People often associate the idea of brain implants / microchips with some dystopia where some evil overlord controls the masses by implanting chips in their brain to take over the world with an army of people who are controlled by this mastermind. They fear any hardware that might control, to any degree, the thoughts and feelings of a person. They may even use the term “free will” here,suggesting that such an implant would take away someone’s “free will”.
At first this fear seems reasonable (with the exception of the use of the term “free will” here). No-one wants to be controlled by some psychopath to do hideous things “against their will”. And indeed, if it comes to pass that brain implants can take over a person’s “control” entirely, we need to have some real safeguards in place.
The problem, however, is when we take a technology that can be extremely helpful, and slippery slope it down to some worst case scenarios, and based on those scenarios we reject the idea altogether. This, I think, is a mistake that could be most unfortunate.
I had a discussion with someone in which I mentioned that microchips could and most likely will (in the very near future) be used to fix certain psychopaths we deem as dangerous: that we found certain neuro-correlates in psychopaths and there may be a way to bypass the disconnect they had between certain parts of the brain (e.g. leading to a connected empathy). Needless to say this person was taken-a-back by such an evil idea. How could we “force” a person to be someone they are not. Oh the horror. We can try to rehabilitate them with the long, ineffective procedures, but playing with someone’s brain is a big “no-no” no matter how dangerous that person is.
I want to pose a thought experiment to you. Imagine that there was something about your personality you wanted to change. For example, imagine that you had a compulsion to over-eat the most unhealthy foods, and this was making you over-weight and unhealthy. Imagine this was something you could not seem to beat. You tried diets, exercise, tried to train your brain to appreciate healthy foods, eating healthy proportions, and so on. None of this worked, you always seem to revert back to your old habits. The psychological response to food was so embedded in your brain that it was just too difficult to break free of unhealthy comfort food.
Now imagine you could change those brain states with much effort over years, through meditation and work and practice, you grew to appreciate healthy foods, smaller proportions, and a healthier lifestyle. Though it took you a whole lot of effort, you eventually changed your brain state in such a way that it no longer needed to eat unhealthy, and in fact started to build a distaste for unhealthy foods. This type of thing can and does happen, and most people would say it’s a good thing, even though such changed brain state A into brain state B.
In other words, it is often a good thing to change the configuration of our brain, it’s just difficult to do. But imagine it could be easier. Imagine, for example, that we could switch over from brain state A to brain state B without the years of hardship doing so. Imagine we could snap our fingers and reconfigure that part of our brain that we find problematic – instantaneously.
For some, the fact that a person doesn’t transition from one brain state to a very different one in a slow and noticeable pace, just feels wrong. It’s like replacing a part of that person. This, I’d argue, is just our mind’s need to see progression. Going too quickly from A to B is just too abrupt, because when we see a person change through a long progression, they never appear to be a different person. Rather, it’s just the same person incrementally changing over time in a way that to them and everyone else is unnoticeable. When a change happens instantaneously, however, it seems like it’s a different person because it’s not the behavior we were used to seeing last week.
Drastic cases of complete personality shifts occur in rare cases of amnesia. Of course in these cases, such a shift is not wanted, and hardly ever a good thing, as such tends to wipe out some helpful knowledge and traits as well. But what if one could shift their psychology to what they actually do want, without losing important memories and knowledge? And what if they could do this in a far quicker fashion than it would take to play the daily games with their own mind needed to eventually, after years of hard work, change a trait that they don’t like?
I’d suggest such would not only be a good thing, but if we saw any negative possibilities with such technology, we must still try to accomplish the tech while safe-guarding those drawbacks as much as possible. This brings us to microchips and brains.
Some people think that, because a microchip isn’t “natural” in the sense of being a biological part of our body, that it shouldn’t be used. This, however, is sort of a naturalistic fallacy. Our brains being biological does not mean that every part of our brain is necessarily “better” than the microchip would be. Let’s talk about how various brain implants are currently used today, and some of the possibilities of the future:
Currently, microchips are used to circumvent bad parts of the brain that have become dysfunctional after a stroke or head injury.
Some blind and deaf people can undergo an implant that allows sensory signals to transmit to their brain.
A device sends electrical signals to different parts of the brain helping the symptom of those with Parkinson’s Disease, dystonia, depression, and epilepsy.
Record Brain Activity
Implants can also be used to record brain activity for various reasons. Not only could this help our understanding of the brain, but it also could be used to help diagnose various problems.
These are all things that are happening today in the brain implant category. As our neuro-scientific finding progress, which is happening exponentially, there will be so much more that we will be able to accomplish with brain-computer interfaces, chips, deep brain stimulation, neuronal circumvention and activation, and so on.
There are certain mental disorders and behaviors that may, in the near future, be treatable with brain implant technology. Really, anything that we can find certain brain corollaries for we’ll be able to in some ways tweak or bypass altogether. We know the brain structure is different for sociopaths, psychopaths, pedophiles, and a number of different mental traits that may lead to actions that are harmful in society. When these are acted upon in a way that leads to incarceration, we may be able to offer the person another option. We don’t necessarily need to “force” someone to have a brain implant (against their unfree will), but we could offer them a way out of being locked away from society. Microchips could be the ultimate rehabilitation process.
This is where people become fearful. They imagine people being forced against their “will” (which is not the same as “free will” – something people do not possess) to have brain surgeries, evil mind control, or anything else that goes into making a good science fiction flick. This is that slippery slope fallacy that I referred to earlier. If we can enact means to create microchips that are helpful, there is no reason we couldn’t implement protective policies and mechanism.
I, for one, think that brain implants / microchips will reduce a whole lot of suffering in humans in numerous ways, as long as we create certain safeguards from abusers. Perhaps, in the far future, organic brains will be replaced entirely with synthetic conscious brains – the only difference between the two being that we will have a whole lot more control over our harmful behaviors with synthetic brains that are configured purposely and with minimal effort. It’s not as sci-fi as you may think. Our biological wet-ware is an inferior mechanism that was developed through crude forces: long, drawn out, mindless,and very harmful processes. We are biological machines that are in many aspects poorly configured. Evolution is certainly not something worthy of the worship some people seem to give it. We shouldn’t be afraid to try to make things better through synthetic enhancements, and that includes the causal structures of our brain states.
This idea that brain implants could take away someone’s “free will” assumes that a normal functioning brain is something “more free” than any synthetic device we place in it to help it along or give it a better result. The fact of the matter is, a person’s brain state at any given point was brought about through long causal process that they ultimately had no control over (and no, an acausal process wouldn’t help here). The brain configuration that produces our thoughts should not be treated as sacred just because it’s an organic structure. It’s not holy just because consciousness came about through such a mechanism. Rather, it’s the opposite. With such conscious processes came all of the harms in the world. Using the synthetic to fix just some of these problems isn’t scary, it’s avoidance of such fixes due to naturalistic fallacies and slippery slope fallacies that is.
Brain implants don’t have to be something we fear. The brain structure you currently have isn’t any more “free”, and there could be better options than just accepting that you need to be exactly who you are right now even if you don’t like something about yourself (you will incrementally change anyway). Rather, there may be a way to do better than that in the near future. I, for one, will embrace such if I’m still around. What about you? Too scary?
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