Wednesday, August 22, 2012
The metaphysics of bionic implants
Take a look at the classic title sequence of The Six Million Dollar Man. Oscar Goldman (the bionic man’s superior in the Office of Scientific Intelligence) says the following in the famous voiceover:
Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world's first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster.
Now that raises an interesting philosophical question. Aquinas holds that:
[T]here exists in everything the natural desire of preserving its own nature; which would not be preserved were it to be changed into another nature. Consequently, no creature of a lower order can ever covet the grade of a higher nature; just as an ass does not desire to be a horse: for were it to be so upraised, it would cease to be itself. (Summa Theologiae I.63.3)
Now, Steve Austin loses an arm, an eye, and his legs. They are replaced with artificial parts which allow him to surpass his previous levels of strength, speed, and visual distance perception. Still, they are artificial. His normal human organs are not restored; instead, he becomes a cyborg. We might even suppose that he likes being one -- certainly to every teenage boy, and to some of us middle-aged types, the idea sure seems pretty cool. So, is the bionic man a counterexample to Aquinas’s claim? For isn’t a cyborg -- being “stronger, faster” than an ordinary human being -- also “better” than an ordinary human being? And doesn’t the fact that someone might plausibly desire to be a cyborg show that a thing could desire to be another kind of thing?
No, it doesn’t. Let’s see why not. (The uninitiated reader is asked to keep in mind that, as with so much else on this blog, what follows presupposes certain Aristotelian-Thomistic ideas that I have developed and defended elsewhere, such as in my book Aquinas. My earlier post on “The Metaphysics of The Fly” is also relevant.)
For one thing, Aquinas is well aware that people have all sorts of conscious desires that are contrary to the ends inherent in their nature -- to take only the most obvious example, some people are suicidal. But when Aquinas says that “there exists in everything the natural desire of preserving its own nature,” he isn’t engaging in a kind of easily refutable armchair psychology. He isn’t saying “Absolutely every single person always consciously wants to preserve his nature.” That should be obvious from the example he gives of the ass which does not desire to be a horse. An ass, of course, doesn’t consciously think “I always want to be an ass; I’d never want to become a horse,” precisely because it doesn’t think in first place. And when Aquinas says that the ass doesn’t desire to be a horse, he isn’t making the trivial point that the ass doesn’t consciously entertain the thought that it would be good to become a horse.
What he is talking about is what a thing will naturally tend toward. Even a suicidal person tends naturally to preserve his life. If, after he tells you he is suicidal, you stick his head under water and hold it there, he will very likely reflexively start to struggle, and not only because drowning is unpleasant. Of course, deciding that dying is what he wants to do anyway, he might soon stop struggling, but if so he will have to resist his natural tendency to try to fight you off. And even if he had no tendency whatsoever to resist, it wouldn’t follow that such a tendency wasn’t natural to him, any more than someone’s being born without eyeballs would show that having eyeballs isn’t natural to such a person. In either case, what we’d have is damage or deformity -- bodily deformity in the latter case, psychological deformity in the former. Having eyeballs is natural to human beings, even those human beings who, due to some injury or defect, do not have them. And a tendency toward self-preservation is natural to us in that same sense. What Aquinas is talking about, then, is what a thing will tend toward when it has not been damaged or deformed in some way, and (in the case of an intelligent creature) when it is not laboring under some form of irrationality or error.
So that is one point. Another is that we need to be cautious before attributing to someone a desire contrary to his nature. After all, the typical suicidal person doesn’t want death per se; rather, he wants (say) release from bodily or psychological suffering and sees death as the only way to achieve that. Similarly, if we are tempted to attribute to someone a desire to be other than the kind of thing he is, we might find on more careful consideration that it is really something else that is desired. As Aquinas says immediately following the lines quoted above:
But herein the imagination plays us false; for one is liable to think that, because a man seeks to occupy a higher grade as to accidentals, which can increase without the destruction of the subject, he can also seek a higher grade of nature, to which he could not attain without ceasing to exist.
Thus, for someone to wish to have greater intelligence or strength is not of itself to wish to have a different nature -- to be a different kind of thing -- as opposed to being the same kind of thing but merely with a higher degree of some perfection of which that kind of thing is capable. Accordingly, to desire to have Steve Austin’s strength, speed, and eyesight does not by itself amount to desiring to be a different kind of thing.
But suppose someone said: “No, I don’t merely want to have Steve Austin’s strength, speed, and eyesight; I want to have it the way he has it, via artificial organs of the robotic sort he has. And I don’t want to have it in this artificial way merely because that’s the only way I could realistically achieve the greater strength, etc.; I want the artificial parts for their own sake, for the sake of being a cyborg.” Would this be a counterexample to Aquinas’s claim?
It would not, for two reasons. First, a cyborg would, in fact, not be in the relevant sense a different kind of thing than a human being is. And second, someone who really wanted to be a cyborg in the relevant sense would not be willing rationally, but contrary to his natural tendencies.
After all, what is a cyborg (or “cybernetic organism”)? The notion is, it turns out, less well defined -- and, I think, less metaphysically interesting -- than meets the eye. Normally we think of a human being with built-in mechanical parts, as in the case of Steve Austin, or RoboCop, or Deathlok. But of course, by that definition, anyone with a pacemaker would count as a cyborg. And what’s so special about having the parts built in? If Steve Austin’s artificial legs make him a cyborg, why don’t carbon-fiber prosthetic legs -- which some have argued give runners who use them an unfair advantage -- make their wearers into cyborgs?
As it happens, there are those who would more or less stretch the concept this far. In his book Natural-Born Cyborgs, philosopher Andy Clark suggests that recent steps in the direction of science-fiction style cyborg technology -- “wearable computers” (pioneered by people like Steve Mann and perhaps soon to be mass marketed by Google), thought-controlled prosthetics, and the like -- are really just an extension of a “human-technology symbiosis” that has more or less always existed. Cell phones, computers, even just books, pencil and paper, and ordinary tools differ in Clark’s view only in degree and not in kind from the sort of thing we see in the cyborgs of the movies. In fact we human beings always have in Clark’s view been what he says we are in his title -- “natural born” cyborgs.
It would seem, then, that my one-year old daughter counts as a cyborg, given that she sports a “wearable toilet” (commercially available, if you’re interested in acquiring this technology, under the generic label “diaper”). If that makes Clark’s thesis sound anticlimactic, that’s because it is. For like other startling identity claims, this one can be read in two directions. And if Clark establishes anything, it’s not the bold and sexy claim that We’re all really cyborgs! but really only the rather unexciting and indeed deflationary conclusion that Cyborgs are just human beings who use technology. In particular, Steve Austin is not a different kind of thing from a human being. Rather, he’s simply a guy with some unusual prosthetics. Not entirely uninteresting, to be sure, but in no way metaphysically earth-shattering.
Clark thinks otherwise at least in part because of his commitment to the “Extended Mind Thesis” (EMT), which holds that aids to our cognitive endeavors like notebooks, iPhones, and the like are literally parts of the mind. (And it is technologies that enhance our mental lives, specifically, that Clark has primarily in view.) But the EMT is, for reasons noted by Jerry Fodor, itself no more plausible than the (bold interpretation of the) claim that we’re all cyborgs. (That is not to deny that Clark makes some important points, both in the cyborg book and in his work on the EMT. On the contrary, Clark is a prominent advocate of the thesis that human thought is of its nature embodied -- a thesis with which any Aristotelian is bound to sympathize. And as I noted in an earlier post, there is also, from the Aristotelian point of view, a kernel of truth in the EMT.)
Artifacts are if anything even less plausibly regarded as part of us the more we try literally to insert them into our bodies. It is precisely because the parts of the body function together as an organic unity -- rather than being no more essentially connected to each other than to what lies outside of the “biological skin-bag” (to use Clark’s charming expression) -- that the body will tend to reject prosthetics as foreign to it. (E. Paul Zehr’s recent book Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine discusses not only the prospects for, but also the serious biological difficulties involved in, the integration of man and machine.)
So, wanting to be a “bionic man” is no more wanting to have a different nature, wanting to be a different kind of thing, than wanting to own a pair of binoculars is. The man with binoculars is, like Steve Austin, “better” than other men with respect to long-distance vision. But that is only because he’s got a certain tool, not because he has somehow transformed (or would want to transform) his nature. The change is in both cases an accidental rather than substantial change (to use the Scholastic jargon) even if the accidental change is more dramatic in the case of Steve Austin than in the case of the purchaser of binoculars.
Nor is it plausible to suppose that a normal person would prefer the benefits of bionic implants if he could get them without loss of his natural bodily organs. Would Steve Austin, all things considered, prefer artificial legs with which he could have normal sensations, as well as run at super speed? Surely he would. But such legs would as a matter of anatomical-cum-technological fact have to be so close to actual human legs that there would be no reason to prefer artificial legs to natural ones if the latter could somehow be enhanced so as to provide the greater speed, durability, etc. that the artificial ones could provide. In other words, all things being equal a normal person would prefer becoming Superman -- having enhanced strength and the like without sacrificing the natural integrity of the body and its organs -- to becoming Steve Austin.
Nor is it clear that the normal person would tolerate even less invasive enhancements for very long. We comic books geeks are usually too busy thinking about how cool it would be to wear Iron Man’s armor to consider how utterly claustrophobic it would be. According to Zehr, astronauts who have to wear spacesuits for prolonged periods report that their tasks require continual intense concentration -- rather than the smooth and casual integration of man and suit that we see in the comics and movies -- and that they are very happy to get out of the suit as soon as they can. Even if this were not the case, though, there is no more reason to think that a willingness to stay within such a suit for a long period constitutes a desire to be a different kind of thing than a willingness continually to wear eyeglasses or a wristwatch does.
Of course, there may for all that be the odd person here or there who really does consciously desire to have some of his body parts replaced by artificial ones. But again, the Aristotelian-Thomistic philosopher has always allowed that people occasionally have various odd desires that are contrary to what is good for them given their nature. In this case we would have a variation on what has come to be called “Body integrity identity disorder.” This reflects psychological deformity or irrational belief, and is no more a counterexample to Aquinas’s claim, properly understood, than the existence of polydactyly and blindness are counterexamples to the claim that it is natural for human beings to be sighted and to have ten fingers and toes.
In sum, then, the bodily modifications characteristic of cyborgs are (in the Aristotelian sense) accidental rather than substantial changes, and also changes that, all things considered, the normal person would prefer not to have. This is evidenced by the fact that the more invasive such a prosthetic modification is, the more difficult it is for the prosthesis to be successfully integrated into the body and/or for a person to function with it in a prolonged way, and the less likely it is in fact that people would want to have it. As I have noted before, what people in fact tend viscerally to be drawn to or repelled by is by no means an infallible guide to what is natural for them -- in the technical Aristotelian-Thomistic sense of “natural” -- but it is at least a very rough indicator. In the case at hand, if Aquinas’s claim about what is natural for us were true we would expect that in fact people would at least in general be repelled by the loss of their bodily integrity, and that is indeed what we do find. The existence of the occasional person who is not repelled by this can be accounted for in terms of psychological defect or irrationality.
So, The Six Million Dollar Man does not constitute a falsification of Aquinas’s thesis. (Of course, someone who rejects Aristotelian-Thomistic claims about substances, essences, natural objects versus artifacts, the natural end of our rational powers, etc. would have a different take on the example. But the point of the foregoing was not to argue for the metaphysical claims in question -- again, I have done that elsewhere -- but rather to indicate how this example would be interpreted in light of them, and why it does not constitute a counterexample to the claims.)