Category Archives: Science and Ethics

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.


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.


Climate Change Enhanced Wildfires: Will These Burned Forests Grow Back?

My friend (and fellow GTU PhD) Peter Hess wrote an excellent post today for the National Center for Science Education highlighting the strong links between climate change and wildfires. California has wildfires every summer, but this year’s Rim Fire has been particularly nasty, growing to be the fourth largest fire in state history, and consuming nearly a quarter of a million acres.

Peter explains that with climate change we should expect things to get worse:

Climate change is likely to exacerbate this situation by changing many of the variables influencing fire behavior. Some regions will no doubt experience prolonged droughts (e.g. Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado), leading to pine and fir beetle infestations that will kill thousands of trees. This increased load of dead and downed fuel will amplify fire potential, and when a fire is started we may find that a changed climate has altered patterns of humidity, air temperature, and wind speed. Fires will burn hotter and more destructively, delaying or even preventing full recovery after an area has been burned.

That is all bad, but it is actually even worse. Hotter climates, lower humidity, increased drought, and increased extreme weather are all bad, but the lingering effects threaten to take on a life of their own.

Wildfires have no doubt existed since land plants first evolved. Plants burn, CO2 goes out, plants grow back, and the CO2 goes back in – a balance.  But the balance is now shifting slightly. Wildfires present a positive-feedback loop for warming: burning releases CO2, CO2 causes more warming, changing climate and causing more drought, due to changed climate forests do not re-grow, the CO2 released from burning is not reabsorbed from the atmosphere, and the cycle only gets worse. And earlier spring melt and later arrival of winter extends the fire season, leaving a larger vulnerable window for these events to occur.

In California, certain types of forests are only found at certain elevations. They depend on the altitude for adequate climactic conditions: enough cold, enough snow, enough humidity, enough water. With climate change these climactic conditions and therefore ideal altitude distributions are going to migrate higher – until the mountains run out (and/or the Sierra granite proves impossible to grow in).

A huge swath of Sierra forest has just gone up in smoke. What replaces it will likely not be the same type of forest as what just burned, in fact it might not be forest at all – it might be open woodlands, chaparral, or even desert. These lands will not absorbs CO2 like a forest would. In fact, these replacement ecosystems might be like nothing that we are familiar with – this has been called “the no-analog future,”  with ecosystems not analogous to ours at all.

The quip “prediction is very difficult, especially about the future” is attributed to Niels Bohr, and it ever remains true. But we can tell this much: the world is changing, and the changes are generally not for the better. Unless we want a future where human society is at serious risk for numerous major and disanalogous disasters we need to get the Earth’s CO2 budget significantly in the negative, and soon.


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 Ethics of Meteor and Asteroid Defense

The meteor which caused extensive damage and numerous injuries in Chelyabinsk, Russia, yesterday is an unpleasant wake up call for those of us here on Earth. We live in a cosmic shooting gallery. Not only did a 150 foot wide chunk of rock (named 2012 DA14) whiz by us and miss, but a smaller rock – estimated to be 50 feet wide – hit the atmosphere over Chelyabinsk, causing extensive damage. And in the evening (Pacific Standard Time), another meteor was spotted over the San Francisco Bay Area, but thankfully caused no damage.

The Chelyabinsk meteor and 2012 DA14 were on completely different trajectories and were therefore unrelated events.  Quite possibly the third meteor sighting was unrelated to either of the others as well. We just live in the midst of a lot of falling rocks (i.e. the solar system) and sometimes we get hit.  Not very often, thankfully, but enough to warrant concern. If 2012 DA14 had hit the Earth’s atmosphere, for example, the estimated explosion would have been in the megaton range, enough to destroy a large city.

Now, for all of the previous history of the Earth, there has not been anything to be done about threatening space rocks. They were simply a fact of life, and for most of human history they were not even understood. But now we understand them, and we also have the technological capacity – should we choose to develop it – to find and stop many of these threats.

In other words our inability to stop these kinds of dangers are now our choice.

We need to take responsibility for this choice to do nothing. If we do not find the threats and develop ways to deal with them we are now negligent. We are negligent because we know the danger and yet proceed anyway, without doing anything to lessen the danger.

I’ve said this before: morality and technology are highly related. They are highly related because technology increases power, and increased power means increased moral responsibility.  The more evil you can do, the more your moral responsibility to not do that evil.  The more good you can do, the more good you are responsible to do. Our choice to not even fully know about the potential threats, much less prepare for them, is a choice to allow evil to happen, and for that we are responsible.

But now I have a prediction. As of yesterday, Russia is going to get serious about meteor and asteroid defense. Two hits in 105 years (the other being the Tunguska Blast) and Chelyabinsk being a center of nuclear research add some context. And that means Russia is going to start probing seriously powerful technologies which have dual use as seriously dangerous weapons. And (though the Cold War is over) that is going to make the United States take notice, and perhaps respond with its own research.  And that will  result in further countries (Europe, China) and then the UN taking notice.

We can consider the geopolitical situation to have been dealt an interesting card by Mother Nature. Hopefully this card, as a warning, will result in an orderly and unified human response towards these types of extraterrestrial threats. Ideally, some type of multinational research coalition can be formed to not only find more of these threats but to also figure out ways to stop them, and then, hopefully and with great caution, develop the actual means to neutralize these threats.

This will involve exceedingly dangerous research, because any technology capable of diverting an asteroid away from the Earth will also be able to divert one towards it. But, like geoengineering, this may be a technology that, for better or for worse, we are simply forced into. At this point in history, to not pursue asteroid defense is irrational because it takes a risk that simply ought not be taken: the risk that at any time, anywhere on Earth, millions – or worse –  could die from a potentially preventable disaster.