The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self - Thomas Metzinger (2009)
Part III. THE CONSCIOUSNESS REVOLUTION
Chapter 9. A NEW KIND OF ETHICS
The Consciousness Revolution creates new knowledge, but it also creates new risks and new potentials for action. The new potentials for action include the ability to alter, in a fine-grained manner, both the functional properties of our brains and the phenomenal properties they realize—that is, the content of our experience. Besides the rubber hands, the phantom limbs, and the out-of-body experiences, other examples of manipulation of the contents of consciousness include the induction of an artificial scotoma (blind spot) in the visual field1 and the creation of an acute transient depression by stimulating certain subthalamic nuclei.2 Not only sensory and emotional experiences are open to technical manipulation; so also are such high-level properties of the Ego as the experiences of will or agency (recall Stéphane Kremer’s experiment, described in chapter 4).
We have known for centuries that deep spiritual experiences can be caused by psychoactive substances, including mescaline, psilocybin, and LSD. Electromagnetic stimulation is another route. Neuroscientist Michael Persinger, at Laurentian University in Ontario, received worldwide media attention in the late 1990s by using electromagnetic fields to stimulate the brains of his subjects in successful attempts to create supposed religious experiences—that is, the subjective impression that an invisible person was present.3 The lesson is clear: Whatever else religious experiences may be, they obviously possess a sufficient neural correlate—a correlate that can be stimulated experimentally. It is becoming increasingly clear that there are no principled limits to this process. This is not going away—it can only become more efficient. For instance, if we can determine which kinds of epileptic patients typically experience religious ecstasy before seizures and where the foci of these seizures are located in the brain, then we can stimulate the same brain areas, invasively or noninvasively, in healthy people.
The temporal-lobe theory of religious experience and personality shifts may be flawed,4 but the principle is clear. When we find the minimally sufficient neurodynamical core of an interesting conscious state, we can try to reproduce it experimentally. Since many such experiences include the phenomenology of certainty and automatically lead to the conviction that one is not hallucinating, these experiments—depending on the content of the hallucination itself—may have upsetting, even dangerous, consequences. Self-deception may feel like insight. Nevertheless, once such technologies become available, people will want to experience them. Many will draw their own conclusions about artificially induced religious experiences, without caring much about what neuroscientists or philosophers have to say. One can envision a future in which people will no longer play video games or experiment with virtual reality just for entertainment; instead they will explore the universe of altered states of consciousness in a quest for meaning, using the latest neurotechnological tools. Perhaps they will have their temporal lobes tickled on street corners, or abandon their churches and synagogues and mosques in favor of new Centers for Transpersonal Hedonic Engineering and Metaphysical Tunnel Design.
In principle, we can design our own Ego Tunnels by tinkering with the hardware responsible for the relevant information-processing. In order to activate a specific form of phenomenal content, we need to discover which neural subsystem in the brain carries that representational content under normal conditions. Whether the desired phenomenal content is religious awe, an ineffable sense of sacredness, the taste of cinnamon, or a special kind of sexual arousal does not really matter. So, what is your favorite region of phenospace? What conscious experience would you like to order up?
Let us select just one example. Currently the neurotechnological field most likely to turn into a commercialized consciousness technology is that of psychoactive substances. In general, many benefits can be expected: We will be able to treat psychiatric and neurological diseases with new combinations of neuroimaging, psychosurgery, deep-brain stimulation, and psychopharmacology. Between 1 and 5 percent of the population in most countries suffers from serious mental illness. Now there is realistic hope that new generations of antidepressants and antipsychotic drugs will alleviate the suffering caused by these ancient scourges.
But we will go further than that. One of the new keywords in the important new academic discipline of neuroethics5 is “cognitive enhancement.” Soon we’ll be able to enhance cognition and mood in healthy subjects. Indeed, “cosmetic psychopharmacology” has already arrived on the scene. If we can control senile dementia and memory loss, if we can develop attention-boosters and eliminate shyness or ordinary everyday sadness, why shouldn’t we? And why should we leave it to our doctors to decide how to use those drugs to design our lives? Just as today we can opt for breast enlargement, plastic surgery, or other types of body modification, we will soon be able to alter our neurochemistry in a controlled, finely tuned manner. Who is to decide which of those alterations will enrich our lives and which alterations we may come to regret?
If we can make normal people smarter, should we also make smart people even smarter? A recent informal online poll of its readers conducted by the journal Nature attempted to determine the use of cognitive enhancers among scientists.6 Fourteen hundred people from sixty countries responded, with one in five saying he or she had used such drugs for nonmedical reasons to stimulate focus, concentration, or memory. Among users, methylphenidate (Ritalin) was most popular, with 62 percent using it, whereas 44 percent used modafinil, and 15 percent used beta blockers such as propanolol. One-third purchased these drugs over the Internet. The poll not only showed large-scale use among academics but also revealed that four-fifths of respondents thought healthy adults should be allowed to use such substances if they so desired. Almost 70 percent stated they would risk mild side effects to take such drugs themselves. One respondent said, “As a professional, it is my duty to use my resources to the greatest benefit of humanity. If ‘enhancers’ can contribute to this humane service, it is my duty to do so.” It seems safe to assume that pharmacological neurotechnology for enhancement will become better, and that just averting our gaze, as we have done with the classical hallucinogens in the past, will not help head off ethical issues. The only difference is that many more people are interested in cognitive enhancement than in spiritual experience. As cognitive neuroscientist Martha Farah and colleagues put it: “The question is therefore not whether we need policies to govern neurocognitive enhancement, but rather what kind of policies we need.”7
Given the new generations of cognitive enhancers, should we inaugurate pre-exam urine tests in our secondary schools and universities? If reliable mood-optimizers become available, will grumpiness or premenstrual syndrome in the workplace be seen as unkemptness or dishevelment, in much the same way as strong body odor is today? What would we do if “moral enhancement” became a pharmacological possibility through drugs that make people behave in a more prosocial, altruistic manner? Would we feel obliged to optimize everybody’s ethical behavior? 8 Some will argue that a system like the human brain, which has been optimized over millions of years, cannot be further optimized without losing a degree of its stability. Others will counter that we might want to start an optimization process that leads in a new direction, different from what evolution has gradually wired into our conscious self-models. Why should we be neurophenomenological Luddites?
Phenotechnology has both an ethical and a political dimension. Ultimately we will have to decide which states of consciousness should be illegal in a free society. Should it be legal, for instance, to let children experience their parents in a drunken state? Would you mind if senior citizens, or your colleagues at work, were wired and flying high on the next generation of cognitive enhancers? What about adjusting libido in the elderly? Is it acceptable if soldiers, perhaps on ethically dubious missions, fight and kill under the influence of psychostimulants and antidepressants to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder? What if a new company offered religious experiences through electrical brain stimulation to everyone? In the case of psychoactive substances, we urgently need an intelligent and differentiated drug policy—one that can meet the challenges presented by twenty-first-century neuropharmacology. Today we have a legal market and an illegal market; thus, there are legal states of consciousness and illegal states of consciousness. If we do manage to introduce an intelligent drug policy, the goal should be to minimize damage to individual consumers and to society while maximizing potential gains. Ideally, we would gradually decrease the importance of the legal/illegal distinction so that the desired consumer behavior is controlled through a cultural consensus and by citizens themselves—bottom-up, so to speak, and not top-down by the state.
Still, the better we understand our neurochemical mechanisms, the more illegal drugs on the black market there will be, both in type and quantity. If you are skeptical about that, I recommend reading PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story, by the chemist Alexander Shulgin and his wife Ann, and TiHKAL: The Continuation, by Alexander Shulgin.9 (PiHKAL is short for “Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved,” and TiHKAL for “Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved.”) In their first book, the Shulgins describe 179 hallucinogenic phenethylamines (a group that includes mescaline and the “party drug” Ecstasy), most of which Alexander Shulgin, a drug designer and former employee of Dow Chemical, invented himself. Aside from collected personal accounts of psychedelic experiences, the book includes detailed instructions for the drugs’ chemical synthesis and information about different dosages. In the second volume, Shulgin introduces fifty-five tryptamines—again, most of them unknown on the illegal drug market prior to the book’s 1997 publication. Recipes for many of these new illegal substances, as well as first-person reports about the phenomenology associated with different dosages, are available on the Internet—easily accessed by the spiritually inclined psychology student in Argentina, the alternative psychotherapist in California, or the unemployed chemist in the Ukraine. Or, of course, by organized crime. My prediction is that by 2050 the “good old days,” when we had to deal with only a dozen or so molecules dominating the illegal market, will seem like a picnic. We should not fool ourselves: Prohibition has always failed in the past, and experience shows that there is a black market to satisfy every outlawed human desire. For every market, there will be an industry to serve it. We may witness a burgeoning of illegal psychoactive compounds, while doctors in emergency rooms are confronted with kids on substances whose names they’ve never even heard of before.
Globalization, the Internet, and modern neuropharmacology together pose new challenges to drug policy. For example, the legal drug industry knows very well that with the advent of Internet pharmacies, national law-enforcement agencies can no longer control the market for the widespread off-label use of psychostimulants such as Ritalin or Modafinil. Someday we may be unable to meet these challenges with denial, disinformation, public-relations campaigns, legislation, or draconian penal codes. We already pay a high price for the status quo in terms of abuse of prescription drugs and alcohol. Now the problem is that new challenges are arising, but we have not done our homework yet.
To give a simple example: Anyone interested has already had plenty of time and opportunity to experiment with the classic hallucinogens, such as psilocybin, LSD, or mescaline. We now know that these substances are not addictive or toxic and that some of them have therapeutic potential and can even induce profound spiritual experiences. Consider, for example, this excerpt from Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (1954), in which he describes the mescaline experience:
“Is it agreeable?” somebody asked. (During this part of the experiment, all conversations were recorded on a dictating machine, and it has been possible for me to refresh my memory of what was said.)
“Neither agreeable nor disagreeable,” I answered. “It just is.”
Istigkeit—wasn’t that the word Meister Eckhart liked to use? “Is-ness.” The Being of Platonic philosophy—except that Plato seems to have made the enormous, the grotesque mistake of separating Being from becoming and identifying it with the mathematical abstraction of the Idea. He could never, poor fellow, have seen a bunch of flowers shining with their own inner light and all but quivering under the pressure of the significance with which they were charged; could never have perceived that what rose and iris and carnation so intensely signified was nothing more, and nothing less, than what they were—a transience that was yet eternal life, a perpetual perishing that was at the same time pure Being, a bundle of minute, unique particulars in which, by some unspeakable and yet self-evident paradox, was to be seen the divine source of all existence.
Here we have a first example of a state of consciousness that is illegal today. Almost no one can attain the state in Huxley’s profile without breaking the law. A classic study in this field is Walter Pahnke’s Good Friday experiment, involving theology students and conducted at Harvard University in 1962.10 Recently, this experiment has generated two interesting follow-up studies, this time conducted by Roland Griffiths at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Johns Hop-kins School of Medicine in Baltimore. Here, the psychoactive compound used was not mescaline but psilocybin, another naturally occurring substance used as a sacrament and in structured religious ceremonies in some cultures, possibly for millennia. If you had to assess the value of the following state of consciousness (taken from the original experiment at Harvard), how would you rate it?
I was experiencing directly the metaphysical theory known as emanationism in which, beginning with the clear, unbroken infinite light of God, the light then breaks into forms and then lessens in intensity as it passes through descending degrees of reality… . The emanation theory and especially the elaborately worked out layers of Hindu and Buddhist cosmology and psychology had heretofore been concepts and inferences. Now they were objects of the most direct and immediate perception. I could see exactly how these theories would have come into being if their progenitors had had this experience. But beyond accounting for their origin, my experience testified for their absolute truth.
Other participants described their associated feelings as those of awe, reverence, and sacredness. A careful replication of Pahnke’s classical study, published in 2006, used rigorous double-blind clinical pharmacology methods to evaluate both the acute (seven hours) and long-term (two months) mood-altering and psychological effects of psilocybin relative to an active comparison compound (methylphenidate).11 The study was conducted with thirty-six well-educated, hallucinogen-naive volunteers. All thirty-six indicated at least intermittent participation in religious or spiritual activities such as services, prayer, meditation, church choir, or educational or discussion groups, which limits the generality of this study. Based on a priori scientific criteria, twenty-two of the thirty-six volunteers had a complete mystical experience. A dozen of those volunteers rated the psilocybin experience as being the single most spiritually significant experience of his or her life, and an additional 38 percent rated it to be among the top five most spiritually significant experiences. More than two-thirds of the volunteers rated the experience with psilocybin to be either the single most meaningful experience of his or her life or among the top five most meaningful experiences.
Recall Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine. Should these experiences count as an empty form of hedonism, or do they belong to the “epistemic” form of happiness grounded in insight? Indeed, do they possess any value for society as a whole? They certainly have long-lasting effects: Even at the fourteen-month follow-up, 58 percent of volunteers rated the experience of the psilocybin session as among the five most personally meaningful experiences of their lives, and 67 percent rated it among the five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives, with 11 and 17 percent respectively indicating that it was the single most meaningful experience and the single most spiritually significant experience. Furthermore, 64 percent of the volunteers indicated that the psilocybin experience increased their sense of well-being or life satisfaction either moderately or very much, and 61 percent reported that the experience was associated with positive behavior change.12
This study exemplifies what I mean by saying that “we have not done our homework yet.” In the past, we have not arrived at a convincing assessment of the intrinsic value of such (and many other) artificially induced states of consciousness, of the risks and benefits they carry not only for the individual citizen but for society as a whole. We have simply looked the other way. Not integrating such drugs into our culture by making them illegal causes great damage too: Spiritual practitioners or serious students of theology and psychiatry have no access to them; youngsters come into contact with criminals; people experiment with unclear dosages and in unprotected environments; persons with specific vulnerabilities may engage in dangerous behavior or seriously traumatize themselves by episodes of panic and enormous anxiety or even develop prolonged psychotic reactions. There is no way of “doing nothing”; whatever we do has consequences. This is true for the problems of the past as well as for the new challenges we face in the future.
Consider the risk of psychotic reactions: In the United Kingdom, a survey of experiences with LSD in clinical work covered some 4,300 subjects and a total of some 49,500 LSD sessions. There was an attendant suicide rate of 0.7 per thousand patients, an accident rate of 2.3 per thousand patients, and in nine out of a thousand patients, psychosis lasted for more than forty-eight hours (from which two-thirds recovered fully).13 Another study examining the prevalence of psychiatric reactions through questionnaires sent to researchers conducting controlled studies with LSD found that 0.08 percent of five thousand study volunteers experienced psychiatric symptoms that lasted more than two days.14 Recently, researchers have made progress in controlling such adverse reactions through careful screening and preparation.15 Nevertheless, we should remain conservative and assume that even under controlled conditions we should expect about nine prolonged psychotic reactions per thousand subjects.
Now assume that we took a group of a thousand carefully selected citizens and allowed them legally to enter the region of phenomenal state-space opened by psilocybin, as in the two recent psilocybin studies by Roland Griffiths and his co-workers. Because LSD and psilocybin are very similar in this regard, an empirically plausible assumption is that nine would have a serious, prolonged psychotic reaction, three of these persisting for longer than two days, perhaps with lifelong negative after-effects. Three hundred and thirty citizens would rate their experience as the single most spiritually significant experience of their life; 670 would say either it was the single most meaningful experience of their lives or among the top five most meaningful experiences. Can we weigh the nine individuals against the 670?
Assume further that individual citizens decide they are ready to take this risk and demand a legal and maximally safe access to this region in their phenomenal-state space. On ethical grounds, should the state interfere, perhaps arguing that people have no right to put their mental health at stake in this way and potentially become a burden to society? We would have to ban alcohol immediately. What if legal experts argued that, just as with the death penalty, a single false decision, a single persisting psychotic reaction, was already one too many, that it was intrinsically unethical to take risks of this type? What if social workers and psychiatrists replied that the decision to make such experiences illegal increased the overall number of serious psychiatric complications in the population and made them statistically invisible? What if church officials pointed out (exactly according to the background assumptions of reductive materialism) that these experiences are just “Nes-Zen,” not the real thing—appearance only, without epistemic value? Should citizens in a free society have a right to find the answer to this question themselves? Would it matter if the expected risk/benefit ratio was much worse, say, 80:20? What if citizens without any spiritual interests felt discriminated against and argued for their right to engage in pure “empty” hedonism, to enjoy Meister Eckhart’s “Istigkeit” for fun only? What if ultraconservative religious believers, together with aging hippies firmly holding on to their belief in “psychedelic sacraments,” felt deeply insulted, protesting about the blasphemy and profanation implied in any recreational, purely hedonistic use of such substances? These are concrete examples of ethical questions for which we have not found a tenable, normative consensus in the past. We have not yet developed an intelligent way of dealing with these substances—a strategy of minimizing the risks while letting people enjoy their potential benefits. All we have done is to declare the relevant portions of phenomenal-state space off-limits, making academic research on these substances and rational risk-assessment practically impossible in most countries. Lives are ruined because we have not done our homework.
The price for denial may rise. Many new psychoactive substances of the hallucinogen-type—such as 2C-B (4-bromo-2.5-dimethoxyphenethylamine, street names “Venus” or “Nexus”) or 2C-T-7 (2.5-dimethoxy- 4-(n)-propylthiophenethylamine, “Blue Mystic” or “T7”)—have been developed and are out on the illegal market without any clinical testing; their numbers will continue to increase.
These are just the old (and easy) problems—the homework we never did. Today the structure of the demand is changing, the technology is becoming more precise, and the markets are getting bigger. In our ultrafast, ever more competitive and ruthless modern societies, very few people are seeking deeper spiritual experience. They want alertness, concentration, emotional stability, and charisma—everything that leads to professional success and eases stress associated with life in the fast lane. There are few Aldous Huxleys left, but there is a new demographic factor: In the rich societies, people are growing older than ever before—and they want not just quantity but quality of life. Big Pharma knows all of this. Everybody has heard about modafinil, and perhaps also that it is already in use in the Iraq War, but there are at least forty new molecules in the pipeline. Yes, there is a lot of hype, and alarmism certainly is not the right attitude. But the technology is not going away, and it is becoming better.
Large pharmaceutical companies, circumventing the border between legal and illegal substances, are quietly developing numerous new compounds; they know that cognitive enhancers will reap them hefty future profits from “nonmedical use.” For instance, Cephalon, maker of modafinil, has said that roughly 90 percent of prescriptions are for off-label use.16 The recent spread of Internet pharmacies has given them new means of worldwide distribution and new tools for mass testing potential long-term effects.
Modern neuroethics will have to create a new approach to drug policy. The key question is, Which brain states should be legal? Which regions of phenomenal-state space (if any) should be declared off-limits? It’s important to remember that for thousands of years people of all cultures have used psychoactive substances to induce special states of consciousness: not merely religious ecstasy, relaxed cheerfulness, or heightened awareness but also simple, stupid intoxication. The new factor is that the tools are getting better. Therefore, we must decide which of these altered states can be integrated into our culture and which are to be avoided at all cost.
In free societies, the goal should always be to maximize the autonomy of the citizenry. That being said, we should adopt a sober perspective on the problem. We should minimize the price we pay in terms of deaths, addiction, and the damage that might be done to our economy by, say, a marked loss of productivity. However, the question is not only how to protect ourselves; we should also determine the hidden benefits that psychoactive substances can provide for our culture. Should spiritual experiences like those induced by some of the classic hallucinogens be banned in principle? Is it acceptable to deny more serious students of theology or psychiatry access to such altered states of consciousness? Is it acceptable that anyone who seeks valid spiritual or religious experience—or simply wants to see for himself or herself—has to break laws and take the risks associated with uncertain dosages, chemical impurities, and dangerous settings? Many aspects of our current drug policy are arbitrary and ethically untenable. Is it ethical, for instance, to permit advertising for dangerous addictive substances such as alcohol and nicotine? Should governments, through the taxes on such substances, profit from the self-destructive behavior of their citizens? We will need precise laws covering every single molecule and its corresponding neurophenomenological profile. Neuroethics must not only consider the physiological effects of a substance on the brain but also must weigh the psychological and social risks against the intrinsic value of the experiences resulting from one or another altered brain state—a difficult task. The job will be easier if we can establish a basic moral consensus supported by a large part of the general public—the citizens for whom these rules will be made. Government agencies should not lie to their target audiences; rather they should attempt to regain their credibility, in particular with the younger generation. Black markets are much more difficult to regulate than legal markets, and political decisions generally have a much weaker effect on consumer behavior than does the cultural context. Laws alone will not help. For the challenges posed by new psychoactive substances, we will need a new cultural context.
There are other ways in which problems of neuroethics will affect our everyday lives. Many of the brilliant experiments conducted by my friends in the neurosciences—say, on neural synchrony and binocular rivalry, on the dreaming animal brain, or on mirror neurons and mind-reading—are experiments I would never conduct myself. Yet as a philosopher, I interpret these data and write about them. I am like a philosopher-parasite, profiting from a research practice I find dubious on moral grounds. The kittens and the macaques we continually sacrifice in experimental consciousness research are not interested in a theory of consciousness; the results of these experiments are of interest only to our species. However, we pursue this interest by making members of other species suffer, forcing highly unpleasant states of consciousness on them and even denying their right to exist. How coherent is this from an ethical perspective? As a theoretician, do I have the right to interpret data gathered by making animals suffer? Am I morally obliged to boycott these types of experiments?
Just as in the ethical issue of machine consciousness, this example illustrates a guiding principle on which almost everyone will agree: We should not increase the overall amount of conscious suffering in the universe unless we have compelling reasons to do so. There is no other moral issue in which the gap between insight and human behavior is so extreme, in which what we already know diverges so strongly from how we act. The way we have treated animals for centuries is clearly untenable. Given all our new knowledge about the neural basis of conscious experience, the burden of proof now shifts to the side of meat-eaters—and perhaps even to intellectual carnivores like me, philosopher-parasites and other people indirectly profiting from an ethically dubious research practice.
Or imagine, for instance, that we could develop a methodologically sound and successful method of “brain fingerprinting.” Let’s assume we can home in on the neural correlate of the conscious experience that goes along with deliberately lying (in fact, first candidates are already being discussed). We could then build efficient, high-tech lie detectors that do not rely on superficial physiological effects, such as skin conductance or changes in peripheral blood flow.17 This would be an extremely useful instrument in fighting terrorism and crime, but it would also fundamentally change our social reality. Something that had previously been the paradigm of privacy—the contents of your mind—would suddenly have become a public affair. Certain simple forms of political resistance—misleading the authorities during an interrogation, say—would disappear. On the other hand, society would benefit from the increased transparency in many ways. Innocent prisoners could be saved from the death penalty. Imagine that during presidential campaign debates, a red light would begin flashing in front of a candidate whenever the neural correlate for lying became active in his or her brain.
But nearly infallible lie detection would do more than this: It would change our self-models. If, as citizens, we knew that in principle secrets no longer existed—that we could no longer conceal information from the state—then a mainstay of everyday life (at least, everyday life in the Western world), the enjoyment of intellectual autonomy, would disappear. Mere awareness of the existence of such forensic neurotechnologies would be enough to bring about the change. Would we want to live in such a society? Would the benefits outweigh the harm? How (if at all) could we prevent these new technologies from being misused? Just as with cognitive enhancement, new opportunities will create new problems (think of job interviews, divorce proceedings, immigration control, or health-insurance companies), and the commercial potential is high. A core problem for neuroethics in the near future will be protecting the individual’s right to privacy. Is our mental inner world, the contents of our Ego Tunnel, untouchable, an area to which the state should have no access? Shall we define a “mental sphere of privacy,” or should anything that can be revealed by modern neuroscience be at the disposal of political decisions? Will we soon need a new version of the United Kingdom’s Data Protection Act for the human brain? Again, the technologies are coming, they are gradually getting better, and looking the other way will not help.
WHAT IS A GOOD STATE OF CONSCIOUSNESS?
Neuroethics is important but is not enough by itself. I propose a new branch of applied ethics—consciousness ethics. In traditional ethics, we ask, “What is a good action?” Now we must also ask, “What is a good state of consciousness?” I am fully aware that a host of theoretical complications arises. I will present no extended discussion here, but my intuition is that a desirable state of consciousness should satisfy at least three conditions: It should minimize suffering, in humans and all other beings capable of suffering; it should ideally possess an epistemic potential (that is, it should have a component of insight and expanding knowledge); and it should have behavioral consequences that increase the probability of the occurrence of future valuable types of experience. Consciousness ethics is not about phenomenal experience alone. There is a wider context.
Consciousness ethics would complement traditional ethics by focusing on those acts whose primary goal is the alteration of one’s own experiential states or those of other persons. Given the new potentials for such acts, as well as the risks associated with them, and given our lack of moral intuition in this area, the task is to assess the ethical value of various kinds of subjective experience as such. You might call this the rational search for a normative psychology or normative neurophenomenology. If consciousness technology arises from the naturalistic turn in the image of Homo sapiens, we must deal with normative issues. The development of consciousness ethics would allow us to focus the moral debates on the wide range of problems created by the historic transition under way. As soon as we concern ourselves with what a human being is as well as with what a human being ought to become, the central issue can be expressed in a single question: What is a good state of consciousness?
The Ego Tunnel evolved as a biological system of representation and information-processing that is part of a social network of communicating Ego Tunnels. Now we find ourselves caught in the midst of a dense mesh of technicalsystems of representation and information-processing: With the advent of radio, television, and the Internet, the Ego Tunnel became embedded in a global data cloud characterized by rapid growth, increasing speed, and an autonomous dynamic of its own. It dictates the pace of our lives. It enlarges our social environment in an unprecedented manner. It has begun to reconfigure our brains, which are desperately trying to adapt to this new jungle—the information jungle, an ecological niche unlike any we have ever inhabited. Perhaps our body perception will change as we learn to control multiple avatars in multiple virtual realities, embedding our conscious self into entirely new kinds of sensorimotor loops. Conceivably, a growing number of social interactions may be avatar-to-avatar, and we already know that social interactions in cyberspace increase the sense of presence more strongly than higher-resolution graphics ever could. We may finally come to understand what a lot of our conscious social life has been all along—an interaction between images, a highly mediated process in which mental models of persons begin to causally influence one another. We may come to see communication as a process of estimating and controlling dynamical internal models in other people’s brains.
For those of us intensively working with it, the Internet has already become a part of our self-model. We use it for external memory storage, as a cognitive prosthesis, and for emotional autoregulation. We think with the help of the Internet, and it assists us in determining our desires and goals. We are learning to multitask, our attention span is becoming shorter, and many of our social relationships are taking on a strangely disembodied character. “Online addiction” has become a technical term in psychiatry. Many young people (including an increasing number of university students) suffer from attention deficits and are no longer able to focus on old-fashioned, serial symbolic information; they suddenly have difficulty reading ordinary books. At the same time, one must acknowledge the wealth of new information and the increased flexibility and autonomy the Internet has given us. Clearly, the integration of hundreds of millions of human brains (and the Ego Tunnels those brains create) into ever new medial environments has already begun to change the structure of conscious experience itself. Where this process will lead us is unforeseeable.
What should we do about this development? From the perspective of consciousness ethics, the answer is simple: We should understand that the new media are also consciousness technologies, and we should ask ourselves again what a good state of consciousness would be.
A related problem we face is the management of our attention. The ability to attend to our environment, to our own feelings, and to those of others is a naturally evolved feature of the human brain. Attention is a finite commodity, and it is absolutely essential to living a good life. We need attention in order to truly listen to others—and even to ourselves. We need attention to truly enjoy sensory pleasures, as well as for efficient learning. We need it in order to be truly present during sex or to be in love or when we are simply contemplating nature. Our brains can generate only a limited amount of this precious resource every day.
Today, the advertisement and entertainment industries are attacking the very foundations of our capacity for experience, drawing us into the vast and confusing media jungle. They are trying to rob us of as much of our scarce resource as possible, and they are doing so in ever more persistent and intelligent ways. Of course, they are increasingly making use of the new insights into the human mind offered by cognitive and brain science to achieve their goals (“neuromarketing” is one of the ugly new buzzwords). We can see the probable result in the epidemic of attention-deficit disorder in children and young adults, in midlife burnout, in rising levels of anxiety in large parts of the population. If I am right that consciousness is the space of attentional agency, and if (as discussed in chapter 4) it is also true that the experience of controlling and sustaining your focus of attention is one of the deeper layers of phenomenal selfhood, then we are currently witnessing not only an organized attack on the space of consciousness per se but a mild form of depersonalization. New medial environments may create a new form of waking consciousness that resembles weakly subjective states—a mixture of dreaming, dementia, intoxication, and infantilization.
My proposal for countering this attack on our reserves of attention is to introduce classes in meditation in our high schools. The young should be made aware of the limited nature of their capacity for attention, and they need to learn techniques to enhance their mindfulness and maximize their ability to sustain it—techniques that will be of help in the battle against the commercial robbers of our attention (and that will not incidentally undercut the temptations to indulge in mind-altering drugs). These meditation lessons should of course be free of any religious tinge—no candles, no incense, no bells. They might be a part of gym classes; the brain, too, is a part of the body—a part that can be trained and must be tended to with care.
In the new era of neuropedagogy, now that we know more about the critical formative phases of the human brain, shouldn’t we make use of this knowledge to maximize the autonomy of future adults? In particular, shouldn’t we introduce our children to those states of consciousness we believe to be valuable and teach them how to access and cultivate them at an early age? Education is not only about academic achievement. Recall that one positive aspect of the new image of Homo sapiens is its recognition of the vastness of our phenomenal-state space. Why not teach our children to make use of this vastness in a better way than their parents did—a way that guarantees and stabilizes their mental health, enriches their subjective lives, and grants them new insights?
For instance, the sorts of happiness associated with intense experiences of nature or with bodily exercise and physical exertion are generally regarded as positive states of consciousness, as is the more subtle inner perception of ethical coherence. If modern neuroscience tells us that access to these types of subjective experience is best acquired during certain critical periods in child development, we should systematically make use of this knowledge—both in school and at home. Likewise, if mindfulness and attention management are desiderata, we should ask what neuroscience can contribute to their implementation in the educational system. Every child has a right to be provided with a “neurophenomenological toolbox” in school; at minimum this should include two meditation techniques, one silent and one in motion; two standard techniques for deep relaxation, such as autogenic training and progressive muscle relaxation; two techniques for improving dream recall and inducing lucidity; and perhaps a course in what one might call “media hygiene.” If new possibilities for manipulation threaten our children’s mental health, we must equip them with efficient instruments to defend themselves against new dangers, increasing their autonomy.
We may well develop better meditative techniques than the Tibetan monks discussed in chapter 2. If dream research comes up with risk-free ways of improving dream recall and mastering the art of lucid dreaming, shouldn’t we make this knowledge available to our children? What about controlled out-of-body experiences? If research into mirror neurons clarifies the ways in which children develop empathy and social awareness, shouldn’t we make use of this knowledge in our schools?
How will we conduct these discussions in open societies in the post-metaphysical age? The point about consciousness ethics is not one about creating yet another academic discipline. Much more modestly, it is about creating a very first platform for the normative discussions that have now become necessary. As we slowly move into the third phase of the Consciousness Revolution, these discussions must be open to experts and laypeople alike. If, given the naturalistic turn in the image of human beings, we manage to develop a rational form of consciousness ethics, then in this very process we might generate a cultural context that could fill the vacuum created by the advances of the cognitive and neurosciences. Societies are self-modeling entities too.
RIDING THE TIGER: A NEW CULTURAL CONTEXT
How are we to integrate all our new knowledge about the nature of the human mind and all the new potentials for action into society in an intelligent, argument-based, and ethically coherent manner? I have sketched some ideas, but I am not preaching any truths. I have my ideas about what a valuable state of consciousness could be, and you have your own. On normative issues, there is no such thing as expert knowledge. Philosophers are not holy men or priests who can claim direct insight into what is morally good. There is no hotline we can call for help. We must all do this together. The public debates that have now become necessary must include everyone, not just scientists and philosophers. Philosophers can help by initiating and structuring the debates and illuminating the logical structure of ethical arguments and the history of the problems to be discussed. Ultimately, however, society must create a new cultural context for itself. If it should fail to do so, it risks being overwhelmed by the technological consequences and the psychosocial costs of the Consciousness Revolution.
Some general points can already be made. First, we must admit that the prospects for open and free democratic discussion on a global scale are dim. The populations of authoritarian societies with poor educational systems are growing much faster than those of the democratic countries, in some of which populations are actually declining due to low birthrates. Moreover, the major global players increasingly are no longer governments but multinational corporations, which tend to be authoritarian—and as Haim Harari, former president of the Weizmann Institute of Science, has remarked, these corporations are, by and large, managed better than most democratic nation-states.18 We must strive to protect open societies from irrationalism and fundamentalism—from all those who desperately seek emotional security and espouse closed worldviews because they cannot bear the naturalistic turn in the image of humankind. The best way to do this may be by creating a consciousness culture: a flexible attitude, a general approach that whenever possible maximizes the autonomy of the individual citizen and adopts a “principle of phenomenal liberty” as a guideline. We must be aware that the decisions a society makes affect the individual’s brain and the individual’s phenomenal-state space. Unless the interests of others are directly threatened, people ought to be free to explore their own minds and design their own conscious reality-models according to their wishes, needs, and beliefs.
Developing a consciousness culture has nothing to do with establishing a religion or a particular political agenda. On the contrary, a true consciousness culture will always be subversive, by encouraging individuals to take responsibility for their own lives. The current lack of a genuine consciousness culture is a social expression of the fact that the philosophical project of enlightenment has become stuck: What we lack is not faith but knowledge. What we lack is not metaphysics but critical rationality—not grand theoretical visions but a new practicality in the way we use our brains. The crucial question is how to make use of the progress in the empirical mind sciences in order to increase the autonomy of the individual and protect it from the increasing possibilities of manipulation. Can we ride the tiger? If we demystify consciousness, do we automatically lose our sense of human solidarity at the same time?
If rational neuroanthropology shows us the positive aspects of what it means to be a human being, we can systematically cultivate those aspects of ourselves. Here I have considered only two of the positive aspects that should be nurtured and cultivated, but there may be many more. If we are naturally evolved cognitive subjects, rational thinkers of thoughts and makers of theories, then we should continue to foster and optimize exactly this feature of ourselves. If neuroanthropology draws our attention to the vastness of our phenomenal space of possibilities, we should consider this a strength and begin systematically to explore our experiential space, in all its depth. Developing a consciousness culture will mean expanding the Ego Tunnel and exploring the space of altered states of consciousness in ways from which we all can profit. The interplay of virtual-reality technology, new psychoactive substances, ancient psychological techniques such as meditation, and future neurotechnology will introduce us to a universe of self-exploration barely imaginable today.
How can we achieve cross-fertilization between the two strong sides of the human mind? Can neurophenomenological refinement help us optimize critical scientific rationality? Could scientists be better scientists if they were well-traveled, say, if they learned to have lucid dreams? Could rigorous, reductionist cognitive neuroscience develop a form of turbo-meditation, helping monks to be better monks and mystics to be better mystics? Does deep meditation perhaps also have an influence on thinking for yourself, taking your life into your own hands, and becoming a politically mature citizen? Could we find a way to selectively stimulate the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex during dream phases in order to make lucid dreams available to everybody? If we manage to generate artificial out-of-body experiences safely and in a controlled setting, might this help dancers or athletes improve their training? What about fully paralyzed patients? Could a ruthlessly materialist investigation into the way the mirror system develops in the young human brain help us cultivate empathy and intuitive attunement in our children in ways nobody thought possible? If we don’t try, we will never find out.
Many fear that through the naturalistic turn in the image of mind, we will lose our dignity. “Dignity” is a term that is notoriously hard to define—and usually it appears exactly when its proponents have run out of arguments. However, there is one clear sense, which has to do with respecting oneself and others—namely the unconditional will to self-knowledge, veracity, and facing the facts. Dignity is the refusal to humiliate oneself by simply looking the other way or escaping to some metaphysical Disneyland. If we do have something like dignity, we can demonstrate this fact by the way we confront the challenges to come, some of which have been sketched in this book. We could face the historical transition in our image of ourselves creatively and with a will to clarity. It is also clear how we could lose our dignity: by clinging to the past, by developing a culture of denial, and by sliding back into the various forms of irrationalism and fundamentalism. The working concepts of “consciousness ethics” and “consciousness culture” are exactly about not losing our dignity—by taking it to new levels of autonomy in dealing with our conscious minds. We must not lose our self-respect, but we must also stay realistic and not indulge in utopian illusions; the chances for successfully riding the tiger, at least on a large scale, are not very high. But if we manage, then a new consciousness culture could fill the vacuum that emerges as the Consciousness Revolution unfolds at increasing speed. There are practical challenges and there are theoretical challenges. The greatest practical challenge lies in implementing the results of ensuing ethical debates. The greatest theoretical challenge may consist in the questions of whether and how, given our new situation, intellectual honesty and spirituality can ever be reconciled. But that is another story.