Category: Ethics

Lewis, MacDonald, Krauthammer & the Soul

You’ve probably come across this quote before:

You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.

I am glad to discover that the source of this quote is not, as is commonly claimed, C. S. Lewis, but rather his literary hero, George MacDonald. I am glad to know that Lewis would not make such a mistake, but surprised that MacDonald would. This post at First Things has more. In response to the reduction of materialism, and given the unconscious, dominant Cartesianism of our society, the quote strikes many Christian ears as right and as a fitting statement of the Christian position, over against materialism. In fact, though, the quote is wrong, and does not accurately convey the classical Christian teaching. A more accurate statement would be: You do not have a soul or have a body, you are a soul and a body. A soul is, by definition, the form of the body. You cannot have one without the other. To separate them is incoherent.

To the materialist claim that the soul is some sort of ghostly woo, unsupported by any empirical evidence, then, the proper response is: the evidence is right before your eyes. The evidence for the soul is just as present as the evidence for the body, which no one denies. The argument that the soul exists is not an argument that there is something over and above the body, or some ethereal thing in addition to the body, for which evidence must be produced. The evidence for the existence of the soul arises from rightly considering the evidence of the body.


Which leads us to our second point, also discussed further in a post atKrauthammer_Final2 First Things. As a Christmas gift, I received a copy of Charles Krauthammer’s recent book of collected columns, Things That Matter, and though I do not agree with all he writes, he is a superb columnist with a great talent for addressing topics thoughtfully and distilling his thoughts concisely with great clarity and force. Nevertheless, in his essay on stem cells contained in that book, he makes a fundamental mistake right out of the gate, declaring that the question of the personhood of the unborn child, or what he calls “ensoulment”, is a “metaphysical” question, a “question of faith”, and such questions are beyond secular consensus. He repeats these claims in a recent National Review column that is discussed at the First Things link.

There are two problems with this. The first is this: it is impossible to stake a neutral claim on this question; or, at least, the supposedly “neutral” postion in this case clearly favors one judgment over the other. We simply cannot avoid taking some metaphysical position on this question. If we say that since we are not sure whether the unborn is a person, we will not restrict the taking of the unborn’s life, we simply to choose to treat it as if it is not a person. It is not a neutral position; it is, practically, a metaphysical decision against personhood.

But the error in fact lies deeper than this. Dr. Krauthammer’s concerns about “ensoulment” are irrelevant. Let us set aside all theological concerns; let us simply stick to the biology. To identify a human being we need do no more than identify a living human body, and the unborn child is just a living human body. On this question it is the Catholic pro-life position that is one of hard-nosed materialism. The soul is the form of the body; find the living body, there is the soul. Reason needs no more than this. It is the other side, with its hand-wringing over defining the beginning of some vague notion of ghost-in-the-machine “personhood”, that invokes the mystical, unscientific woo.


Some follow-up on Stephen Hawking’s black hole comments: New Scientist presents a basic overview of the questions involved; and, from what I can tell, this view seems to be the most sensible.


christ-in-the-garden-of-gethsemane-1584Suppose you asked, about a mass shooting, “How could this happen?” In response, someone offers you a straightforward, scientific, factual forensic report on the various angles and types of weapons used. Although it does, strictly speaking, answer your question, it isn’t quite the answer you were looking for. Philosophy and theology offer answers to the problem of evil, but as skeptics like to note, they’re never quite satisfactory. That is, while they do offer logical and reasonable answers, they don’t really get to the point. Evil and suffering is not a logic problem. Though a logical answer is necessary and a helpful part of understanding the problem, just as a physical answer is a part of understanding something like a mass shooting, it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. But the heart of the matter is not a question of science, or logic, or reason. Thus I recommend this excellent essay from Martin Cothran, “How Literature Solves the Problem of Evil”:

The problem of evil is, to steal a phrase from The Hobbit, a “riddle in the dark.” And philosophers do not do well in the dark. They fly by day. When darkness comes, pure intelligence is of little avail. Darkness requires wisdom, and wisdom is of the poets. I don’t think Hegel meant it this way, but it is perhaps why the Owl of Minerva, the symbol of wisdom, flies only at dusk.

When people look for a solution to the problem of evil in its rational or logical form, they are looking for a resolution to a technical problem. But this question—the rational question of evil—is not the real problem of evil. At least it is not the question with which people who experience suffering actually struggle. In fact, the vast majority of those who actually struggle with evil couldn’t even tell you what the logical question was. And even if they were aware of the problem—and even if they knew the answer to it—they would not be satisfied.

How would the answer to a logical question assuage their grief? Their grief is not a logical problem. The logical dilemma of evil would not be satisfying to anyone but a logician—and it would only satisfy him as a logician; it would not satisfy him as a human being.

Read here.


And finally, China’s rover trip to the Moon is proving to be short-lived, as Yutu seems to have suffered from a failure that looks increasingly fatal.


Images: Washington Post; Paolo Veronsese, “Christ in the Garden of Gethsamane”, 1584.

Royal: Medicine as if Catholicism Mattered

Today at The Catholic Thing, Robert Royal writes about his recent visit to the conference of the Religious medicineCatholic Medical Association. To say that Catholicism has a role to play in medicine is to say a number of things. First is the historical fact that the modern hospital system has its origin in Christendom’s Church-supported, religiously motivated charitable enterprises. Second, is that although we should be wary of reducing religion merely to charitable aid (as Pope Francis has said, we cannot think of the Church as just another NGO), it remains true that “faith without works is dead” (Jas. 2:17) and that Christian charity extends not only to eternal but to temporal concerns. Therefore, it is fitting and proper that Catholics act vigorously in the field of providing healthcare to the suffering in society.

But the main point I wish to make is that Catholicism may have a particular role to play in recalling medicine to itself. As Royal notes, the Association “is a group that knows itself to be operating in a culture that is now at odds with the great tradition of medicine from … the Hippocratic Oath down to our own day.” Medicine is a powerful force; modern technology only makes it more so. Medicine has a tradition, even preceding Christianity, of attempting to temper its power and of focusing its  treatment on the good of the suffering person. But when the fundamentals of medical ethics are questioned, and we see a proliferation of approaches that treat patients (born and unborn) as simply factors to be evaluated in some abstract calculus of personal or social convenience and utility, it just might be the case that an institution that a tradition of two millennia of serious thought about the questions of ethics and morals might have something substantial to bring to the table.

Extranuclear Genes Have Disproportionate Effects

One of the changes that was happening in biology at the time this blog was started was the realization that the importance of the gene had been somewhat overemphasized in the previous decades; in addition to learning more and more about the genome, biologists have also been learning more and more about how the gene needs to be understood in a wider organismal context, and life can’t be simply reduced to the expression of genes.

Here’s a new story from UC Davis that illustrates how extranuclear genes, that is, the DNA found in the cell’s organelles (such as mitochondria), have a disproportionate effect on the cell’s activities relative to their small number.

“The influence of genes outside the nucleus was known to an earlier generation of field ecologists and crop breeders, said Dan Kliebenstein, professor in the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences and Genome Center and senior author on the paper published Oct. 8 in the online journal eLife. This is the first time that the effect has been quantified with a genomic approach, he said.

Bindu Joseph, a postdoctoral researcher in Kliebenstein’s lab, and Kliebenstein studied how variation in 25,000 nuclear genes and 200 organellar genes affected the levels of thousands of individual chemicals, or metabolites, in leaf tissue from 316 individual Arabidopsis plants.

They found that 80 percent of the metabolites measured were directly affected by variation in the organellar genes — about the same proportion that were affected by variation among the much larger number of nuclear genes. There were also indirect effects, where organellar genes regulated the activity of nuclear genes that in turn affected metabolism.”

Since these genes aren’t transmitted in the ordinary Mendelian fashion through the nucleus, I find it interesting to ask what role these extranuclear genes and their patterns of descent may play in evolutionary processes.

On the other hand, knowledge of these genes also plays a role in current attempts to “treat” mitochondrial genetic diseases through IVF; I say “treat” because, rather than treating a developed individual who already has the disease, the technique actually involves creating embryos from the start without the disease-carrying genes, by replacing the mother’s mitochondria with mitochondria from a third individual, hence the “three-parent” embryos that have been in the news lately. Rebecca Taylor writes more about these techniques here.

Mandatory Organ Donation?

I came across this op-ed recently, and Rebecca Taylor at Mary Meets Dolly takes a closer look. Organ donation is, in principle, moral and even laudable, but it comes with some serious ethical concerns that must be rigorously addressed. Our medical and scientific culture’s tendency to put practical and technical questions before moral and ethical ones makes this area sadly contentious.

Thus Have We Made the World…

Over at his Forbes blog, John Farrell is discussing stem cells. A commenter on his post writes:

“Why is it that, “the Vatican cannot sanction embryonic stem cell research, as it involves the destruction of embryos donated from IVF clinics” … but they say nothing about the fact than those same embryos that go unused are destroyed? It appears that they’d rather have the stem cells destroyed, and help no one, than to see them destroyed by helping cure people of terrible diseases and injury. What hypocrisy.”

Those unfamiliar with the Church’s teaching may not realize that the Church’s ethical treatment of frozen embryos fundamentally involves handling them exactly as we would handle any other human being. That is, all of us will eventually be destroyed, and yet that does not make it legitimate to use any of us for deliberately destructive medical experimentation. And if natural death seems to be an imperfect analogy, we could just use a situation like the concentration camps of totalitarian regimes. That the inmates of such camps are destined to be destroyed does not make it legitimate to use them for research in the meantime. The sanest moral response is to object to the fact that they are imprisoned in the first place.

So too with frozen embryos. The quandry is that there is no good solution to the problem of what to do with them once they are created: to actively destroy them is to deliberately destroy human lives; nevertheless, to let them linger on is  a dismal prospect. Yet in a bad situation, and knowing full well that the alternative is hardly pleasant, the Church advises that we at the very least refrain from the active commission of an evil act, the destruction of life, even if it is ostensibly justified by the potential for new medical knowledge.

That it is the Church that gets criticized for supposed inattentiveness to human suffering, rather than those who willingly create lives to put them into this nightmare situation, is a sign of just how deranged modern moral analysis has become.

Upcoming Vatican Stem Cell Conference

Dome of St. Peter's Basilica (Public domain)


The Vatican Information Service reports:

“Vatican City, 5 April 2013 (VIS) – This morning in the Holy See Press Office, a press conference was held to present the Second International Vatican Adult Stem Cell Conference, “Regenerative Medicine: A Fundamental Shift in Science & Culture”, which will place in the new Synod Hall of the Paul VI building in the Vatican from 11–13 April. Participating in the press conference were: Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture; Dr. Robin Smith, president of The Stem for Life Foundation and CEO of NeoStem; and Msgr. Tomasz Trafny, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture’s Science and Faith foundation.


[Msgr. Trafny explained,] “We want “to have a cultural influence on society, pointing to research models of excellence that are, nevertheless, in tune with the highest moral values of protecting the life and dignity of the human being from the moment of conception. However, we are aware that you cannot permanently influence society and culture without the constant and far-sighted support that comes from religious, social, and political leaders, from the community of entrepreneurs and from benefactors who are ready to commit to developing long-term scientific, bioethical, and cultural research.”

Read the story here.

More information is also available from Zenit.

Discovery News Welcomes(?) Pope Francis

Discovery News welcomes Pope Francis with a video titled “Where the Catholic Church Stands on Science”. The history of the Church’s relationship with science is complex, mainly because the history of the Church and the history of science are both complex.  Why then do the partisans of science treat the issue so simplistically?

There is no need to pretend that every church official throughout history has been in the right with respect to scientific issues. Even Belloc, that stalwart defender of the Church’s history and foil to scientific pretensions, grumbled about many clerical misstatements on scientific matters. Yet, Ms. Green’s cheerful Discovery News commentary, despite her disclaimer that the history is “complicated” and her attempts to give credit where she sees credit due (for which I thank her), unfortunately repeats some simplistic understandings of events in the history of the Church and science. While proponents of science so often emphasize the importance of getting the basic facts right, it is in the arena of science history, and particularly the history of science and religion, that they so often simply repeat myths that have little bearing on the actual events of the past.

Her commentary begins with Pope John XXI’s decrees of 1277, which forbade a number of doctrines derived from Aristotle. The decrees were certainly not opposed to the recognition of “laws of nature” as such. At the time, a certain dogmatic Aristotelianism was gaining in strength, but was controversial, given that Aristotle was a pagan and his work was largely being rediscovered through the intermediaries of Muslim philosophers. Aristotle also taught some things clearly in opposition to Catholic teaching, such as the eternity of the world. Now, for all his brilliance, a number of Aristotle’s fundamental tenets about the physical world were wrong. When his teachings were suppressed, room was created for new investigations into the workings of nature which went against standard Aristotelian thought. Some historians of science ( e.g. Pierre Duhem) thus find the decrees of 1277 to be not a hindrance to early physical science, but precisely the break from rigid Aristotelianism that was needed to get empirical, investigative science started. The work of Thomas Aquinas (largely) showed that Aristotle had in fact provided philosophy (including “natural philosophy”, or modern “science”) with a strong, if not entirely impeccable, foundation, and many of the decrees of 1277 were later abrogated. The short story is that the history of the decrees is far more complicated than the simple picture of “Church vs. science”, and if anything, the decrees should be recognized as an important element that encouraged scientific investigation.

Galileo, she  gets partly right. Neither Galileo nor the Church’s officials acted perfectly in the case, as Pope John Paul II recognized with his formal pardon. Still, the most important thing about the Galileo case is exactly its singular importance—that is, the fact that it and virtually it alone has taken on such mythical significance as the central event in Church/science history. Galileo’s condemnation was bad for Galileo, but he wasn’t condemned simply for the pursuit of science, and his punishment had almost no effect on the more widespread pursuit of science at the time, which was struggling not so much in conflict with the Church as with the own growing pains of a new field. Galileo’s case is indeed used as a symbol of the “culture clash” between science and religion, but it is a poor and lonely example.

Evolution and “climate change” she also gets partly right. The Chuch “endorses” neither of them as correct and true teachings, but rather leaves them open to scientific investigation, noting that properly understood, neither is in conflict with Catholic doctrine. If science discovers that evolution occurred (as Pope John Paul II acknowledged when he said that evolution was “more than an hypothesis”–this was not a statement of Catholic doctrine) then there is no need for Catholics to reject it; again, if science shows that changes in the climate will cause damage to the environment, then Catholics ought to participate in efforts to help those most affected. But what must be clear is that these are questions for science to investigate, not for the Church to teach as doctrine.

Her final comments reflect the common too-simple conflation of simple scientific facts with morals. On issues like contraception, abortion, stem cell research, etc., the Church has no problems with what the simple, biological facts are, even though those do inform our moral understanding. The Church’s guidance is rather with respect to what we should do. Even if condoms were 100% efficient (which they are not) or embryonic stem cells could cure every disease known to man (which they cannot), their use would still be unethical according to the Church. It does no good to argue about their technical effectiveness when what is in question is the morality of their use. The Church’s morals are not consequentialist: evil may not be done to achieve ostensibly good ends.

Pope Benedict’s comments with respect to condom use and HIV are also treated simplistically. His argument was not that condoms are ineffective, all other things being equal. His argument was that encouraging the use of condoms provides a false sense of security to what is still a risky activity, thus encouraging irresponsible and ultimately damaging behavior. Rather than giving people a device that still has a significant rate of failure, and then leaving them them to take their chances, the church prefers to encourage and support (rather than disparage) prudent restraint over promiscuity. The Church prefers to encourage a vibrant and responsible culture of life with its attendant behavioral standards, over simply, and with false reassurances, passing out cheap devices that usually work…

It’s good to see that Discovery News takes an interest in the election of the new pope, and that it make somewhat of an effort to see the good in the Church. Commentators on the interaction of science and religion, however, would be well advised to understand that actual issues at stake rather than reducing them to caricatures that play well as sound bites but do not reflect realities.

With respect to the commentary’s final question–that of what Pope Francis’ attitude towards science will be–she is right that the answer is: we’ll have to wait and see. I have no doubt that his attitude will not be hostile. To begin with he has an education in chemistry, and more pertinently, despite the misplaced fears of some, it is simply not true that the Church has a program of opposition to science—so there is no reason think that Pope Francis might. Although I’m certain that he would support the teachings of Pope Benedict XVI regarding the role reason in the life of faith and the search for God, I suspect that those themes will not have the same centrality in Pope Francis’ teachings as in Pope Benedict’s, not because of any shortcomings on Pope Francis’ part, but rather because of Pope Benedict’s singular excellence on the subject. If any readers have any knowledge of the new pope’s thoughts on these issues from his previous work, please share!

Monday Links: Feser on Metaphysics, Lewis and Scientism, and Backwards Vertebrate Fossils

  • Edward Feser writes at his blog:

    “That secondary causes are true causes, even if ultimately dependent on God, is necessary if natural science is to be possible.  If occasionalism were true, absolutely everything that happens would, in effect, be comparable to a miracle and there would be no natural regularities to discover.  Physics, chemistry, biology, and the like would be nothing other than branches of theology — the study of different sorts of divine action rather than of (say) the properties of magnetism, electricity, gravitation, hydrogen, helium, bodily organs, or genetic material as such.  And if God’s ways are inscrutable (as they must be given that He is pure actuality, subsistent being itself, etc.), then there could in that case be little reason to expect regularity in any of these spheres.  (As Alain Besançon has argued, a tendency toward an occasionalist conception of divine causality is part of what distinguishes Islam from Christianity – and this is no doubt one reason why natural science progressed in the West and stagnated within the Islamic world.)”

  • And MercatorNet hosts an interview with John G. West on C. S. Lewis’ worries about scientism:

    “Finally, Lewis saw that science, like magic, can be a quest for power over nature and our fellow human beings. Many times that power will be used for good, but if modern science is cut off from traditional ethical norms, its power may be increasingly misused. During Lewis’s own lifetime, he saw the horrific results of the misuse of science in the eugenics movement and its effort to breed a master race by applying the principles of Darwinian biology.”

  • And finally, a new study suggests that reconstructions of early land-dwelling tetrapods might have the backbones backwards. This isn’t, of course, the first time this sort of thing has happened in paleontology.

New Film on Transhumanism

Rebecca Taylor (Mary Meets Dolly) points to a new film coming out about transhumanism, and she rightly points out the aptness of the subtitle: Will we survive our technology? For that is exactly the problem with transhumanism: that it purports that such a thing as “transcending” humanity by merely material means is possible. But with a supernatural destiny and an intrinsic capax Dei, man is already the apex of material nature–any transcending he can do will not be accomplished by material, technological means (though such means are fine for stewarding and improving his condition.) The transhumanist imagines he can fundamentally alter the human essence through technology, but such an attempt can only mean becoming less, not more, than human. See Rebecca’s post for more.

Today in Washington

March for Life (NCR)From the March for Life website:


Pro-life: the Human Rights Issue of Today

The 40th March for Life

Jeanne Monahan and Patrick Kelly

January 22nd marks the 40th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and on the 25th we will commemorate that solemn occasion with the 40th anniversary of the largest human rights demonstration in the world, the MARCH FOR LIFE.  With the passing of the pro-life leader and visionary Nellie Gray, a change in leadership has occurred, and with this new leadership comes big plans for the March as we go forward.

This year in particular we aim to raise awareness in the minds of all Americans of the 40th Anniversary and the toll this has taken on these United States. Our theme includes an equation–40=55M, to signify that in the forty years since Roe v. Wade, 55 million of our fellow human beings have lost their lives to abortion. Fifty-five million is nearly the population of California and New York combined.  Clearly, abortion truly is the human rights abuse of today and our theme this year reflects this reality.

Read here.


Image: National Catholic Register