Wednesday, June 11th ~ Workshop Breakout Schedules from 08:45 to 10:20
Organizer: Martin Weinel & Rob Evans
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Queen Elizabeth Suite
Organizer: Katie Plaisance
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Organizer: Erik Fisher
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Bios & Abstracts from this session
ETHICAL IMPLICATIONS OF LARGE-SCALE BRAIN RESEARCH PROJECTS
Authors: Paul Thagard, University of Waterloo
Abstract: They are currently underway several important large-scale projects for research on the brain. The largest, at more than 1 billion Euros over 10 years, is the Human Brain Project funded by the European Community. Also notable are the new American BRAIN Initiative, the Human Connectome Project, and the Allen Institute for Brain Research. What is the ethical significance of these projects?
Potentially, these projects can have large benefits with respect to treatments for diseases. Mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, Alzheimer’s disease, and schizophrenia have an enormous psychological and financial costs. Research that provides a deeper understanding of the wide range of biological mechanisms that support normal brain functioning can be valuable for developing new treatments. But it is also important to consider possible negative consequences of large-scale brain research.
My first major concern is demoralization, by which I mean potential loss of human well-being that might result from scientific advances that make it highly plausible that minds are just brains. Current ideas about morality are tied with a dualist metaphysics that endorses free will and immortality. Brain research is potentially revolutionary in overturning many standard assumptions about the nature of persons, with major implications for questions about morality and legal responsibility.
Fortunately, however, I think that the revolutionary reconceptualization of the nature of persons that would result from dramatic progress in brain research can be valuable for human beings rather than harmful. Abandoning specious metaphysical ideas about the soul can actually lead to more humane societies. Then brain research need not lead to demoralization, but rather to a new understanding of how people do and ought to interact with each other.
I am more worried about another possible spinoff of brain research that is much touted as part of the European Human Brain Project. The claim is that advances in brain research will lead to new styles of computing that produce more effective robots. Better understanding of how neurons can work is supposed to lead to advances in what is called neuromorphic computing, which is computing based on biological principles identified in the operations of brains. New kinds of chips based on how brains work can lead to more powerful robots.
The key ethical question is whether more powerful robots will actually produce more good than harm for human beings. Already there are research projects that are applying neural network software to run on computer chips designed to mimic the operations of brains, with more than 1 million neurons on each chip. I see three potential kinds of harm resulting from the developments of brain-inspired robots.
First, it is already a major aim of the United States military to use robots as artificial soldiers. If brain advances lead to sophisticated neurorobots that are primarily used for killing people, then the consequences are clearly negative.
Second, even if neurorobots get primarily used for commercial purposes, they could accelerate the already serious loss of intermediate level jobs, not only in manufacturing but also in other sectors such as finance. This development would exacerbate the polarization that is already occurring in many societies between a fortunate elite and impoverished masses.
The third, worst-case, scenario is that neurorobots would be so powerful that they could entirely surpass human intelligence. This scenario is obviously far off, and there are even some people who look forward to what they call a post-humanist society. But I think the results of having robots of such sophistication could be disastrous for human society, even if the results were not so severe as the kinds of wars between robots and humans displayed in movies like Terminator and The Matrix.
In sum, I am excited about the scientific potential of the large-scale human brain projects currently underway, but I think that there are serious ethical and social issues that need to be tracked along with ongoing developments. Philosophy, and in particular socially responsible philosophy of science, has an important role to play in observing, monitoring, and reflecting on these developments.
Bio: My work ranges from philosophy of science and medicine to cognitive science, including computational modelling of emotions, values, and consciousness. My main current project is a treatise on mind and society, using theoretical neuroscience to provide a united theory of cognition, and using cognitive and social mechanisms to provide an integrated account of social sciences, professions, and humanities.
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A Critical Argument for a Principle of Minimal Biological Realism in Bioethics
Keywords: Bioethics, Principle of Minimal Biological Realism, Genetic Enhancement & Moral Status
Authors: Nicolae Morar, Penn State
Abstract: Since Hume, the relation between is and ought has become one of the central problems of normative ethics. On the one hand, moral statements determine right or wrong actions and define prescriptions that moral agents are supposed to fulfill. As such, they do not describe some physical properties of a certain object, but evaluate a certain situation and character, and commit us to a certain (moral) behavior. On the other hand, factual statements, such as ‘this car is red’, are supposed to describe a physical property of the object under consideration, and they do not inform us about how we ought to behave (with respect to this object). This difference between prescribing moral obligations and describing physical facts led some of Hume’s followers to claim that there is a logical divide between ‘is’ and ‘ought’. In other words, from a logical point of view normative ethics is independent from empirical sciences, and can set up its own standards for moral judgment. And, whether people can really measure up to those standards remains largely irrelevant to the way a normative ethical framework defines them.
This view has been recently called into question. For Flanagan (1993), the question is not to collapse the distinction between normative ideals and our actual nature. Rather, he shows that a different perspective is possible - namely normative ethics can be appropriately constrained by empirical sciences. This is the lesson we have learned in the past twenty-five years from moral psychology.
In this paper, I will first show the benefits that empirical psychology has brought to normative ethics in refining and bringing more sophistication to normative debates. Second, I will claim that a similar critical effort is necessary in bioethics. This effort should not merely reinforce the practicability condition of adequacy of bioethical arguments (Beauchamp & Childress, 2001, 340). In contrast, it should output a critical principle of minimal biological realism. This principle will not only demand that any future bioethical argument assumes the most accurate biological descriptions about ourselves (as biological organisms) and about nature, but, also provide us critical reasons to reject such arguments in virtue of the wrong (relevant) descriptions they are committed to. Last, I will provide two examples where such a principle is a particularly beneficial since it allows us to rebut some arguments in genetic enhancement and moral status debates.
Bio: Dr Morar is an applied ethicist whose research interests are at the intersection of biology, ecology, ethics, and politics. He received his B.A. and M.A. in philosophy from Université Jean Moulin Lyon 3 in France and has recently earned his PhD in philosophy from Purdue University. His dissertation analyzes the ways in which current biotechnologies alter traditional conceptions of human nature.
He is a Co-PI on the grant Biodiversity at Twenty-Five: The Problem of Ecological Proxy Values, which provides a critical assessment of the normative role of biodiversity. In addition, he has written papers on the role of emotions in ethics, as well as, on the role of biology in applied ethics debates.
He joined the Rock Ethics Institute at The Pennsylvania State University in the Fall 2013, as a Post Doctoral Scholar, working on research ethics projects and on implementing ethics in science education (at the graduate level). In the Fall 2014, he will starting as Visiting Assistant Professor in Philosophy & Biology at University of Oregon.
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