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Chochma, Bina, Daat: Why All Our Access to Data Hasn’t Helped Us Make Better Decisions

Paul WolpeFilmed at Limmud Conference 2013

We have access to unprecedented amounts of information today – you can easily and immediately look up almost any piece of information.  You have at your fingertips more data than was in a great library a few decades ago, with a much quicker and more accurate way to find information.   So, with all this knowledge, why don’t we feel smarter, better informed?   Why does humanity still struggle with the same questions?  We have technological achievements that were in the realm of science fiction just a few years ago, we are curing diseases that seemed incurable to our grandparents, we are developing 3D printing and nanotechnology and brain imaging and synthetic biology, and yet each new advance seems to challenge us with as many new questions as it solves old ones.  So, if it is not knowledge we lack what exactly is it?  And can our tradition add anything of value to the modern quest to try to find answers?  This is the conundrum I try to explore in this JDOV talk.

I have lots of titles they give me instead of salary increases – I am the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Bioethics, the Raymond Schinazi Distinguished Research Professor of Jewish Bioethics, Professor of Medicine, Pediatrics, and Sociology, and the Director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University. I also serve as the Senior Bioethicist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). I consider myself a futurist interested in social dynamics, looking at social, religious, ethical, and ideological impacts of technology on the human condition. I think a lot about emerging technologies, such as neuroscience and genetic engineering, but also do work in death and dying, genetics and eugenics, mental health and illness, and others bioethics topics. I come from a rabbinic family (father, two brothers, and now a daughter applying to rabbinical school), which may explain my involvement in Jewish Bioethics. I am a founder of the Academic Coalition for Jewish Bioethics and the Society for Jewish Ethics, and advise both the Victor Center for Jewish Genetic Diseases and JScreen, the program to promote preconception genetic carrier screening among Ashkenazi Jews in the United States. I co-authored a guide to Jewish end-of-life issues, Behoref Hayamim: In the Winter of Life. He won the 2011 World Technology Network Award in Ethics, has recorded a TED Talk, was named a top thought leaders in trustworthy business behavior, and was profiled in the November, 2011 Atlantic Magazine as a “Brave Thinker of 2011.”

My Father was a rabbi, two of my brothers are rabbis, my daughter is applying to Rabbinical school, so I am surrounded by rabbinic thought in my life and I fell pretty far from that tree I became an Ethicist, so umm, you wouldn’t believe how often people introduce me, especially in front of Jewish crowds and here is Rabbi Wolpe. Unfortunately I am not a Rabbi Wolpe, I have a PHD in sociology but I was steeped in the brine of Jewish thought. I often get asked when it comes to making ethical decisions how do you do it? And there are lots of answers to that question but the most important answer for me is it’s in my DNA – it is the way I was taught to think about the world from a profoundly Jewish ethicist perspective.

I’m a ethicist of biotechnology largely, it’s one of the things that I do, and I have to grapple with very difficult questions, some of the most profound questions that we have today are questions of biotechnology. Our medical abilities, our scientific abilities are racing far ahead of our ability to understand them, we are able to manipulate animal bodies in a way that was just science fiction a short time ago, in fact I tell my students there is no science fiction anymore. I read a lot of science fiction growing up, and, there is virtually nothing that science fiction talked about that we are not either doing or almost doing, the only exception is aliens coming from another planet – I worked with NASA – I’ll let you know. But really in terms of biotechnology the sky’s the limit. We are able to manipulate the very plasms of life in a way that was unthinkable a short time ago, we can create transgenic animals, we can take a gene from a deep sea fish, an anti-freeze gene fish that keeps fish in the arctic from freezing in subfreezing waters and we can transplant it into a tomato so the tomato wont freeze during a cold snap. We can take animals and manipulate their physiology, we can take animals and create hybrids, we can take animals and we can genetically engineer them to express in their milk or their blood the molecule that we want for a drug that we want to manufacture and turn animal bodies into manufacturing plants. We will have flocks of these animals whose only purpose it is to create drugs for us. And all of these technologies are transferrable to human beings, that is, we now for example take green florescent protein, a protein that makes coral glow, and we use it regularly in science for a variety of purposes, but we have also now created mice, rabbits, dogs, cats, pigs and monkeys that glow green, every cell in their body expresses the green florescent protein. And that’s just ethical challenges with animals and with our synthetic biology projects where we are taking the building blocks of life, and we’re creating lego-like constructions, so that people anywhere in the world can take a menu, and take these different cellular structures and put them together and create new organisms. What we are doing to human beings is profound as well. We are not yet at the point where we are genetically manipulating human beings but we have just heard the report of the first human cloned embryos. It’s finally happened. Now that we can clone human embryos we can do anything genetically to human beings or will be able to soon that we do to animals. We can now actually create a human being that glows green if we wanted to, maybe it’ll make your kids easier to find at night. Not sure that’s exactly the direction we want to go in. So how do we make these decisions? We are challenged not only with biotechnology of the genetic kind but my speciality these days is neuroscience and I’m not going to go into all of the things we can now do in neuroscience but I will tell you one example. We have gotten to the point now where we can put someone in a brain scanner and with a lot of exceptions, and with a lot of ‘if’s ‘and’s and ‘but’s we can gaze into their minds and tell what word they’re thinking of. We can now mind read. It’s very primitive, it’s not sophisticated we can’t mind read sentences yet but I never thought we’d get this far and I’ve been following this technology for over a decade. And I tell you all these things not to scare you, well maybe to scare you a little bit, but to say these are challenges, and I’m just beginning, I’m just scratching the surface, which we are all going to have as time moves forward, how do we think about these technologies how do we control them, how do we decide what direction we want to push them in? On the one hand we have more knowledge than we ever had before, I mean, you ask me almost any question and I can look it up, we are awash in knowledge think just a short time ago you had to go to the library and look things up, when my career started (and I don’t think of myself as that old) there were no desktop computers, my dissertation research was done on a big mainframe with punch cards. I was the last in the last years of punch cards look at how far we’ve come. When I was at the University of Pennsylvania where I was until about five and a half years ago for most of my career I was in the library all the time. I have moved to Emory University now, I moved there a little over five years ago, I have never once walked into the library to use it as a library. No need – all the materials are online, if I need a book I order it. And so things have changed profoundly. We have access to information we are awash in access to information, the problem is not access, the problem is judgment.

In the Jewish tradition if you look up the word wisdom, which is really what we need, we need wisdom, you’ll usually see it translated as chochma but if you look deeper and you look at the idea of chochma, bina and da’at, you’ll realise that none of them actually mean wisdom. Chochma in the sort of traditional and the Kabbalistic view is the first dawning of an idea, they say that it’s analogised, homophones for potential of what may be. In Job it says chochma emerges from nothingness, so the tradition tells us chochma is the first glimmering of an idea and then you go on to bina which comes from the word livnot to build, you build that idea and you look at pros and cons and you try to figure it out. Traditionally chochma was considered a male trait, bina was considered a female trait and the way our paternalistic tradition suggests it is – if a man comes up with an idea he better go check with his wife to make sure it makes sense. And then da’at, which is often translated as understanding, is the realisation of the idea. None of them really correspond with what we mean by wisdom and that is what I wanted to share with you today, is that the most important thing we need to day is not better understanding, we’re great at understanding. It’s not more data, we’ve got more data than ever in history, every one of us has access to that. It is judgment, it is wisdom, it is what we do with this extraordinary power that we are unleashing and actually it is somehow the combination of those three ideas, but it is those three ideas leavened with something else. We don’t really have a word for wisdom in the Jewish tradition because wisdom kind of pervades all of our way of thinking, but we need a word and so the word I always use is deep seichel, not just seichel – deep seichel. Seichel is a rarer trait than we usually think. We translate it as common sense – nonsense! Seichel is not common sense because it’s not common at all, right? Seichel means something deeper, it means being able to look at something and understanding the intellectual, emotional, relational, social implications of what we’re doing. It’s a very difficult thing to do. I happen to think Jews are particularly good at it, we’ve had this conversation for thousands of years, we’ve asked these questions for thousands of years I don’t think it’s a coincidence that now in this difficult time we have three members of the US supreme court who are Jewish – that’s ridiculous! And by the way, the other six are…Catholic. There’s not a single Protestant on the US supreme court. Presidents of the United Sates have created Bioethics commission, every single head of the bioethics commissions of the last 4/5 presidents who created them has been Jewish or Catholic. My professional society, the American society for bioethics and humanities has had twelve presidents – nine have been Jewish or Catholic, now why is that? It is because these are two traditions that have a long history of thinking deeply about questions, whether we agree with some of the solutions on either side isn’t the issue. It is when the time comes to really analyse, when the time comes to really get some deep seichel, we’ve got traditions that know how to think about problematic issues very deeply.

So why am I an ethicist? Because I was born amongst Rabbis, and it seemed to me that within that tradition that they so beautifully had represented, that my Father so beautifully taught me, was a deep seichel that I could use to try to help solve some of the thorniest problems I think we have coming up as a society. But the last thing to know about that is, it isn’t just the responsibility of bioethicists. These are questions that are going to influence you, your children, your grandchildren and your great grandchildren. And so I invite everybody to participate in this conversation with your deep seichel. Thank you

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