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How to become a super-enhanced philosopher (instantly, or your money back)

Could we use technology and drugs to enhance our cognitive, emotional and physical capacities and become super-humans? This idea, or dream, is certainly riddled through contemporary popular culture, from the Bourne Supremacy to Iron Man, from Limitless to the transhumanist computer game Deus Ex.

But now the idea seems to be leaping effortlessly from comic books into academic philosophy. Even the sober dons of Oxford have been caught up in the enthusiasm. Here, for example, are Guy Kahane and Julian Savulescu, two members of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, from the introduction to their 2011 book, Enhancing Human Capacities:

It appears that soon we will be able to radically enhance human capacities well beyond the normal range. In some circles, there is even talk about an approaching post-human era, a prospect that is horrifying to many, but enticing to others.

I can’t help but hear that paragraph in a Dr Strangelove voice…We’re at this strange moment in human history, where we’re facing the prospect of climate change and serious human casualties, and this prompts a sort of millenarian last-gasp optimism: ‘Zis may be the end of man, but perhaps it is ze dawn of…SUPERMAN!’

Despite the transhumanist fever, there is some interesting research being done amid the superhype. Among cognitive enhancements, two promising lines of research are transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), and the smart-drug Modafinil.

This week’s New Scientist cover story, for example, is called ‘Zap your brain into the zone: fast track to pure focus’ (sounds like they’re properly plugged in at the New Scientist offices), and it looks at a US Army DARPA research programme which suggests tDCS improves people’s learning ability and their ability to detect threats. Last week, Radio 4’s Today show also explored tDCS. And this feature from Nature magazine lays out several of the research projects under way today. Apparently, a mild electric current from a tDCS helmet improves our brain’s plasticity and thus our ability to learn new habits and aptitudes (God knows how…by heating and softening the brain like wax?). The Army is now experimenting with tDCS helmets for troops, and I came across one report of an advertizing executive who used a tDCS device to overcome writer’s block.

There’s a similar buzz (sorry) around the cognitive enhancement possibilities of the smart drug Modafinil, or Provigil as it’s sometimes called, which apparently enhances working memory, wakefulness, attention, reaction time and even humour. Oxford’s Anders Sandberg suggests we should prescribe Modafinil in schools to enhance human intelligence and make the entire species a bit smarter. ‘Surely’, he says, ‘anything that improves the ability to learn is a good thing.’

Armies, schools and corporations have experimented with the use of stimulants in the past: German soldiers and Japanese factory workers were given amphetamine to improve performance during the war, and the US Army still gives soldiers and pilots amphetamine to improve wakefulness (this came out in a 2003 law case, when it emerged that two American pilots in the Iraq war had mistakenly bombed a Canadian unit while themselves bombed on speed).

In fact, my great-grandfather, Charles Moran, who was Churchill’s doctor during and after the war, prescribed Churchill both barbituates to help him sleep, and amphetamine to keep him awake (Churchill nick-named these pills ‘Morans’.). It seems that, in both politics, the military, sports and show-business, the greater the demands we make on high performers, the more we turn a blind eye to providing chemical assistance to power their superhuman performance. Though of course, these super-powered humans often crash spectacularly, Icarus-like, from over-dosing.

Masters of ourselves?

While there are obvious side-effects to amphetamine (like psychosis), Modafinil apparently has fewer side effects. Still, this line of thinking somewhat gives me the shivers. I prefer the Socratic idea that we can become masters of our own souls using our reason, rather than depending for our well-being on some pharmaceutical corporation or government, handing out the happy pills at the factory gates.

This may be because of my personal history. When I was 18, I developed post-traumatic stress disorder after doing too many drugs (LSD, ecstasy, amphetamine). For the next six years or so, I suffered from depression, anxiety and panic attacks – and I also saw many of my friends suffering the mental and emotional consequences of drugs. I was terrified that I had permanently damaged my neural wiring, and that the only solution was to take mood enhancing drugs like Prozac for the rest of my life (as some of my old drug buddies now do). I found that prospect depressing, because it undermined my sense of autonomy and meaning.

Eventually I came across Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a form of therapy based on Socratic and Stoic philosophy. Through this, I learnt that my emotions weren’t completely out of my control, that they followed my beliefs, and that I could learn to examine my beliefs and change them if they were irrational or self-defeating. After a few weeks of CBT, the panic attacks stopped and my confidence started to come back. I carried on practicing for the next few years, and my life is a lot better now than it was.

Because of that experience, I’m a strong advocate of the healing power of philosophy, ‘whose aid’, as Cicero wrote, ‘need not be sought, as in bodily diseases, from outside ourselves’. I like the idea that we can heal ourselves, that we don’t need pharmaceutical companies to heal us while boosting their own enormous profits.

But I also recognise that CBT is not a magic wand. It doesn’t work for everyone. In my CBT support group for social anxiety, some of us recovered, some of us didn’t. And it’s not like I recovered entirely through my own efforts: I had in-built advantages, such as a loving family, good friends, and quite a rational and logical mind (despite the fact I’d gone a bit crazy). What about people who don’t have those advantages?

This question goes, in fact, to the heart of Socratic philosophy. Socrates claimed that everyone could practice philosophy, to know themselves and become wiser and happier. But his descendants were much less optimistic. Aristotle, for example, thought that only those with the proper mental and psychological ‘equipment’ could practice philosophy and achieve the good life. You needed to come from a loving family and have been educated well. Without that psychological and ethical grounding, he believed, philosophy was impossible.

I know many people who came through really adverse upbringings and still practiced philosophy effectively. So I think one can be too pessimistic about the ‘equipment’ needed for philosophy. But it’s certainly true that some people find it harder than others to rationally examine their beliefs and challenge their habits.

Enhanced CBT
So is the Socratic ethos of CBT necessarily in conflict with the enhancement ethos of transhumanism?

Not necessarily, no. In fact, the last chapter in Kahane and Savulescu’s ‘Enhancing Human Capacities‘ looks at CBT and Positive Psychology, and the entire book frames the idea of cognitive and emotional enhancement in the context of well-being and flourishing. I think one person who brings the two worlds together is self-development guru Tim Ferriss (pictured left), who I have called ‘Seneca on steroids‘.

It seems to me that it might be possible to use some cognitive and emotional ‘enhancers’ to help people in the initial two months of CBT, where they are going through the hard work of challenging their habits and creating new habits. In fact, this already happens. GPs prescribe CBT with Prozac for people trying to overcome depression. Studies have also found CBT and Modafinil are effective together in the treatment of insomnia. I don’t know of any studies yet that have explored whether CBT works better when accompanied by transcranial direct current stimulation, but I suspect it would. CBT depends on neural plasticity, so if tDCS boosts plasticity, it should boost CBT too.

This may seem Strangelovian. But it’s the same idea as, for example, keeping your sucrose level up to boost your will power, or using nicotine patches when you’re giving up smoking. I don’t think it’s a black-and-white question of genuine morality versus chemical short-cuts. Self-knowledge and self-transformation has never been easy, so perhaps we should explore ways of helping people along the way (as long as they want the help, of course).

In other news:

Back in 2005, Albert Ellis, the great psychotherapist and inventor of CBT, was kicked off the board of the Albert Ellis Institute by the president of the board, Lyle Stuart (who was also his publisher). This caused a big schism in the cognitive therapy community. Ellis died an unhappy man in 2007. Well, in the latest twist, the man Stuart appointed as his successor, Jeffrey Bernstein, has been accused of stealing $2.5 million from the Institute. A sorry end to a sorry tale.

Here’s an interesting piece from the New York Times about a young man who was initially diagnosed as suffering from Asperger’s, and who turned out simply to be a slightly awkward teenager. He writes: “The biggest single problem with the diagnostic criteria applied to me is this: You can be highly perceptive with regard to social interaction, as a child or adolescent, and still be a spectacular social failure. This is particularly true if you’re bad at sports or nervous or weird-looking.”

Here’s a review in the Economist about Stefan Collini’s new book on universities, which apparently harks back to Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of the University.

Here are two pieces about John Rawls and the Occupy movement. The first is from the Atlantic monthly, and the second is a podcast of Stanford’s Joshua Cohen discussing how John Rawls might see the Occupy movement.

Finally, here’s some great footage of Richard Dawkins debating God (again), but this time at the Jaipur literary festival, surrounded by swamis, amid the controversy of new death threats against Salman Rushdie. Quite an atmosphere.

See you next week,


Should we all be popping ‘morality pills’?

Over at the New York Times’ excellent Opinionator blog, philosophers Peter Singer and Agata Sagan ponder whether we should all be prescribed ‘morality pills’ to make us more altruistic (I nicked the amusing illustration from that site as well – it’s by Leif Parsons). The authors write:

Researchers at the University of Chicago recently took two rats who shared a cage and trapped one of them in a tube that could be opened only from the outside. The free rat usually tried to open the door, eventually succeeding. Even when the free rats could eat up all of a quantity of chocolate before freeing the trapped rat, they mostly preferred to free their cage-mate. The experimenters interpret their findings as demonstrating empathy in rats. But if that is the case, they have also demonstrated that individual rats vary, for only 23 of 30 rats freed their trapped companions.

The causes of the difference in their behavior must lie in the rats themselves. It seems plausible that humans, like rats, are spread along a continuum of readiness to help others. There has been considerable research on abnormal people, like psychopaths, but we need to know more about relatively stable differences (perhaps rooted in our genes) in the great majority of people as well.

Undoubtedly, situational factors can make a huge difference, and perhaps moral beliefs do as well, but if humans are just different in their predispositions to act morally, we also need to know more about these differences. Only then will we gain a proper understanding of our moral behavior, including why it varies so much from person to person and whether there is anything we can do about it.

If continuing brain research does in fact show biochemical differences between the brains of those who help others and the brains of those who do not, could this lead to a “morality pill” — a drug that makes us more likely to help? Given the many other studies linking biochemical conditions to mood and behavior, and the proliferation of drugs to modify them that have followed, the idea is not far-fetched. If so, would people choose to take it? Could criminals be given the option, as an alternative to prison, of a drug-releasing implant that would make them less likely to harm others? Might governments begin screening people to discover those most likely to commit crimes? Those who are at much greater risk of committing a crime might be offered the morality pill; if they refused, they might be required to wear a tracking device that would show where they had been at any given time, so that they would know that if they did commit a crime, they would be detected.

Fifty years ago, Anthony Burgess wrote “A Clockwork Orange,” a futuristic novel about a vicious gang leader who undergoes a procedure that makes him incapable of violence. Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 movie version sparked a discussion in which many argued that we could never be justified in depriving someone of his free will, no matter how gruesome the violence that would thereby be prevented. No doubt any proposal to develop a morality pill would encounter the same objection.

But if our brain’s chemistry does affect our moral behavior, the question of whether that balance is set in a natural way or by medical intervention will make no difference in how freely we act. If there are already biochemical differences between us that can be used to predict how ethically we will act, then either such differences are compatible with free will, or they are evidence that at least as far as some of our ethical actions are concerned, none of us have ever had free will anyway. In any case, whether or not we have free will, we may soon face new choices about the ways in which we are willing to influence behavior for the better.

This may sound like science fiction, but many young neuroscientists are already researching morality pills, including Molly Crockett at the University of Cambridge; and Julian Savalescu & Guy Kahane at the University of Oxford, who are two of the authors of ‘Enhancing Human Capacities’, published in 2011. I haven’t read that book yet, but it looks absolutely fascinating (actually, just reading it now…not that fascinating). People have also considered the use of Ecstasy / MDMA to enhance empathy. And of course, scientists are now researching the use of psychedelic drugs to help people overcome depression and gain greater meaning in life. Hard to know whether to think of that as a resurgence of spiritualism, or the final triumph of mechanism….

As to the morality of ‘morality pills’…well, what do you think?
One could argue, perhaps, that many of us use personality enhancers – coffee to make us work faster, wine to make us more social (a sort of morality drug). On the other hand, as a friend of mine pointed out, who decides what is moral? What if such drugs are imposed on us without our consent (as they are often imposed on people suffering from schizophrenia to make sure they fit into our socio-ethical system)? What about the case of Alan Turing, the computer genius who was chemically castrated by the British government to stop him being homosexual?

In my opinion, scientists today, and even many philosophers, are far too happy to give up on the idea of responsibility, free will, human rationality etc. When you do give up on it, it very quickly means handing over power to an elite or ‘grand controller’ to steer the automatons of the masses in the right direction. It’s amazing, and startling, how quickly that idea is becoming mainstream and respectable.