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

Tag: philosophy (Page 1 of 18)

When ordinary words get scientific uses

A few weeks ago, Josepine Fernow wrote an urgent blog post about science and language. She linked to a research debate about conceptual challenges for neuroscience, challenges that arise when ordinary words get specialized uses in science as technically defined terms.

In the case under debate, the word “sentience” had been imported into the scientific study of the brain. A research group reported that they were able to determine that in vitro neurons from humans and mice have learning abilities and that they exhibit “sentience” in a simulated game world. Of course, it caused quite a stir that some neurons grown in a laboratory could exhibit sentience! But the research team did not mean what attracted attention. They meant something very technical that only a specialist in the field can understand. The surprising thing about the finding was therefore the choice of words.

When the startling choice of words was questioned by other researchers, the research team defended themselves by saying that they defined the term “sentience” strictly scientifically, so that everyone should have understood what they meant, at least the colleagues in the field. Well, not all people are specialists in the relevant field. Thus the discovery – whatever it was that was discovered – raised a stir among people as if it were a discovery of sentience in neurons grown in a laboratory.

The research group’s attitude towards their own technical language is similar to an attitude I encountered long ago in a famous theorist of language, Noam Chomsky. This is what Chomsky said about the scientific study of the nature of language: “every serious approach to the study of language departs from the common-sense usage, replacing it by some technical concept.” Chomsky is of course right that linguistics defines its own technical concepts of language. But one can sense a certain hubris in the statement, because it sounds as if only a linguistic theorist could understand “language” in a way that is worthy of serious attention. This is untenable, because it raises the question what a technical concept of language is. In what sense is a technical concept a concept of language? Is it a technical concept of language in the common sense? Or is it a technical concept of language in the same inaccessible sense? In the latter case, the serious study of language seems to degenerate into a navel-gazing that does not access language.

For a technical concept of language to be a concept of language, our ordinary notions must be taken into account. Otherwise, the technical concept ceases to be a concept of language.

This is perhaps something to consider in neuroscience as well. Namely to the extent that one wants to shed light on phenomena such as consciousness and sentience. Of course, neuroscience will define its own technical concepts of these phenomena, as in the debated case. But if the technical concepts are to function as concepts of consciousness and sentience, then one cannot neglect our ordinary uses of words.

Science is very serious and important. But if the special significance of science goes to our heads, then our attitude risks undermining the great importance of science for humanity. Here you can read the views of three neuroethicists on these important linguistic issues: Conceptual conundrums for neuroscience.

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

Minding our language

Resolving conflicts where they arise

I believe that many of us feel that the climate of human conversation is getting colder, that it is becoming harder for us to talk and get along with each other. Humanity feels colder than in a long time. At the same time, the global challenges are escalating. The meteorological signs speak for a warmer planet, while people speak a colder language. It should be the other way around. To cool the planet down, humanity should first get warmer.

How can humanity get warmer? How can we deal with the conflicts that make our human climate resemble a cold war on several fronts: between nations, between rich and poor, between women and men, and so on?

Observe what happens within ourselves when the question is asked and demands its answer. We immediately turn our attention to the world and to the actions we think could solve the problem there. A world government? Globally binding legislation? A common human language in a worldwide classless society that does not distinguish between woman and man, between skin colors, between friend and stranger?

Notice again what happens within ourselves when we analyze the question, either in this universalist way or in some other way. We create new conflicts between ourselves as analysts and the world where the problems are assumed to arise. The question itself is a conflict. It incriminates a world that must necessarily change. This creates new areas of conflict between people who argue for conflicting analyses and measures. One peace movement will fight another peace movement, and those who do not take the necessary stand on these enormous issues… well, how should we handle them?

Observe for the third time what happens within ourselves when we have now twice in a row directed our attention towards ourselves. First, we noted our inner tendency to react outwardly. Then we noted how this extroverted tendency created new conflicts not only between ourselves and an incriminated world that must change, but also between ourselves and other people with other analyses of an incriminated world that must change. What do we see, then, when we observe ourselves for the third time?

We see how we look for the source of all conflict everywhere but within ourselves. Even when we incriminate ourselves, we speak as if we were someone other than the one analyzing the problem and demanding action (“I should learn to shut up”). Do you see the extroverted pattern within you? It is like a mental elbow that pushes away a problematic world. Do you see how the conflicts arise within ourselves, through this constant outward reactivity? We think we take responsibility for the world around us, but we are only projecting our mental reflexes.

There was once a philosopher named Socrates. He was likened to an electric ray as he seemed to numb those he was talking to with his unexpected questions, so that they could no longer react with worldly analyses and sharp-witted arguments. He was careful to point out that he himself was equally numbed. He saw the extroverted tendency within himself. Every time he saw it, he became silent and motionless. Sometimes he could stand for hours on a street corner. He saw the source of all conflict in the human mind that always thinks it knows, that always thinks it has the analysis and all the arguments. He called this inner numbness his wisdom and he described it like this: “what I do not know, I do not think I know either.”

Naturally, a philosopher thus numbed could not harbor any conflict, because the moment it began to take shape, he would note the tendency within himself and be numbed. He mastered the art of resolving conflicts where they arise: within ourselves. Free from the will to change an incriminated world, he would thereby have revolutionized everything.

Socrates’ wisdom may seem too simple for the complex problems of our time. But given our three observations of how all conflict arises in the human mind, you see how we ourselves are the origin of all complexity. This simple wisdom can warm a humanity that has forgotten to examine itself.

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

Does the severity of an illness qualify the moral motivation to act?

I have to admit that I had a little trouble cracking the code in the article which I will now try to summarize briefly. I hope that the title I have chosen is not already a misunderstanding. Moral philosophy is not easy, but the subject of the article is urgent so I still want to try.

Illness is generally perceived as something bad, as an evil. If we are to speak in terms of value, we can say that illness has negative value. Individual cases of illness usually create a moral motivation in us to mitigate the ill person’s negative condition. How strong this motivation is depends on several factors, but the severity of the disease is a relevant factor. The motivation to act typically increases with the severity of the disease.

This of course comes as no surprise. The motivation to alleviate a person’s cold is not very strong because a cold is not a severe condition. A runny nose is nothing to complain about. But in the face of more severe conditions such as blood poisoning, diabetes and cancer, the moral drive to act increases. “This condition is very severe” we say and feel that it is very important to act.

So what is the problem that motivates the article? If I am interpreting the authors correctly, the problem is that it is not so easy to convert this obvious use of language into a rule to follow. I recently bought a kettle that came with this warning: “Do not fill the kettle with an excessive amount of water.” The warning is, in a way, self-evident. Of course, you should not fill the kettle with an excessive amount of water! The motivation to pour should have stopped before the water level got excessively high. Even though the language is perfectly obvious, the rule is not as obvious, because when is the water level excessively high? When should we stop pouring?

The problem with the word “severity” is similar, or at least that is my interpretation. “Severity” is an obvious linguistic tool when we discuss illness and the need to do something about it. But at the same time, it is difficult to define the term as a description of when conditions are (more or less) severe and when it is (more or less) motivated to do something about them. Some philosophers have therefore criticized the use of “severity” in discussions about, for example, priority setting in healthcare. The situation would become somewhat paradoxical, since an obviously relevant concept would be excluded because it is unclear how it can be transformed into a description that can be followed as if it were a simple rule.

If I understand the article correctly, the authors want to defend the concept of severity by showing that severity qualifies our moral motivation to act when someone is ill. They do this by describing six other concepts that it is more generally accepted should qualify how morally important it is to do something about a condition, including the concepts of need and lack of well-being. None of the six concepts coincides completely with the concept of severity, but when we try to assess how they affect the need to act, we will often simultaneously assess the severity. And when we assess the severity of an illness, we will often at the same time assess how the illness affects well-being, for example.

The authors’ conclusion is that the concept of severity is a morally relevant concept that should be considered in future discussions, as severity qualifies the moral motivation to act. However, I may have misunderstood the reasoning, so if you want to be on the safe side, you can read the article here: Severity as a moral qualifier of malady.

I want to end the post with a personal side note: I am inclined to say that the philosophical difficulty in defining the concept of severity (when we talk about disease) is similar to the difficulty in defining the concept of excess (when we talk about water levels). What makes these concepts so useful is their great pliability. It is difficult to say what “severe disease” or “excessively high water level” is, because it depends on so much. Pliable words like these are like tracking dogs that sensitively move through the terrain in all possible relevant directions. But if we try to reconstruct the tracking dog’s sensitivity in general intellectual terms, without access to the dog’s sense of smell, experiences and instincts, we run into great difficulties.

Should these philosophical difficulties motivate us to get rid of the dog? Of course not! Just as we learn incredibly much from following a tracking dog, we learn incredibly much from following the words “severe disease,” even if the journey is arduous. This underlines the authors’ conclusion: severity should be considered a morally significant concept that continues to deserve our attention.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

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

Solberg, C.T., Barra, M., Sandman, L. et al. Severity as a moral qualifier of malady. BMC Medical Ethics 24, 25 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12910-023-00903-2

This post in Swedish

We like challenging questions

The significance of the academic seminar

Ever since I was a doctoral student in philosophy, I have experienced the seminar, usually held once a week, as the heart of the academic environment. Why is the seminar so important?

If we are to stick to the etymology of the word, we should use a different image than that of the heart. The seminar is the nursery where seeds germinate and seedlings grow strong in a favourable environment, to then be planted out. That image fits well with doctoral education. The seminar is the place where doctoral students get training in presenting and discussing their scientific work. They get the opportunity to present their studies and texts and receive constructive criticism from senior researchers and from other doctoral students. In this way, their theses will be as brilliant as possible and they can practice the academic forms of giving and receiving constructive criticism, of defending their positions and changing their minds.

But there are also other seedlings in the academy than doctoral students and thesis drafts. Even senior researchers’ studies and texts are originally seedlings. Even these need to grow before they can be planted in scientific journals or at book publishers. The seminar never ceases to be a nursery. I dare say that the seminar is just as important for established researchers as it is for doctoral students.

The seminar is also the weekly event where something finally happens together with others. Academics often work in a certain solitude, especially when writing. Colleagues who may not have met since the last seminar reunite and continue the conversation in the familiar seminar room. Is the seminar like a recurring dance arrangement for lonely academics? Yes, the seminar probably also resembles an academic dance palace. In addition, sometimes you can invite presenters to the seminar, maybe even stars, then the event will be really brilliant.

The seminar is not least one of every academic institution’s most important places for discussion where colleagues meet regularly and learn to understand each other. Despite working from different theoretical, methodological and linguistic starting points. The academy is not homogenous, but is full of theories, methods and languages, even within the same discipline. If we do not meet every week and continue the conversation together, we soon become strangers who do not understand each other.

All these images reveal essential aspects of the academic seminar: the image of nursery as well as the image of the dance palace and the image of the place of discussion. Yet they do not reveal the significance of the seminar that I experience most strongly. I must return to the image of the heart, of the life-sustaining centre. I want to say that the seminar is the place where an academic subject becomes alive and real. The subject can be philosophy or literature, mathematics or neuroscience, law or economy. What can such strange subjects mean in the heart of a human being? At the seminar, living philosophers, literary scholars, mathematicians, lawyers or economists meet each other. At the seminar, they bring their academic subjects to life, for themselves and for younger researchers in the making. Each seminar pumps new reality into the subject, which would otherwise be pale and abstract. At the seminar you can see, hear and even smell what philosophy and other academic subjects really are. They never become more real than in the seminar.

I think we could go on forever looking for different meanings of the academic seminar.

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 education

Science, science communication and language

All communications require a shared language and fruitful discussions rely on conceptual clarity and common terms. Different definitions and divergent nomenclatures is a challenge for science: across different disciplines, between professions and when engaging with different publics. The audience for science communications is diverse. Research questions and results need to be shared within the field, between fields, with policy makers and publics. To be effective, the language, style and channel should to be adapted to the audiences’ needs, values and expectations.

This is not just in public facing communications. A recent discussion in Neuron is addressing the semantics of “sentience” in scientific communication, starting from an article by Brett J Kagan et al. on how in vitro neurons learn and exhibit sentience when embodied in a simulated game world. The article was published in December 2022 and received a lot of attention: both positive media coverage and a mix of positive and negative reactions from the scientific community. In a response, Fuat Balci et al. express concerns about the key claim in the article: claims that the authors demonstrated that cortical neurons are able to (in vitro) self-organise and display intelligent and sentient behaviour in a simulated game-world. Balci et al. are (among other things) critical of the use of terms and concepts that they claim misrepresent the findings. They also claim that Kagan et al. are overselling the translational and societal relevance of their findings. In essence creating hype around their own research. They raise a discussion about the importance of scientific communication: media tends to relay information from abstracts and statements about the significance of the research, and the scientists themselves amplify these statements in interviews. They claim that overselling results has an impact on how we evaluate scientific credibility and reliability. 

Why does this happen? Balci et al. point to a paper by Jevin D. West and Carl T. Bergstrom, from 2021 on misinformation in and about science, suggesting that hype, hyperbole (using exaggeration as a figure of speech or rhetorical device) and publication bias might have to do with demands on different productivity metrics. According to West and Bergstrom, exaggeration in popular scientific writing isn’t just misinforming the public: it also misleads researchers. In turn leading to citation misdirection and citation bias. A related problem is predatory publishing, which has the potential to mislead those of us without the means to detect untrustworthy publishers. And to top it off, echo-chambers and filter bubbles help select and deselect information and amplify the messages they think you want to hear.

The discussion in Neuron has continued with a response by Brett J. Kagan et al., in a letter about scientific communication and the semantics of sentience. They start by stating that the use of language to describe specific phenomena is a contentious aspect of scientific discourse and that whether scientific communication is effective or not depends on the context where the language is used. And that in this case using the term “sentience” has a technical meaning in line with recent literature in theoretical biology and the free energy principle, where biotic self-organisation is defined as either active inference or sentient behaviour

They make an interesting point that takes us back to the beginning of this post, namely the challenges of multidisciplinary work. Advancing research in cross-disciplinary collaboration is often challenging in the beginning because of difficulties integrating across fields. But if the different nomenclatures and approaches are recognized as an opportunity to improve and innovate, there can be benefits.

Recently, another letter by Karen S. Rommelfanger, Khara M. Ramos and Arleen Salles added a layer of reflection on the conceptual conundrums for neuroscience. In their own field of neuroethics, calls for clear language and concepts in scientific practice and communication is nothing new. They have all argued that conceptual clarity can improve science, enhance our understanding and lead to a more nuanced and productive discussion about the ethical issues. In the letter, the authors raise an important point about science and society. If we really believe that scientific terminology can retain its technically defined meaning when we transfer words to contexts permeated by a variety of cultural assumptions and colloquial uses of those same terms, we run the risk of trivialising the social and ethical impact that the choice of scientific terminology can have. They ask whether it is responsible of scientists to consider peers as their only (relevant) audience, or if conceptual clarity in science might often require public engagement and a multidisciplinary conversation.

One could also suggest that the choice to opt for terms like “sentience” and “intelligence” as a technical characterisation of how cortical neurons function in a simulated in-vitro game-world, could be considered to be questionable also from the point of view of scientific development. If we agree that neuroscience can shed light on sentience and intelligence, we also have to admit that at as of yet, we don’t know exactly how it will illuminate these capacities. And perhaps that means it is too early to bind very specific technical meaning to terms that have both colloquial and cultural meaning, and which neuroscience can illuminate in as yet unknown ways?

You may wonder why an ethics blog writer dares to express views on scientific terminology. The point I am trying to make is that we all use language, but we also produce language. Everyday. Together. In almost everything we do. This means that words like sentience and intelligence belong to us all. We have a shared responsibility for how we use them. The decision to give these common words technical meaning has consequences for how people will understand neuroscience when the words find their way back out of the technical context. But there can also be consequences for science when the words find their way in, as in the case under discussion. Because the boundaries between science and society might not be so clearly distinguishable as one might think.

Josepine Fernow

Written by…

Josepine Fernow, science communications project manager and coordinator at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics, develops communications strategy for European research projects

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We care about communication

Philosophers in democratic conversations about ethics, research and society

Philosophers have an ambiguous position in the knowledge society which could support democratic conversations where truth and openness are united. On the one hand, philosophers are driven by a strong desire for the truth. They ask questions more often than they give answers, and they do not give answers until they have thoroughly explored the questions and judged that they can establish the truth, to speak a little pompously. On the other hand, philosophers cannot communicate their conclusions to society with the same authority that empirical scientists can communicate their findings. Philosophical reasoning, however rigorous it may appear to be, does not function as scientific evidence. It would be doubtful if a philosopher said, “A very clear reasoning which I recently carried out shows that…,” and expected people to accept the conclusion, as we expect people to accept the results of empirical studies.

Despite their strong desire to find the truth, philosophers can thus rarely “inform” about the truths they believe they have found, but must exercise restraint and present these truths as proposals, and then appeal to their interlocutors to judge the proposal for themselves. That is, to think for themselves. The desire to communicate one’s philosophical conclusions to others thus results in conversations on more or less equal terms, where more or less clear reasoning is developed together during the course of the conversation. The philosopher’s ambiguous position in the knowledge society can here act as a catalyst for conversations where the aspiration to think correctly, and the will to think freely, support each other.

The ambiguous position of philosophy in the knowledge society is evident in medical ethics, because here philosophy is in dialogue with patients, healthcare professionals and medical researchers. In medical ethics, there are sometimes so-called “ethics rounds,” where an ethicist visits the hospital and discusses patient cases with the staff from ethical perspectives. The role of the ethicist or philosopher in these conversations is not to draw the correct ethical conclusions and then inform the staff of the morally right thing to do. By striving for truth and by asking questions, the philosopher rather supports the staff’s own ethical reasoning. Of course, one or another of the philosopher’s own conclusions can be expressed in the conversation, but as a suggestion and as an invitation to the staff to investigate for themselves whether it can be so. Often the most important thing is to identify the crucial issues. The philosopher’s ambiguous standing can in these contexts act as a catalyst for good conversations.

Another area where the ambiguous position of philosophy in the knowledge society is evident is in research communication of ethics research, like the one we do here at CRB. Ethicists sometimes conduct empirical studies of various kinds (surveys, interviews and experiments). They can then naturally expect people (the general public or relevant groups) to take the results to heart. But these empirical studies are usually done to shed light on some ethical difficulty and to draw ethical, normative conclusions on good grounds. Again, these conclusions can rarely be communicated as research findings, so the communicator also has to exercise restraint and present the conclusions as relevant proposals to continue thinking and talking about. Research communication becomes not only informative and explanatory, but also thoughtful. It appeals to people to think for themselves. Awareness of the ambiguous position of philosophy can thus support research communication that raises open questions, in addition to disseminating and explaining scientific findings.

Since political conclusions based on scientific studies seem to have a similar ambiguous status to ethical and philosophical conclusions, philosophy could also inspire wiser democratic conversations about how research should be implemented in society. This applies not least to controversial issues, which often polarize and encourage debaters to make strong claims to possess the best evidence and the most rigorous reasoning, which they believe justifies their positions. But such a truth authority on how we should live and organize society hardly exists, even if we strive for the truth. As soon as we talk to each other, we can only make suggestions and appeal to our interlocutors to judge the matter for themselves, just as we ourselves listen to our interlocutors’ objections, questions and suggestions.

Strong pursuit of truth requires great openness. When we philosophize, these aspects are at best united. In this way, philosophy could inspire democratic conversations where people actually talk to each other and seek the truth together. Not just make their voices heard.

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

A new project will explore the prospect of artificial awareness

The neuroethics group at CRB has just started its work as part of a new European research project about artificial awareness. The project is called “Counterfactual Assessment and Valuation for Awareness Architecture” (CAVAA), and is funded for a duration of four years. The consortium is composed of 10 institutions, coordinated by the Radboud University in the Netherlands.

The goal of CAVAA is “to realize a theory of awareness instantiated as an integrated computational architecture…, to explain awareness in biological systems and engineer it in technological ones.” Different specific objectives derive from this general goal. First, CAVAA has a robust theoretical component: it relies on a strong theoretical framework. Conceptual reflection on awareness, including its definition and the identification of features that allow its attribution to either biological organisms or artificial systems, is an explicit task of the project. Second, CAVAA is interested in exploring the connection between awareness in biological organisms and its possible replication in artificial systems. The project thus gives much attention to the connection between neuroscience and AI. Third, against this background, CAVAA aims at replicating awareness in artificial settings. Importantly, the project also has a clear ethical responsibility, more specifically about anticipating the potential societal and ethical impact of aware artificial systems.

There are several reasons why a scientific project with a strong engineering and computer science component also has philosophers on board. We are asked to contribute to developing a strong and consistent theoretical account of awareness, including the conceptual conceivability and the technical feasibility of its artificial replication. This is not straightforward, not only because there are many content-related challenges, but also because there are logical traps to avoid. For instance, we should avoid the temptation to validate an empirical statement on the basis of our own theory: this would possibly be tautological or circular.

In addition to this theoretical contribution, we will also collaborate in identifying indicators of awareness and benchmarks for validating the cognitive architecture that will be developed. Finally, we will collaborate in the ethical analysis concerning potential future scenarios related to artificial awareness, such as the possibility of developing artificial moral agents or the need to extend moral rights also to artificial systems.

In the end, there are several potential contributions that philosophy can provide to the scientific attempt to replicate biological awareness in artificial systems. Part of this possible collaboration is the fundamental and provoking question: why should we try to develop artificial awareness at all? What is the expected benefit, should we succeed? This is definitely an open question, with possible arguments for and against attempting such a grand accomplishment.

There is also another question of equal importance, which may justify the effort to identify the necessary and sufficient conditions for artificial systems to become aware, and how to recognize them as such. What if we will inadvertently create (or worse: have already created) forms of artificial awareness, but do not recognize this and treat them as if they were unaware? Such scenarios also confront us with serious ethical issues. So, regardless of our background beliefs about artificial awareness, it is worth investing in thinking about it.

Stay tuned to hear more from CAVAA!

Written by…

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

Part of international collaborations

Keys to more open debates

We are used to thinking that research is either theoretical or empirical, or a combination of theoretical and empirical approaches. I want to suggest that there are also studies that are neither theoretical nor empirical, even though it may seem unthinkable at first. This third possibility often occurs together with the other two, with which it is then interwoven without us particularly noticing it.

What is this third, seemingly unthinkable possibility? To think for yourself! Research rarely runs completely friction-free. At regular intervals, uncertainties appear around both theoretical and empirical starting points, which we have to clarify for ourselves. We then need to reflect on our starting points and perhaps even reconsider them. I am not referring primarily to how new scientific findings can justify re-examination of hypotheses, but to the continuous re-examinations that must be made in the research process that leads to these new findings. It happens so naturally in research work that you do not always think about the fact that you, as a researcher, also think for yourself, reconsider your starting points during the course of the work. Of course, thinking for yourself does not necessarily mean that you think alone. It often happens in conversations with colleagues or at research seminars. But in these situations there are no obvious starting points to start from. The uncertainties concern the starting points that you had taken for granted, and you are therefore referred to yourself, whether you think alone or with others.

This thinking, which paradoxically we do not always think we are doing, is rarely highlighted in the finished studies that are published as scientific articles. The final publication therefore does not give a completely true picture of what the research process looked like in its entirety, which is of course not an objection. On the contrary, it would be comical if autobiographical details were highlighted in scientific publications. There you cannot usually refer to informal conversations with colleagues in corridors or seminar rooms. Nevertheless, these conversations take place as soon as we encounter uncertainties. Conversations where we think for ourselves, even when it happens together. It would hardly be research otherwise.

Do you see how we ourselves get stuck in an unclear starting point when we have difficulty imagining the possibility of academic work that is neither theoretical nor empirical? We then start from a picture of scientific research, which focuses on what already completed studies look like in article form. It can be said that we start from a “façade conception” of scientific work, which hides a lot of what happens in practice behind the façade. This can be hard to come to terms with for new PhD students, who may think that researchers just pick their theoretical and empirical starting points and then elaborate on them. A PhD student can feel bad as a researcher, because the work does not match the image you get of research by reading finished articles, where everything seems to go smoothly. If it did, it would hardly be research. Yet, when seeking funding and ethics approval, researchers are forced to present their project plans as if everything had already gone smoothly. That is, as if the research had already been completed and published.

If what I am writing here gives you an idea of how easily we humans get stuck in unclear starting points, then this blog post has already served as a simple example of the third possibility. In this post, we think together, for ourselves, about an unclear starting point, the façade conception, which we did not think we were starting from. We open our eyes to an assumption which at first we did not see, because we looked at everything through it, as through the spectacles on the nose. Such self-examination of our own starting points can sometimes be the main objective, namely in philosophical studies. There, the questions themselves are already expressions of unclear assumptions. We get entangled in our starting points. But because they sit on our noses, we also get entangled in the illusion that the questions are about something outside of us, something that can only be studied theoretically and empirically.

Today I therefore want to illustrate how differently we can work as researchers. This by suggesting the reading of two publications on the same problem, where one publication is empirical, while the other is neither empirical nor theoretical, but purely philosophical. The empirical article is authored by colleagues at CRB; the philosophical article by me. Both articles touch on ethical issues of embryo donation for stem cell research. Research that in the future may lead to treatments for, for example, Parkinson’s disease.

The empirical study is an interview study with individuals who have undergone infertility treatment at an IVF clinic. They were interviewed about how they viewed leftover frozen embryos from IVF treatment, donation of leftover embryos in general and for cell-based treatment of Parkinson’s disease in particular, and much more. Such empirical studies are important as a basis for ethical and legal discussions about embryonic stem cell research, and about the possibility of further developing the research into treatments for diseases that today lack effective treatments. Read the interview study here: Would you consider donating your left-over embryos to treat Parkinson’s disease? Interviews with individuals who underwent IVF in Sweden.

The philosophical study examines concerns about exploitation of embryo donors to stem cell research. These concerns must be discussed openly and conscientiously. But precisely because issues of exploitation are so important, the debate about them risks being polarized around opposing starting points, which are not seen and cannot be reconsidered. Debates often risk locking positions, rather than opening our minds. The philosophical study describes such tendencies to be misled by our own concepts when we debate medical research, the pharmaceutical industry and risks of exploitation in donation to research. It wants to clarify the conditions for a more thoughtful and open discussion. Read the philosophical study here: The Invisible Patient: Concerns about Donor Exploitation in Stem Cell Research.

It is easy to see the relevance of the empirical study, as it has results to refer to in the debate. Despite the empirical nature of the study, I dare to suggest that the researchers also “philosophized” about uncertainties that appeared during the course of the work; that they thought for themselves. Perhaps it is not quite as easy to see the relevance of the purely philosophical study, since it does not result in new findings or normative positions that can be referred to in the debate. It only helps us to see how certain mental starting points limit our understanding, if they are not noticed and re-examined. Of what use are such philosophical exercises?

Perhaps the use of philosophy is similar to the use of a key that fits in the lock, when we want to get out of a locked room. The only thing is that in philosophy we often need the “key” already to see that we are locked up. Philosophical keys are thus forged as needed, to help us see our attachments to unclear starting points that need to be reconsidered. You cannot refer to such keys. You must use them yourself, on yourself.

While I was writing this “key” post, diligent colleagues at CRB published another empirical study on the use of human embryonic stem cells for medical treatments. This time an online survey among a random selection of Swedish citizens (reference and link below). The authors emphasize that even empirical studies can unlock polarized debates. This by supplementing the views of engaged debaters, who can sometimes have great influence, with findings on the views of the public and affected groups: voices that are not always heard in the debate. Empirical studies thus also function as keys to more open and thoughtful discussions. In this case, the “keys” are findings that can be referred to in debates.

– Two types of keys, which can contribute in different ways to more open debates.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

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

Bywall, K.S., Holte, J., Brodin, T. et al. Would you consider donating your left-over embryos to treat Parkinson’s disease? Interviews with individuals that underwent IVF in Sweden. BMC Med Ethics 23, 124 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12910-022-00864-y

Segerdahl, P. The Invisible Patient: Concerns about Donor Exploitation in Stem Cell Research. Health Care Analysis 30, 240–253 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10728-022-00448-2

Grauman, Å., Hansson, M., Nyholm, D. et al. Attitudes and values among the Swedish general public to using human embryonic stem cells for medical treatment. BMC Med Ethics 23, 138 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12910-022-00878-6

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Does public health need virtue ethics?

So-called virtue ethics may seem too inward-looking to be of any practical use in a complex world. It focuses on good character traits of a morally virtuous person, such as courage, sincerity, compassion, humility and responsibility. It emphasizes how we should be rather than how we should act. How can we find effective guidance in such “heroic” ethics when we seek the morally correct action in ethically difficult situations, or the correct regulation of various parts of the public sector? How can such ancient ethics provide binding reasons for what is morally correct? Humbly referring to one’s superior character traits is hardly the form of a binding argument, is it?

It is tempting to make fun of the apparently ineffective virtue ethics. But it has, in my view, two traits of greatest importance. The first is that it trusts the human being: in actual situations we can see what must be done, and what must be carefully considered. The second is that virtue ethics thus also supports our freedom. A virtuous person does not need to cling to standards of good behavior to avoid bad behavior, but will spontaneously behave well: with responsibility, humility, compassion, etc. So a counter-question could be: What good will it be for someone to gain a whole world of moral correctness, yet forfeit themselves and their own freedom? – This was a personal introduction to today’s post.

In an article in Public Health Ethics, Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist discusses public health as a domain of work where moral virtues may need to be developed and supported in the professionals. Unlike medical care, public health focuses on good and equal health in entire risk groups and populations. Due to this more universal perspective of collective health, there can be a risk that the interests, rights and values ​​of individuals are sometimes overlooked. The work therefore needs to balance the general public health objectives against the values ​​of individuals. This may require a well-developed sensitivity, which can be understood in terms of virtue ethics.

Furthermore, public health is often characterized by a greater distance between professionals and the public than in medical care, where the one-on-one meeting with the patient supports a caring attitude in the clinician towards the individual. Imagination and empathy may therefore be needed in public health to assess the needs of individuals and the effects of the work on individuals. Finally, there is power asymmetry between public health professionals and the people affected by the public health work. This requires responsibility on the part of those who use the resources and knowledge that public health authorities possess. This can also be understood in terms of virtue ethics.

Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist emphasizes three virtues that she argues are needed in public health: responsibility, compassion and humility. She concretises the virtues through three ideals to personally strive for in public health. The ideals are described in short italicized paragraphs, which provide three understandable profiles of how a responsible, compassionate and humble person should be in their work with public health – three clear role models.

The ethical problems are made concrete through two examples, breastfeeding and vaccination, which illustrate challenges and opportunities for virtue ethics in public health work. Read the article here: Public Health and the Virtues of Responsibility, Compassion and Humility.

Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist does not rule out the importance of other moral philosophical perspectives in public health. But the three virtue ethical ideals (and probably also other similar ideals) should complement the prevailing perspectives, she argues. Everything has its place, but finding the right place may require good character traits!

If you would also like to read a more recent and shorter discussion by Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist on these important issues, you will find a reference below.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

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

Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist, Public Health and the Virtues of Responsibility, Compassion and Humility, Public Health Ethics, Volume 12, Issue 3, November 2019, Pages 213–224, https://doi.org/10.1093/phe/phz007

Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist, Individual Virtues and Structures of Virtue in Public Health, Public Health Ethics, Volume 15, Issue 1, April 2022, Pages 11–15, https://doi.org/10.1093/phe/phac004

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A charming idea about consciousness

Some ideas can have such a charm that you only need to hear them once to immediately feel that they are probably true: “there must be some grain of truth in it.” Conspiracy theories and urban myths probably spread in part because of how they manage to charm susceptible human minds by ringing true. It is said that even some states of illness are spread because the idea of ​​the illness has such a strong impact on many of us. In some cases, we only need to hear about the diagnosis to start showing the symptoms and maybe we also receive the treatment. But even the idea of diseases spread by ideas has charm, so we should be on our guard.

The temptation to fall for the charm of certain ideas naturally also exists in academia. At the same time, philosophy and science are characterized by self-critical examination of ideas that may sound so attractive that we do not notice the lack of examination. As long as the ideas are limited hypotheses that can in principle be tested, it is relatively easy to correct one’s hasty belief in them. But sometimes these charming ideas consist of grand hypotheses about elusive phenomena that no one knows how to test. People can be so convinced by such ideas that they predict that future science just needs to fill in the details. A dangerous rhetoric to get caught up in, which also has its charm.

Last year I wrote a blog post about a theory at the border between science and philosophy that I would like to characterize as both grand and charming. This is not to say that the theory must be false, just that in our time it may sound immediately convincing. The theory is an attempt to explain an elusive “phenomenon” that perplexes science, namely the nature of consciousness. Many feel that if we could explain consciousness on purely scientific grounds, it would be an enormously significant achievement.

The theory claims that consciousness is a certain mathematically defined form of information processing. Associating consciousness with information is timely, we are immediately inclined to listen. What type of information processing would consciousness be? The theory states that consciousness is integrated information. Integration here refers not only to information being stored as in computers, but to all this diversified information being interconnected and forming an organized whole, where all parts are effectively available globally. If I understand the matter correctly, you can say that the integrated information of a system is the amount of generated information that exceeds the information generated by the parts. The more information a system manages to integrate, the more consciousness the system has.

What, then, is so charming about the idea that ​​consciousness is integrated information? Well, the idea might seem to fit with how we experience our conscious lives. At this moment you are experiencing multitudes of different sensory impressions, filled with details of various kinds. Visual impressions are mixed with impressions from the other senses. At the same time, however, these sensory impressions are integrated into a unified experience from a single viewpoint, your own. The mathematical theory of information processing where diversification is combined with integration of information may therefore sound attractive as a theory of consciousness. We may be inclined to think: Perhaps it is because the brain processes information in this integrative way that our conscious lives are characterized by a personal viewpoint and all impressions are organized as an ego-centred subjective whole. Consciousness is integrated information!

It becomes even more enticing when it turns out that the theory, called Integrated Information Theory (IIT), contains a calculable measure (Phi) of the amount of integrated information. If the theory is correct, then one would be able to quantify consciousness and give different systems different Phi for the amount of consciousness. Here the idea becomes charming in yet another way. Because if you want to explain consciousness scientifically, it sounds like a virtue if the theory enables the quantification of how much consciousness a system generates. The desire to explain consciousness scientifically can make us extra receptive to the idea, which is a bit deceptive.

In an article in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Björn Merker, Kenneth Williford and David Rudrauf examine the theory of consciousness as integrated information. The review is detailed and comprehensive. It is followed up by comments from other researchers, and ends with the authors’ response. What the three authors try to show in the article is that even if the brain does integrate information in the sense of the theory, the identification of consciousness with integrated information is mistaken. What the theory describes is efficient network organization, rather than consciousness. Phi is a measure of network efficiency, not of consciousness. What the authors examine in particular is that charming feature I just mentioned: the theory can seem to “fit” with how we experience our conscious lives from a unified ego-centric viewpoint. It is true that integrated information constitutes a “unity” in the sense that many things are joined in a functionally organized way. But that “unity” is hardly the same “unity” that characterizes consciousness, where the unity is your own point of view on your experiences. Effective networks can hardly be said to have a “viewpoint” from a subjective “ego-centre” just because they integrate information. The identification of features of our conscious lives with the basic concepts of the theory is thus hasty, tempting though it may be.

The authors do not deny that the brain integrates information in accordance with the theory. The theory mathematically describes an efficient way to process information in networks with limited energy resources, something that characterizes the brain, the authors point out. But if consciousness is identified with integrated information, then many other systems that process information in the same efficient way would also be conscious. Not only other biological systems besides the brain, but also artifacts such as some large-scale electrical power grids and social networks. Proponents of the theory seem to accept this, but we have no independent reason to suppose that systems other than the brain would have consciousness. Why then insist that other systems are also conscious? Well, perhaps because one is already attracted by the association between the basic concepts of the theory and the organization of our conscious experiences, as well as by the possibility of quantifying consciousness in different systems. The latter may sound like a scientific virtue. But if the identification is false from the beginning, then the virtue appears rather as a departure from science. The theory might flood the universe with consciousness. At least that is how I understand the gist of ​​the article.

Anyone who feels the allure of the theory that consciousness is integrated information should read the careful examination of the idea: The integrated information theory of consciousness: A case of mistaken identity.

The last word has certainly not been said and even charming ideas can turn out to be true. The problem is that the charm easily becomes the evidence when we are under the influence of the idea. Therefore, I believe that the careful discussion of the theory of consciousness as integrated information is urgent. The article is an excellent example of the importance of self-critical examination in philosophy and science.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

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

Merker, B., Williford, K., & Rudrauf, D. (2022). The integrated information theory of consciousness: A case of mistaken identity. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 45, E41. doi:10.1017/S0140525X21000881

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