Friday, December 02, 2005

Facing the future

According to news reports, French doctors have carried out the first partial face transplant. The surgeons lifted nose, mouth and chin off the skull of a donor and reattached that floppy mask to the arteries, veins and nerves of a recipient whose own severely disfigured face had been removed.

It surely will not be long before an entire face is transplanted. Think of that thing in the surgeon's hands, that oval of tissue with lips and lashes, that -- that person.

Which prompts us to ask more urgently than ever before: What is a human self?

The question is complicated by a long tradition of philosophical dualism that divides the human self into body and soul. For many people, the essence of a self is thought to be the spiritual thing, the thing that only temporarily resides in flesh and will live on when the flesh is gone.

But body-soul dualism has been soundly refuted by science. Every aspect of our conscious and unconscious selves has an organic basis. There is no ghost in the machine. No self that lives forever.

So is a self defined by DNA? Fingerprints? Memories? A face? All might get you convicted in a court of law. The immune system? The body seems to know what's self and what isn't, and must be bludgeoned into allowing transplants.

What about self-awareness, the ability of the brain to reflect upon itself? Self-awareness can be altered by brainwashing, psychoactive drugs, electrical stimulation, political or religious propaganda, even advertising. A lifetime in front of a TV set may be the equivalent of a self transplant.

So what is the essence of a self? And how do we protect its integrity?

Because we have no consensus about this most important of questions, physicians, geneticists, and biotechnicians stumble forward on their own, although they have no more ethical wisdom in these matters than the rest of us, taking us willy-nilly into a biotech future we can barely imagine.