Tuesday, April 17, 2018

In vitro fertilization and Artificial Intelligence

The Catholic Church teaches that it is wrong for us to intentionally reproduce by any means other than marital intercourse (though things can be done to make marital intercourse more fertile than it otherwise would be). In particular, human in vitro fertilization is wrong.

But there is clearly nothing wrong with our engaging in in vitro fertilization of plants. And I have never heard a Catholic moralist object to the in vitro fertilization of farm animals.

Suppose we met intelligent aliens. Would it be permissible for us to reproduce them in vitro? I think the question hinges on whether what is wrong with in vitro fertilization has to do with the fact that the creature that is reproduced is one of us or has to do with the fact that it is a person. I suspect it has to do with the fact that it is a person, and hence our reproducing non-human persons in vitro would be wrong, too. Otherwise, we would have the absurd situation where we might permissibly reproduce an alien in vitro, and they would permissibly reproduce a human in vitro, and then we would swap babies.

But if what is problematic is our reproducing persons in vitro, then we need to look for a relevant moral principle. I think it may have something to do with the sacredness of persons. When something is sacred, we are not surprised that there are restrictions. Sacred acts are often restricted by agent, location and time. They are something whose significance goes beyond humanity, and hence we do not have the authority to engage in them willy-nilly. It may be that the production of persons is sacred in this way, and hence we need the authority to produce persons. Our nature testifies to us that we have this authority in the context of marital intercourse. We have no data telling us that we are authorized to produce persons in any other way, and without such data we should not do it.

This would have a serious repercussion for artificial intelligence research. If we think there is a significant chance that strong AI might be possible, we should stay away from research that might well produce a software person.

18 comments:

SMatthewStolte said...

Would it be morally impermissible for any intelligent alien species to reproduce (intentionally) by means other than marital intercourse? That would be strange. Surely it is metaphysically possible that there are persons whose natural mode of reproduction is so different from our own that talk of marriage would be out of place. If the rule about marital intercourse applies to all persons qua persons, then it would be the nature of such beings never to reproduce except immorally.

SMatthewStolte said...

On further reading, it looks like the principle you want to endorse might be more along these lines:
It is morally wrong intentionally to reproduce any person in a manner not authorized by the nature of the person to be produced. In that case, though, I might be inclined to think that the nature of a software-person would allow for some morally permissible means of generation. Every nature we know of which can be generated can also be generated in a way that befits that nature.

Angra Mainyu said...

Alex,

There might be some impact if you could convince some AI researchers that in vitro fertilization is immoral, and also that the rest of your argument holds. But while I can't rule out that, say, some Catholic researchers might refrain from pursuing strong AI as a result of an argument like this - or because the Catholic Church takes a stance, or something like that -, it seems clear to me that for the vast majority of AI researchers, this is and will remain a non-issue (they do not agree that in vitro fertilization is wrong, so the rest of the argument doesn't have any traction), so the impact on future research will probably be very small.

Other than that, I would raise the issue of personhood. Would strong AI, or even aliens whose mind is truly alien, be persons?
I don't know. Sci-fi aliens are persons, but I would expect actual aliens to be much more, well, alien than what we see on TV, movies, etc.

Walter Van den Acker said...


Alex
I agree with Angra here, but I have an additional problem. If persons are sacred, I think it not only follows that we are no authorized to create artificial persons, but also that it is impossible for human beings to produce "software persons".
Contrary to human reproduction, the production of "software persons" involves taking something that is not sacred (non-living material) and combine it to something that is sacred. Human reproduction on the other hand, starts from something that already has the potential for sacredness.
So, I don't think AI-researchers need to worry, even if your claim that persons are sacred is true.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The sacred can be made from the nonsacred. Temples are made from bricks and Qu'rans from paper.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Alex

Temples are not made sacred by the people building them, nor are Qu'rans by the people writing the words. They are made sacred by God or Allah. Without the help of God they would be simply stones and paper.
Something is made sacred by God, so if God doesn't want to make "software persons" sacred, they won't be. Personhood is thought to be something that is at least in part non-material, so is the sacredness of temples and Holy Books etc.
I cannot build a shed and declare it a sacred temple, that is, I could declare whatever I want,but that wouldn't mean it really was sacred.

Martin said...

In a vague way I see both AI as involving the sin of pride, like the tower of Babel, creating something sacred without God.

Artificial Insemination is a way to make God a tool in the process

Alexander R Pruss said...

Catholics make a distinction between the valid and the licit. If a priest celebrates the Mass over some buns and a glass of wine during an otherwise ordinary lunch in a cafe, that is (probably) a valid Mass. The bread and wine really changes into Christ's body and blood. The event is sacred. But it is also illicit. It is, in fact, sacrilege.

Likewise, imagine that a Jewish hooligan produced graffiti including the name of God on the side of a rotting building condemned to destruction. The inscription of the divine name would be sacred. It would be forbidden to erase it. I am not what the rabbinical view on tearing the building down would be. But in any case, a sacred thing--an inscription of the divine name--would have been produced (it would be a valid act of production of the sacred, in Catholic terminology). But the act of writing the divine name in this context would be a sacrilege (it would be illicit in Catholic terminology).

The way the sacred is seen in many religions is that there are human acts that successfully produce sacred things and events, but the production of these sacred things and events is sacrilegious, hubristic, etc. when it does not accord with the appropriate rules.

Similarly, then, it may be that certain ways of producing persons are valid--i.e., a real person is produced--but illicit. The fact that God would need to be cooperating with the act does not make the act licit. In my initial Eucharistic example, there is (according to Catholics) a divine promise that certain acts result in transubstantiation by God's hand. God is involved even when these acts are performed in a sacrilegious context. Indeed, that is a part of what makes the acts sacrilegious.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Alex


My point is that there are things that in and out of themselves are sacred (or at least potentially so). Sperm cells have an intrinsic potential to produce (together with an ovum)
a sacred person. The "miracle",if there is one, is already intrinsically present in the sperm and the ovum.
But a priest does not have the intrinsic potential to change the bread and wine into Christ's body and blood. The priest calls for a miracle and God answers (or doesn't).
To say that the bread and wine are really changed but this is sacrilege is to make God an accomplice in sacrilege. Surely, that cannot be true. And it doesn't matter if God promised to do it. If God promised to actively get involved in something that is illicit, He woudl still be an accomplice.
In the case of fertilization, you could argue that God merely allows something that is intrinsic in the sperm and the ovum. So, in this case, you can perhaps get God off the hook, because He was not an active accomplice. The same can be said about God's name.
on the building.
But this cannot be argued in the case of artificial intelligence.

Alexander R Pruss said...

If I hand my wallet to a robber, I'm not a partner in robbery - it's my wallet. It's conceptually impossible for me to rob myself, and for the same reason God cannot commit sacrilege.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Alex

If I hand my wallet to someone to someone asking me to hand it I am not partner in a robbery because in that case, there hasn't been any robbery. Likewise, if God voluntarily actively participates in something (without being forced) then there cannot be sacrilege. Sacrilege would be something like an offence to God, but you cannot be offended by something you voluntarily participate in.

Alexander R Pruss said...

God could be "forced" by the content of his promises or commitments.

Walter Van den Acker said...

An omniscient being cannot be forced by promises, becasue he would only make promises He can keep without actively supporting something He doesn't want.

Alexander R Pruss said...

There can be a value to having a general policy even if there are some cases of that general policy that are not desirable. For it might be undesirable to have lots of exceptions to that general policy.

Consider this. God has a general policy of creating a soul for each human being. But consider cases of morally wrongful reproduction, say when two people deliberately reproduce while knowing that they won't be able to provide a good home for the child. Then God cooperates with the reproduction and still creates the soul.

Of course, God could have had an alternate policy, one where souls are not created when a good home won't be provided for the child. But our knowledge of such an alternate policy would create doubt in our minds as to whether there are souls in borderline cases of "good home", and such doubt would lead to deeply problematic discrimination. So God has good reason to making the soul-creation policy exceptionless. Nonetheless, those who have a child while being unable to provide a good home to the child misuse God's policy.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Alex

Do we have any reason to think that this general policy of creating souls for each human being extends to machines?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't know. That's why the last sentence of my post starts with "*If* we think there is a significant chance that strong AI might be possible".

Speed Limit Forty said...

I was interested to see what the Orthodox position on this was. Came across this article that seems to give the same explanation you gave:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/18983734/


Walter Van den Acker said...

Alex


Persosn who think that strong AI is possible generally don't think strong AI requires God to create a soul for machines, which is actually my point.