Wednesday, January 19, 2005


The petri plate is the work of Satan. How does God know what a petri plate is in this ancient time before the advent of scientific achievement? It is because he's God, which is really handy for that sort of thing.

Go forth my children and use the word "embryo" whenever you can. It is a very pleasant-sounding word—say it as often as possible. In fact, my children, try this: point to anything and everything and say, "That's an embryo."

Mary tells us, "When a sperm and an egg come together, it represents the ultimate act of compassion and love. Therefore, it is a grievous sin to do studies on this type of thing. Plus, it's also kind of private."

The Lord says that our precious hearts and minds represent flesh of enormous piety. They should never be regenerated, regardless of the circumstances. While we're at it, we should also never regenerate eyebrows, nosehairs, or nipples—although the Lord figures that that is a given anyway.

For people who have had an accident and have lost the use of their legs, it is not the way of the Lord to try to fix this pain. Instead, God will tell them, "That's too bad." Then he will likely tell them a good joke to make them feel better.

And Jesus said, "Liquid nitrogen is evil. Once, while playing with it, I froze my finger solid and it actually broke off. Lucky for me I'm the Son of God, and I can just grow another one."

Friday, January 14, 2005

Why nanoethics?

I was having a conversation tonight and was asked what was the big deal about considering the ethical implications of nanotechnology and I thought that I would publish my answer here.

Why nanoethics? Well, for all of history, man has been defined by both who he is (what is a human) and what he does. Indeed, many have suggested that the term homo sapiens ought to be replaced homo faciens. Over the years, from ancient Greece and Rome with water clocks and catapults to current day, our technology has acted upon us and changed what it is that humans do and what it is that humans are. It is important to care about what man will be. We need to recognize that there is more at stake in technology than just improving life. We must strive to protect and preserve human dignity and the ideas and practices that make us human.

We face two interlocking and interplaying revolutions in technology nowadays. There is the biotech revolution (with stem cells leading the debate) and there is the nanotech revolution. It is important to consider these two together as they are enablers of each other. Their development has and will continue to occur in parallel. In one, we are changing and impacting life and humanity in very new ways and changing the very DNA that makes us up.We need to recognize that there is more at stake in technology than just improving life. We must strive to protect and preserve human dignity and the ideas and practices that make us human.

There is also the nanotech revolution. It's development is focused on impacting nature and technology on the order of an individual atom, one of the most fundamental building blocks of nature (and, surely, one of the most basic ones that can with reasonable energy that is available on Earth). Using and developing this technology changes directly how man interacts with the world and thus man himself. We need to recognize that there is more at stake in technology than just improving life. We must strive to protect and preserve human dignity and the ideas and practices that make us human.

So, in a nutshell, that is why nanoethics.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

The Ethics of Genetics Screening

Ignoring some of the aesthetic issues, Dr. Daniel Eisenberg provides a very interesting look into the Jewish ethical perspective on issues related to screening for Tay-Sachs disease
Genetic screening for recessive traits is a great boon to the Jewish community (and the rest of the world). Whether done confidentially or publicly, the information gained provides the opportunity to make wise and informed decisions about the future. There are no health ramifications for the person being tested, but by utilizing such means, we can look forward to a future filled with more hope and less disease.

It's important to note that this evaluation applies to recessive traits that have large health detriments to the person who has the trait implemented in them (that is, not just a carrier).

Friday, January 07, 2005

Book to read

I picked up a copy of my ex-professor Leon Kass's "Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics". It focuses more on bioethics than on nanoethics (though the two are intertwined), but I'm sure it will be a wonderful read. This title is more important, but it's too much on Amazon and I've yet to see it in the store.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

On misinterpretation of dangerous ideas

Here are some interesting notes at a coffee talk session at Emory I wish I'd been at.
Some of the more interesting points (Italics are my comments)
  • Communication is a key issue in all situations involving "dangerous ideas"
  • An ethical argument can be made: Scientists should not be held responsible for other people misusing their research. There are moral objections, however, to scientists carrying out research, and NOT CARING how this research is used. Note that there can also be made an argument, one that I think is stronger, that Scientists ought to be held responsible for other people misusing their research in foreseeable manners. See the next major point for more on this.
    • Even innocent, curiosity-based research can stumble into areas that can be misconstrued or misused
    • All people should be able to think through decisions ethically
  • Scientists should be trained to think about ethical implications of research - Before they partake in the research itself. Ignorance of ethical obligations is no excuse for shirking them off. This goes together with scientists foreseeing the misuse of their research. Training ought to begin in basic ethics and how it relates to science before the undergraduate level. And ought to intensify as the scientist progresses.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Superficial consideration of nanoethics

I suppose that it is a good thing that it is being discussed, but this report on nanoethics by Bert Gordijn sponsored by UNESCO (called “Nanoethics: From Utopian Dreams and Apocalyptic Nightmares towards a more Balanced View”) is particularly superficial and shows a very minimal desire actually to pursue the ethical issues behind nanotechnology. The claim in the introduction of the report is that “the focus of the paper is on the methodology and not on normative analysis.” However, an objective reading of the report reveals significant normative analysis and minimal concern for studying actual ethical issues.

The sections on the definition of nanotechnology (entitled “Terminology and basic idea,” “Practical development,” “Theoretical development,” and “State of the field at present”) are full of a strong biases in favor of both a Drexlerian view of nanotechnology and in distinct favor of the “utopian dreams” over a more balanced view. In section 2.2, “Practical development,” Gordijn seems to find that the only practical development worth talking about in nanotechnology was the scanning probe microscope (and the atomic force microscope – a type of SPM) and that the seminal achievement with the scanning probe microscope was the pushing around of 35 xenon atoms to write “IBM.” There is no doubt that this was a major achievement. But the development of SPMs and the writing of ‘I-B-M’ occurred twenty years ago. Are we to believe that there have been no practical developments in nanotechnology that have ethical implications? Furthermore, Gordijn footnotes this section by saying that “Feynman already pointed out the importance of better microscopes for the further development of nanotechnology.” Though Richard Feynman did point out this importance, he was discussing making electron microscopes better. In actuality SPMs are not microscopes in any sense that Feynman was talking about. For viewing applications, SPMs are a lot like Braille. They see by feeling and with molecules and atomically precise materials this can be a very destructive process.

The “theoretical development” section focuses exclusively on Drexler’s books and the “theory” that he developed in them. Unfortunately, the vast majority of nanotechnology research that goes on is not developed from Drexler’s theories. Also, let’s not pretend that this paragraph isn’t slightly (just slightly) biased towards the “utopian dreams” of Drexlerian nanotech

According to Drexler, the development of universally applicable assemblers is essential for the further development of nanotechnology. Assemblers could obviously also be programmed to replicate themselves. From a commercial point of view, this would have the interesting advantage of being able to manufacture products in a feasible time frame. After all, if accomplished by only one assembler, constructing a car in a molecule-by-molecule way could take ages. If, on the other hand, millions or billions of assemblers could work together, things would look far more optimistic
The “State of the field at present” section discusses some of the actual non-Drexlerian nanotech work – but only in the footnote.

Finally, we come to the part where the utopian dreams of nanotechnology are mentioned. I was heartened to read the following - “It is even expected that it will contribute to the enhancement of man. Not only will it be possible to overcome contemporary diseases, pain and other unpleasant bodily symptoms. Over and above, nanotechnology will enable us to enhance all our human capabilities and properties” – as I assumed that it foreshadowed later looking in to what it means to be human and the impact nanotechnology will have on it (i.e. a discussion on what changes to humanity nanotechnology will cause).

But we do not get any such discussion – or any real mention of these types of issues at all. Instead we get a list of questions masked as steps.

  1. Step one: what specific field of nanotechnology is to be assessed? Though there are many different parts of nanotechnology and it spans many different concerns of research (though from the introduction we got in this report you wouldn’t know it), to separate them from each other in the cookie-cutter manner that Gordijn suggest is going to succeed in diluting the central issues that occur when we can alter atomic and genetic structures through nanotechnology.
  2. Step two: what are the objectives of that specific field of nanotechnology? See what I said about the previous step. Also, as if only the objectives of technology are its responsibility. What of the unintended “side-effects?” Are those not to be considered?
  3. Step three: are these objectives ethically desirable? This strikes me as the sort of question that ought to be answered long before we even get to step one. No?
  4. Step four: will further development of the field of research contribute to the realization of these objectives? Because otherwise why would we even do it? But this isn’t really an ethical question so much as it’s a logistics question.
  5. Step five: what are the ethical problems connected with further development of the field of research? So finally we get to the meat of the matter. The only question really worth answering and it gets treated as one in a list of six. Unfortunately, nowhere in Gordijn’s discussion this question do we see that he has any concerns over the nature of man and the impact that nanotechnology will have on that. Instead mainly we get the Rawlsian issues over global justice. Important, yes, but somewhat superficial and obvious.
  6. Step six: are these ethical problems surmountable? Sigh. In other words, how do we skirt by ethical issues. This is the completely wrong way to think about ethical issues. Ethics are not something to get around in order to pursue other goals. Ethics can help guide the way.

Though I am happy that people are actually considering some of the ethical issues that go along with the development of nanotechnology, it seems that the ones that are being considered are only the very superficial ones and not any of the deeper questions that need to be considered.