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Using Neurotechnologies to Develop Virtues - A Buddhist Approach to Cognitive Enhancement (Part 1)

J. Hughes

Ethical Technology

October 16, 2012

Will new tech in genetics and neurology be successfully used to suppress vices and enhance happiness and virtue? Will this accelerate spiritual progress and liberation in the Buddhist traditions? Is it dangerous to manipulate moods?


Complete entry


Posted by dwom  on  10/16  at  01:17 PM

I interpret problems with this idea, and also with the author’s understanding of several Buddhist principles. Beginning with the latter, his ideas about ‘authenticity’ derive from common Western misconceptions of the purpose/mechanics of Buddhist meditation. He assumes an equivalence in taking peyote to insight practices and to gossiping around a fire. All three of these do very different things. Gossiping serves little in the way of spiritual development; at best it is merely a setting for exchanging and hypothesizing ideas. Taking peyote and similar practices (including sweat lodges) are vehicles for experiencing an altered state, in which transient bursts of new understanding or insight are sought after; however, these are less likely to produce lasting impact without the followup of some sort of true meditation practice. Buddhist meditation (I’ll call it ‘sitting’ from here on out) is more a process of familiarization and exploration than many in the West seem to think - in fact, the term ‘meditation’ is not commonly used in Asia and doesn’t have an easy translation. The purpose of sitting is, ultimately, to habituate oneself to a new understanding of the inner world and how one expresses that through interacting with the outside world. Therefore, meditation is in large part the Path itself, the regular introspection and habituation of the insights produced. The false equivalents the author gave to sitting don’t lead to a similar end.

His next tangent on ‘authenticity’ regards annatta, and another common misinterpretation of the idea of ‘no-self.’ He offers up the idea that since there is ‘no enduring, consistent soul or self-essence, ...the medicated person is no more or less authentic.’ Again, making an erroneous conclusion based on a false premise. The notion of annatta points toward the premise that there is no one thing you can point to as a static, unconditional ‘Patrick Alexander Craig.’ No physical part or parts of you can be concluded to be the entirety of you. Your mind cannot fulfill this premise, as it is always changing and adapting to new inputs. Everything inside you and around you is in perpetual flux, and to identify anything as solid or enduring is an error. The author tries to conclude that authenticity of practice, intentions, and actions is related to another mistranslated term (annatta) and its implied counterpart, which he translates as ‘authentic self.’

A last nitpicky item I want to bely is his reference to Fröding’s conclusion that ‘a fully virtuous life is biologically impossible for most people.’ I don’t think this is a generally accepted idea, but he presents it as fact. While it may be difficult for many/most to cultivate the facets of a virtuous existence, the entire premise of Buddhism is that there IS possibility of change for the better. Just because one has ADHD doesn’t preclude him genetically from being able to develop a rich sitting practice. The idea that one has to be smart is false; you can have insight into the most fundamental tenets of existence if you become familiar with your own mind.

This leads me to my personal critique of the whole premise of using a technological/medical crutch to achieve ‘moral enhancement.’ The implication I read is that a device or a drug will supplant the accomplishments of truthfulness or compassion, for example. While these may create a temporary state wherein the person experiences these states of consciousness, what happens when the drug wears off or the implant malfunctions? The person had not developed those qualities without the adjuncts, and will have to cultivate them again, potentially losing any downstream benefits accrued as a result of this augmentations. This can potentially have an analog to a phrase from pop culture wisdom - ‘the destination is the journey itself.’ True, the goal of Buddhism is to develop a perfect understanding of reality and hence rid oneself of the negative experiences in life, but the process of cultivating this understanding will habituate it into one’s very being. Enlightenment or even moral virtue is not a one-off ordeal, like a check mark on a shopping list; it is a lifestyle and a continual process. The Four Noble Truths state that our cravings and dependencies are some of the causes of our dissatisfaction with this life; what is a drug or a neurological implant if not a dependency? The intention is benign, but I don’t think you can separate the ends from the means.

In the Mind and Life dialogue in 2010, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Matthieu Ricard discussed oxytocin with Dr. Tania Singer. When released in the brain, this hormone increases empathy, which no one would argue is a bad thing for a person to experience. However, HHDL and Matthieu were wary of a the downstream effects of a person receiving doses of synthetic oxytocin on a regular basis. While the intention is benign, the very real possibility is that one’s practice would become lazy and incomplete with the crutch of a drug.

I have to conclude that, personally, the author’s ideas are well intentioned but will not serve the real goal of Buddhism in any meaningful way.

Posted by CygnusX1  on  10/17  at  06:47 AM

Just like to point out in the first that my opinion towards moral enhancement through either drugs or more radically through genetic tweaking, is to keep an open mind. Yet there is some concern from a “conservative” point of reference relating to “right view”, and “right concentration” towards effort, insight and the goal towards wisdom and enlightenment? And I think this is where most practicing Buddhists would be indifferent towards the use of drugs?

Yet we are not merely debating Buddhism or Buddhists, but humanity as a whole regardless of personal and religious philosophy, and where change is the greater dilemma. If there are continual declining followers in monotheistic religions, this does not necessarily imply that a Buddhist philosophy towards existence and ontology will replace the needs of the majority? Indeed, if Buddhism was the ideal path of choice, there would be greater numbers following Buddhism even now. So we cannot rely or wait around for the world to follow Buddhism, and nor is it feasible that humanity would, (although I still myself have “faith” towards a future of increased compassion and rationality at the expense of emotion and dispassionate enterprise - Mr. Spock?)

Yet more importantly, here I would say that “mindfulness” has more practical everyday usefulness than we are inclined to give credit? For example, if I were to be continually prompted of mindfulness then I could indeed greatly enhance my own rationality and practice of all of the virtues you list above, and there is indeed an app for that! Gentle persuasion does not equate to coercion, and I could envision my Google specs continually reminding me gently to be mindful, and even prompting me in stressful or chaotic situations to remain calm and fearless, (to overcome undue emotion and confusion)? I offer this as yet another option less intrusive than even temporary drug enhancement, and which fulfils the opportunity for the “individual” to exhibit complete control and practice “right view” at every opportunity?

Also, I agree mostly with Julian Savulescu and his philosophical position, that there is a need for progress towards humanism, including the use of any measure to enhance Human nature universally, although, there is also still possibility for humans to suddenly change outlook collectively towards global unity, compassion and change direction towards humanism? Will humanity do this without threat of global catastrophe - is debatable?

Ps. The Hinduism aum symbol above is unrelated to the content here?

Posted by rms  on  10/23  at  02:59 AM

You might find Dr Amdedkar’s de-irrationalized variant of Buddhism
interesting.  Ambedkar was the political leader of India’s Dalits (see
Shortly before his death, he converted to Buddhism; but, being a
thoroughgoing rationalist, he discarded of the accretions of Buddhism
that were inconsistent with rationalism.

Ambedkar’s variant of Buddhism is described in his biography by Gail
Omvedt.  (Please don’t buy it from Amazon; see  I’d summarize it now, but my copy
is at home.

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