Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A Nation Born Blind

In the Gospels Our Lord is sometimes portrayed as healing the blind, as though that were a remarkable thing to do, as though restoring sight to the blind were an act of kindness, the relieving of a malady. Imagine how strange it would have seemed, both in antiquity and to our own ears, were one of these blind people to say to Our Lord, "What are you doing? I don't want my sight restored, I'm happy just the way I am!" Blindness has two vectors: one is either born blind, or one becomes blind after being born with sight. I find it very difficult to believe that a person who became blind after being born with sight would actually prefer to remain blind; but I also find it hard to believe that, if offered the capacity to see, someone who had been born blind would refuse the gift. Even without knowing what it is like to see, I think, a person born blind would be unable to think of any rationally compelling reason to remain blind if sight were in the offing.

Aristotle, famously, remarked that vision is the most precious of the sensory modalities:
All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things (Metaphysics 1.1 980a21-26)
This would appear to be a nearly universal human sentiment, and so it would seem strange, not only if a person born blind were to refuse a gift of restoration of sight, but also if we, who have sight, were to refuse to give such a gift, were it ours to give. Suppose you had the capacity to restore sight to a person born blind. Would you say to him, "You've never had sight, so you can't possibly know what you're missing, you can't possibly feel slighted by being sightless, and so you have no right to complain if I refuse to give sight to you."

What kind of a person would say such a thing?

And yet that is what we do say, all of us, and we have been saying it for thirty-five years now. Only we're not saying it about sight; we're saying it about life itself. We say to the unborn: "You're not fully developed, you're a mere potentiality. You have no commitments, no web of relationships, no similarity to the rest of us who can walk and talk and reason among ourselves. You are totally alien, you have no cognition, no sentience, and since you have no nervous system to speak of, you can't even feel pain as yet. And so you have no right to complain if we refuse to let all of these things develop in you."

What kind of a person would say such a thing?

A person who has other commitments. A person who already has as many children as she wants. A person who thinks that the economic burden of another child is too great. A person who thinks that the psychological burden of another child is too great. A person who thinks that there are already enough children in the world. Or, perhaps, a person who never wanted any children to begin with, who got pregnant by mistake. Or against her will.

All of which are perfectly reasonable worries. And yet, none of the people who offer such reasons as these for killing a child in the womb would think it reasonable to offer the very same reason as justification for terminating the life of a child outside of the womb. Why not? We comfort ourselves with the abject Otherness of the fetus. It is so very unlike us, after all, and it has none of the same capacities for social interaction that we have, it has none of the self-awareness, none of the "personhood" shared by those outside the womb. Very convenient for us, really, that the fetus is so very different.

Oh, sure, we learned a long time ago that it's not right to treat other persons differently if they seem to be different from us. We don't hold slaves anymore on the basis of racial differences, because that would be wrong. We don't discriminate against women in the workplace anymore (or we try not to) because that would be wrong. That person of the other race may appear to be very unlike me, but really he isn't all that unlike me, he has all the same capacities for walking, talking, and reasoning that I have. If I am a man, I may think that women are rather different from me, but they aren't, really, they have all the same capacities for walking, talking, and reasoning that I have. But a fetus--well, of course it does have all the same capacities that I have, but it cannot yet actualize them, and if I act quickly enough, it never will be able to actualize them, and that is enough to comfort me in the thought that it differs from me in a significant way: it is not a person, and I am. So I may treat it in any way that I desire: it has no duties, no rights--only persons can have those.

In this way do we lie to ourselves. Because we don't want to think about what kind of a person would kill a child for the reasons given above. It's better to pretend that what we're killing is not a child at all.

We prefer to say to the person born blind: "I don't want you to see what I see, it is inconvenient for me to share with you the faculty of vision, and so even though I have the capacity to give you sight, I am not going to do it."

What kind of people are we?

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Science and Politics

Dan Graur, a molecular biologist at the University of Houston, wrote a tongue-in-cheek, hand-wringy letter to Nature recently (12/20/2007) in which he pretended to be worried that, if "the public were consulted and actively engaged in practical scientific matters" we would be faced with a (literally) nightmarish situation in the United States, where "73% believe in miracles, 68% in angels, 61% in the devil and 70% in the survival of the soul after death". What would be so nightmarish about letting these poor, benighted folks in on "practical scientific matters"? Well, you see, if they had any say in the matter, "the dos and don'ts of science and research" would be dictated by these simpletons, and they would force scientists to "deal with virgin birth, the thermodynamics of hell, the aerodynamics of angel wings, and the physiology and haematology of resurrection."

Although one must assume that Danny boy is just fooling around (though the editors of Nature appear to have taken his letter rather more seriously than he intended it), his letter does not prompt one to admire his intellectual depth or honesty. He surely isn't ignorant of the fact that what most serious religious intellectuals (including religious scientists, a category that appears to be outside Dan's imaginative capacity) worry about on the part of many scientists is not their research programs per se but the concomitant ethical dilemmas that impinge upon many scientific issues, especially in the life sciences. To pretend that the majority who believe in something as ludicrous as "the survival of the soul after death" are going to direct all their effort towards getting scientists to investigate "the aerodynamics of angel wings" is either sheer demagoguery, pure ignorance, or mere ad hominem. In either case it does not reflect well on Dan Graur. It may be mere name-calling, of course, but if so it is in rather spectacularly poor taste and makes the author look irredeemably puerile. On the other hand, if one were to suppose, per impossibile, that Dan Graur really does fear the bizarre scenarios he outlines in his letter, one can only pity the poor students and administration of the University of Houston who have been saddled with such a moron. A more eloquent case against the institution of academic tenure can hardly be imagined.

It is, of course, far more likely that the man intended his letter as a kind of bogey-man threat, intended to highlight his fears about letting non-scientists have anything to do with any kind of dialectic regarding "practical scientific matters" (whatever those are supposed to be--one shudders at the thought of asking such imaginative folks as Dan Graur for anything like a precise definition). On this reading he is acting as the demagogue, stirring up his fellow scientists in a manner that is ironically similar to the very thing that he is worried will happen on a larger scale if "practical scientific matters" were to be subjected to public scrutiny. Does he really think that his fellow scientists are such idiots that they will be swayed by this kind of rhetoric? If not, to whom is his letter really addressed? Surely he doesn't think that Bible-totin' Bubba reads the Correspondence section of Nature? I suspect that what we really have here is a rather embarrassing attempt at the sort of chest-thumping that is not really aimed at anybody in particular but designed instead only to draw attention to the dominant male ape, rather like the cat-calls and epithets one hears being shouted from the crowd when itinerant preachers stand on college campuses proclaiming that sinners are going to burn in hell. On this reading, his letter to Nature is like E. O. Wilson's pathetic letter, allegedly addressed to religious believers but really aimed at fellow atheists, that he published in The New Republic in August of 2006 (and that I assessed here).

The broader issue, though sadly handled in an amateurish and, indeed, anti-intellectual and deeply unhelpful way by folks like Dan Graur, is nevertheless one of serious political import. No thoughtful person really believes that science ought to take place in a political vacuum, because no genuinely intelligent person thinks that such a thing is possible. Fewer, perhaps, understand that scientists themselves are not, as a matter of fact, competent to decide such things for themselves (though their input is obviously necessary), but I suspect that justified worries about such genuine possibilities as the teaching of creationism in the public schools will always be exploited by some crackpots to subvert the scientific process itself by driving a wedge (or attempting to) between the "scientific community" and the "broader public", as though those things were two separate entities. There is no rationally compelling reason why a person with religious beliefs--even apparently wacky ones--ought to be prevented from having any say either in how public funding is distributed in the "scientific community" or in how public policy ought to deal with public issues created by the activities of the "scientific community". Indeed, if the "scientific community" were to repeat some of its past moral clarity and come to the aid of a government seeking reasons to exterminate the Jewish "race", I would hope that Jews everywhere would try to prevent such a thing, even if their only reason for doing so were their peculiar religious beliefs about being God's chosen people. The fear that such a thing may be possible in this day and age may be less warranted than it was in the 1930s, but given that it has, in fact, happened and may very well happen again, it is a far more rational fear than the ones outlined in Graur's letter, which represent things that have never happened anywhere and are not likely to happen any time. That it was the poor benighted religious ignoramuses that opposed Nazi eugenics is a rather delicious irony, though it hardly serves to lessen the contempt one must feel for mentalities such as the one on display in the Correspondence section of Nature this week.