Conversation with CT: You Are Me by Gabriel G. Scheller

You are Me


Dialogue Replay

CT: What’s up Gabe?

Gabe: What’s up man?

CT: Ouch!

Gabe: Sorry.

CT: It’s cool. Don’t push so hard.

Gabe: I want your ears in the back.

CT: OK … Done?

Gabe: Almost.

CT: I look kind of bland.

Gabe: Shhh.

CT: Gabe, why do you draw me?

Gabe: Damn, you talk a lot. I draw you because you are an expression of my inner conflict. You are me.

CT: No one could hang out tonight, huh?

Gabe: No! Yes … I need more friends.

[©GGS circa 2007, all rights reserved.] 

Cheers to hESCs@CHOC

It’s been many, many years since I’ve sipped a cocktail like the one above, but this was the celebratory drink ordered for us by I don’t know whom on the last night of the NIH hESC training course. The tray of drinks reminded me of a plate of cell cultures so I snapped a photo. It was a fun evening and by the time it arrived, the scientists were generally at ease with this “religious woman.” I really liked them, as was the case last time I attended.

Two interesting conversations stuck with me from the final evening. First, a Brazilian woman asked me if I’m able to separate my personal beliefs about hESC research from my reporting. It’s a fair question, but one nobody asked of Gary Robbins … and he wasn’t shy about sharing his beliefs, religious or otherwise.

Every day of the week, journalists must set aside their personal convictions and report the news. Non-journalists sometimes think this doesn’t happen; they see bias everywhere. In fact, my first introduction to the notion of postmodernism came not from any discussion of pop-philosophy, but from the Walter Lippman classic Public Opinion. In it, one of the founding editors of The New Republic argued that we all see life through the limiting lens of culture and language. The best we can strive for is fairness. Read Lippman’s Wikipedia bio; it provides a compelling look at the interplay of democracy, philosophy and the news.

Gary reports differently about hESC research than I would, but not only because we have different beliefs about the ethics of this work. He is under daily news deadline pressure and I’m an occasional, long form writer with a bent for investigation. I look for what’s not being said or reported. In this case, what’s not being reported with any regularity or conviction in major news outlets is that hESCs are not likely to be the great therapeutic hope they have been pumped up to be.

This is not my opinion, but the somewhat reluctant opinion elicited from 10 prominent scientists who were asked some challenging questions at yesterday’s concluding symposium. The first question was: What are the long-term cancer risks of hESC therapies? Jeanne Loring, whose extensive credentials include work on the Human Genome Project and collaboration on the WARF patent challenge, did not let any of her peers off the hook as moderator of the Q&A. One by one the Oxford guy, the Stem Cell Inc. guy, the Stanford guy et. al. admitted that they have no idea and no answer for this concern.

That’s big news in and of itself, but not for this venue. …

The other significant conversation I had on our final evening together was with the scientist who asked me about The Secret. She did foundational work in the hESC field … as a born-again Christian. The work kept her out of church for ten years, until one day she was looking at hESCs differentiating into various cell types under her microscope. They reminded her of the human race in all its diverse beauty. She imagined God looking down upon humanity through his lens and desiring us to sing hymns and praise songs to him in unison (hESCs have a biological imperative to congregate). She decided it was time to go back to church.

This gracious Christian who was admired by everyone shared her story freely. However … however. She is still not entirely comfortable with her hESC work … and she won’t be telling her story on the record any time soon.

There is much, much more that can be said about the past ten days, but I came away from them with three strong convictions:

  1. Nearly as important as the ethics of hESC research is the lack of regulation in the IVF industry. The United States is far behind many European nations in its concern for 1) the well-being of women receiving IVF therapies, 2) children born of egg/sperm donation and multiple births, and 3) both the exploitation of egg donors and the fate of their eggs.
  2. The best hope for therapeutic uses of stem cells lies in iPSCs that originate in one’s own body. Not only do potential hESC therapies pose significant risks, but adult stem cell therapies from donor sources do as well. Arlene Chiu asked the representative from Stem Cell Inc. if the stem cells in their inaugural FDA-approved human trial had been tested for diseases like neurofibromatosis (NF). Chiu had heard a talk by an NF1 researcher who found that neural stem cells transplanted into a mouse brain resulted in a proliferation of NF tumors in the brain. The Stem Cell Inc. representative said that some screening had taken place, but it was not comprehensive. Chiu was incredulous.
  3. The hype over hESCs has done considerable harm. During the panel discussion, the eminent panelists were confronted by an Autism advocate who wanted to know what can be done about desperate parents taking their sick children outside the United States for non-FDA approved stem cell treatments. One MD commiserated with the woman’s experience, saying it mirrored his own; another panelist noted that a scientist who had investigated charges against a Chinese clinic had been subjected to an “investigative review” of his own by the scientist whose advertised results he found spurious. No suggestions were offered … nor was any responsibility taken for pumping hESC research up and selling it as THE great hope for all manner of human suffering.

UPDATE 3/19: Clarification on this post.

Winding Down

I’m on day 10 or so of conference lectures. Today it’s Stem Cell Culture Secrets and Patent Issues (which combine into quite the quagmire in the hESC field). Yesterday I only attended one talk, that of Gary Robbins, the Science Dude at the Orange County Register. Gary’s blog about local science news gets a lot of traffic. I picked up some good tips.

This week he is running two polls. One is about whether or not it will demean a trained elephant to temporarily encapsulate it in a giant bubble as part of a stunt at the Discovery Science Center (371 respondents said no; 353 said yes as of 6:42 am this morning). The other is called “Is Science Sinful?” It asks about a senior Catholic cleric’s declaration that certain types of scientific research (including genetic manipulation of human embryos) are sinful. This poll only got 68 responses: 43 disagreed with the cleric, 7 agreed and 18 said the question was too vague.

If these polls are to be taken seriously—and I’m not sure they are—more Orange County Register readers care about the temporary fate of a trained elephant than care about a prominent theologian’s opinion about what it means to be human.

Gary and I have emailed back and forth a couple times in regard to his coverage of local hESC news. It was good to meet him in person. He’s appropriately kinetic, and gave a current events talk about the impact of the Internet on the news business. He also handed each of us a dime to demonstrate how hESC scientists ought to talk to the press about their work. He said that when he talks to people about hESCs, he uses a dime to demonstrate that the 8-celled blastocysts destroyed in the research are the size of President Roosevelt’s eye on the coin. His was a lecture about educating a busy public about science rather than one about how hESC scientists can avoid being misquoted or manipulated by unscrupulous or untrained reporters.

After the lecture, I attended a party at the hotel where the students are staying. We sat together in a dark room on the 18th floor and watched the fireworks over Disney Land. I was asked my opinion of The Secret and will be researching that today for a lovely, accomplished scientist from another part of the world. She doesn’t want to buy into The Secret’s message if it is inconsistent with Christian faith.

I also heard last night that Hans Keirstead is being shadowed by an HBO film crew and that he’s toned down his rhetoric, which, if true, is good for everybody.

Tomorrow, the NIH course wraps with an all-day symposium on stem cell treatment for pediatric diseases. Then I’m off to Santa Cruz to meet a faithful blogging friend in person. While I’m there, I’m going to worship at Vintage Faith Church where my new friend Dan Kimball pastors. After that, I’ll be spoiling my family for a bit and getting down to some serious writing work.

Update: I was thinking more about Gary’s polls. There are other possibilities for the divergent interest. First, Gary said his readers respond more to local science news than national or international news. Second, perhaps readers rightly discern that the temporary fate of a trained elephant is trivial enough for a 2-second opinion poll, whereas contemplating what it means to be human requires a bit more thought.

Update 2 (3/15/08): The Bubble/Elephant stunt at the Discovery Science Center has been canceled after an outpouring of public protest.


Day 2 of the NIH hESC Training Course was fascinating. This year, I’m not hanging with the scientists 10 hours-a-day, but am only attending lectures that might address advances or new challenges in the field. Once again, I’m struck by the chastened tone, not only of the students, but of the speakers. Phil Schwartz set the tone on day one when he showed a series of slides spanning the gestation of a human fetus from embryo to birth.

In the morning, Dr. Thom Nass from Coastal Fertility Medical Center spoke about invitro fertilization (IVF). The reason for Dr. Nass’ talk is that hESC lines are generated from leftover IVF embryos. Some things I learned or relearned about IVF:

  • The United States is the “Wild West” when it comes to IVF regulation, and even some professionals aren’t happy with this reality. Dr. Nass, who used the phrase Wild West to describe the situation, would prefer more regulation so that he and his colleagues are not left entirely on their own in advising patients about these complex issues. In contrast, a cell biologist from Estonia would prefer less regulation in his country. Potential egg donors there must be approved by multiple committees before they give up their eggs.
  • This is probably not a bad thing, as the potential for exploitation is integral to this transaction. Nass said egg donors are paid $5000-$6000 per cycle, which includes 5-6 weeks of chemical manipulation of their pituitary function. I can’t recall the colorful analogy he made to the extreme version of PMS that women experience with treatment, but the point is that chemically manipulated hormones are no picnic for patients or their families. Some women’s eggs are worth more than others. In Irvine, CA, where Nass practices, there is a large Asian population and he says Asians are much less likely to donate their eggs than other ethnic groups. Thus, Asian women can earn up to $50,000 selling their eggs. A UCLA MD/PhD confirmed this statement.
  • Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) is now standard for sifting out defective embryos. The procedure involves puncturing the embryo and removing a single cell for screening. Nass says concerns about damage to the fetus from this procedure have been found to be without merit. hESC lines theoretically can be generated from this single cell once genetic testing is completed (thus creating yet another non-embryo destroying source of hESCs). I’m unsure if scientists have already done this.
  • Coastal Fertility Medical Center does not do PGD for sex selection, but sex selection is legal in the United States and other labs are willing to do it.
  • Until last year HIV patients could not legally have IVF embryos implanted in California. Nass says disease transfer is not a significant problem. He thought the Americans with Disabilities Act might have contributed to the change in law.
  • Egg freezing techniques continue to improve, but freezing eggs is still a secondary option to embryo freezing at US IVF clinics. In Europe, where restrictions on creating embryos exist are stricter, egg freezing is more common.
  • The vast majority of IVF patients are not interested in donating extra embryos through adoption services like Snowflakes. Nass says this is because most couples don’t want a bunch of their genetic progeny running around out there in the world. I reminded him that this is exactly the reality for egg donors (and sperm donors, for that matter).

In the afternoon, I returned to CHOC to hear Dr. Sidney Golub talk about Stem Cell Policy and Politics. Last time, Dr. Golub’s talk sparked a debate between me and a number of others that ended with one of the instructors in tears, but advising me to continue engaging the issue. I determined to avoid a repeat yesterday. Golub made it easy to do with his more even-handed presentation. (I confirmed this impression with someone who had been present for the other talk.)

I surmise four possible reasons for the change:

  1. The Korean somatic cell nuclear transfer (cloning) scandal seems to have softened some of the gung-ho cowboy bravado.
  2. The proven feasibility of creating induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) from adult stem cells.
  3. The embarrassing nature of a particular hESC scientist’s rhetoric.
  4. The strength of opponents’ argument that it is simply wrong to kill and experiment on destroy human embryos for experimentation. This one is not a guess. Golub conceded, with humilty, that this moral claim is a powerful one.

Dr. Golub did not look well, an observation I was not alone in making. I hope he takes care of himself, because he seems to have become a voice of reason in the debate. Here are some noteworthy points:

  • He prefers peer review and regulation to legislation, even, I believe, in regard to California’s controversial Prop 71, which he says New York copied nearly verbatim. He outlined a historical precedent for this approach.
  • England’s system of regulation is a good model; it separates science from political arguments.
  • Various Scientific organizations have come to a consensus on several points:
    • local oversight is preferable to national oversight
    • provenance of cells and tissues (don’t recall what this refers to)
    • altruistic donations of genetic materials (women can sell their eggs to make babies, but not for experimentation)
    • no reproductive cloning or reproducing chimeras
    • new cell lines will be necessary due to genetic instability
    • a national advisory group should be established (this really hasn’t happened, according to Golub)
  • Former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, Leon Kass, was “controversial, extravagently bright, unafraid to make enemies.” In contrast, the current chairman, Edmund D. Pellegrino, is widely respected and a devout Catholic. Kass’ council appeared politicized in part because of the removal of two highly qualified hESC advocates, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. William May.
  • According to Golub, patient groups are still the primary proponents of hESC research, though public support runs in the 60% range. The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation speaks with the “strongest voice.” Notably, the pharmaceutical lobby has been silent on the issue.
  • Nearly everyone (80-90% of the population) is opposed to reproductive cloning. It is “dangerous and likely to fail.” Therapeutic cloning (SCNT) is another story. Golub supports it for research purposes, but thinks it is highly unlikely to be useful for therapies.
  • Take home lessons: 1.) stem cell policy doesn’t easily accomodate compromise, 2.) legislation struggles to keep pace with science, 3.) US policy is a patchwork of limited federal programs and conflicting state policies + private enterprise, 4.) there is consensus on constitutional oversight, 4.) US science policy from 1945-2000 focused on priorities to be funded in contrast to the current interventionist approach.

During the Q&A, a San Diego cell biologist told the story of going to a Tijuana stem cell clinic with a reporter from the San Diego Union Tribune and described a heartbreaking scene of suffering families being sold a bill of goods in a glossy presentation.

Last evening at dinner, the scientist I mentioned in my previous post asked what “that religious woman” was doing at the course. My presence was once again defended by the host who invited me. In coming days I hope to convince her that I am a person, and not just “that religious woman.” I also hope being viewed as such doesn’t wear me out to the degree it did last time.


I’ve gone straight from engaging with pastors to engaging with post-doctoral scientists. What, you ask, do I mean? Well, for the next 10 days, I’ll be at Childrens Hospital of Orange County (CHOC) attending the 5th annual NIH Human Embryonic Stem Cell (hESC) Training Course. I attended three years ago and already noted a significant development. Two of the dozen scientists in attendance are here to learn how to culture hESCs so that they can reprogram adult stem cells into the more versatile pluripotent ones, not because they want to be hESC researchers.

Phil Schwartz was prescient when he stood by his convictions to work with the NIH approved cell lines in the belief that alternatives to destroying new embryos would emerge. He named at least three alternatives this morning: stem cells derived from adult cells, from eggs and from sperm. Of course, I’m not yet sure how interested the students are in all that. Phil will make sure they get a well-rounded introduction to the field. For this tax-payers can be grateful.

I won’t be blogging much from this material, as I’m working on stories for other outlets, but I will try to reserve something for Exploring Intersections. A few of the lecture topics I’m particularly interested in are as follows:
  • IVF
  • Anuploidies
  • Ethics
  • Talking to the Media
  • Stem Cell Patents
  • hESC Culture Secrets
  • Stem Cell Transplantation

Three years ago I met one of my closest California friends through this course. That friend is now a NIH-funded hESC researcher. This morning, when I told a student that I had just come from a pastors conference, she remarked that the two groups were polar opposites. And isn’t that part of our problem? Not only is there a misconception that science and religion must be at odds, but there is also a prevailing wind of public discourse that always frames the “other” as an enemy. I hope to do my little bit to change the direction of the wind. We’ll see. First I’ll have to get past 30 minutes of Sidney Golub talking hESC politics from what I expect to be a calcified point of view.



The National Pastors Convention ended at noon yesterday. I’ve been to many conferences over the years, and I must say this was one of the most enjoyable. Beeson Divinity school professor/author/painter Calvin Miller touched on why this was true for me. In his session on Celtic Christianity, he described how different events attract different audiences. I was at home with this audience. Not only that, but the organizers were wonderful hosts to us journalists. I’m sitting right now at a dining room table covered with books, some of which the publishers would, no doubt, like me to mention. This brings me back to my first post from the convention. In it, I mentioned the fact that a session moderator had asked the audience not to blog about it. At least three others have now done so. Specifically, he asked us not to blog “provocative one-liners” and then he or someone else jokingly stated: “What happens in the Critical Concerns Courses stays in the Critical Concerns Courses.”

When I was at the Better Watchdogs Workshop back in September, we had a discussion about when groups that actively seek publicity suddenly bar the press from reporting on a public or semi-public meeting. There was not clear consensus on what to do in such situations. I said that I would comply with such a request, but vocally protest it and take it into account in future reporting, which is what I have done here. Let me add another thought: If authors and their publishers don’t want the press to report provocative one-liners, perhaps the authors should refrain from spewing them. It seems to me they do so to get a reaction. Both audiences and we in the press might also do well not to take the bait. Better to ignore declines in discourse than to advertise them.

Speaking of Calvin Miller’s session “Praying as a Creature to the Creator: Finding God in the Thin Places of the World He has Made for You,” this was the only talk I attended for personal edification. I have appreciated Miller’s writing and looked forward to hearing the sage speak in person. For the life of me, I can’t tell you what he said. Partly this was fatigue, partly it was his speaking style. He was like a whirling dervish, flinging out poems and jokes and sturdy bits of wisdom with some sense of structure, but a structure I couldn’t follow. I suspect I might be like him as a speaker, struggling to express something coherent—only I don’t like chaos. I’d also skip the fat American jokes, as any regular reader of this blog can attest. (I’m sure the attractive, ample woman beside me didn’t appreciate them either.) And I would skip the multiple reminders to buy my new book, though I think he can be forgiven since he mentioned that his previously held eschatology had fooled him into not planning for his golden years until he was in his fifties. I had already bought The Path of Celtic Prayer at any rate, and don’t regret it.

I only wish I had gone to hear Jim Wallis talk about his new book, The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America, instead. I had heard Wallis on Thursday evening in a short interview with Efrem Smith. Even Smith was skeptical of Wallis’ protestations that he is not advocating a Religious Left to counter the Religious Right. Wallis said he is preaching spiritual revival, for without it, neither party will effect real change.

Krista Tippett‘s interview with Bishops Rucyahana and Wright was impressive. She picked up on some of the themes I spoke with Bishop Rucyahana about regarding the Anglican splintering. (Wright corrected my reference to it as a “split” in my interview with him.) I encourage anyone who cares about our world to check the Speaking of Faith website for the air date. Currently, an interview with the late John O’ Donahue is being featured. I’d never heard of O’Donahue until bloggers began reporting his death earlier this year, and then a dear Irishman who is not a churchgoer told me his “relations,” as he calls them, were friends with O’Donahue. I’ll be acquainting myself (and my friend) with him shortly.

Long after the convention site had cleared, I spent 30 minutes with N.T. Wright, bishop of Durham, England. Wright gives fully-orbed answers to interview questions and I had a lot of them to pack into a short span of time. They centered on two themes: his thoughts on the Anglican “splintering” and his thoughts on what Phyllis Tickle calls “The Great Emergence.” I’ll not share what Wright said about the Anglican situation, except to say this: He rejects the critique of Dr. Vinay Samuel in The Anglican Mainstream that his position on the Global Anglican Future Conference is essentially racist. I intend to explore this theme elsewhere.

As to his views on the emergents, he spent time with some of them at Soularize in the Bahamas last year and thinks there are some serious Christian thinkers among them. He hadn’t heard of Peter Rollins, who has been described to me as the premiere “emerging” philosopher, and was unfamiliar with Rollins’ more questionable ideas. He thinks the emerging church is a reasonable response to the modernist mega-church construct. A couple times Wright had said post-modernism “preaches the Fall” to arrogant modernism. I asked him if he didn’t think post-modernism communicates an arrogance of its own. He agreed, which may be why he is stressing “post-post modernism,” an idea he defined for Tippett. My notes are unclear on this point, but he said something about the church leading the way forward as society is fumbling about between modernism and post-modernism.

Here’s what struck me about Bishop Wright:

That he is a brilliant scholar and orator is obvious. I have now heard him talk passionately about the importance of prophetic voices several times. (I couldn’t agree more.) In this context, at the closing communion service, he gave an erudite description of courage as the culmination of countless small decisions over time that lead those who have it to make incredible sacrifices when it counts. So I asked him, “Who are our prophets?” He was a bit startled and said he had been speaking theoretically. After a minute or two, he named the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. For example, he said Williams had effectively argued against euthanasia before the House of Lords. I threw out a couple American names. He affirmed Jim Wallis, even if he disagrees with Wallis in bits.

Here’s the thing: In the preface to Wright’s new book Surprised by Hope, he confesses to potential critics that he has not really known grief. He has not known grief. Sit with that thought a moment. He talks about courage and prophecy as theory. Well articulated ideas are vital to life and society. I am grateful for them. As a journalist, I sometimes feel inadequate in the face of them, but I have been intimately acquainted with grief and have known something of courage. Such experiences change everything about how one views the world. My enthusiasm for Wright is a bit chastened by this revelation.

In the Intro to Philosophy class I attended when I was interviewing Dallas Willard, he mentioned three kinds of knowledge: reason, experience and authority. I can lay claim to the first 2/3 of the equation. As a journalist, 2/3 of a whole may be enough to find the gems amidst the bunk. There were a lot of gems at NPC.

[photos and text © cas, San Diego, CA, 2008]

The Stillborn God, Take 2

I’ve been linked by The Wall Street Journal, at the end of another review of Mark Lilla’s The Stillborn God. Here’s an excerpt:

“It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Evangelical Christianity was not supposed to rise in the 1980s as a political force in the U.S. Militant Islam was not supposed to rear its ugly head in the ’90s, developing into a global threat to America and the West. Nor was there supposed to be a world-wide religious awakening — in South America, Africa and Asia, among other places — involving major religious groups, not only Christian and Muslim but also Hindu and Buddhist.

At least none of these developments — rooted in different social structures and cultures — was supposed to happen from the perspective of enlightened and progressive opinion. Instead, democracy and modernization, gaining strength in the second half of the 20th century, were supposed to finish a job that began in the 17th and 18th centuries, sweeping away ancient superstition, dissolving inherited prejudice, installing reason as authoritative in moral and political life, and making man, at last, thoroughly at home in the world by totally secularizing it.

The Stillborn God — Mark Lilla’s sophisticated and compelling study of religion and politics in the modern West — helps to explain where this supposition came from and why it has proved to be misguided. …”

Read the rest here.

The Journal links back here.

On “Democratic Faith”

Another worthy bit of reading as you think about your vote … from Eric Miller’s review of Patrick J. Deneen’s Democratic Faith at Books and Culture:

The whole point of faith is to enlighten, but “democratic faith” diminishes sight. Tested where all faiths are tested, in history’s unsparing crucible, it has proven unable to grasp our disabled condition and so is powerless to provide the succor we need. Deneen traces these failings to its roots in “Pelagian dualism, Gnostic optimism, and humanistic messianism,” and in the book’s last section seeks to present not the final damnation of democracy but a way to salvage it.

He calls it, simply enough, “democratic realism.” It’s a realism that denies the hope for perfectibility the democratic faithful, in their quest to transcend this world, are so tempted by. It’s a realism that begins with the premise—resonant with the one Alasdair MacIntyre powerfully advances in Rationally Dependent Animals—that to be human is to be weak, to be dependent, and to suffer. On this view, we turn to democracy not because of the grand social prospects such governance holds but because it is the form of government “imperfect humans” require, people “who must, by dint of their equal insufficiency and the permanency of need, inhabit, and govern together, cities of men.”

In propounding this stance Deneen undertakes a close, critical reading of texts and figures in the “realist” lineage, ranging from ancient Greece to contemporary America and including surprises like Plato as well as stalwarts like Tocqueville. The presence of the late American social critic Christopher Lasch as one of his heroes should serve notice that Deneen, unlike many of today’s political conservatives, is using a classically Christian anthropology to call into question—rather than bless—the political economy of late capitalism. Lasch’s fiercely insistent claim that corporate capitalism and democracy are at odds held firm throughout his life. In line with Jefferson, Chesterton, Roepke, and others whose experience of the modern world turned them into decentralists, Lasch judged massive concentrations of power, whether political or economic, to be at odds with, as Deneen nicely puts it, “the local ecology in which democratic life flourishes”: the small economies, thick kinship ties, meaningful work, and common submission that help to form “independent yet engaged citizens,” folk dedicated to creating and preserving what Lasch simply called “a decent society. …

Read the whole article here.

The Moral Instinct

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s piece, “The Moral Instinct”  from last week’s NY Times Magazine is a nice compliment to Audi’s lecture. It’s a long and interesting, if sometimes predictable, read. In it you’ll learn why Bill Gates may be morally superior to Mother Theresa. That’s just the hook though. Here’s a clip from the conclusion:

“Moral realism, as this idea is called, is too rich for many philosophers’ blood. Yet a diluted version of the idea — if not a list of cosmically inscribed Thou-Shalts, then at least a few If-Thens — is not crazy. Two features of reality point any rational, self-preserving social agent in a moral direction. And they could provide a benchmark for determining when the judgments of our moral sense are aligned with morality itself.

One is the prevalence of nonzero-sum games. In many arenas of life, two parties are objectively better off if they both act in a nonselfish way than if each of them acts selfishly. You and I are both better off if we share our surpluses, rescue each other’s children in danger and refrain from shooting at each other, compared with hoarding our surpluses while they rot, letting the other’s child drown while we file our nails or feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys. Granted, I might be a bit better off if I acted selfishly at your expense and you played the sucker, but the same is true for you with me, so if each of us tried for these advantages, we’d both end up worse off. Any neutral observer, and you and I if we could talk it over rationally, would have to conclude that the state we should aim for is the one in which we both are unselfish. These spreadsheet projections are not quirks of brain wiring, nor are they dictated by a supernatural power; they are in the nature of things.

The other external support for morality is a feature of rationality itself: that it cannot depend on the egocentric vantage point of the reasoner. If I appeal to you to do anything that affects me — to get off my foot, or tell me the time or not run me over with your car — then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours (say, retaining my right to run you over with my car) if I want you to take me seriously. Unless I am Galactic Overlord, I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it. …”

Religious Considerations and Democratic Pluralism

How does a religious person behave in the public square? Does one do cartwheels across the intersection in order to draw attention to one’s convictions–perhaps knocking people over in the process? Or, does an ethical religious person stand shyly on a corner watching others shape discussion? Or park under a tree and advertise? Perhaps James Dobson speaks your language? According to Time magazine Dobson said Mitt Romney’s “Mormonism” speech was a “magnificent reminder of the role religious faith must play in government and public policy.”

Think about Dobson’s words. Religious faith MUST play a role in government and public policy. Whose religious faith? Yours, mine, ours, a mulitplicity of faiths, mine today, someone else’s (Mitt’s) tomorrow? What exactly does he mean and, more importantly, what constitutes religious faith anyway?

Last Friday, I attended a  lecture at UC Irvine in which University of Notre Dame philosopher Robert Audi argued that a conscientious religious person ought to shed their faith commitments in the public square. Well, maybe he wasn’t as stark as all that, but he does believe secular reasoning is the only kind appropriate to public discourse.

Audi surprised me on a variety of levels. First, his eloquence was impressive. Second, his thesis was persuasive, if limited. Third, his repeated reference to assisted suicide as an example was either a simple coincidence or confirmation of reports I’ve heard that this topic dominates Ethics discussions at UCI.

Audi set aside church/state and corporate questions, limiting his topic to what individual ethical citizens should bring to public conversation in a pluralistic society. Here’s his outline, with my notes and commentary:

I. Background Assumptions

A. Liberty, equality and neutrality principles.  (Implicit in these assumptions is that religious and non-religious persons and institutions will be treated equally. Religious persons will not be preferred over non-religious [try telling that to the current crop of presidential candidates]).

B. A moral right to “maximal” liberty. (A free democracy should allow as much liberty as possible. For example, it might prohibit child sacrifice, but allow many behaviors that make a majority of citizens uncomfortable.)

II. Standards for Free Expression vs. Standards for Advocacy of Laws and Public Policies

A. Advocacy and voting as subject to stronger ethical constraints than free expression. (He said advocacy, and voting as a kind of advocacy, can be coercive if done on religious grounds. During the Q&A, an attendee offered the teaching of Intelligent Design/Creationsim in public schools as an example of coercive advocacy. Audi agreed without reference to significant differences between the two. Another audience member asked if he was equating coercion with exposure. He didn’t believe so. For example, he said students on a school bus are a captive audience to whatever advertising is displayed there [Planned Parenthood and/or crisis pregnancy center ads]. His argument seems to imply that it would be wrong to vote for a political candidate on religious grounds, but perhaps right to reject a candidate who “advocates” from his or her religion.)

B. Oughts contrasted with rights (Rights don’t exhaust morality. Ethics calls on us to do more than any one has a right to ask us to do. So, while nobody can forbid me from rejecting a presidential candidate because he or she might wear “holy” underwear, or be a closet Muslim, or a theological liberal or a guy who wants Jesus as his vice-president, the ethical thing for me to do would be to vote on non-religious grounds … unless of course I’m voting against a coercive candidate.)

III. Some Major Principles Governing Advocacy of Laws and Public Policies

A. The principle of secular rationale also called the principle of natural reason: citizens in a free democracy have a prima facie obligation not to advocate or support any law or public policy that restricts human conduct, unless they have, and are willing to offer, adequate secular reason for this advocacy or support (e.g., for a vote). (It would be wrong, however, for a citizen to use a secular argument as a cover for a religious one. An ethical person should give the reason they have and act on the reason they give.)

B. Qualifications and basis for the principle

  1. The defeasibility of prima facie obligations (The reason for acting must be sufficient.)
  2. Prima facie obligations are compatible with rights to act otherwise
  3. Secular reasons: not anti-religious, but having independent justificatory power (For example, opposing assisted suicided because “only God has the right to take life” would be inadequate, but opposing it because legalizing assisted suicide would exploit the poor is an adequate reason.)
  4. An adequate reason: one that objectively justifies its object (Sufficient reason doesn’t have to be conclusive, just adequate.)
  5. Excusability: being unjustified is compatible with being excusable (Some people can’t think outside a theological context.)
  6. Non-exclusivity: the principle accomodates religious reasons; allows having only those for expanding liberty; and does not require “privatizing” religion
  7. Basis of the principle of religious rationale: Religious citizens in a free democracy have a prima facie obligation not to advocate or support any law or public policy that restricts human conduct, unless they have, and are willing to offer, adequate religious reason for this advocacy or support.

C. The principle of religious rationale: Religious citizens in a free democracy have a prima facie obligation not to advocate   or support any law or public policy that restricts human conduct, unless they have, and are willing to offer, adequate religious reason for this advocacy or support. (Audi suggested challenging a religious individual’s interpretation of their own religion. For example, if a religious citizen really believes in the sovereignty of God, wouldn’t he or she trust that God ordered the world with men and women who can reason through problems together. He believes his two principles are complimentary. [Time did not permit him to go into detail about this principle. He either did not adequately discuss points 5&6 about excusibility and non-exclusivity or my notes don’t reflect his explanation. As a result, I find it difficult to comprehend exactly what role he thinks a person’s ontological and/or religious beliefs should have on their citizenship. Nonetheless, I do find the next section helpful.])

IV. The Wider Question of the Place of Religious Considerations in Public Discourse

A. Judiciousness: ethical sensitivity, prudence, consensus-building, etc.

B. Reciprocity: universalizability and the search for common ground

C. Theo-ethical equilibrium: a reflective equilibrium between religious and secular considerations (The search for equilibrium can refine both one’s theology and one’s perspective.)

D. Civic Voice (The voice we use can be more important than what we say.)

Exploring the Intersections

During the Q&A, one audience member went into a long-winded diatribe that included a salient point about religion as a subclass of ideologies and philosophies. He mentioned Marxism as another. I had been wondering what Audi’s definition of religion encompassed? I asked him. He said that to include such things as Marxism and Scientific Naturalism in the definition is not advisable because, although adherents to these ideologies can be religiously devoted to them, broadening the term too much would extinguish any avenue for discourse. He did, however, agree that non-religious ideologies can be as coercive as religious ones.

I am left to wonder what principles ought to guide non-religious citizens? Do unto others? A Bible verse? Isn’t that fundamentally illogical from his point of view? I wish I had stayed behind to press him on this, but … I was wearing sweat pants and grungy sneakers, and little make-up on the way to a jog. Not exactly the best public face for debating a scholar of superior intellect. 

When I began homeschooling my children some years ago, it was, in part, because of coercion in their public school system. Integral to the “Whole Language” curriculum that had come to us from California was a strong multicultural component. As Thanksgiving neared in my son’s third grade class, readings in Native American literature increased. Included among this reading was a Native American creation story. Additionally, a Native American came in and talked about her religious beliefs and rituals. I was okay with this. Our school system generally did a good job of respecting the varieties of religions that were represented in our community.

But then, as part of the Thanksgiving celebration, the children put on a play, which I attended. In it, the Pilgrims thanked the “Indians” and the “Indians” thanked the Pilgrims. Nobody thanked the Pilgrim’s God. What I witnessed was not a story I recognized. I went to the library and confirmed for myself that the Pilgrim’s faith and clear motive for celebrating Thanksgiving had been edited from this history lesson. I complained to the school principal and was told that it was a separation of church and state issue. The superintendent of schools wisely disagreed. I’m not sure what happened as a result because this situation, along with other academic and social issues that were shaped by dogmatic political ideology, convinced me to withdraw my children from the public school system for several years.

Here is an example of coercion that prioritized a minority religion over the majority one. The example demonstrates the merit in Audi’s principle of natural reason.

Yesterday I attended the afternoon sessions of another seminar at UCI, titled “Politics, Psychology and Ethics.” I heard two European scholars talk about religion and public life. Orla Muldoon, head of the department of Psychology at the University of Limerick, Ireland, talked about identity and social change in Northern Ireland.

She mentioned the “Good Friday Agreement,” but quickly corrected herself, saying the terminology gave her away as a Catholic. Protestants call it the “Belfast Agreement.” Either way, Muldoon said the agreement codified division by creating two political parties based on conflicting religious indentities. While moderate third parties flourished for a while, these have disappeared and given way to a zero-sum game. Political negotiation is about minimizing loss for self and gain for the opponent. Even those who hold no real religious conviction are shaped by the divisions. They may not identify fully with one side, but are quite sure they don’t want to be identified with the other. Sounds familiar.

Muldoon talked about emotionally charged signifiers. For example, a lily is a Catholic symbol and a poppy is a Protestant one. The symbols are so potent that a Catholic television journalist who refused to wear a poppy on Remembrance Day forfeited her career as a result. For Muldoon, leaving Northern Ireland brought immense relief in that she no longer had to worry about such signifiers. She mentioned the development of a unique Northern Irish identity that rejects polarizing labels, but said that for those who have been traumatized by violence, traditional identities are difficult to abandon. However, the absense of violence is helpful in creating space to negotiate new identities.

I did not take notes on the other speaker, Catarina Kinnvall, a political scientist from Lund University in Sweden. Her talk was titled “Being too (in) tolerant? Radical Islam and the ethics of multiculturalism in Scandanavia.” Kinnvall focused solely on the rise of radical Islam among the youth of Denmark and Sweden. She said Sweden has relied on pluralistic means of accomodating its Muslim immigrants, which marginalizes in its own way, while Denmark has chosen an assimilationist, and some might say annihilationist, approach. Kindvall said it is difficult for her to even find appropriate language to discuss her topic without inflaming passions of both Muslims and those prejudiced against them. She reminded us that most Muslims are not radicals.

I mention these two talks because they highlight where I think we don’t want to go as a nation. And yet, listen to the heightened discourse over religious identity in our own presidential race. Obama claims that there has been a concerted effort to label him a Muslim. This fact alone is deeply troubling. First someone surmises, correctly I’m sure, that our fear of Islam is so great that if he were a Muslim, and a closet one at that, he would be instantly discredited as a candidate. Second, a candidate for the presidency of the United States is willing to inflame religious strife in order to get elected. Third, religious identity is so vital to getting elected that nearly every candidate has to defend (or fake) their own faith commitment. Finally, the non-religious have so demonized people of faith (and we them) that everyone is on the defensive. Do we really want to keep playing a zero-sum game?

I like what Audi said about the sovereignty of God. If people of faith really believe that God is in charge, shouldn’t that belief temper our public discourse? As a writer who sometimes advocates a position, I don’t really think in terms of winning. I think about contributing to a public conversation. Sometimes a rebuttal spurs my thinking further, or changes my mind entirely. Sometimes, my own convictions are reinforced.

Still, I’m left to wonder if Audi wants a better deal for the non-religious or nominally religious. I wonder how and why he limited both his discussion and his definition. That he did reinforces mistrust.

[©cas 208, all rights reserved]

Is Analytic Philosophy Really Dead?

A thoughtful article about synergy and balance from The Philosophical Gourmet:

[“Analytic” philosophy today names a style of doing philosophy, not a philosophical program or a set of substantive views. Analytic philosophers, crudely speaking, aim for argumentative clarity and precision; draw freely on the tools of logic; and often identify, professionally and intellectually, more closely with the sciences and mathematics, than with the humanities. (It is fair to say that “clarity” is, regrettably, becoming less and less a distinguishing feature of “analytic” philosophy.) The foundational figures of this tradition are philosophers like Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, the young Ludwig Wittgenstein and G.E. Moore; other canonical figures include Carnap, Quine, Davidson, Kripke, Rawls, Dummett, and Strawson.[1]

“Continental” philosophy, by contrast, demarcates a group of French and German philosophers of the 19th and 20th centuries. The geographical label is misleading: Carnap, Frege, and Wittgenstein were all products of the European Continent, but are not “Continental” philosophers. The foundational figure of this tradition is Hegel; other canonical figures include the other post-Kantian German Idealists (e.g., Fichte, Schelling), Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Gadamer, Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Habermas, and Foucault. Continental philosophy is sometimes distinguished by its style (more literary, less analytical, less reliance on formal logic), its concerns (more interested in actual political and cultural issues and, loosely speaking, the human situation and its “meaning”), and some of its substantive commitments (more self-conscious about the relation of philosophy to its historical situation).

Although it appears to be a widespread view in the humanities that “analytic” philosophy is “dead” or “dying,” the professional situation of analytic philosophy simply does not bear this out. All the Ivy League universities, all the leading state research universities, all the University of California campuses, most of the top liberal arts colleges, most of the flagship campuses of the second-tier state research universities boast philosophy departments that overwhelmingly self-identify as “analytic”: it is hard to imagine a “movement” that is more academically and professionally entrenched than analytic philosophy. …]

Read the rest here.

The Science of Contemplation

That B. Alan Wallace is a scholar and not just some new agey spiritual guru was quickly obvious as he began his UC Irvine Psychiatry and Spirituality Forum lecture entitled Principles of a Contemplative Science of the Mind. Wallace, who is based at the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, began his talk with a reverential bow. He spent a number of years in the 1970s under the tutelage of the Dalai Lama in Tibet and cited William James as a more recent influence. He claims James’s time has not yet come.

The lecture began with definitions of contemplation and science, definitions that revealed a clear intersection in these fields. Definitions that I was unable to record before they disappeared from the massive screen at the front of the auditorium.

Wallace said that mysticism got a “bad rap” 100 years ago and described the historical forces responsible for this unfortunate circumstance. He traced the cause back to the fall of the “epistemological hierarchy of medeival scholasticism.” In that paradigm, Spiritual Revelation was superior to Reason and Reason superior to Experience. With the work of Copernicus, Galileo and others, scientists upended this hierarchy, saying, in essence, to the Church, “You can’t have all of reality. You can have the nature of God, salvation, hell and all of that, but the natural world is ours.”

With their bold rebellion [rebellion some suggest began with the Protestant Reformation] came the advent of Scientific Naturalism as the overarching worldview in the West. It is a worldview that says the nature of reality is known only through natural revelation. Natural Revelation is superior to Reason, which remains superior to Experience. In this paradigm:

  1. Science is the ONLY source of genuine knowledge.
  2. Science is the ONLY way to understand humanity’s place in the world
  3. Science provides the ONLY credible view of the world as a whole.

Instead of Aristotle and the Bible as ruling authorities, Darwin and Newton are now entrenched. According to Scientific Naturalism, the natural world consists only of physical phenomena that can be explained according to the laws of physics and biology. There are no nonphysical influences in the physical world. For example, Wallace, who did his undergraduate work in physics, quoted Lord Kelvin, who apparently said (before Einstein blew the doors off), “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now.” Those interested in the field were advised to direct their energies elsewhere.

How did this epistemological reversal unfold? Wallace briefly described the Evolution of Science:

  1. Galileo rigorously observing material phenomena launched a revolution in the physical sciences. He said this revolution was threatening to those who liked the “closure” of the 16th century world, but aimed responsibility for this resistance not at the church primarily, but at philosophers. Yes, it was the church that punished Galileo and others, but, according to Wallace, philosophers were the instigators of his persecution, while he enjoyed a significant following among the monks.
  2. Darwin, rigorously observing biological phenomena, launched a revolution in the life sciences, but …
  3. William James’s proposal, rigorously observing mental phenomena, has been thwarted by a theology of Scientism. James proposed using the principle of psychology to understand the nature of the mind—observing it through introspection. His challenge was not carried through because it didn’t conform to the principles of Naturalism.

Next came an argument for the Limitations of the Naturalist Hierarchy.

  • First, Wallace said, mathematical theories alone do not define, predict or explain the emergence of a physical universe.
  • Second, physical theories alone do not define, predict or explain the emergence of life in the universe.
  • Third, biological theories alone do not define, predict or explain the emergence of consciousness in living organisms.
  • Fourth, psychological theories alone do not define, predict or explain the emergence of spirituality in concious beings.

Wallace sees no way of testing these “uncorroborated” theories. For example, how does one test for the emergence of consciousness or spirituality in a human fetus? Wouldn’t it help in the discussion of abortion to know at exactly what point spiritual, conscious life begins?

He described the Blind Spot in the Naturalist Vision of Reality (which he says began 130 years ago) as follows:

  • No scientific definition of consciousness.
  • No objective means of detecting consciousness.
  • Ignorance of neural correlates of consciousness.
  • Ignorance of necessary and sufficient causes of consciousness (eg.  Is consciousness more than response to sitmuli, akin to iron filings drawn to a magnet? Surely it is, according to Wallace.)
  • Ignorance of how the brain generates, or even influences, mental phenomena.

Next Wallace asked Why is there No Revolution in the Cognitive Sciences? (He conceded that there have been insights, but no revolution, as in the life and physical sciences.)

He cited James here as having said, “Psychology, indeed, is today hardly more than what physics was before Galileo.” He also cited John Searle. I only wrote down the last, problem-defining, portion of the quote, ” … Ontology of the mental is an irreducibly first person ontology.” It appears to be subjective. He provided a historical parallel in Galileo, saying some of Galileo’s detractors refused to look through a telescope because they didn’t want to see something that contradicted their commitment to “folk astronomy.” Likewise, William James’s detractors focus on behavior and neural correlates of mental phenomena and “folk introspection,” while refusing to refine and utilize introspection to study them.

A discussion of research into cognition followed:

Wallace decried the practice of using inexperienced, underpaid grad students in such research rather than experienced contemplatives, who would know what to do when, for example, given instructions to focus on a zebra for 30 minutes inside an MRI machine. Wallace says research indicates that most people can only focus on one object for an average of 7 seconds, while experienced contemplatives can do so for extended lengths of time. He himself has led retreats that involve 8 hr. meditations. He also mentioned a year-long meditation retreat. In his view, experts like himself should be utlilized by scientists in the study of the mind. This is not done, he suggests, because of an ontological commitment to expanding Naturalism. He mentioned Dawkins here, saying atheists tend to reject anything remotely supernatural. He noted, however, that the very definition of physical is debatable, in which case, the Materialists’ commitment is to exactly what?

Here he quoted Occam’s Razor: “It is vain to do with more assumptions what can be done with fewer assumptions.” He suggested applying Occam’s Razor to the insistence that mental phenomena are physical, and asked, What is lost in doing so? [Presumably a lot. A narrowing of life and a marginalizing of the mind and experience, both of which have much to offer science.]

Next he talked about perhaps his most controversial point: The Primacy of IntrospectionHe defined introspection from two perspectives (note: both terms are missing their accents):

  1. noetos — cognitive faculty that directly apprehends non-sensuous phenomena and discloses their intelligible meaning.
  2. samadhi — stable focused attention which may be focused on the space of the mind and its contents.

Next, he described a Contemplative Method, which, he said, transcends religious traditions:

  1. Ethics (social and environmental focus) — Spirituality begins with ethics; where and how we are living. Is our life supportive of our own and others’ well-being? This is the only grounds for a religious metaphysics, in his view; all that is left without it is utilitarianism. [Conversely, philosopher Charles Taylor has reportedly said, “Ethics names what was left of Christianity after Modernism did its work.”]
  2. Mental Balance (psychological flourishing) — He described this as focus, clarity, affective balance and noted that we are able to envision physical excellence, even if it is out of reach to the average person, eg. the olympic athlete. He said we ought to envision such excellence for the mind, imagining extraordinary psychological well-being rather than neurosis management as “normal.”  For example, he noted a Chinese concentration camp prisoner that the Dalai Lama had told him about. The man had been held captive 17 years. Asked afterwards if he had been afraid, the man said yes, he was afraid he would lose compassion for his captors. Wow!
  3. Wisdom (spiritual flourishing) — Deeper sense of flourishing beyond social, environmental and psychological.

Next Wallace described 2 Faculties for Defining Attention.

  1. Mindfulness is the faculty of sustaining voluntary attention continuously upon a familiar object, without forgetfulness or distraction. (This is the Buddhist rather than psychological definition.)
  2. Introspection is the faculty of monitoring the mind, recognizing the occurance of excitation and laxity.

He suggested 3 Goals of Attentional Training:

  1. Relaxation — the sense of bodily and mental ease.
  2. Stability — stillness and coherence of attention on an object.
  3. Vividness — brightness, resolution and focus of attention.

Wallace discussed contemplation apart from metaphysics. He advised any atheists in the room to set aside their atheism for the moment, and then delved into instruction on Settling the Mind in its Natural State:

  • Rest the attention in a field of mental events and observe whatever arises in that domain, without distraction and without groping. (He suggested focusing on a thought rather than its reference.)
  • Examine the degree of subject/object participancy in this endeavor. (To what extent are thoughts and emotions “yours”?
  • Bring awareness to a broad band of previously unconscious mental processes. (Make that which was unconscious conscious.)

His conclusion is that thoughts matter. They have causal efficacy.

Next came another quote from James: “No subjective state, whilst present, is its own object; its object is always something else … The act of naming them has momentarily detracted from their force.”

There was a bit here that doesn’t seem noteworthy, and then his conclusion …

Problems of Introspection, (or, Reasons apart from Social, Economic, etc. that James’s Revolution Failed):

  1. Communicability of “private” language re. mental experiences. (Wallace suggested utilizing the expertise of skilled contemplatives to discern these experiences.)
  2. The tendency of unconscious mental processes and unconscious motivations to conceal or misrepresent.
  3. Possible differences between mental appearances and mental realities.
  4. Observer participancy in the process of introspection (resulting in interference with data; he suggested an approach similar to eavesdropping on one’s own thoughts as a solution here.)

Potential Revolution in Cognitive Sciences:

The success of science was so good that it pushed everything else aside. As a result, it turned outward rather than inward and became dogmatic and elitist. Now, Wallace says, it is time to turn to that which made science possible, our own minds. He suggested:

  • Synthesis of rigorous 1st person and 3rd person means of empirically investigating a wide range of mental phenomena and their relation to the physical world.
  • Collaboration between cognitive scientists, philosophers and contemplatives with exceptional mental skills and insights resulting from rigorous, sustained contemplative training.

He believes such synthesis and collaboration could revolutionize our notion of mental health, replacing a low view of “normal” with a vision of excellence defined as sublime mental health and function.

During the Q&A, Wallace was both praised and challenged. Forum director Dr. Aaron Kheriaty noted that he too had become a fan of William James (not to be confused with his brother Henry) and suggested James’s Varieties of Religious Experience as a place to begin reading. Wallace added Talks to Teachers and a couple other titles to this suggestion.

In one dialogue, Wallace acknowledged that some practitioners of meditation can become more emotionally unbalanced by the practice rather than less so. I believe this is the context in which he mentioned a year-long meditation retreat, saying that it aggravated some neurosis rather than curing them.

Kheriaty challenged the primacy of introspection, asking if we need “something beyond introspection to orient us in terms of ethics.” Wallace conceded that introspection is not a panacea, but a useful tool within a broader context. He said science has a backdrop of metaphysics and that backdrop is Scientific Materialism. He said that in the late 19th century, the existence of atoms was a metaphysical discussion. Buddhists would say many things in metaphysics become phsyics. He noted the excellent mental health of Tibetan Buddhist survivors of genocide early in the last century and said metaphysics is a domain of belief that transcends what can be known. However, the metaphysics for one culture may not fit another.

[© cas 2007, all rights reserved.]