TCS Daily

Stem Cells and Philosophy

By Paul J. Cella - December 3, 2004 12:00 AM

The report last weekend of a woman treated successfully for a serious spinal cord injury by a therapy relying on stem cells taken from umbilical cord blood (that is, uncontroversial stem cells) cast my mind back to some comments made by Sen. John Kerry on the topic just before the election, comments which are worth reviewing -- for reasons which I hope to make clear.

I don't mean to pick on Mr. Kerry, but his remarks, though admittedly made in the midst of an overwrought political environment, can, I think, stand in well for the sentiments of many of the proponents of embryonic stem cell research. That is, they can stand in well for the main thrust of opinion among a great many Americans, especially Americans in the opinion-shaping and biotechnology industries. And because these sentiments rest on a real philosophical edifice, a philosophical edifice that is opposed by another thrust of opinion, resting on another distinct philosophical edifice, embracing another large grouping of Americans -- because of all this, Kerry's remarks point to a debate of enormous importance. It is one of those great debates that a self-governing people cannot shirk -- because it implicates the question of our character and destiny as a people.

Here are some of the Senator's words, uttered in early October:

"Here in America we have always pushed boundaries of discovery. That's who we are as Americans. We've always been searching for the next big breakthrough. And whether we find the breakthrough that we are looking for, or we find something else along the way, we have always found the future. We've always used science to improve the lives of our citizens. Now we stand at the edge of the next great frontier. But instead of leading the way, we're stuck on the sidelines."

The proffered "great frontier" is research conducted on cells extracted from human embryos. It is the deliberate harvesting of human life; no semantic manipulation can efface that. Mr. Kerry worried that we will be on the sidelines of this new technology. Why?

"Three years ago, President Bush enacted a far-reaching ban on federal funding for stem cell research. And by doing so, he tied the hands of our scientists [. . .] who had to stop in their tracks. He has shut down some of the most promising work on either Alzheimer's or diabetes or many other life-threatening diseases. Because of this ban, all across America, we've got people every single day who are waiting for cures that our scientists haven't been able to explore."

Mr. Kerry went on to speak, in typical campaign hyperbole, of a sickly man for whom President Bush's stem-cell compromise "was not just taking away the possibility of a cure, but was taking away hope itself."

Some of us, in the teeth of all this very genuine suffering and very facile sentimentality, will be inclined to reply that there are few things more pressing upon the conscience of this republic than that we "tie the hands of our scientists." We might reply that, as of yet, modern (and, increasingly, postmodern) Science has shown little more than a glimmer of recognition that there are things outside it which bind it; that Science cannot conjure from the mists its own ethics, anymore than a tool can conjure its own wielder.

What Science has forgotten is that it is fundamentally an instrumental entity: it does not choose its own ends. It takes orders and carries them out; it does not formulate its own. Philosophy precedes Science, and its authority over it, adjudicated through a political process, is final; thus also, of course, politics precedes Science. In practice, this means that one need not be a trained scientist to speak to its uses, and speak against its abuses. It is absurd to exclude the non-specialist from judgments about how we ought to use this instrument, just as it is absurd to restrict the driving of automobiles only to mechanics. One need not be a railroad engineer to identify a train wreck; nor to conclude that conducting a train blindfolded is criminal negligence. Yet many of our practitioners of Science declare presumptuously that none can say anything against their wild rush, because they know not how a train works.

What this is, it seems to me, is not science but scientism; and when men argue that philosophical or theological objections to theory X or procedure Y ought to be discounted, and the decisions about its use made purely on the basis of "good science," it is very difficult for a detached observer to conclude that they really mean what they say. Some philosophical system must adjudicate the interaction between science and human endeavors. There is no way around this. Science, when it aspires to step outside itself and explain how its fruits should be put to use, is no longer science but philosophy. The scientific enterprise tells us how a discrete question is to be answered; it does not tell us how to apply that answer to life. We want to discover whether genetic cloning at the embryonic stage is possible: science can answer that question. But it can tell us almost precisely nothing about whether such technology ought to be used by men (the only assistance I can imagine science providing on this latter question is to inform us that cloning carries high risks of failure.) Bereft of first principles, Science is nothing but a mass of unconnected facts, an organ with no mind to command it. Practically speaking, the demand for decisions to be made on the basis of science alone has meant that while profounder schools of philosophy are excluded, a sort of utilitarianism reigns, a dull calculation of pleasure and pain which scorns all concerns about the wider social state, much less the wider moral order.

Therefore I submit to you, gentle reader, that the real debate signified by the stem cell controversy is only superficially about science. What is really at issue is philosophy, namely, What philosophy shall guide us? On one side we have those who propose a philosophy that has long gone by the name Utilitarianism. The other side (it must be admitted) is much more confused in its philosophical commitments, but I think we might tentatively name their philosophy as Natural Law*. When men argue about stem cell research, if their arguments penetrate to any real depth, what they really controvert is the question of what philosophical system best approximates the truth about mankind and his lot here on earth. And if we are to adopt utilitarianism as our public philosophy, we must have a debate about philosophy, not science. Yet this is precisely the debate that men like John Kerry, and all his scientistic enablers, want to avoid.

Paul J. Cella III writes from Atlanta. He runs the web-log Cellas's Review.

* Part of this confusion derives from the fact that perhaps the preeminent modern exponent of this philosophy (Edmund Burke) was congenitally hostile (for reasons he articulated with great power and subtlety) toward the exposition of philosophical systems. Burke was indeed a philosopher of high rank, but his philosophy, in a marvelous irony, included a settled animus against abstract principle.


TCS Daily Archives