Intellectual autonomy, epistemic dependence and cognitive enhancement

Synthese:1-25 (2017)
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Abstract

Intellectual autonomy has long been identified as an epistemic virtue, one that has been championed influentially by Kant, Hume and Emerson. Manifesting intellectual autonomy, at least, in a virtuous way, does not require that we form our beliefs in cognitive isolation. Rather, as Roberts and Wood note, intellectually virtuous autonomy involves reliance and outsourcing to an appropriate extent, while at the same time maintaining intellectual self-direction. In this essay, I want to investigate the ramifications for intellectual autonomy of a particular kind of epistemic dependence: cognitive enhancement. Cognitive enhancements involve the use of technology and medicine to improve cognitive capacities in healthy individuals, through mechanisms ranging from smart drugs to brain-computer interfaces. With reference to case studies in bioethics, as well as the philosophy of mind and cognitive science, it is shown that epistemic dependence, in this extreme form, poses a prima facie threat to the retention of intellectual autonomy, specifically, by threatening to undermine our intellectual self-direction. My aim will be to show why certain kinds of cognitive enhancements are subject to this objection from self-direction, while others are not. Once this is established, we’ll see that even some extreme kinds of cognitive enhancement might be not merely compatible with, but constitutive of, virtuous intellectual autonomy.

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