Archive of comments from SSC: book-review-hive-mind

On the morality of abortion

Peter Gerdes says:

No! Almost all science selects where to focus in part based on concerns of funding/offense/misperception.

For instance, EVERY discussion (except maybe Dawkins, Singer and a few others) of either disability or abortion deliberately avoids poking the elephant in the room: there is an incredibly strong argument that we have a moral imperative to abort the disabled. You might say: that’s not science. True. But tallying up the average QALY loss a disability brings is science. Enumerating the tests that could be done if this was to become common practice and how effective they are is science. Lastly, even suggestive questions like: if poor timing (try again later) is an acceptable consideration for abortion why isn’t the higher expected life quality of a retry an even stronger consideration.

Why bring this up? Because in both cases what we do is avoid making well supported inferences (not sure what re: IQ but they exist) so people can adopt the useful guise of neutrality/non-judgementality not to mention the practical benefit of avoiding all the disclaimers and caveats required to avoid being misinterpreted.

The point is that these hot buttons excite people so they are unable to process other information. If every time it was necessary to improve women’s access to abortions or fight restrictive laws someone chimed in ‘definitely, think of the utility gain from aborting disabled fetuses’ nothing useful would get accomplished. Similarly, talking about either immigration or race here would drown out anything else he has to say.

————–

Sigh, I do hope the abortion/disability hot button fades. I really see no difference (ok extra pain and months of discomfort for the woman) between choosing to carry a disabled fetus to term rather than abort and reconceive (when possible) and administering poison or physical injury to a fetus. Same outcomes (assuming abortion not itself a substantial wrong) same choice same moral question. Yes, it bothers me the same way seeing people stand by and defend deliberate attempts to injure a fetus so as to produce a disabled child would

 

  • Mary says:

    Tallying up the QALY loss to having your life cut off in utero is even easier.

     

    • Neurno says:

      Yes it is! It’s none. No QALY loss. Because you are your mind, not your neurons. A fetus’ brain is not yet capable of sustaining consciousness because its neurons are in GABA-polarity-flipped connection forming mode. Not until the GABAergic neurons flip to their normal (inhibitory) polarity is the neocortex capable of sustaining consciousness. At the time of birth, the chloride ion content inside the neurons is switched from high to low. This causes the polarity of the GABAergic neurons to flip, and consciousness comes online for the first time.
      In rats it has been shown that suppression of the chloride ion concentration switch signals (such as the mother’s oxytocin) makes it harder for the switch to occur and makes the newborn mammal more likely to die of anoxia from failing to begin to breathe.
      In other words, your first breath of air corresponds closely to your first moment of consciousness, and thus the beginning of your existence as a sentient being (sapience develops later, obviously.) Why? Because the same mechanism underlies both: the initial booting-up of the brain due to the chloride-ion concentration change.

      Fascinatingly, this lack of consciousness does not mean that the brain is not yet learning. Thus, the human mind which boots up at birth has some pre-encoded associations already (such as the sound of the mother’s voice as heard through amniotic fluid.)

      Anonymous says:

      Killing a fetus might well avoid most of the problems associated with killing a thinking human with dreams and preferences, but I don’t see how it gets around the loss of QALYs – unless you are assuming that the fetus will later be replaced by another.

       

      Mary says:

      “No QALY loss. Because you are your mind, not your neurons. A fetus’ brain is not yet capable of sustaining consciousness ”

      Not only switching the goalposts, as Anonymous observed, but making an argument that obviously can be extended much further, because your brain is not capable of sustaining consciousness in deep sleep, and so your ability before and after are moot — you can be killed in your sleep with no loss of QALYS

      Neurnosays:

      @Mary: Not only switching the goalposts, as Anonymous observed, but making an argument that obviously can be extended much further, because your brain is not capable of sustaining consciousness in deep sleep, and so your ability before and after are moot — you can be killed in your sleep with no loss of QALYS.

      I was hoping you’d bring up sleeping/unconscious people so I’d have an excuse to talk about my theories in those areas! This is a pretty topic-specific moral dilemma right now, but it has the potential to expand rapidly in the foreseeable future…
      So the difference here is between a brain that has never yet hosted a conscious mind, and a brain that has hosted a conscious mind. In the brain that has hosted a conscious mind, there is a previously existing mind that may come to exist again in that brain (in accordance with the probability that the person will ever wake up again. In this view, someone who is a ‘vegetable’ with no predicted chance of recovery also loses moral value.). Thus, you are effectively killing that extant mind which is attached to that body.
      If, on the other hand, the brain has never hosted a conscious mind, then there is no mind which is dependant on that brain which you would be depriving of it’s needed life-support system.
      Sleeping is different from deep anaesthesia. There is still a flickering partial presence of a mind in the case of sleep (relative to the depth of the sleep). Deep anaesthesia, which the pre-birth state is equivalent to, does not allow for this flicker of mind. So the mind is entirely halted, paused.
      The best analogy I can come up with at the moment is that of sabotaging an astronaut’s life support system. If you do so while the astronaut is in it, it is killing them. If you do so knowing that the astronaut will need it to survive in a few hours from now, you are still responsible for their death should it occur. If you are destroying a space suit that has never been used, that belongs to no one, and by so destroying you are ensuring it will never be used… Who is morally harmed by this? It is only the material cost of the space suit which is lost, not any harm done to a morally relevant being.

      The place into which this moral dilemma extends into the future is uploading. Hypothetically, consider the situation where at some point in the future uploading has been shown to be safe and effective way of transferring a conscious mind into digital form, but it requires that the physical brain be destroyed in the process (I predict this will be true for a long while before nondestructive uploading becomes possible). In this case, is it morally acceptable to chose to upload oneself? Given that you are asking for your brain to be destroyed, if you were your physical brain this would be a sort of suicide / self-murder. But, if we correctly acknowledge that the mind is the being, and safely transferring the mind intact means that no being has been lost, then no-one is killed.
      Similarly, if you choose to make a digital backup of yourself once you are uploaded, this digital backup is not a moral being until it is run for the first time. Once it has begun running for the first time, taking it back offline again is murder if you intend to not let it come back online again.

       

      @Anonymous
      December 9, 2015 at 7:45 pm
      Killing a fetus might well avoid most of the problems associated with killing a thinking human with dreams and preferences, but I don’t see how it gets around the loss of QALYs – unless you are assuming that the fetus will later be replaced by another.

      My personal moral values do not include QALYs for potential but never-yet-extent minds, only for minds that do exist or have-existed-and-likely-will-resume-existing. Thus, I do not believe that all woman who have hit puberty are morally obligated to spend every possible moment of their child-bearing lives pregnant with as many babies as can be implanted in them with In Vitro Fertilization. It violates my moral instincts (and thus I have adjusted my moral philosophy, as do most people) to hold a worldview in which every woman must spend every year of her childbearing existence gestating a new batch of the maximum number of fetuses which can likely be birthed live (twelve? more?). Is that, may I ask, what you believe to be morally correct, or is it just what you thought that I believed?

       

      anon says:

      Someone who genuinely thinks fetuses are people and values the sanctity of human life and so on isn’t going to be convinced based on QALYs that killing what they consider a baby is ok. Hell you don’t even have to think fetuses are people to be skeptical, it’s only an “incredibly strong argument” if you’re a consequentialist, which few people are.

       

      • Neurnosays:

        @ Anon:
        I believe you have misunderstood me. I am telling you that fetuses are not hosts to human minds (yet).
        I do value the continuance of the lives of human minds. I also value those human minds having interesting and pleasurable experiences.
        I do not morally value human bodies, or even brains, in so far as no human mind is affected by them.
        Abortion, to my mind, has only the moral impacts that are derived from the human minds experiencing it.

         

      • Neurno says:

        @ Anon:
        I believe you have misunderstood me. I am telling you that fetuses are not hosts to human minds (yet).
        I do value the continuance of the lives of human minds. I also value those human minds having interesting and pleasurable experiences.
        I do not morally value human bodies, or even brains, in so far as no human mind is affected by them.
        Abortion, to my mind, has only the moral impacts that are derived from the human minds experiencing it.

         

        • anon says:

          No, I didn’t misunderstand you at all. You don’t think fetuses are people in a meaningful sense, other people do. These people are not obligated to endorse abortion based on any number of QALYs gained or lost, because the ethical systems they use to make decisions don’t consider QALYs a compelling reason to take a human life, which they hold as a sacred value.

           

      • Neurno says:

        @ Anon: I disagree with your use of the word “think” here. I don’t “think” that fetuses are not people, I made a scientific argument for why they are not. I would be happy to have this scientifically refuted by empirical evidence if I am incorrect.
        However, my scientific statement is not equivalent to someone else “thinking” that fetuses are people. If you “think” a thing without empirical evidence to support it, and someone presents you with contradictory empirical evidence, you should investigate your beliefs. If you find in the course of your investigations that the belief you hold is incorrect, you should change that belief.
        If a person is not their mind, at what point is there a sensible definition for what a person is?
        I have worked in a lab where I was given living brain tumors freshly excised from a patient. My job was to carefully dissociate the tumor cells from each other, and grow them in a petri dish to study them. The goal was noble, to learn how to better stop cancer. But each of these cells, being a highly mutagenic cancer, had a slightly different genome. So I was growing hundreds of thousands of genetically distinct brain cells in the lab, and when we were done studying them, we destroyed them. Was each dead human cancer cell morally equivalent to the murder of a human being?
        If genetically unique human brain tissue doesn’t count as a human, what does?

       

 

In which JBeshir makes a excellent observation about genetic engineering being both potentially helpful and quite terrifying

JBeshir says:

I’d say that we shouldn’t do that because we went down that road before in history and it went very wrong (thinking of the early 20th century US stuff). The impulsive rejection of trying-to-try anything that’s too close an exact fit is probably correct, even if you are immune to public pressure.

Similar to why we shouldn’t try to set up a single party state with a centralised administration of the economy/society and internal selection procedures to ensure everyone gets fed and no one is too poorly off and political pandering can’t interfere with reasoned administration; we have a fairly good idea that when you try-to-try that the incentives on people within your system work out badly. You end up putting absolute monsters in charge, and your ‘reasoned administration’ goes to hell. Or rather, brings hell to it.

If genetics are a big deal, we should act accordingly, but we can afford to avoid getting close to systems which behaved badly in the past and should.

(I think we can let the fact that we’re gaining terrifying understanding of genetic engineering deal with it. What exactly it is we’re going to use to deal with our terrifying understanding of genetic engineering is another problem.)

On a hypothetical treatment for low IQ

Just to put in a link to the super-stylized essays of La Griffe du Lion, which more than a few people have found hugely illuminating:

http://www.lagriffedulion.f2s.com/

 

  • Neurno says:

    After Scott linked La Griffe in his review above, I went and read those two articles, and then a bunch more. I was hopeful at first that I might have found someone who thinks like me, but ultimately I was disappointed. He seems quite apt at making the accurate observation that some people are substantially less smart than others. What he lacks is any sensible idea about what to do next. He responds, not with empathy towards these people, not with an evident desire to help deliver them from their affliction, but rather cruel snide remarks about how we should be careful not to hire them for anything important, let them into college, etc.
    We can do better. Much better. Easily.
    Did anyone here notice the post I made in the last open thread (OT36: Nes Threadol Hayah Sham) in which I offered a hypothetical cure for mediocre intelligence?
    If not you can visit my SSC subthread blog at neurorationalist dot wordpress dot com to see my post without having to wade through a lot of discussion about gun policy, or just do an in-page search in the comments.
    I offered a hypothetical about a dangerous brain surgery which had an 80% chance of upgrading the recipient two standard deviations of intelligence, and a 20% chance of killing them. Obviously, such a surgery would not fix our situation, too many people would die.
    Here’s a brighter hypothetical for you… What if we had a treatment available now, cheaper to apply per person than a single dose of aspirin, which would have a disproportionately greater effect on those with lower intelligence. For those 1 SD or more below humanity’s norm, it would raise them an average of 1 SD. For those within +- 0.5 SD of the norm, it would raise them about 0.5 SD. For those higher, it would have a decreasing effect.
    Now, the downsides. First, the treatment is accompanied by a minor cold with some sneezing and coughing. Second, it only works on men. Third, it only works on a very specific part of men, their gametes. Ok, I lied, it doesn’t directly improve the intelligence of the men who receive it at all, it only affects their potential offspring.
    That’s it for downsides. No surgery, no significant risk of death or worsening of intelligence, and no effect on the brains of already extant humans. Just a shift in the next generation.
    What do you think, is it still worth applying the treatment even given these downsides?

     

 On other important factors besides IQ

Richard Metzler says:

Does the book mention the possible effecs of emigration as well? It would seem that having a share of the smartest, most ambitious people move to richer countries imposes a brain drain that makes it harder for developing countries to escape the trap – unless a significant share of the emigrants return to their home countries eventually, with the knowledge and habits they formed in the rich societies.

I can see that there are arguments here why IQ might influence nations more than individuals, and I’m supportive efforts to raise IQ (nutrition, education, whatever), but what I’m way about any assumption that IQ could be significant when actually compared to other causal factors involved in a country’s economic fortunes and development. If it was important, and assuming that IQ has an important heritable component, how could we explain the rapid (genetically speaking) rise and fall of many nations economic development in directions that defied IQ? Greece seemed pretty good at solving coordination problems in ancient times when it was uniting countless city-states to fight the much larger Persian army. Yet today, not so much. Likewise the middle east has seen extremely varied fortunes. The genetics may have changed a little, but not THAT much. Is it IQ levels or is it mostly political and cultural problems resulting in institutional failures to address security, fairness and fiscal responsibility?

It seems to me that the primary path by which we could improve our nations’ economic fortunes is still the obvious one – good economic policy. If I was looking at immigration, I think I’d be thinking about a combination of security, cultural compatibility and humanitarian concerns/compassion rather than IQ level. You’re just not going to influence IQ levels enough to matter, given that its probably a very weak lever at best.

I think it was a bit unfortunate to let the rationality/IQ -> property-rights friendly institutions claim go completely unquestioned – markets are awesomely useful but isn’t there a fairly strong case that mixed economies have consistently proven to provide the best outcomes in comparison to one extreme or the other? And even if we are neutral on that, I wasn’t aware that IQ correlated to pro-laissez-faire voting habits? Assuming any particular position on a long-contested political issue equates to rationality is an unreasonably strong claim – its silly to make out politics is that straight-forward. Perhaps I misinterpret property-rights friendly institutions to mean economic-right when it just means the government doesn’t rob people of their property, which would be much more reasonable.

Otherwise I found this like most of Scott’s reviews – the first half made me feel like the book author had some points but hadn’t properly addressed certain issues, and then just as I was about to start attacking my keyboard to comment, I find that Scott has already considered the vast majority of my concerns and already written them up more eloquently than I could. Enjoyable read.

 

  • Neurno says:

    Wow, another great comment. (For those here who haven’t yet checked out CitizensEarth’s blog, you totally should, it’s got some great ideas in it that could benefit from intelligent discussion.) You make an excellent point about society-wide policies, such as economic policy. I’d like to chime in with a historical example about my hobbyhorse, science.
    Are you familiar with the Golden Age of Arab Science? doi:
    10.1096/fj.06-0803ufm
    As in, that period of time from about 750-1258 C.E. when the Islamic states were the intellectual center of the Western World (East Asia off doing its own thing). Yeah, that time when any scientist who wanted to learn about the best science available travelled to the main cities of the Arabic-Muslim Empire, and tons of scientific progress was made by the arabic scientistics who took up the mantle of progress from the Greeks. What an amazing, and statistically disproportionately impressive time for science! Too bad it got the plug pulled on it when, around 1258 C.E., Islamic law shifted to strongly discourage new scientific innovation. Existing discoveries were still honored, but with scientific innovation stifled, the Golden Age of Science foundered. The mantle of science moved on. Ever since that time, those regions have consistently underperformed in science innovation. That is a social wound only beginning to heal to this day. Even now, many brilliant Arabic scientists go to other places (such as America, yay!) to study and innovate. If you love science, and are good at it, and have the capacity to go live in the part of the world where most of the other best scientists are… why not go? I know I would. Who cares about silly arbitrary things like ethnic background and national borders? Science seeks to transcend all that.
    If you, poor unenlightened being, do care about things like national borders and national economies, and comparative achievements in innovation, it would behoove you to make sure that your government does not repress scientific innovation. For the scientists will either stay, but not accomplish much, or leave to find freer intellectual waters, leaving your arbitrary nation-state bereft.

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