Is Death Bad For You? A Response to Shelly Kagan

I’ve enjoyed reading and listening to the philosopher Shelly Kagan, both in debate, lectures, and various articles.  One topic he’s well known for is that of death, specifically the fear of death, and trying to understand the details behind, and justification for, the general attitude people have toward the concept of death.  I’ve thought about the fear of death on and off for a long time now, but coming across an article of Kagan’s reignited my interest in the topic.  He wrote an article a few years ago in The Chronicle, where he expounds on some of the ontological puzzles related to the concept of death.  I thought I’d briefly summarize the article’s main points and give a response to it here.

Can Death Be Bad For Us?

Kagan begins with the assumption that the death of a person’s body results in the end of that person’s existence.  This is certainly a reasonable assumption as there’s no evidence to the contrary, that is, that persons can exist without a living body.  Simple enough.  Then he asks the question, if death is the end of our existence, then how can being dead be bad for us?  While some would say that death is particularly bad for the survivors of the deceased since they miss the person who’s died and the relationship they once had with that person.  But it seems more complicated than that, because we could likewise have an experience where a cherished friend or family member leaves us and goes somewhere far away such that we can be confident that we’ll never see that person ever again.

Both the death of that person, and the alternative of their leaving forever to go somewhere such that we’ll never have contact with them again, result in the same loss of relationship.  Yet most people would say that if we knew about their dying instead of simply leaving forever, there’s more to be sad about in terms of death being bad for them, not simply bad for us.  And this sadness results from more than simply knowing how they died — the process of death itself — which could have been unpleasant, but also could have been entirely benign (such as dying peacefully in one’s sleep).  Similarly, Kagan tells us, the prospect of dying can be unpleasant as well, but he asserts, this only seems to make sense if death itself is bad for us.

Kagan suggests:

Maybe nonexistence is bad for me, not in an intrinsic way, like pain, and not in an instrumental way, like unemployment leading to poverty, which in turn leads to pain and suffering, but in a comparative way—what economists call opportunity costs. Death is bad for me in the comparative sense, because when I’m dead I lack life—more particularly, the good things in life. That explanation of death’s badness is known as the deprivation account.

While the deprivation account seems plausible, Kagan thinks that accepting it results in a couple of potential problems.  He argues, if something is true, it seems as if there must be some time when it’s true.  So when would it be true that death is bad for us?  Not now, he says.  Because we’re not dead now.  Not after we’re dead either, because then we no longer exist so nothing can be bad for a being that no longer exists.  This seems to lead to the conclusion that either death isn’t bad for anyone after all, or alternatively, that not all facts are datable.  He gives us another possible example of an undatable fact.  If Kagan shoots “John” today such that John slowly bleeds to death after two days, but Kagan dies tomorrow (before John dies) then after John dies, can we say that Kagan killed John?  If Kagan did kill John, when did he kill him?  Kagan no longer existed when John died so how can we say that Kagan killed John?

I think we could agree with this and say that while it’s true that Kagan didn’t technically kill John, a trivial response to this supposed conundrum is to say that Kagan’s actions led to John’s death.  This seems to solve that conundrum by working within the constraints of language, while highlighting the fact that when we say someone killed X what we really mean is that someone’s actions led to the death of X, thus allowing us to be consistent with our conceptions of existence, causality, killing, blame, etc.

Existence Requirement, Non-Existential Asymmetry, & It’s Implications

In any case, if all facts are datable (or at least facts like these), then we should be able to say when exactly death is bad for us.  Can things only be bad for us when we exist?  If so, this is what Kagan refers to as the existence requirement.  If we don’t accept such a requirement — that one must exist in order for things to be bad for us — that produces other problems, like being able to say for example that non-existence could be bad for someone who has never existed but that could have possibly existed.  This seems to be a pretty strange claim to hold to.  So if we refuse to accept that it’s a tragedy for possibly existent people to never come into existence, then we’d have to accept the existence requirement, which I would contend is a more plausible assumption to accept.  But if we do so, then it seems that we have to accept that death isn’t in fact bad for us.

Kagan suggests that we may be able to reinterpret the existence requirement, and he does this by distinguishing between two versions, a modest version which asserts that something can be bad for you only if you exist at some time or another, and a bold version which asserts that something can be bad for you only if you exist at the same time as that thing.  Accepting the modest version seems to allow us a way out of the problems posed here, but that it too has some counter-intuitive implications.

He illustrates this with another example:

Suppose that somebody’s got a nice long life. He lives 90 years. Now, imagine that, instead, he lives only 50 years. That’s clearly worse for him. And if we accept the modest existence requirement, we can indeed say that, because, after all, whether you live 50 years or 90 years, you did exist at some time or another. So the fact that you lost the 40 years you otherwise would have had is bad for you. But now imagine that instead of living 50 years, the person lives only 10 years. That’s worse still. Imagine he dies after one year. That’s worse still. An hour? Worse still. Finally, imagine I bring it about that he never exists at all. Oh, that’s fine.

He thinks this must be accepted if we accept the modest version of the existence requirement, but how can this be?  If one’s life is shortened relative to what they would have had, this is bad, and gets progressively worse as the life is hypothetically shortened, until a life span of zero is reached, in which case they no longer meet the modest existence requirement and thus can’t have anything be bad for them.  So it’s as if it gets infinitely worse as the potential life span approaches the limit of zero, and then when zero is reached, becomes benign and is no longer an issue.

I think a reasonable response to this scenario is to reject the claim that hypothetically shrinking the life span to zero is suddenly no longer an issue.  What seems to be glossed over in this example is the fact that this is a set of comparisons of one hypothetical life to another hypothetical life (two lives with different non-zero life spans), resulting in a final comparison between one hypothetical life and no life at all (a life span of zero).  This example illustrates whether or not something is better or worse in comparison, not whether something is good or bad intrinsically speaking.  The fact that somebody lived for as long as 90 years or only for 10 years isn’t necessarily good or bad but only better or worse in comparison to somebody who’s lived for a different length of time.

The Intrinsic Good of Existence & Intuitions On Death

However, I would go further and say that there is an intrinsic good to existing or being alive, and that most people would agree with such a claim (and that the strong will to live that most of us possess is evidence of our acknowledging such a good).  That’s not to say that never having lived is bad, but only to say that living is good.  If not living is neither good nor bad but considered a neutral or inconsequential state, then we can hold the position that living is better than not living, even if not living isn’t bad at all (after all it’s neutral, neither good nor bad).  Thus we can still maintain our modest existence requirement while consistently holding these views.  We can say that not living is neither good nor bad, that living 10 years is good (and better than not living), that living 50 years is even better, and that living 90 years is even better yet (assuming, for the sake of argument, that the quality of life is equivalently good in every year of one’s life).  What’s important to note here is that not having lived in the first place doesn’t involve the loss of a good, because there was never any good to begin with.  On the other hand, extending the life span involves increasing the quantity of the good, by increasing it’s duration.

Kagan seems to agree overall with the deprivation account of why we believe death is bad for us, but that some puzzles like those he presented still remain.  I think one of the important things to take away from this article is the illustration that we have obvious limitations in the language that we use to describe our ontological conceptions.  These scenarios and our intuitions about them also seem to show that we all generally accept that living or existence is intrinsically good.  It may also highlight the fact that many people intuit that some part of us (such as a soul) continues to exist after death such that death can be bad for us after all (since our post-death “self” would still exist).  While the belief in souls is irrational, it may help to explain some common intuitions about death.

Dying vs. Death, & The Loss of An Intrinsic Value

Remember that Kagan began his article by distinguishing between how one dies, the prospect of dying and death itself.  He asked us, how can the prospect of dying be bad if death itself (which is only true when we no longer exist) isn’t bad for us. Well, perhaps we should consider that when people say that death is bad for us they tend to mean that dying itself is bad for us.  That is to say, the prospect of dying isn’t unpleasant because death is bad for us, but rather because dying itself is bad for us.  If dying occurs while we’re still alive, resulting in one’s eventual loss of life, then dying can be bad for us even if we accepted the bold existence requirement — that something can only be bad for us if we exist at the same time as that thing.  So if the “thing” we’re referring to is our dying rather than our death, this would be consistent with the deprivation account of death, would allow us to put a date (or time interval) on such an event, and would seem to resolve the aforementioned problems.

As for Kagan’s opening question, when is death bad for us?  If we accept my previous response that dying is what’s bad for us, rather than death, then it would stand to reason that death itself isn’t ever bad for us (or doesn’t have to be), but rather what is bad for us is the loss of life that occurs as we die.  If I had to identify exactly when the “badness” that we’re actually referring to occurs, I suppose I would choose an increment of time before one’s death occurs (with an exclusive upper bound set to the time of death).  If time is quantized, as per quantum mechanics, then that means that the smallest interval of time is one Planck second.  So I would argue that at the very least, the last Planck second of our life (if not a longer interval), marks the event or time interval of our dying.

It is this last interval of time ticking away that is bad for us because it leads to our loss of life, which is a loss of an intrinsic good.  So while I would argue that never having received an intrinsic good in the first place isn’t bad (such as never having lived), the loss of (or the process of losing) an intrinsic good is bad.  So I agree with Kagan that the deprivation account is on the right track, but I also think the problems he’s posed are resolvable by thinking more carefully about the terminology we use when describing these concepts.

On Parfit’s Repugnant Conclusion

Back in 1984, Derek Parfit’s work on population ethics led him to formulate a possible consequence of total utilitarianism, namely, what was deemed as the Repugnant Conclusion (RC).  For those unfamiliar with the term, Parfit described it accordingly:

For any possible population of at least ten billion people, all with a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger imaginable population whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better even though its members have lives that are barely worth living.

To better explain this conclusion, let’s consider a few different populations, A, A+, and B, where the width of the bar represents the relative population and the height represents the average “well-being rating” of the people in that sub-population:

Figure 2

Image taken from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/repugnant-conclusion/fig2.png

In population A, let’s say we have 10 billion people with a “well-being rating” of +10 (on a scale of -10 to +10, with negative values indicating a life not worth living).  Now in population A+, let’s say we have all the people in population A with the mere addition of 10 billion people with a “well-being rating” of +8.  According to the argument as Parfit presents it, it seems reasonable to hold that population A+ is better than population A, or at the very least, not worse than population A.  This is believed to be the case because the only difference between the two populations is the mere addition of more people with lives worth living (even if their well-being isn’t as good as those represented by the “A” population, so it is believed that adding additional lives worth living cannot make an outcome worse when all else is equal.

Next, consider population B where it has the same number of people as population A+, but every person has a “well-being rating” that is slightly higher than the average “well-being rating” in population A+, and that is slightly lower than that of population A.  Now if one accepts that population A+ is better than A (or at least not worse) and if one accepts that population B is better than population A+ (since it has an average well being that is higher) then one has to accept the conclusion that population B is better than population A (by transitive logic;  A <= A+ <B, therefore, A<B).  If this is true then we can take this further and show that a population that is sufficiently large enough would still be better than population A, even if the “well-being rating” of each person was only +1.  This is the RC as presented by Parfit, and he along with most philosophers found it to be unacceptable.  So he worked diligently on trying to solve it, but hadn’t succeeded in the way he hoped for.  This has since become one of the biggest problems in ethics, particularly in the branch of population ethics.

Some of the strategies that have been put forward to resolve the RC include adopting an average principle, a variable value principle, or some kind of critical level principle.  However all of these supposed resolutions are either wrought with their own problems (if accepted) or they are highly unsatisfactory, unconvincing, or very counter-intuitive.  A brief overview of the argument and the supposed solutions and their associated problems can be found here.

I’d like to respond to the RC argument as well because I think that there are at least a few problems with the premises right off the bat.  The foundation for my rebuttal relies on an egoistic moral realist ethics, based on a goal theory of morality (a subset of desire utilitarianism), which can be summarized as follows:

If one wants X above all else, then one ought to Y above all else.  Since it can be shown that ultimately what one wants above all else is satisfaction and fulfillment with one’s life (or what Aristotle referred to as eudaimonia) then one ought to do above all else all possible actions that will best achieve that goal.  The actions required to best accomplish this satisfaction can be determined empirically (based on psychology, neuroscience, sociology, etc.), and therefore we theoretically have epistemic access to a number of moral facts.  These moral facts are what we ought to do above all else in any given situation given all the facts available to us and via a rational assessment of said facts.

So if one is trying to choose whether one population is better or worse than another, I think that assessment should be based on the same egoistic moral framework which accounts for all known consequences resulting from particular actions and which implements “altruistic” behaviors precipitated by cultivating virtues that benefit everyone including ourselves (such as compassion, integrity, and reasonableness).  So in the case of evaluating the comparison between population A and that of A+ as presented by Parfit, which is better?  Well if one applies the veil of ignorance as propagated by the social contract theories of philosophers such as Kant, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, whereby we would hypothetically choose between worlds, not knowing which subpopulation we would end up in, which world ought we to prefer?  It would stand to reason that population A is certainly better than that of A+ (and better than population B) because one has the highest probability of having a higher level of well-being in that population/society (for any person chosen at random).  This reasoning would then render the RC as false, as it only followed from fallacious reasoning (i.e. it is fallacious to assume that adding more people with lives worth living is all that matters in the assessment).

Another fundamental flaw that I see in the premises is the assumption that population A+ contains the same population of high well-being individuals as in A with the mere addition of people with a somewhat lower level of well-being.  If the higher well-being subpopulation of A+ has knowledge of the existence of other people in that society with a lower well-being, wouldn’t that likely lead to a decrease in their well-being (compared to those in the A population that had no such concern)?  It would seem that the only way around this is if the higher well-being people were ignorant of those other members of society or if there were other factors that were not equal between the two high-well-being subpopulations in A and A+ to somehow compensate for that concern, in which case the mere addition assumption is false since the hypothetical scenario would involve a number of differences between the two higher well-being populations.  If the higher well-being subpopulation in A+ is indeed ignorant of the existence of the lower well-being subpopulation in A+, then they are not able to properly assess the state of the world which would certainly factor into their overall level of well-being.

In order to properly assess this and to behave morally at all, one needs to use as many facts as are practical to obtain and operate according to those facts as rationally as possible.  It would seem plausible that the better-off subpopulation of A+ would have at least some knowledge of the fact that there exist people with less well-being than themselves and this ought to decrease their happiness and overall well-being when all else is truly equal when compared to A.  But even if the subpopulation can’t know this for some reason (i.e. if the subpopulations are completely isolated from one another), we do have this knowledge and thus must take account of it in our assessment of which population is better than the other.  So it seems that the comparison of population A to A+ as stated in the argument is an erroneous one based on fallacious assumptions that don’t account for these factors pertaining to the well-being of informed people.

Now I should say that if we had knowledge pertaining to the future of both societies we could wind up reversing our preference if, for example, it turned out that population A had a future that was likely going to turn out worse than the future of population A+ (where the most probable “well-being rating” decreased comparatively).  If this was the case, then being armed with that probabilistic knowledge of the future (based on a Bayesian analysis of likely future outcomes) could force us to switch preferences.  Ultimately, the way to determine which world we ought to prefer is to obtain the relevant facts about which outcome would make us most satisfied overall (in the eudaimonia sense), even if this requires further scientific investigation regarding human psychology to determine the optimized trade-off between present and future well-being.

As for comparing two populations that have the same probability for high well-being, yet with different populations (say “A” and “double A”), I would argue once again that one should assess those populations based on what the most likely future is for each population based on the facts available to us.  If the larger population is more likely to be unsustainable, for example, then it stands to reason that the smaller population is what one ought to strive for (and thus prefer) over the larger one.  However, if sustainability is not likely to be an issue based on the contingent facts of the societies being evaluated, then I think one ought to choose the society that has the best chances of bettering the planet as a whole through maximized stewardship over time.  That is to say, if more people can more easily accomplish goals of making the world a better place, then the larger population would be what one ought to strive for since it would secure more well-being in the future for any and all conscious creatures (including ourselves).  One would have to evaluate the societies they are comparing to one another for these types of factors and then make the decision accordingly.  In the end, it would maximize the eudaimonia for any individual chosen at random both in that present society and in the future.

But what if we are instead comparing two populations that both have “well-being ratings” that are negative?  For example what if we compare a population S containing only one person that has a well-being rating of -10 (the worst possible suffering imaginable) versus another population T containing one million people that have well-being ratings of -9 (almost the worst possible suffering)?  It sure seems that if we apply the probabilistic principle I applied to the positive well being populations, that would lead to preferring a world with millions of people suffering horribly instead of a world with just one person suffering a bit more.  However, this would only necessarily follow if one applied the probabilistic principle while ignoring the egoistically-based “altruistic” virtues such as compassion and reasonableness, as it pertains to that moral decision.  In order to determine which world one ought to prefer over another, just as in any other moral decision, one must determine what behaviors and choices make us most satisfied as individuals (to best obtain eudaimonia).  If people are generally more satisfied (perhaps universally once fully informed of the facts and reasoning rationally) in preferring to have one person suffer at a -10 level over one million people suffering at a -9 level (even if it was you or I chosen as that single person), then that is the world one ought to prefer over the other.

Once again, our preference could be reversed if we were informed that the most likely futures of these populations had their levels of suffering reversed or changed markedly.  And if the scenario changed to, say, 1 million people at a -10 level versus 2 million people at a -9 level, our preferred outcomes may change as well, even if we don’t yet know what that preference ought to be (i.e. if we’re ignorant of some facts pertaining to our psychology at the present, we may think we know, even though we are incorrect due to irrational thinking or some missing facts).  As always, the decision of which population or world is better depends on how much knowledge we have pertaining to those worlds (to make the most informed decision we can given our present epistemological limitations) and thus our assessment of their present and most likely future states.  So even if we don’t yet know which world we ought to prefer right now (in some subset of the thought experiments we conjure up), science can find these answers (or at least give us the best shot at answering them).

An Evolved Consciousness Creating Conscious Evolution

Two Evolutionary Leaps That Changed It All

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, human biological evolution has led to the emergence of not only consciousness but also a co-existing yet semi-independent cultural evolution (through the unique evolution of the human brain).  This evolutionary leap has allowed us to produce increasingly powerful technologies which in turn have provided a means for circumventing many natural selection pressures that our physical bodies would otherwise be unable to handle.

One of these technologies has been the selective breeding of plants and animals, with this process often referred to as “artificial” selection, as opposed to “natural” selection since human beings have served as an artificial selection pressure (rather than the natural selection pressures of the environment in general).  In the case of our discovery of artificial selection, by choosing which plants and animals to cultivate and raise, we basically just catalyzed the selection process by providing a selection pressure based on the plant or animal traits that we’ve desired most.  By doing so, rather than the selection process taking thousands or even millions of years to produce what we have today (in terms of domesticated plants and animals), it only took a minute fraction of that time since it was mediated through a consciously guided or teleological process, unlike natural selection which operates on randomly differentiating traits leading to differential reproductive success (and thus new genomes and species) over time.

This second evolutionary leap (artificial selection that is) has ultimately paved the way for civilization, as it has increased the landscape of our diet and thus our available options for food, and the resultant agriculture has allowed us to increase our population density such that human collaboration, complex distribution of labor, and ultimately the means for creating new and increasingly complex technologies, have been made possible.  It is largely because of this new evolutionary leap that we’ve been able to reach the current pinnacle of human evolution, the newest and perhaps our last evolutionary leap, or what I’ve previously referred to as “engineered selection”.

With artificial selection, we’ve been able to create new species of plants and animals with very unique and unprecedented traits, however we’ve been limited by the rate of mutations or other genomic differentiating mechanisms that must arise in order to create any new and desirable traits. With engineered selection, we can simply select or engineer the genomic sequences required to produce the desired traits, effectively allowing us to circumvent any genomic differentiation rate limitations and also allowing us instant access to every genomic possibility.

Genetic Engineering Progress & Applications

After a few decades of genetic engineering research, we’ve gained a number of capabilities including but not limited to: producing recombinant DNA, producing transgenic organisms, utilizing in vivo trans-species protein production, and even creating the world’s first synthetic life form (by adding a completely synthetic or human-constructed bacterial genome to a cell containing no DNA).  The plethora of potential applications for genetic engineering (as well as those applications currently in use) has continued to grow as scientists and other creative thinkers are further discovering the power and scope of areas such as mimetics, micro-organism domestication, nano-biomaterials, and many other inter-related niches.

Domestication of Genetically Engineered Micro and Macro-organisms

People have been genetically modifying plants and animals for the same reasons they’ve been artificially selecting them — in order to produce species with more desirable traits. Plants and animals have been genetically engineered to withstand harsher climates, resist harmful herbicides or pesticides (or produce their own pesticides), produce more food or calories per acre (or more nutritious food when all else is equal), etc.  Plants and animals have also been genetically modified for the purposes of “pharming”, where substances that aren’t normally produced by the plant or animal (e.g. pharmacological substances, vaccines, etc.) are expressed, extracted, and then purified.

One of the most compelling applications of genetic engineering within agriculture involves solving the “omnivore’s dilemma”, that is, the prospect of growing unconscious livestock by genetically inhibiting the development of certain parts of the brain so that the animal doesn’t experience any pain or suffering.  There have also been advancements made with in vitro meat, that is, producing cultured meat cells so that no actual animal is needed at all other than some starting cells taken painlessly from live animals (which are then placed into a culture media to grow into larger quantities of meat), however it should be noted that this latter technique doesn’t actually require any genetic modification, although genetic modification may have merit in improving these techniques.  The most important point here is that these methods should decrease the financial and environmental costs of eating meat, and will likely help to solve the ethical issues regarding the inhumane treatment of animals within agriculture.

We’ve now entered a new niche regarding the domestication of species.  As of a few decades ago, we began domesticating micro-organisms. Micro-organisms have been modified and utilized to produce insulin for diabetics as well as other forms of medicine such as vaccines, human growth hormone, etc.  There have also been certain forms of bacteria genetically modified in order to turn cellulose and other plant material directly into hydrocarbon fuels.  This year (2014), E. coli bacteria have been genetically modified in order to turn glucose into pinene (a high energy hydrocarbon used as a rocket fuel).  In 2013, researchers at the University of California, Davis, genetically engineered cyanobacteria (a.k.a. blue-green algae) by adding particular DNA sequences to its genome which coded for specific enzymes such that it can use sunlight and the process of photosynthesis to turn CO2 into 2,3 butanediol (a chemical that can be used as a fuel, or to make paint, solvents, and plastics), thus producing another means of turning our over abundant carbon emissions back into fuel.

On a related note, there are also efforts underway to improve the efficiency of certain hydro-carbon eating bacteria such as A. borkumensis in order to clean up oil spills even more effectively.  Imagine one day having the ability to use genetically engineered bacteria to directly convert carbon emissions back into mass-produced fuel, and if the fuel spills during transport, also having the counterpart capability of cleaning it up most efficiently with another form of genetically engineered bacteria.  These capabilities are being further developed and are only the tip of the iceberg.

In theory, we should also be able to genetically engineer bacteria to decompose many other materials or waste products that ordinarily decompose extremely slowly. If any of these waste products are hazardous, bacteria could be genetically engineered to breakdown or transform the waste products into a safe and stable compound.  With these types of solutions we can make many new materials and have a method in line for their proper disposal (if needed).  Additionally, by utilizing some techniques mentioned in the next section, we can also start making more novel materials that decompose using non-genetically-engineered mechanisms.

It is likely that genetically modified bacteria will continue to provide us with many new types of mass-produced chemicals and products. For those processes that do not work effectively (if at all) in bacterial (i.e. prokaryotic) cells, then eukaryotic cells such as yeast, insect cells, and mammalian cells can often be used as a viable option. All of these genetically engineered domesticated micro-organisms will likely be an invaluable complement to the increasing number of genetically modified plants and animals that are already being produced.

Mimetics

In the case of mimetics, scientists are discovering new ways of creating novel materials using a bottom-up approach at the nano-scale by utilizing some of the self-assembly techniques that natural selection has near-perfected over millions of years.  For example, mollusks form sea shells with incredibly strong structural/mechanical properties by their DNA coding for the synthesis of specific proteins, and those proteins bonding the raw materials of calcium and carbonate into alternating layers until a fully formed shell is produced.  The pearls produced by clams are produced with similar techniques. We could potentially use the same DNA sequence in combination with a scaffold of our choosing such that a similar product is formed with unique geometries, or through genetic engineering techniques, we could modify the DNA sequence so that it performs the same self-assembly with completely different materials (e.g. silicon, platinum, titanium, polymers, etc.).

By combining the capabilities of scaffolding as well as the production of unique genomic sequences, one can further increase the number of possible nanomaterials or nanostructures, although I’m confident that most if not all scaffolding needs could eventually be accomplished by the DNA sequence alone (much like the production of bone, exoskeleton, and other types of structural tissues in animals).  The same principles can be applied by looking at how silk is produced by spiders, how the cochlear hair cells are produced in mammals, etc.  Many of these materials are stronger, lighter, and more defect-free than some of the best human products ever engineered.  By mimicking and modifying these DNA-induced self-assembly techniques, we can produce entirely new materials with unprecedented properties.

If we realize that even the largest plants and animals use these same nano-scale assembly processes to build themselves, it isn’t hard to imagine using these genetic engineering techniques to effectively grow complete macro-scale consumer products.  This may sound incredibly unrealistic with our current capabilities, but imagine one day being able to grow finished products such as clothing, hardware, tools, or even a house.  There are already people working on these capabilities to some degree (for example using 3D printed scaffolding or other scaffolding means and having plant or animal tissue grow around it to form an environmentally integrated bio-structure).  If this is indeed realizable, then perhaps we could find a genetic sequence to produce almost anything we want, even a functional computer or other device.  If nature can use DNA and natural selection to produce macro-scale organisms with brains capable of pattern recognition, consciousness, and computation (and eventually the learned capability of genetic engineering in the case of the human brain), then it seems entirely reasonable that we could eventually engineer DNA sequences to produce things with at least that much complexity, if not far higher complexity, and using a much larger selection of materials.

Other advantages from using such an approach include the enormous energy savings gained by adopting the naturally selected economically efficient process of self-assembly (including less changes in the forms of energy used, and thus less loss) and a reduction in specific product manufacturing infrastructure. That is, whereas we’ve typically made industrial scale machines individually tailored to produce specific components which are later assembled into a final product, by using DNA (and the proteins it codes for) to do the work for us, we will no longer require nearly as much manufacturing capital, for the genetic engineering capital needed to produce any genetic sequence is far more versatile.

Transcending the Human Species

Perhaps the most important application of genetic engineering will be the modification of our own species.  Many of the world’s problems are caused by sudden environmental changes (many of them anthropogenic), and if we can change ourselves and/or other species biologically in order to adapt to these unexpected and sudden environmental changes (or to help prevent them altogether), then the severity of those problems can be reduced or eliminated.  In a sense, we would be selecting our own as well as other species by providing the proper genes to begin with, rather than relying on extremely slow genomic differentiation mechanisms and the greater rates of suffering and loss of life that natural selection normally follows.

Genetic Enhancement of Existing Features

With power over the genome, we may one day be able to genetically increase our life expectancy, for example, by modifying the DNA polymerase-g enzyme in our mitochondria such that they make less errors (i.e. mutations) during DNA replication, by genetically altering telomeres in our nuclear DNA such that they can maintain their length and handle more mitotic divisions, or by finding ways to preserve nuclear DNA, etc. If we also determine which genes lead to certain diseases (as well as any genes that help to prevent them), genetic engineering may be the key to extending the length of our lives perhaps indefinitely.  It may also be the key to improving the quality of that extended life by replacing the techniques we currently use for health and wellness management (including pharmaceuticals) with perhaps the most efficacious form of preventative medicine imaginable.

If we can optimize our brain’s ability to perform neuronal regeneration, reconnection, rewiring, and/or re-weighting based on the genetic instructions that at least partially mediate these processes, this optimization should drastically improve our ability to learn by improving the synaptic encoding and consolidation processes involved in memory and by improving the combinatorial operations leading to higher conceptual complexity.  Thinking along these lines, by increasing the number of pattern recognition modules that develop in the neo-cortex, or by optimizing their configuration (perhaps by increasing the number of hierarchies), our general intelligence would increase as well and would be an excellent complement to an optimized memory.  It seems reasonable to assume that these types of cognitive changes will likely have dramatic effects on how we think and thus will likely affect our philosophical beliefs as well.  Religious beliefs are also likely to change as the psychological comforts provided by certain beliefs may no longer be as effective (if those comforts continue to exist at all), especially as our species continues to phase out non-naturalistic explanations and beliefs as a result of seeing the world from a more objective perspective.

If we are able to manipulate our genetic code in order to improve the mechanisms that underlie learning, then we should also be able to alter our innate abilities through genetic engineering. For example, what if infants could walk immediately after birth (much like a newborn calf)? What if infants had adequate motor skills to produce (at least some) spoken language much more quickly? Infants normally have language acquisition mechanisms which allow them to eventually learn language comprehension and productivity but this typically takes a lot of practice and requires their motor skills to catch up before they can utter a single word that they do in fact understand. Circumventing the learning requirement and the motor skill developmental lag (at least to some degree) would be a phenomenal evolutionary advancement, and this type of innate enhancement could apply to a large number of different physical skills and abilities.

Since DNA ultimately controls the types of sensory receptors we have, we should eventually be able to optimize these as well.  For example, photoreceptors could be modified such that we would be able to see new frequencies of electro-magnetic radiation (perhaps a more optimized range of frequencies if not a larger range altogether).  Mechano-receptors of all types could be modified, for example, to hear a different if not larger range of sound frequencies or to increase tactile sensitivity (i.e. touch).  Olfactory or gustatory receptors could also be modified in order to allow us to smell and taste previously undetectable chemicals.  Basically, all of our sensations could be genetically modified and, when combined with the aforementioned genetic modifications to the brain itself, this would allow us to have greater and more optimized dimensions of perception in our subjective experiences.

Genetic Enhancement of Novel Features

So far I’ve been discussing how we may be able to use genetic engineering to enhance features we already possess, but there’s no reason we can’t consider using the same techniques to add entirely new features to the human repertoire. For example, we could combine certain genes from other animals such that we can re-grow damaged limbs or organs, have gills to breathe underwater, have wings in order to fly, etc.  For that matter, we may even be able to combine certain genes from plants such that we can produce (at least some of) our own chemical energy from the sun, that is, create at least partially photosynthetic human beings.  It is certainly science fiction at the moment, but I wouldn’t discount the possibility of accomplishing this one day after considering all of the other hybrid and transgenic species we’ve created already, and after considering the possible precedent mentioned in the endosymbiotic theory (where an ancient organism may have “absorbed” another to produce energy for it, e.g. mitochondria and chloroplasts in eukaryotic cells).

Above and beyond these possibilities, we could also potentially create advanced cybernetic organisms.  What if we were able to integrate silicon-based electronic devices (or something more biologically compatible if needed) into our bodies such that the body grows or repairs some of these technologies using biological processes?  Perhaps if the body is given the proper diet (i.e. whatever materials are needed in the new technological “organ”) and has the proper genetic code such that the body can properly assimilate those materials to create entirely new “organs” with advanced technological features (e.g. wireless communication or wireless access to an internet database activated by particular thoughts or another physiological command cue), we may eventually be able to get rid of external interface hardware and peripherals altogether.  It is likely that electronic devices will first become integrated into our bodies through surgical implantation in order to work with our body’s current hardware (including the brain), but having the body actually grow and/or repair these devices using DNA instruction would be the next logical step of innovation if it is eventually feasible.

Malleable Human Nature

When people discuss complex issues such as social engineering, sustainability, crime-reduction, etc., it is often mentioned that there is a fundamental barrier between our current societal state and where we want or need to be, and this barrier is none other than human nature itself.  Many people in power have tried to change human behavior with brute force while operating under the false assumption that human beings are analogous to some kind of blank slate that can simply learn or be conditioned to behave in any way without limits. This denial of human nature (whether implicit or explicit) has led to a lot of needless suffering and has also led to the de-synchronization of biological and cultural evolution.

Humans often think that they can adapt to any cultural change, but we often lose sight of the detrimental power that technology and other cultural inventions and changes can have over our physiological and psychological well-being. In a nutshell, the speed of cultural evolution can often make us feel like a fish out of water, perhaps better suited to live in an environment closer to our early human ancestors.  Whatever the case, we must embrace human nature and realize that our efforts to improve society (or ourselves) will only have long term efficacy if we work with human nature rather than against it.  So what can we do if our biological evolution is out-of-sync with our cultural evolution?  And what can we do if we have no choice but to accept human nature, that is, our (often selfish) biologically-driven motivations, tendencies, etc.?  Once again, genetic engineering may provide a solution to many of these previously insoluble problems.  To put it simply, if we can change our genome as desired, then we may be able to not only synchronize our biological and cultural evolution, but also change human nature itself in the process.  This change could not only make us feel better adjusted to the modern cultural environment we’re living in, but it could also incline us to instinctually behave in ways that are more beneficial to each other and to the world as a whole.

It’s often said that we have selfish genes in some sense, that is, many if not all of our selfish behaviors (as well as instinctual behaviors in general) are a reflection of the strategy that genes implement in their vehicles (i.e. our bodies) in order for the genes to maintain themselves and reproduce.  That genes possess this kind of strategy does not require us to assume that they are conscious in any way or have actual goals per se, but rather that natural selection simply selects genes that code for mechanisms which best maintain and spread those very genes.  Natural selection tends toward effective self-replicators, and that’s why “selfish” genes (in large part) cause many of our behaviors.  Improving reproductive fitness and successful reproduction has been the primary result of this strategy and many of the behaviors and motivations that were most advantageous to accomplish this are no longer compatible with modern culture including the long-term goals and greater good that humans often strive for.

Humans no longer exclusively live under the law of the jungle or “survival of the fittest” because our humanistic drives and their cultural reinforcements have expanded our horizons beyond simple self-preservation or a Machiavellian mentality.  Many humans have tried to propagate principles such as honesty, democracy, egalitarianism, immaterialism, sustainability, and altruism around the world, and they are often high-jacked by our often short-sighted sexual and survival-based instinctual motivations to gain sexual mates, power, property, a higher social status, etc.  Changing particular genes should also allow us to change these (now) disadvantageous aspects of human nature and as a result this would completely change how we look at every problem we face. No longer would we have to say “that solution won’t work because it goes against human nature”, or “the unfortunate events in human history tend to recur in one way or another because humans will always…”, but rather we could ask ourselves how we want or need to be and actually make it so by changing our human nature. Indeed, if genetic engineering is used to accomplish this, history would no longer have to repeat itself in the ways that we abhor. It goes without saying that a lot of our behavior can be changed for the better by an appropriate form of environmental conditioning, but for those behaviors that can’t be changed through conditioning, genetic engineering may be the key to success.

To Be or Not To Be?

It seems that we have been given a unique opportunity to use our ever increasing plethora of experiential data and knowledge and combine it with genetic engineering techniques to engineer a social organism that is by far the best adapted to its environment.  Additionally, we may one day find ourselves living in a true global utopia, if the barriers of human nature and the de-synchronization of biological and cultural evolution are overcome, and genetic engineering may be the only way of achieving such a goal.  One extremely important issue that I haven’t mentioned until now is the ethical concerns regarding the continued use and development of genetic engineering technology.  There are obviously concerns over whether or not we should even be experimenting with this technology.  There are many reasonable arguments both for and against using this technology, but I think that as a species, we have been driven to manipulate our environment in any way that we are capable of and this curiosity is a part of human nature itself.  Without genetic engineering, we can’t change any of the negative aspects of human nature but can only let natural selection run its course to modify our species slowly over time (for better or for worse).

If we do accept this technology, there are other concerns such as the fact that there are corporations and interested parties that want to use genetic engineering primarily if not exclusively for profit gain (often at the expense of actual universal benefits for our species) and which implement questionable practices like patenting plant and animal food sources in a potentially monopolized future agricultural market.  Perhaps an even graver concern is the potential to patent genes that become a part of the human genome, and the (at least short term) inequality that would ensue from the wealthier members of society being the primary recipients of genetic human enhancement. Some people may also use genetic engineering to create new bio-warfare weaponry and find other violent or malicious applications.  Some of these practices could threaten certain democratic or other moral principles and we need to be extremely cautious with how we as a society choose to implement and regulate this technology.  There are also numerous issues regarding how these technologies will affect the environment and various ecosystems, whether caused by people with admirable intentions or not.  So it is definitely prudent that we proceed with caution and get the public heavily involved with this cultural change so that our society can move forward as responsibly as possible.

As for the feasibility of the theoretical applications mentioned earlier, it will likely be computer simulation and computing power that catalyze the knowledge base and capability needed to realize many of these goals (by decoding the incredibly complex interactions between genes and the environment) and thus will likely be the primary limiting factor. If genetic engineering also involves expanding the DNA components we have to work with, for example, by expanding our base-four system (i.e. four nucleotides to choose from) to a higher based system through the use of other naturally occurring nucleotides or even the use of UBPs (i.e. “Unnatural Base Pairs”), while still maintaining low rates of base-pair mismatching and while maintaining adequate genetic information processing rates, we may be able to utilize previously inaccessible capabilities by increasing the genetic information density of DNA.  If we can overcome some of the chemical natural selection barriers that were present during abiogenesis and the evolution of DNA (and RNA), and/or if we can change the very structure of DNA itself (as well as the proteins and enzymes that are required for its implementation), we may be able to produce an entirely new type of genetic information storage and processing system, potentially circumventing many of the limitations of DNA in general, and thus creating a vast array of new species (genetically coded by a different nucleic acid or other substance).  This type of “nucleic acid engineering”, if viable, may complement the genetic engineering we’re currently performing on DNA and help us to further accomplish some of the aforementioned goals and applications.

Lastly, while some of the theoretical applications of genetic engineering that I’ve presented in this post may not sound plausible at all to some, I think it’s extremely important and entirely reasonable (based on historical precedent) to avoid underestimating the capabilities of our species.  We may one day be able to transform ourselves into whatever species we desire, effectively taking us from trans-humanism to some perpetual form of conscious evolution and speciation.  What I find most beautiful here is that the evolution of consciousness has actually led to a form of conscious evolution. Hopefully our species will guide this evolution in ways that are most advantageous to our species, and to the entire diversity of life on this planet.