Should We Be More Epicurean (and Less Futurist)?
Don’t worry. Be happy. Live in the present. The philosopher Rousseau said that was the natural condition of man, before he was screwed up by self-consciousness, time, awareness of death, and delayed gratification. So the key to happiness is to be really, really stupid.
But the Epicurean philosopher actually says the rational person can achieve the same result. He finds serenity now by living beyond hope and fear. Fear of death is unreasonable. So too is our unreasonable hope to somehow get out of dying. The key to happiness is wisdom, which is more than being really, really smart.
Here’s a thoughtful article by Particia Vieira and Michael Marder that suggests we get over being obsessed with the future by being better Epicureans. It goes without saying that I’m going to give my own spin on that suggestion.
It’s true that people are less and less obsessed with the past, maybe especially (but not only) in America. We have no historical sense, a sense which could give us a sense of place, purpose, and limits, as well as the chastening that comes with reflection on experience. That’s both good and bad. But surely it’s good not be saddled with too much traditional baggage and ancient grudges.
We’re obsessed with the future for a variety of reasons. For one, we think the future is actually in our own techno-hands. We used to think “climate change” was up to nature, and now we think it’s up to us. That means we might have trashed the planet beyond repair. It might also mean we can save ourselves from our own mess if we act aggressively now. It might also mean that we’re developing the techno-means to bring the climate change—which used to be caused by chance and necessity—under our personal control. That would mean no more natural climate change—such as an inconvenient ice age—that we can’t believe in.
We’re also obsessed with our personal futures. That’s partly because we don’t often believe that our personal beings are sustained by the grace of a personal God. We believe, with the Epicureans, that biological death is the end of ME. But we’re less accepting of that fact. We believe that death is more in our control, because we know so much about risk factors we can avoid. And there is, of course, no one who obsesses more about his personal future than he who has the transhumanist hope for the Singularity and all that.
The trouble with being obsessed with the future of those not yet born or our species or all life on the planet is that we sacrifice the interests and enjoyments of people today to a rather speculative cause. Communism, everyone agrees, was evil because it justified terrorizing and slaughtering individuals we can actually see in the service of an imagined future paradise. Our obsessive futurology, arguably, is evidence that we haven’t yet learned enough from the monstrous failure of the ideologies of the 20th century.
There is, of course, a difference between obsessing about oneself and subordinating oneself to the interests of people or ecosystems or whatever not yet born. But, in both cases, we’re diverting ourselves from what we really know about ourselves and our limited future. Surely the authors are right that we shouldn’t let the future divert us from what is.
But there is something wrong, after all, about being Epicurean. Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote in his most private letters that he was an Epicurean. That means, in a way, his teaching about natural rights was public and provisional, as was the depth of his concern about protecting the rights of others. Jefferson wrote eloquently about the violence slavery did to particular persons, but he wasn’t as obsessive as we might have hoped about keeping slavery from having much of a future in his country. According to Jefferson himself, what’s wrong with Epicurean thinking is it produces a selfish negation of the natural instinct we all have as beneficent social and relational beings.
So the least we can say is there’s a middle point between the indifference of Epicurean serenity and ideological obsession when it comes to controlling the future. Our concern for past and future is properly relational. It begins with our parents and our children and extends, if more weakly, to our ancestors and to the future of the children of our children. It also begins with everyone we know and love in our particular place. It might have begun with Jefferson’s concern for his own slaves, whom he knew well and even loved. It did begin (even if it didn’t go far enough), Jefferson wrote, with the effects of tyranny on the souls of his own children.
Thinking of the person in isolation and thinking of the abstraction humanity (or the abstraction species) are both pathologies of our very personal and excessively unrelational time.
.A Christian might say that out of love of God we should love all those made in his image. That's true. But that doesn't mean we have to be obsessive about keeping them around. Their future is in the hands of their personal Creator. Christian environmentalism, although reasonable enough, is saved from obsessiveness by that personal fact.
Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!
Here are 7 often-overlooked World Heritage Sites, each with its own history.
- UNESCO World Heritage Sites are locations of high value to humanity, either for their cultural, historical, or natural significance.
- Some are even designated as World Heritage Sites because humans don't go there at all, while others have felt the effects of too much human influence.
- These 7 UNESCO World Heritage Sites each represent an overlooked or at-risk facet of humanity's collective cultural heritage.
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.
A new method promises to capture an elusive dark world particle.
- Dark matter is estimated to take up 26.8% of all matter in the Universe.
- The researchers will be able to try their approach in 2021, when the LHC goes back online.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.