Mind the Gap: Neuroscience, Transhumanism, and Human Nature


Before we rush to embrace transhumanism, it is crucial to ask what it means to be human.

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Contemporary developments in neuroscience and other natural and cognitive sciences can illuminate our understanding of the brain and its operations. They can also inform wide-ranging speculations about human nature.

One impressive research project, under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies [BRAIN 2025]. This lavishly funded program aims, in the words of the NIH announcement, “to discover how dynamic patterns of neural activity are transformed into cognition, emotion, perception, and action in health and disease.” The most important expected outcome will be “a comprehensive, mechanistic understanding of mental function,” to be achieved by 2025. The organizers of BRAIN note that their research seeks “to explore the interior terrain of thinking, feeling, perceiving, learning, deciding, and acting to achieve our goals—that is the special province of the human brain.” Such capacities are, they say, “the essence of our minds and the aspects of being human that matter most to us.” Following this line of analysis, they conclude: “Our brains make us who we are, enabling us to perceive beauty, teach our children, remember loved ones, react against injustice, learn from history, and imagine a different future.”

A “mechanistic understanding of mental function” presupposes a particular view of nature and human nature that is broadly materialistic. It assumes that nature can be adequately described in terms drawn from the world of machines. Furthermore, it assumes that human mental activity is fundamentally a physical-chemical process that can be captured by the methods of the empirical sciences. We have much to learn about the marvelous complexities of the human brain and the role the brain plays in all the activities (internal and external) in which we engage. However, no matter how much we learn, the mind (and, more generally, the soul) will remain radically other than, and not reducible to, physical phenomena; our brains do not “make us who we are.”

Mapping the circuits of the brain and measuring its fluctuating patterns of electrical and chemical activity will only go so far in helping us “understand how their interplay creates our unique cognitive and behavioral capabilities,” to cite the optimistic words from BRAIN. Surely, our mental lives are the lives of embodied creatures in whom the brain is a fundamental organ, but it is not our brains that think and act. Without a philosophy of nature free from mechanistic assumptions, the goal that the BRAIN Initiative embraces will remain illusory. Although the gap between mind and brain can be discovered through philosophical reflection, the BRAIN project fails to examine its mechanistic and materialistic presuppositions.

The Neuroscience of Immortality

We can see many of the problems in extreme examples that conflate the mind and the brain, or even in the view that sees the mind and consciousness as “emergent properties” of the brain. Amy Harmon, award-winning science and technology journalist at the New York Times, recently wrote about “The Neuroscience of Immortality.” The article is about efforts to find ways for “our minds to continue to function after death—in a computer or some other kind of simulation.” Underlying this hope for “uploading” our minds is the assumption that key information about who we are “is stored in the unique pattern of connections between [sic] our neurons, the cells that carry electrical and chemical signals through living brains.” As Harmon points out, there are more of these connections in one cubic centimeter of our brain than there are stars in the Milky Way. Some scientists reason that there must be a way to capture and preserve the whole network of neuronal synapses, collectively known as the connectome.

Leave aside the immense difficulty of the technological tasks proposed, which may ultimately be impossible. There remain unjustified philosophical assumptions. Would the uploading of all the information contained in a human brain’s connectome really involve the transfer of mind and consciousness to some enhanced computer chip? What kind of reality is information? The assumption is that the complex relationships among neurons can somehow be expressed in computer codes and that these codes can be transferred to super-computers where they would be stored, perhaps in perpetuity.

But consciousness and cognitive activity remain irreducibly non-material realities, even as they exist as features of human beings. Thinking and willing are activities of human beings; computers, no matter how sophisticated, neither think nor choose. They can be programmed to perform elaborate tasks that may mimic cognition, but they no more think than do clocks know what time it is. Understanding the relationships among objects in the world, being aware of the difference between the sensory experience of an apple and what “apple” in a universal sense means, indeed, recognizing any concept as a concept—all of these involve capacities that are not material processes. This remains true even if these capacities exist in and in some sense depend upon living bodies. The notion of “uploading the mind” suffers from the false premise that the mind is something that in principle can be uploaded.

The Problem with Transhumanism

The BRAIN Initiative proposes that by 2025 we will have a full mechanistic understanding of human cognition, emotion, and perception. Ray Kurzweil goes even further; he predicts that by the 2030s “we will be able to send nanobots [tiny robots developed from DNA strains] into the capillaries of living people’s brains and extract memories of people who have passed away.” Computers, then, will be able to create “avatars” that will be “very close to a human who actually lived.” Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google and chancellor of Singularity University, thinks advances in artificial intelligence will allow us to connect human brains to the Internet Cloud so that we will be able “to send emails and photos directly to the brain and to back up our thoughts and memories.”

In a recent interview, Kurzweil claimed that such technological enhancement will enable us to increase exponentially our capacities to perceive and to think. This will be a new type of evolution enabling us to be “more creative, more capable of expressing higher sentiments, like being loving.” All of this would be, according to Kurzweil, “moving in the direction of qualities that God is described as having without limit.” The new technology will mean that “we are going to expand the brain's neocortex and become more godlike.”

The claim of a kind of quasi-divinization is characteristic of thinkers like Kurzweil, who are proponents of “transhumanism,” which seeks to find ways for human beings to transcend the limitations of their current condition. In the film Transcendent Man, Kurzweil described his preparations to bring back “to life,” as it were, his father, Frederick Kurzweil, by creating “an avatar based on emails, text messages, letters, video, audio, and memories of the person.” He does note that the avatar, although somewhat realistic, “will not be the same person,” though it will probably be “indistinguishable” from our memories of that person.

A number of problematic philosophical assumptions about nature and human nature inform Kurzweil’s claims. One concerns the failure to distinguish adequately between nature and machine/artifact, to think that there is a kind of continuum in which differences are matters only of degree. This is part of the commitment to a materialist understanding of reality according to which there is nothing more to the universe than matter, energy, and information. It reduces all activity to that of matter/energy in motion. The philosophical question, often simply ignored, is whether there is such a thing as nature and whether a mechanistic and materialistic philosophy is really able adequately to understand the world. Many of the criticisms of transhumanism ignore this fundamental question and concentrate, instead, on whether the technological challenges to effect the transformation of human beings can be met.  In an op-ed this past weekend in the New York Times, Kenneth Miller, a theoretical neuroscientist at Columbia University, described the intricate structure of the human brain and cast doubt on various proposals to "upload the brain."  Throughout, however, Miller routinely identified the mind with the brain, noting the very significant complexities in any attempt "to reconstruct the mind."

If we think of organisms as complex machines, then they are nothing more than arrangements of distinct parts. That is, the order among the parts of a machine is a kind of extrinsic order, imposed by an outside force. By contrast, a living organism is a unified whole that is the subject of its own existence and actions. The parts of an organism are produced as the organism grows and develops, and their functions are determined by the organism as a whole, that is, from within. Organisms maintain themselves in existence through processes such as metabolism, respiration, and self-movement. There is an intrinsic principle of unity by which an organism exists and acts as a unified whole.

The extraordinary claim that the technological enhancement of the human brain's neocortex will make us more “godlike” suffers from a mistaken comparison between God and human beings. God is not a super-creature among creatures. The characteristics traditionally predicated of God with respect to knowledge, power, and love, for example, are not possessed by God in a greater degree than they are possessed by human beings. When we use terms such as omnipotent, omniscient, and all-loving when referring to God, we must remember that all such language about God is at best analogical and that, finally, God transcends all such categories. The temptation to be “like God” is an old one, and it always needs to be resisted, even in its modern technological guise.

Mind as Gap

In discussions about technology and the enhancement of human nature, we need to take into consideration what human nature is. This, of course, must include the wider question of what nature is. Although the BRAIN Initiative has a section on ethics, such questions of how we should proceed and considerations of what procedures are and are not justified need to be grounded in prior questions about what nature is and who we are. These are topics in the philosophy of nature; they depend upon what the natural sciences tell us about the world, but they do not end with the conclusions of the empirical sciences.

The human mind is not the organic brain, but neither is it some separately existing immaterial substance that is somehow united to a human being. We do not need to appeal to Platonic or Cartesian dualism to reject as inadequate the materialist preconceptions of contemporary science. There really is a gap between the mind and the brain, but not in the sense that they are two separately existing substances. There is a real and conceptual distinction between the immaterial features of human beings (and, indeed, of all living things) and their physical constitution. In Aristotelian terms, this is a distinction between form and matter. Again, the rejection of dualism does not require the acceptance of materialism and mechanism. There is another alternative, and it allows for an understanding of how a human being is a unified whole, rather than being seen as a machine.

The first task in any philosophical discourse is to investigate the premises and assumptions being employed. The fascination with contemporary neuroscience and the technology it spawns may lead us to overlook the philosophical commitments, explicit and implicit, that contribute to the fascination and to the promises made by contemporary scientists and those who embrace a technological vision of the future. Before we rush to embrace a form of transhumanism, it is crucial to know, in the first place, what it means to be human.

William E. Carroll is Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford, and a Member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion of the University of Oxford.

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