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The Ethics of Imagination: The Space Between Your Ears

This article will look at the concept of imagination and how imagination is key not only to the furtherance of many of the technologies that we see on a visionary horizon but also to fostering human consciousness in ethically meaningful ways, in ways that are sustainable as we move forward into the bumpy ride of the future.

This article was adapted from a lecture given by Wrye Sententia, Ph.D. at the 2nd Annual Workshop on Geoethical Nanotechnology, on July 20th, 2006 in Lincoln, VT. Video: Streaming Windows Media DSL/Cable or Dialup or Googlevideo (Mac compatible)] [PowerPoint slides] [Audio (mp3)]

Why do we need an ethics of imagination?  Because ethics without imagination is dogma, and imagination without ethics is dangerous.  In order to foster human consciousness, we must not only have an intention, but we must also have a capacity to imagine by improving the stalk of understanding, compassion, and indeed, empathy that goes with a socially conscious imagination.

Because I have found, in my personal experience, that a person who has an enhanced ability to empathize, that is to creatively imagine another persons circumstances is a person who engages in more ethical acts, in more conscientious actions and practices regardless of discipline or politics, whatever they may be.  That is my plea.  

The question is, how can we foster an ethical imagination for a wide spectrum of people, and anticipate ways to enhance the simulations even, of ethical behavior for Artificial Intelligence as we move into a long, extended future?

How can we do this without knowing in advance what sorts of changes we face in terms of human evolution, the massive shift in capabilities that we may see, and also in terms of societal evolution?

The way that I want to focus on is a turn inward, thinking about an emotional enhancement, one aspect of that which correlates to a more ethical thinking, more cognition that is grounded in empathy. 

What is empathy?  Well, the OED (oxford English Dictionary) tells us that the empathy is the power of projecting ones personality into the object of contemplation.  If you look in the psychiatric literature, it is the capacity to understand what another person is experiencing from within the other’s frame of reference. 

Now this is key, because, if you think about sympathy, sympathy is a term that’s existed since the 16th century, and it came out of a religious tradition of seeing one’s human plight as common to other people.

In other words, it proposed a likeness between sympathizer and sympathized.  So, the person who felt sympathy saw that you too were one of God’s creations and in need of salvation.  So there is implicit moral, religious overlay on sympathy.

Empathy, however, is only about a hundred years old.  It is a word that came into use about a hundred years ago. Empathy presupposes difference. Its emphasis does not rely on feeling how the other person is like you, but really extrapolating.  Using the virtual projection of the imagination to get to where someone else is at.  Empathy builds on difference, sympathy builds on sameness.

What is ethics?  Currently the idea of neuronanotechnology is very different for most people.  And therefore coming to an ethical consensus on what ethics in relation to neuronanotechnology might be is not a foreseeable thing.  Yet, I don’t think we need to look for consensus in order to look for a more ethical process of analyzing new technologies in general, and neurotechnologies in particular.  

Most of what people know today about nanotechnology is based on the confabulations of a popular imagination; things in the popular press; extravagant movies; things of this nature; doomsday scenarios; AI intelligence overtaking humanity; and then decimating any sort of consciousness that resembles a human entity. 

These are fairly dystopic scenarios.  However, what I argue is that rather than reject or distance ourselves from such negative or dystopic portrayals of a popular imagination of nanoscience or neuronanoscience, we should foster and encourage an interpretation of these cultural artifacts that actually increases the possibility for an empathic imagination, understanding difference through these creative venues.  Society needs more tolerance, not less.  More tolerance can be grown by encouraging this aspect of creative thinking.

If we can enhance what I’m calling an empathic imagination, we’ll be able to enhance the ethical application of neuronanotechnology rather than relying on moral dictates or culturally and specific norms because you’re not looking for a similarity, you’re able to extrapolate to difference.

Virgil Ulam

Some of you may be familiar with what happened to Virgil Ulam.  He was a genetics researcher in the 1980s in California, and he was working about the time that Eric Drexler’s, Engines of Creation, came out.[1]

Ulam was fired from his company because on the side, outside of his legitimate company-sponsored research, he was experimenting with engineering cells.  Jjust before he was fired, rather than loose his job, he decided to inject one of his last samples into his body in order to save the work.

Image 1

Now this may seem like a stupid thing to do and certainly Ulam’s experience witnesses that effect, however, I think we can learn, again, something from his experience which points to the value of an empathic imagination. 

Of course, Ulam expected to extract these cells from his body later, after he had left the secured company lab, but as it turns out, he wasn’t able to, and the cells began to replicate. Except, rather that getting sick, Ulam actually found that his physical and mental properties—his experience was improving, he was undergoing unexpected health benefits.

Image 2: Phase 1

I called this phase one, he felt a better agility, increased processing power, and improved mood and outlook, as well as improved memory recall, and other intellectual and physical capabilities.

A few weeks later, after he realized he couldn’t extract the cells from his body, he began to report that he felt benefits well beyond his abilities and functions that might be considered normal.  The engineered cells began to initiate life enhancing changes from correcting his twisted spinal column, to actually even improving his vision and his mental capabilities.

Image 3: Phase 2

But, after a few more weeks, Ulam documented shifts in his metabolism.  He was becoming irritable and he was starting to undergo negative consequences from his experiment.

Not long thereafter, Ulam found that the engineered cells, which had been previously kept out of his brain because of the blood brain barrier, had crossed into Ulam’s brain where they began circulating and communicating electronically and synaptically with Ulam’s neurons.

At this point, the cells began to convince Ulam of their superior world view.  They did this through a series of different things:  polite behavior, gentle reasoning, plus a dash of highly disruptive synaptic electrochemical behavior.

From this point on, things started to go badly for Ulam as a human.  Now you are either saying, "Who the hell is Ulam?  Wasn’t he a mathematician?  Ulam’s crazy and so is Wrye," or you have recognized this for what it is, a science fiction plot. 

“It is inner space, not outer, that needs to be explored.”

  J.G. Ballard (1962)

This story is from a book by Greg Bear called Blood Music, published in 1985, a year before Drexler’s, Engines of CreationBlood Music is a science fiction novel about engineered neuronanotechnology, or "smart cells," that eventually develop into an ever-expanding, conscious membrane. 

Why am I sharing this with you?  A few months ago, at the recent Singularity Summit at Stanford University, Chris Peterson, who’s the Vice President of Public Policy at the Foresight Institute [2], said, "If you’re trying to project the long-term future, and what you get sounds like science fiction, you might be wrong.  But if it doesn’t sound like science fiction, it’s definitely wrong."

This calls attention to an unresolved conflict, and a complaint about discussions of nanoscale science and technology.  Many critics complain that it is not so much science as science fiction that they’re hearing in the place of science.

For instance, a Stanford University biophysicist, Steven Block, had criticized many nanoscientists, including Eric Drexler and the Foresight crowd, claiming that they have been influenced by, "laughable science fiction expectations." 

Block complains that in order for real science to proceed, nanotechnologists ought to distance themselves from what he calls “the giggle factor.”  Certainly most university professors, industry researchers, government officials, have a strong insecurity to being taken for quacks.

Understandably, they try to distance themselves from such science fiction-esque scenarios.  Or to put it more generously, they are concerned that by embracing some of the more visionary aspects of science, the more radical conjectures and hypotheses for nanotechnology, that they will encourage a hysteria or mania in the larger population.

Yet, I would say that it is just such speculative visions of future technology, in both its good and bad forms, in pursuit of innovative science or of a good story, that offer, through their ability to spark the imagination in positive ways, a way to catalyze a more comprehensive understanding of possibility and a more ethical future.


For example—this is what I call the "reality factor,"—Orwell’s 1984 book.  When that came out in 1949, George Orwell offered then, and it is still applicable today, a way for people to imagine a society that was laboring under the totalitarian use of surveillance technologies.

And as a student in one of my UC Davis science fiction classes said recently, “Orwellian” has become its own adjective, and even if you never read the book, you know what it means when someone says that the government’s NSA Surveillance Program is Orwellian.

Now you may be thinking, okay, but that’s a very negative view that fifty years later we’re still hearing, Orwell, Orwell, Orwell.  But, it is just such a dystopic portrayal of the technology in a fictional book that allows the public today to rally around an outcry over the unethical use of a particular technology.

1984 allows the public a shorthand way to think about abuses, or government snooping and invasions of privacy.  Even if they don’t understand what cryptography might be, or how electronic data mining impacts their life in a daily way. It begins that shorthand imaginative use of a novel to impact a larger social society, or larger social conditions. 

Another way to think about it is this: there’s a person who writes for Scientific American fairly regularly.  His name is Gary Stix.  He is a vocal critic of nanotechnology and he has complained that Eric Drexler’s writings are similar to the scientific romances of Jules Verne [1], or H.G. Wells [2].

And, that you can’t find, "real" technology in speculative science.  But when Stix says this, he’s missing the point, because at the turn of the last century, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were highly influential in stimulating an interest and the pursuit of innovative technologies and science.

The exploration that went with it, the positive search, was catalyzed by that.  And, in the same way, in the 1980s, Drexler’s Engines of Creation was highly influential in impacting not only the science, but also the science fiction of nanotechnology.

I’m making an appeal to embrace, rather than reject, the speculations in science, particularly these nano-fiction narratives that can inspire an ethics–related discourse of new technologies and applications. 

Back to Blood Music: what happened to Ulam?  We left Ulam with a smart cell circulating in his head; where they’d succeeded in convincing him of their lyrical harmony, of their blood music, their superior collective world view.

Now, ultimately the smart cells spread out from Ulam’s body through his bath water and dominate, or take over other humans in a quest to convert—in the sense of convincing, but also in the sense of altering other humans.

At a cellular level, the cells take over the biological and social environments to which they are exposed, much like a virus.  However, they radically restructure the human race in an evolutionary scenario, and in this scenario, humanity is corralled from its separate, autonomous beings, into an intelligent biomass.

It ends up becoming this sort of sheeny, phosphorescent, consciousness skin that spreads out over all of North America, covering the entire planet and eventually floating off into space as a conscious, thinking membrane.

Now, this is exactly the kind of scary scenario that Joachim Schumer has cited in his recent book that just came out a couple months ago.  He’s documented that it’s just such grand; far-flung visions of nanotechnology that people mainly associate with the science, and which fascinates them, but also terrifies them.

Most science fiction commentators on Blood Music see this as a horror story of technology run amuck.  For example, Dan Danillo writes:  "Greg Bear’s Blood Music takes the horror of exponentially, self replicating, intelligent nanomachines to its ultimate extreme, the termination of the natural world.”[1]

However, I think it is just such a radically other vision, through the perspective and acceptance of such a vastly different form of technohuman existence in a fictional future that provides a safe and useful way for the public to entertain the possibility of future social and ethical implications of new technologies in a non-threatening way.

Such a story as Blood Music invites readers to reassess their own position or perspective; stretching not their skin, but their consciousness.  With Blood Music, where it asks to consider what is the high price of such a transition of fully integrated, interactive, and a harmonious smart culture; loss of individuality, the loss of self, but also the loss of selfishness.

At the same time that there’s this negative depiction, readers of Blood Music are also invited to entertain the idea of this ever-expanding cellular colony of the next, or even desirable step, an evolutionary step, for the human species.

I’m not staying that we need to shuck our humanity, and embrace a high mind in the form of a skin-like planet.  But, with the freedom to imagine, we are invited and even compelled to relate to a different kind of consciousness, which I think can lead to a different and more comprehensive kind of ethics.

This takes us back to the empathy/sympathy issue.  If you, as a reader, sympathize with humanity, then yes it is a horror story because you don’t see the possibility for a resonant other.

However, if you empathize with the smart cells, and you’re invited to do that too as a reader of Blood Music, then you can imagine the value of a harmonious culture; a global intelligence that’s a viable alternative to overcoming some of those aspects of human culture that are found lacking. 

From the vantage point of the scientist, or the nanotechnologist, rather than trying to dismiss some of the radically or potentially threatening science fiction visions, I invite the scientific community to engage these texts in ways that will benefit from such a radical perspective shifting.

Now, why do I think that this is a sustainable argument?  Because, in the 18th century, it turns out, when the genre of the novel was just beginning, fictional narratives played a key role in the emergence of what was then a new idea: the then new political and legal concept of human rights.

Lynn Hunt is a professor of history at UCLA, and she’s argued that the widespread reading of the new genre of novels in 1740s and 1750s was responsible for creating individual experiences and that an inward experience inspired empathy, and made possible these new social and political formations that the French Revolution solidified.

Lynn Hunt explains that rather than reading the dry political tracts of the time by the likes of Diderot [1] and Rousseau [2], people were widely reading these novels that encapsulated, or incarnated their radical, political ideas in fictional form.

It was through a fictional resonance with characters that people came to understand and appreciate that difference of class, did not need to mean difference in rights.  Specifically, Hunt explained that the people reading these identified with protagonists who were very often a poor servant girl, it was sort of the trope in the 18th century that had all these novels about poor servant girls being exploited, and sort of taken advantage of.

But upper-class men, military officers, the upper echelons of the 18th century found themselves strongly identifying with these female servant girl characters because the books were part of a new genre that was experimenting with that kind of empathic identification in characterization.

Even though they had little in common with the characters in these novels, it led in part to the acceptance of the belief, or the belief and then the acceptance, of universal human rights.

It is because science fiction scenarios create narratives rich in imagined possibilities, rich in the imagined consequences that they offer a unique way today for people to relate to new science and to understand some of the sociopolitical issues that could be attended with that.

I should also mention that in the 18th century, the novel, because it was this new narrative form, was considered lowbrow literature.  Science fiction often gets classed as a popular pulp fiction-esque kind of literature.  In the 18th century, the novel was operating in the same way.

Tomorrow’s Ethics

One of the framing premises for my talk is that tomorrow’s ethics and public policy can be exponentially enhanced by applying today’s tools for greater empathy.  Even as we anticipate other forms of techno-social catalysts in the area of ethics, we can look forward to fully immersive virtual realities.

I’d like to see fully immersive emotive realities and more finely tuned neuropharmaceuticals.  There’s a class of drugs today that’s known as empathogens; in other words, awakening empathy within, generating empathy.

And there are certainly other un-dreamt of possibilities in terms of new neuro-nano applications that could foster imagination and even possibilities for other forms of conscious existence.

My point about a social evolution and an empathic society is an analog to raise Ray Kurzweil’s model of technological accelerating returns.  In explaining that, looking at biological evolution or technological evolution, you can see that today’s rate of progress is often confused with these linear projections of the past and over-the-shoulder looks at how things were, so that’s how things are going to be.

It is mistaken, and I see that social evolution is sometimes, particularly discussions of ethics, stymied by that same over-the-shoulder look. Rather than anticipating how things could be, and again—I’m not saying we should turn into a skin-like planet—but rather than anticipating ways to expand and enhance our empathy, people look to the past. 

One area, , that we see this over-the-shoulder look, is the way that the law operates by precedent.  And Richard Glen Boire, my partner at the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics, echoing Marshall McLuhan [1], said that not only do we drive culture forward by looking through a rear-view mirror, but the law moves forward by looking through a rear-view mirror.

There is this enormous emphasis on precedent and tradition in our culture, and yet the law is finding today—the law as an entity—the legal system is discovering that in an age of interactive and converging digital technologies, that looking to the past in order to figure out how to operate, and how society might be in the future, doesn’t work well when you entertain radical technologies.

In order to exponentially enhance ethics, we need to also enhance the legal rights that go with them.  Things like freedom of expression and freedom of thought will need innovative ideas and investments in speculative social, political, and technological possibilities—not a rejection of them.

In terms of neuro-nanotechnology, we will need to envision protections that will ensure both a freedom to use the beneficial applications, as well as to protect the future Amish, a freedom from the coercive measures of potentially neuronanotechnology, and Zack touch on many of those.

I’ll close with an appeal to cognitive liberty for the preservation of human consciousness.  Cognitive liberty is concerned with fostering a right to think, particularly without governmental interference and in securing the right to explore, expand, and enhance your imagination with, or without, neurotechnologies.

Imagination, I feel, is a strong aspect that makes freedom of thought meaningful; hence the focus for today’s talk.  And, broadly, the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics seeks to protect and foster a diversity of thinking. We can encourage a biodiversity, with a strong emphasis on our capacity to think. I will close with an Einstein quote.


1. Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics - a network of scholars elaborating the law, policy and ethics of freedom of thought. Our mission is to develop social policies that will preserve and enhance freedom of thought into the 21st century. 

1. Engines of Creation (The Coming Era of Nanotechnology) – (Marvin Minsky) “[A]n enormously original book about the consequences of new technologies. It is ambitious and imaginative and, best of all, the thinking is technically sound.” Drexler, K. Eric. Engines of Creation. New York: Anchor Books, 1986.

2. Foresight Institute - “[A] leading think tank and public interest institute on nanotechnology. Founded in 1986, Foresight was the first organization to educate society about the benefits and risks of nanotechnology. At that time, nanotechnology was a little-known concept.”

1. Jules Gabriel Verne - (February 8, 1828–March 24, 1905) was a French author and a pioneer of the science-fiction genre best known for novels such as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea (1870), Journey To The Center Of The Earth (1864), and Around the World in Eighty Days (1873). Verne wrote about space, air, and underwater travel before air travel and submarines were invented, and before practical means of space travel had been devised. He is the third most translated author in the world, according to Index Translationum. Some of his books have been made into films. Verne, along with Hugo Gernsback and H. G. Wells, is often popularly referred to as the "Father of Science Fiction".

2. H.G. Wells - (September 21, 1866 – August 13, 1946), better known as H. G. Wells, was an English writer best known for such science fiction novels as The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, and The Island of Doctor Moreau. He was a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and produced works in many different genres, including contemporary novels, history, and social commentary. He was also an outspoken socialist. His later works become increasingly political and didactic, and only his early science fiction novels are widely read today. Wells, along with Hugo Gernsback and Jules Verne, is sometimes referred to as "The Father of Science Fiction".

1. Daniel Dinello – author of Technophobia! Science Fiction Visions of Posthuman Technology

1. Denis Diderot - (October 5, 1713 – July 31, 1784) was a French philosopher and writer. He was a prominent figure in the Enlightenment, and was the editor-in-chief of the famous Encyclopédie.

2. Jean-Jacques Rousseau - 1712 – July 2, 1778) was a Genevan philosopher of the Enlightenment whose political ideas influenced the French Revolution, the development of socialist theory, and the growth of nationalism. Rousseau also made important contributions to music both as a theorist and as a composer. With his Confessions and other writings, he practically invented modern autobiography and encouraged a new focus on the building of subjectivity that would bear fruit in the work of thinkers as diverse as Hegel and Freud. His novel Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse was one of the best-selling fictional works of the eighteenth century and was important to the development of romanticism.

1. Herbert Marshall McLuhan - CC (July 21, 1911 - December 31, 1980) was a Canadian educator, philosopher, and scholar—a professor of English literature, a literary critic, and a communications theorist. McLuhan’s work is viewed as one of the cornerstones of the study of media ecology. McLuhan is well-known for coining the expressions "the medium is the message" and the "global village". Perhaps the most celebrated English teacher of the twentieth century, McLuhan was a fixture in media discourse from the late 1960s to his death and he continues to be an influential and controversial figure. Years after his death he was named the "patron saint" of Wired magazine.


Wrye Sententia served as a fellow of the IEET from 2005 through 2009. She also directed the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics (CCLE), a nonprofit research, policy, and public education center working to advance and protect freedom of thought into the 21st century.

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