Simon Critchley on Optimism

Question: Who is the most optimistic philosopher in history?

Critchley:    The cheerful philosophers, maybe in the history of philosophy, most cheerful philosopher in the book is David Hume and Hume is a fascinating example because Hume is an atheist and dies as an atheist.  Adam Smith, in a correspondence with Hume’s doctor, the word that keeps coming up in the exchange is cheerfulness, Hume’s good humor, Hume’s humor, Hume’s cheerfulness, and he was visited on 2 occasions by James Boswell who was Samuel Johnson’s biographer, because Boswell was offended that Hume was going to go to his death as an atheist.  He didn’t believe that Hume could go to his death as a non-believer and Hume good-humoredly admitted him, they talked and Hume persisted in his belief, but he wasn’t, he wasn’t mean to Boswell.  A certain point, it is recorded somewhere that Boswell said to Hume, Hume, do you not at least conceive of the possibility that the soul is immortal?  And Hume said in response, if I throw a piece of coal on the fire, it is possible that it will not burn, and that’s the closest he… And so, Hume, I wouldn’t say is necessarily an optimist but he goes to his death cheerfully.  For me, there’s a correlation between cheerfulness and pessimism, you know.  It’s the pessimist who is the person who is cheerful. I have, if like Nietzsche worries about optimism, optimism is usually bound up with an idea of the future being better than things are now which I think is a risky thing to believe.  For me it’s about a philosophical disposition, is about embracing a certain pessimism that is not negative but which is a condition for cheerfulness and affirmation.  That’s something that one can find in I think like Nietzsche for example. 

Question: Which philosopher gives you the most solace?

Critchley:    I would maybe go for Epicurus.  Epicurus is what he calls the tetrapharmakos, the 4-part cure, and don’t fear death.  Don’t fear God.  What is good is easy to get and what is difficult, what is painful is easy to endure.  But that thought is very interesting.  The idea that one should not fear death I’ve already talked about.  You know, the point of being Epicurean is to accept the fact of one’s death cheerfully without a longing for the [frivol] touch, a longing for the afterlife.  Don’t fear God.  Well, there was no some big, angry, vengeful God for the Epicureans.  God was somewhere out there but it wasn’t really terribly important.  What is good is easy to get and what is painful is easy to endure.  When most people think about Epicurus and Epicureanism, they think of someone who’s committed to pleasure.  It’s completely wrong and when Epicurus was asked, what would give him pleasure?  He said, a barley cake and a cup of water.  Maybe with a part cheese every now and then, and that would be more than sufficient.  What it means with Epicurean is to minimize one’s pleasures and to focus on the most genuine pleasures and if you minimize your pleasures, you also minimize your pains.  So, the problem if not the crisis that you know, we’re confronted with now is the crisis caused by excessive, excessive pleasures.  The cultivation of excessive pleasures.  So, paradoxically, a time of crisis like this might be one in which people can learn to minimize their pleasures and actually be happier in a strange way.  Points of crisis can be philosophically interesting, you know.  I mean, people were obviously living through some sort of dreadful delusion these last years about the future and about the endless opportunities and possibilities of the future.  A lot of that has gone.  That is an interesting philosophical moment.  When that bubble is popped, you’re left with you know, you’re left with yourself in facing up to yourself.  You can run away into religion, if you like.  That is a consolation but it’s a false consolation.  You know, when I was talking earlier about the need to embrace the transient and never occurring presence, and that is the only alternative that’s available to us.  I think that’s something which is very important.  You don’t need money to do that.  You don’t need a crazy luxurious lifestyle to do that.  In many ways you know, one of the interesting things you can learn from the history of philosophy is the importance of poverty.  The philosophers were often poor, _____ you know threw-away his cup when he saw someone drinking with their hands.  Why do I need that cup?  I could live without it.  So in many ways, you know, philosophy isn’t a luxury add on to culture for me.  It’s something which can allow one to accept, you know, the less is more in a strange way, something like that.

Simon Critchley on the philosophers of optimism.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • 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.

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