Ethical (and epistemological) issues regarding consciousness in cerebral organoids

Journal of Medical Ethics 44 (9):611-612 (2018)
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In this interesting paper, Lavazza and Massimini draw attention to a subset of the ethical issues surrounding the development and potential uses of cerebral organoids. This subset concerns the possibility that cerebral organoids may one day develop phenomenal consciousness, and thereby qualify as conscious subjects—that there may one day be something it is like to be an advanced cerebral organoid. This possibility may feel outlandish. But as Lavazza and Massimini demonstrate, the science of organoids is moving fast, and I agree that the ethical issues now deserve careful scrutiny. The ethical issues are not entirely separate from epistemological issues concerning how certain we could ever be that an organoid is conscious or that regarding any conscious state or process, an organoid is capable of tokening that state or undergoing that process. Lavazza and Massimini’s approach is theory-based—they claim that ‘we need a general theory of consciousness that attempts to explain what experience is and what type of physical systems can have it’. I am not convinced, however, that a theory of consciousness is what we need. Nor am I convinced that detecting the presence of consciousness is the most important moral issue. Let me say a word regarding theories of consciousness first. In general, to the extent that pervasive disagreement characterises expert discussion of some phenomenon P, one should modify one’s credence downward regarding any theory of the nature of P. In my view, this is the case regarding expert discussion of consciousness. Although most philosophers are confident that consciousness is an entirely physical phenomenon, a …



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Joshua Shepherd
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona