A Theological Response to Lee Silver’s Challenging Nature

A Theological Response to Lee Silver’s Challenging Nature

The following is a paper I presented to the Theological Study Group East of the Northern Illinois Conference of the UMC on September 26, 2013.


challenging natureThere are precious few scholars in the dialog between science and theology that are experts in both disciplines. Lee Silver is not one of them. A few such notable scholars come to mind: the late Arthur Peacocke, John Polkinghorne, Alister McGrath, and the granddaddy of science and theology, Ian Barbour. Silver does not cite or list in his bibliography any such scholars in Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life. Silver’s lack of awareness or outright avoidance of integrative thinkers in the realm of science and theology is a serious hindrance to the persuasive power of his arguments for sequestering “God” and “soul” talk from public discourse and debate about the ethics of biotechnology because, like it or not (and obviously Silver does not like it), theological concepts are highly relevant to bioethics because such concepts remain pregnant with cultural imagination and value. Concepts like human “personhood” and “rights” are still steeped in theological concepts, traditions, and history. Of course this is why Silver wrote his book, which is an attempt to untangle bioethics from “spirituality.” The relevance of theological concepts to public debate about the ethics of biotechnology is thoughtfully and prodigiously engaged by integrative thinkers far removed from the fundamentalists Silver so prominently engages in his book. Silver’s avoidance or outright ignorance of integrative science and theology is an issue to which I will return at the end of my commentary and critique. For now, let us appreciate Silver as an expert in his specialties–molecular biology and biomedical ethics–and give him enough grace in his treatment of theological concepts, such as “soul,” that go little beyond Aristotle, Aquinas, and Descartes. His main objective is to argue “that all naturalistic arguments against biotechnology are actually spiritual arguments in disguise.” He writes further: “I do not claim that all expressions of spirituality are harmful or bad. Nor do I think that all biotech applications are inherently good, ethical, or risk-free” (xiii).

Concepts like human “personhood” and “rights” are still steeped in theological concepts, traditions, and history.

Silver initially exhibits grace toward religion and religious people and practices through several stories in chapter one, including three non-Christian religious practices we likely find exotic, from his travels with his family around the world. Chapter one ends with a story about a wedding Silver attended with some academic friends at which an atheist MacArthur Foundation “Genius Award” winner presided as the ordained minister from the Universal Life Church, the well-known entity on the Web that now ordains anyone for free. The wedding story juxtaposed with Silver’s claims about molecular biology and those that study his scientific discipline serve to demean religiously-oriented folks as simpletons or, at best, simply ignorant of the complexity of biological systems. He claims: “molecular biology … is the least compatible with spiritual beliefs [because?] [m]olecular biologists study the incredible complex chemicals that make up living things … a living organism is not the ‘mystery’ most theologians claim. It is simply a puzzle in which many pieces have already been fitted together” (16-17). This wedding story and the nonchalance of his scientist friends to the legitimacy of religious authority serves as a clear departure point from what I believe to be Professor SIlver’s honest respect for religious folk into disdain for political operatives, think tanks, and fundamentalists, a tone that not so subtly dominates his book. While I agree with Silver that many “conservative” thinkers, namely so-called “intelligent design” theorists, smuggle their theological biases into their science, I think it is disingenuous on his part to paint with a broad brush their scientific knowledge as promoting “pseudo-science” because they have theological biases that lead them to ethical conclusions different from his own. This leads to an important question: what are Silver’s theological biases?

In a chapter two endnote Silver categorizes himself “as an extremely skeptical agnostic deist” (359). Given such self-description, we can safely assume Silver includes himself in his sentence, the basis for this endnote, that some people “attempt to hold on to some transcendent–but still unrevealed–purpose for conscious life” (28). Ironically, that sounds like a reasonable definition of faith: “holding on to some transcendent purpose for conscious life.” However, Silver chooses to stick with the strawman definition of faith purportedly based on Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Silver sticks with the definition of faith defined by scientists in popular literature, especially by the “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens: “Faith is a belief held … in the absence of factual evidence to support it” (24).

Ironically, that sounds like a reasonable definition of faith: “holding on to some transcendent purpose for conscious life.” However, Silver chooses to stick with the strawman definition of faith: “Faith is a belief held … in the absence of factual evidence to support it.”

Silver’s understanding of faith relies too naively on the fact-value distinction cleaved seemingly forever in the mindset of scientific, post-Enlightenment, western culture, and thus, following David Hume, “you can’t get an ought from an is” (121). Since spiritual “realities” are by definition invisible and immaterial and not open to empirical quantification and qualification, or so the empirical bias asserts, faith claims about spiritual realities must be purely the product of evolutionarily-developed social psychology (recall Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind). Whatever values are discerned from any particular religious tradition that asserts spiritual realities, those values are meaningless because they have no connection to empirical facts. You can’t get an ought from an is when the ontology of the “is” countenances spiritual realities, which don’t exist or are completely elusive to scientific investigation. Like many other scientists who engage theological concepts in popular literature, Silver starts with the assertion that empiricism is the foundational epistemology by which all other epistemologies must submit for them to have any currency in the public discourse of difficult ethical considerations, especially those rooted in technological advancement, and most especially biotechnology because it has the potential to alter human nature. Over and over again in Challenging Nature, Silver does an excellent job drawing to pointed conclusions, based on his particular philosophical foundations, the absurdity of asserting the relevance of an immaterial human “soul” as an important factor in defining what makes a human a human and that a “soul,” as variously traditioned in different religions and cultures, should have nothing to do with determining what is ethically permissible and what is not.

In reading “Part I: Spirits” and “Part II: Human Beings” I recalled many times my fascination with something I learned in high school mathematics, that 0.9 = 1. This truth seems counterintuitive given the definitions of “integer” and “decimal.” The value 0.999999 is close to the value of 1 but not equal to 1. The value of 0.9 is easily demonstrated to equal the value of 1 through the following example:

1/9 = 0.111…

9 x 1/9 = 9 x 0.111…

1 = 0.999…

The similar example of 1⁄3 = 0.333… and then multiplying by 3 yields the same result. The point being, if we start with the philosophical notion that the most meaningful understanding of “truth” is found in the “correspondence theory of truth,” that our descriptions of reality become more and more “true” based on improvement in the preciseness of scientific measurement of physical reality compared to earlier measurements and descriptions, then scientific understandings of reality become the self-promoted champions of what is true and what is not true and ultimately of what is and what is not. An example of this process in the elevation of scientific truth is the progression of Einstein’s theory of special relativity beyond Newtonian physics. The latter is plenty accurate for most every calculation that matters to day-to-day life, but Einstein’s special relativity must be used for calculations in particle physics, for example. Perhaps the most well-known progression in scientific truth is the one from geocentricism to heliocentrism. No one should believe any longer that the sun and the planets revolve around the earth. And by the same extension of scientific measurement and knowledge into the complexity of biological life, no one should believe any longer in the immaterial soul. Science has measured and described the human body to the nth decimal place, as it were. Biological understandings of the human person, on the molecular level (genetics, cellular processes, protein manufacture, etc.) and on the neurologically-rooted epiphenomenal level of social psychology (and thus religion), have effectively become the “truth” about the nature of human persons. This is the “god of the gaps” argument often applied to attack the reasonableness of “divine creation” and “intelligent design,” here applied to theological conceptions of human nature as an “embodied soul,” for example.

Silver shows meticulously throughout Challenging Nature that a host of real life exceptions to our common sense understandings of what makes humans human dissolve spiritual overlays of humanness, which often seek to preserve traditional boundaries of what humanness is, such as having a functioning brain and, by extension, mind. Brain function is just one such traditional category, and probably the most popular one, because of the brain’s linkage with mind and with soul. I wish Silver had given voice to theologians and biblical scholars who have examined the development of the Hebrew theological imagination regarding the “soul” (nephesh) (referring to parts of the body or the entire body–human and animal, and to the entire “person”). Different in concept is “spirit” / “wind” (ruach). Nephesh was translated in the Greek Septuagint 80%-90% of the time to psyche, and thus nephesh took on connotations in the “Old Testament” of an immaterial, Platonic soul. The dominance of Christian theology in the West, which gave rise to modern science, solidified the amalgamation of Hebrew concepts of human nature (more concrete than abstract) with Hellenistic anthropology. It is unfortunate that in today’s scientific abandonment of substance dualism that the more holistic, embodied imagination of personhood in Hebrew thinking has been the victim of collateral damage. Of course had Silver introduced the nuances of theological imagination regarding personhood and concepts like “soul,” “spirit,” “mind,” and “body,” then he would have undermined his overall argument that theology has no place in helping us discern the essence of human nature. According to Silver, it may not even be possible to identify human nature’s essence (90-93).

Silver’s readers of all philosophical stripes are challenged by his many stories of teratomas (tumors), for example, that look like little people or parts of people. There are many challenges to our deep-seated convictions of what is human and what is not: humans born with two heads and/or various configurations of internal organs and genitalia, various naturally-occurring genetic chimeric creatures and chimeras created in the laboratory, speculation of headless human bodies gestated for organ harvesting, human-pig chimeras raised with human organs for patients needing transplant, and on and on. All of Silver’s examples challenge our deep-seated notions of human nature with varying levels of visceral reaction. People will accept human organs grown inside pigs more than they will accept headless humans grown for organ harvesting. Silver asks many provocative questions without offering many satisfying answers, such as: “But how far could humanization of an animal go before widespread repugnance sets in, as it did in response to the idea of growing headless human bodies?” (183). Silver thinks we’re so evolutionarily wired for “spiritual” thinking and “emotion” (184-87) that political consensus building is incapacitated by these irrational gut reactions to discern benefits from detriments to the human species and to human individuals amidst the ethical conundrums presented by biotechnology. Silver’s implied solution is to be found in what we can call the “escape to reason,” ironically related to Francis Schaeffer’s critique of postmodernism as the “escape from reason.” Of course Schaeffer would be horrified by Silver’s book, but both find answers in “reason.”

Silver writes: “The skin-deep distinction we make between human beings and nonhuman beings has no basis in rationality. Rather it is an emotional response evoked by a deep-seated, if unconscious, instinctive association of a human-looking body with a human spirit” (186-87). The implication is that spirituality and emotion are evolutionarily-developed, deep-seated, and oversimplified misapplications of our pattern-seeking instincts to the complexities of bioethical conundrums. Religious interpretations of reality and emotional reactions of fear and disgust are unreliable now that humans have progressed in their scientific knowledge. Religion and emotion corrupt and restrain our rational capacities for sorting fact from fiction, reality from fantasy, truth from falsity. The problem is that such evolutionary claims about spirituality and emotion must also apply to rationality. Silver writes at the end of chapter 12, “Darwin’s Unwanted Explanation:”

Organisms don’t abide by any rules of competition, and no safety net exists for losers. Through rational analysis alone, anyone able to accept the idea that a complex and “vibrant” economy can evolve in the absence of a unified spirit should be willing to accept the idea that complex ecosystems can evolve in the absence of any overarching multiorganismal spirit of any kind. Yet at an emotional rather than a rational level, nonscientists and scientists alike can sometimes be led astray by the holistic conceptualizations of Mother Nature’s creatures living primarily in peaceful harmony with each other (221, emphasis mine).

Religion and emotion corrupt and restrain our rational capacities for sorting fact from fiction, reality from fantasy, truth from falsity. The problem is that such evolutionary claims about spirituality and emotion must also apply to rationality.

Why does rationality get to transcend, for lack of a better term, the tangled mess that is evolutionary development to be the superior lens through which we look at and make sense of reality? We could just as easily argue that our over-reliance on utilitarian rationality in so-called “free market” economics predicated on “perpetual growth” and “enlightened self-interest” has led to the ongoing destruction of earth’s natural resources. In fact, there is a growing movement of intellectuals, such as self-styled “degrowth activist” Charles Eisenstein, who claim solutions to our biggest problems are to be actualized through a melding of all our human resources: theological imagination and concern for inclusion and a purposeful future, technological advancement, education and free-flowing information, universal democratization of political systems, human rights, global citizenship, and so on. Silver does not join this growing chorus of intellectual inclusivity that openly welcomes religious voices, but he is singing a similar scientific tune about the entering of humanity into a new age of human control over its own evolutionary future.

In telling the story of the evolutionary arrival of Homo sapiens approximately 100,000 ago from a “hominoid tribe” among various hominid species that “had been roaming the three continents of the Old World for more than 1 million years,” Silver writes:

But when, inevitably, lean years arrived and local food sources were depleted, the cultural adaptivity of Homo sapiens provided a crucial advantage. Their innate capacity to experiment and draw conclusions based on rational analysis allowed innovation and the development of new sources and methods of preparing food, clothing, and shelter. With their ability to express and understand ideas with symbolic language, people could preserve sophisticated knowledge for use by future generations, who added on ever more knowledge to pass down (257-58, emphasis mine).

This is another example of Silver’s religious bias toward rationality being the one worthwhile emergent capacity of humanity to transcend evolution’s meaninglessness, dominated by its violent and mindless processes, “red in tooth and claw.” Of course religion, art, kinship rituals, politics, economics, morality, and so on were and are all part of humanity’s “sophisticated knowledge for use by future generations.” Silver does not appear to make room for the advancement of religious / theological knowledge in order with the times because science has displaced religion’s societal function of “natural” explanation and epistemological credibility. Science is very effective at building unity around explanatory descriptions of the way the world works. As I mentioned before with the example of 1 = 0.9, this bias toward scientific knowledge as the standard by which we understand reality can only lead us toward more and more precise measurements of observable reality. Some philosophers of science refer to this as “asymptotic realism,” the philosophical viewpoint that scientific progress leads us closer and closer to understanding the way the universe really is, though recognizing that mistakes can be made along the way.

The problem with asymptotic realism is that it arbitrarily limits our imagination for what is possible to what we currently and empirically observe. Of course scientific advances often come from flashes of insight and from the weirdest and wildest associations with non-scientific ideas. Nobel laureate and the “Father of Neuroscience,” the German scientist Otto Loewi (1873-1961), received the idea from a dream (twice he dreamed of an experiment, though it got garbled after the first dream) that nerve impulses are chemical in nature, not electrical. Loewi, a secular Jew, once wrote: “The essence of life, consisting in the tendency and potency of the organism to preserve it by all kinds of adjustments, cannot be explained by chemical or physical means. I cannot imagine that there exists any biologist nowadays, who would not approve of this statement.” Surely there are many biologists today who would not approve of Loewi’s statement, but I have to imagine that Loewi would be comfortable with Silver’s self-description “as an extremely skeptical agnostic deist” for Loewi himself.

“Rationality” and “science” as delimiters of ethical boundaries are just as arbitrary as “spiritual” and “religious” ones. I am not convinced that the success and dominance of “science,” which today permeates virtually all modes of being human and of human knowledge, make science and its experts the best champions of our future moral universe. Yet I do think Silver has thoroughly repudiated so many “spiritual” assertions about the boundaries of human nature by religious conservatives, fundamentalists, and members of President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics. But where has Silver left us? Where do we religionists now find ourselves who don’t completely identify with Silver nor with his religiously-motivated foils in Challenging Nature? I’d like to think we’re sharpened by Silver’s deep analysis and questions about where the boundaries may or may not exist as limits to human biotechnology. He is fearsome that “at some point in the future … science and society will move into the fuzzy area where we will be forced to draw an entirely arbitrary line between human beings and others” (187).

“Rationality” and “science” as delimiters of ethical boundaries are just as arbitrary as “spiritual” and “religious” ones. I am not convinced that the success and dominance of “science,” which today permeates virtually all modes of being human and of human knowledge, make science and its experts the best champions of our future moral universe.

Silver could have served his readers more faithfully by spilling more ink in “Part IV: Biotechnology and the Biosphere” on positively defining what biotechnology is in philosophical terms rather than on myriad specific examples of biotechnological discovery, much like he did earlier in the book on teratomas and other biological aberrations. He does write vaguely about technology playing a key role in human evolution from our hominid ancestors, as I quoted above, but what is technology? Is it purely manipulation of the material world for survival purposes? If that’s the case, several animals we know of use technology. It seems to me Silver completely misses an opportunity here by not defining his terms. He intimates there is a role for biotechnology in a possible utopian future of health and economic equality and fruitfulness (348), but he nearly completely ignores the fact that technology doesn’t just happen, that technology is defined by the will of intelligent agents. This is where Silver could really benefit from the theological insights of people like the Christian philosopher and champion of non-reductive physicalism, Nancey Murphy, and the late scientist-theologian Arthur Peacocke. Surely, Silver would appreciate Peacocke’s groundbreaking work as a biochemist on the dual nature of DNA, even prior to the work of Watson and Crick. Peacocke was also a pioneer in the research of the effects of radiation on DNA, which led to early understanding and treatment of cancer with radiation therapy. Both Murphy and Peacocke (and others like them) have written extensively about technology as the physical manifestation of the supervenience of top-down (i.e. “mental,” even “divine”) purposeful causation on otherwise purposeless processes in nature. Theologically speaking, humans use technology to re-create nature according to an ever-emerging vision of “how things should be.” In short, technology is the ever-broadening intersection between purposeless natural processes and purposeful action by intelligent agents. Speaking in the terms of theological anthropology, technology is the product and process of purposeful humans, made in the image of God, acting on otherwise purposeless matter and material processes to reproduce the image of God throughout the entire creation. The natural processes of creation are the boundaries and, paradoxically, the boundless opportunities of human finitude.

Again, I return to Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” This is the beauty of religious faith. The writer of Hebrews is not defining faith as belief in something not based on evidence or inadequate evidence. The writer is pushing his readers to see God as an imaginative, creative God, not constrained by the visible, material world. Therefore, as beings made in God’s image, we should not be constrained by the visible. Verse 3: “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.” I choose to think of Silver’s, “holding on to some transcendent purpose for conscious life” as his closeted, writer-of-Hebrews-like faith, more hopeful and imaginative than his emphasis on cold, calculating rationality. This faith of “transcendent purpose for conscious life” I find similar to Paul Tillich’s formulation of “faith” as “the state of being ultimately concerned.” These modes of faith invite us to ask questions, including: Why do I have faith? What is the purpose of my faith? In grappling with these questions we can see that our faith, in the Tillichian sense, plays an important role in what sociologist Peter Berger calls “world-maintenance” or maintenance of a “particular institutional order.” Science in general or the niche science of molecular biology itself are not cultural forces shaping social institutional order. Scientific disciplines are vehicles driven by cultural forces like religious values, governmental regulation meted out by the whims of representatives installed by an ignorant and apathetic electorate, and by corporate profits. Of course, I suppose Silver, the good academic he is, thinks the cultural force of scientific inquiry and research for research’s sake is valuable enough to be left alone and not impinged upon by religious values and governmental regulations (and corporate profits?). This is the not-so-subtle reason why Silver wrote his book, to discredit the Bush-related policy wonks, and hence their policies, by delegitimizing what Silver claims are their religious foundations.

How meaningful is a “scientific faith” with its methodological drive toward asymptotic truth? Any faith, scientific or otherwise, gets its meaning, as Tillich contended, from its existential engagement with what he called “ontological anxiety,” the isolating fear of human aloneness and mortality. Exercising our faith also seeks what theologian Daniel Migliore calls, “correlation,” specifically drawing upon its exemplar in Paul Tillich. Migliore: “In this method, existential questions are formulated by analysis of the human situation in a given period as seen in its philosophy, literature, art, science, and social institutions. These questions are then correlated with the ‘answers’ of the Christian message. The aim is to create genuine conversation between human culture and revelation rather than driving a wedge between them.” Migliore’s words can be fruitfully applied to any discipline, especially to Silver’s molecular biology because of its potential to shape the future of human nature. Simply substitute “religion” for “science,” “molecular biology” for “the Christian message,” and “scientific investigation” for “revelation” and we have a whole new outlook on Silver’s objective in Challenging Nature, to portray modern biotechnology as part of a continuum of “natural” human interaction with biological realities. It’s unfortunate, however, that Silver chooses to ignore the insights of theologians into the nature of humanity’s relationship to the world as what Philip Hefner calls “created co-creators” by driving a wedge between human culture, of which religion is a huge part, and scientific investigation and technological outcomes. Silver sympathizes with sentiments of humans as “co-creators,” of course with blind evolution being the creator: “As a result of our species’ unique ability to discover science and invent technology, future evolution may be entirely different from past evolution” (318). Elsewhere I have written: “Faith must be re-assessed to account for the modern empowerment and predicament of technological advancement. I contend that faith is personal and social encounter with human boundaries and limitations. The most obvious universal boundary is awareness of mortality and ultimately death itself.” Using my definition of “faith” as simply our encounter with human boundaries and limitations, Silver’s entire book is one big exercise in faith.

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