Monday, January 30, 2017

Does a Pig-Man Have the Right to Life?
On the Genetic Modification of Human and Animal Embryos

Purported Human-Pig Chimera
(Andrew Taylor, Wikimedia Commons)
  “We all know interspecies romance is weird.”
Tim Burton

"I did not know yet how far they were from the human heritage I ascribed to them."  
H.G. Welles, The Island of Dr. Moreau

"Man," I cried, "how ignorant art thou in thy pride of wisdom!"
Mary W. Shelley, Frankenstein, the Modern Prometheus.


Last Friday I read in my favorite source of science news, the Drudge Report, this headline from the Sunday Express:
"Human-pig HYBRID? Scientists hoping to create part man, part pig organs"
What a host of ethical questions this raises!  I won't attempt to answer them in this short post.

The Church has set its position on therapeutic genetic modification very clearly.  See a previous post, Designer Babies via CRISPR / Cas9.   Genetic modification is permissible if it is done to cure a specific malfunction or disease.    The quote below from the Charter for Health Care Workers, Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance says it all:
"No social or scientific usefulness and no ideological purpose could ever justify an intervention on the human genome unless it be therapeutic, that is its finality must be the natural development of the human being."
And what should a faithful Catholic say about intervention on an animal genome?   Where to draw the line?   Is growing a human organ in an animal, by whatever means, ethically permissible?  Or the converse, putting an animal organ into a human?


Hybrids between different animal species are termed "chimeras", from the ancient Greek legend of Bellerophon and the Chimera, a fire-breathing three-headed monster.    Reading a less sensational account
Chimera, Palac Czapskich, Krakow
in the National Geographic of the hybridization attempt of the Salk Institute scientists, I found that they were not attempting to make a "pig-man" or "man-pig", but to grow human organs for transplantation in the host pig.   The results were not entirely successful, since the embryos into which the human stem cells were injected did not survive to adulthood.   It seems likely that pigs and humans are not sufficiently similar genetically for such efforts to be successful.  Similar experiments transplanting rat organs into mice have worked, however.   It should also be noted that this type of experiment, growing a chimera, is ineligible for public funding, so the government has taken an implicit ethical stance on such research.


Is research into making chimeras, even for benefits such as growing transplantable human organs, the first step on a slippery slope?    I'm not sure.  On the one hand, I recall St. Thomas Aquinas definition of the human soul as the form of the body.    Certainly you couldn't say that a human liver, by itself, or a human pancreas, (or a human brain?)  would have a soul, if you agreed to that definition.   And the Church does allow genetic modification for purely therapeutic purposes.

On the other hand, once you start to make a hybrid will you end up, like Dr. Moreau (see the quote above), creating animals that are attempting to be human?

I'm still thinking about these questions.   What's your answer?

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Right to Life: Fuel for My March to Catholic Faith

The 2009 Right-to-Life March, Washington, D.C.
From Wikimedia Commons


The photo above, taken at the head of the 2009 Right-to-Life March, is that of the last March in which I participated.   At the age of 79, it was pretty much all I could do to keep up, even at the sauntering pace of our group, and so I've decided since then to march in spirit and to pray through the day for this nation to come to its senses.  I thought it appropriate to go back in time, to recollect how my pro-life sensibilities led me (and others) to the Church, and to recall some snapshots in my memory from the Marches in which I participated.   This journey into the past will be essentially a stream of consciousness (I've been reading Finnegan's Wake lately).


A brief account of my journey to faith is given in another post, "Top Down to Jesus."   Although it wasn't mentioned in that article, some fuel for that trip was my belief that all human life is sacred.    Now in the early part of the trip my belief in God was vague and uncertain, so "sacred" meant something different than it does now.   Perhaps the closest equivalence is "inviolable."   As a physicist who knew something of biology (many of my nmr research projects involved collaboration with biologists),  it made no sense to me to draw a timeline separating the living from the non-living embryo, or to neglect the potentiality of the full human in the zygote.

My wife is Catholic and strongly pro-life.  Indirectly from her (she wasn't proselytizing), when she answered questions about Church doctrine, I learned that the Church held life to be sacred from the moment of conception to that of natural death.   This made sense to me, in terms of the continuity of biological development.    It also made sense that the Church approved only of  natural death, not euthanasia or enforced journey into that "good night".   I had seen the movie "Logan's Run" and read the book, and being older than 30, the year in which life was snuffed out in this dystopia to make room for younger folk, I was not willing to go gently and unselfishly.

Let's skip some 15 years and see how a little learning (not a dangerous thing!) has informed my pro-life stance.   In the adult catechesis classes in which I have participated as a student and as a teacher, a most important teaching was that the soul is conveyed to the human embryo at the moment of conception, even if it be only a blob of tissue, as pro-abortionists might argue.

Pro-abortion fans argue that since the embryo or the foetus is not conscious, self-aware, it is not a human being.  This argument is, I contend, unsound.   If it is required that self-awareness be required for human status, then we could revert to the practices of the early Greeks and Romans and "expose" (a nice euphemism for "kill") unwanted babies.   Studies have shown that self-awareness  in the infant develops in five stages,  and is not fully present at birth.   So the pro-abortion fans should be logically consistent, and advocate the right to kill infants up to the age of five, and they might along the way include those they classify as mentally unsound or unfit.   Now where have I seen that argument before?

Let's turn to the end of life issues, to euthanasia. In a post  "The Fifth Commandment--The Slippery Slope of Euthanasia", I've discussed how "mercy killing" has transmogrified to killing the old for convenience in the Netherlands and Belgium, so I'll not repeat these arguments here  However, with the passage of laws allowing euthanasia in several states in the U.S., I begin to feel the chill of the ice-man's axe (or is it needle?) approaching this old guy, and, accordingly, I am ever so grateful for the Church's firm stance for natural death and against euthanasia.


This will be a change of pace, a recollection of events from Marches in the past.
We live in north-central Pennsylvania, about a six hour drive to Washington.  The practice has been for the parish (or several parishes) to hire a bus for the trip down, beginning at about 5:30 am (for the early morning Mass) and returning about 10 pm.   In Washington the buses would park at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and we would take the subway down to to a point close to the Mall, where the March was to begin.   We would meet at Union Station after proceeding to the Capitol, go back to the Shrine and thence home,  stopping for a gourmand's buffet dinner--the preference of our parish priest--at a tourist stop near Thurmond, Md.  There were young people, old people and those in between.  Some of the older people would stay at the Shrine and pray instead of marching (as I did in my last March, several years ago).

In the 80's (before my conversion) my  wife and youngest son went down and encountered one of the rare, but disabling snowstorms that occur in D.C.    They got there too late to march, and returned home around midnight, tired but still invigorated by having made the journey.   I had thought to myself waiting for their return, what the H--- are they doing this for.   I found out later.

Here are some memories that stand out.   On my first trip, walking from the subway to the Mall where the March was to begin, I saw walking about 50 feet in front of me a middle-aged man with sidelocks, a kippah (the skull-cap worn by Orthodox Jews), with two young boys.   They were dressed formally, and I thought to myself--isn't that great;  you don't have to be Catholic to be pro-life.   And this was reinforced later, seeing people from other denominations in the March.  

In 2005, the first year of George W. Bush's second term, there was  a congratulatory message delivered from the White House to those assembled on the Mall.   How different from 2009, the first year of Obama's term--no message--although the lack of message did itself show how  Obama regarded those of us demonstrating for life  .    I recall the old people, older than I, the young people waving banners from all over the country, the priests in clerical garb, the monks and nuns in habits and more modern dress, the one very old monk in a wheel-chair being pushed by a younger.  I recall the songs, the hymns.   I recall the people standing at the side, cheering us on (with some exceptions).    I recall looking back at the huge mass of people and thinking if so many people are marching for what is right, we must prevail.   And so we shall.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Music, God's Gift to Man--and to Robots?

Music and the Brain
from Wikimedia Commons
"If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: ‘The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.'”
Kurt Vonnegut (")

"I play the notes as they are written, but it is God who makes the music.”
J.S. Bach?  

"Of course God exists. One way I know he exists is that he put a song in my heart and gave me ears to hear his glory" Msgr. Charles Pope, Music, the "6th Proof" for God.


A few days ago my wife pointed out to me a web news item announcing a robot that (or who?) can compose a symphony, tailored to uplift the listener's mood.  Whoaa!!   A robot!  Artificial Intelligence whatever, it takes soul (both of the vernacular and theological variety) to write music.  (See the quote above, purportedly from J.S. Bach.)

I have written elsewhere about music as God's gift to man (see here and  here), and I'll try not to repeat myself in this post.  I want to examine whether art, as we like to understand the term, can be forthcoming from artificial intelligence in the following general context:  can computers (robots/androids) be made to self-aware, to have consciousness, to go beyond what is programmed into them.   Whether a robot can compose music is a piece of that puzzle.  Most importantly,  can that artificial intelligence derive emotional satisfaction from the creative process? 

We should ask, then:  is music God's gift to man, and, if it is such a gift, can we say that God wishes to extend it to "beings" with artificial intelligence,  intelligence created by man, not God?


As in much else involving the intersection of science and religious belief, science fiction (more properly, "speculative fiction") occasionally yields more insight than either philosophy or theology.   One  story, "A Work of Art" by James Blish, (WARNING: SPOILER!) examines  whether a transitional sort of artificial intelligence, "mind sculpting", can produce the same sort of music as the live composer.   Here's the story.

A man wakes up, recalling his last moment of darkness.  Informed that he is Richard Strauss, resurrected, he is asked to compose a work in his own style.  He does so, basing it on a Greek myth.  The work is performed to thunderous applause, which he realizes is not for the music, but for the mind sculptors who have changed him from one totally unversed in music to a composer.   But, here's the kicker:  there's enough of Richard Strauss in him to realize that the music he has composed is only a pastiche, a musical collage of Strauss's known works.   There is nothing original, nothing of the artist in it.

So, the "Work of Art" is not the music--it is the mind sculpture.   God inspires man to create music, as the quote above from J.S. Bach would have it.    The computer can only imitate what man has already created.


"Can one similarly find an “equation” to describe a piece of music? Or better yet, can one find an “equation” to predict the outcome of a piece of music? We can model sound by equations, so can we also model works of music with equations?  Music is after all just many individual sounds, right? Should we invest time and money to find these equations so that all of humankind can enjoy predictable, easily described music?  The answer to all of these questions is predictable and easily described: a series of emphatic 'NO’s'! There is not an equation that will model all works of music and we should not spend time looking for it."  Thomas Fiore, Music and Mathematics
The relation between number and music was discovered in the 6th Century BC by Pythagoras (yes, he of the "Pythagorean Theorem").   He found that if the string lengths on a Greek lyre were in the ratio 2:1, they sounded harmonious--this interval between the notes sounded by the two strings is an octave; if the lengths were in the ratio 3/2, a different harmonious interval, "a perfect fifth" sounded; if the lengths were in the ratio 4/3, yet another harmonious interval, "a perfect fourth",  sounded.    

Let's skip 2500 years and proceed to contemporary times.   I'll be summarizing the material given in the linked article by Thomas Fiore.  As a player of an instrument keyed to Eflat (the alto clarinet) I am familiar with the mathematical operation of transposition. adding intervals to go from my key to concert (in this case, adding -3 modulo 12).   I did not know about inversion, the operation of going from a major key to a minor: if x is the note number on the chromatic scale (0:C/ 1:C#/ 2:D.., / 11:B--white keys and black keys on a piano), then inversion is the operation -x, or equivalently in modulo 12 arithmetic, 12-x.   So, Tn(x) is the transposition operation on the note x to give x+n,  and In(x) is the inversion operation on the note x to give  -x+n  (note: 0=12 in modulo 12 arithmetic).   For example, upon the operation I0(x), the C major chord (0, 4, 7 or C, E, G)   goes to the f minor chord (0, 8, 5 or C, F, G#);  and T2(x)*I0(x) operating on the C major chord gives (2, 10, 7 or D, A, #,G), a g minor chord.

The 24 operations, Tn(x), In(x) are elements that satisfy  the properties of a mathematical entity called a "group": there is an identity, an inverse for each element, and closure--any combination of operations yield another operation of the group.   The group designation for the Tn/In group is D24, the dihedral group of 24 elements.   Now group theory is related to descriptions of symmetry, and in particular symmetry of geometrical objects.    A geometrical object having the symmetry belonging to the D24 group is the icositetrahedron,  pictured below.
Icositetrahedron, with group symmetry D24
from Wikimedia Commons

In his article Fiore applies this mathematical analysis to several musical works:  Bach's Fugue #6 in D minor, Wagner's Prelude to Tristan and Isolde, Hindemith's Fugue, Beethoven's Symphony #9 (2nd movement), the "Elvis Progression", the Beatles "Oh Darling".   The analysis adds a great deal to one's appreciation of these works (I can't, in truth, say this about Elvis's stuff or the Beatles' song, since I'm not familiar with those);  however, I ask the question (answered in part below), is this all there is to music?


If a mathematical analysis of a musical piece could tell us all there is to know (and feel) about the piece, it would seem reasonable that computers could then compose music--any sort of music.   However, I claim that this complete analysis is not possible.    Even in that most ordered and mathematical of music, the Bach Fugues, there are occasional deviations and lapses from the mathematical operations, as discussed by Fiore.

If one thinks about the works of Mozart, what might come to mind is music that like Bach's, is orderly (see this YouTube video of the Divertimento in D Major),   However, in one of his most important works, the Great G Minor Symphony (#40), the fourth movement contains powerful dissonance and tonal progressions anticipating those centuries later.

I can cite works that are moving, not because they follow orderly intelligible lines, but precisely because they do not:  the eerie soprano clarinet solo in the Witches' Sabbath movement of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique; Stravinsky's Rite of Spring;  Thelonius Monk's "Round Midnight", and many more in classical and jazz--in music.

Symmetry and order is beautiful, but the human mind wants more than that.  Symmetry in physics is beautiful (see God, Symmetry and Beauty I: The Standard Model and the Higgs Boson), but nature ultimately is more than an ordered model fit to equations.   Can a computer see the beauty in the disordered pattern of a meadow, or the night sky?   I don't think so.

I'll wind up with a final anecdote.  Many, many years ago on my first academic assignment the head of the department involved with the newly burgeoning discipline of computer science (it was a management / business administration group) gave a lecture on artificial intelligence.   After the lecture, as legend has it (I wasn't there), a humanities professor asked him  "Would you want your daughter to marry one (a computer, that is)?"  His answer was "Yes, if she loved him."   Another version has it that some shouted from the audience "Why not, his wife did."    

I defy anyone to produce a computer analysis of that humor.

Finally, I haven't said anything about God and music, or God and mathematics.  My point in this post is that music is a gift, not to be explained as an evolutionary spandrel, and if it is a gift, it can be presumed to come from God.


*"Who has a soul?" is a question explored in my ebook, "Science versus the Church--'Truth Cannot Contradict Truth'",    In that chapter I talk about the position of the Church on what is a soul, and who has it  and review (very briefly) what some cognitive scientists, philosophers and sci-fi authors have to say about whether computers can be conscious / self-aware.

**There's a great deal of history of music and religion that I'm not going to cover, Greeks, ancient Babylonians, Jews (read the psalms, particularly 33, 98, 147--"Sing unto the LORD with thanksgiving; sing praise upon the harp unto our God")--St. Augustine, the Church, early, medieval, renaissance and modern), but I want to focus on the intersection of music and mathematics in this short piece.