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PRESS RELEASE 11-13-14: Shaping Our Selves: On Technology, Flourishing, and a Habit of Thinking

New book by Hastings Center scholar explains the benefits of “binocular” thinking for getting beyond polarized arguments and making informed decisions.

Hasting Center research scholar Erik Parens has taken part in many polarized debates about the use of medical and surgical technologies for human enhancement. While enthusiasts promise that such technologies will promote human happiness, critics fear they will thwart it.

The two camps are so tied to their perspectives that they often cannot take seriously the opposing point of view. Parens outlines a way beyond this standoff in his new book, Shaping Our Selves: On Technology, Flourishing, and a Habit of Thinking (Oxford University Press).

He proposes that we strive for a habit of thinking that he calls “binocular.” “Much as our brains achieve visual depth perception by integrating the slightly different information that our two eyes give us, we can achieve depth of understanding by integrating the greatly different insights that at least two conceptual lenses give us,” he writes.

He explains that a binocular approach to the enhancement debates requires us to get better at noticing the deep insights about what it means to be human, which are at work in the views of the enthusiasts and critics. The enthusiasts assume that humans are “creators,” whose job is to creatively transform themselves. Thus, technological intervention is one more way for humans to become who they really, or “authentically,” are. The critics assume that humans are “creatures,” whose job is to learn to eschew technological intervention and affirm how they really, or “authentically,” are. Critics and enthusiasts share “the moral ideal of authenticity,” Parens writes, “but they emphasize different insights regarding what the ideal means, and thus how to achieve it.”

Drawing on philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, and disability studies, Parens suggests how more binocular thinking can also help us gain greater understanding of some of the key concepts that arise in the enhancement debates, including the concepts of persons, disability, and what  technology is.

Parens concludes that binocular thinking can also can help in the world of clinical practice, where individuals and families face decisions about using medical technologies to  “shape” themselves and their children. He focuses on the case of using surgeries to “normalize” the appearance of children whose bodies are atypical, suggesting that a binocular approach to such decisions would require oscillating between the stances of the critics and enthusiasts. Rather than being for or against enhancement, such an approach would entail a conversation about what “true improvement” would mean in a given context.

Parens expands upon the concept of binocularity in a recent commentary in “The Stone” in theNew York Times.