Enhance your brain? Enhance our minds!

2 June 2013 by Stephan Schleim, posted in human enhancement, politics

Scientists have often commented on political/social problems and some suggested that new technology provides the solution. People calling themselves transhumanists extend this idea radically: By overcoming human nature, using means such as genetic modification or brain implants, we will also overcome our large-scale problems until ultimately turning into a species of post-humans.

Climate change, public debt, poverty, and starvation – the list of problems threatening peace and happiness can be made much longer. It is easy to imagine a world with less pollution, waste, or crisis and more social justice. Yet, who wants to waive the comfort of the next generation iPhone, household aids, or means of transportation? I am myself writing this commentary on an Apple MacBook Pro, all wireless technology, Designed in California but Made in China, and will fly with an Airbus A319-100 to a conference in Florence, Italy, in less than a week to warn of identifying people with their brains in criminal law.

If one reads the so-called Humanist Manifestos of the 20th and early 21st century, ranging from 1933 to 2003, or if one reads books of famous scientists from different periods explaining their political world-view to a broad public, one might get the impression that the world’s collapse has been imminent a couple of times; or, alternatively, that uncertainty and danger are the rule rather than the exception. If we think about all the bad news of the world we are told everyday in the media, of continents afar and neighborhoods nearby, we might actually agree.

From Humanism to Transhumanism
Now, a couple of intelligent people based, for example, at the Oxford Future of Humanity Institute, think that science and technology offer the ultimate solution. Whatever the problem, cutting-edge research on, say, nano- or brain technology, will provide the answer; and if you think that this technology will itself cause new difficulties – no problem! Just develop better technology. In the words of an advocate of nanotechnology who is interviewed for the documentary Technocalyps: If nanotech carries the risk of turning the world into a grey goo, we will develop nanotech to control nanotech.

Demographers tell us that while religions are on the rise worldwide, less people in Europe have faith in these age-old traditions. Instead, there is a surge in a new kind of spirituality; and perhaps those with a special faith in science and technology are those who now call themselves transhumanists. It is indeed a comforting idea that there is some entity, be it an all-mighty father above, or science-technologists among us, who will solve our problems for us.

We know technology’s dual-use dilemma: What can be used for the better of mankind, can also be used for the worse. The internet is a great means of communication; just like it is an effective way of exerting control. Why should we believe that it will be different in the future, that genetic manipulation or brain implants, as suggested by some transhumanists, will be used for the better? We do not know the consequences of enhancing our brains; but we can try to enhance our minds such that, already now and not just in the future, those who are affected by a decision will actually also have the means of participation for taking that decision. It is this idea of human autonomy that has always been at the heart of humanist values.*

* This text was originally written, upon invitation, for a teaching project of students at the University of Groningen.

2 Responses to “Enhance your brain? Enhance our minds!”

  1. Thomas Avasol Reply | Permalink

    It's interesting how when Dan Brown releases a new book, new topics come to the front of public debate such as transhumanism. But just like what is said in Inferno, transhumanist solutions would require significant capital - making it impossible to reach for the impoverished. This would create further divides where the elite would be even more elite (and maybe not even considered human) and all the rest sub-human.

    That is a dangerous route to go. On the other hand, do we even have a choice?

    • Stephan Schleim Reply | Permalink

      Well, I am writing on enhancement and, less common, on transhumanism at least since 2005 and I met some leading transhumanists in Oxford in 2006. I have also been teaching on these topics for a long time. Contrariwise, I have never read anything by Dan Brown, besides The Da Vinci Code.

      But regarding your question whether we have a choice: Who is this "we" in the first place? And can we get organized such that we can participate in those decisions that will affect us?

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