|If even cockroaches become objects of empathy in an art gallery, what would it take for us to feel sorry for neural culture? Above photos by Sharmanka and Douglas Repetto, from here.|
If Fish and Chips, MEArt, and Silent Barrage didn't raise any overt ethical alarms, what would be required for such an embodied neural artwork to be 'wronged'? While moral transgressions are certainly possible on a multitude of grounds (e.g. affronts to the dignity of the cultures, or more likely the dignity of the animals they were derived from), for the moment let us narrow ourselves down to the possibility of causing morally relevant pain in such a system. Previously on this blog I've discussed several different ways of looking at the possibility of pain embodied neural cultures. Here I'd like to present my own hypotheses for what might be the minimal requirements for creating morally relevant pain under these different perspectives.
Both behavioral and anatomical perspectives on pain have serious problems with identifying the presence of morally relevant pain in neural culture. This is as these perspectives both require the existence of reference points that both clearly demonstrate pain, as well as defining that pain based on qualities can be shared with neural culture. From the behavioral perspective, such pain might seem possible if one created a robotic body that constantly whimpered or otherwise generated pain-associated behaviors. However, we wouldn't trust that system to have any sort of 'authentic' pain; the signal produced could just as easily be giggling, and there wouldn't be any change from the perspective of the culture. The relationship between bodily activity and morally relevant mental states, which while not fixed does possess evolved biological structure in 'full' animals, is arbitrary in the case of embodied neural culture. From the anatomical perspective, pain also might seem possible at first. Works like Silent Barrage and MEArt share some cellular similarities to some of the most morally relevant parts of the pain system - the cortical regions that appear necessary for caring about pain. However, these isolated neural tissues lack the connections to other parts of the brain and body that usually interpret what the cortex does in such a way that pain is produced.
|What would it take to 'wrong' a culture of dissociated rat neurons? Image by Dr. Steve Potter, from here.|
Lastly, we might trade these views on moral pain that focus on the neural culture in isolation for a perspective that focuses on the interactions between the neural culture and its environment - what I have previously termed a 'social' perspective. This perspective looks for grounds on which audience members might interpret the activity of a neural culture the same way as they might interpret morally relevant pain in animals - as a signal that the audience is obliged in some way to help the culture deal with its imminent destruction, whether real or perceived. As the neural culture is not any living animal that the audience is familiar with, the social perspective does not attempt to interpret the neural culture as such. (Though certainly, such similarity if it did exist would be reasonable grounds for a different interpretation. We have the option of treating a slice of ACC as if it still existed with the rest of a rat, just as we have the option of treating a deposed dictator with the same respect they commanded while in power.) It is useful to note here that by treating the neural culture as a sign open for interpretation, the social view actually encompasses the other views examined above, each as methods of interpretation in their own right, and perhaps appropriate in their own sets of situations.
|A torn image created by MEArt. In early shows the control system for the robotic arms was still being developed. Was the destruction of one of MEArt's products, the drawing, a moral failing of the artists who created the piece? Could such destruction be considered analogous to the painful experience of the destruction of one's own body? Image from here.|
Want to cite this post?
Zeller-Townson, RT. (2013). (Hypothetical) Crimes Against Neural Art. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2013/07/hypothetical-crimes-against-neural-art.html
 Other examples of this trend include Gregor Schneider's “Death Room” (a room intended specifically for someone to die in, with plans to allow a volunteer to pass away publicly, of natural causes), or Huang Yong Ping's “Theatre of the World” (where a variety of reptiles, amphibians, insects, and arachnids were allowed to hunt and eat one another). Perhaps in an art context, with its overtones of control and even frivolity, prevents us from excusing events such as starvation and natural death as being unavoidable, and predation as being necessary for some greater good.
 Dumas, Stephane. "Creation as Secretion. An externalist model in esthetics." Situated aesthetics: art beyond the skin. Ed. Riccardo Manzotti. Imprint Academic, 2011.
 Bunt, Stuart. "Cybernetics and the Interaction Between Pure and Applied Sciences and the Humanties." Proceedings of The 17th International Symposium on Electronic Art, Istanbul, September 14-21 2011. retrieved from <http://isea2011.sabanciuniv.edu/paper/cybernetics-and-interaction-between-pure-and-applied-sciences-and-humanities> on July 19th, 2013
 Vanouse, Paul. "Contemplating MEArt- the semi-living artist" retreived from <http://www.paulvanouse.com/MEART_PV_essay.pdf> on July 19th, 2013
 McRae, Emma. "A report on the practice of SymbioticA Research Group in their creation of MEART-the semi living artist." retrieved from <http://www.fishandchips.uwa.edu.au/project/emma_text.pdf> on July 19th, 2013
 McRae does go on to point out how such works, performed in a university setting and using animal tissue, required ethical approval by animal ethics committees/Institutional animal care and use committees. She notes that such committees often focus on the scientific merits of these works to justify them, even refusing to comment on works where the value is primarily artistic. These committees are primarily concerned with the use of the animals from which these tissues will be derived, however, so they don't reflect ethical concerns with neural cultures themselves so much as the processes that produce them.