Sunday, 29 April 2007

Limits on Biology

Dr. Leon Kass is President Bush's former advisor on bioethics and the author of "The Beginning of Wisdom." He is a thoughtful man who understands that science is not limitless in its understanding of man because science cannot answer questions which involve the soul. He writes a recent piece on just this limitation of biology.

According to many a prophet in the temple of science, biology has no permanent limitations. Instead, it faces an endless frontier — eagerly, gladly, confidently. Firmly founded on the concepts and methods of objective science, supported by the century-old doctrine of evolution, and armed with new discoveries and techniques in biochemistry and molecular genetics, biology and medicine go forward into a golden age. They promise, among other things, a full understanding of those age-old “mysteries” of embryogenesis and differentiation; an unlocking of the “secrets” of perception, memory, imagination and desire; new biotechnologies and new cures for disease; the provision of psychic peace through a true psychophysics; and perhaps even the conquest of mortality through mastery of the genetically determined processes of aging.

Though it is commonplace to distinguish applied from pure science — and it makes some sense to do so — it is important to grasp the essentially practical, social and technical character of modern science as such, modem biology included. Ancient biology had sought knowledge of what living things are, to be contemplated as an end in itself, satisfying to the knower. In contrast, modern biology seeks knowledge of how they work, to be used as a means for the relief and comfort of all humanity, knowers and non-knowers alike. Though the benefits were at first slow in coming, this practical intention has been at the heart of all of modern science right from the start. In order to make thought useful for meeting human needs, Descartes (in his Discourse on Method) proposed a new kind of thinking. He permanently turned his — and science’s — back on the speculative or theoretical questions, questions about the being or nature or goodness of things, questions also about first or ultimate causes. Instead, in order to become practical, science will study nature-at-work, nature-as-craftsman; a new kind of physics, solving problems about force and action, will yield power and will ultimately lead to human mastery and ownership of nature.
The purposes of a science-based mastery are humanitarian, served by a boundless medicine capable of curing “an infinitude of maladies both of body and mind,” capable perhaps of conquering aging, and even mortality itself. Moreover, because the new medicine will know precisely the mind’s dependence on the disposition of the bodily organs, it will be able to provide psychic peace and new mental powers, including a new kind of practical wisdom. Physics, here meaning “natural science,” will issue in mastery of nature (phusis), via a new physick, an omnicompetent and comprehensive medicine of body and mind.

The new biology that brings us these dilemmas can, by its very value-neutral self-definition, provide us neither knowledge nor guidance for dealing with them. Worse, the scientific teachings themselves challenge and embarrass the existing prescientific or religious notions of better and worse, and of human life more generally, on the basis of which we have made — and still make — moral judgments; on the basis of which we have lived — and still live — our lives. The project for the mastery of nature, even as it provides limitless powers, leaves the “master” lost at sea. Lacking knowledge of ends and goals, lacking standards of good and bad, right and wrong, we know not who we are nor where we are going. Yet we travel fast and freely, progressively achieving our own estrangement — from our communities, from our nature, from our very selves.
Despite these obvious practical and moral threats to our humanity, scientists and others often refuse to recognize the danger, and even object to the term “dehumanization.” For how, they ask, can science or technology be dehumanizing when these activities are themselves the expression of our highest humanity — of our curiosity and courage, our cleverness and dexterity, our energy and industry, our rationality and perfectibility? But not everything of human origin is humanizing in effect. Man does not live by rationality alone. Indeed, the foundations of our humanity — our sentiments, loves, attitudes, mores and character, as well as the familial, social, religious and political institutions that nourish and are nourished by them — are not laid by scientific reason or rational technique, and may, in truth, be undermined by them, especially if our much-vaunted scientific rationality is — as I hope next to show — philosophically unsound and finally unreasonable.

This is a wonderful piece, a shade so to speak in the hot sunlight of a scientific world.

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