Have you ever wanted to be smarter or have a better memory, say, in the middle of taking an exam? For most of us, these desires seem unrealistic and we accept that our mental abilities have set limits that can?t be changed. However, there are some people who believe in Transhumanism, a philosophy that advocates the use of technology to enhance mental ability. In Future Minds: Transhumanism, Cognitive Enhancement and the Nature of Persons, Susan Schneider, a philosopher at the University of Pennsylvania, discusses the bioethics of the Transhumanist position. In particular, she examines whether mental enhancement is desirable from the viewpoint of personal identity. She believes that given the possibility that radical enhancement of an individual could result in the creation of a new entity that is no longer the same person, enhancement would not be ethical.
The basic tenets of Transhumanism are laid out in the Transhumanist Declaration that was written by members of the World Transhumanist Association. The tenets include:
(1) Humanity will be radically changed by technology in the future. We foresee the
feasibility of redesigning the human condition, including such parameters as the
inevitability of aging, limitations on human and artificial intellects, unchosen psychology, suffering, and our confinement to the planet earth.
(4) Transhumanists advocate the moral right for those who so wish to use technology to
extend their mental and physical (including reproductive) capacities and to improve their control over their own lives. We seek personal growth beyond our current biological limitations.
Dr. Schneider believes that Transhumanism should be taken seriously given that many of the technologies that would allow for radical enhancement are in early development now. She provides a possible future scenario hoped for by many Transhumanists. In 2025, people become cyborgs by receiving eye implants connected to the internet and brain implants to improve memory. Life extension through nanotechnology becomes available by 2040. Human beings continue to modify themselves until they become posthumans by 2060. The Transhumanist Frequently Asked Questions by Nick Bostrom describes a posthuman as a being ?whose basic capacities so radically exceed those of present humans as to be no longer unambiguously human by our current standards?. In this scenario, there is no difference between radically modified human beings and super-intelligent artificial intelligences by 2600 other than origin.
Philosophers have long debated the nature of the person and find many of the scenarios envisioned by Transhumanist to be metaphysically problematic in regards to the continuity of identity. Dr. Schneider argues that the enhancements endorsed by Transhumanism could lead to undesirable results because someone who undergoes more and more mental enhancements would eventually cease to exist. In that light, radical mental enhancement would be unethical being a form of suicide. She then examines the viewpoint on this issue held by many Transhumanists, that of Patternism in which ?enhancements can alter the material substrate but must preserve your memories and your overall psychological configuration.? Several case studies are given which indicate that Transhumanists have a lot of work to do to show that identity can be preserved after mental enhancement.
This article is of interest because it raises the possibility that mental enhancement could be a form of suicide. However, the issue was discussed only in terms of philosophy and did not include much of our current understanding of the brain. Any future brain enhancements would arise from basic neuroscience research and debates of this nature must include specifics regarding the structure of the brain. Hopefully, this article will challenge neuroscientists to address issues regarding identity brought about by radical brain enhancement.