Saturday, 25 April 2009

I thought by now I'd ... date a girl made out of wires...

Five studies have dove-tailed recently. Four studies indicate that a TV will help take the place of relationships. Something we all already knew- if you have lost a relationship, or fear that you might, the TV becomes a surrogate. But not just any TV- it must be shows that you really enjoy. Any TV won't help. TV fills in that gap of relationship when you are watching characters that you really care about- like Cheers, or Friends, or whatever you personally enjoy.

A separate paper looks at the increasing use of automation and computers in research, to the extent that they are beginning to replace scientific researchers themselves. The authors caution that humans will always need to be in the loop, but we are increasingly seeing that we need computers to accomplish what humans once did, due to the complexity of certain studies.

There is an obvious synergy in these two studies. We are looking at that which is artificial to replace people- in one case, relationships, and in another, one's livelihood.

The authors of the first studies are quite clear that TV is not as good as real relationships. In this regard, it is much like the manner in which some lonely people look toward their pets for comfort, and others speak of how they have much better relationships with animals than humans. It is easy to have a relationship with an animal, as you can read so many of your own emotions into the animal. Humans are more complex, and more messy. Easier still is to watch passively the characters you care about, where you can imagine your own response to them, and how they would act. The end result is the entire relationship takes place exclusively, or largely, in one's own mind.

Is this an entirely bad thing? We are created in the image of God. What does that mean? The word "image" was the same word as "idol" in ancient Hebrew, referring to the seat of the god. No one believed that the god was the same as the stone image they made- they believed it was the seat of that deity. We were created to be the seat of YHWH, the one true God. But the Hebrew of Genesis makes it clear- it is not we as individuals who are created in the image of God. No, rather, "He created humanity in his image, male and female he created them." It is the male and female together that are in the image of God. It is the relationship of love that holds the seat of God. And, one might argue, the relationship of those most different, for the different is more difficult to love, and therefore shows a greater love- and therefore, to an ultimate degree, it is the relationship between men and women, whether erotic or platonic, that shows this image of God most greatly.

So we are in God's image. And God is creator. Is it an entirely bad thing if we create life- even intelligent, sentient life? Is this not fulfilling God's destiny for us, that we also create, just as he did? It does not make us God, for he is still the ultimate, but it would make us attempting to follow in his steps. And since all life has evolved, including us, we have in that sense already participated in the creation of life, along with every other species on this planet (particularly the 99% of species now extinct). It is indeed God's gift to us, through evolution, to allow his children to participate in the process of creation through evolution. And in this, the passive process of evolution, we come closer to God himself. How much more so in the active process?

These are only possible suggestions. Hesitationally offered, much as Origen did when he suggested the pre-creation of the soul, though those works were still declared heretical centuries after his death.

But even if this is so, certainly this is not what we see on TV. For just as it is the most difficult relationships where love still exists that most show the image of the eternal God, so it is the heart of relationships that one has no control over them. A relationship of command and fiat is no relationship at all. Relationships by nature are messy, and praise God. Relationships are those things where I have no control, and I must give up my pride and concept that I can do as I want. And it is only in that humility, not considering equality with God a thing that must be demanded, that I find real love.

But the relationship of the TV is par excellant the relationship of control. It is in the imagination, it is self-fulfilling and self-filling. It is no relationship at all. When one is down and depressed, it may seem to be a filled hole, but that hole is only sinking sand.

Likewise, the creative process may soon be replaced by computers. Computers are learning to be creative, though humans are still necessary for research- and probably always will be. Computers are needed for analyzing data, and will increasingly be needed for this. But we lose something of ourselves when we give up those most human of traits- curiosity and creativity- to machines. For those of us like myself who find the appreciation of nature a moment of worship, there is here, also, a loss of relationship, with God, and yes, with the data itself, when one gives up these opportunities for joy to a computer. Were these computers with all of the abilities of humans, with all of the independence of thought and emotion, it would be different. But we aren't there yet- and aren't likely to be for centuries. As such, our increasing use of computers in research decisions would lead to a loss of what it means to be human- what it means to be in relationship.

The great band Swirling Eddies/Daniel Amos had a song once, "It's the Eighties (So Where's Our Rocket Packs?" One line stated "I thought by now I'd have a robot run the vaccum, and date a girl made out of wires..." What matters is not what the individual is made of, but what is inside. Do they have the soul, the independence, to make love a challenge- and therefore to make love real? But we aren't there yet. Any techonology we use becomes a replacement, and a removal from our status as the image of God.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Our Responsibility in the Infliction of Pain

For years, I have taught what I was taught in college, the central maxim of invertebrate research: "No brain, no pain." You must have a brain in order to comprehend the notion, "Ouch- this hurts!" Yes, you can respond to stimulus without a brain, much as a bacteria would- it is too bright, so it moves away, it is too hot, so it moves towards the cold. But it requires a bit more than a collection of ganglia to process the concept of pain.

We all have pain receptors as one of our nine senses. (Smell, Taste, Sight, Hearing, Touch- and separate receptors in the skin for Heat, Cold, Pressure, and Pain. It's just that five of our senses are in the same organ- skin- so we lump them together.) Without those pain receptors, we wouldn't know pain. Those rare individuals, such as some lepers, who lose the ability to sense pain realize at their own peril how valuable a sense this is. Much as we might like to get rid of it, it helps us avoid problems like losing a limb because we didn't know how much it was being damaged by the acid.

But it is more than pain receptors. All of us (capable of reading this blog) also have brains, and rather impressive ones at that, capable of comprehending elementary thoughts like those here, or the sublime, like, "Ouch! This hurts!" You don't need to be self-aware to comprehend this, but you do need to be able to experience subjective reality, much as your dog or cat do. Your dog doesn't sit there contemplating his existential existence- he does know when something is happening to him.

For a long time, we have found this not to be true of the invertebrates. Excluding the amazing cerebral Cephalopods, invertebrates just don't really have brains. They have collection of ganglia- nerve cells- but nothing really complex to call a brain. And therefore nothing capable of understanding subjective reality, such as pain.

Thus, when scientists work with invertebrates, we have some greater amount of leeway. When pithing a frog for dissection, one must be very conscious of the pain inflicted. You do so only for a greater good, such as helping students understand how a frog works, and you do it quickly, to minimize the pain. This issue isn't present when vivisecting a crawdad, or an ant, or a snail. It is a great responsibility and burden to inflict pain on an animal, and you do so only when necessary. That necessity is removed when dealing with vast majority of invertebrates.

This is not to say that we can then willy-nilly kill any sort of invertebrate creature we want. For we are psychological beings, some would say with a soul, and when we kill another creature, or inflict pain, or appear to do so, it has an effect on our own souls. Much as a child playing non-stop Halo learns that it is okay to kill others without repercussions, stepping on ants who don't feel pain teaches the child that our actions that appear to harm life can be done with impunity. The lobster sounds like it is screaming when being boiled alive, but it is only the air escaping from between the animal's carapace. It has no brain, so therefore can't feel pain. Yet, that sound of screaming has an effect on the chef or any human, and can lead to a deadening of the emotive center which is the very definition of sentience- our own sentience. It is the effect of our actions on all creatures which matter even when dealing with those lower lifeforms, as evidenced by the clear trend of boys stepping on ant hills, often leading to boys harming dogs and cats, and then to seeing even other humans as mere fodder for their schadenfreude tendencies.

But we clearly distinguish those creatures that we care for for our own mental health, and those we care for because of the mental health of the creature itself. And lest an individual think they do not- that they care for all creatures because they are creatures, that they are vegetarian, or following Buddhist principles- I challenge them to fully apply that concept. Quit eating the yogurt, full of so many bacteria. Quit using antibiotics, killing off those nasty bacteria. Quit living, in fact, for your body is constantly fighting off those bacteria in the inner replay of evolutionary force. This is not merely rhetorical allegory. As pointed out in the introductory paragraph, bacteria sense- but not one suggests they have the ability to feel pain. There is a line, and everyone draws that line, albeit at different points. Even the Buddha did not care for germs in the same way (though of course he could not possibly be aware of their existence). Sensing does not entail sentience, although it is a precondition for it. Where, therefore, do we draw the line?

As I said, at the place where there is a brain. And it can be argued where there is enough of the animal to have a brain, or how much ganglia and brain is needed to comprehend pain. Clearly a virus does not have it, nor a sponge, nor an anemone- and certainly not a plant, all the pseudo-scientific theories out there not withstanding. And for a long time, we have been bolstered by the teaching that the invertebrates, excepting the Cephalopods, also fall into this non-sentient category.

Until now. Until today. For a study has just come out indicating that small hermit crabs also feel pain. They subjected the crabs to mild shocks, not so much that it would make them leave their shells, but enough that, when offered a better, shockless shell, they rejected their old home for the new one. This indicates a step towards not simply responding to stimuli, but actually remembering what is negative- or being aware of one's subjective environment and feeling pain.

More study is certainly needed before final conclusions can be drawn. Technically, if true, it would apply only to hermit crabs, but could be extended out reasonably to other Crustacea. It does not indicate that organisms with less of a brain, such as the adult Tunicate or earthworms, could also feel pain, and one would hope for similar studies on other groups of animals to determine if there is a like response. Similarly, one would like control studies conducted on organisms like jellies and sponges, who obviously have no way to comprehend pain, being completely brainless, to see if they respond in the same way, indicating that the study does not indicate surprising new sentience.

All those caveats withstanding, it brings one to pause for a moment. To consider. As the authors of the study rightly bring up, it has an effect on all those Crustacea we catch and eat. Is the best being done to minimize possible pain as they come up in the net. (No.) Certainly little is done for fish, but we also know that fish have very few pain receptors. If this study is born out, it may, and should, revolutionize the way we approach fisheries management.

But closer to home, it causes me to consider how I have treated all those organisms in the past. Like I intimated above, I have always been careful even with the organisms that don't seem to be sentient, if only for my own sentience. But there is care and there is care. And I can assuredly state that I have not cared for these worms and crawdads and snails with the thought that they were capable of experiencing pain. I have considered this for months now.

And it troubles me greatly.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Revenge might be a good cold dish, but not a lifeplan.

A new study indicates that people who engage in revenge are less likely to find work, or keep it. There is "positive reciprocity" and "negative reciprocity". The positive is when you do something nice for someone who does something nice for you; the negative is the opposite. Some people are more positively reciprocal, others more negatively reciprocal. Those who are positive have more friends and make more money, because, the study found, they work harder for more pay. Negatively reciprocal people are not encouraged by higher pay, but will work less for lower pay, or try to harm the company they're working for. They also are less happy.

I personally would prefer a study that doesn't relate to pay. I look at money as a necessity to get by, but not as something I inherently want. Nor am I interested in the mammon that one can gain with the money. Certainly, I like the occasional book, but money is an inherently negative concept to me, because of my cultural upbringing. This study looks at something that is a root of all kinds of evil- money- as the primary incentive. It could be argued that those who are inspired by money do better by the standards of their society, when working in a capitalist system. The study therefore has some flaws that need to be addressed.

But let us take it at face value. Let us accept the basic premise as it stands. I still find it a rather primitive motivating force- Utilitarian, rather than Kantian ethics. Certainly, Kant leaves a lot to be desired, but what was positive in his ethics was the Categorical Imperative- the good is that which, if done by everyone at all times, would still be good. It bears a resemblance to the Utilitarian ethic (also known as the George Bush ethic) - "Do what is best for the greatest number of people." And yet the Categorical Imperative is worlds apart from the ethic of the Utilitarians. Ultimately, the Utilitarian ethic degenerates into mob rule, where the majority dictates upon the minority. Kant asked us to consider what was best for everyone, and not just what served the greatest number. He argued that ultimately, if it was not something that everyone could do, then it was not worth doing.

The Categorical Imperative bears a more than passing resemblance to the ethics of Jesus- "Do to others as you would have them do to you." Jesus' ethic was rather often that the good of the one, or the few, outweighs the good of the many- for in Jesus' ethics, there was no differentiation between the good of the many and the good of the one. (Witness the story of the Garasene Demoniac, where Jesus condemns the livelihood of ten cities so that one man might be saved from demonic possession.) The ethic of Jesus takes it a step further, best exemplified in the Gospel by Luke- the best action is not that which serves the majority, or even all people, but that which serves the minority- those outcast- for our needs and desires are (and should be) inseparable from those so outcast. It becomes the ethic of the minority, but not those who rule. It is rather the ethic of the minority who do not rule.

This is rooted in the the difference between the ethic of Jesus, and how that ethic is commonly interpreted. It is not "Do unto others so that they will do unto you." There is never any expectation of return. It is how you would want them to treat you. But it is love of your enemies, which Jesus also calls for. It is love for those who mistreat you, who hate you, who despise you- to pick up your instrument of torture and gruesome death and follow in the path of Jesus.

We come back to the root of the study. The difficulty with the premise is that those who get ahead are those who are considering their own best interests. They are happier than those who desire harm for another, attacking those who attack them, for they are motivated by doing good for those who do good to them. But this motivation is ultimately selfish in origin. It is more limited than the Utilitarian Ethic, considering what is good for the greatest number. It is more limited than the Categorical Imperative, considering what is good for all. It is more limited than the ethic of Jesus, considering what is good for the lost sheep. It has no place for doing good to those who mistreat you.

Yes, it undoubtedly works. You do better in this society if you are positive and encouraging. It would make sense that you would have more friends. But that does not make it right. One would want to see further studies, looking at less materialistic societies, to see if the "getting ahead" was dictated by the materialistic basis of society. And one would want to compare those who are encouraged by an Positive Reciprocal Ethic, with those motivated by Utilitarianism, Kant, and Kingdom Desires.

All of this is not to say I'm at that exalted Kingdom level. Or the level of Kant. Or the level of even John Stuart Mill and the Utilitarians. For I have to merely think back to my last time driving on the freeway, and see how much more I was focused on Negative Reciprocity. But how, pray tell, could one possibly apply the ethics of Jesus to the American freeway system, and expect to ever get anywhere?
This is the discussion of the World Science updates as they become available.
Your thoughts are most welcome here.