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

Category: Musings (Page 1 of 17)

Does the brain make room for free will?

The question of whether we have free will has been debated throughout the ages and everywhere in the world. Can we influence our future or is it predetermined? If everything is predetermined and we lack free will, why should we act responsibly and by what right do we hold each other accountable?

There have been different ideas about what predetermines the future and excludes free will. People have talked about fate and about the gods. Today, we rather imagine that it is about necessary causal relationships in the universe. It seems that the strict determinism of the material world must preclude the free will that we humans perceive ourselves to have. If we really had free will, we think, then nature would have to give us a space of our own to decide in. A causal gap where nature does not determine everything according to its laws, but allows us to act according to our will. But this seems to contradict our scientific world view.

In an article in the journal Intellectica, Kathinka Evers at CRB examines the plausibility of this choice between two extreme positions: either strict determinism that excludes free will, or free will that excludes determinism.

Kathinka Evers approaches the problem from a neuroscientific perspective. This particular perspective has historically tended to support one of the positions: strict determinism that excludes free will. How can the brain make room for free will, if our decisions are the result of electrochemical processes and of evolutionarily developed programs? Is it not right there, in the brain, that our free will is thwarted by material processes that give us no space to act?

Some authors who have written about free will from a neuroscientific perspective have at times explained away freedom as the brain’s user’s illusion: as a necessary illusion, as a fictional construct. Some have argued that since social groups function best when we as individuals assume ourselves to be responsible actors, we must, after all, keep this old illusion alive. Free will is a fiction that works and is needed in society!

This attitude is unsound, says Kathinka Evers. We cannot build our societies on assumptions that contradict our best knowledge. It would be absurd to hold people responsible for actions that they in fact have no ability to influence. At the same time, she agrees that the notion of free will is socially important. But if we are to retain the notion, it must be consistent with our knowledge of the brain.

One of the main points of the article is that our knowledge of the brain could actually provide some room for free will. The brain could function beyond the opposition between indeterminism and strict determinism, some neuroscientific theories suggest. This does not mean that there would be uncaused neural events. Rather, a determinism is proposed where the relationship between cause and effect is variable and contingent, not invariable and necessary, as we commonly assume. As far as I understand, it is about the fact that the brain has been shown to function much more independently, actively and flexibly than in the image of it as a kind of programmed machine. Different incoming nerve signals can stabilize different neural patterns of connections in the brain, which support the same behavioural ability. And the same incoming nerve signal can stabilize different patterns of connections in the brain that result in the same behavioural ability. Despite great variation in how individuals’ neural patterns of connections are stabilized, the same common abilities are supported. This model of the brain is thus deterministic, while being characterized by variability. It describes a kind of kaleidoscopically variable causality in the brain between incoming signals and resulting behaviours and abilities.

Kathinka Evers thus hypothetically suggests that this variability in the brain, if real, could provide empirical evidence that free will is compatible with determinism.

Read the philosophically exciting article here: Variable determinism in social applications: translating science to society

Although Kathinka Evers suggests that a certain amount of free will could be compatible with what we know about the brain, she emphasizes that neuroscience gives us increasingly detailed knowledge about how we are conditioned by inherited programs, for example, during adolescence, as well as by our conditions and experiences in childhood. We should, after all, be cautiously restrained in praising and blaming each other, she concludes the article, referring to the Stoic Epictetus, one of the philosophers who thought about free will and who rather emphasized freedom from the notion of a free will.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

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

Evers Kathinka (2021/2). Variable Determinism in Social Applications: Translating Science to Society. In Monier Cyril & Khamassi Mehdi (Eds), Liberty and cognition, Intellectica, 75, pp.73-89.

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We like challenging questions

Artificial intelligence: augmenting intelligence in humans or creating human intelligence in machines?

Sometimes you read articles at the intersection of philosophy and science that contain really exciting visionary thoughts, which are at the same time difficult to really understand and assess. The technical elaboration of the thoughts grows as you read, and in the end you do not know if you are capable of thinking independently about the ideas or if they are about new scientific findings and trends that you lack the expertise to judge.

Today I dare to recommend the reading of such an article. The post must, of course, be short. But the fundamental ideas in the article are so interesting that I hope some readers of this post will also become readers of the article and make a serious attempt to understand it.

What is the article about? It is about an alternative approach to the highest aims and claims in artificial intelligence. Instead of trying to create machines that can do what humans can do, machines with higher-level capacities such as consciousness and morality, the article focuses on the possibility of creating machines that augment the intelligence of already conscious, morally thinking humans. However, this idea is not entirely new. It has existed for over half a century in, for example, cybernetics. So what is new in the article?

Something I myself was struck by was the compassionate voice in the article, which is otherwise not prominent in the AI ​​literature. The article focuses not on creating super-smart problem solvers, but on strengthening our connections with each other and with the world in which we live. The examples that are given in the article are about better moral considerations for people far away, better predictions of natural disasters in a complex climate, and about restoring social contacts in people suffering from depression or schizophrenia.

But perhaps the most original idea in the article is the suggestion that the development of these human self-augmenting machines would draw inspiration from how the brain already maintains contact with its environment. Here one should keep in mind that we are dealing with mathematical models of the brain and with innovative ways of thinking about how the brain interacts with the environment.

It is tempting to see the brain as an isolated organ. But the brain, via the senses and nerve-paths, is in constant dynamic exchange with the body and the world. You would not experience the world if the world did not constantly make new imprints in your brain and you constantly acted on those imprints. This intense interactivity on multiple levels and time scales aims to maintain a stable and comprehensible contact with a surrounding world. The way of thinking in the article reminds me of the concept of a “digital twin,” which I previously blogged about. But here it is the brain that appears to be a neural twin of the world. The brain resembles a continuously updated neural mirror image of the world, which it simultaneously continuously changes.

Here, however, I find it difficult to properly understand and assess the thoughts in the article, especially regarding the mathematical model that is supposed to describe the “adaptive dynamics” of the brain. But as I understand it, the article suggests the possibility of recreating a similar dynamic in intelligent machines, which could enhance our ability to see complex patterns in our environment and be in contact with each other. A little poetically, one could perhaps say that it is about strengthening our neural twinship with the world. A kind of neural-digital twinship with the environment? A digitally augmented neural twinship with the world?

I dare not say more here about the visionary article. Maybe I have already taken too many poetic liberties? I hope that I have at least managed to make you interested to read the article and to asses it for yourself: Augmenting Human Selves Through Artificial Agents – Lessons From the Brain.

Well, maybe one concluding remark. I mentioned the difficulty of sometimes understanding and assessing visionary ideas that are formulated at the intersection of philosophy and science. Is not that difficulty itself an example of how our contact with the world can sometimes weaken? However, I do not know if I would have been helped by digital intelligence augmentation that quickly took me through the philosophical difficulties that can arise during reading. Some questions seem to essentially require time, that you stop and think!

Giving yourself time to think is a natural way to deepen your contact with reality, known by philosophers for millennia.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

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

Northoff G, Fraser M, Griffiths J, Pinotsis DA, Panangaden P, Moran R and Friston K (2022) Augmenting Human Selves Through Artificial Agents – Lessons From the Brain. Front. Comput. Neurosci. 16:892354. doi: 10.3389/fncom.2022.892354

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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.

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Thinking about thinking

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.

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We care about communication

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

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We write about apes

Brain-inspired AI: human narcissism again?

This is an age when Artificial Intelligence (AI) is literally exploding and invading almost every aspect of our lives. From entertainment to work, from economics to medicine, from education to marketing, we deal with a number of disparate AI systems that make our lives much easier than a few years ago, but also raise new ethical issues or emphasize old, still open questions.

A basic fact about AI is that it is progressing at an impressive pace, while still being limited with regard to various specific contexts and goals. We often read, also in non-specialized journals, that AI systems are not robust (meaning they are not good at dealing with datasets too much different from the one they have been trained with, so that the risk of cyber-attacks is still pretty high), not fully transparent, and limited in their capacity to generalize, for instance. This suggests that the reliability of AI systems, in other words the possibility to use them for achieving different goals, is limited, and we should not blindly trust them.

A strategy increasingly chosen by AI researchers in order to improve the systems they develop is taking inspiration from biology, and specifically from the human brain. Actually, this is not really new: already the first wave of AI took inspiration from the brain, which was (and still is) the most familiar intelligent system in the world. This trend towards brain-inspired AI is gaining much more momentum today, for two main reasons among others: big data and the very powerful technology to handle big data. And yet, brain-inspired AI raises a number of questions of an even deeper nature, which urge us to stop and think.

Indeed, when compared to the human brain, present AI reveals several differences and limitations with regards to different contexts and goals. For instance, present Machine Learning cannot generalize the abilities it achieves on the basis of specific data in order to use them in different settings and for different goals. Also, AI systems are fragile: a slight change in the characteristics of processed data can have catastrophic consequences. These limitations are arguably dependent on both how AI is conceived (technically speaking: on its underlying architecture), and on how it works (on its underlying technology). I would like to introduce some reflections about the choice to use the human brain as a model for improving AI, including the apparent limitations of this choice to use the brain as a model.

Very roughly, AI researchers are looking at the human brain to infer operational principles and then translate them into AI systems and eventually make these systems better in a number of tasks. But is a brain-inspired strategy the best we can choose? What justifies it? In fact, there are already AI systems that work in ways that do not conform to the human brain. We cannot exclude a priori that AI will eventually develop more successfully along lines that do not fully conform to, or that even deviate from, the way the human brain works.

Also, we should not forget that there is no such thing as the brain: there is a huge diversity both among different people and within the brain itself. The development of our brains reflects a complex interplay between our genetic make-up and our life experiences. Moreover, the brain is a multilevel organ with different structural and functional levels.

Thus, claiming a brain-inspired AI without clarifying which specific brain model is used as a reference (for instance, the neurons’ action potentials rather than the connectomes’ network) is possibly misleading if not nonsensical.

There is also a more fundamental philosophical point worth considering. Postulating that the human brain is paradigmatic for AI risks to implicitly endorse a form of anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism, which are both evidence of our intellectual self-centeredness and of our limited ability to think beyond what we think we are.

While pragmatic reasons might justify the choice to take the brain as a model for AI (after all, for many aspects, the brain is the most efficient intelligent system that we know in nature), I think we should avoid the risk of translating this legitimate technical effort into a further narcissistic, self-referential anthropological model. Our history is already full of such models, and they have not been ethically or politically harmless.

Written by…

Michele Farisco, Postdoc Researcher at Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics, working in the EU Flagship Human Brain Project.

Approaching future issues

Conceptual analysis when we get stuck in thoughts

When philosophers are asked what method we use when we philosophize, we are happy to answer: our most important method is conceptual analysis. We apply conceptual analysis to answer philosophical questions such as “What is knowledge?”, “What is justice?”, “What is truth?” What we do is that we propose general definitions of the concepts, which we then fine-tune by using concrete examples to test that the definitions really capture all individual cases of the concepts and only these.

The problem is that both those who ask for the method of philosophy and those who answer “conceptual analysis” seem to assume that philosophy is not challenged by deeply disturbing problems, but defines concepts almost routinely. The general questions above are hardly even questions, other than purely grammatically. Who lies awake wondering “What is knowledge, what is justice, what is truth, what is goodness, what is…?”

In order to get insomnia from the questions, in order for the questions to become living philosophical problems, in order for us to be disturbed by them, we need more than only generally formulated questions.

Moreover, if there was such a thing as a method of answering philosophical questions, then the questions should already have been answered. I mean, if we since the days of Socrates had a method that answers philosophical “What is?”-questions by defining concepts, then there cannot be many questions left to answer. At most, we can refine the definitions, or apply the method to concepts that did not exist 2600 years ago. Basically, philosophy should not have many questions left to be challenged by. Since ancient times, we have a well-proven method!

To understand why philosophers continue to wonder, we need to understand why questions that superficially sound so uninteresting that we fall asleep can sometimes be so deeply perplexing that we lie awake thinking. Let me give you an example that gives a glimpse of the depths of philosophy, a glimpse of that disturbing “extra” that keeps philosophers awake at night.

The example is a “Swedish” disease, which has attracted attention around the world as something very strange. I am thinking of what was first called apathy in refugee children, but which later got the name resignation syndrome. The disease affects certain groups of children seeking asylum in Sweden. Children from the former Yugoslavia and from Central Asian countries of the former Soviet Union have been overrepresented. The children lose physical and mental functions and in the end can neither move nor communicate. They become bedridden, do not respond to pain and must be fed by tube. More than 1000 children have been affected by the disease in Sweden since the 1990s.

Confronted with this disease in refugee children, it may seem natural to think that the condition is reasonably caused by traumatic experiences in the home country and during the flight, as well as by the stress of living under deportation threat. It is not unreasonable to think so. Trauma and stress probably contribute to the disease. There is only one problem. If this were the cause, then resignation syndrome should occur in refugee children in other parts of the world as well. Unfortunately, refugee children with traumatic experiences and stressful deportation threats are not only found in Sweden. So why are (certain groups of) refugee children affected by the syndrome in Sweden in particular?

What is resignation syndrome? Here we have a question that on the surface does not sound more challenging than any other generally formulated “What is?”-question. But the question is today a challenging philosophical problem, at least for Karl Sallin, who is writing his dissertation on the syndrome here at CRB, within the framework of the Human Brain Project. What is that “extra” element that makes the question philosophically challenging for Karl Sallin?

It may seem natural to think that the challenging aspect of the question is simply that we do not yet know the answer. We do not know all the facts. It is not unreasonable to think so. Lack of knowledge naturally contributes to the question. Again, there is only one problem. We already consider ourselves knowing the answer! We think that this extreme form of despair in refugee children must, of course, be caused by traumatic experiences and by the stress that the threat of deportation entails. In the end, they can no longer bear it, but give up! If this reasonable answer were correct, then resignation syndrome should not exist only in Sweden. The philosophical question thus arises because the only reasonable answer conflicts with obvious facts.

That is why the question is philosophically challenging. Not because we do not know the answer. But because we consider ourselves to know what the answer must be! The answer seems so reasonable that we should hardly need to do more research on the matter before we take action by alleviating the children’s stressful situation, which we think is the only possible cause of the syndrome. And that is what happened…

For some years now, the guidelines for Swedish health care staff have emphasized the family’s role in recovery, as well as the importance of working for a residence permit. The guidelines are governed by the seemingly reasonable idea that children’s recovery depends on relieving the stress that causes the syndrome. Once again, there is only one problem. The guidelines never had a positive effect on the syndrome, despite attempts to create peace and stability in the family and work for a residence permit. The syndrome continued to be a “Swedish” disease. Why is the condition so stubbornly linked to Sweden?

Do you see the philosophical problem? It is not just about lack of knowledge. It is about the fact that we already think we have knowledge. The thought that the cause must be stress is so obvious, that we hardly notice that we are thinking it. It seems immediately real. In short, we have got stuck in our own thoughts, which we repeat again and again, even though we repeatedly clash with obvious facts. Like a mosquito trying to get out of a window, but just crashing, crashing, crashing.

When Karl Sallin treats the issue of resignation syndrome as a philosophical issue, he does something extremely unusual, for which there are no routine methods. He directs his attention not only outwards towards the disease, but also inwards towards ourselves. More empirical research alone does not solve the problem. As little as continuing to collide with the glass pane solves the mosquito’s problem. We need to stop and examine ourselves.

This post has now become so long that I have to stop before I can describe Karl Sallin’s dissolution of the mystery. Maybe it is good that we are not rushing forward. Riddles need time, which our impatient intellect rarely gives them. The point about the method of philosophy has hopefully become clear. The reason why philosophers analyse concepts is that we humans sometimes get caught up in our own concepts of reality. In this case, we get stuck in our concept of resignation syndrome as a stress disorder. Perhaps I can still mention that Karl Sallin’s conceptual analysis of our thought pattern about the syndrome dissolves the feeling of being faced with an incomprehensible mystery. The syndrome is no longer in conflict with obvious facts. He also shows that our thought patterns may have contributed to the disease becoming so prominent in Sweden. Our publically stated belief that the disease must be caused by stress, and our attempts to cure the disease by relieving stress, created a cultural context where this “Swedish” disease became possible. The cultural context affected the mind and the brain, which affected the biology of the body. In any case, that is what Karl Sallin suggests: resignation syndrome is a culture-bound disease. This unexpected possibility frees us from the thought we were stuck in as the only alternative.

So why did Socrates ask questions in Athens 2600 years ago? Because he discovered a method that could answer philosophical questions? My guess is that he did it for the same reason that Karl Sallin does it today. Because we humans have a tendency to imagine that we already know the answers. When we clearly see that we do not know what we thought we knew, we are freed from repeatedly colliding with a reality that should be obvious.

In philosophy, it is often the answer that is the question.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

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

Sallin, K., Evers, K., Jarbin, H., Joelsson, L., Petrovic, P. (2021) Separation and not Residency Permit Restores Function in Resignation Syndrome: A Retrospective Cohort Study. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry, 10.1007/s00787-021-01833-3

Sallin, K., Lagercrantz, H., Evers, K., Engström, I., Hjern, A., Petrovic, P. (2016) Resignation Syndrome: Catatonia? Culture-Bound? Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 10:7. 10.3389/fnbeh.2016.00007

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We challenge habits of thought

Philosophical research communication

How do you communicate about research with people who are not researchers? The scientific results usually presuppose a complicated intellectual framework, which the researchers have acquired through long education and experience. How can we talk about their research with people who are not researchers?

At CRB, we take research communication seriously, so this question follows us daily. A common way to solve the problem is to replace researchers’ complex intellectual frameworks with simple images, which people in general are more familiar with. An example could be comparing a body cell with a small factory. We thus compare the unknown with the familiar, so that the reader gets a certain understanding: “Aha, the cell functions as a kind of factory.”

Giving research results a more comprehensible context by using images that replace the researchers’ intellectual framework often works well. We sometimes use that method ourselves here at CRB. But we also use another way of embedding the research, so that it touches people. We use philosophical reflection. We ask questions that you do not need to be an expert to wonder about. The questions lead to thoughts that you do not need to be a specialist to follow. Finally, the research results are incorporated into the reasoning. We then point out that a new article sheds light on the issues we have thought about together. In this way, the research gets an understandable context, namely, in the form of thoughts that anyone can have.

We could call this philosophical research communication. There is a significant difference between these two ways of making research understandable. When simple images are used, they only aim to make people (feel that they) understand what they are not familiar with. The images are interchangeable. If you find a better image, you immediately use it instead. The images are not essential in themselves. That we compare the body cell with a factory does not express any deep interest in factories. But the philosophical questions and reflections that we at CRB embed the research in, are essential in themselves. They are sincere questions and thoughts. They cannot be replaced by other questions and reasoning, for the sole purpose of effectively conveying research results. In philosophical research communication, we give research an essential context, which is not just an interchangeable pedagogical aid. The embedding is as important as what is embedded.

Philosophical research communication is particularly important to us at CRB, as we are a centre for ethics research. Our research is driven by philosophical questions and reflections, for example, within the Human Brain Project, which examines puzzling phenomena such as consciousness and artificial intelligence. Even when we perform empirical studies, the point of those studies is to shed light on ethical problems and thoughts. In our research communication, we focus on this interplay between the philosophically thought-provoking and the empirical results.

Another difference between these ways of communicating research has to do with equality. Since the simple images that are used to explain research are not essential in themselves, such research communication is, after all, somewhat unequal. The comparison, which seemed to make us equal, is not what the communication is really about. The reader’s acquaintance with factories does not help the reader to have their own views on research. Philosophical research communication is different. Because the embedding philosophical questions and thoughts are essential and meant seriously, we meet on the same level. We can wonder together about the same honest questions. When research is communicated philosophically, communicators as well as researchers and non-researchers are equal.

Philosophical research communication can thereby deepen the meaning of the research, sometimes even for the researchers themselves!

As philosophical research communication unites us around common questions and thoughts, it is important in an increasingly fragmented and specialized society. It helps us to think together, which is easier than you might believe, if we dare to open up to our own questions. Here, of course, I assume that the communication is sincere, that it comes from independently thinking people, that it is not based on any intellectually constructed thought patterns, which one must be a philosophy expert to understand.

In that case, philosophical research communicators would need to bring philosophy itself to life, by sincerely asking the most alive questions.

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

Securing the future already from the beginning

Imagine if there was a reliable method for predicting and managing future risks, such as anything that could go wrong with new technology. Then we could responsibly steer clear of all future dangers, we could secure the future already now.

Of course, it is just a dream. If we had a “reliable method” for excluding future risks from the beginning, time would soon rush past that method, which then proved to be unreliable in a new era. Because we trusted the method, the method of managing future risks soon became a future risk in itself!

It is therefore impossible to secure the future from the beginning. Does this mean that we must give up all attempts to take responsibility for the future, because every method will fail to foresee something unpredictably new and therefore cause misfortune? Is it perhaps better not to try to take any responsibility at all, so as not to risk causing accidents through our imperfect safety measures? Strangely enough, it is just as impossible to be irresponsible for the future as it is to be responsible. You would need to make a meticulous effort so that you do not happen to cook a healthy breakfast or avoid a car collision. Soon you will wish you had a “safe method” that could foresee all the future dangers that you must avoid to avoid if you want to live completely irresponsibly. Your irresponsibility for the future would become an insurmountable responsibility.

Sorry if I push the notions of time and responsibility beyond their breaking point, but I actually think that many of us have a natural inclination to do so, because the future frightens us. A current example is the tendency to think that someone in charge should have foreseen the pandemic and implemented powerful countermeasures from the beginning, so that we never had a pandemic. I do not want to deny that there are cases where we can reason like that – “someone in charge should have…” – but now I want to emphasize the temptation to instinctively reason in such a way as soon as something undesirable occurs. As if the future could be secured already from the beginning and unwanted events would invariably be scandals.

Now we are in a new situation. Due to the pandemic, it has become irresponsible not to prepare (better than before) for risks of pandemics. This is what our responsibility for the future looks like. It changes over time. Our responsibility rests in the present moment, in our situation today. Our responsibility for the future has its home right here. It may sound irresponsible to speak in such a way. Should we sit back and wait for the unwanted to occur, only to then get the responsibility to avoid it in the future? The problem is that this objection once again pushes concepts beyond their breaking point. It plays around with the idea that the future can be foreseen and secured already now, a thought pattern that in itself can be a risk. A society where each public institution must secure the future within its area of ​​responsibility, risks kicking people out of the secured order: “Our administration demands that we ensure that…, therefore we need a certificate and a personal declaration from you, where you…” Many would end up outside the secured order, which hardly secures any order. And because the trouble-makers are defined by contrived criteria, which may be implemented in automated administration systems, these systems will not only risk making systematic mistakes in meeting real people. They will also invite cheating with the systems.

So how do we take responsibility for the future in a way that is responsible in practice? Let us first calm down. We have pointed out that it is impossible not to take responsibility! Just breathing means taking responsibility for the future, or cooking breakfast, or steering the car. Taking responsibility is so natural that no one needs to take responsibility for it. But how do we take responsibility for something as dynamic as research and innovation? They are already in the future, it seems, or at least at the forefront. How can we place the responsibility for a brave new world in the present moment, which seems to be in the past already from the beginning? Does not responsibility have to be just as future oriented, just as much at the forefront, since research and innovation are constantly moving towards the future, where they make the future different from the already past present moment?

Once again, the concepts are pushed beyond their breaking point. Anyone who reads this post carefully can, however, note a hopeful contradiction. I have pointed out that it is impossible to secure the future already now, from the beginning. Simultaneously, I point out that it is in the present moment that our responsibility for the future lies. It is only here that we take responsibility for the future, in practice. How can I be so illogical?

The answer is that the first remark is directed at our intellectual tendency to push the notions of time and responsibility beyond their limits, when we fear the future and wish that we could control it right now. The second remark reminds us of how calmly the concepts of time and responsibility work in practice, when we take responsibility for the future. The first remark thus draws a line for the intellect, which hysterically wants to control the future totally and already from the beginning. The second remark opens up the practice of taking responsibility in each moment.

When we take responsibility for the future, we learn from history as it appears in current memory, as I have already indicated. The experiences from the pandemic make it possible at present to take responsibility for the future in a different way than before. The not always positive experiences of artificial intelligence make it possible at present to take better responsibility for future robotics. The strange thing, then, is that taking responsibility presupposes that things go wrong sometimes and that we are interested in the failures. Otherwise we had nothing to learn from, to prepare responsibly for the future. It is really obvious. Responsibility is possible only in a world that is not fully secured from the beginning, a world where the undesirable happens. Life is contradictory. We can never purify security according to the one-sided demands of the intellect, for security presupposes the uncertain and the undesirable.

Against this philosophical background, I would like to recommend an article in the Journal of Responsible Innovation, which discusses responsible research and innovation in a major European research project, the Human Brain Project (HBP): From responsible research and innovation to responsibility by design. The article describes how one has tried to be foresighted and take responsibility for the dynamic research and innovation within the project. The article reflects not least on the question of how to continue to be responsible even when the project ends, within the European research infrastructure that is planned to be the project’s product: EBRAINS.

The authors are well aware that specific regulated approaches easily become a source of problems when they encounter the new and unforeseen. Responsibility for the future cannot be regulated. It cannot be reduced to contrived criteria and regulations. One of the most important conclusions is that responsibility from the beginning needs to be an integral part of research and innovation, rather than an external framework. Responsibility for the future requires flexibility, openness, anticipation, engagement and reflection. But what is all that?

Personally, I want to say that it is partly about accepting the basic ambiguity of life. If we never have the courage to soar in uncertainty, but always demand security and nothing but security, we will definitely undermine security. By being sincerely interested in the uncertain and the undesirable, responsibility can become an integral part of research and innovation.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

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

Bernd Carsten Stahl, Simisola Akintoye, Lise Bitsch, Berit Bringedal, Damian Eke, Michele Farisco, Karin Grasenick, Manuel Guerrero, William Knight, Tonii Leach, Sven Nyholm, George Ogoh, Achim Rosemann, Arleen Salles, Julia Trattnig & Inga Ulnicane. From responsible research and innovation to responsibility by design. Journal of Responsible Innovation. (2021) DOI: 10.1080/23299460.2021.1955613

This post in Swedish

Approaching future issues

Can subjectivity be explained objectively?

The notion of a conscious universe, animated by unobservable experiences, is today presented almost as a scientific hypothesis. How is that possible? Do cosmologists’ hypotheses that the universe is filled with dark matter and dark energy contribute to making the idea of ​​a universe filled with “dark consciousness” almost credible?

I ask the question because I myself am amazed at how the notion that elementary particles have elementary experiences suddenly has become academically credible. The idea that consciousness permeates reality is usually called panpsychism and is considered to have been represented by several philosophers in history. The alleged scientific status of panpsychism is justified today by emphasizing two classic philosophical failures to explain consciousness. Materialism has not succeeded in explaining how consciousness can arise from non-conscious physical matter. Dualism has failed to explain how consciousness, if it is separate from matter, can interact with physical reality.

Against this discouraging background, panpsychism is presented as an attractive, even elegant solution to the problem of consciousness. The hypothesis is that consciousness is hidden in the universe as a fundamental non-observable property of matter. Proponents of this elegant solution suggest that this “dark consciousness,” which permeates the universe, is extremely modest. Consciousness is present in every elementary particle in the form of unimaginably simple elementary experiences. These insignificant experiences are united and strengthened in the brain’s nervous system, giving rise to what we are familiar with as our powerful human consciousness, with its stormy feelings and thoughts.

However, this justification of panpsychism as an elegant solution to a big scientific problem presupposes that there really is a big scientific problem to “explain consciousness.” Is not the starting point a bit peculiar, that even subjectivity must be explained as an objective phenomenon? Even dualism tends to objectify consciousness, since it presents consciousness as a parallel universe to our physical universe.

The alternative explanations are thus all equally objectifying. Either subjectivity is reduced to purely material processes, or subjectivity is explained as a mental parallel universe, or subjectivity is hypostasized as “dark consciousness” that pervades the universe: as elementary experiential qualities of matter. Can we not let subjectivity be subjectivity and objectivity be objectivity?

Once upon a time there was a philosopher named Immanuel Kant. He saw how our constantly objectifying subjectivity turns into an intellectual trap, when it tries to understand itself without limiting its own objectifying approach to all questions. We then resemble cats that hopelessly chase their own tails: either by spinning to the right or by spinning to the left. Both directions are equally frustrating. Is there an elegant solution to the spinning cat’s problem? Now, I do not want to claim that Kant definitely exposed the “hard problem” of consciousness as an intellectual trap, but he pointed out the importance of self-critically examining our projective, objectifying way of functioning. If we lived as expansively as we explain everything objectively, we would soon exhaust the entire planet… is not that exactly what we do?

During a philosophy lecture, I tried to show the students how we can be trapped by apparent problems, by pseudo-problems that of course are not scientific problems, since they make us resemble cats chasing their own tails without realizing the unrealizability of the task. One student did not like what she perceived as an arbitrary limitation of the enormous achievements of science, so she objected: “But if it is the task of science to explain all big problems, then it must attempt to explain these riddles as well.” The objection is similar to the motivation of panpsychism, where it is assumed that it is the task of science to explain everything objectively, even subjectivity, no matter how hopelessly the questions spin in our heads.

The spinning cat’s problem has a simple solution: stop chasing the tail. Humans, on the other hand, need to clearly see the hopelessness of their spinning in order to stop it. Therefore, humans need to philosophize in order to live well on this planet.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

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

If you want to read more about panpsychism, here are two links:

Does consciousness pervade the universe?

The idea that everything from spoons to stones is conscious is gaining academic credibility

This post in Swedish

We challenge habits of thought

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