Wednesday, April 19, 2006

toward a more natural science

Here is my fourth paper this semester: "Kass on Descartes and toward a More Natural Science"

It seems that in no other field has man made more progress than in modern science.[1] The species he has chronicled, the heights he has scaled, the diseases he has conquered, the lives he has saved all work together to paint a triumphant and heroic picture of modern science. But like all things in which man has invested such a large part of his time and energy, it has its critics. For example, Dr. Leon R. Kass, M.D., former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, writes, “The teachings of science, however gratifying as discoveries to the mind, throw icy waters on the human spirit.”[2] But, how can he possibly say this? With all the aforementioned progress, should we not assume that the human spirit has been lifted higher than ever before? Modern science is all around us; we’ve all either played major parts in it or have been affected by it in many ways. Because of this, Kass’ critique can seem absurd. But, much to our surprise, if we take a closer look at modern science, if we peek behind the veil, with Kass as our guide, we find much with which to call its progress into doubt.

In his major work on the philosophy and meaning of modern science and its view of and affect on humanity, Toward a More Natural Science, Kass gives us a very eye-opening look indeed. He shows us that during most of our modern experience of science, we have viewed the world and ourselves through squinted eyes. And he shows us that we can engage in a science that more rightly approaches nature[3] and man by properly analyzing the intentions of its architects, Francis Bacon and René Descartes. In this essay we will focus on the contributions of the latter of the two.

First, what does Kass mean when he says that science has thrown “icy waters on the human spirit?” What do Descartes’ contributions to modern science have to do with the human spirit in the first place? Aren’t the two distinct and unrelated, the former being unconcerned with the latter? But, as we will see, modern science has much to do with the human spirit. In the name of progress and the mastery of nature, modern science has made a concerted effort to bring all human aspiration, longing, and hope into doubt and, ultimately, oblivion.

For example, Descartes begins his Discourse on Method by stating that of the “various actions and enterprises of all men, there is hardly one of them that does not seem to me vain and useless.”[4] This is a telling comment on man’s ability and achievement. On the other hand, he believes man has been given too much credit by the classical traditions of Socrates, Aristotle, Aquinas, and the like. Descartes wants to lower man from the peaks of classical philosophy, theology, and morals so that he can build him up again his way, through a novel, methodical science of mathematical physics[5]. The awe and wonder that were the foundation and beginning of philosophy and wisdom for the ancient philosophers – and which still animate man today – are simply explained away in terms of “stimulus and response, of input and output, and neurotransmitters and end-plate potentials, and… [relegated to oblivion are] human inwardness, purposiveness, and consciousness.”[6] So much for our icy water.[7]

But what is this science of mathematical physics? It can be looked at as a theoretical attitude and as a practical enterprise.[8] But first a definition is necessary. Descartes explained it this way:

So soon as I had acquired some general notions concerning Physics… they caused me to see that it is possible to attain knowledge which is very useful in life, and that, instead of that speculative philosophy which is taught in the Schools, we may find a practical philosophy by means of which, knowing the force and the action of fire, water, air, the stars, heaven and all the other bodies that environ us, as distinctly as we know the different crafts of our artisans, we can in the same way employ them in all those uses to which they are adapted, and thus render ourselves the masters and possessors of nature.[9]
Descartes’ 17th-century vision for science is today its primary goal. Therefore, Kass explains that modern science:[10]
* Is opposed to ordinary experience and to speculative philosophy;
* “Redefined what it means to know something, in terms of the standards of certainty and clarity possessed by symbolic mathematics and through the rigorous application of a universal method”;
* Is “neutral to the large human and metaphysical questions that dominated ancient philosophy and which human beings still ask and will always ask” and
* Studies man’s political and moral life scientifically “not the way it is lived, but abstractly and amorally, like a mere physical phenomenon.”
This theoretical attitude is clearly seen in a few real-world examples, the first one concerning the human mind.

One of the more disturbing developments on the horizon of modern science is its attempt to construct a “peace of mind” that before was accomplished by old fashioned discipline and experience.[11] Kass tells us of the experiments of neurophysiologist Jose Delgado to place electrodes on certain areas of the brain in order to stimulate feelings of pleasure in the patient. He was even able to outfit the patent with a portable device – leaving the electrodes implanted – that she could then use to stimulate the feelings of pleasure herself. No longer tied to the doctor’s lab, and cleverly concealing the wires of the contraption, Dr. Delgado’s subject could now freely experience pleasure at her every whim. So much for experience.

A second example broadens our scope a bit, from science in the interest of peace of mind to science in the public interest and the mastery and possession of life itself. But as we said before, modern science is neutral to the ultimate questions, those of “meaning, being, ultimate causes, the eternity or noneternity of the world, justice and injustice, the good, the true, and the beautiful.”[12] So how can it possibly speak for what is in the public’s best interest? This neutrality, rather than liberating modern science, has actually enslaved it in standardless, limitless experimentation. In one particular case of misguided zeal for the public interest, “On June 16, 1980, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that a living microorganism was patentable matter, under the provision of patent laws enacted by Congress in 1952.”[13] Here microbiologist Ananda Chakrabarty was given a patent on bacteria that he produced in a lab to breakdown oil spills. This has profound implications and tells us many things about modern science’s view of life:[14]
* It is no longer concerned with what living things are but how they work;
* Knowledge of life is not a good in itself but a means to some sort of power;
* “A living organism is no more than a composition of matter”;
* “All forms are but accidents of underlying matter: Matter is what truly is”;
* All of living nature, our own included, is absent of any special dignity; and
* “There is nothing in the nature of a being, no, not even in the human patenter himself, that makes him immune to being patented”

Returning to Chakrabarty’s new bacteria, we are justified in feeling a certain uneasiness, to say the least, at the concept of human ownership of an entire species. Kass, making this even clearer, warns us that “It is one thing to own a mule; it is another to own mule”! And he asks an important question: “What is the principled limit to this beginning extension of the domain of private ownership and dominion over living nature?” It seems to be nowhere in sight, but Kass gives us a brilliant piece of advice:

[T]o respect art [of science] without respect for life is finally self-contradictory. For human art depends on the human artificer, whose inventive mind depends on his living body, not only to sustain it that he might practice its cleverness, but also because the ends of his artfulness emerge from the inner needs and aspirations of his embodied life.
And at the end of the day, as much as Mr. Chakrabarty and the Supreme Court believe he has created this new living organism from his own power and creativity, let them and modern science in general be reminded that “nature is commanded only as she is obeyed.”
[15] Chakrabarty put the necessary conditions in place, but ultimately it was Nature who was in control.

Our final example returns to the human person and his encounter with modern medicine. Kass explains that like our laboratory science, medicinal science lacks the character it needs to give it necessary guidance and purpose. Indeed, the motivation of the physician’s art, rather than lying in the healthy human being, is in several false goals:[16]
* Happiness, pleasure, and contentment or convenience rather than health;
* The redefinition of health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being”;
* Social adjustment and obedience or civil and moral virtue;
* The alteration of human nature;
* Research not for the immediate benefit on and for the patient but rather in a way that uses him as a means to a scientific end;[18] and finally
* The prolongation of life or the prevention of death rather than health, per se

A look at the word “health” itself can help us stay focused on its true meaning and the proper goal of medicine: the healthy human being. “Health” literally means “wholeness” and so “to be whole is to be healthy, and to be healthy is to be whole.” Ancient Greek has two words for “health:” hygieia [“hygiene”], meaning “living well” or “a well way of living;” and euexia, meaning “well-habited-ness” or “good habit of body.” This reminds us of Aristotle’s treatment of virtue. “Just as courage is the cause of courageous action and hence also of courage, so ‘living well’ is health, is the cause of health, and is caused by health.”[20] And speaking of virtue in turn reminds us of the soul, the oft-forgotten harbinger of health and wholeness. Socrates criticizes this forgetfulness in the Platonic dialogue Charmides: “just as one must not attempt to curve the eyes without the head or the head without the body, so neither the body without the soul.”[21]

In the three examples above, we have seen how Descartes’ vision has had a strong influence on modern science. To clarify, it would be incorrect to equate 17th century thought and science with our modern science today; many later modern thinkers have deepened and furthered Descartes. But, one cannot deny the key role he played in establishing the present motivations and goals of modern science. On the other hand, Kass has been one of many key figures that have gotten us out from under and away from these modern formulations and that have been thoughtful of a new post-modern science.[22] He advises that, first and foremost, we must “awaken the sense of awe and wonder, itself more human than even the desire for mastery.”[23] And “we must ponder the full range of questions raised by the relation between knowledge and human life, or between science and the broader community.”[24] Finally, “If we are sober in our practice and mindful in our thought, it is given to us human beings to learn our place in the natural whole and to discover something of its distinctive beauty and mysterious ground.”[25]

[1] Notice I say, “It seems.” We will discover reason to doubt if we have made true progress after taking a closer look at modern science here.
[2] All quotes from Kass are from Toward More Natural Science: Biology and Human Affairs, by Leon R. Kass, M.D., The Free Press, ©1985 – hereafter referred to as “Kass”. Here: Kass, p. 6
[3] A science that more rightly approaches nature is the “more natural science” that Kass argues we need to return to. And he states: “ ‘Natural’ and ‘more natural’ mean here only ‘true (or truer) to life as found and lived’ ” – Kass, p. xii
[4] All quotes from Descartes are from Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, translated by Donald A. Cress, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., ©1998 – hereafter referred to as “Descartes”. Here: Descartes, p. 2
[5] From notes given by Dr. Paul Seaton, History of Philosophy II, 1-27-06
[6] Kass, p. 6
[7] Sorry, I couldn’t resist (cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, II-5, para. 10.)
[8] Comment on draft by Dr. Paul Seaton
[9] Kass, p. 130-131 quoting Descartes, p. 34-35.
[10] Kass, p. 5
[11] Descartes expresses this desire as well, noting “the tranquility I esteem above all things” and the “perfect peace of mind I am seeking” in the context of a discussion on if he should go public with his new method of mathematical physics. Descartes, p. 42
Note: Our Holy Father is aware of this: “If it is true…that in the 19th and 20th centuries, technology has gone through an amazing growth, at the beginning of the 21st century further steps have been taken: Technological development has taken over, thanks to information technology, even a part of our mental activities, with knowledge that affects our way of thinking and can condition our freedom itself.” –
Zenit April 4, 2006
[12] Kass, p. 5
[13] p. 128
[14] p. 149-150
[15] All quotes in this paragraph, p. 151-152
[16] p. 160-162
[17] “New biomedical techniques provide vastly greater powers to alter directly and deliberately the bodies and minds of human beings, as well as many of the naturally given boundaries of human life… [T]he possible and likely uses [of these powers] extend beyond the traditional medical goals of healing; they promise – or threaten – to encompass… ultimately, perhaps, new human beings and ways of being human.” – Kass, p. 1-2
“For the mind depends so much on the temperament and disposition of the bodily organs that, if it is possible to find a means of rendering men wiser and cleverer than they have hitherto been, I believe that it is in medicine that it must be sought.” – Kass, p. 130-131 quoting Descartes, p. 35.
[18] Again, Our Holy Father: In this context, "it is necessary to say forcefully that the human being cannot and must not be sacrificed ever for the sake of science and technology," the Holy Father stressed. "This is the reason why," he added, "the issue is so important of the so-called anthropological question which for us, heirs of the humanistic tradition founded on Christian values, must be addressed in the light of principles that inspired our civilization." – Zenit April 4, 2006
[19] “To be alive and to be healthy are not the same, though the first is both a condition of the second and, up to a point, a consequence… If medicine takes aim at death prevention, rather than at health, then the medical ideal, ever more closely to be approximated, must be bodily immortality.” – Kass, p. 162
“No other area of present biomedical research promises such profound alterations of our way of life, not to say of our condition.” – p. 300
[20] p. 170
[21] Plato, Charmides, 156d-157a
[22] Just as Aristotle, always our example, can help us “get out from under Kant and away from his formulations of moral terms and alternatives.” – The God of Faith and Reason: Foundations of Christian Theology by Robert Sokolowski, ©1995 The Catholic University of America Press, Ch. 6, p. 54-55
[23] Kass, p. xii
[24] p. 8
[25] p. 153

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