Not knowing why

January 17, 2018

Pär SegerdahlOften we do not know why we think as do. We may like a drawing, but we cannot say why we think it is good. We may find it unpleasant that researchers study human embryos in petri dishes and then discard them, but we cannot say why.

Personally, I find not knowing why interesting and I do not mind spending ages without being able to state a single sensible reason. There is something fruitful in it, something secretly promising. But it can also drive people crazy. The strange thing is that you easily satisfy them by giving any idiotic reason, as long as it superficially sounds like “saying why.” It satisfies the intellect, which cannot understand how anyone can think something without a reason. It reminds me of a complaint about the neighbor’s dog: it often barks without reasonable grounds.

I would not be suited to participate in a TV debate program. The strange thing is that in such debates people really do behave like barking dogs, precisely by always giving reasons: “Your opinion is idiotic, because woof-woof, woof-woof!” – Debating is most likely overrated… but why do I think so?

Immediately satisfying the demands of the intellect seems unwise. Apart from committing us to opinions that must be defended, which makes it difficult to change, we are forced to give our thoughts premature form. They are prevented from deepening and surprising us.

A Chinese philosopher said, “To pretend to know when you do not know is a disease.” But the intellect forces us to pretend to know. The intellect goes insane if we do not exhibit this insanity.

Acknowledging that you do not know, and then giving yourself time, that is wisdom.

Pär Segerdahl

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Big questions do not have small answers

December 20, 2017

Pär SegerdahlSome questions we perceive are “bigger” than other questions. What does it mean to live, to be, rather than not to be? When does life begin and when does it end? What is a human being? Does life have a meaning or do we endow it with mere façades of meaning?

We do not expect definitive answers to these questions, except for a joke. They are wonderings that accompany us and occasionally confront us. We may then notice that we have an attitude to them. Perhaps a different attitude today than ten years ago. The attitude is not a definitive answer, not a doctrine about reality that dry investigations could support or falsify.

Bioethics sometimes comes close to these big questions, namely, when scientists study what we can associate with the mystery of living, being, existing. An example is embryonic stem cell research, where scientists harvest stem cells from human embryos. Even proponents of such research may experience that there is something sensitive about the embryo. I would not exist, we would not live, you would not be, unless once upon a time there was an embryo…

The embryo is thus easily associated with the big questions of life. This implies that bioethics has to handle them. How does it approach them?

Usually by seeking specific answers to the questions. Like super-smart lawyers who finally get the hang of these age-old, obscure issues and straighten them out for us.

Do you know, for example, when a human being begins to exist? Two bioethicists combined biological facts with philosophical analysis to provide a definitive answer: A human being begins to exist sixteen days after fertilization.

Incorrect, other bioethicists objected. They too combined biological facts with philosophical analysis, but provided another definitive answer: A human being begins to exist already with fertilization. The only exception is twins. They begin to exist later, but much earlier than sixteen days after fertilization.

The bioethicists I am talking about are proud of their intellectual capacity to provide specific answers to such a big question about human existence. However, if big questions do not have small answers, except for a joke, do they not deliver the answer at the cost of losing the question?

The question I am currently working on is how bioethics can avoid losing the questions we perceive are “bigger” than other questions.

Pär Segerdahl

Smith, B. & Brogaard, B. 2003. Sixteen days. Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 28: 45-78.

Damschen, G., Gómez-Lobo, A. & Schönecker, D. 2006. Sixteen days? A reply to B. Smith and B. Brogaard on the beginning of human individuals. Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 31: 165-175.

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Taking people’s moral concerns seriously

September 19, 2017

Pär SegerdahlI recently published a post on how anxiety can take possession of the intellect: how anxiety, when it is interpreted by thoughts that rationalize it, can cause moral panic.

A common way of dealing with people’s moral concerns in bioethics is to take the concerns intellectually seriously. One tries to find logical reasons for or against the “correctness” of the anxiety. Is the embryo already a person? If it is, then it is correct to be morally concerned about embryonic stem cell research. Persons are then killed by researchers, who are almost murderers. However, if the embryo is not a person, but just an accumulation of cells, then there is at least one reason less to worry.

Bioethicists therefore set out to conclude the metaphysical issue about “the status of the embryo.” So that we will know whether it is intellectually correct to worry or not! One reason for this intellectualized approach is probably society’s need for foundations for decision-making. Should embryo research be allowed and, if so, in what forms? Decision-makers need to be able to motivate their decisions by citing intellectually appropriate reasons.

Bioethicists thus interpret people’s moral concerns as if they were motivated by intuitive folk-metaphysical thinking. This thinking may not always be perfectly logical or scientifically informed, but it should be possible to straighten out. That would satisfy society’s need for intellectually well-founded decisions that “take people’s concerns seriously.”

The problem with this way of taking people’s concerns seriously is that their worries are intellectualized. Do we worry on the basis of logic? Are children afraid of ghosts because they cherish a metaphysical principle that assigns a dangerous status to ghosts? Can their fear be dealt with by demonstrating that their metaphysical principle is untenable? Or by pointing out to them that there is no evidence of the existence of beings with the horrible characteristics their principle assigns to “ghosts”?

Why are many people hesitant about research with human embryos? I have no definitive answer, but doubt that it is due to some folk-metaphysical doctrines about the status of the embryo. Perhaps it is more related to the fact that the embryo is associated with so much that is significant to us. It is associated with pregnancy, birth, children, family life, life and death. The connection to these intimate aspects of life means that we, without necessarily having the view that embryo research is wrong, can feel hesitant.

The question is: How do we take such moral hesitation seriously? How do we reject delusions and calm ourselves down when the intellect starts to present us with horrible scenarios that certainly would motivate anxiety? How do we do it without smoothing things over or acting like faultfinders?

I believe that bioethics should above all avoid intellectualizing people’s moral concerns; stop representing moral hesitation as the outcome of metaphysical reasoning. If people do not worry because of folk-metaphysical doctrines about the embryo, then we have no reason to debate the status of the embryo. Instead, we should begin by asking ourselves: Where does our hesitation come from?

That would mean taking ourselves seriously.

Pär Segerdahl

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Moral panic in the intellect

September 6, 2017

Pär SegerdahlMoral panic develops intellectually. It is our thoughts that are racing. Certain mental images make such a deep impression on us that we take them for Reality, for Truth, for Facts. Do not believe that the intellect is cold and objective. It can boil over with agitated thoughts.

This is evident in bioethics, where many issues are filled with anguish. Research information about cloned animals, about new techniques for editing in the genome, or about embryonic stem cell research, evoke scary images of subversive forms of research, threatening human morality. The panic requires a sensitive intellect. There, the images of the research acquire such dimensions that they no longer fit into ordinary life. The images take over the intellect as the metaphysical horizon of Truth. Commonplace remarks that could calm down the agitated intellect appear to the intellect as naive.

A science news in National Geographic occasions these musings. It is about the first attempt in the United States to edit human embryos genetically. Using so-called CRISPR-Cas9 technique, the researchers removed a mutation associated with a common inherited heart disease. After the successful editing, the embryos were destroyed. (You find the scientific article reporting the research in Nature.)

Reading such research information, you might feel anxiety; anxiety that soon takes possession of your intellect: What will they do next? Develop “better” humans who look down on us as a lower species? Can we permit science to change human nature? NO, we must immediately introduce new legislation that bans all genetic editing of human embryos!

If the intellect can boil over with such agitated thoughts, and if moral panic legislation is imprudent, then I believe that bioethics needs to develop its therapeutic skills. Some bioethical issues need to be treated as affections of the intellect. Bioethical anxiety often arises, I believe, when research communication presents science as the metaphysical horizon of truth, instead of giving science an ordinary human horizon.

It may seem as if I took a stand for science by representing critics as blinded by moral panic. That is not the case, for the other side of moral panic is megalomania. Hyped notions of great breakthroughs and miraculous cures can drive entire research fields. Mental images that worry most people stimulate other personalities. Perhaps Paolo Macchiarini was such a personality, and perhaps he was promoted by a scientific culture of insane mental expectations on research and its heroes.

We need a therapeutic bioethics that can calm down the easily agitated intellect.

Pär Segerdahl

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We philosophize when we do not know how to think

August 14, 2017

Pär SegerdahlPhilosophers are also called thinkers. We easily believe that philosophers are specialists in thinking, as linguists are specialists in speech and writing. If someone knows how to think, it must be a philosopher, we think.

I believe we are wrong to think philosophers know how to think. Rather, they are people who know when we do not know how to think. They acknowledge (for all of us) when we do not know how to think (although we thought we knew). Such confessions probably need to me made more often!

If you think you know how to think about immigration, or about stem cell research, then you have an opinion. The opinion may be substantiated, but it hardly makes you a thinker, but rather a molder of public opinion. Since you already know how to think, you do not have to think. You only need to keep on talking, according to what you believe you know.

“I need more time to think about it; I don’t know how I should think.” We fail to notice that there is a way of thinking that begins the very moment we do not know how to think. At that moment, the philosophical dimension of thinking opens up.

When you know how to think, you no longer think. Not in the philosophical sense. If you meet an argumentative chatterbox, or a schoolmasterly specialist in thinking, you can be sure it is not a philosopher.

Pär Segerdahl

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Research is not a magical practice

May 16, 2017

Pär SegerdahlWhy does hearing about research sometimes scare us in a vertiginous way? I mean the feeling that researchers sometimes dig too deeply, that they see through what should not be seen through, that they manipulate the fundamental conditions of life.

It does not have to concern GMOs or embryonic stem cell research. During a period, I wrote about studies of human conversation. When I told people that I was working on conversation analysis, I could get the reaction: “Oh no, now I dare not talk to you, because you’ll probably see through everything I say and judge how well I’m actually talking.”

Why do we react in such a way? As if researchers saw through the surface of life, as through a thin veil, and gained power over life by mastering its hidden mechanisms.

My impression is that we, in these reactions, interpret research as a form of magic. Magic is a cross-border activity. The magician is in contact with “the other side”: with the powers that control life. By communicating with these hidden powers, the magician can achieve power over life. That is at least often the attitude in magical practices.

Is this how we view research when it scares us in a dizzying way? We think in terms of a boundary between life and its hidden conditions; a boundary that researchers transgress to gain power over life. Research then appears transgressive in a vertiginous way. We interpret it as a magical practice, as a digging into the most basic conditions of life.

The farmer who wants to control the water level in the field by digging ditches, however, is not a magician who communicates with hidden forces. Digging ditches gives you ordinary power in life: it gives control of the water level. I would like to say that research is more like digging ditches to control the water level than like engaging in magic to control life itself. Certainly, research gives power and control – but in life, not over “life itself.”

This does not mean that research does not need to be regulated; digging ditches probably needs regulation too.

The magical aura of charismatic researchers sometimes seduces us. We think they are close to the solution of “the riddle” and give them a free hand… We must be careful not to give research work a magical interpretation.

Pär Segerdahl

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Fear of the unknown produces ghosts

April 26, 2017

Pär SegerdahlWhat really can start feverish thought activity is facing an unclear threat. We do not really see what it is, so we fill the contours ourselves. At the seminar this week, we discussed what I think was such a case. A woman decided to test if she possibly had calcium deficiency. To her surprise, the doctor informed her that she suffered from a disease, osteoporosis, characterized by increased risk of bone fractures.

She already had experienced the problem. A hug could hurt her ribs and she had broken a shoulder when pushing the car. However, she felt no fear until she was informed that she suffered from a disease that meant increased risk of bone fracture.

I do not mean she had no reason to be worried. However, her worries seem to have become nightmarish.

Presumably, she already understood that she had to be careful in some situations. However, she interpreted the “risk factor” that she was informed about as an invisible threat. It is like a ghost, she says. She began to compare her body with a house where the foundation dissolves; a house which might therefore collapse. She began to experience great danger in every activity.

Many who are diagnosed with osteoporosis do not get fractures. If you get fractures, they do not have to be serious. However, the risk of fractures is greater in this group and if you get a hip fracture, that is a big problem. The woman in the example, however, imagined her “risk factor” as a ghost that constantly haunted her.

I now wonder: Are ethical debates sometimes are about similar ghost images? Most of us do not really know what embryo research is, for example, it seems vaguely uncanny. When we hear about it, we fill the contours: the embryo is a small human. Immediately, the research appears nightmarish and absolute limits must be drawn. Otherwise, we end up on a slippery slope where human life might degenerate, as the woman imagined her body might collapse.

I also wonder: If debates sometimes are about feverishly produced ghost images, how should we handle these ghosts? With information? But it was information that produced the ghosts. With persistent logical counter arguments? But the ghosts are in the feverish reasoning. Should we really continue to fill the contours of these images, as if we corrected bad sketches? Is it not taking ghosts too seriously? Is it not like trying to wake up yourself in a dream?

Everything started with the unclear threat. The rest were dreamlike consequences. We probably need to reflect more cautiously on the original situation where we experienced the first vague threat. Why did we react as did? We need to treat the problem in its more moderate beginning, before it developed its nightmarish dimensions.

This is not to say that we have no reason to be concerned.

Pär Segerdahl

Reventlow, S., Hvas, A. C., Tulinius, C. 2001. “In really great danger.” The concept of risk in general practice. Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health Care 19: 71-75

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