The Theosophical Society in America

An Ethics Nightmare

By Philip Harris

Originally printed in the SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2005 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Harris, Philip. "An Ethics Nightmare." Quest  93.5 (SEPTERMBER-OCTOBER 2005):188-189

HarrisScience and technology perennially offer vexing questions about ethics; sometimes scientists have been bitterly criticized when in fact they are innocent of wrongdoing. At other times, they are praised before the implications of their work are fully examined. Sometimes their work is evaluated several times over many years—and each new evaluation yields new opinions.

The science surrounding nuclear fission offers a classic example. As pure science, exploring the nature of matter is quite innocuous, or even positive. It has resulted in a number of extremely beneficial procedures. Yet such investigations resulted in the invention of the atom bomb and culminated in the destruction of two Japanese cities together with their hapless inhabitants. That is a classic example of the misquestionable use of knowledge. Then again, even the first use of the atomic bomb is fraught with controversy. Some say it was simply and completely indefensible. Others observe that some authorities, at the time, estimated a prolonged campaign in Japan would cost at least a million and a half casualties. They note that atom bombs caused far fewer.

Today, similar levels of controversy surround stem-cell science. Today, much of the argument revolves around the source of stem cells. It appears that the potential benefits of stem cells make the issue of their use cloudy and prone to frequent reconsideration. Currently, public opinion leans against discussion focuses on the harvest of stem cells, whether from living human embryos, but approves the use of stem cells gathered or through less from non-invasive sources. As information about stem cells increases and applications emerge, stem-cell science is likely to inspire continued controversy. Already, new discoveries force scientists, lawmakers and ordinary individuals to consider exactly what it means to be human.

About a year ago, for example, scientists at the University of Florida extracted 25,000 neuron cells from the brain of a rat. They placed the cells in a nutrient solution inside a petri dish and placed the petri dish on an array of electrodes that allowed the scientists to study electrical activity in the cells. The brain cells multiplied and organized for themselves a neural network—the rudiments of a brain. Scientists found they could train the network of cells to serve the autopilot function on a flight simulator. While it is not precisely the case that these scientists taught a disembodied rat brain to fly a plane, it is true that they taught a simple "brain" to learn complex behaviors.

What are we, as theosophists, to make of this biological experiment? Indeed, what shall we call it? Is it an artificial brain, a biological artifact, or a neurological nightmare? Although there has been an ongoing discussion in psychological circles for quite a long time regarding the actual stage of brain size and complexity at which self-consciousness can arise, there has been no recognizable consensus. Human brains are made of several billion neurons, and there is no evidence that a "brain" of 25,000 cells can manage self-consciousness, or even a self to be conscious of. In fact, the rat cells in Florida lost their piloting skills only fifteen minutes after they gained them—then learned them and lost them again and again, making the experiment easy to replicate. Still, we simply do not know at what stage of development self-consciousness occurs.

When properly arranged, it has been found that a large numbers of neurons are not necessary for the management of quite complex procedures. The honey bee carries out difficult flying operations, collects nectar and pollen, ventilates and guards the hive, constructs the intricately shaped honeycomb, all with just ninety neurons in its brain. However, many theosophists will hasten to point out that bees are possessed of a group soul and therefore a hive can employ a mutuality of brain activity. Similarly, termites that live in a large enough group are active and effective in pursuing community labor. If a small number of termites are placed in a supportive environment they wander about aimlessly and fail to exhibit any ordered activity.

Let us suppose that self-consciousness is possible in a cultivated brain comprising of 500 million neurons. What is the likely scenario? This artificially developed brain would have no input from sensory organs such as sight, hearing, touch, and taste. It would exist in a sensory vacuum. As a result, it would not have the same neurological structure as animal and human brains. Experiments have demonstrated that humans who have been deprived of sensory input for some time lose rationality and even become temporarily insane. Arthur Clarke envisaged this possibility in the film 2001, A Space Odyssey when an intelligent spaceship computer (HAL) descended into irrationality and tried to kill the ship's crew. Writers are quick to conjure nightmares in which artificial brains link up together to oppose their human creators but it is entirely possible that in order to function properly, an artificial brain would have to be linked to other brains—or to some intelligence larger than itself . As Frankenstein was obligated to provide his monster with a mate, we human creators of artificial intelligence may find ourselves morally obligated to ease the isolation of the creatures we create.

What, in fact, are our obligations to the living things we create from other living things? Most theosophists are strongly opposed to vivisection of animals and well aware of the negative karma such abuse can create. Such activities no doubt incur appropriate karma. Culpability might be mitigated if the experimenters are working to benefit humanity. But we have observed that technology, while neutral, is rarely if ever pure. Scientists who talk about their experiment with rat brains suggest that their experiments might benefit epilepsy sufferers. But one of the primary objectives of this experiment was to create an intelligence capable of piloting a military plane into dangerously hostile territory.

Vivisection in the service of warfare is likely to elicit horrendous karmic consequences. Further technology in the same line of inquiry could descend into fearful evil. By combining DNA manipulation, cloning, and the cultivation of artificial brains, scientists could conceivably design and produce humanoids for the sole purpose of killing naturally born humans. Knowing what we do about justifications for genocide, it's easy to imagine one group of humans justifying such a creation as a measure of protection against an opposing force. And it's easy to imagine that scientists who developed this "weapon," like those who developed the atom bomb, would not be able to predict the evil they would unleash. For no one knows what such creations mean on the etheric level. No one knows what sort of energy form might choose to inhabit a living thing with no associated etheric double, no natural physical body, and no mental body.

I am fully aware that I have raised a series of very important questions and have furnished no answers. I simply do not have any facile replies! I certainly don't mean to promote ill-informed embargoes on biological research, but I want to caution against careless license. Most universities do have an ethics committee charged with the scrutiny of proposed research projects, but what about research carried out by corporations? According to some mythology that has come down to us, Atlantis was destroyed because its scientists offended the gods. Are we retracing the same path?

There is an urgent need for a well-informed global debate on artificial intelligence and artificially cultivated life forms. We must not justify embargoes on inquiry just because we are afraid. Neither must we forbid biological research when it has already yielded vast medical breakthroughs and social goods. No, freedom must be preserved from both atrophy and careless license. We must ratify ethical guidelines, formulated and enforced by an international body such as the United Nations. Then we must live by those guidelines, lest we become gods whose very creations destroy us.

Philip Harris is the author of a raja yoga manual titled The Spiritual Path to Complete Fulfilment and Theosophy's Leading Edge (in preparation). he is the general editor of the Theosophical Encyclopedia which will be published late 2005. He is an honorary life member of the Theosophical Society in Australia.