What can an 11th century Islamic philosopher teach us about 21st century neuroscience?

There is a lot of fascinating research about the brain coming out of Stanford University, with some exciting, cutting-edge work being done there. Early last month I reported on the findings made by neuroscientists at Stanford in understanding how mental rehearsal prepares our minds for real-world action. Today, I’ll outline the recent advances made by a team led by Sergiu Pasca, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, and discuss some of the ethical implications of this research.

Pasca’s method enables him to culture cells in order to form brain organoids with robust structures that are not compromised by cells from other parts of the body, thereby allowing him to more accurately replicate distinct brain regions. Doing so provides greater structural organization and also allows him and his team of researchers to better study and understand pathological mechanisms and perhaps one day to examine the molecular, cellular, and circuit levels of a person’s neurons. This is a promising method and a big step toward greater understanding of psychiatric and neurological disease, leading Pasca to declare, “This is our doorway into personalized psychiatry.” At the same time—although these “brain balls” are not brains, nor do they receive sensory inputs from the outside world—it is clear that as scientists progress in both the techniques and complexity of replication, major ethical questions and dilemmas will arise.

Chief among these will undoubtedly be the perennial ethical debate about the ontology of a human being. Is it only physical, material, social—in which case we might think of ourselves as technicians—or is it spiritual, religious, metaphysical—in which case we would more likely consider ourselves custodians? When we speak about attributing rights to animals or consciousness to AI, it is because at bottom we hold some fundamental belief: about dignity, a soul, being, or about what life might mean in a relational or social and emotional sense. This is no different with Pasca’s brain balls; in fact, it is an even more pressing quandary. As Bruce Goldman notes in his article, “One of the most amazing things about their brain balls was that, with not much chemical guidance, they tended to take on a default structure that’s a facsimile of the most evolutionarily advanced part of the brain: the human cerebral cortex, with all six layers you find in a living human brain.” The ethics of growing human organs are one thing, but the ethics of growing brain balls, which might eventually lead to more and more complex synaptic connections followed by even more elaborate renditions of an actual brain, will become especially contentious given the meaning and significance that we associate with the brain—both biologically and existentially.

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Bioethics in Islam: Principles, Perspectives, Comparisons

An important questions in Islam, recurrent across time and space, is whether Islamic political theory recognizes rights claims against the state as distinct from rights claims against other members of the community. This continues to be an important subject today, intersecting the fields of law, religion, and moral philosophy. The classical tradition is divided on the matter, with the legal theory of the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence saying that rights are to be accorded viareligious authority, while the Hanafi school emphasized the universality of the notion of human inviolability (dhimma)—and the innate rights that derive from it—as God-given, universal, and applicable to all societies from the beginning of time.

Whereas in Western law there is generally a separation between law and ethics, in the Islamic tradition, there is more of a dialectical tension between the two: Where religious inwardness is more highly developed, attitude and intention are weighed more heavily, whereas in its absence however formalism and legalism are advanced as the ethical ideal.

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What are Our Duties and Moral Responsibilities Toward Humans when Constructing AI?

Much of what we fear about artificial intelligence comes down to our underlying values and perception about life itself, as well as the place of the human in that life. The New Yorker cover last week was a telling example of the kind of dystopic societies we claim we wish to avoid.

I say “claim” not accidently, for in some respects the nascent stages of such a society do already exist; and perhaps they have existed for longer than we realize or care to admit. Regimes of power, what Michel Foucault called biopolitics, are embedded in our social institutions and in the mechanisms, technologies, and strategies by which human life is managed in the modern world. Accordingly, this arrangement could be positive, neutral, or nefarious—for it all depends on whether or not these institutions are used to subjugate (e.g. racism) or liberate (e.g. rights) the human being; whether they infringe upon the sovereignty of the individual or uphold the sovereignty of the state and the rule of law; in short, biopower is the impact of political power on all domains of human life. This is all the more pronounced today in the extent to which technological advances have enabled biopower to stretch beyond the political to almost all facets of daily life in the modern world. Read More

Religion, Health, and Medicine: the Dialectic of Embedded Social Systems

The philosopher in me understands that there are universal principles in logic, mathematics, and in basic scientific tenets such as the law of gravity. Be that as it may, the historian in me recognizes that we inherit epistemologies and ways of thinking from those before us, and from our own historical and cultural contexts. Certain ideas dominate the world; and, while some are indeed universal, especially those based on science, the fact remains that a number of other concepts are only seemingly universal. The concepts of personhood, divinity, self, and even society as we tend to understand them today are largely inherited from a Western, Christian worldview. As these ideas have wrestled with philosophical inquiry throughout history, they have either been decoupled from their origins in religious thought, or they have been secularized and rationalized a la Kantian categorical imperatives or the like—and then disseminated in universities, institutions, cultures, and literatures.

On one level, to speak of the Western world as “secular” is, as the philosopher Charles Taylor notes, to say that “belief in God, or in the transcendent in any form, is contested; it is an option among many; it is therefore fragile; for some people in some milieus, it is very difficult, even ‘weird’” (Taylor: 2011, 49). But on another and much deeper level, this very possibility was only ever tenable on account of two major factors: “First, there had to develop a culture that marks a clear division between the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural,’ and second, it had to come to seem possible to live entirely within the natural” (Taylor, 50). This was only possible because of a unique philosophical climate that actively sought to dislodge the old form of moral order and social “embeddedness” in an attempt to establish a “purely immanent order.” Taylor’s groundbreaking work, A Secular Age argues that secularism is part of a grand narrative in the West and shows that its historical and cultural foundations are in fact thoroughly Christian and European. He pushes back against Max Weber’s secularization thesis that religion diminishes in the modern world and in the wake of increasing developments in science and technology—and instead gives a different account of what secularism might mean: one that has deep implications for morality, politics, and philosophy.

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Medicine and Ethics: Religious or Secular?

By Yusuf Lenfest

There is no lack of controversy when talking about religion and medicine in America today. Medicine is studied, practiced, and firmly rooted in the corporal world while religion draws inspiration from texts, traditions, and the incorporeal. Yet from an historical perspective, religious pasts do shape the present, particularly in the realm of ethics and moral reasoning. Indeed, whatever one’s spiritual or philosophical predilections, religion continues to play a major role in the dialogue on medicine and health care in Western society.

Bioethics in particular has become a topic of growing interest in America, but there has been little critical discussion about its contextual underpinnings, which stem largely from a Western Christian perspective. This is not to say that another religion would arrive at radically different system of morals. While differences do exist amongst religious traditions, across both space and time, experience and common sense tell us that diverse religious traditions do in fact share in much of the same moral principles and foundations. So what might other religious traditions say about, or contribute to, the discourse on bioethics? Should religion even be included in the conversation, especially given that health care and healing belong to the sphere of medicine?

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Harvard HIP (High Impact Philanthropy): Toby Ord speaking tonight

Are you interested in foreign aid, global development, medicine? Want to know how philanthropy and charitable giving can do the most good?

Aid Works (On Average) – By Toby Ord

Tuesday, March 26th; Emerson Hall 108; 8 PM

There is considerable controversy about whether foreign aid helps poor countries, with several prominent critics arguing that it doesn’t. Dr. Ord shows that these critics have only reached this conclusion because they have failed to count the biggest successes of aid, such as the eradication of smallpox, which have been in the sphere of global health rather than economic growth. These health successes have often been neglected in analysis of aid because they have only made up a small proportion of aid spending. When we look at the impact of this spending, though, we see that it the big wins have been so utterly vast that they more than justify all aid spending to date.

Dr. Toby Ord is a philosopher at the University of Oxford and a research associate at the Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics and the Future of Humanity Institute. He is also the founder and director of Giving What We Can, an international society dedicated to eliminating poverty in the developing world.

Join Dr. Ord tonight, March 26, at 8 PM for a talk and discussion of the effectiveness of foreign aid. Refreshments will be provided, and a reception will follow.

Planning to come? Please RSVP on Facebook to help us plan refreshments.

Feb 28: Ruth Grant speaking to the HMS Division of Medical Ethics


Please join the HMS Division of Medical Ethics and Program in Ethics and Health for…

“Strings Attached: Untangling the Ethics of Incentives”

Ruth W. Grant, PhD

Professor of Political Science and Philosophy, Duke University

Thursday, February 28, 2013

12:00 – 1:15 PM

HMS Division of Medical Ethics

1st Floor Conference Room

641 Huntington Avenue, Boston

A light lunch will be provided. RSVP required to DME@hms.harvard.edu.

Ruth Grant is a Professor of Political Science at Duke University and a Senior Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, specializing in political theory and political ethics. Her most recent book, Strings Attached: Untangling the Ethics of Incentives, examines moral concerns raised by the pervasive use of incentives to shape behavior. Her seminar talk will propose an ethical framework for thinking about the promises and limits of incentives, including the use of incentives in public health.

The Society for Philosophy and Disability Is Official

By Nir Eyal

With an approved constitution, elected officials and now, recognition from all three divisions of the American Philosophical Association (APA), a new society is finally official. The Society for Philosophy and Disability, or SPD, will hold its first two sessions at the February 2013 Central APA meeting in New Orleans.

SPD is a non-profit educational organization dedicated to furthering research and teaching on philosophical issues related to disability and to promoting inclusiveness and support for people with disabilities in philosophical education and in the profession of philosophy. SPD aims to provide a forum for philosophical discussion of disability by arranging meetings, maintaining an online presence, and organizing academic projects.

Adam Cureton, President of the Society, invites everyone to join SPD, which they can do on the Society website. You are also welcome to invite colleagues or students who are interested in philosophy and disability to join us.

Special issue in the Journal of Philosophy & Technology on evolution, genetic engineering, and human enhancement

By Yu-Chi Lyra Kuo

A special issue published this month by the Journal of Philosophy & Technology features a collection of articles discussing evolution, genetic engineering, and human enhancement. Recent years have seen a rapidly expanding variety of approaches to exploring the normativity of human enhancement, by philosophers, bioethicists, physicians, and biologists. The articles in this special issue largely focus on the question: how can evolution and aetiological teleology inform biological ethics and theories of human enhancement?

For a separate collection of articles discussing the ethics of human enhancement from the perspective of the physician-patient relationship, see this special issue by the American Journal of Bioethics, published approximately a year ago.

Happy reading, and happy holidays! ~YK