Re: [asa] scientific fact vs. ideology?

From: Stephen Matheson <>
Date: Thu Mar 12 2009 - 21:05:38 EDT

David, you're right that there was too much crap in my response, and I'm sorry about that. Personal invective was not my goal, but my frustration was all too evident and you shouldn't have had to deal with that.

Let me make the wildly foolish assumption that you might still be interested in some of my comments. :-)

1. I have objections to some of your comments, and disagreements with some, and those shouldn't be confused. I don't disagree with the notion that "potentiality" can contribute to consideration of moral significance. Perhaps I disagree with the extent to which you and I emphasize it...hard to say. But I do object to flat assertions regarding such matters, and was attempting to point to the fluid nature of many of the distinctions that form the basis of the assertions. Yes, of course ethical concerns arise once an embryo has been "created" by a "manipulation"; my point was that the actions that can "actualize the potentiality of personhood" are not as simply delineated or circumscribed as some seem to suggest.

2. When it comes to science-related discussions among Christians, I'm mostly focused on issues of integrity. Secondarily, I'm interested in topics that are used as faith barometers in evangelicaldom and beyond. I tend to worry a lot about the attachment of spurious ideas (bogus or brilliant) or positions (laudable or ludicrous) to the gospel or to the church. This leads me to worry about the extent to which serious Christians are free to question dominant evangelical views on abortion or evolution or politics without facing suspicion regarding their faith commitment. You don't do this, not at all, but simplistic assertions of the type that I saw in the discussion of "personhood" does remind me of those who do.

3. Much of this friction between us is, I think, purely a consequence of our choice to use the inferior medium of email to explore our ideas. I typed that just to remind myself. :-)

4. My own view is that we (society, Christendom, whatever) should take a somewhat different tack on this subject. Instead of focusing on those things that don't have moral significance (sperm, skin cells) and talking about why they don't, we should focus on those that do and why they do. I'm talking here about the things that everyone acknowledges to have "personhood": neonates and beyond, say. Then when we've agreed on what those things are, we build a generous moral fence around them and agree not to threaten anything inside the fence. (Sort of the RvW emanation thing in reverse.) We can then freely acknowledge that we're protecting some things that few people would identify as morally complete but that we agree to protect so as not to anywhere near those things that we want to protect at almost any cost. I'm not suggesting that this is even achievable, but I am proposing it as a better way to think about personhood.

5. I see nearly all arguments for "personhood" or even potential personhood during very early human development (i.e., at least till the morula stage) foundering on the issue of twinning, and I believe the only way to reasonably ascribe moral signfiicance to such embryos is by admitting that one is invoking a moral buffer zone like I mentioned in the last paragraph. This is why I have little or no sympathy with claims of dramatic moral status for such embryos, and do not oppose disaggregation of such embryos for the isolation of ESCs. This is not to say that I find such activities to be as morally innocuous as killing bacteria, nor is it to say that I am oblivious to the disturbing nature of certain arguments in favor of the practice.

6. The scary thing about HESCs is not, in my view, the ever-diminishing potential that demand will cause large-scale destruction of human embryos. As others have noted here, it will soon be easy enough to create custom pluripotent stem cells, a far better therapeutic asset that can be established with almost no ethical complications. If you want to worry about pluripotent stem cells, I think you should worry about their very real potential utility in the practice of genetic engineering. For a hint as to why, see my symposium talk at the ASA meeting in 2006.

Steve Matheson

>>> David Opderbeck <> 03/10/09 10:46 PM >>>

With an embryo, some action has already been taken to actualize the potentiality of personhood, whether by ordinary sexual reproduction, artificial insemination, or IVF. The question then becomes whether and under what circumstances it is ethically permissible to stop that potentiality. With any other cell in the body, before any analogous action has been taken, the termination of that cell is not the termination of any actuated potentiality for personhood. If the technology existed to clone a human being from somatic cells, once that technological process had been initiated, similar ethical concerns would arise. But absent the initiation of such a technological process, there is zero actual potential for any somatic cell to become a person. "Potential," even in an Aristotelian sense, involves chains of causation, not just any theoretical potential.

You all seem to be assuming that I have argued that the potentiality principle necessarily results in absolute protection to the embryo. I have not. What I've argued is that the potentiality principle, together with the precautionary principle, complicates any utilitarian / consequentialist approach to human embryonic stem cell research. That argument was in response to a claim that a utilitarian / consequentialist view would certainly favor continuing the research.

Nor have I claimed that my ultimate view about this question is infallibly correct. I do, in fact, think that the arguments I've made so far, together with some specifically religious arguments, render the current practice of research on embryonic stem cells unethical. But, I don't suggest that my position is beyond cavail.

In short, up until now I've made very modest claims that are common in the literature debating this issue. Some of you seem to think that warrants invective, ad hominems, efforts to intimidate, ridicule, and the like. I don't get it; frankly, it's lame.

David W. Opderbeck
Associate Professor of Law
Seton Hall University Law School
Director, Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology

On Tue, Mar 10, 2009 at 9:18 PM, Stephen Matheson


"Further manipulation?" You mean like successfully implanting into the uterus, constructing a placenta, and evading the immune system of the host? If any of these processes is aided by other humans, have they then been "manipulated?" These glib platitudes just won't do.

As far as we know, every nucleus in the body does indeed have the potential to become a person. The distinction you're making (between improbable events that lead to a live birth and "manipulation" by other humans) is, in my view, nothing more than a preference for "natural" processes over "manipulated" (read: unnatural) processes. I am unimpressed by the efforts to translate such preferences into moral fortresses. And we haven't even addressed the failure of such distinctions when the process in question is a perfectly natural disease and healing comes as a "manipulation." By the time the "potentiality" argument is amended to patch its numerous holes, it looks so hopelessly ad hoc as to seem ridiculous.

The fact is that it will soon be easy enough to make a human "zygote" by returning a somatic nucleus (perhaps from a tissue stem cell with intact telomeres) to totipotency (or at least pluripotency). We'll need something a whole lot better than "manipulation" or its absence to figure out how to respect life. The potentiality argument will fail spectacularly. Ditch it now while there's still time. Or...transform it into one way of describing the wide boundary around which one might seek to build moral protections.

Steve Matheson

>>> David Opderbeck <> 03/10/09 8:47 PM >>>

No, Jim, every cell in our body does not have the potentiality to become a person until, as you note, an act of cloning is done. In contrast, a zygote (and even more so an embryo) has the potentiality to become a person without further manipulation.

David W. Opderbeck
Associate Professor of Law
Seton Hall University Law School
Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology

On Tue, Mar 10, 2009 at 8:35 PM, Jim Armstrong


I think the "potentiality" argument is particularly weak. In short (and admittedly oversimplified), every cell nucleus in our body has the "potentiality". Just transfer that nucleus into a suitable cellular context and it can (and does in cloning) become a living entity. But we slough millions of such cells every day, ...with their potentiality. But we don't even have to go there, because ova are likewise mostly sloughed by the body. Ah, but that leads us to the fertilized ovum.

The point of conception is latched onto by many at the initiation of a person. But that is simplistic and fuzzy too, IMHO. An unfertilized ovum can be teased into beginning mitosis without any fertilization. Quite a few creatures in fact do that spontaneously (chickens, sharks, etc.). So it seems to me that might cast a bit of a shadow over the adequacy of the conception definition of personhood .

But there is also the matter of a high degree of natural attrition of such zygotes, as well as after the cellular cleavages (mitosis) begin. [As I understand it, it is after some 2 weeks of these cellular multiplications that one might refer to the organism as an embryo]. So this at least might ask for some thought as to the "value" of any given zygote or even embryo, since many (most?) embryos do not successfully mature to a born baby. Is any given one of them then effectively of some fractional value from a pragmatist view? Does this significant natural attrition of potential humans nuance the argument at all in the tradeoff of potential life vs potential benefit to current and future generations?

So, as you say, David, the analysis is truly "not by any means obvious", but these considerations (among others) cause me to lean in the direction voiced by Burgy.

This embryonic stem cell controversy may be a transient issue at the end of the day, because so much research is also being done with non-embryonic cells, and many researchers are not insensitive to the ethical concerns. Dr. William Hurlbut's ANT (altered nuclear transfer) work, for example, was inspired by human cellular structures that develop naturally (teratomas), but have developed in a flawed way such that they cannot develop into a viable baby. He is a practicing and articulate Christian. [ANT summary here ( ).]

JimA [Friend of ASA]

David Opderbeck wrote:

I don't think the ethical issue is quite so simple, Burgy. For example, if one is agnostic on the personhood of a human embryo, as you and probably most other people are, or if even those who say "no" here have to admit some uncertainty, then the precautionary principle comes into play. Curiously, the same people who strongly assert the precautionary principle as a backstop for global warming mitigation often completely blow it off when it comes to embryonic stem cell research (and vice versa!).

Also, the options aren't just the polar "person vs. non-person." Many opponents of human embryonic stem cell research argue from "potentiality." If embryos are not "persons" in a full sense -- e.g., if personhood relates to existing cognitive functions -- they are at least "potential persons." In such a case, one mode of ethical analysis might be to weigh the potentiality of an embryo's personhood against the potentiality of the research program. The result of such an analysis is not by any means obvious.

Finally, all of the above assumes that a consequentialist ethic is necessarily the right and only appropriate kind of ethical analysis to employ in this case. Why? Many ethicists would argue that consequentialism ends up being incoherent, and therefore favor deontological and/or virtue perspectives -- a position with which I'm quite sympathetic.

David W. Opderbeck
Associate Professor of Law
Seton Hall University Law School
Director, Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology

On Tue, Mar 10, 2009 at 10:47 AM, John Burgeson (ASA member)


Doug posted, in part: "public policy should be based on scientific
facts not ideology.
I think this is an awful statement. It's a false dichotomy.

Scientific "facts" don't make public policy; they form a necessary
informational base, but every action based on that knowledge also
requires a moral/ethical/ideological decision."

I don't see it as "awful," but a simple factual statement. If one
takes it to mean "based ONLY on scientific facts," then, of course,
I'd agree that it is "awful." I'd probably use a stronger term.But it
does not say that.

Relative to the stem cell issue, it really boils down to the question
"does a frozen embryo have personhood -- a soul?" For those asserting
"yes," the issue is clear; stem cell research is immoral. For those
who assert otherwise, stem cell research in morally OK.

Having read a lot on this, I tend toward the latter position, but I do
NOT claim certainty. I don't know that any of us can claim certainty
on the issue.

It is a classic case that whichever side of the issue you choose, you
run the risk of doing harm (or not avoiding harm).


On 3/10/09, David Campbell <> wrote:
> Yes, in the case of embryonic stem cells there is little disagreement
> about the science, and the self-identified "scientific" policy is
> merely one ideology among many.
> In other cases, such as environmental or evolution, there is denial of
> the science that could be described as disagreement about the science.
> Nevertheless, even in such cases, science is still descriptive.
> Science cannot be morally prescriptive, as that is outside its scope.
> --
> Dr. David Campbell
> 425 Scientific Collections
> University of Alabama
> "I think of my happy condition, surrounded by acres of clams"
> To unsubscribe, send a message to with
> "unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.

Burgy ( )
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Received on Thu Mar 12 21:06:53 2009

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