Archive for March, 2009

“Some of us should venture to embark on a synthesis…”

I couldn’t agree more!  A colleague sent me this gem from Erwin Schr0edinger (1887-1961), pioneer of quantum mechanics and Nobel Prize winner:

We have inherited from our forefathers the keen longing for unified, all-embracing knowledge.  The very name given to the highest institutions of learning remind us, that from antiquity and throughout many centuries, the universal aspect has been the only one to be given full credit. But the spread, both in width and depth, of the multifarious branches of knowledge by during the last hundred odd years has confronted us with a queer dilemma.

We feel clearly that we are only now beginning to require reliable material for welding together the sum total of all that is known into a whole; but, on the other hand, it has become next to impossible for a single mind to fully command more than a small specialized portion of it. I can see no other escape from this dilemma (lest our true aim be lost for ever) than that some of us should venture to embark on a synthesis of facts and theories, albeit with second-hand and incomplete knowledge of some of them – and at the risk of making fools of ourselves.

From preface to “What is Life?” 1944
Based on a series of lectures given in Dublin in 1943


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I came here (to the University) for an argument…

…or rather for a disputation.  It may be a necessary ingredient for transdisciplinarity and something like the unity of knowledge.  Here’s Josef Pieper:

In the medieval university it was no more possible that it is today to achieve universality of knowledge and present things in such a way that students, or even teachers, obtained a truly “integral view.”  In this sense, the medieval university, just like our own universities, was not a place for studium generale.  But there was a difference:  the medieval university had the disputatio, and through it universality was achieved!  Hence we may validly ask whether the disappearance of disciplined debate carried out within the framework of the university between individuals and among the faculties may not be the true reason for the much-lamented loss of even a sketchy integral view.  It should be clear that I am not speaking here of converse among specialists and on a subject interesting only to specialists.  I mean converse on the subjects of “man in general.”  On these subjects, of course, the separate disciplines are constantly raising new questions and offering new material for discussion.  I know that for a debate of this nature several prerequisites are needed which were obviously present in the medieval university and which seem lacking today–for example, the common language and the relatively unitary philosophical and theological world view.  But perhaps it would not be altogether utopian to attempt to rebuild our academies on the basis of those very principles which were the foundation stones of the Occidental university–one of which is certainly the spirit of disputation.

[Guide to St. Thomas, 87-88]

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Kant: WRONG for America!!

Thanks to an alert colleague at the JOE–the Kant “attack ad”:

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Money Matters

Bad Banks

I admit it:  I got into philosophy so I could avoid math (sorry, Plato!).  So when it comes to money matters, I need somebody to explain things to me like I’m a four-year-old.  If you are like me in this respect, then find yourself a quiet corner and read this transcript [.pdf] of [or listen here to] the “Bad Bank” episode of the  radio show, This American Life.  It is an amusing and informative exposition of what went wrong with all the banks.  You will get it.

Bad Bonuses (and Bad Bills to get them back)

My personal political science and constitutional law advisor, Paul Sracic, brings the following to my attention regarding the chances for getting the big bonuses back from AIG execs (if this is even something we should really be worried about in the first place…).  On March 18, the Wall Street Journal law blog asked constitutional law Professor-in-Chief Lawrence Tribe whether the proposed plan to tax severely the AIG bonus money is constitutional.  Actually, there are five potential constitutional concerns:

On March 18, Professor Tribe gave the taxing plan a pass on all counts.

On March 22, Professor Sracic’s dissenting view was noted at the Volokh Conspiracy.  Specifically, Tribe had opined that the tax plan would not likely be viewed as a bill of attainder:

I do think Congress (and the Executive Branch) could avoid serious Bill of Attainder problems by passing a sufficiently broad law … rather than targeting a closed class of named executives even though the prohibition against Bills of Attainder, unlike that against Ex Post Facto laws, potentially reaches civil as well as criminal penalties.

Sracic says not so fast…

Congress may have more of a problem with the Bill of Attainder provision than they are admitting. This is because the separation of powers principle that might normally argue for judicial deference may run in the other direction here.

Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in US. v. Brown (1965) that the basic reason for a Bill of Attainder clause was to prevent “trial by legislature.” This is because “the legislative branch is not so well suited as politically independent judges and juries to the task of ruling upon the blameworthiness of, and levying appropriate punishment upon specific persons. “

Congress can always levy a tax that seems punitive to those who have to shell out the money. Legislative motive is therefore crucial to both limiting and to giving teeth to Bill of Attainder analysis. Does anyone think that it would be difficult to prove in court that the overwhelming reason that this bill was passed was to confiscate the ill-gotten gains of those AIG employees who received the bonuses? It is money that is already in their pockets. In this sense then, confiscation of property is being used as a punishment. When Congress does this, it is a Bill of Attainder.

On March 23, Greg Sargent of The Plum Line blog reported that Tribe has changed his mind on this point.  Sargent writes:

Tribe had previously said that he thought the measure — which would slap a 90% tax on bonuses for executives whose family incomes exceed $250,000 — would pass constitutional muster. But now, after taking a closer look, he’s not so sure.

Tribe says the problem with the bill is that the Constitution forbids Congress from enacting a “bill of attainder,” which would essentially “legislate punishment of an identifiable class,” as he put it. Tribe noted that the Supreme Court had used that clause to slap down other laws.

Tribe says the main problem is that it’s hard to make the case that the law isn’t “punitive.”

“Its punitive intent is increasingly transparent,” Tribe says. “when you have Chuck Grassley calling on [executives] to commit suicide, and people responding to pitch fork sentiment, it’s hard to argue that this isn’t an attempt to punish an identifiable set of individuals who are the subject of understandable outrage.”

The whole point of opposing bills of attainder, Tribe says, is to prevent what some have called “trial by legislature.” Tribe concludes: “That’s the primary vulnerability.”

Score one for Sracic (and, it would seem, for the obvious).

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How dare you do metaphysics?

Just listen to William Desmond in the “Preface” to his book, Being and the Between:

We philosophers ask for bread, and what stones are we handed?  Commentaries on commentaries on commentaries….  What is the matter itself?…

I think that a philosopher is a seeker, and that any genuine philosophy is an adventure in thought.  As an adventure, it cannot be judged before the search has begun.  There will be many who scoff on the dockside as the ship heaves off.  They will congratulate themselves on their prudence in valuing the security of safe harbor, and the solid land.  They will even feel superior to those who launch out into the unknown, those who risk their thinking.  They feel sure in advace it will come to shipwreck.  But perhaps these wise homebodies are the already defeated.  How dare you do metaphysics?  I do dare.  But you must also dare, if you want an answer to your question.

And if we philosophers took to heart these prudent discouragements, we might never stir from the spot.  Alas, we too seek for home, but we must seek for home to be at home.  We are fools, no doubt, to dream of something more.  But since the world is so wise, and since the standing army of its sages is always swelled with new recruits, the stray folly of metaphysical adventuring will perhaps be excused in us.  We have been told not even to try, so we will not blame the fashionable commentators for the outcome–be it what it may.

Sound like we might have an interesting book here?  Want to read it?  Better get ready, because this is who Desmond wants for a reader:

Let the wise read as the philosopher writes.  I do not ask for uncritical readers, but I do ask for disciplined readers–readers who have studied hard and long, who can take their time to think; readers who have not shunned solitude; readers suspicious of themselves before being suspicious of others; readers patient when demands are made on them; readers themselves adventurers; readers who ask for more than the rhetorics fashionable in academic philosophy, and who hate the substitution of ‘relevant’ ideology for the seriousness of truth; readers with souls full of an intellectual, indeed spiritual generosity, beyond the hermeneutics of suspicion; readers who desire to hear fundamental questions addressed with a genuine intellectual, not to say, spiritual seriousness; readers philosophically rich enough in themselves as to be able to laugh at the pretensions of what sometimes passes for ‘philosophy’; readers who long for a simple human voice to speak again about the essential issues that perennially perplex us.  I do not ask for the impossible.  I do ask for what now is rare.

I’d like to be worthy to read this book (yes…some books we might just have to merit the privilege of reading, and maybe this is such a book…. Who knows?)

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Feast of St. Joseph

Today is the Feast of St. Joseph, my personal favorite saint.  Besides the fact that he’s sold a couple of houses for me–making him a Saint for our times, it is only fitting that your verbose Prattler have a patron who knew how to keep his mouth shut.


[You can buy this beautiful sculpture here (sure wish I could!)]

The sculpture above depicts St. Joseph the Worker (Feast Day = May 1), as does this the following:


Saint Joseph
Detail from the right wing of Triptych of the Annunication – Robert Campin, Netherlands (Bruges), ca 1378-1444 (Oil on Panel)
The Cloisters Collection, 1956 – The Metropolitan Museum of Art

I like a Saint who is not afraid to get his hands dirty, who rolls up his sleeves and tries to build something, who doesn’t shy away from a little hard work.  There is all kinds of work, though–both manual and intellectual labor.  Those of us who are philosophers and teachers should remember those whose work, unlike ours, causes calluses, bad backs, black lung, and that generally takes its toll on the body, even as we dedicate ourselves to our own vital labors, holding their own, rather different, occupational hazards.  [May I recommend checking out Workplace:  A Journal for Academic Labor, in which you will find–perhaps–some food for thought.]

But St. Joseph was first a dad, the “foster father” of Jesus, a parent who knew how to get out of the way of his kid, even while loving and protecting him  (something not so easy that all of us parents would do well to learn).  Today would be as good a day as any to call to mind our own dad, who maybe was quiet as St. Joe, who maybe didn’t always say everything he meant to say, who maybe didn’t always get out of our way, but who nevertheless gives it his best shot day in and day out.  Why wait until June?  [Thanks, Dad!  And thank you, too, Art!]


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You heard it here first about the President’s “reasoning”…

…on embryonic stem cell research, but of course not as eloquently as Charles Krauthammer puts it.   He writes, in part:

I am not religious. I do not believe that personhood is conferred upon conception. But I also do not believe that a human embryo is the moral equivalent of a hangnail and deserves no more respect than an appendix. Moreover, given the protean power of embryonic manipulation, the temptation it presents to science and the well-recorded human propensity for evil even in the pursuit of good, lines must be drawn. I suggested the bright line prohibiting the deliberate creation of human embryos solely for the instrumental purpose of research — a clear violation of the categorical imperative not to make a human life (even if only a potential human life) a means rather than an end.

On this, Obama has nothing to say. He leaves it entirely to the scientists. This is more than moral abdication. It is acquiescence to the mystique of “science” and its inherent moral benevolence. How anyone as sophisticated as Obama can believe this within living memory of Mengele and Tuskegee and the fake (and coercive) South Korean stem cell research is hard to fathom.

It gets even testier, but deservedly so.

And, nota bene, Krauthammer is not completely opposed to embryonic stem cell research.  This complaint about bad thinking should be a concern of everyone, regardless of what side of the issue you are on.

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Exposed ideology….

Some good reading from Michaela Kingston at (republished Creative Commons license) :

Michaela Kingston | Thursday, 12 March 2009

Pardon me, your ideology is showing

Not all barriers to stem cell science are bad, Mr President.  And the biggest ones, like greed, one-upmanship, exploitation and hype, cannot be removed by executive order.

“Removing Barriers To Responsible Scientific Research Involving Human Stem Cells” is the title of the Executive Order signed on Monday by President Obama. The alleged barriers are “Presidential actions” that limited the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services over the past eight years. As a stem cell scientist and an American citizen, several things about Obama’s order and his accompanying remarks disturb me.

Let’s start with the title. It implies that after Monday there will be fewer barriers to responsible scientific research involving human stem cells. Is this true?

First of all, let’s distinguish between barriers to scientific research and barriers to responsible scientific research. Barriers to scientific research include the inherent limits of human creativity and intelligence, and the external limits imposed by laws and limited resources (eg, funding and personnel).

Barriers to responsible scientific research are myriad — and much harder to control. They include, above all, human ambition, which spurs us on to achieve great things, not only for the good of mankind but also for national and personal recognition. When this is combined with sloth and a lack of stiff penalties for the publication of fabricated data, it constitutes a serious barrier to responsible scientific research.

Another barrier is the diminishment of the dignity of a particular class of people. A barbaric example of this occurred not so long ago (with Federal funding!), when government researchers studied syphilis amongst African American men in Tuskegee, Alabama, from 1932-1972 — all in the name of finding cures (for Caucasians).

Yet another barrier to responsible research is pressure on scientists from media hype, special interest groups, lobbyists and a poorly informed but well-meaning public to pursue dead-end research.

Barriers to responsible research

Which of these barriers to responsible scientific research did Obama remove?

You could argue that he decreased scientific competition in the field of human embryonic stem cells by increasing funding. Fewer sharp elbows in frantic races for results should produce more responsible research, right? In theory, maybe. But in practice, we scientists love to study what’s most exciting — partly for the buzz, partly for the glory, and partly for the media coverage that will ensure continued funding. We have to eat, too, you know.

Maybe the barriers Obama removed were those which inhibited scientific research in general, not responsible scientific research. After all, everyone “knows” that Bush was an anti-science ideologue. His record must be full of barriers to science. Yet, when we focus on what he did for medical research, we see nothing of the sort.

Take National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding. In President Clinton’s last year in office, the NIH budget was US$20.3 billion. Over the next two years, Bush increased that by more than 15 percent each year. His final budget proposal granted NIH $28.3 billion. More like Santa Claus than an anti-science ideologue, I think. Obama himself only asked for a 4 percent increase over that.

Were those barriers inherent in Bush’s science policy? According to Obama, Bush’s 2001 decision “limited federal funding” of ESC research. The fact is, Bush provided federal funding for ESC research where before there was none. In 1996 Congress passed the Dickey Amendment which prohibited both the creation of human embryos for research purposes and research in which human embryos are destroyed or discarded. Two years later, in 1998, human embryonic stem cells (ESCs) were first isolated. This created a “need” to destroy human embryos. As Clinton left office, he proposed guidelines, which, had they been enacted, would have allowed federal funding of all human ESC research as long as federal funds were not actually used to destroy the embryos.

Did Bush ban this ESC research? From the media reports you might think so. In fact, Bush liberalised the law. He opened the door to research on already-created embryonic stem cell lines. Like a true politician, he struck a compromise between squelching ESC research entirely and taxpayer-funded destruction of embryos.

Bush’s record

According to Obama, Bush’s decision was based on ideology, not scientific facts. Obama promises to support ESC research only when it is both “scientifically worthy and responsibly conducted”. But just think for a minute. Wouldn’t it have been irresponsible for Bush to throw billions of taxpayer dollars at a three-year-old technology? In 2001 no one had any idea whether or not ESC research was “scientifically worthy”. Full support at that stage would have been equivalent to parents beginning to pay Harvard tuition fees when their child was only three years old. No one responsible invests their family’s money in wildcat schemes; why should a president do so with taxpayers’ money?

But at least it’s clear now that ESC research is scientifically worthy, right? Actually, no.

ESCs may have the potential to cure many diseases. But after ten years and billions of dollars, they still have not realised their potential. In the meantime, stem cells isolated from adults have proven to be quite effective in relieving human suffering. Even better, if you’re on the ESC bandwagon, are “induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells”, which behave almost exactly like ESCs but do not involve embryo destruction. These iPS cells do not involve costly embryo manipulation and can be made from a patient’s own cells, avoiding immune rejection.

Safety and efficiency issues with iPS cells will most likely be resolved in a few more years. Remember, they were first created in 2006, so they are still toddlers. Even so, just as Bush gave federal funding to the promising toddler ESCs in 2001, he also encouraged the study of iPS cells, just a year after they were discovered, with Executive Order #13435.

Oddly enough, Obama revoked Executive Order #13435 on Monday. Why? Perhaps because it contains inconvenient Bush ideologies like Sec 2 (c): “the destruction of nascent life for research violates the principle that no life should be used as a mere means for achieving the medical benefit of another”.

Why is cloning “profoundly wrong”

President Obama, like President Bush, is a hard-nosed politician and makes decisions based on a mix of prejudices, ideologies and facts. Consider these sentences from his address: “And we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society.”

Why, Mr Obama? Surely science does not tell you that it is profoundly wrong. On the contrary, science would suggest that if the technical challenges of reproductive cloning can be overcome by scientists in the United States, it could help to “ensure America’s continued global leadership in scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs… [which] is essential not only for our economic prosperity, but for the progress of all humanity”.

If you’re from another country, I apologise. It has become synonymous with patriotism here to believe that the world will always be better off with America at its helm. I love my country; but unless we can curb our thirst for power over life, we will continue to seek cures for the wealthy, the educated and those with a voice at the expense of the poor, the ignorant, and those without a voice. We will continue to find ways of living “longer, healthier lives” until one day the words “terminal” and “incurable” really are gone from our vocabulary and we have arrived at a Brave New World.

Michaela Kingston is the nom de plume of an American stem cell researcher.

This article is published by Michaela Kingston, and under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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Thinking about stem cell research….

In an earlier post, you will find evidence of my level of concern over the thinking (or lack thereof) about stem cell research.  Specifically, I am concerned with the apparent obliviousness to the question of whether one should be willing to do (what may be) the right thing for the wrong reasons.  I am not the only one with these concerns about the abysmal level of critical thinking when it comes to the topic of stem cell research.  Steve Chapman draws attention to it. He begins his reflections with this observation:

Not many of us would want the federal government to leave military procurement to defense contractors, Medicare reimbursement to doctors or banking regulation to Citigroup. But President Obama says when it comes to allocating federal funds for scientific studies, we should defer to scientists.

Chapman reports that

Harold Varmus, co-chairman of the president’s scientific advisory council, said [the decision to loosen restrictions on embryonic stem cell research] showed the president would rely on “sound scientific practice … instead of dogma in developing federal policy.”

Chapman rightly notes, however:

But one person’s dogma is another one’s ethical imperative or moral principle. Science can tell us how to build a nuclear weapon. But science can’t tell us whether we should use it.

You can read the rest of this piece here. [Big thanks to Paul Sracic for drawing my attention to this piece.]

The editorial by Thomas McGlaughlin, Jr., which appeared in the Philadelphia Bulletin, also sounds the alarm (in fine Peripatetic fashion, I might add):

But what is most perilous about President Obama’s self-satisfied oration about separating politics and ideology from science is the intellectual laziness that fails to reckon with the very nature of science.

For this, one might refer the President to the discussion on tekne in Aristotle’s Rhetoric. There, Aristotle distinguishes tekne (skill) from arete (virtue). A skill may be used for good or evil, but only virtue orders the skills and capacities of the human individual to goodness.

Science is a tekne. It can say nothing about morality. Moral philosophy – which the President disparagingly lumps together with ‘ideology’ – is uniquely qualified to speak on goodness.

Modern science invented the atomic bomb. Only the branch of philosophy that deals with morality can tell us not to use the bomb. Thus, the idea there is any scientific standpoint which should not be subject to the constraints of morality is itself an ideology or philosophy.

Now, McGlaughlin goes on to name that ideology “pragmatism” and to call Hitler, Stalin, and Mao “its most famous practitioners.”  Let’s call that overselling the point.  Neither Hitler, Stalin, nor Mao were pragmatists in the philosophical sense of the term.  All were thorough idealogues, who, by the way, are never immune from making expedient choices in the service of their ideology.  It is arguable that pragmatism is necessarily amoral (let alone immoral).  I chose Mengele and Kevorkian as my provocations because they specifically used the same line of “reasoning” as the President:  science is immune from moral assessment.  Thus the essence of McGlaughlin’s complaint is on target.

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True metaphysicians are rare…

No wonder true metaphysicians are rare.  Common sense does not rise above the level of imaginable realities, and , when it is a question of metaphysics, the vulgus includes many a mind eminent in other fields. Scientists, artists of genius, great statesmen–all those who like to proclaim:  “I only know what I can see and touch,” even though in other respects they may be eminent specimens of the human kind, are nevertheless unfit for metaphysical speculation.  Let us add, for their consolation, that they are perfectly normal men.  Anyone who says, “I understand nothing of what you call metaphysics,” is quite justified, and there is for him nothing to feel ashamed of.  But he should stop there.  That one does not see any light, may be a fact; to infer from it that there is no light, is a non sequitur.

–Etienne Gilson, The Spirt of Thomism, 1964

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