Friday, February 8, 2013

Is human enhancement disenchanting? (Part One)

Although there are some enthusiasts, many people I talk to are deeply ambivalent about the prospects of human enhancement, particularly in its more radical forms. To be sure, this ambivalence might be rooted in human prejudice and bias toward the status quo, but I’m curious to see whether there is any deeper, more persuasive reason to share that unease.

That’s why in this blog post I will be looking at an article by David Owens, entitled “Disenchantment”. The article appeared in an edited collection, Philosophers without Gods, several years back, and was noticeable for its presence in that volume because it did not celebrate or champion the atheistic worldview. Instead, it argued that science, conceived broadly to include both scientific discovery and technological advance, threatened to drain our lives of all meaning and purpose.

There is much to object to in Owens’s article. To my mind, he adopts an overly reductive conception of science (at certain points), and vastly overstates the strength of certain scientific theories (at others). For instance he proclaims “in the last four hundred years, a comprehensive theory of the physical world has been devised”, which is clearly false. Furthermore, the article is not specifically directed at human enhancement per se, but rather at the scientific worldview more generally.

Nevertheless, there is a kernel to the article, one which is specifically directed at the enhancement project, and which does seem to echo concerns and doubts one commonly hears about that project. My goal over the next two blog posts is to try to extract that kernel from Owens’s article, render its argumentative structure more perspicuous, and then subject it to some critical scrutiny.

In the remainder of this post, I shall do two things. First, I shall outline what I take to be a basic pro-enhancement argument, one which seems to be lurking in the background of Owens’s article. Second, I shall outline the key thought experiment Owens uses to support his view — the Pharmacy of the Future thought experiment — and make some interpretive comments about this thought experiment. I shall follow up the next day by extracting two possible arguments that Owens might be making, and critically evaluating the success of each.

1. The Desire-Fulfillment Argument in favour Enhancement
Let’s start with a definition. For the purposes of this series of posts, I will define “enhancement” in the following manner:

Enhancement: The use of scientific knowledge and technical means to manipulate various aspects of the human condition, with the intention of thereby improving/enhancing it.

In different contexts, I might be inclined to use a different more precise definition, but this will do for now. One key thing to note about this definition is the way in which it uses the terms “improving/enhancing” as part of the definition of “enhancement”. This might seem odd, particularly given the fact that “enhancement” is a value-laden term. Since that term is typically thought to mean “makes better” there is danger that the definition prejudges the whole conclusion of the enhancement debate. After all, if enhancement is necessarily something that makes us better, then how could one possibly be against it? The definition given above tries to avoid this problem by talking about the intended effect of the manipulation, not the actual effect. Consequently, the critic is perfectly entitled to challenge the desirability of this kind of enhancement, most obviously by claiming that the actual effect deviates from what is intended, or is far more pernicious than we realise.

Before we get to any arguments like that, however, it is worth briefly sketching out a pro-enhancement argument. This one shall be called the Desire Fulfillment Argument (DFA) and it looks something like this:

  • (1) It is good, all things considered, for us to be able to get what we want, (to fulfil our desires). 
  • (2) There are two things that prevent us from getting what we want: (a) technical obstacles, i.e. we do not have the means to change the world to conform with our desires; and (b) doxastic obstacles, i.e. false and superstitious beliefs prevent us from getting what we want. 
  • (3) Enhancement removes (or, at least, reduces) both kinds of obstacle. 
  • (4) Therefore, enhancement helps us to get what we want. (5) Therefore, enhancement is good for us.

We need to clarify various aspects of this argument. Let’s start with premise one and its discussion of what is “good…for us”. This suggests that the argument is couched in terms of what is subjectively good for individual human beings, not necessarily what is objectively good for humanity or the universe as a whole. This is an important limitation of the argument, and one to which we shall return in part two. Nevertheless, formulating the argument in terms of what is subjectively good seems appropriate in this context because Owens’s challenge to enhancement is strictly concerned with the effect of enhancement on individual well-being. Furthermore, confining the premise to subjective good makes it pretty plausible in my mind, and though I accept there may be problems with irrational desires and the like, I don’t think this would defeat the appeal of the proposition that — from my perspective — satisfaction of my desires looks to be a pretty good, dare I say “desirable”, thing.

Premise (2) does not need further elaboration, but premise (3) does. Although it might seem obvious to some that enhancement removes or reduces both kinds of obstacles, others may be less convinced. As a result, it is worth considering the proposed mechanisms of obstacle reduction. Obviously, some of this is necessarily speculative since the necessary enhancement technologies have not yet been invented, but the claim would be something like this: Through a variety of biomedical interventions (pharmacological, electronic etc.) the limitations of the human body and mind can be overcome. Smart drugs, for example, can allow us to concentrate for longer, alter our moods so we are more inclined to enjoy particular tasks, improve our memories and cognitive processing power, and so on. Performance enhancing drugs can help improve strength, stamina, speed, sexual prowess and so forth. And other biotechnological devices can remove inherent limitations of the human body (e.g by turning us into cyborgs). All these interventions would allow us to alter the world so as to conform with our desires with greater facility. While our false beliefs and superstitions are not necessarily effected by this, it might hoped that the scientific advances that go along with these technologies, and some of the cognitive drugs, would tend to improve things on this score too. Thus, enhancement should remove or reduce these obstacles.

If that premise is correct, then the argument would seem to go through. But is it a good argument? Does it give strong reasons for endorsing the project of human enhancement? Owens thinks not, and he uses a pretty elaborate thought experiment to make his point. Let’s look at that next.

2. The Pharmacy of the Future
In the initial stages of his article, Owens seems to accept the basic logic and appeal of the DFA. For instance, when discussing the impact of science on our understanding of the natural world, he appears to welcome the removal of technical and doxastic obstacles. For him, the problem comes when science no longer simply concerns itself with the workings of the external world, but with the workings of the human body too, which is exactly what the enhancement project is interested in. He claims that, far from it being the case that enhancement will liberate us to satisfy more and more of our desires and thereby secure our subjective well-being, enhancement will make our desires and motivations too contingent and revisable, thereby confusing and undermining our sense of well-being.

At least, that’s what I think the argument is. But let’s look at the thought experiment before we continue further with this interpretive exercise.

The Pharmacy of the Future story proceeds through the following steps:

Step One: You are in a reasonably successful relationship. You love your partner and he/she seems to love you. The only problem is that you are beset by constant doubts about their fidelity, and it’s beginning to take its toll. You really want to trust your partner, but you can’t seem to do so. So you go to the doctor for help. She informs that a new drug has come on the market. It’s called Credon, and it will quell your suspicions, and help you to trust your partner. You decide to take it.
Step Two: Before you do so, however, the doctor — wanting you to make an informed decision — tells you about another drug, called Libermine. Libermine is subtly different from Credon. Instead of increasing your level of trust, Libermine simply reduces the amount you care about infidelity. With Libermine, you can continue to harbour doubts about your partner’s fidelity, but you simply won’t care anymore, remaining content in your relationship and willing to tolerate the occasional affair. So maybe you should take that instead?
Step Three: But wait, there’s more! Both Credon and Libermine work from the assumption that you desire a relationship in the first place. That is: they treat your desire to continue to be in a romantic relationship as a fixed point of reference in figuring out the best course of treatment. Why must that be the case? There is another drug — called Solox — that will reduce your need for physical and emotional dependence. With Solox you will no longer feel the need to hitch your wagon to another human being. Instead, you can maintain a wide circle of acquaintances and casual friends, and feel perfectly content with that. That seems like an attractive proposition right? Less dependence on others, who have a tendency to disappoint anyway?

Owens actually continues the story through another step, with another new drug that promises to alter your desires and motivations in important ways, but we needn’t go through that now. The three steps outlined above are enough to get the basic picture. With this thought experiment Owens is suggesting that if the enhancement project delivers on its promises — if virtually every aspect of the human mental architecture becomes manipulable with the help of some biomedical intervention — then we are landed in a strange and disorienting world. Desire-fulfillment is still, prima facie, a good thing (I assume Owens doesn’t challenge this idea), but which desires should be fulfilled? If they are all manipulable, won’t we be landed in the equivalent of a Buridan’s Ass dilemma? Unsure of what to do to, and unsure of what we really want. Wouldn’t that paralyse us, and actually deprive us of the very things we need to make our lives subjectively worthwhile?

Owens wants to push us towards these conclusions. Whether he is right to do so is something we shall consider in part two.

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