What can an 11th century Islamic philosopher teach us about 21st century neuroscience?

There is a lot of fascinating research about the brain coming out of Stanford University, with some exciting, cutting-edge work being done there. Early last month I reported on the findings made by neuroscientists at Stanford in understanding how mental rehearsal prepares our minds for real-world action. Today, I’ll outline the recent advances made by a team led by Sergiu Pasca, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, and discuss some of the ethical implications of this research.

Pasca’s method enables him to culture cells in order to form brain organoids with robust structures that are not compromised by cells from other parts of the body, thereby allowing him to more accurately replicate distinct brain regions. Doing so provides greater structural organization and also allows him and his team of researchers to better study and understand pathological mechanisms and perhaps one day to examine the molecular, cellular, and circuit levels of a person’s neurons. This is a promising method and a big step toward greater understanding of psychiatric and neurological disease, leading Pasca to declare, “This is our doorway into personalized psychiatry.” At the same time—although these “brain balls” are not brains, nor do they receive sensory inputs from the outside world—it is clear that as scientists progress in both the techniques and complexity of replication, major ethical questions and dilemmas will arise.

Chief among these will undoubtedly be the perennial ethical debate about the ontology of a human being. Is it only physical, material, social—in which case we might think of ourselves as technicians—or is it spiritual, religious, metaphysical—in which case we would more likely consider ourselves custodians? When we speak about attributing rights to animals or consciousness to AI, it is because at bottom we hold some fundamental belief: about dignity, a soul, being, or about what life might mean in a relational or social and emotional sense. This is no different with Pasca’s brain balls; in fact, it is an even more pressing quandary. As Bruce Goldman notes in his article, “One of the most amazing things about their brain balls was that, with not much chemical guidance, they tended to take on a default structure that’s a facsimile of the most evolutionarily advanced part of the brain: the human cerebral cortex, with all six layers you find in a living human brain.” The ethics of growing human organs are one thing, but the ethics of growing brain balls, which might eventually lead to more and more complex synaptic connections followed by even more elaborate renditions of an actual brain, will become especially contentious given the meaning and significance that we associate with the brain—both biologically and existentially.

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Islam and the Beginning of Human Life

When does human life begin?

One of the more contentious bioethical and legal issues is about the beginning of human life. Nor is it difficult grasp why, for beyond political rhetoric it is a subject of considerable philosophical and legal debate and raises a number of questions which are profoundly difficult to answer. Biomedicine can roughly differentiate when life becomes viable, that is, at which point a fetus could survive as an infant if a mother gave birth prematurely; it can likewise recognize potential complications either in the development of the fetus or the health of the pregnant woman. Yet other questions are not as easy to answer, precisely because they tend to fall more in the spectrum of philosophy or personal belief: what constitutes a human being? What is a person? Is a potential life accorded the same rights as an actual life? For that matter, are there rights to begin with automatically, or are there criteria that must be met in order to procure rights? In short, questions that strike at the very core of who we are.

A number of these questions were debated by Muslim theologians and legal scholars in the pre-modern world when considering contexts of abortion or issues surrounding paternity. In the modern world, these questions have grown to include in vitro fertilization and surrogacy amongst others. Muslim scholars continue to grapple with these bioethical questions as the medical sciences grow more advanced and technology allows us to have ever more control over the basic aspects of reproduction, growth, and development. Per the question, When does human life begin? for example, Mohammed Ghaly analyses in an important article, “The Beginnings of Human Life: Islamic Bioethical Perspectives” some of the newer discussions and positions Muslim scholars have taken vis-à-vis contemporary bioethics and independent legal reasoning (ijtihad). Complementing this discussion is also a seminal article by Ayman Shabana, “Paternity Between Law and Biology: The Reconstruction of the Islamic Law of Paternity in the Wake of DNA Testing.” Shabana shows how classical rulings pertaining to paternity issues continue to hold higher authority, even despite the advent and availability of modern technology that would ostensibly challenge that authority. This is interesting for a number of reasons, not least of which is the possible change in perspective with regard to how religious authority is derived and its relationship to the medical sciences. Continue reading