Saturday, July 16, 2016

In vitro fertilization and creating genuine artificial intelligence

Catholic teaching says that there is (at least barring special divine dispensation) exactly one permissible way for human beings to directly produce new human beings: marital mating. This isn't just an arbitrary prohibition--arbitrary prohibitions like the one against pork went out (or, more precisely, underwent aufhebung) when the New Covenant came in. What is the reason for this restriction? We can, after all, permissibly produce other kinds of animals in other ways. There is no Catholic teaching against using artificial insemination in cattle.

I see two options. The first is that it is just the reflexiveness in human beings producing human beings requires the restriction. This seems implausible to me. Imagine that we meet Martians. It would be very odd to think that the Vulcans could permissibly produce new human beings in vitro and humans could permissibly produce new Vulcans in vitro, although humans couldn't permissibly produce humans in vitro (or Vulcans Vulcans).

The second option is that this has something to do with what is special about the target of production: a new human being. But what is it that is special about this target? It seems plausible that it is personhood. This suggests that we are only permitted to directly produce persons by marital mating. (Why? Maybe it has something to do with the more intimate way in which persons are images of God, and hence sacred, as in Paulo Juarez's comment. Or maybe there is a Kantian argument that other forms of production would fail to treat the persons as ends.)

But now if we were to generate genuine artificial intelligence--not merely computers acting as if they were intelligent--then we would have produced a person, and done so apart from marital mating. If I am right that it is personhood that is at the root of the prohibition on in vitro fertilization, it seems to follow that (at least barring special divine dispensation) it is impermissible for us to produce genuine artificial intelligence (AI).

Should this ethical constraint hamper AI research? That depends on whether there is significant reason to think that computers could ever actually have genuine intelligence. If dualism is true (and Catholicism entails dualism), then the only way a computer could gain genuine intelligence, as opposed to merely behaving like an intelligent thing, would be by gaining a soul. But perhaps God has enacted something like a law of nature by which whenever matter is organized in such a way that it could support intelligence, then that matter comes to be ensouled. If so, there could be an ethical problem in aiming at genuine artificial intelligence, and this could ethically restrict AI research since we might not know where the line of sufficient organization would be crossed (presumably, though, we're not that close to the line yet).

Maybe, though, things aren't so simple. Maybe rather than there being a general prohibition on our producing persons except by marital mating, what we have is a general prohibition on our directly producing persons by means other than the natural direct means for originating those kinds of persons. For humans, the natural direct means for origination is marital mating. But for intelligent computers, factory production could perhaps be the natural means for originating. Maybe, but I find more plausible the idea that we simply do not have the right to make persons, except by marital mating.


entirelyuseless said...

Suppose that people started engaging in in vitro fertilization so much that natural selection started resulting in people who could not reproduce by the marital mating, the way animals that live in caves can lose their eyes. This kind of evolution can take place over a short period of time. So suppose a thousand years or so goes by under such a selective process, and at the end of that time, people are reproducing only by in vitro fertilization.

What would the Catholic Church do and say during that time? I think it is fairly predictable. They would certainly condemn the practice at first. But in our fictional scenario, this does not prevent Catholics from engaging in the practice anyway, so it does not prevent the selection. There is nothing impossible about this, just as most Catholics practice contraception even though the Church condemns it.

During that thousand years, it would become increasingly difficult to reproduce by marital mating. The predictable result is that condemnations of in vitro fertilization by the Church would become increasingly rare. By the time people could only reproduce in that way, the condemnations would be non-existent. This change would be much like the change in attitude towards charging interest on loans.

If my predictions are accurate here, and I am fairly sure that they are, then unless you want to conclude that the Church is currently mistaken about morality, or would be under the scenario, this all argues that the prohibition is one of using other means besides the natural direct means. And this is consistent with the Church's attitude to reproductive morality in general; as I've noted on your blog before, I do not think you can explain the Church's position on contraception without reference to the idea of using "artificial" means to prevent conception.

Alexander R Pruss said...

1. The vast majority of people lie. But the Church has condemned lying for about 2000 years.

2. I don't think reproducing in vitro could become natural for humans. We could, however, imagine humans evolving into a new species for which a new form of reproduction--say, asexual--is natural. But the Catholic Church's reproductive ethics is, as far as we know, for human beings.

entirelyuseless said...

I'm not sure what you're trying to say. Of course people lie, but it remains possible not to lie. Do you mean that in that situation, it would be wrong to reproduce at all, in any way? If so, do you actually believe that the Church would say so in that situation?

And for the second, do you mean that my scenario is physically impossible? Or that even if it happened, it still would not be natural to reproduce by in vitro fertilization? That seems to result in condemning all reproduction, in the scenario.

I guess maybe you accept that, since you have argued before that if things had evolved in certain ways, it would be wrong for the human race to continue in existence. I don't think that is true, though, and I definitely do not think the Church would ever support that position.

Alexander R Pruss said...

If something like the scenario you described happened, one of the following two things would have to be the case:
1. The persons in question would no longer be human.
2. The persons in question would be humans who suffer from an impairment that prevents them from normal human reproduction.

In case 1, the Church's teaching on reproductive ethics would not apply to these persons, just as it would not apply to intelligent amoebae, if such evolved.

In case 2, the teaching would apply to them, and the persons would have no morally licit way of reproducing, barring a special divine dispensation.

It's not hard to imagine scenarios where humans have no available morally licit way of reproducing but do have a morally illicit one.

We can further subdivide case 2 into:
2a. Same as 2, but there is a special divine permission to reproduce non-coitally.
2b. Same as 2, without such permission.

I read God's promise to Noah after the flood, symbolized by the rainbow, to be a message that a disaster to the human race of proportions similar to those in the flood will never happen again. But a situation where there is no morally licit way for humans to reproduce is a disaster of such proportions. This promise rules out case 1, since in case 1 the human race is extinct. It also rules out case 2b. What this means is that God's promise to Noah implies either that God would prevent the situation you describe or would give a special divine permission in such a case.

William said...

Artificial insemination was invented by by Spallanzani (an Italian priest, look it up!) over 250 years ago, but there has been very little movement in that direction for humans as opposed to race horses at least.

Walter Van den Acker said...


You say "... it would be wrong for the human race to continue in existence. I don't think that is true, though, and I definitely do not think the Church would ever support that position."

Why would the church not support that position? If the human race doesn't continu in existence that could only be because God stopped sustaining that human race. (Fortunately for us an immutable being cannot stop doing anything, but let's leave that aside) But my point is, God would have good reason to stop sustaining the human race, in that case the human race would have reached judgement day I guess.

Dr Pruss, you say

"I read God's promise to Noah after the flood, symbolized by the rainbow, to be a message that a disaster to the human race of proportions similar to those in the flood will never happen again." I am not sure that promise means that the human race will never come to an end, because in that case judgement day will never come.
I think God's promise was a message that God would never personally intervene to punish the human race the way He did with the Flood. I don't think it meant that the human race could never come to an end in a disaster caused by thier own free choices (in this case, to engage in in vitro fertilization).