Friday, May 13, 2005

bending over backwards to accommodate anti-science religion

may 13th

now for some theology and bioethics. i have been accused by christian fundamentalists of spouting strange theology, and i return the compliment. they do the same. here are some examples.

the whole premise here is that the human embryo/fetus is somehow blessed by god at the moment of conception. why only at the moment of conception? every egg and sperm cell also has the potential to become human, so they should also be considered worthy of the same respect, and so they must have souls as well. and so on, ad infinitum. each human cell is capable of creating a clone of the entire human, therefore it has a soul; so no human cell should ever be destroyed. does that include even cancer cells? or even the cells that you destroy, you bad person, when you brush your teeth? or when you smoke a cigarette? or just by being alive?

this also brings out a patent fallacy in christian theology: the raising of humans above all other creation. they claim only humans have souls. why are humans so superior? does god not think its other creations are worthy of having souls? i once posted an article on this blog on the secret lives of cows: they too exhibit various human-like emotions, including jealousy, anger, cliquishness, etc. how do you know they don't have souls?

and suppose we were to suddenly find, through the search for extra terrestrial intelligence, an intelligent alien species? do they have a soul? if not, why not? if they do have a soul, do they have a different god, the god of the aliens that gave them a soul? if the aliens are more intelligent than humans, does it mean the god of the aliens (let's say they are spider-like) is superior to the god of the humans? does it mean that the god of the christian fundamentalists (i referred to him as GOF, god of the fundamentalists, in an article i wrote years ago) is only the god of human christians, a tribal, limited god? after all GOF is supposed to have created humans in his image, and the spider-like aliens are not in GOF's image: GOF is an old man with a flowing beard. imagine the confusion if a spider-alien wanted to become a christian! how could he, since he has no soul, or his soul is tied to a different GOA, god of aliens?

what if, through a normal process of evolution, new super-human species are created? this comes up against the same soul issues.

so this whole business of the soul is shady. so is the exclusivism applied first to christians and then to humans: as if only they have some direct hotline to GOF. all of the others are second-class. ironically, this actually implies, logically, that the GOF is a second-class tribal god, not the One, the Creator of the Universe.

i personally think all beings have souls, and they are not inferior to humans. the Creator, the One, did create them all and its purpose was not to create slaves for humans. other beings are just different. so if one is willing to run experiments on rhesus monkeys and mice, and harvest their tissue, blood, whatever, then there should be no legitimate reason to oppose the same with human tumors or non-viable human fetuses either.

this whole fuss over human stem cells is pseudo-religious tripe. on the other hand, i do agree that a certain amount of respect needs to be paid. i wouldn't suggest the chinese method of wholesale abortion and consumption of aborted fetuses. that is simply nauseating.

i am also not a science fundamentalist, i hasten to add. there are dogmatists there too. i think a practical via media is possible where one respects religion (i am a deeply religious person) and at the same time recognizes the value of science. neither should put on airs because both are imperfect models for the universe. neither is infallible.

for instance, science could not satisfactority explain the tsunami, why it happened when it happened and when it will happen again. religion could not satisfactority explain the tsunami and why it was god's will to make it happen.

the church, in its finest traditions, is blocking stem-cell science as it always has blocked any new advance. this is how europe did not progress for a thousand years, until the s0-called enlightenment destroyed the deadening influence of the church. they do it just like the JNU blocks progress (yet again demonstrating that marxism is a semitic religion). the image of galileo recanting his theories under pressure is the symbol for these dogmatists. or that of giordano bruno being burned at the stake. or of leon trotsky being 'erased' from history books.

20 comments:

dr abhishek puri said...

yeah you are right about it all rajeev.
frankly speaking, it sucks to see the genuine advance in medicine blocked. stem cells hold an immense potential for therapeutic cures and much less than the idea of cloning. it is simply not possible with the current medical knowledge. hence the hodge podge about the "soul" and shit like that.

frankly, it is surprising that in bush's land, stem cell therapy is getting public funds. i came across an article in rediff where an indian doctor has got an advance ofr stem cell therapy for beta cells- the ones responsible for making insulin. diabetes would then be more easier to manage. i really wish that these same fundamentalists be afflcited with the diseases and then realise that as a doctor it is so frustrating to relieve the patient of pain.

for that matter, euthanasia and all that attendant crap. the same fundamentalists wouldnt realise as to how difficult it is to revieve a dead vegetable- the hoopla behind schiavo(may her soul rest in peace!) brought the issue to the core. the other day, we were discussing amongst us doctors, that each one of the general population should spend roughly a week in an intensive care unit. frankly then one would realise that difference between life and death is very precarious. something that jesus wouldnt deliver. medical science is one thing. i havent really had any trust in miracles so far.

san said...

Excellent article, Rajeev. Human flesh is just a network of molecules, that's all. The 'human soul' may reside in the higher organization of neural patterns, but to worship the mere molecules as sacred is the kind of idolatry that Christians claim to despise. Genomics and biotechnology are another great passion of mine, and I think that the benefits of stem cell research for regenerative medicine and also gene therapy research for recombinant medicine are far too great to be held back by some barely-literate rednecks. These people would have you watch your loved ones suffer from terrible disease while feebly consoling you that "they're going to a better place". Nah, that's okay -- let the Christian fundamentalist depart for the better place, and let the rest of the sensible folk stay behind to cultivate heaven on earth. India has a great potential in bioinformatics, by the way. This is one area where Indian cultural attributes and affinity to informational and healing technologies will serve us well. This is one area where we can really wow the world one day.

san said...

Dammit Rajeev, you need to allocate a space on this blog to let us post useful tech articles:

http://media.mitsubishi-motors.com/pressrelease/e/corporate/detail1269.html

This is one I hope readers will like, because it's related to the energy problems India and the world are facing right now. Electric vehicles are the future!

Anonymous said...

Hi Rajeev,

This is unrelated to the current discussion, but have you read the following article?

Chinese army enters into Indian territory
http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/1111584.cms

Anonymous said...

Rajeev, I know its a bit off-kilter, but I was wondering if you would be kind enought to write an article on the situation Russia find itself in vis-a-vis Islamic terrorism and as evident from a news posting in Rediff.com titled: "Chinese migrants clash with Russian police" (http://www.rediff.com/news/2005/may/16china.htm) as IMHO India finds itself in same situation with regards to both Islamic terrorism and, in its case, illegal migrants from B'Desh. Also the way the Western nations want to keep both India and Russia down and do everything within their means to stop India & Russia from achieving global power status.

Sameer said...

Dear Rajeev,

I came here from your rediff article on India and UN.
It was a wonderful article and I share your views that India should walk out of it.

I am also seeing your other articles, and they are LOVELY....

And one more thing, I wish to publish your article on my Blog too, I need your permission, I wont tamper with it and I will definitely mention the source and acknowledgements.

And please do visit my Blog and website (www.sameer.net.ms)

Sameer

jai hind said...

Nothing to do with this article. But this report in NewYork Times clearly suggests a new bone of contention between China & USA.

Report to Congress on International Economic and Exchange Rate Policies

http://www.treas.gov/press/releases/reports/js2448_report.pdf

Chinese have pegged their currency exchange rate at 8.28 to the U.S dollar.Apparantely the US is pressurising the chineese to reconsider this rate as its local industry is being hit.

It will be interesting game to watch in coming days & not sure how this will affect the Indian exchange rate? Will India too have to re-adjust the exchange rates in relation of any adjustments made in Beijing?

Beijing usual shows its middle finger to US whenever it seems that Uncle Sam is putting up pressure.(Whether its human rights records or anything)

Lets see what it does this time !

san said...

The fact is that India is not a prime offender in this category, as its economy is not so heavily composed of foreign export earnings as with China or Japan. Nextly, it's much harder for a democracy to engage in the kind of state controls that China has. But what I would say is that Sino-US antagonism will have a positive effect on India, with both sides seeking to woo India as much as possible.

Anonymous said...

So much so for spearheading the NAM cause. A column in IE which informs that the countries pressing us for signing the NPT are the ones whose causes are espoused by the Minister of Ext. Affairs who is still stuck in the times of Indira Gandhi.
http://iecolumnists.expressindia.com/full_column.php?content_id=69625

NoHairBrain said...

I have been a avid reader of all ur articles on rediff and lemme congratulate you on the thoughtful and insightful articles that you come up with and most often, I should say, Timely.

I have something to say on this thing too. I think the Anthropocentric nature of the dominant religion, christianity, ( God, in the likeness of Man ) precludes, the recognition of souls in animals, which is being disputed in everyday life and thus its something to be conveniently swept under the carpet by the church.
I think that everthing that the humans do, is a recipe for evolution, although the results of it might not be immediately apparent. To put it in very simple terms - "What doesnt kill ya, will only make you stronger."
thus we should stop the church interfering in science and vice versa. But thats the system of checks and balances too . isnt it ?

san said...

Regarding the US Exchange Rate issue, I'd point you to this article from The Economist:

http://www.economist.com/agenda/displayStory.cfm?story_id=3982328

It points out that the basic means by which countries like China are able to manipulate exchange rate with the US is by buying US treasuries very heavily to maintain an exchange rate target. If you get China to stop doing that in order to let their currency float freely, then suddenly the US govt would face a shortfall in lending and consequent rise in borrowing costs. This means higher interest rates, and such higher rates would only puncture the massive real estate debt bubble in the US. Too many American households are in hoc to pay mortgages. China is paying their part of their mortgage rates -- whether or not they choose to realize it is upto them. They may end up learning that lesson the hard way, at the price of losing their homes.

jai hind said...

Nice one San. But have you observed how most of the articles on this exchange rate issue leave you with more questions unanswered? Its like no one's ready to call the spade.
I would say the pressure is on both ends. And obviously as this article suggests its not even in America's interest that China goes for "crash landing"; as it were.
Moving away from this article, i am carrying a feeling that we might be looking at a possible Chinese implosion;not of the order of erstwhile Soviet Union; but still.
What happens in China is hard to tell, thanks to the state controlled media.But one gets this feeling that all's not well out there, too.

san said...

Jai Hind, I would tell you that China's dictatorship is dependent on a high growth rate to keep the masses distracted and docile. The mandarins in Beijing aren't pushing for growth out of pure nationalism or benevolence -- they know their own necks are on the line. As soon as the economy tanks, then anti-government protests will commensurately rise.
But if the US managed to get China to curb its purchases of US treasuries to revalue the exchange rate, then the US is going to have to pay the price in high interest rates and consequent pain to mortgage holders in particular, since they have the highest level of debt exposure and the least refinancing options. Since these people comprise a rather subsantial portion of the consumer pool, their economic pinch and higher rate of default will trigger a larger dampening effect on the US economy. Bush better not push for exchange rate revaluation too close to the elections, or the resultant economic shock will boot his party form power.

jai hind said...

well said. point taken.

IndianXian said...

The article has a couple of misconceptions:

1. The Catholic Church is pro-life not because every cell in the human body has the potential to become human but because every human embryo is considered a human being.

2. It is against stem cells that are harvested by the destruction of such human embryos or human beings. This position is similar to you finding Chinese abortion, "nauseating". AFAIK it is not against using ones own stem cells for curing a disease.

The concept of soul is not unique to Christianity or monotheism - http://hinduwebsite.com/reincarnation.htm From your post, it doesn't appear that you believe in reincarnation either.

Again, it is my understanding that Hinduism teaches against killing a human fetus (Rig Veda and Upanishads)

san said...

IndianXian, I'd say that a blastocyst is much smaller than an embryo and isn't even human-shaped. The problem with the assertion that a human being begins at conception is that you're labelling a pile of molecules a human being -- meaning that there isn't even a brain or a heart at that point, and you're calling it taboo. There isn't that much difference between a stem cell and an early embryo, so why bother to make that distinction? an early embryo is just a collection of stem cells that haven't even arranged themselves into a human-looking form yet, with organs like a brain or heart. So why call it a human being just out of dogmatic obeisance to unscientific ancient literature?

If there's no brain, there's no mind (aka "soul"), so you don't have to worry about any murder being committed against it. In the early weeks, it's far too tiny and undeveloped for that. I find that religious conservatives are just attracted to the call to arms against embryonic stem cells out of horrific fascination with the politicized abortion issue. The reality is that you're fighting to protect a pile of molecules, as contrasted with a soul (mind/brain). You can't have a soul without a brain.

But those same embyronic stem cells have magnificent potential to replicate and form specialized tissue that can heal injuries. Why deny health and happiness to the living, based on some misguided belief that health would be taken away from some non-existent human being?

IndianXian said...

Your statements are mildly interesting - we are not dealing with the shape of human molecules or a collection of human molecules. If all of life is just a collection of cells, what difference does it make that these collection of cells have a "brain"? Isn't the "brain" a collection of cells too? So why the differentiation between a collection of cells with a "brain" and a collection of cells without a "brain"?

According to you, then a mentally retarded person would have a defective "soul" after all, that person has a defective brain and therefore a defective mind (or soul). Would it be OK to harvest the bodies of such persons, let us say a kidney, after all they cannot be useful to the society either and why should the living be denied health and happiness?

It is not a question of religious conservatism - it is a question of ethics and if we should accord the rights to human embryos the same rights we extend to human beings.

san said...

Indianxian, thanks for your reply. I again reiterate that the difference between having a brain and not having a brain is the difference between having a soul and not having a soul. That's why a person with a brain is not just a collection of cells, but a human being.

The brain is the physical organ of the mind, and hence of the soul. It's the piece of hardware where the software resides. If you chop off a person's arms and legs, they will still be the same person you knew. If their brain is dead however, there won't be anything left of them but an empty shell, even if they have all the rest of their bodily parts working.

Regarding your example of a mentally retarded person, I would say that the sliding greyscale of measuring mental competence is different than the pass/fail black-and-white measurement of having/not-having a "soul".

If you're above the threshold, then you're above it, regardless of by how much. By the same token, we can apply that to many higher animals too. Our family dog was very human to us -- he would affectionately greet us, he would feel hurt if we scolded him, when I or my brother were away at school he would visit our rooms and even lie in our beds because he missed us. Just because a mind doesn't go beyond childlike intelligence doesn't make it defective or non-existent. There is a basic threshold. An infant doesn't have the intelligence of a mature adult, but it still has some basic awareness.

If you're going to claim that an undeveloped embryo has this kind of basic self-awareness when it doesn't even have a brain to do this, then you should provide some proof. And please don't trot out the centuries old holy books to do this. Use something credible, please.

I too am citing ethics when I say that embryonic stem cells should be used to heal the living, who do quite demonstrably have souls.

Do you feel it's unethical to take organs from a braindead accident victim, and transplant them to heal a person in need? Braindeath -- or lack of a functioning brain -- is a medically accepted criteria for judging whether or not someone is alive. In the case of a braindead accident victim, the person who was once alive is no longer. In the case of an undeveloped embryo, it's not alive yet because it hasn't even gotten to the point of developing a brain yet. One is "post-alive" and the other is "pre-alive".

However, medical ethicists and legal experts alike certainly agree that for developed embryos having a higher brain, these have crossed the fuzzy threshold where they may have awareness and feel pain. Then obviously you want to extend legal protection to these helpless human beings. Fine, no stem cell researcher is proposing any harm to developed embryos.

Rakesh said...

Rajeev, your articles are really full of information and its a delight to read them. But I really regret that someone like you who has a descent education and the ability to think with his own brain sometimes believes some information and quote them without looking at their authenticity. Here I point to your quoting the practice of eating human fetuses in China. Before you quoted the information it would have been very nice if you could ascertain the authenticity of the source. A simple google search will lead you to several links which are quite authentic and quote actual source to certify their claims. The eating fetuses is not a normal practice rather just an urbanlegend that has slipped into the media and has been helped in spreading by christian xenophobic groups who hate china. Dont misinterpret myself as someone who likes China. I will direct you to just 2 of the links from the several that throws some light on the matter :
http://www.snopes.com/horrors/cannibal/fetus.htm
http://urbanlegends.about.com/library/weekly/aa080601a.htm

And in my opinion even if such practices exist in one or two separate exceptional cases it shouldn't be taken as a reflection for the whole community. Even in India if you go to Varanasi, you will find a sect of people called Aughars who feed on the dead bodies of human beings that are found floating on river Ganga, but than can that be quoted as something that is practiced by the mass in general in India ? Certainly not.
I hope you will take care of such things in your future articles and make them more trust-worthy. From my side I would say I am quite impressed with your thoughts.
Regards,
Rakesh

IndianXian said...

san: Indianxian, thanks for your reply. I again reiterate that the difference between having a brain and not having a brain is the difference between having a soul and not having a soul. That's why a person with a brain is not just a collection of cells, but a human being.

ix: If you are claiming that human embryos do not have brains then you are incorrect. They do have the material for a brain it is just not developed. Rather than seeing human development as a continuum, you have decided to focus on a "stage" at which human embryos/fetuses are accorded the rights to a human being.This is no different than the judgement of the Chinese that a fetus is not a human being unless s/he breathes. I don't see the difference between you and the Chinese (not the eating of human embryos). This is a value judgement. You choose to regard human beings as one who has "brains" (and therefore a "soul"). BTW you are confusing mind ("intellect") with soul - they are not the same. If embryos do not have the material to create brains where do the brains come from? Someone else could regard human beings as one who has teeth. In the continuum of human development, embryos represent one of the primary stages of human life. It is a mass of human cells.


san: The brain is the physical organ of the mind, and hence of the soul. It's the piece of hardware where the software resides. If you chop off a person's arms and legs, they will still be the same person you knew. If their brain is dead however, there won't be anything left of them but an empty shell, even if they have all the rest of their bodily parts working.

ix: You have never met an amputee. How do you explain the near death experiences where the attending doctor has confirmed there is no "life" - no brain activity and no heart beats. They are very well documented in Lancet. But the "soul" is able to see.


san: Regarding your example of a mentally retarded person, I would say that the sliding greyscale of measuring mental competence is different than the pass/fail black-and-white measurement of having/not-having a "soul".

ix: Again a value judgement. Why stop there? Why should the "soul" matter if all of humanity is a mass of cells, the brain is a mass of cells and you have no idea if the human being that is delivered will be a criminal or a scientist.

san: If you're going to claim that an undeveloped embryo has this kind of basic self-awareness when it doesn't even have a brain to do this, then you should provide some proof. And please don't trot out the centuries old holy books to do this. Use something credible, please.

ix: Nobody is claiming that the undeveloped human embryo has self awareness when even developed human beings cannot sometimes attain self awareness. See my statement above regarding your fixation on "brain" activity and evidence in Lancet regarding cases of near death experiences.

san: I too am citing ethics when I say that embryonic stem cells should be used to heal the living, who do quite demonstrably have souls.

ix: Would you support embryonic stem cells from a human being to be used to cure other animal species like your dog?

san: Do you feel it's unethical to take organs from a braindead accident victim, and transplant them to heal a person in need? Braindeath -- or lack of a functioning brain -- is a medically accepted criteria for judging whether or not someone is alive. In the case of a braindead accident victim, the person who was once alive is no longer. In the case of an undeveloped embryo, it's not alive yet because it hasn't even gotten to the point of developing a brain yet. One is "post-alive" and the other is "pre-alive".

ix: Yes. Unless it has been sanctioned by the victim or his/her next of kin. As far as I know, we perform funerals and funeral rites for the dead after the heart has stopped beating not when the brain is dead. But the problem with your scenario is that the legal community recognizes brain death because as an organism, the individual human being cannot self-direct its survival except through artificial means not because the human being is dead. The embryo on the other hand can and does go on to other stages of human development.