Datenschutz und Informationsfreiheit Nordrhein-Westfalen and the Institut für Informations-, Telekommunikations-, und Medienrecht). At that conference, the contribution by Petra Gehring effectively undermined this if-and-then.

  5. This is one of the main tenets of the so-called Center for Responsible Nanotechnology,

  6. Futurologist Ian Pearson and many others have advanced this proposal.

  7. This if-and-then is currently popular in discussions of nanomedicine. Aside from stating a discrepancy that arises for the diagnosis of any incurable illness, its popularity owes to the fact that it flatters nanomedical research: We are to take for granted that, in fact, nanomedicine will vastly increase diagnostic power.

  8. Aubrey deGrey, for example, asserts: “I just want to save lives. I see no difference between preventing someone’s death through medicine and preventing death through defeating ageing. It’s just not a distinction” (quoted in [25], p. 54).

  9. Compare this to “If current global warming trends continue, The Netherlands will be submerged within a few decades.” This conditional differs from the if-and-then in that it has not served to motivate ethical debate or public preparedness (let alone to construct a new ethics for these changed conditions). Instead, it served only as a backdrop to the salient questions whether we have reason to believe that current trends will continue and, if yes, whether or not we can do something to prevent them from continuing. These salient questions do not pertain to an imminent future but concern the present and past. “Foreshortening the conditional” consists also in skipping this focus on present conditions that alone decide whether the antecedent is or can be satisfied.

  10. Alasdair Urquhart advances an analogous argument to critique certain discussions in the philosophy of cognitive science: “Current work in the philosophy of mind manifests a fascination with far-fetched thought experiments, involving humanoid creatures magically created out of swamp matter, zombies, and similar imaginary entities. Philosophical discussion of the foundations of cognitive science also frequently revolves around implausible thought experiments like Searle’s ‘Chinese Room’ argument. [...] unless computational complexity is considered, arguments based on such imaginary experiments may appear quite powerful. On the other hand, by taking such resources into account, we can distinguish between objects that exist in the purely mathematical sense (such as the Turing machine that succeeds at the imitation game), and devices that are physically constructible” ([34], p. 27 – I would like to thank for Philip Brey for drawing my attention to this). Similarly, nanotechnological and other technoscientific prospects suffer from the failure to distinguish physical possibility (all that does not contradict outright the laws of nature) and technical possibility (all that humans can build).

  11. By introducing its readers to multiple standpoints, Miller and Wilsdon’s [24, 25] anthology Better Humans appears to proceed more carefully than the brief contribution to a newspaper that demands strong claims to attract the interest of its readers. However, their book follows the pattern set by Madeleine Bunting in the Guardian. Its first part is entitled “The Case for Enhancement” and collects predominantly visionary voices that welcome the advent of enhancement technologies. The second part invites a critical engagement with these visions. In other words, the claim that the enhancement technologies are really coming is validated simply in virtue of the existence of those voices that make a case for it. This can be seen also in Miller and Wilsdon’s introduction. After raising on pp. 21 to 23 the question of hype, they offer three practical suggestions that take the advent of ever more radical enhancement technologies for granted (they recommend upstream engagement, consideration of demographic effects, and attention to the use of performance enhancers in school). Instead, the first practical suggestion should have been to find out precisely what new capabilities and technological “effects” we might actually be confronted with.

  12. The nearly imperceptible slide by serious scholars from an improbable “if” to a looming “then” can also be found in the description of a research project at Arizona State University, accessed February 13, 2007). Here, a critical attitude towards the mere claims advanced by transhumanists gives rise to a stark view of a societal predicament: “Transhumanism articulates a vision about the possibility of attaining happiness in this life. The very use of advanced technologies, according to transhumanists will liberate humanity (both collectively and individually) from many ills. [...] We hypothesize that the materialistic approach to human happiness, characteristic of transhumanism, should be understood in the proper historical and cultural perspectives. [...] As the scientific advances in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with their social and political consequences, produced modern societies dominated by a secular vision of the utopian fulfillment of human history, how will contemporary scientific, social and cultural advancement transform our vision of end and fulfillment of human history? Will it be the Golden Age of historical fulfillment or an apocalypse of human destruction? Will transhumanism inaugurate a trans-ethical fulfillment of ethics or a decline into demonism?” (I would like to thank Christopher Coenen for pointing this out to me.)

  13. The graph is credible and popular also because it comes recommended by Ray Kurzweil, a successful and ingenious wizard who invented the flatbed scanner. One would be less credulous, to be sure, if one knew about its author only that he seriously believes to have physically aged only 2 years over the course of 16 [22, 23]. – Academic historians of technology appear to simply ignore what they are considering a crudely inaccurate reduction of a rich and complicated history. A critical analysis and public rebuttal (along the lines of Bruland and Mowery [6]) would be helpful. Reinhard Heil points out to me that there are some discussions of the matter on the internet, for example a critical piece by Theodore Modis on “The Singularity Myth,” (accessed February 15, 2007).

  14. Despite media reports to the contrary, these and similar advances are a far cry from “controlling a machine by thought alone.”

  15. This prospect is included in the vision of the so-called NBIC-report on converging technologies: “Visual communication could complement verbal communication, sometimes replacing spoken language when speed is a priority or enhancing speech when needed to exploit maximum mental capabilities” [31, p. 16].

  16. Aside from the general difficulty of carrying Moore’s Law from one domain to the next, there is here a special reason to doubt its applicability and especially its assumption that a continuous development is subject to exponential growth. In this case, there simply is no current trend that – if continued – leads from controlling a device by effort of concentration to a speech-like communication of thought. A thought, after all, is something that has content or meaning. For several hundred years, science has pursued the dream of localizing thoughts as physical objects in the brain [15]. It is not at all clear whether any progress has been made in this regard. Some of the more promising theories of language and thought suggest that there can only be shared meanings and that a thought is therefore a social thing that exists not in the brain of individuals but among the minds of many. As long as such debates are not settled (and there is no settlement in sight) one has not even entered a technological trajectory like Moore’s Law.

  17. This distinction can also be found in Hutchins’s famous reflection on the enhancement or amplification of cognitive abilities [20, pp. 153–155]. Many extant cognitive technologies (language, mathematics) are there said to “merely” change the tasks so as to make them more manageable. These technologies introduce changes to the world that include effects on those who act in the world – and they are said to be distinct from technologies that actually amplify cognitive ability. I endorse this distinction but don’t believe that such actual amplifications are forthcoming.

  18. Jürgen Habermas also acknowledges this; indeed, it is the premise of his argument. Rather than assume an unchanging and unchangeable human nature he posits a specific self-understanding of the modern subject which includes a certain conception of the human as a species-being. This self-understanding is threatened by a self-contradiction (and not by a contradiction with an essential human nature) when certain technological visions are entertained, when the relation of human-technology-nature is conceptualized in a wholly different way ([14], p. 76). Habermas objects to this as a modern subject who finds himself in a specific legal, constitutional, moral framework. From the point of view of social science, he recognizes the contingency and changeability of this subject. As a moral agent he has no choice but to judge by the best of his knowledge and according to the moral principles and values that are available to him (indeed, that constitute his modern subjectivity).

  19. The claim that “all known technology is of the former kind” is sure to provoke the production of counter-examples. Perhaps I should qualify and speak only of technology known to and understood by me. Eye-glasses, scientific instruments, pace-makers, Viagra, cosmetic surgery, sports- and memory-doping, vaccinations, deep-brain stimulation, brain–machine interfaces, Kevin Warwick’s interface of nervous systems all produce enhancement effects. Human beings change through these effects – just as our live-expectancy has been extended through better public health, nutrition, wealth. But also just like the public health system, these technologies have afforded vulnerable human beings the ability to get further with their limited means; they have not changed life-span or aimed at the removal of those limits.

  20. To be sure, not only the promoters of enhancement technologies hold to this simplistically dichotomized view. Jürgen Habermas discusses and rejects the strategy of “moralizing (human) nature” and positing its immutable essence as a last defence of human dignity against its technical appropriation ([14], pp. 46–51). Francis Fukuyama and Leon Kass appear to pursue just this strategy.

  21. The authors discuss whether someone who refuses to lower as well as to enhance cognitive ability has recourse to other viable arguments. They purport to show that there are no such arguments. Therefore, any such refusal expresses merely an inappropriate favoring of the status quo, removal of that bias will then change the initial judgement and one will now seek to optimize non-optimal parameters ([4], pp. 671f.).

  22. In the second part of their paper Bostrom and Ord offer another test for status quo bias (the double reversal test). The present critique (that they are working with a false dichotomy) does not apply straightforwardly to this second test. However, the second test exposes even more clearly their utter incomprehension of approaches that are neither consequentialist nor deontological, that appreciate the historicity of the human condition and therefore cannot view the human being as a collection of parameters that either are or are not at an optimum and that can be optimized in isolation of each other.

  23. It should be apparent that this critique is not addressed to promoters of cognitive enhancement alone. It is directed with equal force at those who accept that burden of proof and produce lengthy arguments why we should reject such human enhancement technologies.

  24. This slippage is present also in an assumption that informs many nanotechnological promises, namely the unexamined notion that what is physically possible is also technically possible (that is, one can engineer anything that does not contradict outright the laws of nature), see note 10 above.

  25. In her critique of bioethics, Petra Gehring points out how it validates “a certain way for the future to have a claim on us and thus produces the future” [10, p. 120]: To the extent that the future is invested with the power to shape present conduct, planning, reflection, or preparation, it can indeed be produced by predictions, credulity, or the adoption of claims for ethical deliberation.

  26. For a more sustained critique of the future-orientation of nanodiscourse see Nordmann [28]. It argues that the globalization discourse provides a more appropriate and fruitful frame for ethical and societal questioning. This is supported by principled considerations but also from the point of view of Science Studies and an analysis of nanotechnology as a conquest of (inner) space. Since the current debate on human enhancement technologies stands under the spell of the if-and-then and is therefore inherently “future friendly,” it is curious to note that the World Transhumanist Association has embarked on a “Campaign for a Future Friendly Culture,” that is, “[a] campaign to encourage balanced and constructive portrayals of longevity, human enhancement and emerging technologies in popular culture.” Its specific goals include efforts to “[i]ncrease the sensitivity of culture creators and consumers to the biopolitical messages and bioconservative tropes in popular culture” and the promotion of “transhumanist artists, authors, film-makers, game designers and culture creators” [19].

  27. Thus, technology is brought back into the realm of history rather than merely of temporality. As opposed to a temporal process in physics, a historical process is characterized by the fact that historical agents change and do not continue unaltered on some linear or exponential trajectories of realization, intention, technological progress.

  28. Why should anyone take this leap? The if-and-then strategies suggest that this is not for us to decide since this way of conceiving the body is upon us already along with the requisite enhancement technologies. But it is far from clear that even someone who takes Viagra or undergoes cosmetic surgery (and who is thus acutely aware of the frailty of his or her body) is therefore committed to a notion of technological transcendence of human limitations (see the discussions above).

  29. Transhumanists need not maintain, of course, that they can intelligibly imagine themselves to be other than they are. Indeed, the “singularity” may be welcome precisely because it involves an utterly surprising transformation – like falling in love, going to the theatre, undergoing therapy, or any other profoundly “life-altering” experience (which can be had, of course, without pursuing the dream of transhumanism). However, it requires some such imagination of an enhanced self to expect from technology that it will produce a new, expanded, or in some respect less limited (trans-) human being.

  30. To be sure, these three individuals are examples of human flourishing and not of technical enhancement. The flowery metaphor suggests that they were well-rooted in a social environment that allowed them to flourish and develop their specific capabilities.

  31. This is a form of technological hubris, to be sure (compare the opening paragraph of this paper). For Jean-Pierre Dupuy, it constitutes a catastrophe that is already happening and requires no future physical disaster to make it more serious (Dupuy [9], see also Sandel [32]).

  32. For the distinction between engineering for and engineering of body and mind, see the so-called CTEKS-report [18].

  33. In light of recent advances in robotics, in the development of data gloves and smart environments, and in light of surgeries that can be performed already at an arbitrary physical distance between patient and surgeon, why should anyone be impressed that Miguel Nicolelis and Kevin Warwick can electronically transmit invasively obtained data of correlations between brain or nerve signals and muscular action? In light of the fact that data glove technologies will be further improved, refined, adapted to commercial applications long before anyone could even contemplate the acquisition of a somehow useful brain implant, not only the technical but also the economic feasibility of invasive enhancements technologies appears doomed from the start.

  34. Alternatively, as in the case of global warming, the reasonable rather than speculative (if-and-then) extrapolation appears in a physical model merely as a natural consequence of humanly created initial conditions.

  35. It is therefore that Jean-Pierre Dupuy and Jürgen Habermas do not care whether certain events happen or do not happen in a remote future – as far as they are concerned, they are happening already in that our conceptions of the self are changing [9, 14]. As in Heidegger, so with Dupuy, the “catastrophe” is metaphysical, whether or not our changed conceptions yield any technological innovation whatsoever. (This might afford a more charitable reading also of the research program at Arizona State University, quoted in note 12 above.) As argued in Nordmann [28], I fully agree with this manner of avoiding the if-and-then. Indeed, it informs the present analysis: While I would not dare formulate moral maxims for future human, non-human, post-human beings, I can see that the enhancement discourse makes claims first upon my present attention, and second on my more or less deficient body – claims that I can and must refuse, if only to resist an unwarranted attribution of defectiveness.


  1. Amato I (1999) Nanotechnology – shaping the world atom by atom. National Science and Technology Council, Interagency Working Group on Nanoscience, Engineering and Technology, Washington

  2. Anders G (1956) Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen. Beck, München

    Google Scholar 

  3. Anders G (1972) Endzeit und Zeitende: Gedanken über die atomare Situation. Beck, München

    Google Scholar 

  4. Bostrom N, Toby O (2006) The reversal test: eliminating status quo bias in applied ethics. Ethics 116:656–679

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Bostrom N (2006) Welcome to a world of exponential change. In: Miller P, Wilsdon J (eds.) Better humans? The politics of human enhancement and life extension. DEMOS, London, pp 40–50

    Google Scholar 

  6. Bruland K, Mowery, DC (2004) Innovation through time. In: Fagerberg J, Mowery D, Nelson R (eds) The Oxford handbook of innovation. Oxford University Press 2004, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  7. Bunting M (2006) There is no stop button in the race for human re-engineering. The Guardian, Monday, 30 January 2006

  8. Caplan A (2006) Is it wrong to try to improve human nature? In: Miller P, Wilsdon J (eds) Better humans? The politics of human enhancement and life extension. DEMOS, London, pp 31–39

    Google Scholar 

  9. Dupuy J-P (2005) The philosophical foundations of nanoethics: arguments for a method. Lecture at the Nanoethics Conference, University of South Carolina, 2–5 March 2005

  10. Gehring P (2006) Was ist Biomacht? Vom zweifelhaften Mehrwert des Lebens. Campus, Frankfurt

    Google Scholar 

  11. Green J (2005) Presentation at the key technologies conference. DG Research, Brussels (September 19)

    Google Scholar 

  12. Grunwald A (2004) Vision assessment as a new element of the technology futures analysis toolbox. In: Proceedings of the EU-US scientific seminar: new technology foresight, forecasting & assessment methods, Seville, 13–14 May 2004

  13. Grunwald A (2006) Nanotechnologie als Chiffre der Zukunft. In: Nordmann A, Schummer J, Schwarz A (eds) Nanotechnologien im Kontext: Philosophische, ethische, gesellschaftliche Perspektiven. Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft, Berlin, pp 49–80

    Google Scholar 

  14. Habermas J (2005) Die Zukunft der menschlichen Natur: Auf dem Weg zu einer liberalen Eugenik? Suhrkamp, Frankfurt. Compare the English edition The future of human nature. Blackwell, 2003, London

    Google Scholar 

  15. Hagner M (2006) Der Geist bei der Arbeit. Historische Untersuchungen zur Hirnforschung. Wallstein, Göttingen

    Google Scholar 

  16. Hård M, Jamison A (2005) Hubris and hybrids: a cultural history of technology and science. Routledge, London

    Google Scholar 

  17. Harris J (2006) Enhancement, justice, and rights. Princeton Lectures, James Martin Institute, 14–16 March 2006

    Google Scholar 

  18. HLEG (High Level Expert Group) Foresighting the new technology wave (2004) Converging technologies: shaping the future of European societies. Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, Luxemburg

  19. Hughes J, LaTorra M (2006) WTA NEWS 3 November 2006: News of the World Transhumanist Association accessed 14 February 2007

  20. Hutchins E (1996) Cognition in the wild. MIT, Boston

    Google Scholar 

  21. Jamison A (2006) Hubris or hybrids? On the cultural assessment of nanotechnology. EASST Review 25(3). accessed 14 February 2007

  22. Kurzweil R (2000) The age of spiritual machines. Penguin Books, New York

    Google Scholar 

  23. Kurzweil R (2005) The singularity is near. Penguin Books, New York

    Google Scholar 

  24. Miller P, Wilsdon J (2006) Stronger, longer, smarter, faster. In: Miller P, Wilsdon J (eds) Better humans? The politics of human enhancement and life extension. DEMOS, 2006, London, pp 13–27

    Google Scholar 

  25. Miller P, Wilsdon J (2006) The man who wants to live forever. In: Miller P, Wilsdon J (eds) Better humans? The politics of human enhancement and life extension. DEMOS, London, pp 51–58

    Google Scholar 

  26. Moor J, Weckert J (2004) Nanoethics: assessing the nanoscale from an ethical point of view. In: Baird D, Nordmann A, Schummer J (eds) Discovering the nanoscale. IOS, Amsterdam, pp 301–311

    Google Scholar 

  27. Müller S (2006) Minimal-invasive und nanoskalige Therapien von Gehirnerkrankungen: Eine medizinethische Diskussion. In: Nordmann A, Schummer J, Schwarz A (eds) Nanotechnologien im Kontext: Philosophische, ethische, gesellschaftliche Perspektiven. Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft, Berlin, pp 345–370

    Google Scholar 

  28. Nordmann A (2005) Wohin die Reise geht: Zeit und Raum der Nanotechnologie. In: Gamm G, Hetzel A (eds.) Unbestimmtheitssignaturen der Technik. Transcript, Bielefeld, pp 103–123; English version. No future for nanotechnology? Historical development vs. global expansion. forthcoming in Jotterand F (ed) Nanotechnology and nanoethics: framing the field. Springer, Dordrecht

    Google Scholar 

  29. Nordmann A (forthcoming) Ignorance at the heart of science? Incredible narratives on brain-machine interfaces. Forthcoming in a volume edited by Johannes Ach, Münster

  30. Nordmann A (forthcoming) Tomorrow’s people, today’s challenge. Forthcoming in a collection of contributions to the 2006 James Martin Institute’s World Forum on Science and Civilization

  31. Roco MC, Bainbridge WS (eds) (2002) Converging technologies for improving human performance. National Science Foundation/Department of Commerce, Arlington

    Google Scholar 

  32. Sandel M (2004) The case against perfection. Atl Mon 293:51–62

    Google Scholar 

  33. Treder M (2004) Emancipation from death. In: Immortality Institute (ed) The scientific conquest of death. Libros en Red., Buenos Aries, pp 187–196. accessed 14 February 2007

  34. Urquhart A (2004) Complexity. In: Floridi L (ed) The Blackwell guide to philosophy of computing and information. Blackwell, Malden, pp 18–27

    Google Scholar 

  35. Wilsdon J (2006) Who would not seize the chance to live to 150? Financial Times, 7 February 2007

  36. Workshop (2006) State-of-the-art and socio-economic aspects of brain–machine (BMI) & brain–computer interfaces (BCI). unpublished draft minutes

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Alfred Nordmann.

Additional information

The following critique of much nanoethical discourse is offered by a philosopher and historian of science, that is, by a reluctant ethicist who is operating under “conditions of incredibility” [29]. Insufficiently informed by ethical theory (or meta-ethical reflection) it testifies to the conviction that a socio-historical and philosophical understanding of the phenomenon “nanotechnology” is a precondition for a responsible discourse on societal and ethical aspects. As it draws on two sketches of related arguments [29, 30], this paper aims to suggest a more systematic critique. The origin of all three papers was a contribution to the James Martin Institute’s World Forum on Science and Civilization on the topic of “Tomorrow’s People: The Challenges of Technologies for Life Extension and Enhancement” (Oxford, March 2006). It has since benefited from comments by Christopher Coenen, Reinhard Heil, Ineke Malsch, John Weckert, and others.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Nordmann, A. If and Then: A Critique of Speculative NanoEthics. Nanoethics 1, 31–46 (2007).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: