This Argument Needs Cognitive Enhancement

Andrew Sullivan says this essay by Justin D. Barnard, director of the Carl F.H. Henry Institute for Intellectual Discipleship at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, is “the most convincing case I've seen against cognitive enhancing drugs.” I guess that means Sullivan has yet to see a very convincing case against cognitive enhancing drugs.

Like the athlete who uses steroids, those who advocate the “responsible use” of cognitive-enhancing drugs among the healthy falsely presuppose that one or two cognitive goods among many are the most important goods among the many that constitute the life of the mind considered as a whole. They presume, in other words, that cognitive improvement (and by extension, human improvement) is exclusively a function “adding” information and “better” information processing. 

This presumption is simply false. For while the capacities to procure and to process information are indeed goods of human life, they are neither the highest of human goods nor are they ends in themselves. Yet, the use of cognitive enhancers by the healthy implicitly treats the single good at which the drug aims as though it were the most important or only good of one’s mental life considered as a whole. As our thought-experiment about robotic baseball makes clear, if merely thinking (very fast!) about lots of information were the most important or only good of the human mental life considered as a whole, why not simply replace us with computers? 

This is a blatantly poor argument. First, why is “responsible use” in scare quotes? If scare quotes can beg the question, then Barnard's quotes are fallacious. Second, why does Barnard assert that proponents of the responsible use of cognitive-enhancing druges “presuppose that one or two cognitive goods among many are the most important goods among the many that constitute the life of the mind considered as a whole.” Who presupposes this? No one, I hazard. So what's the point of this exercise?

This morning, like every morning, I had some coffee. I wasn't thinking of it in quite these terms, but “cogntive enhancement” was part of my aim. I daresay I use coffee responsibly, but in doing so I presuppose nothing in particular about “mental life considered as a whole.” I recently bought new running shoes, which I certainly hope will (responsibly!) enhance my ability to run, but I do not therefore presuppose that the single good of physical life as a whole is to run as fast as possible. You can do lots of things with your body. You can do lots of things with your mind. Why not do them a little better? 

Does the fact that I would like to run faster imply that I ought to be replaced by my dog, who runs faster than me, or by my car, which moves faster than either of us? Does my interest in personal speed enhancement imply I should replace my dog with a cheetah, or my Honda with a Maserati? I'd think not. I want to run, so the point is to enhance my physical performance. I want to write an essay, so I use caffeine and methylphenidate to help me maintain my otherwise fragile focus. What do robots have to do with anything. Does Bernard really suppose that there is someone somewhere sitting around longing to maximize something or other's information processing. That I am sleepy and I would like to stay alert implies the desire to be made obsolete by sleepless machines? 

Is there something special about drugs? A calorically sufficient, well-balanced diet is cognitively enhancing. A slide-rule is an effective mental prosthetic, not to mention a computer. Reading is utterly unnatural and learning to do it is a big cognitive upgrade. So is, for that matter, taking an elementary principles of reasoning course. Perhaps the Carl F.H. Henry Institute for Intellectual Discipleship should offer one. I'm sure they could manage to do it responsibly.