Tag Archives: science

Discerning neuroethics amid new challenges in bioethics

The field of neuroethics is relatively new, having been formally inaugurated at a conference only in 2002. Neuroethics was created because of new questions and concerns arising out of the rapidly developing fields of neuroscience and neurotechnology. Scientists have been making significant progress in observing previously unobservable operations of the brain. And technologies with the potential to heal, interact with, and perhaps even control elements of the human brain and behavior are rapidly becoming available.

Scientists have long understood that there is a connection between the normal and injured brain, and distinctive human behaviors. One of the first insights into this connection came in the strange case of Phineas Gage, an American railroad worker who was terribly injured in 1848. When Gage used an iron rod to tap down a charge of gunpowder, a premature explosion shot the rod through his cheek and out the top of his head, passing through his left frontal lobe. Gage survived the accident, but his personality underwent a total change. Gage went from being a quiet, even-tempered man to a being a rude man who often indulged in profanities. Since then scientists have sought to better understand the structure and functioning of the brain.

From the late 20th century, cutting -edge technologies have begun fulfilling these aspirations. The use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) — using magnetic waves as a kind of “radar” to track the electrical impulses of neurons in the brain — is among the most important. fMRI has been used to learn whether patients in profound states of unconsciousness (a.k.a. PVS) have any awareness (short answer: “probably yes”). fMRI also has been used to locate a part of the brain which appears to be active when people make moral judgments, and then to experiment with disrupting the neurons to see if it changes people’s ability to make those moral judgments. A more recent experiment with animals involves seeding their brains with “neural dust” — hundreds of sensors the size of a grain of rice to monitor brain activity. With emerging nanotechnology, scientists hope to shrink these sensors to a microscopic size and use them to stimulate the brain in various ways to obtain some desired result.

What should Catholics be thinking and doing as the fields of neuroscience and neuroethics develop? They should find ways to become engaged, affirming the good work being done, identifying the potential for abuse, and seeking to keep all of the knowledge and power gained within a framework of Christian anthropology. Advancing a Christian anthropology at this time is critical because trends in neuroscience can support some approaches to the human person which are potentially harmful, such as thinking that humans are essentially machines or objects, or that the soul is nothing but complex matter.

Apart from integrating neuroscience and neuroethics with the Church’s understanding of the dignity of the human person, and with the main tenets of the moral tradition, Catholics should be engaged as new opportunities and issues arise. For example, Catholics should be encouraged to enter these fields, to better understand and help human persons. St. Augustine famously said that “A good and true Christian should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found, gathering and acknowledging it even in pagan literature, but rejecting superstitious vanities . . .” Catholics should feel free to participate in well- designed, safe, and ethical research projects. They should learn the science and skills necessary to use neuroscience for legitimate ends, and then prioritize applications related to healing significant illness and injuries, such as epilepsy, strokes, and significant states of unconsciousness.
The challenges to life and human dignity are not going to diminish. But we can help to improve the field of neuroethics so that neuroscience and neurotechnology contribute to human flourishing in the orders of Creation and Redemption.

JOHN F. BREHANY, PH.D., STL, is director of institutional relations at the National Catholic Bioethics Center (Philadelphia) and past executive director of the Catholic Medical Association.

The Immortal in You: How Human Nature Is More Than Science Can Say

Michael Augros
Ignatius Press, 324 pages

What does it mean to be human? Are we just another animal, more intellectually advanced, as science might suggest? Or is there something more to us, something that sets us apart and gives us a special place in the universe? Philosophy professor Michael Augros takes on scientism — the idea that science tells us everything that is knowable — and summarily dismantles it as applied to the human person. Science might describe how our bodies work, but it can’t get at who we are, the truths about human nature, why we were created or where we are destined. Augros’s trek gets into the deep at times, but it’s well worth the trip.

Order: Ignatius PressAmazon

Rise of the Machines

Is artificial intelligence a grave threat to humanity?

Movies about killer robots make millions at the box-office every year. Blockbusters like Blade Runner (1982) and the Terminator series — plus newer films like Ex Machina and I, Robot — have thrilled and frightened millions of moviegoers over the years.

Actress Alicia Vikander starred as a robot named Ava in 2015’s “Ex Machina” (Universal Pictures photo)

Actress Alicia Vikander starred as a robot named Ava in 2015’s “Ex Machina” (Universal Pictures photo)

While these films can be very entertaining, some notable leaders — like Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates — believe the plots of these films are plausible.

Hawking, the famous theoretical physicist and cosmologist, told the BBC in 2014: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, told Reddit in an interview last year: “I am in the camp that is concerned about super intelligence.”

Defining AI

Last summer, more than 1,000 science and technology chiefs, including Hawking, wrote an open letter warning about the dangers of artificial intelligence (AI). And last December, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva, spoke against autonomous weapons systems, a form of AI.

Catholics around the world rightly question whether there really is something to worry about. But some on the non-technical side are hard-pressed to define AI.

“AI is a human amplifier,” said Robert Panoff, a computational physicist and executive director the Shodor Foundation. “It’s a human telling a computer to look for patterns that maybe a human would not have thought of. The computer learns in ways it was told to learn.”

Examples of AI include IBM’s “Watson,” a computer system that beat Jeopardy champions in 2011. Other examples include language translation programs and voice recognition programs like Apple’s “Siri” and the Amazon Echo, a voice command device answering to the name “Alexa.”

As lifelike as these programs seem, there are several areas, however, where human intelligence and artificial intelligence differ greatly.

“Humans are much more creative,” Panoff told Legatus magazine. “Computers cannot process certain visual information.”

A essential aspect of the ethical debate swirling around artificial intelligence centers on the question: How do you program a machine to act and think like a human being?

“Remember, we have not defined what it means to be human yet, let alone a robot,” said Eugene Gan, professor of media technology, communication, and fine arts at Franciscan University of Steubenville. “What does intelligence mean? How do we program a robot to paint a beautiful panting? How do you program a robot to comfort a child?”

Technological advances

Panoff doesn’t believe that the earth will have killer robots any more than what already exists. “What we have to fear is humans giving control of human decisions to a computer without a stop gap.”

Gan said we shouldn’t fear AI, but rather the human beings creating it.

“While there’s been talk about making robots even better, the technology is still started by us,” he explained. “How do we program these robots? They’re made with our precepts and concept of virtue. Are authentically Catholic engineers and programmers making them or just people who have bought into the whole secular mindset?”

Don Howard, a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame University and former director of the Reilly Center for Science, Technology and Values, disagrees with Hawking and Gates.

“This kind of doomsday scenario is just not realistic,” Howard said. “The worst thing is that they are drawing attention away from real issues with AI.”

The biggest single problem with artificial intelligence, he said, will be the job losses of human beings to machines.

Experts fear millions more jobs will be lost to automation and robots in the years ahead

Experts fear millions more jobs will be lost to automation and robots in the years ahead

“I don’t think the public realizes how big of a problem this is,” he explained. “We are beginning to see AI in the service industry. When I was young and visited an architectural firm, there was a lead architect and dozens of young architects doing the grunt work. Now everything is done by a computer program. All those jobs are gone.”

This scenario is quickly playing out in nearly every job sector.

Autonomous weapons systems

The area of AI that worries many people is that of autonomous weapons systems — where targets are chosen and destroyed without any human involvement.

“Israel has something called the Iron Dome,” Howard said. “It is autonomous. It identifies a missile and launches a counter missile in seconds. Great Britain has something called Brimstone. This system has the capacity to identify a vehicle and see if it’s a tank or passenger vehicle and fire. But how can you be 100% sure of your target?”

The 1,000 scientists who wrote the open letter with Hawking specifically called for a ban on offensive autonomous weapons systems. Howard and others at the Reilly Center believe that these weapons must have guidelines.

“Some call for a total ban on autonomous offensive weapons,” he said. “My view is that this is insufficiently discriminating. We need to think of specific types of autonomous systems. We need ethical, legal and technical analyses. We need more clarity, then we need to regulate it.”

The United Nations met to discuss autonomous weapons in Geneva twice last year. The next meeting takes place in April.

The Church and science

Gan wrote about the last seven decades of Church teaching with regard to technology in his 2010 book Infinite Bandwidth: Encountering Christ in the Media.

“The first thing to know is that the Church has always been in favor of technology and has written about it since 1936,” he said. “The Church teaches that technology can be very good, but it must be at the service of man.”

One of the main reasons we shouldn’t fear artificial intelligence, Gan said, is that truly good AI would, by definition, seek to support, not destroy humanity.

Al Gan

Al Gan

“When scientists speak of intelligence, they are not considering the gift of grace which enlightens the intellect, or the reality of the soul. Human intelligence includes experience, memory, wisdom and even concupiscence,” he said.

Father Tad Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, says that ultimately any new technology — like AI — can be used for good or for evil.

“The problem is not with the technology itself, but with the various agendas that are likely to dictate its subsequent use — and the flawed or morally corrupt human beings who oftentimes seem to end up making those particular decisions,” he said.

SABRINA ARENA FERRISI is Legatus magazine’s senior staff writer.

Laws embrace windows on the womb

More abortion-minded women are being given the option to see their child via ultrasound . . .

Dorinda Bordlee

Science tells us when life begins. The real question is when love begins. For many abortion-minded women, love began when they had the opportunity to see their unborn child on an ultrasound screen.

The good news is that the opportunities to open this window on the womb are increasing with more and more state laws requiring ultrasounds before an abortion can be performed.

Testimony given by women in legislative hearings confirms that ultrasound images help a woman in an unexpected pregnancy to realize she’s not alone in this seeming crisis — that it’s not all about her, and that there’s another person right there with her in the most profound and physical way.

That person is her unborn child, who is joined by many other people such as those who operate pro-life pregnancy care centers that provide free hands-on resources like ultrasound and medical services, parenting and marriage counseling, diapers and formula, and even food for the new mom’s pantry before and after her baby’s birth.

The Knights of Columbus have taken the lead in getting ultrasound machines donated to pro-life pregnancy centers. This ultrasound donation outreach, together with the legislative efforts (promoted by my public-interest law firm Bioethics Defense Fund) is a powerful tool for building a culture of life. It gives each of us in the pro-life movement the opportunity to do what Supreme Knight Carl Anderson speaks of as “living as Christ lives, [as] we reveal to others who they are: beings made by love, and for love.”

It’s true that laws cannot mandate love. But by legally requiring that an ultrasound be performed before abortion with the express option for the woman to view the screen, this type of legislation can indeed create an environment for the light of love to overcome the darkness of fear. The ultrasound option allows an abortion-minded woman the freedom to replace her natural tendency to self-absorption with the ultimate opportunity for self-giving. It gives her a chance to realize that she can be a hero for one of the least amongst us.

This positive approach to building a culture of life is garnering national secular attention. A recent Washington Post opinion column was entitled “Women Should be Informed Before They Abort.” In the piece, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Kathleen Parker describes herself as “both pro-life and pro-choice.” Yet she writes that ultrasound legislation is a worthy approach which recognizes that “abortion truthfully presented would eliminate itself or vastly reduce its numbers.”

The column features a Louisiana law, drafted by Bioethics Defense Fund, that gives every woman seeking abortion two chances to choose life:

1. At least 24 hours before an abortion, the abortion provider must provide the woman with a list of places that offer free ultrasound services. This list will be compiled by the state’s Department of Health and will include pro-life pregnancy centers that offer free ultrasound.

2. If the woman returns for an abortion after a 24-hour reflection period, the abortion provider must perform an ultrasound at least two hours before the abortion to determine fetal viability and issues related to the woman’s health. At that ultrasound, the woman must be read a script that gives her three options: The option to view the ultrasound screen, the option to hear an explanation of the images, and the option to get a print-out of her unborn child’s image.

These options are offered by a script that the ultrasound technician must read to the woman in the examination room prior to the beginning of the ultrasound examination. The BDF model legislation includes the text of the script so that the abortionist cannot negatively influence the woman by saying things such as, “You don’t want to see this, do you?”

Because the ultrasound provisions are added to a currently existing “Woman’s Right to Know” law, the abortionist will be subject to civil and criminal penalties if the woman is denied these options.

Laws requiring ultrasound before abortion give women the gift of sight. What they see is the beauty of their unborn child — the kind of beauty referred to by Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky when he wrote his famous phrase, “Beauty will save the world.” In this case, beauty can save a life.

Dorinda C. Bordlee is senior counsel of Bioethics Defense Fund, a non-profit pro-life legal organization with the mission to advocate for the dignity of human life through litigation, legislation and public education. An abridged version of this article appeared in the September 2010 issue of Legatus Magazine.