Pluripotent Cells – Pluripotent Debate

My husband has been getting after me since Christmas to read Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. He was right: Stark’s argument makes sense of much in early American lit. (I’m only half way through.)

He argues Christianity encouraged reason, glorified reason – because its believers had a powerful vision of life as purposeful and science as a study, undertaken with humility, of the grand mysteries of nature. Because they assumed it was done with purpose, they comforted themselves that their approach, too, was purposeful: the best way to glorify God was to study not only his word but the harmony & beauty of his creation. Science – then – was honored because it sought a logical, rational, exploration of what is. Some – indeed many, as Stark observes – religious beliefs are antithetical to science, but Christianity is not.

The self-righteous assumption of “reason” versus “irrational faith” is often a little irritating, but Stark would say it is also quite wrong. Many sneered that Bush’s position on stem cells was irrational – “faith-based.” This always bothered me. I didn’t share his assumptions, so I didn’t get very worked up about it. But I could see where it was coming from. And, given his assumptions – debatable but not stupid ones – his was a quite logical position. So, while this isn’t my cause, I was pleasantly surprised by this link to a report by Michael Fumento (thanks to Instapundit):

Yet it’s been virtually a state secret that for over five years researchers, beginning with a team headed by physician Catherine Verfaillie of the University of Minnesota Stem Cell Institute, have been reporting numerous types of adult stem cells (she used those from marrow) that in the lab could form mature cells from three germ layers. Experiments around the world have clearly shown that adult stem cells from one germ layer can be converted into those of another in a living human, such as those that have turned adipose tissue stem cells from the mesoderm germ layer into neuronal cells from the ectoderm among others but these are all germ layer. (It also produced bone; cartilage; skeletal; cardiac muscle; and blood cells – mesodermal.)

I don’t have much of a dog in this fight nor in the bigger one – I am neither religious nor a scientist. But I am struck by the difference between the motivations Stark describes and which can be seen in the daily thoughts of so many seventeenth and eighteenth century Americans, and those of some stridently secular modern scientists. Despite their contentions, a sense of proportion may come from religion itself. Stark describes a tradition which prized growing in understanding – a belief system that saw God as a constant but man as changing to better understand the grandeur.

This belief sees the body of our knowledge as becoming, its potential like that of the pluripotent cells, that science can unlock to educate us and lead us to both knowledge and consciousness. Reason, argument, application of scientific principles – these nurture that potential. Of course, being fallible, we may misunderstand, fail in our reasoning or our science. But the tradition encourages testing: proofs, logic, argument. Most of all, it encourages humility before the awesome beauty and harmony of nature, but not despair nor sloth. (This view is not foreign, of course, to many non-believers, but is encouraged by religious faith.)

Indeed, willful assertion is seldom the most productive approach. If scientists want to complain of the church’s medieval criticism of certain scientists or its position on abortion, we might remember what secular science brought us in the twentieth century. We’ve seen a lack of humility before nature and human nature. The results at their worst have been tragic; some have merely been incredibly stupid. Our local & quite huge chemistry department has had more than its share of Czechs, Poles, Bulgarians. Of course, as one of my friends from the Soviet block observed, chemistry was the least politicized; back under the Soviets we certainly weren’t going in for biology. (AL links to a current review by Susan Eisenhower of Ethan Pollock’s Stalin and the Soviet Science Wars which discusses this at more length.)

I’m no scientist, but suspect some motivations are more powerful than others and some societies more fertile grounds for discoveries. Sure conventional wisdom will always be what most of us believe & few of us can see around; we aren’t all Einsteins and most of us aren’t very speculative at all. Nonetheless some societies – and some belief systems – encourage questioning and others don’t. And those that encourage questioning are more likely to get the answers right – at least some of the time and generally eventually.
Which leads us to what I find striking in the current discussion of climate change. When four senators attack a think tank and a company for “thinking” on an issue, some of our ears perk up. I had no reason to doubt climate change. Well, except a tendency to doubt Al Gore’s intelligence and a belief that man isn’t all that powerful; and I’ve always doubted apocalyptic theories. (I figure my grandkids’ generation will know a lot more about that “lucky old sun” than we do.) And where I come from, the weather’s always been hell – like that’s new. But, sure, I’m not going to argue; I have the sense to know I don’t know.

But I do know what constitutes thoughtful debate, humility before what we don’t know, curiosity about exceptions. The climate change advocates see themselves as secular and “reasonable”; well, maybe. But they have the appearance and the apparent insecurity of thugs. Needless to say, as WSJ notes, it is inappropriate for senators to tell a “think tank” or a business (one that the Senate can restrain & tax) what to “think.” This is the real world, in which scientists have mortgages to pay and children to send to college and, even the most ascetic, want grants for research. Those are pressures enough to align oneself with the “consensus.” And if an advocacy group wants to advocate – fine. If you agree with them, give them megaphones. But if the position is affirmed as each year go by, then there is no reason to silence the opposition through such tactics as the Senate’s – the opposition will be silenced by what is. And if we don’t condemn those tactics because we think global warming is a besieged and vulnerable fact, then we might worry about the precedent it sets.
Ad hominem is not the sign of maturity (nor, often, of a very good argument). Closing down the marketplace of ideas is not the sign of security. In open debate those who deny climate change may appear loons – flat-earthers. This may be true next year or in five years or in fifty. Or not. But, I will be increasingly leery of those who see only stem cells as having the capacity to cure and I have also become more doubtful of global warming. I figure if the answers were sure, advocates would welcome debate.

8 thoughts on “Pluripotent Cells – Pluripotent Debate”

  1. I thought the Stark book was good. I generally agree with his position, the centrality of Christianity in the rise of the West, though I regret to say that he did not succeed in proving it. What he did was put a lot of evidence on the board.

    A similar argument is advanced by Fr. Stanley Jaki. I am halfway through his very erudite book The Road of Science and the Ways to God. Jaki talks about why only the West made the breakthrough to science — Greco-Roman civilization, China, India, Islam, Japan – all failed to do it. You needed the Christian metaphysics as a background to make the initial breakthrough to real science, which then becomes a self-sustaining enterprise. Jaki says it was faith in a rational Creator that made it possible, at least initially. His discussion of Copernicus, Newton, Einstein and Planck is very interesting and, to me, convincing.

    I thought Rodney Starks discussion in the book you cite to of the spread of capitalism from the Italian city states to the low countries, to England is one of the best discussions I have seen of this absolutley critical process of diffusion.

    Really, despite falling short of its over-ambitious goal, an excellent book.

    (You must read his book The Rise of Christianity, which is a real eye-opener. Brilliant.)

  2. I’m a non-denominational Christian (was raised Roman Catholic). I firmly believe that , in the end, there can’t (or maybe “won’t” is a better word) be a discrepency between the truth or near-to-the-truth that we discovered through science and those things in the Bible which form the basis of my faith.

    (Having said that, I respect anyone’s right to think that’s wrong and to have other point of view, I’m just expressing my own perspective and its not a judgement on those with other views)

    So I believe that in order for Christianity to be correct, it must agree with those things in the natural world that are to be measured by it. So in other words, my faith has to be made from a position of rationality.

    If the God in the bible is the thing He says he is, then that god is something which has acted in our historical past and had things to say about our historical future (if there such a thing).

    To me, what validated the truth of the Bible was those statements relating to Israel and the Jews. I dont really put a lot of emphasis on the Genesis Creation to Flood parts. On the other hand, I have a hard time accepting the Theory of Evolution because I dont see the evidence for it. I do software programming for a living and I find it impossible for chemical software like DNA to have just occured by accident. I’m not saying the Genesis account is the literal truth either.. I think fundamentally no body is ever going to really know how life formed on this planet, not a religous person , not a secular person.

    I dotn know why i’m writing any of this.I guess i’m bored… I really dont have a point other than I believe my faith is a rational choice and if it were ever to be found to be irrational (or contradicting reality) I would be obligated to renounce it.

  3. We’d talked about how big the generalizations were and how small the specifics. It’s a pretty short book with some big territory to cover. However, his argument makes sense of people like Edwards and Mather – both respected as scientists, both obsessed with Puritan theology. He connects dots I’ve seen in the lit but only had a glimmer of the whys he puts in better perspective.

    By the way, the people who have helped me see the religious influences on these early Americans demonstrate honest appreciation of others’ traditions in a lovely way. I don’t know their biographies, but assume that Michael Novak (On Two Wings, which emphasizes the Judaic tradition in the thinking of the founders) is Catholic, Gertrude Himmelfarb (whose The Roads to Modernity discusses the important role of Protestant thinking in the British and American enlightenments) is Jewish, and now Stark (whose book emphasizes the role of Catholicism in creating modern capitalism) is Baptist (? at least he’s at Baylor). In a sense, the three of them appear to embody the very values all of them are describing – appreciation of other traditions by those who are well grounded in their own.

  4. fyi

    In 1976, Steve (Stephen H.) Schneider published a book entitled The Genesis Strategy. It made quite an impact on me at the time, primarily because Schneider did not promote technological fixes, but a global strategy of what is now called Adaptation, an idea reluctantly and belatedly embraced by IPCC. Those were the days of Nuclear Winter, weather modification, Project Stormfury, stratospheric ozone destruction, and the sick idea of seeding all Arctic ice with soot to prevent the next ice age. In the preface to his book, Schneider quotes Harvey Brooks, then Harvard dean of engineering:

    “Scientists can no longer afford to be naïve about the political effects of publicly stated scientific opinions. If the effect of their scientific views is politically potent, they have an obligation to declare their political and value assumptions, and to try to be honest with themselves, their colleagues and their audience about the degree to which their assumptions have affected their selection and interpretation of scientific evidence”.

    Hendrik Tennekes, retired Director of Research, Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, former Professor of Aeronautical Engineering at the Pennsylvania State University

  5. The attitude that “the best way to glorify God was to study not only his word but the harmony & beauty of his creation” was typical of Anglosphere science in the 17th and 18th Centuries. It was in France that intellectual life defined itself as being in opposition to the Catholic church in the 18th Century. During and after the French revolution, the left began to define itself as being scientific and opposed to religion. By mid-century, Marx could label religion as the “opiate of the masses.” In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Marxism became the religion of the intellectuals, and left-wing scientists were only too happy to support the partyline by finding proofs in science that revealed religion must be wrong. Even today Richard Dawkins sells lots of books proclaiming the opposition of science and religion.

    In the US the whole thing got off on the wrong foot in the early 20th Century. It is noteworthy that the first official clash between science and religion in the US was between militantly populist William Jennings Bryan and the big city lawyer Clarence Darrow who championed many left wing causes. I think the best way of understanding this clash is as part of a larger clash between coastal elites and the middle and working classes of fly-over country that continues to this day. Imagine if you will the party of Bryan nominating John Forbes Kerry.

  6. I wanted to add this from Claire Berlinki, in an interview with John Hawkins, about her new book: Menace In Europe: Why the Continent’s Crisis Is America’s, Too:

    American religiosity doesn’t need to be explained; after all, throughout history, in every civilization, people have believed in the supernatural. What needs to be explained is European atheism, which is the aberration-unique in the world and in human history. It has its origins in politics, I think, not metaphysics. Voltaire was of the view that it is not so much the intrinsic power of the argument for atheism that caused people to reject faith, but rather the corruption of the Church, and largely I agree with him. Before the French Revolution, there were no atheists in Europe. Heretics, sure. But atheists? Unheard of. Political atheism-as opposed to philosophical atheism-emerged from revulsion with the corrupt Catholic Church and the detested Bourbon Monarchy; the two being intimately identified in peoples’ minds, as indeed they were. Une foi, un loi, un roi, as they said, and with two down, a trifecta seemed inevitable. This in turn paved the way for intellectual atheism, represented by such figures as Nietzsche, Marx and Freud — all of whom, by the way, assumed atheism as the starting point rather than endeavoring to prove it. You could ask — why atheism, why then? Why not, say, an anticlerical form of religion? I suspect the answer lies in the linkages between atheism and the scientific revolution — linkages of loose association only; after all, no scientific discovery ever specifically disproved the existence of God. Atheism is the natural correlate to the doctrine of scientific materialism, and clearly atheism gained strength through its identification with the triumphs of science. But it needed a political context to take hold, and only in Europe did it find one. In this sense, the separation of Church and State in the US worked, paradoxically, to the advantage of the Church.

    RTWT and the book as well.

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