April 3, 2008

Embryology Bill

Embryology Bill

WARNING: If you are religious and intolerant of other people having a negative view of religion, don’t to read this post.

The discord around this subject fits a pattern I have seen before. Some people, I will call them moral fundamentalists, think they have the right to try to impose their moral systems on everyone. Their guidance and edicts should be directed only toward people who have agreed to adhere to their moral code. They have no mandate to affect anyone else. In this particular case religious moral fundamentalists also presume to know better than anyone else the correct treatment of complex issues concerning genetics, despite having no expertise in the area. They have extrapolated some principles from ancient texts that they have been able to associate with the issues. In truth they have no original text guidance on these issues, the associations they make are loose, the extrapolations fanciful and containing surreptitious motives, and they are made by contemporary administrators, not deities or prophets. Like all fundamentalists, they are a danger to themselves and everyone that comes into contact with them, because they have an uncompromising extreme stance that they insist on everyone conforming to and they cannot see that they are fundamentalists. If you are disagreeing with this now you are probably a fundamentalist, but you will also deny it.
These religious moral fundamentalists are using this issue to support the supposed currency of what is an anachronistic and mostly static system in an increasingly sophisticated and rapidly evolving world. As ever more complex new issues arise this overextending of their original texts becomes increasingly obvious, so that today a smaller proportion of well educated people than ever are interested in their views. Their problems are rooted partly in the need to imply authority through the use of absolutes, tradition, longevity and divinity, and partly in using static texts as a basis for all their views. For those views to be taken seriously they also must either be static or evolve very slowly to give the impression of considered authority. Obviously, this requirement is out of step at a very basic level with an increasingly rapidly evolving world.
Good science can prove itself and delivers tangible benefits, where religion cannot prove it is correct and its benefits are mainly intangible. I suspect that most modern religion is a way of obtaining power and money and to do this it takes advantage of the less well educated in society. As the quality or at least the pervasiveness of education has improved there has been a corresponding decrease in interest. To survive they need to change their strategy to provide other services.
One would think that members of the Catholic church would have the sense to keep a low profile on science based issues, having an extremely poor track record in this area. Are we still supposed to be at the centre of everything according to them, or has that changed now the scientists have shown this to be false? One member of the Catholic church cynically appealed to the least well educated in society with scare stories of Frankenstein creations, shamelessly courting publicity. Worryingly a number of politicians who are supposed to running this country turn out to have sympathies with religious groups. Gordon Brown should remove anyone from government that allows any such views to influence their roles in government; mostly because promoting a religious view is not in their job description, but also because they have a dubious grasp on reality, probably because of a deficiency in their education. Why is he allowing them a free vote anyway? They were given office to serve the people and that includes the people’s well being, not to promote their respective religions. Members of the government need to adhere to government principles and they should be to promote the health and wellbeing of all the people, not the influence any religious group.
Some religious groups believe there is one fundamentally important and valuable aspect of a person, often referred to as ‘the soul’, which is present even in an embryo. The concept of soul is useful to provide differential status and hence treatment, between for example people and animals. Disproving the existence of a soul is probably an intractable problem and a battle that need not be fought. One may circumvent this issue by encouraging the religious to reinterpret their own texts. A new interpretation could extricate them from their moral dilemma. For example, selective divine intervention to prevent misuse of souls, whether retrospective or proactive. One could also envisage a special case where addition of a soul is conditional upon a priori knowledge of the embryo’s destiny. There are probably some other schemes that could be employed, but the latter has the advantage that it could be applied in tragic cases such as prenatal death. All they need do is pick such a scheme and use their talents for interpretation to find some text to support it. Then they can gain even more publicity by announcing that in fact their religion was in already aware and prepared for these discoveries hundreds of years ago and that science has just caught up. Sadly, some people will believe them. Hopefully they will reinterpret, then we can all move on peacefully and the scientists can continue to save lives.

January 30, 2008

The meaning of life

Filed under: Concepts, Debate, Ideas, Observations — Tags: , , , , , , — conceptualizer @ 4:12 pm

I have recently been pondering a big question again, usually expressed as “what is the meaning of life”. Being a little older and more experienced I could not ask the question in that way. It is clear to me this time that it must be asked in a less flippant and more constructive way if I hope to make any progress.
On this particular revisit I also thought I might gain more traction by enlisting the help of the rest of the biggest human community that has ever existed, via the internet, the greatest communication tool so far. Do you feel you have some insight that may help progress on this question and would like to share it? If so please reply to this post.

The Question (provisional)
Is there now, or has there ever been, a purpose for life, intended or not, particularly human life and especially an individual human life, whether from an objective or subjective point of view?

Anatomy of the question
Obviously this question has several related parts, but in framing it this way I intended to highlight some possible points of discussion and confusion from the outset. The traditional form of the question uses the word ‘meaning’ rather than the more tightly focused ‘purpose’ or ‘objective’. Using one of those words helps narrow the question a little, while not diverging significantly from an acceptable form of the question. Also, the traditional form of the question is implicitly understood to be concerned mostly with individual human life, but to some extent all human life. Broadening out the question to explicitly include the individual, all human life and all life may help by identifying general patterns for all life first and analysing how they might be transposed to and augmented for the more specific categories. In addition the traditional question is unconcerned with intentionality, that is it does not discriminate between life with intended or unintentional purpose. This can be clarified with an example: A pebble used under a garden table leg to prevent the table from rocking may be considered to never have had an intended purpose, although it gained an unintentional purpose. We may extrapolate from that example to emphasize the viewpoint of the observer. It may be that the pebble has an unintended purpose, but for levelling individual it has an intentional purpose. Further, to another individual the pebble, table and person doing the levelling may all be considered to have no purpose. The example also highlights another component of the question, temporal status. That is, the pebble may be considered to have no purpose except for a window of time where it is used to level the table. Whatever the status of anything in the question is at an instant, we can not assume it is so throughout time. Lastly, an implicit thread through both forms of the question is the identification of distinct entities that are independent although impinged upon by each other. This may be the normal mode, but it may not be a reasonable understanding of reality and thus may be material to the answer. However, it is difficult to include this concept directly in the question without obfuscating it and so I have not included it in the current version. Rather, I hope and expect to include it in a subsequent elaborated version. I also feel that the issue of the observer is a rather weak addendum in this version of the question. Quite probably the question needs to be reframed without the artificial constraint of trying to include all relevant aspects in a single sentence. Clearly the form of the question needs further work and I expect to enhance it as thoughts on it evolve and clearer language emerges. The most important facet of the question is the inclusion of all the component concepts as described above. The actual form of words must be subservient to that and this understanding has informed the effort so far. I welcome any suggestions on how to better frame the question to embody all the important concepts identified so far as well as suggestion for new concepts to be included.

I don’t like to impose rules, but I think three are necessary to keep this discussion in order.
Firstly, I will exclude religious answers from this discussion. They resolve to faith in something which is not testable and non-provable, at least not to those without the right flavour of faith. However, I do not exclude faith itself. A legitimate faith for consideration might be in a scientific or research process or a living individual. The important element of a viable faith for consideration is that whatever the faith is in, it must be evolving toward some evidential state or may be questioned or tested directly. Ultimately we need empirical evidence or the prospect of it for faith to be allowed as an immediate surrogate answer.
Secondly, I will exclude answers that in whole or part have unreasoned and unequal treatment of subsets of what may be considered as life. A non-parity status for subsets of life needs to be rationally justified.
Thirdly, although I have reservations about some basic elements of this discussion, such as the nature of time and accuracy of language to represent cognition, unless there is a compelling reason to the contrary they are considered tangential and should not be offered as a part of this debate.
The question itself is clearly difficult to construct and answer, so I have been asking it in various ways to people and thinking about it. The answer is often glibly stated as ‘happiness’, but that moves us no further forward, as we then need to ask ‘what is happiness?’. The reason we need to ask this is that not only do we not know what it is, but we do not know how to obtain it. Anyway, I have come up with this so far:

Be comfortable with yourself.

You are probably thinking that also seems a bit glib, as it is rather short to seem well considered, or, maybe too pithy and knowing, because there could easily be an over economy of words that loses essential detail for the uninitiated. One might conclude it is a defeatist answer, because it seems not to address the current form of the question, which is by own admission incomplete. Perhaps you even consider it a terse expression of a consolation philosophy, because it does not seem to require one’s agency in the world.
A little examination of this answer is required.

Firstly, I will say it does feel a little like a stoic or Buddhist attitude. Secondly, those people who know this answer may superficially look like those that do not, because that answer seems to require no visible agency. Thirdly, perhaps one can achieve this state without realising it; that would explain why some people are seen as endowed with an aura of happiness, despite having made no obvious effort to achieve it. If so, I could console myself with the thought that if I were in this blessed state, then knowing why is better. However, that could simply be because that is my nature to want to understand, it might offer no other advantage. Indeed, in some ways obtaining it without effort seems preferable, although again it is in my nature to believe that effort in itself is worthwhile, although it is also difficult to justify that view, so it could be aberrant. It could even be that a higher state of awareness and happiness are incompatible, but let us assume they are not for now, that thought is making me feel uncomfortable.
Anyway, how does one go about achieving this. Clearly there are many possible events that would prevent or at least make this difficult. Therefore a lengthy, if not infinite, list of reactions might seem necessary. That is not practical, so we need a more direct answer. This is where it gets difficult and currently I am thinking it is perhaps something to do with the acceptance of things as they are. If one makes efforts to improve oneself and one’s situation that should not be bound to a sense of disappointment when some objective is not reached. Admittedly that seems very hard to achieve, so I suspect that one needs to observe what level of ambition is appropriate for oneself. That could change based on circumstances, age and abilities. This formula then starts to look complex and may explain why we have so much difficulty obtaining ‘happiness’. I can say however that if one is unhappy that the level of ambition is probably wrong. Here I apply ambition to any desire and would point out they are often created or strengthened by observing other people who are not necessarily happy or like us.
I should point out that the word “comfortable” was chosen over ‘content’, because I did not want to convey the idea that one needs do nothing other than change one’s point of view. The word “comfortable” allows for a desire to self improve and so is accessible to all people, whatever they have done. Now supposing this is a good line we have here, the burning question is ‘how do we become comfortable with ouselves?’, this does sound like a much more tractable question.
I will consider this more and update this post again.

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