August 20, 2003

The Serious Optimism of Nanotechnology

NOTE: Our interview with Christine Peterson was finally presented in audio form in FastForward Radio #6.

Speaking of the Future with Christine Peterson

Candide, amazed, terrified, confounded, astonished, all bloody, and trembling from head to foot, said to himself, "If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?"

Candide, Chapter 6
Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire

Voltaire's revulsion for philosophical optimism was a palpable thing. He dragged poor Candide and friends through hundreds of pages of battles, plagues, torture, and other horrors, always to Dr. Pangloss' absurd refrain that this is, indeed, the "best of all possible worlds." We might think that a short story would have made the point as well as a novel, but it doesn't seem that Voltaire wanted merely to dispute what he considered a shallow and utterly facile system of thought. He wanted to destroy it.

I would have to second that impulse.

The Lisbon earthquake that inspired Voltaire to write his novel was, in a sense, the 9/11 of its day. It was obviously not an act of terrorism, but it was a huge, unexpected catastrophe which raised many questions about the meaning of life and our place in the universe. Imagine anyone (other than an outright terrorist psychopath) having the gall to suggest that 9/11 was not only a good thing, but that it was the best thing that could happen, and a key ingredient in making this world the best place it could possibly be. When we consider that it was this attitude that Voltaire challenged with his novel, we might go so far as to suggest that he should have written a few hundred more pages.

Voltaire's rejection of philosphical optimism is a lynchpin of Enlightenment thinking that remains with us to this day. Unfortunately, that well-placed mistrust has spread, diffusing itself into a sort of vague cynicism towards all hopeful modes of thought. Those who turn up their nose at superficial "best of all possible worlds" scenarios will sometimes hastily shun any sort of optimism. And that's a mistake.

There is a kind of optimism that is not informed by wishful thinking nor driven by a desire to make everything seem (no matter what) to come out "right," but that is grounded in science and driven by realistic extrapolation of current capabilities. This is the optimism that talks not just about benefits, but about risks and downsides and the need for better understanding. Ironically, it is this kind of optimism that tends to gives us our most vivid and positive glimpses into the future. After all, who is really the more optimistic: the philospher who tries to paint a happy face on a tragedy, or the seismologist who works on developing warning systems, and the engineer and the architect who work to design buildings that can withstand the next quake? One takes an image of what we know to be bad and tells us that it's good; the others create an image of good things that can be.

Nowhere is this kind of optimism better exemplified than at the Foresight Institute, and there is no more serious nor passionate advocate of it than the Institute's President, Christine Peterson. I spoke with her recently about nanotechnology, living hopefully, and contending with detractors.

Posted by Phil at August 20, 2003 08:36 AM | TrackBack
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