Neuroenhancing Drugs and the Ambiguity of the ‘Natural’

Much of current debate regarding the natural and the artificial pertains to things that we put into and onto our bodies. Contemporaneous with the rise of reliance on pills for emotional balance, ‘happiness,’ lack of anxiety, and increased concentration is a proliferation of criticism of such reliance. What seems strange, however, is that often people who eschew the use of a drug like Prozac or Adderall have no moral qualms about taking birth control pills, wearing glasses to enhance poor vision, and drinking coffee for an energy boost. It seems unclear to me that there is a hard and fast distinction between drinking coffee and taking Adderall– I mean, in terms of the status of the act of drinking coffee and that of taking Adderall (as opposed to their respective and differing effects). Additionally, it seems unclear to me that there is a defensible distinction between using ‘neuroenhancers’ (drugs used to enhance cognitive performance, such as Adderall or Ritalin) in order to perform at a ‘normal’ level, and using neuroenhancers to perform at an above-average level. For instance, those who are prescribed Adderall may be considered by the doctors who prescribe it to have a below-average ability to concentrate on a specific task over an extended period of time. But it probably goes without saying that the line between those who have a below-average ability and those with an average ability to concentrate is far from clear. The desire to force children to take drugs in order to perform at a certain ‘normal’ level is rife with dangers of serious biopolitical and ethical import. In addition to the obvious– that this normalization condemns what is not valued within its system, but that the norm is perhaps only valued because of the system, and relies on a fallaciously circular, ominous logic of the status quo– this cultural tendency persists in praising what is ‘above’ average according to its own criteria. Students with an above average concentration level are not given pills in order to put them on the level of the ‘norm.’ Implicitly, to be above average is good, while to be below average is bad, and the system rigidly determines what is good and what is bad with a set of norms that perhaps are not self-evident. They are certainly not self-evident to me. 

Setting aside the question of who should be prescribed neuroenhancers such as Adderall– for I feel that parsing out who should and who shouldn’t be offered the ability neuroenhancers provide is unhelpful, given the manner in which it seems to me that that kind of discourse ultimately relies on an indefensible recourse to the ‘normal’ individual– we might ask, why not take them? That is a question to which I have not so far found a satisfying answer. 

Perhaps the most common answer I come across is, ‘Taking neuroenhancers is not natural.’ And I must say that I for one sometimes find myself implicitly holding this view. I am a fan of getting plenty of sleep, exercising, learning to breathe deeply, eating healthy, practicing meditation, and occasionally drinking coffee in order to sharpen my ability to concentrate. But something about the idea of taking Adderall to increase that concentration feels wrong. It is my belief that this feeling of wrongness that I sometimes find myself feeling is completely indefensible. Why?

I think the primary source of this feeling is a persistent unconscious belief in the American dream of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps and not relying on anyone else. But this is a naïve view that entirely fails to account for the ways that every individual is inextricably woven into a dense network of relations at all times. The mere fact of eating, for instance, means that I am continually incorporating ‘foreign’ material into my body. Perhaps the persistence of this notion of individual will is based on a continuing mind/body division. Sometimes I am shocked by the way that I find myself holding beliefs that are based on principles that I wholeheartedly reject; in fact, perhaps my greatest desire as a student of philosophy is to continually discover the fallacious principles and internal contradictions that I unconsciously hold. I think our lives and beliefs are filled with these.

Anyway, central to these problematic notions of will and ‘mind over matter’ of the mind/body division, is the question of the natural versus the artificial. Is it even possible to divide things on this basis? Twenty-first century life in the U.S. is filled with technological devices, many of which are used to enhance our natural abilities (that pesky feeling of not being able to remember the name of that character in that movie that you saw? All but eliminated in an age of Google on mobile devices). Neuroenhancers take this to a whole new level: we are now able to change the makeup of our very brains, the organs that allow us to achieve all of this progress in the first place. If there is not an ontological difference between the artificial and the natural, is there any reason to fear the popular rise of neuroenhancers?

There are certain cases in which the differentiation between the artificial and the natural seems self-evident. A lake engineered and created by humans is “manmade,” while one that was created without the engineering of humans is “natural.” But what about cases that are less clearly defined? Is an oak tree that grows without any help from humans but whose seeds were planted by a human being considered natural? What about an oak tree that a human being both planted and watered? In both cases, as well as in cases where oak trees grow without being either planted or watered by humans, the seed still grows the same way (as Aristotle might say, it achieves its telos of becoming a full-grown oak tree). Does the human presence make a difference? What about an oak tree whose seed is genetically modified in a lab to be resistant to bugs? Could cases such as these show that the line between artificial and natural is an illusory one? And even in the case of a lake, what about a lake that was dug out by humans hundreds of years ago for irrigation purposes, then went dry, and now is filled with water again due to rainfall? 

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “natural” as “being in accordance with or determined by nature,” “having or constituting a classification based on features existing in nature,” “begotten as distinguished from adopted,” and “seemingly inborn.”[1] From these definitions, it seems that for something to be natural, it must arise out of existing conditions. In a sense, it must not only be made up of natural materials, but it must also be naturally occurring.  However, doesn’t everything naturally occur, or arise out of existing conditions? Science long ago repudiated the notion of spontaneous generation. Everything has a cause; so in a sense, every development or work of progress is a natural one.

Perhaps our everyday use of the artificial/natural distinction can be located in the quality of human consciousness. Based on this definition, something natural would be that which arises without the aid of consciousness, while something artificial would be that which still arises from natural materials but with the added element of consciousness. Human consciousness is manipulative, taking the existing conditions of the natural world and conceiving of new ways they can be combined and put to new uses. Thus, “manmade” developments, even though natural to the extent that they are causally and materially preceded by the existing natural world, are unnatural insofar as they utilize human consciousness to self-consciously create new growth, as opposed to the growth that naturally arises without conscious aid. But is this position not guilty of the fallacy of attributing to human consciousness something supernatural (thereby reproducing a mind/body dualism that I, for one, would not want to stand by)? In addition, does it not assume that only humans have any consciousness worth consideration? On my view, the drive to attribute something ‘unnatural’ to human consciousness is nothing but the remnants of an outdated belief in an immaterial soul. This position, an artifact of an obsolete worldview, is untenable in light of a contemporary understanding of consciousness.

Henry Greely, a professor of law and genetics at Stanford, has written on the insufficiency of the ‘feeling’ that neuroenhancers are wrong. In an article from a few years ago, Greely argues (as I have with the examples of the lake and oak tree) that we cannot clearly delineate between the artificial and the natural. He states that our lives are already “deeply unnatural,”[2] as we live in air-conditioned homes with prefabricated clothing and the like. I agree with Greely’s sentiment, although I think even to name our use of technologies “unnatural” is reproducing the artificial/natural distinction that I mean to reject. Greely indicates that aversion to neuroenhancers is often linked to a feeling that using them is ‘cheating.’ Contemporary Americans in particular tend to be suspicious of success that comes without effort. But does the mere quality of effort increase the value of a reward? If Adderall were legal for any adult in the U.S. (rather than only for some, such as those diagnosed with ADD or ADHD, as it currently is), would anyone be able to say that it would be wrong to use it? Perhaps the ‘gut feeling’ that drive some to think that using neuroenhancers is wrong will abate if they continue to become more common. Perhaps this feeling will end up being as outmoded as the feeling of frustration of not being able to remember the name of that actor in the movie you saw that one time?


[1] Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary,

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/natural

[2] Henry Greely and colleagues. “Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy,” in NatureVol. 45,6 no. 11, December 2008.

Paul Simon explores similar themes here

How I feel when I realize something I believe is based on an indefensible principle (except the lyric about it feeling heavenly…oh, and the kissing stuff, etc…)

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