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The Origin and Evolution of Life: Part II

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Even though life appears to be favorable in terms of the second law of thermodynamics (as explained in part one of this post), there have still been very important questions left unanswered regarding the origin of life including what mechanisms or platforms it could have used to get itself going initially.  This can be summarized by a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” dilemma, where biologists have wondered whether metabolism came first or if instead it was self-replicating molecules like RNA that came first.

On the one hand, some have argued that since metabolism is dependent on proteins and enzymes and the cell membrane itself, that it would require either RNA or DNA to code for those proteins needed for metabolism, thus implying that RNA or DNA would have to originate before metabolism could begin.  On the other hand, even the generation and replication of RNA or DNA requires a catalytic substrate of some kind and this is usually accomplished with proteins along with metabolic driving forces to accomplish those polymerization reactions, and this would seem to imply that metabolism along with some enzymes would be needed to drive the polymerization of RNA or DNA.  So biologists we’re left with quite a conundrum.  This was partially resolved when several decades ago, it was realized that RNA has the ability to not only act as a means of storing genetic information just like DNA, but it also has the additional ability of catalyzing chemical reactions just like an enzyme protein can.  Thus, it is feasible that RNA could act as both an information storage molecule as well as an enzyme.  While this helps to solve the problem if RNA began to self-replicate itself and evolve over time, the problem still remains of how the first molecules of RNA formed, because it seems that some kind of non-RNA metabolic catalyst would be needed to drive this initial polymerization.  Which brings us back to needing some kind of catalytic metabolism to drive these initial reactions.

These RNA polymerization reactions may have spontaneously formed on their own (or evolved from earlier self-replicating molecules that predated RNA), but the current models of how the early pre-biotic earth would have been around four billion years ago seem to suggest that there would have been too many destructive chemical reactions that would have suppressed the accumulation of any RNA and would have likely suppressed other self-replicating molecules as well.  What seems to be needed then is some kind of a catalyst that could create them quickly enough such that they would be able to accumulate in spite of any destructive reactions present, and/or some kind of physical barrier (like a cell wall) that protects the RNA or other self-replicating polymers so that they don’t interact with those destructive processes.

One possible solution to this puzzle that has been developing over the last several years involves alkaline hydrothermal vents.  We actually didn’t know that these kinds of vents existed until the year 2000 when they were discovered on a National Science Foundation expedition in the mid-Atlantic.  Then a few years later they were studied more closely to see what kinds of chemistries were involved with these kinds of vents.  Unlike the more well-known “black smoker” vents (which were discovered in the 1970’s), these alkaline hydrothermal vents have several properties that would have been hospitable to the emergence of life back during the Hadeon eon (between 4.6 and 4 billion years ago).

The ocean water during the Hadeon eon would have been much more acidic due to the higher concentrations of carbon dioxide (thus forming carbonic acid), and this acidic ocean water would have mixed with the hydrogen-rich alkaline water found within the vents, and this would have formed a natural proton gradient within the naturally formed pores of these rocks.  Also, electron transfer would have likely occurred when the hydrogen and methane-rich vent fluid contacted the carbon dioxide-rich ocean water, thus generating an electrical gradient.  This is already very intriguing because all living cells ultimately derive their metabolic driving forces from proton gradients or more generally from the flow of some kind of positive charge carrier and/or electrons.  Since the rock found in these vents undergoes a process called surpentization, which spreads the rock apart into various small channels and pockets, many different kinds of pores form in the rocks, and some of them would have been very thin-walled membranes separating the acidic ocean water from the alkaline hydrogen.  This would have facilitated the required semi-permeable barrier that modern cells have which we expect the earliest proto-cells to also have, and it would have provided the necessary source of energy to power various chemical reactions.

Additionally, these vents would have also provided a source of minerals (namely green rust and molybdenum) which likely would have behaved as enzymes, catalyzing reactions as various chemicals came into contact with them.  The green rust could have allowed the use of the proton gradient to generate molecules that contained phosphate, which could have stored the energy produced from the gradient — similar to how all living systems that we know of store their energy in ATP (Adenosine Tri-Phosphate).  The molybdenum on the other hand would have assisted in electron transfer through those membranes.

So this theory provides a very plausible way for catalytic metabolism as well as proto-cellular membrane formation to have resulted from natural geological processes.  These proto-cells would then likely have begun concentrating simple organic molecules formed from the reaction of CO2 and H2 with all the enzyme-like minerals that were present.  These molecules could then react with one another to polymerize and form larger and more complex molecules including eventually nucleotides and amino acids.  One promising clue that supports this theory is the fact that every living system on earth is known to share a common metabolic system, known as the citric acid cycle or Kreb’s cycle, where it operates in the forward direction for aerobic organisms and in the reverse direction for anaerobic organisms.  Since this cycle consists of only 11 molecules, and since all biological components and molecules that we know of in any species have been made by some number or combination of these 11 fundamental building blocks, scientists are trying to test (among other things) whether or not they can mimic these alkaline hydrothermal vent conditions along with the acidic ocean water that would have been present in the Hadrean era and see if it will precipitate some or all of these molecules.  If they can, it will show that this theory is more than plausible to account for the origin of life.

Once these basic organic molecules were generated, eventually proteins would have been able to form, some of which that could have made their way to the membrane surface of the pores and acted as pumps to direct the natural proton gradient to do useful work.  Once those proteins evolved further, it would have been possible and advantageous for the membranes to become less permeable so that the gradient could be highly focused on the pump channels on the membrane of these proto-cells.  The membrane could have begun to change into one made from lipids produced from the metabolic reactions, and we already know that lipids readily form micelles or small closed spherical structures once they aggregate in aqueous conditions.  As this occurred, the proto-cells would no longer have been trapped in the porous rock, but would have eventually been able to slowly migrate away from the vents altogether, eventually forming the phospholipid bi-layer cell membranes that we see in modern cells.  Once this got started, self-replicating molecules and the rest of the evolution of the cell would have underwent natural selection as per the Darwinian evolution that most of us are familiar with.

As per the earlier discussion regarding life serving as entropy engines and energy dissipation channels, this self-replication would have been favored thermodynamically as well because replicating those entropy engines and the energy dissipation channels means that they will only become more effective at doing so.  Thus, we can tie this all together, where natural geological processes would have allowed for the required metabolism to form, thus powering organic molecular synthesis and polymerization, and all of these processes serving to increase entropy and maximize energy dissipation.  All that was needed for this to initiate was a planet that had common minerals, water, and CO2, and the natural geological processes can do the rest of the work.  These kinds of planets actually seem to be fairly common in our galaxy, with estimates ranging in the billions, thus potentially harboring life (or where it is just a matter of time before it initiates and evolves if it hasn’t already).  While there is still a lot of work to be done to confirm the validity of these models and to try to find ways of testing them vigorously, we are getting relatively close to solving the puzzle of how life originated, why it is the way it is, and how we can better search for it in other parts of the universe.

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The Origin and Evolution of Life: Part I

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In the past, various people have argued that life originating at all let alone evolving higher complexity over time was thermodynamically unfavorable due to the decrease in entropy involved with both circumstances, and thus it was believed to violate the second law of thermodynamics.  For those unfamiliar with the second law, it basically asserts that the amount of entropy (often referred to as disorder) in a closed system tends to increase over time, or to put it another way, the amount of energy available to do useful work in a closed system tends to decrease over time.  So it has been argued that since the origin of life and the evolution of life with greater complexity would entail decreases in entropy, these events are therefore either at best unfavorable (and therefore the result of highly improbable chance), or worse yet they are altogether impossible.

We’ve known for quite some time now that these thermodynamic arguments aren’t at all valid because earth isn’t a thermodynamically closed or isolated system due to the constant supply of energy we receive from the sun.  Because we get a constant supply of energy from the sun, and because the entropy increase from the sun far outweighs the decrease in entropy produced from all biological systems on earth, the net entropy of the entire system increases and thus fits right in line with the second law as we would expect.

However, even though the emergence and evolution of life on earth do not violate the second law and are thus physically possible, that still doesn’t show that they are probable processes.  What we need to know is how favorable the reactions are that are required for initiating and then sustaining these processes.  Several very important advancements have been made in abiogenesis over the last ten to fifteen years, with the collaboration of geologists and biochemists, and it appears that they are in fact not only possible but actually probable processes for a few reasons.

One reason is that the chemical reactions that living systems undergo produce a net entropy as well, despite the drop of entropy associated with every cell and/or it’s arrangement with respect to other cells.  This is because all living systems give off heat with every favorable chemical reaction that is constantly driving the metabolism and perpetuation of those living systems. This gain in entropy caused by heat loss more than compensates for the loss in entropy that results with the production and maintenance of all the biological components, whether lipids, sugars, nucleic acids or amino acids and more complex proteins.  Beyond this, as more complexity arises during the evolution of the cells and living systems, the entropy that those systems produce tends to increase even more and so living systems with a higher level of complexity appear to produce a greater net entropy (on average) than less complex living systems.  Furthermore, once photosynthetic organisms evolved in particular, any entropy (heat) that they give off in the form of radiation ends up being of lower energy (infrared) than the photons given off by the sun to power those reactions in the first place.  Thus, we can see that living systems effectively dissipate the incoming energy from the sun, and energy dissipation is energetically favorable.

Living systems seem to serve as a controllable channel of energy flow for that energy dissipation, just like lightning, the eye of a hurricane, or a tornado, where high energy states in the form of charge gradients or pressure or temperature gradients end up falling to a lower energy state by dissipating that energy through specific focused channels that spontaneously form (e.g. individual concentrated lightning bolts, the eye of a hurricane, vortices, etc.).  These channels for energy flow are favorable and form because they allow the energy to be dissipated faster since the channels are initiated by some direction of energy flow that is able to self-amplify into a path of decreasing resistance for that energy dissipation.  Life and the metabolic processes involved with it, seem to direct energy flow in ways that are very similar to these other naturally arising processes in non-living physical systems.  Interestingly enough, a relevant hypothesis has been proposed for why consciousness and eventually self-awareness would have evolved (beyond the traditional reasons proposed by natural selection).  If an organism can evolve the ability to predict where energy is going to flow, where an energy dissipation channel will form (or form more effective ones themselves), conscious organisms can then behave in ways that much more effectively dissipate energy even faster (and also by catalyzing more entropy production), thus showing why certain forms of biological complexity such as consciousness, memory, etc., would have also been favored from a thermodynamic perspective.

Thus, the origin of life as well as the evolution of biological complexity appears to be increasingly favored by the second law, thus showing a possible fundamental physical driving force behind the origin and evolution of life.  Basically, the origin and evolution of life appear to be effectively entropy engines and catalytic energy dissipation channels, and these engines and channels produce entropy at a greater rate than the planet otherwise would in the absence of that life, thus showing at least one possible driving force behind life, namely, the second law of thermodynamics.  So ironically, not only does the origin and evolution of life not violate the second law of thermodynamics, but it actually seems to be an inevitable (or at least favorable) result because of the second law.  Some of these concepts are still being developed in various theories and require further testing to better validate them but they are in fact supported by well-established physics and by consistent and sound mathematical models.

Perhaps the most poetic concept I’ve recognized with these findings is that life is effectively speeding up the heat death of the universe.  That is, the second law of thermodynamics suggests that the universe will eventually lose all of its useful energy when all the stars burn out and all matter eventually spreads out and decays into lower and lower energy photons, and thus the universe is destined to undergo a heat death.  Life, because it is producing entropy faster than the universe otherwise would in the absence of that life, is actually speeding up this inevitable death of the universe, which is quite fascinating when you think about it.  At the very least, it should give a new perspective to those that ask the question “what is the meaning or purpose of life?”  Even if we don’t think it is proper to think of life as having any kind of objective purpose in the universe, what life is in fact doing is accelerating the death of not only itself, but of the universe as a whole.  Personally, this further reinforces the idea that we should all ascribe our own meaning and purpose to our lives, because we should be enjoying the finite amount of time that we have, not only as individuals, but as a part of the entire collective life that exists in our universe.

To read about the newest and most promising discoveries that may explain how life got started in the first place, read part two here.

Sustainability, Happiness, and a Science of Morality: Part II

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In the first part of this post, I briefly went over some of the larger problems that our global society is currently facing, including the problem of overpopulation and the overall lack of environmental and economic sustainability.  I also mentioned some of the systematic and ideological (including religious and political) barriers that will need to be overcome before we can make any considerable progress in obtaining a sustainable future.

Although it may seem hopeless at times, I believe that we human beings – despite our cognitive biases and vulnerability to irrational and dogmatic behaviors – have an innate moral core in common that is driven by the incentive to increase our level of overall satisfaction and fulfillment in life. When people feel like they are living more fulfilling lives, they want to continue if not amplify the behavior that’s leading to that satisfaction. If a person is shown ways that lead to greater satisfaction and they are able to experience even a slight though noticeable improvement as a result of those prescriptions, I believe that even irrational and dogmatic people do begin to explore outside of their ideological box.

More importantly however, if everyone is shown that their level of satisfaction and fulfillment in life is ultimately a result of their doing what they feel they ought to do above all else (which is morality in a nutshell), then they can begin to recognize the importance and efficacy of basing those oughts on well-informed facts about the world. In other words, people can begin to universally derive every moral ought from a well-informed is, thus formulating their morality based on facts and empirical data and grounded on reason – as opposed to basing their morality on dogmatic and other unreliable beliefs in the supernatural. It’s easy for people to disagree on morals that are based on dogma and the supernatural, because those supernatural beliefs and sources of dogma vary so much from one culture and religion to another, but morals become common if not universal (in at least some cases) when they are based on facts about the world (including objective physical and psychological consequences not only for the person performing the moral action, but also for anyone on the receiving end of that moral action).

Moral Imperatives & Happiness

Science has slowly but surely been uncovering (or at least better approximating) what kinds of behaviors lead to the greatest levels of happiness and overall satisfaction in the collective lives of everyone in society. Since all morals arguably reduce to a special type of hypothetical imperative (i.e. if your fundamental goal is X, then you ought to do Y above all else), and since all goals ultimately reduce to the fundamental goal of increasing one’s life satisfaction and fulfillment, then there exist objective moral facts, whereby if they were known, they would inform a person of which behaviors they ought to do above all else in order to increase their happiness and fulfillment in life. Science may never be able to determine exactly what these objective moral facts are, but it is certainly logical to assume that they exist, namely some ideal set of behaviors for people (at least, those that are sane and non-psychopathic) which, if we only knew what those ideal behaviors were, they would necessarily lead to maximized satisfaction within every person’s life (a concept that has been proposed by many philosophers, and one which has been very well defended in Richard Carrier’s Goal Theory of Ethics).

What science can do however, and arguably what it has already been doing, is to continue to better approximate what these objective moral facts are as we accumulate more knowledge and evidence in psychology, neuroscience, sociology, and even other fields such as economics. What science appears to have found thus far is (among other things) a confirmation of what Aristotle had asserted over two thousand years ago, namely the importance of cultivating what have often been called moral virtues (such as compassion, honesty, and reasonableness), in order to achieve what the Greeks called eudaimonia, or an ultimate happiness with one’s life. This makes perfect sense because cultivating these virtues leads to a person feeling good while exercising behaviors that are also beneficial to everyone else, so then benefiting others is rarely if ever going to feel like a chore (which is an unfortunate side-effect of exclusively employing the moral duty mentality under Kant’s famous deontological ethical framework). Combine this virtue cultivation with the plethora of knowledge about the consequences of our actions that the sciences have been accumulating, thus integrating in John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian or teleological/consequentialist ethical framework, and then we have a good ethical framework that should work very effectively in leading us toward a future where more and more people are happy, fulfilled, and doing what is best for sustaining that happiness in one another, including sustaining the environment that their happiness is dependent on.

A Science of Morality

To give a fairly basic but good example of where science is leading us in terms of morality, consider the fact that science has shown that when people try to achieve ever-increasing levels of wealth at the expense of others, they are doing so because those people believe that wealth will bring them the most satisfaction in life, and thus they believe that maximizing that wealth will bring maximal happiness. However, this belief is incorrect for a number of reasons. For one, studies in psychology have shown that there is a diminishing return of happiness when one increases their income and wealth – which sharply diminishes once a person exceeds an income of about $70K per year (in U.S. dollars / purchasing power). So the idea that increasing one’s income or wealth will indefinitely increase their happiness isn’t supported by the evidence. At best, it has a limited effect on happiness that only works up to a point.

Beyond this, psychology has also shown that there are much more effective ways of increasing happiness, such as cultivating the aforementioned virtues (e.g. compassion, integrity, honesty, reasonableness, etc.) and exercising them while helping others, which leads to internal psychological benefits (which neuroscience can and has quantified to some degree) and also external sociological benefits such as the formation of meaningful relationships which in turn provide even more happiness over time. If we also take into account the amount of time and effort often required to earn more income and wealth (with the intention of producing happiness), it can be shown that the time and effort would have been better spent on trying to form meaningful relationships and cultivating various virtues. Furthermore, if those people gaining wealth could see first hand the negative side-effects that their accumulation of wealth has on many others (such as increased poverty), then doing so would no longer make them as happy. So indeed it can be shown that their belief of what they think maximizes their satisfaction is false, and it can also be shown that there are in fact better ways to increase their happiness and life satisfaction more than they ever thought possible. Perhaps most importantly, it can be shown that the ways to make them happiest also serve to make everyone else happier too.

A Clear Path to Maximizing (Sustainable) Happiness

Perhaps if we begin to invest more in the development and propagation of a science of morality, we’ll start to see many societal problems dissolve away simply because more and more people will begin to realize that the reason why we all think that certain actions are moral actions (i.e. that we ought to do them above all else), is because we feel that doing those actions brings us the most happy and fulfilling lives. If people are then shown much more effective ways that they can increase their happiness and fulfillment, including by maximizing their ability to help others achieve the same ends, then they’re extremely likely to follow those prescribed ways of living, for it could be shown that not doing so would prevent them from gaining the very maximal happiness and fulfillment that they are ultimately striving for. The only reason people wouldn’t heed such advice then is because they are being irrational, which means we need to simultaneously work on educating everyone about our cognitive biases, how to spot logical fallacies and avoid making them, etc.  So then solving society’s problems, such as overpopulation, socioeconomic inequality, or unsustainability, boils down to every individual as well as the collective whole accumulating as many facts as possible about what can maximize our life satisfaction (both now and in the future), and then heeding those facts to determine what we ought to do above all else to achieve those ends.  This is ultimately an empirical question, and a science of morality can help us discover what these facts are.

Sustainability, Happiness, and a Science of Morality: Part I

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Human beings seem to share the fundamental goal of wanting to live a satisfying and fulfilling life. We all want to be happy, and the humanist movement is an excellent demonstration of the kinds of strategies that have been most effective at achieving this admirable goal – such as the push for democracy, equality, basic human rights, and the elimination of poverty. Clearly we have a long way to go before human happiness is anywhere near universal, let alone maximized – if these are in fact possible futures within our grasp. We’re certainly not going to get there very easily (if at all) unless we address a number of serious societal problems.

One of the most pressing issues facing us today, because of it’s negative impact on just about every other societal problem, is the problem of overpopulation. The reasons for this are obvious and include the decreasing number of available resources per capita, thus forcing people to stretch their resources thinner and thinner over an ever growing population, and/or inclining some societies to go to war with others in order to obtain more resources. Then there’s also the problematic increase in environmental degradation and waste production as the population grows. Beyond the typical resources we’re depleting such as energy/power, food, clean air and water, and raw materials for making various products, there’s also other limited resources that are often overlooked such as the amount of available (let alone habitable) space where people can live, grow food, store waste, etc. There’s also a relatively small percentage of people employed in professions that not only require very special training but that also form the backbone of our society (such as teachers, doctors, scientists, etc.). As these latter resources get stretched thinner and thinner (i.e. education, healthcare, and scientific expertise and research), we’re effectively diluting the backbone of our society which can eventually cascade into societal collapse.

To be sure, there are several ways to combat many of these problems that are caused or exacerbated by overpopulation, for example, by shifting from a goods-based economy to a service-flow economy that recycles product materials that would otherwise be wasted (in part by leasing many of the products that are currently bought and later thrown into a landfill), by increasing the percentage of less-pollutive or non-pollutive renewable energy sources, and finding other ways of decreasing the demand for and increasing the efficiency and distribution of all the resources we rely on. The problem with these approaches however is that although these technologies and admirable efforts are slowly improving, the population is also increasing at the same time. So even if we are in fact increasing efficiency and decreasing consumption and waste per capita, we are simultaneously increasing that very capita, and so it is difficult to tell if technological progress has been (or will eventually be) fast enough to produce a true increase in overall sustainability per capita. It would be fallacious and unjustified to simply assume that to be the case – that technology will always be able to fix every problem. If anything, to error on the side of caution, we should assume that this isn’t the case until we have enough data and knowledge to prove otherwise.

Population Reduction is the Name of the Game

An obvious solution to this problem is to decrease the population growth rate such that our technological capabilities are more than sufficient enough to deliver a sustainable future for us. This goal may even require a negative growth rate, and at some point we’re going to have to start talking about what kinds of societal changes are necessary in order to achieve that goal. We may need some new incentives and/or some other kind of population control measures and policies, however, I’m hopeful that solving this problem is pragmatically achievable if we can manage to seriously educate the populace about how their reproductive choices affect the lives of everyone else in the world and how it is likely to impact future generations (though I don’t think this will be an easy task by any means). If people knew that certain reproductive choices would likely lead to either themselves, their children, or their children’s children, living in a future society filled with unprecedented amounts of poverty and war, environmental and economic collapse, and numerous other sources of suffering – any rational person would heed that knowledge and try their best to combat that possible future.

So a large part of the solution is simply educating everybody about the facts and probabilities of these undesirable outcomes. There are already many individuals and groups of people working on these types of endeavors, trying to push for renewable energy, pro-environmental advocacy and other sustainable living practices and policies, spreading education about family planning and trying to increase the access to and adoption of birth control methods, etc. Unfortunately, these practices haven’t yet been adopted by anywhere near a national nor global majority – far from it. However, if the movement becomes more globalized and builds up to a critical mass and momentum, eventually we’re likely to see the average person’s physical and psychological well being improve, which will further reinforce the incentives to improve and perpetuate the movement, because people will start to realize the tangible benefits they are gaining as a result.

Systematic & Ideological Barriers to Sustainability & Happiness

Unfortunately there are some serious systematic and ideological barriers that are preventing the sustainability movement from gaining traction and they’re ultimately inhibiting what would otherwise be fairly reasonable rates of progress. I think that the primary systematic barrier against achieving sustainability has been corporate-capitalism and the free-market economic models currently in place. While it may be true that there are certain forms of capitalism along with certain regulated market models that could work in principle if not also in practice, unfortunately these aren’t the brands of capitalism and market models that are currently employed by most industrialized nations (though some nations have more sustainable models than others).

What we currently have now are globalized economic systems and models that are fundamentally based on maximizing profit and consolidating privately owned production means at the expense of not only exploiting and depleting our natural resources and environment but also by exploiting unethical sources of human labor. Furthermore, these models have in turn led to unprecedented levels of socioeconomic inequality and environmental degradation. Then again, what else should we expect to happen when we employ corporate-capitalist free-market models which inherently lack adequate and universal economic, labor and environmental regulations? Despite the fact that the wealthy corporate elite, and the many politicians and citizens that have bought into their propaganda, have actually been touting this model as “the best in the world” or “the best model possible”, we can see that this isn’t true at all both by the fallacious fundamental principles that the models are based on and the actual results they’ve been delivering thus far. If we’re going to have a sustainable future, let alone one that provides us more satisfaction and happiness throughout our lives, we’re going to have to jump off of this sinking ship, and adopt an entirely new societal model.

We also need to consider the ideological barriers that have been hindering the sustainability movement as well as the humanism movement in general. For example, there are many prominent religions such as Christianity and Islam (which are highly influential as they make up over half the population of the world) that believe that one of the primary goals for human beings (according to their “divinely inspired” scripture) is to “be fruitful and multiply” while also claiming a general dominion over all the plants and animals of the earth. While the latter “dominion” over the earth has been interpreted by some as “responsible stewardship” (which is compatible with sustainability), it has often been interpreted as “ownership” over the environment and as justification to exploit it strictly for the benefit of human beings (not realizing our intimate dependence on all other ecosystems). Worse yet, the former “be fruitful and multiply” adage can only be reasonably interpreted one way, and unfortunately this “advice” is the antithesis of a sustainable model for society (though it has been an incredibly effective meme for the expansion of these religions and their cultural influence and power). Indeed, it is the exact opposite of what we should be doing at this point in human history, and perhaps the greatest irony here is that the current overpopulation problem was largely a result of this adage, and the subsequent viral spread of these Abrahamic religions over the past fifteen hundred years especially.

Two other religious beliefs worth mentioning here, which have also been highly popularized by the Abrahamic religions (notably Christianity), are the beliefs that “the end is near” and that “no matter what happens, everything is in God’s hands”, as these beliefs and the overall mentality they reinforce do nothing to support the long-term responsible planning that is fundamental to a sustainable societal model. The latter belief plays on an unfortunate human cognitive bias known as risk compensation, where we tend to behave less responsibly when we feel that we are adequately protected from any harm. In the case of a fanatical belief in divine protection, their level of risk compensation is biased to the theoretical maximum, thus making them the most likely to behave the most irresponsibly. The former belief (“the end is near”) unavoidably shifts the believer’s priorities to the short term (and in proportion to the strength of the belief), and with the specific intention of preparing for this “end that is to come”, rather than basing their beliefs on reality and evidence and responsibly preparing for a brighter future for all of humanity and the rest of the planet that we depend on.

Certainly, these religious beliefs aren’t the only ideological barriers to sustainability, as there are a number of other irrational political ideologies that are largely though not exclusively based on the rejection of scientific evidence and consensus, and have served to heavily reinforce the fossil-fuel and other natural resource driven corporate-capitalist model. This unsustainable model has been reinforced by denying facts about climate change and many other facts pertaining to human impacts on the environment in general. In some cases, I find it difficult to tell if the people that make these absurd claims actually believe them to be true (e.g. that 99+% of scientists are somehow conspiring or lying to everybody else in the world), or if they are just implicitly pleading ignorance and rationalizing so that they can maintain their profit-driven models for outright insatiable greed. I find it most plausible that politicians are collaborating with certain corporations to deny scientific facts because they want to continue to make billions off of this resource exploitation (at least for as long as they can get away with it), and are doing so in large part by brainwashing the constituent base that elected them into office with mounds of corporate-funded misinformation, fear mongering, and empty political rhetoric.

It should also come as no surprise that the people that believe and/or perpetuate these political ideological barriers to sustainability are most often the very same people that believe and/or perpetuate the aforementioned religious ideological barriers, and it seems quite evident that politicians have taken advantage of this fact. Many of them surely know quite well that if they can persuade religious voters to vote for them by convincing those voters that they share a common ground on some moral issue, then those voters become distracted from critically thinking about the primary political agendas that those politicians are really pushing for behind the curtain. The very agendas that are in fact hindering a sustainable future from ever coming into fruition.

We’ve all seen it – certain politicians claiming that they oppose stem cell research or abortion, or that advocate for abolishing the separation between church and state (though generally not admittedly), and use this tactic to suck in these (often) single issue religious voters, while ironically promoting a number of policies that often violate the morals of those very same voters (unbeknownst to the voters). They enact policies that perpetuate war, capital punishment, poverty, and the military-industrial complex. They enact policies that worsen socioeconomic inequality and the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of a few at the expense of the many. They enact policies that are destroying the finite supply of natural capital we have left on this planet. They enact policies that ultimately hinder democracy, equality, and universal human rights.

So in the end, most religious voters (and some non-religious voters that are similarly misled), while admirably trying to do what they believe is the most moral thing to do, end up vastly increasing the amount of immoral behavior and suffering in the world, due in large part to the politicians that manipulated them into doing so. Which is why it is crucial that people make their decisions based on reason and evidence and also critically think about the consequences of their decisions and actions as they are sometimes more complicated than we are often led to believe. We need to think more critically of all the policies and legislation that we are choosing based on who we vote for, and we also need to be wary of policies that may initially seem to align with our morals and desires, and yet will actually result in more suffering or other unforeseen problems in the long run.

In the next part of this post, I will elaborate more on the broader human goals we all seem to share, and how a science of morality can help us use those broader goals to alleviate these societal problems and simultaneously help us to achieve a future where we are all collectively happier than we ever thought we could be, with far more fulfilling lives.  Here’s the link to part two.

Why I Became a Pro-Choice Advocate

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There have been a number of arguments raised over the years concerning whether or not a woman should have the right to choose to have an abortion or not.  I’d like to briefly discuss the primary arguments that I’ve personally found to be the most compelling.  Personally, I hold the view that a woman should indeed have the right to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy, and thus I am a pro-choice advocate, though this wasn’t always the case (as a former pro-life/anti-choice atheist, and before that a pro-life/anti-choice Christian).  The primary arguments I’m going to discuss will hopefully illustrate why in fact I hold the pro-choice view that I do, and why I believe it is both rational and reasonable for others to share this view as well.

First, when it comes to determining what individual rights we should or shouldn’t have, we must ask if we want to live in a world where we theoretically begin with no rights at all and then add any desirable rights as needed over time, or where we theoretically begin with every possible right and then remove/restrict rights as desired over time.  It seems obvious to me that the first scenario would be simply absurd and wholly impractical to implement.  Among many other reasons to reject this first scenario, we need only realize that if we began with no rights at all, we wouldn’t even have the right to determine or vote on what rights we should be given at some future point in time.  Furthermore, nobody would have the right to enforce any kind of “no-rights” system put into place.  At the very least, to avoid these absurdities and impracticalities, it is easy to see that the second scenario best describes what any rational person would want.  That is, people want to have as many personal liberties and freedoms as possible with the intention of only excluding certain liberties when they contradict other liberties that are more fundamental.  When it comes to determining which rights should be restricted or excluded in a society (and/or which are most fundamental), people also tend to want to accomplish that decision-making through well-informed democratic processes rather than some particular individual or group making the decision and forcing everyone else to abide by such laws.

Why Have Individual Rights in the First Place?

So what exactly is the primary goal of having and protecting any rights for an individual?  I believe the primary goal that most people (if not all) would agree with is the ultimate intention of creating, maintaining, and living in a society that is conducive to the greatest levels of overall satisfaction and well-being of the lives of every member of that society.  From a libertarian perspective, we could also say that this amounts to a goal of minimizing the magnitude and number of situations in which people are forced into doing something that they don’t want to do.  When we consider the topic of abortion, the primary arguments on either side of the issue tend to pertain to determining and defining which specific individual rights exist (or that arguably should exist) and then we apply these definitions and determinations to the scenario of abortion to see if any rights have in fact been violated.  With regard to this topic, we must also examine the consistency and efficacy of a person’s position on the issue in terms of how well it achieves the aforementioned goal or purpose of having and protecting rights and freedoms in the first place.  It goes without saying that if a person’s position on the issue is such that it’s implementation through any proposed legislation would effectively increase suffering in the world and/or increase the magnitude of people being forced to do things that they don’t want to do, then that person’s position is self-refuting in that it directly contradicts their ultimate reason for wanting to protect individual rights – unless their goal for protecting individual rights substantially differs from the one I’ve stated above, in which case, we would have to evaluate how rational any other stated goal would be in comparison. 

We must also examine the consequences of taking someone’s position on the matter to its logical conclusion, seeing how it would be applied in definitively similar situations, whether or not there would be special exceptions to the rules proposed, and once again whether all of those conceptual elements are consistent with one another.  Ultimately, how we choose to define terms (and their specificity) within this topic of discussion is important for determining the tenability of anybody’s position on the matter.  Let’s take a look at some of the primary arguments that have developed over time while trying to clarify some terminology and definitions along the way.

The Argument for Bodily Autonomy

Perhaps the most primary and fundamental argument in favor of protecting a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy is the argument for bodily autonomy.  In it’s basic form, it simply asserts that an individual has the right to choose who or what uses their body, for what purpose, and for how long.  The most common (and uncontroversial) examples of applying this very basic principle would be preventing a person from being forced to donate blood, tissue, or organs to another person, even if in doing so, it would potentially save that other person’s life.  If anyone abides by this principle and doesn’t believe that a person should be forced to donate blood, tissue, or organs to another person (to use these common examples) then the same principle would also forbid forcing a woman to donate blood, tissue, or organs to an embryo or fetus, even if in doing so, it would potentially save that embryo or fetus’ life.  During pregnancy, starting from conception, the embryo and later fetus indeed use the woman’s uterus, her blood, her tissue (including for the placenta that eventually forms) and even the woman’s food and oxygen resources. This is arguably the most extreme example of one person using another person’s body. If in fact the embryo or fetus’ use of the woman’s body is against the woman’s consent, then a right to bodily autonomy protects that woman’s right to abort that pregnancy, regardless of whether or not that fetus has no chance of surviving as a result.

Some might object and say, what about the embryo or fetus’ rights? Shouldn’t they have the same rights as every other human being? Well, if we treat all human beings equally and give them all the same rights (which is hardly controversial), then this amounts to giving the embryo or fetus the same rights to bodily autonomy as is afforded to the woman. However, the embryo or fetus doesn’t have any other person who is trying to use their body against the consent of that fetus (nor does that fetus have any consent on the matter one way or the other, although this is irrelevant in any case). Thus, one would have to afford the fetus special rights (a right to use another person’s body against their will), and this is a right that isn’t even granted to children that are already born, since a child’s mother isn’t forced to donate an organ, blood, or tissue to that child, even if it can potentially save that child’s life. Thus, arguments against a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy are only tenable if one also denies the right of bodily autonomy. Furthermore, if this right was only denied to a woman with respect to a fetus inside her (and not denied to anyone else), and thus is not consistently applied in all other cases, then we have a special right for fetuses that is being argued for, thus arguing against equal rights for all human beings. The only way to reconcile this and make the individual rights equal for all human beings (while attempting to preserve the life of the fetus) would be to completely abandon the right to bodily autonomy which seems like a position that almost nobody would choose to adopt.

On top of this, if one were to grant these same special rights to a less developed human being residing in a pregnant woman, such as a fertilized egg (the first stage of pregnancy), then women would also lose the right to take certain birth control medications. For example, while common birth control medications such as “the pill”, Norplant, or any other chemical birth control medications primarily function by preventing ovulation and impeding sperm, this isn’t 100% effective and so if the chemicals fail to prevent ovulation or fertilization, then they end up preventing implantation of the fertilized egg in the uterine wall, thus aborting the pregnancy. So it must also be kept in mind that if these special rights were granted to any developing human life residing in a woman’s body (whether a fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus), in order to remain consistent with this reasoning, one would also be taking away a woman’s right to use the most common forms of birth control in existence (i.e. chemical/hormonal and IUD methods) since it is well known that they often lead to abortions when they are used.

Defining “Personhood”

Another prominent argument in favor of a woman’s right to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy, involves the definition of personhood. In the case of the aforementioned argument for bodily autonomy, it was mentioned that the fetus could indeed be granted the same rights as the woman carrying that fetus, and it still wouldn’t deny the woman the right to abort that pregnancy since it is the woman’s right to bodily autonomy that is being violated in that case. However, it is also worth asking on exactly what grounds are people arguing that the fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus should in fact be granted the same rights as the woman carrying it, or any rights at all for that matter? This comes down to defining what exactly we are granting individual rights to. For example, are we granting rights to a fetus because it is human or has human DNA? A skin cell is also human and has human DNA, but we don’t grant rights to skin cells or the like so there is something else more specific under consideration here. It seems that the primary factor here pertains to defining personhood, for it seems undeniable that it is people that should have these shared individual rights. So what exactly is a person or individual and how do we define that concept?

One might argue that a person is simply a human body, but this can’t be correct, because we don’t grant rights to deceased human bodies. We could further clarify the definition of a person to be a human body that isn’t dead, but what about a brain-dead human body? If my mother became brain-dead but remained on life support (with a beating heart and functional organs), and I was given the option to “pull the plug”, if I chose to do so, would I be killing my mother? One way to determine the answer to this question would be to ask another, namely, who or what is my mother exactly? Would my mother be the brain-dead (though otherwise living) human body that lies before me? It may look like my mother, but I would argue that this body isn’t my mother at all, for my mother is a personality, an identity, a collection of memories, or at the very least a conscious and self-aware being that experiences perceptions and emotions.

Who my mother is exactly is ultimately contingent on the configuration and state of her brain, for it is our brain that manifests our personal identities and any particular self. To prove this, one need only consider the fact that if your brain were swapped with that of another person, you would cease to be you even if the rest of your body was kept original and intact. “You” would now have the personality, memories, thoughts, values, interests, likes and dislikes of that other person. On the other hand, you could swap your arms or legs or various other body parts with another person (or simply get them amputated), and you would still be you (so long as your brain was kept intact).

So to return to my hypothetical scenario involving pulling the plug on a brain-dead mother, because my mother is no longer alive in that case, but rather it is only her body that is alive, my pulling the plug would not in fact be an act of killing my mother. In fact, it wouldn’t even be an act of killing “a person”, because as was just illustrated, a person is contingent on a living brain, and more specifically a living brain with a particular configuration and minimal set of features (such that it has conscious experiences at least some of the time). This just goes to show what we value in a person and why we want people to have protected individual rights in the first place. It isn’t because they are living human bodies, but because we know that “people” are conscious, thinking beings and we value this fact and empathize with them and their experiences. We don’t want people to suffer because we know what it feels like to suffer (to varying degrees), and to consider the contra-positive, we also want to maximize the satisfaction and well being of people. So if a particular human being is not able to experience anything at all (that is, there are no perceptions, and thus no consciousness), then what we value in how we define a person is missing in this case, and thus the ultimate purpose for giving that human being rights is no longer applicable, for that human being is unable to suffer, let alone experience anything at all.

Now if we return to the concept of a fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus, we can apply the same reasoning and ask the same questions. When exactly does the fetus have the requisite brain structures developed such that it can be conscious and experience anything at all (much like my hypothetical mother was before she was brain-dead)? Well, a fetus doesn’t actually become neurologically active until approximately the fifth month of gestation (an event that the medical community refers to as “quickening”). It is at this point that some of the physical hardware (a complex form of the cerebral cortex) is in place for some future capability of consciousness, however the thalamo-cortical complex is integral for consciousness as well and doesn’t begin to materialize until sometime between the 24th and 28th week of gestation. It isn’t until about two months after that (32nd to 36th week), when a synchronous electroencephalographic (EEG) rhythm starts to signal that there is in fact a global neuronal integration taking place – a process that is a fundamental element of consciousness, working memory, etc.

Thus, before the fifth month of pregnancy (the 20th week), the fetus’ brain hasn’t nearly developed enough of the requisite hardware to be conscious (let alone to be self-aware), and thus it is unable to form an individualized personality, and therefore it is not yet a person based on the definition and reasoning given earlier. It doesn’t yet have this personhood status, the very status that we value and thus the very fundamental status that motivates us to ascribe individual rights to a person in the first place. It should also be noted at this time that the majority of elective abortions on record occur before the fourth month of pregnancy, which is several weeks before the fetus is even capable of being conscious, let alone well before it is even capable of beginning to develop any kind of personality or identity, which are necessary attributes in order to be considered a person as defined above.

Are Pro-Life/Anti-Choice Arguments Tenable?

So there are indeed very strong arguments for protecting a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy including the argument for bodily autonomy and the argument for defining personhood, using reasonable metrics that are based on what we fundamentally value in “people”, and thus why we want people to have protected individual rights in the first place. Arguments against a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy are likely to be ideologically untenable in that they deny a right to bodily autonomy that I think most people aren’t willing to universally (and thus consistently) argue against. These arguments also tend to rely on defining personhood using criteria or attributes that are either arbitrary, not universally applicable or that are unreasonable because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what we actually value in a person. Furthermore, these arguments are also pragmatically untenable since they also deny women the right to use the most common forms of birth control in order to remain consistent with the basic principles that constitute a pro-life/anti-choice position. For these reasons and more, my position on the issue has changed markedly over time, and after careful consideration of the arguments both for and against a woman’s right to choose, I am happy to say that I finally adopted what I found to be the most reasonable, rational, consistent, and ultimately tenable position on the issue.  Indeed, I support a woman’s right to choose, and I believe that the facts demonstrate this to be the most moral position to have on the matter.