Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Philosophy of biology

Reuters is reporting that Cardinal Schoenborn has attempted to clarify earlier comments he made on the subject of evolution. Ignatius insight has quotes and commentary:
"Without a doubt, Darwin pulled off quite a feat with his main work and it remains one of the very great works of intellectual history," Schoenborn declared in a lecture in St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna on Sunday. "I see no problem combining belief in the Creator with the theory of evolution, under one condition -- that the limits of a scientific theory are respected," he said. Science studies what is observable and scientists overstep the boundaries of their discipline when they conclude evolution proves there was no creator, said the cardinal, 60, a top Church doctrinal expert and close associate of Pope Benedict. "It is fully reasonable to assume some sense or design even if the scientific method demands restrictions that shut out this question," said the Cardinal.
I've been blogging a lot on this subject of late, and it's probably getting near time to let go if it, at least for a while. Before I attempt to do so, here is a longer article on the subject of what is at stake if we insist on approaching the problem with a dubious metholodolgy. The following is from Leon Kass' book Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics. Kass is the Addie Clark Harding Professor on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.
Does biology today, defined as the science of life, do justice to the beings that live, to the plants and animals that come to be and pass away, one by one, and that reproduce themselves after their kind? What happens to our understanding of life once science evicts living beings from the center of the natural world; once they come to be understood largely through the concepts of modern physics (and chemistry), which studies nature regarded fundamentally as dead matter-in-motion? Does biology today, as the science of life, do justice to human life, which is always lived in formed lives, bioi, shaped not only by genetics and physiology but by human aspirations, choices and beliefs, and by cultural institutions, practices and norms? Does biology — can biology — teach us anything important about the nature of human life or the manner in which it might best be lived? My conclusion can be simply stated in advance: there are indeed profound and permanent incapacities and restrictions of biology. Moreover, these incapacities follow directly from biology’s defects precisely in the matter of limits or boundaries: (1) in modern practice, it foolishly pursues limitless goals; (2) in modern theory, it proceeds by methods and concepts that impose artificial boundaries that are not true to life; and (3) at any time, it faces insuperable limitations posed both by the deficiencies of human reason and by the mysteries of its subject, life itself. Practical Limitations: The Limitations of Limitless Goals 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. We need not look far to discover why our biological concepts and approaches are so divorced from life as lived. The divorce was produced deliberately, knowingly, and for a reason. For the adoption of the objectified view of nature (and life) is intimately connected with, and indispensable for, the practical goals of the new science. Descartes’ prophecy began to be realized only in our century, and especially for biology and medicine, in the last fifty years. We are showered on all sides by benefits from biomedical technology, including prevention and cures for diseases of mind and body, and considerable increases in overall life expectancy. But though we expect many more benefits yet to come, we are learning, painfully, that these benefits are not unmixed. We are beginning to notice that power over nature is power that can be restricted and withheld from some, misused and abused by others; that even the benevolent uses of humanitarian technologies often have serious unintended and undesired consequences; that as old diseases are conquered, new and often worse ones spring up to take their place; that longer life does not necessarily mean better life; that the ability to intervene technologically in the human body and mind brings vexing dilemmas, anxious fears and sorrowful consequences — about abortion, genetic manipulation, organ transplantation, euthanasia, and use and abuse of drugs; and, worst of all, that the conquest of nature for the relief of man’s estate could lead to severe dehumanization — in C. S. Lewis’s words, to “the abolition of man.” We learn to prevent all genetic disease, but only by turning procreation into manufacture. We have safe and shame-free sex, but little romance or lasting intimacy. We find a perfect “soma” that can cure depression and relieve anxiety, but its unpreventable spread produces people who know and want only chemically induced satisfactions. We live much longer but can’t remember why we wanted to. 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. ... As Richard Kennington has powerfully argued, it would be more accurate to say that the new science sought first power over nature, and derivatively found a way to reconceive nature that yielded the empowering kind of knowledge: Seek power, and you will be able to devise a way of knowing that gives [political power - ed.] to you. The result can be simply put: knowledge permitting prediction and (some) control over biological events has been purchased at the cost of deep ignorance, not to say misunderstanding, of living beings, ourselves included.
British philosopher Roger Scruton has written on this subject, lamenting that what has been diluted is a sense of respect for the first person perspective. It is too much in the shadow of the third person, 'objective.' The reason is easy enough to understand. It is feared that the first person is simply too subjective to be trusted. The ancient answer is to see where the great majority of first person views overlap. There, it suggests, lies something true.

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