May 10, 2006

Our view of the mind

Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age 18. Albert Einstein

Common sense in humans can be range from the universal to the very specific and can depend on someone's culture and background: some external influences are constant from population to population and some are not.

Common sense is something that artificial intelligence researchers are having trouble teaching to robots. Yet many researchers in neurology maintain that the human mind relies solely on the functioning of the information processing system that is the brain: a series of interconnected neurons. It is as yet unknown how 'automated' our brain functions are or how much is nature and how much nurture. Indeed, some scientists and philosophers are edging towards a wider viewpoint, that the mind encompasses the actions of the brain together with far more complex and adaptive interactions with the physical environment.

The fact that the automated view of the human mind is widely accepted is, I think, very interesting as it has some difficult implications. If our minds are but a series of automated circuits, is there anything that distinguishes us from robots? Are we not just a more sopisticated version of the same system? What implications does this have for our concepts of the 'mind' and the 'soul' and even of 'life' itself?


May 07, 2006

Equality in higher education

Writing about web page http://www.warwickboar.co.uk/boar/news/7759_white_undergraduates_182_black_uni_criticised_over_lack_of_minorities/

Rather surprisingly there is a contentious issue that raises its head frequently in the media about which I feel quite strongly, but which I actually haven't mentioned on this blog. This is not something that happens frequently, do to address this inconsistency:

I am talking of the call from pressure groups for universities to change their admissions policies to actively increase the proportion of students from ethnic minorities. To quite from the above article:

The University is unlikely to take action to increase the number of non–white students, despite a damning report by the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE). Trevor Philips, Chairman of the CRE, said in a recent speech that he wanted Universities to take “positive action” to admit more students from underprivileged and ethnic minority backgrounds. One CRE official told the Times, “If you have a black student and a white student at the front of the admissions queue, we would want the University to take positive action to take the black student first.” A spokesperson for the CRE told the Boar that the number of students from ethnic minority backgrounds at Russell Group Universities was “concerning”.

Now, I'm all for increasing the level of education of gifted students from ethnic minorities. I agree that efforts should be made to redress the balance. However, I do think that the approach the CRE is recommending is wrong.

What do you do when you have two candidates at the front of the admissions queue? You interview both and pick the strongest candidate. The CRE claims that their recommendations do not equate to positive discrimination. I'm afraid I think that any process which selects candidates on the basis of anything other than academic merit IS positive discrimination.

I feel that this situation should be approached in a different manner. Universities should not be required to choose, positively or negatively, on the basis of race, just as they should not bias themselves towards state school pupils or any other group that is viewed to be underrepresented. If anything, the interview process should be developed so that it is increasingly possible for tutors to select on the basis of someone's intellectual capacity for their chosen subject rather than on the extent to which their school has taught them.

Targeting universities at all is, I believe, misguided. The levels of pupils from ethnic minorities in universities, and particularly those higher up the rankings, is merely a reflection of a general trend throughout the entire education system. On average these pupils live in poorer areas, go to less successful schools, and thus achieve lower grades. Lowering grade requirements could be an option, allowing more candidates to come to interview and thus giving more the chance of proving their worth outside the constraints of the National Curriculum and the negative influences of their schools, but it may well be unworkable.

Instead, why not attempt (and I know this is highly idealistic of me, but hey!) to redress the balance from its point of origin? It is not the job of universities to give unfair advantage to certain candidates, but rather the responsibility of the Government to improve primary and secondary education and to give gifted children, no matter what background they come from, the opportunity to achieve from the youngest age possible.

Something should be done to allow the brightest students to get the places they deserve at university, but I think asking universities to discriminate in the grounds of race is the wrong way to go about it.


May 06, 2006

A musing

I have become very aware that many recent posts have delved into the consideration of human rights, and there are a great many different viewpoints expressed by all the contributors.

Is the advocation of human rights always a good thing or is there a point at which the rights of the individual become detrimental to society as a whole? Are people, particularly in the social climate we have now, willing to surrender their rights for the sake of society? Should they? Do all members of society have equal rights, and if not, should they?


May 04, 2006

IVF and older mothers

Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/4971930.stm

The top headline on today's BBC News homepage is the story of Patricia Rashbrook, 63, who is now seven months pregnant with her fourth baby after undergoing IVF treatment abroad by controversial fertility doctor Severino Antinori.

  • Should someone have the right to have a child irrespective of their circumstances, be that age or anything else?

  • Why should the state or a doctor have the right to deny a women the chance of having a baby when she has the means and is in reasonable health?

  • Should the increased health risks of pregnancy and birthing for older women be taken into account even if the mother is determined to go ahead despite these risks? Should we also consider the increased risk of genetic disease?

  • Are the Rashbrooks putting the welfare of their child first? Or are they being selfish?

  • Is there a difference between a women who is reproductively challenged but of a childbearing age undergoing IVF and one who is post–menopausal? Is one more unnatural than the other? This concept of what is natural is difficult. Is it unnatural for us to undergo any other surgical treatment? Or take drugs?

  • Antinori defends his actions by arguing that Rashbrook has a life expectancy of at least another 20 years so she should live to see her child into adulthood. Is this a reasonable argument? Is it fair to expect the child to potentially take on the role of carer for their parents before they are an adult?

  • Antinori also argues that older people make better parents. Is this generally–held assumption true? Is it valid to say that beyond a certain point parental skills may well deteriorate, as mobility and agility decrease. If women were meant to raise children into their old age why would the menopause exist? Is there something to be said about problems of a gap of two generations rather than just one?

  • Is there more of a stigma attached to older mothers than older fathers? Why is this?

May 02, 2006

What if… some philosophical propositions

Follow-up to Death row injections and whether we have our priorities right from Musings of a blonde

The BBC is currently running a survey which presents four hypothetical philosophical dilemmas representative of potential real–life situations.

What if (and here I paraphrase)...

  • You are in hospital and are providing life support for someone else. If you stay there for the next nine months the other person will be cured and you will leave unharmed. Do you have an obligation to stay?

  • You are watching a train run down a track towards a group of five people who are unable to move and will certainly be killed. You have the chance to divert the train down another track which has only one person stuck in its path. Should you change the direction of the train?

  • The same train is running down the same track towards the same five people. You are standing on a bridge over the track, next to a fat man. You want to jump down onto the track to stop the train from running over the five people, but you are not heavy enough to stop it. The fat man is. Should you push him over the edge? Is your answer the same as that for the previous example? If not, why not?

  • You and five people are stuck in a cave and there is a small hole in the wall you could get out of. The largest of the group is chosen to go first but he gets stuck. The tide is rising and you need to get out quickly. You find some dynamite, which will not blow a hole in the wall but will move the man who is stuck. He pleads with you for his life. Do you blast the man out, allowing you and the remaining four to escape? If you were in the place of the man would you say the same?
Is there a difference between killing someone and letting them die? Are consequences all that matter, or are there some things we should never do, whatever the outcome?

April 27, 2006

Operation survival rates: should we have the information?

Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/4947046.stm

A breaking story today announces that hospital heart surgery survival rates are being published for the first time. However, they have stopped short of making the publishing of success rates compulsory for individual surgeons: only those who have volunteered have had their results published. Perhaps unsurprisingly the ones who have come forward have success rates above the expected average. However, there is much pressure to make the publishing of these results mandatory and for other medical specialisms to follow suit.

  • If I was a patient going in for major surgery I would want to know that my surgeon was competent and was not likely to make mistakes. Do we have a right to know this information and possibly make changes to our treatment on the basis of it?

  • It may encourage some with lower standards to make more effort to improve their techniques. On the other hand, it may cause extra counterproductive stress.

  • Surgeons may refuse to operate on high-risk patients in case they bring down their averages.

  • Will the results be truly reflective of a surgeon's ability? A doctor could just have a string of bad luck and as a result be blacklisted because the sample size isn't large enough to reflect a true average.

Is this an irreconcilable situation?


April 24, 2006

Death row injections and whether we have our priorities right

A New Scientist article from early last month discussed the ethics behind the US method of execution: lethal injection. At the end of February Californian officials delayed the execution of Michael Morales, sentenced to death for a murder he committed in 1981:

His lawyers argued that a lethal injection would constitute cruel and unusual punishment, prohibited under the US constitution. Their case was based on a study published last year in The Lancet (vol 365, p 1412) that suggested some inmates were given too little anaesthetic before receiving fatal doses of other drugs, and might therefore experience unnecessary pain. At a hearing set for May, the state of California must show that it has a lethal injection that does not kill in a cruel and unusual way. Several other states, including Florida, Maryland, Missouri and Texas, have similar cases pending. Medical opinion is not on their side.

I have blogged before about the possible objections to the treatment of inmates in prisons in this country. Many have expressed the view that prisoners should be punished for their crimes and that the current prison system is far too comfortable to be a proper deterrent or to reform anyone. Often inmates gain access to far more readily available medical treatment, health and exercise facilities than they would when free. Far more is spent on a meal for a prisoner than on one for a child in a state school.

A recent survey, I forget where I read it, considered the sensitive subject of the care of people dying naturally in the UK. I think the respondants indicated that approximately a third of deaths were not satisfactory: they didn't think that homes, hospitals or other organisations provided sufficient care to make the death of their loved ones as peaceful as possible. A recent survey of health workers (from a BBC news article) indicated that '69% admitted that many conditions suffered by the elderly, such as dementia, arthritis and sensory impairment, were overlooked… some 57% said they lacked training and support, and a quarter said they struggled to cope with dying patients.'

I know that these examples come from different countries controlled by different systems of law, but are we getting the balance right by worrying too much about some, who have indeed subverted our laws, when we're neglecting other law-abiding citizens?


April 21, 2006

The job of the monarch

Of course today is the Queen's 80th birthday, and I wish her a very happy one. On the Today programme this morning a debate was had about the accession of Prince Charles to the throne. It was pointed out that whilst we knew very little about the Queen's personal opinions when she was crowned, in contrast we know much about Charles's, sometimes controversial, views. Indeed, we still know very little about the Queen's affiliations and opinions: she has successfully maintained a very neutral stance.

Should a monarch, bearing in mind that they have very little political sway, actively air political or other important views? Is it in their interest not to? Has our current Queen's neutrality contributed significantly to her popularity? And the much-reiterated question… what role does the monarchy really serve bearing in mind their limited power to do anything?


April 17, 2006

A question

This one got me thinking yesterday…

Which is the most influential and defining event in the history of mankind?


April 13, 2006

Potential alcohol substitute: would you choose to drink it?

I read an article in New Scientist this morning detailing the development of a new cocktail of drugs that mimics the neurological actions that cause the pleasurable effects of alcohol without causing any of the downsides. Whilst limiting the immediate adverse effects, such as violence and illness, it would also reduce the occurrence of longer-term problems like liver cirrhosis.

This all sounds like a fantastic idea, but I'm not sure I'm convinced that it will catch on. It started me thinking about my habits: I know I sometimes feel like I just need to go out and get a little pissed at the end of a long week, but most of the time I drink alcoholic beverages because I like the taste of them. What reason do people really have for drinking alcohol: is it for the love of the drinks themselves or the way that they affect you? What is it particularly about the state of drunkenness that is so attractive that we want to repeat it: many people still go out and binge drink despite often being ill and wasting days as a result of painful hangovers? Would there be a stigma associated with an alcohol substitute because it is an admission that you only like drinking because it gets you drunk?


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