Thursday, June 15, 2006

The metaphysics of boating

I have been pondering for the last day an interesting philosophical question. In essence the question is vary similar to one Erin described to me many years ago while working on her philosophy minor, that is the question of the new boat. A sort of philosophical parable about differentiating when an object is no long the same as it used to be, it kind of goes like this:

If I have a row boat, and it has one damaged plank, and I remove that plank and replace it with a new plank, of identical dimensions, is my row boat a new boat? If systematically over a number of years replace every plank in my boat so that no plank from the original still exists in the boats current form, is the boat a new/different boat? If I did the same replacement effort that may take years, all at once, essentially building an entire boat from scratch, using the original boat as a template, would the resulting boat be a new boat?

You see the problem is in trying to determine a fixed point at which the object ceases to be, and a new object exists. One could argue that any change no matter how minuet makes it a new boat, but if we extend that to say people, if I got a new hair cut would I suddenly someone new? The rational human chaffs at that concept, I don't have the language to express what I mean, but I know that to not be the case. I couldn't make a weaker argument for my point, but my philosophical education ended in first year (not from lack of desire, but lack of room in my time table.)

Now that I have framed the problem a little bit, let me fill in the details. At the moment you can have a custom baby, at the moment your choices are limited to gender and a few heritable diseases, but there choice is there. At the moment the technology is a little blunt, effectively the doctor's fertilize a large number of eggs, and then screen them to find one that meets your criteria, the rest are presumably destroyed, or perhaps frozen for later use (if that is possible.)

In the movie Gattaca a similar technique seems to be used to get a base embryo, but then further manipulation is done to fine tune the details. Eye colour, height, IQ etc, if you have the money they will make the changes. At this time it isn't possible to do these things, and it would probably be met with torch and pitchfork mobs of scared peasantry who are angered by scientist playing god. This may not remain true, as we get comfortable with gender selection; we may also get comfortable with more involved manipulation. This is a philosophical discussion in its own right, but not what I'm interested in.

Moving further along, our technology is sufficient to completely sequence a single human. Now at the moment that sequencing process would be expensive, and time consuming. It is only a matter of time before our technology is sufficiently advanced that we will be able to completely sequence a person within a reasonable amount of time.

Additionally more and more genes are being characterized by research labs around the world. With each gene, we learn more and more how they interacts, and our ability to screen for specific characteristics increase.

Stepping deeper into the realm of science fiction, and stepping closer to my problem I want to discuss something raised in the Neanderthal Parallax by Robert Sawyer. If you haven't read the books, and want to you may not want to read on, as what I want to talk about is pivotal to the plot.

In the final book Sawyer describes a device that allows for the custom manufacturing of DNA. Essentially this machine allows a data file which describes a complete DNA sequence to be transcribed into actually DNA. This DNA can then be implanted in an embryo that has had its DNA removed, and the embryo implanted.

Now to bring it all together; the boat is the embryo; the 'one board' is a in change place to say eye colour as described by the movie Gattaca; the 'complete rebuild' would be removing the embryos DNA, sequencing it, changing the computer file, manufacturing the updated DNA with the device described by Sawyer and placing that back in the embryo. The question is, is the resulting child, the same child. The physical characteristics may differ slightly (as the wood grain of the replacement boards would differ) but the template DNA of the parents remains the same. Is their some ethereal, spiritual, philosophical, or metaphysical identity imparted by the biological merging of the parents DNA? Or is our being independent of DNA; and the DNA is only a template for our physical person?

Now, I don't have an answer to it, far from it, but I raised this because I think it is an interesting question, and one we may have to answer in the next two centuries. Perhaps it is for politicians, philosophers, scientists and religious leaders to decide, or maybe the poets. Who can say for certain what the answer will be, all I can say is that it will certainly be a question of interest. Along with perhaps the more important question of
"If we could, should we?" That is a question fraught not only with the ethical implications of "playing god" but the societal implications; implications that science fiction has already discussed at length, and is slowly moving into main stream.

With all that, I leave you all to ponder.

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