Thursday, March 10, 2005

More on teratomas and the like

I continue to be fascinated by the potential of things like teratomas as a technological evasion of the fierce moral and political battle over the moral status of embryonic humans. Will Saletan has written a second piece on the topic:
Is it allright to create and destroy something almost human? That's the big topic at Friday's meeting of the President's Council on Bioethics. Council member Bill Hurlbut, a Stanford biologist, wants to end-run the moral debate over stem cells. He proposes to follow the recipe for human cloning—put the nucleus of a body cell into a gutted egg cell—but turn off a crucial gene so that the resulting "biological artifact" produces stem cells without organizing itself into an embryo.
Sounds good to me, but Saletan spends the whole column fretting about the "ick" factor, mostly vicariously through various members of the bioethics council. He concludes,
It's in our nature to see the resemblance between an embryolike being and ourselves. And it's in our dignity to deny that the difference between us and something intrinsically meaningless can be so small, even if it's true.
That last word, "true," is the key element here. In the realm of normal human experience, if reason and intuition lead to contradictory moral claims, then many times one follows one's intuition and reasons backward to conclude that something is wrong with one's moral premises. However, life at the cellular level is well outside the realm of the normal human experience. When trying to extend our moral principles to such strange situations, reason must trump intuition.

There's a similar phenomenon in physics. Relativity (general and special) are very counterintuitive, and quantum physics is even worse, but these theories deal with objects with very large masses, very high relative velocities, and/or very small sizes. In the early 20th century, experimental evidence forced physicists to reject many of their intuitions manifested in classical, billiard ball models. Reason had trumped intuition in a very concrete manner.

In my own line of work, I manipulate mathematical objects that are uncountably infinite. Uncountable infinities were discovered in the 1870s when Cantor laid the foundations of modern set theory. Set theory quickly proceeded to break mathematicians' intuitions about abstract Euclidean space, which were of course based on their perception of physical space. (Among the more famous examples is the Banach-Tarski paradox, that a solid ball may be partitioned into finitely many pieces and then reassembled into two balls each of the same size as the original.) To this very day, a handful of mathematicians philosophically prefer intuition and refuse to use Cantor's set theory, considering it meaningless. In contrast, the vast majority have a philosophy, or at least a methodology, more in agreement with von Neumann's statement that, "In mathematics you don't understand things. You just get used to them." This kind of humility is appropriate for the ethics of embryos.


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