Monday, October 19, 2015

Humans, Nature/Nurture, The Future

An enjoyable article about cognitive enhancement and a changing social world has encouraged some parallel thoughts by me. The article, "Brain Gain" by Nayef Al-Rodhan, goes through possible social changes as we move into the ability for cognitive enhancement. He is mainly worrying about how cognitive enhancement will drive inequalities into even further extremes than today. 

My story below is not really a response to the article, more a side rant, but there is something a bit off in the article. This has to do with a belief by Al-Rodhan that going forward into ever greater enhancement of our cognition by medicine, that we will not eventual make significant alterations to social institutions. If our social dynamics stay the same, say nationalistic, highly-capitalistic social structures, then his worries make sense. But also, as he highlights, as societies in general come to accept a physicalist notion of the brain/mind, there should be changes to how we in general view human social encounters, such as agency. Having acknowledged that we should and will have different views of humans and the social beliefs surrounding humans, he turns back to standardizing our psychological and social beliefs of today going into the future. He assesses the impact of cognitive enhancement within societies and psychologies that look like our's today. If he is right and most people come to accept physicalism in the future, then the kind of psychological and social straight-jackets that make inequality such a given today, hopefully may change in the future. 

There is some reason to think a mechanization of the human means changes to our social beliefs and institutions, as we come to understand our psychologies and emotions to greater extents. I think our naive, folk psychologies and beliefs are one of the things that have us reifying the present order, the present gross inequalities. So, if he is right and people come to accept the "mind/brain identity thesis," then there is also reason to think we will deal with inequality and general societal structures differently in the future. Fears about cognitive enhancement only exacerbating inequality will therefore be shortsighted.

Or maybe Bernie Sanders will solve all our inequality problems before then.

A Different Self

Stories that disrupt our view of selves and our view of humanity.

We can imagine 2000 years in the future, the following procedure: A fetus is developed rather normally. We have standard DNA/epigenetic structure, perhaps slight cognitive enhancement, but still very much human.

Then at birth, we prepare the baby to become a half-mile wide, planet hopping space ship. We remove all limbs, and plug peripheral nerves into ship sensors and into thrusters and flaps. We carefully remove the eyes and ears and plug those sensory systems into new “eyes.” These can be sensory systems that see a great range of the electromagnetic spectrum, and plug other visual nerves into instrument converters that feed the brain with other information, about radiation for example. Our newborn human, our slightly enhanced brain, is now learning to govern the motion and sensory systems of the ship. Where brains once navigated through the body, they now govern a ship-body, that is hooked into their body/brain. For the most part, we can still imagine this brain as running through many of the thought processes of us today, including of the representations that it has of its self. We can allow it to still run on emotions, if we want. He could still have desires, fear, and doubt. He could still have many of the characteristics that we see in us today, at least within our brain/minds.

These kinds of thoughts remind us of several things. There is not some endpoint to evolution that was “Human.” There is not an endpoint that looks like our selves today, of us living in an updated, but still rather “normal” social environment. The above story is not an abomination to humans, because nature cares nothing for this false essentializing of the “human” or of the “environment.” All evolution did was end up with a DNA structure like the one that sits inside our cells, and that gives rise to the general body morphology, under certain given conditions, that we see in us today. Importantly, nature was not trying to create a “human” that lives in a standard earth and “pack-societal” environmental. Our DNA may have developed within such processes, but there was not some desire of evolution that humans/DNA remain within those environs.

Furthermore, there is not some genuine self sitting within our DNA just waiting to emerge into existence. Pretty much any kind of characteristic can be grossly changed given a radically different environment. Many of those characteristics can be radically changed through normal social environmental changes that we are capable of today (such as creating a monosexed society). Even today we can radically change, with certain environmental tweaks, the characteristics of our sexuality, our introversion/extroversion, and our general social institutional structures, such as the heterosexual monogamous matrix. As we get pills and oxytocin sprays (or something actual effectual), who knows the kinds of even more subtle changes we can make to the expression of our DNA in our bodies, even within a rather standard environment.

A cheap shot, but you should hit over the head anyone talking about expression of their true self. We can give better descriptions of our selves than that. There are interesting tales to tell about how our DNA becomes what we are. Those stories are only coherent if we keep different environmental, different social structures firmly within grasp. Stories about why we are the way we are will require a rich combination of genes and environment. When we de-essentialize the human condition, when we de-essentialize our selves, we can begin to tell the interesting stories about why we are the way we are.

No, a half-mile wide semi-human controlled spaceship is not an abomination to nature, to humans, or to our selves. We did not create some monster. There are no monsters.

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