Posts Tagged ‘Morality’

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.

P.Z. Myers on Religion and Hats

April 6, 2009

Wakefield Tolbert, commenting on my post, ‘Faith and the Abdication of Reason’, notes how some atheists attempt to argue against religion by stating that although one cannot prove a negative, and so disprove God’s existence, the evidence for the Almighty is insufficient to support a rational belief in God. Indeed, some of the atheists, who adopt this argument, then argue further that the belief in God is no more vital to society than other, transient social phenomena, such as the fashion for hats. P.Z. Myers, who runs the Pharyngula blog attacking Creationism and religion, in particular has argued that the belief in God is like this, and that even if belief in God disappeared, there would be no ill effects.

Quoting part of my argument, Wakefield states
‘A person may be perfectly justified in believing in God, but be unable to provide any justification for this belief. Felis considers that this is wrong, because humans have no distinct faculty for discerning right or wrong, and so have to use reason, and if they can’t justify their beliefs using reason, then they’re wrong to hold them, both intellectually and morally. Now this statement itself can be attacked on several grounds, one of which is that atheists themselves accept as true certain beliefs, which are not rationally justified.
I think when pressed on the topic, most atheists, while being dogmatic in all other formats, would revert to the fallback position that you can NOT prove a negative. Their favorite pinup is the Great Flying Spaghetti Monster. I cannot prove it does NOT exist. But for the atheist and in my case alike this entity’s existence is either not manifest enough to warrant my serious attention (they claim the same for supposed manifestations of God’s presence, or that of any deity) or has some myriad ways of disguise. Either way, as with UFO’s and Bigfoot here in the US Southeast, there is not enough direct evidence, physical or even proposition to the atheist, to warrant a real glance.
They claim that unlike other falsities or probable unprovables, “God” is a more serious issue as it relates or influences politics and entire ideologies that they claim cause harm. There is their curt reply of course to the quip of why few people talk more about God than atheists.
So of course Dawkins and the really nasty ones like PZ Myers (the US’s Minnesota equivalent of the far more affable chap Dawkins, and is given to name calling and howling on the “culture wars”) claim this obsession is warranted, unlike one over an Easter Bunny, etc.
Myers for his part has a follow up to Dostoyevsky’s quip to the effect that if God is gone from all life, from all equations or considerations and gone from culture, then “all things are possible.”
Myers makes some kind of crack about hats.
Yes. Hats.
As my Brit friends would say it, the short version of this crackery works like this.
Well, notice that men used to wear hats more often in times past. Everyone sported a hat on the streets of London and Yorkshire. Hats later went out of style a little at a time a while after the Victorian Age, though they can be seen cropping up from time to time in the US and other places as the last holdouts in the 1950s. But not long after that they went the way of the dodo. Religion likewise will soon be out of fashion. But what happened to the world? Did it really get worse now that hats are out of fashion. No, it didn’t, did it? One might say that with the exception of UV radiation prevention on the monk’s cap, hats really no longer serve any purpose as societal status. In the time since hats left the world as common fashion, scientific discoveries galore have surrounded the common and rich man of landed gentry alike.
We’re not really worse for the wear (or lack or wear!) now are we?
Now Myers follows up by claiming that in his fantastically simple analogy to entire moral codes based on whole belief systems being akin to hats, we are no worse the wear morally or scientifically or medicinally (or any other LY-social indicator or measure) if religion fades out sorta like the smile of the Cheshire Cat or gets rapidly pushed to the margins of society as in the Scandinavian lands, etc.’
Firstly, many religions and philosophers of religion have developed criteria to distinguish genuine religious experiences and phenomena from false, such as those produced through hallucinations resulting from madness or disease, such as Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. The Flying Spaghetti Monster is a satire on the Argument from Design. However, to be effective it has to contradict the other theistic arguments about the nature and existence of God and revelation. Belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster is therefore rejected, not just because there isn’t enough evidence for its existence, but because it also contradicts these other arguments and claims.
Now let’s deal with the comparison between God and other paranormal or supernatural entities. These suffer from the same flaws as Myers’ arguments about hats, or Bertrand Russell’s orbiting teapot. They assume that God is like any other object in the universe, and that His existence does not otherwise alter its nature. However, God is not just another object in the universe: He is its author, who is present and active in the cosmos and in the objects and creatures within it, who has created humans for communion with Him. Moreover, as God is perfectly good and just, there exists a transcendent realm of moral values, which profoundly affect the nature of human actions. An action is not just moral or immoral because of its consequences, but because the act itself is, by its nature, good or evil. Moreover, it is considered that there is a divine purpose working through the cosmos itself, which affects both its nature and its fate, and those of the creatures within it, particularly humans. The existence of Bigfoot and real, nuts and bolts flying saucers would not affect the nature of the universe as a whole, although they would cause the reconsideration of certain aspects of primate evolution and extraterrestrial life. However, the existence of God profoundly affects the nature of the universe. Without God, there is no transcendent meaning and morality.
As for the comparison between God and the fashion for wearing hats, this assumes that the existence of God is merely an intellectual fashion, and does not affect human behaviour, morality and society. But western society is based on and has been formed by the Christian worldview and morality, although this influence is not always obvious. For example, the assumption that all humans are equal is derived from the Biblical view that everyone is equal in the sight of the Lord. Some Christian and religious philosophers, such as Roger Trigg, in his book Religion in Public Life: Must Faith Be Privatized?, have noted that although this idea is central to democracy, generally most people assume that it is true and there is little rational argument for it. He considers that if Christianity is rejected, then the philosophical argument for human equality and democracy is also seriously weakened. In that instance, there is a profound consequence both for morality and western society. Moreover, it can be argued that although religion has considerably declined in Scandinavian society, those societies continue to function successfully because they have largely retained their basis in Christian values and worldview, while rejecting some elements of the Judaeo-Christian worldview, such as the prohibition on certain forms of sexual activity.
Now Myers’ also assumes that even if religion disappeared, science would still continue to enrich humanity. Now this assumes the existence of transcendent moral values, and that science constitutes an intrinsic good in itself. But if God does not exist, then the case for transcendent moral values is considerably weakened. If transcendent moral values do not exist, then science cannot be said to enrich people’s lives. All that can be said is that science becomes a pursuit that most people and society value highly, but the pursuit of science and its benefits cannot be considered to be more moral or more enriching than other activities and worldviews which people may pursue or create. Indeed, science itself is based on the assumption that the universe is ordered and can be rationally understood, concepts taken from the Judaeo-Christian worldview. If this is removed, then the rational basis for scientific investigation is further weakened, and is based simple belief that the universe is intelligible with little supporting philosophical argument. Even Myers’ belief that science will continue to progress may be unfounded. The science writer, John Horgan, for example, in his book, The End of Science, suggested that scientific discovery may be near its end as all the resent scientific discoveries are based on those of the last century or so, and that completely new scientific discoveries that have revolutionised their respects fields have become significantly rarer.
Thus, belief in God is therefore not like belief in Bigfoot, UFOs or wearing hats, and far from not affecting the nature of the cosmos, God’s existence profoundly affects the nature of morality, society and even reality itself, including the scientific enterprise.