Archive for May, 2009

Stem Cells and Pseudoscience

May 24, 2009

One of the major ethical controversies in science at the moment has been about the use of embryonic stem cells for medical research. Stem cells have become immensely valuable because of their unique ability to be ‘reprogrammed’ and change into various other types of cell. These new cells may in turn, it is considered, be used to repair damaged or malfunctioning tissues and organs. Thus, supporters of stem cell research have argued that stem cells are immensely important as potential cures for a number of serious diseases. Much of the research has concentrated on stem cells taken from human embryos, which are believed to have the best potential for medical use as it has been argued that they have the greatest ability to change into the type of cells desired by researchers. This is ethically controversial, as opponents of embryonic stem cell research have objected to the use of such embryos for medical research on the grounds that they are nevertheless human, and so deserve and require the same respect and ethical treatment as fully formed people. Experiments on human embryos, it is argued, automatically imply that there are certain types of people on whom it is legitimate to experiment without their consent, and so constitutes a fundamental attack on human integrity. The debate about embryonic stem cell research is part of the wider controversy over abortion, and reflects the same concerns over the nature and value of human life and the ethical treatment of the unborn.

Many, if not the majority, of the opponents of embryonic stem cell research tend to be religious. However, while many of them are motivated by their religious concerns, this does not mean that opposition to their use is irrational or necessarily confined to those with strong, usually Judaeo-Christian beliefs. Many of the arguments advanced against their use are rational, philosophical moral arguments, based on the belief in transcendental moral values and the innate moral worth of human beings. It’s therefore possible for a secular individual to accept and support these arguments and oppose such research without believing in God like many of the other critics of this research.

Due to the suggested immense potential of stem cell research to provide cures for a wide range of truly horrific diseases and conditions, governments have increasingly been called upon to fund it, while the ethical problems raised by such experimentation have meant that they have also been required to create guidelines and regulations to ensure its moral conduct. Opponents of such research have objected to the use of public finances to support what they regard as a fundamentally immoral attack on human integrity and value. Supporters of stem cell research have, in their turn, strongly attacked opposition to it, viewing this as an attempt by religion to suppress scientific progress. In Britain, despite opposition from a number of clergy and laymen, premier Gordon Brown passed legislation permitting and regulating embryonic stem cell research, while issuing a statement declaring that he also fully understood those who opposed and appreciated their reasons for doing so. In America, George Bush’s administration passed legislation prohibiting the use of government funds for stem cell research, but did not outlaw private industry from engaging in it. Bush’s policy was widely attacked by supporters of stem cell research, and I’ve got a feeling that it has now been repealed by Barack Obama’s administration, which I believe has now allowed government financial support for it.

Just as the moral objections to embryonic stem cell research are not necessarily entirely religious in nature, so there are also scientific objections to stem cell research. It has, for example, been found to be possible to extract stem cells from the umbilical cord and placenta, and these cells are also able to be turned into various different cell types. Indeed, some scientists consider that these cells are far easier to manipulate and turn into the desired cells and tissues than embryonic stem cells, and so represent a far more promising field of research. The Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig, in his discussion of embryonic stem cells research and the considerable moral and scientific objections to it, has stated that so far researchers have found 80 practical applications and uses for stem cells taken from the umbilical cord and placenta, as opposed to zero for embryonic stem cells. Despite this, it appears to be widely assumed that embryonic stem cells present better opportunities for research and cures. When the BBC covered the debate over stem cell research on its six O’clock news programme when it was being debated in parliament, criticism of their use was largely confined to the moral dimension, and featured a Roman Catholic figure stating the Church’s objections to it. It is possible, however, that this attitude, that objections to embryonic stem cell research are primarily religious, may change.

Last Monday,18th May 2009, the BBC’s current affairs and documentary programme, Panorama, covered the journey of one British family to China seeking a cure for a disease. The programme questioned the treatment offered to them by the doctors and scientists involved in such dubious treatment, and there was the suggestion that it was pseudoscience, rather than true science and reliable, ethical medical research. Now, I didn’t see the programme, and so really don’t know whether the stem cell research the programme was criticising was based on those from embryos, or from the placenta and umbilical cord, nor how, or indeed whether this was related to stem cell research by Western scientists. Nevertheless, it does suggest that journalists and the public are becoming more critical of some of the claims made for stem cell research. If the programme was about the spurious use of embryonic stem cells in cures and treatment that had no proper scientific basis, then it would seem that, at least in this instance, the supporters of embryonic stem cells research, far from defending science from attack by religion, have actually promoted pseudoscience against proper scientific research that may be performed without violating religious and ethical principles.

Christ, Traducianism and the Connection between God and Man

May 13, 2009

Murray, one of the great commentators on this blog, has commented that contemporary science suggests a profound unity between the objects of the cosmos, similar to the Biblical conception of God. Furthermore, humans have a realisation that we are all connected through Christ:

‘My hypothesis would be that there is inate realization in humans that we are all connected and that God, as represented through Christ is the true connection. The atheist realizes God as their true antithesis rather than a minor distraction such as Zeus. My hypothesis is tinted by my own Christianity. It does hold up to scientific scrutiny though. Scientists have often proposed a unified theory of the universe. Much of the verbage used to describe unified theory resembles biblical descriptions of God. If atheists want to reduce the significance of God in the world, they first have to reduce it in atheism.’

It’s part of Christian theology that Christ is the link between humanity and God, and that humanity was made in the image of God, and so participates in part of the divine nature. Some of the Church Fathers, such as Tertullian, also believed that God had created all human souls in Adam, and as a result, there was a profound connection between humanity through this shared human nature derived from him. Now this view of the profound connection between humans clearly depends on a literal interpretation of Genesis. Nevertheless, it does seem to express a profound statement about the deep connection between people through their shared humanity.

Calvin and Social Justice

May 4, 2009

One of the most interesting aspects of Calvin’s ideas is his view on the nature of politics and the best form of government. I’ve discussed in previous blog posts about Christianity and the origins of democracy the comparatively democratic nature of Calvin’s Geneva and the influence this had in the development of European and American democracy. I’ve done a little bit more reading since then, and feel that there is some more that could be said. In his consideration of the nature of politics and the forms of government and the state, Calvin believed that every nation should be free to create for itself the form of government that best suited it, and considered that it was a sign of God’s grace and benevolence that different nations had different forms of government. Nevertheless, he believed that good government should be based on Christian moral foundations, and caritas, love. He also felt that it should acknowledge human equality in the sense that it recognised that everyone had an innate value and that those in authority were tempted to abuse their positions. After his return to Geneva in 1541, the Small Council formed a committee to draw up a constitution for the church, which introduced greater lay participation in church government. When dealing with disputes within the church, he insisted on treating and punishing everyone similarly, regardless of their wealth or fame. He also felt that everyone, even the poorest, should be able to call on the law and the magistrates to act against injustice against them, as civil magistrates had been appointed by God for humanity’s benefit and the just defence of their interests.

He also did not believe in hereditary monarchy, as he felt that, because of their elevated personal status, kings felt themselves separate and above the rest of humanity. Furthermore, as only they possessed political power, they had extreme difficulty restraining themselves and acting only for justice. He considered the best form of government to be a mixture of aristocracy and democracy, as it was safer for a number of people to rule rather than a single individual. When government was held by a group, the various people composing it could act to help, instruct and admonish each other, and, if one person was tempted to abuse their power, they could be held back by the others. However, Calvin nevertheless recognised, following St. Paul, that the kingdom of God did not reside in human laws and institutions. 1

He also attempted through his preaching to promote a more ethical society where the poor would not be exploited and deprived of their property by the wealthier members of society. He was extremely critical of the exploitation of the poor by the rich, and felt that many of them had gained their wealth at the expense of their poorer citizens. In these instances, believers should assist the poor while being wary of committing any wrong themselves. He felt that believers should not only not steal or exploit others themselves, but should act when they saw others being treated unjustly, as if they failed to act against injustice and oppression, they became implicated in them. Thus, Calvin stated that

‘(L)et none of us think that it is only lawful for us to guard what we have, rather, as the principle of charity exhorts us, let us see that we preserve and procure our neighbor’s property as much as our … (and) that we should always aspire towards that celestial heritage, knowing that therein we shall possess the fullness of all goods in perfection’. 2

Thus, while it took many centuries for modern democracy to emerge in Europe and America, Calvin’s Geneva was a strong influence in the development of democratic ideas through Calvin’s belief in the human equality before God, his belief that the best form of government was a mixture of democracy and aristocracy, rather than monarchy, and his concern to protect the interests and property of the poor against exploitation by the wealthy, ideals that continue to be expressed and influence contemporary views and discussion of the nature of democracy, even if the influence of Calvin, along with other political theorists and philosophers, is not always recognised.

1. See William R. Stevenson, JR., ‘Calvin and Political Issues’ in Donald K. McKim, ed., The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), pp. 179-80.

2. Benjamin W. Farley, ed. and trans., John Calvin’s Sermons on the Ten Commandments (Grand Rapids, Baker 1980), pp. 200-1, cited in D. Devries, ‘Calvin’s Preaching’, in Donald K. McKim, The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin (Cambridge, CUP 2004), p. 116.