The Goal of Neural Enhancement

What is the ultimate goal of neural enhancement?  It’s obvious many people want to do it, but why?  Does it afford fitness advantages for natural selection?  Probably, but if this is the case, then it is no different than enhancing the brain through education.  If you get a good education you will be able to behave in ways unavailable to those without an education.  Maybe this means you can write computer code, or perform complicated surgery, or confidently navigate our dense legal environment.  Since the ultimate reason to want any enhancement is the new behavior it will allow (or the new behavior it will cause in other people, like the jealousy you will inspire in others when you buy that Ferrari), the fitness evaluations can only happen on this behavior and not on the enhancement itself.  Genotypes are ignored by evolution; they are selected indirectly through the interaction of the phenotype and the environment.  So are all enhancements evaluated indirectly through the behaviors they allow.  One is only as free as the actions he can think of performing – actually, he is only as free as the subset of actions he can both think of and physically perform.  Improved senses allow greater discrimination of physical stimuli and consequently more information can be pulled from the world.  Enhanced memory allows more information to be available for use when determining behavioral responses to specific situations.

Improvement of mood through chemical or physical means increases the facility, bandwidth, and duration of social interaction.  This allows greater organization and coordination of behavior.  It is this social improvement that allows the greatest improvement of freedom.  Any individual benefit is only tantamount to the increase of social organization and information exchange.  And as to the improved mood from antidepressants, it is unknown whether this is a cause or effect of the improved social interaction.  That is, do you feel better so you can get along with your family and friends better?  Or does your chemical alteration allow social information to be more easily processed, and so you are able to get along at a deeper level with your family and friends and therefore feel better?  Looking at it like this raises thorny philosophical problems about determinism and the nature of the self and the mind.  After all, if we can be induced to behave differently than we otherwise would have by the ingestion of receptor pirates, what comes first, the motivation leading to the behavior, or the behavior with the motivation fabricated ex post facto? It’s even more tricky when you consider the fact that these mood-alterers are almost never self-administered, but are prescribed by someone else in a socially official and well-defined role as a caregiver.

So what is the goal?  Just to feel better?  Does anyone want to feel better for no reason?  Were that the case one could simply take heroin continuously, removing themselves from the social fabric and feeling the most intense subjective joy forever (or until death, which won’t take long).

One only feels better if they are fulfilling their self-determined social positions.  No one takes Prozac to sit alone in a room and just feel “fine”.  We have heroin for that.  If all neural enhancement is just for the reduction of pain and anxiety, heroin seems to be the optimum substance.  After all, it’s hard to feel better than you do when on heroin and I don’t recommend trying it to prove me wrong.  People take anti-anxieties to improve social intercourse, be it with whomever.  Since we are embedded in our social fabric (indeed a lone man on an island is not only an animal but is incapable of any moral or political behavior; Donne said rightly that “No man is an island entirely of itself”) any neural enhancement, be it chemical or mechanical, must be for this end.  Our fitness is impossible to untangle from the groups fitness, so whatever benefits we derive from enhancement are no more or less moral than any activity that gives us individual fitness while reducing that of our group.

It seems, therefore, that there is nothing inherently morally wrong with direct neural enhancements of whatever kind.  Furthermore, the ultimate goal of any neural enhancement must be social.  The primary effect of the administration of mood-regulating drugs is to increase the facility of information-bearing social interactions and, ultimately, to increase the amount of freedom in a society.  The possible actions that one person may perform at any instant are legion, but the possible actions that two people can perform is far greater, and the more people added to the behavioral matrix, the greater the freedom.  It rises non-linearly as a function both of the possible physical actions based on the skeletal muscles of the individuals, but also on the tools they can use and manipulate, the computers they operate, and the way these interact with each other.  Depression, anxiety, and psychosis reduce the information flow between people, and hence reduces the freedom of the society of which they are members.  Societies self-regulate by administering chemicals to their members for the purpose of increasing their social availability.  Through the official role of caregivers, the society identifies poorly-operating constituent members and alters their physical composition through the use of drugs or cognitive therapy to better integrate with the group.

Neural enhancement must regarded as be of the same type as cosmetic enhancement through medical techniques, or at least, cannot be regarded under a completely separate ethical category.  Both offer some social advantages, both allow for novel behaviors unavailable prior to the enhancement, and both cause different behavior in members of the society with whom the enhanced individual interacts.

11 Responses

  1. I would like to make an addenda..
    By dangerous neural enhancement program, I don’t imply that all neural enhancement is wrong, by all means not. Instead I refer to one the comments above, mentioning a state run enforcement of enhancement from the top down.

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