Why is Congress Afraid of Consciousness?

By Jonathan D. Moreno

Image courtesy of Mohamed Hassan (Pxhere.com).
Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed an apparent reluctance among the U.S. government agencies that fund neuroscience (e.g., the Defense Advanced Projects Agency and the National Institutes of Health) to be associated with projects that explicitly describe work on the nature of consciousness— or at least anything that suggests greater understanding and the potential of manipulating our awareness of the world. The strategic avoidance of such language appears to be true of both military and civilian government sources of funding for neuroscience. And forget any project that uses words like “enhancement.” That’s just too far over the line of political acceptability.

It might be a bum rap, and I appreciate that the plural of anecdotes is not data, but I’ve not only heard colleagues mention their sensitivities about giving elected officials the impression that their studies involve consciousness. I have also experienced it myself when hearing agency officials talk about that hot potato.

This is not to say that science explicitly involving the nature of consciousness isn’t taking place in the private sector at places like the Allen Institute for Brain Science. But, in the federal funding world (e.g., the DARPA Cognitive Information Processing Technology Initiative), the preference appears to be for synonyms of consciousness: mind, brain, cognition, awareness, etc. (and often more than one) to cover the bases of whatever intuitions we have about what consciousness is. One almost wants to shout, to paraphrase Casablanca, “I’m shocked, shocked that there’s consciousness going on here!”

Our European colleagues do not seem to be nearly as bashful about the c-word. The European Union’s Human Brain Project (HBP) made “Understanding Consciousness” the title of its 2018 meeting in Barcelona. I can’t account for this difference but it might be that the funding source of the HBP, the European Union, is less sensitive to public opinion about mind reading than U.S. lawmakers.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
There’s no denying that there’s reason for government funders to approach the subject gingerly, especially to avoid stoking the public’s paranoia. The idea that Uncle Sam is interested in mental manipulation is creepy on its face, even though every state and non-state actor since Homer’s epics and Plato’s Republic has been interested in exactly that. Ancient commanders needed to persuade soldiers to “stand up” to the enemy, meant in a literal sense on the field of battle. In his book Shooting Up, Lukasz Kamienski (2016) shows that drugs have long been used to encourage warfighters, as in the case of gin or “Dutch Courage.” In Plato’s Republic the rulers weren’t above manipulating the “best” men and women to meet and copulate so as to produce the most fit offspring. And in an ancient reference to a form of insidious mind control Plato also warned about the propagandistic power of the poets who made that which is ugly beautiful, like the Homeric epics about human conflict.

Even when the c-word isn’t used, a similar fear of intrusion arises. DARPA took a PR beating for their Total Information Awareness program, which was designed to assess the prospects of terrorism. (Although that office was hastily shuttered, the concept of data-mining for national security purposes is very much alive in programs at the National Security Agency.) And in the era of alarm about Russian “influence” campaigns – what are really old-fashioned propaganda super-charged by the Internet – there is understandable reluctance to be out-front on anything that smells of mind control.

But then what’s in a name? In this case: accuracy and efficiency at the very least. The nature of consciousness is at the heart of just about everything going on in brain science, both for medical and military purposes (artificial intelligence, Alzheimer’s research, traumatic brain injury studies, brain-computer interface, autonomous and semi-autonomous devices and more). It helps to call a spade a spade. A notable exception to this self-censorship is the way the Neuroethics Working Group of the U.S. BRAIN Initiative describes its mission as motivated by the fact that the “the brain gives rise to consciousness.”

Image courtesy of Pxhere.com.
Yet I can’t help but think that the repression of consciousness talk is an expression of something deeper in the American psyche, a kind of “consciousness Calvinism.” Libertarianism in various forms is deeper in the DNA of American society than it is in other developed countries. Hence “socialized” is a demon term even when applied to health care systems; one state motto is “Don’t Tread on Me”; survivalists populate remote hills and valleys; “mind control” was as prevalent a scary cold war-era meme as The Bomb and retains a special place in pop culture

Paradoxically, no other culture has mind control more in its veins. Starting with Jonathan Edwards in the 18th century, America has produced generations of evangelists, hucksters, con artists and Mad Men. The familiar archetype has been immortalized in Broadway plays like The Music Man. And finally, we have a presidency that would have made the salesman-pope Dale Carnegie blush.

Ours is a culture of libertarian consciousness manipulators. Silicon Valley is full of them. Survivalists scorn them. Relishing the click-bait, the rest of us buy their stuff.

The national security state created that thing called the Internet, funded by Congress. Many of our representatives don’t know which company owns Google or how Facebook works. But, rest assured, Google and Facebook know all about them, and they’re tapping into their heads, too.

It’s hard to blame Congress for being befuddled about the pros and cons of managing consciousness.
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Jonathan D. Moreno is the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor at the University of Pennsylvania.





Want to cite this post?

Moreno, J. (2019). Why is Congress Afraid of Consciousness? The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2019/02/why-is-congress-afraid-of-consciousness.html

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