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Saturday, October 30, 2010

What Artificial Intelligence Proves

Is the creation of mechanical intelligence – a digital mind capable of free, personal thought – a bioethical issue?  It can be, depending on what one wants to do with it. The actual creation of such advanced artificial intelligence would nonetheless, in itself, be a remarkable achievement of human technology.  I must admit it creeps me out in some way, and yet I find sci-fi intelligences like Data of Star Trek and C3PO and R2D2 of Star Wars to be totally non-threatening.

I think what creeps me out is how people with really poor logic skills are the ones pushing the envelope in the technology.  Consider this slide set by Martine Rothblatt over at IEET, a website always good for examples of wild conclusions drawn from mere theory combined with false or incomplete premises. A lot could be said about this slide set, but I will focus on this aspect only.

The title is the first problem, logically speaking: “Brains are to minds as birds are to flight.” Is “mind” an action, like flight? Yes – BUT only if one takes as proven the premise that there is no such thing as an immortal intellectual soul.  If there is no soul then “mind” is what the brain does.  In fact, the slide set in a way attempts to prove that mind is an effect of the brain the way flight is an effect of a bird.  Yet, logically, the analogy fails.  A brain is not a complete organism, but a bird is.  The bird flies because its brain tells it to and because its body can.  It is a whole organism. “Person is to thought as bird is to flight” would be a more precise analogy and indisputable – but not ordered to Ms Rothblatt's agenda.

She attempts to prove her point by noting how mechanical things can also fly.  They do not fly by imitating the way birds fly, but such things cause flight nonetheless.  (So, we can expect that mechanical minds to function differently than biological ones, but arrive at thought nonetheless. That seems reasonable.)  What she fails to include in her reasoning, however, is that an airplane does not fly on its own.  It is a mere instrument of human flight, or at least flight directed by a human being toward the purposes of the human controller. "Aircraft" have not "achieved flight"; rather, humans have achieved flight through aircraft.  If the aircraft is a cause of flight, it is only as an instrument; therefore, if a brain is a cause of thought, it also would be only as an instrument.  Yet that is the exact opposite of what Ms Rothblatt wants to prove.

Furthermore, while those who developed flight surely looked to birds in improving the wing, an airplane is more like a really sophisticated arrow or dart than it is like a bird. Indeed, the faster that planes can fly, the more arrow-like they look.  It is an arrow that can change direction and power itself to thwart gravity. The comparison of mechanical flight to avian flight is also therefore false. But fast planes fly very much as arrows do, and arrows are a uniquely human artifact.  Machines simply have not achieved flight. Humans have, and in a very human way.

So there are problems of logic and a lack of really thinking things through.

This fact shows up especially in the notion that somehow digital intelligence will prove that the mind is an effect of the brain, rather than the brain being an instrument of the mind.  Perhaps technology will one day be able to manufacture a truly intelligent computer but that will prove only one thing: The superiority of the human mind, and that the lower mind came from a superior one. The existence of mechanical intelligence proves the existence of a superior, non-mechanical intelligence that created it.

Now, the mechanical intelligence may end up being faster and more capable of storing, sorting, and accessing more data more quickly than a human mind – in some respects the mechanical intelligence will likely be superior to biological intelligence.  Yet, even if the mechanical intelligence is capable of free, self-determining thought, everything it is and can do will be given it from another – the biological intelligence – it is the biological intelligence that will determine the abilities, inclinations, and the purpose of the existence of the mechanical one. It is the biological intelligence that will determine that the mechanical one be intelligent and able to learn, which is to say, human beings will determine what the essential “good” is for the mechanical one.  If we give it the capacity to learn, then the good of the mechanical intelligence will be to learn. If it ever can determine the difference between a good thing to know and a bad one, and the good use of what it knows versus a bad use, the whole concept of “good” operative in its programming (which will also be given it) will be determined by the biological intelligence. And in this sense, the biological intelligence will be prior and superior to the mechanical one.

And the existence of a living, thinking, ethical computer intelligence will only prove one thing: The existence of a superior, non-mechanical intelligence that assembled and programmed it.  Even if the machines learn to assemble and perhaps improve mechanical intelligence on their own, this fact will remain: The existence of mechanical intelligence depends on the existence of a prior and superior non-mechanical intelligence as its creator whose work it imitates and modifies.  It is undeniably true, but a thought far from the mind of Ms Rothblatt.  She wants to prove that mind is essentially mechanical and that there is no immortal soul by making a mechanical mind that clearly has no immortal soul.  Yet, its existence and attributes cannot arise spontaneously but have to be created.

So: Does not the existence of biological intelligence therefore imply the existence of a prior and superior, non-biological intelligence?

We of course are not God; we might be capably only of making the watch, winding it up, and then be powerless to stop or control it.  The “watchmaker” concept of God has God merely leaving the watch run on its own.  But we should learn from our own example. If our existence implies God’s existence, and we humans grow up to a stage of enlightenment that we feel obliged to overthrow God, will not our creatures do the same? Is that really ordered to the enhancement of the human condition?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

How Law Can Define Reality

A recent study published by the British Medical Journal (you can read a synopsis here and the actual study here) showed that half of the euthanasia being administered in Belgium, where euthanasia is legal, goes unreported.  The law requires that every instance of euthanasia be recorded and reported according to specific guidelines and procedures.  The law defines euthanasia very strictly and requires that every incidence of it be reported.

According to the study, 77% of physicians who did not report euthanizing a patient withheld the required paperwork because they believed that what they did was not "euthanasia" as defined by Belgium's law -- yet, it was "euthanasia" in the broader sense. The study, based on a questionnaire, makes it difficult to draw conclusions as to why those physicians did not consider killing their patients to be euthanasia.  For instance, only 37% percent of the incidents were reported when the euthanasia was perceived to shorten life by less than a week, whereas 74% of the incidents were reported if the patient were expected to live longer than a week without being euthanized. Perhaps a fair number did not think it "counted" the closer the patient was to natural death.

The reality is, doctors in Belgium are killing patients based on their own judgments and outside the scope and monitoring of the law.  And the reality is, when people believe what they do is wrong or if they fear some sort of retribution, they will try to hide it. The law, however, was enacted to take euthanasia out of secrecy so that it can be adequately monitored for abuse, and to take away threat of retribution.

So what is the next step for Belgium? Deregulate euthanasia altogether so that what these doctors are doing becomes legal?

The bigger question is, though, did Belgium's law make euthanasia to be a good thing to do to begin with? Legalization of euthanasia does not change what it is, the intentional killing of an innocent person, the surrender of any attempt to provide care and comfort in the last stages of disease, a capitulation to the notion that life in some cases is not worth living, and a step onto that slippery slope where the definition of "a life not worth living" can be incrementally changed. 

The law cannot make euthanasia to be other than what it is, but it nonetheless changes people's hearts and attitudes and makes them susceptible to sliding down that slippery slope.  It can alter the thinking and attitudes of whole societies. In that sense, it can define reality even if it can't change the nature of things.

We can today define "a life not worth living" in narrow terms, but tomorrow the definition will change. Today it is the terminally ill meeting certain criteria in Belgium, and tomorrow it may simply be the terminally ill (irrespective of any additional criteria), and after that, those not terminally ill but chronically ill, and after that.... who knows? The Holocaust has its roots in Nazi euthanasia programs that did not begin nor end with the Jews even if the extermination of the Jews was the goal the Nazis were heading toward by intent.  In another post, I look at the same idea regarding forced sterilization of the "unfit." "Unfit to breed" is just a step away from "unfit to live."

The Holy See's permanent observer at the UN recently warned the General Assembly against the phenomenon of "rule by law" as opposed to "rule of law." The law must reflect justice that is higher than the law.  It cannot define justice to be whatever society legislates. It cannot define realities.  It can make euthanasia to be legal, but it can't make it to be good. "Rule of law" means the legal code conforms to Law Itself: Justice, the natural law to which euthanasia advocates attempt to appeal whether they know it or not, the objective order of right and wrong.  "Rule by law" means people are living in a dream world where reality changes based on what the legal code says.

Those who support the legalization of euthanasia where it is not permitted appeal to a sense of justice that is not reflected in the law -- they perceive a disjunction between what the law says and what seems good and right to their minds. I believe their minds not to be seeing well on this issue, but their manner of advocacy is important to note:  By trying to change the law, they affirm that the law must reflect an eternal justice that is beyond the law.

"Rule by law" results in lawlessness, because the principle enshrined by "rule by law" is a rejection of the authority of the natural law, which exists as the rational being's sense of justice and right and wrong, and which is prior in time and in importance to any law ever passed by any ruling authority. Rule by law places the ruling authority over natural law.  Insofar as it contradicts natural law, it gives injustice the force of law. And where rule by law exists, the people follow its example and set themselves above the legal code and they do what they want. Rule by law creates a reality of anarchy and injustice.

The natural law says it is always wrong to kill an innocent person intentionally and it is always good to comfort and care for the sick and suffering.  The underlying principle of Belgium's law says it is useless to provide some people with comfort and care and that killing those people is good. Ironically, the doctors breaking the law agree with the law by expanding the scope of the underlying principle.  And that is the reality of things in Belgium.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Abortion and Political Scare Tactics

One could say that whoever refuses to protect innocent life lacks the wisdom to lead and the moral authority to address war and poverty. 

I tend to shy away from overtly political themes, even though bioethics often crosses over into politics.  But it is an election year, and insofar authentic bioethics refers to sound reasoning on matters of human life and health, the bioethical positions of parties and their candidates can be quite telling.

The fact of the matter is, war and poverty (or at least the economy) are two exceedingly important issues facing politicians.  Every two years, the political left attempts to stifle discussion of abortion because there are more important issues facing the country, such as the economy. The economy is always a problem.  I bet it has been the number one issue on the minds of voters since Gerald Ford’s Whip Inflation Now buttons (WIN – get it?).  Whether the economy is the most important issue, I have my doubts.

Yet the left is trying to drum up support this year using the abortion issue, and the right is accusing them of distracting from the war and the economy.  A story from the Catholic News Agency, based on an Associated Press analysis, profiles two races where this is happening.

In New York, women are being warned that they will be treated like criminals if the Republican gets elected because he will outlaw abortion.  I used to live in New York state and worked in Manhattan for quite a while.  I can tell you, the women of New York are not that stupid regardless of their political persuasion.  First of all, the probability of a pro-life governor being able to outlaw abortion is pretty much nil and everyone knows it.  Pro-lifers dream of such a law being passes, to it can be challenged in courts and find its way to the Supreme Court, where we hope it will be upheld and Roe v Wade overturned.  Still, the chances of such a law even passing in the state that elected Hillary as senator are pretty slim.  It would be fitting, though, as New York was the first state to legalize abortion on demand.

Secondly, the restrictions on abortions prior to Roe universally punished the health professionals who provided the procedure, but not always the women who procured it.  After all, doctors are not mere technicians who act mindlessly at the behest of their patients.  Although some laws also punished the women, there is no reason to think that a contemporary law would.  A law could make it illegal to provide an abortion while not speaking to the issue of procuring one.

Meanwhile in Colorado, women are being told that if the pro-life candidate wins, women will lose control of their bodies.  (One supposes that they mean only with respect to reproduction.)  This is also preposterous.  If women have a right to use or not use their reproductive abilities, then abortion simply represents a means.  The illegalization of abortion would not violate the right but only eliminate a particular means, and abortion would take its rightful place next to infanticide, exposure, and selling one’s baby on the "right not to have children" side, and to buying or stealing children on the "right to have children" side.

A right does not justify every means to exercise that right.  My right to free speech does not give me a right to the front page of the New York Times or even to a spot in the Letters section, even though my ability to reach people is certainly restricted thereby. In fact, it is the right of the NYT to freedom of the press that restricts my freedom of speech and prevents me from forcing them to give me space.  In abortion, it is the right to life of the child that restricts the woman’s right to reproductive freedom.

The bioethical reasoning on this issue reveals the clarity of thought of the parties involved.  I personally believe that as important as the war and the economy are, abortion is far more important.

Why?  The abandonment of the most innocent and vulnerable among us undermines any kind of assertion about the tragedy of the death and suffering of innocent people in combat zones or places hardest hit by the economy.  I simply do not believe a politician whose heart bleeds for these admittedly tragic circumstances when it turns to ice with respect to the unborn. While callousness to the plight of the poor or of innocent victims in war also undermines a candidate’s position on abortion, I do not know of a candidate who takes a stand of heartlessness on those issues, except as spun by his rivals.

So, whoever refuses to protect innocent life lacks the wisdom to lead and the moral authority to address war and poverty.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Arrogant and Foolish

Over at the oddly named Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, you can find lots of bad logic when it comes to bioethical reasoning.  Russell Blackford there has taken the Vatican to task for criticizing the awarding the Nobel Prize for medicine to the man who invented in vitro fertilization (IVF). Blackford called the Vatican "arrogant" and "foolish" and called on all his minions to resist Vatican attempts to foist its views onto the legal systems of unsuspecting nations across the globe.

One wonders what globe Mr. Blackford is living on.  Knock, knock, sir. The Vatican does not influence the laws of secular states on this planet. You must have it confused with some other monotheistic religion.

Check out these wonderful paragraphs as Mr. Blackford melts down:

"The embryos concerned are tiny dots of protoplasm that are totally unlike an adult human being, a child, or even a fetus that has undergone a period of development in the womb. These little dots are incapable of feeling pain, having any instinct to protect themselves, or possessing any other form of sentience. They possess no fear of being destroyed and experience no suffering when they are destroyed, and no one who is capable of suffering has bonded with them in the slightest. The destruction of these very small collections of cells does no harm to families or the social fabric. There is no reason for them to be protected by our moral norms and sentiments or by the law.

"In short, there is no reason based on social welfare or the welfare of sentient beings why we should regret the destruction of tiny embryos created through IVF; there is no reason to condemn it morally, or attempt to prevent it by law. There is even less reason to regret the destruction of these embryos than to regret early-term abortions. The Vatican’s morality is not based on anything rational but on recondite ideas of natural law, the will of God, and the ensoulment of non-sentient life. It puts human happiness below its bizarre and miserable version of morality."

Now, the first paragraph lists true attributes of embryos. They are tiny dots of protoplasm, incapable of feeling pain or fear, etc., etc. All true.  All irrelevant.  Size is irrelevant, for instance. What the embryo is of course is a tiny human being.  Human beings begin small and get larger, so it is no wonder that the very origin of a human being should be a tiny dot.  The differences listed are not differences of nature, but only of degree.  An embryo is not an organism of a different biological species than man. It is a human organism, the beginning of someone unique and unrepeatable.

Then he states as true fact things he has no way of knowing. How does he know no one has bonded with a given embryo? Or is that anyone who has bonded with it is simply incapable of suffering, but how would he know that? More importantly, a bond with someone else who can suffer does not constitute someone's existence as a human being. Then he says that destruction of embryos does not harm families or society. How does he know? And so what if it's true? The destruction of embryos does not become something other than destruction of human beings because families are not harmed by it. Families are harmed by it.  Every embryo destroyed in IVF is someone's child, someone's sibling, someone's cousin or grandkid. We cannot know what joys those missing kids would have brought their families. Maybe many of those kids would have brought their families only suffering and pain, but some would have brought joy, and even the ones that bring suffering generally still bring joy in other ways.

And he has the nerve to say that the Vatican's morality is not based on anything rational, that it is bizarre and miserable.

Here is the Vatican's reasoning: Human embryos are human beings. There is no science to controvert that statement and in fact all science that can be brought to bear on it only affirms that statement. IVF callously manufactures and destroys human beings, reducing them to possessions to be acquired and things to be used rather than gifts to be received. Elitism and therefore discrimination are evident in the choice of which embryos to implant and which to destroy. IVF fails to diagnose and treat the underlying infertility.  IVF is therefore immoral.  Furthermore, it is wrong to honor the man who invented the technology.

It holds together logically. It is not bizarre, miserable, arrogant, foolish, or irrational.

And Blackford's rational argument? It would go something like this: C'mon, that's not a human, be serious, it's soooo small and tiny and little, it can't feel anything, no one likes it, no one cares about it, you call that tiny dot a human being? It's TINY for crying out loud! You gotta be nuts, you and everyone who thinks like you, it's not a human being, human beings are BIG, not tiny, you only want to force everyone to agree with you, you're stupid, arrogant, bizarre, and miserable, I will fight you and your insane defense of those TINY dots! Can't you see how tiny they are?

Keep repeating it, Mr. Blackford: "It's just a tiny dot of protoplasm, it's just a tiny dot of protoplasm, it's just a tiny dot of protoplasm..."  Maybe one day it'll become true.

....While you're over on IEET's website, check out this video on why it is absurd to consider fetuses persons.

The Gold Standard

Great news for stem cell research was revealed this week at Harvard Medical School: Scientists were able to make differentiated human cells become pluripotent stem cells, the kind that can become virtually any other tissue of the body.  This means that stem cells and the medical promise they hold can be efficiently derived from a wide variety of sources from the patient's own body and programmed to treat the diseases treatable by stem cells. 

Up until this week, induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells were derived from differentiated tissues by the insertion of messenger RNA (mRNA), using viruses to inject the cells with the mRNA. As one can imagine, the use of viruses tends to contaminate the cell culture with viral material, induce the cells to have an immune response, and directly change the cellular DNA, all of which simply gunk up the whole medical application of the cells.  The Harvard scientists used a novel technique -- if you want the science, then look here. But be forewarned, you really need to be a cellular geneticist to know what they're talking about. I'm not one. It doesn't use viruses, however, and it focuses on RNA rather than DNA.

The practical benefit is that iPS cells can be obtained without the use of embryonic stem cells, which require that a living human embryo be destroyed. Some scientists, such as the director of the National Institutes of Health, cling to the fact that as far as stem cells go, embryonic stem cells are "a gold standard," meaning they are the ones that iPS cells need to measure up to, to justify continued research on human embryos.

OK, I can buy that embryonic cells are a gold standard in that sense.  However, the point of iPS cells isn't to reprogram a differentiated cell into an embryonic cell, but into a stem cell that can become any other kind of cell. Embryonic stem cells are not necessarily the gold standard of that -- because embryonic cells taken from a random embryo cannot become "your" heart or pancreas or brain cells. They can become heart or brain cells, but not any of any benefit to "you." They will always be donor cells and so induce an immune response in you, they will always act weird after a while being separated from the system in which they belong (namely an embryo developing normally into a fetus) and prone to tumor generation, and they will retain a tendency also to become what they were destined to become had the embryo they came from were permitted to live.

"Your" skin cells, however, can become stem cells and then some other needed tissue.  Now, this new technique is too new so these cells have not been used to treat diseases yet.  And, the NIH director points out that iPS cells may retain some memory of the tissue they came from.  So that is something to keep in mind as research progresses.

But something else to keep in mind: Adult stem cells are already being used to treat hundreds of diseases whereas the number of diseases successfully treated by embryonic cells is.... ZERO.  So in terms of actual medical therapies and therapeutic promise, embryonic stem cells are not the gold standard at all.

All that embryonic stem cell research appears to be good for anymore is refining our understanding of the target that iPS cells are trying to reach.  However, studying embryonic cells is not the only way to improve iPS cells, since this new technique did just that without researching embryonic stem cells at all.  And, are embryonic cells really the ones we want iPS cells to be like?  Now I'm no cellular scientists, but it seems reasonable to say that we are going to improve iPS cells by refining our ability to make them do what we want, not by making them be or act more like embryonic cells.

So. What is the need to destroy human beings to do research? Embryonic stem cells are a gold standard.  A gold standard of.... what, exactly?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Signs of the Time

Is it me, or is Time magazine slipping its gears? In the Catholic and non-Catholic circles alike, Time has been recently - and rightly - chastised for its repeatedly bad reporting on the alleged ordination of women as Catholic priests.  Now, here's a real winner of a headline relevant to bioethics: "Building a Brighter Kid: Consider IVF."

The article is about a recent study in the journal Human Reproduction, founded by recent Nobel Prize winner Robert Edwards, who invented IVF. The study claims to show that IVF children scored better than age-matched peers in the same schools on the Iowa Tests used to evaluate and monitor the performance of school children. While I do not dispute that IVF babies may have scored higher on these tests, the investigators found other factors associated with higher test scores, too.  So, it may not be the procedure that results in smarter kids, but other factors that coincide with the use of IVF.

For instance, children also score higher if the parents are better educated.  Considering the cost of IVF, it would be no surprise that those who can afford it are also better educated.  And, considering the fact that achieving a better education (by which is meant more education) is generally associated with the intellectual ability to understand what one is learning (that is, intelligence), one would expect the biological offspring to do better on tests than their peers.

The expert cited in the Time article even noted that the study is not an argument to use the procedure to have smarter kids.

Yet, there is the article's headline: Building a Brighter Kid: Consider IVF.

Look at what this headline does.

Contrary to the data it cites, it draws a causal connection between the use of IVF and the outcome of smarter kids.  That causal connection is nowhere in the study; it is merely a coincidence.  For instance, if you notice that everyone in China has black, straight hair, you might think that it is being in China that causes it.  So, Time magazine could have an article with the title, For a Kid with Black, Straight Hair: Go to China.  Sure, it sounds ridiculous - because it is - but it is precisely the logic Time uses with respect to IVF.

It also reduces the conception of a child to a manufacturing process.  None of my kids were built.  Not a one. They were conceived. Building children reduces them to mere possessions, made to order, constructed, and loved for the features and benefits chosen from a list of options - and not simply because they exist and are worthy of love by virtue of existing.  This is one of the inherent bioethical difficulties with IVF: The reduction of a child to a thing, a thing to be attained, to be made to order, to be seized.

Now, I am all for helping couples struggling with an inability to conceive, but there are better ways - treatments and technologies that have up to four times the success rate of IVF, depending on the specific cause of infertility and the associated treatment.  These treatments enable couples to conceive in the natural way, and I am all for that - and that should be the first route infertile couples take: To detect the cause of infertility and treat it. Remember, IVF is not a treatment - infertility is not properly assessed or treated. It is a child-building procedure, which, by the way, destroys way more children than it brings to term.

Time also encourages the use of IVF, since the title circumvents the whole notion that IVF is for couples who cannot conceive, and dangles it out to even fertile couples so they can go out and purchase a child with the latest options, too.

This is just plain irresponsible reporting as far as I can tell. Either that, or Time is pushing an agenda of some sort. (Ya think?)

And, I have to admit something.  I am a little skeptical of the data in the study itself. A journal founded by the inventor of IVF probably has a vested interest in making IVF look good. At least the conclusions were conservative, given the lack of causal connections between the test scores and the procedure.

I am not surprised that Robert Edwards won a Nobel Prize for his work on IVF.  After giving the Peace Prize out to someone with absolutely no Nobel Prize worthy accomplishments regarding world peace neither before nor since the prize was awarded, I think they really just hand out the prizes to whomever suits their socio-political priorities.

And it seems their priorities and those of Time largely overlap.