In one of the more troubling passages in his book The Ego Tunnel, philosopher Thomas Metzinger contemplates a range of ethical issues deriving from the what he expects to be the inevitable emergence of forensic neurotechnologies such as infallible lie detection; how would such a technology change and disrupt our “self-models”?
We find this rather breezy discussion of the “ethics” governing the will of any despot – to lay bare the ‘secret selves’ of the body politic – all somewhat bewildering, given that two pages before this, Metzinger had submitted the bold and apparently non-negotiable axiom:
If we take this latter statement to be valid, then does not such political autonomy include “the enjoyment of intellectual autonomy”? If so, then is there any ethical question whatsoever, in this consideration? Is not the boundary line abundantly clear, a line that must be vigorously defended, without compromise?
Or let us put the question another way: if “the paradigm of privacy” is not part of the aspirational political autonomy of “free societies”, then what, pray tell Professor Metzinger, is such autonomy?
Of course, we need look no farther than the first chapter of 1984 to find pioneer neuroethicist George Orwell unfolding his vision for what happens when the ego tunnel is fully illuminated by a totalitarian state hungry for neuromniscience:
Or in Chapter 5:
And then in Chapter 6, ever more concisely:
The objection that forensic neurotechnologies transform our own nervous systems into our own worst enemies would likely elicit this sort of reply:
Look, these technologies are coming, whether we want them or not. The commercial possibilities for niche applications are staggering (just think about the field day for divorce lawyers!), and once the technologies have a foothold in these relatively benign niches, a more generalized use, mediated by state authorities, will almost certainly become a reality. To resist such a tidal wave is futile: focus on how certain protections might be introduced, such as my idea of a ‘mental sphere of privacy’ which would be considered sacrosanct. And just think; there will no longer be any need for “no touch torture”, because the prisoner will have absolutely nothing to hide.
We recall a similar sort of fatalism at play within Jeffery Rosen’s otherwise excellent (and thus largely ignored) The Naked Crowd. Passive submission to body scans is one thing; routine examination of neural “fingerprints” quite another. Yet the two are connected, and indeed in years to come we may find that the one leads to the other like the spine leads to the brain.