Report from the ASBH Conference: Julian Savulescu’s Moral Bioenhancement Project

I am in Atlanta for the annual meeting of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities. Last night’s (Thursday’s) first plenary address was given by Julian Savulescu of Oxford University, entitled “Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Bioenhancement.” He argued that “The greatest problems of the 21st century—climate change, environmental degradation, terrorism, poverty, global inequality, mass migration, depletion of resources, infectious diseases, abuse and neglect of children—are predominantly the result of human choice and behavior rather than the result of external threats. They are caused by human moral limitations.”

He detailed some of the contributors to our problems. The first was technological advances, which have led us to do things like develop weapons of mass destruction. He went on to assert that evolution had shaped human moral psychology such that it is “characterized by aggression, restricted altruism, partiality to kin and in-group members, hostility toward and disregard of out-group members, bias toward the near future, and limited cooperation.” These characteristics were (supposedly) evolutionarily adaptive when we were out living in small groups on the African plains. Because we are no longer in that situation, our morals don’t work anymore. Science has shown us that biological factors affect our moral reasoning; therefore, since evolution hasn’t caught up with present realities, we should “look at altering the biological dispositions that contribute to these [moral] limitations, and make research into human moral bioenhancement an urgent priority.”

Savulescu got part of it right. He denied moral relativism. (!) He acknowledged that human depravity is the reason for our problems. Many circumstances, physical and otherwise, affect our moral reasoning: upbringing, social background, whether or not we have a stomach ache, whether we slept well last night. Our inability to deal wisely with or even control our technology is a huge problem.

Therefore, it seems at least a little naive to assume that a new technology, designed and implemented by these same depraved humans whose moral reasoning may be adversely affected by various conditions, will magically solve the problems that technology has posed for us.

As Neil Postman pointed out in Technopoly, every technology carries embedded within itself an idea, a set of assumptions of which we are barely conscious, but which nonetheless directs our thinking and affects how we view the world. Also, while we are quick to consider what we gain from a new technology, we rarely reflect on what we lose. The ideology embedded in Savulescu’s technological project seems to be a materialistic, deterministic, biology-based understanding for human moral behavior. What is lost is a full, complex view of human responsibility, behavior, and motivation, the understanding that although we are fashioned from dust, we are also infused with the breath of life from God.

Savulescu reminded me of the Conditioners in Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. Despite Savulescu’s stated denial of moral relativism, he has chosen particular moral values that he regards as important, and dismissed the rest as evolutionary blind alleys. He embraces a view of humanity and human moral behavior that go well outside what Lewis calls the Tao, the realm of objective value that forms the basis for traditional morality. As Lewis wrote,

For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please. In all ages, no doubt, nurture and instruction have, in some sense, attempted to exercise this power. But the situation to which we must look forward will be novel in two respects. In the first place, the power will be enormously increased. Hitherto the plans of educationalists have achieved very little of what they attempted . . . But the man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please.

The second difference is even more important. In the older systems both the kind of man the teachers wished to produce and their motives for producing him were prescribed by the Tao—a norm to which the teachers themselves were subject and from which they claimed no liberty to depart. They did not cut men to some pattern they had chosen. They handed on what they had received: they initiated the young neophyte into the mystery of humanity which over-arched him and them alike. It was but old birds teaching young birds to fly. This will be changed. Values are now mere natural phenomena. Judgements of value are to be produced in the pupil as part of the conditioning. Whatever Tao there is will be the product, not the motive, of education. The conditioners have been emancipated from all that. It is one more part of Nature which they have conquered. The ultimate springs of human action are no longer, for them, something given. They have surrendered—like electricity: it is the function of the Conditioners to control, not to obey them. They know how to produce conscience and decide what kind of conscience they will produce. They themselves are outside, above. (The Abolition of Man, Chapter 3, para. 7-8)


During the question-and-answer session after Savulescu’s talk, audience members were quite confrontational, asking appropriate questions such as, who determines who gets morally bioenhanced, and on what basis? Is this to be done in a coercive manner? Savulescu’s simplistic explanations for the causes of moral behavior were also vigorously challenged. Savulescu seemed to backpedal a bit under the attack.

The second plenary session, which immediately followed, was a deeply meaningful, moving, at one point tearful, tribute to Edmund Pellegrino. It is difficult to state how great was the contrast between the two sessions.

On the “Brain in a Dish”

Once again, I am about a week behind the news—

Last week’s Nature included a report, covered in the general press, that researchers at UCLA had caused “stem cells derived from human skin” (i.e., induced pleuripotent stem cells, or “iPSCs”) to differentiate into clumps of brain-like tissue in the laboratory.  Apparently, embryos need not be and were not created or destroyed to do this work.  The immediate goal was to get a laboratory model of a disorder called “microcephaly,” a disorder in which brain growth and, consequently, cognition are severely impaired.

As with other iPSC work, stem cells were derived from the skin of people with and without microcephaly, then the iPSCs were treated in the lab with a mix of factors to get them to grow and differentiate into brain cells.  One of these factors was a gel that mimics natural connective tissue in the human brain.  (Our organs are built on these connective tissue “scaffolds,” creating a potentially fruitful path for engineering new, healthy tissues or even full organs to replace diseased ones.  In another context, work is attempting to generate a human heart by taking a cadaver donor heart, stripping the heart cells off of the scaffold, and getting new heart cells to grow from iPSCs that would be derived from the skin of someone who needed a heart transplant.  This is still a distant prospect, but a potentially interesting one.)

In the brain tissue experiment, pea-sized clumps of tissue were obtained that resemble—but only very loosely—brain tissues that interact with one another.  The brain tissue clumps from the cells of the microcephalic person had abnormalities in development, compared to the clumps obtained from the cells of the non-effected person; these abnormalities were consistent with hypotheses about the cause of microcephaly.  How compelling this result is, I don’t know, nor do I know whether it’s all just a case of confirmation bias—seeing what we want to see based on what we already think is true.  But it sounds like great work, in any event.

This work appears clearly ethical, using ethically-derived stem cells to create what is truly a clump of cells, and not a new individual, in a way where no human/non-human hybrid is created, all done for an ethical goal.  Even if the work proceeded to the point of brain tissue engineering and therapy—for example, to treat someone who had a stroke—that looks like an ethical research and development path, assuming that embryos are not created or destroyed to do it.

What gets the headlines, of course, is the notion of creating an artificial brain in the lab, in much the same way as the heart example described above.  I’m not losing sleep over this one.  To begin with, last week’s new reports will full of the sort of blithe statements that crop up even in good science writing like you see in Nature:

  • “A fully-formed artificial brain might still be years away…”  [might be?]
  • The clumps formed had “no recognizable physiological structure”
  • They also “lacked blood vessels,” limiting their growth, and
  • “Normal brain maturation in an intact embryo is probably guided by growth signals from other parts of the body.”

These statements, especially the last one, speak to the organic development of living individuals and the limitations of any plans, or interpretation of the results, of organ engineering results along lines like those described here.  First, even if one could “build a brain” (or a complex structure that was a candidate to be called an artificial brain) in the lab, it would be isolated neural tissue, not a new individual, I would argue.  Now, one could counter, “Let’s do the experiment.  Let’s see how this thing handles inputs, and measure the resulting outputs.”  And I could imagine a descendant of Ray Kurzweil trying that.  But it seems to me that the required peripheral apparatus—essentially, a brain and an environment—would be so cumbersome and unachievable that any results with the artificial brain would be so limited that the relevance would be called into question.  Put another way, the more complex the phenomenon to model, the more dubious the model becomes.  Put the artificial brain into a robot, you say?  That would be some robot—trying to mimic the full range of human experience.  Well, we already have lots of robots to do things—industrial robots, robot vacuum cleaners, “face robots” to take care of people—and they really all compromises to accomplish limited goals, with varying degrees of success.

As readers of this blog well know, if one wants to manufacture a person, the various ARTs and cloning are more direct approaches, and they seem more technically and ethically relevant—even in a highly optimistic read on synthetic biology’s prospects, I think—than building a person with a brain entirely from raw materials.

Put another way, the scarecrow will have to make do with his diploma.

What about an eventual brain transplant?  Have a future Young Frankenstein insert an artificial brain from “Abby Normal?”  Again, why?  Download one’s experiences for “immortality?”  Someone would want to try this dubious project.  It seems like one could choose more durable hardware than neurons.  Prolong life in the human body?  A lot of other cybernetics would be needed—kind of like Robocop.  And how would one get from here to there?  I can’t conceive of anything that would look like an ethical experiment under the current understanding of experimentation on human subjects—even with an expansive view of autonomy.  Space prevents an attempt to elaborate.  I suppose that could be left for the comment section.

On (Being) “Better than Human” – Part 3D

With apologies in advance to my readers for the length of the recent posts in this series, I finish up here my critique of Allen Buchanan’s argument in Chapter 2 of his Better than Human. This chapter contains a great deal of theoretical machinery, which machinery will prove central to Buchanan’s argument in the rest of the book. For that reason, I have spent considerable time on those details in the last few posts, with a view toward proceeding more economically through the respective arguments of subsequent chapters. I beg the reader’s indulgence.


First, as we have seen, Buchanan prefers to think of evolution as being more like a “morally blind, fickle, tightly shackled tinkerer” than a “master engineer.” He makes much in particular of the fact that evolution is “morally blind,” using the cruelty of nature—both in the way it selects against certain traits and in the way it selects for other (“beneficial”) traits—as a point of departure for pontificating on the Problem of Evil (pp. 37-39), which he defines as follows: “Given how much human suffering there is in the world—much of it utterly undeserved—how could such a world be the creation of a being that is both all-powerful and supremely good?” (p. 37).

In this context, Buchanan contends that Darwin’s theory of natural selection not only deals a “blow” against the very notion of there being an intelligent designer, but also strikes another, “equally devastating blow against religion: It shows that the Problem of Evil is even worse than we thought” (p. 37). As Buchanan points out, “the whole survival of the fittest thing is astonishingly cruel,” leading him to ask the question: “If God is supremely good, why would he choose such a bloody mode of creation?” To the suggestion that our suffering is “compatible with God’s goodness because suffering enriches our lives, builds character, etc.,” Buchanan rightly points out that “many humans—especially children who die from violence or diseases and the millions of young men who die in war—experience suffering without much opportunity for gaining from it” (p. 38). But, Buchanan objects, “God’s making them suffer so that you and I can have a deeper appreciation of existence seems obscenely unfair” (p. 38). Moreover, “it appears there’s surplus suffering: God seems to have given us more than enough of it to make his point” (p. 38).

Even granting that human suffering might, perhaps, enrich our lives, Buchanan asks, how could it possibly have value for other, non-human creatures? As Buchanan puts it, “[t]he elk that’s devoured by wolves while still alive can’t console itself with the thought that elk life is enriched by character-building suffering. Thinking that the good that humans get from our suffering is so wonderful that we can simply turn a blind eye to the misery of all the other creatures seems a tad anthropocentric to me” (p. 39).

The “central point” of these reflections on the Problem of Evil, for Buchanan, is simply this: “IGM has the potential to achieve the good results of UGM, without the butcher’s bill” (p. 39). If we can, for example, introduce beneficial genetic changes more quickly and with fewer deleterious effects than the (unassisted) process of UGM would otherwise produce, this gives us good reason to consider pursuing IGM. Or, as Buchanan sums it up: “Evolution doesn’t count the cost of its improvements and it doesn’t care how the costs are distributed—it’s morally blind. If IGM can achieve the good that UGM achieves and do it not only more quickly, but without the moral costs, then that counts heavily in favor of it” (p. 40).

All of this is both de rigeur and “par for the course” when it comes to discussions of the Problem of Evil in the contemporary philosophical literature, and a thorough discussion of that problem is beyond the scope of this post. With respect to Buchanan’s attempted foray into the philosophy of religion in this context, suffice it to say that his comments here are less than persuasive. For one thing, we might ask the following question: might a perfectly good, all-powerful Creator have a good reason (or set of reasons) for permitting such suffering/evil to occur—i.e., some reason (or set of reasons) other than, or in addition to, “enriching” our lives? If this is possible, then it will hardly do to simply point out that there is such suffering/evil, intimate that we don’t understand what the good reason for it might happen to be, and then conclude from that fact that, therefore, there is no Creator.

More fundamentally, what if we, too, are not only epistemically but also “morally blind” as well? Given our own epistemic and moral limitations—especially our propensity toward moral evil—is there any good reason to think that we would do any better a job (through IGM) than UGM has done thus far?

One might argue, further, that talking about “suffering” (etc.) makes sense only in a theistic universe, i.e. one in which there is an intelligent designer of some sort. It certainly makes little, if any, sense in a strictly naturalistic universe, at least not in the sense in which Buchanan intends here—namely, that in which such “suffering” is morally significant.

Finally, Buchanan speaks of the ubiquity of “design flaws”—“suboptimal design,” he says, is “everywhere” (pp. 30-31). But speaking of “design flaws” in the products of evolution presupposes some sort of objective standard against which such deviations or “imperfections” are measured. Such a standard, in turn, may also imply the existence of a “species standard.” At the very least, it opens the door conceptually to one: if an objective standard is possible, then why couldn’t there be a full-fledged species design as well? And if a there is such a thing as a “species design” after all, then there may very well be good reason to be wary of the prospect of IGM.

In the end, if all you have just is a strictly naturalistic universe, then all you have just is life, death, development, coming into and going out of existence, etc., of various species. On such a scenario, “design flaws” are such only with reference to purely subjective criteria (individual goals, objectives, etc., of an organism), certainly not with respect to any objective standard of design. So it becomes difficult even to speak coherently of a design flaw.


In the next post in this series, we will move on to an analysis of Chapter 3 of Better than Human. In that chapter, entitled “Changing Human Nature? Or, Unnatural Acts, and Not Just with Sheep Like Dolly,” Buchanan addresses the “changing human nature” and “changing biology” objections to the enhancement enterprise, respectively.


Works Cited in this Post:

Buchanan, A. (2011). Better than Human: The Promise and Perils of Enhancing Ourselves (Philosophy in Action Series). New York: Oxford University Press.

Clashing worldviews in same-sex marriage and bioethics

The recent Supreme Court decisions regarding same-sex marriage have made me think about the fundamental worldview differences that underly the different positions on that very controversial issue and the similarity to the worldview differences involved in many of the issues that we deal with in bioethics. Although there are biological issues involved in the ethical positions that people take regarding homosexuality and same-sex marriage these are usually considered to be issues of social ethics and not specifically a part of bioethics. However, there are marked similarities in some of the basic worldview differences involved.

Primary in many of these issues, whether it is same-sex marriage, euthanasia, embryo destructive research, abortion, or human enhancement, is the place of personal liberty and autonomy in the worldview of the person taking a position on these issues. Much of our society holds to a worldview that says that personal liberty is one of the highest if not the highest value. Arguments for same-sex marriage rely heavily on the idea that society should not interfere with the ability of a person to pursue personal relationships and sexual fulfillment in whatever way that the person chooses. That is very similar to the argument for euthanasia based on a person’s ability to choose how he is going to die, a couple’s ability to choose what will happen to their unused embryos, a woman’s right to choose what to do with her body and a fetus living within her body, and and our ability to choose to enhance our own or our children’s abilities. These arguments are strong because all of us in our society, including Christians, believe that personal liberty and autonomy are important and should be respected. The difference is that in a Christian worldview there is a stronger understanding that personal liberty needs to be limited by objective moral values for it to remain ethically valid. Human sexuality needs to stay within the bounds of traditional marriage. Caring for those who are suffering and dying needs to respect the value of every human life and not cross the boundary of killing innocent human beings. The choices we make about the treatment of human embryos and fetuses need to be limited by that same respect for the value of human life and the proscription of killing innocents. Choices about enhancing human abilities need to be limited by a respect for the givenness of our human nature. Underlying all of these moral boundaries is the idea that there are objective moral values that are grounded in the nature of the God who has created us who is good.

Another key worldview difference involves our understanding of who we are as human beings and what it means for us to flourish as human beings. Many in our society see human beings as animals who have some advanced capabilities that give us advantages over and more moral responsibilities than other animals, but no categorical difference from other animals. This is in contrast with a Christian view of human beings that sees us as being made in the image of God which gives both an inherent value to every human life and an understanding that there is a higher purpose to our lives than fulfilling our basic desires. This difference impacts how we see such things as the fulfillment of our sexual desires, dealing with suffering, the value of the lives of human embryos and fetuses, the relative importance of our own desires and those of ones dependent on us, and whether we should strive to change our nature.

These fundamental worldview differences help to explain why there are such deep divisions on social issues such as same-sex marriage and many issues in bioethics. We need to continue to point out the importance of such basic issues as the existence of objective moral values and the nature of human beings as we discuss these issues that are of great importance in our society.

In praise of the Myriad Genetics decision—as far as it goes

The U.S. Supreme Court has recently been handing down a series of controversial decisions (as if you hadn’t noticed).  But a less contentious decision, nonetheless meaningful in bioethics, was the unanimous decision two weeks ago in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., 

Myriad Genetics has marketed a test for the cancer susceptibility genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, certain mutations of which greatly increase the risks of breast and ovarian cancer in women.  Their patent included the full sequence of these genes, as found in nature.  Enforcing that patent meant that any other company or lab—including a university lab or independent lab—was guilty of infringement if they attempted to test a woman for mutations of these genes in the course of her medical care, regardless of the method of testing used.  That in turn meant that in practice the Myriad Genetics test, along with its high price, had to be used.  The patents were challenged in court.

Myriad Genetics had discovered the naturally occurring gene sequences and claimed them in their patents.  The court held this part of the company’s patents invalid; one may not patent a discovery from nature, without creating a new substance or a new method of using that substance in an invention.  This opens the door for competing tests.  In “bumper sticker” terms, “life,” as it is encountered in nature, is not patentable.

What may be patented, among many other things in biotechnology, is something that Myriad Genetics and many other scientists and companies create from naturally occurring genes; namely, complementary DNA, or “cDNA.”  cDNA is the sequence of coding regions of a gene, with the non-coding regions spliced out, that is “complementary” to that gene’s messenger RNA (mRNA).  (In nature, a gene’s coding regions, called “exons,” are interrupted by noncoding regions called “introns.”  The introns are spiced out in the course of transcription, or reading, of the DNA to form mRNA.)  This part of the ruling limits the overall impact on the patent estates of biotechnology firms, which in turn means that the ruling is unlikely to impair the discovery and development of new treatments or diagnostic tests.  Similarly, the methods used in such discovery and development also may still be patented.

Something else that may still be patented is a genetically engineered organism—for example, a bacterium with a gene inserted so that it will produce a protein of interest that it would not naturally produce.  This represents a lot of activity; many such organisms are patented, including microbes and genetically altered higher animals like mice created for specific experimentation.

What of the future?  Could human tissues, made from adult stem cells for an alternative to organ transplant, be patented?  I would think that they could.  At a minimum, the procedures for growing such tissues could be patented.  If some future human embryo were enhanced with a gene to improve vision, what could be patented then?  My guess is that the process could be, but the actual person could not be.  This seems commonsense but of course one would need to see the actual cases, if and when they arise.

Commodification of life, including human life, remains an urgent concern, but it seems that, even if some altered organisms are patentable, it is unlikely that people, though they may be “made,” could be considered to be “invented.”  My guess is that this decision would help set a limit.  In any event, I think the court got this one right.

On (Being) Better than Human, Part 3A

As I noted in Part 1 of this series (see my 03/25/13 post), in Better than Human Allen Buchanan considers four major lines of objection to the “enhancement enterprise.” As Buchanan summarizes them, each of these objections claims that biomedical enhancement is “different” in morally significant ways from other kinds of (nonbiomedical) enhancement. Specifically, these objections assert that:

(1) biomedical enhancements are different because they change our biology; (2) biomedical enhancements are different because (some of them) change the human gene pool; (3) biomedical enhancements are different because they could change or destroy human nature; [and] (4) biomedical enhancements are different because they amount to playing God (p. 12).

In Chapter 2, Buchanan takes on the second and third of these objections—that is, the “changing the human gene pool” and “changing human nature” objections, respectively.

The heart of Buchanan’s discussion in this chapter is a consideration of two competing analogies in terms of which one might understand evolutionary biology—or, alternatively, “nature” (p. 29)—and its processes: the “master engineer” and the “grim tinkerer” analogies, respectively. On the former analogy, “organisms are like engineering masterpieces: beautifully designed, harmonious, finished products that are stable and durable (if we leave them alone)” (p. 29). On the latter, evolution is “morally blind,” “fickle,” and “tightly shackled” (p. 49)—it produces “cobbled-together, unstable works in progress, and then discards them” (p. 28).

Evolution is disanalogous to a master engineer, Buchanan says, in two key respects. First, “natural selection never gets the job done” (p. 28). Environments are constantly changing, and organisms are constantly adapting both to their environments and to each other, in “a ceaseless round of adaptation and counteradaptation” (p. 28)—resulting in further changes both to organisms and their environment, in a process that never arrives at a terminus. So rather than being “the end points of a process whereby they climb a ladder to perfect adaptation to their environment,” organisms instead exist in a state of perpetual instability, one that belies the “finely balanced” nature implied by the master engineer analogy (pp. 28-29). Second,

unlike a master engineer, evolution doesn’t design what it produces according to a plan that it draws up in advance. Instead, it modifies organisms in response to short-term problems, with no thought of long-term effects. Evolution has no overall game plan for any species, and the results show it. What’s useful for solving today’s problems can cause new problems—and even extinction—down the line (p. 29).

In the final analysis, Buchanan contends, “evolution is more like a morally blind, fickle, tightly shackled tinkerer” than a master engineer. The burden of the rest of the chapter is to provide reasons why (on Buchanan’s view) we ought to accept this analogy over against the master engineer analogy.

In order to adjudicate between these two analogies, Buchanan says, we need to grasp certain key aspects of the mechanisms of evolution (p. 29). The first thing to notice in this regard is that nature is replete with instances of “suboptimal design” (pp. 30-31), which Buchanan takes to be prima facie evidence that the master engineer analogy is problematic at best. Examples of such “design flaws” include, inter alia, the fact that in male mammals the urinary tract “passes through (rather than being routed around) the prostate gland, which can swell and block urinary function,” and the “hasty shift from quadruped to biped, which resulted in back and knee problems and a birth canal that passes through the pelvis, resulting in greatly increased risks to both mother and child in the birthing process” (p. 30). Numerous additional examples could be cited (and Buchanan cites several other illustrative examples here).[1] “Design flaws” such as these led Darwin to develop his theory of natural selection, with which, Buchanan informs us, “Darwin debunked the argument from intelligent design, one of the traditional arguments for the existence of God, by cataloguing the ‘clumsy, blundering, wasteful’ works of nature” (p. 30).

To show more clearly why nature is not best thought of as a “master engineer,” Buchanan introduces at this point a distinction between what he terms “Unintentional Genetic Modification” (UGM) and “Intentional Genetic Modification” (IGM). UGM is “evolution as usual, what Darwin called ‘descent with modification,’ where a driving force of the modification is natural selection”—in other words, “evolution without intentional modification of human genes by human beings” (p. 31). IGM, then, in the context relevant to our discussion, is intentional modification of human genes by human beings.

Buchanan’s aim here is actually two-fold: first, he wants to provide reasons why we ought to reject the “master engineer” analogy in favor of the “grim tinkerer” analogy, and second, he wants to give us reasons for considering the possibility that it may be preferable, in at least some circumstances, to actively pursue IGM rather than simply leaving the development of the human species entirely to UGM. His subsequent discussion in the remainder of this chapter is designed to accomplish both of these aims simultaneously. To that end, he begins by enumerating some of the built-in limitations of UGM, and then goes on to describe some ways in which IGM might be employed to overcome those limitations.

In the next post in this series, we’ll finish up our explication of Buchanan’s argument, and then develop some critical observations regarding that argument. By way of preview, three major limitations of UGM to which Buchanan draws our attention are the facts that (1) UGM is “insensitive” to post-reproductive quality of life (pp. 32-37); (2) in UGM, beneficial mutations spread only by way of a “nasty, brutish, and long” process (37-45); and (3) UGM selects only for “reproductive fitness, not human good” (pp. 45-48). Critical remarks will focus, in turn, on several epistemological, ontological, and moral issues raised by the way Buchanan frames and develops his argument in this chapter.


[1] A bonus for the philosophy buffs out there: In the context of this discussion of “design flaws,” Buchanan offers an arresting image in answer to Nagel’s famous query regarding what it’s like to be a bat. As Buchanan explains, “bats spend a good deal of their time hanging upside down, closely packed together, with their feces pouring down over their bodies to their heads. (Imagine yourself holding a toothpaste tube upright and squeezing it until the contents cover your hands. That’s what it’s like to be a bat.)” (p. 31).

Emergent Dualism and the Sanctity of Human Life

My wife and I spent May 10-11 at the annual conference of Biola’s Center for Christian Thought (CCT), where the theme for 2012-2013 has been “Neuroscience and the Soul.”  The plenary talks are not all on the web, yet, although some are on Facebook, but a number of discussions on the general topic may be accessed here.  I encourage readers of this blog to spend some time knocking around the CCT website.

The weekend (though perhaps not the year, more broadly) didn’t have much neuroscience in it.  Most of the time was spent talking about philosophical and theological anthropology—in particular, what is the soul?  As I have previously written on this blog, I am most attracted to a “Thomistic substance dualism” (after Thomas Aquinas) of the sort advocated by J.P. Moreland of Biola, who argues that the “soul” is a simple (it doesn’t have parts) nonmaterial substantial entity that contains all the ultimate capacities of an organism and which is intimately involved in directing that organism’s development and expression of those capacities.  The word “ultimate” is critical here, because, as we all know, not all members of the human race realize all capacities at all times.  Moreland’s development shores up some shortcomings of Aquinas’s dualism (e.g., the notion that human embryos acquire souls at either 40 [males] or 80 [females] days of prenatal development), while attempting to retain its merits.  It, and other approaches that reject equating mind with brain function, appeal to certain Cartesian intuitions, like those of self-awareness, the sense of “what it is like” to have an inward experience, and others.  The philosophers call these “qualia” of mental events, which make them non-identical with physical/biologic events.  At the same time, Moreland and those of like mind reject the radical Cartesian distinction between mind and body in favor of a more wholistic, as it were, view of what the soul is and does.

Now, this fits nicely with the biblical notion of the image of God, even if one rejects Moreland’s view that the image is what man is, not just what man does (tend the earth), or the relationship between man and God, or the “status and standard” of man relative to God, creation, and the ultimate perfection man.  But I would argue that Moreland’s Thomistic substance dualism is not just faith-based, but also supported by formidable philosophic arguments and accessible on the terms of general revelation.   As such, I think it provides the strongest support available for the sanctity of individual and collective human life.  One sees this in arguments most commonly employed (perhaps not surprisingly) by Roman Catholic thinkers like Robert George; to wit, “humans are the kind or sort of being that….”

Two criticisms of Moreland’s view are:

  1. It amounts to vitalism, an otiose idea long-ago relegated to the biology’s scrap heap of history.   Moreland’s rejoinder to this is to claim that bad, old-fashioned vitalism was too crude, and that a more modern view, “organicism,” is more promising.  (I can’t carry on about that, yet.)
  2. Evolution is irreconcilable with the Thomist view of the soul, because the latter requires that genus and species not be degreed properties, but be in a real sense, immutable.  I agree that the Thomist view pushes one there, and I think that (along with Moreland, I believe), as these critics claim, the Thomist view requires one to accept that God is progressively active in creation.  But these points are said to be unacceptable because of the science of human evolution.

So, as an alternative, some philosophers who remain sympathetic to the idea that mental phenomena are not reducible to physical processes, and in fact are different in ways that cannot be fully explained by appealing to physical processes, nonetheless inescapably depend on those processes and “emerge” from them.  However, they would hold, what is emergent is not just mental properties but an actual, and in a meaningful sense, substantial self.  So they are dualists about human nature—even, in a sense, “substance dualists,” but they are less ready to allow that the human soul might exist independently of bodily life and processes—particularly those of the brain.

Now, there is more to be said about this than I can say, here or elsewhere, but it seems to me that the appeal to a “degreed” nature of life or consciousness disallows categorical distinctions of moral status between individual people, or people in general, and other beings.  (It seems to me that the emergent dualist also conceives “soul” as too readily identified with higher mental properties than the Thomist view would insist on.)  It risks making “personhood,” or “dignity” or moral status a degreed property.  Should we be more concerned about an anencephalic baby, or a fetus with Down syndrome, than a fully-endowed and functioning gorilla, and if so, why?  Should we be troubled about creating a human/non-human hybrid, and if so, why?  Would a super-intelligent robot, if there could be such a thing, potentially be a rival of “natural” humans in competing claims for concern?

I tried this out on a prominent Christian emergent dualist at the conference, and he quickly dismissed my objections.  To be fair, I hit him with a “drive by” on the coffee break, but as it happened, when I pushed, he responded, in effect, we can’t base all our moral appeals on rational argument.  Sometimes we have to just demonstrate the truth of the gospel, and show people the choice between worldviews and their consequences, and ask them what do they really prefer?  And, as unfairly as this brief post may be posing the issues, that kind of rejoinder worries me.

Ultimately, some appeal to a “givenness” of human nature is necessary to defend boundaries in bioethics.  We might indeed appeal to the naturalist by counseling caution—evolution has, over millions of years, presented us with ourselves, including our common intuitions—and we ought to have a “default” position of “no-go” on the most “out there” ideas.  We might indeed present a “two views” picture, and ask people to choose what kind of world they really want and what sort of people they ought to be.  We might argue, as I take the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas to argue, that the interplay of human autonomy, human language, and human social relationships lead us to conclude that some technological interventions would tend fundamentally to destroy who we are in community, and so ought to be avoided.  But I think it’s harder to identify, on emergent dualist grounds, what if any specific maneuvers ought to be proscribed with “thou shalt not,” or words to that effect.

The emergent dualists might be right.  (I tend to agree with Moreland that the position is unstable, tending toward either his dualism on the one hand or functionalism on the other.)  If so, we should, as the philosopher I challenged told me, follow the inquiry where it leads.  (One approach that could be called into question is Francis Schaeffer’s approach of asking whether one can live with the consequences of one’s philosophy.)  But my efforts, at least, are still awfully preliminary.

The Sound of Silence

The week we have just begun has found me processing several things, juxtaposed into a whole.

The first of these was learning of the death of Dallas Willard, longtime USC professor and author of intellectually-provocative evangelical works like “The Divine Conspiracy” and “The Spirit of the Disciplines.” He influenced me in my spiritual youth–and into my current spiritual adolescence– with a simple but profound message that Jesus was the smartest man who ever walked the Earth, he lived and taught a perfect example of what the most satisfying life on that Earth would encompass, and living and acting like Jesus did wasn’t just for 12th Century mystics or the world’s spiritual giants, but for all of us. He was an epistemologist that made the argument over decades in the “belly of the beast” at USC and UCLA and elsewhere that spiritual knowledge was REAL knowledge, and ought to have value awarded its substance. The last words of Willard were said to be “thank you.” I would hope to end my own sojourn on Earth with such a thought. Out of gratitude arises worship, and I am grateful that God has sent such magnificent authors and thinkers to help me grope my way through faith. May he enjoy the full realization of the Kingdom of God for which he was so desirous in this earthly life, even as he now sees his master and teacher face to face.

My wife and I have also been part of a “spiritual formation” class at church that looks at the classical disciplines as described by Willard and others throughout the ages. Yesterday’s subject dealt with silence and solitude. Willard himself describes the “primacy and priority among the disciplines” of solitude. “The normal course of day-to-day human interactions locks us into patterns of feeling, thought, and action that are geared to a world set against God. Nothing but solitude can allow the development of a freedom from the ingrained behaviors that hinder our integration into God’s order.”

After reflecting on this we of course raced out of church to get my son to his travel baseball game, a time-gorging exercise in applied exhaustion that we have chosen as a way to enhance his skills and take him to the “next level.” Yes, we are now those parents. There is little time for silence and solitude in the world of travel baseball.

With two ten-year olds and a nine-year old, we already hear the murmurs of parents over future scholarship opportunities for their children, for diving and triathlons and gymnastics and music, as justification for the 16 to 18 hours per week of aggressive training that must begin NOW. I can honestly say that we have no real delusions that our children will get athletic scholarships—that’s not our goal. We also don’t lose the irony that the efforts to garner an elusive scholarship may require $7,000 a year spent over a decade of travel and competitive sports and camps to get to the upper echelon. Much money must be invested in this effort—and could end up for naught—if a scholarship is the ultimate prize.

But that really is not the ultimate prize. A scholarship is a rationale; we actually want our children to be a more perfect us. We enhance our selves—much time, effort and money will go into making us look younger and stronger. As we age, our tendencies toward workaholism grow while we try to prove that we never NEED to rest, that we have the stamina and productivity of someone twenty years our junior. Our enhancements, and those enhancements that gain creeping acceptance that we can rationalize for our children, reflect a terror of silence and solitude. Willard again: “But silence is frightening because it strips us as nothing else does, throwing us upon the stark realities of our life. It reminds us of death, which will cut us off from this world and leave only us and God.” We may declare that we have our best “quiet time” in solitude with God when we are on a twenty mile run, but we sure post the record time on our “Runkeeper” notation with social media as we do it. There must be some noise to accompany our silence. A pre-teen who declares that he spent three hours meditating on God’s goodness in creation when alone in the woods would face a work-up for anti-social behavior and placement on a “school shooter” terror watch list in our society. Silence and solitude are other-worldly and odd; we make ourselves better with mental and biological enhancements to avoid such awkwardness.

Enhancements, which will be the greatest bioethical challenges that face us and our descendants in the decades to come, seem by definition to increase the noise and chatter in our lives. And, in a vicious cycle, the increased noise will make us less likely to sort out whether what we choose is a good thing. Of course we will unwittingly seek the best opportunities for our children to constantly occupy themselves and to be the best, because an unreflective, clattering mind is far more likely to follow the pack of successful people than take the lonely road less travelled. Spiritual formation classes will be left to lament the passing of silence and solitude as quaint anachronisms. And we will fail to appreciate that Jesus, upon whom we base the Christian notion of the “good life,” would never have been able to face the exhausting work of teaching and healing without taking joy in that very “lonely” discipline. As I race to the next event in the enhancement of my children’s future success, may I find that the thing that could enhance their lives the most would be a departure from the noise of triumph and public recognition in the temporal things of this life and a chance to sit in silent contemplation of what will offer genuine life. How difficult and painful, and wonderful, for them if I do.

A Place Where We Ought to Fear to Tread

The current issue of World magazine includes a brief article about this work going on in the United Kingdom: attempting to circumvent certain inheritable diseases by replacing the mitochondrial DNA in a mother’s oocyte with mitochondria from an oocyte of another woman.  The re-engineered oocyte is then fertilized in vitro, with subsequent implantation of the embryo, etc, etc.  The article’s provocative title was, “Heather has two mommies.”

If one accepts IVF and is inclined to observe the “therapeutic boundary” as placing limits on what genetic manipulations we should be willing to undertake, then this project would seem to qualify as treatment, rather than enhancement, before a new individual person is conceived, and could qualify as an acceptable use of reproductive technology.  And one can argue that the risk/benefit analysis, in a case like this, is clearly positive (perhaps requiring that all embryos so created are implanted with the intent to carry them to term).

But I’m not so sure that a line has not been crossed here.  Still, to object on grounds of “repugnance”—as I would—would seem to succeed only if said repugnance reflects deep, universal moral sentiments and intuitions that are expressions of a natural moral law.  And a lot of people would not find the case here repugnant.  To object—as, again, I would—on the grounds that the undertaking here is part of the transformation of procreation (and receiving of new life as a gift) into manufacturing seems to require that there is an objective, given, human nature and order of human life that must not be tampered with.  If life is God-given and humans are in His image, then it is more natural to make that kind of assertion, but by so doing I think we (I) accept the task of saying what that human nature is.  The image, in that case, needs to be more than just a “status and standard,” or to say that it grounds the human nature we shouldn’t mess with seems tautological.  Alternatively, on more naturalistic grounds, one might argue that evolution “gave” us a core genetic nature (“in its wisdom??”) that “ought not be disposed with,” a tack the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas seems to take in opposing PGD.  Or, we could even invoke a form of the much-maligned “precautionary principle” and claim that, when we start mixing and matching pieces of genomes in newly-conceived people, we don’t know what difficulties we might be wandering into, so we can’t define a risk-benefit ratio in the first place.

Anyway, I think a line something like this—there is, in a meaningful sense, a “core human nature” that must not be altered, and a natural moral law that grounds at least the most basic, primary moral precepts setting that limit—is the line that is necessary if one wants to claim that our biotechnologic grasp must stop somewhere.  And so I want to hold.  None of it suggests that the march of biotech will be slowed—it seems that somebody will try anything that becomes feasible—but it is a basis for asking people to stop and think, and getting perhaps some to turn back.  It is a basis for articulating a “presumption to forbear.”

The Fragility of Life: Some (Very Brief) Musings Occasioned by Recent Events

If the events of recent weeks and months—last week’s bombing in Boston; the explosion at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas; and the Newtown massacre, to name a few—remind us of anything, it is that life is fragile. Death, suffering, pain, and struggle can come to us unbidden, at any time, and can forever alter the trajectory of our lives. Experiences such as these undermine our well-established and carefully fortified illusions of control, of mastery over our lives. There is, in the end, so little that we can directly control. We would do well to heed these much-needed reminders of our mortality and vulnerability.

Unfortunately, our culture largely proceeds on the basis of unexamined assumptions about the nature of our lives, of what it means to be “truly human.” To a large extent, it seems we have bought into the notion that the core of what it means to be human has to do with “selfhood” and “agency”—that we are, in the end, makers of our own meaning; controllers of our own destinies; independent, rational, agents of choice whose “rights” to “freedom,” “individuality,” and “self-expression” are of paramount importance. To be sure, freedom, self-expression, and the like are not illegitimate in and of themselves. Yet we lose something crucial when we give in to the temptation to think of ourselves exclusively or even primarily as fully-autonomous, atomistic “selves” rather than as members of larger communities, with whom we exist in relationships of interdependence rather than pure self-reliance.

The dialectic between these various ideas is of relevance to many issues in contemporary bioethics, including questions surrounding enhancement. To what extent does the “enhancement enterprise,” for example, reflect our illusion of control, of self-mastery—we will be the masters of our own destinies; we will assert our own visions of the “good life”; we will, perhaps, even “cheat” death (at least temporarily) by radically extending the length of our lives?

The events of the recent past helpfully remind us, once again, that even our best-laid plans, the ambitions “of mice and of men,” frequently come to naught.

The question, in light of that reality, is: how then shall we live now – todayin the present?