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Elastic Selves in the Age of Enhancement

Susana Badiola wonders how technology will help us understand our selves.

“I find it important in philosophizing to keep my posture, not to stand for too long on one leg, so as not to get stiff.”
(From Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notes, published in Culture & Value, 1977)

Scientists and futurists are spreading before a dazzled public all kinds of astonishing prospects of humans in the near future being deliberately transformed through the use of technology. Through advanced medicine and by integrating technology into our lives and our very bodies, we may soon be stronger, healthier, longer-lived, happier, with more acute senses, and capabilities undreamed of by our ancestors. Such technological enhancements of ourselves will be our own conscious choices. What will that mean for our sense of self?

Old questions such as ‘What are we?’ or ‘What makes us be who we are?’ still resonate through contemporary philosophy. The conviction of being oneself obstinately remains despite all theoretical attempts to dilute it. Phenomenologists take the experiencing self as a given, as a starting point. Others feel intellectual discomfort with substantive notions of self, and explain my feeling of being me either as an illusion or as a social construction. The conclusion that ‘the self within’ is an illusion caused by some grammatical, psychological or epistemological mistake is not exclusive to philosophers; neuroscientists and artificial intelligence theorists explain it away as being the result of complex systems, carbon based or otherwise. On the other hand, many postmodernist and feminist scholars regard the self as a construction; as a story we tell ourselves or that society tells about us. This view of the self as a ‘narrative’ extends as well to neuroscience and psychology. Yet despite all attempts to do away with it, there continues to be clear resistance to giving up the notion of self. Whether because of religious underpinnings or cultural inertia, the idea of the self as core lingers implicitly even in the face of evidence that might seem to throw it into doubt.

I suggest we take this concept of self seriously because of its pervasiveness. In this article I want to see what we can learn from the intellectual challenges that technological enhancement poses to it.

Become the Light
Become the Light by Cameron Gray 2019. Please visit parablevisions.com and facebook.com/camerongraytheartist

An I on the Self

We should start by clarifying our problematic notion. Even as we all seem to know what we mean by ‘self’, it is not easy to characterize. Galen Strawson once listed twenty-one different concepts of ‘self’ (Journal of Consciousness Studies 6, 1999), and Peter van Inwagen analyzed nine possible referents of the pronoun ‘I’ (The Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics, 2002). Other authors, such as Anthony Kenny, deny that the first person pronoun refers to anything at all, and say that this grammatical error is the source of many a philosophical muddle (The Metaphysics of Mind, 1989). The ambiguity of the word ‘I’ seems apparent in claims such as ‘I have not been myself lately’ – which could be paraphrased as ‘There is something wrong with me’, or more confusingly, ‘I am aware that my self has not been itself lately’ – meaning, ‘I (supposedly the person talking) am aware that whoever I have been lately (self) is not the one who really I am (myself)’! This conceptual separation between myself and the self is characteristic of the ‘philosophical muddle’ pointed out by Kenny. Other instances show this problematic gap too. Consider, for example, ‘I was mad at myself’ or ‘I do not know who I am any more’, which both seem to suggest there is an essential self that a perhaps less essential ‘I’ can observe or get mad at.

As Ludwig Wittgenstein has made us aware, language can be misleading, presenting a common structure for very different uses. For example, ‘I have a computer’, ‘I have a dog’, ‘I have a dream’, and ‘I have a headache’ share a common structure, but my ‘ownership’ of my headache does not have the same sense as in the case of my computer. In a similar manner, the claim that ‘I have not been myself lately’ suggests there is a real way to be myself, and a false way, even when the only possible self seems to be the one of which we are aware. Philosophers such as Peter Hacker attempt to dissolve this muddle by clarifying conceptual confusions when discussing consciousness. For example, ‘I do not know what to think’ expresses not introspective deficiency, but the fact that I cannot make up my mind. And when I add ‘I think’, I’m not identifying a mental operation, but only specifying epistemic weight (Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, 70, 2012).

Someone may complain that a linguistic analysis of what is meant when we use self-referring expressions misses the real question, which is an ontological one – what the self ultimately is. In a sense, this is true: the various uses of ‘self’ and related words don’t give us good grounds for metaphysical commitments here, even less so when the way we talk does not demonstrate consistent metaphysical views. But at the same time, it seems worthwhile to pause before we side with Kenny and other self-deniers, or condemn the notion to the philosophical dustbin. Whether or not there is a persisting, subsisting self, in our non-philosophical moments we certainly feel there is one (or interrelated aspects of one). So instead of doing away with the concept it may be more fruitful to consider the diverse uses of the word ‘self’. As Wittgenstein recommends, if you want to know the meaning of a word, look for its use. And when we observe the different uses of ‘self’, we do not identify a common essence, but what Wittgenstein calls a ‘family resemblance’. ‘Self’ does not have a fixed meaning, because the word does not refer to any one such meaning. So in order to understand the concept of self, it is important that we do not rely on just one view or model, be it the scientific view, the phenomenological one, the everyday public one, or the grammatical one. We can also be open to new ways of looking at it, since we do not claim the exclusive truth of one of those models. And the possibilities of human technological enhancement allow us to witness how much the concept can stretch, as well as possible limitations of the idea of a self with essential properties.

Enhancing The Self

Technology promises new worlds where the organic blends with the inorganic, and the human becomes more than human. Transhumanists such as Nick Bostrom, and technological optimists such as Ray Kurzweil, describe futures in which nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology shape almost unimaginable scenarios for humanity. According to Kurzweil, nanotechnology will allow us to build stronger and more durable organs. Nanobots in the bloodstream will kill cancer cells and other pathogens. Neural implants will improve our mental powers, will enhance feelings of pleasure, and will allow us to directly interact with cyberspace and virtual reality by thought alone. Websites will become virtual environments we will visit for our edification or entertainment. Our virtual bodies will experience through all our senses any desired environment, and will be able to change at will, including experiencing being male or female (Readings in the Philosophy of Technology, D. Kaplan, Ed., 2009). The projection of the realization of such scenarios varies from author to author, but there is 90% agreement among researchers that most of those technologies will be available sometime this century (Superintelligence, Nick Bostrom, 2016). Such transformations will force us to push at the limits of our understanding of self. When introduced to such new worlds, it becomes challenging to try to project our self-image into those scenarios, and one cannot but wonder about the intelligibility of the idea of ‘the true self’.

Some might complain that these worlds still belong to science fiction. But even though the technologies are not yet available, the uncomfortable questions they pose cannot be dismissed because some forms of enhancements are already available. Medical enhancement, for example, has forced rich ethical reflection, and can also call into question the notion of a self as a bearer of essential properties.

The therapeutic use of current technology can improve our hearing, our vision, or our movement. And where money is no object, characteristics such as weight or eye or hair color are now a matter of personal decision, strongly influenced, no doubt, by the society and values we embrace. When we think of the impact of these types of enhancement, we do not normally feel our sense of self threatened. But what about altering intelligence and memory, or psychological traits, such as shyness? In some cases, those decisions could be made for therapeutic reasons – say, to deal with psychological disorders. Yet how far can we push the set of physical and psychological characteristics that makes us who we are before we legitimately start to fear that we may no longer be ourselves? Would we still be who we are if we opted for enhancement in psychological areas?

The answer is yes, we would be ourselves, not just in the trivial sense that we always are who we are, but also because we actually understand ourselves to be who we are through technology. Think, for example, of the shift in the role of orthodontics in our society. Orthodontics, even if still a luxury for many, is no longer rare. People in public roles consider a straight white smile a fundamental enhancement to their careers. I doubt that they would feel a sense of loss of self because their teeth are no longer crooked; rather the opposite. Height, voice, and appearance have an effect on my interaction with others, and I understand myself through that interaction. If those traits are modified, I would understand my new self as myself. The issue is not: ‘this is my real me’, but ‘this is me now’. It is only when the end result is too radical that we cannot accept the transformation as possibly me. But as long as the changes brought by technology are gradual or understood as an expression of autonomy, they can be easily integrated into our sense of (future) self.

A Problematic Concept

The possibility of human enhancement brings up many complex ethical issues which demand serious reflection. Let’s look at the terms in which the discussion takes place. There seems to be a tendency to present the ethics of enhancement as a quest for the real self. Those who see humans as having an inborn essential nature react against enhancement since to them it risks losing some essential aspects which make people who they are. On the other hand, those who see the self as a social construction encourage enhancement as a means to achieving fuller authenticity. And according to Neil Levy, whatever one’s notion of authenticity, one can still support enhancement either as a process of self-discovery – it helps one finally be who one really is – or as a process of self-creation – one is allowed to become who one wants to be (‘Enhancing Authenticity’, Journal of Applied Philosophy, 28(3), 2011).

Although I agree with Levy that either notion of authenticity could end up being compatible with, and even encourage, human enhancement, the framework of the discussion remains problematic. The question seems to be, which position is truer to one’s self? Is it the essentialist one that accepts the peculiarities that make you you, or the one that recognizes the self as socially constructed, so that you can choose who you want to be? One position emphasizes discovery; the other, reconstruction; but both rely on the notion of a ‘true self’. Perhaps we should remember Wittgenstein’s advice to alternate our philosophical legs. Some people may find medication conducive to self-expression – Peter Kramer reports patients of his saying they felt more like themselves when taking Prozac (self-discovery) (‘Enhancing Authenticity’, p.311). However, other people feel that they need to transcend, for example, imposed gender models to realize a future of which they dream (self-creation). In either case, we’re dealing with different models of self: I am ‘truly me’ after I take a beta-blocker or antidepressants; or I am ‘truly me’ when I go for a sex-change.

The problem I’m pointing out here is that the underlying presupposition of a true self or even a true humanity is problematic. Marya Schechtman, in her 2004 essay ‘Self-Expression and Self-Control’, calls for the integration of two apparently incompatible models of self. One (which she links with Harry Frankfurt) associates being oneself with having control over one’s desires. The other regards the self as an expression of one’s nature. An appropriate balance between self-expression and self-control constitutes a genuine human life, which incorporates different senses of self or fundamental features that make us human. However, this strategy of saving the self by reverting to the concept of humanity leaves the problem unsolved, since cases of people with severe disabilities show the limitations of trying to capture what it means to be human by means of a list of intrinsic properties. Technological enhancement also questions the intelligibility of this notion through its hybridization of the organic and inorganic, and by transcending the limits of our current understanding of humanity.

Unlike some, I do not think the sciences should abandon studying the self, even if the research goals need conceptual clarification. The reason is not that science will ultimately explain the self, or that we will reduce consciousness to neuronal firings. The position I am defending is rather that the many ways of talking about the self capture something real, and not exclusive to any one way of talking about it. The self is not an illusion or a metaphor; but neither is it a mysterious entity whose true nature has to be directly apprehended or unveiled by disentangling a variety of confused senses of the word. There is no core something that makes us be us; and yet, we cannot ignore our experience of the self or its role in our lives.

Modelling the Self

The concept of self is complex and multilayered. Studies in cognitive science, psychiatry, and neuroscience offer different ways of approaching the subject. Disorders such as schizophrenia or bipolarism, which directly concern the self, suggest clues to enrich our understanding of it.

There have been some attempts to integrate views from disciplines which offer different models of self – see for instance The Self in Neuroscience and Psychiatry by Tilo Kircher and Anthony David (2003). The integration of different views can be guided by Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblance. In this view, the different forms of discourse do not compete for the true description of self and do not attempt to grasp a common essence, but rather look for a family resemblance between concepts of the self, recognising that the concept is not a rigid one and can accommodate different uses in different fields and as technology evolves. Wittgenstein showed us the fluidity and flexibility of our concepts in use. This use is now enriched by the possibilities of technological enhancement.

It might be said that the apparent flexibility of our concept of ‘self’ rules out an essential self as one of the possible models. I have tried to show how the conceptual challenges provided by the technologies of human enhancement help us understand some problems with that model. Religious beliefs or belief in an afterlife may give reasons to cling to the notion of self as essential and unchanging. But instead of attempting to rescue one ‘true’ sense of ‘self’, we can learn about the concept’s meanings and our own presuppositions by focusing on the overlapping similarities of the word’s multiple uses. By allowing multiple models from different disciplines, we keep alternating our philosophical legs so that we can better appreciate the richness of our vital notion of self.

© Dr Susana Badiola 2019

Susana Badiola is professor of philosophy at Angelo State University, Texas. In 2017 she received the Texas Council Distinguished Teaching Award. Her publications include articles and translations in philosophy of mind, metaphysics, and philosophy of technology.

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