Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Philosophy and Public Policy: Metaphysics Matters!

It has been nearly a week now since I received word about the outcome of the Myriad case. I was travelling at the time and suddenly started getting congratualtory emails and Facebook messages, so I went online via free wifi at the coffee shop I was at in the US, and quickly found the news that the Supreme Court had unanimously rejected Myriad's arguments. I was so excited I hit my best friend in the chest... sorry Justin. Now that a week has passed, and the airwaves and blogosphere have been awash with a plethora of incriminations, congratulations, and musings about what it all means, I want to address what is to me a central lesson: philosophy matters.

Sure, some will claim this decision was a legal one, having no relation to philosophy, but such claims betray a complete ignorance about what philosophy is. My book and the writing and speaking I have done on the subject of gene patents ever since have focused upon the ontology of the underlying objects. I have long felt that before we can approach ethical questions we need to clarifying what we are dealing with. I did this first for software, then genes, then nanotehnology. While I have taught medical and bio-ethics, the thesis of Who Owns You is not guided by standard bioethical principles, but rather founded upon uncovering the nature of the objects involved in the debate. Thus, my arguments about the nature of the "commons-by-necessity" and the status of genes as part of that commons confused some who expected typical applied ethics arguments, or legal anti-commons claims. For the past four years, what I have tried to do is show by recourse to basic ontological concepts, that unmodified but merely isolated genes are not different in kind from the genes claimed by Myriad and others as found in nature.

In the course of these arguments, the illogic of those who pursued the course of maintaining gene patents as they existed was laid bare, perhaps never more clearly than in debates about the nature of another naturally-occurring product: O2. When it became clear through those arguments that patent attorneys and others who supported gene patenting must also endorse patenting O2, the necessity of ontology was also revealed. Despite their claims otherwise, a world in which individual O2 molecules are distinguished from each other based upon their origins makes little sense ontologically, forget the ethics. One needs to confuse process with product, a basic ontological error, to support such a view. The Supreme Court, whether they realized it or not, sided with sound ontology. Although lacking the language that philosphers use when engaging in ontology, the Supreme Court's opinion makes both logical and ontological sense.

The Court has reasoned that the BRCA mutations claimed in Myriad's patents, even though "isolated" from the surrounding genome, remain "natural phenomena." An explanation for how this is so resides in ontology. In each case, the molecules described by the nucleotide sequences identified are not the result of man's design. They are nature's own products. Similarly, even when synthesized, O2 is never the product of man's design.  The process of creating isolated BRCA mutations in the lab may well be man-made, but will never result in anything other than a natural product because the product is one designed by evolution, not human ingenuity. We could call lab-made O2 or BRCA genes "synthetic natural products," and explain this by understanding that the process of making something cannot be confused with the resulting product. To be non-natural, both the intention of creating the product and the design of the product must come from minds. This is why I am more or less comfortable with the court's holding that cDNA is patent-eligible, because in producing cDNA (when, as the Court notes it does not exactly mirror sequences found in nature), one must combine intention with design.

At one of my recent talks, someone asked why in making my arguments I relied on ontology rather than ethics. My response was that courts are typically unmoved by ethics. This may be suprising, but it is true. The Court's decision in Myriad is about the nature of the underlying objects, not about what is right or wrong. Perhaps there is an ethical dimension to the general prohibition against patenting abstract ideas, natural phenomena, and laws of nature. Or perhaps not. Perhaps this restriction is about the nature of the objects too, as I have claimed when I argue they are simply materially and logically (and thus maybe also ethically) "unencloseable." But the Court's decision is guided, whether knowingly or not, but an ontology, and one which is coherent if understood as I am describing it. It provides guidance for those who conduct basic research, and those who wish to commercialize inventions. It offers some clarity where the law had deviated from logic. It illustrates that philosophy is not divorced from other subjects, and can indeed be relevant in numerous spheres. Indeed, metaphysics matters a great deal, and we engage in its practice every day to greater or lesser degrees, and sometimes public policy is significantly affected by its improper or proper uses. Philosophers would do well to point out the role of philosophy, as illustrated by the Myriad case and its implications, in the real world, and those who fail to see this as an implementation of philosophical reasoning should review the role and nature of philosophy historically. It really is the meta-science.


Arthur Gershman said...

I am very concerned that cDNA has explicitly been granted patent eligible status and methods have been untouched. These patent attorneys are crafty and have the "ant-like persistency" credited them by Learned Hand. I know, holding Registration Number 27,035. I am afraid that a danger of dehumanizing situations may still be created. What are your thoughts on the matter?

ravenmaven said...

Thoughtful and evocative, as someone who will soon be undergoing genetics testing for BRCA1 and BRCA 2 in two weeks time. I am glad to know that raw data wasn't the only consideration going forward in this ever expanding, medical research field. Whether the Justices knew intentionally or not they were using sound philosophical reasoning, it has hopefully showed the importance of the processes of nature even when tested outside of the host.

David Koepsell said...

Arthur, if the cDNA is truly not identical to naturally-occurring DNA, I am less troubled. For me, the main problem is granting monopoly over discoveries of things that are not the result of man's creation, but mere copies of nature. Of course, there is always the possibility of mischief with state-sponsored monopoly.

Ravenmaven, good luck with your testing... the prices should begin coming down, at least.