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A new essay takes a holistic look at the trolley problem
Knowing what to do is one thing, doing it is another.
- The trolley problem is a well-known thought experiment, and its variations provide the source of endless discussion.
- However, few people consider the problem holistically. Would you actually be able to pull the lever?
- A new essay reminds us that many philosophies have a holistic approach to moral problems that we should consider.
The trolley problem likely has the honor of being the most widely discussed thought experiment of all time due to its popularity outside of academic circles. Devised in its current form by Phillipa Foot in 1967 and existing in similar ones for decades before that, the experiment is an extremely accessible tool for interacting with the problems of ethical theory.
Compared to other, more outlandish thought experiments, it also presents a rather tangible problem for our consideration. Situations similar to the one proposed in the experiment have arisen in real life. However, while we may learn what the right thing to do in theory is by thinking about the problem, that alone does not provide us with the tools to actually pull the lever in the moment where we find ourselves facing such a stark moral choice.
Think about it for a moment—if you were actually watching a runaway train hurtle towards some people, could you think quickly enough to pull the lever in time? Are you physically strong enough to do so? Can you live with the guilt of having essentially decided to kill the person on the other track? Can you handle the guilt of doing nothing? These problems often go unasked, and the utilitarian philosophy most people turn to in answering the trolley problem tends to gloss over these issues even if it, hypothetically, could account for them.
This comprehensive view of the trolley problem and a variety of philosophies that advise holistic responses to such situations are considered in the newly published essay "Bruce Lee and the Trolley Problem: An Analysis from an Asian Martial Arts Tradition," written by Dr. William Sin and published in the journal Sport, Ethics, and Philosophy.
The difference between thinking about the trolley problem and pulling the lever
Dr. Sin, an assistant professor at the Education University of Hong Kong, argues that the scenario described in the trolley problem is not a mundane occurrence but an extreme event that will require an instantaneous response utilizing not only a person's ethical convictions but also their physical strength, psychological composure, and other capacities.
He turns to certain Eastern philosophies and their often holistic approaches to ethical problems to explain this perspective. The Zen Buddhism of the Samurai and the personal philosophy of martial arts legend Bruce Lee as exemplified by Jeet Kune Do, both approach fights as "extreme events" which cannot be overcome by just knowing what moves to make. A skilled martial artist must also remain calm during a battle, be able to strictly concentrate on the task at hand, and be able to differentiate between the actions done during practice and what is necessary during an actual fight.
A great fighter is not just one who wins, but one who does so well, with masterful control of themselves and their actions as they engage in something most people actively try to avoid. Dr. Sin connects this multifaceted understanding of fighting to how an individual must approach pulling or not pulling the lever in the trolley problem:
"The greatness or goodness of an action can't be judged purely by looking at its consequences, or by the type of action that it falls under in certain deontological categories. In addition, we need to consider the features of the moral battlefield that the agent is fighting against; these might involve how much blame/guilt that an agent is willing to carry, how demanding the situation is from the agent's viewpoint, how great the obstacles are for him to overcome, etc. In the trolley case, we can tell the difference between better or worse responses as some agents are able to maintain composure in an extreme situation and some aren't. A panicked or chaotic response may not mean much ethically, even if it saved more lives than it killed."
Three philosophies and their stances on complex moral problems
Unlike utilitarianism or deontology, which are primarily concerned with showing you what to do in a particular situation, the philosophies Dr. Sin examines, including Zen Buddhism, Bruce Lee's take on Jeet Kune Do, and Confucianism, often aim for the "practical refinement of life" rather than writing a decision process for difficult questions.
As Dr. Sin explains, this means these schools lend themselves to more holistic interpretations of approaching ethical problems and extraordinary events:
"While Jeet Kune Do prepares people for a physical encounter with their enemies in the street, a bar, or carpark, Bruce Lee emphasizes the importance of knowing oneself through the confrontations. The doctrines of Zen Buddhism were interpreted similarly by traditional Japanese swordsmen. But the practice and rigid discipline in Zen Buddhism is primarily proposed for the sake of self-realization: for practitioners to 'overcome the barrier between life and death (liaoshengjuesi了生決死).' Judgements about what people should do in particular cases stem from this direction of concern. The Zen Buddhists or traditional Confucians are not so interested in analyzing the balance of reasons in particular cases, or testing the consistency of ethical principles as such.
In the Analects, Confucius sometimes says different things to different students, seemingly contradicting himself. But he doesn't really care about demonstrating the overall structure of his "doctrines." He cares more about whether his words and deeds can help improve his students' characters, or highlight their mistakes when they arise. For Confucius, the objective of learning is largely about acquiring the know how for someone to become a better father, son, minister, etc. Confucius, in his teaching, does not like to engage in arguments. He prefers his students see the flaws themselves in their own reflection and correct them silently."
When asked if the principle of treating some ethical questions holistically went beyond fights and runaway trolleys, Dr. Sin largely agreed. "You can say that all performances should be evaluated holistically," he said. "We should always look beyond the actions, or their consequences, and study the territory in which the persons perform those actions. By 'territory,' I mean the kind of people the agents are, their histories, other features of the situation that are pertinent to them."
How can I use these insights?
Dr. Sin points out that many Zen monks apply this understanding in day to day life. "Some Japanese Zen monks adopt an attitude of seriousness to handle small things and routine matters. Apart from its intrinsic values (to achieve a small moral triumph), the practice itself is useful for self-cultivation."
There is no real reason that you have to be a monk to do that. He also suggests taking a look at the key texts of these philosophies. The "Analects" of Confucius and "The Tao of Jeet Kune Do" by Bruce Lee, for example, both provide thought-provoking and useful ideas.
And for those wondering how a Zen Master or Confucian Sage might act when faced with an out of control trolley car, Dr. Sin reminds us that they would consider that to be the wrong question. "For, the 'solution' is dependent on the readiness of the agents in the case. As Nietzsche says, strong people can digest their experiences (including deeds and misdeeds) as they digest their meals. If the people are not ready, there is not much to be said here."
He went on to suggest a Zen monk might hit you with a keisaku for asking and that Bruce Lee might see how you react to a fury of fists stopping near your face.
While it is entertaining and often intellectually stimulating to consider what the right thing to do in the situation imagined by the trolley problem and its endless variations would be, Dr. Sin and the thinkers he references remind us that it is often not enough to merely know what we should do but also to have the capacity to act on that information. A total response to the extreme situation imagined in the trolley problem will require various skills that may need active cultivation before such an event occurs.
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Scientists are using bioelectronic medicine to treat inflammatory diseases, an approach that capitalizes on the ancient "hardwiring" of the nervous system.
- Bioelectronic medicine is an emerging field that focuses on manipulating the nervous system to treat diseases.
- Clinical studies show that using electronic devices to stimulate the vagus nerve is effective at treating inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
- Although it's not yet approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, vagus nerve stimulation may also prove effective at treating other diseases like cancer, diabetes and depression.
The nervous system’s ancient reflexes<p>You accidentally place your hand on a hot stove. Almost instantaneously, your hand withdraws.</p><p>What triggered your hand to move? The answer is <em>not</em> that you consciously decided the stove was hot and you should move your hand. Rather, it was a reflex: Skin receptors on your hand sent nerve impulses to the spinal cord, which ultimately sent back motor neurons that caused your hand to move away. This all occurred before your "conscious brain" realized what happened.</p><p>Similarly, the nervous system has reflexes that protect individual cells in the body.</p><p>"The nervous system evolved because we need to respond to stimuli in the environment," said Dr. Tracey. "Neural signals don't come from the brain down first. Instead, when something happens in the environment, our peripheral nervous system senses it and sends a signal to the central nervous system, which comprises the brain and spinal cord. And then the nervous system responds to correct the problem."</p><p>So, what if scientists could "hack" into the nervous system, manipulating the electrical activity in the nervous system to control molecular processes and produce desirable outcomes? That's the chief goal of bioelectronic medicine.</p><p>"There are billions of neurons in the body that interact with almost every cell in the body, and at each of those nerve endings, molecular signals control molecular mechanisms that can be defined and mapped, and potentially put under control," Dr. Tracey said in a <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJH9KsMKi5M" target="_blank">TED Talk</a>.</p><p>"Many of these mechanisms are also involved in important diseases, like cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, hypertension and shock. It's very plausible that finding neural signals to control those mechanisms will hold promises for devices replacing some of today's medication for those diseases."</p><p>How can scientists hack the nervous system? For years, researchers in the field of bioelectronic medicine have zeroed in on the longest cranial nerve in the body: the vagus nerve.</p>
The vagus nerve<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTYyOTM5OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NTIwNzk0NX0.UCy-3UNpomb3DQZMhyOw_SQG4ThwACXW_rMnc9mLAe8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=700" id="09add" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f38dbfbbfe470ad85a3b023dd5083557" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
Electrical signals, seen here in a synapse, travel along the vagus nerve to trigger an inflammatory response.
Credit: Adobe Stock via solvod<p>The vagus nerve ("vagus" meaning "wandering" in Latin) comprises two nerve branches that stretch from the brainstem down to the chest and abdomen, where nerve fibers connect to organs. Electrical signals constantly travel up and down the vagus nerve, facilitating communication between the brain and other parts of the body.</p><p>One aspect of this back-and-forth communication is inflammation. When the immune system detects injury or attack, it automatically triggers an inflammatory response, which helps heal injuries and fend off invaders. But when not deployed properly, inflammation can become excessive, exacerbating the original problem and potentially contributing to diseases.</p><p>In 2002, Dr. Tracey and his colleagues discovered that the nervous system plays a key role in monitoring and modifying inflammation. This occurs through a process called the <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/nature01321" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammatory reflex</a>. In simple terms, it works like this: When the nervous system detects inflammatory stimuli, it reflexively (and subconsciously) deploys electrical signals through the vagus nerve that trigger anti-inflammatory molecular processes.</p><p>In rodent experiments, Dr. Tracey and his colleagues observed that electrical signals traveling through the vagus nerve control TNF, a protein that, in excess, causes inflammation. These electrical signals travel through the vagus nerve to the spleen. There, electrical signals are converted to chemical signals, triggering a molecular process that ultimately makes TNF, which exacerbates conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.</p><p>The incredible chain reaction of the inflammatory reflex was observed by Dr. Tracey and his colleagues in greater detail through rodent experiments. When inflammatory stimuli are detected, the nervous system sends electrical signals that travel through the vagus nerve to the spleen. There, the electrical signals are converted to chemical signals, which trigger the spleen to create a white blood cell called a T cell, which then creates a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. The acetylcholine interacts with macrophages, which are a specific type of white blood cell that creates TNF, a protein that, in excess, causes inflammation. At that point, the acetylcholine triggers the macrophages to stop overproducing TNF – or inflammation.</p><p>Experiments showed that when a specific part of the body is inflamed, specific fibers within the vagus nerve start firing. Dr. Tracey and his colleagues were able to map these relationships. More importantly, they were able to stimulate specific parts of the vagus nerve to "shut off" inflammation.</p><p>What's more, clinical trials show that vagus nerve stimulation not only "shuts off" inflammation, but also triggers the production of cells that promote healing.</p><p>"In animal experiments, we understand how this works," Dr. Tracey said. "And now we have clinical trials showing that the human response is what's predicted by the lab experiments. Many scientific thresholds have been crossed in the clinic and the lab. We're literally at the point of regulatory steps and stages, and then marketing and distribution before this idea takes off."<br></p>
The future of bioelectronic medicine<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTYxMDYxMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjQwOTExNH0.uBY1TnEs_kv9Dal7zmA_i9L7T0wnIuf9gGtdRXcNNxo/img.jpg?width=980" id="8b5b2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c005e615e5f23c2817483862354d2cc4" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="2000" data-height="1125" />
Vagus nerve stimulation can already treat Crohn's disease and other inflammatory diseases. In the future, it may also be used to treat cancer, diabetes, and depression.
Credit: Adobe Stock via Maridav<p>Vagus nerve stimulation is currently awaiting approval by the US Food and Drug Administration, but so far, it's proven safe and effective in clinical trials on humans. Dr. Tracey said vagus nerve stimulation could become a common treatment for a wide range of diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, hypertension, shock, depression and diabetes.</p><p>"To the extent that inflammation is the problem in the disease, then stopping inflammation or suppressing the inflammation with vagus nerve stimulation or bioelectronic approaches will be beneficial and therapeutic," he said.</p><p>Receiving vagus nerve stimulation would require having an electronic device, about the size of lima bean, surgically implanted in your neck during a 30-minute procedure. A couple of weeks later, you'd visit, say, your rheumatologist, who would activate the device and determine the right dosage. The stimulation would take a few minutes each day, and it'd likely be unnoticeable.</p><p>But the most revolutionary aspect of bioelectronic medicine, according to Dr. Tracey, is that approaches like vagus nerve stimulation wouldn't come with harmful and potentially deadly side effects, as many pharmaceutical drugs currently do.</p><p>"A device on a nerve is not going to have systemic side effects on the body like taking a steroid does," Dr. Tracey said. "It's a powerful concept that, frankly, scientists are quite accepting of—it's actually quite amazing. But the idea of adopting this into practice is going to take another 10 or 20 years, because it's hard for physicians, who've spent their lives writing prescriptions for pills or injections, that a computer chip can replace the drug."</p><p>But patients could also play a role in advancing bioelectronic medicine.</p><p>"There's a huge demand in this patient cohort for something better than they're taking now," Dr. Tracey said. "Patients don't want to take a drug with a black-box warning, costs $100,000 a year and works half the time."</p><p>Michael Dowling, president and CEO of Northwell Health, elaborated:</p><p>"Why would patients pursue a drug regimen when they could opt for a few electronic pulses? Is it possible that treatments like this, pulses through electronic devices, could replace some drugs in the coming years as preferred treatments? Tracey believes it is, and that is perhaps why the pharmaceutical industry closely follows his work."</p><p>Over the long term, bioelectronic approaches are unlikely to completely replace pharmaceutical drugs, but they could replace many, or at least be used as supplemental treatments.</p><p>Dr. Tracey is optimistic about the future of the field.</p><p>"It's going to spawn a huge new industry that will rival the pharmaceutical industry in the next 50 years," he said. "This is no longer just a startup industry. [...] It's going to be very interesting to see the explosive growth that's going to occur."</p>
The first rule of Vulture Club: stay out of Portugal.
So you're a vulture, riding the thermals that rise up over Iberia. Your way of life is ancient, ruled by needs and instincts that are way older than the human civilization that has overtaken the peninsula below, and the entire planet.
"The Expanse" is the best vision I've ever seen of a space-faring future that may be just a few generations away.
- Want three reasons why that headline is justified? Characters and acting, universe building, and science.
- For those who don't know, "The Expanse" is a series that's run on SyFy and Amazon Prime set about 200 years in the future in a mostly settled solar system with three waring factions: Earth, Mars, and Belters.
- No other show I know of manages to use real science so adeptly in the service of its story and its grand universe building.
Credit: "The Expanse" / Syfy<p>Now, I get it if you don't agree with me. I love "Star Trek" and I thought "Battlestar Galactica" (the new one) was amazing and I do adore "The Mandalorian". They are all fun and important and worth watching and thinking about. And maybe you love them more than anything else. But when you sum up the acting, the universe building, and the use of real science where it matters, I think nothing can beat "The Expanse". And with a <a href="https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/the_expanse" target="_blank">Rotten Tomato</a> average rating of 93%, I'm clearly not the only one who feels this way.</p><p>Best.</p><p>Show.</p><p>Ever. </p>
Contrary to what some might think, the brain is a very plastic organ.
As with many other physicians, recommending physical activity to patients was just a doctor chore for me – until a few years ago. That was because I myself was not very active.