Archive for August, 2009

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Abortion and freedom from nature

Monday, 10 August, 2009

I’ve been skulking around various blogs on bioethical issues recently, and I came across this geme from the Christian blog ‘Of Virtue and Life’:

What I am arguing […] is that pregnancy is natural and by saying abortion helps in the liberation of women, it is essentially saying that abortion helps liberate women from nature – which is completely off the wall.

The bottom line for the entire situation is that abortion really doesn’t help in women’s liberation. Having a child doesn’t lower a woman or make her subservient to a man – it is simply a natural process. How is it liberating to go against what is natural? (emphasis mine)

It is that final question that I italicised that I wish to discuss in this post, as in my opinion it can be very, very liberating to go against what is natural. It is exceedingly liberating to be free from nature, and being free from natural limitations on our body and mind. Humans are more liberated now that death does not come so early in life, and we would be most liberated if in the future death existed only as a choice and was never forced upon us by natural causes. Other examples of natural things from which we may want to be liberated include the natural human tendency to put on weight or the natural human limitations on memory or even the fact that humans are not naturally born with wings. But many other natural aspects of everyday life are not entirely pleasant, such as pregnancy and childbirth.

focus_artificial_wombBut first I wish to reinforce the fact that there is nothing inherently good about what is natural. To think so would be the fallacy of ‘appeal to nature’, which is essentially wishful thinking in reverse (wishful thinking is where you think what should be is what will be, and the ‘appeal to nature’ fallacy is where you think what is is also what ought to be). You cannot switch between an is and an ought, as the former is a statement of fact and the latter is a statement of value.

Even from a Christian perspective, I cannot see how one could assume what is natural is also what is good. While it is the Christian belief that the nature of reality was created by a benevolent God, apparently the free will of a couple of humans brought sin which corrupted the world, and therefore not everything we see in nature can be assumed to be good (though God clearly let sin corrupt the world and therefore such corruption was obliviously not against the will of a benevolent God, which brings too many theodical issues for this post).

But getting back to the topic, this means we cannot assume that pregnancy and childbirth are good simply because they are natural.

Furthermore, I think there is good arguments to suggest that many, albeit natural, aspects of pregnancy and childbirth are very bad. Very few women choose a natural childbirth because the options of drug-assistance or surgical deliveries provide much more appealing unnatural childbirths. Many women dislike the effects pregnancy has on their body, both during pregnancy and after childbirth, and are eager to return to their pre-pregnancy figures. And even after childbirth, many things about children are not particularly desirable, such as incessant crying and the cost of raising them. While a strong maternal desire and love of children drives many women to endure these distasteful aspects of pregnancy, I think it stands to reason that the process could be much improved by liberating women from the natural downsides to having children.

In addition to the above-mentioned natural but undesirable aspects of pregnancy,  the most important natural aspect from which we try to liberate ourselves is the choice to go through the whole pregnancy process at all. It’s natural that heterosexual sex between fertile humans can result in pregnancy, but the vast majority of humans (in the first world, at least) take measures to avoid this natural consequence of sex, though most contraceptives are not foolproof. Because of this (and because of the unfortunate – and likely natural – occurrence of rape) pregnancy is not always consensual, a woman can only have complete control over whether she goes through pregnancy and childbirth if she can opt out of the process at any time. So the most liberating scenario for a woman is total and unrestricted access to abortion regardless of her stage of pregnancy.

So I think we can conclude that women are indeed liberated by having the option to abort. And men too can be liberated by abortion, as couples who do not wish to have children are therefore able to ensure they remain childless. That pregnancy and childbirth are natural does nothing to change this, as the freedom to liberate ourselves from nature is freedom nonetheless. Nobody is truly free if they are a slave to nature.

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Uploading your mind

Saturday, 8 August, 2009

Mind uploading is a radical form of human enhancement, whereby the human mind is transferred from the vulnerable organic medium of the brain to a computer system of some kind. With such an upload comes the benefit of being able to use your consciousness at electronic speeds (allowing for hours of thought processes to take place in mere seconds), and essentially be in multiple locations at the same time. In addition, the human brain vulnerable to many of the frailties of the human body whereas a computer system does not suffer from age or strigent bodily requirements for blood and nutrients (though computers do get viruses, and they do require electricity and ventilation). Finally, a computerised version of the brain is theoretically much easier to enhance or alter than the biological version.

Firstly, there is the continuity problem, which is by far the most difficult to solve because it is largely philosophical rather than practical. This problem is based on the fact that the process of ‘uploading’ does not actually move a files, but rather involves making a copy of the file on the server (and deleting the old files). Therefore if I upload my mind, I may not have transferred my mind to the computer but instead merely made another copy of my mind on the computer. And the last thing you want is to have two copies of the same mind, because it will be impossible to tell the copies apart as both will literally feel as if they are the original (hence why I said two copies, and not the original and the copy). And in fact, a computerised copy of your mind would be far easier to copy than the organic version, and therefore somebody could split (or be split) into several indistinguishable copies of themself.

The proposed solution to avoid copying a mind is to keep information flowing between the organic and inorganic portions of the mind. Because the mind could be viewed as a process rather than an entity, it would therefore be necessary to keep the process continuous between the biological mind and the computerised mind during the process of uploading. As soon as the copies can no longer transfer information between each other, they will diverge into seperate entities (another interesting topic is whether minds can be merged by allowing full information transfer, such that two people could become one in a much more real way than any human relationship in the past).

So any practical solution must not only feature the ability to read information from the brain, but also to send information from the computerised mind back into the uncopied portions of the mind to maintain continuity.

There are just so many philosophical issues here, but fortunately we have a lot of time to ponder them as there are a great deal of technical problems with mind uploading.

As the mind is (essentially) produced by the brain, mind uploading requires the ability to emulate the entire brain. This is not an easy task, as the human brain contains a hundred billion neurons with trillions of connections between them. And even an individual neuron is such a very complex cell that it cannot be emulated fully. Further, neurons are not the only cells in the brain that matter – glial cells, which are just as numerous as neurons, also have a very important functional role. It’s not theoretically impossible, but any emulation will be a poor one indeed until vast advances in both neuroscience and computer power are made.

Importantly, to create a viable approach to mind uploading (as opposed to ‘merely’ an artificial intelligence) it is not enough to merely be able to emulate a human brain, but it is essential to emulate a particular human brain. If I want to upload my brain, the resulting simulation has to be my brain and not just any human-like brain. This would require a very high resolution and instantaneous snapshot of my brain. Analagously, this is like capturing an image of a metropolis like New York down to the level of millimetres, capturing both the position and the velocity of every vehicle, person and object. While we may have high resolution photography that can capture one person or object to the required resolution, doing the entire city at the same instant is exponentially harder. And likewise even if we can scan a brain to a very high resolution if we focus on just one small slice of a brain region, but to do the entirety of the brain at one instant would be a far greater task. And we have to capture not just the structure of each cell but also the current state of that cell and the cerebrospinal fluid surrounding each cell. It’s a mammoth task indeed, and one that may not be completed until far after a passable emulation of a human brain is accomplished.

And finally we don’t only have to be able to read the brain in sufficient detail, we also need to manipulate it in similar fidelity to maintain continuity. Information in the brain is stored in neuronal architecture, cellular structure and activity and concentrations of molecules in and around neurons. So if we have a portion of the brain simulated on a computer, and if a simulated neuron tries to send a signal to an organic neuron, that organic neuron would have to be stimulated at the appropriate time. Or if a simulated hormone is drifting toward a portion of the brain not uploaded yet, then a hormone would have to be released into the corresponding organic portion of the brain. This would require a completely perfect brain-computer interface, perhaps an even greater technical feat than a brain emulation.

I think I have listed enough technical problems for now, some of which may prove, with increasing knowledge of the brain, to be less (or more) of a problem than I’ve made out. Regardless, mind uploading seems like a very very distant technology to me, and therefore I would rather focus on achieving the goals of longer-lived bodies and enhanced minds using genetic enhancements and primitive brain-computer interfaces, and focus on the political, ethical and philosophical dilemmas that arise from more near-term issues in human enhancement.