Friday, 4 May 2018

Scientists reanimate disembodied pigs’ brains – but for a human mind, it could be a living hell

Scientists reanimate disembodied pigs' brains – but for a human mind, it could be a living hell



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Another life? Shutterstock
Benjamin Curtis, Nottingham Trent University
Do you want to live forever? If so, there’s some good news. Or so it seems. For it appears that we may have taken a step closer to making immortality reality. In a recent meeting at the National Institutes of Health, Yale neuroscientist Nenad Sestan revealed that his team has successfully reanimated the brains of dead pigs recovered from a slaughterhouse. By pumping them with artificial blood using a system called BrainEx, they were able to bring them back to “life” for up to 36 hours.
Admittedly, the pigs’ brains did not regain consciousness, but Sestan acknowledged that restoring awareness is a possibility. Crucially, he also disclosed that the technique could work on primate brains (which includes humans), and that the brains could be kept alive indefinitely.
But could you really survive the death of your body? And would such an existence be worthwhile anyway? In fact, the answers to these questions are far from clear. So perhaps the news for those seeking life eternal isn’t so good after all. It certainly raises a whole host of worrying ethical questions.

Trapped inside your own mind

Even if your conscious brain were kept alive after your body had died, you would have to spend the foreseeable future as a disembodied “brain in a bucket”, locked away inside your own mind without access to the senses that allow us to experience and interact with the world and the inputs that our brains so crave. The knowledge and technology needed to implant your brain into a new body may be decades, if not centuries, away.
So in the best case scenario, you would be spending your life with only your own thoughts for company. Some have argued that even with a fully functional body, immortality would be tedious. With absolutely no contact with external reality, it might just be a living hell.
According to some, it is impossible for a disembodied brain to house anything like a normal human mind. Antonio Damasio, a philosopher and neuroscientist, has pointed out that in ordinary humans, brain and body are in constant interaction with each other. Every muscle, nerve, joint and organ is connected to the brain – and vast numbers of chemical and electrical signals go back and forth between them each and every second. Without this constant “feedback loop” between brain and body, Damasio argues, ordinary experiences and thought are simply not possible.



So what would it be like to be a disembodied brain? The truth is, nobody knows. But it is probable it would be worse than being simply tedious – it would likely be deeply disturbing. Experts have already warned that a man reportedly due to have the world’s first head transplant could suffer a terrible fate. They say his brain will be overwhelmed by the unfamiliar chemical and electrical signals sent to it by his new body, and it could send him mad. A disembodied brain would be likely to react similarly – but because it would be unable to signal its distress, or do anything to bring its suffering to an end, it would be even worse.
So, to end up as a disembodied human brain may well be to suffer a fate worse than death.

Would you even be you?

It is far from clear whether your disembodied brain would even be you. The question of when people die is the subject of ongoing philosophical debate as well as my own research. In a number of published papers, I have investigated this question and how it relates to what makes us who we are, how we persist over time, and what changes we can survive. Some working in this area think we are purely psychological beings, and so could survive as disembodied brains so long as our memories and personalities were preserved.
But according to one view, known as “animalism”, we are inseparable from our whole organism – our entire body, made up of cells, flesh, bone and organs. According to this philosophy, what makes us “us” dies when our whole organism dies – even if our brain survives. So, because you die when your body does, your brain cannot be you. And so even if it has the same personality and memories as you, it can only be, at best, a psychological duplicate of you.
But we should also be deeply concerned about the possibility of reanimating conscious human brains from an ethical standpoint. According to the dominant view in ethics, living human beings possess full moral status – that is, they are deserving of the highest possible degree of moral respect. They have such a status by virtue of possessing high-level psychological properties that are grounded in the capacities of the conscious human brain. And so, according to this view, irrespective of whether your disembodied conscious brain would be you, it would still be an entity with full moral status.
The ConversationAnd so the bottom line is this: to keep a disembodied conscious human brain alive may well be to subject an entity with full moral status to an existence of hellish tedium, or to the mental torture of inescapable madness. Essentially, to a fate worse than death. In my view, not even the promise of eternal life is worth this terrible risk.
Benjamin Curtis, Lecturer in Philosophy and Ethics, Nottingham Trent University
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Philosophy of Religion Talk - Weds May 2nd, 2-4

There will be a talk on the Philosophy of Religion, next Weds, May 2nd 2018 at 2 'til 4 - room tba. Dr Conor Cunningham of the University of Nottingham will be presenting a paper entitled 'Soul and the Marriage of Discourse: The Nightmare Dreams'. In his talk, Conor will be exploring the important ethical and metaphysical question of whether there is 'life before death'. Here is an abstract of his presentation: Given materialism we are dead, we are the living-dead: we face the most pressing of questions: Is there life before death? The illegitimate ascendency of scientific discourse as the master mode of knowledge has led us as a species to this abyss, wherein truth goodness and beauty are gone, all ethics too, and all explanation for any intelligibility - all thought, even the slightest. Against this, the ancient notion of scientia (knowledge) rejects all modes of reductionism, or scientism, instead calling for a marriage of discourse, within which disparate modes of engagement with existence generates plenitude, rather than atrophied accounts of reality with its accompanying nihilism. Conor is a self-consciously 'punk philosopher' - and so he should provide us with entertaining food for thought and some much need intellectual stimulation! Please contact Neil Turnbull (neil.turnbull@ntu.ac.uk) if you would like to attend this event.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Influence of Plato and Aristotle

Hi, I'm Sophie. I'm the second blogger after Shane who has already posted an extremely useful and interesting piece. Anyway, in Neil's lectures we seem to moving on from Ancient Greek philosophy and I thought it might be helpful to consider both Aristotle and Plato's influence on later philosophy. I know we have discussed many philosophers so far but for practicality I have narrowed in down to these two (I have left out Socrates on purpose because he really does my nut in).

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Aristotle's influence on later philosophy is 'difficult to overestimate'. His legacy is clearly apparent in the works of many philosophers, including Thomas Aquinas who later revives many Aristotelian themes and cements Aristotle's philosophy into the principles of Christianity. His publications cover many topics including physics, metaphysics, politics and aesthetics to name a few and he has also had an effect on the field of ethics where the ethical theory of Virtue Ethics was developed using his ideas on morality.

Plato on the other hand, has also contributed a considerable amount to later ideas. A.N Whitehead described Western Philosophy as 'a series of footnotes to Plato'. Plato's Theory of the Forms and his distinction between entities and abstract concepts has appeared in many of his works and he purposefully leaves questions unanswered in texts such as Euthyphro, which have created many interesting debates for later philosophers. Plato's dialogues have portrayed Socrates and his ideas including the 'Socratic Method' and have opened an otherwise impossible understanding of Socrates who did not write many of his own ideas down.

So, who do you think has been more influential to later thought? It would be nice to get a discussion going..


Saturday, 8 November 2014

Brief introductions and a look at analytic philosophy

Hello fellow philosophy students. My name is Shane Hutchinson and I'll be making contributions to our blog every weekend, or at least as often as I can manage.
I thought I'd start with an area I know is not everybody's favorite, analytic philosophy. On Friday this week with Ben Curtis, we looked at propositional logic, it's language and uses. Though some parts may been hard to follow, it seemed to me to be a very useful tool in the analysis of arguments. This is for a few reasons.
For one, by deconstructing an argument into its propositional form we are able to eliminate a lot of the ambiguities that are often a bane to productive philosophy. Once any argument is clearly set out into premises and conclusions, there can be no mistaking what it is a philosopher is arguing for. For example, in the case of the argument:

'If ghosts exist then there is something physics cannot explain. If ghosts do not exist then psychics are liars. But psychics are not liars, so there is something that physics cannot explain.'

as presented in the seminar as the object of a task in which we were to put the argument in propositional form, the language caused some students to believe the conclusion was in fact that psychics are not liars. This would have meant they would have misunderstood the intentions of someone presenting this argument. However, with the argument presented as follows:

    '1. If ghosts exist then there is something physics cannot explain.
    2. If ghosts do not exist then psychics are liars
    3. Psychics are not liars
    C1. There is something physics cannot explain
    C2. Ghosts exist'

it is impossible to misrepresent either the intentions of a philosopher or the implications of any argument they present. 
I think that the main confusion has been over the fact that you do not have to accept a valid argument as fact or even as a good argument in virtue of it's structure. Rather, the assessment of validity can be viewed as a kind of quality control on arguments, which prevents illogical arguments from being taken too seriously. Rather, it is the assessment of soundness which occupies much of the inter-disciplinary areas of philosophy and a sound argument is much more likely to convince than one which is only valid. 
What do you think about analytic philosophy? Is it just an abstract form of logical analysis reserved for those in ivory towers or does it have a place in debates?  Either way, can you see yourself using it? And if not, why? Would the invalidity of an argument convince you to oppose it?


  

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Wisdom and Redemption

In class we explored some of the similarities and differences between Socrates and Jesus. In much Christian theology, Socrates is seen as an early proto-type of the Christ figure, as he in some sense embodies the good in the way that he lives his life and because is prepared to die for a higher human ideal. However, Socrates does not present himself as a redeemer. He does not claim to be the 'highest good incarnate; (this is not possible for Socrates, as the good can only be grasped partially and 'for the most part' in his view). This raises an important question - what is the relationship between wisdom and redemption? Can knowledge alone transform human life for the better, or is something else required? More specifically, is a spiritual or supernatural supplement required in addition to knowledge in order to put individual and collective lives on the right track or is rational knowledge alone sufficient? Neil Turnbull

Philosophy Visiting Speaker Series - 2014-15

Time Wednesdays 3-5 19th of November – Dr Will Large, University of Gloucestershire Title: “The Impossible Possibility of Human Capital: Kierkegaard, Foucault and Biopolitics” 3rd of December – Dr Kathleen Stock, University of Sussex. Title TBA: ‘Imagination and Fiction’ January 7th – Matt Barnard, Manchester Metropolitan University Title: Freedom Beyond the Will: Heidegger on Finite Liberty January 14th – Dr Adam Kelly – University of York Title: In Quest of American Sincerity: Stanley Cavell and David Foster Wallace This talk will examine how Wallace's widely noted obsession with questions around sincerity - an obsession shared by many American writers of his generation - led him to a deep engagement with the work of Cavell. After an introduction to the general issues involved, the main part of the talk will be taken up with exploring Wallace's annotations to books by Cavell in his personal library, held at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas. I'll end by reading a chapter of Wallace's final unfinished novel The Pale King (2011) through the notion of "good posture," an idea Wallace gets from Cavell who in turn takes it from Emerson. It is this idea, I'll argue, that offers the key to understanding the particular brand of American sincerity that Emerson, Cavell and Wallace were all in quest of. January 21st – Prof Stephen Mumford –University of Nottingham Title: New Meditions on First Philosophy We can doubt the existence of many things. They might be a social or linguistic construction. But nothing is socially constructed unless causation is real for society is said to construct something. And a society is not a mere plurality but one that must involve causally interacting parts. Societas ergo causalitas. Once established, causation can be understood as that which makes the world regular and comprehendible. Without it there is no life. It provides for us. What thing better deserves the name God? For note that God could not have created anything unless causation was already real; and this includes causation itself. He could not have created it unless it already was. But what is causation? Hume thought of it in terms of constant conjunctions and counterfactuals. But just as neither society nor God can have made causation, the individual alone cannot either, as the private language argument shows. Causation is then to be taken as the criterion of existence and is the thing from which everything else is constructed. Matter is power, as are properties, and all events and processes are manifestations of that causal power. January 28th – Dr Garry Young – Nottingham Trent University Title: Should there be virtually no limit to the things we are permitted to do in video games? A moral examination of symbolic taboo activity within single-player gamespace.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Heidegger and Authenticity

Last week Craig Clancy from the Open University delivered a nice introductory session of Heidegger's idea of the call of conscience and how it relates to the idea of authenticity - especially in the second part of Heidegger's magnum opus Being and Time. He trotted through most of the concepts that Heidegger deploys to powerful existential effect in that book, especially authenticity's relation to Dasein, the real, the 'fallen' state of everyday life, freedom, death, demise, mood and guilt. Craig correctly pointed out that Heidegger gives all of these terms an important ontological inflection in understanding them from the point of view of time. The key question to emerge from the discussion is the extent to which the early Heidegger can be viewed as a moral philosopher and whether his ethics emerges from an essentially theological context (or not). Thanks to all of you who attended this - we hope to see a few more of you at these events next year Neil T