Epistemological Implications of Cognitive Enhancement

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.

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He said, she said.

388px-Germany_Singelfingen_GossipsThis week the Guardian published an article questioning the veracity of UK sex trafficking figures. Not long ago, numbers as high as 25,000 were being used to motivate government policy which has led to changes in the priorities of virtually every police force in the country, and likely changes in the law. But it turns out the figures are bogus. The Guardian article charts their genealogy.

A central division that shapes the epistemology of testimony is that between reductionists and non-reductionists. Reductionists think that interlocutors have to justify what they are told by their own means. Non-reductionists think that interlocutors can, in principle, be justified in being so told, alone. The present situation offers a nice illustration of what’s at issue.

It’s difficult to imagine how anyone could know everything that is known. But in any society in which there is a division of epistemic labour, many people make decisions which affect the lives of others on matters about which they are not experts or even knowledgeable hobbyists.

This combination (absent first-hand knowledge, and, a capacity to affect the lives of others) introduces a requirement that people rely on what the authorities (whoever they are: mechanics, scientists, economists, estate agents, policy designers, teachers…) tell them. This is a fact of modern life. Most of what you know you do not know first hand. But for this dependence on authority to work effectively as a basis on which interlocutors can make good decisions, and act appropriately: the authorities in question must have an accurate reputation; the theatres in which authorities have their checks and controls need to be functioning properly; and that which leaks out into the public domain needs to be put in a way that non-experts can understand and put to use responsibly.

When we have non-expert consumers of information, much scaffolding needs to be in place for a reliance on authority not to end in disaster. But with it in place, we get a picture of the epistemological status of testimony that is not obviously either reductionist or non-reductionist.

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The Kilogram is not a Kilogram!

Though it may sound paradoxical, physicists have known for decades that a kilogram just isn’t what it used to be. That’s because it’s lighter—or at least lighter than its copies—by fifty micrograms. After all, worldwide agreement on experimental results is only possible because there are standardized (SI) units like the meter, the second, and the kilogram. But when the standard kilogram, a cylinder of metal alloy (platinum and iridium), is compared to manufactured copies (with the same composition and size), the scale tips, very slightly, toward the copy. Thus, the original has lost mass (perhaps to polishing) or the copies have gained mass (perhaps by absorbing air), but of course, there’s no way to tell which; they are the standards by which scientists would make such a judgment.

Philosophers should take note. Does the standard cylinder weigh one kilogram because scientists were careful when they made it or because it was defined that way? According to National Public Radio, Continue reading “The Kilogram is not a Kilogram!”

How do we know when to stop brushing our teeth?

800px-Border_Station_Torkhemn_by_James_G_Pinsky_2006In the course of any given day, the number of snap decisions we are called upon to make is staggering. Simply getting to the office in the morning demands decisions about what to wear, when to leave the house, what route to take, where to park the car, and so on. Many of these involve considerable deliberation, especially when something sudden and unexpected happens that interferes with the decisions we would normally have made – the car not starting, high density traffic on our regular route, a meteor striking our office building, etc.

However, the vast majority of our decisions are made on the fly – they seemingly involve no deliberation at all. Should I use the big black coffee mug, or the smaller blue one? Having left the house, do I then go on the paved path, or simply cut through the lawn towards my car? Fiddle with the radio and only then drive, or the other way around? Even more subtle examples are ubiquitous. How should I pick up the coffee mug, left hand, right hand, by the handle, from above? How firmly should I press the toothbrush to my teeth, and when have I brushed sufficiently? How much pressure on the gas pedal would allow me to bypass that geriatric SUV safely? The list is endless.

Most of these decisions seem to involve no deliberation that we are aware of at all, and yet, it seems obvious that we are there, making them. In a sense, they are automatic, and yet, we’re the ones making them. At the very least, it seems to us that we could have done otherwise.

Continue reading “How do we know when to stop brushing our teeth?”

Philosophy Compass July Issue

The latest issue form Philosophy Compass is out now, featuring the following great articles, surveying the most recent scholarly literature in philosophy:

PHCO pebbles banner Online ISSN: 1747-9991    Print ISSN: 1747-9991
Philosophy Compass
Volume4, Issue4,2009.
Early View (Articles Available Online in Advance of Print)
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Continue reading “Philosophy Compass July Issue”