Tag Archives: thought crime

With a Brain Confounded


While contemplating the violence inflicted upon the polis in the name of securing “safety for the people”, we turn to a passage (Book Tenth) from William Wordsworth’s lengthy narrative poem The Prelude, or Growth of a Poet’s Mind. The poem was originally intended to serve as an auto-biographical prologue to an epic triptych titled The Recluse. Outlined while Wordsworth was still in his twenties, the epic had still not been committed to paper at the time of his death, at the age of 80.

The notion of “thought crime”, put into play whenever fanatics seize political power, was very much in the air during those heady revolutionary days of Robespierre’s Terror; the Committee of Public Safety required that virtue be present in every glance and every utterance. Such times are fast upon us once again, when in the name of “public safety” and patriotic virtue, all hell will break loose.

What sort of refuge is the soul, at last reckoning? Epicurus tells us that if we are to think and thus grow the mind, we must live in hiding; so where exactly might we hide? Is withdrawal, for all its poetic elegance, inevitably solipsistic? In September 1799, Coleridge wrote to Wordsworth:

 “I am anxiously eager to have you steadily employed on `The Recluse’ . . . . I wish you would write a poem, in blank verse, addressed to those, who, in consequence of the complete failure of the the French Revolution, have thrown up all hopes of the amelioration of mankind, and are sinking into an almost epicurean selfishness, disguising the same under the soft titles of domestic attachment and contempt for visionary philosophes. It would do great good, and might form a Part of `The Recluse'”

We include a link to a PDF; print out the text, take it to the public square or to the parking lot at Walmart; or to the balcony inside the mall; or to some distant hilltop or dark wood; and declaim con molto gusto.


Your Worst Enemy


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.