Volume 2, Issue 1 
1st Quarter, 2007

The Ethics of Imagination:
The Space Between Your Ears

Wrye Sententia, Ph.D.

This article was adapted from a lecture given by Wrye Sententia, Ph.D. at the 2nd Annual Workshop on Geoethical Nanotechnology, on July 20th, 2006 in Lincoln, VT.

Wrye, as Co-Founder/Director of the California-based Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics, at the forefront of an effort regarding the ethics of imagination, speaks enlighteningly of the freedom of thought within our ever-evolving human rights.

Introduction by Dr. Martine Rothblatt

I had never really thought that there was an organization standing up for freedom of thought, and indeed before the neurosociety, why would one need an organization standing up for the freedom of thought. 

Freedom of speech, it would be protection enough, because nobody could get into your thoughts other than by suppressing your speech or your behavior.  And there are great organizations to look after freedom of speech and behavior.  But as Zack has shown us, and ray before he, and others at this workshop.

We are at the cusp of a complete borderless meshing of all of our minds, and the ability to reach one’s thoughts and for one’s thoughts to reach others thoughts without ever slowing down to the speed of text is upon us.

Somebody needs to look after our freedom of thought, the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics [1] that Wrye and her partner, Richard, have founded have been at the forefront of this effort.

The Ethics of Imagination: The Space Between Your Ears

This article will look at the concept of imagination and how imagination is key not only to the furtherance of many of the technologies that we see on a visionary horizon but also to fostering human consciousness in ethically meaningful ways, in ways that are sustainable as we move forward into the bumpy ride of the future.

Why do we need an ethics of imagination?  Because ethics without imagination is dogma, and imagination without ethics is dangerous.  In order to foster human consciousness, we must not only have an intention, but we must also have a capacity to imagine by improving the stalk of understanding, compassion, and indeed, empathy that goes with a socially conscious imagination.

Because I have found, in my personal experience, that a person who has an enhanced ability to empathize, that is to creatively imagine another persons circumstances is a person who engages in more ethical acts, in more conscientious actions and practices regardless of discipline or politics, whatever they may be.  That is my plea.  

The question is, how can we foster an ethical imagination for a wide spectrum of people, and anticipate ways to enhance the simulations even, of ethical behavior for Artificial Intelligence as we move into a long, extended future?

How can we do this without knowing in advance what sorts of changes we face in terms of human evolution, the massive shift in capabilities that we may see, and also in terms of societal evolution?

The way that I want to focus on is a turn inward, thinking about an emotional enhancement, one aspect of that which correlates to a more ethical thinking, more cognition that is grounded in empathy. 

What is empathy?  Well, the OED (oxford English Dictionary) tells us that the empathy is the power of projecting ones personality into the object of contemplation.  If you look in the psychiatric literature, it is the capacity to understand what another person is experiencing from within the other’s frame of reference. 

Now this is key, because, if you think about sympathy, sympathy is a term that’s existed since the 16th century, and it came out of a religious tradition of seeing one’s human plight as common to other people.

In other words, it proposed a likeness between sympathizer and sympathized.  So, the person who felt sympathy saw that you too were one of God’s creations and in need of salvation.  So there is implicit moral, religious overlay on sympathy.

Empathy, however, is only about a hundred years old.  It is a word that came into use about a hundred years ago. Empathy presupposes difference. Its emphasis does not rely on feeling how the other person is like you, but really extrapolating.  Using the virtual projection of the imagination to get to where someone else is at.  Empathy builds on difference, sympathy builds on sameness.

What is ethics?  Currently the idea of neuronanotechnology is very different for most people.  And therefore coming to an ethical consensus on what ethics in relation to neuronanotechnology might be is not a foreseeable thing.  Yet, I don’t think we need to look for consensus in order to look for a more ethical process of analyzing new technologies in general, and neurotechnologies in particular.  

Most of what people know today about nanotechnology is based on the confabulations of a popular imagination; things in the popular press; extravagant movies; things of this nature; doomsday scenarios; AI intelligence overtaking humanity; and then decimating any sort of consciousness that resembles a human entity. 

These are fairly dystopic scenarios.  However, what I argue is that rather than reject or distance ourselves from such negative or dystopic portrayals of a popular imagination of nanoscience or neuronanoscience, we should foster and encourage an interpretation of these cultural artifacts that actually increases the possibility for an empathic imagination, understanding difference through these creative venues.  Society needs more tolerance, not less.  More tolerance can be grown by encouraging this aspect of creative thinking.

If we can enhance what I’m calling an empathic imagination, we’ll be able to enhance the ethical application of neuronanotechnology rather than relying on moral dictates or culturally and specific norms because you’re not looking for a similarity, you’re able to extrapolate to difference.

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1. Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics - a network of scholars elaborating the law, policy and ethics of freedom of thought. Our mission is to develop social policies that will preserve and enhance freedom of thought into the 21st century. Cognitiveliberty.org February 12, 2007 12:31 pm EST



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