17 October, 2007

Teaching The Tongue To See

From The Frontal Cortex via Andrew Sullivan, this video of an incredible piece of technology that purports to enable blind persons to perceive and navigate their environment in a manner analogous to sight by "remapping" signals received via the tongue to the visual cortex of the brain. Jaw-droppingly amazing:



I found it interesting to note the difficulty the sighted person had in attempting to use the device. It put me in mind of the old canard about blindness heightening the awareness of other senses and I wonder if the learning curve would be as high for a blind person.

I was also fascinated to learn from Jonah's post (at Frontal Cortex) that a similar experiment was performed with ferrets wherein information transmitted from their retinas was fed to the auditory (as opposed to visual) cortex and yet the ferrets could still see! Their brains were able to "remap" the signals and translate them appropriately. Incredible.

Mr. Deity, Season II

The new season of Mr. Deity will appear exclusively on Crackle and the first episode has just been put up. In my opinion it's not as funny as any of those in season I, but I'll withhold judgment on the season until I've seen some more (according to Brian there will be 10 in all).

10 October, 2007

Funny O' The Day

While I do not wish to turn this blog into a YouTube extravaganza, I simply have to share this video my mother emailed to me. Anita Renfroe distills the essence of daily mothering into 2:54 seconds of hilarity accompanied by the overture from Rossini's "William Tell". Enjoy.

05 October, 2007

Ethical Issues in the Abortion Debate (part II)

In an earlier post, I laid out my position on the abortion question, outlined my reasoning, and offered some objections to it, all as background for a later post. However, as that last post was getting pretty long, I delayed completing it until this second post.

I left off with the following objection to my rationale for allowing "exceptions" beyond a 10-11 week limit on legal abortion:

Okay, I'll give you rape, but a woman who had consensual sex has by her actions consented to undertake the risk of getting pregnant (no birth control method is 100% successful) and thus the risks inherent in being pregnant.

This seems like a potentially serious objection. A priori, we should agree that non-coerced engagement in an action necessarily involves consent and there is a certain intuitive appeal to the idea that consent to an action also inherently includes consent to foreseeable consequences of that action. If I understand a bit about guns and anatomy, point a loaded gun at my friend's head and pull the trigger, I cannot claim that I'm not responsible for his gunshot wound. Understanding the consequences of my action, I freely undertook it anyway. I am therefore morally responsible for those consequences. And so if I choose to engage in intercourse with the knowledge that A) sperm + egg = pregnancy and B) no birth control method is 100% effective. Therefore, I am morally responsible for the foreseeable consequences (pregnancy).

But wait a bit. These two cases aren't exactly analagous. In the first, I took no action to mitigate or attempt to prevent the foreseeable consequences of my action while in the second I did (or at indicated that it was a possibility). This difference leaves completely open the question of intent and it seems to me that this is a material defect in the objection to my rationale.

As I see it, there are several elements necessarily involved in any determination of moral responsibility:

1) Identity. Did the person in question actually engage in the action? In the case of pregnancy, this is moot. Insemination, whether natural or artificial, is the "act" in question and one can't be pregnant without it.

2) Consent. Did the person in question consent to the action? We've already discussed this; non-consent is an automatic vitiation of moral responsibility.

3) Intent. Did the person in question intend the particular consequence to obtain? In a way, intent can be thought of as consent to the consequences of an action, rather than the action itself. It's my belief that this is a material element that's missing from the objection to my rationale.

Consider the following example: I am a scrupulously careful driver, always obeying traffic laws and ensuring that my car is maintained properly. However, while driving my car through a crowded downtown area, my brakes suddenly fail while turning a corner and my car runs down an elderly gentleman standing on the sidewalk. Am I morally responsible for this man's death? I think most people would say "no". In fact, I can't imagine any rational argument in favor of such culpability. While I was certainly the proximate cause of the man's death, and I did consent to the possibility of the death of a pedestrian as a foreseeable consequence of choosing to drive in a crowded downtown area, I most certainly did not intend to kill anyone and took all reasonable precautions (obeying traffic laws, maintaining my car) to ensure that this did not happen. I am not morally responsible for the failure of my brakes, however possibly foreseeable, and therefore not morally responsible for the man's death.

Consider a similar example: I am a careless driver, inconsistently obeying traffic laws and neglecting the maintenance of my car. The mechanics told me that I needed to get my brakes changed or they were going to stop working, but I ignored them. One day, while driving my car through a crowded downtown area, my brakes suddenly fail while turning a corner and my car runs down an elderly gentleman standing on the sidewalk. Am I morally responsible for this man's death? I think most people would say "yes". Again, I'm the proximate cause of the man's death and certainly had to understand that driving carries with it an inherent risk of accident. Disregard for the proper maintenance of my car can be rationally construed as an implicit consent to the forseeable consequences of my actions, which, as we already noted, is essentially the definition of intent. Hence, all three factors are present and I am indeed morally responsible.

With this line of reasoning laid out, we can return to the argument at hand and a distinction becomes immediately evident. A couple who engage in intercourse while failing to take any precautions against pregnancy are implying by their actions the consent to the consequence. Therefore they are morally responsible for the pregnancy and the objection against my view would seem to hold. However, a couple who take all reasonable precautions against pregnancy are obviously not consenting to become pregnant. They therefore lack intent and are not morally responsible for the pregnancy. The objection would seem to fail against this situation and this represents quite possibly the majority of cases in which abortion is sought.

So, essentially, the use of contraceptives indicates a clear lack of consent to a pregnancy. Any actual pregnancy is an accident and we've determined that individuals are not morally responsible for accidents. Absent consent and moral responsibility, the objection is vitiated and a couple is ethically permitted to terminate an unwanted pregnancy (as we've already determined that, even given that the fetus is a person, killing is warranted in cases of non-consent as an ethical response to enslavement or parasitism regardless of the innocence of the inflictor)

I will offer a disclaimer here: although the reasoning appears to me to be sound, this conclusion is somewhat uncomfortable to me as it seems to legitimize abortion-on-demand, at least in those cases where the couple have taken all reasonable precautions against conception, and I feel there are other reasons to hold that abortion-on-demand is morally questionable. I won't go into those here are they are not germane to this post, but I offer it in the interests of disclosure.

Whew! This post ended up being a bit longer than I wanted! In the following, and hopefully LAST post in this series, I want to finally get around to discussing some ethical dilemmas for both "sides" of this debate and things for all participants to consider.

Another Book Meme!

Via Pharyngula, another book meme that's making the round of blogs. Books in bold are those I've read, while those italicized are those I've only partially read:

  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
  • Anna Karenina
  • Crime and Punishment
  • Catch-22
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Wuthering Heights
  • The Silmarillion
  • Life of Pi : a novel
  • The Name of the Rose
  • Don Quixote
  • Moby Dick
  • Ulysses
  • Madame Bovary
  • The Odyssey
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Jane Eyre
  • The Tale of Two Cities
  • The Brothers Karamazov
  • Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies
  • War and Peace
  • Vanity Fair
  • The Time Traveler's Wife
  • The Iliad
  • Emma
  • The Blind Assassin
  • The Kite Runner
  • Mrs. Dalloway
  • Great Expectations
  • American Gods
  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
  • Atlas Shrugged
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran : a memoir in books
  • Memoirs of a Geisha
  • Middlesex
  • Quicksilver
  • Wicked : the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
  • The Canterbury tales
  • The Historian : a novel
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  • Love in the Time of Cholera
  • Brave New World
  • The Fountainhead
  • Foucault's Pendulum
  • Middlemarch
  • Frankenstein
  • The Count of Monte Cristo
  • Dracula
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • Anansi Boys
  • The Once and Future King
  • The Grapes of Wrath
  • The Poisonwood Bible : a novel
  • 1984
  • Angels & Demons
  • The Inferno
  • The Satanic Verses
  • Sense and Sensibility
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray
  • Mansfield Park
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
  • To the Lighthouse
  • Tess of the D'Urbervilles
  • Oliver Twist
  • Gulliver's Travels
  • Les Misérables
  • The Corrections
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
  • Dune
  • The Prince
  • The Sound and the Fury
  • Angela's Ashes : a memoir
  • The God of Small Things
  • A People's History of the United States : 1492-present
  • Cryptonomicon
  • Neverwhere
  • A Confederacy of Dunces
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything
  • Dubliners
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being
  • Beloved
  • Slaughterhouse-five
  • The Scarlet Letter
  • Eats, Shoots & Leaves
  • The Mists of Avalon
  • Oryx and Crake : a novel
  • Collapse : how societies choose to fail or succeed
  • Cloud Atlas
  • The Confusion
  • Lolita
  • Persuasion
  • Northanger Abbey
  • The Catcher in the Rye
  • On the Road
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame
  • Freakonomics : a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance : an inquiry into values
  • The Aeneid
  • Watership Down
  • Gravity's Rainbow
  • The Hobbit
  • In Cold Blood : a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences
  • White Teeth
  • Treasure Island
  • David Copperfield
  • The Three Musketeers

Reading through this list, I'm struck by how many I've read only partially. In many cases, books I started and then put down, never to finish again (The Three Musketeers, Wuthering Heights, The Silmarillion). There's nothing necessarily wrong with these, they were either not to my taste, didn't hold my interest long enough, or other things intervened. Many are works to which I definitely want to return someday (The Aeneid, Freakonomics, The God of Small Things)

Some others, like The Satanic Verses and The Brothers Karamazov are ongoing projects. I've been reading the Dostoeyevsky for 2 years now, off and on. Rushdie may yet become one of those I set aside and to which I never return. I find his writing style a bit off-putting and difficult to follow (and this from someone who's read William Burroughs!).

A little research reveals that this is apparently the "the top 106 books most often marked as 'unread' by LibraryThing’s users". Interesting. By my count, I've read 38 with another 18 partially read, so I've delved into a little more than half of these. Some of the "unread" are understandable, but I was especially disheartened to find THREE of Neil Gaiman's books in this list (American Gods, Anansi Boys, & Neverwhere). Why oh why would anyone not read these books?!?