The developments and applications of the new cognitive enhancement drugs are growing rapidly, and the necessary ethical debates that accompany these developments are not keeping the same pace. This week I read an interesting post by Philippe Verdoux, in the Institute of Ethics and Emerging Technologies, that presented an epistemic aspect of neuroenhancing drugs that hadn’t yet called my attention.
Verdoux discusses the possibility of cognitive enhancement technologies actually making us dumber. How would that be possible? It’s a very simple idea and, as he shows later, an apparently mistaken one. It goes as follows.
Imagine that we assume as the measure of our ignorance the difference between the questions that humanity as a whole has posed and the questions to which humanity has been able to provide answers – as proposed by Kevin Kelly. Given the impressive advances of science, our knowledge about the world has been growing exponentially, so we have been able to provide much more answers than our ancestors. Nonetheless, to every answer that science provides us with, comes two or more questions to which we lack explanations. Thus, the number of questions is growing in an even faster pace than the number of answers and, as a consequence, our ignorance is growing with the developments of science.
The problem with the cognitive enhancement technologies would then be that, if these new drugs make us smarter and able to provide even more answers to unknown problems, then they will also be responsible for the generation of an even larger number of unanswered questions. Therefore, these drugs will actually serve to the enlargement of human ignorance.
Interesting, right? But wrong, would argue Verdoux. The problem lies with the definition of human ignorance assumed by Kelly. When we discover some phenomenon yet unknown to us and to which we lack an explanation we do not enlarge our ignorance. Quite the opposite, we enlarge our knowledge about the world.
Verdoux argues, along with Rumsfeld, that our knowledge about the world evolves from “unknown unknowns” to “known unknowns” to “known knowns”. So progressing from “unknown unknowns” to “known unknowns” in epistemically an improvement in human knowledge, not in human ignorance.
To read more about the ethical implications of cognitive enhancement I suggest this enlightening article in the Prospect Magazine.
Neuroethics: Ethics and the Sciences of the Mind
By Neil Levy , University of Melbourne
(Vol. 3, December 2008)
Selecting Children: The Ethics of Reproductive Genetic Engineering
By S. Matthew Liao , University of Oxford
(Vol. 3, August 2008)