William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

How not to argue for stem cell research

I received this press release from the Center for Inquiry (CFI), a group that grew out of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (or CSICOP). I receive these kinds of things daily from groups hoping I will publicize their causes. In this case, I decided to comply.

E-mail: nbupp@centerforinquiry.net

Center for Inquiry Calls Vatican’s Position on Biomedical Technology Deplorable and Scientifically Insupportable

Amherst, New York (December 12, 2008)—In a move designed to firm up faith-based opposition to embryonic stem cell research and other cutting-edge biomedical technologies, the Vatican has released a 32-page document titled “Dignitas Personae” – meaning “the dignity of a person.” The document condemns a host of procedures considered “immoral” by the Catholic Church, such as in vitro fertilization (IVF), the freezing of unfertilized eggs, embryonic stem cell research, and the testing of embryos to help identify those with defects. The Center for Inquiry, a think tank headquartered in Amherst, New York that supports research on bioethical questions, deplores the Vatican’s pronouncement. The Vatican’s position has no justification other than religious doctrine, according to the Center for Inquiry, and may have a serious adverse effect on scientific research and the development of medical therapies.

“I regret the renewed effort by the Vatican to censor—indeed prohibit—research in reproductive science,” said Paul Kurtz, chairman and founder of the Center for Inquiry. “Do we have to wage the Galileo battle again? The Vatican claims that their objections are “moral,” but they are based on a theological doctrine that a formless fertilized egg is a full human being, a position which most scientists reject.” Kurtz says there is a need to defend freedom of scientific research and the positive good that can ensue for countless numbers of infertile couples. “The effort to curtail stem cell research is especially disturbing in the view of the possible beneficent results for improving human health,” he said.

The Vatican has focused on commonplace scientific technologies used in the United States and elsewhere, which the Church believes demean human “dignity,” and bring humans perilously close to “playing God.” The Church continues to hold steadfast to its key theological proclamation that “life begins at conception,” thereby rendering as “illicit” the use of embryos or fertilized eggs in research or otherwise, including IVF for married Catholic couples wishing to conceive.

Dr. Ronald A. Lindsay, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry (and author of the book Future Bioethics: Overcoming Taboos, Myths, and Dogmas) said that “the Vatican has once again manifested its regrettable preference for religious doctrine over science. Until roughly fourteen days after conception, one cannot even meaningfully refer to the embryo as an individual, let alone the equivalent of an adult human, since both twinning and fusion are possible until that point.” Lindsay added that the Vatican’s rejection of IVF on the ground that it results in the discarding of embryos is especially ironic since from 60 to 80 percent of embryos conceived “naturally” are spontaneously aborted. “If the Vatican wants to prevent embryos from ‘dying,’ then they will have to instruct couples to avoid sex completely.”

“The bottom line,” says Lindsay, “is that the Vatican is telling those who need medical assistance to seek help from theology, not therapy.”

The Center for Inquiry/Transnational is a nonprofit, educational, advocacy, and scientific-research think tank based in Amherst, New York. Their research and educational projects focus on three broad areas: religion, ethics, and society; paranormal and fringe-science claims; and medicine and health. The Center’s Web site is www.centerforinquiry.net .

The Vatican paper may be found here.

This, as we all know, is an extraordinarily touchy subject, and I should know better than to try and tackle it. I want to be very careful to make one central point: that this press release is a poor, even false in part, and error-filled argument against the Catholic Church’s position on human dignity. I am not arguing that CFI’s underlying position is wrong, however; nor am I arguing it is right. That is, I will not argue, nor claim support, for any side in the questions to which the press release and Vatican document address.

I hope not to get into those discussions, either. That is, I hope we can stick to how to and how not to argue a point, and that we do not attempt (at this time) to argue for or against the points in question. Let’s keep this friendly.

Paul Kurtz, who founded or co-founded both CSICOP and CFI, is a philosopher and so should know better than to have issued this press release. Let’s go point by point to see why.

“The [Vatican] document condemns a host of procedures considered ‘immoral’ by the Catholic Church…” Note the scare quotes around the word immoral, the use of which, says the late philosopher David Stove, serve to negate the word so that it doesn’t mean immoral, but believed by so and so to be immoral. Like it or not, the debate on the central questions are moral ones; they cannot be any but. So to say ‘immoral’ in the way the press release did serves to limit the usefulness of a word that is necessary for CFI to use. This is because, as we shall see, the sole argument that CFI has against the Vatican position is that “it is too moral!”

There is nothing wrong with this argument. The Vatican is claiming immorality, and there is nothing wrong with the counter that it is too moral to allow “vitro fertilization (IVF), the freezing of unfertilized eggs, embryonic stem cell research, and the testing of embryos to help identify those with defects.”

Thus, when CFI whines that, “The Vatican’s position has no justification other than religious doctrine”, this is logically equivalent to saying “The Vatican’s position is a moral one based on its central beliefs and tenets.” And is thus a poor attempt of CFI trying to disallow the Vatican’s use of morality in argumentation.

Kurtz then says the Vatican’s position, “may have a serious adverse effect on scientific research and the development of medical therapies.” Very true, but this is nothing more than a restatement of the Vatican’s original position: that these activities are immoral, and since they immoral, they should be proscribed.

Kurtz again: “Do we have to wage the Galileo battle again?” Given that Kurtz has fairly picked a reasonable comparison, which he has not1, his question implies what is false: that there is some factual truth which the Vatican is failing to acknowledge. A reading of the Vatican document shows they know well the medical facts. They are not arguing against the facts, just saying that employing certain behavior related to these facts is immoral.

More Kurtz: “The Vatican claims that their objections are ‘moral,’ but they are based on a theological doctrine that a formless fertilized egg is a full human being, a position which most scientists reject.” He again uses scare quotes around moral, once more trying to remove a legitimate form of argument. He even calls the Vatican’s call to morality a “theological doctrine”, which is a true statement, but silly. Of course it is a theological argument! What else would it be?

Note Kurtz’s call to consensus, where he says “a position which most scientists reject”. Mr Kurtz, this is logically and factually equivalent to “a position which some scientists support”! Readers of this blog will recognize that Kurtz’s choice of words is far from a strong argument in his favor.

His next statement is his best, he finally says something about why he feels use of these medical procedures is moral, arguing “the positive good…for countless numbers of infertile couples…[and]…the possible beneficent results for improving human health.” To say that these procedures will be “good” is a moral statement, and to claim “possible beneficent results” is a factual one, open to observation, theory, and all the other tools available to research questions of these kind. If Kurtz would have stuck to observations like these, his would have made sense.

Next to weigh in is CFI’s Ronald Lindsay, who is obviously letting his emotions get the best of him when he says, “the Vatican has once again manifested its regrettable preference for religious doctrine over science.” The Vatican, of course, has no choice but to opt for religious doctrine in its arguments. This is its reason for existence!

Lindsay’s second mistake is falsely contrasting religious doctrine and “science”, as if there was a tangible thing, or group, called “science” to which we can defer, much as some defer to the Church on moral matters. There is no such thing as “science” in this sense.2 There are facts, theories, observations, and so on which do exist and which can be considered, consulted, interpreted, and used in good or bad order. Thus, Lindsay makes the same error as Kurtz did when he claims the Vatican is claiming certain true facts are false. The Vatican is doing no such thing. Who doubts the veracity or efficacy of in vitro fertilization, for example? No priest of bishop is making so absurd a claim.

After citing a little known and interesting medial fact, a form of argument to which he should have stuck, Lindsay moves to non sequiturs: “The Vatican’s rejection of IVF on the ground that it results in the discarding of embryos is especially ironic since from 60 to 80 percent of embryos conceived ‘naturally’ are spontaneously aborted.” I don’t know why he needs scare quotes around naturally, but it does not follow that the embryos lost, or the way in which they were lost, from IVF is morally equivalent to those that are lost, and the way they are lost, spontaneously. But he didn’t have to make this error because he was awfully close to a factual argument which he should have offered on the mechanisms and causes of spontaneous abortions and in what way, if any, these are or are not equivalent to those happening in patients receiving IVF.

Lindsay then says something utterly absurd: “If the Vatican wants to prevent embryos from ‘dying,’ then they will have to instruct couples to avoid sex completely.” This is nothing but childish petulance and should not found its way into a press release purporting to be the public face of a major organization. I also can’t help but picture a look of smug self-satisfaction on Lindsay’s face as he thought up this zinger. I might be doing a disservice to this great man by saying that, but I’d bet it will be a common emotion felt by many who read this press release.

Worked into a pique, Lindsay closes with another non sequitur: “the Vatican is telling those who need medical assistance to seek help from theology, not therapy.” I don’t even know what to say about this other than to remark that this kind of thing is what commonly passes for arguments in politics these days. It boils down to “I want my way because it’s my way!” That is, it is no better than that.

What is most striking is the Kurtz and Lindsay had a vast array of both factal and moral statements that they could have employed in their favor but did not. Kurtz and Lindsay are implicitly arguing that the Catholic Church’s position is immoral, and they should have said so. Instead, they chose to say nothing better than “We reject the Vatican’s arguments because they are religious.” Kurtz must know that this is a fallacious conclusion. It is no way follows that because a statement arises from religious or theological grounds it must be false or not moral.

All in all, a pretty bad press release.

===========================================
1If all you know about Galileo and the Catholic Church is the usual folklore, what you know is probably mistaken. “The story of Galileo’s trial by the Inquisition in 1633 for teaching the Copernican system is often presented as a classic example of religion and science coming into conflict. But this story is also part myth and part fact. Historians now largely agree that Galileo was not tried for teaching heliocentrism but for disobeying a Church order.” Read the whole article, by Victor Stenger, a CSICOP fellow and CFI member, here. Also mandatory reading is a work Stenger cites: Mano Singham. “The Copernican Myths,” Physics Today (December 2007): 48-52. You know I love you, dear readers, but please do not comment on this particular topic unless you have read both of these articles. It will save us a great deal of time and unnecessary animosity.

2If there was, I suppose I would be one of its renegade priests.

32 Comments

  1. Matt:
    The press release exemplifies an all too common type of argument that drives me up the wall irrespective of the subject of the argument. I suppose it boils down to the assertion that “Our ends justify our means, but your ends do not justify your means” coupled with a presumption that the issues at stake are simple, obvious and unquestionable which relieves those making the argument of ever explicitly and accurately stating what they consider to be both their and their opponents’ ends and means. This type of argumentation tends to emerge from those with a more fanatical bent – religious or secular – and tends to include, as you point out, non sequiturs and false analogies.

    A propos Stenger’s article, do you know off hand what Galilleo actually recanted? Surely, what he was forced to recant determines whether the analogy is relevant or not?

  2. Great post. I am not religious, but there are many issues where science has to be checked and morality has to be considered. The Nazi eugenics policies anyone?

  3. A thousand blessings for not being taken in by the Church versus Galileo myth!

    A slight addendum to the otherwise excellent Stenger article: Galileo’s sentence was far from harsh. Torture was far from unusual at that time and normally the publisher of “Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems” would have been tortured as well even though it had been approved by the Inquisition.

    Galielo had complained bitterly about being forced to travel to Rome for the trial as he was old and suffering from, presumably, osteoarthritis. He has my sympathy. He could hardly complain then about not being allowed to travel. He could still perform his experiments freely and communicate with his fan club.

    The second part of his sentence was to recite a certain number of Hail Marys each Sunday, far from onerous for a man as pious as Galileo. In the event, his daughter recited them for him.

    I am with Stenger that “Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences” was Galileo at his best. Galileo actually wrote in his own copy of “Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems” that his argument was bogus — it violated what we now call Galilean Relativity — a concept he had developed 20 years before.

    PS I disobeyed your injunction to read the Physics Today article as I got a 404. Has censorship of the Internet in Oz started already? I beg forgiveness your majesty.

  4. Bernie

    “A propos Stenger’s article, do you know off hand what Galilleo actually recanted? Surely, what he was forced to recant determines whether the analogy is relevant or not?”

    In 1615 the Inquisition demanded Galileo recant his teaching that the sun was the centre of the Universe. Although the Myth has claimed he was tried by the Inquisition at this time, the claim is false. On Cardinal Bellarmino’s advice, he admitted his error and agreed to only refer to the Copernican model as hypothesis in the future. Pope Paul V personally assured Galileo that his enemies and their plots were known to him and that he therefore had nothing to fear from them.

    Galileo breached the agreement when he wrote “Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems”. Three characters appear: Salviati, the Copernican (a thinly disguised Galileo), Sagredo, representing the undecided, though intelligent person and Simplicio, the arch-Aristotelian. Galileo almost certainly used the name Simplicio because of the resemblance to sempliciotto meaning simpleton. Simplicio’s utterances (except for one) throughout the book are clearly those of Galileo’s Aristotelian enemies.

    In 1633 Galileo was asked whether he had obeyed the admonitions of 1615 to only present the Copernican theory as hypothesis? Galileo defended himself by pointing out that the Dialogue had passed not just one censor, but censorship at both Rome and Florence. Several peripheral charges laid against him were dismissed without argument from the three (not the dozens of the myth) judges, but they nevertheless found Galileo guilty of the main charge and banned his book.

    Galileo had never shown the slightest sign of rebellion against his beloved Church, so unsurprisingly he readily fell to his knees and recanted. The myth has Galileo defiantly declaring: “Yet it does move!” as he is carried away in chains to some deep, dark dungeon, but there is no evidence for this whatsoever. The Git would find it more believable that he had written apologies to Kepler, Brahe, Scheiner, Grassi and the host of others he had spent his life so gratuitously insulting!

  5. PG:
    Thanks for the additional details. Obviously this is an area with which you are very familiar. Bottom line, is the main point that the use of the Church/Galilleo events as poster child for the suppression of science by religion or more generally the powers that be, is grossly simplistic?

  6. *Galileo’s Daughter* by Dava Sobel is a well-written account of the lives and times of both Galileo and his daughter, Sister Maria Celeste, a cloistered Catholic nun. Both were devout and neither ever rejected the Church. I recommend the book for fathers and daughters.

    E pur si muove! – ‘And still, she is turning!’ is (perhaps apocryphally) attributed to Dominican friar and self-proclaimed heretic Giordano Bruno, who is supposed to have uttered those famous last words as he was burned at the stake in Rome in 1600.

    Great job on the post, Matt. Logic and morality are fellow travelers; you can’t have one without the other, as an earlier figure of controversy, Socrates, pointed out.

  7. Bernie

    The stoush was between the Aristotelians (aka Scholastics, or Thomists) and the Platonists (Plato had recently come back into fashion). The Aristotelians favoured qualitative analysis of Nature, Galileo favoured a quantiotative (mathematical) approach. Natural Philosophy (what we call science today) was widely considered to be inferior to what was then called science (what we call today Theology).

    Galileo was “vehemently suspected of heresy” which satisified neither side really, but preserved Galileo from severe punishment. Part of the problem was that he was so damned pious. He was as famous for his theological arguments as he was for his new approach to physics. It didn’t hurt that Pope Urban VIII was an ex-student of his and close friend.

    The punishment BTW was to recite the seven penitential psalms once a week for three years, rather than Hail Marys — about 15 minutes’ worth of effort. My brains are turning to sand. Galileo would have spent much longer than that in church each Sunday.

    Far from suppressing science, the Church was the source of funding for it and was particularly supportive of astronomy.

  8. Great post indeed. Casting the issue as one between science and religion is completely spurious, as Briggs notes. My old mentor loved the saying, “If you want a stick to beat a dog, any stick will do.” And the CFI uses it here.

    The issue is a completely moral one, and if it resolves to the morality of weighing the human benefits of stem cell research against its human costs measured in the destruction of life or the potential for life, stem cell research loses: Kant second formulation of the catagorical imperative, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end.”

  9. Other than the articles, I also enjoy reading comments by the wise (and funny) readers.

    Let me not add anything to the list of poor arguments that CFI has made. Though I would greatly appreciate it if CFI would point out facts and benefits about embryonic stem cell research. After all, knowledge is power.

    I remember how I was appalled by the power of religion in American life and politics when I just came to the US. I think it only has as much power as the people give it. However, men and their persuasive ideas also make religion so powerful.

  10. Let’s discuss the style of argumentation, not the issue per se. Excellent; but snarky comments like “CFI whines . . .” immediately undercuts your good intentions.

    ” . . . it does not follow that the embryos lost, or the way in which they were lost, from IVF is morally equivalent to those that are lost, and the way they are lost, spontaneously.”

    Well, actually, they are morally equivalent if we accept the Church’s position that nothing happens in this universe without God willing it. If God can abort the vast majority of pregnancies for his purposes, than surely we can terminate a relative few for our puposes. To suppose otherwise removes God’s moral authority; he becomes simply a petty, capricious tyrant.

    But I am in complete agreement with the general thesis – that it’s silly (and disingenous, since they’re not up-front about it) for Kurtz & Co to assert that their morality is, self-evidently, superior to the church’s. The usual secularist justification for this is that the church clings uncritically to mere dogma, whereas ours is thoughtful and reasoned. More silliness, and arrogant silliness at that. The church has been debating & struggling with these issues for 2000 years (yes, sometimes violently). Agree or don’t, but please don’t try to tell me that it’s just dogma.

    For the record, I am an agnostic-bordering-on-atheist; but to be as dogmatically materialistic as Kurtz & CFI seem to be is not skeptical, it’s anti-skeptical. The cause of skepticism isn’t served by sloppily reasoned essays like the above. Thanks, William, for bringing it to our attention.

  11. PaddikJ
    “Well, actually, they are morally equivalent if we accept the Church’s position that nothing happens in this universe without God willing it.”

    I think this is a little muddled. In the first place, I don’t think the Church – of which I was once a fairly well-read member – has such a position. We – poor, fallen humanity – do stuff that God has not willed, but allows, since he has endowed us with free will.

    In the second place, the morality or otherwise resides not in the embryos, but in the actions taken towards them. Consider, on the one hand, a person walking inadvertently on a friable cliff edge, and falling to his death. This is an accident. But if I, knowing the danger, send him to fetch me something from along that cliff with no regard for the likelihood that he shall fall, a moral dimension surely arises.

    The original quote : “The Vatican’s rejection of IVF on the ground that it results in the discarding of embryos is especially ironic since from 60 to 80 percent of embryos conceived ‘naturally’ are spontaneously aborted” is either egregiously confused or downright chilling in its implications. Consider: “The world community’s rejection of the Final Solution is especially ironic, since 100 per cent of Jews, homosexuals and communists outside of our scientific control die naturally.”

    The call to statistics is disingenuous, and intended simply to distract attention from the question truly at issue – whether embryos, Jews, homosexuals or communists are or are not deserving of the same respect as ourselves. A science that seeks to justify a course of action by placing it in some way beyond moral considerations is not one most of us would be happy to live with.

  12. I just want to say that no matter how Galileu’s story was mythified, it is shameful for all the people here posting and commenting the attempt to whitewash what was undoubtedly a dark mark on the church.

    We must remember that Galileu was persecuted for his attempt at proving an hypothesis that was remarked at that time as immoral and heresy. That one such church only in the end of the twentieth century apologized to Galileu is telling something. The people that hang on to the point that Galileu was after all a coward, or that he wasn’t as badly persecuted as the myths say are completely missing the point, which is, that the Church was mandating the Truth about the Cosmos, and that no discussion or experimentation about it was permitted. This marks a point of no return in the separation between religion and science.

    I don’t want to start a war about religion. I do get Mr Briggs point, and I agree that the counter-point against the Vatican’s position is badly taken. The arguments show the lack of clarity on the writer’s philosophy and morality.

    The discussion should be moral, not scientific. Thus said, one could argue that the Vatican should not be a moral compass, for what it has shown in the last decades by their words and actions all over the world. They have a lot of influence, not by dialogue, but by decree. And while the source of their morality is supernatural, one should not accept in the society ever such kind of argument. That is, if the Vatican can pursue a line of thought reasonably and without invoking the supernatural, even if subliminally, the society should take it into account and discuss it properly, without invoking “scientific consensus”, which is ridiculous for this is a moral discussion.

    The cause of skepticism isn’t served by sloppily reasoned essays like the above. Thanks, William, for bringing it to our attention.

    Dead on. This is a very badly written commentary. The discussion is a moral one. Let us have it.

  13. “I think this is a little muddled. In the first place, I don’t think the Church – of which I was once a fairly well-read member – has such a position. We – poor, fallen humanity – do stuff that God has not willed, but allows, since he has endowed us with free will.”

    I wouldn’t say muddled; wrong, quite possibly, since I don’t claim to be well read on church doctrine. Putting aside for the moment the issue of human willfulness, and since you state that you are well read in church doctrine, does or does not divine will cause spontaneous abortion?

    Once that question is answered, we are then in a position to take up the question: Is a spontaneous abortion equivalent to someone eventually dying of old age, flu, or a host of other “natural” causes? (William should please pardon the scare quotes).

  14. Paul Kurtz, who founded or co-founded both CSICOP and CFI, is a philosopher

    Ah, that explains everything.

  15. Click here for Natural Science by Rush.
    …
    Wheels within wheels in a spiral array,
    A pattern so grand and complex,
    Time after time we lose sight of the way,
    Our causes can’t see their effects.
    …
    Science, like nature,
    Must also be tamed
    With a view towards its preservation.
    Given the same
    State of integrity,
    It will surely serve us well.

    …
    Wave after wave will flow with the tide, and bury the world as it does.
    Tide after tide will flow and recede, leaving life to go on as it was…
    ____________________

    I don’t mean to ruin your serious discussion… Oh, I guess I can offer the following: my source of morality doesn’t come from God. I don’t know whether morality and the issue of life should be independent of religion or God.

  16. PaddikJ

    “Putting aside for the moment the issue of human willfulness, and since you state that you are well read in church doctrine, does or does not divine will cause spontaneous abortion?”

    I think I said I was once well read in same. Spontaneous abortion, death by flu, etc occur from natural causes. I think the theological position would be that subjection to natural causes, in particular in this case mortality, originates from the Fall. Which is described in Genesis as eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Buddhism makes a somewhat similar formulation in tracing the cause of suffering to the desire for that which appears pleasant and aversion to that which appears unpleasant. For the Buddha of course, the question of the existence or otherwise of God is one he simply refused to comment on, not seeing it as relevant to the problem of the human condition.

    In general, I think you can say that the central issue all the religions point to is that the moral dimension is a core element of being, specifically, human. There are no Lions for the Ethical Treatment of Antelopes. Hence the absurdity of appealing to the existence of death and suffering in the natural order as a sidestep of the moral questions raised by human agency.

  17. Luis:
    I am not sure I understand your point. That the Church persecuted anyone is a problem – with a clear moral dimension – that I don’t see anyone denying. The point Matt raised, as you acknowledge, is that using the Galileo episode as an analogy in this specific article is a weak and flawed argument. Moreover, the Church has as much right as any other governing entity (though it may be wrong on its facts) to hold a moral postion that argues that some scientific research activity or hypothesis or social activity is in its viewpoint immoral – for example, eugenics, stem cell havesting from embryos, abortion, etc. To the extent that it can, it follows that it has a right to take steps to ensure fidelity to its position by those who chose to be members. The moral dilemmas come when the Church takes steps to impose its morality that could themselves be viewed as immoral. The Church, as far as I know, is not engaged currently in immoral actions to support its opposition to certain types of stem cell research. Reminding Church members of certain moral precepts before they visit the ballot box is hardly immoral – which is what the CFI press release seems to contend.

  18. Michael on 15 Dec 2008 at 7:20 pm:

    Good answer, if a little verbose. Having been raised easy-going Congregationalist, I’d forgotten about Original Sin, the Catholic God’s trump card on all matters concerning moral asymmetries & human suffering. A thousand children may die horribly in various car crashes and it’s Original Sin, but the one who gets “miraculously” flung fifty feet from the burning car into a haystack rode in the palm of a merciful God.

    Therefore, human suffering and spontaneous abortions are fallout from The Fall, do not flow from divine caprice, and do not excuse human bad behavior (including willful abortion, to many). Substitute “Nature” (or spontaneous) for “God” in the previous sentence, and as you said (I think), the conclusion wouldn’t change.

    So, I stand corrected on my (mis)interpretation of the Church’s position. The two cases are not equivalent.

  19. Bernie, the main point that the CFI raised is:

    The Vatican claims that their objections are “moral,” but they are based on a theological doctrine that a formless fertilized egg is a full human being, a position which most scientists reject.”

    Thus, the intake that Briggs use,

    …his question implies what is false: that there is some factual truth which the Vatican is failing to acknowledge. A reading of the Vatican document shows they know well the medical facts. They are not arguing against the facts, just saying that employing certain behavior related to these facts is immoral.

    …is not intelectually honest. I would almost say it’s outright false, but it’s in a subtle way, so I’ll apologize Mr Briggs.

    The point being that the Vatican does not draw only a moral conclusion out of scientific facts, they do a lot more than that. They state that the human being has a “soul” from the moment of conception, and draw their moral code from this, that the embrio should be thus regarded as a whole human being, as if he was already born.

    Now this claim that the embrio is already a whole human being can be stated as a scientific question, and is blatantly false. The Vatican argues by saying that this embrio that has only one cell is a “pontential human being”, thus, it’s a “whole human being”, which while being a complete non sequitur, it has ridiculous outcomes.

    For instance, given what we are able to do now, many cells of your body are “potential human beings”, in the sense that if properly isolated and stimulated, it operates exactly as an embrio. Therefore, everytime you are being operated, and chunks of these cells are effectively killed, there’s a genocide happening. Should then operations be immoral?

    It’s not my fault that this discussion enters the ridiculous zone. It’s rather the view point of the Vatican which places itself in such idiotic positions.

    Of course, if one places the “cell” in such a high position, then the moral conclusions of the Vatican follow quite well. There’s no discussion on that. The point is on definitions, on what’s really happening. And I’d argue, contrary to what Mr Briggs say, that the Vatican has deep flaws in their knowledge basically by adhering to a dualistic vision of human beings as matter and soul, which in effect contradicts so much evidence from science inquiry, which all point to monism instead.

    If one submits to the former, then the Vatican moral conclusion follows.

    But if one submits to the latter, the moral questions are probably harder to answer, but if anything, they don’t seem like the Vatican’s position at all.

    But I also agree that the CFI didn’t make the case clear. (I also didn’t, probably)

    Reminding Church members of certain moral precepts before they visit the ballot box is hardly immoral

    That would be true if the Church wasn’t supposed to be the “House of God”. This is not only “another” institution, but it’s at least, divinely inspired. And they do have a lot of influence. It’s such a shame that they have such crazy beliefs that have dubious, if not nasty, consequences.

  20. Luis:
    I am afraid that I do not see any substantive difference in your argument from that of the original press release. The Church, and I am not defending its position per se, has every right to state that a fertilized embryo is a human being and that certain moral imperatives, according to the Church, follow. The fact that you can potentially grow the equivalent of a matured embryo from body cells or a hair is really neither here nor there – it certainly does not make their argument about the moral status of the embryo ridiculous in its own terms. They have every right to define their moral precepts. You are free to disagree and counter with your cell argument.

    You say. “if one places the “cell” in such a high position, then the moral conclusions of the Vatican follow quite well. ”

    I think that you have unnecessarily complicated the argument for they would argue “if one places the “embryo” in such a high position, then the moral conclusions of the Vatican follow quite well. ” – which I believe is Matt’s and certainly is my position with respect to the rhetorical aspects of the argument.

  21. Bernie, you’re confused, and I apologize, for the fact that English is not my main language sometimes feels like a barrier to me in expressing myself clearer, specially in these subtle linguistic games.

    I’ll try to be clearer. The Vatican is not arguing that the embryo is a human being, but a whole human being, that has the same value as a full live person, as say, you. The problem with this is that the embryo is nothing more than a cell that in the right environment grows itself to a full human being. That being the case, and this is fact, not opinion, then one may always argue that many (not all of them) of our own cells are just like that. This conclusion forces the vatican position to be ridiculous.

    And false. Of course the Vatican can say all the wabbles they want. But if they try to deduce moral outcomes out of false facts, then their moral output is corrupted and can be immoral (I’d say 50-50 chance). Thus they are acting immorally in doing so.

    For instance, they might even want to say that an atheist is not a human being. They could even present “theological” arguments for that effect. I’d argue that in that case, and if they tried to deduce moral consequences out of that, they would have been immoral.

    The obvious problem in here is the attempt of the Vatican to try to inject a “Hocus Pocus” factoid about human nature inside a reasonable knowledge of medical knowledge. Namely, the soul. This is implicit in the attempt to take one single cell as a “whole human person”. Now we can have many discussions about this factoid, but every scientific inquiry show us that humans aren’t dualistic, but rather monistic built.

    I believe this is why CFI had the need to invoke Galileu. I repeat, they made a bad case out of it, but the vatican’s point is indefensible, if we are to have a reasonable moral debate about this.

  22. I’d add that this apologetic position of Mr Briggs and yours in this effect towards the Vatican’s position is an implicit endorsement of Relativism, which I thought you both were against. I’d like to read mr Briggs response to this detail.

  23. The relativism point is one I need to think about, because you are right – I am in general skeptical about it. I am not sure I see my argument as being relativistic – since I do not think I am arguing that the Church has the right to propagate any opinion it cares to. For example, I would think that the Vatican could have no basis for arguing that parents have a moral duty to kill their malformed or unwanted children.

    Your equating of a fertilized embryo to a cell essentially finesses the point that the Vatican would argue – namely that a fertilized embryo has a distinct status and that it is in fact and in theology not the same thing as a cell – even if they may both produce the same end product. An ear of wheat is not the same thing as a loaf of bread – though I grant that an ear of wheat could be turned into a loaf of bread.

    The fact that you assert that basis for the difference between an embryo and a cell is the claim of a soul for the former and that this is “hocus pocus” – essentially means that by default you win the argument, since the notion of the human soul is fundamental to the Vatican’s position. (This I believe is your point.) The discussion fundamentally has nowhere to go, once one agrees that the premise that the notion of the soul is “hocus pocus”. On the other hand, I am less sure about the non-existence of something akin to the human soul and somewhat more certain that science has little to say about the soul – as generally understood – and, therefore, I see the Vatican’s argument as being legitimate in the sense that it deserves to be heard in the court of public opinion.

  24. Briggs

    December 17, 2008 at 5:49 pm

    Luis,

    I will not defend nor attack either the Vatican’s or CFI’s position on these matters. That is not the point of this post. So I will not here answer your comments.

    In the case of Galileo, I highly recommend you read the sources I indicated, and the book Mike D recommended. To say that the Vatican’s position on this subject is “indefensible” tells me that you probably don’t know too much about this particular area. This is hardly the case of a “black eye” on the Church. Galileo received nothing more than a rap across the knuckles with a ruler; hardly devastating punishment.

    Anyway, the point is that Kurtz was falsely calling to a myth, which is that the Catholic Church in Galileo’s time denied a true observational fact, just as they are now denying observational (“scientific”) facts about stem cell research etc. The Vatican then, and now, did and does no such thing. They are saying, in the document they issued, the facts are true, but they are not moral, that they are, in you like, indefensible on those grounds.

  25. Thank you for both your replies.

    Bernie, while I commend you for not endorsing the Vatican’s position on the example you just gave, let me give you other more eye-opening examples. Imagine for instance that we are in the 12th century and the Vatican states a position wherein medicine in general terms should be disregarded and forbidden, for it is generally a call to action against God’s will. Now imagine if you will a theologic reasoned paper that explains this with precise terms.

    Now, in the 12th century, there was little that medicine could do. While today such position would be considered barbaric, if in those times, the Vatican had made such position (which it did, by the way, though I appreciate anyone to correct me in the details of it), it would not be considered immoral, for there was little benefit to win in medicine, while perhaps a lot (the God’s anger?) more important to lose.

    I hope the analogy is more apropriate.

    On the other hand, I am less sure about the non-existence of something akin to the human soul and somewhat more certain that science has little to say about the soul

    I think you should read more about current neuro-science. It’s true that science is still a little early in making a general theory about conscience, but the progress is staggering. According to Kurzweil, we now know a lot about the brain processes, and we are starting to actually see in real time the neurons working in the brain. It is said that within the next 20 years, there will be a major revolution regarding on how the brain really works, akin to the genome revolution that happened ten years ago.

    Now, admitting that science has still a little to say about it, why should we contemplate what a bronze age myth has to tell us about how the conscience works at all?

    You see, the problem is not that the “soul” hypothesis is as good as any other. The problem is that the “soul” hypothesis is in deep contradiction with every neuro-science. The correlation between brain physical processes and mental states is unambiguous. Patients of deep depressions have been subject to experimental surgeries where electric pulses in precisely located (by theory) places can bring the patient up to impressive levels of happiness. Such patients carry a sort of pacemaker that keeps them uplifted.

    There are infinite small facts and hints that not only suggest monism, but rather that all the scientific medical inquiry simply works upon that assumption, and it always works.

    So yes, it is “hocus pocus”, in the sense that the only reason the Vatican brings up that hypothesis is because it’s a core theological tradition, one of which they will be in deep trouble to get rid of, when these unambiguous scientific results reach the conscience of the public and they make 2+2.

    It’s also a step back in the moral discussion, because here we are, discussing a moral framework, based not in the latest evidence of things that have been acumulating for more than a century, but based on a religious and dear dogma.

  26. Mr Briggs, when I referred to the Vatican’s indefensible position, I wasn’t talking about Galileu. I was talking about it’s current moral position.

    Not because it’s moral reasoning is at fault.

    It isn’t.

    But because they base their moral framework on a religious dogma, one which is contradicted by science everyday.

    So when you say:

    …his question implies what is false: that there is some factual truth which the Vatican is failing to acknowledge. A reading of the Vatican document shows they know well the medical facts. They are not arguing against the facts, just saying that employing certain behavior related to these facts is immoral.

    … you are wrong. They didn’t simply take the medical facts and judged them according to their moral reasoning. They add religious hocus pocus to base their moral assertions. And yes, they are failing to aknowledge factual truths regarding medical facts, namely that all the facts converge to a monistic based human being, and all contradict a dualistic human being, body+soul.

    By saying that a single cell is as valuable as I am, they can only say this based on theology, not on reason nor in medical facts. Theology is not acceptable as a base to discuss moral frameworks. This is why I believe they bring up Galileu’s story, for they based a fact (terracentrism) on theology, and now they also base a fact (dualism) on theology, regardless of the problem that all scientific facts point against it.

  27. Briggs

    December 18, 2008 at 6:57 am

    Luis,

    Nah, I still won’t debate whether CFI or the Catholic Church is more right about the morality.

    I will point out that it’s funny you refer to the Church using “hocus pocus” in their arguments, as this is to be expected, especially since, if the common story is true, that that term originated from “hoc est enim corpus meum, ‘for this is my body,’ spoken during the consecration of the Roman Catholic Mass when the wine and wafer are said to be transformed into the body and blood of Christ.” Quote from here.

    In any case, it is a poor or fallacious argument that says an argument is wrong because it is religious or theological.

  28. Yes, it is indeed funny. I still maintain that you cannot derive moral arguments from religious or theological doctrine unless you can derive them from external sources. It’s not fallacious at all, it’s the precise inverse. This is, if we want to be able to discuss these matters without resorting to relativism.

    For if not I could always bring Theresa Martin to the discussion, a dear friend of mine, which happens to be always right. Now, she tells me that there is no human being at all inside that one cell, thus she also tells me that it is completely moral doing stem cell research. Who is Theresa? Well, no one has saw her, but I hear her. And she’s always right, did I say that twice?

    She also tells me that black people aren’t people at all, so if I want to, I can kill them.

    Do you want moral discussions based on this kind of dialogue?

    Now, the second question. On what basis should we discuss morality?

  29. Your second question is a good question. It seems to me though that because it is such a good question the preceding argument is flawed. Moral arguments emerge from conflicting moral principles: the Vatican’s position stems largely from the notion of the sanctity of human life. One can argue that the Vatican does not operate consistently from this principle but that does not make it less of a principle for moral reasoning. One can argue that the term “human life” is fuzzy or that not all human life should be sanctified. One can argue that the notion of human soul is unnecessary for asserting the sanctity of human life. However, it is difficult to argue that the Vatican is somehow engaging in relativistic thinking when it bases its position on stem cell research on this principle.

    The issue is not whether you agree or disagree, but whether the Vatican has the right to assert this principle and the policy position that it believes follows therefrom. The argument that this is not relativism stems from the nature of the principle as being a universal. Theresa Martin may also assert some universal (though in essence arbitrary) principle – so her position is not in essence relativistic.

    The question I would pose to the CFI folks is what rules would you apply to medical research? Is there any medical research that you would say should not be undertaken as a matter of principle? This could perhaps flush out the basis for their discussion of morality at a similar level to that guiding the Vatican.

  30. Bernie,

    It is not the Vatican who is engaging in Relativism, for they are quite clear in their thinking. Human life’s sanctity starts from conception because that’s the point where the soul “kicks in”. And because this one cell has a soul, then it has the same value as a whole human being.

    It is the whole society, which is secular, that is engaging in Relativism if they accept this kind of thinking, because, contrary to what you speculate, this principle is not universal. If it was, abortion would be forbidden since the moment of conception and there is almost no developed country which actually forbids this. There is an understanding of a slippery slope, where no one really knows where to draw a boundary where one can be certain that this is really equivalent to a human being, that there is a value to protect.

    But if we know anything, we do know that the single cell ain’t it. The only way you can argue this is by invoking the soul, which is not an universal understanding of the human being, it’s a theological and sectarian one.

    The question I would pose to the CFI folks is what rules would you apply to medical research?

    Ahh, now we are talking! :)

  31. I read this post too late to kick in with any hope to contribute but I would still like to leave a note because I think the great extent Luis takes to voice his cause is very similar to the press release; that is to discredit in any possible way the opposite position.

    The argument revolves around the central point of the single cell and the church pretending to call it a human being. Quoting:

    “[…]There is an understanding of a slippery slope, where no one really knows where to draw a boundary where one can be certain that this is really equivalent to a human being, that there is a value to protect. But if we know anything, we do know that the single cell ain’t it. […]”

    And here it is the first objection I raise. If you say that “no one really knows where to draw a boundary” why then you say that a boundary does indeed exist (the fertilized egg)?

    Then here is the second, and stronger, objection to your statement: how do you know that a fertilized egg is not a human being? Your logic is fallacious since you assume -as a given- that what you say it’s true when in fact you bring no proves to it. You want to lead the readers to your conclusions by assuming that “the single cell ain’t it”. How do you get to this statement without being prejudicial toward your conclusions?

    Regardless of the fact that I might or not agree with the church you are clearly challenging everyone who seems to be willing to accept (not agree with, just accept) the church’s position based on the logic of “all they want to do is justify the soul-concept and to do so they have to give the status of human being to a fertilized egg. But this is blatantly wrong because a single cell ain’t it”.

    So you are rephrasing the arguments of the press released with no better logic.
    Sorry, try harder if you want to convince me.

    Marco

  32. Marco, I’ve arrived from holidays and was unable to read your response. Probably you won’t even read my own reply. But I can’t leave your comment without a feedback.

    Yes, it is true that my approach is similar in tone to the press release, that’s why I was arguing with Mr Briggs in the first place.

    In relation to the slippery slope, I think you’ve missed my point entirely. A slippery slope exists when one knows that one end is different from the other end, let’s say, A is different from B. What I say is that I cannot say with certainty where the rope stops being inside the “A” territory and begins being in the “B” territory. But the end of the ropes are quite clear.

    Picture a gradient of lightness from pure black to pure white. Where does it stop being black and become white? It may be purely subjective. But I can say that the first pixel is completely black, and the last is completely white, can I not?

    So I didn’t say where the boundary is, on the contrary, I am making the most defensive argument ever, that is, that if there is any boundary of the U.S.A., it is definititely outside Washington D.C., got it?

    To reply to your strong objection,

    “how do you know that a fertilized egg is not a human being?”

    , I’d ask back many things, but I’ll try to be simple. First, how can you define a human being as a single cell? I’d say that’s preposterous, meaning that the burden of proof is in your position, not mine. But if that could be so, then I’d argue back that everytime that you wash yourself you’re committing a genocide, for many of the cells that naturally fall off your body are able, given the right chemical “kick in the butt” generate a human being. That is, they are equivalent to stem cells.

    Notice you can’t argue that this is different. It’s not. It’s perfectly possible to generate human beings out of many billions of cells from your body. It’s called cloning. Are you going to argue that those people don’t have souls? That would be funny.

    You see, you’re placing yourself in a troubled intelectual position here.

    The thing is, I’ve already said this, so when you accuse me of giving no logic at all, you are either being mischievous, or aren’t very able to read carefully.

    I don’t have any problems whatsoever for the Church to have its position, nor to anyone to base their morals from the Hocus Pocus or Harry Potter’s books, or whatever. But, if you, the Church or anyone else wants to discuss these things outside the catholic cult and within the whole society, then, such rationalities are out of bounds. Please, defend your position that the stem cell is sacred all you want. If you and anyone else manages to do it without invoking holy ghosts, “souls” and other religious words, I’ll be happy to cordially discuss it too.

    It is not acceptable for the Church to put in the social discussion table a moral conclusion that is clearly reasoned with and based upon supernatural arguments. It’s quite unfortunate that people don’t get this point.

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