Darian Meacham publishes article on Critiquing Technologies of the Mind

Darian Meacham’s introductory article to a special issue of ‘Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences’ has been published. Meacham’s ‘Introduction: Critiquing Technologies of the Mind‘ examines the debate surrounding cognitive enhancement technologies, identifies some particular challenges, and investigates which approaches based on phenomenology, French epistemology and 4E Cognition can contribute to moving the debate forward.

The academic debate surrounding “cognitive enhancement” is now into its third decade. Simply put, the debate concerns attempts, actual and speculative, to amplify and extend “core capacities of the mind through improvement or augmentation of internal or external information processing systems” (Bostrom and Sanberg 2009). Some definitions of cognitive enhancement have sought to constrain the debate by limiting the types of augmenting or extending interventions to contemporary bio- and information technologies. Take for example the definition of cognitive enhancement provided on the website of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, one of the central institutional protagonists in the debate: “to extend the abilities of the human mind and to modulate affective and hedonic states through genetic, neuropharmaceutical, computer or direct neural interventions.”1 The epistemological coherence of limiting the definition to contemporary technologies, while discounting other now normalized and ubiquitous ones, for example writing implements, as these definitions do, is certainly suspect and has been heavily criticized (e.g. Buchanan 2011a, b). Elsewhere, I have referred to approaches to enhancement that don’t try to limit the concept of enhancement to the use of contemporary bio- or information technologies as “inflationary” (Meacham 2015). An enhancement in the inflationary sense can be defined in the fashion that Buchanan does as “an intervention—a human action of any kind—that improves some capacity (or characteristics) that normal human beings ordinarily have, or more radically that produces a new one” (Buchanan 2011b, p.5). The inflationary approach does not acknowledge an epistemologically or normatively salient difference in kind between novel technologies (e.g. neuropharmaceuticals, genetic engineering, or neural intervention) and existing, normalized, ubiquitous ones (e.g. pen and paper). This approach, if pushed, seems not only to call into question distinctions between different kinds of technological interventions, but also the distinction between “natural” and technologically mediated or augmented cognitive engagements between and organism and its environment. If we follow the inflationary approach to its limits, there seem to be good reasons to consider some, for example, mnemonic processes involving language that we would normally consider natural, i.e. not technologically mediated, to in fact be technological cognitive enhancements. The justification for this would be that there are good reasons to consider numbers and language itself as technology (Frank et al. 2008). The inflationary approach is particularly significant in the context of this special issue as it opens up the discussion of cognitive enhancement into a broader discussion concerning human relations with technology more generally speaking, and also onto questions of what “normal” cognitive relations with the environment might be.

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