Re: [asa] scientific fact vs. ideology?

From: David Opderbeck <>
Date: Sat Mar 14 2009 - 18:11:45 EDT

George said:* **It seems to me that what you mean by "biologically
reductionist" is really just taking of biological science seriously. *

I respond: No, that's just not fair George. I mean simply that no
discussion of the biology can measure or determine whether there is a
"spiritual" component to the human person -- whether we call it "soul" or
not. If we try to determine "personhood" with reference only to biological
categories, we will come up with a reductionist definition that likely (I
would say certainly) will not be true.

Honestly, I sense that both you and Steve Matheson think that I somehow
don't understand or wasn't aware of the complications attached to whether
any given fertilized egg becomes a viable baby. Not so; and I'm also quite
aware of the complications relating to neurobiology and the "soul" or

And I have not "absolutized" potentiality. I've said only that potentiality
+ precautionary principle seems to be the only criteria for which we have
reasonable grounds to make assessments.

Maybe you could propose some criteria by which we could adjudicate, to a
sufficient degree of certainty, the determination of when "personhood"

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

On Sat, Mar 14, 2009 at 4:52 PM, George Murphy <> wrote:

> David -
> I pretty much figured that's what you meant - not just that we don't know
> at present but that we'll never know. & so, as I said, you've in effect
> absolutized potential personhood and said that it will always trump
> potential benefits of ESCR.
> I never suggested that the process of reflection I suggested would be easy
> - that we could have a conference some weekend & publish a consensus on
> Monday. Furthermore, such a process should begin with the Christian
> community before we try to engage others. Before the question arises of
> someone trying to show that the present RC view is wrong, it would behoove
> the RC magisterium to be a little more straightforward about the limits of
> that view. That would mean, 1st, recognizing that their present hardline
> position is not the one that has always been held by the RCC, & that its
> adoption (as relates to abortion) was not arrived at because of any deepened
> understanding of embryological development but as part of Pius IX's general
> reaction against the modern world. It would also mean willingness to take
> seriously the counsel of people with scientific expertise in the area, an
> approach 180 degrees different from that of Paul VI on birth control, a not
> unrelated issue. Of course those who hold entrenched views at the opposite
> end of the spectrum should also do some honest re-examination, but I'm
> addressing now the type of question you asked and the position you hold.
> It seems to me that what you mean by "biologically reductionist" is really
> just taking of biological science seriously. You're quite prepared to
> counter the implications
> of that science with regard to twinning, e.g., with theological
> speculation. Not only does that not show adequate respect for science, it
> isn't good theology.
> Shalom
> George
> ----- Original Message -----
> *From:* David Opderbeck <>
> *To:* George Murphy <>
> *Cc:* Don Winterstein <> ; John Burgeson (ASA member)<>;
> *Sent:* Saturday, March 14, 2009 3:59 PM
> *Subject:* Re: [asa] scientific fact vs. ideology?
> I guess I don't think we'll *ever* be able to know with any reasonable
> certainty when "personhood" begins. What sort of test could you devise that
> wouldn't be either (a) biologically reductionist; or (b) unfalsifiable
> (either on scientific, philosophical or theological grounds)?
> You've mentioned the (present) RC view of ensoulment, for example. How
> could you show with any reasonable certainty that this view is "wrong?" You
> can raise all sorts of objections to this view, but at the end of the day it
> depends upon assertions about the "soul" concerning which there doesn't seem
> to be any means of final adjudication. (I don't think twinning defeats the
> RC view, BTW, because that view also entails a strong view of God's
> providence -- i.e., God can create two souls that go with the twins-to-be.)
> I'm a MacIntyrian on this -- metaphysical arguments at some point simply
> become incommensurable, and the choice becomes one of competing *
> traditions* in which some irreducible metaphysics are embedded.
> I think what I'm saying is that "personhood" is in some ways the wrong
> question. "Personhood" tries to set a hard boundary where there is in
> reality a gradual continuum. From the moment of fertilization, any lines
> that get drawn between "person" and "not person" seem arbitrary and
> pragmatic, or at least biologically reductionist. The real question is what
> kind of tradition do we want to see our political culture embody. If we
> choose a tradition that isn't biologically reductionist, I don't know how we
> ever draw sharp lines on "personhood" with the human embryo.
> David W. Opderbeck
> Associate Professor of Law
> Seton Hall University Law School
> Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology
> On Sat, Mar 14, 2009 at 2:55 PM, George Murphy <>wrote:
>> So what it comes down to is that we can't at present "state with any
>> reasonable degree of certainty when 'personhood' begins," we do know that
>> the embryo is a (at least one) potential person, & the value of that
>> potential person trumps the potential benefit from research to many people
>> with disabilities - & this without engaging in any discussion (in this
>> thread at least) about the question of when personhood begins. Without such
>> discussion the chance of reaching any greater degree of certainty about that
>> question is of course zero, so that the decision will always be in favor of
>> the potential person. Thus potentiality is being used to impose as absolute
>> a ban on ESCR as if we did knew for certain that the embryo is a person from
>> conception onward.
>> The alternative - which folks at neither extreme seem to want - is to say,
>> yes, potentiality and precaution (which are in fact closely related) mean
>> that we should not engage in such research *at present*, but that we are
>> going to try to make a serious attempt to see if some consensus about
>> personhood can be reached, free of many of the loaded arguments that have
>> bedevilled this issue. That means OTOH that we recognize that the claim
>> that personhood begins at conception is not *& in fact has not been*universally accepted in the Christian tradition. OTOH those who are in
>> favor of ESCR will forego the trype of argument that implies that if you
>> aren't in favor of embryonic stem cell research, you want people with spinal
>> cord injuries to remain paralyzed.
>> Shalom
>> George
>> ----- Original Message -----
>> *From:* David Opderbeck <>
>> *To:* Don Winterstein <>
>> *Cc:* John Burgeson (ASA member) <> ;
>> *Sent:* Saturday, March 14, 2009 2:15 PM
>> *Subject:* Re: [asa] scientific fact vs. ideology?
>> You anticipate the problem, Don, but you don't really offer any solution.
>> The problem of euthanasia and what "capable" means is one reason why I think
>> the potentiality principle remains important (though, as we have noted ad
>> nauseum, "important" doesn't in my mind mean "conclusive" or
>> "incontrovertible.") . A human embryo is in fact more "capable" of having
>> "spiritual interaction" than a 90-year-old person, if "capabilities" include
>> all potential interactions over the course of an average human lifetime.
>> This ties into a very important strand of theory in virtue ethics related
>> to global development, Martha Nussbaum's "capabilities approach." Note that
>> I am NOT suggesting Nussbaum applies this in the same way I might to our
>> present discussion -- in fact, I think Nussbaum's articulation of
>> "capability" is too individualistic. The point is simply that
>> "capabilities" or "potentiality" remain important for many normative
>> theories of ethics.
>> IMHO, both on either scientific or theological grounds, it is presently
>> impossible to state with any reasonable degree of certainty when
>> "personhood" begins. In my view, this means it's equally impossible to draw
>> meaningful lines about when it is permissible to terminate a human life
>> having some potentential to exercise at least some of the capabilities we
>> associate with personhood -- whether at the very start or very end of
>> biological life. Given that, and given the immense value (not "absolute"
>> value, but immense value) we place (or ought to place) on human life, in my
>> view the precautionary principle strongly weighs against intentional
>> termination of embryonic human life.
>> Further, I think the view I'm taking here is the most consistent among the
>> presently competing views with a Christian understanding of the human
>> person, the relationships among human persons, and the role of the state. I
>> take as a central ethical imperative Jesus' restatement of the law: to love
>> God with all the heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love one's neighbor
>> as one's self. I further take as a central ethical imperative the repeated
>> Biblical injunction to care for and defend those who are unable to protect
>> themselves against the exercise of power by others. And, I think the state
>> has a particular role as God's vice-regent over human affairs to promote
>> laws consistent with these imperatives.
>> If there is any reasonable doubt at all about the status of an entity as
>> "human," then, IMHO, the love command and the injunction to defend the
>> powerless compel us to oppose the intentional termination of embryonic human
>> life, as well as human life in its end stages, EVEN IF the purpose of that
>> action is to promote research that might benefit us.
>> Now, someone might take the line here taken by Ted Peters: beneficence
>> and the love command suggest exactly the opposite -- that we ought to
>> resolve this doubt in favor of persons who unquestionably presently possess
>> human capabilities but who are damaged by illness. (Peters argues this in
>> "Playing God?", in which he acknowledges the potentiality principle, BTW).
>> I can't agree.
>> Among other things, I think this view ultimately devalues people with
>> disabilities. Disabled people who might benefit from embryonic stem cell
>> research -- whether a paraplegic or my own son with his neurological
>> misfunction -- remain able to exercise human capabilities, with excellence,
>> dignity and beauty. The fact that society views my son as "marred" or
>> "impaired" doesn't justify *completely extinguishing* the capabilities of
>> another person or potential person. A better approach, IMHO, is to pursue
>> other avenues of research while at the same time exercising love and
>> beneficence by helping people like my son to live meaningful lives within
>> the context of their unique physical abilities. At some point, after all,
>> every one of us must learn to live with the unique limitations fate, or
>> providence, or karma, or whatever you want to call it, hands us.
>> David W. Opderbeck
>> Associate Professor of Law
>> Seton Hall University Law School
>> Director, Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology
>> On Sat, Mar 14, 2009 at 3:03 AM, Don Winterstein <>wrote:
>>> IMO abortion, while always traumatic, distasteful and a thing that
>>> should be undertaken only as some sort of last resort, isn't murder unless
>>> the organism aborted is capable of spiritual interaction at the level of
>>> persons. Capability for spiritual interaction at the level of persons,
>>> which I regard as tantamount to "having a soul," among humans requires a
>>> fairly complete body. A few million cells won't do. In other words, humans
>>> don't get souls at conception but at some much later stage of development.
>>> In other words, the soul is an emergent property of the body--and you can't
>>> prove me wrong on this from Scripture.
>>> If you amputate someone's leg, you're killing human tissue but you're not
>>> guilty of murder because you're not killing a person. Destroying a frozen
>>> embryo is in a similar category.
>>> Does this mean I'd support mercy killing for the mentally defective on
>>> grounds they can't be spiritual? No, because no human can tell where the
>>> boundary is between having capability for spiritual interaction and not
>>> having such capability. But I'm comfortable sticking my neck out to say
>>> that frozen embryos don't have it.
>>> Don
>>> ----- Original Message -----
>>> *From:* John Burgeson (ASA member) <>
>>> *To:* David Campbell <>
>>> *Cc:*
>>> *Sent:* Tuesday, March 10, 2009 6:47 AM
>>> *Subject:* Re: [asa] scientific fact vs. ideology?
>>> 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).
>>> jb
>>> 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 Sat Mar 14 18:12:15 2009

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