On the so-called "Wisdom of Nature"

20 March 2005

I have to admit that when John Perry first suggested that we do a show on the emerging field of neurcosmetology,  I was a little hesitant.  I had never even heard of the subject until John brought it up. As John mentions,  if you Google  neurocosmetology  all that comes up are links to our  own web page announcing the topic.   And to top it off,  google asks if  you don't really mean"neurocosmology."   Heaven  knows what that one means!    But if  Google is a reliable indicator, "neurocosmology"  currently has a lot more currency than 'neurocosmetology.'  In fairness, though,  I should note that if you  Google   "cosmetic neurology"  you'll get quite a lot of hits.   There's clearly  lots happening out there on this score.   There's so much happening, in fact, that even the  President's Council on Bioethics has seen fit to weigh in with a massive report entitled  "Beyond Therapy:  Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness."

Here's a quote from the Letter of Transmittal to the President  --  that would be that great thinker George W. Bush -- that accompanies that report.

On the optimistic view, the emerging picture is one of unmitigated progress and improvement.  It envisions a society in which more and more people are able to realize the American dream of liberty, prosperity, and the justice for all.  It is a nation whose citizens are longer-lived, more competent,  better accomplished, more productive and happier than human beings have ever been before.  It is a world in which many more human beings -- biologically better-equipped, aided by performance-enhancers, liberated from the constraints of nature and fortune -- can live lives of achievement, contentment, and high self-esteem, come what may.

But there are reasons to wonder whether life will really be better if we turn to biotechnology to fulfill our deepest human desires.  There is an old expression: to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  To a society armed with biotechnology, the activities of human life may seem more amenable to improvement than they really are.  Or we may imagine ourselves wiser than we really are.  Or we may get more easily what we asked for only to realize it is much less than what we really want.

Throughout the report -- which I haven't yet read in its entirety and won't by airtime --  one finds a  constant back and forth between an optimistic assessment and cautionary notes.   I think both the optimism and the caution seem reasonable enough.     But in this pre-show post,   I want to begin by questioning what seems implicit in the cautionary notes of this report -- what we might call the 'wisdom' of nature argument against  investing too much hope or energy into the drive for biological enhancement. 

The argument goes roughly like this -- though I haven't really seen it outlined in detail anywhere.  Human beings are evolved natural creatures, shaped by natural selection for thousands upon thousands of years.   Through a long-run process of trial and error,  natural selection has provided us with an amazingly adaptive kit of capacities.   We lack the wisdom, collectively, to tinker with evolution's fine tuning in ways that will serve our collective good and promote justice.   The better course is to respectfully accept the nature with which evolution has provided us.  We should have a kind of reverence for that given nature and not seek to alter it.  To say this is not to say that we cannot fight diseases, for example.  These are  imperfections of that nature.  It is not even to say that we ought not to try to ameliorate external circumstances, like poverty, malnourishment, etc, that prevent us from fully realizing our natures.   But to try to improve nature itself is to take on more than we collectively are prepared for.

If you are of a more theistic bent,  simply replace talk of evolution with talk of a divinely given nature, and you can run a similar argument. 

Now  natural selection is a really cool thing.  No doubt,  human  "nature" is one of its most amazing products.   I don't doubt, either, that if we are to tinker with human nature,  we should do so gingerly, with  a sense of awe and wonder at natural selection's amazing powers of design.

Nonetheless,  I find myself entirely unmoved by appeals to the "wisdom" of nature.   What really is  nature, afterall?  We speak of the natural world, the natural order, natural objects, natural processes, the laws of nature,  and on and on.  But these are all really very different  and it's important  to think carefully about their differences.

Perhaps the most fundamental aspect of what we call nature are the fundamental  laws of nature.   In some sense, we might say that the laws of nature "govern" everything else in nature.  If there are such things as laws of nature that "govern" the operations of the "natural" universe -- which would, I suppose include everything in the universe -- then nothing can violate those laws.  Nature's laws  govern the universe like absolute monarchs, exercising absolute dominion over everything within Nature's domain. 

(I'm not sure that I accept this approach to natural law, by the way.   One thing it assumes is that even in an "empty universe" that contained no "facts"  there could still be determinate "laws"  "governing" that universe.  I'm not sure this makes sense, but that's a deep issue better left for another day and another post.)

Back to the idea of absolute, inviolable laws of nature.  If there are such things,  then nothing we do can possibly violate those laws.   We can exploit them in creating technological and social innovations.  But we can't violate them  -- ever.    So if the "wisdom" of nature resides in, say, the beauty, power, simplicity and elegance  of nature's fundamental  laws, then biotechnology and human intervention into certain law-governed processes doesn't violate the wisdom of nature.  They really exploit the wisdom of nature.  Nature's wisdom is, in effect, there for the exploiting.  And you might think that the true  wonder of  human kind is that we have learned better than any of the rest of nature's products to exploit nature itself.

The defender of the wisdom of nature will probably insist that I've missed the point.  It isn't the laws themselves, or at least not only the laws, that manifest the wisdom of nature.  Rather, it's something like the combination of natural laws, natural objects, and natural processes that manifest the wisdom of nature.    This is a little tricky, however.   If you mean by a natural process one that is governed by the laws of nature, then because of the monarchical character of those laws,  every process is a natural one.  And if you mean by natural objects, objects produced by processes governed  by the laws of nature, then every object is a natural object.

Of course, I'm still missing the point, the defender of the wisdom of nature argument will no doubt say.   But that's because the defender hasn't really made her point very clearly so far.   What she really means to say is not anything about the wisdom of "nature" as such.  The term 'nautre' has too many different uses for it to be of much use here.  She really means to be saying something about the wisdom of the "given," as we might call it.    The given is that which we find in the world, antecedently to anything of our doing.  The given is to be contrasted with the made, the invented. the constructed.    There are a set of biological capacities that are given to us, that are not of our doing.    There is a system, an order  of things,  that we merely find or come across.  At least there was once upon a time.  By this stage in human history, hardly anything on the planet earth is present to us merely as it was antecedently given to our progenitors.   We have left our fingerprints everywhere, mixed our labor with everything, invented new processes that exploit nature's laws, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill, in a breathtaking variety of ways that might sometimes  make the Architect of Nature proud and sometimes make that Architect angry.

Is there such a thing as the wisdom of the given to which we should merely reverentially bow, with which we should not tinker, at least within certain limits?   That, I think, must be the real question behind wisdom of nature type arguments.

But now  that I've finally isolated the question,  I'll have to punt on answering it, at least for the nonce.   Maybe we'll get to it on the air in about three hours from now.   If we don't, I promise to come back to it in my  post -show post, after I have been illuminated by John Perry and Sam Barondes. 

For now,  I gotta go,  as Ian Shoales likes to say.

Comments (3)

Guest's picture


Monday, March 21, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

I made the following comment via email that was br

I made the following comment via email that was briefly addressed on today's show:
It seems to me that the primary problem for neurcosmetology concerns how we decide which cognitive features to augment. We decide what features to augment by appealing to our values. In other words, we decide what changes to make based on what we think is lacking and should be changed, precisely according to our values. But it seems that, in making such changes, we risk augmenting the cognitive foundations for our values. This potentially undermines any foundation for deciding which cognitive features to augment.
Dr. Taylor seemed to respond to this question in the spirit of his above post by implying that there is nothing given (i.e., no pre-established values) that we need to be particularly mindful of when we decide if and how to augment our cognitive faculties via neurcosmetology. I would ask that he reconsider his position (if this is, in fact, his position) in light of the story that follows.
Recently in Florida, a young girl was kidnapped from her bedroom, likely sexually assaulted, then killed, allegedly by a convicted sex offender who has since confessed to the killings. Most people, upon hearing about this crime, surely felt a certain degree of disgust and anger toward the killer. Furthermore, it seems that those who had such a reaction would think that there is something wrong with a person who didn't share their sentiment.
To get back to the main point, imagine that, the day before this murder occurred, you had taken a drug that was designed to enhance your brain in a way that you regarded to be beneficial. You go to sleep that night and awake the next day to the realization that the drug has served its purpose -- your memory has improved or you are just all around more intelligent or whatever. You then turn on the news to test your newfound abilities just in time to catch the top story about a little girl in Florida being kidnapped and killed, allegedly by a convicted sex offender who likely sexually assaulted her before killing her. You, however, feel not the slightest hint of disgust or anger toward the killer.
After a thorough post-treatment examination by your doctor, it turns out that the brain enhancing drug had the unintended side effect of augmenting your moral sense. Perhaps unremarkably, it doesn't occur to you that anything is wrong. In fact, you want your spouse and children to have the same treatment so that they can benefit as you have.
In this situation, we would certainly hope that clinical trials would have prevented a drug with such unintended consequences from being approved. However, this story seems to show that, when you are dealing with the brain -- probably the most complex system known to man -- any advantage that a treatment might provide would not at all be worth the risk of these sorts of unintended consequences. This is particularly true when the unintended consequences determine what actions we hold to be appropriate regarding whether or not others should undergo such a treatment.
Consequently, I maintain that this sort of situation, however unlikely it may be, presents a very significant problem for neurcosmetology. The problem is so significant because the process of decision making potentially involves numerous cognitive faculties, and neurcosmetology provides means by which cognitive faculties can be augmented, even and perhaps especially those cognitive faculties involved in decision making processes. So, neurcosmetology potentially undermines the very process that allows us to decide if and how to utlize neurcosmetology. This is a prohibitive factor when it comes to whether we should utilize neurcosmetology to alter our cognitive faculties.

Guest's picture


Tuesday, March 22, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

Oh, I got that "Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and

Oh, I got that "Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness" report from the Bioethics Council last year. (Ordered it from their website and they sent it free!) Yes, it's long, but it's chock-full of interesting things. And well written for a government document. I recommend it to anyone interested in this area.
Looking forward to when this show is put in the archives so I can hear it.

Guest's picture


Tuesday, March 29, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

One of the concerns expressed by both the hosts of

One of the concerns expressed by both the hosts of the show and the guest was the fear that everyone would be the same.
Speaking from personal experience, I do not agree that "neurocosmetic" substances will make everyone alike. Each of us is quite unique, with a wide variety of genetic and environmental influences creating our character. Treating personality disorders doesn't take away that difference. It simply allows them to be expressed in an effective way.
Enhancing performance should do the same - we'll still be unique, just healthier and happier and more effective.