Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Rational Religionists and Scientific Mystics

Volume 73 of the Mars Hill Audio Journal arrived today. I try my best to keep my composure when others are in the office but when I see that white mailing pouch I want to rip into it like a kid into candy.

In the first segment Ken Myers plays clips from past interviews with Richard Neuhaus, Nigel Cameron, Carlos Gomez, and Michael Uhlmann concerning the value of human life and bioethics. The conversation with Nigel Cameron took place in 2001. I believe it was in that same conversation that Cameron opined that the evangelical pro-life movement is driven more by sentimentality than by theological reflection. I think that explains why we get more worked up about abortion than embryonic stem cell research. "Cute" is hardly the first adjective to come to mind when confronted by a picture of an embryo.

Anyway, at one point in the segment Ken Myers referred to the writing of Eric Cohen, editor of The New Atlantis, which prompted me to check out the site. There I found a number of essays by Cohen including his contribution to a series called "The Embryo Question."

Points made in the second part of the series are related to yesterday's post and a previous post on alleged religious neutrality. Cohen explains why framing the current debate over embryonic stem cell research as a conflict between religion and science "glosses over many important complexities."

....matters, of course, are not so simple. Religious opponents of embryo research make their moral argument by appealing rationally to the facts of modern embryology. And rational scientists make their moral case by appealing emotionally to the hardships of loved ones suffering from dreaded diseases. To understand the embryo research debate and the larger human ideals at stake within it, we need to explore more precisely what it means to be “rational.” We need to explore the nature of human reason and the limits of human reason. And we need to confront the fact that reason alone cannot fully explain why things happen the way they do, or why we should believe in the first principles—like human equality—that we hold so dear.
Cohen divides advocates of embryonic stem cell research into two categories - scientific mystics and liberal revolutionaries:
The mystics argue that “personhood” arrives at some murky point along the continuum of development. They appeal to our moral sentiments in claiming that 8-cell embryos should be available for research while 8-pound babies should not be. And they assert that somewhere along the way usable embryos become inviolable infants, even if we cannot say exactly when. But this sensibility—which may be true—is not very rational. It is surely not a scientific argument grounded in biology, but a moral feeling about who is equal and who is not. The scientists are often the mystics, even if they would never admit it.
The more revolutionary defense of embryo research involves the rejection of the very principle that all human beings possess equal worth, and the assertion that human dignity depends on possessing certain attributes—like a developed neurological capacity or a certain number of cells. This view does not abandon reason to follow sentiment; rather, it attacks the very premise that dignity is intrinsic rather than conditional. It attacks the first principle of equality upon which modern democracy is based. It dissents from the idea that “all men are created equal.”
Read the full article here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Cohen has an interesting article on Judaism and stem cell research over at National Review