A blog from the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)

Author: Pär Segerdahl (Page 1 of 35)

Self-confidence in the midst of uncertainty

Feeling confident is natural when we have the knowledge that the task requires. However, self-confidence can be harmful if we think that we know what we do not know. It can be really problematic if we make a habit of pretending that we know. Perhaps because we demand it of ourselves.

There is also another kind of self-confidence, which can seem unnatural. I am thinking of a rarely noticed form of self-confidence, which can awaken just when we are uncertain about how to think and act. But how can self-confidence arise precisely when we are uncertain? It sounds not only unnatural, but also illogical. And was it not harmful to exhibit self-confidence in such situations?

I am thinking of the self-confidence to be just as uncertain as we are, because our uncertainty is a fact that we are certain of: I do not know. It is easy to overlook the fact that even uncertainty is a reality that can be ascertained and investigated in ourselves. Sometimes it is important to take note of our uncertainty. That is sticking to the facts too!

What happens if we do not trust uncertainty when we are uncertain? I think we then tend to seek guidance from others, who seem to know what we do not know. It seems not only natural, but also logical. It is reasonable to do so, of course, if relevant knowledge really exists elsewhere. Asking others, who can be judged to know better, also requires a significant measure of self-confidence and good judgment, in the midst of uncertainty.

But suppose we instinctively seek guidance from others as soon as we are uncertain, because we do not dare to stick to uncertainty in such moments. What happens if we always run away from uncertainty, without stopping and paying attention to it, as if uncertainty were something impermissible? In such a judgmental attitude to uncertainty, knowledge and certainty can become a demand that we feel must be met, towards ourselves and towards each other, if only as a facade. We are then back where we started, in pretended knowledge, which now might become a collective high-risk game and not just an individual bad habit.

Collective knowledge games can of course work, if sufficiently many influential players have the knowledge that the tasks require and knowledge is disseminated in a well-organized manner. Maybe we think that it should be possible to build such a society, a secure knowledge society. The question I wonder about is how sustainable this is in the long run, if the emphasis on certainty does not simultaneously emphasize also uncertainty and questioning. Not for the sake of questioning, but because uncertainty is also a fact that needs attention.

In philosophy and ethics, it is often uncertainty that primarily drives the work. This may sound strange, but even uncertainty can be investigated. If we ask a tentative question about something we sincerely wonder about, clearer questions can soon arise that we continue to wonder about, and soon the investigation will begin. The investigation comes to life because we dare to trust ourselves, because we dare to give ourselves time to think, in the midst of uncertainty, which can become clarity if we do not run away from it. In the investigation, we can of course notice that we need more knowledge about specific issues, knowledge that is acquired from others or that we ourselves develop through empirical studies. But it is not only specific knowledge that informs the investigation. The work with the questions that express our uncertainty clarifies ourselves and makes our thinking clearer. Knowledge gets a well-considered context, where it is needed, which enlightens knowledge.

A “pure” game of knowledge is hardly sustainable in the long run, if its demands are not open also to the other side of knowledge, to the uncertainty that can be difficult to separate from ourselves. Such openness requires that we trust not only the rules of the game, but also ourselves. But do we dare to trust ourselves when we are uncertain?

I think we dare, if we see uncertainty as a fact that can be investigated and clarified, instead of judging it as something dangerous that should not be allowed to be a fact. That is when it can become dangerous.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

This post in Swedish

Thinking about thinking

Safeguards when biobank research complies with the General Data Protection Regulation

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) entails a tightening of EU data protection rules. These rules do not only apply to the processing of personal data by companies. They apply in general, also to scientific research, which in many cases could entail serious restrictions on research. However, the GDPR allows for several derogations and exemptions when it comes to research that would otherwise probably be made impossible or considerably more difficult.

Such derogations are allowed only if appropriate safeguards, which are in accordance with the regulation, are in place. But what safeguards may be required? Article 89 of the regulation mentions technical and organizational measures to ensure compliance with the principle of data minimization: personal data shall be adequate, relevant and limited to what is necessary in relation to the purposes for which they are processed. Otherwise, Article 89 does not specify what safeguards are required, or what it means that the safeguards must be in accordance with the GDPR.

Biobank and genetic research require large amounts of biological samples and health-related data. Personal data may need to be stored for a long time and reused by new research groups for new research purposes. This would not be possible if the regulation did not grant an exemption from the rule that personal data may not be stored longer than necessary and for purposes not specified at data collection. But the question remains, what safeguards may be required to grant exemption?

The issue is raised by Ciara Staunton and three co-authors in an article in Frontiers in Genetics. The article begins by discussing the regulation and how to interpret the requirement that the safeguards should be “in accordance with the GDPR.” Then six possible safeguards are proposed for biobank and genetic research. The proposal is based on a thorough review of a number of documents that regulate health research.

Here, I merely want to recommend reading to anyone working on the issue of appropriate safeguards in biobank and genetic research. Therefore, I mention only briefly that the proposed safeguards concern (1) consent, (2) independent review and oversight, (3) accountable processes, (4) clear and transparent policies and processes, (5) security, and (6) training and education.

If you want to know more about the proposed safeguards, you will find the article here: Appropriate Safeguards and Article 89 of the GDPR: Considerations for Biobank, Databank and Genetic Research.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Ciara Staunton, Santa Slokenberga, Andrea Parziale and Deborah Mascalzoni. Appropriate Safeguards and Article 89 of the GDPR: Considerations for Biobank, Databank and Genetic Research. Frontiers in Genetics. 18 February 2022 doi: 10.3389/fgene.2022.719317

This post in Swedish

We recommend readings

Using surplus embryos to treat Parkinson’s disease: perceptions among the Swedish public

The use of human embryos in stem cell research can create moral unease, as embryos are usually destroyed when researchers extract stem cells from them. If one considers the embryo as a potential life, this can be perceived as a human life opportunity being extinguished.

At the same time, stem cell research aims to support human life through the development of treatments for diseases that today lack effective treatment. Moreover, not everyone sees the embryo as a potential life. When stem cell research is regulated, policymakers can therefore benefit from current knowledge about the public’s attitudes to this research.

Åsa Grauman and Jennifer Drevin recently published an interview study of perceptions among the Swedish public about the use of donated embryos for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. The focus in the interviews on a specific disease is interesting, as it emphasizes the human horizon of stem cell research. This can nuance the issues and invite more diverse reasoning.

The interviewees were generally positive about using donated surplus embryos from IVF treatment to develop stem cell treatment for Parkinson’s disease. This also applied to participants who saw the embryo as a potential life. However, this positive attitude presupposed a number of conditions. The participants emphasized, among other things, that informed consent must be obtained from both partners in the couple, and that the researchers must show respect and sensitivity in their work with embryos. The latter requirement was also made by participants who did not see the embryo as a potential life. They emphasized that people have different values and that researchers and the pharmaceutical industry should take note of this.

Many participants also considered that the use of embryos in research on Parkinson’s disease is justified because the surplus embryos would otherwise be discarded without benefit. Several also expressed a priority order, where surplus embryos should primarily be donated to other couples, secondarily to drug development, and lastly discarded.

If you want to see more results, read the study: Perceptions on using surplus embryos for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease among the Swedish population: a qualitative study.

I would like to mention that the complexity of the questions was also expressed in such a way that one and the same person could express different perceptions in different parts of the interview, and switch back and forth between different perspectives. This is not a defect, I would say, but a form of wisdom that is essential when difficult ethical issues are discussed.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Grauman, Å., Drevin, J. Perceptions on using surplus embryos for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease among the Swedish population: a qualitative study. BMC Med Ethics 23, 15 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12910-022-00759-y

This post in Swedish

Ethics needs empirical input

Can consumers help counteract antimicrobial resistance?

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) occurs when microorganisms (bacteria and viruses, etc.) survive treatments with antimicrobial drugs, such as antibiotics. However, the problem is not only caused by unwise use of such drugs on humans. Such drugs are also used on a large scale in animals in food production, which is a significant cause of AMR.

In an article in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, Mirko Ancillotti and three co-authors discuss the possibility that food consumers can contribute to counteracting AMR. This is a specific possibility that they argue is often overlooked when addressing the general public.

A difficulty that arises when AMR needs to be handled by several actors, such as authorities, food producers, consumers and retailers, is that the actors transfer the responsibility to the others. Consumers can claim that they would buy antibiotic-smart goods if they were offered in stores, while retailers can claim that they would sell such goods if consumers demanded them. Both parties can also blame how, for example, the market or legislation governs them. Another problem is that if one actor, for example the authorities, takes great responsibility, other actors feel less or no responsibility.

The authors of the article propose that one way out of the difficulty could be to influence consumers to take individual responsibility for AMR. Mirko Ancillotti has previously found evidence that people care about antibiotic resistance. Perhaps a combination of social pressure and empowerment could engage consumers to individually act more wisely from an AMR perspective?

The authors make comparisons with the climate movement and suggest digital innovations in stores and online, which can inform, exert pressure and support AMR-smarter food choices. One example could be apps that help consumers see their purchasing pattern, suggest product alternatives, and inform about what is gained from an AMR perspective by choosing the alternative.

Read the article with its constructive proposal to engage consumers against antimicrobial resistance: The Status Quo Problem and the Role of Consumers Against Antimicrobial Resistance.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Ancillotti, Mirko; Nilsson, Elin; Nordvall, Anna-Carin; Oljans, Emma. The Status Quo Problem and the Role of Consumers Against Antimicrobial Resistance. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, 2022.

This post in Swedish

Approaching future issues

Fact resistance, human nature and contemplation

Sometimes we all resist facts. I saw a cyclist slip on the icy road. When I asked if it went well, she was on her feet in an instant and denied everything: “I did not fall!” It is human to deny facts. They can hurt and be disturbing.

What are we resisting? The usual answer is that fact-resistant individuals or groups resist facts about the world around us, such as statistics on violent crime, on vaccine side effects, on climate change or on the spread of disease. It then becomes natural to offer resistance to fact resistance by demanding more rigour in the field of knowledge. People should learn to turn more rigorously to the world they live in! The problem is that fact-resistant attitudes do just that. They are almost bewitched by the world and by the causes of what are perceived as outrageous problems in it. And now we too are bewitched by fact resistance and speculate about the causes of this outrageous problem.

Of course, we believe that our opposition is justified. But who does not think so? Legitimate resistance is met by legitimate resistance, and soon the conflict escalates around its double spiral of legitimacy. The possibility of resolving it is blocked by the conflict itself, because all parties are equally legitimate opponents of each other. Everyone hears their own inner voices warning them from acknowledging their mistakes, from acknowledging their uncertainty, from acknowledging their human resistance to reality, as when we fall off the bike and wish it had never happened. The opposing side would immediately seize the opportunity! Soon, our mistake is a scandal on social media. So we do as the person who slipped on the icy road, we deny everything without thinking: “I was not wrong, I had my own facts!” We ignore the fact that life thereby becomes a lie, because our inner voices warn us from acknowledging our uncertainty. We have the right to be recognized, our voices insist, at least as an alternative to the “established view.”

Conflicts give us no time for reflection. Yet, there is really nothing stopping us from sitting down, in the midst of conflict, and resolving it within ourselves. When we give ourselves time to think for ourselves, we are freer to acknowledge our uncertainty and examine our spirals of thought. Of course, this philosophical self-examination does not resolve the conflict between legitimate opponents which escalates around us as increasingly impenetrable and real. It only resolves the conflict within ourselves. But perhaps our thoughtful philosophical voice still gives a hint of how, just by allowing us to soar in uncertainty, we already see the emptiness of the conflict and are free from it?

If we more often dared to soar in uncertainty, if it became more permissible to say “I do not know,” if we listened more attentively to thoughtful voices instead of silencing them with loud knowledge claims, then perhaps fact resistance also decreases. Perhaps fact resistance is not least resistance to an inner fact. To a single inner fact. What fact? Our insecurity as human beings, which we do not permit ourselves. But if you allow yourself to slip on the icy road, then you do not have to deny that you did!

A more thoughtful way of being human should be possible. We shape the societies that shape us.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

This post in Swedish

We care about communication

Illness prevention needs to be adapted to people’s illness perceptions

Several factors increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Many of these we can influence ourselves through changes in lifestyle or preventive drug treatment. But people’s attitudes to prevention vary with their perceptions of cardiovascular disease. Health communication to support preventive measures therefore needs to take into account people’s illness perceptions.

Åsa Grauman and three colleagues conducted an online survey with 423 randomly selected Swedes aged 40 to 70 years. Participants were asked to answer questions about themselves and about how they view cardiovascular disease. They then participated in an experiment designed to capture how they weighted their preferences regarding health check results.

The results showed a wide variety of perceptions about cardiovascular disease. Women more often cited stress as their most important risk factor while men more often cited overweight and obesity. An interesting result is that people who stated that they smoked, had hypertension, were overweight or lived sedentary, tended to downplay that factor as less risky for cardiovascular disease. On the other hand, people who stated that they experienced stress had a tendency to emphasize stress as a high risk of cardiovascular disease. People who reported family history as a personal risk of illness showed a greater reluctance to participate in health examinations.

Regarding preferences about health check results, it was found that the participants preferred to have their results presented in everyday words and with an overall assessment (rather than, for example, in numbers). They also preferred to get the results in a letter (rather than by logging in to a website) that included lifestyle recommendations, and they preferred 30 minutes of consultation (over no or only 15 minutes of consultation).

It is important to reach out with the message that the risk of cardiovascular disease can be affected by lifestyle changes, and that health checks can identify risk factors in people who are otherwise asymptomatic. Especially people with a family history of cardiovascular disease, who in the study were more reluctant to undergo health examinations, may need to be aware of this.

To reach out with the message, it needs to be adapted to how people perceive cardiovascular disease, and we need to become better at supporting correct perceptions, the authors conclude. I have mentioned only a small selection of results from the study. If you want to see the richness of results, read the article: Public perceptions of myocardial infarction: Do illness perceptions predict preferences for health check results.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Åsa Grauman, Jennifer Viberg Johansson, Marie Falahee, Jorien Veldwijk. 2022, Public perceptions of myocardial infarction: Do illness perceptions predict preferences for health check results. Preventive Medicine Reports 26, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pmedr.2021.101683

This post in Swedish

Exploring preferences

Images of good and evil artificial intelligence

As Michele Farisco has pointed out on this blog, artificial intelligence (AI) often serves as a projection screen for our self-images as human beings. Sometimes also as a projection screen for our images of good and evil, as you will soon see.

In AI and robotics, autonomy is often sought in the sense that the artificial intelligence should be able to perform its tasks optimally without human guidance. Like a self-driving car, which safely takes you to your destination without you having to steer, accelerate or brake. Another form of autonomy that is often sought is that artificial intelligence should be self-learning and thus be able to improve itself and become more powerful without human guidance.

Philosophers have discussed whether AI can be autonomous even in another sense, which is associated with human reason. According to this picture, we can as autonomous human beings examine our final goals in life and revise them if we deem that new knowledge about the world motivates it. Some philosophers believe that AI cannot do this, because the final goal, or utility function, would make it irrational to change the goal. The goal is fixed. The idea of such stubbornly goal-oriented AI can evoke worrying images of evil AI running amok among us. But the idea can also evoke reassuring images of good AI that reliably supports us.

Worried philosophers have imagined an AI that has the ultimate goal of making ordinary paper clips. This AI is assumed to be self-improving. It is therefore becoming increasingly intelligent and powerful when it comes to its goal of manufacturing paper clips. When the raw materials run out, it learns new ways to turn the earth’s resources into paper clips, and when humans try to prevent it from destroying the planet, it learns to destroy humanity. When the planet is wiped out, it travels into space and turns the universe into paper clips.

Philosophers who issue warnings about “evil” super-intelligent AI also express hopes for “good” super-intelligent AI. Suppose we could give self-improving AI the goal of serving humanity. Without getting tired, it would develop increasingly intelligent and powerful ways of serving us, until the end of time. Unlike the god of religion, this artificial superintelligence would hear our prayers and take ever-smarter action to help us. It would probably sooner or later learn to prevent earthquakes and our climate problems would soon be gone. No theodicy in the world could undermine our faith in this artificial god, whose power to protect us from evil is ever-increasing. Of course, it is unclear how the goal of serving humanity can be defined. But given the opportunity to finally secure the future of humanity, some hopeful philosophers believe that the development of human-friendly self-improving AI should be one of the most essential tasks of our time.

I read all this in a well-written article by Wolfhart Totschnig, who questions the rigid goal orientation associated with autonomous AI in the scenarios above. His most important point is that rigidly goal-oriented AI, which runs amok in the universe or saves humanity from every predicament, is not even conceivable. Outside its domain, the goal loses its meaning. The goal of a self-driving car to safely take the user to the destination has no meaning outside the domain of road traffic. Domain-specific AI can therefore not be generalized to the world as a whole, because the utility function loses its meaning outside the domain, long before the universe is turned into paper clips or the future of humanity is secured by an artificially good god.

This is, of course, an important philosophical point about goals and meaning, about specific domains and the world as a whole. The critique helps us to more realistically assess the risks and opportunities of future AI, without being bewitched by our images. At the same time, I get the impression that Totschnig continues to use AI as a projection screen for human self-images. He argues that future AI may well revise its ultimate goals as it develops a general understanding of the world. The weakness of the above scenarios was that they projected today’s domain-specific AI, not the general intelligence of humans. We then do not see the possibility of a genuinely human-like AI that self-critically reconsiders its final goals when new knowledge about the world makes it necessary. Truly human-equivalent AI would have full autonomy.

Projecting human self-images on future AI is not just a tendency, as far as I can judge, but a norm that governs the discussion. According to this norm, the wrong image is projected in the scenarios above. An image of today’s machines, not of our general human intelligence. Projecting the right self-image on future AI thus appears as an overall goal. Is the goal meaningful or should it be reconsidered self-critically?

These are difficult issues and my impression of the philosophical discussion may be wrong. If you want to judge for yourself, read the article: Fully autonomous AI.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Totschnig, W. Fully Autonomous AI. Sci Eng Ethics 26, 2473–2485 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-020-00243-z

This post in Swedish

We like critical thinking

Individualized treatment from the patient’s perspective

Individualized treatment, where the right patient receives the right dose of the right drug at the right time, could be interpreted as a purely medical task. After genetic and other tests on the patient, the doctor assesses, from a medical point of view, which drug for the disease and which dose should work most effectively and most safely for the patient in question.

Individualization can also be interpreted to include the patient’s perceptions of the treatment, the patient’s own preferences. Rheumatoid arthritis is a disease with many different symptoms. Several drugs are available that have different effects on different symptoms, as well as different side effects. In addition, the drugs are administered in different ways and at different intervals. Of course, all of these drug attributes affect the patients’ daily lives differently. A drug may reduce pain effectively, but cause depression, and so on. In individualized treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, there are therefore good reasons to ask patients what they consider to be important drug attributes and what they want their treatment to aim for.

In a study in Clinical Rheumatology, Karin Schölin Byvall and five co-authors prepare for individualized treatment of rheumatoid arthritis from the patient’s perspective. Their hope is to facilitate not only joint decision-making with patients who have the disease, but also future quantitative studies of preferences in the patient group.

This is how the authors (very simplified) proceeded. A literature review was first performed to identify possible relevant drug attributes. Subsequently, patients in Sweden with rheumatoid arthritis ranked nine of these attributes. In a third step, some of the patients were interviewed in more detail about how they perceived the most important attributes.

In a final step, the interview results were structured in a framework with four particularly relevant drug attributes. The first two are about improved ability to function physically and psychosocially in everyday life. The latter two are about serious and mild side effects, respectively. In summary, the most important drug attributes, from the patients’ perspective, are about improved ability to function in everyday life and about acceptable side effects.

If you want to know more about the study, read the article: Functional capacity vs side effects: treatment attributes to consider when individualizing treatment for patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

The authors emphasize the importance of considering patients’ own treatment goals. Individualized treatment not only requires medical tests, but may also require studies of patient preferences.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Bywall, K.S., Esbensen, B.A., Lason, M. et al. Functional capacity vs side effects: treatment attributes to consider when individualising treatment for patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Clin Rheumatol (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10067-021-05961-8

This post in Swedish

In dialogue with patients

Digital twins, virtual brains and the dangers of language

A new computer simulation technology has begun to be introduced, for example, in the manufacturing industry. The computer simulation is called a digital twin, which challenges me to bring to life for the reader what something that sounds so imaginative can be in reality.

The most realistic explanation I can find actually comes from Harry Potter’s world. Do you remember the map of Hogwarts, which not only shows all the rooms and corridors, but also the steps in real time of those who sneak around the school? A similar map can be easily created in a computer environment by connecting the map in the computer to sensors in the floor of the building that the map depicts. Immediately you have an interactive digital map of the building that is automatically updated and shows people’s movements in it. Imagine further that the computer simulation can make calculations that predict crowds that exceed the authorities’ recommendations, and that it automatically sends out warning messages via a speaker system. As far as I understand, such an interactive digital map can be called a digital twin for an intelligent house.

Of course, this is a revolutionary technology. The architect’s drawing in a computer program gets extended life in both the production and maintenance of the building. The digital simulation is connected to sensors that update the simulation with current data on relevant factors in the construction process and thereafter in the finished building. The building gets a digital twin that during the entire life cycle of the building automatically contacts maintenance technicians when the sensors show that the washing machines are starting to wear out or that the air is not circulating properly.

The scope of use for digital twins is huge. The point of them, as I understand it, is not that they are “exact virtual copies of reality,” whatever that might mean. The point is that the computer simulation is linked to the simulated object in a practically relevant way. Sensors automatically update the simulation with relevant data, while the simulation automatically updates the simulated object in relevant ways. At the same time, users, manufacturers, maintenance technicians and other actors are updated, who easily can monitor the object’s current status, opportunities and risks, wherever they are in the world.

The European flagship project Human Brain Project plans to develop digital twins of human brains by building virtual brains in a computer environment. In a new article, the philosophers Kathinka Evers and Arleen Salles, who are both working in the project, examine the enormous challenges involved in developing digital twins of living human brains. Is it even conceivable?

The authors compare types of objects that can have digital twins. It can be artefacts such as buildings and cars, or natural inanimate phenomena such as the bedrock at a mine. But it could also be living things such as the heart or the brain. The comparisons in the article show that the brain stands out in several ways, all of which make it unclear whether it is reasonable to talk about digital twins of human brains. Would it be more appropriate to talk about digital cousins?

The brain is astronomically complex and despite new knowledge about it, it is highly opaque to our search for knowledge. How can we talk about a digital twin of something that is as complex as a galaxy and as unknown as a black hole? In addition, the brain is fundamentally dynamically interactive. It is connected not only with the body but also with culture, society and the world around it, with which it develops in uninterrupted interaction. The brain almost merges with its environment. Does that imply that a digital twin would have to be a twin of the brain-body-culture-society-world, that is, a digital twin of everything?

No, of course not. The aim of the project is to find specific medical applications of the new computer simulation technology. By developing digital twins of certain aspects of certain parts of patients’ brains, it is hoped that one can improve and individualize, for example, surgical procedures for diseases such as epilepsy. Just as the map from Harry Potter’s world shows people’s steps in real time, the digital twin of the brain could follow the spread of certain nerve impulses in certain parts of the patient’s brain. This can open up new opportunities to monitor, diagnose, predict and treat diseases such as epilepsy.

Should we avoid the term digital twin when talking about the brain? Yes, it would probably be wiser to talk about digital siblings or digital cousins, argue Kathinka Evers and Arleen Salles. Although experts in the field understand its technical use, the term “digital twin” is linguistically risky when we talk about human brains. It easily leads the mind astray. We imagine that the digital twin must be an exact copy of a human’s whole brain. This risks creating unrealistic expectations and unfounded fears about the development. History shows that language also contains other dangers. Words come with normative expectations that can have ethical and social consequences that may not have been intended. Talking about a digital twin of a mining drill is probably no major linguistic danger. But when it comes to the brains of individual people, the talk of digital twins can become a new linguistic arena where we reinforce prejudices and spread fears.

After reading some popular scientific explanations of digital twins, I would like to add that caution may be needed also in connection with industrial applications. After all, the digital twin of a mining drill is not an “exact virtual copy of the real drill” in some absolute sense, right down to the movements of individual atoms. The digital twin is a copy in the practical sense that the application makes relevant. Sometimes it is enough to copy where people put their feet down, as in Harry Potter’s world, whose magic unexpectedly helps us understand the concept of a digital twin more realistically than many verbal explanations do. Explaining words with the help of other words is not always clarifying, if all the words steer thought in the same direction. The words “copy” and “replica” lead our thinking just as right and just as wrong as the word “twin” does.

If you want to better understand the challenges of creating digital twins of human brains and the importance of conceptual clarity concerning the development, read the philosophically elucidatory article: Epistemic Challenges of Digital Twins & Virtual Brains: Perspectives from Fundamental Neuroethics.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Evers, Kathinka & Salles, Arleen. (2021). Epistemic Challenges of Digital Twins & Virtual Brains: Perspectives from Fundamental Neuroethics. SCIO: Revista de Filosofía. 27-53. 10.46583 / scio_2021.21.846

This post in Swedish

Minding our language

Inspired

What does it mean to be inspired by someone? Think of these inspired music albums where artists lovingly pay tribute to a great musician by making their own interpretations of the songs. These interpretations often express deep gratitude for the inspiration received from the musician. We can feel similar gratitude to inspiring people in many different areas.

Why are we inspired by inspiring people? Here is a tempting picture. The person who inspires us has something that we lack. To be inspired is to want what the inspiring person has: “I also want to be able to…”; “I want to be as good as…” and so on. That is why we imitate those who inspire us. That is why we train hard. By imitating, by practicing, the inspiring person’s abilities can be transferred to us who lack them.

This could be called a pneumatic picture of inspiration. The inspiring one is, so to speak, an air tank with overpressure. The rest of us are tanks with negative pressure. The pressure difference causes the inspiration. By imitating the inspiring person, the pressure difference is evened out. The pressure migrates from the inspiring to the inspired. We inhale the air that flows from the tank with overpressure.

This picture is certainly partly correct, but it is hardly the whole truth about inspiration. I am not a musician. There is a big difference in pressure between me and any musician. Why does this pressure difference not cause inspiration? Why do I not start imitating musicians, training hard so that some of the musicians’ overpressure is transferred to me?

The pneumatic picture is not the whole truth, other pictures of inspiration are possible. Here is one. Maybe inspiration is not aroused by difference, not by the fact that we lack what the inspiring person has. Perhaps inspiration is aroused by similarity, by the fact that we sense a deep affinity with the one who inspires us. When we are inspired, we recognize ourselves in the one who inspires us. We discover something we did not know about ourselves. Seeds that we did not know existed in us begin to sprout, when the inspiring person makes us aware that we have the same feeling, the same passion, the same creativity… At that moment, the inspiration is aroused in us.

In this alternative picture of inspiration, there is no transfer of abilities from the inspiring one to the inspired ones. Rather, the abilities grow spontaneously in the inspired ones themselves, when they sense their affinity with the inspiring one. In the inspiring person, this growth has already taken place. Creativity has had time to develop and take shape, so that the rest of us can recognize ourselves in it. This alternative image of inspiration also provides an alternative image of human history in different areas. We are familiar with historical representations of how predecessors inspired their successors, as if the abilities of the predecessors were transferred horizontally in time. In the alternative picture, history is not just horizontal. Above all, it has a vertical depth dimension in each of us. Growing takes place vertically in each new generation, much like seeds sprout in the earth and grow towards the sky. History is, in this alternative image, a series of vertical growing, where it is difficult to distinguish the living creativity in the depth dimension from the imitation on the surface.

Why am I writing a post about inspiration? Apart from the fact that it is inspiring to think about something as vital as inspiration, I want to show how unnoticed we make pictures of facts. We do not see that it is actually just pictures, which could be replaced by completely different pictures. I learned this from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who inspired me to examine philosophical questions myself: questions which surprisingly often arise because we are captured in our images of things. Our captivity in certain images prevents us from seeing other possibilities and obvious facts.

In addition, I want to show that it really makes a difference if we are caught in our pictures of things or open to the possibility of completely different pictures. It has been a long time since I wrote about ape language research on this blog, but the attempt to teach apes human language is an example of what a huge difference it can make, if we free ourselves from a picture that prevents us from seeing the possibility of other pictures.

Attempts to teach apes human language were based on the first picture, which highlights the difference between the one who inspires and the one who is inspired. It was thought that because apes lack the language skills that we humans have, there is only one way to teach apes human language. We need to transfer the language skills horizontally to the apes, by training them. This “single” opportunity failed so clearly, and the failure was so well-documented, that only a few researchers were subsequently open to the results of a markedly more successful, at least as well-documented experiment, which was based on the alternative picture of inspiration.

In the alternative experiment, the researchers saw an opportunity that the first picture made it difficult to see. If apes and humans live together daily in a closely united group, so that they have opportunities to sense affinities with each other, then language seeds that we did not know existed in apes could be inspired to sprout and grow spontaneously in the apes themselves. Vertically within the apes, rather than through horizontal transmission, as when humans train animals. In fact, this alternative experiment was so successful that it resulted in a series of spontaneous language growths in apes. As time went on, new-born apes were inspired not only by the humans in the group, but also by the older apes whose linguistic creativity had taken shape.

If you want to read more about this unexpected possibility of inspiration between species, which suggests unexpected affinities, as when humans are inspired by each other, you will find a book reference below. I wrote the book a long time ago with William M. Fields and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. Both have inspired me – for which I am deeply grateful – for example, in this blog post with its alternative picture of inspiration. That I mention the book again is because I hope that the time is ripe for philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists, educationalists, linguists, neuroscientists and many others to be inspired by the unexpected possibility of human-inspired linguistic creativity in our non-human relatives.

To finally connect the threads of music and ape language research, I can tell you that two great musicians, Paul McCartney and Peter Gabriel, have visited the language-inspired apes. Both of them played music with the apes and Peter Gabriel and Panbanisha even created a song together. Can we live without inspiration?

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Segerdahl, P., Fields, W. & Savage-Rumbaugh, S. 2005. Kanzi’s Primal Language. The Cultural Initiation of Primates into Language. Palgrave Macmillan

Segerdahl, P. 2017. Can an Ape Become Your Co-Author? Reflections on Becoming as a Presupposition of Teaching. In: A Companion to Wittgenstein on Education. Pedagogical Investigations. Peters, M. A. and Stickney, J. (Eds.). Singapore: Springer, pp. 539-553

This post in Swedish

We write about apes

« Older posts