Category Archives: Bioethics

The Transhuman Visions Conference – My Synopsis

On February 1st at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco, the Brighter Brains Institute convened the first Transhuman Visions conference.

I found the event to be really interesting and I will be participating in future conferences, not only as an audience member, but also as a speaker (at their May 10th conference on Transhumanism and Religion). Though I must admit, I do not consider myself to be a “transhumanist” – I am a bit of a skeptic about such things, and too academic to join all-out. But I find the ideas fascinating and excellent fun for stretching ideas of all sorts – technological, scientific, philosophical, religious, etc. – to their breaking points. And, of course, also seeing what ideas do not break; those are the particularly interesting ones (the infinity of God vs. the desired “infinity” of humans is one I have definitely been thinking about – that is an idea that will be hard to break).

If you want to read more about the conference, I did a write-up for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics website at Santa Clara University.  Here is a taste:

While I see no intrinsic moral problems with extending healthy human life as long as we can (realizing that important related questions of justice, cost, accessibility, side-effects, etc., would also need to be addressed), I do not think material immortality is possible in this world. As material creatures subject to entropy, we must eventually break down and die. The existential denial of our own mortality is an evasion, not a solution. But transhumanism does not stop at evasion; it is a social movement with a lot of highly motivated and intelligent people, and is actively researching solutions of many types. I was very impressed by several of the people I spoke to. Some were there because they were deeply concerned about the health of their loved ones and they saw transhumanism as the chance to save their loved one’s lives.

I am looking forward to future conferences.

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Guest Post at CatholicMoralTheology.com – Biotechnology Needs More Attention

Recently, William Hurlbut, M.D., of Stanford University and formerly of the President’s Council on Bioethics came to Santa Clara University‘s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and gave the talk “Cloning, Stem Cells, and the Conscience of a Nation” (part of a larger speaker series this year on conscience).

It was a great talk, and I summarized it for CatholicMoralTheology.com. Here is an excerpt:

Contemporary biotechnology is developing a voracious appetite for humans and their parts – whether as embryos, fetuses, cells, tissues, or organs…

[Hurlbut] recounted that while visiting a lab he was shown a tiny human arm. This amazing laboratory product was collected as a bud from an aborted embryo and then implanted in a mouse with no immune system (to prevent rejection) and then allowed to grow before ultimately being harvested. Hurlbut recounted that his first response was amazement – now we can grow arms for people! Then, his second reaction was horror – that was going to be somebody’s arm!… Hurlbut mentioned that there are already discussions about whether to ask women to abort their fetuses later so that the parts are more well-developed before harvesting, and that some ethicists believe it is better to use unborn humans for medical experimentation than animals…

Experiments like these are going on right now. How many ethicists / moral theologians / members of the public even know about them? Who should have a say in whether or how experiments like these are conducted?  What kind of society are we where some lives are destroyed so that others may live?

There are more than enough problems in the world to occupy everyone forever, ethicists or not. But Hurlbut’s call is timely and time-sensitive. If we think bad choices are being made now, technology and institutions may become locked-in to those bad choices as time goes on. Now would be a good time to act, for changing course becomes much more difficult once institutional structures adopt regulations and become accustomed to the use of humans and their parts.


China’s Blind and Barefoot Hero: Chen Guangcheng

Chen Guangcheng, from Wikipedia.

Chen Guangcheng, from Wikipedia.

Last night I had the opportunity to attend the awards ceremony for the 2013 Katharine and George Alexander Law Prize at Santa Clara University. The recipient was the Chinese human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng, a blind and (formerly) barefoot peasant from rural China turned international human rights advocate.

Chen escaped China with his wife and two children in 2012, after he fled house arrest (thanks to some very incompetent guards – remember Chen is blind and fled alone!) and appeared at the US embassy in Beijing. After causing quite an international incident, Chen has now settled down into life in New York City, where he studies law at New York University.

I want to share a few of the things Chen said as well as a few of my impressions.

First, Chen was extremely blunt in his criticism of China’s leaders. He said that he was reluctant to call them a “government” because they ignore the rule of law. He referred to them as the Chinese Communist Party, not a government.

When questioned about the likelihood of future dissent he said this: “In the past the government was pulling up small plants. But now they are becoming trees.” Chen continued by saying that he actually found the possibility of a future revolution “likely,” which I  found quite surprising, and which his translator did not initially translate – the moderator added that he said that.

Chen also commented, when asked what factors shaped who he is as a person, that his response has been very much a “natural reaction,” like shying away when you are being beaten. But in this case, of course, he did not shy away, he turned towards the beating and became hugely important because of it.

Chen voiced his appreciation of US law and the role of lawyers in human rights work to improve America over its history. It made me proud of my country that we could give refuge to such a courageous seeker of justice. It was also bittersweet to remember that the United States does have a very checkered human rights history, but that through the rule of law we have done much to overcome some of the worst abuses of the past.

Interestingly, while Chen’s story took center stage, what was not spoken of in much detail were some of the grotesque injustices that Chen had actually been fighting against. Continue reading


“Why a Four Degree Celsius Warmer World Must Be Avoided” Infographic

The World Bank (not known for its bleeding-heart environmental activism) has issued a new report on global warming entitled “Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4 Degree C Warmer World Must Be Avoided.”

Why should we avoid it? Because it would be verging on apocalyptic. Coral reefs dead, rainforests dead, sections of the tropics becoming uninhabitable due to heat, spreading deserts, ice sheets collapsing, rising sea levels inundating cities and entire countries… The infographic below tries to be optimistic, but it is best to know the truth: we are currently a ship of fools sailing for planetary-scale disaster. So much for tending God’s garden (this will be the second time we’ve lost that job!).

Politically there is no will  (at least in the USA and other major CO2 emitters) to fix the problem. As I have said before, I think we are being forced into the geoengineering option, because the technical solution, no matter how crazy it is, is not as difficult as the moral-political solution.

In any case, enjoy the graphic, and check out the others at the Visual.ly environment section.


Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: A Philosophical and Ethical Book Review

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is a spectacular novel. It is a tour-de-force through six stories, each story with its own genre, creating a multigenre whole unlike any work I’ve read before. (There may be other works out there like this, but I don’t know them – I’m an ethicist, not a lit guy – so if you have suggested readings, let me know!)

I picked up this book because I saw the trailer for the movie version by the Wachowskis (of “The Matrix” fame) that is coming out today. I could tell that the story was going to be fascinatingly intricate, and that a movie could not do it justice, so I wanted to read the novel first before seeing the movie. I won’t include the trailer here because it may affect your reading of the story; it did for me (while reading I kept thinking “I wonder who is going to play this character?”). I will review the movie in a few days and include the trailer then.

In this review I am going to try to avoid specific spoilers, however, the generalities of the work will come up and especially what I see as the moral and philosophical core of the work. If you read this review it may spoil the novel for you on that level, so if that concerns you, just go read the book instead, then come back.

But if you want to know anyway, come along. Here’s how we will go: 1) The story itself, its style and composition, 2) Its major themes, 3) Its similarities and differences with a few other works, and a few allusions I picked up, 4) Its movie potential. Continue reading


Geoengineering Goes Rogue

It was only a matter of time, but I had no idea it would be this soon. Geoengineering has gone rogue.

An environmental entrepreneur whose plan to dump iron in a patch of the Pacific Ocean was shelved four years ago after a scientific outcry has gone ahead with a similar experiment without any academic or government oversight, startling and unnerving marine researchers.

My first reaction is “environmental entrepreneur”? And my second one is “wow, this is a completely new thing.” Never in human history has a small group of humans intentionally tried to manipulate the atmosphere, much less without any kind of oversight. A true ethical novum. Brought to us by our own scientific-technological power. The New York Times continues:

The entrepreneur, Russ George, said his team scattered 100 tons of iron dust in mid-July in the Pacific several hundred miles west of the islands of Haida Gwaii, in northern British Columbia, in a $2.5 million project financed by a native Canadian group.

The substance acted as a fertilizer, Mr. George said, fostering the growth of enormous amounts of plankton that were monitored by the team for several months. He said the result could help the project meet what it casts as its top goal: aiding the recovery of the salmon fishery for the native Haida people.

But marine scientists and other experts said the experiment, which they learned about only in news reports this week, was shoddy science, irresponsible and probably in violation of international agreements intended to prevent tampering with ocean ecosystems under the guise of trying to fight the effects of climate change.

While the environmental impact of Mr. George’s foray could well prove minimal, they said, it raises the specter of what they have long feared: rogue field experiments that could upend ecosystems one day put the planet at risk. Mark L. Wells, a marine scientist at the University of Maine, said that what Mr. George’s team did “could be described as ocean dumping.”

I have discussed geoengineering and the hubristic dangers that accompany it before, arguing that it might seem logical and yet still be, perhaps, a very bad choice. I really do have mixed feelings on it. But what I can say with certainty is that anybody just going out and deciding to do it on their own must be stopped and held responsible for some type of violation.  This is an issue concerning the common good, not just of all humanity, but for the entire ecosphere. We can’t just have individuals going out there and doing giant experiments with no supervision or legitimate authorization (even if this is, in fact, what we have already accidentally done with fossil fuels, chlorofluorocarbons, and so on – this is not a road to continue on).

This is a fascinating test case, and luckily, a rather minor one. Iron dumping for plankton fertilizer is a relatively small thing compared to, say, spewing tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight and cool the earth. But now that the threshold has been crossed, we can expect to see more of this, and perhaps states “going rogue” in major ways, and not just one guy and his friends.

Strange times we live in.


Brian’s Links 2012 June 1: SpaceX and the Return of Adventure

SpaceX did it. Off the Earth, up to the ISS, and back again. The era of private spaceflight is really here. And what is SpaceX’s long range goal? Elon Musk wants to go to Mars. Not just his company – him, personally. And, while he’s at it, he’s going to save the world.

If you haven’t heard of Planetary Resources, you should. They’ve got billionaire backing. And they want to gobble up asteroids for their platinum. (Well, and their other elements too.) Between these guys and SpaceX, exploration is actually becoming really interesting again. And why should Christians or ethicists care? (go here to find out) Because, in the words of Alfred North Whitehead “Without adventure, civilization is in full decay.” And I think these folks are proving that we are not nearly dead yet.

Now, from air to water, literally. For areas with fresh water shortage this is brilliant: a wind turbine that condenses water from the air.  It would be perfect for the Marshall Islands, where is is windy, humid, and fresh water is unreliable. And if you were an ancient Greek, this could count as elemental transmutation.

And how about a new kind (not just a new use) of wind power while we are at it?

Every wonder about what the future was supposed to look like? Well here’s a funny one: kids carrying around computers in a museum. A cowboy using at what looks like an iPad. Kids using computers in school (wearing Atari helmets!). All from back in 1982.

Fascinating maps of America’s invisible borders. Like whether a soda is a “pop” or a “coke” (its a soda).

The USCCB’s and CDF’s document on the LCWR.

Ever wonder where ketchup came from? Wonder no longer.

Yes, Chinese medicine can be dangerous.  Lots of medicines can be dangerous. The early chemist and pharmacist Paracelsus (real name: Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim – you can see why he went by Paracelsus) is noted for his phrase “the dosage makes the poison.” But seeing as many forms of Chinese medicine have never actually been scientifically tested to see what they do – in any dosage – taking them can be especially dangerous.

It’s called “Blood Falls.” It’s a blood-red frozen waterfall in Antarctica. Now if only there were monstrous creatures at its source, the story would be complete. But wait! There are!

These next two stories are both from God and the Machine, my new favorite blog for theology and technology. First, a young man finds his lost home and family, a home he lost when he fell asleep on a train when he was 5. How did he find his way home? Google Earth!

Second, someday you will be able to buy your own tricorder, just like in Star Trek.  Seriously.  This guy is making them and they work!

And lastly, poor static dog. Cats have a reputation for getting all the lols, but dogs can do it too.