Category Archives: Human Nature

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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Space Ethics: Is Exploration a Moral Imperative? Why to Go or Stay Home

Space exploration is important to me. I think it is an important activity for humans, with important associated moral questions. I’ve written before about why I think Christians should support space exploration, and I think many other worldviews can support it as well.

But there is a balance in most worldviews that could tip the judgment either more towards exploration or more against exploration, and that is what I want to look at here.  I want to briefly look at three moral reasons why exploration is good, and three moral reasons why exploration may not be good.  There are no doubt more than three, but these are some of the biggies – if you have more, please leave a comment below.

IN FAVOR

1) KNOWLEDGE. Scientific knowledge is the primary knowledge we should seek in space, but experiential knowledge is important as well. Continue reading


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.


Should Ethicists Be Held to a Higher Moral Standard?

Yes.

There, that was easy. But apparently not all academic ethicists think this is true. Eric Schwitzgebel of UC Riverside at The Splintered Mind (a mind laying in splinters would be a “mindfield,” no?) wrote on this question earlier this week, and it deserves a look:

Josh Rust and I have found, for example, that although U.S.-based ethicists are much more likely than other professors to say it’s bad to regularly eat the meat of mammals (60% say it is bad, vs. 45% of non-ethicist philosophers and only 19% of professors outside of philosophy), they are no less likely to report having eaten the meat of a mammal at their previous evening meal (37%, in our study, vs. 33% of non-ethicist philosophers and 45% of non-philosophers; details here and also in the previously linked paper).

Talk about not walking the talk. No wonder academic ethics seems so confused to outsiders – if you don’t actually have to do what you tell other people to do (if you even think ethics involves that sort of thing) then you can say just about anything you want. Who cares, you are not going to actually do it.

For this reason, people have known for a long time that if you want to know what a person really thinks, you look to how people actually behave (“actions speak louder than words”) rather than to what they say. What they do will show what they really think is good.

But surely the ethicists in question would not agree that they are hypocrites – philosophers can rationalize much better than most, after all. Here is Schwitzgebel’s scenario of what a hypothetical academic ethicist might say when asked why they do not practice their theoretically-higher standards:

But my role as a philosopher is only to discuss philosophical issues, to present and evaluate philosophical views and arguments, not to live accordingly. Indeed, it would be unfair to expect me to live to higher moral standards just because I am an ethicist. I am paid to teach and write, like my colleagues in other fields; it would be an additional burden on me, not placed on them, to demand that I also live my life as a model. Furthermore, the demand that ethicists live as moral models would create distortive pressures on the field that might tend to lead us away from the moral truth. If I feel no inward or outward pressure to live according to my publicly espoused doctrines, then I am free to explore doctrines that demand high levels of self-sacrifice on an equal footing with more permissive doctrines. If instead I felt an obligation to live as I teach, I would be highly motivated to avoid concluding that wealthy people should give most of their money to charity or that I should never lie out of self-interest. The world is better served if the intellectual discourse of moral philosophy is undistorted by such pressures, that is, if ethicists are not expected to live out their moral opinions. Such a view of the role of the philosopher is very different from the view of most ancient ethicists.

Indeed, Aristotle grounds his Nicomachean Ethics with the idea that the point of studying ethics is to become good, and in so doing become a virtuous, flourishing, fulfilled, happy human being.

Because really, what other point could there be? Become a famous philosopher? Ha! Well, less flippantly, finding “The Truth” might be another point, and the truth might not actually make you so happy, one might retort, but you can bet that if I figured out “The Truth,” I’d be happy since I’d just accomplished a pretty big thing.

Ethics is the study of action with respect to the good for humans, which is happiness. Once you figure that out, shouldn’t you have some practically useful insights from it? Shouldn’t you want to become a more excellent, happier human being (whatever that means to you) if you think you have that figured out?

Because if you say you have it figured out and then you don’t do it, you don’t bother to try, then, it seems like you don’t actually think it is good. That your theories won’t make you a better person, that they won’t make you happier. You say one thing and live another.

And if you say one thing and consciously do another… I start to scowl.

But I can’t say I am surprised. Many contemporary academic ethicists just don’t think ethics is about becoming a good person. That is a very ancient strand of ethics, and no longer popular.

Aristotelians and Thomists are exceptions to this. I would be interested in knowing whether they also fall into this theory/practice trap, or whether it is more the Kantians and/or utilitarians. Also I wonder if religion would have any effect.  I’m not saying I expect it would, but I hope would. After all, at least in Christianity, hypocrisy gets called out by the Big Guy himself. And if Christians can’t produce academic ethicists who think it worthy at least to try (actually doing it has always proven difficult) to follow their own standards then it starts to look a bit like they don’t believe at all. And that is scandalous.

In any case, this is terrific research and I appreciate The Splintered Mind for bringing it to light. Good job guys.


Science Proves Religious People Are Stupid and Atheists Are Smart

Where to begin with this one?

A group of researchers have performed a metastudy purporting to show that atheism is correlated to high IQ and that religiosity is not (sorry, it’s behind a pay wall).

Normally I like metastudies, but this is just bad. Seriously. There are so many things wrong with this I cannot address them all. So I will just pick five:

1) Racist sources

2) Secular education

3) “Religions” are all the same, and “atheists” are all opposed to them in the same way

4) Garbage in garbage out

5) Your IQ is not worth… ____

One. Continue reading


Four Out of Five Babies Prefer Victims to Bullies

At just 10 months old babies already have a sense of sympathy and right and wrong. This recent study (published yesterday in PLOS ONE and therefore FREE!) has a good write-up in LiveScience.

Because 10-month-olds can’t yet express sympathy verbally, Kyoto University researcher Shoji Itakura and colleagues turned to a common tactic in baby-brain research: using simple animations to determine what infants prefer. They showed 40 babies an animation of a blue ball and a yellow cube.

Half of the infants watched a short clip in which the blue ball chased the yellow cube around the screen, hitting it seven times before finally squishing it against a wall. The other half of the group saw the same movements, including the squishing, but the two shapes moved independently without interacting.

In some cases, the “bully” and “victim” roles were swapped, so that the yellow cube was the bad guy. After watching the show, the babies were shown a real yellow cube and a real blue ball, and given the chance to reach for one of the objects.

In cases where the babies had seen one shape beating up on the other, they overwhelmingly reached for the victim, 16 out of 20 times.

The seeming-silliness of studying babies via videos of shapes and then letting them choose real shapes reflective of the video they just watched is really not silly at all – it is fantastic experimental design. And the data is terrific too. Yes, moral sense within 10 months of birth.

Baby brains develop incredibly quickly. And it is a longstanding truism of studies of babies that there is probably more there than what you can detect. Improved experiments will find more and more. We are the deficient ones; they know more than we can know that they know.

Anyway, I think this is a win not only for morality and its innateness (and a great follow up study would be to see if babies with older siblings have modified outcomes in any way), but also for babies themselves. For those like Peter Singer who would allow infanticide, I would hope that this gives some pause. Babies are not just lumps. They are thinking and moral beings. Even newborns and prenatals can do some pretty fantastic things. We should recognize that many of the limitations that we perceive in babies are not in the babies, but rather in us. (Not that I think that human value relies on our abilities/lack-of-limitations in any case.)

The moral history of humanity has shown, I think, that it is better to draw the bounds of humanity too wide and include too many (not that this has ever happened), rather than too narrow and include too few (the human default morality).

As a last thought, and to explore the above too-narrow-boundaries-of-humanity problem with in-group and out-group, it might be interesting to condition the children to perceive the victim shape as out-group and the bully shape as in-group. Give them all toys and clothes marked with a blue ball. Give mom and dad the same markings. Then show them the video of the blue ball squashing the yellow cube.  See if the babies-prefer-victims theory still holds then. If not, then we’ll have begun to see the origins of “drawing the moral bounds too narrow” as well.


The Three Great Tragedies

Have you ever wondered what could some of the great tragedies in life be? As I considered the question, the following three tragedies topped my list. Without any hint of doubt, most of us would agree that the loss of someone dear to us could be the greatest of all tragedies in life. The reason for that is obvious: the feeling of loss of a dear one is more often than not irreparable, and the dear one, irreplaceable. The only thing that might survive is the memory of that person. The closer the person is to us, the greater the memories, and as a result, the greater the amount of pain and grief caused by the loss. I have experienced a few deaths in my extended family and I know what death could bring upon the lives of the surviving family members. One of my uncles and his family were crushed by my cousin’s unexpected death at quite a young age. Similarly, the death of my grandmother had literally led to the death of my grandfather – He just didn’t want to live after he lost his wife, and he fasted to death. These kinds of experiences are not unique to me; either you or people from your life might have been terribly affected by the death of their dear ones. The confusion, shock, and emptiness of the loss conglomerate and present a bitter pill of reality to swallow; and such pill, many people reckon, to be so bitter that they would rather count their own death to be less bitter, just like my grandpa did.

Closely following the tragedy caused by death is the tragedy caused by loneliness, which in a way seems like the foretaste of death. In fact, recently, a report on social isolation and its impacts on mortality in the TIME magazine makes it clear that social isolation, which is closely related to the feeling of loneliness, leads to early deaths. There are quite a few studies on loneliness and how the “progress” that we boast of has indeed led us to loneliness and isolation. Instead of having more time on our hands to spend with our near and dear ones, and to pursue the hobbies that we like, our lives have become cogs in the great money-making-machine. Some of us are in the illusion that we are connected more than ever through social media such as Facebook, Twitter, etc., but the fact of the matter is that we are so superficially connected that our deeper longing for love and communion are far from being met. The Atlantic has published a thought provoking article, entitled: “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”, which speaks to that fact. The article points out that “new research suggests that we have never been lonelier (or more narcissistic) – and that this loneliness is making us mentally and physically ill.”

In addition to the two tragedies that I have mentioned, another grave tragedy of life, in my opinion, is the loss of the ability to feel – be it with someone, or for someone. Being able to feel with someone is nothing but having compassion. Marcus Borg in his Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, talking about the importance of compassion in the life and work of Jesus, parses the word and maintains that compassion “means feeling the feelings of somebody in a visceral way, at a level somewhere below the level of the head.” He adds that compassion is commonly associated with feeling the suffering of somebody else and being moved by that suffering to do something. That means this ability of being able to feel the joys or sorrows of others is what enables us to move beyond ourselves and consider the good of others. Further, Borg drives home the point that “to be compassionate” is what is meant by the New Testament command “to love.” Love and compassion, therefore, seem to serve as antidote to the narcissistic drives that we are forced to foster by the media and the great money-making-machine. Dalai Lama said it well: “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.” Drawing on the words of the Dalai Lama, it seems to me that the day we cease to be compassionate and to love, we cease to exist as humanity, and that, is indeed a great tragedy.