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Here’s a business model for you: (1) you have a highly-technical specialty with very few competitors, and (2) better yet, federal law dictates that the materials you use will be provided to you at zero cost. That’s the business model that biotech firms such as LifeCell Corp. are using to make money hand over fist. (LifeCell brought in the tidy sum of $140.6 M last year.)

So how is it that these biotech firms are profiting from our bodies while we get no compensation? The answer is fairly simple. The National Organ Transplant Act (NOTA) of 1984 made it illegal for individuals to sell their body parts. This law might be comforting for ethical reasons. After all, we don’t like the idea of people hawking their organs like used cars. But, as with any law, we should be aware of its unintended consequences, one of which is the apparent windfall for ambitious biotech firms.

Those who support NOTA will argue two things. First, they’ll suggest that a donor-based system is the best way to meet the serious life and death health concerns of those who need organ transplants. This argument seems fairly naive when you look at the services these biotech companies, whose customers often rely on human tissue for ever-important procedures such as lip implants. The second tack NOTA proponents will take is the classic slippery-slope argument: creating a property right in one’s body parts will result in greed, exploitation, and unsafe practices. A look around the biotech field makes it pretty obvious that avarice is already afoot– it’s now just a question of who can share in the profits. And, as for the safety argument, we (and all those participating in overseas black markets) would all be a lot better off if we create an open, regulated market for human tissue.

Kerry Howley, writing for the LA Times puts it nicely:

“Saner rules would treat the human body as the increasingly valuable property it is, allowing potential donors to will the value of their bodies as they do the rest of their assets. At the very least, donors should know they’re giving to a system that will sell their parts, not a charity that funnels them to those in need.”

This misnomer– the idea that this is an area of charity, not of big business– is what keeps our system of mandatory donations alive. We think it crass to sell our body parts, especially to nonprofits who are trying to save lives. But when the veil is lifted, and we start to see the growing cadre of biotechs getting rich off our bodies, we shouldn’t hesitate to ask: where’s our cut?

I will admit that I’ve only skimmed the surface of this issue. I haven’t discussed the ethics, or for that matter the economics, of creating property rights in human tissue. Am I way off base in arguing what I’ve argued? Are there serious risks I’m overlooking?

Daniel Corbett

Dan,

Because it’s early and I don’t understand the concept of “absolute truth,” I’ll steer clear of it. Let’s see if we can make do without it. It seems to me you made two arguments in your last post, both rooted in pragmatism. First, you contended that “…neither science nor religion can uncover an absolute truth.” Next, you argued for religion’s relative “truth” as a factor of, or flowing from, its use to individuals or society.

First, it may be true that scientific principle x is just a low-uncertainty hypothesis but, given its roots in the scientific method, I’d say its uncertainty value is much, much lower than any theism’s, absent a concerted defense of theism’s “truth.” Even if it’s true that neither science nor religion can uncover absolute truth, that’s certainly not to say that the two disciplines (and again, I hesitate to call religion a “discipline”) are equally suited for the task. I drop a rubber ball in my kitchen 99 times; each time it bounces. Now, my statement that “It will bounce again on the hundredth time” is really just a low-uncertainty hypothesis, but I’m entitled to make it because I’ve just conducted 99 trials. Evidence, gathered by human observation and analysis, chases out uncertainty as light chases out shadow. So where is the evidence for theism? I’m not arguing there is none; I’m just demanding to see it. Theism needs a positive argument!

Second, I have a hard time accepting the notion that a thing’s truth value can be a direct function of its utility. Santa Clause is a beloved cultural icon in this and many Western European countries…but he’s still just a story. I know this is a cartoonish view of pragmatism–the theories of pragmatism rest on more than just assertions that “truth is what works”–but I can’t take this further because I’m lost. What are you arguing, exactly?

Finally, the challenge. The thing for which I’ve been waiting, in this and a number of conversations I’ve had with friends about Dawkins’ book, is a positive argument for theism. Pacal’s Wager, arguments about the ends of epistemology or social utility–these are all merely implicit cases for theism. Can we build anything stronger?

–Morgan Hubbard

Morgan,

Great debate we’ve gotten ourselves into, right? You’ve raised some very good points and gotten me thinking hard about God and belief when I should be thinking about torts and contracts. For that, I salute you!

I’m afraid that your last post brings us to the irretrievably pretentious world of– you guessed it!— epistemology. And from what it sounds like so far, you and I are coming at this discussion from opposite epistemological poles.

You wrote:

Doctrines that teach the “unknowability” of things are de facto impediments to knowledge!

I disagree. I believe that all knowledge— spiritual and material– is limited by at least some level “unknowability.” In any endeavor, it’s not truth, but probability that we’re really looking for.

You’ve praised science for its coherent, systematic, and progressive nature. It’s reason, objectivity, and empiricism that make science “good” and bring us closer to discovering the “truth.” If you hold these values in such high esteem (and you do so with good reason), then you (and Dawkins) are going to be skeptical of other modes of inquiry (here, religion) that do not rely on those values.

Where you and I part ways, I think, is in our view of “truth.” I think your arguments so far have expressed an earnest concern for discovering the truth– pinning it down, examining it, and bettering society as a result. I’d agree with you that the search for truth is an important thing, and we’re all better off when people embark on this journey. I disagree with you, it seems, because I think that “truth,” on its very best day, is “warranted assertability” or “low uncertainty.” (Bounce this notion off a physicist, and see if they agree). In my opinion, neither science nor religion can uncover an absolute truth. Our minds, the world, the universe are all part of one giant grey area. This shouldn’t make us hopeless, however. I actually think it’s empowering– having uncertainty as a backdrop should 1) provide a catalyst for inquiry and action and 2) provide a humbling, philosophical ground for all of our human achievements.

I’m something of a pragmatist, so I’ll use the words of William James to shed some light onto where I’m coming from:

On pragmatic principles we cannot reject any hypothesis if consequences useful to life flow from it. Universal conceptions, as things to take account of, may be as real for pragmatism as particular sensations are. They have indeed no meaning and no reality if they have no use. But if they have any use they have that amount of meaning. And the meaning will be true if the use squares well with life’s other uses.

James seems to put the spiritual and material on equal footing. And I think he’s absolutely right in doing so. If you aren’t looking for some sort of absolute, objective “truth,” what makes science any more “right” than religion?

In James’ lecture “Pragmatism and Religion” he, an avowed disciple of the scientific method, admits to having his own religious beliefs that lay somewhere “between the two extremes of crude naturalism on the one hand and transcendental absolutism.”

I, too, stand somewhere in this grey area, in between these two extremes. It’s enough to drive both fundamentalists and atheists mad.

As a final point, back to Dawkins’ book, I wonder how much of his project is simply in the interest of giving atheists a sense of belonging. My girlfriend, Erin, raised this point in a discussion we had over Thanksgiving. Atheiests, like Christians, Jews, Muslims, and any other religious sect like to have others with whom they identify. Is Dawkins giving atheists a community, or is he building a dogma?

I guess I’ll have to read the book to see for myself.

Daniel Corbett

Morgan,

I cannot disagree with Steve Pinker’s thoughts on the proper role of faith in academia. As I’ve tried to make clear, science should be a purely secular endeavor. Religion should be studied in religious institutions or as an elective for those who are interested. There is no good reason to give creationist science a “fair hearing” in biology classes. Sure, it’s a theory, but it’s not a particularly viable or robust one. Secular science tells us with relatively low uncertainty how the world around us works. But it cannot tell us why. This is where theism properly comes in– at least as one of many competing theories.

To answer you’re question, I don’t think theism shuts any doors to attaining knowledge. True, belief in God requires a “leap of faith” in the sense that one must accept the existence of something without any material or empirical reason for doing so. When a person takes this leap of faith, it does not mean they are rejecting wholesale the importance of making conclusions based on evidence. Most theists are content to stake their knowledge of the material world on empirical facts. In short, religion and science are not mutually exclusive. There are countless academics and professionals who excel in their fields and who also happen to believe in God. These people excel for the same reasons atheists in their respective fields excel– because they have mastered the information and best practices surrounding the field.

As a final point, I must reiterate that spiritual matters are not the only thing people accept on faith. Morality, too, requires belief in something absent empirical justification. Your comments about “knowing” when something is wrong (e.g. the feeling one gets at the Holocaust Museum) are a bit misleading. I will concede that moral sentiments can be quite strong (as can spiritual beliefs), but this is not proof that these sentiments are somehow natural. Both morality and religion are social phenomena. There is no empirical justification for either, but people over time have chosen to accept certain aspects of each.

Going back to your last question about attaining knowledge as a theist. What, exactly, do you mean? Can you think of an example (other than creationism or some other encroachment of the spiritual into the material) where religion might hinder knowledge?

Daniel Corbett  

I’m going to try to address your thoughts, Morgan, along with the comment Chris posted to my earlier entry.

Morgan, your point (“Theology ought to be put through the same kind of rigorous wringer as empirical science“) is a strong one. I, too, am a firm believer in reason, empiricism, and cold, hard facts. And I think we generally make things better by expanding the use of these methods. The technology that makes our lives better each day is one of the benefits of living in a secularizing, modernizing world.

But I don’t think the spiritual realm can be properly touched by science. Sure, scientists will try to infer from “gaps” the existence of God, but I think what I said in my first post establishes where I stand on this matter. While well-intentioned, these scientists may actually be doing a disservice to religion by trying to make the spiritual conform to the material.

In short, I can’t offer any material “evidence” for the existence of God. I know it’s been attempted, but I don’t find these attempts particularly appealing or useful.

Which brings us to you, Chris. You argued that “to believe in something without evidence is faith” and that Dawkins is criticizing this. You’re right in the sense that Dawkins, like many scientists, thinks it foolish to believe in something without evidence.

This argument is flawed because the acceptance of any realm requires a “leap of faith,” to use John Hick‘s term. To accept the existence of the material world and defeat solipsism (the belief that “it’s all in your mind”), one must take a leap. To accept in the existence of some sort of moral framework, a further leap is needed. And, finally, to establish the existence of a spiritual realm, we need yet another leap of faith.

Dawkins has spent his career studying the material world, but to get there he had to take a leap of faith. He had to take another leap in order to be able to deploy such pithy normative arguments as “Atheists should ‘come out of the closet’.” Taking the leap to the spiritual level may be less accepted and may lead to more disparate conclusions across cultures, but there is nothing irrational in itself about choosing to believe in something outside this world. And, for reasons I’ve given earlier, once people make this choice, they’ve waived off any serious critiques from other paradigms. Each realm has its resident expert: the scientist, the moral philosopher, and the theologian. True there’s some overlap, but at the end of the day, they must all confine their arguments to their camp. Science has gotten better, in large part, because morality and religion have started to keep their distance. Why should it be any different with religion?

Finally, Morgan, to come back to the general question your last post begs– “Why should a thinking person believe in God?”– my best, and perhaps only serious response is to point you back to Pascal’s Wager, and simply say, “Why not?” As Pascal told us, we’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain when we choose to believe in God.

Daniel Corbett 

Dan,

It speaks well of your intellectual fortitude that you, without yet reading the book, seem to have struck on its major fault. On the face of things, it seems like the philosophical confluence of natural science and supernatural religion is, well, nonexistent. The two paradigms are parallel; they govern the same universe but never actually intersect. This is the gist of most conversations I’ve had on the topic of Dawkins’ book, and it seems to be a pretty common sentiment.

So let’s accept that the two paradigms are really mutually exclusive in terms of their ability to explain what we see and hear and feel. Dawkins’ book is still a valuable contribution to public knowledge in the way it targets aspest of human society where meddlesome religions have muddied the distinctions between the two. There are all sorts of questions that have rational, empirical and beautifully simple answers, but which have been co-opted by religions. Darwinian evolution is only the most visible example. Looking through Dawkins’ hyperskeptical lens, it’s hard not to see creation myths as power-grabs, and it’s hard not to laud Dawkins’ efforts to put the gods where they belong.

But Dawkins does take things a step further, positing a few tendentious pseudo-evolutionary theories to explain why religion seems, in many ways, to be hardwired into the human psyche. Much of this is conjecture, and he acknowledges it as such. But in the course of the book he does hit on what I think is a critical node for this discussion. I side with Dawkins on this, and so I’ll pose the problem to you:

Dawkins thinks (and I think) that it is not enough to declare by fiat that there are other “modes of knowing” that exist outside rationality. It is not enough to pronounce that science cannot explain everything in human experience. And it is intellectually dishonest to portray holes in empirical science as automatic evidence of the supernatural. A real-world example: gaps in the fossil record absolutely do not serve as evidence of divine creation; they serve as evidence that there are gaps in the fossil record. That’s all. God cannot fill science’s holes just because. To let God do so is to give him a pass.

We trust knowledge gained by science because the process by which it’s obtained is demonstrable, transparent and simple…even the most complex physical or chemical laws are really just compilations of smaller and smaller laws, all of which are testable. Theology ought to be put through the same kind of rigorous wringer as empirical science. Here’s where my nonexistent theological training hinders me: perhaps there is such a wringer, and I don’t know what to call it. But I will not accept a religion’s history or geneology as evidence of its “correctness.” Nor will I accept simple declarations of belief as prima facie evidence of the supernatural. I submit this as the understatement of the millenium: people have been wrong before. There must be something else.

So what do you think? Without straying too far into the labyrinthine world of metaphysics, what evidence can we marshal that there really exists some plane of inquiry beyond the rational?

–Morgan Hubbard 

To quickly add another plank to the argument I’m mounting against Richard Dawkins, my friend and classmate, Tim DeHaut (dehaut@gmail.com), has agreed to let me post an excerpt from a philosophy of science paper he wrote:

“Specifically for our purposes, science will never solve the metaphysical problem of God. It cannot. The application of a materialistic sphere can never explain the sphere of God because it starts with different assumptions. The application of the sphere of science makes no sense to the application of metaphysical entities such as God because the paradigm, or sphere, of science does not account for such notions.”

In his paper, Tim borrows from the work of Thomas Kuhn, one of the world’s better-known philosophers of science. The argument basically comes down to this: on a point like the existence of God or the reasonableness of religous faith, science and religion will always be stuck talking past each other.

Why then can science “beat” religion when it comes to the debate between creationism and evolution? The answer, I think, is that when we’re talking about how the world got to be the way it is, we’re asking materialistic question. But when we’re talking about why the world exists, or what the purpose of life is, we’re asking spiritual questions. The former lead to fairly robust conclusions, while the latter are “settled” only to the extent we subjectively believe them to be.

Daniel Corbett

 

 

It’s been far too long since the last post. And when I saw that Time Magazine (its cover reads: “God vs. Science”) was weighing in in the debate that was sparked, primarily, by Richard Dawkins’ newest book The God Delusion, I knew it was well past time for us to join in the discussion. Morgan, I know you are currently making your way through the book, and I will have to rely on your knowledge here, as law school has left me with little time for leisure reading. My understanding of Dawkins’ book comes entirely from reviews and commentary, so I leave it to those of you who have read or are reading the book to correct my errors.

Wired’s cover story (“The New Atheism”) is a nice starting point for anyone interested in the debate.

First, let me make clear the fact that I do not defend creationist science, or for that matter, any other religious doctrine that comes under the aegis of “science.” I think Dawkins, Gould, Darwin, and others have rightly corrected (many people’s) erroneous beliefs about the natural world. Religion should not encroach upon science’s dominion.

But Dawkin’s book, from what I gather, is not about the natural world. It is, rather, a treatise against religion. In my opinion, just as religion should leave science alone, science or “reason” should leave religion alone.

Sure, there’s a fascinating and undoubtedly massive literature on the psychology of religious belief. And I don’t think it’s inappropriate to study religion from a scientific perspective. But, as I understand, this is not what Mr. Dawkins is doing. He is critiquing religious belief wholesale, and not merely studying it as a curious scientist.

Dawkins’ work may or may not spend time studying the psychology of belief. To the extent he does this, he is acting appropriately in his role as a scientist. But to the extent his work comes to normative conclusions (one of his gems: drawing an analogy to the gay rights movement, that more atheists should “come out” and, oddly, drawing an analogy to the evangelical movement, “spread” their cause), it is bad science, and as such a blemish on an otherwise stellar career.

Those are my initial thoughts. I will, of course, read the book when I have the time. For now, I’d like to get some feedback: am I way off-base? Is Dawkins onto something here?

Daniel Corbett

Morgan and readers,

With the traffic camera debate (perhaps) behind us, it’s time to move on to another debate that may get just as heated. Here we go…

For those of you who weren’t already aware, last week, the New York City Board of Health voted unanimously to ban the use of trans fats in all of the city’s restaurants. The ban would require all restaurants to change their recipies to exclude even a minute amount of artifical trans fats. Health inspectors would enforce the ban during their routine inspections.

I oppose the decision for three reasons:

1. It’s a personal decision, not a public one.

I am, without a doubt, a health-conscious person. I read labels, buy fresh food, and, at any given time, have anywhere from 2-4 containers of tofu in my fridge. I have no disagreement with the idea behind New York’s ban. We could all use a little less trans fat, I’m sure. But this goal is best met by voluntary decisions (both by diners and by restaurants) based on good information. Simply put, decision to employ a blanket ban on a substance (however well-intentioned it may be) is, in general, quite dangerous for a number of reasons– the two biggest being 1.) a violation of individual autonomy and 2.) its unintended consequences, which brings us to

2. The ban will hurt the least well-off. 

This is the issue of unintended consequences. I’m sure the members of the Board of Health did not sit down and say to one another: “Hey, let’s see how we can unfairly burden family-owned, ethnic businesses today!” But, effectively, that’s what this ban is likely to do. Why is this so? Think about what foods contain the most trans fats. The foods on this list are served at pizza parlors, Chinese restaurants, doughnut shops, and the like. Granted, the policy will affect fast food chains, but, as a rule, the larger the chain is, the easier it will be for them to comply.

3. The precedent could be a dangerous one.

This decision comes three years after New York asserted itself as the vanguard of public health policy by banning smoking. And, looking around the United States, it seems as if the rest of the country has followed New York’s lead on smoking bans, with cities like Victoria, Texas joining in on the anti-smoking crusade.

Those are my initial thoughts. Now, I open it up to the rest of you.

Daniel Corbett 

It’s happened to two of my friends already. And Morgan, unfortunately, you’re one of them.

Yes, you’ve been nabbed (twice, is it?) by the newest, and perhaps most irksome, law enforcement technology: the traffic camera. Cities across the country have installed the cameras in an effort to expand law enforcement’s watchful eye. Some have hailed these efforts as an essential step in making our roads safer. But others, often those who have received their bills– er, tickets– in the mail, have lashed against the technology for its imperfections and its prying nature.

What are these cameras and how do they work? Under the general mantle of “road-rule enforcement cameras” there are various cameras with many different designs: to catch people speeding, running red lights, or even driving unauthorized in bus/HOV lanes. These technologies trace their roots– as do many “nanny-state” innovations– to the UK. And it’s certainly worth noting that if I run a red light in Pittsburgh, up to 80 percent of the revenue from my ticket will not go to my city, but instead will be sent overseas to the UK or Australia to the corporations that manage traffic cameras. So much for the revenue generation trope local governments often try to play.

OK, so maybe we don’t buy that argument. There is little appeal to a cash-strapped municipality asking its citizens for more money. But what about the public safety argument? Don’t traffic cameras make us safer? Well, if we look at a study by U.S. Department of Transportation,  “the results do not support the view that red light cameras reduce crashes. Instead, we find that RLCs are associated with higher levels of many types and severity categories of crashes.” The study found cameras have a statistically insignificant effect on severe and fatal crashes, but cause a 40 percent increase in less serious crashes, especially rear-end accidents. Makes sense, right? People are slamming on their brakes because they’re afraid of that eerie white structure protruding above their heads and the $150 ticket that looms in the mail.

So why are we seeing a proliferation of these cameras? First, it isn’t just corporate greed. Local and city governments, by dint of the sheer number of extra tickets, often make more in revenue than they would otherwise. So why not put in a few more cameras? Second, the public safety numbers can support either side. And it’s a lackadaisical citizenry– people who will trade their freedom for protection– that allows governments to push these cameras on them in the name of the public good.

So how do we respond? Jim Raussen R-Springdale is an Ohio senator who is currently fighting the plan in his home state. He is proposing a bill that would require that a police officer be present in order for any ticket to be written.

Raussen’s efforts, I believe, are a step in the right direction. Our law is a human system– messy, confusing, and often brilliant in adapting to particulars. If we take the human element out of law enforcement, we are taking out one of its most essential components– its problem-solving ability. A police officer can often see by the look on your face, your circumstances either in your car or with fellow motorists, things crucial in fairly deciding whether you should be ticketed. A machine cannot make a gut-level decision like that. So for now, we need humans, not machines, running law enforcement.

Daniel Corbett 

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