Brain Enhancement

I find some of the new developments in science explored in this new exhibition quite troubling and even frightening on a number of levels. There are a number of questions that I would like to see addressed. For example, if a person’s creativity could be raised by the use of technology, to what extent would it still be their creativity? Why do human beings make art and music, write literature, play sports and do all such other activities in the first place? What is the chief telos of these endeavours? Does the use of technology to enhance mental powers subtly undermine this telos?

I sometimes wonder whether our society has forgotten the centrality of the building of character and expression of our humanity. The valuing of achievement, efficiency, power and the quantifiable over such things as character formation leads us to a society in which our humanity is increasingly compromised. The primary goals of many modern education systems are a good example here; future efficiency in the labour market (which can be measured in exams) is all too often valued over growth in virtue.

The development of technology that can manipulate and empower our brains isn’t going to help the situation. The drive for efficiency and achievement tends to lead us to forget the importance of the very virtues that enable us to be the masters of our technology, techniques and systems. As these virtues are lost our very humanity is eroded. Drug cheats in sport are a very good example of this. They have made the quantifiable sporting achievement their great goal and have lost sight of the importance of sport as a character-building activity. Important as victory in sport is, when it becomes the governing telos of the activity, sport has lost its soul. Frankly, I am not surprised that, given the professionalization of sport in our society (particularly among young children), drug cheating is such a big issue in many sports.

A number of writers have spoken of the intimizing of technology and the technologizing of intimacy. In this day and age so much of our existence and so many of our relationships are mediated by technology. Brain enhancement technologies would take this a whole step further. Our very thinking and creative process could become technologized.

Albert Borgmann has spoken of the ‘device paradigm’. He compares a ‘device’ to a ‘thing’. A fireplace is an example of a ‘thing’, something that is rooted in a particular context, demands complex engagement and a range of different skills and does not merely provide one commodity. A ‘device’, on the other hand, demands far less skill and engagement and is seen increasingly as merely a means to provide a particular commodity. The ‘device paradigm’ shapes us to increasingly regard engagement as an unwelcome means to an end, from which technology can save us. The ‘internal goods’ of ours practices of engagement are lost sight of. A microwave and convenience food may save us from the task of cooking, but cooking is far more than an inefficient technique to produce the commodity of a meal on the table. Cooking has many internal goods. Cooking is a realm of engagement where the senses are honed. It can be a form of artistic expression and self-giving.

What happens when the ‘device paradigm’ begins to shape our thinking about the human brain and other parts of our body? What happens when our brains are seen merely as devices to produce scientific formulae, works of art and the like? I fear that our humanity will suffer loss, through the increasing objectification of the subject and detachment of the human subject from the embodiment of human existence. We disidentify ourselves from our bodies. Our bodies are regarded as devices or instruments employed by the self, rather than as extensions of the self. The world becomes a realm of depersonalized objects to be acted upon by devices, rather than a realm of personal expression and giving of the self, where creation is regarded, not as impersonal object, but as personal gift and as something to be redeemed by love.

As I have argued elsewhere, the root problem here is one of imagination. The world in which we operate is not some pure reality ‘in itself’, but a collective representation of reality. Man is bewitched by his own seductive dreams and forgets himself. His prison of entranced slumber is largely of his own making. The progressive objectification of the human person is merely the gradual outworking of a poisonous way of imagining the world. That which is necessary at such a time is a reimagining of the world which attacks the paradigms and episteme in which we operate at their root and does not merely limit itself to attacking their rotten fruit. This need has seldom been more pressing.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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3 Responses to Brain Enhancement

  1. Nietzsche’s dream (our nightmare) is coming true. When even our selves becomes technologized into an instrument of our bare will, nihilism has come to rule everywhere.

    “I know my fate. One day there will be associated with my name the recollection of something frightful – of a crisis like no other before on earth, of the profoundest collision of conscience, of a decision evoked against everything that until then had been believed in, demanded, sanctified. I am not a man, I am dynamite.”

    Perhaps I should re-read David B Hart…

  2. Jeremy Abel says:

    The first time I heard about brain enhancement was on the latest issue of Mars Hill Audio. Nigel Cameron was there to discuss the new book he co-wrote with Joni Eareckson Tada titled “How To Be A Christian In A Brave New World.” Sounds worthwhile.

  3. Mark Roberts says:

    don’t be a fool. Go easy on your EBEs.

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