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Me and my tech: Philosophy research informs United Nations special report on Freedom of Thought

20 October 2021

The role of devices in supporting thought debated at international gathering

Research by Cardiff philosopher Dr Orestis Palermos is shaping the debate on freedom of thought at the United Nations General Assembly.

‘Is Having Your Computer Compromised a Personal Assault? The Ethics of Extended Cognition’ informed the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ahmed Shaheed, in preparation for his report to the UN General Assembly in October.

Mr Shaheed’s report to the UN General Assembly cites the paper, written jointly with Dr Adam Carter of Glasgow University, which proposes that the notion of personal assault should be extended to protect not just our body parts but also many of the artefacts we regularly employ to support our cognitive lives.

Lecturer in Philosophy, Dr Palermos, said: “As new technologies emerge, the distinction between our minds and our technological peripherals (smartphones, laptops, tablets, etc.) dissolves. Under at least certain conditions—which, with time, seem to be increasingly satisfied—our memories, thoughts and desires plausibly inhabit our digital circuits as much as they do our neural pathways.

“In our paper, we argue that, when this is the case, damaging, or altering the content of our mind’s technological extensions should not count as mere damage of our property, but rather as personal assault. Admittedly, this is a radical proposal and a few clarifications might be in order, but it is reassuring that policy makers at the highest level appear receptive to it. Technological advancement is accelerating, and the international law and human rights resolutions need to keep apace with it.”

The Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief is an independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council. The mandate holder is tasked with identifying existing and emerging obstacles to the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief (in Article 18 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) and presenting recommendations on ways and means to overcome such obstacles.

Dr Orestis Palermos researches and teaches at the intersection of philosophy of mind and cognitive science, epistemology, philosophy of science and philosophy of technology.

Is Having Your Computer Compromised a Personal Assault? The Ethics of Extended Cognition is published in the Journal of the American Philosophical Association.

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