Category Archives: Technological 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.

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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.


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.


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. 


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.


“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.