2007 : WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?

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Philosopher and Cognitive Scientist, University of Edinburgh; Author: Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension
Professor of Philosophy, Edinburgh University; Author, Being There: Putting Brain, Body and World Together Again

The End Of The 'Natural'

I am optimistic that the human race will continue to find ways of enhancing its own modes of thought, reason, and feeling. As flexible adaptive agents we are wide open to a surprising variety of transformative bodily and mental tricks and ploys, ranging from the use of software, sports regimes and meditational practice, to drug therapies, gene therapies, and direct brain-machine interfaces.

I am optimistic that, stimulated by this explosion of transformative opportunities, we will soon come to regard our selves as constantly negotiable collection of resources, easily able to straddle and criss-cross the boundaries between biology and artifact. In this hybrid vision of our own humanity I see increased potentials not just for repair but for empowerment, expansion, recreation, and growth. For some, this very same hybrid vision may raise specters of coercion, monstering and subjugation. For clearly, not all change is for the better, and hybridization (however naturally it may come to us) is neutral rather than an intrinsic good. But there is cause for (cautious) optimism.

First, there is nothing new about human enhancement. Ever since the dawn of language and self-conscious thought, the human species has been engaged in a unique 'natural experiment' in progressive niche construction. We engineer our own learning environments so as to create artificial developmental cocoons that impact our acquired capacities of thought and reason. Those enhanced minds then design new cognitive niches that train new generations of minds, and so on, in an empowering spiral of co-evolving complexity. The result is that, as Herbert Simon is reputed to have said, 'most human intelligence is artificial intelligence anyway'. New and emerging technologies of human cognitive enhancement are just one more step along this ancient path.

Second, the biological brain is itself populated by a vast number of hidden 'zombie processes' that underpin the skills and capacities upon which successful behavior depends. There are, for example, a plethora of such unconscious processes involved in activities from grasping an object all the way to the flashes of insight that characterize much daily skilful problem-solving. Technology and drug based enhancements add, to that standard mix, still more processes whose basic operating principles are not available for conscious inspection and control. The patient using a brain-computer interface to control a wheelchair will not typically know just how it all works, or be able to reconfigure the interface or software at will. But in this respect too, the new equipment is simply on a par with much of the old.

Finally, empirical science is at last beginning systematically to address the sources and wellsprings of human happiness and human flourishing, and the findings of these studies must themselves be taken as important data points for the design and marketing of (putative) technologies of enhancement.

In sum, I am optimistic that we will soon see the end of those over-used, and mostly ad hoc, appeals to the 'natural'. May we all have a thoroughly unnatural New Year.