The Ethics of Decoding the Brain

Unless you’ve been binging on Netflix the last ten years, you’ll have happened to notice that the neuropsychologists among us have been making a lot of progress. The main progress has come from scientists utilizing relatively new fMRI technology to glimpse a person’s brain activity while they are in the midst of a task. These brain-peepers can then take the data and say things like: “When a person looks at a picture of a cute puppy, this part of their brain lights up. But when a person looks at a picture of a grizzly bear, this other part of their brain lights up.”

Science is Fun (or is it?)

human-brain-1443446941h0AAt the first, all of this new information that’s pouring forth in study after study and book after book seems totally harmless, interesting and even fun. I mean, who wouldn’t want to know what makes their prefrontal cortex “light up”? And, even from an ethical standpoint, as long as the scientists are just looking, no harm is done. But it will not be long before they go from passive bystanders, merely peering into the brain, to in fact being able to manipulate the brain for their own purposes. To me, the prospect of decoding the brain, much like scientists have  decoded DNA, has serious repurcussions from an ethical standpoint. Now, I realize that what I’m talking about might sound like science fiction right now, but in a few years, with a few scientific leaps forward, we will arrive at a brave new world not of brain scanning, but of brain programming. If the neuropsychologists decode the brain sufficiently, then they will be able to hack it–and who could resist the temptation? Here are my chief ethical worries about what lies ahead:

#1 – Tinkering With the Will

So far, the brain scientists have not been able to discover the keys to the human will. If you poke a person’s brain or jolt it with current–even if it forces the subject’s hand in the air or prompts him or her to spew curse words–the person will still be able to say, “Hey, you did that to me!” But what if the scientists decode the brain so much that they can access the will and reprogram it? Of course, such a trend would start as a noble effort–to reprogram the brain of an addict to quit smoking, reprogram the brain of a morbidly obese patient to stop eating so much.

tinkerBut what if, after this technique has been perfected, a new patient arrives in Dr. Brain’s office and says, “Doc, I’ve got a hard life. Things haven’t worked out so well for me. I have a terrible job that I hate, but I know I need to stick with it for the sake of my family. Can you help me?” At this point, it would be very tempting for Dr. Brain to tinker with the patient’s will so that the patient wants to stick with the job that he actually hates. Perhaps the doctor can even cause him to like it.

Again, you might say that that’s not so bad. Maybe it will all be for the good. But what if this technology can be deployed by the government–any government–to make willing soldiers out of a revolutionary population or to bureaucratically pacify people. (“Oh, I see you got a 500 on the SAT. We’ll fix your brain so that your aspirations don’t climb too high. You’ll be happy being a janitor and never want anything more.”) They could neurologically “fix” people to want the careers that nobody wants.

#2 – Tinkering with the Memory

Elephant_walking_ArMNext, if they decode the brain, the scientists could tinker with our memories. It would start with noble therapies like lessening the impact of painful memories for PTSD patients or those with a traumatic childhood. Yet if they become truly capable of erasing memories from our brains, look out! A person could go to an unscrupulous brain doctor and ask that their memory be wiped of unpleasant memories like their last dating relationship or their bad debts or their failures as a child. Again, while such a technology could be used for the good, it could also lead down a dark path. What if oppressive governments could wipe revolutionary memories from citizens or use memory-wiping as a punishment for crimes?

#3 – Downloading the Brain

DNA_orbit_animated_smallIt is possible, even now, to get your entire genome sequenced. The computers produce a giant file, a BAM file, for each genome sequenced. This huge 65GB file can be used to analyze a person’s DNA for defects and inherited traits. But what if, in the near future, all of the data in a person’s brain can be downloaded to a similar file? For research and diagnostic purposes this could be a God-send. In fact, even for psychologists and therapists, such a treasure trove of data could be immensely helpful. Who wouldn’t want access to a downloaded copy of all of their memories ever–complete with pictures and movies?

Yet, even if it were possible, just imagine all of the non-research oriented abuses that could creep in. Prospective employers could demand a copy of your “BRAIN” file before you get hired. A college you applied to could ask for your BRAIN file to check that you have the right knowledge. Heck, even the NSA would probably store a copy of your BRAIN file on their giant servers in Utah. The brain files of geniuses like Stephen Hawking would be studied and prisoners’ brain files might be taken by the government in order to solve more crimes, but just imagine what might lurk in the brain files of certain politicians and how hungry the media would be to get at them!

#4 – Uploading to the Brain

upload-1118928_640In this fictive future we are imagining a world in which scientists have successfully decoded the brain, found a way to download its data into a computer file. But surely, if they are able to accomplish all of this, then they will make a way to upload to the brain. Just imagine a micro-USB port behind your left ear. Again, on the one hand, this sounds rather nice. If you wanted to learn Japanese or read Moby Dick, all you’d have to do is plug in for a second or two and–presto!–you’ve got it in your mind.

Such a technology would be revolutionary for education. You could get a whole college education in just a few gigabytes of data and upload it to your brain. In fact, if you feel indecisive about your major, you could major in everything and have it all uploaded! But imagine being operated on by a surgeon who went to “USB Med School” and only had knowledge uploaded to his brain, but had never actually performed a surgery before. Yikes! Or worse, what about a young man contemplating the priesthood? Instead of taking a few years to carefully discern and to undergo seminary training, he could just have all the knowledge uploaded to his brain and get ordained right away.

brainusbRather than simply wiping away bad memories, you could upload good ones. If you had a bad childhood, that could be swapped out for a good one in your memory. If you didn’t get to take a vacation, you could upload one to your brain. The possibilities are endless!

Worrying About Today and Tomorrow

The scientists have not gotten this far yet. Right now, they are limited to peering into the brain and trying to influence it with drug therapies, electricity and even surgery. Right now, they cannot download or upload. They can’t erase memories or create fictitious ones. And they certainly cannot tinker with the human will. Yet if the decoding of the human genome is an object lesson in the power of science when faced with a complex problem, the brain could follow suit. It could be that a few decades from now instead of going to get your genome sequenced at 23andMe, you might be getting your brain analyzed and downloaded instead. I just hope that the scientists are thinking carefully about these things as they proceed and don’t allow their curiosity to lead us down a dark alley.

 

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Abraham’s “Promised Lamb”

Photo Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Swiss_Guard_near_Basilica_di_San_Pietro.jpg

When it comes to the Bible, I have never ceased to be amazed at the number of interconnections. So often, one can draw out a web of links from one passage to a thousand others through themes, prophesies, anticipations, foreshadowings. The possibilities are endless! Rather than giving me a sense of unease or haphazardness, these connections continue to inspire me as planned, perfect and beautiful. The more points of contact we find, the more the whole thing hangs together, the more impressive it is. It is like taking apart a Swiss Guard’s handsome uniform to realize that it has been sewn together from one hundred and fifty-four pieces![1]

 

One of those connections starts with an odd hanging question that Isaac asks his father when they are hiking up Mount Moriah: “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” (I apologize for starting in the middle of things, but if you need a refresher, check out Genesis 22 where God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son and then stops him at the last minute.) Essentially, Isaac, the ostensible victim of the imminent sacrifice is a bit concerned about the fact that his dad has all the appropriate sacrificial implements, except one: the all-important sacrificial animal. Isaac even goes through a verbal checklist with his dad, “Fire, check. Wood, check. Lamb, nope!”

 

Now if you read to the end of the chapter, which you should, you’ll find out that at the end of the story, God stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac and instead provides a ram for sacrifice that had gotten stuck in a nearby bush by its horns. There are a couple juicy exegetical tidbits that can be extracted from Isaac’s exchange with his father. Most importantly, it seems that God does not actually fulfill Abraham’s prediction. Abraham predicted a lamb, but God provided a ram. So…where’s the lamb?? Then, over a millennium later, Jesus walks by the Jordan and a prophet points a bony finger at him and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (John 1:29). It would be very tempting to say that John is referring back to Abraham’s prediction that God himself would provide the lamb for sacrifice and since the ancient prediction was never fulfilled in Abraham’s life, it is now coming to fruition in Jesus, the ultimate “lamb” of sacrifice.

 

Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Abtei_Seckau_Basilika_%C3%A4u%C3%9Feres_Portal_Abrahams_Opfer.jpg

Bear with me, here. I like this line of thinking and it has been adopted by quite a few Christian interpreters,[2] but we have to put the brakes on first and go back to the original language to see if we can really find warrant for this direction. Otherwise, we could end up on an exegetical gangplank.

 

First, if you go back to the original father-son Q&A, maybe we don’t have such a strong contrast between prediction and fulfillment after all. Isaac asks where the sheep (seh) is (Gen 22:7). Seh is the all-purpose word for sheep and goats. It is not very specific. Normally, the word, which appears 47 times in the Hebrew Bible, is translated as “sheep.” However, Isaac’s question is the first occurrence of the word in the Old Testament and seh can refer to a lamb, as we can see in Lev 5:6-7, where the word seh in v. 7 refers to the lamb previously mentioned in v. 6. In addition, though, it can refer to a young animal when specified as such (see Deut 14:4).

 

Image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boreray_Ram.jpg

Second, there is another word in Hebrew for lamb, a more specific vocabulary choice: kebes. This word occurs 107 times (or 108 if you include the sole feminine occurrence in Lev 5:6). If Genesis were trying to be very specific about making a distinction between Isaac’s question and the seeming fulfillment later in the verse then kebes would be the obvious choice. There’s some great online discussion about the terms here.

 

Third, the term used to describe the animal Abraham finds later in the chapter is ayil. This term is a subset of seh and simply means “ram.” So Abraham ends up sacrificing the ayil in place of his son, Isaac, which seems to fulfill his prediction that a seh, sheep, would be provided by God. Abraham himself seems to think his prophecy fulfilled in that he proclaims the place “yhwh-yireh,” the Lord provides (Gen 22:14).

 

So, that brings us back to the original question. Can we say that the promise or prediction Abraham makes is not fulfilled until the time of Jesus? Not really. On the other hand, I think we can say with confidence and faith that the ram caught in the thicket serves as a type of Christ. Rather than being a “throwaway” miracle, the ram itself is significant as a foreshadowing and precursor for Christ. In the same way that the ram took Isaac’s place on the altar, Jesus takes our place on the cross. He is the true lamb/seh/ayil who takes our sins upon himself. Like Isaac, we get to go free.

 

Wait, there’s on more exegetical nugget here! In the lead-up to the sacrifice, Abraham tells his servants that he and Isaac “will come again to you,” knowing full well that he planned on sacrificing his son on the mountaintop. While you could take this phrase multiple ways—perhaps Abraham was covering for the fact that he would return alone and was planning on making up a story about what happened; or maybe he was doubting his own resolve—some of the Jewish rabbinic tradition saw this phrase as indicating something unheard of: that Isaac would die on the altar and then rise from the dead![3]

 

Well, there you have it. Abraham not only received the promised land, but he predicted the “promised lamb”—which in one way is the ram stuck in the thicket, but in a bigger more magnificent way is the one Lamb of God who took our sins upon himself, actually being sacrificed on a mountain and, like Abraham expected of Isaac, rising from the dead.


 

[1] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2001/11/1118_vaticanswiss.html
[2] See, for example: https://jewsforjesus.org/publications/blog/ram-or-lamb/
[3] See http://dovbear.blogspot.com/2011/11/more-or-isaacs-resurrection.html or http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Scripture/Parashah/Summaries/Vayera/Akedah/akedah.html

Photo Credits: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Swiss_Guard_near_Basilica_di_San_Pietro.jpg
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Abtei_Seckau_Basilika_%C3%A4u%C3%9Feres_Portal_Abrahams_Opfer.jpg
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boreray_Ram.jpg

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On TV This Week

Johnette Benkovic and Mark Giszczak

This week, I’ll be appearing on Johnnette Benkovic’s TV show, Women of Grace, on the EWTN channel. The 30-minute shows will air at 11:00am Eastern and 11:30pm Eastern Monday-Friday. We’ll be discussing my recent book, Light on the Dark Passages of Scripture. If you miss the TV broadcast, you can always watch the shows online on the Women of Grace website. The shows are entitled, “Light in the Darkness: A Look at the Dificult Passages and Themes of the Bible.” Let me know what you think of the shows!

 

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The Mysterious Disappearance of Wisdom 18:9b

Image: Wikipedia

I was studying this Sunday’s first reading, Wisdom 18:6-9 while working on my weekly column and noticed something rather odd: The second half of Wisdom 18:9 is simply missing from the text. The full verse in the NAB is:

For in secret the holy children of the good were offering sacrifice
and carried out with one mind the divine institution,
So that your holy ones should share alike the same blessings and dangers,
once they had sung the ancestral hymns of praise.

Yet the English Lectionary only includes:

For in secret the holy children of the good were offering sacrifice
and carried out with one mind the divine institution,

Now, often the Lectionary will include partial verses, but they are always indicated by a letter, so you might have Gen 18:1-10a, for example. But in this case, there is no letter indicated by the verse reference. I thought this mystery might call for a little Catholic Bible Student investigation, so I dug up a copy of the Ordo Lectionum Missio, editio typica altera from 1981. This is the official Latin listing of the Lectionary readings. And sure enough for Lectionary #117, Wisdom 18:6-9 are listed not 18:6-9a.

OLM81_117

The abbreviation “Sap” is for “Sapientia,” Wisdom. After seeing this, I thought that the difference might be in the versification of the Nova Vulgata, on which the 1981 Lectionary is based. But no, the verse appears in full in the Nova Vulgata:

Absconse enim sacrificabant iusti pueri bonorum
et divinitatis legem in concordia disposuerunt;
similiter et bona et pericula recepturos sanctos
patrum iam ante decantantes laudes. (Wisdom 18:9)

You’ll also notice that the Ordo Lectionum also gives an “incipit” (Nox liberationis…) that clarifies the subject of the first line by adding a single word and omitting the first word of verse 6.

But in the end, we’re left with a puzzle. Why would Wisdom 18:9b be omitted from the reading in the English translation? Here are possible theories: (a) the Latin Lectionary actually omits the lines and the English translators followed suit, (b) the English translators made a mistake by omitting them, (c) the lines struck the English translators as problematic, so they deliberately omitted them. If we go with Theory C here, I still don’t understand why the lines would be problematic–perhaps because they mention the fact that the saints will share in dangers as well as good things?

Yet many other parts of Scripture talk about us sharing in suffering, so I can’t think that’s the issue here. In fact, the lines are included in the Spanish edition of this reading. I’d be curious to look at Lectionaries in other languages to see if these lines are present or omitted, but for now we’ll have to chalk this one up as a mystery!


 

Owl image credit: By Athene_noctua_(portrait).jpg: Trebol-a derivative work:Stemonitis (Athene_noctua_(portrait).jpg) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons 

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Conservation and Concentration of Energy

I got to thinking about the conservation of one’s personal energy because of a story told by the British historian, Paul Johnson, about his boyhood encounter with the great man, Sir Winston Churchill. The story goes that the precocious young Johnson, in his youthful wisdom, asked Churchill for a piece of advice for life. This in itself shows that Proverbs is right about the fact that wisdom is not an achievement, but an attitude. The boy could hardly be adept in worldly matters, but displayed the right desire—the desire to know, to learn, to be taught. This desire in itself, so it seems, constitutes wisdom. The path to knowledge is wisdom.

A Legend
So much for my panegyrics! On to the story: Apparently Churchill replied to Johnson that “economy of effort” was his most important life principle. Johnson himself recited the 1946 story to the Wall Street Journal a few years ago:

He gave me one of his giant matches he used for lighting cigars. I was emboldened by that into saying, “Mr. Winston Churchill, sir, to what do you attribute your success in life?” and he said without hesitating: “Economy of effort. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.” And he then got into his limo.[1]

The story might be apocryphal, or at least colored by the passage of time, but it has stuck with me. Two details stand out to me. First, Churchill’s stated idea is in one way confirmed and in another way belied by his own life story. That is, it is said that he used a standing desk[2]—so he didn’t sit whenever he had the opportunity—which seems to fly in the face of his own example of never standing when you can sit down. But lest we think the great Prime Minister a hypocrite, he is also reputed to have taken regular daily naps.[3] Second, Churchill punctuates his dictum with such a hilariously apt embodiment of his stated principle: getting into a limo, the most effortless way to get around.

Conservation of Energy
“Economy of effort” could also be labeled “conservation of energy,” which is how my memory has preserved Churchill’s idea. I suppose it stuck with me that way because of the First Law of Thermodynamics, the law of conservation of energy, which I must have memorized at some point in my schooling. Obviously, there are no physics at work here in Churchill’s idea, only commonsense. That is, a person only has so much energy in a given day, a given workweek, a given lifespan. That energy must be conserved and then deployed at the right time. If you tire yourself out doing the wrong things—say wasting thousands of hours on Facebook—then you have substantially less energy to engage in the right things, like writing the next great American novel or building a treehouse.

Economy of Force
Churchill himself might have borrowed the idea of “economy of effort” from the military strategy idea of “economy of force” proposed by the 19th century Prussian strategist, Carl con Clausewitz.[4] This strategic concept is actually part of U.S. Army doctrine:

Allocate minimum essential combat power to secondary efforts.
A-10. Economy of force is the reciprocal of mass. Commanders allocate only the minimum combat power necessary to shaping and sustaining operations so they can mass combat power for the decisive operation. This requires accepting prudent risk. Taking calculated risks is inherent in conflict. Commanders never leave any unit without a purpose. When the time comes to execute, all units should have tasks to perform.[5]

When thinking in military terms, this makes perfect sense. In war, there’s nothing worse than wasting effort and resources on the wrong objectives. If you leave 1000 troops on guard duty and only take 100 into battle, you might be overwhelmed by superior forces. It’s better to spend little and economize in the areas where you can in order to spend the most resources on the most essential task.

Dissolution
Now to my mind one of the greatest evils of our age is dissolution, the opposite of economy of force. You could call it “dithering” or “procrastinating” or something else, but the point is that so many us of us so much of the time simply waste our time. While it is easy to regard one’s own era as worse than previous ones—and most such regarding is off-base—I do believe that we have seen an uptick in dithering for one simple reason: there are so many new ways to waste time! If you wanted to waste time 100 years ago, you might have to read a long novel or write a silly letter in longhand to an old friend, activities which we would consider highly productive. But now, to waste time, all you have to do is reach in your pocket, pull out the smartphone and wile away the hours on Candy Crush or YouTube or Twitter or texting. A new study from dscout just showed that on average, we are touching our phones 2,617 times per day.[6] While it’s true that some useful, efficient business is conducted via smartphone, the largest share of activity in the study was given over to Facebook.

Concentration of Forces
So what should we do to combat our own dissolution and dithering? Well, I think it goes back to another related military doctrine: concentration of forces. You economize your use of forces in order to concentrate them. The Army also adheres to this doctrine:

Concentrate the effects of combat power at the decisive place and time.[7]

This is what I think most of us struggle with a lot of the time. We have a lot of effort, time and attention to give, but it can easily be squandered on ephemeral pixels rather than on what really matters. If you don’t believe me, have you ever found yourself repeatedly clicking the send/receive button in your inbox? There’s something about digital information that makes us twitchy. It is very easy to fall into a pattern of seeking quick hits of information, looking for some sort of stimulus that will prompt us to act—a new email, a new task, a new article—rather than planning out our strategy from the beginning and concentrating our forces on what we are actually trying to accomplish. Why do you think so many people read internet articles under 1000 words and so few people read long books?

Concentration of Energy
While the Army tries to concentrate military assets “at the decisive place and time,” each of us individually must do the same thing in order to be remotely effective in our own lives. Advertisements, for example, are the precision-strike enemy of our ability to concentrate. They deliberately distract us from our purposes and show us information we didn’t need to know or want to know, about products, prices, services and the like, most of which we don’t need, all of which we don’t need now. That’s why people hate watching TV with commercials and instead binge on Netflix. They’d rather concentrate on what they want rather than on what other people want them to concentrate on. But Netflix brings us back to the dissolution problem.
In order to meet our goals, launch our projects, achieve our personal objectives, we need to concentrate our own energies in the right direction. Allowing our attention span, our physical energy or our motivation to be sapped by the forces of distraction, whether they be low-priority, easy tasks like email or time-sucks like Netflix or Facebook, brings us down into a vortex of useless behavior, wasted time, unproductive days. Instead, we could and probably should limit the distracting inputs and focus on concentrating our time and energy in order to bring it to good effect “at the decisive place and time.”

I’m still trying to figure out how to do this in my own life and work, but I don’t think I’ll easily forget Paul Johnson’s encounter with Winston Churchill. If Churchill attributes his success to such a simple principle of “economy of effort,” then there must be ways to implement it now in the digital age. A kind of digital austerity might be a solution—deliberately avoiding unnecessary media stimulation. Some people have tried, in fact, by turning their smartphones to black-and-white,[8] implementing screen color changing software,[9] or adopting typewriter-like digital composition tools.[10] I don’t think any one of these tweaks is a total solution, but perhaps they point in the right direction. They represent efforts to concentrate one’s forces and act according to the economy of effort principle. Only time will tells, perhaps, whether we become incapacitated phone zombies[11] or effective, creative humans.

References

[1] http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703558004574583820996589810

[2] http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24532996

[3] http://www.artofmanliness.com/2011/03/14/the-napping-habits-of-8-famous-men/

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_force

[5] https://fas.org/irp/doddir/army/fm3-0.pdf

[6] http://blog.dscout.com/mobile-touches

[7] https://fas.org/irp/doddir/army/fm3-0.pdf

[8] http://pocketnow.com/2016/06/07/pocketnow-challenge-one-week-with-a-black-and-white-smartphone-screen

[9] https://justgetflux.com/

[10] https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/adamleeb/hemingwrite-a-distraction-free-digital-typewriter

[11] http://www.salon.com/2014/08/08/rise_of_the_smartphone_zombies_what_we_lose_when_technology_gives_us_everything/

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Interviews

Next week, I’ll be interviewed on EWTN Radio’s “Morning Glory” show.

I was recently interviewed on a couple shows:

  • Spirit Catholic Radio “Spirit Mornings” show with Jen and Bruce on March 3:

Spirit Mornings Interview mp3 download

Son Rise Morning Show

02-22-2016

SonRise 2016_02_22

Podcast Episode

Categories

Download

Filetype: MP3 – Size: 164.82MB – Duration: 3:00:00 m (128 kbps 44100 Hz)

Note: My interview begins around the 2:10 mark in this audio file.

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