14 Apr

Being Human: Readings from the President's Council on Bioethics

Category: What We're Reading
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 04/14/04

Ovid, St. Augustine, Francis Bacon, W. H. Auden, Thomas Mann, and Vladimir Nabokov are some of the authors whose works grace the pages of a new anthology edited and published by the President's Council on Bioethics. Being Human: Readings from the President's Council on Bioethics speaks—through its stories, poems, memoirs, and the introductions that accompany them—to the matters and dilemmas facing humanity in an age of biotechnology. In a letter introducing Being Human the executive director of the Council writes, "The Council offers this volume in the hope that it will help advance the goals with which the Council was established, namely, 'to undertake fundamental inquiry into the human and moral significance of developments in biomedical and behavioral science and technology . . . To provide a forum for a national discussion of bioethical issues' and to 'strive to develop a deep and comprehensive understanding of the issues [the Council] considers.'" The anthology is divided into ten chapters: "The Search for Perfection"; "Scientific Aspirations"; "To Heal Sometimes, To Comfort Always"; "Are We Our Bodies?"; "Many Stages, One Life"; "Among the Generations"; "Why Not Immortality?"; "Vulnerability and Suffering"; "Living Immediately"; and "Human Dignity". [Posted April 2004, ALG]

In October the President's Council on Bioethics submitted to the President a report titled Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness. In Beyond Therapy Council members address two concerns linked to biotechnology: the inclination of many to seek the fulfillment of the deepest human desires through biotechnology, and the threat to the soul that accompanies such fulfillment. The writers of the report have structured their study "around the desires and goals of human beings, rather than around the technologies they employ" (taken from the letter—by the Council's Chairman Dr. Leon Kass—that accompanied the report to the President). To establish a rich picture of life in the age of biotechnology the report insists on understanding human beings in psychic, moral, and spiritual terms rather than in material, mechanistic, or medical (i.e. therapeutic) ones.

Beyond Therapy considers four ends for which biotechnologies are used: better children, superior performance in the activities of life, ageless bodies, and happy souls. In its early chapters the report asks whether or not using technologies to achieve these ends redefines them. The final chapter considers what kind of society might result from employing technologies not for healing, but for human "enhancement." In setting these boundaries for the discussion of life in the age of biotechnology, Kass writes that Council members are "hopeful that, by informing and moderating our desires, and by grasping the limits of our new powers, we can keep in mind the true meaning of our founding ideals—and thus find the means to savor the fruits of the age of biotechnology, without succumbing to its most dangerous temptations."

In their research for the report members of the Council drew on sources as varied as scientific publications, weekly periodicals and daily newspapers, and classic works of literature and philosophy. The concerns of Beyond Therapy are summarized in the following paragraphs from the report:

"Summing up these 'essential sources of concern,' we might succinctly formulate them as follows:

"In wanting to become more than we are, and in sometimes acting as if we were already superhuman or divine, we risk despising what we are and neglecting what we have.

"In wanting to improve our bodies and our minds using new tools to enhance their performance, we risk making our bodies and minds little different from our tools, in the process also compromising the distinctly human character of our agency and activity.

"In seeking by these means to be better than we are or to like ourselves better that we do, we risk 'turning into someone else,' confounding the identity we have acquired through natural gift cultivated by genuinely lived experiences, alone and with others.

"In seeking brighter outlooks, reliable contentment, and dependable feelings of self-esteem in ways that by-pass their usual natural sources, we risk flattening our souls, lowering our aspirations, and weakening our loves and attachments.

"By lowering our sights and accepting the sorts of satisfactions that biotechnology may be readily able to produce for us, we risk turning a blind eye to the objects of our natural loves and longings, the pursuit of which might be the truer road to a more genuine happiness."

Members of the President's Council on Bioethics include Francis Fukuyama, Robert P. George, Paul McHugh, Gilbert Meilaender, and Michael Sandel. [Posted March 2004, ALG]

13 Jan

"The Classics in the Slums"

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 01/13/04

In the Autumn 2004 issue of City Journal, author Jonathan Rose explores the history of the engagement of lower economic classes with classic literature. His article, "The Classics in the Slums," offers evidence that contradicts those in the academy who espouse (to quote the article) "that classic literature was always irrelevant to underprivileged people who were not classically educated" and "'that Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare do not figure significantly in the personal economies of [underprivileged] people, do not perform individual or social functions that gratify their interests, do not have value for them'" (italics in the original).

As history tells it, reading of the greats was, in fact, widespread and voracious among autodidact members of the working class in many cultures up until the mid-twentieth century. Rose writes: "In the mining towns South of Wales, colliers had pennies deducted from their wages to support their own libraries, more than 100 of them by 1934. . . . There were sophisticated literary debates down in the pits, where one collier heard high praise for George Meredith. That evening, he tried to borrow Meredith's Love in the Valley from the local miners' library, only to find 12 names on the waiting list for a single copy."

The full text of "The Classics in the Slums" is available on-line. [Posted January 2005, ALG]

3 Oct

Intelligent Design

Category: What We're Reading
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 10/03/03

Readings from the liner notes.

William A. Dembski's The Design Inference (Cambridge, 1998) is a highly technical study aimed at philosophers interested in epistemology, logic, probability, and complexity theory. The book asks how we can identify events that happened by reason of intelligent causes and distinguish them from events due to undirected natural causes. His more recent book, Intelligent Design: The Bridge between Science and Theology (InterVarsity Press, 1999) is a more popular and wide-ranging volume. Dembski also edited the anthology Mere Creation: Science, Faith and Intelligent Design (InterVarsity Press, 1998); contributors to this volume include Michael Behe, Steven C. Meyer, Walter L. Bradley, Paul A. Nelson, and Hugh Ross. The July/August 1999 issue of Touchstone contains a number of essays by the same contributors (call 815.398.8569 for copies). Another recent title of similar interest is Michael J. Denton, Nature's Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe (Free Press, 1998). Denton is the Senior Research Fellow in Human Molecular Genetics at the University of Otago in New Zealand. His 1984 book, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (Adler & Adler), is recommended by Dembski. Denton says that the new book's purpose is "first, to present scientific evidence for believing that the cosmos is uniquely fit for life as it exists on earth and for organisms of design and biology very similar to our own species, Homo sapiens, and second, to argue that this 'unique fitness' of the laws of nature for life is entirely consistent with the older teleological religious concept of the cosmos as a specially designed whole, with life and mankind as its primary goal and purpose." [Posted October 2001, ALG]

William Dembski has further contributed to the debate on intelligent design with his book The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions about Intelligent Design (InterVarsity Press, 2004). Stephen M. Barr, a guest on Volume 62 of the Journal, writes this about the work: "The Design Revolution is about questions of fundamental importance: Can one formulate objective criteria for recognizing design? What do such criteria tell us about design in the biological realm? Sad to say, even to raise such questions is dangerous; but fortunately Dembski is not deterred. In this courageous book he takes aim at the intellectual complacency that too often smothers serious and unprejudiced discussion of these questions." [Posted March 2004, ALG]

2 Oct

"Bright Sadness" and Arvo Pärt

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 10/02/03

For a brief but thoughtful and descriptive introduction to Arvo Pärt, see professor Dale Nelson's review of his music in the March 2002 issue of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity. The review, "The Bright Sadness of Arvo Pärt," begins with a list of Pärt's recordings and concludes with notes on the recordings. In the body of the text Nelson gives a short biography of the composer, compares his music to Bach's, and discusses the different terms listeners use to describe the qualities of the works. Many would say the music, which is "characterized by 'directness of feeling, transparency of form, austerity of mood, economy of gesture,'" has a "timelessness" about it, Nelson writes. But the other reality of which it is full is "bright sadness," which Nelson describes through a quote from Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann's Great Lent.

"The Bright Sadness of Arvo Pärt" is available on-line. [Posted October 2006, ALG]