Sometimes you do not want to be taken seriously

April 1, 2019

Pär SegerdahlWhat does taking something seriously mean? Seriously, I do not think there is a given answer. A common view, however, is that serious questions must have given answers: definitive either/or answers. Without either/or answers, truth seeking degenerates into irresponsible chattering. Embryo destruction is either murder or not murder (banging one’s fist on the table). Embryo research is either permissible or not permissible (banging one’s fist on the table).

Seriousness is polarized, one could say. If I were to take polarized seriousness seriously, which seems reasonable since nothing could be more serious than seriousness itself, I would have to ask: Is seriousness polarized or not? Either it is polarized or it is not polarized! I say this resolutely, banging my fist on the table. However, the question itself is polarized. My resolution and categorical banging suddenly appear comically embarrassing. My gestures seem to run ahead of me, answering the question I thought I asked seriously by making them. What happened? Did I reach the limit of seriousness, beyond which I no longer can ask serious questions about seriousness without ending up in self-contradiction?

Perhaps I just reached the limit of small seriousness, where great seriousness can begin. Contradicting myself need not be as bad as it sounds. Perhaps I did not even know I existed until I contradicted myself. My polarized reasoning ran aground. The sunken rock was myself. Self-contradiction allowed self-discovery. For we are not dealing with two contradictory propositions, so that we must seriously investigate which of them is the true proposition and which of them is the false proposition. I was contradicted by how I myself banged my fist on the table and said, resolutely, “either-or.”

Let us be grateful for the self-contradiction. It can open our eyes to another seriousness: the seriousness of self-reflection, where we, as Confucius says, turn around and seek the cause of our failure within ourselves. Thank you, dear self-contradiction. You may be embarrassing, but just for that reason I know that I am alive and not just a propositional machine that easily can be replaced by an online chatbot!

Why do I bring up these remarkable things? Perhaps because it would be tragic if we misunderstood contemplative thinking as superfluous in an empirically founded age. Schopenhauer said something similar: “Pure empiricism is related to thinking as eating is to digestion and assimilation. When empiricism boasts that it alone has, through its discoveries, advanced human knowledge, it is as if the mouth should boast that it alone keeps the body alive.”

Trying seriously to write a blogpost about seriousness, however, is risky. For blogposts are easily circulated as mere opinions. If you were to render the content of this post, you would almost certainly be forced to polarize it as a delimited position that is either true or false. If we followed Schopenhauer’s advice, however, we would give ourselves plenty of time to quietly digest, through thinking, the strange things said in the post. Such peaceful and quiet digestion of thoughts is beyond the capacity of chatterboxes and chatbots.

Do not misunderstand my joking style. It is meant seriously to avoid being taken seriously. The Chinese thinker, Chuang Tzu, did not want to be perceived as a pedant, so he said to his audience, “I’m going to try speaking some reckless words to you and I want you to listen to them recklessly.”

Chuang Tzu was a great thinker who did not want to be taken seriously as a small one.

Pär Segerdahl

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Reality surpasses our concepts

March 20, 2019

Pär SegerdahlAfter thinking for some time about donation of human eggs and embryos to stem cell research, I want to express myself as in the headline. Reality surpasses our concepts of it. This is not as strange as it sounds. For, if our concepts already reflected reality, then no one would need to do research, or to think. Just talking would be sufficient. An endless flood of words could replace all sincere aspirations to understand life and the world.

So what is it about donation to research that makes me want to express myself as in the headline? Everyone knows that blood donation is a gift to patients. This makes blood donation humanly understandable. People want to help fellow human beings in need, even strangers. But what about donation of eggs and embryos to stem cell research? Conceptually, the donation does not go to patients in need, but to researchers. This makes it difficult to understand donation to research. Are we to assume that people feel sorry for researchers and that they therefore want to support them by donating to them? Why do donors support research?

Not only does the concept of “donation to research” make donation difficult to understand from a human point of view. The concept also causes donation to appear suspiciously exploitative. The recipient of the donation is more powerful than the donor is. Moreover, if research results are commercialized, the recipient can make a profit on the work that the donation enables, without the donor receiving any share of it. So not only does literal faith in the concept of “donation to research” make a free will to donate difficult to understand. The donation also looks suspicious. Some argue that we should prevent an increasingly capitalized life science sector from exploiting self-sacrificing donors in this way.

Nevertheless, there are people who freely donate to research. Why? I guess it often is because they use research merely as an intermediary, to be able to give to patients. The patient is equally important in donation to research as in blood donation, although the concept does not reflect this relationship. Let me give an unexpected example of intermediaries.

About one kilogram of bacteria lives in our intestinal tract. Without these bacteria, our bodies would not be able to absorb many of the nutrients in the food we eat. When we swallow the food, these bacteria are in a sense the first diners, and our bodies have to wait patiently until they have finished eating. Even if we know this, we rarely think that we are swallowing food in order to allow bacteria in the stomach to eat first. We eat without being aware of the work that these “intermediaries” in the stomach have to do, in order for the nutrients to become available to the body.

The concept of “eating” does not reflect this relationship between bacteria and us. This is not a shortcoming of the concept. On the contrary, it would be very unpleasant if the concept reflected the bacteria’s work in our guts. Who would then want to say, “Let us sit down and eat”? However, problems arise if we have too much literal faith in concepts. Our vocabulary will then begin to impose limitations on us. Our own language will shrink our otherwise open minds to mental caves, where the words cast shadows on the walls.

Researchers, then, can be seen as intermediaries between donors and patients. I hope I do not upset sensitive minds if I suggest that researchers are the bacteria that we need to make donated material available to future patients’ bodies. That is why people donate to research. They sense, more or less intuitively, that research functions as an intermediary. “Donation to research” is at heart a gift to patients.

It is even more complicated, however, for research alone cannot act as intermediary. The task is too great. For the donation to become a gift to patients, a capitalized life science sector is needed, and a healthcare system, and much else. Moreover, just as the beneficiary function of bacteria in our stomachs requires a diet that regulates the balance between bacteria, this system of intermediaries, extending from donor to patient, needs regulation and monitoring, so that all the actors work harmoniously together. We cannot allow quacks to sell dangerous or inefficient drugs to the sick, and we cannot allow researchers to access donated material in any way they see fit.

Donation to research is a striking example of how reality surpasses our concepts. When we succeed in overcoming our literal faith in concepts – when we discover the way out of the cave and see the light – then donation to research finally becomes humanly understandable. The donor uses research to be able to give to patients. Moreover, donation to research ceases to appear as a suspicious transaction between unequal parties, since the donor uses the relatively powerful direct recipient to give to a more understandable recipient: the patient. Trying to counteract exploitation by paying the donor large sums, or by giving the donor a share of the profit, would tie the donor to the wrong recipient: the one emphasized in the concept.

As mentioned, the donor uses not only research to reach the patient, but a whole system of intermediaries, such as industry, healthcare and governmental control. This system of beneficial societal bacteria is therefore, to some extent, subordinate to the donor’s will to help patients. Or rather, the subordination is an aspect of the relationship, as is bacteria’s subordination to human eating. If we want to, we can always see the opposite aspect as well. Who really eats first and who last? Who really uses whom? The questions lack definitive answers, for the aspects change into one another.

With this post, I wanted to suggest the possibility of a bigger seeing, which we can learn to use wisely in our thinking when we discover how conceptually purified standpoints easily shrink our minds to mental caves.

Pär Segerdahl

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Thesis on reproductive ethics

February 25, 2019

Pär SegerdahlOn Thursday, February 28, Amal Matar defends her thesis in the field of reproductive ethics.

As genetic tests become cheaper and more reliable, the potential use of genetic tests also expands. One use could be offering preconception genetic screening to entire populations. Prospective parents could find out if they are carriers of the same recessive autosomal genetic condition, and could plan future pregnancies. Carriers of such genetic conditions can be healthy, but if both parents have the same predisposition, the risk is 25 percent that their child will have the disease.

Preconception genetic screening is not implemented in Sweden. Would it be possible to do so in the future? What would the ethical and social implications be? Is it likely that preconception genetic screening will be implemented in Sweden? These are some of the questions that Amal Matar examines in her thesis.

Amal Matar’s interviews with Swedish healthcare professionals and policymaking experts indicate that preconception genetic screening will not be implemented in Sweden. The interviewees expressed the opinion that such screening would not satisfy any medical need, would threaten important values ​​in Swedish society and in the healthcare system, and require excessive resources.

Amal Matar defends her thesis in the Uppsala University Main Building (Biskopsgatan 3), room IV, on Thursday, February 28 at 13:00. You find an earlier interview with Amal Matar here. If you want to read the thesis, you find a link below.

Pär Segerdahl

Matar, Amal. 2019. Considering a Baby? Responsible Screening for the Future. Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis

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Larger and smaller sized ethics

January 29, 2019

Pär SegerdahlEthics can be about big, almost religious questions. Should scientists be allowed to harvest stem cells from human embryos and then destroy the embryos? Ethics can also be about narrower, almost professional issues. How should the development of embryonic stem cell lines be regulated? The latter question is similar to the question: How should the aircraft industry be regulated?

Larger and smaller ethics can have difficulties understanding each other, even though they often need to talk. For example, larger ethics can be suspicious of medical research and the pharmaceutical industry, and overlook how meticulously responsible they most often are. And how rigorously supervised they are, as the aircraft industry. Neither the drug nor the aircraft industry can be carefree about safety issues!

Smaller ethics can also be suspicious of larger ethics. Medical research and industry, with their professional attitudes, can experience larger ethical questions as being as vague and distant as nebulae. This fact, that larger and smaller ethics have difficulties even hearing each other, creates the need for a simpler, more sincerely questioning attitude, which never settles within any limits, whether they are narrower or wider. Remember that even larger perspectives often degenerate into regulations of how people should think. They shrink.

Medical research and industry need regulation, it is as important as the safety work in the aircraft industry. However, we need also to think big about human life and life in general. In order to keep ethics alive, a beginner’s attitude is needed, constantly renewed sincerity. Does it sound difficult? All we need to do is to ask the questions we really wonder about, instead of hiding them behind a confident facade.

Nothing could be easier. The question is if we dare. The sincerest questions open up the biggest perspectives.

Pär Segerdahl

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Dangers of moral words

December 11, 2018

Pär SegerdahlThe philosopher Bernard Williams distinguished between thick ethical concepts such as “brave” and “brutal,” which have both descriptive and evaluative content, and thin ethical concepts such as “right” and “wrong,” which are purely evaluative. “Murder” and “exploitation” are thick ethical concepts that sometimes play a central role in ethical debate. They have descriptive content combined with a negative evaluation: murder and exploitation are wrong.

This duality of thick moral words, their descriptive/normative Janus face, makes them an impelling part of the vocabulary of most, if not all, ideological movements. If you oppose X, and can demonstrate that X, in fact, involves murder or exploitation (descriptive aspect), then you have immediately demonstrated that X must be opposed (normative aspect). Thick ethical concepts are often used in conflictual situations to legitimize violent actions against people who are described as intriguing, murderous, exploitive, and much else. Since the words are taken to describe reality as it is, such bad individuals must be watched over and, if necessary, acted against.

Thick moral words thus easily lend themselves to functioning as ideological firearms. Their descriptive aspect allows taking aim. Their evaluative aspect says, “Fire!” I want to mention three further dangers of thick ethical concepts.

Dogmatism. The first is that it is difficult to raise questions about their applicability, since it can appear as if you questioned the evaluative component. Let us say that you raise the question if embryo destruction really constitutes murder. In the eyes of those who take this description for reality, you appear like a treacherous person who shrewdly argues that murder might be right! Simply raising the question, no matter how open-mindedly you do it, places you in the firing line. Your very open-mindedness speaks against you: “Murder is not something to be open-minded about!”

Righteousness. A second troublesome feature is that thick ethical concepts produce instant goodness in any ideological movement. Any ideology is on the right side, regardless of which side it is on, since it fights for what its moral vocabulary unites with the good, and fights against what its vocabulary unites with the bad. Any ideology has the right and the duty to act resolutely against what its dualistic vocabulary picks out as impermissible features of reality. – Which side for peace are you on?

Suffering. A third problem is that thick moral words produce suffering in the form of gnawing suspicions and fears. Since we are not omniscient, there is much we do not know, for example, about embryonic stem cell research. Thick ethical concepts here tend to appear in our heads as stand-ins for reality. They appear in the form of an inner voice that tells us what stem cell research is. This is not a purely descriptive “is,” but a double-edged one, for what the voice in the head says the research is can be a nightmarish, “It is murder.” Since we are ignorant of much, but not of our anxiety, we cannot shake off the worrying double-edged concepts that spin in the head. They seem validated by the gnawing anxiety they produce, and we suffer without end, caught in a whirlpool of thick descriptive/normative moral language.

In pointing out dangers of thick moral words, I am not questioning their descriptive or evaluative content. Murder is a reality and it is a serious crime; the same is true of exploitation. I am just pointing out that the dual nature of thick moral words can turn our heads. Moral language can make us violent, dogmatic, righteous, and anxious about issues that perhaps exist mainly in our descriptions of reality.

I think most of us have fallen into such dark pits.

Pär Segerdahl

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Contemplative conversations

November 19, 2018

Pär SegerdahlWhen we face new sensitive and worrying issues, there is an instinctive reaction: this must be debated! But is debate always the right way, if we want to take human concerns seriously?

That some are worried about new research and technology, is a fact. That others are not worried, is also a fact. Suppose these people handle their differences by debating with each other. What happens?

What happens is that they leave the actual world, which varies as much as people are different, and end up in a universal world of rational reasons. Those who worry must argue for their concerns: All sensible people should feel worried! Those who are not worried must provide weighty counter-arguments: No sensible person should feel worried!

Debate thus creates an either/or conflict from what was only a difference. Polarization increases the fear, which amplifies the desire to be absolutely right. Everyone wants to own the uniquely compelling reason that everyone should obey. But since we are different, the debate becomes a vertiginous hall of mirrors. It multiplies exaggerated world images in which we lose ourselves and each other.

The worry itself, as trembling human fact, is forgotten. The only thing that engages us is the weighty reason for, or against, being worried. The only thing that interests us is what everyone should feel. Is that taking human concerns seriously? Is it taking ourselves seriously?

If a child is worried, we do not ask the child to argue for its worries, and we do not comfort the child by refuting it. We take care of the child; we take care of its worries, as compassionate parents.

I play with the idea that we and our societies would be in better shape if we more often avoided the absolute world of reasons. Through its universality, it appears, of course, like a utopia of peace and unity among rational beings. In fact, it often creates polarization and perplexes us with its exaggerated images of the world. Arguing for the right cause in debate is perhaps not always as noble as we take it to be.

We are, more often than we think, like children. That is, we are human. Therefore, we need, more often than we think, to take care of ourselves. As compassionate parents. That is another instinct, which could characterize conversations about sensitive issues.

We need to take care of ourselves. But how? What is the alternative to debate? For want of better words: contemplative conversations. Or, if you want: considerate conversations. Rather than polarizing, such an open spirit welcomes us all, with our actual differences.

Perhaps that is how we become adults with regard to the task of living well with each other. By tenderly taking care of ourselves as children.

Pär Segerdahl

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International brain initiatives need cultural awareness

November 12, 2018

Pär SegerdahlToday, billions of research dollars are being invested in developing huge research collaborations about the human brain. Australia, Canada, Japan, Korea and the United States have their own brain initiatives. In Europe, the Human Brain Project has a total budget of around one billion euros over a ten-year period, 2013-2023.

Scientific research is often seen as an activity that transcends cultural differences. However, research about the brain touches such fundamental aspects of human existence that it cannot ignore cultural views. For example, the notion that the brain, as a separate organ, is the locus of human identity, of the self, is not generally embraced. Neuroscientific research touches profound cultural ideas about human life which require careful philosophical and ethical attention.

The international brain initiatives also touch other culturally sensitive issues, in addition to questions about human identity. Ideas about death and brain death, about the use of nonhuman primates in research, about privacy and autonomy, and about mental illness, differ across cultures. For example, a diagnosis that in one culture can be seen as an opportunity to get individual treatment can in another culture threaten to condemn a whole family to social isolation.

Neuroethicists from parts of the world that currently make major investments in neuroscientific research met in Korea to highlight ethical questions on cultural differences, which the international brain initiatives need to address. This in order for the research to be conducted responsibly, with awareness of relevant cultural diversity. The questions that the neuroethicists (among them, Arleen Salles) propose should be addressed are summarized in an article in the journal Neuron.

The authors mention questions about how neuroscientific research could cause stigma in individuals or social groups, and about how cultural notions might bias research design and the interpretation of results. They ask how collecting and storing neural tissue can be viewed in different cultures, and about how we should understand the moral status of robots and computer-simulated brains. They mention questions about how new brain interventions (brain devices and drugs) may affect notions of responsibility and autonomy, as well as issues about drawing boundaries between legitimate and illegitimate uses of neuroscientific techniques. Finally, questions are highlighted about fair access to research results.

How can these questions be addressed and discussed in the international brain initiatives? The authors propose education in neuroethics, as well as dialogue with scholars in the humanities and social sciences, and finally improved communication and interaction with the publics.

Within the European Human Brain Project, four percent of the budget is used for ethics and society. Similar emphasis on ethical reflection would be desirable also in other brain initiatives.

Pär Segerdahl

Global Neuroethics Summit Delegates. 2018. Neuroethics questions to guide ethical research in the international brain initiatives. Neuron 100, October 10, 2018.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2018.09.021

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