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I am a retired academic, comfortable and content. I live with my wife (Shirley) and our "Chowbador" dog (Loki) in a semi-rural area about 50 miles northwest of Atlanta. I have two adult sons and two grandsons. I took up exploration of the spiritual side of life as my retirement activity because of some experiences that I had earlier in my life. I have been meditating for about ten years. My wife and I facilitate a course on mindfulness in a local Unitarian, Universalist Fellowship. I've done retreats based in Theravada Buddhism, Tantrik Yoga and Kriya Yoga. I have read a good bit of spiritual literature written, for the most part, by current practitioners and teachers.

Comment on a Klan Rally

 

          The picture above is from a Klan rally held in a small town not far from where I live in north Georgia. I was at first reminded of the Klan rallies that took place during my youth. Regular rallies were held on the top of Stone Mountain in Georgia, east of Atlanta. I recall sitting in my car at a highway intersection waiting to exit onto the highway while a seemingly endless stream of Klan “kars” passed by in route to the mountain and the inevitable cross burning.

 As I considered the current event, which was much smaller than those earlier events, an observation made by a psychologist, Charles Carver, came to mind. Carver’s observation was that if you want to understand a behavior, you must first understand the goal to which it is directed. This thought led to questions about the goal of the Klan and of the protesters present at the rally.

I don’t seriously believe that the Klan thought they were going to persuade anyone to adopt their position on any issue, so what did this small band of men belonging to a marginalized and socially impotent group hope to accomplish? Further, what was the goal of the protesters at the Klan rally? I very much doubt that the protesters thought they were going to persuade the Klansmen to throw off their robes and become advocates for freedom and liberty for all.

If this little “dance” on the Ellijay town square wasn’t about one group trying to change the mind of another group, what then was it about? I think that for the Klan, a true home grown terrorist organization that is now marginalized and socially unacceptable, the rally was primarily about validation. They sought and obtained public attention, which affirmed that they weren’t forgotten relics and could still command an audience by their public presence. The Klan reminds me of youths I’ve observed who know just the right buttons to push to aggravate some adult in their lives (teachers and parents seem to be favorite targets) and take considerable pleasure and satisfaction from having so manipulated an antagonist.

In addition to the self-affirmation obtained from public attention, the rally seemed to me to possibly serve a second purpose — communication. How does a small, isolated group recruit new members and give support to other scattered and isolated groups and individuals of a similar mind? One answer I think is through publicity. The news coverage generated by the event turned protestors and the media into the unwitting accomplice of the Klan in disseminating its message to its kin, “we’re here and we still matter.” In support of this analysis consider this from Scott Atran an anthropologist and expert on terrorism, “Media and publicity are the oxygen of terrorism. Without them it would die.”

Even in this day of digital communication, the context of a public event has significant messaging potential, as all of the “terrorist” groups in the world know so well. A public event, whether a rally or a car bomb, is both a cheap and effective way to obtain an outcome not otherwise possible for such a group. Thus, contributing to a publicity event conducted by the Klan, whether by showing up to protest or showing up to cover the “event” for the media, is to assist the Klan in meeting its goals. Empowering the Klan in stressful and contentious times is especially hazardous because it remains a spark with the potential to become a fire.

What led the protesters to become dance partners with the Klan? Clearly, there was a bit of self-affirmation going on here as well. What better way than a public dance of defiance with a defanged cobra to demonstrate one’s righteousness and moral superiority. The Klansmen in their white robes provided a stimulus to elicit the moral outrage of the most sensitive members of the community — the Klan’s dependable foils. The protestors came out because of the Klan but they demonstrated to affirm their own beliefs and to signify publicly to one another and the community that we are truly good and caring people. The rally also provided the protesters an occasion to identify kindred spirits in the community, form new associations and weave a new thread into one’s personal narrative.

In the end, the Klan cared only that the protesters showed up and the more the better for their purposes. The dance goes on.

Institutionalization as a Factor in Educational Under Performance

              American society throughout the 20th century progressively institutionalized many social functions, including education. The vehicle for institutionalizing education was through the creation of public school systems. Whenever something becomes institutionalized, it becomes a bureaucracy and depersonalized. The function of the institution becomes the responsibility of “experts and professionals” and those served by the institution become “wards” of the institution. My experience has been that “experts and professionals,” contrary to what they sometimes claim, have no sincere interest in input from “clients” of the bureaucracy. Further, institutionalization leads to homogenization of institutional services making them unsuitable for many of those that are supposed to be served. Homogenization results from the tendency to adopt an “assembly line model” with a standardization mentality and the inevitable politicization that comes with institutionalizing social functions. Under such conditions, parents and children alike become passive “consumers” and relinquish their responsibility to the institution and its “experts.”

Along with this institutionalization of America has come a huge tax burden on citizens to fund all the institutions created to serve social functions. Several estimates put the average American family’s tax burden at approximately 50% of gross income when all taxes national, state and local are taken into account. Dual employment has become a necessity for most two-parent families in order to afford a middle-class life style. In such families, much of one income goes to pay the family’s tax bill and the other goes to maintaining a comfortable life style. Single parent families are burdened down with trying to live on a single income in a two-income society. Of course, many families simply collapse under this burden and dissolve into chaos. All of this exacerbates the problems in public education. Parents are too busy with making a living to invest much, if any time, into education of their children. Instead, they readily relinquish their responsibility to an institution that they are paying for through their taxes and that isn’t interested in hearing from them in any case.

What can be done about the situation in education? Obviously, institutionalization of education isn’t going to be quickly reversed though that should be a long-term goal. I don’t necessarily propose that there should be no public role in education but education should at the least be put back under local control with parental oversight. I also believe that much could be done by changing the philosophy of education underlying most schools and teaching. Click here for a piece on educational philosophy.

Free Will and the Evolution of Consciousness

           Spiritually speaking, free will or the ability to make meaningful choices is a critical concept for the evolution of consciousness or refinement of consciousness (see also here and here). The panentheistic principle of the primacy of Consciousness and its expression through the quantum monad, which was discussed in an earlier piece (Goswami’s Quantum Philosophy, Part II), is assumed. Implicit in this view is acceptance of the panentheistic conception of reality, which requires the ability to make meaningful choices or free will. How then might the requirement for free will be construed in a manner that meets the necessary conditions for the evolution of consciousness?

 Simple determinism asserts that everything we do is predetermined and therefore our apparent choices are really an illusion. From that point of view, we have only what appear to be choices and all the outcomes that follow from such imaginary choices are predetermined and beyond our ability to influence. In short, the chain of causality that began in the distant past, perhaps with the origin of the material universe, set in motion a chain of cause and effects that still continues and will continue into the future. That chain of causality passes through us and determines what we think, feel and do. Clearly, there are no real choices that might allow for the operation of free will in such a dismal conception of life. Further, such a conception renders impossible any meaningful conception of moral responsibility. If one’s behavior is wholly determined and outside of one’s ability to influence, how can an individual be held accountable for his or her actions? Finally, if simple determinism governs everything then a spiritual vision that entails the evolution of consciousness (or the soul if you prefer) cannot be valid.

Indeterminism (a.k.a. absolute free will) is the opposite of simple determinism. Absolute free will means one can by choice affect an outcome that is not predictable from its antecedents. In short, one can do things that violate the principle of causality as it is commonly understood (a.k.a. magic). For example, someone walking on water would both violate the principle of causality and demonstrate a choice outcome that is not predictable from its antecedents. Interestingly, the principle of causality or simple determinism has, at the quantum level, been experimentally demonstrated to be untenable. This suggests that reality almost certainly does not rest upon simple determinism. The quantum world appears, however, to be governed by statistical determinism, which includes all possible outcomes and even some that might be considered “magic.” However, “magical” outcomes, while possible, are extremely improbable. It is clear that no mere mortal is likely to ever observe or experience one of these highly improbable outcomes. Thus, indeterminism is not suitable for our purposes because meaningful choices leading to systematic consequences are not possible and such choices along with their feedback are necessary for the evolution of consciousness.

 The libertarian philosopher Richard Taylor proposed an alternative to simple determinism that he calls complex determinism, which recognizes that human agency is a primary factor in causation. That is, human agency or in the case of an individual self-agency can alter a chain of causality and initiate a new branch in an unfolding sequence. This brings us back to free will. In this view, free will is no longer absolute but rather is probabilistic, which is similar to the statistical determinism of quantum physics. Free will then, for me, is equivalent to complex determinism. Complex determinism suggests that in any given situation there are usually multiple possible outcomes, none of which require magic; i.e., they have a basis in antecedent events. Each of these possible outcomes is more or less probable than another. The most common outcome is the one with the highest probability. This is what is sometimes described by the phrase “the path of least resistance.” Recall the example about the collapse of a wave of possibilities discussed in an earlier piece (Goswami’s Quantum Philosophy, Part I).

When one arrives at a meaningful decision point in life, the complex and tangled web of antecedents that have led to the decision point generally allow for more than one possible consequence or outcome. Suppose that the decision point contains five possible outcomes or choices. Each has a probability of expression. If the path of least resistance is followed, the choice made will be the one most closely associated with one’s habitual and conditioned pattern of behavior. This default choice, in fact, is not really a choice so much as it is an acquiescence. Default responses that follow the path of least resistance are very common and give the appearance of following from simple determinism.

Research has provided evidence that suggests decisions are made at a subconscious level before one is consciously aware of them. This it is argued is evidence for simple determinism. An alternative interpretation is that this research is evidence that habitual or high probability responses are virtually automatic. Fortunately, the research also shows that there is a small delay between the subconscious decision, awareness and action. This delay is the window of opportunity that provides room for free will. Self-agency effected through intention and deliberate choice, based on forethought and anticipation of consequences, can influence and change the probability functions of potential outcomes. Thus, the first step is to prevent the default or habitual response from occurring. The second step is to undertake a deliberate effort to make manifest a possible alternate response. In short, if one is willing to be attentive and make the effort, it is possible to exert self-agency and become a causal force in your own chain of causation. I have a web page and ebook devoted to this endeavor.

In this conception of complex determinism, there are three principle contributors to human action: biological factors, environmental factors and self-agency. It is important to recognize that all three influences operate through predisposition, not predestination. Consider two identical twins with virtually identical biological inheritance who are predisposed to diabetes. Further, suppose that the twins live in an environment that has varied dietary choices but one that includes an abundance of readily available, tasty, refined carbohydrate foods. Such high glycemic environments predispose one to the development of diabetes. The interaction of the biological and environmental predispositions (what’s known as an epigenetic factor) make avoiding diabetes unlikely, especially given the predisposition to follow the path of least resistance. Eventually, one twin develops diabetes and the other does not. Clearly, this would never happen if biological and environmental causation were predestination. We can ask why did these different outcomes occur?

Very likely part of the answer is that the twins created different environments from the choices they made. Suppose that they took a class on nutrition while they were in high school or college in which they learned of the hazards of overeating a high glycemic diet. This was not welcome news since both had become accustomed to eating a high glycemic diet. Let’s assume that one chose to continue eating a diet rich in refined carbohydrates. This twin followed the habitual pattern and took the path of least resistance. The other chose a diet that emphasized complex carbohydrates. This choice was clearly available to both but only the second twin exercised self-agency and took the more difficult path of resisting habitual patterns and making healthier choices. Thus, these different choices in lifestyle differently influenced the possibility of developing diabetes in the twins.

In my view, we do have the ability to make real choices. We can, at least, make choices from among those potential outcomes that are possible given the antecedents. Our choices, reflected in our intentions and actions, influence (but do not control) the probable outcomes available in situations in which we are actors. Self-agency has the potential to carry us to a tipping point that can set in motion a new causal chain. Most of us, most of the time, fail to exercise self-agency and simply follow the path of least resistance and thereby give the impression of being controlled by simple determinism.

Complex determinism construed as self-agency then appears to meet the need for the meaningful choices necessary for evolving consciousness. Accepting self-agency as essential for evolving consciousness leads to recognition of personal sovereignty as a natural right. A sovereign individual is a free agent engaged in self-determination. Free agents set their own goals and choose the means to those goals. Further, a community of sovereign individuals represents a diversity of goals and methods for achieving those goals. Evolution of consciousness can only be achieved by freely taken choices. This means that it is incumbent upon anyone who accepts the primacy of Consciousness, implicit in panentheism, to avoid interfering with other people’s choices to the greatest extent possible. This is important because it is the intent behind choices, not the acts in and of themselves that is important for the evolution of consciousness.

 There are several ways in which one individual might attempt to affect the choices of another individual. First, one can use force to impose choices on another person. Second, one can use threat or intimidation to impose choices on someone else. Third, one can use contrived incentives to influence another person’s choices. Fourth, one can use deception as a means of influence. Finally, one can use persuasion to influence the choices of another person. Clearly, the first two options are coercive and inconsistent with self-determination. However, the third and fourth methods are also coercive but in a more subtle way. The use of contrived incentives or deception to influence someone’s choices is an effort to manipulate them and therefore represents a soft form of coercion. The final method may be the only method that is consistent with self-determination and the evolution of consciousness. Persuasion, properly conducted, appeals to the reason of another person. Successful persuasion convinces a person of the correctness of a particular choice and is thereby most likely to affect intention as well as action. Persuasion is not coercive but educational and is the only ethically acceptable method of influencing others in a society of sovereign individuals. Thus, sovereign individuals in their exercise of self-agency must accept some limitations on personal behavior. Specifically, they must accept a prohibition on the use of force or coercion directly or indirectly against others in the pursuit of their goals, except when necessary for self-defense or protecting others from harm.
 

 See also: “What does quantum physics have to do with behavior disorders?” for more about self-agency.

For a related case history see: “Big Jim: A case history

Choice

There are advocates for simple determinism who would assert that everything we do is predetermined and therefore our apparent choices are really an illusion. From that point of view, we don’t have any choices and all the outcomes that appear to follow from such imaginary choices are predetermined and beyond our ability to influence. In short, the chain of causality that began in the distant past, perhaps with the origin of the universe, set in motion a chain of cause and effects that still continues and will continue into the future. That chain of causality passes through us and determines what we think and do. I think this view takes all meaning from existence and makes life largely pointless, which doesn’t necessarily make it wrong. However, I reject it on existential grounds and advocate for a view based on complex determinism.

Before going into complex determinism, let me say something about free will. The free will counterpart to simple determinism is absolute free will (a.k.a. indeterminism), which means one can by choice affect an outcome that is not predictable from its antecedents. In short, one can do things that violate the principle of causality (a.k.a. magic). For example, I used to challenge advocates of this position to go to the roof of the building and walk across the open space over the street to the roof of the building on the other side. To do this would both violate the principle of causality and demonstrate an outcome by choice that is not predictable from its antecedents. I’ve never had an advocate for absolute free will take me up on this opportunity to demonstrate the validity of their position. However, just as there is an alternate form of determinism there is an alternate conception of free will, which I’ll come to shortly.

The libertarian philosopher Richard Taylor proposed that the way out of the dilemma posed by simple determinism is to recognize human-agency as a primary factor in causation. That is human-agency can alter a chain of causality passing through one and initiate a new branch in an unfolding sequence. This brings us back to free will. In this view, free will is no longer absolute but rather is probabilistic. Complexity theory suggests that in any given situation there are usually multiple possible outcomes, none of which require magic to be produced. Each of these possible outcomes is more or less probable than another. The most common outcome is the one with the highest probability. This is what is sometimes described by the phrase “the path of least resistance.”

However, human-agency through intention and deliberate choice, based on forethought and anticipation of consequences, can influence and change the probability functions of potential outcomes. When I was a professor, I often talked about behavior in terms of what I refer to as the three-legged stool (biological causes, environmental causes and self-agency). It is this latter concept that lies at the root of the notion of the “cooperative alliance” (see Chapter One, page 16) in behavioral intervention that I discuss in a paper on behavior and quantum physics. In short, it is unlikely that one will affect a significant and lasting change in behavior without the active cooperation and collaboration of the subject with the change agent.

As a side bar, I would add that most, if not all, human religions presuppose that the underlying nature of reality is indeterminate and magical (e.g., witness the use of prayer in an effort to produce and outcome that cannot be predicted from the antecedents, i.e., appeals for divine intervention are in effect based on a belief in indeterminism or magic). Herein lies the source of my skepticism about religious claims. As for the existence of God, I can only say that depends on how one defines the nature of God. I see absolutely no basis for an anthropomorphic God and view such depictions as the artifact of a paucity of imagination. If one wants to define God as the ground state from which our universe arose then I can accept that as a possibility whether called God, Quantum Field or by some other name. What the characteristics of such a ground state might be is an open question and might include some of the claims of mystics and other spiritual explorers.

In my view, we do have the ability to make real choices. We can make choices, at least, from among those potential outcomes that are possible given the antecedents. Our choices, reflected in our intention and actions, influence (but do not control) the probable outcomes available in situations in which we are actors. I also think that most of us, most of the time fail to exercise self-agency and simply follow the path of least resistance.

 

Why We Believe

          As a psychologist I have often asked myself, why people seem to easily commit to belief systems? This predisposition is clearly evident in a wide range of human activities. It includes things as diverse as religions, conspiracy theories, political ideologies and pseudo-scientific theories.

Albert Ellis’ rational-emotive theory (see Chapter One, page 19) makes a useful distinction between what he calls rational and irrational beliefs. The former have some objective basis and depend upon evidence. The latter have no empirical basis and their adherents usually have a strong emotional investment in the belief, which is largely supported by faith in its correctness. Ellis’ theory rests upon two assumptions about human nature. First, we have a biological predisposition toward irrational thinking, e.g., over generalization and illogical association. Second, one of the major tasks of socialization is to establish a system of beliefs. It is a major developmental task because belief systems help us interpret our experiences, organize our thoughts and observation and make decisions to act.

The second assumption helps to explain why we adopt beliefs systems. They are to varying degrees useful schema for imposing order on our world, understanding the events in our lives and guiding our behavior. The first assumption indicates why many of the belief systems we adopt are irrational and without empirical foundation.

What might be the basis for the assumed predisposition for irrational thinking? Michael Gazzaniga found evidence, in his research on the brain, for what he calls the Left Brain Interpreter (LBI). Gazzaniga thinks that the LBI is a function of the brain acquired through evolutionary selection pressures. The LBI evolved because being able to organize and explain experience has survival value. Having an explanation for a phenomenon, even an incorrect explanation, makes it easier to interpret and respond quickly. If our beliefs lead to successful responses more often than not, this success would give an ability to use explanations to quickly evaluate and respond survival value. While it is often the case that our beliefs lead to successful responses, such success doesn’t necessarily make them valid. However, we usually take success as evidence confirming the correctness of our belief. For example, if you believe that people who look different aren’t trustworthy and are potentially dangerous, you will avoid contact with such people. If you then find that you are seldom assaulted, you will probably attribute your safety to avoiding contact with people who look different from you. Of course, the absence of assault experiences may be due to entirely different reasons but it will be attributed to the belief that motivated your avoidance behavior.

Since we have a strong disposition to formulate explanatory beliefs about our experiences, why do we so often formulate inaccurate and incorrect beliefs or explanations? This happens in part because evolutionary pressures favored those who quickly formulated explanations about experiences. The day-to-day struggle by our predecessors to survive allowed few opportunities for reflection. In the evolutionary environment that led to human beings the quick-witted were usually survivors and the reflective were often someone’s dinner. Thus, we acquired a disposition to formulate beliefs or explanations on the basis of little or no information and what information we had was frequently incorrect.

Frank Barron, a creativity researcher, pointed out many years ago that his research suggested that an inability to explain something made most people anxious or uneasy, which of course provides an incentive (anxiety reduction) to conjure up an explanation or accept some proposed explanation. This is possibly a motivational component to the evolved predisposition to create explanations. Barron found that most people would accept almost any explanation rather than live with uncertainty. He also found that among creative people the opposite was generally true. In short, a small minority of people would rather live with uncertainty than accept a dubious explanation. Barron would probably agree with Steven Pinker, a contemporary psychologist, who has suggested that the human mind frequently functions less like a chief executive and more like a “spin doctor” that is always busy creating post hoc explanations for our decisions and actions.

 There are many examples of this near compulsion to create explanations in human history. One need only think about the many, varied and incorrect beliefs that societies have created to explain natural events, e.g., floods, volcanic eruptions, failed crops, plagues, etc. In many cases, these beliefs have led to behavior that, from our perspective, was irrational. An irrational belief arises in one or more individuals and if it has appeal is adopted by others and often becomes a cultural belief that is perpetuated through the socialization process.

Ellis contends that our tendency to think irrationally results in distortions, flaws, and inaccuracies in our thinking. Parents, peers, community institutions (e.g., schools, churches, political parties, etc.), and the media can introduce distortions into our belief systems. Not only are distortions possible in commonly held beliefs, but personal aspects of our belief system are also prone to distortions that result from our own faulty thinking. Cognitive psychologist Yaakov Kareev’s research has identified one particularly important source of distortion in human thinking. His research has demonstrated a tendency in humans to find positive cause-and-effect associations among events. In fact, he found that people are more likely to see a positive association between two observations than a negative association even when a valid negative association is present. When we attempt to understand an event, we can usually only identify a few of the apparent components of the event. Further, due to limitations in our working memory capacity, we can only consider a small number of the apparent components at one time. Kareev and his associates have shown that our strong predisposition to find positive associations between things that appear to be associated with an event increase as the number of variables in working memory decreases.

There are differences between people in working memory capacity due to differences in cognitive abilities and due to differences in temperament, which make some people more susceptible than others to seeing false connections between events. Anyone who is susceptible to anxiety may experience a reduction in working memory capacity because anxiety has been shown to reduce working memory capacity. As the size of working memory decreases the likelihood of finding false positive associations increases. A predisposition to find positive associations among things we observe and experience has positive benefits, such as, making it easier for a young child to make associations between vocal sounds and environmental stimuli during language acquisition. It also makes it possible and even likely that we will develop cause-and-effect associations that are erroneous. This tendency to make erroneous cause-and-effect associations is sometimes called magical thinking and is most clearly reflected in superstitious and delusional behavior. In addition to our susceptibility to magical thinking, there are many other common errors in thinking that we are prone to make. In fact, Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini has investigated and compiled a catalog of errors in thinking common to human cognition.

Finally, Gazzaniga indicates that once a belief is established it is difficult to change it. There are several reasons beliefs are difficult to change. First, we find it easier to think of evidence for rather than against a personal belief; that is, validating evidence is easier to recall than contradictory evidence. Second, we also have a strong tendency to look for evidence that supports our beliefs and to ignore evidence that does not. Third, when we encounter ambiguous evidence we are disposed to interpret that evidence so that it supports our beliefs. Finally, when we are confronted with evidence that directly conflicts with our beliefs, we are inclined to discredit the evidence rather than change our beliefs. The single best antidote for irrational thinking that we have developed is the scientific method, when properly applied.

Bioethics and Life Extension*

          We all have a vested interest in matters related to biotechnology. In particular, we should be especially interested in how government and government advisory bodies are looking at biotechnology. Whether we like it or not, our future is in the hands of government and government advisory bodies that determine through legislation and regulation what is or is not permitted. A good example of how legislation and regulation impact us as individuals is the activity of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) [See FDA Review]. This agency literally has the power of life and death over each of us through the exercise of its authority to regulate what we consume whether it is nutritional or medicinal in nature and without regard to what our personal wishes may be. For example, the FDA has denied terminally ill patients access to experimental drugs because they may have dangerous side effects. What could be more dangerous than a terminal illness? I spent some time on the site for the President’s Council on Bioethics because I think that this advisory body will significantly impact future legislation on and regulation of biotechnology.

One area that has been a concern of and subject to the attention of the President’s Council on Bioethics (PCB) is the divide between what it terms enhancement as opposed to therapy. This distinction is made in a book length report on ethical considerations in biotechnology (Beyond Therapy) that was released in 2003. Therapy is viewed as current and future interventions directed at curing or controlling diseases (e.g., AIDS) and correcting defects (e.g., cystic fibrosis) as traditionally understood. Enhancement on the other hand is viewed as potential interventions directed at improving natural conditions (e.g., life span) and abilities (e.g., memory). The PCB addresses age-retardation and life extension in a working paper prepared for its members (Ageless Bodies). What the PCB has to say on life extension has the potential to impact our personal efforts to enjoy and extend our lives.

One of the concepts mentioned in the discussion of bioethics by the PCB is the precautionary principle. “Over the past few decades, environmentalists, forcefully making the case for respecting Mother Nature, have urged upon us a “precautionary principle” regarding all our interventions into the natural world. Go slowly, they say, you can ruin everything. The point is certainly well taken in the present context… (Emphasis added)

The precautionary principle asserts that any action or policy that is potentially harmful, especially to the environment or to human health, should not be taken unless there is a scientific consensus that there is no danger. Thus, the burden of proof is on those who propose an action. Critics of this principle point out that since science cannot prove a negative, the criterion stipulated in the principle would essentially give regulators absolute discretionary power. Thus, a powerful tool for blocking scientific progress in many areas, including biotechnology and nanotechnology would be placed in the hands of groups with political and ideological rather than scientific motivations.

We should be alert to attempts to incorporate the precautionary principle into legislation and regulations that bear on research and development in biomedicine and related fields. If this principle should become the guiding light for government regulation of biotechnology research, it may be much longer than any of us have imagined before advanced biotechnology techniques for life extension are developed and implemented, if ever.

A second, distinction made by the PCB is between the impact of life extension on individuals and the impact on society. The Commission admits that there is likely much potential good to be gained by individuals from biotechnology. “Powerful as some of these concerns are, however, from the point of view of the individual considered in isolation the advantages of age-retardation may well be deemed to outweigh the dangers.”

The Commission goes on to take the view that the impact of life extension and biological enhancement in the aggregate of individuals comprising society are another matter altogether. The PCB contends that society composed of citizens who are the beneficiaries of life extension may suffer as a whole even though each individual is personally benefited. “…If individuals did not age, if their functions did not decline and their horizons did not narrow, it might just be that societies would age far more acutely, and would experience their own sort of senescence—a hardening of the vital social pathways, a stiffening and loss of flexibility, a setting of the ways and views, a corroding of the muscles and the sinews…”

The Commission spends some considerable time lamenting the possible corruption by biotechnology of what it means to be human. The essence of this concern is captured in these comments from the conclusion to the working paper referred to above, “…Is human life, as our ancestors understood it and as our faiths and our philosophies describe it, really just a problem to be solved? The anti-aging medicine of the not-so-distant future would treat what we have usually thought of as the whole, the healthy, human life as a condition to be healed. It therefore presents us with a questionable notion both of full humanity, and of the proper ends of medicine (Emphasis added).”

The former Chairman of the PCB, Leon Kass, has offered the following opinions about the mortality of man, 1) “Mortality as such is not our defect, nor is bodily immortality our goal…the human soul yearns for, longs for, aspires to some condition, some state, some goal toward which our earthly activities are directed but which cannot be attained in earthly life…Man longs not so much for deathlessness as for wholeness, wisdom, goodness, and godliness.” 2) “The finitude of human life is a blessing to every individual, whether he knows it or not.” (Both quoted in Liberation Biology by Ronald Bailey. Apparently, for Kass it is not possible to have a truly meaningful and satisfying life while bound to the material world. Thus, Kass would appear to have no qualms about pressing on you the blessings of a short life so that your soul can achieve godliness.

In Liberation Biology, libertarian author Ronald Bailey points out that bio-conservative opposition to biotechnology can be found on both the left and right ends of the political spectrum. Joining Leon Kass on the political right are such figures as John Hopkins University professor Francis Fukuyama. Fukuyama has been prominent thinker among neo-conservatives but has drifted somewhat out of that orbit recently as he has become disenchanted with the war in Iraq. In his book, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, Fukuyama argues that biotechnology will lead to radical inequality and poison the political process. Neo-conservative editor of the Weekly Standard William Kristol also fears biotechnology and supports restrictions on its development. Kristol acts on his fears in various ways including giving bio-conservatives a platform such as the following book. Writing about the stem cell debate in The Future is Now: America Confronts the New Genetics edited by William Kristol and Eric Cohen, Fukuyama claims “…the need [is] for an institutional framework for the regulation of all human biotechnology, and not just research funded by the federal government.” When asked in an interview if the government had a right to tell its citizens that they have to die, Fukuyama replied, “Yes, absolutely.”

The political left has also produced a number of bio-conservatives and activists against biotechnology. One of the earliest to emerge on the left was Foundation for Economic Trends president and author, Jeremy Rifkin. In his book The Biotech Century, Rifkin presents a catalog of reasons why we should fear biotechnology and argues that in spite of obvious potential benefits the risks far outweigh the benefits and development of biotechnology must be restrained. Another left-wing, bio-conservative is Marcy Darnovsky the Associate Executive Director of the Center for Genetics and Society based in Oakland, CA. Darnovsky, among other things, is concerned with the social justice aspects of biomedicine and argues that “…we need ways to apply the brakes…” on designer medicine and designer babies. She argues that these are technologies that will only benefit the wealthy and leave the rest of us as second-class citizens. She suggests that there are far too many more mundane problems that need resources to waste them on low priority projects such as biomedicine. A final example from the left is Daniel Callahan, Co-founder of the Hasting Center, which has a focus on bioethics. The following quote illustrates his thinking on life extension; “There is no known social good coming from the conquest of death…The worst possible way to resolve this issue is to leave it to individual choice.”

Advocates for life extension should adopt as a guiding principle the words of John Stuart Mill; “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” One might ask, which political philosophy best embodies the above principle? In my view, the libertarian philosophy comes the closest to advocating Mill’s principle. Unfortunately, the libertarian political philosophy has not had much success in making the transition to politics. From the above discussion it is clear that there is potential opposition to life extension from both the left and the right. Thus, life extension advocates should take care to support candidates from any political party whose views are consistent with their objectives. They should also be watchful for legislation that could serve to block progress toward life extension and actively lobby against it. One certainly cannot afford to ignore politics!

*This essay reflects minor modifications to the original, which was Published in Long Life the in-house journal of the Immortalist Society.