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K21st
The Global Brain
"It is not guilty pride but the ceaselessly reawakened instinct of the game which calls forth new worlds." (Heraclitus Reloaded)
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    The choice of responsibility

    “Natural selection won’t matter soon, not anywhere near as much as conscious selection. We will civilize and alter ourselves to suit our ideas of what we can be. Within one more human lifespan, we will have changed ourselves unrecognizably”

    In these words, Greg Bear, a known science fiction writer, describes best the unprecedented and profound shift in status mankind is going through at the dawn of 21st century. Though this shift has marked our civilization over thousands of years, the technological revolution of the 20th century has accelerated this shift in exponential rate.

    The most basic aspects of human existence are shifting from being “givens”, outcomes of arbitrary influences neither understood nor accessible for manipulation, to “items of choice”. By the power of scientific insight we are able to gain increasing control over these influences of nature and harness them to our interests and agendas. Agendas that are derived from the very ideas of what and how we imagine ourselves to be. We humans, given this availability, are the ones to choose what we are going to become. Only that, as we sometimes painfully realize, the availability of choice does not automatically entail the capability to choose.

    Most apparent perhaps is this shift in the fields of medicine and molecular biology. Curing disease, radical prolonging of life span, accessing the mechanism of reproduction, and soon enough intervening with the genetic blueprints standing at the basis of our biological identity, are shifting many “givens” of our existence to a new status. These “givens” are not given anymore; they rapidly become subject to intentional manipulation and design according to our perceptions of what is appropriate and good.

    In fact such interventions in our biological makeup are as old as the days of antiquity; already the Spartans of ancient Greece were selecting only the strongest babies to live, thus preferring conscious selection over natural one. The Aztecs performed plastic surgery to reshape their skulls. In China, reshaping the ladies' feet according to some aesthetic criterion was a common practice. Medicine along the ages has extended the lives of the sick and debilitated allowing them to have progeny against the forces of the so called natural selection. In a sense, nothing is essentially new. What is definitely new is the extent of modern interventions, and their profound impact.

    It is becoming quite clear that technological advancement pushes mankind into an ever-increasing availability of choice. In the past, living at the mercy of the arbitrary conditions of nature, we were often inflicted with meaningless suffering. Yet, the scope of responsibility that comes with controlling the forces of nature, was not ours. With the choice availed to us by technology, the span of exercising our intentionality is profoundly extended, and with it many questions arise regarding the meaning of our deliberate actions, and of course the motives behind them. Our actions are no longer mere responses to arbitrary natural or godly "givens", they are becoming outcomes of conscious selection, and such conscious selection defines not only who we are but also what we are.

    The recognition of the exponentially increasing relevancy of conscious selection must begin in the choice of responsibility; a profound recognition and acceptance of the state of affairs of the human as a being who must make choices, responsible choices, as an inseparable and irreducible part of what he is both individually and as a species.

    In some not very far future, we will be able to redesign our whole germ line to the extent that perhaps even the human form as we know it today will significantly change or become vastly diversified. How are we going to approach such an opportunity to consciously select what we are? It all starts in the act of recognizing our freedom to choose and its entailed responsibility, as an essential part of what we are.

    While historically the conditions of our existence were dictated by the world we are born into, the appropriate existential question was indeed what a human being is and what befits a human existence. We must now rephrase this very question into something else: What do we choose the human to be? This seemingly small shift in perspective will yield vast consequences on the way we think about ethics and ethical questions. Bioethics in this sense seems to be a critical junction since it has to do with our bodies and the essential aspects of our identity that are determined by our bodies (one example is gender). It is only a question of time till we will be able to effectively apply our choices to our genetic makeup and to most of the physical, cognitive and psychological aspects of our lives that are determined by it. How are we going to make these choices? What are the relevant meanings and values that are to stand at the basis of such choices? These meanings and values are no longer arbitrary conditions or derivatives of arbitrary conditions, they are going to become products of conscious selection, the responsible actuation of the freedom availed to us by technological progress.


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    The following article is long and quite condensed; I have therefore divided it into five posts I will publish in the coming days. This is the first part. Enjoy:-)

    Prologue

    ON APRIL FOOLS' DAY 1998, within hours of reading U.S. patent application No. 08/993,564, the Honorable Bruce Lehman did something no other commissioner of patents had done in the 200-year history of America's oldest government agency. He stepped before a cluster of microphones and announced that the patent would never be approved. No half-human "monsters" would be patented, Lehman declared angrily, or any other "immoral inventions."

    Legal scholars — accustomed to an office bound by statute to remain silent until patents are approved or rejected — were shocked. Forgoing the traditional 18-month review period, Lehman had issued a marching order to his staff to reject a patent application they had barely read, rather as if a judge had instructed a jury that the defendant was guilty before the trial began. Furthermore, to support his decision, Lehman cited an 1817 court ruling that excluded inventions "injurious to the well-being, good policy, or good morals of society." But patent law had long since been amended to say that if an applicant could claim constructive use for a patent, he or she could not be denied simply because there might be dangerous or unethical uses of the invention.

    "Even attorneys who worshiped the system were horrified," recalls former patent examiner Peter di Mauro, who has since left the agency. Research biologists and biotech executives also felt blind-sided, hearing in Commissioner Lehman's outburst a threat to the hard-earned clearance they had won from the Supreme Court 18 years earlier to patent "anything under the sun made by man" — even living organisms.

    Strange as it may seem, the inventor, Dr. Stuart Newman, a soft-spoken developmental biologist and professor at New York Medical College in Valhalla, New York, completely agreed with Lehman that his invention defied the boundaries of human morality. It's why he filed for the patent. And it's why, six years later, as the biomedical community holds its breath, he and the Patent Office remain locked in a legal battle that may redefine what we mean by "human."

    (Qouted from "Gods and Monsters" by Mark Dowie, Mother Jones Magazine Jan 2004)

    Technology is a manifest of human nature

    Advancements in biotechnology are bringing a great and profound change to our doorstep. The technological miracles we can already glimpse today are but the tip of an iceberg of what will become available in the not so far future. From designing new synthetic life forms that will become the foundation of a new industry unimaginable in its potential, to full scale genetic engineering of enhanced humans (what one SF writer dubbed geneering). The impact of biotechnology on the future, and the ethical aspects involved, are already the subject of numerous heated debates that gain more and more public attention.

    A question frequently arising in the ethical debate around genetic manipulation is whether or not genetic manipulations are “normal” or “natural”. Religious thinkers often bring up their side on the issue in the form of a theological argument that dealing with the so called ‘code of life’ and manipulating it diverts from the “Godly plan” thus should be abandoned or at least tightly restricted. On the other extreme of the spectrum there are those who claim that scientific progress is inevitable thus there is no real question about it being natural or not, godly planned or not. This is a kind of “technological fatalism” which avoids the ethical issue altogether.

    A more balanced approach I would like to outline here is humanistic in the sense that it addresses the issue from the perspective of human nature. What I mean here is seeing the state of affairs of humanity as a system of tensions between an actual condition and an idealized image. This system of tensions is a huge driving force, driving individuals as well as whole civilizations to expand, to cover gaps. The gaps between what we actually see when we look in the mirror and what we desire to see there. As such, this drive is a reflective drive, it arises from consciousness, and essentially it drives the expansion of consciousness. Expansion is a human trait, and it influences all spheres of human activity. Science and technology are simply particular yet powerful manifests of this trait.

    By no means am I coming to assert that these particular manifests are the most important marks of being human, neither are they acknowledged as the only path possible for the future of humanity. Nevertheless, at this stage of human existence we cannot but recognize science and technology as profound aspects of human civilization and an organic part in the praxis of human existence. As such biotechnology is not different from agriculture, transportation, or urbanization. All these and many more are expressions of the human endeavor to become more than himself, and if human nature is thus recognized, the impacts of technology are to be accepted as natural in the context of human existence.

    Critical to my approach is the (optimistic) belief that at any stage in the evolution of mankind it is within the capability of the human, at least in potential, to resolve the ethical conundrums emerging from his motion of expansion. Moreover, these emerging conundrums are points of reflective friction through which the human dynamically redefines the shape of his own identity and the meaning of her existence. I would further say that not only biotechnology is an organic aspect of what a human being is at this point in the story of mankind, but also that the ethical questions emerging in conjunction to biotechnology are critical factors in the evolution of humanity.

    I will remark however, that my belief in the capability of the human as asserted here does not necessarily imply a successful culmination. It is very difficult to predict now whether humanity is on the verge of a breakthrough or an evolutionary dead end. Yet, it clearly seems that biotechnology and the ethical issues it raises, is on the critical path of humanity's future evolution.

    Identifying the ethical issues

    It is not my purpose to address specific ad hoc ethical issues, but rather to describe a vista of the more general riddles we are about to tackle in our biotechnological future. Here I will focus on four core issues:

    A. The choice of responsibility.
    B. Redefining human identity.
    C. Biology and social order.
    D. The evolutionary prospect of an ethical criterion.

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