Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Iacta Alea Esto

Blinded by Science?

With apologies to Thomas Dolby.

I was recently thinking about the progress humanity is making in the realm of automation and, more precisely, artificial intelligence.  As machines become better and better at emulating us, what will the impact be?  Is the future going to look utopian - for example, the sort cartoon future of "the Jetsons" type, or dystopian - the view offered in films like "Logan's Run" or worse, novels such as The Time Machine?

Translated from the Japanese, strong eat, weak meat.

I don't pretend to know, but today I was again thinking about the role "science" plays in our modern world.  In the US, there is a debate - in my view, of very, very little practical importance - about whether political candidates "believe in" science or not.  

In fact, my own view is that one believes in God (or not); one doesn't believe in science.  Science is a matter of precision and experiment, not of faith.  On Sunday morning, I repeat the Creed of Nicaea (or, on some weeks, the Apostle's Creed).  I don't perform a similar ritual when I am at work creating mathematical models.

There are, of course, political points to be had by trying to proclaim one's "belief" in science - or more to the point, the apparent lack of such faith in one's opponents.  We hear almost ad nauseum about whether this or that candidate is a creationist, or believes that the Christian bible is a literal work of history.  This again, in my own view, is pretty irrelevant to whether a congressional candidate is going to be able to reduce our grotesque budget deficits or help put more people to work or fix the immigration issues facing the US.

But perhaps nowhere is the science debate more immediate than in the realm of human reproduction - the debate about abortion rights, genetic engineering, and infertility.

I try to avoid arguing these topics, precisely because it is really here that science, ethics, an faith collide, and I am thus extremely ambivalent.  At the intersection of these ideas one finds odd conflicts - typically, self-proclaimed supporters of small government are quick to grant the state wide powers to proscribe abortion (what in other cicumstances would be recognised as clear and gross traductions of basic freedom).  On the other side, those who proclaim as loudly as possible a support of scientism and who describe abortion as merely a medical procedure to be dealth with between patient and doctor without limit suddenly get extremely cold feet when it is applied for, say, sex selection.

The issue is complicated, and I can see merit in each side.  

The article asks the provocative question of just where the ethical boundaries lie:
(Testing) raises unsettling ethical questions that trouble advocates for the disabled and have left some doctors struggling with what they should tell their patients. When are prospective parents justified in discarding embryos? Is it acceptable, for example, for diseases like GSS, that develop in adulthood? What if a gene only increases the risk of a disease? And should people be able to use it to pick whether they have a boy or girl? A recent international survey found that 2 percent of more than 27,000 uses of preimplantation diagnosis were made to choose a child’s sex
The science of eugenics has an ugly history in the 20th century, so people are rightly queasy when confronted.  

Currently, there are not laws in the US about the use of genetic testing in these cases.  And recent moves to block the use of testing (including ultrasound, a much cruder method) for sex selection have made for very strange political bedfellows.

But I've often wondered - if abortion is merely, as advocates of 'choice' puport, a medical procedure, then what possible, rational and consistent argument could one make that using genetic testing to select for "healthy" babies could exist?  Why not allow testing?  Where is the harm?  

Even further, what is the objection to allowing sex-selection?  After all, to use the "medical procedure" argument, it's not actually a girl that is being aborted, but merely cells.  

Of course, this is precisely the sort of problem that science is not designed to answer.  This is the realm of ethics, which almost necessarily falls beyond the realm of pure reason (Immanuel Kant to the side).

We struggle with these questions because we recognise that an "embryo" is something more than just a clump of cells.  Terminating the unborn because we fear disability almost surely leads to a devaluation of living human beings who are disabled.  THIS is where the advocates for the disabled immediately recognise the threat.

For when we start relying solely on what we can do - the realm of science - we start to lose focus on asking what we should do.

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