Quick Thoughts on Ukraine and Europe
So I rarely share my opinions on contemporary international relations. Let me throw caution to wind and say something about the significance about what’s going on in Ukraine. The real issue is whether Ukraine gets to be part of Europe or the “Eurasian” coalition being built by Russia’s tough and astute Putin. I don’t want to demonize Putin, who is acting effectively as a Russian nationalist to build an “authoritarian” coalition as an alternative to the European Union. That coalition, we notice first off, includes Iran!
The argument for Putin’s coalition is that Europe has become so decadent that it’s unsustainable. And astute European thinkers, such as the French political philosopher Pierre Manent, have written about the post-political, post-familial, and post-religious fantasies that have distorted European thought and action. Europe does, in fact, have sustainability “issues,” and they are displayed in its “birth dearth” and its inability to act confidently as a political unit or units. Manent’s astuteness is seeing in Western Europe a kind of generalized hatred of bodies--of anything that reminds the particular person of his limitations, of his “particularity” as a being born to love and die in a particular time and place. European cosmopolitanism has morphed into a kind of emptiness because it’s going too way too far in detaching “being personal” with “being relational.”
Having said all that, we have to be for Ukraine’s courageous choice for Europe over Eurasia. The choice is for free and democratic political life and for the cherishing of the dignified rights of the human person. European thinkers as diverse as Josef Ratzinger and Jurgen Habermas have written on the impossibility of detaching that devotion to the person from Europe’s Christian roots. And that’s why, in my opinion, Europe today is ennobled by the examples of Poland and Hungary and, we can anticipate, Ukraine not detaching the spirit of modern liberty from the spirit of religion. Countries that are able to do that, as Alexis de Tocqueville explains, are best able to reconcile a devotion to personal liberty and even a free economy with a common morality and active citizenship.
Although there are many differences between the United States and the members of the European Union today (and I’ve already explained, contrary to the nerve of President Obama’s policies, why Americans should hold on to those seemingly atrophying political, religious, and economic differences), we are Europeans insofar as we’re about the primacy of civilized personal freedom. We can’t “buy into” the thought that Ukraine somehow “belongs” to Russia for historical or geostrategic reasons. We’re for the rule of law, for civilization, for free political institutions, and for the limitation of political rule by the transpolitical and relational origin and destiny we all share. We’re for those for everyone, including, of course, the people of Ukraine.
Obviously I’m not saying we should intervene militarily (with what army, someone might say?), but neither we nor the European Union should be intimated into not choosing publicly and in not doing what we can in appropriately prudent and so very modest ways to facilitate Ukraine’s attempt to choose for Europe. I have to add, to be clear, that Ukraine could certainly choose for Europe without choosing for the EU, as there is a growing awareness among European thinkers that Europe might do better in finding its identity in either the absence of or a radical reconfiguration of that ambiguous (because not clearly political) and administratively intrusive attempt at union.
Let me repeat that these thoughts are tentative. They also, I think, have something to offend everyone. So feel free to tell me how wrong I am. You may even be right.
A large new study uses an online game to inoculate people against fake news.
- Researchers from the University of Cambridge use an online game to inoculate people against fake news.
- The study sample included 15,000 players.
- The scientists hope to use such tactics to protect whole societies against disinformation.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
Many governments do not report, or misreport, the numbers of refugees who enter their country.
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