Why is Congress Afraid of Consciousness?
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.
|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.
|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
Jonathan D. Moreno is the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
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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