Re-Inventing Ourselves: The Plasticity of Embodiment, Sensing, and Mind
Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 2007 May-June; 32(3): 263-282
Recent advances in cognitive science and cognitive neuroscience open up new vistas for human enhancement. Central to much of this work is the idea of new human-machine interfaces (in general) and new brain-machine interfaces (in particular). But despite the increasing prominence of such ideas, the very idea of such an interface remains surprisingly under-explored. In particular, the notion of human enhancement suggests an image of the embodied and reasoning agent as literally extended or augmented, rather than the more conservative image of a standard (non-enhanced) agent using a tool via some new interface. In this essay, I explore this difference, and attempt to lay out some of the conditions under which the more radical reading (positing brand new integrated agents or systemic wholes) becomes justified. I adduce some empirical evidence suggesting that the radical result is well within our scientific reach. The main reason why this is so has less to do with the advancement of our science (though that certainly helps) than with our native biological plasticity. We humans, I shall try to show, are biologically disposed towards literal (and repeated) episodes of sensory re-calibration, of bodily re-configuration and of mental extension. Such potential for literal and repeated re-configuration is the mark of what I shall call "profoundly embodied agency," contrasting it with a variety of weaker (less philosophically and scientifically interesting) understandings of the nature and importance of embodiment for minds and persons. The article ends by relating the image of profound embodiment to some questions (and fears) concerning converging technologies for improving human performance.
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