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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy

I just had a look at this page, which gives a breakdown of contributions to The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy. It's not a terribly big deal, but I can count only four people who contributed a larger number of articles to the encyclopedia than I did: Gary Westfahl, Dave Langford, Darrell Schweitzer, and Andy Sawyer (all prodigious commentators on the SF genre, and Westfahl edited the encyclopedia while the others were on its advisory board). Maybe I missed someone, and there were other people who must have worked hard behind the scenes. A couple of the people I just mentioned wrote a helluva lot more entries than I did, and Gary Westfahl must have worked his guts out in the role of editor of the whole shebang, so let's keep things in perspective.

Even so ...

Yeah, not a big deal, but it did surprise me. Those theme entries were incredibly difficult to write - so no wonder, I suppose on reflection, there were not many people foolhardy enough to take on large numbers of them. It took me ages to write my 16,000 words for the encyclopedia.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Yes, the cloning debate is over: we must allow therapeutic cloning

Since the cloning of Dolly in 1996, reported in Nature early the following year, we have lived in an environment of moral panic arising from the theoretical prospect of human cloning. The implications of that prospect have been thrashed out by philosophers, ethicists, and others ever since, and a clear outcome has emerged in the debate: subject to safety considerations, there is no reason to ban any form of human cloning.

It must be conceded that there is currently no obvious way to overcome the technological difficulties with reproductive cloning - at least not without conducting experiments that would clearly be unethical. Thus, there is no prospect of human reproductive cloning being used, for now, so long as ordinary ethical guidelines are followed by researchers. We have to accept that an impasse, whether temporary or permanent, has been reached with human reproductive cloning.

At the same time, there is no intellectually sound basis for criminalisation of the technique - all that is required is vigorous enforcement of ordinary research ethics. Furthermore, there is no rational basis for any restrictions on human cloning that is not intended for reproduction. I.e. there is no rational basis to oppose the creation of human embryos by somatic cell nuclear transfer for directly therapeutic applications (if these become available) or for biomedical research that might lead to such applications. (By convention, both of these are lumped under the expression "therapeutic cloning".)

The intellectual debate about human cloning is over, and the bioluddites lost. People like John Harris have debunked their arguments again and again. I've done some useful work on this myself.

However, you'd never know it from the political outcomes. Countries such as my own much-loved Australia continue to have draconian criminal penalties for reproductive cloning on their statute books, even though this is totally unnecessary while the technique is not safe and totally deplorable if the technique ever does become a safe reproductive option. Worse still, bans on human cloning are extended to cloning for the purposes of research or therapy. This is a nonsensical situation that we've reached. The cloning issue has given the forces of unreason a huge political success, one that creates a dangerous precedent for many other areas of our lives. In this area, there has been a political rejection of the Millian consensus that served us so well - the idea that the state should not be imposing contestable (and in this case irrational) moral views, even popular ones. This is a truly disturbing development in the public life of Western democracies such as Australia, and anyone who cares about it should be protesting vehemently.

I see that Dennis Shanahan, the Australian's political editor, has an op.ed. piece this morning claiming that the cloning debate is over in Australia because of the parliamentary ban long since enacted. Shanahan asserts that the possibility of allowing human cloning for therapeutic or research purposes should be dismissed, despite the contrary recommendations of an important government report that was issued in December last year.

Shanahan's line must be contested. Yes, a political debate in Australia was indeed won by the bioluddites a couple of years ago, but they have lost the wider intellectual debate. I don't see how those of us who believe in both liberty and the melioristic possibilities of science can ever rest comfortably until the values of freedom and reason have been restored to public policy in Australia and elsewhere. I, for one, intend to use whatever powers I have to keep the candle of freedom and reason burning.

I hereby dissent, and I call on you to join me. We must allow therapeutic cloning.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Why destroying embryos is not murder

Now and then I encounter the simplistic claim that destroying human embryos is murder because, well, they're human. I hardly know where to start in rebutting this, since it is so muddled, but I think it's worth repeating the basic points here.

Nobody can deny that a human embryo is "human" in the sense of having DNA belonging to the species Homo sapiens sapiens. Those of us who support biomedical research on human embryos are, of course, well aware of this - but it's not what the argument is about. When we deny that destroying human embryos is murder, we are denying various other things. In particular, we deny that human embryos have such characteristics as sentience, rationality, self-consciousness, and moral autonomy (the ability to reflect about decisions and life plans). We deny that they are yet part of any community into which they have been born. In these ways, embryos are very different from human adults, children, or babies. They are not the kind of thing that fears death, or that we can feel sorry for (they can't suffer, feel grief, be maddened by frustration, or have their life plans fall into ruin); they are not beings whose killing disturbs the peace within our societies or typically causes severe parental grief, as does killing someone's precious baby.

The law relating to murder, along with the moral baggage that goes with it, does not relate to the killing of just any living entity that belongs genetically to the species Homo sapiens sapiens. It's worth bearing in mind that abortion has never been considered murder at common law. The law of murder is about keeping the peace and protecting us from things we rationally fear - threats to our lives or the lives of loved ones - rather than about conserving entities with particular DNA sequences.

A good way to understand this is to do a thought experiment and consider the position of a sentient, intelligent, self-conscious alien that has become part of our community. Presumably if someone maliciously killed this being, that would be murder. Similarly, if someone maliciously killed one of the mutants in the X-Men media franchise, we would (as readers or viewers) interpret it as murder even though these beings supposedly have different DNA. If we lived in a community made up of more than one kind of intelligent species, killing individuals of either, or any, of these species would breach the peace, arouse our fears for our own lives, etc., and would have to be considered by the law to be an act of murder. In short it is not DNA-based species membership that matters, but something's actual properties (such as sentience, rationality, etc.) and social relationships.

Note that I don't have an overarching theory that says it is just one thing or factor that matters morally - perhaps personhood. I am happy to accept that personhood is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for something to be a potential murder victim, even though it is an important matter for consideration by legislators. I can readily imagine that there might be a species of malevolent, or just totally alien, beings who possess the characteristics we call personhood (e.g. rationality and self-consciousness), but have no propensity whatsoever to bond into communities with humans. They may be so radically different from us that their entry into the same social contract is out of the question. Killing such a being may be a matter of great regret, and may even be something that we have a moral reason not to do, but I don't necessarily want to count it as murder or expect the law to classify it as such.

On the other hand, newborn human babies are not yet persons, but we have good reason to view their killing as a very serious crime, at least in normal circumstances (forget cases of anencephaly, severe disability and so on). We bond and empathise with babies instinctively; they are typically immensely loved and valued by their families; they carry many of our hopes for the future. Whether we classify infanticide (in ordinary circumstances) as a sub-set of the crime of murder, or as a sui generis crime, is largely a matter of social convention. But categorising it as murder makes perfectly good sense as an option available to society as it develops its code of criminal law.

I actually have a very pluralistic view of what factors underpin our moral and legal systems. To the extent that we are tempted to think there must be just one single factor on which morality depends, that is one of the errors about the phenomenon of morality that it is easy to fall into. However, I can see no factor that compels us to treat the destruction of human embryos as a serious moral wrong of any kind. At most, the symbolic significance they have for many people, perhaps including ourselves, may make us feel the need to adopt a degree of solemnity whenever human embyros are destroyed, and to look with disapproval on anyone who treats such processes flippantly. This is analogous to the sensitivity and respect that we show in the presence of a corpse, but it is long way from the considerations involved in applying the concept of murder.

Often, when I make these points, I feel I'm bashing my head against the proverbial brick wall. One might think that, by now, such points would not need to be made yet again - and again, and again, and again. However, that is evidently not so. Yes, these points still need to be made, so here they are once again, at least for the record.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Still partying


Foreground: Alison Goodman (back to camera), Jenny Blackford, Simon Higgins. Goth-theme party, August 2006.

Another pic of the birthday girl


Alison Goodman, August 2006

Gothic mode


Russell Blackford, August 2006

The birthday girl herself



Alison Goodman turns ... whatever.

Party! Party!




Some pics from Alison Goodman's Goth-themed birthday party last night. Jenny and I in the respective pics with Simon and Annie. In the middle pic, me looking pretty happy with post-punk Karen and devilish Jane.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Happy birthday to me

A quiet one this year, though I'll be going out to dinner at one of my favourite restaurants in Melbourne, The Isthmus of Kra.

Jenny has bought me an amazing scanner/colour printer/photocopier for my birthday. I'll be able to scan all my old photos and inflict them on people.

Alison G, who shares my birthday, has reached a year with a "0" at the end of it, so she's having a huge party on the Saturday night, a day late. That will doubtless pack more excitement. Happy birthday to her and to all the other late Leos around the place who are having parties about now. I don't believe in astrology, of course, but Leos rule anyway. :)

Monday, August 14, 2006

I really must stop doing this!


Charles Stross, Russell Blackford, Margo Lanagan, Richard Harland - at Continuum 4.

From Continuum 4


Charles Stross, Russell Blackford, and Margo Lanagan, Melbourne, July 2006.

Continuum 4 was a fairly quiet science fiction convention for me, though I was on a few panels - one on Greg Egan, one on making money from writing, and one or two others. As always at these things, the masquerade was a highlight. There's not a lot more to report, but I did enjoy catching up with lots of friends and meeting some new people, such as Charles S. and Margo L. Both of those folks were very much on my radar, and they turned out to be nice people.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Science fiction in Australia - another good deed done

I've just put what I hope are the final finishing touches to my contribution to the forthcoming Companion to Twentieth Century Australian Literature, 1901-2005 (to be published soon by an American academic press). In my case, I'd been commissioned to write a 5000-word chapter entitled "Science fiction".

My next project is another longish piece about science fiction, but this one will have very different content as it's an article on the overall genre - not just its history in one country - for an on-line literary encyclopedia.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Towards a better debate on emerging technologies

What I find so annoying, or amusing, depending on my mood, about the bioconservative opposition to emerging technologies, such as genetic enhancement, is the moralistic, self-righteous tone. Much of the opposition to emerging technologies depends on an intellectually unacceptable valorisation of the natural, as if smallpox, starvation, and violent death from the fangs and claws of large predators are good things because they are our aspects of our natural condition. We are repeatedly told that there is some mysterious moral worth attaching to the human genome in its currently-evolved state, or to the biological processes of reproduction as we have known them. The prose that emerges from Leon Kass reads as if it should be intoned through the nose (to borrow a phrase from Ezra Pound that was less apt in its original context). To date, any attempt at sensible debate has been almost useless because it just leads to more expressions of smug self-righteousness.

That doesn't mean that my transhumanist friends should have things all their own way. I agree with them that the best outcome with human enhancement technologies would be universal access. That, however, may not be possible in the short term. It depends on just what technologies emerge, in what timeframes, against what social and economic backdrops. As I can see little practical prospect of producing massively greater social and global equality in the next few decades, desirable as this would be, the reality is that enhancement technologies are likely to become available in an unequal world. That sets off my alarm bells, because it will create a serious risk that we will see new castes of people emerge, with some being subordinated to the interests of others.

There's a dilemma here - we could accept at least some restrictions on the development and marketing of these technologies, which is distasteful for many reasons, or we could run the risk of reverting to hierarchical societies, which is a completely unnacceptable price, at least within my philosophical framework. In the long term, restricting what are, on their face, beneficial technologies may not even possible.

One way of putting all this is to warn that we have only a limited time, maybe a few decades, to clean up our act and create a much more economically equal world ...

Actually, that would be too alarmist, since the technologies that would be most risky - those that would introduce dramatic and inheritable enhancement of human abilities - would also be the among the most difficult to develop, thanks to the multifactorial character of most phenotypical traits in humans. In practice, the urgency may not be as great as I've been suggesting so far. Still, the prospect of human enhancement gives us a powerful new reason to reduce economic inequalities within and between societies, and that is obviously (at least to me) better than restricting scientific inquiry or people's liberties.

It would be nice if opponents of new technologies acknowledged that this dilemma is the real cause for concern. If they did so, we could all have a much better debate. The need for some restrictions on the development of some technologies could be part of the discussion, on the basis that any such restrictions would be regrettable band-aid measures while the real issues of economic inequality were addressed. The issues would then be: What social and economic reforms are needed if we are to minimise the risk that human enhancement technologies will lead us back to hierarchical societies? What can we do now to achieve at least some of the necessary reforms? If those reforms will take time, and meanwhile we need to retard some technologies, what are the narrowest possible restrictions on people's liberty that we can tailor? Is there a way we can ensure that any restrictions are temporary and don't demonise emerging technologies? What are the crucial short-term benefits of emerging technologies that we must try to make sure we don't lose? What are the important benefits that we need to keep as possibilities in the longer term? How can we balance these benefits and problems?

I'd welcome a sensible public debate along the above lines. Meanwhile, the current situation in Australia is simply draconian: we have federal laws imposing long prison sentences for a whole range of activities that may be relatively harmless and have nothing to do with the real problem. The kinds of police-state measures offered by Maxwell Mehlman in Wondergenes can't possibly be the answer, either (I gather that Wondergenes may no longer reflect Mehlman's position, to his credit, but that is a different issue).

A very good start would be recognition by bioconservatives that many of the technologies which have been demonised to date (germline therapy, stem-cell research, therapeutic cloning, reproductive cloning, embryonic sex selection) are not actually all that problematic. If we are going to restrict anything by law, even temporarily, I'd like to find a clear tactical way to signal that this is based solely on concerns about the interaction of enhancement with existing economic inequalities (and of course ordinary ethical concerns that we could agree on).

Here's a modest proposal.

The clearest signal would be if the bioconservatives dropped (or reversed) their efforts to prohibit therapeutic and reproductive cloning as long as the necessary research is carried out within ordinary ethical guidelines (e.g. safety, informed consent, the welfare of children). Any moral objections to cloning, outside those guidelines, are simply not the state's business. If at least some of the well-known bioconservatives took this step, it would create the climate for a genuine debate about what needs to be done.

These are serious issues. Let's finally have a proper, rigorous debate.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The expansion of human horizons - nice Benford quote

Gregory Benford has a nice quote over on the Benford & Rose site. "Indeed, the greatest agenda of this century will be the expansion of human horizons by uplifting the bulk of humanity to a standard of living enjoyed by the advanced nations. That would complete the promise begun 500 years ago by the first European expansion, following on Lief Erikson without knowing his role in their own history."

That's a good quote coming from Greg, who sometimes seems like a die-hard libertarian - no one is ever going to accuse him of being some kind of closet socialist. The second sentence would probably raise a few eyebrows among my other friends, but then again anything will raise eyebrows among at least some of my friends. Science fiction writers and philosophers come well equipped with mobile eyebrows. I really like the first sentence. Now, wouldn't it be nice if we could free up a few billion dollars for an agenda like that, given that we don't fight wars any more? Hang on ...

Continuum 4

I'll be spending this coming weekend at a small sf convention in Melbourne, Continuum 4, which looks to be fairly low key compared to Conjure and Conflux - but I'm looking forward to meeting Charles Stross. I'm on a batch of panels including this one: "Writing and the Art of Money: Follow your creative instincts or follow the dollars? Is is possible to do both? Writers discuss."

Hmmm, I think there was only about one year in my life when I made anything approaching a living just from writing - fortunately, I've always had other income sources. Not many people can survive as writers without keeping their day jobs or having some cash stashed away or a supportive life partner or something; it's even harder if, like me, you are picky about what sorts of things you actually want to write. But some of the other people on the panel have made more out of writing than I ever will, so it'll be interesting.