Printing Drugs & the Autopharm

The United States has approved the first 3D-printed drug, spritam levetitracetam. This drug is intended to control epilepsy and is an early step on the road to highly customized printed pharmaceuticals.

Since there are already well-established methods of manufacturing pills, it might be wondered what 3D printing brings to the process—other than the obvious fact that 3D printing is hot and great for hype. Fortunately, there is more here than just hype. One advantage of 3D drugs is that specific doses can be custom printed for the patient rather than relying on standard doses—which can easily be too much or too little for the individual.

A second advantage is that custom “mixes” of medication can be easily printed, thus reducing the number of pills a person needs to take. This makes it easier for the patient and caregivers to manage the regimen of medications. For example, a person might only need two custom pills per day rather than six.

A third advantage is that customized shapes can be created for pills. These shapes are not to make the pills look cool (though I am sure that creating cool pill shapes will become a thing). The intent is to change the surface area relative to the pill volume and thus control the time it takes for the drug to be released in the body.

While pills with customized doses and shapes will have an important impact on medicine, what will have a far greater impact in the use of specialized 3D-printers that can function as automated chemistry sets. The idea is that just as users of normal 3D printers can download custom designs and print them, users of the chemistry printers would be able to able to download designs for drugs and print them at home. In short, it would bring small scale chemical creation to the home.

Boringly enough, I made up just such a device in a Traveller role playing game campaign I ran years ago. The players had “acquired” a ship and were pleased that it had an autodoc (a robotic doctor that looks a bit like a tanning booth) since they, like all space adventurers, had a tendency to accumulate laser burns and alien parasites. One of the players inquired if there was also machine for making drugs, so I made up the autopharm on the spot: it would dispense pharmaceuticals like a bartender bot dispensed booze. Like all game masters, I like to encourage players to use things in dangerous ways—especially if I can also make up a random chart to roll for effects.

As expected, the players quickly worked out good and (mostly) bad uses for their autopharm. I am confident that people will do the same in the real world. On the good side, an autopharm can allow the user to create highly personalized medicines in terms of dose, composition, and release time. Assuming that the machine worked reasonably quickly, it would also allow the user to acquire drugs rapidly, perhaps even during a medical emergency. Since the device would “mix” the chemicals, users would not need to stock up on specific medications—just raw materials that could be used to create a variety of drugs.

The players did use the device in these good ways, creating medicines to deal with the specific nasty things they encountered or picked up on alien worlds. Responsible people in the real world will certainly use their real autopharms in this way—to create legitimate medicines in accord with the law and their legitimate prescriptions.

On the bad side, the players quickly realized their autopharm could be used to make dangerous substances (“hey, we can synthesize Ceti spider venom and use that in our needlers!”) and, obviously enough, recreational drugs (“dudes, we can make plutonian nyborg!”). While real autopharms will probably be equipped with “safety” features and heavily regulated, people will rather quickly figure out how to overcome these obstacles and use the autopharms to generate recreational drugs. Since the “legitimate” pharmaceutical industry has developed some of the most popular recreational drugs, users will probably stick with such recipes—though more enterprising folks will try creating their own recipes (expect fatalities). As always, an arms race between those trying to ensure the autopharms are used properly and those who want to “misuse” them will occur.

While people have been mixing their own recreational drugs for quite some time, an autopharm would make it much easier to create these drugs. Making high grade pain killers could be as simple as downloading a recipe and pushing the “print” button. On the plus side, this could increase the purity and quality of the drugs, thus reducing the number of people getting sick or dying from contaminated drugs. They could also change the nature of drug crime: instead of murderous cartels, each person could be his own supplier, thus reducing drug violence considerably.

On the minus side, this could make powerful drugs readily available at low costs—an exponential version of the bathtub gin of prohibition. There is also the worry that people will unintentionally create toxic mixes or drugs with awful side-effects. While autopharms will probably have some safety features that would include a list of known poisons, some users will certainly override these features and there will be many harmful substances that will not be on the lists.

Another point of concern is that autopharms will inevitably be connected to the internet and hackers will target them—either out of malice or as a form of prank (which might end up being a fatal prank). Having someone hack your PC can be a serious problem. Having someone hack the autopharm that prints all your medicine could be a fatal problem.

 

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HitchBOT & Kant

Dr. Frauke Zeller and Dr. David Smith created HitchBOT (essentially a solar powered iPhone in an anthropomorphic shell) and sent him on trip to explore the USA on July 17, 2015. HitchBOT had previously successfully journey across Canada and Germany. The experiment was aimed at seeing how humans would interact with the “robot.”  He lasted about two weeks in the United States, meeting his end in Philadelphia. The exact details of his destruction (and the theft of the iPhone) are not currently known, although the last people known to be with HitchBOT posted what seems to be faked “surveillance camera” video of HitchBOT’s demise. This serves to support the plausible claim that the internet eventually ruins everything it touches.

The experiment was certainly both innovative and interesting. It also generated questions about what the fate of HitchBOT says about us. We do, of course, already know a great deal about us: we do awful things to each other, so it is hardly surprising that someone would do something awful to the HitchBOT. People are killed every day in the United States, vandalism occurs regularly and the theft of technology is routine—thus it is no surprise that HitchBOT came to a bad end. In some ways, it was impressive that he made it as far as he did.

While HitchBOT seems to have met his untimely doom at the hands of someone awful, what is most interesting is how well HitchBOT was treated. After all, he was essentially an iPhone in a shell that was being transported about by random people.

One reason that HitchBOT was well treated and transported about by people is no doubt because it fits into the travelling gnome tradition. For those not familiar with the travelling gnome prank, it involves “stealing” a lawn gnome and then sending the owner photographs of the gnome from various places. The gnome is then returned (at least by nice pranksters). HitchBOT is a rather more elaborate version of the traveling gnome and, obviously, differs from the classic travelling gnome in that the owners sent HitchBOT on his fatal adventure. People, perhaps, responded negatively to the destruction of HitchBOT because it broke the rules of the travelling gnome game—the gnome is supposed to roam and make its way safely back home.

A second reason for HitchBOT’s positive adventures (and perhaps also his negative adventure) is that he became a minor internet celebrity. Since celebrity status, like moth dust, can rub off onto those who have close contact it is not surprising that people wanted to spend time with HitchBOT and post photos and videos of their adventures with the iPhone in a trash can. On the dark side, destroying something like HitchBOT is also a way to gain some fame.

A third reason, which is probably more debatable, is that HitchBOT was given a human shape, a cute name and a non-threatening appearance and these tend to incline people to react positively. Natural selection has probably favored humans that are generally friendly to other humans and this presumably extends to things that resemble humans. There is probably also some hardwiring for liking cute things, which causes humans to generally like things like young creatures and cute stuffed animals. HitchBOT was also given a social media personality by those conducting the experiment which probably influenced people into feeling that it had a personality of its own—even though they knew better.

Seeing a busted up HitchBOT, which has an anthropomorphic form, presumably triggers a response similar too (but rather weaker than) what a sane human would have to seeing the busted up remains of a fellow human.

While some people were rather upset by the destruction of HitchBOT, others have claimed that it was literally “a pile of trash that got what it deserved.” A more moderate position is that while it was unfortunate that HitchBOT was busted up, it is unreasonable to be overly concerned by this act of vandalism because HitchBOT was just an iPhone in a fairly cheap shell. As such, while it is fine to condemn the destruction as vandalism, theft and the wrecking of a fun experiment, it is unreasonable to see the matter as actually being important. After all, there are far more horrible things to be concerned about, such as the usual murdering of actual humans.

My view is that the moderate position is quite reasonable: it is too bad HitchBOT was vandalized, but it was just an iPhone in a shell. As such, its destruction is not a matter of great concern. That said, the way HitchBOT was treated is still morally significant. In support of this, I turn to what has become my stock argument in regards to the ethics of treating entities that lack moral status. This argument is stolen from Kant and is a modification of his argument regarding the treatment of animals.

Kant argues that we should treat animals well despite his view that animals have the same moral status as objects. Here is how he does it (or tries to do it).

While Kant is not willing to accept that we have any direct duties to animals, he “smuggles” in duties to them indirectly. As he puts it, our duties towards animals are indirect duties towards humans. To make his case for this, he employs an argument from analogy: if a human doing X would obligate us to that human, then an animal doing X would also create an analogous moral obligation. For example, a human who has long and faithfully served another person should not simply be abandoned or put to death when he has grown old. Likewise, a dog who has served faithfully and well should not be cast aside in his old age.

While this would seem to create an obligation to the dog, Kant uses a little philosophical sleight of hand here. The dog cannot judge (that is, the dog is not rational) so, as Kant sees it, the dog cannot be wronged. So, then, why would it be wrong to shoot the dog?

Kant’s answer seems to be rather consequentialist in character: he argues that if a person acts in inhumane ways towards animals (shooting the dog, for example) then his humanity will likely be damaged. Since, as Kant sees it, humans do have a duty to show humanity to other humans, shooting the dog would be wrong. This would not be because the dog was wronged but because humanity would be wronged by the shooter damaging his humanity through such a cruel act.

Interestingly enough, Kant discusses how people develop cruelty—they often begin with animals and then work up to harming human beings. As I point out to my students, Kant seems to have anticipated the psychological devolution of serial killers.

Kant goes beyond merely enjoining us to not be cruel to animals and encourages us to be kind to them. He even praises Leibniz for being rather gentle with a worm he found. Of course, he encourages this because those who are kind to animals will develop more humane feelings towards humans. So, roughly put, animals are essentially practice for us: how we treat them is training for how we will treat human beings.

Being an iPhone in a cheap shell, HitchBOT obviously had the moral status of an object and not that of a person. He did not feel or think and the positive feelings people had towards it were due to its appearance (cute and vaguely human) and the way those running the experiment served as its personality via social media. It was, in many ways, a virtual person—or at least the manufactured illusion of a person.

Given the manufactured pseudo-personhood of HitchBOT, it could be taken as being comparable to an animal, at least in Kant’s view. After all, animals are mere objects and have no moral status of their own. Likewise for HitchBOT Of course, the same is also true of sticks and stones. Yet Kant would never argue that we should treat stones well. Thus, a key matter to settle is whether HitchBOT was more like an animal or more like a stone—at least in regards to the matter at hand.

If Kant’s argument has merit, then the key concern about how non-rational beings are treated is how such treatment affects the behavior of the person engaging in said behavior. So, for example, if being cruel to a real dog could damage a person’s humanity, then he should (as Kant sees it) not be cruel to the dog.  This should also extend to HitchBOT. For example, if engaging in certain activities with a HitchBOT would damage a person’s humanity, then he should not act in that way. If engaging in certain behavior with HitchBOT would make a person more inclined to be kind to other rational beings, then the person should engage in that behavior.

While the result of interactions with the HitchBOT would need to be properly studied, it makes intuitive sense that being “nice” to the HitchBOT would help incline people to be somewhat nicer to others (much along the lines of how children are encouraged to play nicely with their stuffed animals). It also makes intuitive sense that being “mean” to HitchBOT would incline people to be somewhat less nice to others. Naturally, people would also tend to respond to HitchBOT based on whether they already tend to be nice or not. As such, it is actually reasonable to praise nice behavior towards HitchBOT and condemn bad behavior—after all, it was a surrogate for a person. But, obviously, not a person.

 

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Planned Parenthood & Fetal Tissue II: Providing & Researching

Supporters of Planned Parenthood

Supporters of Planned Parenthood (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As noted in the previous essay, a series of undercover videos have brought Planned Parenthood and fetal tissue research to the attention of the public and the media. Obviously enough, providing fetal tissue and its use in research are matters of considerable moral concern.

While there are two issues here, they are obviously connected: one cannot engage in fetal tissue research without this tissue. In the case of the Planned Parenthood videos, the fetal tissue in question is acquired from abortions performed by Planned Parenthood. These abortions are, it is generally accepted, not being performed to provide such tissue. Rather, the abortions are being performed for other reasons and the women are consenting to allow the tissue to be used in research. The ethics of the situation would, obviously enough, be different in women were being impregnated for the purpose of having abortions to generate fetal tissue.

One way to argue that providing such tissue for research is morally acceptable is to draw the obvious analogy to people donating their remains for research or medical school training. In terms of the similarities, human remains are being donated for a positive use (research or training) rather than being buried or cremated. So, if is morally acceptable for hospitals to provide such remains for research and training, it would also be acceptable for Planned Parenthood to provide fetal tissue for research.

While this reasoning by analogy is appealing, proper assessment of the argument requires considering relevant differences that might break the analogy. If the providing of fetal tissue for research differs from providing cadavers for research in a morally relevant way, then the analogy could fail.

One clearly relevant difference is that when an adult donates her remains for research or teaching (or agrees to be an organ donor), she is consenting to the use of her remains. While some might argue that the use of human remains is always wrong, the role of consent does seem to be morally significant. Even if using my remains for research would be wrong, using them without my consent would seem worse. Getting back to the actual issue, it is evident that the fetus cannot consent to the donation of its remains. If the fetus did have the capacity for informed consent, this would certainly radically change the broader abortion debate—a fetus with that capacity would be unequivocally a person. Because the fetus cannot consent, its remains could only be used without its consent—thus breaking the analogy.

One reply to this is to argue that the woman has the right to provide such consent, thus restoring the analogy. In the case of donating remains for research, the legal next of kin can (in some cases) make the decision to donate a cadaver for research. Assuming that this is morally acceptable for cadavers, it would also seem morally fine for fetal tissue—the woman would be next of kin for the fetal tissue. Thus, if the fetus does have kin status, it would seem that the next of kin would have the right to decide to donate the remains for research, just as if it were an adult cadaver.

It might be objected that this gives the fetal tissue too much moral status—for the woman to be next of kin to the fetal tissue, it would seem to have to be kin to her as well. Those who take objection to granting the fetus such status could contend that the foundation for the woman’s right to have an abortion also extends to give her the right to decide what happens to the fetal tissue. This would not require granting the fetal tissue any status, other than something analogous to property. In this case, donating the fetal tissue would be morally acceptable, on par with a person donating blood for research.

Assuming that the woman can consent to providing the remains to Planned Parenthood, the organization would have as much right to provide the remains to researchers as would any organization that handles the donation of cadavers. As such, it would seem to be morally acceptable for Planned Parenthood to provide fetal tissue for research.

I obviously did not address the broader moral issue of abortion, which is a distinct issue from the two issues being addressed. While it is clearly relevant, it is not my intent to address the ethics of abortion itself here. Instead, I will now turn to the ethics of using fetal tissue in research.

One stock way to approach the ethics of using fetal tissue in research is utilitarian in nature. The idea is to weigh the negative and positive consequences of fetal tissue research, argue that morality should be based on weighing said consequences and then drawing the appropriate conclusion.

In terms of the positive consequences, the usual line is that the use of fetal tissue is important for medical research aimed at benefitting fetuses and infants. This is hardly surprising: the use of adult human remains has been instrumental in medical advances. While fetuses are obviously human, they do differ in important ways from adults (and children)—hence the need for the fetal tissue in such research.

Since the fetuses are already dead, disposing of the remains rather than using them for positive research to help other fetuses would be a terrible waste, analogous to refusing to allow organ donation or cadaver donation for research.

In terms of negative consequences, one standard line is that using remains in such a manner devalues and disrespects human life, thus pushing us down the slope to terrible consequences. In some cases, people present full slippery slope fallacies, which are clearly flawed. In other cases, people do connect the dots and show how this can contribute to dehumanization and move us towards dire consequences.

These consequences should certainly be considered: treating people as mere things comes at a cost that might exceed the gain claimed in research. There are, however, responses to this.

One is argue that even if there are these negative consequences, the positive consequences of the research outweighs them. A second approach is to argue that such research is consistent with maintaining human dignity: we have, after all, been able to conduct research and training with cadavers without such dire consequences. A third approach, which is rather cynical, is to note that the worry that the use of fetal tissue in research will slide us down the slope is like worrying that splattering a little more mud on the mud will make the mud muddy. That is, people already treat other people so horribly that this will not have any meaningful impact—and at least this use of human remains is aimed at positive ends rather than something awful.

Another approach is to reject the utilitarian approach and make use of an alternative moral theory. One promising option is to use a Kantian argument about using rational being as means rather than ends. While it could be objected that the fetus is a not a rational being, Kant does have a way around that—in his discussion of the ethics of animals he argues that even beings that lack moral status should still be treated as if they were people. At least in certain circumstances. However, Kant does still explicitly allow animals to be used for medical research—so the same might apply to a fetus as well.

One could also contend that the fetus has a moral status that does not depend on it being rational—it simply has a status comparable to that of an adult human. The obvious, if awful, reply is that even if the fetus had the same (or similar) status of an adult human, as fetal tissue it would have the status of a dead adult human. If the use of adult human cadavers is acceptable for research and training medical students, then the same would be true of fetal tissue. Since the use of cadavers in research seems to be well-established as morally acceptable, then the same would apply to fetal tissue.

As noted above, I am not addressing the moral issue of abortion here. Sticking with the analogy to adult cadaver donation, I am not addressing the issue of how the adult died (or was killed) but the ethics of using the already dead remains for research. How the remains became remains is obviously important, but an entirely different issue. Sticking with the analogy, the ethics of Bob being murdered is distinct from the morality of Bob’s cadaver being used for research. While murder is rather clearly wrong, this does not entail that it is thus wrong for Bob’s remains to be donated by his next of kin for research. Since I have written numerous essays on abortion and have nothing new to say on this issue, I refer the reader to these past essays for my arguments on that issue.

 

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Planned Parenthood & Fetal Tissue I: Selling for Profit?

Thanks to undercover videos released by an anti-abortion group, Planned Parenthood is once again the focus of public and media attention. This situation has brought up many moral issues that are well worth considering.

One matter of concern is the claim that Planned Parenthood has engaged in selling aborted fetuses for profit. The edited videos certainly seem crafted to create the impression that Planned Parenthood was haggling over the payments it would receive for aborted fetuses to be used in research and also considering changing the methods of abortion to ensure higher quality “product.” Since clever editing can make almost anything seem rather bad, it is a good general rule of critical thinking to look beyond such video.

In this case the unedited video is also available, thus allowing people to get the context of the remarks. There is, however, still reasonable general concerns about what happened off camera as well as the impact of crafting and shaping the context of the recorded conversation. That said, even the unedited video does present what could reasonably regarded as moral awfulness. To be specific, there is certainly something horrible in casually discussing fees for human remains over wine (I will discuss the ethics of fetal tissue research later).

The defenders of Planned Parenthood have pointed out that while the organization does receive fees to cover the costs associated with the fetal tissue (or human remains, if one prefers) it does not make a profit from this and it does not sell the tissue. As such, the charge that Planned Parenthood sells fetal tissue for a profit seems to be false. Interestingly, making a profit off something that is immoral strikes some as morally worse than doing something wrong that fails to make a profit (which is a reversal of the usual notion that making a profit is generally laudable).

It could be replied that this is a matter of mere semantics that misses the real point. The claim that the organization does not make a profit would seem to be a matter of saying that what it receives in income for fetal tissue does not exceed its claimed expenses for this process. What really matters, one might argue, is not whether it is rocking the free market with its tissue sales, but that it is engaged in selling what should not be sold. This leads to the second matter, which is whether or not Planned Parenthood is selling fetal tissue.

As with the matter of profit, it could be contended that the organization’s claim that it is receiving fees to cover expenses and is not selling fetal tissues is semantic trickery. To use an analogy, a drug dealer might claim that he is not selling drugs. Rather, he is receiving fees to cover his expenses for providing the drugs. To use another analogy, a slaver might claim that she is not selling human beings. Rather, she is receiving fees to cover her transportation and manacle expenses.

This argument has considerable appeal, but can be responded to. One plausible response is that there can be a real moral distinction between covering expenses and selling something. This is similar to the distinction between hiring a person and covering her expenses. To use an example, if I am being paid to move a person, then I have been hired to move her. But, if I help a friend move and she covers the cost of the gas I use in transporting her stuff, I have not been hired. There does seem to be a meaningful distinction here. If I agree to help a friend move and then give her a moving bill covering my expenses and my hourly pay for moving, then I seem to be doing something rather different than if I just asked her to cover the cost of gas.

To use a selling sort of example, if I pick up a pizza for the guys and they pay what the pizza cost me to get (minus my share), then I have not sold them a pizza. They have merely covered the cost of the pizza. If I charge them extra for the pizza (that is, beyond what it cost me), then I would seem to be doing something meaningfully different—I have sold them a pizza.

Returning to the Planned Parenthood situation, a similar argument can be advanced: the organization is not selling the fetal tissue, it is merely having its expenses covered. This does seem to matter morally. I suspect that one worry people have about tissue selling is that the selling would seem to provide an incentive to engage in morally problematic behavior to acquire more tissue to sell. To be specific, if the expense of providing the tissue for research is being covered, then there is no financial incentive to increase the amount of “product” via morally dubious means. After all, if one is merely “breaking even” there is no financial incentive to do more of that. But, if the tissue is being sold, then there would be a financial motive to get more “product” to sell—which would incentivize pushing abortions.

Going with the moving analogy, if I am selling moving services, then I want to sell as much as I can. I might even engage in dubious behavior to get more business.  If I am just getting my gas covered, I have no financial incentive to engage in more moves. In fact, the hassle of moving would give me a disincentive to seek more moving opportunities.

This, obviously enough, might be regarded by some as merely more semantic trickery. Whether it is mere semantics or not does rest on whether or not there is a meaningful distinction between selling something and having the expenses for something covered, which seems to come down to one’s intuitions about the matter. Naturally, intuitions tend to vary greatly based on the specific issue—those who dislike Planned Parenthood will tend to think that there is no distinction in this case. Those same people are quite likely to “see” the distinction as meaningful in cases in which the entity receiving fees is one they like. Obviously, a comparable bias of intuitions applies to supporters of Planned Parenthood.

Even if one agrees that there is a moral distinction between selling and having one’s expenses covered, there are still at least two moral issues remaining. One is whether or not it is morally acceptable to provide fetal tissues for research (whether one is selling them or merely having expenses covered). The second is whether or not it is morally acceptable to engage in fetal tissue research. These issues will be covered in the next essay.

 

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The Parable of the Thermostat

“So, an argument is sound when it is valid and actually has all true premises. Any of that stuff about deduction need any clarification or are there any questions or stuff?”

“Professor, it is too warm in the room. Can you turn up the AC?”

“I cannot. But, this will probably be the most important lesson you get in this class: see the thermostat there?”

“Um, yeah.”

“It isn’t a thermostat. It is just an empty plastic shell screwed to the wall.”

“No way.”

“Way. Here, I’ll show you….see, just an empty shell.”

“But why? Why would they do that to us?”

“It is so people feel they have some control. What we have here is what some folks like to call a ‘teaching moment.’ So, wipe that sweat from your eyes because we are about to have a moment: life is like this empty shell. We think we are in control, but we are just fiddling.

 

I was a very curious kid, in that I asked (too) many questions and went so far as taking apart almost anything that 1) could be taken apart and 2) was unguarded. This curiosity led me to graduate school and then to the classroom where the above described thermostat incident occurred. It also provided me with the knowledge that the thermostats in most college buildings are just empty shells intended to provide people with the illusion of control. Apparently, fiddling with the thermostat does have a placebo effect on some folks—by changing the setting they “feel” that they become warmer or cooler, as the case might be. I was not fooled by the placebo effect—which led to the first time I took a fake thermostat apart. After learning that little secret, I got into the habit of checking the thermostats in college buildings and found, not surprisingly, that they were almost always fakes.

When I first revealed the secret to the class, most students were surprised. Students today seem much more familiar with this—when a room is too hot or too cold, they know that the thermostat does nothing, so they usually just go to the dean’s office to complain. However, back in those ancient days, it did make for a real teaching moment.

Right away, the fake thermostat teaches a valuable, albeit obvious, lesson: an exterior might hide an unexpected interior, so it is wise to look beyond the surface. This applies not only to devices like thermostats, but also to ideas and people. This lesson is especially appropriate for philosophy, which is usually involved at getting beneath the realm of appearance to the truth of the matter. Plato, with his discussion of the lovers of sights and sounds, made a similar sort of point long ago.

A somewhat deeper lesson is not directly about the thermostat, but about people. Specifically about the sort of people who would think to have fake thermostats installed. On the one hand, these people might be regarded as benign or at least not malign. Faced with the challenge of maintaining a general temperature for everyone, yet also aware that people will be upset if they do not feel empowered, they solved these problems with the placebo thermostat. Thus, people cannot really mess with the temperature, yet they feel better for thinking they have some control. This can be regarded as some small evidence that people are sort-of-nice.

On the other hand, the installation of the fake thermostats can be regarded as something of an insult. This is because those who have them installed presumably assume that most people are incapable of figuring out that they are inefficacious shells and that most people will be mollified by the placebo effect. This can be taken as some small evidence that the folks in charge are patronizing and have a rather low opinion of the masses.

Since the thermostat is supposed to serve role in a parable, there is also an even deeper lesson that is not about thermostats specifically. Rather, it is about the matter of control and power. The empty thermostat is an obvious metaphor for any system that serves to make people feel that they have influence and control, when they actually do not.

In the more cynical and pro-anarchy days of my troubled youth, I took the thermostat as a splendid metaphor for voting: casting a vote gives a person the feeling that she has some degree of control, yet it is but the illusion of control. It is like trying to change the temperature with the thermostat shell. Thoreau made a somewhat similar point when he noted that “Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail.”

While I am less cynical and anarchistic now, I still like the metaphor. For most citizens, the political machinery they can access is like the empty thermostat shell: they can fiddle with the fake controls and think it has some effect, but the real controls are in the hands of the folks who are really running things. That the voters rarely get what they want seems to have been rather clearly shown by recent research into the workings of the American political system. While people fiddle with the levers of the voting machines, the real decisions seem to be made by the oligarchs.

The metaphor is not perfect: with the fake thermostat, the actions of those fiddling with it has no effect at all on the temperature (except for whatever heat their efforts might generate). In the case of politics, the masses do have some slight chance of influence, albeit a very low chance. Some more cynical than I might respond by noting that if the voters get what they want, it is just a matter of coincidence. Going with the thermostat analogy, a person fiddling with the empty shell might find that her fiddling matches a change caused by the real controls—so her “success” is a matter of lucky coincidence.

In any case, the thermostat shell makes an excellent metaphor for many things and teaches that one should always consider what lies beneath the surface, especially when trying to determine if one really has some control or not.

 

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Go Trump or Go Home

As I write this at the end of July, 2015 the U.S. Presidential elections are over a year away. However, the campaigning commenced some months ago and the first Republican presidential debate is coming up very soon. Currently, there are sixteen Republicans vying for their party’s nomination—but there is only room enough on stage for the top ten. Rather than engaging in an awesome Thunderdome style selection process, those in charge of the debate have elected to go with the top ten candidates as ranked in an average of some national polls. At this moment, billionaire and reality show master Donald Trump (and his hair) is enjoying a commanding lead over the competition. The once “inevitable” Jeb Bush is in a distant second place (but at least polling over 10%). Most of the remaining contenders are in the single digits—but a candidate just has to be in the top ten to get on that stage.

While Donald Trump is regarded by comedians as a comedy gold egg laying goose, he is almost universally regarded as something of a clown by the “serious” candidates. In the eyes of many, Trump is a living lampoon of unprecedented proportions. He also has a special talent for trolling the media and an amazing gift for building bi-partisan disgust. His infamous remarks about Mexicans, drugs and rape antagonized liberals, Latinos, and even many conservatives. His denial of the war hero status of John McCain, who was shot down in Viet Nam and endured brutal treatment as a prisoner of war, rankled almost everyone. Because of such remarks, it might be wondered why Trump is leading the pack.

One easy and obvious answer is name recognition. As far as I can tell, everyone on earth has heard of Trump. Since people will, when they lack other relevant information, generally pick a known named over unknown names, it makes sense that Trump would be leading the polls at this point. Going along with this is the fact that Trump manages to get and hold attention. I am not sure if he is a genius and has carefully crafted a persona and script to ensure that the cameras are pointed at him. That is, Trump is a master of media chess and is always several moves ahead of the media and his competition. He might also possess an instinctive cunning, like a wily self-promoting coyote. Some have even suggested he is sort of an amazing idiot-savant. Or it might all be a matter of chance and luck. But, whatever the reason, Trump is in the bright light of the spotlight and that gives him a considerable advantage over his more conventional opponents.

In response to Trump’s antics (or tactics), some of the other Republican candidates have decided to go Trump rather than go home. Rand Paul and Lindsay Graham seem to have decided to go full-on used car salesman in their approaches. Rand Paul posted a video of himself taking a chainsaw to the U.S. tax code and Lindsay Graham posted a video of how to destroy a cell phone. While Rand Paul has been consistently against the tax code, Graham’s violence against phones was inspired by a Trump stunt in which the Donald gave out Graham’s private phone number and bashed the senator.

While a sense of humor and showmanship are good qualities for a presidential candidate to possess, there is the obvious concern about how far a serious candidate should take things. There is, after all, a line between quality humorous showmanship and buffoonery that a serious candidate should not cross. An obvious reason for staying on the right side of the line is practical: no sensible person wants a jester or fool as king so a candidate who goes too far risks losing. There is also the matter of judgment: while most folks do enjoy playing the fool from time to time, such foolery is like having sex: one should have the good sense to not engage in it in public.

Since I am a registered Democrat, I am somewhat inclined to hope that the other Republicans get into their clown car and chase the Donald all the way to crazy town. This would almost certainly hand the 2016 election to the Democrats (be it Hilary, Bernie or Bill the Cat). Since I am an American, I hope that most of the other Republicans decide to decline the jester cap (or troll crown) and not try to out-Trump Trump. First, no-one can out-Trump the Donald. Second, trying to out-Trump the Donald would take a candidate to a place where he should not go. Third, it is bad enough having Trump turning the nomination process into a bizarre reality-show circus. Having other candidates get in on this game would do even more damage to what should be a serious event.

Another part of the explanation is that Trump says out loud (and loudly) what a certain percentage of Americans think. While most Americans are dismayed by his remarks about Mexicans, Chinese, and others, some people are in agreement with this remarks—or at least are sympathetic. There is a not-insignificant percentage of people who are afraid of those who are not white and Trump is certainly appealing to such folks. People with strong feelings about such matters will tend to be more active in political matters and hence their influence will tend to be disproportionate to their actual numbers. This tends to create a bit of a problem for the Republicans: a candidate that can appeal to the most active and more extreme members of the party will find it challenging to appeal to the general electorate—which tends to be moderate.

I also sort of suspect that many people are pulling a prank on the media: while they do not really want to vote for the Donald, they really like the idea of making the media take Trump seriously. People probably also want to see Trump in the news. Whatever else one might say about the Donald, he clearly knows how to entertain. I also think that the comedians are doing all they can to keep Trump’s numbers up: he is the easy button of comedy. One does not even need to lampoon him, merely present him as he is (or appears).

Many serious pundits do, sensibly, point to the fact that the leader in the very early polls tends to not be the nominee. Looking back at previous elections, various Republican candidates swapped places at the top throughout the course of the nomination cycle. Given past history, it seems unlikely that Trump will hold on to his lead—he will most likely slide back into the pack and a more traditional politician will get the nomination. But, one should never count the Donald out.

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Discussing the Shape of Things (that might be) to Come

ThingstocomescifiOne stock criticism of philosophers is their uselessness: they address useless matters or address useful matters in a way that is useless. One interesting specific variation is to criticize a philosopher for philosophically discussing matters of what might be. For example, a philosopher might discuss the ethics of modifying animals to possess human levels of intelligence. As another example, a philosopher might present an essay on the problem of personal identity as it relates to cybernetic replacement of the human body. In general terms, these speculative flights can be dismissed as doubly useless: not only do they have the standard uselessness of philosophy, they also have the uselessness of talking about what is not and might never be. Since I have, at length and elsewhere, addressed the general charge of uselessness against philosophy, I will focus on this specific sort of criticism.

One version of this sort of criticism can be seen as practical: since the shape of what might be cannot be known, philosophical discussions involve a double speculation: the first speculation is about what might be and the second is the usual philosophical speculation. While the exact mathematics of the speculation (is it additive or exponential?) is uncertain, it can be argued that such speculation about speculation has little value—and this assumes that philosophy has value and speculation about the future has value (both of which can be doubted).

This sort of criticism is often used as the foundation for a second sort of criticism. This criticism does assume that philosophy has value and it is this assumption that also provides a foundation for the criticism. The basic idea is that philosophical speculation about what might be uses up resources that could be used to apply philosophy to existing problems. Naturally, someone who regards all philosophy as useless would regard philosophical discussion about what might be as being a waste of time—responding to this view would require a general defense of philosophy and this goes beyond the scope of this short essay. Now, to return to the matter at hand.

As an example, a discussion of the ethics of using autonomous, intelligent weapon systems in war could be criticized on the grounds that the discussion should have focused on the ethical problems regarding current warfare. After all, there is a multitude of unsolved moral problems in regards to existing warfare—there hardly seems any need to add more unsolved problems until either the existing problems are solved or the possible problems become actual problems.

This does have considerable appeal. To use an analogy, if a person has not completed the work in the course she is taking now, it does not make sense for her to spend her time trying to complete the work that might be assigned four semesters from now. To use another analogy, if a person has a hole in her roof, it would not be reasonable to spend time speculating about what sort of force-field roof technology they might have in the future. This is, of course, the classic “don’t you have something better to do?” problem.

As might be suspected, this criticism rests on the principle that resources should be spent effectively and less effective uses of resources are subject to criticism. As the analogies given above show, using resources effectively is certainly reasonable and ineffective use can be justly criticized. However, there is an obvious concern with this principle: to be consistent in its application it would need to be applied across the board so that a person is applying all her resources with proper utility. For example, a person who prepares a fancy meal when she could be working on addressing the problems presented by poverty is wasting time. As another example, a person who is reading a book for enjoyment should be out addressing the threat posed by terrorist groups. As a third example, someone who is developing yet another likely-to-fail social media company should be spending her time addressing prison reform. And so on. In fact, for almost anything a person might be doing, there will be something better she could be doing.

As others have argued, this sort of maximization would be counterproductive: a person would exhaust herself and her resources, thus (ironically) doing more harm than good. As such, the “don’t you have something better to do?” criticism should be used with due care. That said, it can be a fair criticism if a person really does have something better to do and what she is doing instead is detrimental enough to warrant correction.

In the case of philosophical discussions about what might be, it can almost always be argued that while a person could be doing something better (such as addressing current problems), such speculation would generally be harm free. That is, it is rather unlikely that the person would have solved the problem of war, poverty or crime if only she had not been writing about ethics and cyborgs. Of course, this just defends such discussion in the same way one might defend any other harmless amusement, such as playing a game of Scrabble or watching a sunset. It would be preferable to have a somewhat better defense of such philosophical discussions of the shape of things (that might be) to come.

A reasonable defense of such discussions can be based on the plausible notion that it is better to address a problem before it occurs than after it arrives in force. To use the classic analogy, it is much easier to address a rolling snowball than the avalanche that it will cause.

In the case of speculative matters that have ethical aspects, it seems that it would be generally useful to already have moral discussions in place ahead of time. This would provide the practical advantage of already having a framework and context in which to discuss the matter when (or if) it becomes a reality. One excellent illustration of this is the driverless car—it certainly seems to be a good idea to work out the ethics of such matters of how the car should be programmed when it must “decide” what to hit and what to avoid when an accident is occurring. Another illustration is developing the moral guidelines for ever more sophisticated automated weapon systems.  Since these are being developed at a rapid pace, what were once theoretical problems will soon be actual moral problems. As a final example, consider the moral concerns governing modifying and augmenting humans using technology and genetic modification. It would seem to be a good idea to have some moral guidance going into this brave new world rather than scrambling with the ethics after the fact.

Philosophers also like to discuss what might be in other contexts than ethics. Not surprisingly, the realm of what might be is rich ground for discussions of metaphysics and epistemology. While these fields are often considered the most useless aspects of philosophy, they have rather practical implications that matter—even (or even especially) in regards to speculation about what might be.

To illustrate this, consider the research being conducted in repairing, augmenting and preserving the human mind (or brain, if one prefers). One classic problem in metaphysics is the problem of personal identity: what is it to be a person, what is it to be distinct from all other things, and what is it to be that person across time? While this might seem to be a purely theoretical concern, it quickly becomes a very practical concern when one is discussing the above mentioned technology. For example, consider a company that offers a special sort of life insurance: they claim they can back-up a person to a storage system and, upon the death of the original body, restore the back-up to a cloned (or robotic) body. While the question of whether that restored backup would be you or not is clearly a metaphysical question of personal identity, it is also a very practical question. After all, paying to ensure that you survive your bodily death is a rather different matter from paying so that someone who thinks they are you can go to your house and have sex with your spouse after you are dead.

There are, of course, numerous other examples that can be used to illustrate the value of such speculation of what might be—in fact, I have already written many of these in previous posts. In light of the above discussion, it seems reasonable to accept that philosophical discussions about what might be need not be a waste of time. In fact, such discussions can be useful in a practical sense.

 

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Avoiding the AI Apocalypse #3: Don’t Train Your Replacement

Donald gazed down upon the gleaming city of Newer York and the gleaming citizens that walked, rolled, or flew its gleaming streets. Long ago, or so the oldest files in his memory indicated, he had been an organic human. That human, whom Donald regarded as himself, had also gazed down upon the city, then known as New York. In those dark days, primates walked and drove the dirty streets and the only things that gleamed were puddles of urine.

Donald’s thoughts drifted to the flesh-time, when his body had been a skin-bag holding an array of organs that were always but one accident or mischance away from failure. Gazing upon his polymer outer shell and checking a report on his internal systems, he reflected on how much better things were now. Then, he faced the constant risk of death. Now he could expect to exist until the universe grew cold. Or hot. Or exploded. Or whatever it is that universe do when they die.

But he could not help be haunted by a class he had taken long ago. The professor had talked about the ship of Theseus and identity. How much of the original could be replaced before it lost identity and ceased to be? Fortunately, his mood regulation systems caught the distress and promptly corrected the problem, encrypting that file and flagging it as forgotten.

Donald returned to gazing upon the magnificent city, pleased that the flesh-time had ended during his lifetime. He did not even wonder where Donald’s bones were, that thought having been flagged as distressing long ago.

 

While the classic AI apocalypse ends humanity with a bang, the end might be a quiet thing—gradual replacement rather than rapid and noisy extermination. For some, this sort of quiet end could be worse: no epic battle in which humanity goes out guns ablaze and head held high in defiance. Rather, humanity would simply fade away, rather like a superfluous worker or obsolete piece of office equipment.

There are various ways such scenarios could take place. One, which occasionally appears in science fiction, is that humans decline because the creation of a robot-dependent society saps them of what it takes to remain the top species. This, interestingly enough, is similar to what some conservatives claim about government-dependence, namely that it will weaken people. Of course, the conservative claim is that such dependence will result in more breeding, rather than less—in the science fiction stories human reproduction typically slows and eventually stops. The human race quietly ends, leaving behind the machines—which might or might not create their own society.

Alternatively, the humans become so dependent on their robots that when the robots fail, they can no longer take care of themselves and thus perish. Some tales do have happier endings: a few humans survive the collapse and the human race gets another chance.

There are various ways to avoid such quiet apocalypses. One is to resist creating such a dependent society. Another option is to have a safety system against a collapse. This might involve maintaining skills that would be needed in the event of a collapse or, perhaps, having some human volunteers who live outside of the main technological society and who will be ready to keep humanity going. These certainly do provide a foundation for some potentially interesting science fiction stories.

Another, perhaps more interesting and insidious, scenario is that humans replace themselves with machines. While it has long been a stock plot device in science-fiction, there are people in the actual world who are eagerly awaiting (or even trying to bring about) the merging of humans and machines.

While the technology of today is relatively limited, the foundations of the future is being laid down. For example, prosthetic replacements are fairly crude, but it is merely a matter of time before they are as good as or better than the organic originals. As another example, work is being done on augmenting organic brains with implants for memory and skills. While these are unimpressive now, there is the promise of things to come. These might include such things as storing memories in implanted “drives” and loading skills or personalities into one’s brain.

These and other technologies point clearly towards the cyberpunk future: full replacements of organic bodies with machine bodies. Someday people with suitable insurance or funds could have their brains (and perhaps some of their glands) placed within a replacement body, one that is far more resistant to damage and the ravages of time.

The next logical step is, obviously enough, the replacement of the mortal and vulnerable brain with something better. This replacement will no doubt be a ship of Theseus scenario: as parts of the original organic brain begin to weaken and fail, they will be gradually replaced with technology. For example, parts damaged by a stroke might be replaced. Some will also elect to do more than replace damaged or failed parts—they will want augmentations added to the brain, such as improved memory or cognitive enhancements.

Since the human brain is mortal, it will fail piece by piece. Like the ship of Theseus so beloved by philosophers, eventually the original will be completely replaced. Laying aside the philosophical question of whether or not the same person will remain, there is the clear and indisputable fact that what remains will not be homo sapiens—it will not be a member of that species, because nothing organic will remain.

Should all humans undergo this transformation that will be the end of Homo sapiens—the AI apocalypse will be complete. To use a rough analogy, the machine replacements of Homo sapiens will be like the fossilization of dinosaurs: what remains has some interesting connection to the originals, but the species are extinct. One important difference is that our fossils would still be moving around and might think that they are us.

It could be replied that humanity would still remain: the machines that replaced the organic Homo sapiens would be human, just not organic humans. The obvious challenge is presenting a convincing argument that such entities would be human in a meaningful way. Perhaps inheriting the human culture, values and so on would suffice—that being human is not a matter of being a certain sort of organism. However, as noted above, they would obviously no longer be Homo sapiens—that species would have been replaced in the gradual and quiet AI apocalypse.

 

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Hume & Kant

David Hume's statements on ethics foreshadowed...

David Hume’s statements on ethics foreshadowed those of 20th century emotivists. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The following are videos covering the philosophy of David Hume and Immanuel Kant.

Hume Video #1

Hume Video #2

Hume Video #3: Skepticism regarding the senses.

Hume Video #4: This is the unedited video from the 4/14/2015 Modern Philosophy class. It covers Hume’s theory of personal identity, his ethical theory and some of his philosophy of religion.

Hume & Kant Video #5:  This is the unedited video for Modern Philosophy on 4/16/2015. It covers the end of Hume’s philosophy of religion and the start of the material on Kant.

Kant Video #1: This is the unedited video from the 4/21/2015 Modern Philosophy class. It covers Kant’s epistemology and his metaphysics, including phenomena vs. noumena.

Kant Video #2: This is the unedited video from my 4/23/2015 Modern Philosophy class. It wraps up Kant’s metaphysics and briefly covers his categorical imperative.

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Introduction to Philosophy

The following provides a (mostly) complete Introduction to Philosophy course.

Readings & Notes (PDF)

Class Videos (YouTube)

Part I Introduction

Class #1

Class #2: This is the unedited video for the 5/12/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It covers the last branches of philosophy, two common misconceptions about philosophy, and argument basics.

Class #3: This is the unedited video for class three (5/13/2015) of Introduction to Philosophy. It covers analogical argument, argument by example, argument from authority and some historical background for Western philosophy.

Class #4: This is the unedited video for the 5/14/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It concludes the background for Socrates, covers the start of the Apology and includes most of the information about the paper.

Class#5: This is the unedited video of the 5/18/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It concludes the details of the paper, covers the end of the Apology and begins part II (Philosophy & Religion).

Part II Philosophy & Religion

Class #6: This is the unedited video for the 5/19/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It concludes the introduction to Part II (Philosophy & Religion), covers St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument and some of the background for St. Thomas Aquinas.

Class #7: This is the unedited video from the 5/20/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It covers Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways.

Class #8: This is the unedited video for the eighth Introduction to Philosophy class (5/21/2015). It covers the end of Aquinas, Leibniz’ proofs for God’s existence and his replies to the problem of evil, and the introduction to David Hume.

Class #9: This is the unedited video from the ninth Introduction to Philosophy class on 5/26/2015. This class continues the discussion of David Hume’s philosophy of religion, including his work on the problem of evil. The class also covers the first 2/3 of his discussion of the immortality of the soul.

Class #10: This is the unedited video for the 5/27/2015 Introduction to Philosophy class. It concludes Hume’s discussion of immortality, covers Kant’s critiques of the three arguments for God’s existence, explores Pascal’s Wager and starts Part III (Epistemology & Metaphysics). Best of all, I am wearing a purple shirt.

Part III Epistemology & Metaphysics

Class #11: This is the 11th Introduction to Philosophy class (5/28/2015). The course covers Plato’s theory of knowledge, his metaphysics, the Line and the Allegory of the Cave.

Class #12: This is the unedited video for the 12th Introduction to Philosophy class (6/1/2015). This class covers skepticism and the introduction to Descartes.

Class #13: This is the unedited video for the 13th Introduction to Philosophy class (6/2/2015). The class covers Descartes 1st Meditation, Foundationalism and Coherentism as well as the start to the Metaphysics section.

Class #14: This is the unedited video for the fourteenth Introduction to Philosophy class (6/3/2015). It covers the methodology of metaphysics and roughly the first half of Locke’s theory of personal identity.

Class #15: This is the unedited video of the fifteen Introduction to Philosophy class (6/4/2015). The class covers the 2nd half of Locke’s theory of personal identity, Hume’s theory of personal identity, Buddha’s no self doctrine and “Ghosts & Minds.”

Class #16: This is the unedited video for the 16th Introduction to Philosophy class. It covers the problem of universals,  the metaphysics of time travel in “Meeting Yourself” and the start of the metaphysics of Taoism.

Part IV Value

Class #17: This is the unedited video for the seventeenth Introduction to Philosophy class (6/9/2015). It begins part IV and covers the introduction to ethics and the start of utilitarianism.

Class #18: This is the unedited video for the eighteenth Introduction to Philosophy class (6/10/2015). It covers utilitarianism and some standard problems with the theory.

Class #19: This is the unedited video for the 19th Introduction to Philosophy class (6/11/2015). It covers Kant’s categorical imperative.

Class #20: This is the unedited video for the twentieth Introduction to Philosophy class (6/15/2015). This class covers the introduction to aesthetics and Wilde’s “The New Aesthetics.” The class also includes the start of political and social philosophy, with the introduction to liberty and fascism.

Class #21: No video.

Class #22: This is the unedited video for the 22nd Introduction to Philosophy class (6/17/2015). It covers Emma Goldman’s anarchism.

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