Herb Terrace about the chimpanzee Nim – do you see the contradiction?

March 23, 2020

Pär SegerdahlHave you seen small children make repeated attempts to squeeze a square object through a round hole (plastic toy for the little ones)? You get puzzled: Do they not see that it is impossible? The object and the hole have different shapes!

Sometimes adults are just as puzzling. Our intellect does not always fit reality. Yet, we force our thoughts onto reality, even when they have different shapes. Maybe we are extra stubborn precisely when it is not possible. This post is about such a case.

Herb Terrace is known as the psychologist who proved that apes cannot learn language. He himself tried to teach sign language to the chimpanzee Nim, but failed according to his own judgement. When Terrace took a closer look at the videotapes, where Nim interacted with his human sign-language teachers, he saw how Nim merely imitated the teachers’ signs, to get his reward.

I recently read a blog post by Terrace where he not only repeats the claim that his research demonstrates that apes cannot learn language. The strange thing is that he also criticizes his own research severely. He writes that he used the wrong method with Nim, namely, that of giving him rewards when the teacher judged that he made the right signs. The reasoning becomes even more puzzling when Terrace writes that not even a human child could learn language with such a method.

To me, this is as puzzling as a child’s insistence on squeezing a square object through a round hole. If Terrace used the wrong method, which would not work even on a human child, then how can he conclude that Project Nim demonstrates that apes cannot learn language? Nevertheless, he insists on reasoning that way, without feeling that he contradicts himself. Nor does anyone who read him seem to experience any contradiction. Why?

Perhaps because most of us think that humans cannot teach animals anything at all, unless we train them with rewards. Therefore, since Nim did not learn language with this training method, apes cannot learn language. Better methods do not work on animals, we think. If Terrace failed, then everyone must fail, we think.

However, one researcher actually did try a better method in ape language research. She used an approach to young apes that works with human children. She stopped training the apes via a system of rewards. She lived with the apes, as a parent with her children. And it succeeded!

Terrace almost never mentions the name of the successful ape language researcher. After all, she used a method that is impossible with animals: she did not train them. Therefore, she cannot have succeeded, we think.

I can tell you that the name of the successful researcher is Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. To see a round reality beyond a square thinking, we need to rethink our thought pattern. If you want to read a book that tries to do such rethinking about apes, humans and language, I recommend a philosophical self-critique that I wrote with Savage-Rumbaugh and her colleague William Fields.

To philosophize is to learn to stop imposing our insane thoughts on reality. Then we finally see reality as it is.

Pär Segerdahl

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

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What shall we eat? An ethical framework for food choices

March 16, 2020

To reflect ethically on what we eat has been part of Western culture for centuries. In pre-modern times, the focus was mainly on the consumption of food, although it varied whether the emphasis was on the amount of food one should eat (as in ancient Greece) or on what kind of food one was allowed to eat (as in the Old Testament).

Modern food ethics has instead focused on the production of food, emphasizing aspects of animal ethics and environmental ethics. In a new article, I take a broader perspective and discuss both the production and consumption of food and further incorporate the meal as an important part of my food ethics analysis.

I identify four affected parties in relation to the production and consumption of food, namely, animals, nature, producers and consumers. What ethical values can be at stake for these parties?

For animals, an important value is welfare; not being exposed to pain or stress, but provided opportunities for natural behavior. For nature, important values are low negative impact on the environment and sustainable climate. For producers, ethical values at stake concern fair salaries and safe working conditions. For consumers, finally, important values are access to healthy food and the right to autonomous food choices. Apart from that, food can also be seen as an important value in pursuit of a good life.

Evidently, several ethical values are at stake when it comes to the production and consumption of food. Furthermore, these values often conflict when food choices are to be made. In such situations, a thorough weighing of values must be performed in order to find out which value should be given priority over another.

A problem with today’s food debate is that we tend to concentrate on one value at a time, without putting it in the perspective of other aspects. The question of how our food choices affect the climate has gained a lot of interest, at the expense of almost all other aspects of food ethics.

Many have learned that beef production can affect the climate negatively, since grazing cattle give rise to high levels of methane. They therefore choose to avoid that kind of meat. On the other hand, grazing animals can contribute to biodiversity as they keep the landscape open, which is good for the environment. Breeding chickens produces low levels of methane, but here the challenges concern animal welfare, natural behavior and the use of chemicals in the production of bird feed.

To replace meat with vegetables can be good for your health, but imported fruits and vegetables can be produced using toxins if they are not organically farmed. Long transports can also affect the climate negatively.

For these reasons, it can be ethically problematic to choose food based on only one perspective. Ethics is not that simple. We need to develop our ability to identify what values are at stake when it comes to food, and find good reasons for why we choose one sort of food instead of another. In the article, I develop a more comprehensive food ethical outlook by combining four well-known ethical concepts, namely, duties, consequences, virtues and care.

Duties and consequences are often part of ethical arguments. However, by including also virtues and care in my reasoning, the meal and the sense of community it gives rise to appear as important ethical values. Unfortunately, the latter values are at risk today when more and more people have their own individualized food preferences. During a meal, relations are developed, which the ethics of care emphasizes, but the meal is also an arena for developing virtues, such as solidarity, communication and respect.

It is hard to be an ethically aware consumer today, partly because there are so many aspects to take into account and partly because it is difficult to get reliable and trustworthy information upon which we can base our decisions. However, that does not mean that it is pointless to reflect on what is good and right when it comes to food ethical dilemmas.

If we think through our food choices thoroughly and avoid wasting food, we can do a lot to reach well-grounded food choices. Apart from that, we also need brave political decisions that can reduce factory farming, toxins, transports and emissions, and support small-scale and organic food production. Through such efforts, we might all feel a little more secure in the grocery shop, when we reflect on the question: What shall we eat?

Anna T. Höglund

Höglund, Anna T. (2020) What shall we eat? An ethical framework for well-grounded food choices. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics. DOI: 10.1007/s10806-020-09821-4

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Artificial intelligence and living consciousness

March 2, 2020

Pär SegerdahlThe Ethics Blog will publish several posts on artificial intelligence in the future. Today, I just want to make a little observation of something remarkable.

The last century was marked by fear of human consciousness. Our mind seemed as mystic as the soul, as superfluous in a scientific age as God. In psychology, behaviorism flourished, which defined psychological words in terms of bodily behavior that could be studied scientifically in the laboratory. Our living consciousness was treated as a relic from bygone superstitious ages.

What is so remarkable about artificial intelligence? Suddenly, one seems to idolize consciousness. One wallows in previously sinful psychological words, at least when one talks about what computers and robots can do. These machines can see and hear; they can think and speak. They can even learn by themselves.

Does this mean that the fear of consciousness has ceased? Hardly, because when artificial intelligence employs psychological words such as seeing and hearing, thinking and understanding, the words cease to be psychological. The idea of computer “learning,” for example, is a technical term that computer experts define in their laboratories.

When artificial intelligence embellishes machines with psychological words, then, one repeats how behaviorism defined mind in terms of something else. Psychological words take on new machine meanings that overshadow the meanings the words have among living human beings.

Remember this next time you wonder if robots might become conscious. The development exhibits fear of consciousness. Therefore, what you are wondering is not if robots can become conscious. You wonder if your own consciousness can be superstition. Remarkable, right?

Pär Segerdahl

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Exactly when does a human being actually come into existence?

February 18, 2020

Pär SegerdahlThe one who prepares the food may announce, “The food is ready now!” when the food is ready. However, when exactly is the food actually ready? When the kitchen timer rings? The potatoes are cooked then. Or when the saucepan is removed from the stove? The cooking ends then. Or when the saucepan is emptied of water? The potatoes are separated from the cooking medium then. Or when the potatoes are carried to the table? The food will be available to the guests around the table then. However, is the food actually available for eating before it is on the plate? Should not each guest say, “The food is ready now,” when the food is on the plate? However, if the food is too hot, is it actually ready? Should not someone around the table say when you no longer burn your tongue, “The food is ready now”?

Yes, exactly when is the food actually ready? You probably notice that the question is treacherous. The very asking, “exactly when, actually?” systematically makes every answer wrong, or not exactly right. The question is based on rejecting the answer. It is based on suggesting another, smarter way to answer. Which is not accepted because an even smarter way to answer is suggested. And so on. Questions that systematically reject the answer are not any questions. They can appear to be profound because no ordinary human answer is accepted. They can appear to be at a high intellectual level, because the questioner seems to demand nothing less than the exact and actual truth. Such extremely curious questions are usually called metaphysical.

However, we hardly experience the question about exactly when the food actually is ready as important and deep. We see the trick. The question is like a stubborn teenager who just discovered how to quibble. However, sometimes these verbally treacherous questions can appear on the agenda and be perceived as important to answer. In bioethics, the question about the beginning of a human being has become such a question. Exactly when does a human being actually come into existence?

Why is this question asked in bioethics? The reason is, of course, that there are ethical and legal limits to what medical researchers are permitted to do with human beings. The question of what counts as a human being then acquires significance. When does a fertilized egg become a human? Immediately? After a number of days? The question will determine what researchers are permitted to do with human embryos. Can they harvest stem cells from embryos and destroy them? There is disagreement about this.

When people disagree, they want to convince each other by debating. The issue of the beginning of a human being has been debated for decades. The problem is that the question is just as treacherous as the question about exactly when the food actually is ready. In addition, the apparent depth and inquisitiveness of the question serves as intellectual allurement. We seem to be able to determine exactly who is actually right. The Holy Grail of all debates!

The crucial moment never comes. The Holy Grail is constantly proving to be an illusion, since the question systematically rejects every answer by proposing an even smarter answer, just like the question about food. The question of the beginning of a human being has now reached such levels of cleverness that it cannot be rendered in ordinary human words. Philosophers earn their living as intellectual advocates who give debating clients strategic advice on metaphysical loopholes that will allow them to avoid the opponent’s latest clever argument. Listen to such metaphysical advice to debaters who want to argue that a human being comes into existence exactly at conception and not a day later:

”Given the twinning argument, the conceptionist then faces a choice between perdurantist conceptionism and exdurantist conceptionism, and we argue that, apart from commitments beyond the metaphysics of embryology, they should prefer the latter over the former.”

Do you feel like reading more? If so, read the article and judge for yourself the depth and seriousness of the question. Personally, I wish for more mature ways to deal with bioethical conflicts than through metaphysical advice to stubborn debaters.

Pär Segerdahl

Efird, D, Holland, S. Stages of life: A new metaphysics of conceptionism. Bioethics. 2019; 33: 529– 535. https://doi.org/10.1111/bioe.12556

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Neuroethics as foundational

January 28, 2020

Pär SegerdahlAs neuroscience expands, the need for ethical reflection also expands. A new field has emerged, neuroethics, which celebrated its 15th anniversary last year. This was noted in the journal AJOB Neuroscience through an article about the area’s current and future challenges.

In one of the published comments, three researchers from the Human Brain Project and CRB emphasize the importance of basic conceptual analysis in neuroethics. The new field of neuroethics is more than just a kind of ethical mediator between neuroscience and society. Neuroethics can and should contribute to the conceptual self-understanding of neuroscience, according to Arleen Salles, Kathinka Evers and Michele Farisco. Without such self-understanding, the ethical challenges become unclear, sometimes even imaginary.

Foundational conceptual analysis can sound stiff. However, if I understand the authors, it is just the opposite. Conceptual analysis is needed to make concepts agile, when habitual thinking made them stiff. One example is the habitual thinking that facts about the brain can be connected with moral concepts, so that, for example, brain research can explain to us what it “really” means to be morally responsible for our actions. Such habitual thinking about the role of the brain in human life may suggest purely imaginary ethical concerns about the expansion of neuroscience.

Another example the authors give is the external perspective on consciousness in neuroscience. Neuroscience does not approach consciousness from a first-person perspective, but from a third-person perspective. Neuroscience may need to be reminded of this and similar conceptual limitations, to better understand the models that one develops of the brain and human consciousness, and the conclusions that can be drawn from the models.

Conceptual neuroethics is needed to free concepts from intellectual deadlocks arising with the expansion of neuroscience. Thus, neuroethics can contribute to deepening the self-understanding of neuroscience as a science with both theoretical and practical dimensions. At least that is how I understand the spirit of the authors’ comment in AJOB Neuroscience.

Pär Segerdahl

Emerging Issues Task Force, International Neuroethics Society (2019) Neuroethics at 15: The Current and Future Environment for Neuroethics, AJOB Neuroscience, 10:3, 104-110, DOI: 10.1080/21507740.2019.1632958

Arleen Salles, Kathinka Evers & Michele Farisco (2019) The Need for a Conceptual Expansion of Neuroethics, AJOB Neuroscience, 10:3, 126-128, DOI: 10.1080/21507740.2019.1632972

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Christmas blog post about contemplation and wide horizons

December 19, 2019

Pär SegerdahlWhat does it mean to be contemplative? In a conversation, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein addresses the issue through a contrast: professional racing motorists. A successful racing driver has one goal in mind: to break the speed record. It is not wrong to have such a well-specified goal. It is required if you want to be a professional racing motorist. However, the attitude encapsulates the mind. Any questions that do not take you closer to the goal become irrelevant. Imagine the driver discussing improvements to the carburetor with the mechanics. How would the atmosphere in the garage change if an inquisitive Socrates suddenly appeared and quietly wondered about the meaning of the sport? Endless questions without the slightest relevance to the adjustments of the carburetor! A racing motorist who wants to be the world champion cannot stop and contemplate different possibilities for human sports competition. Above all, not the possibility of a world where no one tries to break speed records. Who is this crazy fellow? Socrates must leave the garage.

As I said, there is nothing wrong with the racing motorist’s attitude; it is natural and often unavoidable. It has the dynamics of joy (and that of frustration). However, when it becomes too dominant, it restricts something else: the openness to the unknown, the sense of the unexpected. Big questions without given answers are seen as obscure, irrelevant and perhaps even dangerous, as they lack competitive edge and reduce the speed. The carburetor adjustments must be prioritized. Life as a competition must never vanish from sight. It could jeopardize the team spirit and the competitive advantages. If we discussed too many big and thought-provoking issues together as a society, it could even seduce the youth. The new generation loses the momentum that society needs. Young individuals are distracted from identifying with the specific goals that successful careers require. Socrates must leave society.

To think freely, is it nothing but useless folly? Small and large, useful and useless, are two themes that run through one of the great books of Chinese philosophy, Chuang Tzu. The book begins with a story about a huge fish, which soon turns into a huge bird, both so incredibly big that one would like to say that they exceed all dimensions. The huge bird is contrasted with two smaller creatures, a cicada and a dove, who simply cannot understand the big one. The bird almost merges with heaven itself. Can it even be called a bird, when it never flies from bush to bush? The small creatures cannot grasp the great bird. It lacks boundaries, like Socrates’ endless questioning. A related theme in Chuang Tzu is the usefulness of the useless. The book contains several stories of knotty and smelly trees, which, because of their uselessness for human purposes, are left free to grow big. “Everyone knows the usefulness of the useful,” writes Chuang Tzu, “but no one knows the usefulness of the useless.” Who reads Chuang Tzu in today’s China?

Perhaps we can say that Chuang Tzu develops contemplation and self-examination so far, that the self loses its boundaries and becomes one with heaven, just like the big bird. The wisdom that we can hear in Chuang Tzu is open to the infinite. Its boundlessness cannot be defined by teachings, doctrines or theories. It cannot be encapsulated in a philosophy or a religion. “To use what has a boundary to pursue what is limitless is dangerous,” warns Chuang Tzu. Dogmatism is as ancient as the wisdom that opens us to the unknown. In short, the boundless surpasses any doctrine about “the boundless.” If we dare to live with such wide horizons, we may understand voices like this one, “Plunge into the unknown and the endless and find your place there!” Totally useless words, which therefore can be useful in times that only understand the usefulness of the useful.

When philosophies and religions are defined so narrowly that they virtually function as cultural norms or party programs, they inhibit the freedom that was the point of the infinite, which we sought in its uselessness. When the search instead questions everything that restricts the mind, the contemplative endeavor can free the self from its encapsulation: the inner condition of lack of freedom.

Could this enable a humanity where people do not assert their personal interests against others? Without boundaries around the self, there is no one else to outcompete. Is there even an exploitable environment to pollute? We would let the world (and each other) be. However, such unequalled harmony cannot be defined as a goal without once again limiting freedom and making us encapsulated beings such as the cicada and the dove. “The understanding of the small cannot be compared to the understanding of the great.”

Is this happy news or is it just useless folly?

Pär Segerdahl

The Book of Chuang Tzu. (Translated by Martin Palmer.) Penguin Books, 1996

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rush Rhees, Gabriel Citron, (ed.). 2015. Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Conversations with Rush Rhees (1939–50): From the Notes of Rush Rhees. Mind 124: 1–71.

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Communicating thought provoking research in our common language

December 11, 2019

Pär SegerdahlAfter having been the editor of the Ethics Blog for eight years, I would like to describe the research communication that usually occurs on this blog.

The Ethics Blog wants to avoid the popular scientific style that sometimes occurs in the media, which reports research results on the form, “We have traditionally believed that…, but a recent scientific study shows that…” This is partly because the Ethics Blog is run by a research center in ethics, CRB. Although ethics may involve empirical studies (for example, interviews and surveys), it is not least a matter of thinking. If you, as an ethicist, want to develop new recommendations on informed consent, you must think clearly and thoroughly. However, no matter how rigorously you think, you can never say, “We have traditionally believed that it is ethically important to inform patients about…, but recent philosophical thoughts show that we should avoid doing that.”

Thinking does not provide the authority that empirical research gives. As an ethicist or a philosopher, I cannot report my conclusions as if they were research results. Nor can I invoke “recent thoughts” as evidence. Thoughts give no evidence. Ethicists therefore present their entire thinking on different issues to the critical gaze of readers. They present their conclusions as open suggestions to the reader: “Here is how I honestly think about this issue, can you see it that way too?”

The Ethics Blog therefore avoids merely disseminating research results. Of course, it informs about new findings, but it emphasizes their thought provoking aspects. It chooses to reflect on what is worth thinking about in the research. This allows research communication to work more on equal terms with the reader, since the author and the reader meet in thinking about aspects that make both wonder. Moreover, since each post tries to stand on its own, without invoking intellectual authority (“the ethicists’ most recent thoughts show that…”), the reader can easily question the blogger’s attempts to think independently.

In short: By communicating research in a philosophical spirit, science can meet people on more equal terms than when they are informed about “recent scientific findings.” By focusing on the thought provoking aspects of the research, research communication can avoid a patronizing attitude to the reader. At least that is the ambition of the Ethics Blog.

Another aspect of the research communication at CRB, also beyond the Ethics Blog, is that we want to use our ordinary language as far as possible. Achieving a simple style of writing, however, is not easy! Why are we making this effort, which is almost doomed to fail when it comes to communicating academic research? Why do Anna Holm, Josepine Fernow and I try to communicate research without using strange words?

Of course, we have reflected on our use of language. Not only do we want to reach many different groups: the public, patients and their relatives, healthcare staff, policy makers, researchers, geneticists and more. We also want these groups to understand each other a little better. Our common language accommodates more human agreement than we usually believe.

Moreover, ethics research often highlights the difficulties that different groups have in understanding each other. It can be about patients’ difficulties in understanding genetic risk information, or about geneticists’ difficulties in understanding how patients think about genetic risk. It may be about cancer patients’ difficulties in understanding what it means to participate in clinical trials, or about cancer researchers’ difficulties in understanding how patients think.

If ethics identifies our human difficulties in understanding each other as important ethical problems, then research communication will have a particular responsibility for clarifying things. Otherwise, research communication risks creating more communication difficulties, in addition to those identified by ethics! Ethics itself would become a communication problem. We therefore want to write as clearly and simply as we can, to reach the groups that according to the ethicists often fail to reach each other.

We hope that our communication on thought provoking aspects of ethics research stimulates readers to think for themselves about ethical issues. Everyone can wonder. Non-understanding is actually a source of wisdom, if we dare to admit it.

Pär Segerdahl

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