Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Leon Kass in Support of Human Exceptionalism as Necessary to Proper Pursuit of Science

I believe Leon Kass to be one of our most profound and wise public intellectuals. He comes through again in the current edition of Commentary magazine (no link available) in an article entitled "Science, Religion, and the Human Future." Much about which he writes--the tension between religion and science--is not germane to our discussions here at Secondhand Smoke. But Kass also gives a strong apology for human exceptionalism and the reasons that the ongoing attempts at human reductionism are so very harmful--including to the scientific enterprise itself. Thus, Kass writes:

In order to justify ongoing [human cloning] research, these intellectuals and others like them today are willing to shed not only traditional religious views but any view of human distinctiveness and special dignity, their own included. They fail to see that the scientific view of man they celebrate does more than insult our vanity. It undermines our self-conception as free, thoughtful, and responsible beings, worthy of respect because we alone among the animals have minds and hearts that aim far higher than the mere perpetuation of our genes. It undermines, as well, the beliefs that sustain our mores, practices, and institutions--including the practice of science. The problem lies not so much with the scientific findings themselves as with the shallow philosophy that recognizes no other truths but these and, and with the arrogant pronouncements of the bio-prophets.
Kass later describes how the idea (as I put it) that humans are merely another animal in the forest can undermine science itself:
The possibility of science itself depends on the immateriality of thought. It depends on the mind's independence from the bombardment of matter. Otherwise, there is no truth, there is only "it seems to me." Not only the possibility for recognizing truth and error, but also the reasons for doing science rest on a picture of human freedom and dignity (of the sort promulgated by biblical religion) that science itself cannot recognize. Wonder, curiosity, a wish not to be self-deceived, and a spirit of philanthropy are the sine qua non of the modern scientific enterprise. They are hallmarks of the living human soul [which Kass does not use in the necessarily religious sense] not the anatomized brain. The very enterprise of science--like all else of value in human life--depends on a view of humanity that science cannot supply and that foolish scientistic prophets deny at their peril, unaware of the embarrassing self-contradiction.
In other words, human exceptionalism and the sheer importance of being human.

Kass continues, noting that "the overall ethical character of the scientific project, are not themselves the product of science."
Science is notoriously (and deliberately) morally neutral, silent on the distinction between better and worse, right and wrong, the noble and the base...It can offer no standards to guide the use of awesome powers it places in human hands. Though it seeks universal knowledge, it has no answers to moral relativism. It does not know what charity is, what charity requires, or even whether why it is good. Science cannot provide either confirmation of or support for its own philanthropic assumptions...

Many laymen, ignorant of any defensible scientific alternative to materialism, are swallowing and regurgitating the shallow doctrines of "the selfish gene" and "the mind is the brain," because they seem to be vindicated by scientific advance. The cultural result is likely to be serious damage to human self-understanding and the subversion of all high-minded views of the good life.
Kass's point is that there is more to what makes us human than that which can be measured, folded, spindled, and put under a microscope. If we come to believe that we are only what science tells us we are based on what can be measured, our very self perception will become so stunted that we could lose touch with those parts of ourselves that make the best of humanity--including science--possible. Kass is right. How we act is based in large part on our self perception. And without a firm grip on human exceptionalism, the arc of our future growth and advancement could become fundamentally stunted--if not scientifically, then certainly morally.

More to follow.



At April 11, 2007 , Blogger Lincoln said...

Science does not depend on immateriality of thought. Neither does it depend on the mind's independence from the bombardment of matter. Truth need not be absolute to be more than "it seems to me".

Absolutes may or may not exist, yet we may have truth and science. "It seems to us" is quite adequate for both truth and science, so long as "us" is understood ever more broadly. There is an infinite spectrum of possibilities between pure absolutism and pure relativism, none of which we can prove absolutely without engaging in pure relativism.

Human science, in my estimation, is yet in its infancy. We do not now see clearly whether or how it may apply to more than epistemic claims. Many of us confidently proclaim that it simply cannot and never will apply to ethical or esthetic claims. I don't share that confidence, although I agree that it cannot and will not apply to ethical and esthetic claims in the simplistic (absolutist) manner in which we often try to impose it on epistemic claims. Science provides the same general answer to ethical and esthetic relativism as it provides to epistemic relativism: truth is to the community as knowledge is to the individual.

Human self-understanding and high-minded views of the good life are not damaged by materialism. To the contrary, the materialistic hypothesis has effected wondrous expansion of human self-understanding and only detracts from high-minded views of the good life to the extent that we add to it a deterministic hypothesis.

There is more to us than that which we can now measure, fold, spindle and put under a microscope, yet I am confident that we will (and should) become ever more capable of measuring ourselves. We should not believe that we are only that which we can now measure, but we should believe that everything about ourselves is ever more measurable without ever becoming deterministic -- exhaustively causal and perfectly predictable. To believe otherwise about our nature in either direction comes short of that appeal to high-minded views of the good life. Whether believing we have exhaustively measured ourselves or believing there are aspects of ourselves that simply cannot be measured, we unnecessarily impose limits on our knowledge and power. We damn ourselves in our dogmatism.

At April 11, 2007 , Blogger Wesley J. Smith said...

Well, finding the better angels of our natures, to use Lincoln's wonderful term, is not something science can give us, which was Kass's point. Also, if we don't have ethical parameters around science, if all that matters is the pursuit of knowledge, then we open the door to terrible evils. After all, Tuskagee was interesting from a purely scientific perspective--but it was a moral abomination. But it was not an abomination because of what science tells us, but what philosophy, values, religion, ethics, etc. teach us about the inviolibility of human life.


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