Human Exceptionalism

Francis Collins’ Big Think Big Cop Out

Francis Collins has an opinion piece out over at Big Think asserting that he doesn’t want either “science” or “religion” to prevail over the other because “we need both kinds of truth.”

He’ll get no argument from me there. But the piece, which raises one of the central issues of our time, is disappointing. Rather than expressing deep thought, Collins’ mostly engages in general we-can-all-get-along pabulum. In other words, he actually avoids the very issues that make controversies over scientific experimentation so intense and volatile. 

Here is what I mean. From, “We Need Two Kinds of Truth:”

So I do think people of faith and people who don’t have faith are capable of thoughtful ethical decision-making. So any notion that we are becoming less ethical as scientists because of a diminution I think has to be actually countered by arguments to say that a sense of ethical behavior is not distributed to just the people who are in fact interested in spiritual matters.

But that doesn’t say anything substantive, does it? What the term “ethical” means in science–as in life–depends on the context.

Example: Is it ethical to create human embryos via cloning to be destroyed in research? In the past, Collins has supported human cloning research. Many–both the religious and those who are not–disagree with Collins because they believe that human cloning is, per se, unethical as it creates human life through manufacture. 

Who is correct about that? Science can’t tell us. It can tell us what is and what could be, but not what is right and wrong.

Thus, the question of ethics in science is really a matter of philosophy, religion, and/or morality–often centering on the moral value of human life.

For example, should scientists be able to experiment on living, aborted human fetuses? They’ve done it before! What about killing people diagnosed as permanently or minimally unconscious for their organs–often proposed in transplant, medical, and bioethics journals. Should that be allowed? Why and why not? What are the criteria for judging?

And who decides? Do we let “the scientists” agree among themselves about what is ethical, as some have suggested? Or, is the establishment of ethical parameters around science a legitimate question of public policy in which we all–scientist and non scientist alike–have a legitimate voice (my view)?

Collins has completely avoided the essential questions: Merely asserting that people of faith and of non faith “are capable of thoughtful ethical decision making”–which no one disputes–isn’t saying anything of substance. I call cop out!

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